You can catch up with the first installment of this piece 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.
Joshua drove the Tesla up to JPL, parked right outside, and was surprised to find when he walked up that there was nobody in the guard station. The outside door was locked, but one of the gadgets they’d always kept on hand was a belt buckle with all the necessary keys hidden in it.
Joshua unlocked the door and entered, noticing that not even the JPL Campus Cops were around.
No one was in the guard station, and he met no resistance when he walked to the elevators and pushed a button. One of them soon dinged its arrival, so he stepped in and descended to the lab.
Again, no challenge, so he went to Ausmann’s office, then unlocked and opened the gray door behind his desk — the one they’d never seen opened, but knew about.
Behind here, there was a long cat-walked corridor that seemingly stretched off into infinity. Next to it was a huge tunnel that was basically bordered by thick yellow pipes set at 60 degree angles, but no other separations. And, down the center of that border defined by the pipes, a hot, pink plasma snaked its way to who knew where.
Well, Joshua had a pretty good idea where, and then he spotted the gray door on the side of a square room that was located just below the point where the yellow pipes all came to a single focus.
He unlocked it and entered to find a small room with a single terminal and screen, and it wasn’t even password protected.
He sat and looked. There was an input box under a message. “Text here, ETA T-minus 6 Days, 16 hours.”
He put the USB stick in the port on the computer and a pop-up appeared. He dragged and saved the file to the desktop, then opened it, then copied the text. He finally switched back to the input box, was relieved when he was able to paste, then clicked send and sat back, happy.
It read: “To whom it may concern: I am sending this message via the machine created at JPL in Operation Slingback, and it concerns a murder that is going to take place in your near future. As best as I can tell, it will be approximately five days after you receive this, in North Hollywood, California, and the perpetrator will be the director of the project himself, a man named Ausmann. Exact date and details will follow, but if this machine works, please do whatever you can to prevent this crime, as it involves the murder of someone very dear to me, and a fellow contractor on a side-job connected to Operation Slingback that, in retrospect, may not have been all that authorized. Date, time, and precise location information follows. Sincerely, Joshua Hunter-Aisling. Employee ID 04J-23M-K42-06. The perpetrator is a man named Gustav Schliemann Ausmann, who heads Operation Slingback here at JPL, but he seems to have gone rogue. Consider him armed and dangerous.”
“Location of the crime: 5400 Tujunga Ave, North Hollywood, CA, Unit #1501, 15th floor, on the balcony on the northeast corner. 34°10’10.4″N 118°22’44.8″W, altitude approximately 743 feet above sea level, Wednesday, August 23, 2023. About 5:00 p.m. Perpetrator throws the victim off of the balcony onto Tujunga, below.”
And then… not a damn thing happened.
“Of course,” he thought. No reason I would have brought Simon here, so let’s go back home. He went back up, hopped in the Tesla, set it on auto, and did what he said, arriving back home, only to find that nothing has changed, and Simon isn’t there.
“What the fuck?” he wonders out-loud as Preston and Danny pop up out of the furniture.
“What?” they ask in unison.
“I did the thing. I fixed it in the past, but… where is he?”
“Oh, dear,” Danny said, rushing over to hug Joshua.
“You don’t know how it works, do you?” Preston added, joining the hug.
“What are you twats on about?” Joshua demanded.
“Things changed, but not…”
Before Danny could finish, Joshua’s phone rang and he answered. “Hello?”
It was Brenda, with a simple announcement. “So… where do you want to have Simon sent? All you have to do is show up at the hospital with your marriage certificate.”
Joshua’s stomach fell. Nothing had happened. Simon was still dead.
“And that’s it?” he asked.
“That’s it,” Brenda replied.
“Thank you,” he said, blankly.
There was a long silence, and then Brenda said, “I could not have done it for a nicer couple, but I don’t think that any of us are out of the woods yet.”
“What do you mean?” Joshua asked.
“Does the name Ausmann mean anything to you?”
“Oh… fuck,” Joshua muttered before adding, “Sorry!”
“Don’t be,” Brenda said.
“Yeah, so…. do you know where he is?”
“No,” she replied, “But one question I want you to answer honestly, with one sincere promise from me. No matter what you say, I will never deviate from the story that Simon fell and died in an accident.”
“Um…. why would you think he didn’t, Brenda?” Joshua asked.
She sighed. “Crazy man who knew where you lived, and whom you worked for, threatened my entire family to learn your location, which I didn’t give, and then the love of your life suddenly falls backassward off your balcony? Yeah, there’s one part of that story that just sets off my bullshit meter — ”
“Okay, I’m trying to catch Ausmann before the cops do, because it’s probably the best way to protect the Rêves. If that makes me seem like an asshole —
“No, no, not at all,” she said. “I know all about the things we do for love.” There was another silence, and then she added, “Look, I know you probably don’t know how this shit works, but it took some really major string-pulling to get Simon away from the Coroner, mainly because his death was sudden, violent, and unexpected — ”
“But not officially a homicide,” Joshua noted.
“Doesn’t matter when you score three for three,” Brenda explained. “When was the last time he saw his doctor?”
“Um… I don’t know. Maybe around his last birthday, in February?”
“So not within 20 days. Yeah, I’m guessing that’s what his HMO told them. Anyway, you need to go to the County Coroner’s office, I’ll text you the address, bring proof you’re family, and the name of the mortuary you want to send him to.”
“But then… we can do the funeral as soon as possible?” he asked.
“Well, probably not before Saturday,” Brenda said, “But I guess that really all depends on what the cemetery can do.”
“Even though I’m an atheist, I’d buy them a new chapel or some shit to make this happen fast.”
“I know you would, honey,” Brenda said.
“How do you know that?”
“Bitch, please! I saw the way you always looked at him during the brief time we were all hanging out.”
“Busted…” Joshua replied, actually laughing a little.
“There. More of that, okay? You’ll get through this. And call me if you need anything. At all. Okay?”
“Will do. And thanks again.”
“No problem. Bye.”
They hung up and Joshua felt the tears and sobs coming again. Danny and Preston hurried over to comfort him in their way. “I tried,” he said. “I really tried, but I guess the machine is just a gigantic lie, too.”
He wanted to scream, but then Danny and Preston put one hand on either side of his head and the other on his chest and back and he felt a sudden wave of peace and calm sweep over him.
“Thanks, guys,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” they replied.
He went to the condo vault and dragged out their marriage certificate and, for good measure, both of their birth certificates and passports, then hopped in the car and headed to the County Coroner’s office, which was located on the north edge of the County USC Medical Center, which was located nowhere near the campus of USC itself, but of course.
USC was about five miles southwest of USC Medical Center, but only as the crow flew. As the car drove, it was probably at least a good thirty minutes, or pushing an hour on public transit.
He drove down, gave the clerk all of the paperwork, and she vanished for a long time into a back room to retrieve the file. She had been cordially icy for the first part of the transaction, but when she came back, flipping through the rather thin file, she was deferential as hell.
Joshua signed a few forms, she explained that the mortuary would have to submit two forms of their own but that Simon’s last attending physician had already certified, and she estimated that they’d be able to release the body and transport it out to Forest Lawn Glendale by the next morning.
“Not sooner?” Joshua asked.
She looked around to see whether anyone was listening. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “I don’t know who you know, but a case like this would normally take at least two weeks.”
“Really?” Joshua replied, truly amazed.
“Really,” the clerk told him. “But, hey, it’s not for me to judge, just to do the paperwork. Would you like a text message when we ship the body out?”
“Sure,” Joshua said.
“Great. Initial here, and sign there.”
He did, she snapped out a yellow NCR copy of the form and handed it to him — how quaint — and then said, “Thank you for visiting the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office, where Law and Science serve the community.”
“Oh god,” Joshua said. “They make you say that?”
She said nothing, but just nodded.
“Sorry. And thanks!”
He walked out from the natural oppressiveness common in any government building and into the bright sunlight of a late August day. Nothing to do now but wait, he supposed. He couldn’t get this show on the road — or in the ground — until the funeral director said so.
At the same time, Ritchie had finally managed to deliver Coraline to Anabel, who was circling that woman with a critical eye.
“Do you love your husband?” Anabel asked her.
“Oh, yes,” Coraline replied. “He’s given me a very good life.”
“Two. A daughter and a son. Three grandsons and a granddaughter, all from our daughter.”
“Is your son not married?” Anabel asked.
“Oh, he is, but they could only have kids if they adopted, which they aren’t inclined to do.” Coraline explained.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Anabel faked sympathy. “Is she barren?”
“No, they’re gay. Anyway, my husband won’t talk to them at all. Only I do.”
“Gay?” Anabel questioned. “Happy?”
“Oh. But here’s the really important question. What do you know about your husband’s work?” Anabel asked.
“Not a whole lot,” Coraline replied. “I mean, it’s up at JPL, so I assume it’s got to do with space and stuff, maybe the upcoming Mars mission, or establishing that Moonbase, finally. He can’t tell me a lot, anyway.”
“Um… wait, mission to Mars? The Moon? And what is JPL?”
“Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of course,” Coraline tells her. “And yeah, we’ve put people on the Moon and all kinds of probes on Mars. You haven’t heard of all that?”
Anabel just stared, not sure what to think. She didn’t even know what a jet was, and cursed the fact that Preston and Danny had abandoned her to go hang out with the crazy Hadas, because they probably could have interpreted.
And she was getting distracted, so tried again. “So what was your husband doing for this… JPL, exactly?”
“That’s just the thing,” Coraline explained. “I couldn’t tell you. He’d go off in the morning, come back at night, sometimes twelve-hour days, and not a word. I started to think that it was something besides space travel, because those missions always got hyped and were very public, while his… nothing.”
“Exactly,” Anabel smiled and took Coraline’s hands in hers. “That’s what we think, too, that he was involved in something completely different.”
“Which, to his credit, he never breathed a word about.”
“Doesn’t he love you, Coraline?”
Coraline took a moment, then laughed. “You must have never been married. No, he hasn’t loved me since just before I birthed our second child, and I still think he blames me for Ronnie being gay. As if. But… I’ve tolerated him, mainly because, well, I live in this ridiculous patriarchal society, so might as well hang on for what I can keep, right? Anyway, he probably won’t outlive me, right? Statistics!”
Anabel sighed, then looked into Coraline’s eyes. “I thought you’d already picked up on it, dear.”
“On the fact that you are quite dead while your husband is still quite alive. What do you know about that?”
“My Gustie is still alive?” Coraline suddenly lit up. “Where is he?”
“I hate to disappoint you,” Anabel explained, “But we happen to think that he may have actually been the person who killed you.”
“No, of course not,” Coraline denied it. “If I died, it was because of that storm. And why would he want to kill me? He’d be all alone otherwise, and I happen to know he’s not seeing anyone else.”
“What do you remember?” Anabel asked. “Concentrate, and relive your last moments.”
“We’d been through that storm,” she explained. “We went down to our shelter in the basement. It’s really elaborate, we could survive down there for months he always said. And we locked ourselves in and watched the news on TV — ”
“On what?” Anabel asked.
“It’s not really important for you to know,” Ritchie whispered to her. “Think of it like a tiny movie screen in a box, but it runs on electricity.”
“Yes, like that.”
“And you watched it all the time?” Anabel asked.
“Well, not when we slept.”
“But if the electricity went out — ”
“We had plenty of back-ups,” Coraline explained. “Generators and batteries and all that. And we got our signal through a cable that was buried about thirty feet below the basement. But we did lose all of the monitors upstairs, so had no idea what was going on.”
Off of Anabel’s look, Ritchie told her, “They’re like little TVs, except they show the view of various rooms in the house.”
“We were in there all that night, and the next day, and then into the next… why am I telling you this, again?” she asked.
“So you can remember whether Ausmann killed you.”
“Oh, right. Of course he didn’t. I mean, when I wanted to leave that room, he insisted on making sure it was safe to do beforehand, then he opened the door for me. I went out into the hall, and the house above us was completely gone, nothing but sky. And I headed for the stairs. Well, I hoped they were still there, and then I…”
She froze, staring as her eyes went wide.
“What is it?” Anabel asked.
“Mrs. Ausmann, are you all right?” Ritchie added.
“That son of a bitch,” Coraline muttered under her breath.
“Tell us,” Anabel prompted her.
“Some insulation stuff had fallen into the hallway and was lying at the end, and it was very reflective. I could see myself in it, then I could see Gustav raising a piece of wood with both hands, and then he swung it. And then… nothing.”
“You’re absolutely sure?” Anabel asked.
“Yes,” Coraline insisted. “Oh, yes.”
“You know, you just might become the first murder victim to personally testify at their murderer’s trial,” Anabel told her, with a gleam in her eye.
“Oh they do that all the time,” Coraline replied. Anabel just looked nonplussed, so Coraline added, “Well, I see it on all the shows — the CSIs, and the SVUs, and the like. The victims are dead, but their corpses leave plenty of testimony.”
“O… kay?” Anabel said. “But I’m sure you wouldn’t mind getting a little revenge on him.”
“But what can I really do? I’m dead.”
“We all are,” Anabel went on. “But here’s the thing you don’t know. We’re here because of that little project of your husband’s, which had an unintended side-effect, and now he wants to use it to destroy all of us. Or, in other words, he wants to kill us — and you — again. He wants to take away your second chance.”
“It all makes sense now,” she said. “I mean, he’s never been the nicest person. I’ve never known him to give to charity, and he never let the kids have a dog.”
“And he’s a murderer,” Ritchie added.
“And that,” Coraline agreed. “All right. So what do you need me to do?”
“I knew you’d see things our way. What we need you to do is to tell us absolutely everything you know about him — habits, likes, dislikes, places he likes to go. All of it.”
“I don’t think he’s going to be going back home any time soon,” Coraline told them.
“True,” Anabel replied, “But when I was alive, I learned that if you want to persuade someone to do something, you needed to learn their patterns, along with their desires and fears, then use the former to figure out how to exploit the latter two until you maneuvered them into doing what you wanted while thinking it was their idea all along.”
“What did you do? I mean, when you were alive?” Coraline asked.
“Helped my family build their empire,” Anabel explained, proudly. “All this land you’re standing on? Yeah. We owned this.”
“Very impressive,” Coraline said.
Anabel turned to Ritchie. “Go see if you can find Bugliosi. I think he’d be perfect for taking down this information. Oh, and Oda,” Anabel added. “She was an old family friend and one hell of a lawyer. Oda Faulconer.”
Ritchie nodded and sailed off into the cemetery.
“Lawyers?” Coraline asked, nervously.
“Of course,” Anabel said. “Who better to take a deposition, right?”
“Is that what this is?”
Anabel just nodded. “But relax. You’re not the criminal here.”
Coraline nodded and sat, waiting. Anabel couldn’t have been more chuffed over this coup. Not only were they going to get all of Ausmann’s darkest secrets, the kind that only a spouse would know, but she had neglected to tell Coraline one thing in her whole speech about persuading someone.
The information she’d asked for was also the best way to find a fugitive when you knew they were in the city, but not exactly where. Just like a poker game, everyone had their tells, and Anabel was about to get all of Ausmann’s on a silver platter.