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.
Shot in the Dark
Danny and Preston had realized that they liked being up here in a forest on top of a mountain, and during the early mornings when everything was shrouded in mist and fog, they would go for long walks, not bothered by cold or fatigue or any of that human shit.
By their second day there, they had also gotten quite adept at being able to walk right up to random deer and other wildlife without freaking them out and sending them running.
“Goddamn,” Danny had pointed out at one point. “If we were still alive and could TikTok this shit, we’d be viral billionaires.”
“Tell me about it,” Preston replied. “Or we could just film some fucking in the forest.”
“Hm. The world’s first combo twincest/necrophilia OnlyFans. I’m sure that would make us billionaires, except… oh, right. How do we hook back into meatspace?”
“Heh heh. You said ‘meatspace,” Preston replied.
“Heh heh, you’re a dick,” Danny said.
“Right here, ready and waiting!” Preston told him, slapping both his thighs and helicoptering.
“Can you like maybe just try to imagine pants or panties or… something?” Daniel replied.
“Can you like maybe just give me one good reason I should?” Preston snapped back, and Daniel realized that he had nothing. “’Cause it’s your dick, too, and I know you don’t mind looking at it at all, or playing with it. A lot.”
They had hiked a good ways up a trail into the wilderness when both of them began to sense something unsettling, and then sickening, and then they both stopped abruptly.
“What is that?” Daniel asked.
“Hell if I know,” Preston replied. “I’m kind of new here.”
They grabbed each other, grateful at least for the fact that they could touch each other, and both felt a ridiculous sense of vertigo, both of them spinning to their left and trying to hang on, and then before they almost fell over feeling two strong hands grabbing their right and left shoulders, respectively, and pulling them back onto their feet.
They turned and looked to see the figure of a kind-looking older man with silver hair, glasses, and a moustache. There was a weird kind of red mark on his forehead and a jagged line below it, but otherwise he seemed normal, albeit transparent.
“Sorry,” the man announced. “Sorry, sorry, just saw you, you seemed friendly. Hi! Who are you?”
“I’m Danny,” Danny said.
“I’m Preston,” Preston added, “Although it’s kind of he is me and I am him and… what was that Beatles song, anyway?”
“Goo-goo-g’joob,” the spectre replied. “Come Together. I’m not really sure who I am actually. Do you know who you are?”
“Like we said,” Preston chimed in. “I’m Preston.”
“I’m Danny, but we’re kind of the same person, really.”
“Oh, how good for you,” this entity replied. “See, I still have no idea who I am. I was hoping you might know.”
“Well, it depends,” Preston replies. “How did you get here?”
“Last thing I remember is a bunch of stars. And, no, there’s a sense of betrayal. But I think that my body is right around here…”
He led them to a patch of ground that was obviously a recently filled in pit, possibly a grave.
“Well, you remembered this,” Preston said. “Why can’t you remember who you are?”
“Maybe because no one knows he’s dead yet, you silly cunt?” Danny suddenly piped up, making Preston shoot him a dirty look.
But the old man seemed to take heart in this. “Of course!” he said. “No one knows I’m dead… is that kind of a requirement for… you know?”
“Who told you that?” Preston demanded.
“I… no one… it just… came into my head.”
“Interesting,” Danny said.
“But, if it’s true… give me a minute…”
Preston looked impatient, but Danny shot him a look and restrained his arm. After a long moment, the old man stopped staring and looked at the two of them.
“Oh,” he said. “My name is Jerry, I was coerced up here by someone pretending to be my friend, but then was betrayed and killed, and I’m buried over there.”
Needless to say, Preston and Danny greeted this with a bit of silence, and then a long look at each other before either of them spoke.
“Do you know who killed you?” Preston finally asked.
“Oh. Oh, yeah, it was… he used to be my boss… tip of my tongue. Dr. Schliemann.”
“That doesn’t ring any bells,” Danny said.
“You wouldn’t know him. He’s from down in the city,” Jerry explained. “Scientist at JPL, mostly works in his secret lab.”
Danny and Preston just stared at each other, jaws dropping, then they hurried right up to Jerry.
“This is the most important question we’re going to ask you — ”
“Two questions,” Danny interrupted.
“All right two. Mine is, do you remember this Dr. Schliemann’s full name?”
“Um, sure. Yeah. Give me a minute. Getting shot in the head can fuck with your memory, you know?” He laughed and then blurted out, “Ausmann. Dr. Ausmann Schliemann.”
If either Danny or Preston had actually been breathing, they would have held their breaths as Danny asked the other question. “Do you know where he is right now?”
“Well, my car is still parked over there, so I’m guessing that he’s in his cabin.”
“Yeah, right there.” Jerry pointed. “But it’s all kinds of crazy fortified. No one’s getting in.”
“Not even if they can walk through walls?” Preston asked.
“We can do that?” Jerry asked.
“We’re dead,” Danny said. “We can do a lot.”
“Thank you very much for your help,” Preston said, taking Danny’s arm to lead him away, but Danny stopped and turned back.
“Do you know why he killed you?” he asked.
“Sure, I remember now. He told me he’d killed his wife and knew I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Which is probably true.”
“Thanks,” Danny replied as Preston pulled him away. “What’s the rush?” he asked him.
“You recognize the name.”
“Dude, we’ve got him and he doesn’t know it. We could win the war right now, right here, before it even begins.”
“I thought it had started, with that storm.”
“That? I’m guessing that was nothing,” Preston told him, then he stopped and raised his arms above his head. “Pearl. Pearl. Pearl!” he called.
She appeared immediately. “That’s our name, don’t wear it out, and what can we do ya for?”
“We… we’ve found Ausmann,” Preston said.
“No shit?” Pearl replied.
“No shit,” Danny told them.
“Where is he?”
Preston turned and pointed at the cabin.
“You’re sure?” they asked.
“Well, we haven’t actually seen him,” Danny demurred, “But the guy he murdered told us that he has to be there because that car is.”
“Interesting,” Pearl muttered, closing their eyes for a moment, then opening them and smiling. “You’ve done very well, boys,” they said, gesturing briefly, sending waves of peaceful thoughts and a feeling of being appreciated up and down their bodies. “Now what shall we do?”
The wind started to pick up, and it was immediately chaotic, though still light. The leaves on the trees would flutter one way and then the other and then calm down, only to start up again. And then, smoky wisps flew out of the forest and coalesced into various Rêves. Preston recognized some of them whom he’d met in passing, and more than a few who were definitely Class II, although he had heard the rumor that the Class II’s were on Ausmann’s side.
Well, apparently not all of them.
The Hadas were also there, but as more of a presence that was sustaining the wind, and then Anabel appeared out of a dark blue wisp, to stand next to Pearl. Pearl didn’t have to make an announcement because they all already knew the news.
“What are we waiting for?” Anabel asked.
“Well, now, it’s a tricky thing,” Pearl explained. “We can’t exactly kill him, because that’s just letting him loose with our powers.”
“What says he’s going to show up as a Rêve?” Anabel demanded.
“These boys saw a brand-new Rêve just now,” Pearl said, indicating Danny and Preston. “And if it can happen up here right after he’s murdered… Well, let’s just say we don’t want to hand our enemy that kind of power.”
“Then what do we want?” Anabel asked her, then shouted it to the crowd. “What do we all want?”
Pearl smirked at her. “Dear, don’t try to play that rally the crowd shit on me. The Hadas could take out you and any kind of army you could muster in a snap.”
“All right,” Anabel replied, suppressing her fury. “What do ‘we’ want?”
“We’re going to drive him back down to L.A. and see where he goes next. With any luck, that will give away his strategy. Agreed?”
After a long moment, Anabel finally relented, reluctantly saying, “Agreed.”
Pearl raised their right arm and gestured, and then the weather started to intensify. Meanwhile, the Rêves strolled over and surrounded Ausmann’s cabin.
The sky darkened as deep gray clouds started to form above the treetops, growing grayer and then finally fully black as they shut off the sky. Lightning without thunder flashed through them, illuminating large chunks of their undersides in surreal blue-white bursts.
The first bolt to come down struck the satellite antenna on the roof of the cabin, shattering the dish into bits in a hail of blue sparks and sending up a black plume of smoke as the PVC mounts below burst into flames. The thunder came with it immediately.
Inside the cabin, even in the underground shelter, Ausmann had sensed the heat of the strike and definitely felt the rumble of the ensuing thunder, hearing a slight bit of it. That was also when his TV screen burst into static.
“What the fuck?” he said to himself as he switched over to display all of the outside cams on the main screen Zoom style, nine by six, showing his property from every angle — and what he was seeing he didn’t like.
First off, it looked like he was surrounded by those goddamn ghost things, no famous faces among them, and they were just standing there, about fifty feet from the cabin, doing nothing.
Second, it had started to hail, but only in one very specific spot that was about three meters on a side, and directly over the septic tank cover, since no sewer lines had ever been brought up here.
Third, one of those infernal ghosts stepped from the crowd, walked up to his front door and pointed, and he recognized that face. It was Anabel.
“Yeah,” he thought to himself. “None of this is good.”
He went to one of the smart panels in the wall and tapped the screen to activate the speaker in the front doorbell, surprised that it seemed to be working. “What do you want?” he demanded.
“We want you to leave these sacred lands,” Anabel explained.
“Sacred to whom?” he scoffed. “A bunch of low-life ghosts?”
“Sacred to something you’ll never understand,” Anabel replied.
As if to answer, lightning smacked into the ground ten feet in front of the door, and the lights downstairs, which weren’t even connected to any outside power source, still flickered.
“We can put the next one wherever we want to.”
“Well, good for you, Zeus,” Ausmann sneered.
Anabel restrained her annoyance, but turned back toward Pearl. She didn’t have to say it because Pearl could read her thoughts anyway, but all she could think was, “How goddamn arrogant can this mortal asshole be?”
“Appeal to his ego,” Anabel heard Pearl’s voices in her mind, wondering how she was going to do that when she remembered the car waiting nearby.
“How about a challenge?” Anabel announced.
“Like what?” Ausmann replied.
“Like… you manage to make it to the bottom of the mountain before we can catch you, then we let you go along your way.”
“Catch me with what?” he asked.
“With whatever we’ve got,” Anabel said. “And we’ll even give you a fifteen minute head-start? Twenty?”
“Make it ten, bitch,” Ausmann replied.
“So you accept?” Anabel asked him.
“As long as I get to bring along whatever I need.”
“Knock yourself out,” she said.
Over the next half hour, after Anabel and the Rêves had retreated beyond the property line so as to not present an immediate threat, Ausmann dragged an impressive arsenal out to the car, not all of it recognizable as conventional weapons. He also brought out two satchels that Pearl recognized as “Go Bags,” or as friends of theirs way back in the day had described them, “Hippie Helpers.”
After he’d loaded the car, he turned to address the air in general, because he, himself, could not see the Rêves standing there. “Fifteen minutes, then?” he announced.
Anabel chose to not call him out on his change of terms, but forced herself visible and said, “All right. And your time starts… now.”
Ausmann dove into Jerry’s car, started it up, backed around and drove down the dirt road to the highway, and almost immediately cursed the fact that he was stuck with the typical Old Man’s car — a Toyota that they’d bought new the last time they had money (in their late 50s), but which was now so old that it ran on hopes and dreams.
California version of the rule: “Never trust a car with a license plate that starts with less than 4.”
So Ausmann went chugging down the hill, while also discovering that the brakes and steering were pretty much shit, and one of the rear shocks was bouncing its tire like a basketball.
His one consolation was that just before he’d left his cabin he’d pulled the “Kill Switch,” setting the timer so it would go off around dawn. At that point, the underground propane tanks would have been opened long enough to allow all of the gas to seep through the lowest level, although the power down there would also have been shut off.
The real fireworks happened when all of the C-4 hidden around the place was set off. Combined with the propane, that should destroy the place and give the ghosts a good jolt. Ausmann had never worked the physics of it out all the way, so he wasn’t sure whether there’d just be an underground thwump that would create a sinkhole that swallowed the cabin, or if there’d be a glorious explosion that would send a fireball into the air and give a whole new meaning to the phrase “Cabin in the Sky.”
Not that this would hurt the ghosts, either, but if it started a major fire in the forest, it might keep them busy trying to stop it. They seemed like the type.
Half an hour down the mountain and with the storm and lightning clearly a couple of miles behind him, Ausmann began to despair. Were these assholes letting him win?
And the farther he went and the slower, he really had to wonder even more — were they just being lazy and hoping that Jerry’s shit-ass car would kill him first, or was it just some ruse?
Once he’d actually hit the bottom of the mountain by any definition, he found the nearest auto shop and parked. He had enough supplies in the car to wait out until they opened in the morning, he’d fulfilled the ghosts’ deal, and he’d brought a briefcase stuffed with cash, so whatever he needed repaired on this junker, he could do.
Then again, there was a used car lot across the way, so that was another option.
While he waited in the dark in the car, he worked on his own Plan B. He needed his ghost hunters, needed to find them, and also figured out the perfect incentive for them.
But the finding was the hard part, and as dawn was breaking, he still had no idea where those steampunk assholes were.