The Saturday Morning Post #37: The Rêves, Part 15

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.

Rescue

In the afternoon, the fog hadn’t burned off and it was still raining, although the hail and thunderstorms had stopped. Joshua’s cell rang, which was really unusual — no one called anyone anymore — but he looked at the display and saw that it was Brent, so he answered.

“Uncle Brent,” he said, “How are you and Drew doing? Survive the storm okay?”

“We did,” Brent replied, “We’re fine, although we lost a lemon tree. And you boys?”

“Holding up on the top floor,” Joshua said. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

“Oh, too bad,” Brent said. “We’re downstairs, wondered if you wanted a ride.”

“You’re what? How?” Joshua asked.

“You’ll have to come down to see,” Brent teased.

“So, the flood waters are gone?”

“Oh, no, they’re not. But the fog only comes down to about fifteen feet. So do up your faces, dress warm, put on your hip-waders and get your asses down here.”

“Okay,” Joshua replied. “See you in a few minutes.” He hung up and turned to Simon, who looked completely confused.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Joshua said.

The funniest part was that they actually did own hip-waders, although they had to look around to find them. At one point, Simon had gone through a big fishing phase and Joshua had gone along with it. It wasn’t that he liked fishing. He didn’t. He despised it. But if Simon was there, he didn’t care.

So they dressed warmly, put on the hip-waders, took the stairs down to the lobby and found that it was still flooded up to almost their armpits. Outside, they found Brent and Drew, sitting in the front seat of a goddamn hovercraft.

Oh, it wasn’t one of those full-on military versions, or the kind that ferried passengers commercially. It was about the size of a wide minivan, with an open cockpit and seating for four. Brent was in the driver’s seat, Drew next to him in his usual sun hat.

“Climb aboard,” Brent announced.

“Well fuck me,” Joshua muttered.

“Sssh!” Simon  hissed at him.

Joshua went up the ladder first, then helped pull Simon up, and they took their seats in the back.

“Why do you even have this?” Simon asked.

“Oh, past life,” Brent explained. “Doing biological and environmental impact surveys in the wetlands around here. Also fun for vacations. And this is one of the few electric models.”

“You know how bad the mileage is on the gas ones?” Drew chimed in. “You’re lucky to get eighty miles on a full tank, and that’s a regular car-sized tank.”

“Do you have anywhere in particular you need to go?” Brent continued.

Joshua and Simon looked at each other, not sure.

“Ausmann?” Simon said quietly.

“We should probably avoid him,” Joshua said. “What about Danny and Preston?”

“How are we going to find them?” Simon wondered.

“I’d start with where he’s buried,” Joshua whispered.

“Okay,” Simon agreed.

“This is going to sound weird,” Joshua said, “But can you get us to Forest Lawn Glendale?”

“We can sure give it a try,” Brent replied, and he fired the thing up and started it moving.

Since they were basically sitting on top of an inverted air hockey table with a fan in the back, the thing was a little loud, and the sudden ballooning of the skirt as the craft noticeably lifted was an unexpected noise, a sudden “fwoomp.”

The acceleration was also kind of slow, so they weren’t going all that fast as Brent took them east on South Chandler toward Lankershim. That didn’t really matter, though, because there was no traffic at all. The streets were empty and silent, the sky above about three stories up was solid white, and everything between there and the filthy water in the streets was full of falling mist.

Surprisingly, the traffic lights were still working, although all of the buildings they passed were dark, many of them with busted-out windows.

“Didn’t the news say they shut all the roads?” Simon asked.

“They did,” Brent explained. “Fortunately, I have an exemption.”

He pointed to an official state permit that was laminated in a frame on the dash: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“I’m still deputized, even if I’m retired,” Brent explained. “So we have permission to be wherever we need to be.”

“Sweet,” Joshua grinned. Of course, he still hadn’t decided whether their single-craft armada was the coolest or most ridiculous thing ever. On the one hand, Drew was huddled in the front wrapped in what looked like a Snuggie, huge floppy sunhat hiding most of his head and face, and Brent was actually wearing a boat captain’s cap with all-white shirt and pants and a pea coat.

Joshua and Simon couldn’t have looked much better, what with their black rubber hip waders covering their lower halves, only to reveal flannel shirts under cable knit sweaters, both of them also wearing elaborately patterned toques.

Then again, there was no one to see them, so Joshua supposed they looked as cool as they wanted to.

Brent turned left on Magnolia, which seemed to be flooded a bit deeper, and then gunned it, and suddenly they were actually moving at decent car speed down the street. It was absolutely the most surreal moment that Joshua and Simon had ever experienced. The worst flooding they had ever seen before in the Valley was when the water backed up to barely cover the sidewalks, with flumes shooting out of overloaded storm drains.

This was something else entirely, and they could only imagine what it was like in the center of the Valley, which was its low point, with a huge public park designed to do double duty as a flood control basin.

But Brent continued eastward down Magnolia, and Joshua and Simon lamented all of the storefronts and businesses that were inundated. This stretch happened to hold a lot of places that had supplied them with their costume bits over the years, as well as a couple that had provided their tech. A lot of them had even managed to survive the plague years, but neither of them knew how they would survive this.

Their favorite costume shop of them all, where they had gotten a lot of custom work done, was inundated right up to the bottom of the marquee sign above its single story.

“Fuck,” Simon muttered as they passed it. Joshua just grabbed his hand and held it tight.

Eventually, they neared the bridge on Magnolia that leapt over the freeway and train tracks — although it was just a raging river down there now — but Brent turned right before they crossed it and headed south on Victory.

This took them past Griffith Park, which was a strangely unaffected island rising above the chaos below, and finally to a point where they crossed over the freeway on a sudden dry stretch and came back down outside of the cemetery gates.

This was the first moment when all of them just kind of did a collective “What?”

The water in the streets here was still about three feet deep, and Forest Lawn didn’t really have any kind of substantial walls around it, just some low brick work and very open wrought iron. And yet… not a drop of the floodwater on the outside spilled over onto the property.

“Oh fuck me sideways,” Simon blurted out. “How the hell is this even possible?”

“Honey, how is anything we’ve seen recently possible?” Joshua replied.

“Bitchin’ Hollywood special effects?” Brent offered.

“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Drew explained. “Shall we go in?”

Brent didn’t even wait for an answer. He powered ahead into the cemetery.

“So which dead body are you all looking for?” he asked.

“Who do you think?” Joshua asked.

“I know,” Drew said, and he led Brent right to the red marble cenotaph for the LeCard family, where they parked.

Preston’s marker was there, even though the body under was not him — or at least not the Preston they knew, although they also had no idea whether it was Danny. In either case, neither of them were there.

But someone else was, and she was walking toward them.

“Oh shit,” Simon muttered under his breath, turning to Brent. “You might want to move back a way,” he advised.

“Don’t ask twice,” Brent replied, turning the hovercraft around and moving far down the road.

Meanwhile, Joshua stepped forward boldly, hands raised at the elbows, palms out.

“We come in peace,” he said.

“I think your boss might be dead,” Anabel said.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Joshua replied, and she actually raised an eyebrow.

“Anyway, if he’s dead, wouldn’t he be playing for your team now?” Simon asked.

“Phrasing…” Joshua whispered.

“He only plays for his own team,” she replied. “I… urged him last night to stop doing what he’s doing, but he refused.”

“Isn’t he doing what we’re doing?” Simon asked.

“What do you think he is doing?” Anabel asked.

“Well, I mean, like us, it’s basically catch and release, right? For research?”

“You really think that?”

“It’s what we’ve been led to believe,” Joshua explained.

“He told you that he lets us go when he’s done?” she asked.

“Well, funny thing about Ausmann,” Simon said. “He never really says anything in any straight forward way, but we asked him flat out. ‘Do you make sure that they’re let go unharmed when you’re done with them?’ And he said ‘Yes.’”

Simon hesitated a beat, then sighed. “Aw, fuck.”

“He’s never done with them, is he?” Joshua asked.

“Nope,” Anabel replied.

“So, wait,” Joshua said. “You asked him to stop and he refused, so you killed him — ”

“Not me, but he might be dead — ”

“Right. But if he is dead, doesn’t that pretty much stop him?”

She huffed, put her hands on her hips and gave him a jaundiced look.

“Oh, yeah. I guess not. So… what are you suggesting?”

“I get the impression that you only work for him because you had the necessary skills, but no idea what he was really doing. Correct?”

“Absolutely,” Simon replied.

“So how did you get those skills?” she asked.

Simon and Joshua looked at each other, and then shrugged. “Just a couple of coding nerds who got way too curious after they saw something weird in a subway station,” Simon finally offered.

“When was that?” she asked.

“Early in 2017?” Joshua said, hesitantly. “Something like that.”

“And you saw…?”

“Harold Lloyd,” Simon said. “It was really late at night, and he just wandered down the platform, but there were two things wrong.”

“First, we could kind of see through him,” Joshua said.

“Second,” Simon added, “He had all of his fingers.”

“The real Lloyd didn’t,” Joshua explained.

“We were never the kinds to believe in ghosts or any of that shit,” Simon continued.

“But there we were, looking at a ghost,” Joshua said. “But… if he was a ghost, then why did he have all of his fingers?”

“Which Lloyd, in real life, didn’t.”

“So you decided to start hunting us?” Anabel asked.

“I don’t like the word ‘hunting,’” Simon replied.

“Studying,” Joshua offered. “And since we were both basically retired — well, had been a couple of years — we figured, what the hell, why not use our skills to figure out what was going on?”

“Retired?” Anabel asked, incredulous. “From what?”

Simon and Joshua looked around, both of them making sure that Brent and Drew were far out of earshot.

“Okay. Coding and apps, basically,” Simon said.

“Spies?” Anabel asked.

“No, not spies,” Joshua said. “Making apps for people.”

“Oh, applications?” she replied.

“Yeah,” Simon said. “Those.”

“For… what? Insurance? Mortgages? Jobs…?”

“Oh…” Joshua and Simon said in unison, looking at each other, Simon finally continuing, “When did you… um… you know…”

He gestured vaguely.

“Die?” she asked. “It’s okay, you can use that word. It was in 1926. I am caught up on a lot of things, thank you, but not everything.”

“Ah…” Joshua and Simon said in unison again.

“A hundred years of linguistic evolution — my god, this is a primer for time travel, isn’t it?” Joshua asked Simon, laughing.

“We basically became filthy rich and made a lot of money making…” He paused, bouncing one hand palm up in the other, trying to come up with some way to explain it, looking to Joshua, who was more of a history buff.

“Um… yeah, it’s like… Oh… oh, dammit, no, 1920s, too early.”

“Telegraph?” Simon asked.

“No… home appliances. Crap!” Joshua sighed. “Wait, wait, okay. Kind of got it here, maybe. Phonograph?” he asked, looking to Anabel.

“Yes.”

“Okay… so imagine that phonograph records aren’t just for music, but they can also be used for information and learning. Like, you play a record, and it’s a dictionary or a cookbook or something.”

“Uh… they don’t really do that, but — ”

“We’re getting metaphorical here, okay? Go with me, because here comes the next stretch,” Joshua continued. “Imagine now that you have like a typewriter connected to the phonograph, and you can control what part of the record plays by typing words.”

“All right,” Anabel said. “So then what does it do?”

“So it’s… um a cookbook, and you want to know how to make… beef stroganoff. You type that on the typewriter, the needle searches, and boom. It plays back the one recipe you want. And if you want to get really fancy, we can also make that work over a telephone, too.”

“Dude… that was the single most steampunk thing you’ve ever done,” Simon said.

“Love you too,” Joshua replied.

“So… you make records?” Anabel asked.

“We make… tools!” Joshua finally gushed when he landed on the right word. “And while the tools of our time may be things that you can’t possibly understand, men in your time were doing the same thing and making the same kind of money and so, yeah, we both retired right around thirty.”

“Anyway, that’s why we had the ability to create all the stuff we use to identify and track and… study your kind.” Simon offered. “We were already working with portable super computers, so why not take it up another notch?”

“I underestimated you,” Anabel said. “Here, I thought you were just a couple of Ausmann’s underlings, willing to do his bidding. But if I understand correctly, you don’t need him or this job at all.”

“That would be one hundred percent,” Joshua replied.

“Well, then,” she said, “Maybe we can make a deal, and you can help us stop him — ”

“If he’s not dead,” Simon offered.

“Right. Let me rephrase that, then,” Anabel went on. “Stop what he started, but which is apparently stuck in motion. We need to put on the brakes.”

“On what?” Joshua asked.

“On his entire project,” she replied.

“We would still have clearance, wouldn’t we?” Simon offered.

“And it would be a glorious ‘fuck you,’ wouldn’t it?” Joshua added.

“And, honestly, we’ve probably got better firepower, at least on the tech side,” Simon added.

“Okay, so… I guess the only question is whether he’s dead or not,” Joshua replied, “But either way, I think we still have an in, so… yeah. Let’s stop whatever he was trying to do.”

“Thank you,” Anabel replied. “You won’t regret it.”

“What was he trying to do?” Simon asked.

“Commit genocide and destroy my kind,” Anabel explained before suddenly vanishing in a puff of black smoke.

“Yeah, way to hide the reveal,” Simon muttered.

“What?” Joshua replied. “Isn’t stopping genocide , like, the best thing ever?”

“I know,” Simon said. “But we didn’t get to thank her for the opportunity.”

Joshua laughed and kissed Simon, then gestured for Brent to come on back. He swung the hovercraft around and they climbed in the back.

“Was that a fucking ghost?” Brent demanded.

“What else would you expect in a cemetery?” Joshua replied. “Now… home, James.”

Brent gunned it, and the rest of the trip back to NoHo happened in silence.

By the time they’d gotten back home, the floodwaters had receded here. Joshua and Simon bid their adieus to Brent and Drew, then headed into the lobby.

“You want to check the damage now, get it over with?” Simon asked.

“Sure,” Joshua replied.

They took the stairs down to the parking garage, coming out on the floor where there car was parked, expecting to find it a soaked, muddy, and useless mess. Instead, the floors and everything else were as dry as usual, and the lights were even on. All of the cars here were completely untouched.

“What the hell?” Joshua muttered happily as Simon just stared.

Nearby, a maintenance man was walking back to his electric cart. He laughed.

“HOA didn’t want them flood doors until they got talked into. ‘L.A. never floods,’ they said.” He laughed. “Rich old bastards just saved themselves a fortune in lawsuits on that one. Have a great day.”

He hopped onto his cart and rode off as Joshua and Simon just stared at each other.

“Shit,” Simon finally said. “Wasn’t that our idea?”

“I seem to remember paying for it, too. That was the only way they’d do it.” Joshua said.

“Son of a bitch,” Simon muttered, laughing. “Son of a bitch.”

They threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and headed back up, checking to see if the elevator was working. It was, although it smelled a bit… moist.

* * *

Image source: digicla,  licensed under (CC BY 2.0)

The Saturday Morning Post #25: The Rêves, Part 3

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.

Delivery

Almost a week later, after Joshua and Simon have hopped the B Line to the A line, and then taken the circuitous route to get to JPL. They never wore their hunting uniforms when they came here, but rather dressed civilian and very plainly, generally in jeans and casual button-down shirts.

Although they wore their hair a little on the longish-side to suit their work personae, they would use product to flatten it and look more clean-cut here. After all, in order to get down to Ausmann’s office, they had to clear security above ground twice, and then clear it twice more below ground, before they could bring their latest capture to Ausmann and turn it over.

The old man held the trap in his hand, turning it over and over like a giant poker chip, demanding details of the capture. They told him about chasing the shadow, how they finally lured it in, and escaped the station. He listened patiently, then gave them a jaundiced look.

“Anything else, boys?” he asked.

“Um… not really?” Simon said, Joshua nodding in agreement.

“Really?” Ausmann insisted.

“Really. Well, not really, no, not anything important to report,” Joshua insisted, Simon nodding.

“Do you really think I’m an ignorant old asshole?” Ausmann asked, not waiting for an answer as he tapped the edge of his desk a couple of times and footage appeared on the display above his desk.

It was the Hollywood and Highland Station, upper level escalators and stairs, right as Joshua and Simon were hauling ass up, pursued by the faceless thing who almost made it before fading away on top. Ausmann let it play, then tapped his desk to pause it and waited.

The silence became uncomfortable until he finally grunted, “So?”

“So…?” Simon asked.

“Any idea what the fuck that was following you?” he demanded.

“What what was?” Joshua asked, tossing on his best innocent face.

“Oh, don’t play that shit with me, you little cunts. You weren’t running up those escalators for exercise.”

“Um, no… but we knew that the last bus to get us to our car was about to pull out,” Peter offered.

“You parked one block west and one block down on Orange, you lying little assholes. Want to try again?”

“What were we supposed to do?” Joshua demanded. “That was the first time we’d seen anything like that. It’s not in the catalog or on the list, and I sure as hell didn’t think we had the tools.”

“Me neither,” Simon added.

“Anyway, it felt like it was beyond our pay-grade.”

Ausmann just stared at them for a long moment, then broke out into laughter, making them both look even more nervous. Finally, he just smiled and said, “Oh my god, you little assholes are even more suited for government work than I ever thought.”

Joshua sensed Simon tensing up for a fight on the word “assholes” and instinctively held him back. “All rightie,” he finally said. “I’m upping your pay grade and your rank, from H3 to H4, which also means you’re getting better tools. But, here’s the deal. In addition to your normal retrieval missions, if you see one of those things again, then you’re going to trap it as well. Understand?”

“Um… what are ‘those things,’ exactly?” Simon asked.

“None of your goddamn business,” Ausmann snapped. “Other than the more of them you catch along with those other things, the sooner you’re going to help me achieve our goals.”

“And the sooner we’re unemployed?” Joshua offered timidly.

“Don’t be a snarky fucking asshole like you usually are, boy. Got it?”

Joshua braced his arm across Simon’s chest and shot him a sideways look. “Sorry, boss,” Joshua explained.

“He can be snarky fucking asshole at times,” Simon spat. “But it’s what makes him good at what he does, and why I fucking love him to death. We good?”

Joshua just stared at Simon in amazement and gratitude as Ausmann turned away and stared out of his office window, finally grunting. “It all depends, boys. On your next trip down, bring me what I’ve asked for. Then I’ll let you know whether ‘we good,’ or you gone. Got it?”

Simon nodded, then Joshua dragged him out before he could say anything more.

* * *

The Chanlers

When Preston woke up later, he noticed that he was being stared at. Then again, in his sleep he had reverted to his usual naked, human form. He couldn’t help it — that’s how most people had met and remembered him. Occupational hazard.

He looked up and realized that a very large crow was perched on the sphere that held up the cenotaph above the family tomb. He smiled at the crow who peered down at him intently.

“I know you’re not what you look like,” Preston said. “And you can obviously see me.”

The crow let out a caw and hopped to the ground but, on the way, transformed into a young human male, dressed simply. Preston didn’t recognize him, but realized that they were probably about the same height, although this kid was obviously really young, and definitely Hispanic.

He had jet-black hair that came into a twist in the middle of his forehead, very 1950s-style, a smile that turned up the left side of his face while squinting his right eye, and a general demeanor that just made Preston trust him.

“I’m Richard,” the kid said.

“Preston,” Preston replied. “Nice to meet you. What brings you here?”

“A lot,” Richard explained. “You know how hard it is to get to Glendale from San Fernando via our usual methods?”

“You can do the crow thing,” Preston countered. “Why not just fly?”

“I kind of have a really big aversion to flying,” Richard said. “Don’t ask. I came here to make you change your mind.”

“About what?”

“I’d say running around with your pinga out in a cemetery, but none of the carne de prada around here can see that. What do you know about Anabel?”

“What about her?” Preston asks.

“Hm. Follow me,” Richard says, walking toward a nearby mausoleum. “How do you know her, anyway?”

“Um… we just met. You know. Like you do when you go to the same places. Hey, we just met, right?”

“True,” Richard replied, “But I was looking.”

“For me? Why?”

“Like I said. To talk you out of doing something stupid tonight in Universal City.”

“How do you know about that?” Preston demanded.

“I know a lot of things, Preston,” Richard replied. “Especially about Anabel.”

“Like what?”

Richard pointed at the mausoleum. “There. Notice anything?”

Preston studied it, not sure what Richard was getting at. Then again, Preston wasn’t really an expert in funerary architecture. But then it struck him — the building was actually huge, but there was only one name carved in the granite plinth that spanned the columns across its front.

Chanler

“Who are they?” Preston asked. “Like, Chandler the L.A. Times dude?”

“No,” Richard said. “Think Waldorf-Astoria, a bit removed.”

“Isn’t that a salad?” Preston asked. “No, wait. The Muppets, right?”

“You made it through life on your looks, didn’t you?” Richard muttered. “Anything else stand out?”

“Well… it’s big.”

“And water is wet. Big, one family, meaning…?”

“Rich as hell?”

“Yep. See any dates?” Richard pointed toward the cornerstone of the building because he was getting tired of Preston being so oblivious — although he wondered whether the boy wasn’t just acting to mess with him. Preston peered at the stone.

“Est. 1906,” he read. “So… really old, really rich. What about Anabel?”

“Okay, first of all,” Richard explained, “1906 was the first year that this place became a cemetery, meaning that the Chanlers were one of the first families to buy land in it. And look at this building. It was not expanded. This is the original, because it’s all one style. So, what does that tell you?”

“That you’re getting this information from someone else?”

“Oh, goddam right I did. That’s the first smart thing you’ve ever said today. What? Look at me. I’m a poor fucking immigrant Mexican kid who grew up with grape pickers and only got lucky because I could sing and some white asshole noticed, of course I don’t know about architecture, I was only seventeen when the plane…”

He spun away and silenced himself, confusing Preston even more. “What?” Preston asked.

“Yes, I got the information from someone else,” Richard explained calmly. “Now I’m giving it to you.” Look at the names on the vaults, and the dates, take your time, I’ll be over here.

“O… kay?” Preston replied as Richard just shrugged him off and wandered across the road to a section of more open plots. Suddenly, he was holding a guitar and started to play it, singing a song that Preston vaguely remembered hearing in some movie a long time ago.

But he did what Richard asked, looking at the vaults in the Mausoleum, which seemed to go in chronological order from top left, down each column in turn. They were stacked six high, with bronze plaques and flower vases mounted in the marble facing, and they were set four wide — two vaults, column, two more, column — before the main doors to the inner vaults.

These were crystal glass panes set in doors wrought from copper that had long since corroded to a deep green patina, three sets of two, each one with an elaborate doorknob on the left in the form of the face of a cherub, period keyhole in the door to the right. On the right side of the six sets of doors, there were another set of vaults, six by four.

So… forty-eight vaults along the front, but clearly more inside. Preston walked around the building to find that each side also contained the same number of vaults, although the only doors were on the front. The back of the building had sixty-six vaults, the extra eighteen taking up the space that would have been doors, but the names on the dates on the brass plaques stopped two rows from the top left and four columns down on the backside:

Justin David Chanler Gomez Jr.

Beloved Son, Brother, Husband, and Father

April 14, 1978 — September 23, 2013.

Preston came back to the front and peered in through the windows to see a lot more vaults inside. He still didn’t have a single clue what Richard had been trying to get him to figure out. If only he could go inside, it would be so much easier…

And then he metaphorically kicked himself. This was just a door, after all. It meant nothing to him. He passed through it and examined the arrangements inside.

Here, the internal vaults were obviously arranged around the seven feet of space each of the outer vaults intruded, and were set to create a sort of Greek cross open space of equal arms. Everything was centered around a rosette pattern set dead center, right under a domed skylight in which quartz glass depicted the signs of the Zodiac.

In the middle of that rosette, a bronze star with eight points, was an inscription:

In loving memory of Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.

She will be forever missed, but never forgotten, that is our family’s promise.

August 1, 1893 — February 3, 1926.

Well, shit, Preston thought. She’d died on his birthday. Well, not the year, but the day. And she was a hell of a lot older than he’d ever thought, in more ways than one. And, somehow, more important to all these rich bitches than anyone else?

He ran back out of the mausoleum and to Richard.

“Dude, February 3. She died on my birthday!”

“So did I, pendejo,” Richard replied. “Anything else?”

It hit Preston in a flash, and he truly felt like a dumbfuck. “Wait… LeCard? We’re related? But… how? She’s too old to be my mother, and nobody ever mentioned anyone with that name in the family. What the fuck is going on?

“Simple, amigo. Nunca confundir casarse con cazar. En sólo una manera se puede crear familia.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Figure out who she married and why.”

“Yeah, well… shit, what time is it?”

“Five o’clock.” Richard explained, adding, “In the evening.”

“That doesn’t give me much time,” Preston replies.

“Really, dude? You and I have all the time in the world. Unfortunately, so does she.”

“But what does she want?” Preston demands. “You haven’t told me that.”

Richard shrugs. “I’m only here to put you on the path,” he says. “Not to drag you down it.”

“Oh, fuck you — ” Preston yells, but Richard has vanished before the F even begins.

* * *

Arming up

After spending most of the day pointedly ignoring potential danger, then most of the afternoon after a quick drive over to Malibu for a fabulous lunch, Joshua and Simon had spent the hours between mid-afternoon and evening just holding and fucking each other left, right, and sideways and, as they had begun the day, ignoring the clear and present danger.

Then, well after nightfall they stared into each other’s eyes, trembled in fear, then got up, got hold of themselves, and armored up in their steampunk regalia.

Although tonight’s target was also the closest to home they ever had — in fact, they were just going to walk two blocks to the NoHo Metro station and catch that train one stop south to Universal City. But despite being the closet mission, it was also the scariest, given what had happened at Hollywood and Highland.

Not to mention what Ausmann might do if they fucked this one up which, honestly, was not beyond possibility. They discussed it on the way down the elevator from their condo, both of them finally saying basically the same thing at the same time.

“We need insurance,” they said, then added, “Jinx,” and linked pinkies.

“Well, we do,” Joshua insisted. “But what?”

“Too late to worry about it now, isn’t it?” Simon replied.

“I don’t need insurance,” Joshua said. “I’ve got you.”

“Ditto,” Simon answered as the elevator doors opened in the lobby. Their appearance startled a neighbor, an older man carrying two plastic grocery bags. Simon tipped his hat to him. “Good evening,” he said as they passed and the old man dashed into the waiting car.

One thing that Joshua and Simon had agreed on long before they set out on tonight’s hunt: Since they weren’t exactly sure what Ausmann was doing to the entities they were bringing to him — and they had always seemed to be sentient entities for as long as they’d been hunting — they would give this victim the chance to argue for their freedom. Or at least explain things.

Why not? It was only fair. Right?

They passed under the three metal arches at the NoHo Metro station and down the escalator to the bank of ticket dispensers on the first landing, but skipped them since they’d loaded their TAP cards to the gills long ago, then passed their way through the turnstiles and across the short path to the second set of escalators that took them down to the platform.

As usual, there was a “dead” train on the right-hand side of the platform, and another one waiting on the left. Experienced riders could tell by the sound whether it was still waiting or about to go by the simple sound of the air conditioning. If it was going, so was the train, so time to run. If not, then there was no hurry.

This one was humming, so they hopped onto the closest car. Within a few seconds came the ding and the doors closing warning, and then the train started to pull out of the station. As usual, it took its time pulling through the crossover that would put it on the right-hand set of tracks, but once it was clear of the intricate rails and tunnels south of the station, the driver put the pedal to the floor.

This was a short hop — actually very walkable aboveground — and in about three minutes, they pulled into the Universal City Station, where they got off of the train and headed to their usual station on a bench near the middle of the platform.

At this hour, the place was nearly deserted, but not completely enough. They still had a bit of a wait.

Down the platform, Brenda was camped out on a bench, dressed in her own costume, as a homeless woman, rocking back and forth and pretending to talk to herself — although she was really talking to Rita in a sort of coded style they had pre-determined. To any outsiders, she would sound insane. To Rita, she made total sense.

Of course, every single Metro employee, cop, and driver had been informed about her presence and appearance, so that she would not be molested or arrested.

“They’re here!” she announced, trying to sound paranoid. “Right down the platform, I can see them, looking at them right now — ” She was staring at empty tracks on the other side.

“Roger,” Rita’s voice came back. “What are they doing?”

“Sitting. Sitting, just sitting, pretending they ain’t doing nothing. You see them? You see?”

“Yes,” Rita replied. “We have them on camera. We’ll let you know if they do anything.”

“Amen!” Brenda called out in their pre-arranged code for “Copy that” before she went back to her fake homeless shtick of rocking back and forth and humming “Sweet Chariot.”

Truth to tell, she was enjoying this. She had minored in drama in college, mostly because her advisor in the Urban Planning program had, well, advised her that anyone majoring in a field like that really should have some exposure to the arts, because it was a bigger part of any career than any of them would ever think.

Surprisingly, she really took to doing musicals, and her favorite roles had been as Evillene in The Wiz and Mama in Raisin!, and she had gotten rave reviews.

Still, she always resented the fact that she had been rejected out-of-hand for the role of another Mama, the prison matron Mama Morton, in the production of Chicago her senior year with the lame excuse of, “Honey, this show is set in the 1920s. Ain’t gonna be no black woman in that position then.”

Four years later, Queen Latifah won a fucking Oscar for playing the same part in the movie, and Brenda decided to give up even trying to act ever again.

Now, she felt like she was playing the role of her life. No one would appreciate her for it, although she had a feeling that it would damn near change the world.

She waited, getting occasional reports from Rita, and then Rita’s assistant who eventually took over because, obviously, bitch couldn’t be bothered to stay so late as a salaried employee. The reports mostly amounted to, “Subjects still in place, nothing happening Stand by.”

She found herself quietly humming her character’s signature song from The Wiz; “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news,” and then felt a hint of regret at playing a character that she knew that every Black person watching the show would get, but very few white people would.

She also had no idea how much later it was because she wasn’t sure whether she’d dozed off, but then heard the voice in her ear. “Action on the platform. Action on the platform.”

“Well, shit…” she thought as she turned her attention to look to her right.

* * *

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