The Hell You Say
An excerpt from the third novel in the Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon
The voice on the phone rasped, "Bones of anger, bones of dust, full of fury, revenge is just. I scatter these bones, these bones of rage, enemy mine, I bring you pain. Torment, fire, death the toll, with this hex I curse your soul. So mote it be."
I handed the receiver to Angus, who was facing out the 'We Recommend' stand by the counter, and said, "It's for you."
He took the receiver and put his ear against it as though expecting an electric shock. He listened, then, hand shaking, he replaced the receiver and stared at me. Behind the blue John Lennon specs his eyes were terrified. He licked his pale lips.
"Look, Angus," I said, "Why don't you talk to Jake? He's a cop. Maybe he can help."
"He's a homicide detective," Angus muttered. "Plus he doesn't like me."
True on both counts, but I tried anyway.
"He doesn't dislike you, really. Besides, you've got to talk to someone. This is harassment."
"Harassment?" His voice shot up a notch. "I wish it was harassment! They're going to kill me."
Someone lurking in the Dell map backs coughed, and I realized we were not alone in the bookstore.
I gestured to Angus, and he followed me back to the storeroom that served as my office. So far we'd had a grand total of three customers browsing the shelves on this gloomy November day. I half shut the door to the office and turned to Angus.
"Okay, what the hell is going on?" I sort of knew what the hell was going on, so I added, "Exactly."
I thought my tone was pretty calm, but he put his hands out as though to ward me off. "I can't talk about it," he gabbled. "I mean, if I talk about it, if I reveal the secrets of the-"He swallowed The Word. "They'll kill me."
"I thought they were already trying to kill you?"
"I mean physically kill me."
"Uh huh," I said, and realized I sounded like Jake.
Angus caught the skeptical note in my voice. "Adrien, you don't understand. You've never-they know where I live. They know where I work. They know where Wanda lives. They know where Wanda works. They --"
"Why don't you leave town for a while," I interrupted. "It's nearly Christmas. Why don't you... take a little vacation?"
"It's after Thanksgiving."
Angus had worked at Cloak and Dagger Books for the past year, but I still knew very little about him beyond the fact that he was finishing up an undisclosed undergrad program at UCLA which seemed to entail an awful lot of courses in folklore, mythology and the occult. He was twenty-something, lived alone, and was a decent if somewhat irregular employee. Lisa, my mother, insisted that he was on drugs; and Jake, my sometimes lover, was convinced that he was a nutcase, but I tended to believe he was just young. I studied him as he stood there in his baggy black clothes like an ... émigré... from the dark side. He was shaking his head in a hopeless kind of way as though I still didn't get it.
"Yeah," I said, warming to the idea. "Why don't you take Wanda and split for a week or two? Let this all blow over." I was digging through the desk drawer for my checkbook.
Not that I believe throwing money at a problem solves the problem-unless the problem is lack of money. And not that I ordinarily recommend trying to run away from your problems, but this particular problem rang a few bells for me. Or so I thought at the time.
Angus was silent while I wrote out the check and tore it off. When I handed it to him, he stared down at it. He didn't say a word. Then, as I watched, a tear slid down his face and dropped on the check. He gave a great shuddering sigh, and started to speak.
I cut him off. "Listen, Harry Potter, do us both a favor. Crank calls from the Psychic Hotline is bad for business." I headed for the door.
* * * * *
"You did what?" said Jake.
I had been about ten minutes late meeting him at the car dealership on East Colorado Blvd. My ten year old Bronco was on its last legs, and Jake seemed to believe that I was incapable of making an informed buying decision unless he was my informant.
"Gave him eight hundred bucks, and told him to take Wanda Witch away for the holidays." I gazed at the rows of sleek sports cars and efficient-looking SUVs gleaming in the tequila sunset. Palm trees rustled overhead. Tinny Christmas carols issued from the loudspeakers in not so subliminal messaging.
I could see Jake's reflection in the nearest windshield, big and blonde and buff. "Eight hundred bucks? You have eight hundred bucks to throw around?"
I shrugged. "I'll write it off as his Christmas bonus."
"Uh huh." I could feel him studying my face. "Well, Mr. Trump, is there any point in our going inside?"
"Did you never hear of the great American tradition of financing?"
He snorted. I met his tawny gaze. "How the hell is running away supposed to solve anything?" he asked, and for a second I thought we were talking about something else entirely.
"I wasn't looking for a long term solution." And before Jake could say anything, I added, "I doubt if I need one. They're kids. They have the attention span of ... what is it? One minute for each year of life. We're looking at twenty minutes of terror. Tops."
Jake's lips twitched, but he said, "And these kids are all part of some witch's coven based out of Westwood?"
I stroked the hood of a silver Subaru Forester. "New meaning to the word 'Teen Spirit,' huh?" I checked the sticker price on the window. "From what I've picked up, they all took part in some class on demonology or witchcraft about a year ago. I guess somebody inhaled a little too much incense during the lab."
"They went off and started a coven?"
"I'm guessing. It's not like Angus has been forthcoming on the subject. Revealing Count Chocula's secrets carries a stiff penalty."
Red and green Christmas lights strung across the lot flashed on. They reminded me of glowing chili peppers, but maybe I was subconsciously influenced by the Mexican restaurant across the street. I remembered I hadn't stopped for lunch. My stomach growled. I wondered if Jake could take time for dinner. We hadn't seen much of each other lately.
"You shop around, you compare prices, you get the vehicle right for you," he observed, watching me linger over the Forester.
"You don't need another gas guzzler. How about something in a coupe? How about something pre-owned?"
Reluctantly I moved down the aisle of cars to a blue two-door. Tinted windows, power sun roof, Bose speakers. The price was right, too. 'Climate controlled.' What did that mean? Air conditioning?
Jake said suddenly, grimly, "Believe it or not, this kind of thing can get way out of hand. Hollywood PD turned up a Jane Doe in the Hollywood Hills about a month ago. Word is she was the victim of a ritual killing."
"You mean, like, Devil worshipers?"
I was mostly kidding, but Jake said thoughtfully, "I kind of wish you hadn't sent the kid out of town. I'd have liked to talk to him."
"You can't think Angus is involved in anything like that," I protested. "He's a little odd, granted, but he's a decent kid."
"You have no idea what he is, Adrien," Jake, a ten year veteran of LAPD, said in that cop tone he got when I exhibited signs of civilian naïveté. "You've employed him for a few months, that's all. You hired him through a temp agency. You think they ran any serious security check?"
"You think it's necessary for working in a mystery bookstore?"
He wasn't listening. "There's this whole Satanic underground we've been hearing about since the Eighties. There may not be evidence of an organized movement like some religious groups claim, but we've seen plenty of injuries and deaths resulting from people taking this stuff seriously. And plenty of people turning up in psyche wards. It's ugly and violent, but a lot of kids are attracted to it."
"So hopefully this scares the hell out of Angus, and he gets it out of his system." I tried to picture myself behind the wheel of the coupe, gave it up, and headed back to the silver Forester.
* * * * *
When I finished signing the loan docs, Jake and I went across the street and grabbed some dinner. I had just traded in the Bronco, and since the dealership was going to install a stereo system, I needed a ride back to my place. Jake let himself be coerced.
While we waited for our meal I watched him put away two baskets of tortilla strips. He munched steadily, as though he were being paid by the chip, gaze fastened on a wall planter bristling with plastic bougainvillea.
Still crunching, he paused in mid-reach for his Dos Equis. "Sure. Why?"
"I don't know. You seem preoccupied."
"Nope." He swallowed a mouthful of beer, eyes on mine. "Everything's cool."
Our relationship was not an easy one. Jake was deeply closeted. He claimed it was because he was a cop, but I'd come to believe that it was more complicated than that. Jake despised himself for being sexually attracted to men, and though he had been a good friend to me and was a physically satisfying lover-when he was around-there was a certain tension between us that I sometimes was afraid could never completely be resolved.
Which was a damn shame because I cared for him. A lot.
When I'd first met him he'd been active in the S/M scene, but I thought, though I didn't know for sure, that he was less active in the clubs these days. What I did know for sure was that he was dating a woman, a female cop named Kate Keegan. He'd been seeing her longer than he'd known me, and I didn't think it was just a cover relationship. But he didn't discuss it much with me.
"So I hear Chan's writing a book."
A few months earlier Jake's partner, Detective Paul Chan, had joined Partners in Crime, the weekly writing group I hosted at the bookstore.
"Yeah, a police procedural."
"Is it any good?"
"Uh, well... "
Jake laughed, and shoved the basket of chips my way.
* * * * *
The next day, Friday, I had to prepare for a book signing with bestselling author, Gabriel Savant. Savant wrote the Sam Haynes occult detective series, sort of an update on the old Jules de Grandin and John Thunstone pulps. I'm not a big fan of horror, but I had skimmed Savant's latest in an effort to facilitate discussion should the question and answer session peter out too fast. Not that I expected a problem; after an initially lackluster career in the Eighties, Savant had reinvented himself and his work, and was now something of a media darling. Hustling around in anticipation of a big turnout that evening, I wished ungenerously that I had delayed saving Angus till after the weekend.
I was arranging the front display of Savant's latest, The Rosicrucian Codex, and wondering if I had enough bottles of four dollar champagne, when I received another call from the dark side.
"Smitten, battered, beaten, torn. I prick at thee as if a thorn --"
"Speaking of pricks," I interrupted, "You're wasting your time. Angus doesn't work here anymore."
"Wh-?" He-the voice was male-caught himself. There was a pause, and then a click as the receiver slammed down.
I tried call return but the number was blocked. Not a surprise, I guess. I knew of course that it wouldn't end there.
Sure enough, later that afternoon I got another caller requesting 'Gus.' This time the voice was feminine and dulcet-toned. In all the time Angus has worked for me, I've only known one female to call him, and that's his girl friend Wanda. Wanda is not dulcet-toned. She sounds like she was weaned on unfiltered Marlboros.
"Sorry," I said in answer to the query. "He's not here."
"Oh gosh," she fretted. "I've just got to talk to Gus. It's, like, an emergency."
"Like an emergency, but not?"
"Forget it." I said, "Look, he's gone. For real. Spread the word."
A pause. Then she faltered, "I'm not sure... ?"
I decided to try a different approach. "Can I get your name? Maybe he'll phone me once he gets settled. You're a friend of Angus's?"
She laughed a tinkling little laugh, a party-girl laugh. "Well, ye-aah! Of course! And I've just got to talk to him. He wants to talk to me, believe me."
"Oh, I do," I said with equal sincerity. "But he's gone. Skipped. I'd like to help, but... hey, why don't you leave your name and number, and if he gets in touch with me, I'll let him know you called."
Another little hesitation. Then she said coolly, "Sure. Tell him Sarah Good called. He knows the number."
She replaced the phone gently. I followed suit. I caught a glimpse of my rueful expression in the mirror across from the counter. 'Sarah Good.' One of the first of the Salem witches to be hanged. Cute.
Well, on the bright side, at least the kids were getting some history at school.
* * * * *
By six thirty it was standing room only in the store. I realized I had seriously miscalculated both the champagne and how much help I would need. I'd never seen so many teenagers in black lipstick-boys and girls-or chain mail jewelry on middle aged men. I ran next door and offered time and a half to the girls closing up the travel agency, if they would lend me a hand behind the counter.
By seven fifteen our illustrious author was officially late, and the natives were getting restless. One of the local reporters tried to interview me about my involvement in a murder case the previous year. I resisted the impulse to finish off the last of the drugstore champagne and hide in the stockroom.
At seven thirty there was commotion at the front door and several people, clearly part of an entourage, entered the store. Three leggy ladies dressed more like incubus than typical mystery readers entered. A plump bespectacled man drew me aside and introduced himself as Bob Friedlander, Gabe's handler.
Handler? Nice work if you could get it, I guess.
I didn't catch most of what Friedlander said, because the next instant the Prince of Sales had appeared. Gabriel Savant was over six feet tall and built like a male model-in fact, he looked like the male half of the illustration on a historical romance: unruly raven hair falling over his tanned forehead, piercing blue eyes, flashing white smile. Were there rhinestones in his teeth? There was certainly something shining in his right ear lobe. He wore leather jeans and a black cape. And the most amazing thing was that nobody laughed.
"But this is charming," Gabriel assured me, as Friedlander navigated his star in my direction. "Of course it's not Vroman's, but it's very nice."
"Ambiance," Friedlander said quickly. "Wonderful ambiance."
"We try," I said.
"Of course you do," Gabriel encouraged. He glanced at his handler. "Bobby, is there anything to drink? I'm parched."
Friedlander cleared his throat uneasily. Along with that musky aftershave of Gabe's wafted a mix of mouthwash and bourbon. Mostly bourbon.
"There's some brand X champagne making the rounds," I said.
You'd have thought I offered milk to a vampire. Gabe blanched and then swallowed hard. "Oh, God, let's get this over with." He strode over to the antique desk I had set up. Enthusiastic applause from the waiting audience echoed off the dark beams.
"This book tour has been grueling," Friedlander told me by way of apology. "Twenty cities in thirty days... radio interviews at four in the morning, cable talk shows, book club luncheons, sometimes three bookstores a day... Gabe is exhausted."
"I bet you both are."
He laughed. Behind the glasses his mild eyes were unexpectedly alert. "A little. I understand you write also."
"A little." Not enough, thank God, that anyone wanted to send me out on the road.
"You're too modest. I've read Murder Will Out. Very witty."
Either this guy did his homework like nobody I'd ever met before, or he was gay. My books don't attract many mainstream readers.
"But you need a gimmick," he said.
"You don't think a gay Shakespearean actor amateur sleuth is enough of a gimmick?"
"No. Look at Gabe. He wasted years producing beautifully written critically acclaimed literary fiction that no one wanted to read, and then what happens? He comes up with Sam Haynes the Occult Detective. The rest is history."
History, occult and romance all spelled out in purple prose, I thought as Gabe read from his latest novel. But the audience loved it. When he finished reading, he took questions. Lots of questions. His fans wanted to know everything from where he got his ideas (at which he turned up his elegant nose and requested the next question) to was he seeing anyone.
"I'm seeing everyone," Gabe drawled, and tapped his forehead, either to indicate the Third Eye or that his busy social life was giving him a headache.
Maybe the bubbly helped, but the fans gobbled it right up.
Friedlander listened and ate pizza rolls like they were going out of style. Every so often, like when Gabriel graciously referred to me as 'Andrew,' he would smile nervously in my direction.
And then someone asked what Gabriel was working on now. Apparently this was the question he'd been waiting for. He rose to his feet, shaking back the cape.
"As you know, I've made a fortune telling stories about the occult and its practitioners, but my current project is not a mere work of fiction. During my research I've uncovered evidence of a real life secret and sinister cult which has preyed upon the young and naïve for the past two decades. A cult right here in this very city. In my next book I plan expose that cult and its leaders to the world."
Bob Friedlander dropped his paper plate, and pizza rolls scattered across the hardwood floor. I stooped to help retrieve them and saw out of the corner of my eye that Bob's knees were knocking together. I glanced up. His round face was white and perspiring; he looked terrified.
I turned. Gabe Savant was beaming at his audience, most of whom were smiling and chattering, delighted to learn that another of those pesky cults was soon to be history-and a best selling book. At the back of the room, however, stood a small group of young women. They were dressed in black, lots of leather and lace, makeup and hair inspired by Halloween. Elvira: the Early Years. They appeared to be hissing at Gabe.
* * * * *
"I love this house," Lisa sighed. "I've been very happy here."
The first Saturday of each month I had brunch with my mother, at the ancestral ruins in Porter Ranch in the North San Fernando Valley.
The brunch tradition began when I left Stanford and broke it to her that I would not be returning to the nest. It shouldn't have come as a shock-or even as bad news-but, choosing not to remarry after my father's death (despite a legion of eligible suitors), I was all Lisa had in the world. As she rarely failed to remind me.
"It's a beautiful house," I agreed.
The house smelled of pine trees and cinnamon and apples. It felt warm and Christmassy. In some ways it still felt like home. I'd taken my first steps in the marble foyer (an initial attempt to make a break for it). I'd learned to drive in the quiet surrounding streets. I'd experienced my first fumbling sexual encounter in the upstairs bedroom beneath the fake open beams and poster of Robert Redford in The Natural.
"Although it really is too large for one," she said, as though she had only noticed those additional sixteen rooms.
"Maybe you should think about moving," I said heartlessly.
I had underestimated her as usual. "If I were to... move... do you think the house would suit you and Jake?" she inquired innocently.
I inhaled my white chocolate pear tartlette, and spent the next few moments wondering if the last thing I saw would be the mental picture of me and Jake picking china at Neiman Marcus.
"Darling," Lisa was gently protesting when I could breathe again, "You shouldn't talk with your mouth full."
"You're not serious about Jake and me moving in here," I said.
"Why not? You seem awfully fond of him, and he's-he's-"I could see her searching for something nice to say about Jake. "He's a very efficient sort of person."
The 'why nots' were so many and varied that I was speechless. The worst part of it all was that for one split second I seriously considered it.
Seeing my moment of weakness, she moved in for the kill.
"It's wonderful that you're feeling so well these days, Adrien, but it doesn't do to push yourself too hard."
She shook her head a little as though it were all no use. "The economy is so dreadful right now, especially for small businesses." As though Lisa had the foggiest idea about the challenges of running a small business. "And when you talk about needing to expand, I simply can't help worrying about the stress and strain of an additional mortgage on you, darling. Whereas this house is paid for free and clear."
Like a fool I said, "Even so, there's no way I could begin to afford the upkeep."
Her violet eyes widened at my naiveté. "You're going to be very wealthy one of these days, darling," she chided. "I know I could prevail upon Mr. Gracen to arrange something with your trust fund."
"Don't start that again." Funny how that money was absolutely untouchable when it was for something I wanted that Lisa didn't approve of, but right there at my fingertips if I'd give in to something she wanted for me.
"If your poor father had realized that you would end up sacrificing your health struggling to make ends meet-"
"Lisa, where is this going?" I broke in. "Are you thinking of selling the house? Is that what this is about?"
I was sort of amazed to see her turn pink.
"Um, sort of," she said. A very un-Lisa-like comment.
When she didn't continue, I prodded, "And?"
"Actually, I'm thinking of getting married."
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.