Chapter 21

Angel Dust

The bed of Simon's pickup was full of beer-sodden Animals enjoying the morning fog and speculating on the marital status of the new cashier. She had smiled at Tommy when she arrived, driving the Animals into a psychosexual frenzy.

"She looked like she was being towed through the store by two submarines," said Simon.

"Major hooters," said Troy Lee. "Major-league hooters."

Tommy said, "Can't you guys see more in a woman than T and A?"

"Nope," said Troy.

"No way," said Simon.

"Spoken like a guy who has a live-in girlfriend," said Lash.

"Yeah," Simon said. "How come we never see you with the little woman?"

"Seagull! "shouted Barry.

Simon pulled a pump shotgun from under a tarp in the truck bed, tracked on a seagull that was passing over, and fired.

"Missed again!" shouted Barry.

"You can't kill them all, Simon," Tommy said, his ears ringing from the blast. "Why don't you just cover your truck at night?"

Simon said. "You don't pay for twenty coats of hand-rubbed lacquer to cover it up."

The shotgun went under the tarp and the manager came through the front doors of the store. "What was that? What was that?" He was scanning the parking lot frantically as if he expected to see someone with a shotgun.

"Backfire," Simon said.

The manager looked for the offending car.

"They were heading toward the Marina," Tommy said.

"Well, you tell me if they come back," the manager said. "There's a noise ordinance in this city, you know." He turned to go back into the store.

"Hey, boss," Simon called. "The new girl, what's her name?"

"Mara," the manager said. "And you guys leave her alone. She's had a rough time of it lately."

"She single?" Troy asked.

"Off limits," the manager said. "I mean it. She lost a child a few months ago."

"Yes, boss," the Animals said in unison. The manager entered the store.

Simon ripped a beer from a six-pack ring. He held another out to Tommy. "Fearless Leader, another brew?"

"No, I've got to get home."

"Me too," said Simon. "I've got to clean the bird shit off the beast. You need a ride?"

"Sure, can we stop in Chinatown? I want to pick something up for Jody."

Simon shook his head. "You worry me, son. Men have been pussy-whipped to death, you know." He downed his beer and crushed the can. "Out of the truck, girls; Fearless Leader and I have to shop for tampons."

"Pull!" Troy shouted.

A half dozen beer cans arced into the air. The shotgun came out and Simon pumped out two quick shots. The beer cans fell to the parking lot unharmed. The shotgun went under the tarp. The manager came through the front door.

Simon said, "I saw it, boss. Was a baby-blue 72 Nova with a stuffed gerbil on the aerial. Call it in."

Jody's hands were covered with a greasy dust: the remains of Philly. The body had decomposed to dust in seconds after she finished drinking, leaving a pile of empty clothes. After staring at the pile for a moment, she shook off the shock and gathered the clothes into a bundle, which she carried into a nearby alley.

The blood-high raced through her like an espresso firehose. She leaned against a dumpster, holding the clothes to her breast like a security blanket. The alley tilted in her vision, then righted, then spun until she thought she would be sick.

When the alley stopped moving, she fumbled through the clothing until she found a wallet. She opened it and pulled out the contents. This bundle of rags had been a person; "Phillip Burns," the license said. He carried crinkled photos of friends, a library card, a dry-cleaning receipt, a bank card, and fifty-six dollars. Phillip Burns in a convenient, portable package. She pocketed the wallet, threw the clothes into the dumpster, then wiped her hands on her jeans and stumbled out of the alley.

I killed someone, she thought. My God, I killed someone. What should I feel?

She walked for blocks, not really looking where she was going, but listening to the rhythm of her own steps under the roar of the blood-high in her head. Philly had spilled into her shoes and she stopped and sat on the curb to dump him out.

What is this? she thought. This isn't anything. This isn't what I was before I was a vampire. What is this? This is impossible. This isn't a person. A person can't reduce to dust in seconds. What is this?

She took off her socks and shook them out.

This is fucking magic, she thought. This isn't some story out of one of Tommy's books. This isn't something you can experiment with in the bathroom. This is not natural, and whatever I am, it isn't natural. A vampire is magic, not science. And if this is what happens when a vampire kills, then how are the police finding bodies? Why is there a guy in my freezer?

She put on her shoes and socks and resumed walking. It was starting to get light and she quickened her pace, checked her watch, then broke into a run. She'd made a habit of checking the time of sunrise every morning in the almanac so she wouldn't be caught too far from home. Five years in the City had taught her the streets, but if she was going to run she had to learn the alleys and backstreets. She couldn't let anyone see her moving this fast.

As she ran, a voice sounded in her head. It was her voice, but not her voice. It was the voice that put no words to what her senses told her, yet understood. It was the voice that told her to hide from the light, to protect herself, to fight or flee. The vampire voice.

"Killing is what you do," the vampire voice said.

The human part of her was revolted. "No! I didn't want to kill him."

"Fuck him. It is as it should be. His life is ours. It feels good, doesn't it?"

Jody stopped fighting. It did feel good. She pushed the human part of her aside and let the predator take over to race the sun for her life.

Nick Cavuto paced around the chalk outline of the body as if he were preparing to perform a violent hopscotch on the corpse. "You know," Cavuto said, looking over at Rivera, who was trying to fend off a reporter from the Chronicle at the yellow crime-scene tape, "this guy is pissing me off."

Rivera excused himself from the reporter and joined Cavuto by the body. "Nick, keep it down," he whispered.

"This stiff is making my life difficult," Cavuto said. "I say we shoot him and take his wallet. Simple gunshot wound, robbery motive."

"He didn't have a wallet," said Rivera.

"There you have it, robbery. Massive blood loss from gunshot wound, broke his neck when he hit the ground."

The reporter perked up. "So it was a robbery?"

Cavuto glared at the reporter and put his hand on his thirty-eight. "Rivera, what do you say to a murder-suicide? Scoop over there killed this guy, then turned the gun on himself  -  case closed and we can go get some breakfast."

The reporter backed away from the line.

Two coroner's assistants moved to the body, pushing a gurney with a body bag on it. "You guys done here?" one of them asked Cavuto.

"Yeah," Cavuto said. "Take him away."

The coroners spread the body bag out and hoisted the body onto it. "Hey, Inspector, you want to bag this book?"

"What book?" Rivera turned. A paperback copy of Kerouac's On the Road was lying in the chalk line where the body had been. Rivera slipped on a pair of white cotton gloves and pulled an evidence bag from his jacket pocket. "Here you go, Nick. The guy was a speed reader. Snapped his neck on a meaningful passage."

Jody glanced at the lightening sky, ducked down an alley, and fell into a trot. She was only a block from home, she'd make it in long before sunrise. She leaped over a dumpster, just to do it, then high-stepped through a pile of crates like a halfback through fallen defenders. She was strong in the blood  -  high, quick and light on her feet, her body moved, dodged, and leaped on its own  -  no thought, just fluid motion and perfect balance.

She'd never been athletic in life: the last kid to be picked for kickball, straight C's in phys ed, no chance as a cheerleader; the self-conscious, one-step dancer with the rhythmic sense of an inbred Aryan. But now she reveled in the movement and the strength, even as her instincts screamed for her to hide from the light.

She heard the policemen's voices before she saw the blue and red lights from their cars playing across the walls at the end of the alley. Fear tightened her muscles and she nearly fell in mid-step.

She crept forward and saw the police cars and coroner's wagon parked in front of the loft. The street was full of milling cops and reporters. She checked her watch and backed down the alley. Five minutes to sunrise.

She looked for a place to hide. There was the dumpster, even a few large garbage cans, three steel doors with massive locks, and a basement window with steel bars. She ran to the window and tried the bars. They moved a bit. She checked her watch. Two minutes. She braced her feet against the brick wall and pulled on the bars with her legs. Rusty bolts tore out of the mortar and the bars moved another half inch. She tried to peer into the window, but the wire-reinforced glass was clouded with dirt and age. She yanked on the bars again and they screamed in protest and came loose. She dropped the grate and was drawing back to kick out the glass when she heard movement behind the window.

Oh my God, there's someone inside!

She looked around to the dumpster, some fifty feet away. She looked at her watch. If it was right, the sun was up. She was...

The glass shattered behind her. Two hands came through the window, grabbed her ankles, and pulled her inside as she went out.

"These here turtles are defective," Simon said.

"It's okay, Simon," said Tommy.

They were in a Chinatown fish market, where Tommy was trying to purchase two massive snapping turtles from an old Chinese man in a rubber apron and boots.

"You no know turtle!" the old man insisted. "These plime, glade-A turtle. You no know shit about turtle."

The turtles were in orange crates to immobilize them. The old man sprayed them down with a garden hose to keep them wet.

"And I'm telling you, these turtles are defective," Simon insisted. "Their eyes are all glazed over. These turtles are on drugs."

Tommy said, "Really, Simon, it's okay."

Simon turned to Tommy and whispered, "You have to bargain with these guys. They won't respect you if you don't."

"Turtle's not on dlugs," said the old man. "You want turtle, you pay forty bucks."

Simon pushed his black Stetson back on his head and sighed. "Look, Hop Sing, you can do time for selling drugged turtles in this city."

"No dlugs. Fuck you, cowboy. Forty bucks or go away."

"Twenty."

"Thirty."

"Twenty-five and you clean 'em."

"No," Tommy said. "I want them alive."

Simon looked at Tommy as if he had farted in neon. "I'm trying to negotiate here."

"Thirty," said the old man. "As is."

"Twenty-seven," Simon said.

"Twenty-eight or go home," said the old man.

Simon turned to Tommy. "Pay him."

Tommy ticked off the bills and handed them to the old man, who counted them and put them in his rubber apron. "You cowboy friend no know turtle."

"Thanks," Tommy said. He and Simon picked up the crates with the turtles and loaded them into the bed of Simon's truck.

As they climbed into the cab, Simon said, "You got to know how to deal with those little fuckers. Ever since we nuked them, they got a bad attitude."

"We nuked the Japanese, Simon, not the Chinese."

"Whatever. You should'a made him clean them for you."

"No, I want to give them to Jody alive."

"You're a charmer, Flood. A lot of guys would've just paid the ransom with candy and flowers."

"Ransom?"

"She's got your nooky held hostage, ain't she?"

"No, I just wanted to get her a present  -  to be nice."

Simon sighed heavily and rubbed the bridge of his nose as if fighting a headache. "Son, we need to talk."

Simon had distinctive ideas about the way women should be handled, and as they drove to SOMA he waxed eloquent on the subject while Tommy listened, thinking, If they knew about him, Simon would be elected the Cosmo Nightmare Man for the next decade.

"You see," Simon said, "when I was a kid in Texas, we used to walk through the watermelon fields kickin' each of them old melons as we went until one was so ripe and ready that it busted right open. Then we'd reach in and eat the heart right out of it and move on to the next one. That's how you got to treat women, Flood."

"Like kicking watermelons?"

"Right. Now you take that new cashier. She wants you, boy. But you're thinkin', I got me a piece at home so I don't need her. Right?"

"Right," Tommy said.

"Wrong. You got one at home that you're buying presents for and saying sweet things and tiptoeing around the house so as not to upset her and generally acting like a spineless nooky slave. But if you put it to that new cashier, then you got one up on your old lady. You can do what you want, when you want, and if she gets pissy and don't put out, you go back to your cashier. Your old lady has to try harder. There's competition. It's supply and demand. God bless America, it's nooky capitalism."

"I'm lost. I thought it was like watermelon farming."

"Whatever. Point is, you're whipped, Flood. You can't have no self-respect if you're whipped. And you can't have no fun." Simon turned on Tommy's street and pulled the truck over to the curb. "Something going on here."

There were four police cars parked in the street in front of the loft and a coroner's van was pulling away.

"Wait here," Tommy said. He got out of the car and walked toward the cops. A sharp-featured Hispanic cop in a suit met Tommy in the middle of the street. His badge wallet hung open from his belt; he was holding a plastic bag. Inside it Tommy saw a dog-eared copy of On the Road. He recognized the coffee stains on the cover.

"This street is closed, sir," the cop said. "Crime investigation."

"But I just live right there," Tommy said, pointing to the loft.

"Really," the cop said, raising an eyebrow. "Where are you coming from?"

"The fuck's going on here, pancho?" Simon said, coming up behind Tommy. "I got a truckful of dyin' turtles and I ain't got all damn day."

"Oh Christ," Tommy said, hanging his head.

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