Stylez of the Streetz
It was Darby Stein's first case on his own, and he was a little nervous. He had been nervous on the plane ride over, barely reading the newspaper he had brought along. It had an article about the recent violence in the Balkans, where Adam, his current bodyguard and partner, had gone on some doubtlessly bloody business. He was nervous when the plane touched down at LAX in the early morning, and he stammered when he gave the cab driver the address of his client.
"Compton?" the cabbie asked. "You sure, son? That's a bit of a rough neighborhood."
"I know, sir," Darby replied. "But that's my destination."
"Don't say I didn't warn you." The cabbie turned away from Darby, as he scrambled into the back. That was all he said to him, during the whole drive. Darby stared out the window at the packed freeways of Los Angeles, and the rising skyscrapers in the distance. Smog choked the sky in a dark curtain, and he could feel the city's heat over the cab's air conditioning.
They went southeast of the city, and entered Compton, perhaps too soon for Darby's liking. He leaned back in his seat, watching the cramped, one-story houses and occasional housing projects roll by. Many were in states of disrepair, and graffiti was sprayed across the walls and sidewalks. There was the occasional group of children playing outside or pedestrians moving quickly along the sidewalk. It was completely different from the pleasant New England suburbs of Wickfield, where Darby had grown up.
The car's tires screeched to a halt. Darby looked out a sprawling two-story house, like a mansion compared to the ones around it. The cabbie swiveled in his seat to stare at Darby with tired eyes. "I'll say it again, son," he said. "You don't look like the kind of person who hangs around a hood like this. Are you sure?"
Darby certainly didn't look like he fit in. He had pale skin, very dark hair, and big round spectacles. His dark suit and vest also marked him as an outsider. But he still offered a smile to the cab driver as he opened the door and stepped out on the cracked sidewalk. "I have a case here, sir. And I don't want to be late."
He walked down the sidewalk, up the driveway and to the porch. He knocked twice, the screen door rattling under his fist. He stepped back and folded his arm, waiting as he heard footsteps inside. The door opened with a whine. A broad-shouldered black man stared down at him, a bandanna shaping his dreadlocks. He wore a checkered shirt and baggy jeans. "Yeah?" he looked Darby up and down. "Who you supposed to be, man?"
"I'm Darby Stein, the occult detective you hired?" Darby asked, with a hopeful smile.
"Oh. A'ight, a'ight, come on in." He motioned for Darby to step inside, and closed the door after them. He stayed close to Darby, leading him through the maze of their house. "The name's Nine-Dog. This is my crib. Got me full entertainment system over there – recording studio in the back, and I got it set up so we can broadcast right what we record." He raised his voice. "Yo, Killa! The snoop we hired is here! Killa, get over here!"
They stopped in the living room, and Nine-Dog's friend came to meet them. He was shorter and scrawnier, with a completely shaved head and a wild look in his eyes. Darby saw a pistol handle poking out of his shorts. He pulled himself over the couch and sat down. Behind him was a large picture, showing MC Killa, Nine-Dog, and another rapper named Holla Point sitting at a street corner, the name of their band – or was it group for rappers? – scrawled above them in faux-graffiti. They were the Street Dogz, one of the most popular gangsta rap crews on the West Coast.
"He don't look like no wizard. Ain't got no pointy hat or nothing," MC Killa said. "Just looks like a dressed-up, nervous white boy."
That was exactly what Darby felt like. But he still smiled. "Well, my father has explained to me the value of formal dress, and of ensuring that our clients see us as someone they can trust, not a raving lunatic or a con artist out to steal their money, which you might think if I wore any stranger clothes."
MC Killa nodded slowly. "I can see that," he agreed. "But it makes you stand out a little in this neighborhood. Course, I don't think the folks who killed Holla Point were from Compton, so maybe that helps you." He looked down at the coffee table, which was covered in manila folders. "You want to take a look at those, Darby? Got all the info about his murder, for your viewing pleasure."
"Thank you." Darby picked up the folders and started flipping through crime scene photos. He grimaced at what had happened to Holla Point. "Oh God," he whispered. "And the police think he was killed by gang violence? With all these bite marks? And the cuts?" He examined the cuts closer. "Looks like a large knife did them. A machete, maybe."
"Hey, Five-Oh's worthless around here," Nine-Dog pointed out. "They figure it was gang stuff from back in the day, but that don't make no sense. Gangstas want to ice a brother, they don't go biting him or cutting him up like that. And Holla Point had himself some strange friends lately. They interested in Voodoo, Hoodoo, all that magic crap."
Darby nodded. "Perhaps zombies could have made the kill," he mused.
"Zombies? For real?" Nine-Dog shook his head. "Hell, that makes as much sense as anything else, with the weird types Point was running with. Never let us meet them, but we know they was no good. And you think they sent zombies to munch on him? Damn."
"Perhaps he got into some sort of argument with his acquaintances." Darby closed the folder and set it back on the table. "I'll be happy to look into it."
"You do that," MC Killa agreed. "And you get this thing solved. We're gonna be broadcasting the new single from our next album, Stylez of the Streetz, at midnight tonight, and we want to be ready. Want to have it in Point's honor, and it don't make sense that his murderer will be running around free." He lowered his eyes. "We came up with Holla Point, you know? In this town, ain't no surprise when a guy gets smoked. But they don't go like this."
Darby held out his hand, and MC Killa shook it. "I will find out who killed your friend, Mr. Killa. You have my word on it." He stood up and put his hands in his pocket. "Could you please direct me to the nearest bus stop? I believe I have someone to see."
"You don't got no ride of your own?" Nine-Dog asked.
"My father never really trusted them," Darby explained. "And I think a bus might be better than risking those freeways."
"Heh. I hear that." Nine-Dog led Darby to the door. "It's just down the block, and then left a ways. Hey, Darby, you need any help, you just give us a call, and we come running. Street Dogz look after their own."
"Thank you." Darby shook Nine-Dog's hand. "I already know who to go to for more advice, a general lay of the arcane land in this area."
"Oh yeah?" Nine-Dog asked. "Who's that?"
"An old family friend," Darby explained. He didn't say how old. Nine-Dog wouldn't have believed him.
The bus ride was long and uncomfortable, but it got Darby out of Compton. He made a few transfers, and eventually ended up in Beverly Hills. From there, it wasn't too hard to walk to Rodeo Drive. The heat was getting to him, and he had shed his coat by the time he reached Rodeo Drive. Sweat dripped down his forehead and soaked his collar, but Darby still held his head high. He walked past the trendy restaurants and boutiques under the shade of stately palm trees, and finally found the object of his journey – a nightclub called the Ogygia. It was closed for the day, but Darby knew that its owner would see him.
"Named for the island where Odysseus lay in the thralls of Calypso," Darby muttered to himself, as he knocked on the door. "The Comte always did have a flair for the dramatic." The door opened, a bulky, blocky bouncer glared at him. "Hello," Darby said, with a ready smile. "I'd like to speak to Mr. St. Germain."
The bouncer said nothing, and stepped back into the room. Darby realized that the bouncer was a golem, the clay hidden with flesh-colored paint, but he could still hear the rumble as the creature moved, like an avalanche of gravel. The bouncer led him into the center of the trendy nightclub. The chairs were stacked on the tables and the floor was empty, with no one behind the bar. Everything in the Ogygia Club looked carved out of obsidian. The floor and the bar gleamed a little in the low light.
A door in the back opened, and the Comte de St. Germain himself stepped out. He shielded his eyes from the glare coming through the open door, until the golem bouncer closed it. Then he recognized Darby. "Oh, the little Stein," he called, hurrying over to the bar, and motioning Darby to join him. "Always a pleasure. It is always good to see someone from your illustrious family."
The Comte de St. Germain wore a silken suit with an open collar. His hair was completely white, though his face had few lines. He looked like he could be twenty-three or in his fifties. The truth was far more incredible. St. Germain had been around for centuries, ever since he surfaced in Pre-Revolutionary France, and his enigmatic nature had only grown with his age.
He reached behind him, grabbing some bottles and a pair of martini glasses. "Come and sit with me, Darby. It is good to see you. The last time must have been when you were perhaps eight or nine years-old? At a family gathering of some sort?"
"I think so, sir." Darby walked over to the bar. He watched as St. Germain poured him a glass. "I'm not sure if I should be drinking on the job, Mr. St. Germain."
"Just share a glass with me. It won't kill you. It certainly hasn't killed me." St. Germain held up his own glass and had a sip. "Ah. That's from my own private collection. 1734 – a good year." He paused. "Now, I know you did not come here to sip from my finest vintage. You are on a case. Your first case alone, I think."
"My father believes that I am ready," Darby agreed.
"Your father is a wise man," St. Germain replied. "But what do you think?"
Darby looked at the red wine in the martini glass. He gave it a sniff and had a sip, then coughed a little as he swallowed. "I'm not sure. I've had Adam with me in the past, in case there's something dangerous. I'm not willing to take a life, you see – not that I'd be much good at fighting in the first place." He paused. "And I know I could call my father for advice, but I'd rather not do that. I want to be ready, to be independent. I don't want to have to rely on them, not any more. Do you understand?"
"More than you know," St. Germain replied. "So you come to me for help?"
"Just information. What do you know about the arcane underworld of Los Angeles? Particularly any practitioners associated with Voodoo? Are there any major houngans or bokors in town?"
St. Germain considered the question. "Actually, I have heard rumors that there is an old enemy of your father's, currently hiding in this city. Perhaps in Burbank, perhaps in Watts. There are only rumors as to his location. But his very presence has the city abuzz." He leaned forward. "I speak of Papi Soto."
"Oh." Darby gulped. Papi Soto had tried to become the dictator of the Latin American nation of Rocinante. He'd embraced the theatrical side of Voodoo to inspire terror in his enemies and soldiers, dressing like Baron Samedi and indulging in cruelty to bolster his image. In the 1950s, his attempted coup of Rocinante had failed, thanks to Darby's father, and a hardboiled detective named Morton Candle. Soto had popped up again to menace them – and now he was here. "Well, I think that gives me a solid lead."
"He's involved in your case?"
"The popular gangsta rapper Holla Point was murdered by zombies. Certainly sounds like Soto's M.O." Darby set down the wine glass, only half-empty. The only question is, why? What was Soto's connection to Holla Point? I think more research is needed." He stood up from the bar and smiled at St. Germain. "Thank you, sir. For all of your help."
"It's no trouble, young Darby," St. Germain replied. "Come again. Any time."
The golem held the door for him as Darby walked out of the Ogygia Club. He waved goodbye to St. Germain and then stepped, blinking into the sun. The golem closed the door behind him, and Darby walked down the sidewalk, deep in thought. What was Holla Point doing with Papi Soto? And what the Hell was Soto doing in LA – and the United States - at all? He must be on a thousand federal watch lists, after the stuff he had pulled in the 60s and 70s. Soto considered himself part third-world freedom fighter, and part Voodoo messiah, and was never shy about bringing on troubles of apocalyptic proportions.
Deep in thought, Darby didn't hear the boots clicking on the sidewalk behind him. When a thin, strong hand fastened on his shoulder, he let out a panicked gurgle and spun around, then came to a stop. A young woman, around his age, stood in front of him. She crossed her arms. "Darby Stein," she said. "Boy, do you scare easy or what?"
"S-Susan!" Darby stammered. "Hello." He smiled nervously, feeling like an idiot. Special Agent Susan Keefe had short, nut brown hair. She wore a neat suit and jacket, both midnight black, badge and pistol obvious on her belt. She had a pleasant, round face, sunglasses framing her eyes. Susan Keefe was an FBI Agent, and one of Darby's first and only professional friends. "I, um, didn't quite see you there."
"I have," Susan replied. "Saw you taking the bus too. I followed you here, actually. You, my friend, are on the Bureau's persons of interest list, particularly after what happened in Texas with the Seraph Temple cult." She stepped next to him, and they walked together down the wide lane. "And after that little fiasco, the Bureau decided that they wanted me out of the way, so they gave me a crap detail and sent me to the local office in LA. Soon as I saw you enter the Street Dogz' Compton digs, I figured the case might finally be getting interesting."
"That was a lot of fun." Darby caught himself and shook his head. "Well, not investigating the Seraph Temple. That was terrible. I mean, meeting you. I enjoyed that, a lot."
His bashfulness made her pause. Susan smiled. "Yeah," she said. "It was nice to meet you too."
"Um, why is the FBI investigating the Street Dogz?" Darby asked. "They're just a band. Or a musical group. A rap crew."
"Have you actually listened to their music, Darby?" Susan sighed. "Don't answer that. I bet the most modern music you listen to are records of opera. Well, take my word for it, but their music has been just a teeny bit controversial. Their first hit was 'Kill all Cops.' After that was 'Shank the President.' Get the picture?"
"But they're, um, they're just musicians," Darby said. "It seems kind of silly to worry about that."
"Silly? That ought to be in our motto, right after Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity." Susan stopped and turned to Darby. "The Bureau opened a file on them, though everyone knew that it's kind of a joke. And guess what unlucky Fed got assigned to watch them?"
"You?" Darby asked, unhelpfully.
"Bingo. So I've been watching them for a while, and then I saw you pull up and I figured something interesting might be happening. You're investigating the murder of Holla Point, I bet. Any leads? I don't buy that bull about gang violence that the LAPD is putting out."
"Yes, actually." Darby had no problem sharing with Susan. He knew he could trust her, and he wished their relationship was deeper than that. "I've discovered, through my contacts in town, that Papi Soto is currently in Los Angeles. I think he may have been involved in Mr. Point's murder." He smiled a little. "Susan, I mean, um, Miss Keefe, would you like to help me investigate Papi Soto?"
Susan smiled. "You ever asked a girl on a date before, Darby? Like in High School or anything?"
"Not really," Darby replied. "I was kind of, well, shy, in High School."
"You don't say." Susan shrugged. "Sure, I'll work with you on this. But where's the man-mountain who normally follows you around?"
"Adam? He's in the Balkans, at the moment. I think I can handle this on my own." Darby straightened his vest and tie, and tried to bring himself to his full height. Susan was still a little taller than him. "Though it is my first case alone. And I do think I can handle it, without needing help from Adam. Or my father."
Before Susan could answer, they heard tires squealing on the pavement. Darby and Susan turned around to see an unmarked white van speeding towards him, rolling swiftly down the open lanes. It came to a screeching stop before them, and the door swung open. Four men were inside the van, all wearing ski-masks and armed with machine pistols.
One leaned forward, grabbed Darby's shoulder with a gloved hand. He pressed the muzzle of his machine pistol against Darby's forehead. "Oh." Darby felt every bit of sweat on his neck and face, inching down. He raised his hands, and they hauled him into the van. He turned to see they had done to Susan, one grabbing her automatic pistol and pulling it away.
"You don't need help?" Susan asked, as they van's door slammed shut. "You sure on that, man?"
"I t-think so," Darby said. The van's motor roared and hit the street again. They sat between the silent men in ski-masks, covered by each of the machine pistols. "How come you let them relieve you of your pistol?"
"They had a gun to your head, Darby. I didn't want you in danger."
Her answer made Darby smile a little, despite himself. "Thank you," he said quietly.
"Any time." Susan leaned back. She looked at the masked men. "I'm a G-Man," she said. "G-Woman, I guess. Anyway, I'm a Fed, and my SAC knows exactly where I am. You hurt me, or Darby, and we'll find out about it. I don't know if you know this, but the FBI doesn't take kindly to people killing its agents. I suggest you let us go before you find that out."
None of the masked men said anything. Darby looked at their black leather coats and masks, and then sniffed. "Susan, I mean, Miss Keefe?" he asked. "Do you notice anything odd about their smell?"
"Just call me Susan, Darby. It ain't the Victorian Era any more, if you hadn't noticed." She covered her nose. "You are right, though. These guys are rank."
"And silent." Darby stared at their captors. "I think they're zombies."
Susan didn't have anything to say to that. They remained quiet as the van sped down the street. The windows were tinted, so they had no idea where they were going.
Eventually, the van stopped. The zombies moved, rolling open the door and motioning for Susan and Darby to get out. They stepped onto the pavement, hands raised. Darby looked around. They were inside an empty warehouse, with a wide cement floor. Sunlight filtered in through cracked windows in the corrugated iron walls, but the place was still filled with shadow.
A few tables had been set up, loaded with various weapons, including assault rifles, pistols and machetes. There were piles of magical ingredients, ranging from bones taken from dozens of species, and tiny bags of gris-gris, bound with human hair. Darby stayed close to Susan, staring around the shadowy corners of the warehouse. Their zombie kidnappers lolled around the van, as silent as ever.
"You must forgive my rudeness." The voice came from the shadowed corner of the warehouse. Darby and Susan watched as someone stepped from the corner, like he had been spat out by the darkness itself. It was Papi Soto, emerging from stories from Darby's childhood like a nightmare come to life. He was tall and gaunt, sunglasses hiding his eyes. He wore a tall top hat and a dark suit, a gold chain gleaming on his collar. He carried a cane, topped with a monkey's skull, and pointed at Darby and Susan. "Perhaps I should have extended an invitation."
"You just invited yourself to a long stay in a prison cell, pal," Susan replied. "Kidnapping a Federal Agent and an American citizen won't exactly be looked on as kindly by the jury, not to mention all the other nasty stuff you've been up to during the Cold War."
"Nasty stuff?" There were lines around Soto's face, the only sign of his age. "Perhaps. But they were necessary. Look at the world, my dear. Look at your country and all the unfortunate nations that have experienced your foreign policy. Look at this city and see the inequality. Look at the poor in Watts, Compton, East LA – too many places to count. They are surrounded by poverty, drugs and crime. They are dead, from the moment they are born."
"So what are you gonna do about it?" Darby asked.
Soto smiled. "I will bring happiness."
"By turning everyone into a zombie?" Darby stepped forward, looking over Soto. "I'm not sure I follow you."
"And neither did Holla Point. You already know of his unfortunate fate. If you do not wish to share it, I suggest you leave Los Angeles, and forget this case."
"Trying to frighten me?" Darby asked. "That's not how you dealt with my father and Mr. Candle in the past."
"I am an old man. I have an old man's weaknesses." Soto extended his hands, like he wanted to embrace Darby. "I offer Los Angeles's poorest citizens a way to escape the terror of their daily lives. I will remove their minds, and make them live under my benevolent rule. I once desired to crush my enemies, and destroy all who stood against me. Now I offer everyone a better life. Do you see how I have changed?"
Slowly, Susan took a step closer to the table, laden with weapons. "Yeah," she said. "And you're going senile too." Darby's eyed flashed to the zombie guards in the corner. They stood motionless, the weapons at their side. "Exhibit A – leaving all these weapons, right where I can get them."
She grabbed a machine pistol, swung it at Papi Soto and pulled the trigger. It clicked empty.
The zombies raised their own weapons. Soto's smile grew. "I do not keep them loaded, you foolish woman. You will die now, as an example to Darby Stein."
As his zombies prepared to fire, Darby kicked over one of the tables. Weapons and magical supplies tumbled to the ground. Darby darted behind the table, and Susan ducked as well, as bullets rained around them. Susan reached out, her hands digging through the fallen cache of guns, spread across the floor.
"Come on, come on, come on," she muttered, and then her had settled on a clip. "Yes. Uzi. Nice." She slammed the clip in, then grabbed Darby's shoulder. "Let's move, Darby."
She came up firing, blasting down the zombies with an endless stream of lead, even as she ran for the exit. Darby stayed with her, watching in awe as Susan gunned down everything in front of her. She fired in long bursts, her shots tearing apart the masked zombies and spilling their pieces onto the cement floor. Darby held his nose for the stench, as rotting flesh was blown to bits and sprayed everywhere.
They reached the door to the warehouse and Susan kicked it open. "Run, if you want to!" Soto called from behind them. "It will not matter! Soon this entire city will be mine!"
"Whatever." Susan still held Darby's shoulder. She got him outside and slammed the door. They ran together to the street, and hurried along the sidewalk. Susan looked around, noting a street sign. "Looks like we're in Watts," she said, looking over her shoulder. "We ought to put some ground between us and here. The zombies will want us back."
"Um, yeah," Darby agreed. He stared at Susan. He had seen her in action before, in Texas, but it still impressed him. "You were amazing, back there," he said. "Really amazing."
"Compared to a couple of zombies. But it was sloppy, and we'd both be toast if you didn't knock over her table." She pointed down the street. "Hold on. There's a black-and-white. Looks like we're in luck." Just as she said, a police car was motoring slowly down the open, sun-blasted sidewalk. She waved the machine pistol in the air, and the car sped in their direction.
It came to a stop and the uniformed officer opened the door. Susan produced her badge. "I'm Special Agent Susan Keefe, with the FBI. This is Darby Stein, my associate." She looked at his nametag. "Officer Sarmon, we need to get out of here."
Darby smiled, a warm feeling creeping down his spine. "Associate," he whispered to himself.
Officer Sarmon nodded. "Hop in, Special Agent. My friends call me Dwight. I hope you do the same." He had a bit of a paunch, and a thick toothbrush of a moustache. "You in any trouble?"
They both turned around. No zombies were following them. "Don't think so," Susan said. She hopped into the back, and Darby sat with her. Sarmon started up his car and sped down the street. He turned on the avenue. "Drop us anywhere in Compton, if you don't mind." Susan checked her watch. "I know this isn't a taxi service, but we'd really appreciate it."
"Hey, anything for a Special Agent," Sarmon replied. "May I asks what brings you to scenic Compton, Special Agent Keefe? Cracking down on the drug trade perhaps?"
"I wish." Susan slid the machine pistol into her coat, the handle poking out. Darby couldn't believe how calm she was. "I'm watching a bunch of gangsta rapping homeboys, if you can believe it."
"The Street Dogs," Darby explained. "Or Street Dogz, rather."
Sarmon shook his head. "Christ. I hope you lock all those damn black punks. Idiots just play their jungle music and cause trouble. I heard one of them got himself killed. Good riddance, I say. Just two more to go."
"I'm actually investigating his death, sir," Darby explained. "I'm a private detective." That was from another lesson of his father. Saying he was a private detective – and not mentioning that he dealt in occult cases – avoided a lot of unnecessary questions.
"Oh yeah? I'll give you a tip, kid – stop looking. Dollars to doughnuts, it was some welfare-hogging, unemployed wannabe gangstas who killed that rapper. Probably got in an argument over friend chicken or something." Sarmon chuckled at his own joke as he slowed the car. He neared the curb. "Here we are. Border of Compton."
"There's really no need for racist language, sir," Darby said, as Susan got the door. "That's a very nasty attitude, particularly for an officer of the law and—" Susan grabbed his arm and hauled him out.
"Thanks for the ride, Dwight," she said, and slammed the door.
"No problem." Officer Sarmon waved to them. "Any time." He hit the gas and sped back into the street.
Susan looked back at Darby and shook his head. "Your father taught you to pick a fight any time someone drops a racial slur?"
"He taught me to fight bigotry and injustice, wherever I could find it," Darby replied. "He saw the effects of those very well, you know, in the Europe of the 1930s."
"Oh." Susan sighed. "I'm sorry, Darby. You're trying to do the right thing. That's what I like about you, you know – you're a good guy, and always try do what's right." She jabbed a thumb behind her, pointing to a strip mall, with a few restaurants and drive-ins looking out at the street. "You know, I could really go for a burger now. Care to join me?"
"Like a date?" Darby asked.
"Like a date," Susan agreed. She put her hand on Darby's shoulder. Her grip was light, and helped guide Darby over to the nearest restaurant.
It was a Fatburger, a restaurant that Darby had never visited before. His father refused to eat at a fast food places in Wickfield, and he had mostly followed his tradition. Now, he was looking at a burger bigger than his fist, and wondering what he had been missing. Susan sat next to him, and dug in, splattering ketchup over her lips and chin, and wiping it away with a napkin. "Good stuff," she said. "Perfect stake-out food."
"Y-yes. It's great." Darby tried to think of something to say while he chewed on his food. He was painfully aware of each stain on his chin, and reached for the napkins. He had a sip of soda to wash it down. He felt redness, creeping into his cheeks.
"Christ," Susan said. "You really haven't been on a date before?"
"Not really," Darby replied. "Have you?"
"A few times. And I've done more than that too." She shook her head. "I can't believe it. How can a guy who's so smart about magic and monsters and all that other crap be so clueless when it comes to dealing with people?"
"Clueless?" Darby asked. Was she insulting him? He couldn't really tell.
"It doesn't matter." Susan shook her head. "Do you have any idea what Soto's plan is? He wants to take over the whole city it seems."
"Yeah, but I'm not sure how." Darby paused for another chomp of his burger. "It will involve zombies, I'm sure. I think he wanted to turn everyone in LA, or maybe just in the poor areas, to zombies. But I'm not quite sure how. The enchantments can come from a variety of sources. Charms, and certain herbs. Drugs, created from the flesh of the blowfish. Or enchantments, that are read aloud, and cloud the mind. Soto could have any of that planned."
Susan sprayed ketchup on her fries. "We'll get to the bottom of it and stop him," she said.
"Together?" Darby asked. He didn't realize how pleading his voice sounded, until he spoke.
"Of course." Susan reached out and patted his hand. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
A car's thumping stereo drowned out her words. Susan and Darby turned to see a bulky van rolling their way, bouncing over the sidewalk and sliding to a halt in the parking lot. The door slammed open, and the pulsing rap music abruptly ended. Nine-Dog and MC Killa hopped out, both wielding pistols. They hurried to Darby's side.
"Yo, Darby!" Nine-Dog called. "We got trouble! A bunch of goddamn zombies just hit our place! They stole our single!"
MC Killa turned to Susan and raised his pistol. "Hold up," he called. "This is that Fed slut been spying on us! What the Hell you doing with her, Darby?"
Susan responded by swinging her machine pistol to cover MC Killa and Nine-Dog. "You boys got permits for those 'gats' you're 'packing'?" she asked. "And now you're brandishing them at a federal agent. This ain't one of your songs, boys. You're not gonna be able to waste a cop and get back to your crib to party with your homies, you know."
"Got all the party I need right here, pig," Nine-Dog replied. "You best believe we'll put you down in a second."
"No!" Darby came to his feet. He held up his hands. "Mr. Killa, Mr. Dog, please. Miss Keefe is a personal friend of mine. She was watching you for the FBI, but that's over now that a real threat has arisen. And there's no need to threaten her with violence." He looked back to Susan. Now he really was pleading. "Please, Susan. Lower the weapon. We have to work together, to save the city."
That was all it took. "I'll trust you on this, Darby," she replied, tucking the machine pistol into her coat. "Don't make me regret it."
"Y-you won't, Susan." Darby pointed to the van. "You said the zombies have stolen your single? The tape you mean, with your new song on it? Where are they headed?"
"Freeway, I'll bet. We was just going after them, trying to head them off, when we came across y'all sitting here. Figured we could pick you up and keep going." MC Killa hurried back to the van, tucking away his pistol. "We better hurry."
Without wasting another word, they ran to the van and got inside. Nine-Dog drove, and swung the heavy van back into the road. The blasting rap music returned, loud enough to make Darby cover his ears. They rolled into the street, burning rubber as Nine-Dog drove faster and faster. Darby leaned back on the plush, white leather interior, and stared out the window. He spotted the white van that had abducted him and Susan earlier.
"There!" he cried, pointing at the white van. It swung onto the freeway entrance, cutting off a few other cars in a chorus of honking.
Nine-Dog spun the wheel, zooming after the zombies' van. "Going on the freeway? At this time of day?" He asked. "Man, these be some dumbass zombies." He roared into the freeway entrance, keeping the white van in sight.
Just as he said, the freeway was packed. The van slid to the edge of the road, other cars peeling away to avoid getting rear-ended. More honks and angry calls followed. They got closer, and MC Killa leaned out the window, a Kalashnikov in his hand. He started shooting, firing a blast at the back of the van. The gunshots blared out even the loud rap music and the honks. Darby wanted to cover his ears, but he forced himself to ignore the cacophony. They were drawing closer.
MC Killa kept shooting, shattering the rear window of the white van. He fired until the clip went empty and he had sprayed the back of the van with bullet holes. The zombies leaned out of the windows of the van and returned fire. Bullets pinged across the hood. Metal whined and shrieked like a wounded animal. Darby gritted his teeth and held onto his seatbelt.
"You retarded gangster prick," Susan muttered, drawing her own machine pistol. "That's not how you take out a car."
She kicked open the door of the car, and fired the machine pistol one-handed. The rear tires of the van exploded, and the vehicle careened madly to the side. It spun to the side, mashing into the wall of the freeway. Other cars sped away, a few narrowly missing each other and raising sparks. The van finally came to a shrieking halt, smoke the burst tires still spinning.
"Damn…" Nine-Dog muttered. He slowed their, and finally came to a stop before the overturned zombie vehicle.
"I need another gun." Susan tossed down the machine pistol. "What you got?"
Quickly, MC Killa handed her a stubby pump action shotgun. Susan racked it. "This'll do," she said, and hopped out. Darby, MC Killa and Nine-Dog followed her. They stepped over the open pavement, moving to the motionless van. Darby put his hands in his coat, reaching into the numerous hidden pockets.
A zombie reared out of the car, submachine gun in hand. Susan blasted apart its skull, shredding bone and spraying brains onto the street. She racked the shotgun as another zombie leapt from the car, but this one didn't bother raising a gun. It tackled Susan, knocking her to the ground. It leaned forward, its jaws open. Its rotten tongue hung down, swinging pendulously as the hungry zombie's mouth drew closer.
"Guys!" Susan cried. "A little help!" MC Killa and Nine-Dog raised their pistols, but the zombie was too close. Darby knew they couldn't get a shot. It was up to him.
He pulled out a small spike, narrow as a needle and short as his fingernail. He darted forward, pulling back his hand as he held tightly to the spike. "Okay," he said. "And….there." He jabbed forward, driving the spine into the nape of the zombie's neck. It sunk deeply into the sickly green skin. Darby pulled his hand back and waited. The zombie's mouth went a little lower, and then slumped over Susan, completely motionless.
Susan pushed aside the zombie. Darby offered her his hand and she took it. "Wow," she said. "Darby, you always find a way to surprise me. What was that?"
"Spike of a pufferfish. The spell to animate the zombie, or at least the one that Papi Soto is using for these individuals, requires the venom of the pufferfish to succeed. The spike actually has no venom, but the very essence of it is enough. It overloads the zombie, and makes it so slow that it is motionless. A corpse, once again."
They looked down at the motionless zombie. Susan grabbed her fallen shotgun and blew apart its head. "Just in case," she said, as the gunshot echoed down the street.
Nine-Dog clambered out of the fallen van. "Got it!" he cried, holding up a tape. "We got the single! Stylez of the Streetz is on for tonight, yo! It's gonna be tight, I promise you that!"
"Well, remind me not to tune in," Susan muttered. She shielded her eyes in the sun, as sirens came whining their way. "It'll be hard explaining this," she said, as a single police car pulled up. Then she smiled. "Oh, looks like it's our old friend, Officer Sarmon."
Sarmon stepped out of the car and looked at the mess. He pointed to MC Killa and Nine-Dog, his hand dropping to his baton as he licked his lips, slowly and hungrily. "Oh yeah," he said. "I've been waiting for this. Just try resisting arrest. Just try it."
Darby stepped in front of Officer Sarmon. He raised his hands. He'd have to think quickly. His father had taught him that their line of work often put them into positions that looked very suspicious. An integral skill for occult detectives was how to get out of them. "Officer, this may appear to be a violent automotive gun battle, but I assure you, that is not the case. And Mr. Killa and Mr. Dog are not to be blamed."
"That's right!" Nine-Dog called. "Just taking back what's ours."
"And you'll find that the bodies lying there on the highway were dead long before they were destroyed," Darby explained. He paused. "Perhaps I could go with you, and offer an entire explanation. I think there's going to be more trouble, you understand, and it might be best if the LAPD is prepared."
"More trouble. You don't say." Sarmon sighed. "All right, Mr. Stein, come with me. I'll take you somewhere so we can discuss everything." He looked up at MC Killa, Nine-Dog, and Susan. "No chance of anyone else coming along?"
"I better stay with the Street Dogz," Susan replied. She cocked her head. "You know, Officer Sarmon, I think I've seen you before somewhere."
"Guess I just got one of those faces." Sarmon opened the door to his car. "Come on, Mr. Stein. Let's roll." He held open the door while Darby got in.
As Sarmon closed the door, Darby leaned out and waved to Susan. She waved back. Sarmon hopped in and started the engine. He turned his car around, and drove away from the wreck. "Clean-up crew should be arriving in a bit," Sarmon said. "But we've got to have a talk, Mr. Stein. And I know just the place."
Darby looked out the window of the car, staring at the sky. He hadn't realized how long he'd been awake. The plane ride, the long time on the bus, his kidnapping and escape, and the recent car chase seemed to pass so quickly, and now it was over and the sky was growing dark. He couldn't see the stars, so it just seemed like day's shadows were creeping up into the sky. He leaned back in his seat and pulled on his coat. He hoped the drive wouldn't take long.
Officer Sarmon nudged him awake. Darby stirred and yawned, then stared out of the windshield at a face that belonged in his nightmare. It was a grotesque, grinning raccoon, towering over the car and leaning down, its face pitted with age and its paint fading to a corpse-like whiteness. Darby stammered and slipped back into the seat, then realized it was only a statue. He leaned back and breathed.
"Did Ricky Raccoon scare you?" Sarmon opened the door of his car and helped Darby out. He pointed to the place around them. They were on an empty lane, with more leering statues of forest critters, around a couple of abandoned stands. A rusty roller coaster stood in the background, nearly collapsed. "He can't hurt you. He's just a cartoon."
"Ricky Raccoon?" Darby looked around, and remembered another one of his father's cases. "Oh. This must be Wonder World. It was supposed to be a great theme park, but there was a horrible scandal involved and they just left it to rot. My father was involved in that, you know."
"Really." Sarmon shrugged. "I come here to think sometimes. It's quiet and empty. And I kind of like the décor." He walked over to the raccoon sculpture and patted it. The sculpture wobbled back and forth. "That's where I met him, actually."
"The man's who gonna fix this city."
Soon as he said that, Darby felt a sickening cold feeling grip his stomach. Something moved through the abandoned stalls, slipping past the ruined signs and crumbling statues. He smelled rot on the air. "Officer Sarmon, you're making a terrible mistake. You don't know what Papi Soto is capable of. His plan for the city—"
"Is one based on control. And that's something I can get behind." Sarmon smiled as a dozen zombies came out of the ruined stands, all armed with pistols and long machetes. "Sorry, kid. It ain't your fault that those punk blacks hired you as a detective. But you're too good to be left around, and Soto was very clear that you shouldn't get out of this alive. And for what he's doing to Compton? I'm happy to oblige him."
The zombies came forward. One of them neared Darby and raised a machete. He swung at Darby, the blade humming as it cut through the air. Darby's father had warned him it might be like this. Arcane wisdom had its place, but staying fit and knowing a little self-defense was another important part of the job. Darby ducked the swinging blade, and rammed his elbow into the zombie's forehead, screwing with the corpse's balance.
But another zombie grabbed Darby from behind, grabbing his shoulders and slamming him down. Darby's feet seemed to disappear. He sank down, hitting the pavement. When he looked up, a dozen machetes blades gleamed above him.
"Darby!" Susan's voice sounded far away. "Get down!"
A rumble of gunfire echoed through the abandoned amusement park. Darby ducked down, covering his head with his arms. The heads of the zombies shattered, blown to pieces by bursts of accurate rifle fire. Darby risked a look up and saw Susan, standing in front of the Street Dogz' van, a lethal rifle blazing away in her hands.
Officer Sarmon ducked down behind his car, going for his sidearm. "Kill her, you worthless dead mooks!" he cried. "Make her as dead as you are!"
"Don't count on it." Susan rolled behind one of the statues, as the zombies returned fire. Bullets gouged through the smiling face of Ricky Raccoon, sending chips of plaster to the ground in a gray waterfall. Soon as their shooting stopped, she struck. Susan rolled out from behind the statue, a grenade flying from her hand. It landed in the center of the zombies.
Darby covered his ears and turned away from the explosion. The ground rocked under his feet, as blasted pieces of dead bodies arced through the air. A severed hand landed at his feet. He kicked it away, and looked back to Susan. She stood before the statue, assault rifle in hand. The zombies were finished, a black, bloody mark where they had just stood.
"Thanks," Darby said, wiping brains out of his hair.
"No problem." Susan walked over to Sarmon. He struggled to raise his pistol, until Susan delivered a quick kick to his gut, knocking him back against his car. He dropped the gun, and she slammed the assault rifle against his nose. "I had this ordinance delivered to my stake-out apartment, across the street from the Street Dogz' pad. Didn't ever think I'd get a chance to use it." She sneered at Officer Sarmon. "Then I remembered where I saw you before – investigated for corruption, at least a dozen times. I knew you couldn't be trusted. That's why you were driving around Watts when we first found you – you were working for Soto."
"FBI whore!" Sarmon hissed.
"There's no need for your vulgar insults!" Darby's rage surprised him. He came to his feet and walked over to the car. "Now, what is Soto planning? How is he intending to turn all of LA's poor into zombies?"
Sarmon glared at them. "I ain't telling you nothing."
"Come on, Sarmon." Susan nudged the muzzle of her rifle into his mouth, between his teeth. "You've interrogated enough suspects to know all the tricks – and how effective they are. So how about you save us all a little trouble, and start talking." She pulled away the gun.
"The music," Sarmon gasped. "It's the music."
Darby and Susan exchanged a look. "The tape that the zombies stole?" Susan asked. "But the Street Dogz got it back before it reached Soto. They're gonna play it tonight, for their midnight premier of the Style of the Street single or whatever."
"No." Darby turned away and paced around the pavement, not noticing how his feet stepped in a puddle of spilled brains. "No, that was part of his plan. That's why the zombies drove onto a crowded freeway—they wanted to be caught. They wanted to give the tap back – because it's always been enchanted." He spun around, running back to Susan's side. "That's his plan! All it would take would be some of the zombie's essence merged with the tape, and he could make them do it while they had it in their van. It wouldn't take long. And now MC Killa and Nine-Dog are gonna play it and—"
"And hypnotize everybody and listens in. Not the whole city, but a good portion of it, I suppose. And the ones who are infected can make it a whole lot more difficult for everyone else." Susan shook her head. "And I guess Holla Point found out."
"Yeah," Sarmon replied. "He was part of the scheme from the beginning, but he backed out once he found out what Soto had planned. So I found his house and watched while Papi Soto sent in the zombies. He's finished – just like this whole stinking part of town."
Susan looked back down at Officer Sarmon. "Thanks for the tip." She reached for the trigger.
"Susan…" Darby caught her shoulder. "Does anybody really have to die today?"
She paused. "I suppose not." She swung the butt of her rifle into Sarmon's head, knocking him back. He hit the ground. "That's another thing I liked about you, Darby. You've got compassion. Even now, in this place. We better hurry though. The broadcast's happening soon."
Susan started walking to her van, and Darby joined her. Darby checked his watch. They didn't have much time. They hurried inside. Susan slammed on the gas before Darby had even fastened his seatbelt. They rocked down the lane, Susan spinning the wheel wildly. A chain link fence stood between them and the road. Susan drove the van right through it, scraping metal as she banked into the main road.
It was late at night, but there was still a decent amount of traffic. Susan weaved around them, running red lines as she kept the gas pedal depressed. Darby understood why. "Do you think we'll make it?" he asked, gripping his seatbelt like it was a life preserver.
"Only one way to find out," Susan replied, and kept speeding down the street.
The clock ticked as they kept driving, getting closer and closer to midnight. Darby watched his watch with one eye and the road with the other. A chorus of honking horns sounded wherever they went, and Darby gritted his teeth and listened to the van burning rubber. It was 11:43 when they rolled into Compton, and Susan didn't slow down.
"Come on…" Susan's knuckles were white around the wheel. "A little bit more." The roar of the van's motor sputtered, but it kept going. They sped down the darkened street. People on the sidewalk turned to watch them, some waving or shouting insults. Susan didn't care.
They neared the Street Dogz' crib. Other cars filled the sidewalk and street around it, and the whole place was one great party. Rap music filtered in from a dozen different radios, and couples danced closely, while others sipped drinks around the yard. All of them looked up when they saw Susan's van come screaming in.
She rolled into the driveway, careening next to a low rider and scraping the paint job. "Sorry!" she cried, kicking the door open. "Sorry!"
"Crazy-ass white woman!" Susan didn't seem to notice the cries aimed at her. She grabbed Darby's hand and they dashed out, running for the door of the house. Susan kicked it open. Darby kept watching his watch. The minutes were ticking down. They didn't have time.
They ran to the studio, pushing others out of the way. Midnight was nearly there. "Stop the broadcast!" Darby and Susan shouted it together, as they ran into the main studio. Their words mingled as the darted inside. Everyone in the recording booth and the studio looked up.
Nine-Dog and MC Killa stood behind the microphone in the booth. MC Killa held up the tape. "And here it is," he said. "The Stylez of the Streetz, coming at you live from Compton and—" He heard the commotion and glanced at Darby and Susan. "Uh, hold on a second." Nine-Dog took the microphone while MC Killa stood up, slipping out of his headphones. "What up?" he asked.
"Papi Soto's enchanted the recording." Darby talked quickly and clearly, free of stutters or nervousness. He couldn't afford that now. "It'll conquer the minds of anyone who hears it, turning them into a zombie slave."
"Oh." Nine-Dog hastily took the tape and set it carefully away. "Can't have that. We may got some extras back here. We'll play something else in the mean time and—"
An armored car smashed through the wall, motor roaring as wood and metal splintered under its sheer bulk. MC Killa and Nine-Dog stumbled away, as Susan raised her assault rifle. Screams ran through the house and studio, as most of the guests started to wisely run away. The door of the armored car slid backwards with a slow rumble. There were zombies inside – along with Papi Soto and Officer Sarmon.
"Should have killed me," Sarmon replied, raising his shotgun.
"Allow me to rectify that." MC Killa pulled up his shirt, revealing twin pistols tucked into his baggy jeans. He drew them out and started shooting, filling the entire recording studio with gunshots. Susan joined in, emptying the rest of her clip for the assault rifle.
Zombies dropped, falling onto the floor, but more of them came forward. Darby tried to make sense of the situation. Everything was happening at once, louder than he could imagine. He forced himself to stare at the approaching zombies, watching as they dropped under the barrage and their machetes clattered to the floor. He saw Sarmon ducking down behind a piece of rubble for cover, before Susan clipped him in the shoulder and knocked him back. And then he saw Papi Soto moving towards her. He raised his staff. The faltering electric lights flickered, making shadows dance over the leering monkey skull.
Darby leapt in front of her, blocking Soto's way. He saw the skull slide forward, and then a spray of powder left the eye sockets and struck his face. He sniffed and snorted, falling back into Susan's arms.
"Darby Stein," Papi Soto whispered. "The zombie powder is in you. You belong to Baron Samedi, Loa of Graveyards. You belong to Papi Soto." Soto's face drew closer, the lips splitting in a smile. Darby felt the powder, creeping through his nose and into his brain. He could feel his mind under siege, like bits of flesh in his skull were melting away, running down his face. Everything seemed much too bright.
He closed his eyes. Soto's voice echoed in his ears, but he couldn't hear what he was saying. He gritted his teeth and formed his hands into fists. "I'm afraid not," Darby said, though he knew Soto couldn't hear him. "I remember how my father defeated you, down in Rocinante. And I know I can do the same." He forced his mind to remain stable. It was like trying to keep a sand castle solid in a tsunami, but he did his best. He focused on breathing, ignoring all sounds but the pounding of his heart.
He heard something else after a while – sirens, wailing continuously in the distance. Darby creaked open an eye. Red and blue lights flashed, visible through the gaping hole in the studio wall. The gunfire had stopped.
Susan still held onto his shoulder. "We got them, Darby," she said, over and over again. "We got them. Darby? Can you hear me?"
"Hmmm?" Darby opened his mouth. He tried to keep his vision from blurring. He smiled. "You're very close to me," he said suddenly.
"Oh. Yeah." Susan smiled. "And you're okay?"
"Yes." Darby wiped his nose. There was blood on his sleeve. "I caught a little zombie powder. But I didn't let it take effect." He saw Soto and Sarmon, standing above the mangled bodies of their zombie servants. Nine-Dog and MC Killa held them at gunpoint. "It just, well, took a little out of me."
"I'm not sure what we're gonna tell the police. But Soto's presence should be enough to make them look the other way while they lock him up for good and throw away the key." Susan stared at Darby. "And I'll do my best to clear the Street Dogz. Even of illegal weapons possession." She still held his shoulder, and Darby noticed how unsteady he was. "You okay, Darby?"
He looked into her eyes. Susan had pocketed her sunglasses, and he could see the brilliant color there. "Just fine," he replied, and collapsed into unconsciousness.
Darby awoke slowly, every bump, scrape and blow from the previous day coming back as he did. He creaked open his eyes, seeing blurry sunlight coming through a wide window overlooking Compton. He sat up, and rubbed his head. He'd had a hangover maybe twice, in his entire life, as he was always a little nervous about drinking. This was a thousand times worse.
Nine-Dog poked his head in the room. "Yo, Darby! You up?" He walked in and handed Darby a cup of coffee. Darby had a quick sip and sat up, taking a peek outside. The police cars were still there, as well as several TV crews. "Yeah, the press be all over this. No one knows what to make of it, and we ain't talking. Thanks to your girl Agent Keefe, the police ain't got nothing to charge us with." Nine-Dog grinned. "And the broadcast? Caught all those gunshots and sounds of zombie heads being exploded. Our rep is going through the roof right now. Everyone thinks we be hardcore, for real, and we ain't telling them no different."
"Susan isn't exactly my girl," Darby explained. He drained the coffee cup and stood up, then pulled on his coat. It was still warm, but he didn't want to look so disheveled. "But I am very thankful for your success."
"It's all on you, man. You solved the mystery and saved the city. MC Killa and I wired the money to your account this morning. We decided to double it, for taking such knocks. And for keeping quiet about last night, of course. But we know we can count on you for that."
"Discreteness is all part of the Stein Detective Agency's mission statement, Mr. Killa." Darby handed him back the coffee mug. "Is Susan present?"
Nine-Dog led him to the backyard. Susan was sitting at the patio, scrawling something down in a notepad, a bulky cell phone next to her. She stood up as Darby approached her and smiled. "So you're awake?" Susan asked. "Thank God. I was worried I'd have to leave without seeing you. I got kind of a proposition for you."
"What's that?" Darby stood next to her, until she pulled out a seat and motioned for him to sit. "I'm sure it will be good, um, whatever it is."
"Well, I think the 90s are only going to the beginning of weird troubles for the FBI. We're coming up on the millennium, you know. Doomsday cults are gonna be going nuts. And since I seem to be the woman getting stuck with all the mystical garbage, I was wondering if I could rely on you as a kind of unofficial consultant. I'll call you in on the next mumbo-jumbo job we have and you can help out as best you can. What do you say?"
"Yes. Of course. I'll work with you." Darby smiled broadly. "Of course."
"Glad to hear it." Susan returned his grin. "And Darby?"
"It was a pleasure to work with you on this."
Darby knew that the case hadn't gone as smoothly as he'd hoped. He'd nearly gotten himself killed, quite a few times. His father and Adam wouldn't be happy about that. But Susan said it was a pleasure. That meant it was a job well done.