Chapter Forty-Two

Graves got Big Juan sitting up and propped him against a discarded, cushionless sofa some slob had dumped in the alley. Within minutes, the fat man was breathing better.

Graves paced while he interrogated, his bony feet crunching over dead leaves and bits of broken glass. Hannah and Charlie Lurp looked on.

“This world is what he wants,” Big Juan said, in answer to the walking skeleton’s most fundamental question. “Mictlantecuhtli. He’s obsessed with it. They all are, over there. In love with the flesh. You said ‘fetish’ an’ you were sorta kidding, but that’s really what it’s like. They envy every moment of our stupid little lives.”

“Daylight’s burnin,’” Graves said. “Cut to the part about the girls.”

“You mean Ingrid, don’t you? Ingrid Redstone, that singer shot you in the back of the head?”

“You’re a quick study, you are.”

“Way it got explained to me, she was gonna be Mictlantecuhtli’s Queen,” Big Juan said. “It was a deal they made: she was gonna give up her life so he could have one. Mictlantecuhtli needed someone with her kinda skills an’ her connection to the earth to break all the way through the wall between worlds an’ take over an incarnation. Guess that’d be where you come in.”

“Why me?” Graves asked.

Big Juan shrugged. “I dunno. Why not, I guess? But that Ingrid, she got cold feet. She couldn’t do it to you, even though it woulda ended with her becoming Queen of all Mictlan. She stopped you goin’ in to talk to Hardface the only way she thought she could.”

Graves was troubled by this interpretation. “What’d Hardface have to say about it?” he asked.

“I dunno about that either, man,” Big Juan said. “That was it for me, I planted you for Caradura an’ I was out. Stopped operating altogether. El Rey shut his place down afterwards, after you died, so I got a real job an’ had a different life. Learned to bake, opened a shop, sold cakes and donuts for near forty years.”

“Never even occurred to me you might still be alive,” Graves said.

“Well, me neither, tell you the truth, but I’m scheduled to hit the century mark next summer,” Juan said, nodding. “Willard Scott’s supposed to say happy birthday on the TV, an’ all that shit.”

“Runnin’ across you here was pure dumb luck,” Graves said, speaking less to Big Juan than chasing down his own train of thought. He looked to Hannah, and then to Charlie. “What’re the odds of something like this happening, d’you think? All of us being here at the right time and place?”

“I think it’s what Lia means when she talks about ‘synchronicity,’” Hannah said quietly. “The past and the present harmonizing. Maybe the future, too.”

“Yeah, that’s how these things like to work,” Big Juan confirmed. “Like maybe it couldnta happened any other way. You get used to it after you been operating for a while.”

Graves and Hannah and Charlie Lurp all looked back down at him.

“I do know one more thing,” Juan wheezed. “El Rey didn’t kill that Ingrid to bind her in Mictlan. He wanted that project to work, an’ I guess he still needed a witch.”

Hannah looked to Graves. “Like Lia,” she murmured.

“Must not’ve panned out for ’em, though,” Big Juan said.

“Why do you say?” Graves asked.

“Because the world’s still the world, amigo,” Big Juan replied. “I can’t imagine it would be if Mictlantecuhtli had got out into it.”

Graves nodded and extended a hand. He, Hannah and Charlie pitched in to haul Big Juan to his feet, Iwo Jima style. “All right,” Graves said, once the giant was upright again. “I’m calling us square. Go on livin’ out the rest of your different life, Big Juan.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Gracias. I was sorry about what happened to you, man. You coulda killed me that day, but you didn’t. I remember that. And I know you were only there to save that lady. I wouldnta chose to see it work out like it did.”

“Guess I appreciate that, for what it’s worth.” Graves nodded and looked to Charlie. “Charlie, you wouldn’t happen to have a car, wouldja?”

“Not no more, but I know where there’s one you can use.”

“Dexter?” Hannah said. “What are you gonna do?”

It seemed like it was becoming a standard refrain.

“I’m thinkin’ it’s time I paid this Hardface a visit,” Graves growled. “Look him square in the sockets and see what sort of personification he is.”

Graves and Hannah waited in the small staff parking lot behind the nursing home while Charlie Lurp and Big Juan San Martin shuffled around to the front of it. Juan needed to refresh his tiny oxygen tank. Charlie returned alone after less than ten minutes, slipping surreptitiously out a back door that banged shut anyhow when he turned to rest his weight on his walker. Graves and Hannah hurried over. Charlie thumped the hood of another fancy modern car (a Jaguar, this time) that was parked in a spot with a sign reading ‘RESERVED FOR DR. WALSH.’

“Doc locks hisself up in his office to look at that internet porn and sample the pharmaceuticals on most afternoons, but he leaves his keys in his jacket on the coat rack,” Charlie said, holding up a jingling ring on a leather tab embossed with the Jaguar logo. “So this ain’t gonna be missed for at least a couple of hours.”

“Ahh, thank you there, Charlie old pal,” Graves said, accepting the stolen keys from the wobbly old man. Back in the war, Charlie’d had a knack for acquiring whatever a guy might happen to need, from a bottle of whisky or an extra carton of cigarettes on up to a jeep or a box of grenades. Graves was glad to know he was still getting up to his old tricks. “If I get through this I’m comin’ back here,” he promised. “We’ll play a game of chess ourselves.”

“Just like that weird old movie,” Charlie grinned. “I’d like that, Dex, I really would.”

They shook hands, holding them clasped together for a long and meaningful moment. Charlie’s frail bones were almost as prominent as Graves’ own. Then they broke contact, and the skeleton got into the new car with Hannah.

Graves saluted his old (now elderly) friend and Hannah waved as he backed them out of Dr. Walsh’s parking spot and pulled onto the street, heading east down Ventura, in the direction of the Cahuenga Pass. Charlie Lurp shambled out to the sidewalk and watched them go, with his withered chest puffed up and pride shining in his eyes. Graves glanced up to see him receding in the rearview mirror.

It didn’t take them long to get over the hill and down into the streets of Hollywood, now that they had wheels. Even after sixty years Graves was able to find the old Silent Tower, the Office of the King, without too much circling around. Today it looked derelict: besmirched by graffiti, with many of its windows broken out and covered over with plywood. It had been in good repair and apparently a part of the regular world, the last time he saw it.

Now it looked like the world had passed it by.

Graves still didn’t know why Ingrid had chosen to involve him in any of this (him of all people, involved so deep that he’d crawled back out of his grave to play his part), but he figured he’d come to the one place in all the worlds where he might be able to pose that question and actually demand an answer.

He and Hannah got out of their stolen Jaguar. Graves held out the keys. “Here, take the unauthorized requisition back to where we got it before old Charlie gets in trouble, willya?”

“Forget it, Dexter,” Hannah said flatly.

“Miss Lia’ll kill me if I let anything happen to you,” Graves said, laying it out there with no further pretense.

“That Ingrid person apparently beat her to it, so what are you afraid of?”

Graves looked up at the old, ill-maintained building. “Last time I walked in there, I didn’t walk back out,” he said. “I’m not ready to see that happen to you.”

“Then we’ll make sure it doesn’t,” Hannah said. “But you can’t ask me to stand by when Lia’s in trouble and there might be something I can do. Isn’t that why we came here? To see if we can help without getting close to Ingrid? If you’re going in there, Dexter, then I am too.”

Her mind was made up and she would not be dissuaded. That much was abundantly clear.

Graves loved her for it.

“Mrs. Potter, for a lady, you’ve sure got some balls,” he said. “Brass ones, if that ain’t too crude.”

“Mr. Graves, it’s the sweetest of compliments, coming from you.”

Graves nodded and kicked the building’s front door open almost casually, the same as last time. Then he and Hannah strode on in together.

As they entered the broken-down lobby, through those old double-doors that still hung askew after Graves’ long-ago fight with Big Juan, the lights came on and the foyer restored itself to greet them.

Hannah seemed quietly awed by the special effects. Graves refused to be impressed.

A pristine elevator car descended into the gaping shaft and the bell dinged. They got in when the doors opened.

“This floor: notions, housewares, and self-repairing lightbulbs,” Graves said in a mocking, nasal voice. The elevator doors slid closed and the car started to rise. “Next floor,” he continued, “Aztec hell. And we’re up, up and away…”