There were eight of them. It was Tuesday, and we were in the hills of Sunland, in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. It's a scrubby area of post-war homes and hot dirt and large patches of undeveloped land. The way old Los Angeles looked when the first Franciscans came by bearing beads and Catholic doctrine. Dry and barren.
Like my damaged soul, which may or may not be within my possession.
But I digress.
"Tie her up, bro," one of the gang said. "We'll take turns breakin' her in."
Her being a young, frightened Latina who was gagged and struggling between two thugs.
I'd gotten wind of the gang's meeting from a client of mine, Cal Dutton. I was cleaning up some unfinished appellate business for him and spoke to him at the county jail, where he was doing a stretch before being unloosed on the streets again.
During the course of our conversation he let something slip about being on the wrong side of a motorcycle gang, and that was making things dangerous for him in jail. He asked if I could do anything for him. He told me the leader of the gang was still on the outside, a guy by the name of Tony "Big Spin" Cleveland.
"What do you want me to do exactly?" I asked.
"Negotiate, that's what you do, right?"
"On behalf of clients who can pay me, yes."
"Aw, Ms. Caine." Cal Dutton was a white skinhead with a baby face. His prison tats didn't quite make up for the Elijah-Wood-Frodo-deer-in-the-headlights mug.
"Don't give me that. You still owe me."
"I'm sittin' in here!"
"I got you a deal to keep you out of state prison. You'd be in a cozy little crib in Solano right now, wouldn't you?"
He said nothing.
"Give me the details," I said. And he told me where they were going to meet in a few days. They had this regular spot, and maybe I could figure out a way to make the peace.
Not likely, I thought at the time, though there might be a way to kill those proverbial two birds. You know, clear up a problem for my client, and make provision for my own undead diet at the same time.
So, in my disguise as a streetwalker named Amanda, I had come to the meeting.
A girl's got to eat.
I don't want to have to do it, but this is the hand I've been dealt. Maybe by God, maybe by the devil, or maybe by blind fate, who likes to bat us around like a cat whacks yarn.
There's nothing I can do to stop myself. I have to stay alive, even as the undead, in order to have a chance to save my soul from hell.
At least that's what I've been told.
And I've managed to find some consolation in going after the brains of those who have used up their Get Out of Jail Free cards in life.
That torments me, too. Because I've spent my professional life defending people accused of crimes, insisting they get a fair trial. A decision about life and death is one that should be made by an impartial jury, not an individual. The days of lynching and vigilantism are over.
Setting aside the clutch in my gut, the inexplicable crosscurrents of desire and self-loathing, I made sure my wig was in place and started down the hill toward what I hoped would be a brain buffet.
It was over a year ago that I was murdered, then brought back to life. A drive-by shooting, the cops said. They never caught whoever did it, but someone brought me back to life, voodoo-like. A bokor, a controller. And I was supposed to be the one controlled.
But I bucked it. I fought back. And got free somehow. But I have to find out who did this to me so I can have a chance of not spending eternity in hell.
I don't know if hell is real or not. They keep arguing about it. But here's the deal. When it comes to hell, I don't want to take the chance, thank you very much.
Meantime, I have to operate in this world just like everybody else.
Well, not exactly everybody. Because I have to eat flesh to live. I have to bite into brain for strength. I've given up being selective. I used to prefer more educated brains. Higher quality. But it's getting harder and harder to find those in L.A.
This is not a glamorous thing. It is an ugly curse that is as real as night terrors in children, as horrific as any image conjured up by a graphic artist on drugs.
And it all makes me very cranky. It makes me want to go whole hog, as they say.
Which brings me back to lunch.
I started down the hill toward my biker repast.
Big Spin was the first to notice me. He looked up and his bearded face did a double take like some old-time comedian. I almost laughed at the absurdity of it. Was I dealing with an outlaw or Oliver Hardy?
"Hi fellas," I said, as if I were a tour guide meeting my group of seniors for a bus tour of Hollywood.
Big Spin just blinked at me a couple of times. He held up his hand to his crew, a gesture telling them to stay in their positions. Except one. To the skinniest of the bunch he nodded up the hill, from where I'd come. Skinny started scampering up through the brush.
"No need to go nuts here," I said. I was standing at eye level with seven bikers, the eighth being up the hill behind me now. "But we've got a situation."
"Situation?" Big Spin snorted. He looked me up and down. "What's the situation, babe?"
"I am," I said. "That's my undercover moniker. The Situation."
"No way you're a cop."
"Did you hear me say that? I said undercover."
"You don't look like undercover, either. Know what you look like? A street piece."
"Is that any way to talk?" I said. "You don't exactly treat the ladies with much respect now, do you? So what I want you to do is release the girl and then line up for me right over there." I indicated a spot in front of their hogs, which were parked in an almost perfect row. I gave a quick scan to the other bikers. For some reason the Seven Dwarfs popped in my head. I started assigning names, like Sneezy and Dopey, to their faces. You think the craziest things when facing outlaws alone.
The Dwarfs were obviously waiting for Big Spin to tell them what to do. And just as obviously they wanted to do something really mean. To me.
Big Spin looked over my head. I turned and saw Skinny, dwarf number eight, scuttling down the hillside. "Nothing," he shouted.
"I don't know what you think you're doing, little lady," Big Spin said to me, approaching. His fat gut was hemmed in by a black T-shirt with a Harley logo and food stains, framed by a denim vest that was a size too small. Why do these guys all wear the same costume? They are rebels, yes! Nonconformists! And they dress like all the other nonconformists they ride with.
"Just what I said." I smiled. "There's no need for unpleasantness here. Let the girl go."
"What makes you think she wants to?" He smiled back at me. Yellow teeth peeked through his fat lips like snipers poking out of a cave of flesh.
"The fact that she's trying to scream through her gag kinda gives me that feeling," I said.
"Before we do unto you what we're gonna do unto her, I gotta—"
"Unto? You don't look like a preacher—"
"I gotta know who you are. You got some kind of attitude. I kind of like it. So who are you?"
"You remember that drunken night in Tucson? Well, that wasn't me."
He was now about two gut lengths from me. "Maybe you are a cop."
"I eat cops for lunch." Which wasn't far from the truth. "I'm an advisor. I'm advising you to let the woman go. You see, I'm a witness now. But if you let her go, I will make sure you are not brought up on kidnapping charges."
This seemed to puzzle the big man. One of the other bikers, the one I'd labeled Dopey, said, "Let's do her, too."
Now I was starting to get mad. I normally would have taken on any one of them if they were accused of a crime. That's the Constitution I believe in. Even the scum of the earth are entitled to a fair trial—and to retain their liberty unless the government can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. That's the only way you can have freedom for everyone.
But since none of these jokers was my client, I had no qualms about eating the inside of their heads. Which was getting to be an increasingly complex proposition. The girl was the complication. I couldn't just unload on them with the 9mm I was packing.
Yes, zombies sometimes pack heat. We don't slobber or walk around with all that Walking Dead makeup on. You think we want people to know who we are?
Big Spin waved his hand at Dopey. Spin was one of these guys who doesn't like to be given suggestions, which is why I suggested, "Dude, just let the girl go and you and I will discuss why I shouldn't turn your whole tribe in to the local cops. How's that sound? Because if you don't, I'm going to have to cause some noise."
"Gunshots will be heard," I said, which is when I chose to remove the Beretta from my purse. I pointed it directly at Big Spin.
His eyes got wide and angry.
"It would be hard for me to miss you," I said. "Now tell your boys to let her go."
There is a vibe to collective anger. When you're dealing with jackasses, there's also a smell. It wafted out of them and hit me in the nose. Sort of like sweat with a little bit of gas.
Big Spin waited to size up the situation, as it were. "If you shoot me, we got a bunch of other guys gonna shoot you. You just made a bad move. Now we got no choice but to take you out."
"Take me out? Like to a French restaurant?"
I heard the crack of a gun and something pass through me.
A bullet, I presumed. From the impact, I guessed it was also a 9mm. Now I had a hole in one of my nice blouses. I was wearing my hot purple number, usually reserved for nighttime on Santa Monica Boulevard.
I felt the hole in my clothes and body, which would soon close up while leaving a little white scar. "Look what you did," I said. "You're going to have to pay for this."
Now it wasn't collective anger. It was pure shock and awe. Big Spin's lips moved like he was trying to say something along the lines of, You just got shot! What are you doing standing up?
But before he could form any more thoughts in that fevered brain of his, I shot him through the heart.
He fell backward and hit the ground like an overturned cement truck.
Behind me came ten more shots in rapid succession, and my clothes and torso got really messed up. I turned around and saw Skinny, with a look of horror on his face, finishing up what was in the magazine. I half expected him to do one of those movie moves and throw the empty gun at me.
I didn't give him time. I shot him, too. One shot.
Now there was a general disturbance. Dust kicked up as bikers bumped into each other trying to get away from the chick with the gun, the chick who would not die.
The Latina girl, having long since been forgotten, stood with eyes wide open. Trying, no doubt, to comprehend what was going on. She was maybe fifteen.
I am not the executioner type, no matter what you may think. As I shot each biker, part of me was shouting Stop, stop! I was a killer, a murderer, a vigilante.
This is not what I wanted to be. I wanted to be Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. Then Claire Kincaid on Law & Order. But this walking death I've been given has taken all that away.
When all my rounds were spent, I slid the magazine out and snagged another one from my purse.
The last living biker came at me with a knife, a big honking knife, the kind that makes an outlaw feel really baaaad.
I hate getting cut. That leaves a definite scar on my not so resilient skin. I have a hard enough time keeping it on this side of crusty, using special creams every morning.
He plunged the knife into my chest. I looked down.
"That really sucks," I said.
This biker, who I will now call Bashful, went Ah! and let go of the knife, then started to back away from me like I was an electrified fence.
I removed the knife and tossed it on the ground. I put a fresh magazine in the Beretta and shot him.
When the dust finally settled, all of them were dead or on their way to it.
But the girl was gone.
I couldn't go after her. I had a more pressing matter. I went up to my car, a yellow Volkswagen convertible Bug named Geraldine—it's yellow and bright and summery. I'm a summer, don't you think?—and I got a plastic cooler, my Sawzall, and a large ice cream scoop.
Twenty minutes later I had eight commingled brains in the cooler with some dry ice. I was a little blood spattered, but had a change of clothes in the car. A fresh brain will last pretty much all day without getting too chewy. But if you freeze it, it can last almost indefinitely. You can then thaw out chunks later or, on a hot day, suck on it as is. Like those frozen bananas you get at the beach sometimes.
My plan was to get these into my own freezer at home.
Where was the girl? Poor thing. Not only frightened out of her mind at what they were going to do to her, but also witnessing the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. I hoped she didn't see a woman sawing off heads and scooping out brains. That way lies madness.
As I was hauling my cooler up the hill I got the feeling I wasn't alone. I looked behind me and saw someone standing there in the midst of the carnage. It was a man in a white robe. He looked like some desert priest or wannabe guru. He had longish brown hair framing a gentle face. Blue eyes.
So what do you do when you are holding a box of brains and a dude is looking right at you? You say, "The trash men will be here in a while to take care of the mess."
Which is what I said.
"I know who you are," the man said.
"Send me a postcard," I said. I didn't want to kill him, too. But that was probably what I would have to do.
I put the cooler down and sat on it. The man in white was below me. He floated above the ground then and came closer.
A demon, I thought.
"I am here with a message for you," he said. "The one I serve wishes you to know something."
"Who is the one you serve, I guess is the obvious question."
"It is not something you need to know. What you need to know is that you are beginning to meddle. If you continue, the soul that you seek to restore will be lost forever. You must not get in the way of the kingdom. You will be allowed to live so long as you remain inactive."
"What is your name?" I said. I have learned that demons must answer when you ask them directly what their name is.
"It is not something you need to know."
That told me this was not a demon, but maybe a fallen angel. There are two types of beings on the dark side. Demons are the souls of the wicked dead, inhabiting bodies. But there are also fallen angels, according to the man who gave me all the information, a priest named Father Clemente.
I had to give it to the priest on this one. He's been right before.
"Then I'll take a wild guess," I said. "You work for Lucifer or one of his minions, am I right?"
The dark angel said nothing.
"You're part of this plan to set up some sort of war headquarters in L.A.—am I right about that, too?"
"You got a lot more to worry about than one little streetwalker," I said.
"Your name is Mallory Caine," he said.
"You must be mixing me up with that famous lawyer," I said.
"You are being warned. You have one chance."
"Tell you what, angel face, I'll give her the message if I see her. Now will there be anything else?"
The dark angel let loose one of those malevolent smiles one sees in horror movies. Such a cliché, but I guessed he hadn't been trained well.
But then again, he had.
Because a wind whipped up. A big one. My Amanda wig went askew. Dirt and pebbles scraped my skin. I had to put my arm over my eyes.
I felt myself lifted off the ground, spun around.
Wizard of Oz time. I half expected Miss Gulch to ride by.
Instead, what whipped by was my cooler, the one I had so carefully filled with biker cranial matter.
I watched as the wind carried it through the dust storm and away from view. There was a deep chasm only about a hundred yards away. If it ended up down there, it was bye-bye meal plan.
That was, apparently, this angel's idea all along.
The wind stopped as quickly as it had started, and I thunked to the ground.
"Nice try," I said.
"You have two choices," the angel said. "You can stay out of things, or you can join us. But you cannot stand against us, for then you will surely die."
"Time for you to go back to hell," I said. "Or an abyss of your choosing."
At which point this joker vanished.
I went to look for my cooler but it had disappeared into the brush of the chasm.
Excerpted from The Year Of Eating Dangerously by K. BENNETT Copyright © 2012 by K. Bennett. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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