The first installment of this piece appeared last week, and it started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.
ONE COMING UP YOUR SIDE NOW HEAD TO FOOT
Joshua sees the text flash up on the surface of his watch and taps out a quick reply. Although the watch face is small, the predictive text and shortcuts are amazing, so he answers Simon quickly.
WHEN I GO BE RIGHT BEHIND ME?
As Simon’s response in the affirmative comes back, Joshua let his eyes drift up without moving his head. A shadow is just now coming around the column and it continues down the platform, growing in length and then shrinking as it moves toward the next column. There’s nothing casting the shadow because the shadow is all that’s going by.
Joshua abruptly sits up, dropping his coat onto the bench but picking up his cane. Simon is right behind him, tapping away at the gauntlet on his arm. They follow the shadow, slowly at first but then picking up speed.
Although they try to be as silent as possible, several columns down the shadow suddenly snakes up the tile and then stops, appearing like nothing more than, well, a shadow on a column. Joshua and Simon catch up to it and stop, looking at it.
“What kind do you think it is?” Joshua asks.
“Hard to say,” Simon replies. “You know none of them like to appear as themselves.”
“Makes it tricky,” Joshua agrees, pulling something out of his pocket.
“You sure you want to try that first?” Simon asks.
“Ironic, since you’re the one who always wants to start with the high tech.”
“Our subjects aren’t usually so… two-dimensional,” Simon calls back, betraying the joke with the smile that Joshua fell in love with.
“Cute,” Joshua replies before raising his hand to hold something up before the shadow. It’s a round mirror, about four inches in diameter. He dances it around for a bit, raised slightly above his head and angles down. Nothing happens for a few seconds. Five. Ten. Twenty. But then…
The shadow suddenly darts from the column and right toward the mirror, condensing and growing darker as it approaches, and then going into the mirror, looking like a cone of black silk being sucked sideways down a drain. There’s a strange sound with it, although neither Joshua nor Simon can say exactly what it resembles. It sounds like an ocean distant in space, or applause distant in time; a long, quiet moan that could be pleasure or pain, or both; and a banging rattle that grew uncomfortably louder, like a train going over a trestle bridge or a rockslide.
And then the shadow and the sound are gone and Joshua immediately slams a metal cover over the mirror, giving it a couple of twists to secure it and then putting the whole thing into a black velvet bag and pulling the drawstring tight.
“Score one for me,” he announces to Simon proudly. Simon gives Joshua a quick kiss that makes his heart flutter and his knees weak.
“Then let’s get out of here fast,” Simon whispers to him. They hurry to the center of the platform, grab their coats to put them on right-way around, and then go to the escalator which, thankfully, is toward the center of the platform where they are.
“Good thing they don’t like escalators,” Joshua tells Simon as they’re halfway up.
“But they have no problem with stairs,” Simon whispers back, gesturing subtly. Jason glances past him to see a figure walking up the adjacent stairs. He’s moving very slowly and deliberately, but he is moving.
He looks normal enough, mostly. Hard to focus on, for some reason, especially when you notice that he doesn’t have a face. He has a head and all the other extremities, but on the front of the skull there’s… nothing. It’s just a flesh-tone void, or maybe not even that. It’s the blurriest part of him. When most people see him, right after they get to the face they suddenly lose interest. Not so Joshua and Simon, who’d trained themselves to never look away.
“So you want to take this one with us?” Joshua asks under his breath.
“No!” Simon snaps back. “I want to make sure this one doesn’t take us.”
“What’s the plan?” Joshua asks just as they reach the top of the escalator.
“Run!” Simon suddenly shouts, taking off, Joshua in hot pursuit. They run to the next escalator, Joshua cursing to himself that this station was built so damn deep. They step onto the bottom step and hesitate for a moment, then look to their left.
The faceless man is there on the steps beside them, looking their way, if a creature with no face can be said to be looking at anything. He moves at his same deliberate pace, but this escalator, being taller and steeper, also seems to be moving more slowly.
Simon and Joshua sprint up the rest of the way, the faceless man plodding along. At last, the couple makes it to the top of the station, looking back just in time to see the faceless man make the top of the stairs and walk toward them. Simon grabs Joshua’s arm and they back out through the opening and onto the sidewalk. The faceless man continues relentlessly onward toward them, then reaches the opening and, as he walks through it, fades away and vanishes.
Simon and Joshua both let out a huge sigh.
“You knew that was going to happen, right?” Joshua finally asks him.
“Um… I hoped it was going to,” Simon replied.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Joshua utters quietly. Simon nods and takes his hand and they walk down to Orange and across the boulevard to the south side where they had actually managed to find a parking spot. Then again, one in the morning on a Tuesday night that was no longer Tuesday was probably a good time to find that sort of thing in this neighborhood.
They’re home within fifteen minutes and nude and all over each other within fifteen minutes after that, Simon really only letting Joshua pause long enough to refill the dogs’ kibble and stow their little mirror trap in the vault under their bedroom floor. Of course, Joshua kneeling on the floor to open and close that vault just gives Simon ideas. The second Joshua secures the vault door, Simon launches the surprise attack from behind.
As usual, Joshua surrenders immediately.
* * *
Preston LeCard is doing his best at the moment to give a Glendale housewife the impression of being a rather large and nervous skunk running through her backyard, but she isn’t buying it. He had just almost made it through the Mission Road loop and was about to cross Cathedral Drive and go into the cemetery proper. And now this crazy bitch was in his way, wielding a broom.
Preston debated turning around and stomping his feet, hoping that she knew this bit of skunk lore, but as he started to turn she took a swing at him. Well, that just wouldn’t do. But what could he do? The Rêves tried to never draw attention to themselves, and he couldn’t exactly change disguises now. He regretted having not gone for something that could run faster or jump higher, but one of his fatal flaws was always trying his best to be cute, and in the quite literal sense of appearance rather than behavior.
His behavior was far from cute, but when you’re really cute everyone will let you get away with that. Well, everyone had let Preston get away with it, which was why he is trying to convince a Glendale Housewife that he is a rather large and nervous skunk.
“Of course,” Preston thinks. “It’s the nervous bit. Not confident enough. Let’s try angry skunk.”
He turns and bares his teeth at her, hissing, and is rewarded for his efforts by a broom in the face.
“What the fuck?” he tries to cry out, but skunks don’t exactly have the vocal cords for that, so it just turns his hiss into sort of the gobble of an angry old man who speaks a language no one else knows. This gets him the broom again.
Instinctively, Preston pulls away and he can’t control it as he abandons the skunk effort and shoots the woman the impression of being a very large and hostile coyote. He snarls at her, slowly approaching, yellow eyes giving the effect of glowing in the early morning sun.
He must be doing something right, because the woman abruptly faints and he quickly hops the fence, crosses the front yard, then bounds over Cathedral Drive and into the cemetery itself. He doesn’t stop until he’s well-hidden behind a large and ornate monument, at which point he abandons the coyote disguise altogether and blends back into his true appearance, or as true as he can bother to muster it nowadays.
It comforts him to return here every day and sit next to the cenotaph dedicated to the family LeCard. It’s red marble, about twenty-five feet tall, and sits on a large red marble sphere. Preston’s grandfather was the first LeCard buried under it, but was not the last.
The marble is still polished enough that he can see his face in it, so he takes a moment to adjust himself to optimal cuteness. It’s not much of a shift, but enough, from his real self to his ideal self. He couldn’t explain it if he tried. It was just a feeling, really, and then the way he looked would change, at least as he saw it. It probably was nothing more than a little adjustment in attitude, but Preston had always believed that what you thought was what you saw, and not the other way around.
He isn’t very tall — probably 5’7” on a good day — but he is perfectly proportioned without being overly muscled. His torso is a rectangle, his ass is round, and his legs are strong. There’s something animalistic in his face even when he isn’t trying to pass himself off as one, but it’s in a good way. He has a wide, smiling face with a lupine nose, and eyes that are almond both in shape and color. His hair is a russet chestnut, a little shaggy without being long. Although his chest and stomach are naturally hairy, he’s been waxing them since he was 19. He’s been a sex worker since he was 17. Now, at 23, he’s considered an old pro.
Well, he was an old pro, Preston thinks. He also reminds himself that he hasn’t been planning to retire. There’s no reason to. He still has his looks — and he’s admiring them in the reflection when a familiar voice calls out.
“Hey, Pres! Put something on. Nobody wants to see that!”
“Hello, Anabel,” Preston calls back without looking. “Nobody can see me like this anyway.”
“I can,” Anabel retorts. With a huff, Preston comes around from the monument in a black t-shirt and blue jeans, although still bare-footed. As usual, Anabel wears a long blue evening gown and matching elbow gloves, her jet black hair streams down her back in a highlighted waterfall, one tress in front covering half of her right eye, which only emphasizes her thin face, alabaster skin, and glossy red lips. Her eyes are jade green and intense between dark black lashes, above sharp, high cheekbones, and below carefully penciled brows, set off by a pale dusty rose eyeshadow that serves as a quiet echo of her lips.
Her shoes match her lipstick, and Preston always marvels when he sees how well they actually work with her ocean blue dress instead of against it.
Things never seem to go so well between the two of them, though, despite running into each other all the time — Anabel’s family crypt is a neighbor to the LeCards.
“Don’t get all dressed up on account of me,” she tells him, her irony as wet as those lips. “We do require your assistance, however.”
“We?” Preston repeats. Anabel always seems to think of him as part of some imaginary royal first person while Preston never does. Especially because whenever she brings up “we,” trouble follows. “What is it this time?” he asks her, trying to sound as weary and wary as possible.
“They’ve been kidnapping us, for a start,” Anabel intones, this time entirely sincere.
“Fuck…” Preston mutters as he sinks to sit on top of the nearest tombstone. “Details?”
“We only know what they look like, but haven’t been able to follow them anywhere. They’re… I forget the term, but grown men who dress up in costumes — ”
“Super heroes?” Preston offers.
“No,” she corrects him. “Not professionals, they do it for fun.”
“Cosplayers,” Preston replies confidently.
“Mmmm… I don’t think so. Or… it’s very specialized. When they look like they broke out of a Jules Verne — ”
“That’s it. These two tall, skinny, white, nerdy steampunks have been doing it.”
“Kidnapping… um… us?” Preston asks.
“Yes,” Anabel answers. “But that should make it easy to find them, right? The costumes?”
“Oh, sure,” Preston replies, trying not to grin. “That should make it easy to find… about two hundred of them, downtown, on a Saturday night.”
“It’s all we have to go on,” she shoots back in frustration.
“Who did they get this time?” Preston asks.
“Elizabeth,” Anabel replies. Seeing his expression, she adds, “Short?”
“Never heard of her,” Preston insists.
“Before your time,” she tells him.
“Isn’t everything?” he shoots back. “So… you know who got kidnapped, not who did it or where they’ve taken her. Wait… you said ‘kidnapping us,’ didn’t you? As in… she’s not the first.”
“You catch on fast,” she teases in her best film noir bad girl voice. “She’s the third.”
“And what do they want?”
“We have no idea.”
“No one’s asked.”
“Really…?” Preston muses, finally sighing and turning to Anabel, seeing that she hasn’t gotten it yet. “No ransom, no demands. That’s not a kidnapping.”
“Then what is it?” she demands.
“Probably a serial killing,” Preston explains dryly.
“That would actually be better,” Anabel insists. “More of a chance of escaping.”
“You really miss a joke sometimes, don’t you?”
“No, darlin’. I catch ‘em and throw ‘em back.” She raises her left eyebrow to top off her gun moll impression.
“You know those routines don’t work on me,” Preston tells her.
“I’m not working you,” she insists. “As if any of that matters anymore.”
“Don’t remind me, sunshine,” he replies in his best Bogart — which isn’t that good, since he barely knows who Bogart was and has only met him twice despite them sort of being neighbors. “But speaking of working,” he continues, “What exactly is it you need me to help with if you don’t know who took them, you don’t know why, and you have no idea where they are?”
“We need you to… be taken by them,” she finally explains reluctantly. Preston just stares at Anabel for a long moment. Then…
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he explodes. “So then I vanish and you have no idea where I went?”
“That’s just the point, Pres,” she tells him as calmly as possible. “We can’t do anything to catch or follow the two kidnappers, we can only scare them. But one of us will always know where you are, and we can follow you.”
“You’re sure of that?”
“You know how it works,” she insists. “If you don’t let us down, we won’t let you down.”
He thinks about it a moment. Then, “You said two tall, skinny, white nerdy guys?”
“That’s the description.”
“Hm. They do sound hot.”
“Stop it,” she tells him, playfully swatting at his shoulder. “You know that kind of thing is really frowned upon among us.”
“It’s the 21st century, Anabel.”
“Not the gay thing, okay? You know damn well what I’m talking about.”
“You forgot to throw that joke back,” he smiles at her.
“You can’t catch it if it’s not funny,” she replies. “So, yes or no?”
“All right,” he finally tells her. “Yes. When?”
“Tonight, after the last train, Universal City Station.”
“We’re in the Valley now.”
“Glendale… really doesn’t count. You can see downtown!”
“Hey, if you don’t know who they are, how do you know — ”
“We know their habits,” she interrupts him. “They’ve been doing a different station every weeknight, moving northwest. Universal is next.”
“Couldn’t even have made it just one stop earlier and hit Hollywood, could they?”
“They already did and you missed them. But you’re more likely to get your big break right next to an actual studio,” she winks at him.
“Then… see you tonight?”
“See you then,” she replies. “You let them get you, and I’ve got your back.” She gives him a little wave as she turns and walks away in a fading shimmer of blue beneath a black streak, buoyed on tiny stilts of red. Preston turns to the marble monument and looks down at the letters etched deep into it in a serif font: “LE CARD.”
It was weird to be looking at a grave with his own name on it like that. Granted, it wasn’t as unsettling to Preston now as it had once been, and he really didn’t mind spending time here. In fact, he’d gotten so comfortable that he lied down on the red marble slab that marked the newest grave and, despite the sun and distant city sounds, he fell dead asleep. And in all that time he slept, nobody saw him there.
* * *
Brenda Mason hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to the first two reports from Metro staff and had barely reviewed the cam footage. After all, two tall white guys dressed up like they survived an explosion in a Victorian KMart were nothing unusual in L.A. But the third report piqued her curiosity, and then the fourth really got her attention.
For one thing, they always showed up the same approximate time each week, on one of the last trains into the station. As she finally took the time to watch all of the footage, she saw that their approach was always the same. Disguise themselves as homeless, fall asleep back to back and facing opposite directions, and then at some point suddenly get up and chase… something.
It was the “something” part she couldn’t figure out, because there wasn’t anything visible on the footage. And yet, every time, the two of them pursued it, and if they were both just pretending, they were damn good actors, because their focus was so strong that Brenda could always tell in her mind exactly where their prey was supposed to be and how it was moving even though, again, they were running after thin air.
Hell, their acting was so good that she even imagined she did see some fleeting shadow darting ahead of them a couple of times, but she was experienced enough with the equipment to know that those were probably just artefacts.
But then she came to the Hollywood and Highland footage, which had been reported a couple of nights early but which she hadn’t gotten to until Thursday morning. The usual thing, at first, and they seem to “catch” something rather quickly, then start to leave, heading up the escalator.
And then, they’re not alone. Brenda hadn’t noticed anyone else on the platform, although he could have just been out of range. But this person is walking up the stairs between the escalators, and the two Victorian-looking dudes notice him and start to move faster. Something is clearly freaking them out.
Brenda keeps watching. The figure wears a long, hooded coat, moving away from the camera and up the steps, walking at a constant pace even as the other two start to try to race up the moving stairs.
She switches cameras at the upper landing, where the two men run for the next escalator of three. This is when the other figure steps off of the stairs and walks casually toward the next set and Brenda finally gets a good look at its face.
Well, not its face, its… she’s not sure what. He could be wearing a mask, except that there’s something strange about it. A mask would appear solid, even if of a uniform color. And, in any case, there’d probably be eyes visible, or at least eye holes.
She saw nothing. And, more importantly, the “mask” didn’t appear to be at all solid or uniform. The best she could describe it was like the hood was full of smoke which occasionally wafted around the hood to obscure its edges even though it didn’t appear to be smoke at all.
That’s when she noticed the “hands” for the first time, as well. Wispy and not really tangible, just roughly the size and shape of hands at the end of the sleeves. The figure continued up the stairs.
She switched to the next camera, looking down the last flight that came up to the street as the two men bounded to the escalator. The figure continued its pursuit, seeming to catch up with the men faster than he should.
The duo steps off of the escalator at the top, turning to look back down. The taller one grabs the shorter one’s arm and they back out onto the covered forecourt that joins the sidewalk. The figure reaches the top of the stairs and then suddenly fades away to nothing, gone.
Brenda can’t hear how the two men react, but she mutters under her breath. “Well fuck me goddamn sideways.”
She debates for a moment, then calls her supervisor.
“Rita,” she says. “Bren. I’ve got something I think you need to see… No, as soon as possible. It’s… okay, let me put it this way. You all are going to want to see this shit… Great. See you in five.”
* * *
Image © 2018 Jon Bastian. Content, © 2017, 2020, Jon Bastian. All rights reserved. This content cannot be copied in any form or format without express written permission of the copyright holder.