Immortal City, page 1
BY SCOTT SPEER
An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2012 Scott Speer
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To my parents, who taught me to believe.
At 3a.m., the Pacific Coast Highway was nothing more than a gray ribbon winding through the ocean fog. Despite being more than a little buzzed, Brad downshifted, smashed the gas pedal, and sent his BMW M5 surging forward. His iPod had shuffled to “California Love,” by 2Pac. He turned it up.
“California! Knows how to party!” Brad sang out. Except when he sang it, California came out “Caaafna,” and party sounded more like “parry.” It didn’t matter; in his head he was performing for a sellout crowd at the Staples Center, and they loved him. In the rearview mirror the lights of Santa Monica twinkled. The Pacific Wheel on the pier glowed like a neon disk reflecting on the black mirror of the sea. Up ahead, the rocky shores of Malibu lay dark and silent. The music roared and Brad depressed the gas pedal almost involuntarily. He couldn’t help himself. Gladstone’s and Sunset Boulevard streaked by as the world accelerated into a violent blur.
He took each turn a little faster than the last, pushing the limits of the machine. He felt a surge of adrenaline as the headlights suddenly illuminated the churning Pacific just beyond the rocks. He stomped hard on the brake and yanked the wheel over, pointing the BMW back toward the curve he had nearly missed. He let out an exhilarated breath. This would make such a cool music video, Brad thought. Dangerous and exciting. Up ahead he saw another sharp turn in the road. This time, he would be ready. He pumped the brake, threw the wheel over, and punched the gas pedal hard. The car growled in protest but managed to stay on four wheels. Brad let out his best rock star scream as he half-skidded, half-flew around the turn.
Right into the headlights of an oncoming car.
Brad tried to brake, but he had finally pushed the BMW too far. Antilock brakes grabbing and releasing, he was a missile rocketing toward the other vehicle, a pickup, at eighty miles an hour.
That’s when it happened.
It occurred so fast Brad didn’t even see it. But he certainly felt it.
It hurt like hell.
It was a hand. A hand grabbing him and pulling him out of the car. To the oncoming driver it must have looked like a magic trick. In one instant Brad was there, wide-eyed and terrified in the driver’s seat, and in the next, gone.
Suddenly the pungent smell of sea air filled Brad’s nose. Salt-spray flicked across his neck. He realized he was standing on the side of the road, watching a fantastic collision unfold. His BMW slid across the centerline and collided head-on with the pickup. The bed of the pickup leapt up over the cab and sent the truck toppling end-over-end, over the retaining rail and down the rocky slope. Safety glass sprayed across the rocks in glittering crumbs. Then the truck hit the water, upside down, with a sickening smack. Brad’s BMW ricocheted off the cliff wall and spun across the road, breaking through the retaining wall on the opposite end and soaring into the air. It entered the water nose first, gracefully, like a diver. The spectacle was all so violent it was almost beautiful. Then, sputtering and steaming, both vehicles began their slow descent under the icy waves.
Brad shivered against the breeze. He was so staggered by what he had just seen that he didn’t immediately notice the figure standing next to him. Turning, he at first saw only a pair of wings silhouetted against the full moon. Six feet in both directions and razor sharp, the broad appendages rose and fell with the heave of a great breath. The figure stepped forward, and Brad recognized his Guardian Angel.
“Oh my God, it’s you,” Brad said, trying his best to sound sober.
The Angel smiled but said nothing.
Brad became aware of something warm and wet dripping down his left arm, forming small, trickling droplets at the end of his fingertips. He lifted his fingers to his mouth and tasted. It was blood.
“I’m bleeding,” he said.
The Angel’s eyes twinkled in the moonlight. When he spoke, his tone was even and smooth. “I had to pull you out through the window,” he said. “It was the only way.”
Brad remembered it now, as if recalling a nightmare. He remembered the white-hot pain of traveling through the glass window, the tiny slivers lodging in his face, and the way the jagged edges had felt as they sliced through the living skin. He shuddered.
“The cuts on your arm and shoulder are superficial and will heal,” the Angel continued. “But your hip is fractured. It’s very common in this type of save. I’ve taken the liberty of calling an ambulance to take you to the hospital. It sho
Brad took a cautious step forward, then cried out as his right hip erupted in pain. He stepped back and quickly shifted his weight. He blew out a ragged sigh.
The Angel hadn’t moved.
“Oh, right,” Brad said, embarrassed. He fumbled for his wallet in his pants pocket. “Sorry, this is my first time, you know,” he mumbled as he flipped the wallet open and struggled to pull a Platinum American Express card from its sleeve. His fingers were already numb from the cold.
“There’s no need,” the Angel said, dismissing the effort with a wave of his hand. “The funds have already been transferred out of your account.”
“Oh,” Brad said. He returned the billfold to his pants pocket. “How much . . . was this?”
“One hundred thousand dollars, in addition to your monthly rate.”
Brad’s gaze drifted to where the cars had landed in the water. His M5 was already submerged, but the back end of the pickup still protruded from the surf, bobbing in the swells like a corpse.
“What about him?” Brad asked.
“Him?” the Angel asked.
“Yeah,” Brad said, and pointed to the tailgate as it slipped under the waves. “Him.”
The Angel looked at the sinking pickup as if seeing it for the first time.
“He didn’t have coverage,” he said.
Brad nodded numbly.
The headlights of an approaching ambulance swept over the scene.
“Good night, Brad,” the Angel said, and smiled.
“Good—” Brad began to reply, but trailed off as he realized the Guardian was already gone. Alone now, standing in the cold, Brad began to shake uncontrollably. The realization had only just hit him. The realization that he should be dead.
Maddy woke up to the drone of her alarm clock. It was early, the dawn dim and gray outside her window. She had been dreaming she was lounging on the shores of some faraway tropical beach, the ocean glittering, diamond-like, as it reached to the horizon. Maddy wanted to stay in the dream, still feel the warm sand under her feet, nothing to do but simply enjoy the sun on her face, no one to be but herself. But the sound of the alarm was unrelenting, and her eyes began to open, unwillingly.
Lifting her head, she looked out the window. There it was, like a ghost in the misty half-light—the Angel City sign. It loomed huge and silent on the hill, perfectly framed by Maddy’s bedroom window. She sighed. The final remnants of the dream faded to nothing, replaced by the reality that she was still living in Los Angeles. Still stuck in the Immortal City.
She swung her legs out of bed and tried to shake the remainder of the sleep away. Kids at school complained about first period starting at 8 a.m., but for Maddy, the day started at five. Every day. She groped for a pair of jeans off the floor and pulled a striped long-sleeved tee from her closet and changed into them. Nothing fancy, and that’s the way Maddy liked it—simple and comfortable. She didn’t have the time—or the money, for that matter—for much else. She grabbed her favorite gray lightweight hoodie before leaving the room. Then she brushed her teeth and ran a comb through her hair before heading quickly down the stairs.
The light outside was fuller now, and she could tell by the way it illuminated the haze that her uncle, Kevin, would already be plating the first orders. This was their routine and had been since Maddy’s freshman year. He would wake before Maddy and open the restaurant, taking the first orders so she could get a few more precious minutes of sleep. Then he would put on his apron and take up his position in the back as cook. It was Maddy’s responsibility to bring the orders out and work the rest of the morning shift until she had to leave for school. Like most mornings, she would be the only waitress on duty. Maddy was used to it, though. And even though it could get annoying to spend most mornings working after late nights up doing schoolwork—especially in the winter, when it was totally dark through a lot of her shift—it still made her feel good to help Kevin, to be the one he really counted on. She knew he appreciated it.
Maddy grabbed her backpack off the living room couch, which was covered in laundry, and quickly scanned the room to see if she was forgetting anything. Knickknacks and pictures lined the walls, hanging over the worn furniture and haphazard laundry-folding job Kevin had apparently started the night before and then stopped halfway through. The home was modest and could’ve stood a remodel in 1987, but it was all she had ever known—and, to be honest, all she’d ever really needed. Satisfied she wasn’t leaving anything behind, Maddy dashed out the door and down a narrow path that led from the front door through the sloping yard to the back door of Kevin’s Diner.
When she was eleven, she had tried to get her uncle to change the restaurant’s name to something more original, but Kevin was a bit of a traditionalist, and Kevin’s Diner it remained. She went in through the back door, slipped into the tiny office, and changed into her waitress uniform, which she kept in the office so she could head straight to school at the end of the shift. The uniform couldn’t be more traditional either: a simple pin-striped dress and white apron. The waitresses were theoretically supposed to wear pumps with the outfit, but most of the time Maddy managed to sneak her black Chucks past her uncle, who always seemed to look the other way.
Maddy could already smell the sharp aroma of fresh brewed coffee, sizzling bacon, and freshly poured pancakes as she emerged from the back and walked down the narrow hallway toward the kitchen. Just as she expected, Kevin was already hard at work behind the counter, plating the first three orders of the day. Maddy shoved a notepad and pen into the pocket of her dress and pulled her hair into a ponytail.
“Morning, Mads,” Kevin said, slapping butter on some whole-grain toast. “These go out to four and seven.” He indicated the plates. He was an average-looking man, if a little more weathered than most, but the lines of worry that crisscrossed his face were offset by a smile that always crackled with resilience and optimism.
“Cool,” Maddy said, yawning and deftly stacking the plates up her outstretched arm—a seasoned pro at seventeen.
“And Mads?” Kevin added. “Get yourself some coffee. On the house.” He winked. Maddy laughed sleepily, then, balancing the plates on her arms, swung out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
The dining room was like the rest of the restaurant—old and unremarkable, with fluorescent lights flickering over a scuffed black-and-white linoleum floor. The diner was laid out like an L on its side. The long part was bordered by a counter and stools on one side and cracked beige vinyl booths on the other. The booths ran along the windows that looked out to the street. The short part of the L faced back toward the house and the hill, giving those booths, like Maddy’s room, a near-perfect view of the famous Angel City sign. Maddy dropped off the orders to tables four and seven, then turned to head back for the water pitcher and coffee carafe to refill drinks.
“Excuse me, miss?” an overweight woman in one of the booths asked as Maddy passed. “Can you fix the TV?”
Maddy looked up at the ancient Magnavox propped in the corner. On the screen was nothing but rolling static, which tended to happen a lot. The woman’s cheeks were flushed, and her face wore the expectant expression of a child. “Didn’t you hear? There was a save last night in Malibu.” She emphasized the word save as if it was the most exciting, most important thing in the world.
“Oh, really?” Maddy murmured noncommittally. She placed one knee on the woman’s table and reached up, banging on the side of the set. After a moment the signal came in, and the diner filled with the sound of ANN—the Angel News Network. If it were up to Maddy, she’d rather watch anything else, but the customers always insisted on hearing the latest news about the Angels, and so ANN it was.
“A terrible accident but a dramatic save in a two-car collision in Malibu last night—and the Guardian had one of the NAS’s trial Angelcams!” announced the news anchor, her face obscured by smears of dust on the Magnavox. “We’ll have first-person, thrilling f
At the word Angelcams, the woman in the booth sat up straight and watched the screen with wide, excited eyes as it previewed the tantalizing footage of a misty hairpin curve on the Pacific Coast Highway.
“Oh my gawd! Can you imagine?” she said, her eyes fixed on the screen. “Can you imagine having one of them Guardian Angels always watchin’ over you, keeping you safe no matter what? And wakin’ in in their big, strong arms, with everybody having seen it?” Her eyes remained on the TV. “One day I’ll be saved.”
But Maddy was already walking away. The truth was, she just didn’t understand the big deal about Angels. Ever since they had revealed themselves to the world over one hundred years ago—the Awakening, as they called it—and turned their lifesaving abilities into a business, the Immortals seemed to be the only thing anyone cared about. Everyone, that was, except Maddy. It’s true she lived in Los Angeles—the Angel capital of the world—but she had never been able to go along with the crowd around her and get caught up in the mystique of their fame, fortune, and lavish lifestyles. She didn’t buy clothes from their clothing lines or sample their Angel-themed perfumes, and she certainly didn’t read about them in Angels Weekly. When you can’t afford any of that stuff, it’s just easier not to be sucked in, she had long since concluded.
The morning rush passed quickly, Maddy expertly wielding her pen and notepad to scratch down orders, dealing plate after plate of eggs, French toast, and sausage to the steady breakfast crowd. Near the end of her shift, when Maddy went back to the kitchen, she found another steaming plate of food waiting for her on the counter. There was no ticket with it. She frowned and looked at her pad.
“Kevin? Who ordered this?” she asked, flipping through her tickets. Kevin looked at her over the counter and smiled, the skin crinkling like paper around his eyes.
SCOTT SPEER SERIES:
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