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The Hollywood Spiral
By Paul Neilan
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- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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You want to hear a joke?"
I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair. The guy behind the desk had slicked-back hair and a mole under his left eye that was distracting me. It looked like a fly had landed on his face. Made a home for itself, burrowed into his skin. I couldn't help staring, waiting for it to twitch. My own cheek started to itch.
"Boss asked you a question," the big guy behind me said and flicked my ear hard with his finger.
"I'll take a joke," I said.
The guy behind the desk leaned forward on his elbows and showed me his teeth. "So this friend of mine's been going through a really rough time," he said. "Wife just left him, took the kids. My buddy's a wreck over it. He says to me the other night, he says, Charlie, I don't know anymore. I don't know what to do. I just don't want to die alone. So I shot him in the face. Ten times, emptied the clip. And I said to him, I said, Does that make it any better, having somebody beside you when you go? Because it's kind of awkward for that other person. There's a big mess to clean up, I got no more bullets left. Just seems kind of selfish on your part, you know? He didn't say anything but, I think he knew I was right."
The big guy behind me let out a giggle he'd been holding in, higher pitched than I was expecting. Like he'd been tickled with a feather and couldn't take it anymore.
"That's not bad," I said.
"What's the matter with you?" the big guy said, flicking my ear again. "You laugh when something's funny, dickhead."
"That's all right, Santos." The guy behind the desk sat back in his chair. He was in a sharp suit, a watch chain hanging from his vest. There was a dark screen on the wall behind him. "I do an open mic down at Maxwells. People there don't really get my sense of humor either."
He picked a speck of dust from his desk, blew it off his finger.
"See to me, shooting somebody in the face is hilarious," he said. "And you've got to be true to yourself onstage."
"You write what you know," I said.
"Exactly," he said, leaning forward. "My point exactly. You want a cigar?"
"I wouldn't mind," I said.
"That's nice," he said, opening the box of Cubans on his desk. "It's good to want things." He took one out, smelled it. Took his time lighting it for himself. I sat there as he puffed away. "Do you know who I am?" he said.
It was a little man's question. Doesn't matter who's asking or what the answer is.
"You're Charlie Horse," I said.
Santos smacked me so hard my flicked ear rang, nearly knocking me out of the chair.
"That's Mr. Horschetti to you," Santos said.
I looked at him over my shoulder. He gave me a gap-toothed grin.
"That's all right, Santos, we're all friends here," Charlie Horse said, working his cigar, rolling it in his fingers. "Ain't that right?"
He looked at me through the last puff of smoke. I didn't say anything.
"Good," Charlie Horse said, showing me his teeth again. "That's good. So us being so tight and all, how about you give me your fucking wallet."
"I use a clip," I said. I went to my pocket, tossed it onto his desk.
"Yeah, wallet's too bulky. You don't want to ruin the line of your pants. They cut those trousers for a reason…Harrigan," Charlie Horse said, looking over my license. "One forty-four Western Avenue, Number B. Sounds like a basement apartment."
"It is," I said.
"So I know who you are, and I know where you live," Charlie Horse said, taking the cash from my clip and tucking it into his vest pocket. "Now what brings an underground sack a shit like yourself into my fine establishment?"
I stretched my legs, settled into the chair as best I could.
"I'm not above slumming," I said. "On occasion."
"I don't know anybody who is," he said, patting his pocket. "So I'll ask you again. What the fuck you doing in my club?"
"Same as anybody, Charlie," I said. "I'm looking for a girl."
"Not just any girl. You're looking for Anna," he said, spitting another cloud of smoke at me. "Yeah, that's right. I already know. There's no secrets in this joint. Not from me."
He chewed his cigar, took it out of his mouth, considered it. I watched the smoke drift up, hover around a sprinkler head above us.
"Takes heat to set the system off," Charlie Horse said, following my eyes. "Smoke's fine. So tell me, Harrigan. Who you working for?"
"I don't talk business, Charlie. Not even with my friends," I said. "I'm sure you understand."
I braced for another smack. Felt a gun against the back of my head instead.
"Oh, I understand completely," Charlie Horse said, picking another speck of dust from his desk. "And I respect your discretion. I really do. But Santos here, not so much."
Santos pushed the barrel forward until my head was bowed.
"Don't make me ask you again, Harrigan," Charlie Horse said.
I wasn't scared the way he wanted me to be. The angle was off. If Santos pulled the trigger he would've splashed my brains all over his boss's desk. Charlie Horse wouldn't like that.
"What've we got here, Santos?" he said. "A guy who knows how to keep his mouth shut? That's a rare thing, Harrigan. Like my cousin's albino Weimaraner. A rare and stupid thing."
Santos took the gun off me. I looked up to see Charlie Horse grinning.
"I remember you," he said, jabbing his cigar at me. "You're the Harrigan used to run with Clyde Faraday's crew."
"Long time ago," I said.
"Long time," Charlie Horse said, puffing on his cigar. "Shame about what happened to old Clyde, huh? Ending up in a place like that."
He searched my face. I wasn't sure what he was looking for, how well I'd hidden it. I could hear Santos breathing behind me.
"You should've seen it, Santos, back in the old days," he said. "Before Zodiac. Before Grid. Out running the streets, the pool halls, the rackets. You were either a bitch or a butcher, there was no in-between. Like the Wild West, all over the city."
"And we were the Indians," I said.
"Don't sell yourself short, Harrigan," Charlie Horse said. "I'll do it for you. You were a fucking buffalo, at best."
"Good one, boss," Santos said, giggling.
"That's all over now," Charlie Horse said, almost wistful. He straightened his cuff links, one after the other. "It's a new world out there. But not in here. We still go by the old rules in my house. I stock real girls, none of that hologram hybrid shit. We play real games, no simulates. So let me tell you how it is."
He stubbed his cigar out in the ashtray.
"You work for me now, Harrigan," he said. "You're gonna find Anna. You're gonna bring me my fucking Danish."
"I'm no bounty hunter," I said. "I don't take people in."
"You are what I say you are. And you do what I tell you to do. Remember that." He tossed my empty money clip back at me. "Now get the fuck out of here."
Santos lifted me by the scruff of my neck and shoved me towards the door. Rammed my forehead into the wood as he opened it.
"And Harrigan," Charlie Horse said, fingers tented in front of him. I could barely make him out through the blur. "Don't you let me down. I hate it when my friends let me down."
I met Stan Volga just after he'd fallen down a flight of stairs.
I was sitting at my table, drinking cheap champagne in the middle of the day when I saw a pair of legs pinwheel down the steps out the window. There was a thud, like a bag of garbage hitting the sidewalk after being thrown off a roof. Then silence.
I took a long drink and listened until I could hear the rain again. I thought about who might be dead on my doorstep, who I'd miss most if they were. I was still thinking when I heard a knock on the door.
He was standing there in a rumpled suit two sizes too big, a thin mustache over his lip. There was a nasty lump on his forehead, already starting to swell.
"Are you Harrigan?" he said.
"Are you bleeding?" I said.
He looked up the stone steps to the street. Felt around on himself like he was trying to find his keys.
"I don't think so," he said.
"Probably just a skull fracture," I said. "You'll be fine."
"I don't have an appointment," he said.
"That's all right," I said. "I'm not a doctor."
I was closing the door when he said, "Wait. Wait! Eddie Lompoc sent me!"
I knew Eddie from those circles you run in when you're rounding the drain. He had bug eyes and a bad habit of rubbing the spot where his chin should've been when he was trying to cheat you at cards. I worked with him in Clyde Faraday's old gang, a lifetime ago, before it all went south. I hadn't seen him in months. I didn't miss him.
"He said you can help me," he said.
"I don't do that kind of thing anymore," I said.
"But I haven't even told you what it's about," he said.
"Let's keep it that way," I said.
I went to shut the door again and he jammed his foot in, pressed his face into the gap.
"Please," he said. His mustache was wet, eyelids fluttering. "Can you just, please?"
I never could stand it, seeing a man beg. I moved aside and he came in veering to the left like the floor was tilting on him. He overcorrected and swung to the right, then stopped with both hands out like it was his first time on a surfboard and he saw sharks in the water. It cost him some effort to get steady, before he looked around the room.
There was a fern in the corner. A big map of the world I'd hung to hide the water damage on the wall. A half-empty bottle of champagne was sweating it out on the table.
"Champagne!" he said, way too excited when he saw it. "What's the occasion?"
I'd gotten a rent-past-due notice on my door that morning. The second one this month. But I wasn't being evicted. Not yet anyway. It seemed like enough. You could die of thirst waiting for a reason.
"You tell me," I said. "You look like you've been celebrating."
"No," he said, going serious. "Not celebrating. Drowning."
He lurched towards the wall, stopped with his face inches from the map.
"There it is," he said, slurring. "The motherland. Denmark."
He didn't sound like he was from Denmark. He sounded piss drunk or severely concussed or both.
"So cold," he said, stroking the map with his index finger. "So beautiful, but so very cold."
He put his face closer, inhaled through his nose, settled his cheek against it like a soft pillow.
"I'll get you some ice for that forehead," I said.
I didn't want him passing out on me. I went to the kitchenette, dumped some cubes in a bag. When I came back he was sitting at my table with the champagne bottle in his hand.
He tipped it back, took a gulp.
"Help yourself," I said, whipping the bag at him. It hit him in the chest and fell rattling, spilling ice cubes in his lap. He looked down at them, then at the champagne in his hand. Puzzled through it like a word problem on a test he hadn't studied for before he took an ice cube off his pants and plopped it in his mouth, held the bottle to his forehead.
"Thanks," he said, crunching the ice.
"What's your name?" I said.
"Stan Volga," he said.
"Why are you here, Stan?" I said.
"We should have a toast," he said.
He chewed the ice like candy before he swallowed it.
"To Anna," Stan Volga said solemnly, raising the bottle. "Always to Anna."
He popped himself in the nose before he found his mouth. Then he fumbled in his oversized suit jacket, pulled out a Polaroid and handed it across the table to me.
You see the same faces, everywhere you go. When you've been around long enough, everyone reminds you of someone else. Not this girl. She was all her own. She had blond hair, so blond it was almost white. Blue eyes you could pick out of a lineup. She wasn't smiling. From the tilt of her chin she looked like a praying mantis about to bite someone's head off. I could think of worse ways to go.
"Eddie Lompoc said you can find people," Stan Volga said.
I was going to find Eddie Lompoc, tell him to keep his mouth shut. That's how it happens, somebody talking. That's all it takes for Zodiac to catch the scent. I was still staring at the picture.
"That's my Anna," Stan Volga said.
He took another gulp of champagne, set the bottle on the table. Turned the gold wedding band on his finger like he was cracking an empty safe.
"She drinks vodka like a Russian but I've never seen her drunk," he said. "She talks in her sleep, screams in Danish but won't tell me what any of it means. She's the only one who really understands me."
The girl who finally gets you, and you can't follow a word of her explanation. Seemed like the only way it could work.
"What's her last name?" I said.
"I don't know," he said.
Pretty much ruled her out as the wife.
"Where did you two meet?" I said.
"I don't remember," he said, looking down at the ice in his lap.
"How long has she been missing?" I said.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I haven't seen her in two days."
"Go to the police," I said.
Stan Volga shook his head. "I'm trying to keep it quiet," he said. "Off Grid."
Off Grid. That's what brought him to me. Eddie Lompoc knew I stayed away from Zodiac, kept to my own side of the street. Like that mattered anymore. Like the city hadn't changed on me. Still thinking I could get by on my own. Eddie probably figured I'd be desperate enough to bite. I couldn't say he was wrong.
Stan Volga reached for the champagne bottle, avoiding my eyes. Ice cubes spilled to the floor like spent shells. "Eddie Lompoc said you could find her," he said.
"Tell Eddie—" I stopped. I'd tell him myself. "That's not how it works, Stan. I'm not in the business anymore. Even if I was, you need something to go on. Something more than this."
I waved the Polaroid at him. But I didn't give it back.
"I can pay," Stan Volga said, reaching inside his jacket, pulling out a roll of bills. "Cash."
That, that was something.
* * *
I was lying to Stan Volga. It's not hard to track someone down. Most people can't wait to tell you where they are, where they've been, where they're headed next. They're desperate to be discovered. They can't wait to be found. That's why they're on Grid.
But once you start looking, you can be found too. They tell you it's good for you. Helps your Score every time you check in. What they don't say is every search is logged, recorded and scrutinized by Zodiac. Your interests and inquiries leave their own trail like bread crumbs, leading right back to you. You're better off not giving them an excuse to look into it.
I showed Stan Volga the door and I plugged into Grid. I used a dummy profile, rerouted through a subfloor where I could skip the simulations and commercials, all the noise, and ran facial recognition on the Polaroid. I sifted the caches and the unmined stacks, the cracks and corners in the system where information pretends to hide.
An hour later I had nothing. That was unusual. Everyone leaves a trace of themselves, whether they like it or not. Everybody's got a ghost on Grid. Even me. Not this Anna. She was nowhere.
* * *
Maybe I was rusty. It didn't feel like it. There was more to it than that. Something about Anna I couldn't place. That didn't fit. I needed some background. I went to the source.
Delia was a street kid when I met her, telling fortunes on the Strip, picking pockets when she could to make a living. Even then she had a look that could crack you wide open, so easy you weren't sure if you'd given away all your secrets or she'd lifted them from you. She had the second sight, the third eye, all the stories in her deck of tarot cards. She also had a line to every doorman, hotel clerk, and bartender in the city. When they came in to get their palms read they'd tell her everything they knew.
She'd tipped me off once that a hired gun named Jimmy Fitz was asking around town for me. I'd owed her ever since. No matter how long between visits she was never surprised to see me. Like she was always expecting it, like she knew.
I took a walk up Normandie in the rain to a dilapidated strip mall on the corner of Fountain. On the second floor, in between a bail bond and a Burmese takeout, the sign above the door read ∴ with a yellow light behind it. A bell jangled as I went through the door.
There was a round card table in the middle of the room draped with a green velvet tablecloth, a mobile of silvered wire ellipses suspended above it like halos orbiting at estranged angles. An altar sat in the corner, candles stacked on wax-strewn shelves, framed by feathered wings. Circular mirrors hung on the walls opposite each other, their reflections stretching to infinity. I caught sight of myself in the cross fire. Every one of me needed a shave.
"Harrigan," Delia said as she came through a curtain of beads along the far wall. "Long time no see."
She had a gold hoop in her nose and a tattoo snaking up her right arm of that painting by Klimt, Death and Life, all the sleeping people huddled together as a skeleton watches like it's waiting to devour them whole.
"How you been, Delia?" I said.
"Busy," she said. "Half the city's lost their mind with this comet coming. The other half's looking for it. I'm cleaning up on both sides."
I looked at her.
"The comet?" Delia said. "The one passing directly over us next weekend? Brahe's Reckoning? Next Sunday? At midnight?"
I didn't say anything.
"People are freaking out, Harrigan. Where've you been?" she said, shaking her head. "Forget it, I'll find out. Have a seat."
She lit a candle on the altar in the corner, blew it out, lit it again.
"I'm not here for a reading," I said as she sat down.
"But you're getting one anyway," Delia said. "It's almost like fate, huh?"
She nodded to the empty chair, pulled a purple-lined case from beneath the table and unpacked her implements. A deck of cards. A crystal decanter, half filled with rain water. A mason jar of weed. A squat, tea kettle glass bong. A wooden lighter with a Celtic knot emblazoned on the side.
She drained the decanter into the bong. Unscrewed the mason jar, the dank scent mingling with the sandalwood and jasmine already floating around us.
"This is Morrigan's Dream," she said, holding up a goldflecked bud like a jewel. "We're all just passing through."
She sparked the lighter. Smoke swirled in the glass and climbed the neck of the tea kettle in a rush as she inhaled. She nodded to me and I cut the deck of cards before her. Then she exhaled, smoke crawling over the green velvet table, clinging like mist.
"Now," she said, instantly serene. "Let's begin."
She turned the first card.
"The Devil," she said, flame rimming the leering face on the card. "The Demon."
"Hell of a way to start," I said.
"We don't know as much about him as we think we do," she said. "Lucifer means 'light bringer.'"
Her pupils expanded. Her face took on a subtle slant.
"I was too big for the Bible," she said, a smile flitting quick across her lips and disappearing. "They had me slither in the Garden and tempt the usurper in the desert. Bit parts for the Morning Star. But they left my story to be told by a blind man, in fucking English. Blasphemy."
She raised her left hand, two fingers and thumb extended.
"Give me the sophistry of Greek," she said. "The fire of Aramaic. The forked tongue of Babylon."
She closed her eyes, let her head tip back.
"Babylon," she whispered again as the halos above us converged, tracing a conical shape in the air, a glittering tornado that immediately dispersed.
She turned the next card.
"The Paladin," she said, a figure on horseback, armored in chain mail. "A knight errant. A knight of faith. Charged by their code, cast by their quest. Theirs is a calling. Theirs the response. Theirs the calamity ensuing."
Her head swung back and forth. She touched the tattoo on her shoulder.
"Sorry for that last bit," she said. "That was still the Devil talking. Once he gets going it's hard to shut him up."
She turned the last card.
"The Fool," she said, the jester in a belled cap, dancing, arms in the air.
"Him I've met," I said.
"You've met them all, Harrigan. And you will again," she said. "The trick is remembering what they tell you, when they show themselves to you."
"What about him," I said, pointing to the card. "What's he got to say?"
"He's a tough one," she said, staring at the Fool. "She'll do anything for a laugh. Say what he has to, be who she must. A smoke and a joke, a juggle and a mug. But they've got a blade in their belt, same as anyone else."
"I'll keep that in mind," I said.
"That's two hundred for the reading," Delia said, replacing the cards and shuffling the deck. "Unless there was something else."
I pushed some of Stan Volga's money across the table, along with the Polaroid.
"She's pretty," Delia said, looking her over. "What's her name?"
"Anna," I said. "She's Danish."
"You stalking her for yourself or someone else?" she said to me.
"I haven't decided yet," I said. "Ever seen her around?"
"No," she said. "Her I'd remember."
She thought for a second, made up her mind.
"There's a place on Argyle called Lekare. Corner of Selma," she said. "It's a character's club. Might be her kind of crowd."
"What's a character's club?" I said.
"Same as anywhere," Delia said, smiling sort of wearily as she folded the bills I'd given her. "Everybody's playing someone else."
* * *
It had been raining all week, all month, all year. The water rushed in a gully down the street to the backed-up sewer grates, clogged with garbage, leaving every intersection a fetid reservoir. I followed the sidewalk as the robo cabs rolled past, silent and sentient, running their routes. Stayed under the overhangs where I could find them, kept my head down. Turned my face from the Zodiac cams on every corner. They were always watching. Didn't mean you had to make it easy for them.
I saw a hooded figure coming towards me, a long gray robe glistening like seal skin under the streetlight. As they passed a hand held out a pamphlet. I took it, watched them recede, dragging a gray garbage can behind them. I looked at the pamphlet.
Are you ready to begin again?
Free the selves. Unveil the self.
- PRAISE FOR THE HOLLYWOOD SPIRAL:
“Neilan makes this dystopian and unsettling world feel frighteningly real. Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music will be enthralled.”—Publishers Weekly
“A real treat…An enthusiastically imagined world and a cast of vividly realized characters…Humorous [and] delightful.”—Booklist
PRAISE FOR APATHY AND OTHER SMALL VICTORIES:
"Comprising 50% sheer brilliance, 50% distilled cynicism, and 50% coronary-inducing humor, Apathy and Other Small Victories has more life, laughs, and story on every page than should be possible."—Max Barry, author of Lexicon
- "Neilan's wit is a razor that cuts and slashes mercilessly on every single page, in every single paragraph, so that your fingers will bleed even as the tears of laughter soak your face. So basically, you'll be reduced to a bloody, weeping mess, madly reading whole pages aloud as friends and family shake their heads and slowly back away."—Jonathan Tropper, author of This is Where I Leave You
- On Sale
- Jun 15, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing