Chapter one is available for free right here.
Lenard came up behind me. “You’re taking him?”
“He’s here and Ty isn’t,” Arne said, “so yeah. I sure as hell can’t take you. Stay here just in case. He only has to drive a car—as long as he doesn’t point the grill at Seattle and take off, he’ll be ﬁne. Besides, if I show up with you, they’ll probably make us mow the lawn or something.”
Lenard laughed. “Fuck you. Those guys have Japs do their landscaping. They’d make me patch the roof.”
“I’ll be two hours at least. Probably three. Go into the kitchen while I’m gone and wash some dishes. Make yourself useful.”
“Hey, I was born in this country, just like you. I’ll do a day’s work when I see you do one.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Arne said. “No shit, Lenard. Be careful.”
Arne turned to me. “Let’s go for a drive, Ray. You owe me.”
He started toward the front door, and I followed. I’d always trailed after him, going from one place to another. It felt natural to let him lead me around, and the feeling—that if I did what he wanted he’d eventually give me what I needed—was startlingly familiar.
And he was right. I did owe him.
We went into the street. Arne was more watchful than he’d ever been, and I wondered why. We walked to a Land Rover, and he circled it carefully before he got in. I sat in the passenger seat and aimed the air-conditioning vents at my face. He pulled into traffic.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“No. Seriously. Where?”
“You know what I always liked about you, Ray? Timing. You always had good timing. For instance, here you are today of all days. Remember Rufus Sceopeola?”
I did. He was a weight lifter and amateur boxer who’d tried to take over the Bigfoot Room some years ago. He was used to intimidating people with his size, but he wasn’t as tough as he’d thought. “Of course.”
“You remember how you took him out?”
“A couple punches.”
Arne laughed at me as he swerved onto a freeway on-ramp. “You don’t even realize you do it, do you? Anybody can throw a couple punches, Ray. You threw the right punches. Rufus thought he had defenses—I ran into him later, and he talked about you. He said he’d never been taken apart so fast, in the ring or out. He said you had a good eye. When I told him you were in jail, he dropped into a deep funk. I think he wanted to invite you to his gym.”
None of this interested me, but I asked anyway. “What ever happened to Rufus?”
Arne slapped his hand on my chest, then crumpled my shirt. I couldn’t feel anything where the tattoos covered my skin, but I didn’t like being searched anyway. “I’m not wearing a wire, and Lenard already checked me once.”
He finished searching anyway. “The asshole is doing a stint at Corcoran. Some bastard took his gun and mailed it to the LAPD in a shoe box. Funny thing. They had his fingerprints on file, and the gun matched a shooting in North Hollywood from the year before. Attempted homicide.” He glanced at me. “That’s what I heard, anyway.”
I didn’t answer right away. For Arne, asshole had a specific meaning. Assholes were criminals who liked to hurt people—or who tried to mess with his business—which was pretty much every criminal we met.
Arne hated assholes. He had always kept us low-key—we dressed like college students and did “safe” jobs—but there was always someone who heard about the money he was making and tried to muscle in. Arne hadn’t blustered or threatened, but those guys generally never came back a second time. We’d always wondered what he’d done to drive them off. Had he been turning them in to the cops? The idea made me a little sick.
But I hadn’t come here to talk about old times. “Arne—”
“No questions, Ray. You don’t have the right.”
“Yes, I do. I’m in this car. I came down here to find you, and I can help, maybe.”
“Maybe,” he said. And laughed to himself. “Do you know why I asked you to go to the bar with Mouse that night?”
That startled me. I’d forgotten that he’d asked me to watch Mouse’s back. “No.”
“Okay. Do you know why I paid that protection money for you while you were inside?”
“Because you thought I would try to make a deal for a lighter sentence.”
“Ray, Ray. You’re such a beautiful idiot. And now I’m glad you took off for Seattle. At first my feelings were hurt, but now I think it’s better you weren’t around when everything went to shit.”
He wanted me to ask him about Mouse and the protection money, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “How did things go to shit?”
“We got old,” Arne said, sounding annoyed. “When you’re stealing cars and getting high at sixteen, it’s like an adventure. Hell, even when you’re twenty-two you can tell yourself you’re a hard and dangerous dude, out on the streets taking what you want. But as you get older, it changes. The life starts to go sour. Even I wanted a house, a wife, and a kid, Ray.”
I noticed he said wanted instead of want. “Caramella said someone had killed you.”
“Well, here I am,” he said. His tone was difficult to read. I’d always found Arne hard to read; maybe that was why I’d always been willing to follow him.
“She said it was my fault.” But I’d said this already, and it didn’t pry the truth out of him this time, either. Arne stared into the harsh desert sunlight, staying with traffic. He never drove faster or slower, preferring to hide in the crowd.
We were heading east. Las Vegas? But he’d said three hours at most, so it couldn’t be. “Where are we going?” I asked again.
“Ray, have you noticed that I’m not answering your fucking questions?”
I looked over at him. He was shorter than me and built heavier, but he was quick. And I knew he was tough, but I was a wooden man with the Twenty Palace Society. I’d faced scarier things than Arne Sadler. “That’s why I have to keep asking.”
He smiled at me then, and I truly couldn’t read his intent. Then he turned his attention to the road. We drove in silence for a while.
For more than ten years, Arne had been the most important person in my life.
I met him in juvie, when I believed I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison. He was three years older, and while he wasn’t the first person to tell me that the shooting wasn’t my fault, he was the first one I believed even halfway. And he told me to come find him when the time was right.
I did. Arne taught me to steal cars, to fight, to live as a criminal without being an asshole, to tell victims from non-victims, and how to treat them both.
But I’d turned my back on him. When I walked out of Chino, I couldn’t go back to that old life. I just couldn’t. I wouldn’t have chosen the society in its place, but that didn’t change how I felt about being in L.A. again.
And yet, here I was. Worse, I had already gotten swept up into one of Arne’s jobs.
I was seriously considering cutting him with my ghost knife—he’d tell me whatever I wanted to know after that, and he’d apologize for making me wait, too—when he suddenly sighed.
“Ray, how about this? You help me finish this job, and I’ll help you with your thing. Okay? Melly was right. Things are in a bad way for me, and for Robbie, Summer, Lenard, even Bud, if that matters. But this job we’re on is too important, and if I start talking about this shit, I’m going to lose my game face. You get me, don’t you?”
“I get you.”
He smiled at me. “Thanks, man.”
We cruised the freeway eastward. The houses and strip malls gave way to ware houses and industrial, which eventually gave way to rough, low desert hills. The car was silent. Arne hated to play music when he was on a job.
The hum and movement of the car had lulled me to a dreamless sleep. I heard the tires roll over gravel and jolted awake. “This is it,” Arne said. The sun was in my face; we’d turned around, and I’d slept through it.
Arne pulled off the highway onto a flat gravel path. There was a dry streambed directly beside us—if the car swerved a foot to the right, we’d tumble into it. Directly in front of us was a low hill, no different from any other low desert hill in Southern California. I honestly had no idea where we were, or even if that was the 15 back there. The gravel gave way to a dirt track as we drove northwest, following the trail around the hill.
At a wide part, nearly out of sight of the freeway, Arne did a quick two- point turn. “Get behind the wheel and wait here for me,” he said. “I have to pick up a ride from just around the bend there.” That meant he was about to steal a car. I held out my hand. Arne smirked at me, then took out his key ring. He had dozens of keys, along with a little flashlight, carabiner, Swiss Army knife, and who knows what else. He detached the Land Rover key and gave it to me.
He got out of the car into the scorching desert heat. The Land Rover was pretty roomy, but I was too tall to climb over the shifter. I got out, too, and walked around the front. “Expecting trouble?” I asked.
“We’ll see.” I must have reacted to that, because he smirked again and said, “The place should be empty. It’s a hell of an August out here. But if someone’s home, it won’t be a problem. Wait here and be ready to pull out fast, just in case.” He turned his back to me and walked away. After a few steps, he glanced back. The expression on his face suggested I was not doing my job. I climbed into the car and shut the door.
It was cool inside. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. Considering the way I’d been sleeping, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I’d nodded off, but I felt pissed off and ashamed anyway. If something dangerous had happened— hell, if Arne had decided to shove me out of the car at freeway speeds—I couldn’t have done much about it.
I watched Arne as he moved away. He didn’t look tense, but maybe he’d gotten more relaxed when he stole cars in the years I’d been away. Maybe he’d lost his edge. Or maybe he didn’t expect any trouble out here at all.
After forty yards or so, he disappeared around the side of the hill. Without really thinking about it, I opened the driver door as quietly as I could and slipped into the afternoon heat. I shut the door gently, hoping the sound of car tires on the nearby freeway would mask the noise.
Arne didn’t peek back around the edge of the hill at me. I felt absurdly like a disobedient teenager as I followed after him, walking on the dry, hard ground to avoid the crunch of footsteps on gravel.
At the bend in the path, I crouched low behind an outcropping of rock and spied on Arne. He had stopped at the end of the gravel path and was fiddling with a padlock on a gate. The hill concealed a fenced area, and inside the fence was a prefab sheet-metal building.
The gate was on the western part of the property. The building faced south, with a peaked roof and a row of closed windows set high on the walls. The huge front doors slid open on runners.
The building was deep enough that a tractor trailer could have driven through the front and pulled all the way inside without turning, and it was three times wider than it was deep.
Whatever Arne was doing with the gates, he got them unlocked and pushed them both all the way open. Then he started toward the big front doors. He moved casually, but his head turned back and forth as he scanned the area, making sure he was alone.
He spent much less time fiddling with the latch at the two big front doors before sliding them open and walking into the darkness. Damn, it must have been like an oven in there. Sweat prickled on my back at the thought of it.
There was a sign on the open gate, but I was too far away to read it. If the society had brought me in as an investigator, I’d probably have a pair of binoculars, or maybe a camera with a telephoto lens that would not only let me read the sign but would record it for the benefit of the people who recovered my body.
But I was just a wooden man, and this was not even an official mission.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what Arne was doing all the way out here in the middle of nowhere. When I’d been with him, we’d stolen cars and driven them to a dealer in Long Beach. He’d fake up papers for them and ship them out of the country for resale. It hadn’t made any of us rich, but it had been better than throwing trash into the back of a municipal truck, or mopping floors, or clearing dirty plates from restaurant tables. At least, we’d thought so. Maybe we’d have made more money if Arne had been more willing to take risks, but he’d kept most of us out of jail.
A car rolled slowly out of the big double doors of the building below. I didn’t recognize it for a moment. Then Arne got out to close the hangar doors.
A Bugatti. Arne was stealing a Bugatti.
They were worth a quarter million dollars, and they were completely out of the range of cars we usually handled. Hell, he’d told us not to steal Ferraris because they were too high-profile. But a Bugatti?
He shut the building. I’d seen enough. I slipped away from the outcropping of rock and hustled back to the car. It was several minutes before Arne pulled up alongside me.
I rolled the driver’s window down, but he only gave me a thumbs-up as he crept by. I followed him back to the freeway, watching him drive at a crawl. The Bugatti scraped its bottom on the gravel, but it had made it in, and it made it out, too. Arne gunned the engine and zipped into traffic. I hurried after him. Together we headed west again toward the setting sun.
I made note of the first sign that told me how many miles we were from L.A. Figuring quickly, the sheet-metal building was almost as far as Bakersfield, but not quite. That meant the desert on the other side of the highway had to be the Mohave.
I hoped Arne would let me drive that damn Bugatti, just for a few miles.
That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, we drove through the last remaining hours of the evening rush and swung over to Bel Air.
Arne pulled up to a white marble mansion ringed by a black iron fence like a wall of spears. The lawn was as neat as a putting green, and the driveway was lined with white pillars. As L.A. mansions went, it was nearly moderate in its splendor. The place across the street was little more than a long driveway with a gate at the end. Nothing of the house itself was visible except for the Mediterranean-style roof.
I’d always liked driving through the rich neighborhoods of Los Angeles to look at the houses. There’s a kind of sick fascination about it, like looking at a car accident.
Arne honked the Bugatti’s horn and stepped out of the car. I rolled down his window as he came over. He dropped his fat roll of keys into a little pocket on the driver’s-side door. “Wait out here, okay?” He was rubbing his hands together. “I’ll be a couple minutes.” He’d never been this excited on jobs in the old days, and I didn’t like to see it now. I didn’t trust it.
“What are we doing here?”
“Recovering stolen property,” he answered. “Some guys have been operating out of the Valley, mostly, crowding my turf. I made a point of learning all their wheres, whens, and hows, and now they’re going to make me a couple of bucks.”
“That doesn’t sound like your style.”
“You’ve been gone a long time, baby. Things change.”
He got back behind the wheel as the gate rolled open. He drove through the pillars while I shut off the engine and settled in.
I didn’t stay settled in for long. After about three minutes, four men walked through the gate toward me. The one in the lead was a white man of about fifty, with a bull neck and a face like a plate of lumpy mashed potatoes. One of the men behind him looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He was a black man, my height but bigger in the shoulders. His broad forehead was furrowed with a resentful scowl.
I rolled down the window a few inches. Potato Face crooked his finger at me, signaling me to come with him. There was nothing bullying or arrogant in his expression, but I didn’t like being treated like a misbehaving first-grader.
“Why?” I asked.
Mr. Familiar didn’t like my question. He tried to come around Potato Face at me, but the old man laid a hand on his chest to stop him, and Familiar stopped. Nice to know who was in charge.
Potato looked at me again. “Your buddy needs your help.”
I didn’t believe that for a second, but I opened the door and climbed out anyway, mainly because I could see they’d force me out if I didn’t. There was no sense in scuffling in the street.
Potato walked toward the house, and I fell in behind him. Familiar walked on my left, and the two other guys, both bulky, pale-skinned, and as expressive as boulders, flanked me on my right and from behind.
“I recognize you,” Familiar blurted out. “You’re the Flower.” Suddenly I recognized him right back. He was Wardell Shoops, a former wide receiver for the Chiefs. He’d been drafted out of UCLA and, during bye week of his rookie year, he’d flown home to have dinner with his mother and to beat the hell out of his business manager, who’d lost half his money on a Louisiana alligator farm. He’d pleaded guilty and did a year in Chino while I was there.
I looked at him and at his aggressive smile. He looked at me like I was an apple about to be plucked and eaten. I didn’t like that look. “I remember the man you used to be,” I said. “What happened to that guy? He was something else.”
Wardell’s smile vanished. He cursed and stepped toward me, but Potato stopped him with one backward glance. We all walked up the driveway while the gate rolled closed behind us.
The inside of the house was bright with natural light. Nearly everything was white—the carpet, the chairs, even the narrow hall tables with white princess telephones. White picture frames with no pictures hung on the walls. The ceiling was made of squares of glass with black framework in between.
Potato led us into a sunken living room at the back of the building. Arne was there, standing by a pair of French doors, with two more heavyset creeps next to him. Through the doors, I could see a broad lawn with a flower garden along one side and a little Jacuzzi on the other. Two men were on their hands and knees digging in the garden, but I couldn’t see them well enough to tell if they were Japanese, Mexican, or something else.
“Come on,” a man said impatiently. “There’s no reason to be afraid.”
Potato led me down into the room, and there, seated on an overstuffed couch in the corner, was the man who thought I was frightened of him. He was narrow-shouldered and as thin as a boy, and just about as tall, too. His face was weathered by sun, but his two-hundred-dollar haircut and open-necked linen shirt suggested he’d gotten his tan in a deck chair. His blue eyes were watery, and his thin hair was the color of sand. A tall, bony Asian woman in a purple bikini lounged on a couch beside him, a magazine in her hand.
Potato jerked a thumb back at me. “This is him.”
Linen Shirt was about to speak when Wardell said: “I know him. His last name is Daffodil or something. Something flowery. He was in Chino a couple years back, and someone on the outside had to pay for his protection, ’cause he couldn’t do it himself.”
Linen waited for Wardell to finish. Everyone else was silent, and I had the impression that Wardell had stepped on his boss’s line, and not for the first time. Then he glanced at me. “What are you doing here, Mr. Daffodil?”
Arne spoke up. “I needed someone to drive my car.”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Linen said, his voice sharp. He turned away from me. “Well? Is this him?”
The Asian woman regarded me with a sleepy, careless self-confidence. Her skin was dark and her face broad and beautiful. “Nope,” she said. She took a swizzle stick off the table beside her and began moving it through her hair as though she was stirring her scalp. “I told you it was a spic.”
Linen sighed. “Don’t say spic. It’s low-class.” She shrugged and went back to reading.
“I told you before,” Arne said, “I didn’t steal your car. I thought I knew who’d done it, and I was right. I took a real risk retrieving it for you.”
Another one of the interchangeable beefheads came into the room. He held up a DVD inside a paper sleeve. “It was right where you left it.”
Linen opened a cabinet, revealing a little screen. The beefhead loaded the disc and pressed play.
Swizzle Stick found the energy to stand and look at the screen. We all watched the video of her and Linen naked and grunting on a white bed in a white room—probably one right upstairs. No one seemed the least bit embarrassed or awkward.
“I look hot,” Swizzle said.
Linen sighed again and turned the show off. “Did you see this?” he asked Arne.
“No, I didn’t.” Arne sounded very casual.
Linen turned toward me. “You?”
Arne laughed suddenly. It felt so good to have him smile at me that I almost laughed with him. We had been friends once.
Linen turned to Potato Face. “Make sure.”
Wardell grabbed my arms and held me while one of the other men patted me down. Arne got the same treatment. Potato stood watch over us. They found my ghost knife and cellphone, but no one objected when I took them back. No one found any discs, so Potato took Arne’s satchel and dumped it out onto the table.
“Hey!” Arne shouted. I heard the dangerous tone in his voice, but no one else seemed to care.
They picked through his things, bending them and ripping the pockets of his bag. Linen opened the French doors, and one of the men pitched Arne’s laptop into the Jacuzzi.
Arne glowered at them.
Linen took a checkbook from a little drawer, filled out a check, and gave it to Arne. I noticed a wedding ring on his tanned finger. Swizzle Stick didn’t have one.
Arne glanced at the check. “What’s this?”
“That’s your payment,” Linen said. He sounded bored with us, as though we’d stayed too long at his party.
“Half the price,” Arne said. “That was the deal. I’d get the car back for you, and you would pay me half what it cost.”
“But did you get that in writing? That disc was valuable; the car… meh. The Bugatti is insured. My marriage isn’t. That check will buy two laptops to replace the one that just took a swim, with a little left over for a lazy day’s work.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Arne asked, his voice quiet. “Are you sure you want to break a deal with me?”
Linen turned to Potato. “He sounds feisty.”
Wardell immediately sank a hard right into my midsection, while one of the other men did the same to Arne. It didn’t hurt me; I could barely feel the pressure of it through the protective tattoos Annalise had put on me.
I threw a quick uppercut at Wardell, but one of the other men tangled my arm with one of his punches, blunting the force.
I caught another painless shot in the guts, then the men on either side of me drove their knees into the outside of my thighs. The pain was intense, and I fell onto the cool tile floor. The beating continued.
I didn’t have to take this shit. My ghost knife was in my pocket. All I had to do was cut one of these bruisers with the edge of my spell to take them out of the fight. In less than a minute, I could take control of this room and everyone in it.
I took the beating anyway. I wasn’t going to use a spell in front of Linen; he might decide to search for magic of his own, and I was sick of the messes that came of that.
A punch grazed the edge of my chin—nothing serious, just a scrape—and Potato stepped in and backed Wardell off. “Not the face,” he said. “You know better.”
That was the end of the beating. Arne rolled onto his side, cursing, but he didn’t look too bad. Linen picked the check up and stuffed it into Arne’s shirt pocket. “No need to be feisty anymore, right? Because now you know how lucky you are. Be glad our deal is the only thing I’m breaking. Get out, and tell your car-stealing buddy he was smart to stay away from me.”
The guards lifted us to our feet. One of them swept Arne’s things into his satchel, being careful to get everything but not being careful in any other way, then hung it around Arne’s neck like a gold medal. We were hustled out of the house and down to the street. I could hear Wardell behind me, laughing.
Once released, Arne stripped the satchel off his neck and collapsed onto his hands and knees. He puked onto the street. There was no red in it. I picked up his satchel. A few things had fallen out when he’d dropped it, and I examined each as I put them back, hoping I’d find something useful.
“What’s this?” Wardell said. He was facing a wall of bodies. Potato Face and his men were barring Wardell from returning to the house. One of the men held out a tan sports jacket for Wardell to take, but he wouldn’t accept it.
“You have the wrong temperament for this work,” Potato said. “You think this is about you. It ain’t. You’re fired. Don’t let me see you again, or you won’t be happy about it.”
Wardell stared at them, simmering. I hadn’t known him personally in Chino, but everyone had known who he was: a pro athlete who’d done a TV commercial or two. He was used to being the big man in the room, and he didn’t seem to be adjusting to his new life all that well.
“Come on, Arne,” I said, helping him up. He staggered as he went toward the driver’s door, but I wanted him to move faster. “Let’s get out of here and find a place we can talk.”
“I don’t think they broke anything,” Arne said. “Jesus, can you believe that guy called me a liar?”
I glanced back. Wardell was still staring at Potato. Potato stared back. Beefy guy still held his arm extended toward Wardell, jacket in hand. Finally, he got tired of waiting for Wardell to take it, so he tossed it. Wardell was forced to catch it against his chest or let it fall into the street. Potato and his men went back through the gate and shut it with a sharp clang.
Arne made his key chain chirp and popped the locks on his car. Wardell turned his head toward the sound. Shit.
Arne got behind the wheel. “I don’t have time to talk to you right now, Ray.”
“Arne, no. This is too important—”
“No.” Arne glanced through the windshield at Wardell, who was stalking toward us. “After the job, remember? The job isn’t over until I get paid. Besides, your boyfriend wants to talk to you.”
“Hey!” Wardell shouted. “Flower!”
Damn. I hated being called that.
Arne started his car. He gave me a crooked smile. “Take care of this, would you, Ray? I have work to do.”
Wardell grabbed my shirt and shoved me against Arne’s car. I tipped back over the hood, my feet coming off the ground. Christ, he was strong.
I drew my ghost knife from my back pocket.
Arne’s car began to back down the street, and I slid along the hood of the car until I dropped backward. I heard my shirt tear just a little in Wardell’s grip.
“You just cost me a job, Flower. A good job that paid okay. There ain’t a lot of places a guy like me can get paid to have my fun. So now you’re going to hire me.”
Arne backed away down the street. I saw him grimace as he twisted to look through the back window, but he didn’t glance at me at all.
“Don’t you look at him,” Wardell said. “You look at me now. Just like you paid those barrio motherfuckers to watch your back in Chino, you’re going to pay me to watch your back out here.”
“I wouldn’t pay you to watch a pot of chili,” I said, and slid the ghost knife through his ribs.
According to the spell book I’d cast it from, the ghost knife could cut “ghosts, magic, and dead things.” Its edge could split a steel door, destroy the sigils that made spells work, and on living people, it could cut their “ghosts.”
Whatever that meant. I’d never seen an actual ghost, but trial and error had taught me that the ghost knife took away a person’s anger and hostility, turning them docile and apologetic but without doing them any physical harm. At least, no harm I could see.
Wardell was no exception. He gasped as the spell passed through him and his eyes went wide like deer eyes. He lifted me to my feet—the spell didn’t take his strength away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said those things.”
“You’re right. You shouldn’t have.” Arne was long gone. I sighed and turned to Wardell. “Where’s your car?”
He led me to it. It was just around the corner, parked beneath an old oak. It was an older Nissan Pathfinder, and it had probably been his run-around-town vehicle before he went inside. He asked me if I wanted to drive.
I did. Traffic was heavy on the way back to the Bigfoot Room. Wardell talked most of the way, mostly about what he was doing now that he was outside and people we’d known inside. An unsurprising number of them had gotten themselves out and gotten themselves thrown right back in again. Wardell was of the opinion that that would happen to him soon, too.
He also told me that Linen’s real name was Steve Francois, and that he’d inherited his money from some South American paper mills and banks in Texas. Mostly banks. Steve liked having badasses around, and Wardell was an ex-con and ex-NFL, so he was hired.
I couldn’t even begin to guess why Arne was running errands for a guy like Francois.
I liked Wardell better when he wasn’t desperate to be alpha male, but not much better. Even with his aggression cut out of him, he was still arrogant enough to think he should dominate the conversation. I was tempted to make him turn himself in to the cops until he said he had a wife at home who was sticking by him—so far. “She wants me to go to anger-management classes,” he said.
“Why haven’t you?”
“I didn’t want to,” he answered. “I’m sorry about the buttons on your shirt. Do you want me to ask her to sew them back on? She would, I think.”
I looked down. He had popped off a button from my shirt, second from my top. “No, thanks,” I said, being polite because of the ghost knife, and I didn’t feel like taking anything else from him. “Do you beat on her?”
“No! I would never hit my lady.” He sounded honestly surprised that I’d asked.
“Good. You should take her advice.” I remembered waking from nightmares in the middle of the night. “If your shit isn’t under control, you should get help.”
I pulled up to the curb at a corner near the Bigfoot Room and climbed out. My legs and back were getting stiff and achy from sitting so long. I was glad Potato and his men had landed most of their punches on my chest and stomach, where I was protected. My car was still where I had left it.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said.
Wardell climbed into the driver’s seat. He was a big guy, but he was limber enough to make it without knocking the stick shift out of park.
“Thank you,” Wardell said. I shut the door. He hit the turn signal and pulled into traffic.
I watched him go, wondering what I could do if my own stress got so bad I lost control of it. Not therapy; as soon as I talked about predators, the therapist would think I was delusional. And if the therapist found out about the people I’d killed…
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.
Wardell disappeared into traffic, so I crossed the street and entered the Roasted Seal. The sawdust was still on the floor and the rumpled guy was still sitting at the bar, a beer and a cup of coffee beside him.
And Arne was sitting in the same booth. He was tapping at a different laptop.
I moved toward him, holding out my hand to block Lenard as I came around the wait station. “Are you going to pat me down again?”
Lenard slammed a little locker door shut and spun the combination lock. Then he glanced at Arne. Arne shrugged. Lenard backed toward the booth, and his body language told me not to approach.
“I hope,” Arne said, “you’re not pissed that I took off without telling you what’s what or caring one shit what was going on with you.”
“Of course not. What kind of petty bastard do you think I am?” And it was true. I wasn’t pissed. In fact, I’d expected him to abandon me somewhere—that’s why I’d held out my hand for the Land Rover keys when Arne asked me to drive it. It’s one thing to be stranded in Bel Air and another to be stranded in the middle of the desert. “Bought yourself a replacement already?”
“Oh, no. This is my real computer. The other was the one I take on jobs, just in case.”
“Arne, what happened to Melly? What happened to you?”
“Just a minute. Busy.” He turned back to the computer and started typing.
“Busy with what?” My voice sounded sharper than I’d intended. I wanted to say more, but everything I could think of sounded ridiculous.
“Destroying a man’s life,” he said. “Ray, what do you know about prn on the Internet?”
“There’s prn on the Internet?”
Arne laughed loudly, and I could feel some of the tension going out of the room. I needed him on my side, but somehow I’d lost the knack of winning people over.
“My favorite is where people make their own and put it up online. It’s crazy pop u lar, even if most of the content is videos some dude made with a hooker or revenge postings by the recently dumped. Sometimes it’s even weirder. Check it out.”
He turned the laptop toward me. A video was playing, and it took me a moment to realize it was the same video I’d seen in Francois’s house. Except that someone had added a timer to it.
“Why is there a…” Then I saw why. By the time the counter reached 27, Francois had finished.
“See, Francois has a wife somewhere—Park Avenue or something—and she is a litigation powerhouse. Her whole clan is. Once word starts to spread about this video, he’s going to have a very expensive divorce on his hands. Plus the twenty-seven-second thing.”
He turned the laptop toward himself again. There was a jangle of keys, and I noticed that his big key ring was hanging off the side of the machine. Arne pulled at it, unplugging a memory stick, and pocketed it. He must have found the DVD in the Bugatti right away, copied the file during the drive back to the city, and put the disc back.
But that was his deal. I had other problems.
“Arne, Melly said you were dead. She said you’d been killed and it was my fault.”
Arne gave me a steady look. This was it. He was about to break down and give me what I needed. “Well, he was your buddy, wasn’t he?”
I didn’t have any buddies. Not anymore. “Who?”
Oh, God. Wally Fucking King.