The ticking of the analog wind-up mantel clock had been annoying, but at least it had kept time. Ausmann had set it to his phone soon after he and Coraline had locked themselves into the panic room, and the sales rep who had set this whole place up for him had assured him that it would be accurate to within ten seconds per month, although he should never have to stay down here that long.
It also displayed day and date, and it was just one of the extra analog features that the rep, Charles, had talked Ausmann into.
He didn’t see the point, but Charles had been very convincing. “What if all of the power goes out and you use up your battery back-up as well?” he explained. “For one thing, you can’t open the door to get out, so might as well call it your tomb.”
“But if the lights go out, how do I even find the damn door?” Ausmann scoffed.
“Ah, you see my point!” Charles beamed. “So, you need to add in the fail-safe Kerosene lamps. Only two of them, but the design is so clever, it’ll knock your socks off.”
“Okay, tell me. I’ll bite.”
“Great!” Charles replied, scrolling on his tablet to bring up the sales page. “Hard-wired into the electrics with a magnet holding a pulley and striker as long as it’s powered. Lamp is pre-filled, but also vacuum-sealed so that the oil is guaranteed not to evaporate for at least forty years.”
“So how much is it?” Ausmann asked.
“Worth every penny!” Charles replied perkily. “So, the power goes. You’re in complete darkness. But… when the power goes, the magnets turn off, and the pulley drops. Two things happen. One, at the top it triggers a hammer that breaks the glass on top of the lantern which unseals the vacuum. The sudden pressure difference sucks that oil right up to wet the wick. About two seconds later, the striker hits the flint, you get a spark, and boom… Light like great-great-grandma knew it.”
“Really?” Ausmman asked.
“Really!” Charles beamed back. “I’m kind of proud of this one because my brother invented it, but at eight hundred bucks per unit installed, it’s worth it.”
“What if I have a 29 cent box of matches?” Ausmann asked.
“Only if you can find them in the dark, but then you have one hand full,” Charles replied. “If you buy two units, one for each side of the exit door, it really cuts down the cost, because the major expense is installation — so it’s nine-fifty for two.”
“And how much for three?” Ausmann asked.
“Eleven hundred,” Charles replied, adding, “But, honestly, you don’t need three. These are basically just emergency exit lights.”
“I see,” Ausmann said, impressed that Charles had discouraged a sale, so trusting him more — never realizing that this was exactly as Charles had planned. “What about these other… what did you call them?”
“Analog fail-safes,” Charles said.
“Right. That. Why do I need them?”
“Like I said,” Charles went on. Worst case scenario, you lose all contact with the outside, you have no idea whether it’s safe to leave. So… what happens if you open the door with… oh. I see you don’t have that feature.”
“What feature?” Ausmann asked.
“Well, again, if all power fails and such, well, the door model you ordered is a mechanical lock instead of magnetic. A magnetic lock would fail along with the power but it’s also not the most secure, for obvious reasons. But a mechanical lock works by physically dropping pistons into hollow cylinders bolted to the doors. You’ve seen how a door hinge works, right?”
“Uh… I guess?” Ausmann replied.
“Yeah, you know, it’s that brass thing, one side has two open cylinders, so does the other, stick ‘em both together like linking your fingers, then drop a bolt down the hole. Boom. They aren’t coming apart.”
“But a hinge is how you open a door, right?” Ausmann asked.
“Right,” Charles replied, “But if you put it on the other side, it’s also how you lock a door. Now the analog version of this one is actually cheap and simple. All it requires is that we drill a shaft under that piston on the locking side, sheer off the flat-top on the piston, and then add in a hidden slider cover that you can open with a crank on the inside.”
“I… I’m not sure what you’re describing,” Ausmann said.
“Sure,” Charles replied, again scrolling on his tablet to bring up a diagram of the thing, and it really was that simple. Drop a rod in place to lock the door, use electricity and a magnet to haul it back up into its cubby on the first floor to unlock.
Without that electromagnetic hauling capacity, then the only way to unlock the door was to create a trap door beneath the cylinder in order to drop it into a shaft below the basement and release the hinges.
The price on this one wasn’t all that ridiculous, either. Charles set it at five hundred bucks if Ausmann agreed to a steel rod with an iron cap instead of pure copper.
By this point, Ausmann was realizing that all of these extras added nothing, not when he’d already agreed to a mid-six-figure price for the entire job. So the addition of what Charles described as “Your last, best line of defense” at three grand was a no-brainer.
This was basically a set of sensors using very old-school analog methods and with likewise analog readouts in order to inform anyone in the panic room whether it was safe to come out.
The instruments would indicate whether the basement hallway was flooded or not, what the ambient temperature was, whether there was sufficient oxygen or any toxic gases, current weather conditions above ground, and whether any other human-sized creatures were lurking about upstairs or on the grounds.
“That last one is only a caution and should never be a reason for not leaving after a few days,” Charles warned Ausmann. “They could be bad guys, but those don’t like to stick around, so they’re more likely rescuers. So just exit carefully and armed, but be slow to shoot.”
Remarkably, all of this analog sensing was all done through a series of rubber hoses, copper tubes, and valves and diaphragms attached to brass and glass instruments that looked like something out of a Jules Verne novel.
Ironically, this was long before Ausmann met and hired Joshua and Simon, but the two of them would have been quite at home with this. Or pretend to be.
And when the storm and a day had passed, the room went dark and the Kerosene lamps had lit themselves, Coraline woke with a start and hurried to the door, punching in her code with no result.
Ausmann hurried over and stopped her. “Relax!” he demanded. “Stand back.” He opened the brass panel over the analog sensors and peered at the readouts — which were luminescent. Everything looked absolutely nominal and safe.
“Well, then,” he said, “Coraline, my dear, you may proceed.”
He reached down to the floor to the right of the door and turned the wheel which looked like it belonged on a submarine. After a few turns, he heard a tell-tale “thud” to the left of the door.
“There you go,” he said. “Give it a try.”
Coraline grabbed the handle, slid the heavy door to the right, and it opened. She stepped into the dark basement hallway.
Ausmann grabbed one of the Kerosene lamps — that was the other feature he had paid for. They were detachable and portable — then he followed his wife.
The hall was a mess, open to the sky, fallen timber and floorboards everywhere, and it was almost impassable. And then inspiration hit.
Well, that and something else.
He grabbed a fallen 2×4, set down the lantern, then took advantage of the lack of ceiling and his college baseball career to raise it far over his head and then crack it down on Coraline’s skull.
It only took one hit to send her to the ground, at which point he picked up the lantern, carefully set the weapon against the wound, stepped around the body, then did what he could to kick and shake some more debris on down, finding a couple of really heavy chunks to drop directly on her skull with his arms raised over his head.
He took no chances and hung around long enough to make sure that she had absolutely no pulse.
And why not? He thought. He had invested well with Charles, but he had invested better with Carl, his insurance agent, who had sold them double indemnity insurance policies, based entirely on all of the safety shit Charles and company had installed.
Meaning that if Coraline died in an accident that destroyed the house, Ausmann got twice as much. She was worth ten million to him dead under these circumstances and, frankly, she’d been worth not a lot to him for years.
So it had been a win-win, he supposed. That, and the house had been fully insured for well over its market value as well. This little storm had managed to give him both freedom and even more wealth, with which he could probably strike out on his own in order to destroy these pesky Rêves once and for all.
He briefly considered how he would eventually explain to authorities how his wife had died in the basement hallway while he had survived, then decided he didn’t need to. He’d explain that he’d been at his lab under JPL but, unfortunately, he couldn’t provide any of the logs because his work was top secret.
He could just drive there and no one would ever know otherwise. He already knew that the whole place had been evacuated because of the storm. That was one of the last texts he had gotten before he went into the panic room, and the texts that came piling in after he emerged confirmed that the place would be closed the rest of the week.
There would be no human security around his complex because it wasn’t necessary, and this had also been by Ausmann’s design. He alone could get in without leaving any fingerprints behind, as it were.
What he didn’t know, though, until he’d come above ground and walked to what was left of the garage — which wasn’t much — was that he wouldn’t be driving, because both his car and his wife’s SUV resembled a photograph taken from above with a telephoto lens — flat and dimensionless.
“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. And Simi was full of cops, so he really had to get out without being noticed in order to establish his alibi. Fortunately, he’d been paranoid enough to have set up a complete second set of ID and a pre-paid and untraceable debit card that he had funded with cash deposits over the years. That would get him to where he needed to be without being tracked on the grid, but there was that other issue of appearance.
He headed back down to the Panic Room, realizing that the only reason the kerosene lamps had come on was that he had forgotten to switch on the battery back-ups in the first place. Once he did that, the lights came back and he headed into the bathroom.
He looked at his face in the mirror, and his long-cultivated hair, goatee and moustache, all of which would make him stick out like a sore thumb.
“No time to be sentimental,” he thought as he grabbed the clippers from the bag in the cabinet, tapped the switch to make sure they were charged, turned them off, and then pulled off the guard.
He couldn’t risk even leaving a little length, lest the skunk-stripe in his hair flag him. He took a deep breath, turned the clippers on, and then started shearing.
It took longer than he thought, and by the end of it the pile of hair on the floor was incredible. He probably could have knit an entire suit out of it. He left his eyebrows intact, but looked into the mirror to realize a few things.
One — it had been far too long since he’d seen his upper lip or chin. The former seemed way bigger than he’d remembered it, while the latter seemed smaller. And the obvious tan lines on both the top his head and the bottom of his face stood out — he’d have to do something about that.
The other thing was that his head appeared much bigger than he’d ever thought it was, and his ears were huge. He stared at his reflection, then laughed.
“Holy shit, I’m fucking Lex Luthor,” he said. “Thank god I’m not up against Superman.”
He wondered what to do about the obvious tan line, then went to his late wife’s medicine cabinet and started digging through it until he found a bottle labeled “Liquid Foundation.” He remembered that word from somewhere, although whether it was Coraline complaining about running out of it or one of his many mistresses asking him to buy them some, he could not remember.
All he knew was that it was a woman’s ultimate secret — literally the foundation upon which was built the lie of their appearance.
Well, that was how Ausmann saw it, anyway. He never saw how men like him were part of the problem that made that necessary in the first place.
But he opened the bottle, squeezed it, and started with a little smear of a kind of thick and gooey beige splat on top of his head that had a very faint and oddly greasy smell. He started to spread it around, and then continued adding foundation and spreading it around until he’d covered the top of his head, then his forehead, nose, and cheeks, finally down his face to his chin, and his neck.
To him, he wasn’t trying to do anything fancy, just hide the lack of tan. But when he was done, he realized that he had a new problem.
Everything was too uniform. He looked like a mannequin. And sure, that wouldn’t be obvious running around the streets of Simi Valley.
He wondered what to do, then he remembered something he’d heard once and had been appalled by — lots of young women were making a fortune on YouTube by doing make-up tutorials.
Well, the survivalist’s motto was “Do what you have to,” so he gave a command to his phone that he never thought he would in a million years. “Make-up tutorials.”
He was soon presented with tens of thousands of options, most of which seemed to be aimed toward creating Glamazons, male and female.
Sure, that might be the best disguise of all for Ausmann, but no way in hell he’d go there in a million years. He tried refining it by adding “that don’t make me look like a mannequin,” and the first three results that popped up looked promising.
He skipped the first two, though. Number one was a woman trying to, as she put it, “Teach you plain Janes to glow up!” Number two was a gay dude with the tag line, “I finna make you bitches fierce.”
The third, though, seemed up his alley, because there didn’t seem to be any glamor involved. They (those were the only pronouns displayed, to which Ausmann thought “Okay…”) went by the name Estar. Not Ester, or Lester, but Estar.
And looking at… them, Ausmann really wasn’t sure whether it was a man or a woman, but the lesson started out with, “Okay, you cholas and jotas, you want to butch up and go Drag King, vamanos!”
He kept watching these videos for three or four hours, and learned all kinds of tricks until he finally managed to use his wife’s make-up and Estar’s advice to turn his face into something that could kind of pass as a much younger man. The big secrets were blush and blending.
But at the same time, Estar’s video’s had been full of asides and advice from actor friends, and so Ausmann got a completely different lesson beyond “Change your face with make-up.” It was “Change your entire personality with your body.”
By the time he’d finished his face and didn’t even recognize himself in the mirror, he started hunting through his and Coraline’s emergency wardrobe closets for items that would most disguise a skinny 6’5” guy, and wound up settling on a down vest to pad out his body underneath an extra-large T-shirt. Baggy pants that allowed him to walk with his knees bent to reduce his apparent height, all of it hidden by a long overcoat which helped complete the effect.
He also stooped his shoulders and practiced not making eye-contact and mumbling. He topped his head with a baseball cap into which he had glued and sewn his own hair, although nowhere near as long as it had been and leaving out the white stripe. He burned the rest of the hair in the bathtub and rinsed down the ashes. Wow, did that make a stink.
All of this had been advice that he’d gotten online, and he was seriously considering recruiting Estar and their friends to work for the government, because he had gotten an amazing course in espionage for free, and none of these kids even knew it.
If he ran into trouble, a quick duck around a corner and he could ditch the hat and hair and padding, stand up straight, walk the other way, and not be noticed by his pursuers.
Happy with his look, Ausmann checked for any last-minute texts from work, found none, and headed up. Making sure that nobody was looking, he quickly hit the sidewalk and started walking west, checking other apps of his to see whether there was any active police chatter in the area.
Oddly enough, there wasn’t. So he kept walking, doing his best to impersonate some Gen-Z douchebag, at least until he could get to a point where he could hop a ride all the way to JPL.