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.
Anabel and Ausmann
Ausmann had been so amazed by the possibility of having finally trapped the infamous Anabel that he did nothing with the trap for a while. No — he wanted to learn everything about her first, because he was definitely all about “Know thine enemy.”
He certainly wasn’t going to ask Joshua and Simon for information, because that would just tip his hand and make him seem weak. He gleaned what he could from their comments, but then went right to the online archives and files.
The main thing he could determine about her is that she had never really been famous and had died almost a hundred years earlier, in childbirth. However, when he searched for her son, all he found online were completely indecent search results pointing to some guy who had been born over seventy years after she died.
Now, her family had been well-known, and they were connected to several wealthy families back east, but given the theory he’d been developing on who had been remembered, how, and why, Anabel made no sense.
Everything he’d gleaned indicated that she was very important to all of these… things… but why would they settle on her?
He contemplated the trap that the boys had given him. It was unlike all of the others, which looked like nothing more than flat compacts with matte black exteriors. The only thing that they lacked was some sort of fancy branding, like an embossed silver stamp of J&S. Or S&J. He had no idea who was the boss in that relationship, but he didn’t really care.
This trap holding Anabel, though, was much more elaborate — an amethyst teardrop in a cage of gold that reminded him of the Kabalistic tree of life in three dimensions. He actually wasn’t totally sure they hadn’t been trolling him, but he decided, finally, once he’d had enough info, that it was time to unleash the beast.
He set up a triple containment field — two secured boxes, with an electromagnetic grid around that — then sent the trap up through the double airlock and used the remote manipulator arms to open it.
The usual fog shoots out of it, but this one is a vivid shade of blue, and seems to have more agency then most of them. Indeed, it isn’t long before the blue fog shimmers out into a human form, followed by pure white mists that form the head, neck, and arms, and then a black shoot that creates the cascade of hair.
In under a minute, there is the form a young woman in 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 she is just as tall as she needs to be to stand up in the inner box, although that isn’t full human height, of course. The images reminds Ausmann of the small ghost that says good-bye to guests going up the final exit ramp at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in both size and appearance.
“Who are you?” she demands.
“It’s not your place to ask, Anabel,” Ausmann replies. “I’ll be asking the questions here.”
“The hell you will,” she fires back. “Do you know who I am?”
“That was actually my first question,” Ausmann answers. “Who are you?”
“You already said my name, so it’s too late to play stupid. Who are you?”
“That’s not important. You are the one trapped in a box,” Ausmann shot back.
“Do you really think that we all don’t know who you are and what you’re doing?”
“We all, who?” Ausmann asked.
“Have you ever actually trapped a true celebrity?” she suddenly asked.
“What do you mean?” he replied. “The Black Dahlia. How’s that?”
Anabel just laughed. “No, come on. Someone you’d heard of before going full asshole on them?”
“When have I ever gone full — ”
She shot him a look that shut him up.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I had questions.”
“So do I, “Anabel replied. “Want to let me out of this cage and talk like adults?”
There was a long pause before Ausmann finally replied, “No.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I don’t trust you,” he replied.
“Probably wise,” she said, “But I don’t trust you either.”
“Fine!” he spat back.
“Fine,” she waved him off.
After a while, he asked her, “Do you know where you are?”
“Not specifically,” she said. “Duh. But I do know that I’m a lot farther underground than I usually am. Do all of the evil assholes happen to have hidden underground lairs?”
“I’ll ignore that,” Ausmann replied —
“Please don’t,” Anabel spat back.
“Next question,” Ausmann continued. “What do your people want from us?”
There was a quiet moment, and then Anabel began to laugh very hard. In fact, so hard that Ausmann began to worry that she might injure herself, so he cut down the pressure in the tanks and opened the inner tank to the next one.
“Are you all right?” he finally asked her.
“Oh, peachy,” Anabel replied. “I was laughing because you’re arrogant enough to think that my people want or need a damn thing from yours? Right. Hint: We are all goddamn dead, so we don’t need to eat or sleep or… anything, ever again.
“And that could easily get so boring, except that we’ve vowed to entertain ourselves as long as you aren’t doing something more interesting. So I suppose, to answer your question, what we want is for you to leave us alone and stop kidnapping our kind.”
“What kind even are you?” Ausmann demanded.
“We refer to ourselves collectively as The Rêves,” she replied, “Although that’s not so much a description as it is more of a family name.”
“Rêves,” Ausmann repeated. “French for ‘dream.’”
“That’s part of the reason,” she said. “It also refers to ‘revenant,’ a person who’s come back from the dead.”
“That could be a ghost or a zombie,” Ausmann said, “But you don’t look like a zombie.”
“We aren’t zombies, and we’re not truly ghosts, either.”
“Then what are you?” he asked.
“Bored by this conversation,” Anabel said. “So, what are you?”
“A scientist,” Ausmann replied.
“Don’t be dramatic,” he sneered.
“Well, what branch of science?”
“Several that hadn’t been invented by the time you died,” he explained. “Let’s just leave it at physics. I think that branch was around in your day.”
“And what would a physicist have to do with our kind? I thought that you science people didn’t even believe in spirits or ghosts.”
“I don’t believe that you are ghosts,” he said.
“Then you tell me what we are,” Anabel snapped back.
“Don’t you know?”
“No,” she insisted. “I’m not a scientist. How would I know?”
“Well… what rules do you follow?” he asked.
“Oh… it’s impolite to scare humans, never manifest in your current, actual physical form, especially if you’re still in that awkward decomposition phase, never try to have sex with a human — ”
“No, I meant more like… actual rules. Physical things that seem to control or limit you.”
She tilted her head and stared at him for a moment, then just laughed. “Do you think that I’m that stupid?” she replied. “Your real question is, ‘How can we control you?’ Sorry. We are not interested.”
“I already seem to be controlling you,” he said, tapping the side of the outermost box. “And it doesn’t seem that difficult. Look at what a tiny trap my boys caught you with.”
She picked up the trap, which surprised Ausmann because he didn’t think they could do that. She stared at it. “Such a pretty thing to be so dangerous, don’t you think?” she asked him, but something in her tone made it ambiguous whether she meant the trap or herself.
“You’ve got a lot of voltage running around outside this box. Well, not anything that would kill a human through air contact, but pretty similar to how these little traps work. There’s a problem with that, though.”
“What?” he asked.
“I remember a teacher in school — it was biology class — answering someone’s question. ‘What if an ant was suddenly as big as an elephant?’ The short version of her answer was that its legs would immediately shatter under its own weight, and it would suffocate and dehydrate at the same time.”
“What does that have to do with us?” Ausmann asked.
“Some things don’t scale up,” she said. “And when you give a thing a power source, you give it great power. I enjoyed our conversation. Good-bye.”
She smiled at him, then abruptly shoved her arm right through the Plexiglas of the traps and then her hand made contact with the static field that was supposed keep the Rêves in.
As soon as it did, the entire inner box filled with a bright blue flash, Anabel shot up to full size and through the top, where she stood there for just a moment, seeming more substantial than she had already, and locked eyes with Ausmann.
“Leave us alone,” she said. “That’s your only warning.”
And then she blinked away, but it was so fast that Ausmann wasn’t sure which way or where she’d gone. He hit the general alarm button, then buzzed security.
“An entity has escaped containment,” he announced. “I don’t know whether it’s still on the premises, but consider it keter. Put the complex on full lockdown.”
As alarms sounded everywhere, Ausmann sank back into his desk chair and sighed.
“Fuck,” he said.
Joshua and Simon got up, showered and dressed, made and had breakfast, and then moved on to the main event of the day. Joshua retrieved the trap with Preston/Danny in it from the vault while Simon prepared the holding trap they would interview him in.
They had gone back and forth over whether to just let him go free range like last time and, while he had made no attempt to escape, they weren’t so sure he’d stick around after today’s interview.
Simon also made sure that what they called The Tank was set up with a perfect view of their living room widescreen, and he had already cued up the programming that would appear on it.
They set the trap into the slider that would take it into the holding tank, which unscrewed the lid as it moved to the center. A mechanism slid into place to lift the lid once it was there, and the inky black smoke they were so used to drifted up to fill the tank, swirling around for a while before it resolved into Preston in his favored garb.. He looked around until he saw the two of them, then smiled and pressed himself up against the glass. “What?” he asked. “Don’t you trust me now?”
“Today’s questions might be… difficult,” Joshua replied. “We want you to be safe.”
“Around two hot daddies like you?” he said. “I’d always feel safe.
“Stop,” Simon replied. “We’re not ‘daddies.’”
“Didn’t your sex drive go away when you died?” Joshua asked.
“No,” Preston replied.
“You mean you can still — ” Simon started to ask.
“Wanna watch?” Preston said, licking his lips.
“No, and no, don’t answer that question,” Simon said, looking away.
“We were wondering how much you remember, so tell us about this scene,” Joshua said, nodding to Simon, who tapped the coffee table, which had touch screen controls built into its top. On the TV, video played.
It was Preston with two other guys in what was probably a fancy apartment, probably east coast judging by the city view out its windows, which were clearly from high up and full of skyscrapers.
The three of them were mostly clothed at this point, but were making out heavily.
“Oh, yeah,” Preston said. “Last full scene I remember doing. That was… Blake Alan on the left and… Gabriel Stokes on the right.”
“Do you remember where you shot it?” Joshua asked.
“Yeah, it was this sweet apartment in Manhattan that our producer rented for the month, right near the south end of Central Park with a great view of mid-town,” Preston explained fondly. “God, this was so hot to shoot.”
“Do you remember when you shot?” Simon asked.
“Right at the end of the video, baby,” Preston replied. “Twice.”
“Oh, goddammit,” Simon muttered. “Really?”
“What was the date?” Joshua asked, giving Simon a loving look in hopes of calming his embarrassment.
“Oh… this was like the beginning of April, probably, so I think it was the last thing I shot with other people. Winston did let me stay in the place until the end of the month, then made it the end of May. I was all alone, but doing Only Fans stuff all the damn time. Otherwise, everything kind of stopped after that for a while. No more scenes, and not even bringing a crew in for a solo.”
“Do you remember the end of May?”
“Yeah. I mean, I definitely remember the middle of May, when Winston gave me this insane offer to go appear in Florida.”
“The Memorial Day circuit party in Miami?” Joshua said.
“Yeah. God, that was amazing. And not just that I banked five hundred K for the appearance, but I made a goddamn mint on top of that in tips for stripping, signing autographs, selling underwear, doing escort work. The whole… what’s the word? Nine inches?”
“Yards,” Simon corrected him.
Preston laughed. “Did you know that ‘yard’ is British slang for cock?”
“Really?” Simon replied, but the tone was one of disdain, not interest.
“Yeah, Winston told me that. It came from naval slang. Yardarm on a mast holds up a sail, and it sticks out like a hard-on.”
Preston laughed again as Simon gave Joshua a jaundiced look.
“Okay, so you did the party, the whole weekend, I’m assuming, then what?” Joshua asked.
“Let’s see…” Preston thought. “I went back to L.A. Jason — my kind-of boyfriend — suggested I just stay at home and focus on doing my own shit for Only Fans.”
“Not that any of us were really selling by that point,” he continued. “At around the beginning of May, there was this sudden explosion of new OF accounts, so there was too much in the market. Plus customers were out of work, so nobody wanted to pay anything for it. Not that I needed money by that point.”
“And then?” Joshua asked.
“June… middle of June…?” Preston trailed off and stared, seeming lost in thought. “I remember suddenly feeling really bad, and Jason and Winston and I did this video conference thing with some woman in a black robe… oh. Yeah, I think we got married. Jason and I, not Winston. And…” he trailed off.
“And?” Joshua and Simon both asked quietly.
“I remember being in Jason’s car, in the back, and then… sitting all alone in the cemetery before Anabel walked up to me.”
“She was the first one to come to you… after?” Simon asked.
“Well, she was my mother, right?”
Before Simon could speak, Joshua gave him a warning look. “Do you remember when and where you were born and grew up, Preston?” he asked.
“Hollywood. The first thing I remember is the first day I worked for Winston.”
“Really?” Joshua continued. “Nothing before that?”
“No,” Preston said.
“Do you remember that first shoot?”
“Just me and my fist,” Preston said. “That’s pretty normal for this business, right?”
Joshua nodded to Simon, who seemed apprehensive, but he tapped the coffee table anyway. Another video ran. In this one, a clearly younger Preston sat on a mohair couch that looked like it had been stolen from a university dorm break room, completely dressed, with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.
A voice from off camera asked questions, starting with innocuous things like, “So, you said you just got here and you need money?”
“Well, I can probably arrange that.”
Before it got to anything too personal, Joshua gestured for Simon to hit pause.
“This was your first shoot,” Joshua said.
“Really?” Preston said. “Wow. Yeah, I kind of remember that one, but it was so long ago.”
“Not that long,” Joshua explained. “But I want you to pay very careful attention to the questions and answers, okay?”
“And you’re absolutely sure that’s you in the video?” Simon asked.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Preston said. “I still have that… still had that hat.”
Joshua nodded and Simon restarted the video.
“So, pay close attention to the questions and answers, then,” he said.
The off-screen voice, who must have been Winston, continued.
“So, you just got here and you have no money, is that it?” Winston asked.
“Yeah, I’m pretty broke. I was sleeping in the bus station.”
“What would you do for fifty bucks, then?” Winston continued, and a hand holding a fifty dollar bill came into screen.”
“Um, I don’t know,” onscreen Preston/Danny replied. “What did you have in mind?”
“What’s your name?” Winston asked.
“Danny,” Preston/Danny answered.
“Danny what?” Winston asked.
Joshua gestured and Simon hit pause.
“Danny what?” Joshua asked.
“Just… Danny? Danny who?” Preston replied.
“That’s you in the video, right?” Joshua said.
“Well, yeah, duh.”
“So you’re really Danny… who?”
“Dude, don’t you know that porn is all fake names and shit?” Preston replied. “I probably didn’t want people to know who I was.”
“So… you went on to have a porn career under your real name? That seems backwards,” Joshua said. “Where was Preston born?”
“Hollywood,” Preston insisted.
“In some dude’s fucking imagination, I don’t know,” Preston shot back.
“That’s good,” Joshua told him. “That’s it. Hold that thought. Preston, who is the real you, did tons of porn so that he wouldn’t be identified under his real name. Meanwhile… where was Danny born?”
“Shit, I don’t know. The second some fat old fuck with money decided to pay me to jerk off?”
“Or was that when Danny died?” Joshua went on, giving Simon the signal. The video continued.
“Danny. Nice name,” Winston said. “So, where were you born?”
“Idaho,” Danny/Preston replied in the video.
“Ah. Potato planet,” Winston laughed. “Boise?”
“Nah,” Danny replied. “Pocatello.”
“Oh my god,” Winston laughed. “Did they name everything in that state one off from some kind of porn reference?”
“What do you mean?” Danny asked.
“Well, first of off, ‘Boys-me.’ Second, you’re from ‘Poke-a-Fellow?’”
“Yeah, but I grew up in Emmett. Fuck, that kind of sounds like ‘in it,’ doesn’t it? I never thought… oh, holy shit, you’re right!” Danny started laughing, then reached out and grabbed the fifty. “What do you want for that?” he asked.
“Take your clothes off,” Winston said.
“All of them?” Danny asked.
“All of them,” Winston replied.
Simon paused the video again.
“Hm. Innocent little Danny from Pocatello Idaho, on the casting couch. You’re sure you don’t know who he is?” Joshua asked.
“It was all just made up shit, for the business. You know, stage names,” Preston insisted.
“All right,” Simon chimed in. “This still doesn’t make sense. You came to L.A., did one little jerk off vid under a fake name, then started doing legit porn under your real name?”
“That’s right,” Preston replied. “All that Danny shit was just to get in the door.”
Joshua and Simon looked at each other, not sure what to do, but then Joshua signaled to Simon… let it roll.
He restarted the video, and it went through the rest of the set-up and story. The first fifty had gotten Danny naked, the next hundred got him hard, and the last hundred came after he did, and all the while Winston was asking him about his life back home, and he just kept giving details.
When it was over, Simon shut off the TV and Joshua decided that it was time to play bad cop. Not that he hadn’t kind of been already, but this felt like it needed extra attention.
“Okay,” he said. “So Danny was just this dude you made up for the first film, right?”
“Right,” Preston replied. “I didn’t even remember that until you reminded me.”
“Telling,” Joshua whispered to Simon. “Okay, so then you must have lied when you finally signed up to take the job.”
“What do you mean?” Preston demanded. Joshua snapped his fingers, and Simon put all of Danny’s proof of age docs up, which were all under his real name — and this seemed to have a slight effect when he read aloud…
“Winthorpe… Win… when…? Fuck…”
In the box, he collapsed out of his visible form back into the black mist. Simon and Joshua exchanged a concerned look, but then Joshua whispered to him, “Sorry. Ace in the hole, dear.”
“That seems really, really cruel,” Simon replied.
“Yeah, so do most of the things they do in rehab,” Joshua said. “Cue it up, and I’ll signal when I’m ready.”
Joshua went right to the box and pressed his ear against it as he spoke. “Hey, Preston. Hey, you okay? We were just trying to clear up all this thing, because rumors were starting to spread that you were not Anabel’s son, and we were hoping to, you know… stop that shit?”
There was a long moment, but then the black smoke sank and coalesced again, with Preston huddled in the bottom right corner of the box that Joshua had been speaking to.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“So am I,” Joshua replied, then he signaled to Simon, who fired up the screen again, this time with a copy of Jason and Preston’s wedding certificate — except that the name on it for Preston wasn’t Preston. It was Daniel Winthorpe.”
Preston turned, stared at the document, then began to shudder while letting out inchoate moans of some kind of existential angst and fear. He started to de-coalesce into a cloud of gray gas while keeping his naked porn star form. On the other side of The Tank, that gas reformed into a clearly younger, totally clothed, and more innocent looking form of Preston who was clearly Danny.
Each of them now knelt at opposite sides of the box before turning to stare at each other in disbelief. After a moment, both of them turned to stare at Joshua and Simon on the outside, then glare and point at them.
“Goddamn you,” they both said in unison, rising as best they could to point. “What the fuck have you done to us?”
“What’s your name?” Joshua demanded, defiant.
In unison, they each answered with the name they thought they had. “Danny Winthorpe.” “Preston LeCard.”
And no sooner were the answers out of their mouths that they turned to stare at each other in fear and anger.
Joshua turned to Simon and they nodded at each other, reaching for the emergency trap activation switch, but it was too late. Danny flew out of one side of The Tank and Preston flew out of the other, shattering the glass before they both roiled into trails of smoke and blasted out of the open patio doors and off into the night sky above NoHo.
“And… that went well,” Simon muttered to himself.
“Just shut up and fuck me if you know what’s good for you,” Joshua replied.
“Angry fuck?” Simon said.
“Yeah, I guess I kind of deserve that. Shut the doors and batten down the hatches. It’s going to be a humpy night.”
“Honey?” Simon told him as he slid shut the patio doors.
“What?” Joshua asked.
“We just managed to pull off a gigantic fuck-up. So all you’re getting tonight is, maybe, a little bro cuddle, And then we have to figure out what and how we’re going to explain this shit to Ausmann.”
“Are you saying that like it’s my fault?” Joshua demanded
“No,” Simon replied. “And that’s my point. We just both had a massive joint-fuck-up.”
Joshua stared at Simon for a long moment, then sank into the sofa in disbelief.
“We… lost one, didn’t we?” he finally said.
“No. We made two, then lost them both,” Simon replied.
“How the fuck did we make two?” Joshua asked.
“I have no idea,” Simon replied, “But that might be important later.”
Joshua sighed at the ceiling, tried to come up with an answer, but had nothing so, finally, he just pushed Simon onto the couch, climbed on fully clothed with his back to him and said, “First, I’m sorry. Second, just be the big spoon and bro-cuddle the fuck out of me tonight, because I think we’re going to need it for tomorrow.”
“Ditto,” Simon whispered into his ear before they drifted off together.