You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. 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.
Almost a week later, after Joshua and Simon have hopped the B Line to the A line, and then taken the circuitous route to get to JPL. They never wore their hunting uniforms when they came here, but rather dressed civilian and very plainly, generally in jeans and casual button-down shirts.
Although they wore their hair a little on the longish-side to suit their work personae, they would use product to flatten it and look more clean-cut here. After all, in order to get down to Ausmann’s office, they had to clear security above ground twice, and then clear it twice more below ground, before they could bring their latest capture to Ausmann and turn it over.
The old man held the trap in his hand, turning it over and over like a giant poker chip, demanding details of the capture. They told him about chasing the shadow, how they finally lured it in, and escaped the station. He listened patiently, then gave them a jaundiced look.
“Anything else, boys?” he asked.
“Um… not really?” Simon said, Joshua nodding in agreement.
“Really?” Ausmann insisted.
“Really. Well, not really, no, not anything important to report,” Joshua insisted, Simon nodding.
“Do you really think I’m an ignorant old asshole?” Ausmann asked, not waiting for an answer as he tapped the edge of his desk a couple of times and footage appeared on the display above his desk.
It was the Hollywood and Highland Station, upper level escalators and stairs, right as Joshua and Simon were hauling ass up, pursued by the faceless thing who almost made it before fading away on top. Ausmann let it play, then tapped his desk to pause it and waited.
The silence became uncomfortable until he finally grunted, “So?”
“So…?” Simon asked.
“Any idea what the fuck that was following you?” he demanded.
“What what was?” Joshua asked, tossing on his best innocent face.
“Oh, don’t play that shit with me, you little cunts. You weren’t running up those escalators for exercise.”
“Um, no… but we knew that the last bus to get us to our car was about to pull out,” Peter offered.
“You parked one block west and one block down on Orange, you lying little assholes. Want to try again?”
“What were we supposed to do?” Joshua demanded. “That was the first time we’d seen anything like that. It’s not in the catalog or on the list, and I sure as hell didn’t think we had the tools.”
“Me neither,” Simon added.
“Anyway, it felt like it was beyond our pay-grade.”
Ausmann just stared at them for a long moment, then broke out into laughter, making them both look even more nervous. Finally, he just smiled and said, “Oh my god, you little assholes are even more suited for government work than I ever thought.”
Joshua sensed Simon tensing up for a fight on the word “assholes” and instinctively held him back. “All rightie,” he finally said. “I’m upping your pay grade and your rank, from H3 to H4, which also means you’re getting better tools. But, here’s the deal. In addition to your normal retrieval missions, if you see one of those things again, then you’re going to trap it as well. Understand?”
“Um… what are ‘those things,’ exactly?” Simon asked.
“None of your goddamn business,” Ausmann snapped. “Other than the more of them you catch along with those other things, the sooner you’re going to help me achieve our goals.”
“And the sooner we’re unemployed?” Joshua offered timidly.
“Don’t be a snarky fucking asshole like you usually are, boy. Got it?”
Joshua braced his arm across Simon’s chest and shot him a sideways look. “Sorry, boss,” Joshua explained.
“He can be snarky fucking asshole at times,” Simon spat. “But it’s what makes him good at what he does, and why I fucking love him to death. We good?”
Joshua just stared at Simon in amazement and gratitude as Ausmann turned away and stared out of his office window, finally grunting. “It all depends, boys. On your next trip down, bring me what I’ve asked for. Then I’ll let you know whether ‘we good,’ or you gone. Got it?”
Simon nodded, then Joshua dragged him out before he could say anything more.
* * *
When Preston woke up later, he noticed that he was being stared at. Then again, in his sleep he had reverted to his usual naked, human form. He couldn’t help it — that’s how most people had met and remembered him. Occupational hazard.
He looked up and realized that a very large crow was perched on the sphere that held up the cenotaph above the family tomb. He smiled at the crow who peered down at him intently.
“I know you’re not what you look like,” Preston said. “And you can obviously see me.”
The crow let out a caw and hopped to the ground but, on the way, transformed into a young human male, dressed simply. Preston didn’t recognize him, but realized that they were probably about the same height, although this kid was obviously really young, and definitely Hispanic.
He had jet-black hair that came into a twist in the middle of his forehead, very 1950s-style, a smile that turned up the left side of his face while squinting his right eye, and a general demeanor that just made Preston trust him.
“I’m Richard,” the kid said.
“Preston,” Preston replied. “Nice to meet you. What brings you here?”
“A lot,” Richard explained. “You know how hard it is to get to Glendale from San Fernando via our usual methods?”
“You can do the crow thing,” Preston countered. “Why not just fly?”
“I kind of have a really big aversion to flying,” Richard said. “Don’t ask. I came here to make you change your mind.”
“I’d say running around with your pinga out in a cemetery, but none of the carne de prada around here can see that. What do you know about Anabel?”
“What about her?” Preston asks.
“Hm. Follow me,” Richard says, walking toward a nearby mausoleum. “How do you know her, anyway?”
“Um… we just met. You know. Like you do when you go to the same places. Hey, we just met, right?”
“True,” Richard replied, “But I was looking.”
“For me? Why?”
“Like I said. To talk you out of doing something stupid tonight in Universal City.”
“How do you know about that?” Preston demanded.
“I know a lot of things, Preston,” Richard replied. “Especially about Anabel.”
Richard pointed at the mausoleum. “There. Notice anything?”
Preston studied it, not sure what Richard was getting at. Then again, Preston wasn’t really an expert in funerary architecture. But then it struck him — the building was actually huge, but there was only one name carved in the granite plinth that spanned the columns across its front.
“Who are they?” Preston asked. “Like, Chandler the L.A. Times dude?”
“No,” Richard said. “Think Waldorf-Astoria, a bit removed.”
“Isn’t that a salad?” Preston asked. “No, wait. The Muppets, right?”
“You made it through life on your looks, didn’t you?” Richard muttered. “Anything else stand out?”
“Well… it’s big.”
“And water is wet. Big, one family, meaning…?”
“Rich as hell?”
“Yep. See any dates?” Richard pointed toward the cornerstone of the building because he was getting tired of Preston being so oblivious — although he wondered whether the boy wasn’t just acting to mess with him. Preston peered at the stone.
“Est. 1906,” he read. “So… really old, really rich. What about Anabel?”
“Okay, first of all,” Richard explained, “1906 was the first year that this place became a cemetery, meaning that the Chanlers were one of the first families to buy land in it. And look at this building. It was not expanded. This is the original, because it’s all one style. So, what does that tell you?”
“That you’re getting this information from someone else?”
“Oh, goddam right I did. That’s the first smart thing you’ve ever said today. What? Look at me. I’m a poor fucking immigrant Mexican kid who grew up with grape pickers and only got lucky because I could sing and some white asshole noticed, of course I don’t know about architecture, I was only seventeen when the plane…”
He spun away and silenced himself, confusing Preston even more. “What?” Preston asked.
“Yes, I got the information from someone else,” Richard explained calmly. “Now I’m giving it to you.” Look at the names on the vaults, and the dates, take your time, I’ll be over here.
“O… kay?” Preston replied as Richard just shrugged him off and wandered across the road to a section of more open plots. Suddenly, he was holding a guitar and started to play it, singing a song that Preston vaguely remembered hearing in some movie a long time ago.
But he did what Richard asked, looking at the vaults in the Mausoleum, which seemed to go in chronological order from top left, down each column in turn. They were stacked six high, with bronze plaques and flower vases mounted in the marble facing, and they were set four wide — two vaults, column, two more, column — before the main doors to the inner vaults.
These were crystal glass panes set in doors wrought from copper that had long since corroded to a deep green patina, three sets of two, each one with an elaborate doorknob on the left in the form of the face of a cherub, period keyhole in the door to the right. On the right side of the six sets of doors, there were another set of vaults, six by four.
So… forty-eight vaults along the front, but clearly more inside. Preston walked around the building to find that each side also contained the same number of vaults, although the only doors were on the front. The back of the building had sixty-six vaults, the extra eighteen taking up the space that would have been doors, but the names on the dates on the brass plaques stopped two rows from the top left and four columns down on the backside:
Justin David Chanler Gomez Jr.
Beloved Son, Brother, Husband, and Father
April 14, 1978 — September 23, 2013.
Preston came back to the front and peered in through the windows to see a lot more vaults inside. He still didn’t have a single clue what Richard had been trying to get him to figure out. If only he could go inside, it would be so much easier…
And then he metaphorically kicked himself. This was just a door, after all. It meant nothing to him. He passed through it and examined the arrangements inside.
Here, the internal vaults were obviously arranged around the seven feet of space each of the outer vaults intruded, and were set to create a sort of Greek cross open space of equal arms. Everything was centered around a rosette pattern set dead center, right under a domed skylight in which quartz glass depicted the signs of the Zodiac.
In the middle of that rosette, a bronze star with eight points, was an inscription:
In loving memory of Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.
She will be forever missed, but never forgotten, that is our family’s promise.
August 1, 1893 — February 3, 1926.
Well, shit, Preston thought. She’d died on his birthday. Well, not the year, but the day. And she was a hell of a lot older than he’d ever thought, in more ways than one. And, somehow, more important to all these rich bitches than anyone else?
He ran back out of the mausoleum and to Richard.
“Dude, February 3. She died on my birthday!”
“So did I, pendejo,” Richard replied. “Anything else?”
It hit Preston in a flash, and he truly felt like a dumbfuck. “Wait… LeCard? We’re related? But… how? She’s too old to be my mother, and nobody ever mentioned anyone with that name in the family. What the fuck is going on?
“Simple, amigo. Nunca confundir casarse con cazar. En sólo una manera se puede crear familia.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Figure out who she married and why.”
“Yeah, well… shit, what time is it?”
“Five o’clock.” Richard explained, adding, “In the evening.”
“That doesn’t give me much time,” Preston replies.
“Really, dude? You and I have all the time in the world. Unfortunately, so does she.”
“But what does she want?” Preston demands. “You haven’t told me that.”
Richard shrugs. “I’m only here to put you on the path,” he says. “Not to drag you down it.”
“Oh, fuck you — ” Preston yells, but Richard has vanished before the F even begins.
* * *
After spending most of the day pointedly ignoring potential danger, then most of the afternoon after a quick drive over to Malibu for a fabulous lunch, Joshua and Simon had spent the hours between mid-afternoon and evening just holding and fucking each other left, right, and sideways and, as they had begun the day, ignoring the clear and present danger.
Then, well after nightfall they stared into each other’s eyes, trembled in fear, then got up, got hold of themselves, and armored up in their steampunk regalia.
Although tonight’s target was also the closest to home they ever had — in fact, they were just going to walk two blocks to the NoHo Metro station and catch that train one stop south to Universal City. But despite being the closet mission, it was also the scariest, given what had happened at Hollywood and Highland.
Not to mention what Ausmann might do if they fucked this one up which, honestly, was not beyond possibility. They discussed it on the way down the elevator from their condo, both of them finally saying basically the same thing at the same time.
“We need insurance,” they said, then added, “Jinx,” and linked pinkies.
“Well, we do,” Joshua insisted. “But what?”
“Too late to worry about it now, isn’t it?” Simon replied.
“I don’t need insurance,” Joshua said. “I’ve got you.”
“Ditto,” Simon answered as the elevator doors opened in the lobby. Their appearance startled a neighbor, an older man carrying two plastic grocery bags. Simon tipped his hat to him. “Good evening,” he said as they passed and the old man dashed into the waiting car.
One thing that Joshua and Simon had agreed on long before they set out on tonight’s hunt: Since they weren’t exactly sure what Ausmann was doing to the entities they were bringing to him — and they had always seemed to be sentient entities for as long as they’d been hunting — they would give this victim the chance to argue for their freedom. Or at least explain things.
Why not? It was only fair. Right?
They passed under the three metal arches at the NoHo Metro station and down the escalator to the bank of ticket dispensers on the first landing, but skipped them since they’d loaded their TAP cards to the gills long ago, then passed their way through the turnstiles and across the short path to the second set of escalators that took them down to the platform.
As usual, there was a “dead” train on the right-hand side of the platform, and another one waiting on the left. Experienced riders could tell by the sound whether it was still waiting or about to go by the simple sound of the air conditioning. If it was going, so was the train, so time to run. If not, then there was no hurry.
This one was humming, so they hopped onto the closest car. Within a few seconds came the ding and the doors closing warning, and then the train started to pull out of the station. As usual, it took its time pulling through the crossover that would put it on the right-hand set of tracks, but once it was clear of the intricate rails and tunnels south of the station, the driver put the pedal to the floor.
This was a short hop — actually very walkable aboveground — and in about three minutes, they pulled into the Universal City Station, where they got off of the train and headed to their usual station on a bench near the middle of the platform.
At this hour, the place was nearly deserted, but not completely enough. They still had a bit of a wait.
Down the platform, Brenda was camped out on a bench, dressed in her own costume, as a homeless woman, rocking back and forth and pretending to talk to herself — although she was really talking to Rita in a sort of coded style they had pre-determined. To any outsiders, she would sound insane. To Rita, she made total sense.
Of course, every single Metro employee, cop, and driver had been informed about her presence and appearance, so that she would not be molested or arrested.
“They’re here!” she announced, trying to sound paranoid. “Right down the platform, I can see them, looking at them right now — ” She was staring at empty tracks on the other side.
“Roger,” Rita’s voice came back. “What are they doing?”
“Sitting. Sitting, just sitting, pretending they ain’t doing nothing. You see them? You see?”
“Yes,” Rita replied. “We have them on camera. We’ll let you know if they do anything.”
“Amen!” Brenda called out in their pre-arranged code for “Copy that” before she went back to her fake homeless shtick of rocking back and forth and humming “Sweet Chariot.”
Truth to tell, she was enjoying this. She had minored in drama in college, mostly because her advisor in the Urban Planning program had, well, advised her that anyone majoring in a field like that really should have some exposure to the arts, because it was a bigger part of any career than any of them would ever think.
Surprisingly, she really took to doing musicals, and her favorite roles had been as Evillene in The Wiz and Mama in Raisin!, and she had gotten rave reviews.
Still, she always resented the fact that she had been rejected out-of-hand for the role of another Mama, the prison matron Mama Morton, in the production of Chicago her senior year with the lame excuse of, “Honey, this show is set in the 1920s. Ain’t gonna be no black woman in that position then.”
Four years later, Queen Latifah won a fucking Oscar for playing the same part in the movie, and Brenda decided to give up even trying to act ever again.
Now, she felt like she was playing the role of her life. No one would appreciate her for it, although she had a feeling that it would damn near change the world.
She waited, getting occasional reports from Rita, and then Rita’s assistant who eventually took over because, obviously, bitch couldn’t be bothered to stay so late as a salaried employee. The reports mostly amounted to, “Subjects still in place, nothing happening Stand by.”
She found herself quietly humming her character’s signature song from The Wiz; “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news,” and then felt a hint of regret at playing a character that she knew that every Black person watching the show would get, but very few white people would.
She also had no idea how much later it was because she wasn’t sure whether she’d dozed off, but then heard the voice in her ear. “Action on the platform. Action on the platform.”
“Well, shit…” she thought as she turned her attention to look to her right.
* * *
Image © 2017 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.