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.
Since Brenda was management, and therefore salaried, she was lucky enough to not have to report in the morning after the… adventure at Universal City station. Unfortunately, since she was management, she was expected to come up with some write-up of what had happened, and since she knew that all of the CCTVs scattered all over the place would show… something, she spent all of the next day after she’d woken up well past noon trying to come up with some plausible narrative… and she was drawing a blank.
She was also kicking herself for not getting contact info for the two guys who had been involved in the whole thing. All she knew were their names, Joshua and Simon, and that they lived somewhere in the NoHo Arts District, in one of the high-rise condo complexes that had sprung up like weeds in the late ‘10s.
She did manage to get her assistant to email her all of the CCTV footage from Uni City station, as well as the plaza and all of the street cams from there up to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, and Riverside/Camarillo, but there were apparently problems with anything north of that.
The footage from in the station wasn’t really helpful, since all it showed was various people freaking out and acting stupid. Same thing with the footage up the escalators and on the plaza. Lots of people in view, not a lot of… not people.
“Fuck,” Brenda muttered many times while reviewing the footage. She had definitely seen the things, and so had the dudes she’d gone to breakfast with — where were they now?
She decided to go take a drive, and wound up at the same Denny’s, flashed her credentials at the day manager, and managed to finally get somewhere — the CCTV footage of her visit the night before with the two would-be ghost hunters.
And while it didn’t reveal a whole lot other than their meal, when they left it at least gave her a direction, and she was able to call in a favor from an old family friend who worked for the L.A. Traffic Department, and those cams and footage traced those boys right back to their doorstep. Well, at least the building their condo was in.
She filed the paperwork that gave a pretty general idea of where to find the guys who claimed to be ghost hunters while claiming no knowledge of the thing herself; the perfect dodge. Except that two of her assistants had been accurate way beyond their paygrade, apparently.
They had also taken advantage of their connections to look at cell phone location data.
She’d thought that their info only included the building address, but it didn’t. It included the unit number and a link to the Zillow page on it. She hadn’t read their entire doc before she put it an email to Rita and hit “send.” Why would she? She trusted them, and it was already pushing four in the afternoon.
Ironically, considering where she worked, she wasn’t really able to take public transit to and from the office even though the Metro did run downtown to Culver City. The problem was that it ran too far away from her neighborhood, Blair Hills, to make it easy to get there without relying on a taxi or Über or something else, and there was no way in hell at her age that she was going to hop on one of those stupid scooters.
Anyway, her commute would have taken three times as long.
Unfortunately, she was in the wrong department to do anything about that. But she managed to get home by a quarter to five, half an hour before her husband Jonah did, to find her two youngest, Samuel and Malia, sitting in the living room vying to the death on a video game.
She had only recently gotten used to thinking of her younger son… no, daughter… as Malia instead of Barack, and she tried to drive that dead-name out of her mind, appreciating her youngest daughter’s very interesting choice of new name. Samuel and her oldest, Theresa, who was majoring in law at Penn State, hadn’t even skipped a beat when Malia made the announcement last Christmas, and immediately welcomed her as their sister.
Unfortunately, her husband Jonah was having a bit of an issue with it, but that probably had more to do with worrying about how to handle it with his parents, who were hard-core old school Baptists.
Brenda had had none of those problem with her parents, who were old-school radicals. Well, she knew that her father wouldn’t have had a problem, but he was long gone, shot in the head during a routine traffic stop by a white cop when Brenda was still in college back in the 90s. This had radicalized Brenda’s mother no end, and she had gone on every protest march possible after that — Black, LGBTQ+, Native American, Union, whatever.
This had had a huge impact on Brenda, especially her mother’s words: “Honey, it don’t matter your color, sex, race, whatever. What matters is who hates you for the way you were born. And then, take a good hard look at them, lock arms with the others who get hated for how they were born, and go kick their fucking hateful asses.”
And Brenda’s mother, Esme, had been her babysitter since each of her kids were born. Brenda and Jonah has specifically looked for a house with a so-called “Mother-in-Law Flat” out back — in this case, a full one-bedroom guest house — and had moved Esme in at the same time they did.
Malia was the first one to tell Esme her secret: “I’m not a boy.”
When Esme told Brenda about the conversation and repeated her reply, Brenda just broke down in tears and hugged her mother hard.
“She said, ‘I’m not a boy,’” Esme told her. “And I said, ‘That’s great. So tell me who you are to you, because that is forever who you’ll be to me.’”
It was five-thirty when Jonah pulled into the garage and came through the door into the kitchen, and grabbed Brenda to give her a huge hug and kiss, interrupted by Samuel and Malia running into the room to hug his legs while shouting, “Daddy!”
“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.
“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.
“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”
“It all depends on how soon Mamaw gets home to wrangle the kidlets, stud.”
“Stop! They might hear you.”
“Okay, what I got cooking is dinner, but you know your job.”
“Oh, right.” Jonah smiled and whistled, pulling five bowls out of the cupboard as the sound of twenty paws skittering along the floor, finally reaching a crescendo. Three dogs and two cats stopped in the doorway in anticipation.
The dogs were Libby, Prince, and Orpheus — a yellow Lab, black Lab, and German shepherd. The cats were Desdemona and Ophelia, a calico and a tabby. Ostensibly, each of the dogs belonged to one of the kids and each of the cats to one of the parents, but in reality, Jonah was the wrangler of them all.
But not the boss. Oh no, not that. Because all of the animals and all of the humans just knew and understood that Desdemona was in charge of them all, and Ophelia was her lieutenant.
It was kind of exactly like the Brenda and Malia thing, actually — right down to no one ever mentioning it.
By six o’clock, they were all seated at the dining room table — well, except for the dogs and cats, who had long since finished dinner and had wandered off to go snooze in whatever space they had picked — and Brenda set out their meal.
Honestly, this was her favorite part of every work day — when they all got to sit down and everyone told her about what had happened in their day. And it didn’t matter how “stupid” or trivial it seemed. To Brenda, it was about her family, so every single bit was the most interesting thing ever, and she never had to fake that.
So… Samuel had actually talked to Melissa at her locker today, and while Brenda could easily see that the girl had no interest in him, he was over the moon at having taken the chance. And Malia reported that she’d met a fellow student, Lance, who was a transboy, and they’d really kind of hit it off and were having lunches together.
Jonah sort of rolled his eyes at this, but Brenda kicked him under the table.
After dinner, while Jonah and Samuel did the dishes, Brenda called Theresa to check in, and she was already considering focusing her legal studies on social justice issues, but she had to cut the conversation short because there was a sorority event coming up.
Later on, Esme came over to look after the kids, and Brenda and Jonah headed up to their room to, as she put it, “binge and fringe,” although as he held her in his arms, she looked into his eyes and said, “You really need to lighten up and deal with our daughter.”
“Who, Theresa?” he said.
“No,” she replied. And she was beginning to think that he might have been the only reason that she didn’t just come out and share all the Metro ghost shit with everyone else, because they might have had actual ideas. But then he dug it deeper.
“We only have one daughter,” he continued.
“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.
“Um… excuse me?” he asked.
“No. Excuse me,” she replied, slamming her way out of the room and calling back, “Her name is Malia,” adding under her breath, “You are such an asshole sometimes.”
And that was when she remembered the thing she liked least about family dinners. Still, she figured that Jonah would eventually come around. It had taken a few months to get him to stop dead-naming Malia and he was making fewer mistakes with the pronouns, at least when she was around. But for god’s sake, he was nearly fifty. He should give a damn what his parents thought anymore.
* * *
The next morning, Simon and Joshua got up, got ready, had breakfast, then headed down to the garage, carrying the trap with Anabel in it in the velvet bag. They were dressed casually and Joshua had called dibs on driving, which was fine with Simon anyway. They hopped into the Tesla, Joshua put his foot on the brake and shifted into gear. The car hummed to life.
It would be fair for anybody to speculate how a couple of guys their age who only seemed to hang out in subway stations dressed as refugees from a Jules Verne novel could afford a Tesla, much less their own condo, along with all of the geegaws and gadgets involved in their ghost hunting.
The short answer was that in the previous decade, the two of them had designed a series of killer apps that had a habit of being bought up for anywhere in the high seven to mid-eight figure range. Simon was the idea man and Joshua was the coder and tech nerd, although it was Simon’s really uncanny ability to figure out what the Next Big Thing was going to be a year or two before it was that drove things.
But they had also made an agreement that they would never allow themselves to be worth more than a certain amount. They had originally set that at a billion until they exceeded it and realized how ridiculous a billion dollars was for just two people, so they cut it down to a hundred million, then finally settled on ten million.
Anything in excess of that went away as charitable donations, or to any of several dozen anonymous educational foundations they had set up around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to sneak a server a few grand as a tip, or buy a house and “rent” it to a homeless woman and her children for a dollar a year, or provide necessary supplies for a struggling school.
Still, they considered themselves to be the Banksy of charity — they never announced any of what they did, never put their names on it, and swore their beneficiaries to silence.
“We’re like thieves in the night,” Simon liked to say,” Except Robin Hood.”
They did start a charitable organization that would handle everything, but they had named it the Ada Lovelace Foundation, which they both felt appropriate for two reasons. One was that she was basically the world’s first computer programmer, back in the nineteenth century when “computers” were entirely mechanical.
The other was that she was an important character in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which both of them had read and loved as kids and it was considered to be raison d’être for the entire steampunk genre.
Of course, as far as Ausmann ever knew, they were forever broker than shit and relied on their job with him and his largesse. This just gave them leverage that he didn’t know existed.
Joshua pulled out of the lot and turned right onto Tujunga, heading south toward Magnolia. As they crossed South Chandler — named for a family not related to the Chanlers — he and Simon both noticed a vehicle pull away from the curb by the park a little too quickly and obviously.
“Did you — ” Simon started.
“Yep,” Joshua replied. “Did you notice the license plate?”
“No,” Simon replied. “What?”
In California, this designated that it was a government-owned car, although which level of government wasn’t certain — it could be city, county, or state. And, contrary to what some under-informed people thought, it did not mean “Exempt from obeying all traffic laws.” Rather, it meant “Exempt from taxation,” so the car wasn’t subject to annual registration, sales tax on transfer from one exempt entity to another, and so on.
Although the driver had been so eager to pull out on Joshua’s ass that they had cut off another driver who gave an angry honk.
“What do we do?” Simon asked.
“Drive casually until we figure out who they are,” Joshua explained as Simon turned to look out the back window. “And don’t look at them!”
“Sorry,” Simon said.
“Don’t we have an app that does the license plate thing?” Joshua asked.
“Oh, right,” Simon replied, taking out his phone and pulling up the app, porting the output to the car’s tablet. He activated the back-up cam, got a clear photo of the front plate, and in a few seconds the screen displayed the answer.
CALIFORNIA VEHICLE EXEMPT PLATE
JURISDICTION LEVEL: COUNTY
AGENCY: LOS ANGELES METRO
DIVISION: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
“Shit, that’s it?” Joshua laughed. “We’re being followed by customer service? What are they going to do, make us take a survey?”
“We still don’t know who’s in that car,” Simon replied.
“True, but…” Joshua tapped the screen, went to the back-up cam and titled it up, pulling slightly away so he got a look at the driver and passenger. “Well, it’s not Brenda, at least,” he said.
“I really have a feeling she wouldn’t sell us out,” Simon said. “Besides, we never even told her where we live.”
“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”
They continued up Tujunga and turned left on Magnolia, crossed under the 170, then turned left to hop on the on-ramp and head south. Traffic was light at least, so Joshua hit 70 and stuck to the leftmost number one lane carpool, apparently continuing down the 170 into Hollywood, Metro vehicle behind all the while.
“You want the other side,” Simon told Joshau.
“I know,” Joshua replied.
“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”
“Make you shit your pants?”
“Sorry, honey. We need to shake a tail.”
Joshua accelerated to eighty as the approach to the lanes that cut off to the 170 and Hollywood neared. Then, at the very last second, he yanked hard right and swept over three lanes, punching it to ninety and heading down the 134.
The Metro vehicle behind them managed to make it one lane over before a BMW cut them off and Joshua sailed it down the interchange and onto the freeway to Pasadena without their pursuers, bringing their speed down to 65 to Simon’s great relief.
“I hate it when you do that,” Simon told him.
“You’re still hard right now,” Joshua replied, and they both knew that it was true.
“Yeah, but it’s a fear boner,” Simon explained sheepishly.
It had subsided by the time they got to JPL and made it down to Ausmann’s office. On the way, knowing full well by now that he’d probably already seen the footage, they had to come up with a plausible reason for Preston’s escape, so they had decided to blame it on the woman from Metro who had left with them.
She demanded to know what was in the other trap, against their better judgement they opened it, and Preston flitted off into the night, as these things were wont to do.
But, surprisingly, Ausmann didn’t even ask about Preston after they’d placed the other trap on his desk and removed it from the bag.
“Apparently,” Simon explained, “Her name was Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.”
“Really?” Ausmann replied, looking stunned. “You two mooks managed to capture Anabel?”
“You know her?” Joshua asked, just as stunned.
“I know the name,” Ausmann said. “But are you sure that’s who she is?”
“That’s who the other entity said she was.” Simon explained.
“And how would that one know?”
“Apparently, he was her son,” Simon added.
“Did you bring the other one?” Ausmann suddenly asked.
“Uh… we caught him, but, um, he… got away,” Joshua offered.
“Oh,” Ausmann replied, but didn’t say anything more about it, just staring at the trap on his desk. “If this really is Anabel… I think you two are in line for a couple of bumps up the ladder.”
“You mean… up our pay grades?” Joshua asked, pretending that it mattered.
“Oh, yeah, that too. No, I meant… more on upping your security clearances. But… that all depends on whether this is Anabel or not.”
“Who was… is Anabel, anyway?” Simon asked.
“You don’t get that story until I’ve bumped you up from public trust to secret. Good work, boys. See you next time. Last stop is North Hollywood, right?”
“Next week,” Simon replied.
“Can’t wait to see what you pull in then. Thanks!”
Simon and Joshua left the office and headed up top. Once they were in the elevator, Simon asked Joshua, “Has he ever told us ‘thanks’ before?”
“Nope,” Joshua replied.
Back in his office, Ausmann turned the trap over and over in his hands. It was an amazing piece of work, really, and he had no idea how the two managed things like this on what he paid them. Still… Anabel was a name that had come up countless times in their failed attempts to keep these entities either trapped down here or from suddenly melting into nothing.
Except for the ones who popped up claiming to be famous people — a sure sign of insanity — most of the others cried out one name before fleeing or disappearing. “Anabel.”
In the chess-game Ausmann had been playing, it felt like he had just captured the Queen.
* * *