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.
“Wow,” Brenda said after Simon and Joshua had finished their tag-team explanation of what was going on. “Oh, wow,” she repeated, absently finishing up the last of the seasoned fries which was the last of bit her breakfast.
They had agreed, by the time they’d gotten here, that the evening had left them all very hungry. Joshua had gone for a custom cheeseburger, with double patties, Swiss and cheddar cheese, bacon, mayo, caramelized onions, and red-skinned potatoes on the side.
Meanwhile Simon built his own omelet, with fire-roasted bell peppers and onions, jalapeños, sautéed mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, feta and pepper-jack cheese, an English muffin, seasonal fruit instead of potato, and fresh avocado on top.
Yeah, while Joshua and Simon were alike in a lot of ways, they weren’t when it came to food choices. That made cooking at home a bit awkward.
“I figured that would be your reaction,” Simon replied to Brenda’s “Wow.”
“But it makes so much sense now,” she said. “Of course that’s what’s going on. Okay, okay. I guess now it’s my turn to share.”
Of course, Joshua and Simon had only told her what they knew, which was naturally limited because Ausmann hadn’t been so forthcoming — and they had left out any mention of him or JPL, just that they were doing it for someone with government connections, while Joshua had done a brilliant job of tossing in the deflection of, “Well, this person is affiliated with a government organization we wouldn’t want to have anything to do with directly in a million years.”
Simon was actually proud of that one. Anyone who knew the two of them knew that they would each give their right nut, and probably toss in the left one, in order to have legit careers at JPL. Hell, offer to send them to Mars, they’d probably cut off their dicks as well.
“So, share?” Joshua replied.
Brenda proceeded to tell them about L.A. Metro lore, the stories that were passed along down the years, and shared as almost a rite of passage tradition for new employees — especially when a foreman was breaking in new tunnel crew who had the graveyard maintenance shifts of cleaning and repairing the trains, scooping dead rats out of the track beds, finding suicides that had been missed because they managed to get down a tunnel and in front of a train without a driver noticing, and so on.
That and constantly power-hosing piss and shit out of everything, because humans were pigs.
“Ghost stories to haze new employees?” Simon asked when she was done.
“That’s what I always thought, yeah,” she said. “But then I got into management, and then upper management, and then wound up actually seeing the so-called ‘R-Files.’”
“Is that anything like the X-Files?” Joshua asked.
“Sort of,” Brenda said. “R. As in Riordan. Does that name ring any bells?”
Simon and Joshua looked at each other, both drawing blanks, finally replying, “No.”
“Yeah, y’all were probably too young. Where’d you grow up?”
“Here,” Joshua replied.
“Well, the Valley,” Simon said.
“West… Valley…” Joshua added reluctantly.
“So your parents probably voted for him. I was a junior, maybe senior in high school. So I knew of him, only knew I didn’t like him because he was an old white man, and a Republican — ”
“Eew!” Joshua and Simon chimed in together.
“And yet he marched in the Gay Pride Parade while was mayor. In the 90s. But the real shit was kept under cover, and that’s what’s in the R-Files.”
“Sounds… interesting,” Joshua said.
“Very,” Simon added.
“Yeah. Basically, it validates everything you’ve just told me, but I think it also fills in a lot of the holes in what you I know.”
“So tell,” Simon said.
“All right,” Brenda said, “But I think this is going to require coffee and dessert.”
“Agreed,” Joshua replied, Simon nodding.
Brenda went for the New York style cheesecake. Meanwhile, when it came to dessert, Joshua and Simon were the perfect match, so it was one chocolate lava cake, two forks. And then three large coffees all around.
* * *
She knows that any Class 2’s or Class 3’s captured by the type of traps these assholes are using will, mercifully, be unconscious until they are released. She also knows, from what she’s seen, that those traps would not have captured her, and so was completely surprised to find herself taken in by something that left her entirely aware, and yet trapped like a butterfly under glass, able to see outside, and yet not get there.
She also couldn’t hear anything — the device she was sealed in was soundproof. Also, the dark-haired one had hung it back on his belt, and she was now sitting in her cage on the fake leather bench in what seemed to be a cheap diner booth, in between her two captors.
Even more infuriating than being imprisoned and not being able to hear what was going on, though, was that while she’d been alive she was the ruling power behind her entire extended family because she knew how to manipulate the patriarch of the clan, her paternal grandfather, Winthrop Stuyvesant Chanler, whom she always called Papaw Winnie.
She also had no brothers, only younger sisters, as did her father, which put her in a unique position, especially after her father died in a horseback riding accident while surveying one of their family’s many rancheros in the Eastern San Fernando Valley.
She was 13 at the time and it was 1906, about six months after the northern branch of the family had lost so much in the San Francisco earthquake. Or would have lost so much, except that when Anabel heard the news, she went to her grandfather and told him exactly how to use the disaster to make a fortune.
She told him he needed to go start a bank, to offer personal loans and to finance rebuilding; buy up real estate that seemed worthless; start several development companies; and get a few of her cousins into politics on the state level.
It turned out that the hardest part was starting the bank, but only because Amadeo Giannini, who had started the Bank of Italy in San Francisco two years earlier, had seen the promise in the idea, and had the gall to recreate it as the Bank of America with two Burgundy type wine barrels and a plank in the middle of the wreckage in North Beach, where he started handing out money to mostly Italian-Americans.
Fortunately, Anabel’s grandfather hated the people he always called “The Wops,” and made sure that all the bigger loans and better property went to the good old Anglos.
Ironically, decades later, the spot where Amadeo had started his bank would be near the site of the famous Transamerica Pyramid. Transamerica was Bank of America’s holding company. The Chanlers had always considered the Gianninis to be major-league assholes. The feeling was mutual.
But, in 1906, Anabel’s advice led to a flurry of telegraphs from her grandfather, as well as quickly booked train trips to as close to the Bay Area as they could get before riding in on horseback and horse-drawn cart, and over the next few years, Anabel’s plans succeeded beyond even her own wildest dreams. But between start and finish, her father died, leaving her as the only logical heir, which grandfather declared her to be on her eighteenth birthday in 1911.
This was when she pulled her second coup, seeing what was going on in Europe, and advising him that the best way to become rich in war-time was to provide arms. “To which side?” he had asked her.
“To all of them,” she said. And even though he had to compete with the Krupp dynasty of Essen, he gave them a run for their money, despite them having been in the arms business for almost 300 years at that point.
By 1918, the family had made another huge killing, grandfather had set Anabel up in several businesses of her own, making her a multi-millionaire, and everything looked great — then she caught the Spanish flu at the end of the year and it looked like she wasn’t going to make it.
Grandfather was beside himself, and consulted all of the experts as quickly as he could — starting with doctors, but then Anabel’s husband, Aldous LeCard, recommended several… less conventional “medics,” including spiritualists, faith healers, and mystics.
One of them, Madame Wilhelmina, happened to give the grandfather the idea that as long as a member of the family was remembered and honored by the rest of the family, no harm could come to them, so he immediately demanded that everyone think about and pray for Anabel five times a day.
He might have been a bit distracted and missed the doctor who had immediately started Anabel on the so-called “open air” treatment — that is, moving patients from inside of hospitals and into the outdoors onto field cots, which would be tented from direct sunlight but would receive adequate ventilation.
Second, while patients were still in the first stage of the illness, which Anabel was, doctors would give them several injections of quinine hydrochloride. All the while, medical staff would monitor lung function to make sure that pneumonia did not set in.
And, while there was no vaccine, Anabel lucked out by having a doctor who wasn’t against taking huge chances and, while medical science wouldn’t finally confirm his method for another sixteen years, he took the bold (and secret) risk of injecting Anabel with blood from a matched patient who had recovered from the Spanish flu.
Unfortunately, the end of her symptoms and his announcement to her family that she had completely recovered came exactly seven days after grandfather had started them all on Madame Wilhelmina’s mystic treatment.
Guess which one got the credit? And who wound up on the family payroll as “spiritual advisor?”
Aldous himself was not happy about it, but probably because he had finally consulted with professionals like Dr. Richter, and realized how wrong he had been. But try telling grandpa that. He had privately confronted Wilhelmina and accused her of being a fraud, but she had just laughed in his face.
“You’re not signing my checks,” she said.
“Yet,” he replied. “And hell will freeze over before I ever do.”
Ultimately, though, all that mattered to Aldous was that Anabel survived and thrived. Let the old man believe what he wanted to. Although they had both been too focused on business to think about starting a family at the time, six or seven years later, when they had both reached the ridiculously ancient age of thirty-two, it seemed like the right idea.
So, in late April that year, they went on a vacation far away from the family, taking the train to New York, then a cruise to London, a ferry to France, another train to Paris, and then a coach ride to a luxury hotel in the First Arrondissement, because of course they could.
They proceeded to lock themselves in, dine on only the best of room service — especially oysters — and then fuck like rabbits on Easter for the next three weeks. Aldous hadn’t picked Europe and was not thinking of rabbits at random, though. Here was where some scientists were working on a very experimental method to detect pregnancy early, and it happened to involve killing bunnies.
The current method prior to that innovation involved a doctor basically looking at a woman’s lady bits for color changes which may or may not indicate pregnancy, but which would also take one to two months to appear.
Meanwhile, a couple of Germans studying hormones had discovered that if they injected the urine of a woman who was likely pregnant into a group of rabbits over a series of five days and then cut the rabbits open to look at their ovaries, if any or all of them had, in fact, started to ovulate, then the woman was pregnant.
Aldous knew enough about biology and science to understand why it could work, and enough about American puritanism to understand why it wouldn’t make it over there for decades, if at all. What? Teach women more about their bodies and, god forbid, give them enough warning about an unintended pregnancy to end it before anyone else could ever know?
He wondered whether they should ever go back, although even now, in the spring of 1925, it was clear that Europe would not remain stable for long — although Anabel’s family would certainly rake in several more fortunes and their child, he hoped for a son, would go on to start his own monopoly, one that in the world of the far-off 1940s and 50s would see the world’s first billionaires.
The first positive results came through in mid-May, on the 14th, and the next four rabbits were also popping eggs. Anabel was pregnant, she and Aldous were going to be parents, and it was time to sail back home and deliver the triumphant news.
They made it back to L.A. by late June, and the rest of the year went along swimmingly, with Anabel and Aldous really becoming the center of the apparently rising Chanler-LeCard dynasty. That Christmas, grandfather made it official. The two of them were going to be his sole heirs, at least of the main companies and assets. However, everyone else would get more than enough from his personal accounts and various smaller real estate holdings that they should be happy and just shut up.
“And this is how capitalism kills us,” Aldous thought as he hugged his pregnant bride, but he smiled and said nothing.
And then early one morning on Groundhog Day in 1926, Anabel went into labor and they all rushed to the hospital — which happened to be the Chanler Family Medical Institute — and as things progressed, they seemed to become more and more dire for Anabel. Her blood pressure dropped, she wasn’t dilating, her lips started to turn blue, and her doctors put the word out to the family.
“We may have to decide whether to save the mother or the baby,” they said.
Grandfather, Aldous, Anabel’s sisters, the cousins and aunts and uncles sat in silence until grandfather stood and glared at Aldous.
“This is your fault,” he suddenly shouted.
“Sorry, what?” Aldous replied.
“You and your modern science death cult ways — ”
“Again, sorry, what, old man? I seem to remember my ways saving her from the Spanish flu.”
“Do you?” grandfather bellowed, gesturing. Madame Wilhelmina swept in, glaring at Aldous.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Saving your child,” she spat at him.
“You are nothing but a fraud,” Aldous replied.
“Enough!” grandfather shouted.
“You saved nothing, old woman!” Aldous shouted.
“Shall we make a deal, then?” Madame Wilhelmina replied.
“No, but try me.”
“All right,” she said. “I will save your wife, and you will save your son.”
“And then?” Aldous asked.
“You get to keep the one you love more.”
“I chose the one who is still alive, then,” he said.
“So be it,” she replied. “Deal?”
“Deal,” he spat back at her.
She turned to the family members in the lobby and exhorted them. “Most of you remember how we saved her before. We need to do it again. Do you remember?”
“We have to remember,” a lot of them muttered.
“Exactly,” she smiled, and then started them in a chant. Meanwhile, Aldous went to the OR room doors and signaled. A doctor in scrubs came out, dropping his mask. “You can’t come in,” he said, “But are you the father?”
“Yes,” Aldous said. “So, what’s the situation?”
“We have about four minutes to save your child, but only via C-section. I’m sorry, but your wife… she’s already… I mean, there’s nothing we can do.”
“I understand,” Aldous said. “Save the baby no matter what you have to do.”
“Thank you,” the doctor said, pulling his mask back on and vanishing beyond the doors. Aldous came back out to the waiting room, took one look at his relatives chanting like useless assholes and all he could do was laugh.
He announced quietly, but was sure that none of them heard him or cared. “I saved my son, you morons. My wife is dead.”
Later that day, Aldous would leave the place with his son Preston, never to have anything to do with his wife’s family ever again. Fortunately, they had left him with one autonomous company that would leave them well off. Even more fortunately, it had nothing to do with weapons or war or any of that crap. It had been a hand-off because a company creating art and architecture didn’t interest them at all.
What he never knew was that Madame Wilhelmina had done such a snow-job on the family and had managed to be half right that Anabel would keep on haunting his world, even long after he and his own son had died.
Papaw Winnie, meanwhile, died that August, and hadn’t yet gotten about to changing his original will, so Aldous and Preston wound up with almost everything, anyway. When the rest of the family tried to contest it, he just told them, “Why don’t you have that fraudulent medium of yours pray for it to happen?”
Anabel had been very proud of Aldous that day, although she couldn’t tell him. She also couldn’t tell him that Wilhelmina’s tricks had worked — sort of — although not in any way she had ever intended. But she was going to be around for a long time.
She was starting to think that this late-night meeting was going to last an eternity when, finally, the group got up, apparently said their farewells, and headed off their separate ways. She never got a good look at who the hunters were talking to — presumably, the woman she’d seen down in the station — but the men walked home and came to a high-rise condo and buzzed themselves in.
“Great,” she thought. “Elevator.” At least she could be pretty sure that they weren’t going to leave her in here, but as they passed through the open doors and went inside, everything went black.
She came too briefly to catch a glimpse of what was their headquarters, although it looked just like a normal condo, even if the décor leaned a bit toward the eclectic and nerdy side. But then one of them slipped the trap she was in into a velvet bag and everything went dark again, although she was fully aware as she sensed the bag being carried and then quickly lowered.
She bided her time. Everything was as quiet as the grave.
* * *