None of the city’s buildings reached higher than twelve floors, a fact that sometimes caught Rory in the throat when he looked up and recalled his childhood in Reardon. Unlike Reardon, though, Los Cielos still had all its lights on—windows left glowing at all hours of the night, sometimes in a pattern that Rory, depending on how much he’d smoked, would try to read like a visual version of Morse code, as if they held a message that only his brain’s personal antenna could catch.
Then there were the lights that actually did carry messages, ones that Rory didn’t have to be high to interpret. These were the lights he hadn’t been able to see as a kid. Not until the day he had found an old, runebound book beneath a stack of forty-fives at Final Vinyl, anyway.
The night after the three sat at Acevo’s, those lights were close-burning stars above him. They created a galaxy trail that spiraled through the town, starting outside Rick Paul’s house in Sage Bay Canyon. Rory decided they wouldn’t stop in to visit Rick. Instead, he sat on the passenger’s side of Mary’s boxy old Volvo and directed her turns from there. Jules sat in back.
“You’re taking this all in stride,” Mary said over her shoulder as she angled the car onto Camino Ajo.
“Yeah. Well.” Jules laughed, letting the sound trail off behind Mary’s tail lights before saying more. “Maybe if you had told me about all of this a month ago, I would’ve walked away or something. But, um, yeah. Funny what not being able to perform more than one song will do for you. To you. Whatever.”
“Left on Middleton,” Rory murmured. “You scared?”
“Me?” asked Jules. “Of course I am. But I’ve got to know who. And, you know, why.”
“You should’ve gone home after you got us to Rick’s. There’s no way this ends well. Here, turn right on that little street up there.”
Mary eased the car into a small residential enclave, killed the headlights, and looked at Rory. “Halfway down the block,” he said, pointing. “The trail ends there.”
“I see it.” Jules lurched forward, his hands clamped onto both Rory’s seat and Mary’s. “I know where we’re going.”
Rory turned. “You can see the trail?”
“No. But see that woman wheeling in the trash bin?” Now it was Jules’s turn to point. “I remember her. She was at the show.” He swallowed. “She was with a kid.”
“Oh, wonderful.” Mary pulled over to the curb, still several houses away from where the woman wrestled the trash bin up the driveway, and shut off the ignition. “There were kids at this show?”
“Just the one. She was more like a teenager.” Jules shrugged. “Does that make a difference?”
Mary sighed. “Just possibly makes things… messier, that’s all. More chaotic.”
“Would explain the clumsiness on the spell if the kid worked it, though,” said Rory.
“It would. Unless she’s a thrall.”
“She could be a thrall,” Rory agreed. “She could also just be the woman’s daughter.”
“Or her lover.”
“She could be her thrall, her daughter, and her lover.”
Mary slapped his chest with the back of her hand.
“You know I wish I was kidding,” said Rory. “But can any of that really make this any worse?”
“You know the answer to that. So how do we approach this?”
“Simply and directly,” said Jules, opening the back door. “We just ask her what’s going on.”
“Jules!” Mary reached for his arm, but he had already stepped out of the car and pushed the door shut behind him. She let her head fall against the headrest. “Jesus on a jackalope. What happened to him being scared?”
“Music makes you do stupid things,” Rory said as he unbuckled his seat belt and opened his own door.
The streetlights drew Jules’s shadow long behind him, like a tow rope that Rory and Mary were supposed to grasp in his wake. But Jules was moving too quickly for even his shadow to keep up. By the time the woman reached her garage, Jules had already leaped halfway up the driveway. Rory saw the woman turn and wheel the trash bin between them.
Her hair seemed only partially able to conform to society’s expectations for a ponytail; strands of it stuck out from the side of her head as if she’d been shocked on stage, à la Keith Gideon in ’84. Even in the streetlamp dimness, Rory could tell that the trails under her eyes weren’t shadows but bags hanging dark and heavy with their loads. It all made Rory start to feel pity for the woman, until he glanced down and saw that the shirt she’d paired with her sweatpants was a shirt from El Bee Dee’s 1991 farewell tour, the same design he’d chosen. He twinged. No half-assed spellbook dabbler had a right to the power of that memory. He might have launched a curse straight at the silk-screened logo if Jules hadn’t jumped closer to the waste bin she’d positioned as a wall.
“Mister Horace,” she breathed.
“What did you do to me?” Jules said. “What did you and that girl do to me?”
Rory took Jules by the left arm, Mary took him by the right. He could feel Jules’s wiry muscles tense beneath his jacket, tighter than an overwound guitar string.
“I didn’t mean—” the woman began, but Mary stopped her with five outstretched fingers and a curse that careened like feedback off her tongue:
The woman stared down at feet that she appeared to be unable to lift from the concrete. She looked at Jules. “It was just a wish. I swear I didn’t think it was real. But please don’t make it stop.”
Suddenly the trash bin was no barrier. Jules broke away from Rory and Mary. He took two deliberate steps forward, locked his hands onto the bin’s sides, and leaned over it as if he were going to tear the air apart with his teeth.
“This isn’t just my career,” he said. “This is my life. And why? Just so you can hear a song on the radio a little longer? For God’s sake! It’s a free download from my mailing list!”
The woman smiled, but she also shook her head, as if she were being shaken and jostled between two warring forces. “She gets so excited whenever it comes on. Like the world is listening to her and giving her the biggest surprise. I think—” She laughed. “I think it’s the only thing keeping her around.”
Mary folded her arms. “And tell me, Little Miss I-Like-To-Play-With-The-Dark-Arts, how does it feel when someone keeps you stuck some place you don’t want to be?” She shot a glare at the woman’s feet.
Still the woman shook her head and smiled. “You don’t understand. It’s stage four now. There’s nothing else I can do. You don’t get it at all.”
And Rory looked at Mary, mouthing, Oh, hell, as a curtain of misunderstanding rose from the stage between them.