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.
They had binge-watched Watchmen on Friday but the funeral wasn’t going to be until Monday, so Joshua sent Preston and Danny off to locate Ausmann, if possible. Not to bring him in or announce their presence. Just to know where he was so they could get to him when the time came — which Joshua hoped would be very soon.
What Joshua didn’t know, though, was that when a Rêve spent time around a vivant, they began to develop what was referred to as un lien — a connection or a link.
“Why do they refer to everything in French?” Danny asked Preston when he had learned this term.
“Simple,” Preston explained. “A lot of the terms were invented by the early Hadas, who were a bunch of pretentious queens. You know — the kind who referred to the store as Targét, with a silent T on the end?”
But the point of le lien was that the more time a particular Rêve spent with a particular vivant, the stronger the connection, so that the latter started leaving their own little psychic echoes all over the place. By this point, Preston and Danny had spent enough time with Joshua that they could have located him anywhere on the planet in a few minutes, and gotten to him as fast as physics would allow.
Since they were immaterial, that meant they could travel at the speed of light. Well, at least as fast as it traveled in an atmosphere around a gravity well.
They hadn’t spent as much time with Ausmann, but they had spent enough time with him that they should be able to go back to where they’d last seen him, then hopscotch their way to him.
Meanwhile, the Rêves who hadn’t spent all that much time with him were trying their own approach, and so Vincent Bugliosi, very recently deceased and most famous for successfully prosecuting Charles Manson and his family, was sitting across a table from Coraline, next to Oda Falcouner, a lesser-known lawyer who had died in 1943 but, by virtue of having also been a judge and president of several banks, was a good friend of Anabel and her family.
Well, she didn’t become a judge until after Anabel had died, but that made no difference. Anabel just figured that she could ask the questions that Vincent wouldn’t think to, and vice versa.
They started out simply, with questions about Ausmann’s daily routine, moving from the general pattern to as much detail as possible.
Very quickly into the questioning, Vincent and Oda exchanged a look. It sounded like Ausmann was a very habitual person, and such people tended to be very easy to find.
On work days, Coraline would get up first and go to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Ausmann would get up exactly fifteen minutes later and disappear into the bathroom, presumably to do all the usual morning things.
“Do you know what those were?” Vincent asked.
“No, of course not,” Coraline replied. “I could hear when the toilet flushed and the shower ran, and then the sink. But he would always walk into the kitchen exactly twenty-three minutes after he’d gone into the bathroom, in his dressing gown and carrying his tablet. That’s why I always had his breakfast ready to put out exactly thirty-eight minutes after I’d come into the kitchen.”
“Wasn’t that difficult to time?” Oda asked.
“He always had exactly the same thing every day that he went into work,” Coraline explained.
“And what was that?” Vincent asked, knowing that she’d have it memorized.
“One split English muffin, lightly toasted, with butter, four pork sausage links, very lightly browned, four bacon strips, extra crispy, a stack of six sourdough pancakes, fairly thin, butter between each slice and genuine maple syrup — the actual kind from Vermont — on top.”
“Wow. How’s his heart?” Vincent asked.
“Surprisingly, he never had any problems that his doctors found,” Coraline said. “Oh… am I allowed to say that?”
“We are attorneys,” Vincent said, “You are under oath, and as his spouse, you do have the right to tell us those things.”
He only fudged a little bit — she’d have the right if Ausmann had given her power of attorney. While this was very common among spouses, especially as they got older, Vincent was pretty sure from the morning routine alone that Ausmann had never done this.
On the other hand, they were all dead, so that probably gave them all some sort of immunity from human law.
“Is that everything for breakfast?” Oda asked.
“Oh, no. There was always a three-egg Denver omelet without the ham but with extra cheese, and, to drink, fresh-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our backyard. Well, that were in our backyard. That, caffè Americano, and — ”
“What’s that?” Oda stopped her.
“A shot of espresso, but watered down. I think it was a WW II American G.I. thing.”
Before Oda could ask about that, Vincent gave her a look. “What was the ‘and…?’”
“Oh. All of his vitamins and supplements and meds that he’d take after he’d eaten, while he read the news on his tablet.”
“Did he take them with the coffee or the OJ?” Vincent queried.
“Oh, neither. He’d just pop one in his mouth, swallow it dry, and on to the next.”
“So, the two of you would have this breakfast together every day before he went to work?” Oda asked. Coraline just laughed.
“Oh, no, of course not. He always took exactly forty-five minutes to eat it, during which time I was busy cooking his lunch so it would be packed and ready for him to grab when he left.”
“What can you cook in forty-five minutes?” Oda asked, incredulous.
“Actually, in an hour and five, because he’d go in and spend twenty minutes getting dressed after he finished, then he’d come back out and stop in the foyer, I’d bring out his lunch carrier, he’d let me give him a kiss on the cheek, then he’d tell me, ‘Don’t wait up,’ and head out the door.’”
“And did he have the same thing for lunch every day?” Vincent asked.
“Somebody had a big breakfast here,” Preston explained to Danny as they hovered around a table in a diner that was pretty much breakfast and lunch only, and right near the Universal City Station.
“Wow. Kind of ironic that he came to a place called Good Neighbor Restaurant, isn’t it?” Danny laughed.
“No shit,” Preston replied. “But look at this — ” he pointed to the yellow glow that was emanating from one seat in a booth and the table, in a spot as far away from the front windows as possible. They wouldn’t have seen this for anyone they didn’t have the lien with, and Ausmann was apparently a fan of ridiculously elaborate meals — either breakfast or lunch, judging by the menu in the entrance and the hours on the window.
Hell, there were enough echoes of dishes on the table to function as an awesome drum kit for the most metal band on the planet.
There was something else, though, which came underneath all of the smells of the food that had been there that haunted their phantom senses, and it cast a moldy pall on everything.
“What do you think it is?” Danny asked as Preston whiffed deeper and then pulled away.
“Aw, fuck, gross!” Preston shouted.
“What?” Danny demanded.
“He started this meal with high hopes, and then hit major regrets halfway through the pancakes.”
“You think it’s because of this place?” Danny asked.
“Hell no,” Preston said. “This place rocks. But I think it’s because Ausmann has built up some really, really negative and guilty memories. But hey, for us — bonus points.”
“What do you mean?”
“The bigger the guilt, the brighter the beacon,” Preston explained. “I bet we can find his next stop in less than fifteen minutes.
“His lunches were always different,” Coraline said, which is what made them more annoying than breakfast. I mean, after a while, I could do his breakfast in my sleep. But lunch? No. I’d generally get an email the night before, right as he was going to bed while I was going to stay up a bit just to… just to… you know — ”
“Be rid of him?” Oda asked, and Coraline nodded.
“And that email would have a link to some recipe he wanted me to try, which meant that I had to constantly keep my kitchen and pantry and freezer stocked with every possible thing. And, more often than not, I’d be up until one or two in the morning doing the prep work, or even cooking things that couldn’t have been cooked in the time I’d have after breakfast.”
“Did you ever confront him about any of this?” Vincent asked.
“Oh, heavens no,” Coraline said. “That… no. I never would have. But thank god our Ralphs is open until one a.m.”
“So… why was he so specific on breakfast, but lunch was anything goes?” Oda asked. “Doesn’t that seem a contradiction?”
“No, not when you think about it,” she explained. “He only ever ate breakfast with me, and had no one to impress. But, presumably, he ate lunch with his coworkers, so was able to show off…”
She suddenly fell silent, then stood and looked at each of them, her eyes flashing in outrage.
“That son of a bitch!” she shouted uncharacteristically. “Why the hell didn’t I dump his ass and sue him for everything as soon as our children were out of the house?”
“Go on,” Vincent told her. “You know the truth. Go there, and say it.”
“How could you have divorced — ” Oda started to say, but Vincent shushed her.
“Different era, Oda,” he said. “Look and learn.”
Coraline went off. “He was able to show off my skills in order to show off how under control he had me, and I’ll bet anything that he treated his staff just as badly. Why? Why, why, why did I put up with so many years of abuse and pretend that it was love? Why do I keep forgetting the most important part that brought me here?
“Pardon my French,” she continued, “But that… motherfucker killed me. Oh, god. That feels so good to say. I mean, it’s a word I never would have said when I was alive, but motherfucker. He took my life long before he killed me. So how the hell can I help you find him?”
“You’ve given us a lot already,” Oda said.
“And you really deserve justice for your pain and everything he’s done to you and, well, we’re lawyers, that’s what we do. But in order to find a person on the run, we really need to know who they are in their darkest corners, and despite the abuse he subjected you to, Coraline, you do know those corners. You’ve just been afraid to bring them up, right?”
“Oh, if he knew, then — ”
“Then what?” Oda asked. “Anything worse he can do to you after he’s killed you? Nah, seems to me like the shoe is on the other foot. You really do know everything he doesn’t want to come to light, and your best revenge is to remember that he cannot touch you now, and to just let loose.”
Coraline looked at both of them, then the image she’d been projecting suddenly got much younger . “I understand,” she said. “So… here we go.”
Preston and Danny proceeded to follow the trail like bloodhounds. It was dripping with Ausmann’s nasty psychic scent and, while they traveled much faster, they realized that it would have taken him a bit between four and five hours to walk from the restaurant to his next destination, which was a brief explosion of a visit to The Last Bookstore, where Ausmann seemed to spend a lot of time upstairs in the True Crime and Espionage sections, as well as the “Writer How-To” stacks.
It felt like he left with a lot of books, which he took half a block away, and then checked into the Alexandria Hotel, taking a room on the 12th floor near the fire-escape, which was the top floor, technically, even if the ground floor stretched two stories and the mezzanine was a floor and a half.
Danny and Preston came to the target just as a bellboy was taking up a room service cart with lunch, or maybe early dinner, and they both sniffed.
“Jesus,” Danny said. “Is this asshole having veal with mint sauce?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Preston replied. “But I have no doubt that he’s an asshole.”
“So… how long do we stalk him here?” Danny asked.
“At least until tomorrow,” Preston said. “If he’s still here, I think we’ve run him to ground. And, if he’s not, his next breakfast won’t be that hard to find.”
“Right,” Danny replied. “Oh, damn… do you feel that?”
“Feel what?” Preston asked.
“How many people have died here?”
“In this room?”
“This place,” Danny explained.
“Oh, that. You’d be surprised how many people die in hotels.”
“Nah,” Preston said. “The two biggies are older men dropping dead while they’re fucking their mistresses, and suicide. Although I have heard that these places can also be popular for hitmen to bump off targets. Either lure them up with a honey pot, or if they don’t suspect they’re on the shit-list, tell them the boss wants to meet them. Knock ‘em out, kill them with your quiet weapon of choice, then leave the body under the bed — or sometimes just under the mattress.”
“Ew!” Danny exclaimed.
“I’d love to know why he chose this place,” Preston wondered.
“Was he having an affair?” Vincent asked Coraline.
“Oh my, no. No, of course not — ”
“I know it can be easy for a wife to believe that,” Oda said, “But search your feelings. You’ve seen things and know things, even if you’re ignoring them.”
“Oh, I’m ignoring nothing,” she said. “We had our two kids two years apart, the first about nine months after the wedding. We’ve had sex a handful of times, and never since we found out I was pregnant with our son.
“So he is cheating!” Vincent exclaimed.
“No. Ausmann really does fall into that category of people who describe themselves as asexual. We’ve talked about it. A lot. Even before we got married. He always wanted kids, and was willing to do what he had to do to make that happen. ‘An heir and a spare!’ That was his joke about it.”
“Interesting,” Vincent said.
“Honestly, I’m fine with it, too, He leaves me alone enough, and my old friend Double Dee-Dee gets the job done.” She laughed awkwardly. “I can’t believe I just told you about that!”
“Double Dee-Dee?” Oda asked, confused as Vincent tried not to laugh.
“As in as long as I’ve got two fresh D batteries around, the rest will take care of itself.” Vincent audibly snorted on this one, trying to cover it and failing. “What?” Coraline demanded.
“Sorry, sorry. I just thought the ‘dee’ stood for something else,” he said.
“Uh… what?” she asked.
“Never mind,” he said. “Anyway, if you’re sure your husband isn’t having an affair — ”
“In a lot of ways, I’m the mistress,” she said. “He’s more married to his work than to me.”
“Wouldn’t that mean that his lab is the one place we’d be most likely to find him?”
“Only if he doesn’t know he’s being looked for,” Coraline said. “He’s also ridiculously paranoid, and I happen to know that he’s got at least one secret safe house he thinks I don’t know about.”
“Near Big Bear?” Oda asked.
“Why, yes. How do you know?”
“We were informed that it was destroyed last Monday or Tuesday,” Vincent explained.
“Oh. Was he in it?” Coraline asked hopefully.
“Nope,” Vincent shook his head. “We think he’s the one who blew the place up after he’d fled.”
“Always so dramatic.”
“Do you know of any other safe houses or hiding places he owns?”
“No,” Coraline said. “But he did always used to tell me, ‘If you ever need to vanish there are only two good places to do it — where everybody is or nobody is. If it’s the first one, you become a needle in a haystack. If it’s the second one, anybody coming to look for you sticks out like a sore thumb.’”
“Well, that narrows it down,” Oda sighed.
“Used to tell me,” Coraline went on. “But recently, he’s been saying that technology is getting too good, so that it’s become impossible to hide in the middle of a vast wasteland — you give off too many signals. So if he’s hiding, it’s definitely in the city.”
“So why would he have gone to Big Bear, where there aren’t a lot of people?” Vincent mused.
“Because there were a lot of trees and mountains,” Coraline said. “His ‘no one around’ strategy was for the middle of the desert. But trees and mountains can thwart drones, hide things from view, and block radio signals. He must have been found if he left that place.”
“And lost,” Oda added.
“Do you have any guesses on where he is?” Vincent asked gently.
“Do you feel weird about peeping in there,” Preston asked. “It might give us some clues.”
“Not necessarily weird,” Danny replied, “But if he’s yankin’ it to PornHub, then we are noping the fuck out, okay?”
“What if it’s to one of our movies?” Preston teased him.
“One of your movies, and fuck no, double-time nope.”
“You’re no fun!” Preston replied, smiling, and then they pushed themselves through the common wall and into the suite.
Ausmann had set up several laptops on the courtesy table and was scrolling back and forth through schematics and screens of equations on both, taking down notes with a stylus on a tablet and muttering to himself the whole time.
They mostly heard him speaking in equations, with the occasional pause for a deeper comment. “Negative t values in a Lorentz?” he said to himself as he stopped pacing the floor. “How is that possible?” and the one that they almost thought they kind of understood, “Why did the jump from v is less than c to v is greater than c happen without hitting v equals c, which is the only prohibited value?”
What they didn’t realize was that Ausmann hadn’t actually made any of the breakthroughs that created the machine or made it work. He had only been brought in after it was fired up, as a Quantum Ethics Consultant.
His job was to make sure that the machine was only used ethically, and he quickly saw that the most ethical use for it (to him) was to make himself rich. But he had to figure out how to avoid paradoxes, because it was generally agreed that while one could alter the past to change the future, they would return to their own timeline, in which the past alteration would correct itself while only the alternate version before the time loop continued on down a different path.
In other words, to cite the classic example, if you built a time machine specifically to go back and kill Baby Hitler, the action of killing him would mean that you, Time Traveler 1, would have absolutely no reason in your present/his future to build the machine and go back to kill him.
Therefore, you could not have gone back to kill Hitler, so to keep your timeline consistent, it never happened. And somehow, if you actually managed to travel back in time, your present and past selves would be connected. The moment you achieve the paradox-making goal in your past, two things happen.
One is that the new past is immediately severed from your original future, and it springs off in its own direction without you. Maybe you’re born in its future. Maybe you’ve changed things enough that you never are born because you never knew that your parents actually met at a Nazi Party rally, at least if you’re Ausmann, a rally that now will never happen.
At the same time though, as you achieve the killing, you also fail. This is the universe’s way of avoiding the paradox. Your gun misfires, or someone comes in and interrupts you, or you miss your target time and date completely even though another you doesn’t. And so you return to the future you departed from. Your knowledge of the trip remains intact, but it didn’t achieve the result you wanted, and so changed nothing.
You come back in time to an unaltered universe.
And this had always driven Ausmann nuts, although he had found a sort of workaround that wouldn’t allow humans to do it, but would allow him to set up his own private and very short range communication network that would simply connect two quantum computers over a bypass link to the main machine that would allow one to send encrypted messages twenty-four hours in the past to another.
Well, at least to avoid notice by the real operators of the project, who could send messages a bit further into the past. Ausmann’s exploitation was a series of tiny loops within a bigger picture, and so missed by the powers that were.
No human interaction or agency involved, and the splitting off in the past ultimately made no effect, because the need to create and maintain that link would still exist after the machines started doing what it was they were set up to do.
And that was simple. Every day, Ausmann would get a text with the next day’s winning lottery numbers and prize results, although he wasn’t greedy and he didn’t play every day or win every day. He would look for a sufficient prize of only a few grand here or there at first, then buy those numbers as proof of concept. Once it started working, he bided his time (and worked the numbers) until he finally saw an opportunity coming up that would give him a lump sum payment of $23 million after taxes, and he took it.
Of course, California did not allow winners to remain anonymous, so he always cashed in his tickets in the name of a Trust Fund that Coraline didn’t know about. And he knew better than to arouse suspicion, so after bringing in about $30 million total from the California Lottery, he changed his focus to betting on the ponies and managed to snag a bunch of trifectas, several pick sixes, and one perfect Triple Crown via an OTB, although, again, he refrained from being greedy, because he at least knew statistics, and how not to raise suspicions.
But what he could not figure out at all was how to use this machine to wipe out the ghosts it had created. Considering the whole self-censoring time-loop thing, he wasn’t all that sure that shutting it down would do the trick and, in fact, it might just snap the loops open and make them permanent.
He really, really needed to know their weaknesses, and the only way to know that was if his two hunters found and brought him Peter Lorre, but he was losing patience. Not that he could really do anything about it. But where the hell were they with his prize?
“When are those fuckers bringing me Lorre?” he finally raged late into the night, and Danny and Preston gave each other the mutual “Oh shit!” look before popping back out into the hall.
“Homebase?” Danny asked.
“Fuck yeah,” Preston replied. They pulled the metaphorical ripcords and shot their way back to Joshua’s side in about two seconds.
“Find him?” he asked.
“Yeah,” they replied, but all they could do was tag-team hug him from either side, and he got the message. “Talk later.”
“Got it,” he said.