In this excerpt, Zarabeth is sent to Las Vegas after surviving an encounter with angels. Turns out, there are side effects — but an immortal is willing to guide Zarabeth to her next adventure…
Read below, or listen to Laura Petersen’s wonderful audiobook version!
from Chapter 31 – Las Vegas
At eight-thirty Zarabeth sat at a small piano bar off the casino lobby. Dark eyeliner, red skirt-suit, tall black heels, cheap watches. The bartender lit her cigarettes. Fun to be classy. Two drinks later she wore the feeling out of the bar like a psychic fur stole. She stood outside to scan taxis and town cars.
“Zazzy Boots!” Out the back window of a limousine, a familiar face. Toothy smile and long heavy nose, a black derby on her curly black hair. “Get over here!”
The vanity pictures in Janice Goldman’s glass Los Angeles office dated to Zarabeth’s childhood, movie stars with permed curls and narrow ties. Janice had the same face in all of them. Soon after, Missy had shown her a picture of Great-Grandmother Johnson as a single young flapper, arm in arm with Janice. “A different name back then,” Missy had said.
The limo seats and ceiling were upholstered in leopard-skin fabric. Janice wore a black suit, black-and-white checked low-cut blouse, white snake-skin pumps. A skinny platinum-blonde in red leather and strap heels sat across, giving Janice a manicure. Janice patted her free hand on the bench.
“Sit sit sit! I’d ask how you’ve been but we all know.” The limousine drove away. Janice picked up a cocktail from the armrest. “I have gin and whiskey. Zazz, this is Evgenia. She’s from Sebastopol. Or Sevastopol? The one in Crimea. Caviar’s my flavor of the month. Drink?”
“Later,” Zarabeth said. “Love your look. Are the Eighties back?”
“Is it Eighties? I suppose. After a while they all run together.”
“I know now. How do you keep it quiet?”
“Funny, no one ever asks me that,” Janice said. “Always the other thing. I’ve been Janice for thirty years. Thirty-five? But I so love the movies. Even back when they were silent. I can’t move on.”
“China and India have movies. You could restart cool as a video-game tycoon.”
“Who the fuck are you to give me advice?” She glared, backed down. “Love your look. Dressed for the occasion. Not to be pushy but are you ready? Do I have permission?”
“Maggie May didn’t tell you?”
“All I know is I’m going someplace where people might dose me.”
“She would know,” Janice said. “You’re going to meet a lwa, a deity from the Haitian pantheon. Or an aspect of her. Lwa are worse than musicians, always side projects.”
Janice shook her head. “Secte Rouge, among other names. Same stock as voodoo, but way more pepper. Not just chickens who bleed tonight. A hybrid of the Yoruba pantheon with the Maya. Enslave blood-magic peoples together, you ferment nasty shit.”
“Why am I going there?”
“To meet the lwa. To what end I don’t know. I’m just going with you.”
“You are my security? That has to be expensive.”
“Security? Is that what Maggie Moo called me? Dried up old cunt.”
“Am I going to be possessed?” Zarabeth asked. “That could be cool.”
“Oh Mags-in-rags didn’t tell you diddly. You’re the guy in the iron suit. Dig the gear, but no hugs. I wouldn’t touch you without permission. That’s why I’m letting Evgenia be useful.”
“The angel thing?” Zarabeth asked.
Janice’s face contorted as if her ghost would leap from her body. Whatever she wanted she had a very great need for, but she was stuck behind Zarabeth’s whim.
Janice looked away and inspected her hands. “Not bad, Evgenia. Maybe I do want polish? Fuchsia, like in the Eighties. Were you even alive in the Eighties?”
Evgenia said nothing and stared at the floorboards.
“I’ll think about it.” Janice pressed a switch on the armrest. “Driver, pull over please? We just need a minute.” She sat up pertly. “Broadly speaking, there’s us and them. Angel things happen to them, more than we knew. It hasn’t happened to one of us since air-conditioning, certainly. Maybe since window glass. Scrolls say it leaves a residue. I’m here to barter. Protection for permission. I keep you safe, creepiness and disgust excepted. In return — in advance — I get a taste.”
“Define ‘taste,’” Zarabeth said.
“Less quantitative than experiential. Smell the rose not eat the manna. I think, it’s new to me.” She frowned. “Or I drop you off at the airport and you explain it to Her Mags-nificence.”
“What do you need to do?”
“Works best with a kiss.”
“Ha. At least no blood. Can I have a manicure afterwards?”
“Evgenia, you have a fan club. Pedicure too? Cunnilingus? She’s got a gifted tongue.”
“Just the manicure, thanks.” She felt nervous, like the day she’d installed the Polyglot. “Fine. I give you permission to taste me.”
Janice pressed the console button. “We can get going now, driver.” She grabbed Zarabeth’s head like a bowling ball. She tasted of peanuts and gin, her tongue buzzing.
Janice shot back as if electrocuted. “Oh my,” she said, shivering. “It’s –” She panted shallowly. Her eyes rolled up in her head. She fell back against the seat, shaking, her jaw slack.
Evgenia watched with concern, reached for Janice, drew back. She looked up at Zarabeth.
“No idea, sorry. You have lovely eyes,” Zarabeth said. “Shame she makes you look down all the time. I’ll have gin. Definitely nail polish. Do you have gold?”
After that, the only sounds were filing and the ice shifting in drinks. She grew carsick from polish fumes, opened the window and gulped down cool air. Janice had stopped shaking but she was well out.
Forty minutes after the kiss the limousine slowed abruptly, shifting Janice in her seat but not waking her. It drove uphill, stones and sand under the tires.
“AAAAH!” Janice bolted up. When she recognized the limousine she looked angry and ashamed, like a braggart child who chickened out of a dare. Zarabeth covered her grin.
Evgenia brought out a wood cigarette case with gold-tipped black paper cigarettes. She lit a thin silver tube with a blue hissing flame. Zarabeth drew back instinctively, Janice too.
“Turn it off,” Janice said. “Find some matches.”
“I have some,” Zarabeth said, taking them from her clutch purse. Her own cardboard pack of smokes looked crappy. “Can I have one of your cigarettes?”
Janice closed her eyes while Zarabeth lit Janice’s cigarette, then her own. Bitter thick smoke. She wondered if she would be sick again. Janice put the cigarette case in her jacket pocket. Evgenia busied herself with making a drink.
When she looked at Janice again, Janice was looking intently at her. She felt a sense of shared experience, shared secret. Shared weakness. The limousine air was now gray with smoke but it also seemed brighter, as if a sunroof had opened.
“Where are we?” Zarabeth asked.
“Private compound in the hills southwest of Vegas. Close to Lake Mead. By day he has a great view. Roberto Castillo, more commonly known as DJ Elusive. In the Nineties, he ran raves. Now he’s a pimp. Call-girl classifieds are his bread and butter. Tonight is his sweetbreads.” The limousine stopped. “Evgenia, the deck.”
From her bag Evgenia passed Janice a new tarot deck. On the backs, two interlocked snakes eating their tails to make infinity. Janice sliced the shrink-wrap with her nail, split the deck and shuffled it. Zarabeth drew a gaunt white woman, holding a crab with a pearl in each claw.
“Queen of Cups,” Zarabeth read. “That’s Brand Director?”
“Boots, you need a less unisex deck. Keep the card with you. A talisman is useful in any magical situation,” Janice said. “I’m not going to hold your hand tonight. Direct threats, I’ll deal with, but don’t get sloppy. You’ve earned the right to be taken seriously.”
“Magda might say you’re renegotiating.”
“She’s not here, is she? Let’s go.”
Zarabeth opened the door. Janice followed her out and closed it behind her.
“Evgenia’s not coming?” Zarabeth asked.
“It’s like a new car,” Janice said. “You want to keep it free of dings for a while.”