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.
This is the last chapter of Book Two, and let’s just say brace yourselves for a huge twist.
Wheeling and dealing
Pearl had tasked Danny and Preston with keeping tabs on Ausmann as he left the mountain and beyond, and they had taken up position for the rather boring duty of watching his ass after he’d parked at the bottom.
After sunrise, and as soon as one of the two auto businesses opened, Ausmann sprang into action. The car dealership opened first, and he grabbed a briefcase from his car before heading on in.
They watched as the lone salesman toured Ausmann around the lot, and then took him on a test-drive in what Preston recognized as a dark blue Chrysler Pacifica, probably about a 2017 model, a hybrid, although its mileage wasn’t really all that impressive — 84 per gallon on electric power, 32 per for gas, clearly visible on the info poster on the back driver’s side window.
The most notable bits were its four doors and an obvious butt-ton of storage space, not to mention that all of the rear windows were tinted.
“I thought that was illegal here,” Preston mused.
“How would I know,” Danny replied. “I’m from Idaho.”
“Emphasis on ‘ho,’” Preston reminded him with a playful ass-slap.
“Hey — I taught you everything you know.”
“Oh, I learned plenty on my own.”
Ausmann and the salesman disappeared into the store for what seemed like forever until they both emerged and shook hands, the salesman handing Ausmann a set of keys and a thick pouch full of documents. A few moments later, someone who obviously made nowhere near as much as the salesman drove the SUV around and parked it. As Ausmann started to unload his stuff from his trade-in to the other, the driver stopped him, and a whole crew descended to carry out the off-loud in about two minutes.
Then Ausmann was on his way, heading west, and Danny and Preston Peter-Panned their way after him, leaving him none-the-wiser.
Still, as they followed him, they noticed something that they’d first kind of picked up on back at the cabin but really hadn’t paid much attention to until it was just them following him in his new SUV.
Ausmann was sort of… well, flickering. That was the best way they could describe it. It was like he was two people at once, although both of them were him.
“Dude, this is like that time we did shrooms behind the Gern Island Complex,” Danny said.
“I never did…” Preston started until he remembered. “Oh. Right. With, like, that whole Hindu god multiple face and arm shit going on?”
“Exactly,” Danny replied. “But I know that I’m not tripping, and you’re probably not, so that’s probably him. What do you think is going on?”
“I have no fucking idea,” Preston answered. “I guess all we can do is what Pearl asked us to.”
So they followed Ausmann back into L.A., where he parked at the Universal City Metro Station and took the escalators down to the platform, where he waited. Danny and Preston followed him down as well and didn’t show themselves — to humans — but fired out a warning to any Rêve who thought about entering that station.
It was only after a few hours and by the point that Ausmann got kind of vocal that it became clear that he was hunting for his ghost hunters, which Danny and Preston quickly determined would have been Joshua and Simon.
“Well… fuck,” Preston finally said.
“Yeah, we kind of like them, don’t we?” Danny asked.
“Yeah, they kind of introduced us,” Preston replied. “So what do we do with Captain Shithead here?”
“I have no idea,” Danny said. “Except maybe stick to his ass and protect those hunter dudes?”
“Agreed,” Preston said.
“Hey… you remember where they live?” Danny asked.
“Shit. Vaguely?” Preston replied. “Why?”
“Um… shouldn’t we go there first and warn them?”
“Yeah, duh,” Preston said, “But… do you remember where they live?”
There was a long pause before Danny replied, “No. I thought you did.”
Another long pause before they looked at each other and muttered, “Fuck.”
“I know it was in the Valley,” Preston said. “And near a Metro station. That’s where they caught me.”
“Which station was it?” Danny asked.
Preston thought about it, and then realized that there was a blank spot. He remembered being in a station, just not which one. “I think being in that trap messed with my mind,” he said.
“What was it like in there?”
“Complete unconsciousness, so no time passed at all from when I went in to when I got out.”
“I wonder if Anabel remembers.”
“She’s not exactly our biggest fan right now,” Preston explained, “Seeing as how we ran off with Pearl.”
“Wouldn’t she want to protect Joshua and Simon?”
“When they’re the ones who turned her over to Ausmann?”
“Oh, right,” Danny realized. “But if we told her we knew where Ausmann is — ”
“She’d probably just turn her army on him.”
“Yeah, but wouldn’t that save Joshua and Simon, then?”
“I don’t think Pearl wanted Ausmann harmed,” Preston said. “Otherwise, she would have just had the Hadas take him out back there in the mountains.”
“That storm sure looked like a serious attempt to take him out,” Danny said.
“Or was it just a very elaborate way to send a message?”
“What, like storms are some universal language?” Danny joked, but Preston suddenly went wide-eyed.
“Universal. Universal City Station. That’s where they caught me! Right here. I remember now. Thanks, dude!”
“Uh… you’re welcome?”
They headed upstairs and explored the area around the station, but the closest residential buildings and the neighborhood in general looked nothing like what they’d seen when they’d fled Joshua and Simon’s place.
“So… north or south?” Danny asked.
“I’m pretty sure it’s north,” Preston said. “Nothing we flew over on the way out looked like Hollywood.”
They traveled OG Rêve style, down the subway tunnel, one southbound train traveling through them, which was always a total rush when it happened, then arrived at the North Hollywood station and headed up. As soon as they exited to the plaza above, Preston pointed.
“I remember that black tower!” he exclaimed, indicating the Kaiser Permanente Medical Office Building at Lankershim and Weddington. “And this station, too,” he said, pointing back at the three metal arches above the entrance, in shades of orange, yellow and green. Danny had always assumed that they were a reference to oranges, lemons, and limes, which had been a major part of California’s agricultural economy since forever.
That probably wasn’t the case, though.
“I guess we can go up and see if we recognize any landmarks we flew over,” Danny suggested.
“It would be so much easier if it was nighttime now,” Preston said.
“There’s probably no time,” Danny replied. “I mean, Ausmann was their boss, he must have their address, right?”
“Shit. Okay. Let’s fly.”
They shot up into the air and started looking, almost immediately recognizing the G Line bus transit station across Lankershim from the B Line Metro station — and then veering to the left to a building just north of North Chandler at Tujunga — a square tower of fifteen stories with wraparound balconies on the front and back sides.
“That’s it!” Preston called out, ecstatic. They made their way to the nearest top-floor balcony and strolled inside since, being Rêves, they could just do that, but it looked like nobody was home.
“Now what?” Danny asked. Preston just shrugged.
“Now what?” Ausmann thought as he parked in a far and empty corner of the lowest level of the Westfield Fashion Square mall garage. Since the mall itself had been mostly abandoned in the plague years and then subsequently converted to homeless and low-cost housing, the garage didn’t see the kind of traffic it used to.
That was true of most indoor malls in the U.S.
He wracked his brain, trying to remember anything that would give him a clue to where Joshua and Simon lived, coming up blank, so he went back to his video archives, searching through all of the Metro footage he had of them until he came to a rather interesting bit from the Universal City Station, when they were actually approached by an employee.
The video was high-res enough that he was able to grab her name from her badge: Brenda Mason. And he also checked the footage showing her driving off with the two of them from the station.
So he’d found his way in, checked in the several databases he was (still) privy to as a Federal employee, found her address in Baldwin Hills, and headed on over.
Meanwhile, 88 miles (or 141 kilometers) almost directly due east and many hours earlier, Pearl and the Hadas were startled as the ground under Ausmann’s cabin erupted in a shower of dirt followed by a blue fireball that sent the above-ground building itself skyward in a storm of blazing splinters.
The ground collapsed in a gigantic crater that took out even more of the land, followed by a secondary explosion of fire.
The shattered cabin flew in all directions into the forest, igniting the trees, and the Hadas flew into action immediately, gathering high above and firing down a sudden and very localized hail storm that managed to quench the flames before they did much damage.
Pearl watched with a sigh of relief, but then another of the Hadas materialized next to them — one of the few who would have been Class II if he hadn’t been cremated instead, and that was Rock Hudson.
“And you just want to let him go like that?” he asked.
“Yes,” Pearl replied. “Number one, because I do not believe in killing, even if it’s to fight genocide. Number two, because what hate he’s going to show us now is also going to show us how to defeat him.”
“Ah,” Rock replied. “Know thine enemy?”
“Exactly,” Pearl answered with an awkward fist-bump.
Meanwhile, Esme innocently answers the door to find Ausmann pointing a gun at her face. “Hello,” he says. “Is this where Brenda Mason lives?”
“What do you want?” she demands, tensing up in preparation to using her taekwondo training to kick his ass, but he’s already grabbed her by the throat, spun her around, and put one of her arms in a compliance hold. She grunts and leads him to the living room.
Jonah and the kids are playing another game, Exploding Kittens, when a madman with a gun enters. Jonah doesn’t hesitate and goes full-on linebacker (flashback to his college days) in order to take this motherfucker out, except — he gets smacked hard in the temple with the butt of a gun and goes down.
And then Brenda comes in from the hallway to see what all of the commotion is, and crazy man points his gun at Malia.
“Pick one,” he says. “If you tell me nothing. Save both if you tell me what I want to know.”
“What the fuck do you want to know?” she demands, gesturing for her kids to come to her, which they do, hiding behind her legs.
“Where do your little ghost hunter friends live?” the gunman demands.
“You think I know?” Brenda replies.
“You have three chances to say no without people dying,” the gunman replies. “Husband, this kid or that kid. Boom, boom, boom. Who do you really want to protect?”
“I never went to their house, you fucking asshole,” Brenda replies. “God’s honest truth?”
“Really?” the man replies, pointing his gun at Jonah’s head. “Want to try again?”
“I only ever went to Denny’s with them!” Brenda practically screamed.
“Which one?” the gunman demanded.
“Lankershim and Burbank,” she replied.
“I think you need more incentive,” he said, turning his gun toward Malia. “Where do they live?” he demanded again.
“I don’t fucking know!” she screamed, and then she pulled out her phone and flung it at his face with all her strength. Remarkably, it hit dead-center on the bridge of his nose and brought him down, gun flipping from his hand and tumbling to the carpet.
To their credit, Brenda didn’t have to say anything. Malia threw herself on top of the gun while Jonah grabbed the gunman in a chokehold and Sam restrained his arms.
“I’m calling the cops,” Brenda announces, but this just sets the gunman off. With a burst of strength, he manages to break free from Jonah and Sam’s holds.
“Bring it. Asshole,” she announces, adding, “Sorry kids.”
Before she can say anything else, he flees out the front door. Esme restrains Jonah from following him and Sam slams and bolts the front door.
“Okay,” Esme finally says. “What was that all about?”
“I think I know,” Brenda replies, grabbing her phone and dialing.
Joshua and Simon had just arrived home, ready to settle down for a quiet evening of binging the latest series of Doctor Who when they were interrupted, first by finding Danny and Preston in their living room, and then by Brenda’s phone call.
They all had the same message: “Ausmann is looking for you both, and it’s probably not good news.” Of course, Brenda didn’t know their intruder was this Ausmann until Joshua asked her, then explained who he was.
“Do you happen to know where he is now?” Simon asked.
“Um… no,” the other three answered.
“Last we saw him was at Universal City Station,” Danny explained.
“And does he know where we are?” Joshua and Simon asked.
“No,” they agreed.
“And he’s looking for us because, why?” Joshua said.
“I have no idea,” Brenda responded.
“Because I think he’s out to kill you,” Danny and Preston said.
“Well, that’s one hell of a difference,” Simon said.
“True,” Joshua agreed, then asked Brenda, “Wait. How the hell did he find you?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m guessing that he was watching Metro videos, like I was?”
“Not encouraging,” Simon muttered to Joshua.
“Not at all,” Joshua replied.
“What do you mean?” Brenda asked.
“You know how much we all had access to via video as county employees?” Simon asked.
“Well, yeah,” she said.
“Well, Ausmann — and both of us — had Federal access, meaning that city, county, and state shit was free rein.”
“Meaning…?” Brenda asked, sounding scared to death.
“If he found you and tied you to us — ” Simon started.
“He’s fucking found us,” Joshua finished.
“Not your fault,” they both added. “At least we’ve got warning,” Simon continued.
“You’re welcome,” Brenda said and then signed off. Immediately afterwards, Ausmann kickied in the front door, leading pistol first and grinning like an idiot when he saw them. Unfortunately, he’d had to leave his favorite gun behind at Brenda’s house. This was one of his back-ups from the car.
“Hello, boys,” he announced. Danny and Preston immediately faded into the shadows, but neither Joshua nor Simon took it as a bad thing. Rather, it was probably the Rêves’ best attempt to protect the Vivants.
“So… what the hell do you want?” Joshua demanded, his usual defiant self.
“Oh, you know,” Ausmann said. “Self-preservation, protection, loyal minions… although I don’t think that either of you can provide any of that. At least without incentive.”
“There’s no incentive you can offer us, you asshole,” Joshua replied.
“Ooh. Burning bridges already? I like that. It’s spunky!” Ausmann said. “You haven’t even listened to my offer.”
“I think my husband said we’re not interested,” Simon replied in a totally uncharacteristic moment of candor. “So… no, maybe?”
Ausmann laughed. “All I’m asking for is the key to winning this goddamn ghost war, nothing more nor less, and since you’re both living, I assume that that’s the side you’re on. Right?”
“You’re assuming that we see this as a war,” Simon said. “But we don’t.”
“Ah,” Ausmann spat back at him. “So you’re traitors to your kind?”
“You want to blow that dog whistle any harder, fuckface?” Joshua chimed in.
“No, I want to recruit an ally,” Ausmann said, marching outside onto the balcony.
Joshua and Simon exchanged a look, Simon restraining Joshua from picking up a heavy lead bust near the doorway with obvious lethal intent.
Out on the balcony, Ausmann gestured at the landscape. “This belongs to people,” he said. “Living, human people. Fuck the dead. And I have figured out the way to figure out how to defeat them, but it requires one tiny bit of your help.”
“Okay, I’ll humor you, but I won’t say yes,” Joshua replied. “What tiny bit do you need?”
“Simple,” Ausmann replied. “Bring me the spirit of Peter Lorre. That’s it. He’s going to share all of the secrets to destroying them, and guarantee my mission.”
“Peter Lorre?” Simon scoffed. “How are we supposed to find him?”
“I suppose you’ll need to find an ally on the other side,” Ausmann said.
Joshua wanted to tell him, “We’ve already got two,” but restrained himself — there was no telling how this madman would take the news. Besides, he didn’t exactly want to call out Danny and Preston when they were most likely watching but hidden.
In fact, they were watching, and the thing that they noticed was that Ausmann was doing his weird “Hindu Time” bit again, seemingly stronger than it had been before, and that was when time blurred.
“I can’t think of any of those existing ghosts who’d trust either of you,” Ausmann said. “But I know who would.
Abruptly, Ausmann started to spin around but then there were two of him, one a ghostly image and the other more solid. Both of them spun together to hit Simon hard in the chest, knocking him backwards over the balcony raining and into fifteen stories of air. As they turned back, it looked like the back of the ghostly one’s head exploded in a spray of red mist, and then it fell.
At the same time, Joshua screamed and ran to the railing.
“You’ll need his help,” Ausmann said as he wheeled around Joshua, keeping the gun aimed at him until he’d exited via the condo and out the front door.
Joshua didn’t want to look down. Meanwhile, the ghostly Ausmann had fallen to the ground and winked out of existence.
“What the fuck was that?” Danny asked Preston.
“I have no idea.”
Noticing Joshua moving slowly toward the balcony railing, they materialized and hurried to stand on either side of him. Joshua finally looked down. Simon was lying in the middle of the southbound lane of Tujunga and a small crowd, probably from the shops on the ground floor, had already gathered. Since the fire station was a block away, an ambulance arrived almost immediately.
“Dude, trust us, he’ll be back,” Preston explained, putting an arm around Joshua’s shoulders even though he couldn’t really touch him.
“But not like himself,” Joshua said before he turned and ran inside, grabbing his phone and keys, throwing on a coat and heading out, locking the door behind him. He got to the street as the EMTs were transferring Simon, strapped to a body board, onto a gurney, then wheeling him into the ambulance.
Joshua felt some relief when he saw that they had put him on oxygen. Good. Still alive. There was still hope.
He turned and saw a police officer nearby and went to her.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m his husband. Can I… what can…?”
“You can ride to the hospital with him, of course,” she said. Give me your name and number. I’m not going to bother you for a statement right now. Except — was it an accident, attempted homicide, or… um…”
She trailed off, avoiding the “S” word, and Joshua had a dilemma. If he said that it was murder, he’d have to say who did it, and that would lead to revealing way too much information about everything. He’d have to stop Ausmann on his own, and he was not unaware that even if Simon came back as a Rêve, he’d still be obliterated if Ausmann carried out his plan.
“Accident, I’m pretty sure,” he said. “I wasn’t out there, but I looked when I heard the siren. He… he didn’t have any, you know, suicidal thoughts at all. Simon was a happy guy.”
“Simon. That’s my brother’s name. Your husband is still breathing, so there’s that. Go on, get in the ambulance.”
“Thank you,” Joshua told her, then went to one of the EMTs and explained the same. It was the longest ride of his life, even though they went with sirens blaring for just under seven miles to the Kaiser ER in Panorama City.
Simon was admitted immediately and the surgeons went to work as Joshua waited. About forty-five minutes later, a surgeon entered through the back doors. There were other people there, but Joshua could tell from her body language that what was coming was not good news.
“Please be for someone else,” he told himself, but then the surgeon spoke the three words that would destroy his world.
“Joshua Hunter-Aisling?” she said to the room.
He raised his hand and walked toward her, but all he could remember were the tears that would not stop and the violent sobs that wracked his entire body.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she said. He only heard random words. Extensive trauma. Gross insult to internal organs. Multiple fractures. “Most people who fall from that height are dead on impact,” she finally said, and this phrase burned itself into his brain. “I really thought we had a chance with him.”
Everything after that was a blur as he wandered out of the hospital, called a cab, and headed home. Danny and Preston were still waiting there, and read his mood immediately. The three of them just sat in silence, Danny and Preston leaning their heads on his shoulders as best they could.
“We’re here for you,” Danny said.
“Whatever you need,” Preston told him.
Joshua looked at the two of them, thinking, “You’re dead and not really corporeal. What could you possibly do?” He started laughing at the absurdity of it, but then looked at their sincerity, and it hit him that despite their deceased state, recent experiences actually had matured them both. Preston was much less the shallow porn star and Danny less the naïve L.A. import who had not yet gone down the porn path.
The tears came again until he fell asleep on the couch between the two spirits who did not emanate any heat, but showed plenty of love.