“Cut!” Landis Woodley shouted, but the actors wouldn’t stop moving. “Hey! What are you guys doin’? I said, ‘Cut!’ ”
They lumbered toward him, a pack of zombies, mindlessly placing one stiff leg in front of the other. Relentless, in the finest B-movie tradition.
Pissed off, Landis fumbled with his megaphone. He brought it up to his mouth so hard it smashed his lip. Blood started to flow. He shouted into the suddenly red mouthpiece. “Cut! Cut!” The broadcast words sounded shrill.
But the zombies continued to come.
Landis looked over to where his cameraman should’ve been. The space was empty. The unmanned camera whirred, film turning.
“What’s goin’ on here?” he asked, unaware that the megaphone was still pressed against his bloody lip.
Landis backed up, stumbling over the cloth-backed director’s chair with his name on it. The zombies took another step. Landis dropped the megaphone and ran, the living dead behind him.
A startled security guard raised his head from his desk as Landis passed; an empty bottle of wine stood like a small green monument next to his hand.
“Hey, Mr. Woodley! Where’reyagoin’?”
Landis’s voice sounded like a piston engine. “Something went wrong! They’re after me!” he shouted. “They’re comin’ to get me!”
The guard smiled ruefully. “Ain’t nothin’ but the devil, lookin’ to collect his debt. Happens every damn day. Be a man. Accept your fate.”
“This is not my fate,” Landis said.
The guard snorted. “What script are you workin’ off? Mine says it right here: scene sixty-six, the devil gets Landis Woodley.” The guard held up a typewritten sheaf of papers. Landis tried to read the title but couldn’t.
Footsteps sounded down the hall.
“You always knew how to scare the shit out of people,” the guard said.
Landis sprinted through the door into the cool, cruel LA night. A few feeble stars twinkled above him, a raw moon hung low and chafed in the sky. He ran to his car and jerked the car door open. A black shape, like a negative space in the shape of a human being, sat in the driver’s seat.
Landis recoiled in horror when he saw the black hole behind the ’steering wheel. The void reached out to him.
Something said, “Give it up, Landis. The devil always wins.”
Landis Woodley screamed as if he were already in hell. The spent, humid air from his lungs filled the night. He gagged between screams, choking back acidic bile.
* * *
Landis woke himself up, the sweaty sheets wrapped around his body like pythons. His mouth was full of vomit. He rolled over and spit it out onto the floor.
The darkness became less sinister around him. He gradually began to understand.
It had been a dream. A nightmare.
“Jesus H. Christ. That was too much,” he said, gasping. The clock showed 4:51 A.M.
He sat up, disoriented. Slowly he rose and went to the bathroom. The taste in his mouth threatened to make him sick again, so he brushed his teeth and rinsed several times.
He staggered back into the bedroom.
The open window showed Los Angeles below, and to the south a fierce blanket of diamonds. He walked across the room unsteadily and fished a cigarette out of a rumpled pack on the dresser.
* * *
Landis washed his face with cold water, crunching three aspirins between his teeth. The sour taste made the glands on the sides of his neck tingle and he gulped some water to wash it down.
In the mirror he looked bad, much older than his thirty-six years. He felt older too. The time he’d spent locked in this house, drinking alone, pounding on his noisy Underwood typewriter, had aged him. Now the receding hairline was dotted with liver spots, and the baggage he carried beneath his eyes couldn’t be ignored.
Lack of money accelerated the aging process.
Landis juggled his finances until his fingers were bloody. Borrowing from one person to pay off another, always desperate to stay one step ahead of the creditors, he’d lost track of himself.
He spent his days cranking out an endless stream of stories, novels, and screenplays. The stories he sold to men’s magazines. The novels, which all featured tough private eyes and dames with long legs, were essentially genre crap. He’d make a few hundred bucks and move on.
The screenplays were different. Those he cherished. The thought of going back into production on one of his scripts nourished him through the unending drought.
But now Landis was near the end. He owed too much money to too many people. His problems were escalating, his stomach lining was failing, and he drank and smoked excessively. If things didn’t change soon, he’d lose everything.
He needed a gig.
* * *
Landis cracked open a can of tomato juice and splashed it into a plastic tumbler with two fingers of vodka. A generous shot of Tabasco followed. Sipping from the bitter brew, he walked out onto the verandah of his house.
Dawn was dissolving the night sky to the east. In a few minutes, orange shafts of light would slant between the hills and the first birds would sing.
Somewhere in the valley below, in the vast sea of asphalt and concrete, a pair of headlights found Landis. They separated themselves from the mass and turned into his canyon. He followed with bloodshot eyes as a car began the twisting ascent up the only road that led to his house.
“So, the devil wants his due,” Landis said. He chuckled and coughed. “Take a number.”
The car stopped in front of his house, which was built down from the street into a steep ravine. Landis knew who it was.
A dog barked in the distance. Landis heard the door of a brand-new 1967 Ford Thunderbird convertible slam shut with a throaty crack.
Sol Kravitz had arrived.
Copyright © 1998 by Greg Kihn