The Saturday Morning Post #35: The Rêves, Part 13

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.

The Tempest

Brenda and Jonah’s neighborhood did have one advantage over most of the Culver City area — although it technically was part of Los Angeles and not Culver City. The advantage was that it was on the western edge of an area called the Baldwin Hills, which was an oddly out-of-place lump of mountain in the middle of a part of the L.A. basin that was otherwise generally flat all the way to the ocean in two directions, Rancho Palos Verdes to the southwest being the other exception, but it happened to actually touch the ocean forming a sort of elevated mesa above the crashing surf.

But what this height difference really gave Blair Hills was an incredible view of everything out to Marina del Rey and the Pacific beyond. On a very clear day and from the right spot on the hiking trail west of the neighborhood, they could actually see the water, or at least a thin blue strip that curved off to the horizon. On some days, it even sparkled.

In the evening, especially when the Sun set late, Brenda and Jonah liked to leave the kids with her mother and hike out as far as they could, put down a blanket, then just sit and watch the expanse of the silent city, the distant ocean, and the changing of the sky and clouds from cyan and white to orange and gray to dull red and almost black, then a final deep blue before the stars started to appear and before the sky finally went as black as it could over the L.A. Basin — which wasn’t much.

On some nights, they were treated to an extra show as a waning Moon would set not long after her brother Sun. On others, the full Moon would rise behind them even as the Sun left, and if they looked the other way, they could watch as it appeared and loomed huge over the other side of the neighborhood — although they had to stay up later for that one because the neighborhood itself blocked a lot of the view to the east until the Moon was probably at least 30 degrees in the sky.

This evening, the distant clouds over the ocean had grown very dark and ominous, but Brenda and Jonah didn’t really pay any attention to them because they were so far away. Instead, they focused on what they usually did when they came out here.

Brenda had dubbed it “Grievance and Reconciliation Time,” something she had learned from an interpersonal relationship class given by the county, and the idea was that each of them was free to bring up something that was bothering them in a neutral, non-judgmental and non-blaming way. Meanwhile, the other one would use active listening to restate the issue as they understood it, and they would continue this process until they both agreed that they understood it the same way.

Next, the other partner would explain the issue from their point of view — again without judging or blaming, although obviously not neutral — the partner with the grievance would do their active listening bit, and it would continue until they both agreed.

The third part was the hardest, but it also turned out to be the most beneficial. The partner with the grievance would explain why they were wrong based on the other partner’s POV, then the other partner would do likewise. This would wrap up with aggrieved partner explaining what they could do to not be bothered, and the other partner explaining what they could do to eliminate the grievance.

The typical result was a compromise between them that, in retrospect, was so bone-headedly stupid obvious that they should have just seen it from the get-go.

Taking a completely trivial complaint, a typical session in brief might go like this: Brenda always serves peas with dinner, but Jonah really hates peas, and he’s mentioned it before. Now, the wrong way for him to complain is to say something like, “Why do you always have to serve peas? I hate peas, and you know it. Are you just trying to piss me off?”

Instead, the conversation would go more like this:

Jonah: “I’m really bothered whenever we sit down to dinner and I see peas on my plate, because I have never liked peas since I was a child.”

Brenda: “So, you’re saying you don’t want peas with dinner at all?”

Jonah: “Just not with my dinner.”

Brenda: “So I should never cook peas again?”

Jonah: “No. I just shouldn’t have them on my plate.”

Brenda: “So, you don’t like peas, and you don’t want them with your dinner?”

Jonah: “Exactly.”

Ding! And on to phase two.

Brenda: “The reason I serve peas all the time is because they are very cheap, have a very long shelf-life and, surprisingly, it’s one vegetable that all of our kids will eat.”

Jonah: “So I have to eat like our kids?”

Brenda: “No. I just do it to be economical and convenient.”

Jonah: “So it’s peas because it makes it easier for you, and costs us less?”

Brenda: “Yes.”

Ding! Phase three.

Jonah: “Then I guess I should just learn to love peas — ”

(This would be considered a foul)

Jonah (as Brenda): “Maybe I can find a vegetable that you and the kids like?”

Brenda (as Jonah): “Maybe I could be a little more adventurous in what I eat?”

Usually, this is the point when they’d look at each other and laugh.

“Well, shit, honey,” Brenda would say. “I do tend to just dump ‘em on all the plates, right? I suppose serving bowls wouldn’t be out of order.”

“So I don’t have to take them if I don’t want them?” Jonah said.

“Exactly,” Brenda replied. “And I could cook up a mess of vegetables that you do like.”

“Then steam me up some baby carrots every night… baby.”

Of course, this being a hypothetical, it all happened very easily and smoothly. In real life? Not so much and not always, and the subject of Malia was one that Brenda had still not been able to crack with Jonah.

It had taken them several rounds to get him to agree to call her Malia in the first place, after she broke down his resistance to the idea that Malia changing her name was just disrespecting their greatest president. Brenda had to remind Jonah that President Obama would have been on their daughter’s side.

Which was the kind of thing that just brought up the next issue. While Jonah would call Malia by her name, he still referred to her as his son, at least when Malia wasn’t around, only using, “Hey you!” or “Mal” when she was present.

Tonight, as they sat on the bluff watching the distant sea, Brenda tried again.

“I want to do anything I can to make sure that Malia has a safe and happy life, but I get very upset when people do not acknowledge or accept her choice and her reality.”

“So you want to do anything at all to support Malia,” Jonah said, “And will do what you can to defend our youngest son.”

Even though it was against the rules, Brenda let out a heavy sigh, although she refrained from saying No. She paused, then tried again. “I want to do anything I can to make sure that our youngest daughter has a safe and happy life, but I get very upset when people do not acknowledge or accept her choice and her reality.”

Jonah said nothing for a long time, just staring off at the ocean, Brenda staring at him. Finally, he practically whispered, “Baby, you know I just can’t. Not yet.”

“So we’re not even going to try to reconcile this tonight?” she asked him, sadly.

“Look, I’ve told you all this before. This isn’t about which way the TP goes on the roll or where we’re taking the next family vacation, or why you don’t like spending time with my parents, or why I think you get jealous too much… we got past all of that. But this one…”

“This one is about one of our children, Jonah,” Brenda replied calmly. “One that we should love as much as the others.”

“I do. I do love Malia,” Jonah said. “I love him as much — ”

“Then why do you use the wrong pronouns?”

“I’m from a different generation!” he snapped. “I’m not used to this shit, okay?”

“You’re only three years older than me, honey,” Brenda said. “And I’m fine with it.”

“Yeah, well… I guess it’s probably different when you’re a man. And when your father is a Baptist minister. And when everything you’ve learned growing up says that there are boys and there are girls. Penises and vaginas, and one sex does not magically turn into the other one just because they say so.”

“Times change,” Brenda said. “And knowledge increases. The idea that there are only two genders is absolutely ridiculous. Science says so. And Malia didn’t just ‘magically’ turn into a girl.”

“Then why he got a dick?”

Brenda really loved Jonah, but sometimes she could just slap him. She thought he was too well-educated for this, but apparently not. “Not everyone born with a penis is a boy,” she explained, “And not everyone born with a vagina is a girl. Sure, a lot of the time… the majority of the time, the two do match. But every so often, the sex on the outside is different than the gender inside.”

“I wish I could believe that.”

“So Malia didn’t magically turn into a girl. She always been a girl. It just took her time to realize it and tell us. And there aren’t even only two sexes, honey. Do you have any idea how many different combinations of sex chromosomes result in viable human babies? Everyone isn’t just XX or XY, you know.”

“Yeah, well, that’s another thing,” Jonah said. “Sure, I trained in science, but it was all engineering. You know — math, trig, geometry, physics, calculus. But ask me about biology or genetics or any of that, I know nothing.”

“I know,” Brenda said. “I didn’t either, until my mother told me about what Malia told her. And god bless her heart, my mother — who was definitely born in times when these ideas were even more alien than they are to you, and who still sings in the church choir every Sunday — she was the one who educated my ass about it, and kept sending me links left and right on the whole subject.

“Your mother? Really?” Jonah asked.

“You’d never think it to look at her, right? Short tiny-ass black woman with the floral dresses and fancy Sunday hats, even wears her gloves to church and can beat the best of them at those hallelujah gospel singing moments. Yeah. That woman, my mom, taught me to love my other daughter, because she told me, every chance she got, that she’d be the kind of disciple that Jesus would have taken into his flock.

“And why not — that was his thing. He wasn’t about the rich or connected. He was all about the outcasts. Lepers, whores, manual laborers, whatever. That’s what Mom sent me, that’s what I read, and what I learned was enlightening. So… maybe you should let my mom have a chat with your parents…?”

There was a long pause before Jonah replied. “I love your mom,” he said. “I wish she were my mom,” then he laughed. “Shit, no, that’d be total hillbilly incest stuff. Oh, you know what I… and if I only had her to deal with, then, yeah, I’d be there in a second.”

“But you’re afraid of your parents,” Brenda announced casually. He replied with a shrug.

“You’re a grown-ass man with your own family, your own career, your own home, whatever… you don’t need their approval anymore.”

“Yeah, well, um… I’m their only son, and he is a very popular Baptist minister down in the community, so…”

“Now how do I read that?” Brenda asked, already knowing her answer. “Oh, right — he’s already bilked the hell out of his flock, is richer than Croesus, and you want to inherit all that filthy lucre when he kicks, so you’re not rocking the boat, and not accepting your daughter is worth it?”

Jonah said nothing, just fuming, as Brenda realized that they had yet again blown the intended format of their Grievance and Reconciliation Time straight to hell.

“Do you have any idea how much property he owns?” Jonah finally whispered.

“Which is more important?” Brenda whispered back. “Material shit your father only has because he bilked people in Jesus’ name? Or accepting your daughter for who she is? Even if you have to ignore using pronouns for a while and just call her Malia. Can you do that?”

Another long silence, and Brenda was surprised to see that Jonah was doing his best to stop from crying.

“I’ll try,” he said. “Really, I will try. For you — ”

Brenda sighed and gave him a look.

“Okay, for him…  her,” he replied.

“Thank you,” Brenda said.

Jonah looked off to the west, then suddenly sat bolt upright. “Holy shit,” he said. “Do you see that?”

“What?” she asked, following his eye-line. The black clouds far away over the sea had grown to cover more of the sky, meaning that they were getting closer. Meanwhile, out over the ocean, it was an almost constant barrage of lightning bolts flashing, although no thunder was reaching them. Neither of them had ever seen anything like it in their lives.

Brenda grabbed her phone and opened her local news app, where the weather reporter was frantically describing an unprecedented and unexpected front that had suddenly rolled up the coast, from Malibu south to Palos Verdes. There was a “Special Bulletin” banner across the bottom quarter of the image.

It had already made landfall in some areas, and was bringing heavy winds, heavy rain, severe thunderstorms, and even hail. Alerts had already been issued for people to shelter in place as far inland as the Central Valley, while people in coastal areas and foothills were advised to just evacuate to shelters ASAP.

“Well, at least we’re on top of a mountain,” Jonah said. “They say how soon it’s going to get here?”

“No,” Brenda replied. But I’d imagine that right about the time we start to hear the thunder is when we want to be inside.”

“Or, you know,” Jonah said. “Now?”

“There is one other thing,” Brenda added.

“Oh, now what?” Jonah grimaced.

“You might want to sit down for this,” she said, and he did. She proceeded to explain all the weird goings-on that had been happening with the supernatural entities and the ghost hunters and all of that. At the end of it, he just started at her blankly.

“So?” she said.

“So, woman?” he replied. “You been holding out news of the apocalypse on me?”

“Not at all,” she said. “I’m sure these two are not related, but I had to tell someone in the family.”

“Not related?” Jonah shouted. “Not. Related?! Look at that shit out there. If that isn’t some end of the world crap brought on because a couple of guys dressed like idiots pissed off the spirits, then I don’t know what the hell is!”

At that moment, they suddenly heard a distant rumble of quiet thunder that seemed to come from all directions and continue for a long time. They locked eyes and stood, Brenda grabbing the blanket.

“Run!” they told each other at the same time, and neither one of them had to say it a second time. They got home, went inside, locked the doors, found the kids and Esme, and then decided that they were going to have an all-night family movie night and the kids could stay up as late as they wanted.

Outside, thunder came again, this time noticeably closer.

On the other side of the continent, in a secure facility deep beneath the Pentagon, the agent on shift had been idly surfing the internet, as all of them did and had, every day and night for decades. The machine they monitored never received any messages at all. At least it gave him the opportunity to work on his great American novel.

Until tonight, when there was an abrupt signal indicating a message had been received.

“Oh, what the fuck?” he muttered, opening the inbox. He read the message three times, each time more slowly and carefully, then checked the date and time.

“Wow,” he finally exclaimed quietly before he grabbed the secure line in the room that went direct to the project director’s cell phone, no matter where he was. When the director picked up, all he said was, “Slingback. Credible and urgent.”

All the director thought was, “Fuck.”

* * *

The Teapot

Joshua and Simon had decided to commiserate over their absolute fuck-up with Danny/Preston with probably a bit too many edibles, a snuggle in the bedroom with a binge-watch of the old 1960s series The Prisoner, and a quiet cuddle, the sky to the east visible outside of the open blinds.

At some point, they got texts from the National Weather Service, and they were severe weather alerts, which they both read before turning to each other.

“Severe thunderstorms. Here?” Joshua asked.

“That’s what mine says,” Simon replied.

“Holy fuck!” Joshua answered, but coming from him it was an expression of joy, and Simon agreed. They both loved thunderstorms, which were too far and few between in Los Angeles in general, but in the Valley in particular.

“Suite B?” Joshua asked.

“Suite B!” Simon agreed.

In their particular building, there were two condos per floor, one on the east side and one on the west. Theirs were on the top floor, and while both came with lofts, they only used the loft in the front unit for storage of files, old equipment and whatever.

The main reason they had also bought the western unit, which they called suite B but which was actually Unit 2302, was for the ultimate in privacy — no immediate neighbors, and since it took a key to get to a floor, it meant no pesky outside visitors. They had also bought it in the name of the Foundation so that there would be no direct ownership connection to them, although they had paid for it via an anonymous donation.

Suite B was minimally furnished, but it did have computers networked to everything in their main unit, 2301. They had also set up the loft here as a kind of emergency outpost, with enough supplies, battery back-ups, and whatnot to keep them alive for a month with no outside support if necessary.

They’d both agreed that it was silly at the time, but also that it would really up the resale value.

The thing about the loft units were that they had both wrap-around windows, balconies on two sides, and skylights, and so from here, on the west side, they could watch the storm not only approach, but pass over.

They pretty much resumed their binging from where they’d left off, only this time, they had a front row seat for that glorious moment when either Zeus or Thor would march across the sky and teabag the city. The only light in the room came from the TV, but they turned that off as soon as the sky to the west started to light up like a bar at last call.

“Whoa,” Joshua said.

The entire horizon that they could see went a flickering blue-white for a good twenty seconds, then faded. Right about the time it faded, the barrage of thunder came, rattling the windows for about the same twenty seconds.

“Ooh… about four miles away,” Joshua said.

“Nice,” Simon added.

Joshua pulled up the local news on his phone, which was all about the storm. Santa Monica had already had about four inches of rain, complicated by a six foot storm surge. PCH had been closed due to landslides, and the canyons were experiencing flash floods.

“Shit. Wetter than a bottom at a circuit party,” Joshua said.

“Honey… eww?” Simon replied.

The sky went electric blue again, although they weren’t sure how long this time, and it seemed like it was only about ten seconds after it started that the thunder came, this time much louder and much longer, and the whole building shook.

Joshua held Simon tight, totally giddy. “My god, I can only get so hard,” he said. “This. This is weather. This is what I’ve missed growing up here.”

“Are you sure?” Simon asked him.

“Don’t tell me you’re not.”

“Yeah, but, what if we caused this?” Simon asked.

“You mean you and me personally?” Joshua shot back.

“No, silly. Humanity. What if this is all because of global climate — ”

Before he could finish, the sky above them went blinding white at the same time that thunder rattled downward at them. They could feel the bed shift and a picture fell off of the wall, the glass shattering. That bothered Simon a bit. It was a fanciful depiction of Russell’s teapot, a favorite of his among their artworks.

All the lights outside went dark, although their UPS kicked in immediately, so nothing even turned off. Sheets of rain started to pummel everything, and then hail started blasting onto the balcony and the skylight and the noise was deafening.

The thunder and lightning show kept on going, but Joshua just rolled over and held Simon tight, totally content. Simon held him likewise, and they both just smiled.

As long as the heavens were letting loose above them, the two of them were both in heaven. Well, okay, lying in each other’s arms had a big part to do with that, too. But the both of them together? Bliss.

The four-inch thick Plexiglas they’d installed in both the skylights also helped to assuage any fears they had of suddenly being pelted by ice.

The brighter the lightning flashed, the louder the thunder roared, and the harder the rain and hail struck, the happier they were. At some point during the onslaught, they both drifted off to sleep, not waking up until the morning, when everything outside their windows was a solid gray.

Their phones told them that it was almost 11 a.m., so the Sun should have been up. They checked the weather report, looked at each other incredulous, then strolled out onto the balcony. Since visibility was zero, neither one of them bothered to put on anything.

And the weather reports were true. The entire city and most of Southern California were now blanketed in heavy fog, and visibility everywhere was about two feet. All roads had been shut down, there was extensive flooding everywhere, and people were advised to shelter in place in case of emergency. The state had called in the National Guard to do overflights with infrared cameras and sonar in order to identify areas that needed immediate assistance.

“This is actually kind of cool,” Joshua told Simon. Although it was also literally cool. It was a summer day in L.A., but only about 65ºF out, and condensation was forming on everything.

“But what caused it?” Simon asked.

“I guess it depends upon how rational you want the explanation to be, right?” Joshua replied.

“As rational as possible,” Simon answered.

“Exactly,” Joshua said, realizing that they had somehow also modeled their working relationship on Holmes and Watson, the one big problem being that each of them thought of the other as Holmes when, in reality, they were both right and neither of them was the Watson.

“You want to go inside?” Simon finally said. “Because I think my balls just did.”

“Guess we’ll have to fish them out,” Joshua answered. They went back in, secured the doors, went back to 2301, and hunkered down to cuddle and watch all the news reports on whatever it was that had just passed over the city.

“Oh…” Joshua suddenly blurted at one point.

“What?” Simon asked him.

“Extensive flooding, including North Hollywood. I suppose that means that the Tesla is probably fucked.”

“Doesn’t that depend on how far up the garage the water made it?”

“If it’s four feet above the ground — ”

“Oh. Right. Oh well…”

They went back to watching news of the apocalypse. At least there were no reports of first-born sons having died. That would have taken Simon from Joshua, after all, and that would have just killed Joshua.

* * *

Image: Robert Stirrett, used unchanged under (CC) 2.0 license.

The Saturday Morning Post #29: The Rêves, Part 7

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.

Paperwork

Since Brenda was management, and therefore salaried, she was lucky enough to not have to report in the morning after the… adventure at Universal City station. Unfortunately, since she was management, she was expected to come up with some write-up of what had happened, and since she knew that all of the CCTVs scattered all over the place would show… something, she spent all of the next day after she’d woken up well past noon trying to come up with some plausible narrative… and she was drawing a blank.

She was also kicking herself for not getting contact info for the two guys who had been involved in the whole thing. All she knew were their names, Joshua and Simon, and that they lived somewhere in the NoHo Arts District, in one of the high-rise condo complexes that had sprung up like weeds in the late ‘10s.

She did manage to get her assistant to email her all of the CCTV footage from Uni City station, as well as the plaza and all of the street cams from there up to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, and Riverside/Camarillo, but there were apparently problems with anything north of that.

The footage from in the station wasn’t really helpful, since all it showed was various people freaking out and acting stupid. Same thing with the footage up the escalators and on the plaza. Lots of people in view, not a lot of… not people.

“Fuck,” Brenda muttered many times while reviewing the footage. She had definitely seen the things, and so had the dudes she’d gone to breakfast with — where were they now?

She decided to go take a drive, and wound up at the same Denny’s, flashed her credentials at the day manager, and managed to finally get somewhere — the CCTV footage of her visit the night before with the two would-be ghost hunters.

And while it didn’t reveal a whole lot other than their meal, when they left it at least gave her a direction, and she was able to call in a favor from an old family friend who worked for the L.A. Traffic Department, and those cams and footage traced those boys right back to their doorstep. Well, at least the building their condo was in.

She filed the paperwork that gave a pretty general idea of where to find the guys who claimed to be ghost hunters while claiming no knowledge of the thing herself; the perfect dodge. Except that two of her assistants had been accurate way beyond their paygrade, apparently.

They had also taken advantage of their connections to look at cell phone location data.

She’d thought that their info only included the building address, but it didn’t. It included the unit number and a link to the Zillow page on it. She hadn’t read their entire doc before she put it an email to Rita and hit “send.” Why would she? She trusted them, and it was already pushing four in the afternoon.

Ironically, considering where she worked, she wasn’t really able to take public transit to and from the office even though the Metro did run downtown to Culver City. The problem was that it ran too far away from her neighborhood, Blair Hills, to make it easy to get there without relying on a taxi or Über or something else, and there was no way in hell at her age that she was going to hop on one of those stupid scooters.

Anyway, her commute would have taken three times as long.

Unfortunately, she was in the wrong department to do anything about that. But she managed to get home by a quarter to five, half an hour before her husband Jonah did, to find her two youngest, Samuel and Malia, sitting in the living room vying to the death on a video game.

She had only recently gotten used to thinking of her younger son… no, daughter… as Malia instead of Barack, and she tried to drive that dead-name out of her mind, appreciating her youngest daughter’s very interesting choice of new name. Samuel and her oldest, Theresa, who was majoring in law at Penn State, hadn’t even skipped a beat when Malia made the announcement last Christmas, and immediately welcomed her as their sister.

Unfortunately, her husband Jonah was having a bit of an issue with it, but that probably had more to do with worrying about how to handle it with his parents, who were hard-core old school Baptists.

Brenda had had none of those problem with her parents, who were old-school radicals. Well, she knew that her father wouldn’t have had a problem, but he was long gone, shot in the head during a routine traffic stop by a white cop when Brenda was still in college back in the 90s. This had radicalized Brenda’s mother no end, and she had gone on every protest march possible after that — Black, LGBTQ+, Native American, Union, whatever.

This had had a huge impact on Brenda, especially her mother’s words: “Honey, it don’t matter your color, sex, race, whatever. What matters is who hates you for the way you were born. And then, take a good hard look at them, lock arms with the others who get hated for how they were born, and go kick their fucking hateful asses.”

And Brenda’s mother, Esme, had been her babysitter since each of her kids were born. Brenda and Jonah has specifically looked for a house with a so-called “Mother-in-Law Flat” out back — in this case, a full one-bedroom guest house — and had moved Esme in at the same time they did.

Malia was the first one to tell Esme her secret: “I’m not a boy.”

When Esme told Brenda about the conversation and repeated her reply, Brenda just broke down in tears and hugged her mother hard.

“She said, ‘I’m not a boy,’” Esme told her. “And I said, ‘That’s great. So tell me who you are to you, because that is forever who you’ll be to me.’”

It was five-thirty when Jonah pulled into the garage and came through the door into the kitchen, and grabbed Brenda to give her a huge hug and kiss, interrupted by Samuel and Malia running into the room to hug his legs while shouting, “Daddy!”

“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.

“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.

“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”

“It all depends on how soon Mamaw gets home to wrangle the kidlets, stud.”

“Stop! They might hear you.”

“Okay, what I got cooking is dinner, but you know your job.”

“Oh, right.” Jonah smiled and whistled, pulling five bowls out of the cupboard as the sound of twenty paws skittering along the floor, finally reaching a crescendo. Three dogs and two cats stopped in the doorway in anticipation.

The dogs were Libby, Prince, and Orpheus — a yellow Lab, black Lab, and German shepherd. The cats were Desdemona and Ophelia, a calico and a tabby. Ostensibly, each of the dogs belonged to one of the kids and each of the cats to one of the parents, but in reality, Jonah was the wrangler of them all.

But not the boss. Oh no, not that. Because all of the animals and all of the humans just knew and understood that Desdemona was in charge of them all, and Ophelia was her lieutenant.

It was kind of exactly like the Brenda and Malia thing, actually — right down to no one ever mentioning it.

By six o’clock, they were all seated at the dining room table — well, except for the dogs and cats, who had long since finished dinner and had wandered off to go snooze in whatever space they had picked — and Brenda set out their meal.

Honestly, this was her favorite part of every work day — when they all got to sit down and everyone told her about what had happened in their day. And it didn’t matter how “stupid” or trivial it seemed. To Brenda, it was about her family, so every single bit was the most interesting thing ever, and she never had to fake that.

So… Samuel had actually talked to Melissa at her locker today, and while Brenda could easily see that the girl had no interest in him, he was over the moon at having taken the chance. And Malia reported that she’d met a fellow student, Lance, who was a transboy, and they’d really kind of hit it off and were having lunches together.

Jonah sort of rolled his eyes at this, but Brenda kicked him under the table.

After dinner, while Jonah and Samuel did the dishes, Brenda called Theresa to check in, and she was already considering focusing her legal studies on social justice issues, but she had to cut the conversation short because there was a sorority event coming up.

Later on, Esme came over to look after the kids, and Brenda and Jonah headed up to their room to, as she put it, “binge and fringe,” although as he held her in his arms, she looked into his eyes and said, “You really need to lighten up and deal with our daughter.”

“Who, Theresa?” he said.

“No,” she replied. And she was beginning to think that he might have been the only reason that she didn’t just come out and share all the Metro ghost shit with everyone else, because they might have had actual ideas. But then he dug it deeper.

“We only have one daughter,” he continued.

“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.

“Um… excuse me?” he asked.

“No. Excuse me,” she replied, slamming her way out of the room and calling back, “Her name is Malia,” adding under her breath, “You are such an asshole sometimes.”

And that was when she remembered the thing she liked least about family dinners. Still, she figured that Jonah would eventually come around. It had taken a few months to get him to stop dead-naming Malia and he was making fewer mistakes with the pronouns, at least when she was around. But for god’s sake, he was nearly fifty. He should give a damn what his parents thought anymore.

* * *

Tailed

The next morning, Simon and Joshua got up, got ready, had breakfast, then headed down to the garage, carrying the trap with Anabel in it in the velvet bag. They were dressed casually and Joshua had called dibs on driving, which was fine with Simon anyway. They hopped into the Tesla, Joshua put his foot on the brake and shifted into gear. The car hummed to life.

It would be fair for anybody to speculate how a couple of guys their age who only seemed to hang out in subway stations dressed as refugees from a Jules Verne novel could afford a Tesla, much less their own condo, along with all of the geegaws and gadgets involved in their ghost hunting.

The short answer was that in the previous decade, the two of them had designed a series of killer apps that had a habit of being bought up for anywhere in the high seven to mid-eight figure range. Simon was the idea man and Joshua was the coder and tech nerd, although it was Simon’s really uncanny ability to figure out what the Next Big Thing was going to be a year or two before it was that drove things.

But they had also made an agreement that they would never allow themselves to be worth more than a certain amount. They had originally set that at a billion until they exceeded it and realized how ridiculous a billion dollars was for just two people, so they cut it down to a hundred million, then finally settled on ten million.

Anything in excess of that went away as charitable donations, or to any of several dozen anonymous educational foundations they had set up around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to sneak a server a few grand as a tip, or buy a house and “rent” it to a homeless woman and her children for a dollar a year, or provide necessary supplies for a struggling school.

Still, they considered themselves to be the Banksy of charity — they never announced any of what they did, never put their names on it, and swore their beneficiaries to silence.

“We’re like thieves in the night,” Simon liked to say,” Except Robin Hood.”

They did start a charitable organization that would handle everything, but they had named it the Ada Lovelace Foundation, which they both felt appropriate for two reasons. One was that she was basically the world’s first computer programmer, back in the nineteenth century when “computers” were entirely mechanical.

The other was that she was an important character in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which both of them had read and loved as kids and it was considered to be raison d’être for the entire steampunk genre.

Of course, as far as Ausmann ever knew, they were forever broker than shit and relied on their job with him and his largesse. This just gave them leverage that he didn’t know existed.

Joshua pulled out of the lot and turned right onto Tujunga, heading south toward Magnolia. As they crossed South Chandler — named for a family not related to the Chanlers — he and Simon both noticed a vehicle pull away from the curb by the park a little too quickly and obviously.

“Did you — ” Simon started.

“Yep,” Joshua replied. “Did you notice the license plate?”

“No,” Simon replied. “What?”

“Exempt.”

“Shit.”

In California, this designated that it was a government-owned car, although which level of government wasn’t certain — it could be city, county, or state. And, contrary to what some under-informed people thought, it did not mean “Exempt from obeying all traffic laws.” Rather, it meant “Exempt from taxation,” so the car wasn’t subject to annual registration, sales tax on transfer from one exempt entity to another, and so on.

Although the driver had been so eager to pull out on Joshua’s ass that they had cut off another driver who gave an angry honk.

“What do we do?” Simon asked.

“Drive casually until we figure out who they are,” Joshua explained as Simon turned to look out the back window. “And don’t look at them!”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“Don’t we have an app that does the license plate thing?” Joshua asked.

“Oh, right,” Simon replied, taking out his phone and pulling up the app, porting the output to the car’s tablet. He activated the back-up cam, got a clear photo of the front plate, and in a few seconds the screen displayed the answer.

CALIFORNIA VEHICLE EXEMPT PLATE
JURISDICTION LEVEL: COUNTY
AGENCY: LOS ANGELES METRO
DIVISION: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
LEO?: NO

“Shit, that’s it?” Joshua laughed. “We’re being followed by customer service? What are they going to do, make us take a survey?”

“We still don’t know who’s in that car,” Simon replied.

“True, but…” Joshua tapped the screen, went to the back-up cam and titled it up, pulling slightly away so he got a look at the driver and passenger. “Well, it’s not Brenda, at least,” he said.

“I really have a feeling she wouldn’t sell us out,” Simon said. “Besides, we never even told her where we live.”

“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”

They continued up Tujunga and turned left on Magnolia, crossed under the 170, then turned left to hop on the on-ramp and head south. Traffic was light at least, so Joshua hit 70 and stuck to the leftmost number one lane carpool, apparently continuing down the 170 into Hollywood, Metro vehicle behind all the while.

“You want the other side,” Simon told Joshau.

“I know,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”

“Make you shit your pants?”

“Joshie!”

“Sorry, honey. We need to shake a tail.”

Joshua accelerated to eighty as the approach to the lanes that cut off to the 170 and Hollywood neared. Then, at the very last second, he yanked hard right and swept over three lanes, punching it to ninety and heading down the 134.

The Metro vehicle behind them managed to make it one lane over before a BMW cut them off and Joshua sailed it down the interchange and onto the freeway to Pasadena without their pursuers, bringing their speed down to 65 to Simon’s great relief.

“I hate it when you do that,” Simon told him.

“You’re still hard right now,” Joshua replied, and they both knew that it was true.

“Yeah, but it’s a fear boner,” Simon explained sheepishly.

It had subsided by the time they got to JPL and made it down to Ausmann’s office. On the way, knowing full well by now that he’d probably already seen the footage, they had to come up with a plausible reason for Preston’s escape, so they had decided to blame it on the woman from Metro who had left with them.

She demanded to know what was in the other trap, against their better judgement they opened it, and Preston flitted off into the night, as these things were wont to do.

But, surprisingly, Ausmann didn’t even ask about Preston after they’d placed the other trap on his desk and removed it from the bag.

“Apparently,” Simon explained, “Her name was Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.”

“Really?” Ausmann replied, looking stunned. “You two mooks managed to capture Anabel?”

“You know her?” Joshua asked, just as stunned.

“I know the name,” Ausmann said. “But are you sure that’s who she is?”

“That’s who the other entity said she was.” Simon explained.

“And how would that one know?”

“Apparently, he was her son,” Simon added.

“Did you bring the other one?” Ausmann suddenly asked.

“Uh… we caught him, but, um, he… got away,” Joshua offered.

“Oh,” Ausmann replied, but didn’t say anything more about it, just staring at the trap on his desk. “If this really is Anabel… I think you two are in line for a couple of bumps up the ladder.”

“You mean… up our pay grades?” Joshua asked, pretending that it mattered.

“Oh, yeah, that too. No, I meant… more on upping your security clearances. But… that all depends on whether this is Anabel or not.”

“Who was… is Anabel, anyway?” Simon asked.

“You don’t get that story until I’ve bumped you up from public trust to secret. Good work, boys. See you next time. Last stop is North Hollywood, right?”

“Next week,” Simon replied.

“Can’t wait to see what you pull in then. Thanks!”

Simon and Joshua left the office and headed up top. Once they were in the elevator, Simon asked Joshua, “Has he ever told us ‘thanks’ before?”

“Nope,” Joshua replied.

Back in his office, Ausmann turned the trap over and over in his hands. It was an amazing piece of work, really, and he had no idea how the two managed things like this on what he paid them. Still… Anabel was a name that had come up countless times in their failed attempts to keep these entities either trapped down here or from suddenly melting into nothing.

Except for the ones who popped up claiming to be famous people — a sure sign of insanity — most of the others cried out one name before fleeing or disappearing. “Anabel.”

In the chess-game Ausmann had been playing, it felt like he had just captured the Queen.

* * *