Kill the Dead Page 38


“You need to come home. Kasabian and I are drinking all your beer.”


“Just remember to empty his bucket every bottle or two.”


“I’ve missed you.”


“Hobbies are a good way to forget your troubles. I’ve heard needlepoint is relaxing.”


“Doc says you’re sick.”


“No. I’ve been sick. Now I’m getting better. Soon I’ll be perfect.”


“Please come back.”


“I can’t. We’re here.”


I park across from the address Johnny gave me. We’re in front of a ten-story office building shaped like a cake box sitting on top of a shoe box. The only interesting thing about the place is that it doesn’t seem to have any windows.


I say, “Good-bye, Candy,” and hang up. Good-bye to everyone. Been nice knowing you.


Johnny leans over and stares up at the building, as curious as I am.


“Do you have a way in?”


“You got us the car. I thought you could do it.”


“You’re more awake than this morning.”


“Yes. Almost back to my old dead self. That snack you brought hit the spot.”


“You have a sweet tooth.”


“I have a sweet tooth.”


I look the building over, wondering about the best way in. I’ve never tried to take a dead man through the Room and this doesn’t seem like the right time to turn Einstein and run experiments.


“I guess you twenty-seven Drifters really are special. How did they put your soul back in when they made you a Savant?”


He shifts his gaze from the building to me.


“What do you mean?”


“I can see souls and you have one.”


I point at the ball of light behind his ribs.


“How did they put it back in after you died?”


“No one put it back. It never went anywhere. I told you before. The dead live in the Jackal’s Backbone. Everyone who’s ever died in L.A. is down there.”


“Right. I got that.”


“If everyone is down there, where else would their souls be? What’s the use of holding on to the bodies if you don’t have the souls? The Backbone is here because L.A. is a power spot. We’re here because it needs to be fed.”


“It feeds on the souls.”


“That’s what I said.”


“What happens to the souls when the city sucks them dry?”


He shrugs.


“They’re gone. Poof. Dust in the wind.”


“I’ll get us inside.”


I gun the Hummer, crank the wheel, and hit the gas. The Hummer blasts over the curb and up the stone stairs, and smashes through the glass front doors. Yeah, I just set off a shitload of alarms, but LAPD has more to do tonight than check out a B&E. Johnny gets out of the Hummer with his big kid grin plastered across his face.


“Cool.”


“You lead the way from here.”


We go through an atrium and paneled doors that look like they lead to business offices. But it’s not offices on the other side. It’s machinery. The interior of the building is hollow and it’s full of generators and pipes. Huge fucking pipes that come out of the ground and twist around each other like Gigantor’s intestines.


“Where the hell are we?”


Johnny’s smile grows wider.


“In the pumping station. Right over the Backbone.”


“What’s it pump?”


“Oil. I looked it up. This is the largest station, but there’s ninety-seven active wells in this field pumping almost a million barrels a year. One of them is right by the football field at Beverly Hills High School.”


“I’ll call my broker when we get back. Take me to where the dead people are.”


“Sure.”


He takes us down a couple of levels to the bottom of the place. The stairs and railings are splattered with dried blood. There are bones and shredded clothes on the catwalk above us.


The oil pumps must either be buried deep or soundproofed well. I can feel the machinery through the soles of my feet, but it’s quieter on the bottom level. On the other hand, it smells a lot worse. Probably it’s all the zombies.


It’s like the shift change at Grand Central Dead Guy Terminal. Drifters wander in from every direction. They come out of offices and maintenance rooms. From behind machinery. Lacunas, a little more agile than your regular shamblers, climb up pipes dug deep into the ground. The Drifters shoulder their way up a ramp to a big room at the top. A loading dock. The steel doors are shredded and Drifters pour out into the streets.


None of them even look at Johnny. They don’t rush over to rip me apart, but I get checked out every now and then. One stops. Bares its teeth and moans. I hold the belt buckle tighter and say, “Keep moving,” and it does.


“That’s a nice trick,” says Johnny.


“Thanks. Later I’m going to make balloon animals. Let’s keep moving.”


“The fastest way is down the pipes.”


“Is there another way? I like to see what I’m walking into so I can strategically run away if it looks too meat grinderish.”


“Sure. You can see where I came out.”


I get out the Smith & Wesson and follow him into what looks like the shift boss’s office. There’s a bank of video monitors and a lit-up layout of the place on the wall. A desk in the middle of the room is covered with papers stiff with dried blood. It must have come from the pile of bone and gristle on the floor. I guess we found the shift boss. It looks like he was following safety procedures and had his hard hat on when was eaten. Good news for the company. At least their insurance rates won’t go up.


“Here,” says Johnny.


He’s by a filing cabinet that’s been moved a couple of feet away from the wall. There’s a hole in the floor. I stay where I am, waiting to see if anything decides to crawl out. When nothing appears, I go over and push the cabinet out of the way. Johnny politely stands aside and waits for me.


“No fucking way I’m going first. You walk point, Lazarus.”


Johnny nods, bends over, and drops down into the hole. I don’t want to follow, but I do it anyway. Brigitte needs whatever might be down there. And if Alice is here, well, I’ll deal with that when and if I find her. But if she is here, it means that from here on out, everyone I have to kill is going to die at half speed so they remember it when they wake up in the Backbone.


There are no lights in the tunnel. It’s dark enough that I shouldn’t be able to see, but I can. Every swirling electron cloud around every atom of every object in the Backbone gives off a dim neon glow. And there’s a hell of a lot of atoms down here. The walls are lit up like New Year’s in Time Square. Even the Drifters are made of light. Ugly, smelly, decayed, dry-bone, flesh-hungry light. I hold the buckle and send out a general “be like the Red Sea and split” message and they move out of the way.


I haven’t been a hundred percent sold on the whole “we’re the magic twenty-seven” thing, but I’m becoming a believer. People pull the new Savants out of the Backbone and there’s definitely been a lot of human traffic down through the place. The walls are covered with hoodoo symbols and bone murals. Not something these brain-dead maggot factories could pull off.


A series of leg-bone chandeliers runs the length of this tunnel. There are niches carved in the walls and lined with bones. Some niches hold skulls. Others have vases or burned-out candelabras. There’s a huge bone crucifix at the first tunnel junction. The skeleton Jesus is André the Giant-size. He has to have been wired together from the bones of two or three bodies. Someone’s attached articulated hand bones to skulls and suspended them around Jesus’ head like graveyard cherubs.


Most of the Drifters are headed up and out, the opposite of where we’re going. There are thousands of them. They fill the tunnels we’re in and every other tunnel we pass. The only reason Johnny and I aren’t crushed by all the bodies is that there’s a lot more room down here than on the pumping-station floor.


Very few of the Drifters even notice us. I relax. Stark’s fading away fast. I don’t have to keep doing things the way he does. I holster the Smith & Wesson.


“I think they brought me up from down here,” says Johnny, and starts down a set of stairs cut into the rock.


The steps lead to a metal catwalk bolted to a wall hundreds of feet over what looks like an underground Grand Canyon. Dozens of other catwalks extend below us and dot the far side of the cavern. How far does this place go down? How many people have died in L.A. altogether? Or died along the river before L.A. was a city, a town, or even orange groves? I never thought about it before seeing the Backbone. Tribal people and travelers have probably been dying here for thousands of years. It’s a whole sister city of corpses and each one of them has a soul bouncing around inside its leathery hide. There have to be a lot of vacancies in Heaven and Hell. Apartment rents must be great.


Johnny steers us off the catwalk and into another tunnel. There’s a strange sharp light ahead. It slices through the cavern’s internal atomic glow like a laser beam and plays over the bodies of each passing Drifter. Something is holding and examining them. The outline gets clearer. It’s a man wearing an insulated suit to hide his body heat from the shamblers. The sharp light is the infrared beam from a set of night-vision goggles.


I open my mouth to yell when something slams into me. All I see are teeth and nails clawing at my face. It’s a Lacuna. Mr. Laser Eyes distracted me from the buckle and the Drifters long enough for one of the smart ones to get ambitious. I smack him against the stone wall with one of the hexes I practiced on Kasabian. It starts to get up, and without thinking about it, I pull the Smith & Wesson and blow its spine out its back with three quick shots.


Shit. I guess there’s more Stark left inside than I thought.


I look for Mr. Laser Eyes, but he’s hauling ass the other way. I grab Johnny and start running.


Laser Eyes has a decent lead on us, but my funny angel vision picks out wisps of his body heat leaking from around the edges of his suit. I keep hold of the buckle with one hand and Johnny with the other. He has a hard time keeping up. I don’t think he’s run anywhere in awhile, but like everything else tonight, he seems to be enjoying himself.


A couple of minutes later, we emerge into another cavern. Big, but not as big as the bottomless sinkhole I saw from the catwalk. It feels like we’ve run out of the Backbone completely.


The cavern looks like the back of a museum or the world’s biggest junk shop. Johnny wants to stop and stare at things. I have to pull him behind me like a badly trained Chihuahua. We go through a slit canyon made of gargoyles on one side and temple dogs on the other and come around the edge of a stone labyrinth. I let go of Johnny and run for a familiar set of stone steps carved into the rock a hundred yards away.


When I’m in spitting distance of the steps I yell, “Muninn!” and the echo bounces for miles into the distance.


I wait and listen. A sound to my right, coming from behind shelves piled high with melting Mexican sugar skulls.


The little man peeks around the side. He’s holding an impressive iron morningstar over his head.


“You planning on tenderizing some steaks? Are we going to have a barbecue?”


He lowers the weapon.


“Stark? What in the name of all the gods living and dead are you doing here? And how did you end up in the Backbone?”


Mr. Muninn is probably the oldest man in L.A. I hope he is. The guy talks about ice ages the way most people talk about lunch. He’s a merchant to the stars and connoisseurs of esoterica. He can find you anything old, discarded, or forgotten and a few things from worlds I don’t even want to know about.


“I was about to ask you the same thing. Why are you dressed like Diver Dan and giving Drifters physicals?”


Muninn likes silk bathrobes and dapper little suits. Right now he’s dressed in a skintight rubber getup, like something a scuba diver would wear. On his round little body it makes him look like a boiled egg with legs.


Muninn shakes his head, tosses the night-vision gear and morningstar aside. He pulls a bottle and glasses from a shelf and pours a couple of glasses of wine. I go over and sit down across from him.


“You scared the devil out of me, young man. In all the centuries I’ve been looking after the dead, I’ve never encountered another living being. When you introduced yourself with a gun, I should have known it was you.”


“You still haven’t answered my question. What were you doing back there?”


Muninn unzips the top of his bodysuit and takes a gulp of wine.


“I was looking for specimens. You know I collect and preserve ephemera from the world outside of here. When I realized that the Backbone might empty completely, I went looking for a few interesting examples of these lost souls to keep for archival purposes.”


“So what are you, like a caretaker for shamblers?”


“Something like that. The resurrected are technically dead, but still ensouled beings. Someone should look in on them every now and then, don’t you think? Now let me ask you a question or two. How did you find your way into the Backbone and why would you go there? Oh, and there’s the small matter of you not being eaten alive.”


I sniff the wine. Stark wants to drink it, but not-Stark doesn’t and is still annoyed about using the gun. The wine stays put.


“Johnny over there is how I got in.”


I nod toward Johnny as he wanders to where we’re sitting. He’s having a good time looking around. He has a plastic Visible Man model kit in one hand and an old leather-bound dictionary in the other.


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