The Saturday Morning Post #1

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know! Here is the first even installment of The Saturday Morning Post.

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

I can’t believe how crowded it is at four in the morning in the 24-hour Walgreens on 7th in the Jewelry district. It’s your typical urban storefront business, taking up the entire ground floor of a 12-story building erected in 1923. Once upon a time, its footprint probably comprised multiple stores. Then again, in those days, specialization was everything, so that the bakery, butcher, deli, dry goods, grocer, liquor, newsstand, pet, pharmacy, stationary, and toy departments were their own individual businesses.

There’s a reason they call them supermarkets, superstores, big boxes and… face it, those terms are retro. I really mean Amazon Alphabet. Same idea. Everything available under one big metaphorical roof, delivered by the same drone army. Except for those of us, rich and poor, who buy local. Like me, this very morning.

Above the store are tons of apartments. I’d read somewhere one time that this building has the equivalent of just over five acres of living space in it. For some reason, most likely the lack of proximity to schools, there are also several hundred registered sex offenders living in it. This might explain why this particular Walgreens has adult magazines, although they come wrapped in discreet black plastic with only the title logo, date, price, and UPC code printed on the outside in stark white. Well, UPC in black bars in a white box, but there’s nary a VQR or AQR code showing, for reasons that should be obvious.

As I wait in line, I glance out the windows, not missing the irony that this Walgreens is directly across the street from a similarly-situated Rite Aid — they’re direct competitors — although it’s only the Walgreens that is open 24 hours a day.

I can’t believe that anything down here is open all night long, but a few years back, right when they finished the Purple Line extension, the city started paying pharmacies in certain areas to stay open, providing them with armed, on-duty LAPD officers, two per storefront.

The real razón de ser for the extended hours is that the city also subsidizes them to keep a good-sized supply of naloxone auto-injectors on hand to be administered for free by the rotating staff of ever-present nurses (these subsidized by the county) in order to prevent yet another needless opioid death. Yes, this sort of defeats the whole “auto” part of “injector,” but by the time most of these people make it in the door, they’re on the edge of not being able to do anything ever again.

Before the program, it wasn’t uncommon to walk down certain city blocks in the morning and have to step over the bodies. They were as prolific as those e–rental scooters had once been, and just as annoying. At least the scooter companies had all folded after the perfect triple disaster. First, pissed-off residents had started vandalizing and trashing the things almost from the beginning, one annoyed citizen becoming an infamous folk hero for tossing them into the Venice canals. Certain cities banned them outright, starting with Beverly Hills, then extending to Burbank, Glendale, Malibu, and West Hollywood. Next, an endless parade of hackers kept pumping out what they called “Scoot Free” apps that would fool the system into not charging riders, and they would defeat every new patch as soon as it came out in the longest known run of continuous Zero Day Exploits ever perpetrated.

This was just about the point that the original scooters that had survived started to hit 5,000 miles of use, at which point a terrible flaw suddenly revealed itself. Because some manufacturers had gone cheap, the batteries in the things would explode with enough force to launch the entire handlebar assembly into the air at least a hundred feet — or about thirty-two if the average hapless rider didn’t think to let go. Ironically, this was one of the few times that obesity saved lives by reducing the launch altitude to a survivable height (yay, physics?), although dislocated shoulders were very common.

Those companies had all either gone bankrupt or moved to other endeavors before the summer of 2025. But that really has nothing at all to do with why this Walgreens is so crowded at four in the  morning on a Tuesday in April. I’m thirteenth in line with two checkers on duty behind the dozen registers and, it being four in the morning, everyone looks extra bad — especially more so under the fluorescent lights. I’m trying to imagine what circle of hell this resembles through the 16K HD cameras that are watching us all from every direction when I notice the customer in front of me.

He’s twelfth in line, and he has only two items — both of them family-size twelve-packs of toilet paper that I can see are labeled “triple-ply” and “ultra-absorbent.” (Ah, “ultra” — that super meaningless advertising buzzword!) I look at his face, general demeanor, and hollow desperation in his eyes, and put it together quickly. Junky. Up until probably this morning, when for some reason he couldn’t score, and the inevitable end result of suddenly going off of a powerful constipating agent is probably just starting to kick in and he knows it.

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

I shift the pint of Häagen-Dazs rocky road from my right hand to my left to warm up my fingers and wonder how long this is going to take. My ice cream run is an occasional indulgence, although it’s usually just in and out. I have no idea why tonight is so different. Still, I know I have time, since they keep the freezers cold enough here that the ice cream stays at brick consistency for ages.

On the other hand, the glacial pace of the line isn’t giving me any confidence. I have to wonder what the hell all these people are doing up at this hour. In my case, it’s simple. I had business to conduct online in real-time with Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London simultaneously, and the only time that synced them up was a window that had started two hours ago, even if it meant that Melbourne had to stay a bit past office hours. I’m used to it, everything turned out very well, and so my ice cream run was a bit of a celebration of a job well done.

As for the rest of these people, though? It’s doubtful that any of them have just completed a multi-billion dollar deal. Most of them seem to have come here desperately seeking relief from some great physical malady. I can see that a lot of them clutch small cardboard boxes that are strapped to security devices three times their size.

Small enough to steal easily, expensive enough to care about — ergo, cures for the torments that steal the sleep of humankind. You never see those security devices on playing cards or Scotch tape, either of which can vanish into a pocket in a second. And the customers’ distresses were etched deeply into their faces and even distorted their bodies. Hell, if I were a casting director, half of these people would make it onscreen for the next Zombie or Medieval Plague thing to be shot. The other half would probably land on the exciting new reality show Poor Life Choices!

Meanwhile, the flat screens are everywhere around us, scrolling through a series of happy images of stock-photo people of all possible demographic combinations as they enjoy freedom from acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, bloating, constipation, cramps, depression, diarrhea, ED, hemorrhoids, migraines, social anxiety, and more. (Name your malady, it’s up there.) All of these seem to involve exuberant poses on stark white backgrounds or frolicking somewhere in nature with an implied loved one or family. The predominant color palette outside of white and various tones of human flesh involves “serious medicine” blue and “snap out of it” red, both of which happen to be Walgreens logo colors.

What? I’m in the psychology of marketing. I know how this shit works: All too well, especially on those who haven’t been vaccinated against it. But as I stand here waiting for the line to take one more Sisyphean step on its way up to the summit of catastrophe, I realize that I’m standing in a pile of anti-vaxxers, to use the quaint term from my college days before we got real and called them what they really are: pro-diseasers. Except that these people don’t avoid vaccinations against the diseases we finally did kill (again) like measles and polio. They embrace the ones we still can’t kill, like capitalism, commercialism, and corporatism, all of which are ultimately fatal.

Well, fatal unless you’re actively spreading them, in which case they confer a weird immunity on you which is called wealth. But that’s neither here nor there. And, anyway — ooh. Look at all the shiny hope they’re advertising on those screens!

And as the people in line distract themselves with the magic totems of HEALTH and HAPPINESS and SATISFACTION and LOVE and SEX and POWER being projected at them, I start to distract myself with the people in line and, sure enough, it’s a parade of all of the typical personas we create and manipulate in the lab before we take them into the field.

Oh. Pardon my jargon. A “persona” is a profile created by marketing people to describe a segment of the target audience for a particular brand, product, or industry. Generally, a company will have three or four, ranked in order from most loyal customer down to “not loyal, but still buys our shit.” And yes, thank the Lords Zuckerberg and Brin, because creating personae became so much easier once social media exploded and everyone became all the more willing to unknowingly complete marketing surveys with every single click. What? You think those free personality quizzes are there just out of the kindness of someone’s heart? Nope.

Remember these important words: “If a company is willing to give you something for free, then you are the product.” If you’re fine with selling yourself for nothing, then great. It makes my job much, much easier.

A consequence of this, though, is that I’m always hunting personas in the wild and, like I said, this place is full of them.

Look right now — there’s a “Karen.” She’s with checker number two. Well, Karen is the general industry term. In my shop, we refer to her as “Expired Yoga Pants.” I watch as she wastes a good ten minutes predictably bringing up the “Nordstrom Argument,” as in, “You should give me what I want because Nordstrom will refund anything without a receipt!” I wonder if she knows that a policy like that would drive a company out of business fast.

TL;DR: Nordstrom was infamous for allegedly actually giving refunds for anything, whether they sold it or not, with the classic example being a tire, or tires, or snow tire, or snow tires, returned for a cash refund from either an experienced clerk, a new and confused clerk, or the founder of the store himself, in either Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle. In other words, the story is complete bullshit, even though you’ll hear it in business classes to this day as an example of “The customer is always right.”

By the way, “the customer is always right” is also bullshit. The correct version is “you should always make the customer feel like they’re right.” A huge difference, because you maintain goodwill either way, although the correct version is generally impossible to achieve with a Karen.

Now, while I’m watching Expired Yoga Pants go into high dudgeon at the young woman behind the counter, I realize that the guy in front of me has started nodding up and down, and I can hear him saying the rosary under his breath in Spanish, picking up the words “Santa Maria, madre de Dios ruega por nosotros los pecadores…”

“Perdóneme, señor,” I ask him, “¿Usted está enferma?”

He glances at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion — white guy speaks Spanish? — then replies quickly, “No, no señor. Estoy bien. Sólo es que está muy temprano.”

Before I can reply, our conversation is ended when the customer at the counter pulls the ultimate “Karen” and screams, “I want to talk to your manager,” I can almost hear some of the other people around me shrug in glee when the tiny transwoman behind the counter, who can’t be more than 19, quietly replies, “I am the manager. I won’t be talked to like that. Get the fuck out of my store. And don’t come back. Bitch.”

So much for the customer always being right. Sometimes, the business is so much more right.

Expired Yoga Pants huffs out without her goodies and, I suppose, if everyone in this line at four in the morning on a Tuesday in April weren’t so desperate to check out and get relief, there might have been some kind of applause. Or at least smiles.

All the time that “Karen” was taking up the manager’s time, the other checker is being monopolized by… well, there’s no marketing persona for this one in my industry because, frankly, we don’t care, so we don’t even spend time collecting their data. At least my shop came up with a creative name for them — “Bathtubs.” As in… they’re usually white, mostly empty, going out of style, and circling the drain.

Yeah, cruel maybe, but they’re not a victim of marketing, they’re a victim of capitalism and time — although not quite a victim in the sense you’d think. My grandfather told me that what I’d heard about his father was true: When people back then retired, they could afford to do all kinds of shit. Travel. Maybe go back to school and learn new things. This bathtub’s generation wasn’t victimized by capitalism and time by having too little of either. Rather, he was victimized by having too much of both.

People like him are also victims of themselves. They grow old and die because they refuse to stay young and think.

Casinos, cruise lines, hotels, manufacturers of all kinds of assistant devices, pharmaceutical companies, and resorts market to these people hand over fist. Why? Because the good times of three quarters of a century ago meant that they actually retired with lots of money and pensions they could live on and they probably owned real estate that they bought for a few thousand dollars that is now worth a few million. I don’t deal with those industries, although I’d guess that they probably call their versions of their personas Thurston and Lovey — either that or Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But those people must have been a total fantasy, right? I’ve heard rumors that they existed, but I think they all finally died out around the turn of the century. The ones that survive now, the bathtubs, are their kids more likely. And it’s really sad to see how being forgotten by society grinds them down to… stubs, really. Or… no, there’s probably a better word (note to self: pitch this idea tomorrow, although we’ll never market to it) Yo-yos. An alleged toy from their youth that describes what they do — they keep coming back to what they know.

Which is why I watch this old man pause for at least twenty seconds between every step of this fucking transaction, and it makes me want to throw things at him.

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

(Take your time to view a streamer on your dev here.)

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

(Loop that vid about four times, we’ll get back to you.)

Clerk: (heroically) “Yes. Yes. How do you want to pay?”

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

And then begins the epic drawing of the sword. No, sorry… the wallet. The ancient wallet full of actual money that is laboriously pulled Excalibur-like from one of the pockets of the ill-fitting and ridiculously colored shorts that this Yo-yo wears over black socks and sandals. Yes, it’s on a chain. Yes, it has too many snaps and zippers, and yes, it’s as much a mystery to him today as it was the day that his granddaughter gave it to him ten years ago because she had no other ideas and found it when she stopped to get FroYo in a strip mall on the way to his 75th birthday party.

This is about the point where I resist the urge to ask him how he even got here or if he knows what year it is. Hell, what century? And if you think that’s being snarky, sorry. But by the time I’m that old, I’m pretty sure we’ll have cured it, and migrated off of the planet anyway.

Or we’ll all be dead. Did I mention that, a week ago, it snowed here? And today it was 110. Four in the fucking morning and it’s still 85 degrees out. In April. A week after it snowed.

Between the time that “Karen” has come and gone and Yo-Yo is halfway to counting out two dollars, some kid who’s probably about fifteen hits the other counter. He’s riding a one-wheel, busily dictating a text into the headphone/mic dangling from his left ear, and has about fifteen items in his basket. Damn if he doesn’t get them all out to be scanned in something like ten seconds, is swiping the pring on his left hand over the paypoint even before the checker announces the total and has bagged everything before she smiles and says, “Have an okay day!”

He was in and done in less than half a minute. God, I love this generation, whatever they decide to call it, although one commentator, I forget who, suggested Generation Yuzz, because that was the first letter “Beyond Z” in the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. I suppose it would also work as Generation Yass, because these kids get shit done fast.

Oh yeah — kids his age fall under a persona we call “Jacobella,” named for the two most common baby names of the decade they were born in, and nicely also delineating the idea that they really don’t believe in any kind of binary designation, whether it comes to gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or… anything. They are definitely not generation “Either/Or.” They are generation “Yes, and more.” And they are the first generation which we have not broken down by gender or sexual orientation because, honestly, that would be impossible and pointless.

They’re a tricksey bunch for marketers because they’d rather spend their money on experiences, preferably ones they can share with their friends, or spend it on loved ones or give it away to charity. Of course, the oldest of them are only just about to graduate high school, so they’re living at home, and the youngest of them haven’t been born yet, but they’ve been monetizing their lives since at least fourth grade and will probably either live at home until well into their 30s or move into group homes with at least twenty people sharing an open loft or warehouse space in the seedier parts of the edges of the centers of town, like DTLA.

In other words, in five years, about six blocks south of here, between Pico and the 10 and Hope and Lebanon, is going to be full of Yuzzes, but that will only last for about five years before the Millennials smell money and gentrify the hell out of that place, too.

But I do digress… The end result of a Jacobella following up the “Karen” and beating out the Yo‑Yo is two customers down, eleven to go, and I could continue to tick off the marketing personas all night long, except I won’t, because when we got to ten to go (another Yuzz, only buying one thing, in and out, five seconds), something I should have predicted happened.

Remember the guy in front of me? The one buying bulk TP and nothing else at that hour? The one with the wild eyes and desperate look? I pegged it — a junky who’d suddenly been knocked out of the saddle, and was soon going to face one really, really major need.

See, when you’re on any variation of the opiates that don’t kill you, a very interesting thing happens. Your intestines nope out, your asshole shuts up for the week, and everything in your digestive system turns into cement. Boom. Locked. Your anus treats your shit like it’s the gold in Fort Knox.

All well and good, until somebody lets the Night Watch go, at which point it doesn’t take long before the dragon melts the walls, the castle gates open up and the troops all flee. (Sorry about the old streamy metaphors, but I had a nostalgic rewatch of that classic HBO tits and dragons series a couple of weeks ago. )

The tub of ice cream in my hand has just barely started to soften, but I can tell by El Vaquero’s expression that his stool has gotten a lot softer, and he’s not going to make it through the gauntlet of remaining personas, which include such gems as All the Things, Chatty, Coupons, another Karen, Price Check, Sloth, and “What?”

When he’s about eighth in line, I hear the quiet but unmistakable, “¡Chingadas!” so I calmly step back…

If you’d like more from the rest of the book, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Photo Credit: City Hall, DTLA, taken by the author, © 2017 Jon Bastian

Saturday Morning Post 97: Truth or Dare (Part 3)

The third and final part of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Kevin, Rick, and Pedro game of Truth or Dare has spun even farther off of the rails.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

“You can’t do that,” Kevin said.

“He just did,” Rick cut in. “What’s your dare, Kevie?”

“I’m not playing anymore,” Kevin whined. “You win.”

“I think Kevin here needs to go for a naked walk,” Rick said to Pedro.

“Right,” Pedro said. “Kevin. Clothes off.”

“I’m not playing — “

Before he could finish the sentence, Rick was there, knocking the glass from his hand, grabbing him in an arm lock, the other hand clamped under his chin, holding his face up.

“The game isn’t over until the host says it is, and there’s one more round to go.”

“Guys, come on…”

“Pedro, help me here.” Pedro nodded as Rick moved his hand from Kevin’s chin, grabbed the front of his t-shirt and ripped. He tore it all the way down, let go of Kevin’s arm and yanked it off.

“Hey, okay, enough — “ Kevin protested, but Pedro suddenly grabbed his ankles, lifting his feet off the ground. Rick caught Kevin by the shoulders and they dragged him into the living room, wrestling him to the ground. He put up a good struggle, but he was really no match, finally trying to curl into a ball, holding his boxers on. Rick grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and, in two quick cuts and a yank, the boxers were history.

“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Rick said. Kevin sat up on the living room floor, face red, legs together, body hunched, trying to hide in the carpet.

“Okay, there, you had your fun,” his voice wavered, truly close to cracking now. “Give me my clothes back, I’m going home.”

“The fun’s just beginning,” Rick said, standing above him, hands on his hips. “What’s the big deal? We’re both still naked. It’s just a game.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“No. You know what’s funny? A guy who manipulates everyone around him, always manages to cause trouble without getting into any himself. Mr. Instigator, aren’t you? What’s your story, Kevin, really? Why do you get off on making problems?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. Or maybe you don’t. But if you don’t, then you’re a lot sadder than I thought you were. Hey, Pedro, what do you think we should do with him?”

“I don’t know. You want to go dump him in Compton?”

“That’s too far. Maybe just Van Nuys.”

“Rick, man, come on. What did I ever do to you?”

That hit a nerve. Rick thought about it, realized the answer was “Plenty.” Never anything openly or obvious, but Kevin had screwed lots of things up. Generally, it involved ruining some macking attempt by Rick at a party. He’d be moving in for the score on some hoochie, really catching her eye, and then Kevin would pop up, make some rude comment and vanish. But that would be enough. Women often judged men by their friends, rightly or wrongly, and their interest would wane.

And there were all those times that Rick would have succeeded at a party, stepped away to get drinks for himself and his new found female friend, and come back to find that Kevin had horned in, wouldn’t go away, became a parasite, and yet was apparently ignorant of the intrusion. Many a night with Kevin around had ended with a woman suddenly excusing herself, saying her friend had a headache and she had to go now, and the phone number she’d give Rick in parting was always wrong.

“Get up,” Rick suddenly said. Kevin rolled his eyes and huffed. Rick grabbed his arm. “Up, now.”

“Give me my pants,” Kevin said.

“Stand up and you’ll get them.”

They stared at each other, Kevin glowering, Rick realizing he’d never seen him look so angry. Finally, Kevin hauled himself to his feet, stood there with his hands covering his crotch, nostrils flaring.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m up.”

“And now you’re down,” Rick said, and he knocked Kevin cold with a single right hook that sent him spread-eagle onto the sofa, TKO.

* * *

The first thing Kevin noticed when he woke up was that he was staring at the carpet, lying across the coffee table. The second thing he noticed was the duct tape on his mouth. Third was that his wrists and ankles were tied to the table legs. Fourth, and most disconcerting in his mind, was that he was still naked, ass in the air, and he couldn’t move.

He heard Rick and Pedro off in the kitchen, talking in whispers, pausing, talking again. He pulled with his arms, but it was useless. He was pretty well secured.

Rick appeared from the kitchen, still naked, half full glass in his hand. Kevin lifted his head, turned his eyes. Pedro was hanging back, looking worried, fully dressed.

“Sorry about that, Kevie,” Rick said as he knelt in front of him, dick at eye level if Kevin looked anywhere but the floor. “Looks like you’ll have a little bit of a shiner there, but you kind of earned it.”

Kevin grunted an angry inaudible sentence through the duct tape. Rick lay on his side and looked up at him.

“I know, you’re probably pissed. But it was your turn for the dare.”

Kevin’s eyes flashed and he yanked and kicked, to no avail. Rick went on, “See, it could have been truth, but rules are rules. The truth part was so much simpler. How come you always get away with it?”

Kevin’s eyes widened, one thick eyebrow lifted. What?

“You know what I’m talking about,” Rick continued. “Everything you do, everybody you fuck with, and it never seems to come back to you. It’s like you’ve got this magic karma or something. I mean, what, were you Gandhi in your last life? Hell, you’re skinny enough to be, aren’t you?”

Rick reached out and pinched Kevin’s bicep, feeling bone. The kid was thin, pale, soft. If it weren’t for the genitalia, his body could have easily been that of a very tall, late-blooming thirteen year-old girl. “Remember Jennifer?”

A worried noise blew muffled through the duct tape. “Oh, yeah, see, you do. And you know exactly what you did. I didn’t think you were completely oblivious.” Rick lay on his back, looking up at Kevin now. “There I was, about to score with this hot young blonde with the huge tits, and poof! Kevin appears, to work his bad magic. ‘Hi, Rick. That rash clear up yet?’ ‘Oh, looks like Big Mac is gonna get him some special sauce.’ ‘G, thanks for letting me borrow your crab shampoo…’ But I can never figure out whether it’s revenge or stupidity. If it’s revenge, well, you’re in big trouble then, Kevie. If it’s stupidity, I’m here to give you some smart lessons.”

“Rick…” Kevin saw Pedro’s feet out of the corner of his eye, half-turned toward the door. “I’m going to go now, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” Rick said absently. “Hey, I told you, don’t worry. We’re just playing a game. Right?”

“Right. See you later.”

And Kevin heard Pedro leave, heard the door close, but something in the way Rick had said “right” scared him. It wasn’t a reminder, it was a warning, but whether it was to him or Pedro or both, he didn’t know. He tried to tell Rick the fun was over, let him go, but it came out as gibberish.

“Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. I guess you did the dare, now it’s time for the truth, so here we go. Truth, Kevo. Do you do it for revenge or are you just stupid?”

“Ow!” Kevin yelled as Rick suddenly tore the duct tape off his mouth, leaving his lips raw. And then Rick grabbed Kevin’s hair with his left hand, lifted his head, looked into his eyes.

“Which one is it?” he demanded.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kevin insisted.

“Liar,” Rick admonished. He brought his right hand up, gently touched the side of Kevin’s face. Kevin flinched at the unexpected pain. “That’s going to be a nasty bruise,” Rick said. “Ruin your pretty-boy looks for a while. As if.”

“What do you want?” Kevin choked out.

“I want the truth, that’s all,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything to you,” Kevin insisted. “Really. I haven’t. You’re my friend, Rick.”

“You don’t have any friends.” Rick leaned down, looked right in Kevin’s eyes. “Isn’t that right? Deep down, you know it. You don’t have any friends.”

Kevin’s lip trembled and he let out one gasp before he sucked it all in and changed strategies. “Melinda knows I was coming here tonight,” he said. “And Stacey. So if anything happens — “

“Kevie, I’m not going to hurt you. Anyway, you think either of them would really care if you just vanished? You’ve pissed them off, you’ve pissed me off. But, most heinously, you’ve pissed off somebody very important to me, and I want you to apologize.”

“Okay, who, I’ll do it,” Kevin sputtered. Rick grinned, leaning up on his knees, both hands wrapped in Kevin’s hair now.

“Well, see, you’ve really done a disservice to Little Rick here, by interfering in his affairs so many times.”

Kevin tried to turn his head away as Rick raised his hips, bringing Little Rick — who wasn’t that little — right into the line of sight. Kevin closed his eyes, but Rick put a thumb on the black eye, insisted, “Open wide and say you’re sorry.” Kevin squinted his eyes shut tighter but Rick kept pressing until he had no choice but to relent. He opened his eyes and Rick’s penis was less than an inch from his nose. It was limp, but it was a dick, for Christ’s sake. Kevin could smell the stale musky scent of Rick’s pubic hair, tried not to breathe.

“Now, say you’re sorry,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything,” Kevin squealed back, closing his eyes again.

“Yes, you have,” Rick replied. Then, he leaned forward and Kevin felt this warm, soft thing press into his face, Rick’s hairy balls swing around his nose. He breathed through his mouth, trying to pull his head back, hoping those things would drop low enough that he could bite them off, then he’d say he was sorry. But Rick pulled Kevin’s head forward, pushed his hips, rubbing that thing all over his face and Kevin could feel it getting less soft, though not much less.

“Stop it!” he finally screamed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, for whatever you think I’ve done, I’m sorry, leave me alone, let me go. I’m sorry…”

“Well, I believe you,” Rick said, loosening his grip slightly. “But little Rick doesn’t. He says he wants you to kiss him to prove you’re sorry.”

“Rick, goddammit, this isn’t funny anymore.”

“This isn’t a joke. Pucker up, Kevie.”

Kevin screwed his eyes and mouth shut, trying to turn his head away, but Rick tightened his grip again, put his thumb to the bruise. Kevin cried out, trying to fight, but Rick twisted him around, then pressed his dick to Kevin’s lips. Kevin’s face went tighter and Rick let his head go, stepping away.

“See?” he said. “I knew you didn’t mean it.”

Rick picked up his drink and took a sip, absently scratching his side, watching this pathetic mess who had been such a confident boor only an hour earlier. This demon that had caused so much trouble, now completely helpless, ruined, scared.

Helpless.

Rick realized he’d gotten fully hard when that thought crossed his mind, but it wasn’t a sexual kind of arousal. It was power. He had complete control over Kevin, the boy was utterly subdued, and god, was it making Rick horny. He hadn’t expected that, hadn’t expected that at all. So this was the real excitement of war, he decided.

He put down his drink, went to the door and locked the deadbolt. He turned and looked at Kevin’s frail white body, sprawled over the coffee table, knees on the floor. He gave his dick an idle stroke, then walked back to the table, stood in front of it, looking down.

“You’re just a pathetic little girl,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes, whatever you say,” Kevin threw back sarcastically. Then he looked up, saw Rick’s erection pointing at the ceiling, and let out an incoherent gurgle of fear. “No…” he pleaded. “No, god, no, please…”

“Shut up,” Rick said, then he put the duct tape back over Kevin’s mouth. Kevin shuddered and started yanking at his bonds in earnest, helpless. Rick went around behind him. Yeah, from this angle, skinny waist and wide hips, it could have been a young girl. He stuck the middle finger of his left hand in his mouth, got it good and wet and shoved it, with little fanfare, up Kevin’s ass all the way to the third knuckle. Kevin’s hips leapt off the table and he tried to pull away, but couldn’t.

Rick pulled his finger out, thought about gently working his way into things, then figured, “Fuck it.” He’d gone too far to back out now, and power was an aphrodisiac. And so, he put down his drink, got on his knees behind the table, spread Kevin’s cheeks wide with his hands and jammed his painfully hard dick all the way home in one stroke, then raped the little fucker, jamming in and out and Rick didn’t stop until he’d cum and Kevin had given up any struggle, flopping like a rag doll onto the table, broken and finished, and in this evening’s game of truth or dare, Rick emerged the only winner.

* * *

Rick had felt guilty after last night, had cleaned Kevin up with a warm washcloth, then untied him and gently pulled off the duct tape. But, at that point, Kevin had been an inert lump, not really moving, face contorted in an expression of pain and fear. He didn’t do anything when Rick freed his hands, just flopped onto the floor. He was no threat anymore. Rick carried him to the bedroom, put him in bed and covered him, then grabbed a blanket from the linen closet and slept on the couch.

Morning.

Rick woke up to bright ten a.m. light, head banging. He sat up, remembering what had happened, looking at the coffee table in trepidation, seeing no one there. Aw, shit. He’d really been wasted last night, he didn’t mean to… maybe he hadn’t.

No. He had, he knew it. Fuck. He dragged himself off the couch, wrapping the blanket around his waist, went into the bedroom.

He’d expected Kevin to be gone, but he wasn’t. He was lying in the bed, crunched up in a fetal position, clutching a pillow. He looked so… harmless now. He was facing the door, and Rick could see the ugly purple-yellow bruise on his face. He regretted doing that, really he did.

He went to the bed, gently sat down on the edge, whispered a timid, “Kev?” Nothing. He raised a hand to reach over, pulled back. He dreaded this moment. “Kevie?”

Kevin’s eyes slowly opened, looked up at Rick. Neither of them moved for a long moment. Then, the silence of the room was broken by Kevin’s sharp intake of breath, a series of sobs. He sat up, staring at Rick, who didn’t know what to expect. If Kevin tried to kick the shit out of him right now, he wouldn’t fight back.

And then Kevin threw his arms around Rick, held him tight, face buried in his chest, sobbing. “I thought you were my friend, Rick,” he cried. “I thought you were my friend.”

Rick stared down at him. That face was so sweet and innocent. He was a child impersonating an adult, really. He listened to Kevin crying for a moment, and then wrapped his arms around him, held him.

“Sssssh,” Rick said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Kevie, really. I am so sorry.”

“I thought you liked me,” Kevin went on, and Rick felt the hot wet tears splattering down his stomach.

“I do like you,” he answered. “I really do. I do like you, Kevin. Sssssh.”

And they stayed like that for a long time, Kevin crying and Rick gently rocking him back and forth, holding him in his arms, wanting to do anything to stop his pain, to protect him from the cruel world, to make the hurt go away. And he knew, in that moment, that he and Kevin would be inextricably linked, bound together by fate, for years, for decades, if not forever.

“Ssssh,” Rick repeated, again and again, as this gentle harmless angel cried and cried in his arms.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 96: Truth or Dare (Part 2)

Part 2 of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Previously, Kevin, Rick, and Pedro started a game of Truth or Dare that may be spiraling out of control as Pedro is up for the next “Truth.”

“Pedro, truth or dare?”

“Shit. I’m not drinking bongwater. Truth.”

“Okay,” Rick thought, not really wanting to stick Pedro with anything nasty. He was too nice a guy for that. He thought, then settled on something innocuous. “When was the last time you got laid?”

Pedro didn’t even hesitate, but he looked nervous. “Last week, Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

Rick thought for a second, then gasped. “Wait a second, weren’t you at work?”

Pedro nodded.

“You got laid at work?”

“Bzzzzz,” Kevin interjected. “That’s another question.”

“Oh, you want to know as much as I do.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said, but it was true. Rick did want to know, but he wasn’t going to give Kevin the satisfaction. But he thought about it. Who did Pedro do on Tuesday? And, apparently, “do” was the right word. But who…

“Shit,” Rick said out loud, realizing. He looked at Pedro, who was looking away, calling out, “My turn. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Rick said. “Take a dare.”

“It’s not your turn,” Kevin replied.

“Okay,” Pedro thought, looking to Rick. He really wanted to help Rick out here, but didn’t know Kevin well enough to dig up anything really juicy. He’d have to go for an old standby. “How many times did you jerk off today?”

“Didn’t have to,” Kevin spat back, chuckling.

“Liar!” Rick pointed accusingly.

“Excuse me, drink,” Kevin answered him, pointing with his elbow. “No finger pointing.”

“Since when?”

“It’s a standard rule of drinking games. I thought you used to go to a fancy school.”

“Well then, you should know that another standard rule is you can’t say the ‘d’ word. Imbibe, asshole.”

“Imbibe this,” Kevin gestured, but he picked up a shot glass and downed it anyway. Rick did likewise.

“My turn,” Kevin said. “And, new rule — “

“Whoa, what?” Rick cut in.

“Another standard rule of dr — imbibing games, read the manual. Whoever’s turn it is can make up a new rule. And my rule is, if anyone violates another rule, they have to do the next dare, no matter whose it is.” He smirked and touched his nose and Rick really wanted to smack him upside the head. “Now. Rick, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Rick muttered.

“Losing your confidence, huh? Okay, how many times have you jerked off today?”

“None,” Rick answered.

“Liar — “

“Wrong,” Rick said. “Today started at midnight, and neither of you have seen me play with myself since then, right?” Kevin looked genuinely surprised by that explanation, which was true. Then, he laughed and downed another shot.

“I meant in the last twenty-four hours,” he said.

“Well, better luck next time. My turn, and a new rule. You can only take ‘truth’ twice before you have to take a dare, and the rule is retroactive. Kevin, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin answered, but realized the trap before Rick could point it out. “Aw, shit. Dare,” he corrected himself.

“Hm…” Rick thought about it a while, then stood, walking to the kitchen. Kevin fidgeted, smiling wanly at Pedro.

“I think you’re fucked now,” Pedro said.

Kevin returned, carrying something behind his back. “Okay,” he said. “You have to put this down the front of your pants for three minutes.”

“What, your mouth?” Kevin sniped, but it was empty bravado, especially as soon as Kevin brought his hands forward, held out the frozen solid packet of blue ice.

“Oh, no fucking way, G,” Kevin said.

“Then it’d be game over and I win,” Rick taunted him, dropping the packet on the table, where it clunked and turned half a revolution, frosting white already.

“I’ll freeze my nuts off,” Kevin protested.

“You’ll never miss ‘em,” Rick prodded.

“One minute.”

“Three.” Rick was enjoying this, and it was par for the course. There were no convenient distractions in the game this time, nobody upon whom Kevin could deflect attention.

“Two…?”

Rick pretended to think about it, finally nodded. “Okay. Down the pants, two minutes. Inside the underwear.” Pedro laughed as Kevin reached for the blue ice, picked it up, tossed it from hand to hand.

“This shit is cold,” he said.

“I know,” Rick said. “Down the hatch.” Kevin huffed and stood, loosening his belt. Then, he gave Rick a really dirty look and shoved the blue ice on in. It took about three seconds for it to kill the dirty look and Kevin let out a yelp, fumbled the pack back out and dropped it on the floor, falling backwards onto the couch, holding his crotch.

“Son of a bitch,” he grunted.

“Well, nice try, but that doesn’t count, so you drink,” Rick told him snidely.

Kevin pointed an elbow at him. “And the next dare, you get to share, ‘cause you just said the forbidden word, motherfucker.” He tossed down his shot of Tequila and Rick cursed inside. Even when Kevin lost, he somehow managed to win.

“Okay, Pedro, truth or dare?”“

Pedro pondered. This was getting nasty between Rick and Kevin. On the other hand, Kevin didn’t know Pedro that well, he’d probably give him some stupid, easy dare, then Pedro would pick Rick and give him a free pass and the game would lighten up a bit. Confidently, he answered, “Dare.”

Rick rolled his eyes and Kevin smirked and Pedro realized he’d blown it.

“Welly, welly, well,” Kevin said. “This one is for you and Rick, since he broke the rules last time. Hm. What will it be, what will it be?”

Kevin stretched out his thinking, making a big show of it as Rick and Pedro swapped an apologetic look. Whatever was cooking in Kevin’s evil mind, this would be a good one. Suddenly, his face lit up and he froze for an instant, hands lifted in preparatory gesture. “Okay, okay,” he said. “The two of you… are going to go take a little swim in the pool, for five… no, ten minutes. But… you’re going to do it, from here all the way there and back, butt naked.”

“Come on, Kev, I live here.”

“It’s three in the morning, G.”

“So?”

Kevin got that stupid cockeyed grin again and clucked like a chicken. Rick looked at Pedro. “You up for this, Petey?” he asked.

“Nothing I haven’t done before,” Pedro said. “And it’s my dare, anyway.”

Kevin jumped up giggling and Rick and Pedro started to get undressed. The whole process took a good five minutes as they continued to haggle with Kevin. Towels? “No.” Flip flops? “Too noisy.” Keys? “What’s a matter, don’t you trust me?” Frankly, Rick didn’t, but by now he and Pedro were bare-assed in the living room and Kevin was standing at the door, all smiles, unlocking the deadbolt. His sole concession had been allowing Rick to take his watch, alarm set for ten minutes.

“Gentlemen, enjoy. I hope the water isn’t too cold.”

He opened the door and Rick lead the way, he and Pedro dashing down the courtyard. At least most of the lights were off and the moon was nowhere in sight. They got to the pool and waded in quickly. The water was a chilly shock at first, but at least it was dark and quiet. After a few seconds, Rick actually enjoyed this feeling and he swam underwater to the deep end, surfacing under the diving board. Pedro popped up nearby. Rick squinted the water out of his eyes, looked into the distance. Kevin was standing in the pool of light by the far apartment door, doing hysterical gymnastics, gleeful at his triumphant dare.

“He’s such a little fuck,” Rick whispered to Pedro.

“Why do you hang out with him, anyway?”

“I really don’t know,” Rick answered.

“You’ll have to get him really good on the next dare.”

“Oh, I will,” Rick said. “You know, it’s funny, I’ve lived in this building for two years, and this is the first time I’ve been in the pool.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Half the time, it’s full of screaming kids. Who the hell wants to swim around that? God knows how many of them probably piss in here.”

“Eeew.”

Rick kicked off from the wall and did the breaststroke to the shallow end, then came back. Pedro clung to the wall and Rick joined him again. “You can swim, can’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro answered. “You know, this is the second time this month I’ve been in a pool naked.”

Rick didn’t want to say it, but he did. “That have anything to do with the last time you got laid?” He thought Pedro shrugged, but couldn’t tell in the darkness. “It was Mrs. Cooper, wasn’t it?”

“Shit,” Pedro’s outburst gave him away. “Don’t mention that to anybody, okay?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m not surprised, though. I’ve heard things about her.”

“Rick, honestly, her husband will kill me if he thinks I told anyone about it.”

“You did fuck her?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And?”

“And it was great. But, really, don’t say anything, okay? Especially not now, not if I’m going to have to get out of this pool soon.”

“Understood, buddy. Hey — good for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Okay, changing the subject. How should we get back at Kevin for this one?”

“Tie him up naked and dump him in a bad neighborhood.”

“Ooh, you have an evil side. That’s new.”

“I was kidding.”

“It’s a possibility, though.”

“It’s too cruel. Come on, you know him better than me. He’s got to have some weakness.”

“He’s too shallow for that. You think it’s been ten minutes yet?”

“Not even close.”

“Kevin’s still watching, he doesn’t know how long it’s been either. Fuck him. Let’s go.”

“Give me a second.”

“Right.”

Rick swam for the shallow end and climbed out of the pool. It was an evening in summer and not terribly cold out, but the water on his body made it seem chilly. He wished he’d managed to bargain for those towels now. Instead, he stood there with his back to the pool, watching distant Kevin laughing, waiting for Pedro to join him. What was Kevin’s weakness? What would absolutely humiliate him, neutralize him for good?

Rick didn’t have a clue, and then he heard the slosh of water as Pedro climbed out of the pool behind him. “Ready?” Rick asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro said, hands crossed in front of him, shoulders hunched in as he shivered. “Let’s go.”

Rick grabbed his watch off the lounge chair, hitting the “off” button on the timer, and he and Pedro trotted back to the apartment. When they were halfway there, Kevin suddenly darted inside. Rick heard the door close, but was unconcerned. He got there first, tried the knob anyway, knowing it was locked. Pedro stopped next to him, shifting from foot to foot, looking like a drowned Doberman.

“Aw, shit…” he groaned.

“Don’t worry,” Rick whispered. “Play along.” He tried the knob again, rattling it, then rang the bell. “Come on, Kevo,” he said not too loudly. “Let us in.”

Kevin peered out the window by the door, cheeks chipmunked by a grin, body racking with laughter as he pointed with his elbow. Rick rang the bell three insistent times, gave Kevin a look.

“Motherfucker,” Pedro snapped.

Rick sssshed him. “I have a key hidden, I’m just adding to the effect,” he whispered.

“Oh,” Pedro nodded. “Just add fast. Shrinkage, you know?”

“Kevin…” Rick pointed at the door insistently. Kevin stuck his face up to the window, gave them a double finger and disappeared.

“Right,” Rick said, bending over and picking up a rock from the flower bed by the door, hefting it in his hand as he peered in the window. Then he turned the rock over and slid open the hatch in the bottom, pulling out his spare key, put the rock back and very slowly unlocked the deadbolt. Just as slowly, he unlocked the lower lock, then looked at Pedro, quietly said, “One, two, three…”

On three, he threw open the door, he and Pedro shot in and Rick shut and locked the door behind him. Kevin was standing in the kitchen pouring himself a glass of Tequila, looking startled. So startled, in fact, that he over-poured.

“Uh, hi, guys. I was just going to let you in.”

“Your turn, Pedro.”

“Aw, you guys win, I give up,” Kevin shrugged.

“Pedro?”

“Okay. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

To be continued…

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 95: Truth or Dare (Part 1)

The next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one.

Another boring Sunday night, and it was the three of them again, Kevin, Rick and Pedro, sitting around Rick’s apartment, not much to do and not much energy to do it with. Rick was the lynchpin here. He worked with Pedro and went to school with Kevin, although he was halfway to quitting the job and half a grade point from getting booted out of school. He didn’t really care at the moment. Monday was his day off from work and his first class wasn’t until two o’clock. He sat on the floor, carefully shredding and combing a fat bud in preparation for another bong load while Pedro watched intently and Kevin sat on the sofa, legs crossed, holding Rick’s giant stuffed panda in an almost inappropriate way, chattering a mile and a half a minute about nothing.

“G, it was amazing,” he said, bouncing on the couch. “You should have seen it.”

“Uh huh,” Rick muttered, not listening.

“The cops came and everything, it was classic.” He giggled in that annoying way of his, like a Catholic schoolgirl seeing her first porno, then got a very serious expression. “G, call her.”

“Man, it’s two in the morning.”

“She’ll be up. Come on, call Melinda.”

“No.”

“Maybe she’ll bring her sister…” Kevin said, almost singsong.

“In your wet dreams, dude,” Rick said.

“I bet they would,” Kevin shot back, grabbing the phone off the dining room table.

“You’re a pig and you’re stupid,” Rick replied. “Here, suck on this and shut up.” He held out the results of his efforts and Kevin put down the phone, grabbing the bong and extending his hand for the lighter. “Melinda and Stacey are not some lesbian sister act. They’re nice girls. You should respect them.”

“Oh, I respect them,” Kevin said, making it sound even more obscene than he intended. “I saw Melinda’s tits once.”

“Yeah, so? I saw your mother’s tits.” Rick shot Kevin a grin, then saw the look on his face, like he almost believed that comment. “Kidding,” he added. “Sorry.”

“Don’t… don’t say stuff like that, okay?”

Jesus, Rick thought, that sure hit some weird soft spot. It was like he’d shot Kevin’s dog or something. “Hey, dude, I said I’m sorry, okay?” Rick offered. Kevin nodded and moped, head down, and then let out a choked sob.

“Shit, Kevin, I didn’t mean it, really.”

Kevin gestured vaguely and Rick and Pedro looked at each other, a little embarrassed. “Kevin…?” Rick started, but then Kevin looked up, a big shit-eating grin on his face. “Psych!” he said. “I don’t cry for nothing. Never.” Triumphantly, he picked up the bong and took a gurgling hit off of it.

“Sometimes, you’re such an asshole,” Rick said.

“I aim to please,” Kevin answered while holding in the hit, passing the bong to Pedro. Pedro took it and fired away while Rick stared at Kevin, incomprehending. Sometimes, he didn’t know why he hung out with this guy. Then he heard Pedro huffing up the smoke and remembered — Kevin did get the best weed Rick had ever had. Pedro was cool. If Kevin was King Asshole, Pedro was some kind of anti-asshole. Quiet, polite, agreeable. That got a little boring sometimes, but at least he wasn’t obnoxious. As Pedro passed the bong to Rick, Kevin finally exhaled. Rick put his mouth over the skunky tube, then looked at Kevin.

“So, when the hell did you see Stacey’s rack, anyway?”

“Melinda’s rack.”

“Same difference.”

“They’re not completely identical. We were playing truth or dare.”

“Aah, of course. And I bet the game was your idea, right?”

“Not that time, no.”

Pedro looked at Rick oddly. Rick noticed, raised an eyebrow. “Truth or dare?” Pedro asked.

“Yeah, some stupid party game for high school girls and sexually repressed college boys,” Rick explained.

“Who usually aren’t sexually repressed by the time the game is over, thank you very much,” Kevin added. He looked at Pedro, who still looked confused. “What, you’ve never played?”

“He’s not a skank like you are, Kevie,” Rick said, then put the fire in the hole and sucked away.

“It’s not a skanky game. It’s like group therapy,” Kevin explained to Pedro. “You really never played it?”

“No,” Pedro answered, shaking his head. “The girls I know aren’t like that.”

“Catholic school, is it?” Kevin laughed.

“He said aren’t like that, douchebag,” Rick barked out, holding the smoke.

“That’s right. Some of the best pussy I’ve gotten has gone to Catholic school.”

“Would that be St. Rosy Palm and the Sisters of Perpetual Motion?” Rick asked, punctuated with the proper gesture. Kevin shot him the finger, then popped off the couch and sat in front of Pedro.

“I still can’t believe you’ve never played it,” he said.

“And we’re not,” Rick said, rapping him on the shoulder and passing the bong.

“I wasn’t suggesting it, ass-wad,” he answered, grabbing the bong. “I don’t see any girls here.”

“No, just a big pussy.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Bite me.”

Kevin gnashed his teeth in Rick’s general direction, giggled, then took another hit. Rick turned to Pedro. “Don’t mind him, he doesn’t get out much. You okay? You’re kind of quiet tonight?”

“Fine,” Pedro said. “Very stoned, though.”

“Yes sir, I do agree,” Rick said. “This is certainly the most primo example of fine herbage you’ve yet commandeered for our personal use, Kevo.”

“Too many words, G,” Kevin said, passing the bong to Pedro, who declined and passed it to Rick. Rick took another hit, watching the other guys as he did so. Both of them were assuming the horizontal position, happily stoned floor flounder on the cheap carpet. Rick glanced at the clock. Five after two. It seemed like an hour since he’d last looked and it had been two o’clock. Time dilation had been achieved. He slowly eased the bong into position on the table, then lay down himself, staring at the ceiling, fascinated with the faint brown water spot that crept out of the wall and through the off-white cottage cheese. It had been there as long as Rick had. Longer. It would be there, no doubt, long after he’d gone.

Kevin was muttering some stoner monologue, about how there’d be no wars in the world if political struggles were settled with a game of truth or dare. “Like, I bet we’d just smear Fidel Castro in one move. ‘Okay, G, I dare you. Shave your beard.’ He wouldn’t do it, game over.” He laughed again. Rick flinched at the sound, which seemed to echo off the ceiling. It really was a puerile, girly giggle, an involuntary burst that always sounded like Kevin had just been gang tickled by a flock of animate feather dusters.

“Oh, you’re not Cuban or nothing, are you, Pedro?” Kevin asked, Rick flinching anew at that question.

“I was born in Pacoima,” Pedro answered.

“Truth,” Kevin spouted. The response was silence, which Rick knew was the most frustrating thing in the world to him. “I said, ‘truth,’“ Kevin continued.

“We’re not playing,” Rick said.

“I’m bored,” Kevin whined. “Anyway, it’s a drinking game.”

“It is not,” Rick shot back.

“It can be,” Kevin explained. “Anything can be a drinking game.”

“I like drinking games,” Pedro offered from somewhere across the carpet. “None of us’s got to do anything in the morning.”

“Let me get the drinks,” Kevin heaved himself up from the floor and stumbled off to the kitchen.

Rick turned his head, found his nose an inch from Pedro’s right ear. “Now you’ve done it,” he said.

“What?” Pedro asked, turning his head, eyes almost crossing to focus.

“I’ve seen him do this before, he’s always the first one to start this and the first one to back out of anything mildly embarrassing.”

“Yeah, but like he said, no girls here. How bad could it get?”

“You don’t know Kevin,” Rick sighed. Kevin was an instigator, the kind of person who took passive-aggressive glee in giving a group the right nudge, then watching all their neuroses and problems play out on each other while he sat back, always seemingly immune to it all. He had the annoying ability to fade away in a crowd when the sparks started flying, Mr. Innocent in the corner, never connected to the trouble he caused once things got rolling. Rick had no doubt that Kevin had seen Stacey, or Melinda, or whoever’s tits at a party, but he also had no doubt that he hadn’t had to make that demand to get his wish. Just a little clever manipulation of some other poor, dumb schmuck who wanted a peek — toss a few offhand comments into a brain already set on purée, and the resulting cocktail was Kevin’s recipe, someone else’s hemlock.

Why did people seem to like him? That was what Rick didn’t get. But hell, half the time, he liked Kevin, or put up with him, at least. It had to be that face. Not that he was cute. No, it was that he looked innocent and harmless, like an altar boy suddenly thrust into an adult body. No, not thrust. Stretched. He was tall and skinny, and you’d find bigger muscles in a bucket of KFC, although it was a toss-up between man and chicken which one was more deeply fried.

Anyway, no matter how annoying he got, telling him off would have been like punching a kitten.

Kevin came back with the Tequila — the good stuff, not the Cuervo, the putz — and three shot glasses, at least one of which still had most of the gold intact on the three Greek letters down the side. That was the only memento Rick still had from his eighteen-month freshman year at Purdue. That, and there was a faceless picture of his ass still floating around on the Internet, his souvenir to the world from his first and only Freshman Nude Olympics snow run.

But that had nothing to do with why he left.

“So,” Kevin explained, setting the glasses on the table and slopping Tequila into them, “You call truth or dare, and you have to answer honestly or do the dare, or else you drink.”

“And the point of this game is…?” Rick asked, sitting up.

“Staving off boredom,” Kevin answered simply.

Pedro dragged himself to the table and sat there waiting. Nobody said anything for a while. Finally, Pedro asked, “Who goes first?”

“I will,” Rick said. “Kevin — truth or dare?” he asked, knowing already what it would be.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

Ah, yes, always the safe way. “Okay, Kevo,” Rick said. “Are you a big fag?”

“Hell, no,” Kevin answered without hesitation. “My point, and… Rick. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” Rick replied, defiantly.

“And the man’s got serious scrotage,” Kevin said to Pedro, thinking. “Let’s see…” Kevin’s eyes flickered around the room and he bit his lower lip. Then, he picked up the bong and passed it across the table. “Have a sip, Ricky.”

Okay, Rick thought, that didn’t take very long to get disgusting. But he wasn’t going to let Kevin get away with it tonight. He took the bong, looking Kevin right in the eye, Pedro staring in disbelief. Rick smiled, hoisted the bong in a toast and said, “Salud.” Then, he lifted it to his lips and tilted it back. God, the smell could have killed a hog, but he knew the thing was opaque enough that no one would notice he kept his lips shut. The water was cold and rancid, but none of it actually got in his mouth.

He put the bong down and coughed in half-mock disgust. Kevin’s face was motionless, mouth open and Pedro had fallen on the floor, moaning, “Oh, man. Gross.”

“My point,” Rick smiled.

“Fu-u-uck,” Kevin finally said.

“Pedro, truth or dare?”…

To be continued

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 93: Six-Pack Mary (Part 3)

The third and final installment of “Six-Pack Mary,” a short story from 24 Exposures.

We continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

Afterwards, Myron played the guilty angle, telling Doug, “Don’t tell my wife, okay? Don’t tell anyone.” Doug agreed that it would be their little secret and Myron told him it was pretty enjoyable, even if it was… weird.

“But not that weird, right?” Doug said as he hunted for his underwear, pulled them on.

“I don’t know.” Myron put on his best puzzled look. Doug got dressed, shook Myron’s hand and headed out for the front door. Myron followed, let Doug out. “See you Monday,” Doug said.

“Yeah, Monday,” Myron told him before he closed the door, trying to look baffled. As soon as he’d shut the door, he looked to the heavens, pumped a fist in triumph and let out a quiet but heartfelt, “Yes!”

* * *

Doug was a domino. Myron knew full well that he wouldn’t keep things completely secret, but that was all for the better. The guys started approaching him differently, spending more time talking to him, seeming a little more relaxed around him. He knew they knew he was a Six-Pack Mary, queer on beer, and so he upped the ante by acting even straighter, referring to his wife as frequently as possible. By this point, all it took was a whispered comment on late Friday afternoon. “My wife’s out of town, I’m bored.” Sure enough, that would lure one or another of them over and by now, at least in the sack, Myron was venturing the vague comment, “I don’t know, maybe I’m bisexual or something.” He’d even let Doug try to fuck him, but stopped him almost immediately even though Myron wanted it. That was a Big Event to be worked up to, dangled like a beautiful carrot at the end of a very long stick.

Within six weeks, he’d had all of them. All of them except Max. But Joyce hadn’t had him, either. Joyce was mousy, but not unattractive. She was around Myron’s age, but that kind of thing didn’t seem to matter as much to straight boys. Of course it didn’t. Unlike gay men, well, young gay men, it was difficult for straight guys to get laid. It was the law of supply and demand, and so even women in their late thirties still had the supply and got the demand.

Truth to tell, Myron couldn’t get Max out of his head, especially not after that night at the theatre. The kid was hung like an ox and he did have a swimmer’s build, and he seemed so unselfconscious, strutting around naked for a good fifteen minutes. Too bad about Christine. No one ever figured out why she freaked and ran, and then she sailed her car off Mulholland Drive the next morning. It was bizarre, and her accident was the topic of conversation on Monday, putting a damper on much discussion of Max’s performance, except for general comments that he was a very good actor.

That had been months ago, and Myron was getting it at least twice a week, but he still wasn’t happy, because whom he wanted to get and who he was getting were two different things. He was actually getting bored with Chris and Billy and the other Chris and Cary and Doug, even though Billy gave the best head he’d ever had and Doug had a perfect ass and both Chris’s were little hellcats in the sack and Cary was so sweet and gentle that Myron sometimes let him sleep in his arms until morning. He contemplated giving up the whole straight routine. Why not? The hard part was the conquest. Get there once, getting there again was easy.

Except, he couldn’t get there, not even once, with Max. There were rumors that Max had a girlfriend now, even though no one had met her. But he said he was dating some actress, a girl he’d met at an audition for Equus. He didn’t get the part, but he got her and stopped showing up at the random after-hours events. And out of all the boys, he was the one who stopped by Myron’s desk to chat the least often.

Then, one Friday afternoon, Max was excitedly telling everyone he’d just gotten cast in the lead of a new play at some theatre in the Valley, opening in six weeks. He was practically floating as he told Myron the news.

“You get naked in this one?” Myron asked.

“Nah,” Max said. “This time, I’m the only one who doesn’t.” And he walked away, Myron superimposing the vivid memory on that jean-clad ass. Out of all of them, Max was the hottest, and he just kept getting hotter, the little fucker.

And it was a Tuesday, four weeks later, when Max stopped at Myron’s desk, looking concerned. Myron asked him what was wrong.

“Oh, this damn play,” Max said. “I’m having a hell of a time memorizing all the lines, and my girlfriend is in a show of her own right now, so she doesn’t have time to help.”

“You need somebody to help you learn?” Myron asked, hoping he didn’t sound too eager.

“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that, Ron. It’s a huge part.”

It sure as hell was, Myron thought to himself. Then, “No problem. Hey, my wife is out of town, what else have I got to do?”

“Is she ever in town?” Max asked.

“Not often enough,” Myron said.

“Yeah, I hear you,” Max said. “My girlfriend is always at rehearsal, or doing a show, I hardly see her that much anymore. Hey, I don’t have rehearsal tonight, you want to come over after work, run lines?”

Myron almost shouted, “Fuck, yeah,” but instead uttered a subdued “Sure.” Max nodded, wrote down the address, an apartment in the Little Moscow section of West Hollywood. “See you around six?” Max asked, then rolled his cart away as Myron nodded.

* * *

Myron was waiting on the landing as Max came up the steps, grocery bag in his arms. He handed it to Myron as he pulled out his keys, apologized for being late. The bag held two six-packs and a bag of chips.

The apartment was a studio, bedroom separated from the living room by a low wall. The only attempt at decor was a large poster of a Vargas girl, taped to the wall above the bed. Max gestured to the kitchen, which was barely big enough for a fridge, stove and counter. “You can put that there, help yourself. I’m going to change.”

Myron nodded, set down the bag and pulled out a beer, then went to the sofa and sat. It faced the bed, and Max had already taken off his dress shirt and T-shirt, hung them up. With his back to Myron, he took off his jeans, carefully folded them and put them on a hanger.

“So, I’m playing this kid who gets molested by a priest,” he explained as he casually took off his underwear, tossed them into a laundry basket, then put on a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. “Well, not exactly molested, more like seduced.” He turned around, walked to the sofa, grabbing a beer and the chips on the way. “And the big scene, like I told you, damn is it hard. Monologue, monologue, monologue, one after another.”

He picked up a manuscript, handed it to Myron open to a page. “So you must be playing Jimmy?” Myron asked.

“And you’re Father Ralph,” Max explained as he sat down.

“Do I just start reading?” Myron asked.

“Yeah, let me know if I get any lines wrong.”

“Uh… okay.” Myron was nervous, more over having to attempt to act than anything else. Max had such a natural way about him that it was hard to be nervous. Myron read.

“‘I’ve noticed you’re not like the other boys, Jimmy,’” and Myron thought to himself, “That’s for sure.”

Max recited from memory, “Yeah, I hate sports, I like opera and I’m not an asshole — “

“‘Total asshole.’”

“Right, sorry. ‘I like opera and I’m not a total asshole.’ Damn. ‘Total asshole…’ Got it. You want to start that again?”

“‘I’ve noticed you’re not like the other boys, Jimmy.’”

“‘Yeah, I hate sports, I like opera and I’m not a total asshole. What’s your point, father?’”

“‘Is there anything you want to tell me, son?’”

And the scene progressed, and it was one monologue after another. Even though Myron was no theatre critic, he didn’t think it was particularly well-written, but Max was amazing despite the clunkiness of the lines. And he knew most of them, only stumbling once or twice, his eyes focused right on Myron’s as he said them. Those incredible green eyes, drilling to Myron’s soul.

“‘There are many reasons I became a priest,’” Myron read some time later. “‘My family expected it of me, for one thing. And I wanted to do it, preach God’s word and minister to people who are… troubled. You’re troubled, aren’t you, son?’”

There was a long pause in the script, which Max took, leaning toward Myron. “‘Isn’t everyone?’” he replied as Jimmy.

“‘But troubled in a particular way,’” Myron went on. “‘You don’t have to lie to me, Jimmy. I know exactly what’s in your heart.’”

“‘Yeah, father? What’s that?’”

Myron looked at the script, at the stage direction. “Father Ralph suddenly grabs Jimmy’s neck, forces a kiss on him.” He stared at the words, looked up at Max, went, “Uh…”

“Yeah, that part. I’ve got no problem with it, because it’s, well, it’s what the character does, it’s just acting, part of the game. Well, okay, he gets it done to him, except I’ve never done that on stage before. We haven’t rehearsed this scene yet. I think the director is waiting until I’m more comfortable with the actor playing Father Ralph…”

“Oh,” Myron said. Max got up, brought them each another beer — their third — sat down again, closer this time.

“You did a good job reading, by the way,” he said as he unscrewed the top, took a chug.

“Thanks,” Myron said, doing the same. “You’re a very good actor. Especially in that last play, you did an amazing job.”

“Thanks. Hey, was everything… you know, okay in that play?”

“It was a little long, but — “

“I mean me. You know, when I was… that whole monologue at the top of act two. I was really worried about doing that.”

“Being naked, you mean?”

“Yeah. But my voice coach told me that no one is really an actor until they’ve been naked on stage, so I figured I’d get it out of the way. I guess, I’m just wondering, nothing looked funny, you know, physically, did it?”

“No, everything looked… fine. I guess.”

Max nodded, looked away nervously. “Look, um, I don’t know how to ask this, but it’s really important, for this show, I mean…” He paused, took a sip of beer, staring at the floor. “We’ve known each other a while now, and I feel really… comfortable with you. Would it be too much to ask…?”

Myron stared at him, heart racing. “Wh-what do you mean?” he said, voice almost cracking.

“It’s really weird kissing a strange guy but I want the moment to be real, so would you mind rehearsing that part with me?” He looked back at Myron, face turned coyly upward, mouth curled in an uncertain half-frown.

“You mean… kiss you?”

“It’s just a play, but I’d feel better getting used to it with someone I trust, you know?”

Myron hoped the raging hard-on in his pants wasn’t too obvious. He tried to play it cool, looked at the script, shaking his head, taking his time. “Well, I’m no actor. It’s kind of…”

“Weird, huh? Okay, bad idea I guess. Sorry I — “

“Hey, if it’ll help you do your job, I guess…”

“You’re sure?”

“I… what the hell.”

Max smiled. “Thanks. Take it from your last line, then.”

Myron inhaled, nodded, then looked at the script. “‘But troubled in a particular way,’” he read. “‘You don’t have to lie to me, Jimmy. I know exactly what’s in your heart.’”

“‘Yeah, father? What’s that?’” Max responded as Jimmy, leaning close to Myron. And then Myron leaned forward, very slowly, brought his lips to Max’s and in an instant they were all over each other, tongues slithering in sync, hands pulling them tighter together, reaching under clothes, Max practically on top of Myron now. They went at it for a good four or five minutes, and then Max gently pulled away, grinned, looked at the floor.

“You know,” he said, “In the play… I mean, not on stage or anything, but… Jimmy and the priest do it, and, I’m kind of a method actor.”

“And it’s a good method,” Myron said, standing and taking Max by the hand. As they walked to the bed, the script fell to the floor, flopping open on the way. Myron noticed that the rest of the pages were blank, but didn’t say anything. He just smiled as they fell on the bed and continued the scene. As Max pulled off his shirt and lay down next to him, Myron couldn’t help but ask.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?”

“And you don’t have a wife,” Max smiled. “But let’s just let that be our little secret, shall we?”

Myron laughed, then went in for another kiss and felt himself passing out of Chapel Perilous and grasping at last the Holy Grail as the curtain went down on his long performance and he returned, finally, to his real life.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 93: Six-Pack Mary (Part 2)

Another piece of a short story from my 2001 collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

“Oh, so you’re married?” Kathy looked at the paperwork on the clipboard. “How long?”

“Uh… five years,” Myron said, trying not to let his voice shake.

“Children?”

“No. I mean, not yet.”

“Let me get the insurance papers for your wife, then.”

“I don’t need those. I mean, she has her own insurance and everything, so…”

“Ah. Then you’ll have to sign the waiver.” Kathy fished a form from a rack on her desk. “Are you covered under your wife’s policy?”

“No.”

“What’s her name?”

Myron stammered for an instant. He hadn’t thought about this part yet. “Uh — Myra,” he said.

“Oh, what a pretty name,” Kathy replied. “Is that why you go by Ron?”

“Y-yes.”

“Got it. I know this couple, the husband and wife are both named Kim. Now that must get confusing. Let me just go make a copy of your ID, and then we’ll introduce you around.”

She took his passport and I-9 form and walked out of the office. Myron sat there, twiddling his fingers, looking at the walls. It was a nice office, a little ritzier than his last place. They sold real estate and, according to one of his friends, the support staff was ninety-nine percent gay. He’d munged his resumé a little bit and landed a job in accounting. He could have gone for middle management, but that would have complicated things. This way, no one worked for him, so everyone was fair game. Besides, if things worked out right, he’d be the harassee, and he wasn’t going to complain.

Someone pushed a cart up outside the door, stopped, came in with the mail. Myron looked up, then had to look away. This boy was too painfully gorgeous. He was probably twenty-two at the oldest, tall, ruggedly cute. He put the mail in Kathy’s in-box, glancing toward Myron briefly.

“Hi,” he muttered, then walked out. There was a bit of a mid-western twang in that word. Myron let himself sneak a peak at the kid’s back as he walked out. Broad shoulders, probably a swimmer’s build that was barely hidden by his blue jeans and white, long-sleeved dress shirt. And out of the corner of his eye, Myron had noticed that those jeans were pretty well stuffed in front.

Outside, he heard Kathy say, “Thanks, Max,” and then she came back in, handed him his passport as he stood. “And we’re all set, Ron,” she gestured him to the door, extending her hand, which he shook. “Welcome to the ECM family.”

* * *

Myron sat at his desk, idly toying with his wedding ring as he studied spreadsheets. Brown suit, blue shirt, black tie. That was the hardest part, really — forgetting everything he knew about fashion. That, and remembering to leer approvingly when one of the few straight men in the office commented on some actress’s ass, occasionally throwing in a lewd comment of his own. Men certainly were pigs, weren’t they?

And he got to know Max, the mailroom boy, who was from Kansas and wanted to be an actor, and Chris and Billy and the other Chris and Cary and Doug and not one of them was over twenty-five and only one of them — the cutest one naturally, Max — wasn’t known as a total friend of Dorothy.

“The big secret is mixed signals,” Mike had told him when Myron had finally decided to take the plunge and begin the process in earnest. “Straight guys flirt all the time, except they don’t know they’re doing it. And gay men are afraid to flirt back with them, because that’s taboo, so it just cranks the pressure up more. The big trick is to make them want you without showing any interest at all.”

That had been the hardest part to figure out. Obviously, he couldn’t go around telling the boys, “Hey, nice ass.” But what, then? He was at a loss there and had been meaning to call Mike and ask him when, one day, Chris brought him a huge stack of papers and plunked them in the in box.

“Oh, thanks,” Myron said.

“Hey, it’s not like you’re going to actually do work with those or anything,” Chris said teasingly.

“Suck my dick,” Myron shot back, smiling, remembering to use the ‘d’ word and not the gay-giveaway ‘c’ word. And Chris blushed, looked down, thought a moment, then just went, “Uh, yeah,” and walked away.

Myron knew that look. That reaction. He’d scored a direct hit. Weird. And he cultivated the banter, played the game for a while and it seemed like the file boys were coming by his desk more often, hanging around in slow moments. He started telling them things were a little bumpy with Myra. She was spending more time out of town on business, and when she was in town, she didn’t seem to be as interested in sex. “And forget about getting blowjobs anymore,” he told Doug. “Quickest way to make a woman stop sucking your dick is to marry her.”

“Hm…” Doug said, raising an eyebrow. “And what are we going to do about that?”

Myron smiled, fished the proper response out of his repertoire. “In your dreams, Dougie-boy,” he said, grabbing his own crotch in straight-guy fashion. Doug grinned and walked away and Myron knew he’d thrown down the gauntlet. The trap was set, the game was meet — or was that “meat?” — and maybe all this incredible effort would be worth it.

* * *

“Wow, nice place,” Doug said as they walked into the apartment and Myron turned on the lights. He hung his coat in the closet next to Myra’s collection, went to the kitchen.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked. “Beer, wine?”

“Beer’s great,” Doug said, flopping on the couch, which was a bit too frou-frou for Myron’s taste, but it was his wife who’d picked it out, after all. Myron came in with two beers, handed Doug one and sat in the armchair.

“So, how’d you like the show?” Myron asked him.

“It was… interesting. Especially the second act.”

“Oh yeah, that. What do you think got into Christine?”

“She’s kind of a prude. Hey, I enjoyed that part of the show. Max sure has guts. To do that, I mean. In front of everyone.”

“Yeah, actors are all a little weird, aren’t they?”

“Max is a good guy. He’s just… confused.”

“Isn’t he… you know?”

“We all think so, but he doesn’t. Hey, did you know that Joyce is trying to make a play for him?”

“Joyce? Mousy Joyce in accounts payable?”

“Yep. Good luck.”

“Hey, pardon me for saying this, but even I think Max is a little light in the loafers.”

Doug laughed.

“What?”

“God, I haven’t heard that expression in years. It’s so… shit, that’s something my mother would say.”

“Bite me.”

“Watch out, I might…”

Myron snorted, swigged his beer. “You guys are okay, really,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to work in an office and not have to play that Monday morning game.” He threw on his best dockworker voice, “‘Yo, Vinnie, get any pussy over the weekend?’”

Doug laughed again. It was such a vulnerable laugh. He was a cute kid, average height, naturally square shoulders, not a gym queen. He had one of those All-American faces that could only have come from generations of various European immigrants intermingling through the great migration, cute little upturned nose, high cheekbones, strong jaw, dark hair and steel gray eyes, slightly short upper lip and jutting lower lip that just screamed “Kiss me.” Doug took another sip of beer, wrapping those lips around the bottle, looked away a little uncomfortable. “So, when do I get to meet your wife?”

“Oh, one of these days. She’s in Houston for the week, on business. Again.”

“And, how is… everything?”

“Don’t ask. My balls are as blue as a frozen Smurf.”

That got a big laugh out of Doug, but he also turned three shades of red. Myron got up, walked to the TV. “Anyway, you wanted to see the tape, so…” He picked up the remote, went back to the armchair. He’d lured Doug all the way to the Valley with the promise of a bootleg editor’s copy of the next big blockbuster — Myron had decided his wife worked in The Industry — and the bait had worked. He dimmed the lights, pushed ‘play’ and sat back waiting for the tape to do its job.

The TV screen plunged into blackness, and then flashed to life, but this was no studio summer blockbuster. It was a big titted blonde, servicing five hunky men at once, via every orifice and both hands, moaning and shrieking in her best fake tones. Myron silently counted to five, then raised the remote.

“Oh, Jesus, sorry. Sorry,” he said, intentionally hitting pause instead of stop. “Wrong tape.”

Doug laughed nervously. “It’s okay,” he said. “You know, I’ve never seen straight porn. What’s it like?”

“Pretty much just like that,” Myron gestured with the remote.

“You think those boobs are fake?”

“Probably. Know how you can tell?”

“I have no idea.”

“They don’t slide into her armpits when she lies down,” he explained, secretly glad that he’d started listening to Howard Stern, strictly research, mind you.

“Really? That makes sense. She’s got an incredible body,” Doug added, pointing at the frozen image onscreen. Myron gave him a look. Doug explained, “Hey, just because I don’t want to fuck it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it. And you can’t tell me there’s not at least one guy on that screen, you look at and think, ‘He’s got a nice body.’”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Come on. The one on the right there, I mean, completely objectively, that’s a nice body, isn’t it?”

Myron glanced at the screen, looked down, feigning awkwardness. Then he drained his beer, got up, handing Doug the remote as he headed for the kitchen. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “But if I was at gunpoint, I’d take the guy with his dick in her left hand.” He went to the fridge, grabbed two more beers.

“Eeeew,” Doug said. “That’s the most disgusting one. You must be straight.” By the time Myron came back, Doug had pushed play and the boob-jobbed blonde was screaming and wailing in ersatz earnest. They sat and watched the TV in silence for a while, until the five guys had blown their loads all over the blonde.

“Well, that made me horny,” Doug said. Myron had finished two more beers by this point, said nothing until he noticed Doug looking at him.

“Yeah, well, okay, me too, don’t get your hopes up,” he said, adding a weak smile.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Doug said, receding a bit into the couch.

“You want another beer?” Myron asked, lurching for the kitchen. Doug shook his head no, feet jittering nervously on the floor. Myron got one beer out of the fridge, from the six pack on the left, the one he’d previously dumped and refilled with water, then went back in the living room, stumbled and flopped on the couch, as far from Doug as possible.

“God, I’m drunk,” he said, waving the red flag. Doug had taken his shoes and socks off, undone a couple of shirt buttons. On the TV, a new scene had started. One woman, two men, kissing and licking her. Doug stared at the TV while Myron stared at Doug.

“So Joyce really wants to bang Max, huh?”

“Uh, yeah. You haven’t heard her? Shit, she’s probably told everyone but him.”

“I was kind of surprised at the theatre, though. That kid has got one really big dick on him.”

On screen, the blond put the woman on her back and stuck it in, and then the brunette climbed behind the blond and started fucking him up the ass. Doug stared, only having half heard what Myron had said. Then, as he looked at Myron, Myron looked at the TV, knowing what he’d see.

“Fuck. I didn’t know it was that kind of tape…” But he didn’t reach for the remote, he just stared at the screen for a long moment. He could hear Doug breathing now, a little ragged. He turned to the kid, going in for the kill.

“You ever do that?” Myron asked. “Get poked, I mean?”

Doug nodded.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“A little. At first. But then it feels… pretty incredible.”

“I could never do that. I mean, take it up the shitter. He looks like he’s enjoying it. Let me tell you something, never get married. I mean, to a woman. Myra, she won’t give me oral anymore, and the one time I asked her for anal, she looked at me like I was Charlie Manson. Do me a favor, tell her it doesn’t hurt all that much, maybe she’ll do it. It really doesn’t hurt that much?”

Doug shook his head, putting down his beer. He stared at Myron, face turning bright read, lip quivering. “Ron…” He looked away, then grabbed the remote, stopped the tape. The room got dark and quiet.

“Yeah?”

“I… “ Long pause. “Don’t get pissed or anything, okay? But, if your wife isn’t doing her job…”

“What do you mean?” Myron said, shifting on the couch to face the kid, trying not to sound as anxious as he was.

“Seeing Max tonight, and now that tape, and the beers… God, I am really, really horny and I know you are, and…”

Doug wasn’t looking at him, both hands clawed into the floral print sofa. He took a deep breath, then started to stand.

“Sorry, no, I shouldn’t have… I should go…”

Myron grabbed Doug’s hand, pulled him back onto the sofa so they were sitting right next to each other. He could feel Doug start as he did so, inhale sharply, scared.

“You know,” Myron said, “I’m pretty horny, too. Horny and drunk.” He let it linger just long enough, then added, “But no kissing, okay?”

Doug stood, took him by the hand and led him into the bedroom.

* * *

Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

This is a short story that managed to win first place in some science fiction writing contest a few years back and it was published on BigThink. Since the subject of meatless meat seems to be coming up a lot lately, it seems only appropriate to dredge it up again. Bon appétit! Or, as my less-cultured relatives would say, “Bone an ape tit!”

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.

The Saturday Morning Post #1 (rerun)

Last week saw the last installment of the final chapter of The Rêves, which was both exciting and depressing. I’m in the process of figuring out what to serialize next. In the meantime, here’s the very first installment of the Post, which is the first half of the first short story in a collection consisting of a number of connected short stories following a series of different main characters, all of it culminating in a novela set during the wedding of the mayor’s daughter.

Oddly enough, it’s actually set in the same year as The Rêves, but was written way before COVID, unlike the latter work, which was written during. The whole thing was inspired by a rather unusual purchase I noticed in line late one night at the local drug store, although it was not a Walgreens.

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

I can’t believe how crowded it is at four in the morning in the 24-hour Walgreens on 7th in the Jewelry district. It’s your typical urban storefront business, taking up the entire ground floor of a 12-story building erected in 1923. Once upon a time, its footprint probably comprised multiple stores. Then again, in those days, specialization was everything, so that the bakery, butcher, deli, dry goods, grocer, liquor, newsstand, pet, pharmacy, stationary, and toy departments were their own individual businesses.

There’s a reason they call them supermarkets, superstores, big boxes and… face it, those terms are retro. I really mean Amazon Alphabet. Same idea. Everything available under one big metaphorical roof, delivered by the same drone army. Except for those of us, rich and poor, who buy local. Like me, this very morning.

Above the store are tons of apartments. I’d read somewhere one time that this building has the equivalent of just over five acres of living space in it. For some reason, most likely the lack of proximity to schools, there are also several hundred registered sex offenders living in it. This might explain why this particular Walgreens has adult magazines, although they come wrapped in discreet black plastic with only the title logo, date, price, and UPC code printed on the outside in stark white. Well, UPC in black bars in a white box, but there’s nary a VQR or AQR code showing, for reasons that should be obvious.

As I wait in line, I glance out the windows, not missing the irony that this Walgreens is directly across the street from a similarly-situated Rite Aid — they’re direct competitors — although it’s only the Walgreens that is open 24 hours a day.

I can’t believe that anything down here is open all night long, but a few years back, right when they finished the Purple Line extension, the city started paying pharmacies in certain areas to stay open, providing them with armed, on-duty LAPD officers, two per storefront.

The real razón de ser for the extended hours is that the city also subsidizes them to keep a good-sized supply of naloxone auto-injectors on hand to be administered for free by the rotating staff of ever-present nurses (these subsidized by the county) in order to prevent yet another needless opioid death. Yes, this sort of defeats the whole “auto” part of “injector,” but by the time most of these people make it in the door, they’re on the edge of not being able to do anything ever again.

Before the program, it wasn’t uncommon to walk down certain city blocks in the morning and have to step over the bodies. They were as prolific as those e–rental scooters had once been, and just as annoying. At least the scooter companies had all folded after the perfect triple disaster. First, pissed-off residents had started vandalizing and trashing the things almost from the beginning, one annoyed citizen becoming an infamous folk hero for tossing them into the Venice canals. Certain cities banned them outright, starting with Beverly Hills, then extending to Burbank, Glendale, Malibu, and West Hollywood. Next, an endless parade of hackers kept pumping out what they called “Scoot Free” apps that would fool the system into not charging riders, and they would defeat every new patch as soon as it came out in the longest known run of continuous Zero Day Exploits ever perpetrated.

This was just about the point that the original scooters that had survived started to hit 5,000 miles of use, at which point a terrible flaw suddenly revealed itself. Because some manufacturers had gone cheap, the batteries in the things would explode with enough force to launch the entire handlebar assembly into the air at least a hundred feet — or about thirty-two if the average hapless rider didn’t think to let go. Ironically, this was one of the few times that obesity saved lives by reducing the launch altitude to a survivable height (yay, physics?), although dislocated shoulders were very common.

Those companies had all either gone bankrupt or moved to other endeavors before the summer of 2025. But that really has nothing at all to do with why this Walgreens is so crowded at four in the  morning on a Tuesday in April. I’m thirteenth in line with two checkers on duty behind the dozen registers and, it being four in the morning, everyone looks extra bad — especially more so under the fluorescent lights. I’m trying to imagine what circle of hell this resembles through the 16K HD cameras that are watching us all from every direction when I notice the customer in front of me.

He’s twelfth in line, and he has only two items — both of them family-size twelve-packs of toilet paper that I can see are labeled “triple-ply” and “ultra-absorbent.” (Ah, “ultra” — that super meaningless advertising buzzword!) I look at his face, general demeanor, and hollow desperation in his eyes, and put it together quickly. Junky. Up until probably this morning, when for some reason he couldn’t score, and the inevitable end result of suddenly going off of a powerful constipating agent is probably just starting to kick in and he knows it.

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

I shift the pint of Häagen-Dazs rocky road from my right hand to my left to warm up my fingers and wonder how long this is going to take. My ice cream run is an occasional indulgence, although it’s usually just in and out. I have no idea why tonight is so different. Still, I know I have time, since they keep the freezers cold enough here that the ice cream stays at brick consistency for ages.

On the other hand, the glacial pace of the line isn’t giving me any confidence. I have to wonder what the hell all these people are doing up at this hour. In my case, it’s simple. I had business to conduct online in real-time with Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London simultaneously, and the only time that synced them up was a window that had started two hours ago, even if it meant that Melbourne had to stay a bit past office hours. I’m used to it, everything turned out very well, and so my ice cream run was a bit of a celebration of a job well done.

As for the rest of these people, though? It’s doubtful that any of them have just completed a multi-billion dollar deal. Most of them seem to have come here desperately seeking relief from some great physical malady. I can see that a lot of them clutch small cardboard boxes that are strapped to security devices three times their size.

Small enough to steal easily, expensive enough to care about — ergo, cures for the torments that steal the sleep of humankind. You never see those security devices on playing cards or Scotch tape, either of which can vanish into a pocket in a second. And the customers’ distresses were etched deeply into their faces and even distorted their bodies. Hell, if I were a casting director, half of these people would make it onscreen for the next Zombie or Medieval Plague thing to be shot. The other half would probably land on the exciting new reality show Poor Life Choices!

Meanwhile, the flat screens are everywhere around us, scrolling through a series of happy images of stock-photo people of all possible demographic combinations as they enjoy freedom from acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, bloating, constipation, cramps, depression, diarrhea, ED, hemorrhoids, migraines, social anxiety, and more. (Name your malady, it’s up there.) All of these seem to involve exuberant poses on stark white backgrounds or frolicking somewhere in nature with an implied loved one or family. The predominant color palette outside of white and various tones of human flesh involves “serious medicine” blue and “snap out of it” red, both of which happen to be Walgreens logo colors.

What? I’m in the psychology of marketing. I know how this shit works: All too well, especially on those who haven’t been vaccinated against it. But as I stand here waiting for the line to take one more Sisyphean step on its way up to the summit of catastrophe, I realize that I’m standing in a pile of anti-vaxxers, to use the quaint term from my college days before we got real and called them what they really are: pro-diseasers. Except that these people don’t avoid vaccinations against the diseases we finally did kill (again) like measles and polio. They embrace the ones we still can’t kill, like capitalism, commercialism, and corporatism, all of which are ultimately fatal.

Well, fatal unless you’re actively spreading them, in which case they confer a weird immunity on you which is called wealth. But that’s neither here nor there. And, anyway — ooh. Look at all the shiny hope they’re advertising on those screens!

And as the people in line distract themselves with the magic totems of HEALTH and HAPPINESS and SATISFACTION and LOVE and SEX and POWER being projected at them, I start to distract myself with the people in line and, sure enough, it’s a parade of all of the typical personas we create and manipulate in the lab before we take them into the field.

Oh. Pardon my jargon. A “persona” is a profile created by marketing people to describe a segment of the target audience for a particular brand, product, or industry. Generally, a company will have three or four, ranked in order from most loyal customer down to “not loyal, but still buys our shit.” And yes, thank the Lords Zuckerberg and Brin, because creating personae became so much easier once social media exploded and everyone became all the more willing to unknowingly complete marketing surveys with every single click. What? You think those free personality quizzes are there just out of the kindness of someone’s heart? Nope.

Remember these important words: “If a company is willing to give you something for free, then you are the product.” If you’re fine with selling yourself for nothing, then great. It makes my job much, much easier.

A consequence of this, though, is that I’m always hunting personas in the wild and, like I said, this place is full of them.

Look right now — there’s a “Karen.” She’s with checker number two. Well, Karen is the general industry term. In my shop, we refer to her as “Expired Yoga Pants.” I watch as she wastes a good ten minutes predictably bringing up the “Nordstrom Argument,” as in, “You should give me what I want because Nordstrom will refund anything without a receipt!” I wonder if she knows that a policy like that would drive a company out of business fast.

TL;DR: Nordstrom was infamous for allegedly actually giving refunds for anything, whether they sold it or not, with the classic example being a tire, or tires, or snow tire, or snow tires, returned for a cash refund from either an experienced clerk, a new and confused clerk, or the founder of the store himself, in either Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle. In other words, the story is complete bullshit, even though you’ll hear it in business classes to this day as an example of “The customer is always right.”

By the way, “the customer is always right” is also bullshit. The correct version is “you should always make the customer feel like they’re right.” A huge difference, because you maintain goodwill either way, although the correct version is generally impossible to achieve with a Karen.

Now, while I’m watching Expired Yoga Pants go into high dudgeon at the young woman behind the counter, I realize that the guy in front of me has started nodding up and down, and I can hear him saying the rosary under his breath in Spanish, picking up the words “Santa Maria, madre de Dios ruega por nosotros los pecadores…”

“Perdóneme, señor,” I ask him, “¿Usted está enferma?”

He glances at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion — white guy speaks Spanish? — then replies quickly, “No, no señor. Estoy bien. Sólo es que está muy temprano.”

Before I can reply, our conversation is ended when the customer at the counter pulls the ultimate “Karen” and screams, “I want to talk to your manager,” I can almost hear some of the other people around me shrug in glee when the tiny transwoman behind the counter, who can’t be more than 19, quietly replies, “I am the manager. I won’t be talked to like that. Get the fuck out of my store. And don’t come back. Bitch.”

So much for the customer always being right. Sometimes, the business is so much more right.

Expired Yoga Pants huffs out without her goodies and, I suppose, if everyone in this line at four in the morning on a Tuesday in April weren’t so desperate to check out and get relief, there might have been some kind of applause. Or at least smiles.

All the time that “Karen” was taking up the manager’s time, the other checker is being monopolized by… well, there’s no marketing persona for this one in my industry because, frankly, we don’t care, so we don’t even spend time collecting their data. At least my shop came up with a creative name for them — “Bathtubs.” As in… they’re usually white, mostly empty, going out of style, and circling the drain.

Yeah, cruel maybe, but they’re not a victim of marketing, they’re a victim of capitalism and time — although not quite a victim in the sense you’d think. My grandfather told me that what I’d heard about his father was true: When people back then retired, they could afford to do all kinds of shit. Travel. Maybe go back to school and learn new things. This bathtub’s generation wasn’t victimized by capitalism and time by having too little of either. Rather, he was victimized by having too much of both.

People like him are also victims of themselves. They grow old and die because they refuse to stay young and think.

Casinos, cruise lines, hotels, manufacturers of all kinds of assistant devices, pharmaceutical companies, and resorts market to these people hand over fist. Why? Because the good times of three quarters of a century ago meant that they actually retired with lots of money and pensions they could live on and they probably owned real estate that they bought for a few thousand dollars that is now worth a few million. I don’t deal with those industries, although I’d guess that they probably call their versions of their personas Thurston and Lovey — either that or Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But those people must have been a total fantasy, right? I’ve heard rumors that they existed, but I think they all finally died out around the turn of the century. The ones that survive now, the bathtubs, are their kids more likely. And it’s really sad to see how being forgotten by society grinds them down to… stubs, really. Or… no, there’s probably a better word (note to self: pitch this idea tomorrow, although we’ll never market to it) Yo-yos. An alleged toy from their youth that describes what they do — they keep coming back to what they know.

Which is why I watch this old man pause for at least twenty seconds between every step of this fucking transaction, and it makes me want to throw things at him.

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

(Take your time to view a streamer on your dev here.)

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

(Loop that vid about four times, we’ll get back to you.)

Clerk: (heroically) “Yes. Yes. How do you want to pay?”

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

And then begins the epic drawing of the sword. No, sorry… the wallet. The ancient wallet full of actual money that is laboriously pulled Excalibur-like from one of the pockets of the ill-fitting and ridiculously colored shorts that this Yo-yo wears over black socks and sandals. Yes, it’s on a chain. Yes, it has too many snaps and zippers, and yes, it’s as much a mystery to him today as it was the day that his granddaughter gave it to him ten years ago because she had no other ideas and found it when she stopped to get FroYo in a strip mall on the way to his 75th birthday party.

This is about the point where I resist the urge to ask him how he even got here or if he knows what year it is. Hell, what century? And if you think that’s being snarky, sorry. But by the time I’m that old, I’m pretty sure we’ll have cured it, and migrated off of the planet anyway.

Or we’ll all be dead. Did I mention that, a week ago, it snowed here? And today it was 110. Four in the fucking morning and it’s still 85 degrees out. In April. A week after it snowed.

Between the time that “Karen” has come and gone and Yo-Yo is halfway to counting out two dollars, some kid who’s probably about fifteen hits the other counter. He’s riding a one-wheel, busily dictating a text into the headphone/mic dangling from his left ear, and has about fifteen items in his basket. Damn if he doesn’t get them all out to be scanned in something like ten seconds, is swiping the pring on his left hand over the paypoint even before the checker announces the total and has bagged everything before she smiles and says, “Have an okay day!”

He was in and done in less than half a minute. God, I love this generation, whatever they decide to call it, although one commentator, I forget who, suggested Generation Yuzz, because that was the first letter “Beyond Z” in the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. I suppose it would also work as Generation Yass, because these kids get shit done fast.

Oh yeah — kids his age fall under a persona we call “Jacobella,” named for the two most common baby names of the decade they were born in, and nicely also delineating the idea that they really don’t believe in any kind of binary designation, whether it comes to gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or… anything. They are definitely not generation “Either/Or.” They are generation “Yes, and more.” And they are the first generation which we have not broken down by gender or sexual orientation because, honestly, that would be impossible and pointless.

They’re a tricksey bunch for marketers because they’d rather spend their money on experiences, preferably ones they can share with their friends, or spend it on loved ones or give it away to charity. Of course, the oldest of them are only just about to graduate high school, so they’re living at home, and the youngest of them haven’t been born yet, but they’ve been monetizing their lives since at least fourth grade and will probably either live at home until well into their 30s or move into group homes with at least twenty people sharing an open loft or warehouse space in the seedier parts of the edges of the centers of town, like DTLA.

In other words, in five years, about six blocks south of here, between Pico and the 10 and Hope and Lebanon, is going to be full of Yuzzes, but that will only last for about five years before the Millennials smell money and gentrify the hell out of that place, too.

But I do digress… The end result of a Jacobella following up the “Karen” and beating out the Yo‑Yo is two customers down, eleven to go, and I could continue to tick off the marketing personas all night long, except I won’t, because when we got to ten to go (another Yuzz, only buying one thing, in and out, five seconds), something I should have predicted happened.

Remember the guy in front of me? The one buying bulk TP and nothing else at that hour? The one with the wild eyes and desperate look? I pegged it — a junky who’d suddenly been knocked out of the saddle, and was soon going to face one really, really major need.

See, when you’re on any variation of the opiates that don’t kill you, a very interesting thing happens. Your intestines nope out, your asshole shuts up for the week, and everything in your digestive system turns into cement. Boom. Locked. Your anus treats your shit like it’s the gold in Fort Knox.

All well and good, until somebody lets the Night Watch go, at which point it doesn’t take long before the dragon melts the walls, the castle gates open up and the troops all flee. (Sorry about the old streamy metaphors, but I had a nostalgic rewatch of that classic HBO tits and dragons series a couple of weeks ago. )

The tub of ice cream in my hand has just barely started to soften, but I can tell by El Vaquero’s expression that his stool has gotten a lot softer, and he’s not going to make it through the gauntlet of remaining personas, which include such gems as All the Things, Chatty, Coupons, another Karen, Price Check, Sloth, and “What?”

When he’s about eighth in line, I hear the quiet but unmistakable, “¡Chingadas!” so I calmly step back…

If you’d like more from the rest of the book, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Photo Credit: City Hall, DTLA, taken by the author, © 2017 Jon Bastian

The Saturday Morning Post #46: The Rêves Part 24

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.

Shot in the Dark

Danny and Preston had realized that they liked being up here in a forest on top of a mountain, and during the early mornings when everything was shrouded in mist and fog, they would go for long walks, not bothered by cold or fatigue or any of that human shit.

By their second day there, they had also gotten quite adept at being able to walk right up to random deer and other wildlife without freaking them out and sending them running.

“Goddamn,” Danny had pointed out at one point. “If we were still alive and could TikTok this shit, we’d be viral billionaires.”

“Tell me about it,” Preston replied. “Or we could just film some fucking in the forest.”

“Hm. The world’s first combo twincest/necrophilia OnlyFans. I’m sure that would make us billionaires, except… oh, right. How do we hook back into meatspace?”

“Heh heh. You said ‘meatspace,” Preston replied.

“Heh heh, you’re a dick,” Danny said.

“Right here, ready and waiting!” Preston told him, slapping both his thighs and helicoptering.

“Can you like maybe just try to imagine pants or panties or… something?” Daniel replied.

“Can you like maybe just give me one good reason I should?” Preston snapped back, and Daniel realized that he had nothing. “’Cause it’s your dick, too, and I know you don’t mind looking at it at all, or playing with it. A lot.”

They had hiked a good ways up a trail into the wilderness when both of them began to sense something unsettling, and then sickening, and then they both stopped abruptly.

“What is that?” Daniel asked.

“Hell if I know,” Preston replied. “I’m kind of new here.”

“Duh…”

They grabbed each other, grateful at least for the fact that they could touch each other, and both felt a ridiculous sense of vertigo, both of them spinning to their left and trying to hang on, and then before they almost fell over feeling two strong hands grabbing their right and left shoulders, respectively, and pulling them back onto their feet.

They turned and looked to see the figure of a kind-looking older man with silver hair, glasses, and a moustache. There was a weird kind of red mark on his forehead and a jagged line below it, but otherwise he seemed normal, albeit transparent.

“Sorry,” the man announced. “Sorry, sorry, just saw you, you seemed friendly. Hi! Who are you?”

“I’m Danny,” Danny said.

“I’m Preston,” Preston added, “Although it’s kind of he is me and I am him and… what was that Beatles song, anyway?”

“Goo-goo-g’joob,” the spectre replied. “Come Together. I’m not really sure who I am actually. Do you know who you are?”

“Like we said,” Preston chimed in. “I’m Preston.”

“I’m Danny, but we’re kind of the same person, really.”

“Oh, how good for you,” this entity replied. “See, I still have no idea who I am. I was hoping you might know.”

“Well, it depends,” Preston replies. “How did you get here?”

“Last thing I remember is a bunch of stars. And, no, there’s a sense of betrayal. But I think that my body is right around here…”

He led them to a patch of ground that was obviously a recently filled in pit, possibly a grave.

“Well, you remembered this,” Preston said. “Why can’t you remember who you are?”

“Maybe because no one knows he’s dead yet, you silly cunt?” Danny suddenly piped up, making Preston shoot him a dirty look.

But the old man seemed to take heart in this. “Of course!” he said. “No one knows I’m dead… is that kind of a requirement for… you know?”

“Who told you that?” Preston demanded.

“I… no one… it just… came into my head.”

“Interesting,” Danny said.

“But, if it’s true… give me a minute…”

Preston looked impatient, but Danny shot him a look and restrained his arm. After a long moment, the old man stopped staring and looked at the two of them.

“Oh,” he said. “My name is Jerry, I was coerced up here by someone pretending to be my friend, but then was betrayed and killed, and I’m buried over there.”

Needless to say, Preston and Danny greeted this with a bit of silence, and then a long look at each other before either of them spoke.

“Do you know who killed you?” Preston finally asked.

“Oh. Oh, yeah, it was… he used to be my boss… tip of my tongue. Dr. Schliemann.”

“That doesn’t ring any bells,” Danny said.

“You wouldn’t know him. He’s from down in the city,” Jerry explained. “Scientist at JPL, mostly works in his secret lab.”

Danny and Preston just stared at each other, jaws dropping, then they hurried right up to Jerry.

“This is the most important question we’re going to ask you — ”

“Two questions,” Danny interrupted.

“All right two. Mine is, do you remember this Dr. Schliemann’s full name?”

“Um, sure. Yeah. Give me a minute. Getting shot in the head can fuck with your memory, you know?” He laughed and then blurted out, “Ausmann. Dr. Ausmann Schliemann.”

If either Danny or Preston had actually been breathing, they would have held their breaths as Danny asked the other question. “Do you know where he is right now?”

“Well, my car is still parked over there, so I’m guessing that he’s in his cabin.”

“His cabin?”

“Yeah, right there.” Jerry pointed. “But it’s all kinds of crazy fortified. No one’s getting in.”

“Not even if they can walk through walls?” Preston asked.

“We can do that?” Jerry asked.

“We’re dead,” Danny said. “We can do a lot.”

“Thank you very much for your help,” Preston said, taking Danny’s arm to lead him away, but Danny stopped and turned back.

“Do you know why he killed you?” he asked.

“Sure, I remember now. He told me he’d killed his wife and knew I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Which is probably true.”

“Thanks,” Danny replied as Preston pulled him away. “What’s the rush?” he asked him.

“You recognize the name.”

“Sure. But?”

“Dude, we’ve got him and he doesn’t know it. We could win the war right now, right here, before it even begins.”

“I thought it had started, with that storm.”

“That? I’m guessing that was nothing,” Preston told him, then he stopped and raised his arms above his head. “Pearl. Pearl. Pearl!” he called.

She appeared immediately. “That’s our name, don’t wear it out, and what can we do ya for?”

“We… we’ve found Ausmann,” Preston said.

“No shit?” Pearl replied.

“No shit,” Danny told them.

“Where is he?”

Preston turned and pointed at the cabin.

“You’re sure?” they asked.

“Well, we haven’t actually seen him,” Danny demurred, “But the guy he murdered told us that he has to be there because that car is.”

“Interesting,” Pearl muttered, closing their eyes for a moment, then opening them and smiling. “You’ve done very well, boys,” they said, gesturing briefly, sending waves of peaceful thoughts and a feeling of being appreciated up and down their bodies. “Now what shall we do?”

The wind started to pick up, and it was immediately chaotic, though still light. The leaves on the trees would flutter one way and then the other and then calm down, only to start up again. And then, smoky wisps flew out of the forest and coalesced into various Rêves. Preston recognized some of them whom he’d met in passing, and more than a few who were definitely Class II, although he had heard the rumor that the Class II’s were on Ausmann’s side.

Well, apparently not all of them.

The Hadas were also there, but as more of a presence that was sustaining the wind, and then Anabel appeared out of a dark blue wisp, to stand next to Pearl. Pearl didn’t have to make an announcement because they all already knew the news.

“What are we waiting for?” Anabel asked.

“Well, now, it’s a tricky thing,” Pearl explained. “We can’t exactly kill him, because that’s just letting him loose with our powers.”

“What says he’s going to show up as a Rêve?” Anabel demanded.

“These boys saw a brand-new Rêve just now,” Pearl said, indicating Danny and Preston. “And if it can happen up here right after he’s murdered… Well, let’s just say we don’t want to hand our enemy that kind of power.”

“Then what do we want?” Anabel asked her, then shouted it to the crowd. “What do we all want?”

Pearl smirked at her. “Dear, don’t try to play that rally the crowd shit on me. The Hadas could take out you and any kind of army you could muster in a snap.”

“All right,” Anabel replied, suppressing her fury. “What do ‘we’ want?”

“We’re going to drive him back down to L.A. and see where he goes next. With any luck, that will give away his strategy. Agreed?”

After a long moment, Anabel finally relented, reluctantly saying, “Agreed.”

Pearl raised their right arm and gestured, and then the weather started to intensify. Meanwhile, the Rêves strolled over and surrounded Ausmann’s cabin.

The sky darkened as deep gray clouds started to form above the treetops, growing grayer and then finally fully black as they shut off the sky. Lightning without thunder flashed through them, illuminating large chunks of their undersides in surreal blue-white bursts.

The first bolt to come down struck the satellite antenna on the roof of the cabin, shattering the dish into bits in a hail of blue sparks and sending up a black plume of smoke as the PVC mounts below burst into flames. The thunder came with it immediately.

Inside the cabin, even in the underground shelter, Ausmann had sensed the heat of the strike and definitely felt the rumble of the ensuing thunder, hearing a slight bit of it. That was also when his TV screen burst into static.

“What the fuck?” he said to himself as he switched over to display all of the outside cams on the main screen Zoom style, nine by six, showing his property from every angle — and what he was seeing he didn’t like.

First off, it looked like he was surrounded by those goddamn ghost things, no famous faces among them, and they were just standing there, about fifty feet from the cabin, doing nothing.

Second, it had started to hail, but only in one very specific spot that was about three meters on a side, and directly over the septic tank cover, since no sewer lines had ever been brought up here.

Third, one of those infernal ghosts stepped from the crowd, walked up to his front door and pointed, and he recognized that face. It was Anabel.

“Yeah,” he thought to himself. “None of this is good.”

He went to one of the smart panels in the wall and tapped the screen to activate the speaker in the front doorbell, surprised that it seemed to be working. “What do you want?” he demanded.

“We want you to leave these sacred lands,” Anabel explained.

“Sacred to whom?” he scoffed. “A bunch of low-life ghosts?”

“Sacred to something you’ll never understand,” Anabel replied.

“Like what?”

As if to answer, lightning smacked into the ground ten feet in front of the door, and the lights downstairs, which weren’t even connected to any outside power source, still flickered.

“We can put the next one wherever we want to.”

“Well, good for you, Zeus,” Ausmann sneered.

Anabel restrained her annoyance, but turned back toward Pearl. She didn’t have to say it because Pearl could read her thoughts anyway, but all she could think was, “How goddamn arrogant can this mortal asshole be?”

Appeal to his ego,” Anabel heard Pearl’s voices in her mind, wondering how she was going to do that when she remembered the car waiting nearby.

“How about a challenge?” Anabel announced.

“Like what?” Ausmann replied.

“Like… you manage to make it to the bottom of the mountain before we can catch you, then we let you go along your way.”

“Catch me with what?” he asked.

“With whatever we’ve got,” Anabel said. “And we’ll even give you a fifteen minute head-start? Twenty?”

“Make it ten, bitch,” Ausmann replied.

“So you accept?” Anabel asked him.

“As long as I get to bring along whatever I need.”

“Knock yourself out,” she said.

Over the next half hour, after Anabel and the Rêves had retreated beyond the property line so as to not present an immediate threat, Ausmann dragged an impressive arsenal out to the car, not all of it recognizable as conventional weapons. He also brought out two satchels that Pearl recognized as “Go Bags,” or as friends of theirs way back in the day had described them, “Hippie Helpers.”

After he’d loaded the car, he turned to address the air in general, because he, himself, could not see the Rêves standing there. “Fifteen minutes, then?” he announced.

Anabel chose to not call him out on his change of terms, but forced herself visible and said, “All right. And your time starts… now.”

Ausmann dove into Jerry’s car, started it up, backed around and drove down the dirt road to the highway, and almost immediately cursed the fact that he was stuck with the typical Old Man’s car — a Toyota that they’d bought new the last time they had money (in their late 50s), but which was now so old that it ran on hopes and dreams.

California version of the rule: “Never trust a car with a license plate that starts with less than 4.”

So Ausmann went chugging down the hill, while also discovering that the brakes and steering were pretty much shit, and one of the rear shocks was bouncing its tire like a basketball.

His one consolation was that just before he’d left his cabin he’d pulled the “Kill Switch,” setting the timer so it would go off around dawn. At that point, the underground propane tanks would have been opened long enough to allow all of the gas to seep through the lowest level, although the power down there would also have been shut off.

The real fireworks happened when all of the C-4 hidden around the place was set off. Combined with the propane, that should destroy the place and give the ghosts a good jolt. Ausmann had never worked the physics of it out all the way, so he wasn’t sure whether there’d just be an underground thwump that would create a sinkhole that swallowed the cabin, or if there’d be a glorious explosion that would send a fireball into the air and give a whole new meaning to the phrase “Cabin in the Sky.”

Not that this would hurt the ghosts, either, but if it started a major fire in the forest, it might keep them busy trying to stop it. They seemed like the type.

Half an hour down the mountain and with the storm and lightning clearly a couple of miles behind him, Ausmann began to despair. Were these assholes letting him win?

And the farther he went and the slower, he really had to wonder even more — were they just being lazy and hoping that Jerry’s shit-ass car would kill him first, or was it just some ruse?

Once he’d actually hit the bottom of the mountain by any definition, he found the nearest auto shop and parked. He had enough supplies in the car to wait out until they opened in the morning, he’d fulfilled the ghosts’ deal, and he’d brought a briefcase stuffed with cash, so whatever he needed repaired on this junker, he could do.

Then again, there was a used car lot across the way, so that was another option.

While he waited in the dark in the car, he worked on his own Plan B. He needed his ghost hunters, needed to find them, and also figured out the perfect incentive for them.

But the finding was the hard part, and as dawn was breaking, he still had no idea where those steampunk assholes were.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #40: The Rêves, Part 18

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 Southern California.

Plan B

From the very beginning, Joshua and Simon had taken their precautions regarding the job with Ausmann, especially because it seemed to have a government connection, and so had created their own insurance policy in case things should ever come to a weird junction like this.

While they had to leave their cellphones and any other technology in lockers on the surface whenever they descended, that only included things that looked like technology — but it was amazing what could be hidden inside of what appeared to be a regular number 2 pencil.

Simon had taken to wearing a pair of fake glasses whenever they went. He didn’t need them at all, but they were crammed with their own tech, which also served as an invisible to others heads-up display on what the other devices were collecting.

One of Joshua’s favorites for the sheer irony of it was a cross he’d wear on a chain around his neck whenever they went in. He wasn’t religious at all. In fact, he was a total atheist, but inside of the cross was more of the technology they used in order to harvest information that would be useful later. Like now. As they headed to JPL.

One of the things their devices had done was to remotely key-log everything Ausmann had typed while they were in or near his office, so they had managed to capture a few of his passwords as he entered them. They also had a remote man-in-the-middle device, and that took care of the transmission of encrypted information that had been auto-filled by the computer, where they couldn’t see it — user names, website URLs, and the like.

They were also able to log in remotely to Ausmann’s own computer, although not the network drive — but today they considered managing that part necessary.

They had come up with two plans for JPL. The first was ostensibly to check in with Ausmann, if he was there. If he wasn’t there, even better. They planned to go down to the lab alone and then… “borrow” every last bit of data they could get their hands on.

That would be a lot, too. They had managed to conceal a 5Tb thumb drive in what looked like an ordinary modern car key, but the USB connection could only be slid out after a series of very specific manipulations of the base of the key.

They had long since determined that the guards normally didn’t make people put keys in the safe except under a few conditions, all of which they had tested over time. If there were any kind of fancy keychains or extra fobs, like a rabbit’s foot or dice or even a small framed dog’s photo, it would be locked up.

But if it was just a few keys on a simple ring, they were good to go.

Of course, under normal circumstances, a regular USB drive would be pretty useless for dealing with terabytes of data. At maximum speed, it would take a USB 3.0 device about 56 hours to download just one terabyte, but Simon had estimated that they were looking at between three and four.

However, they had figured out that the computers in Ausmann’s lab transferred data much faster. An ordinary USB drive put it through at 5 megabytes per second. Ausmann’s did it at 5 gigabytes. This meant that four terabytes of data would take about fourteen minutes to copy.

Still a lot slower than in the movies, but quite doable provided they had the time — and they had already reverse-engineered the technology in order to match the throughput speed.

This time, Simon drove them to JPL as Joshua remotely logged into Ausmann’s computer one more time, to check the logs again. “Nope,” he confirmed. “He hasn’t logged on in person or remotely since the afternoon before the storm. Shit, I wish we could get to their network from here and look at the physical check-ins.”

“It looks like Plan B, then,” Simon said, and Joshua nodded.

“Plan B it is,” Joshua said, and then he started typing and tapping like a madman. Plan B was basically to forge their way in.

In Ausmann’s files, they had discovered an emergency protocol that would allow access by certain personnel in the event that Ausmann became incapacitated or otherwise compromised. Of course, the trick was that Ausmann had to trigger it remotely prior to that incapacitation.

“I don’t think he really thought that one all the way through,” Simon said when Joshua had explained it to him. “What? Dude drops dead, but triggers it first?”

“Good point,” Joshua replied.

But this was to their advantage, because it wasn’t until Ausmann triggered it that he also specified which personnel were to be admitted. Ergo, Joshua now gave access to himself and Simon under Ausmann’s emergency orders, tweaking timestamps so that it would have appeared to have been issued the evening of the storm, with the corresponding alert texts to Simon and Joshua being similarly backdated and showing at the appropriate place in their inboxes.

The extra security in that was that the messages seemed to come from “The Pasadena Social Club,” and the texts themselves read, “Bonus Birthday Brunch, just show this QR code.”

They both knew what that meant, though.

When they had first set up this plan long ago, Simon did think it through as he was wont to do, and one of the questions he asked was this: “What if we get there, think that Ausmann isn’t there, but it turns out he is?”

Joshua thought about it a bit, then had one of his brilliant flashes. “Of course,” he said. “If we got the emergency message, then we’d think that something is wrong, so we’d show up worried, asking, ‘Is Ausmann here?’ Only two answers for that, at least to us. Yes, or no.”

“Makes sense,” Simon said.

“So, if they say no, we go full on emergency protocol plan, we’re in, pan comido. But if they say yes, we turn on a dime, act all relieved, and report in as normal.”

“But with the emergency protocol stuff all hanging out there for Ausmann to see.”

“But that’s the point,” Joshua replied. “I think I can rig it so that once it’s sent, Ausmann is blocked from access to seeing any of the texts or documents or whatever. It only goes to the guards and us. That’s part one.”

“And part two?” Simon asked.

“Instant kill-switch,” Joshua replied. “I can also rig it so that if I text a certain code back, then everything gets erased instantly, like it never happened. So… kill-switch program on my screen as we arrive, you have the text on yours. If they say no, he’s not there, then I just pop up my message, too. If they say yes, I hit the button and we start acting.”

And so it was set, they received their codes, and pulled onto the grounds of JPL and headed to the entrance of Ausmann’s underground lair with no idea what was waiting in it for them.

As it turned out, he wasn’t there, and the boys made a big show of being concerned and upset as they flashed the QR codes for the guards to scan. They didn’t have any tech to turn in because they’d left it all in the car, but agreed to a pat-down search.

Of course, they kept the key, Simon’s glasses, and Joshua’s cross, then headed downstairs.

Joshua had pulled a few other tricks on their way over. For example, from about five minutes before they drove onto the grounds, all of the cameras in the complex stopped recording. They continued to display live shots with the timecode, but at the same time only sent a single frame from each camera while incrementing the timecode.

This meant that while the guards could see them, there would be no record for Ausmann to review later, except for the two cameras at the guard station, but they’d planned ahead for that one, as well.

The outside camera would see and record them, no problem, as would the inside camera, for about a minute. But Joshua had programmed the DVR to reboot when its facial recognition software spotted either of them.

This would put it out of commission for enough time for them to enter the complex, and then the camera would come back online and continue recording. Meanwhile, about two minutes into that reboot, the DVR connected to the outside camera would be fed a short bit of footage to override the actual recording — Joshua and Simon leaving the complex, with the “correct” timecode on it.

They had managed to capture the footage on a previous visit, and even dressed identically to it today so that they would match. But the end result would be that anyone reviewing the actual recorded footage would see them arrive, start to talk to the guards, and then leave shortly thereafter.

The electronic log of their check-in they could erase just as easily remotely. Meanwhile, as for the physical sign-in, which was done on paper, Simon had conjured up one of the oldest tricks in the book: disappearing ink.

In the post-plague days, no one batted an eye at someone insisting on using their own pen rather than a communal instrument, so Simon and Joshua both carefully signed and dated their check-in with the trick pen, knowing that all of the information would be gone in fifteen minutes.

They just had to take it on faith that no one else would be checking in before that, given the circumstances, so that there wouldn’t be two tell-tale blank lines where their names had been. Fortunately, none of the guards signed in on the public sheet, and Ausmann didn’t have to sign in at all.

Once they got downstairs, they went to work quickly and efficiently, knowing that the guards wouldn’t consider anything they did out of the ordinary. But just to be safe, they had hacked one of the exterior cameras that showed part of the parking lot to add a little something to it.

Not sure of the sexual leanings of the guards but wanting to be inclusive, it superimposed footage of a young and very attractive straight couple starting to get frisky inside of a Smart Car, and then next to it.

Although they couldn’t see the results, their gesture had the intended results. Within two minutes, one of the guards had spotted the couple — on the opposite bank from the one showing what was going on downstairs — and that screen became the center of their attention, especially when that couple started tearing each other’s clothes off.

It had the intended effect, though. Four bored and horny men, three in their 20s, one much older, two straight, one bi, and one gay, all focused intently on the screen and ignoring everything else.

The video distraction would run for thirty minutes. Joshua and Simon planned to be out in twenty.

Joshua logged onto the network via Ausmann’s computer, then popped in the USB drive and selected and copied everything that wasn’t part of the operating system. As the process began, the countdown timer indicated approximately fourteen minutes to go.

“God, I hope their IT motherfuckers defrag regularly,” Joshua muttered to himself.

Meanwhile, Simon was casually investigating the various physical binders in the bookcase behind Ausmann’s desk, checking them for any information on the particular Rêves they’d brought in. When he found applicable pages, all he had to do was turn them successively. His glasses did the rest of the job of imaging all of them.

They also kept the feed from the outside camera going to his left eye, in case there were any unexpected visitors.

After ten minutes, he’d made great progress, and worked his way back from Anabel almost all the way to their first catch. Meanwhile, the countdown timer was accurate for once, with just under four minutes left and “29% remaining.”

Right at the three minute mark, somebody came to the front entrance.

“Shit!” Simon snapped.

“What?” Jason asked.

“Visitor,” Simon said.

“Who?” Jason asked.

“Who?” Simon repeated, using a gesture of his eyes to activate facial recognition, then switch to the inside camera. The answer came back in a few seconds as text: “Schliemann, Ausmann Gustav.”

“Fuck!” Simon gasped. “It’s Ausmann. Doesn’t look like him, though.”

“But you’re sure?”

“The computer is. Dude is shaved bald and lost the beard,” Simon explained.

“Shit. Wish I could see that,” Joshua said.

“No you don’t,” Simon replied. “It’s not pretty. How long have we got?”

“Two minutes, forty-five,” Joshua replied. “Are they going to even recognize him?”

“They don’t need to,” Simon said. “Biometrics. Wait, hang on. They didn’t notice him come in because of the video.”

“Hallelujah, that ought to slow things down,” Joshua said.

“Shit, I don’t think so,” Simon replied.

“How do you mean?” Joshua asked.

“Ausmann just walked past where that couple is ostensibly fucking.”

“Oh. Shit!” Joshua exclaimed.

Simon watched as Ausmann stalked outside, the guards following. “Okay, they went outside,” Simon said.

“Good or bad?” Joshua asked.

“It is buying us time. Okay, you remember the emergency exit they showed us when we started here?”

“No.”

“Good, because I do,” Simon said. “Time?”

“Minute fifty.”

Ausamann and the guards stormed back in, Ausmann gesturing wildly, then stepping offscreen.

“He’s in the fucking elevator,” Simon said. “He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Almost done,” Joshua said.

“We’re going to have to rip and run,” Simon warned him.

“Can you slow him down?”

“I… I… oh. Wait…” Simon checked and quickly accessed the elevator controls, then stopped the car.”

“Whew. There,” he said. “Tiger in a box. Let me know when you’re ready.”

“Thirty seconds,” Joshua said.

“Great,” Simon replied.

After what seemed like half a minute, Joshua announced, “Twenty seconds. God, suspense like this just makes me horny as hell.”

“Everything makes you horny as hell,” Simon replied.

“Wrong,” Joshua shot back. “Anything with you involved makes me horny as hell.”

“Thank you and no, we are not doing it at work.”

“Fifteen seconds.”

“How can you even think of sex at a time like this?” Simon demanded

“How can you not? If Ausmann finds us here stealing his shit, we are fucked. And not in the good way.”

“Well then hurr — aw, fuck!”

“What?” Joshua asked.

“Guards turned the elevator back on.”

“Five, four, three, two, one…” Joshua counted, then hooted as he pulled out the drive and hit shutdown on the computer. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said.

“Follow me!” Simon told him, and they headed out the door and around the corner, running flat out as they heard the elevator ding in the distance. They came to the door that led to the emergency exit, Simon slamming through it and Joshua right behind.

Right as that door started to close behind them, they heard the sirens blaring that indicated lockdown. If they hadn’t made it through there before that, they never would have. Fortunately, as Simon knew, nothing past that point was wired up to seal.

That door led to a long corridor that came out on a hillside some distance from the campus, next to a winding and little-traveled road.

“Now what?” Simon asked.

“Time to test that ‘Come get me’ feature our car dealer was so big on selling us, I suppose,” Joshua replied.”

“Oh, right,” Simon replied. Even though they didn’t have their phones, he could still access the app on his glasses, and in a couple of moments, ECTO-42 confirmed that it was on its way to pick them up.

That was a good thing all around. For one, neither of them were sure how far or which way the entrance to JPL was from here. For another, the last thing they would have wanted to do was show up in the parking lot to ask nicely, “Please, can we get our car.”

There was a reason that they’d left all of their actual tech in there in the first place, and that was the Plan C which was the escape route whether they used A or B, or what Simon called “Plan Crap!” As in what would they do if everything went to shit, like it just had.

Joshua drove them home in his usual maniacal way, but en route one question kept bugging him, and he finally asked Simon.

“So… you said that Ausmann had shaved his head and his beard?”

“Yeah. It was freaky, man.”

“Why do you think that was?” Joshua asked.

“I don’t know,” Simon mused. “He doesn’t seem like one to make fashion statements.”

“Or one to catch head lice,” Joshua replied. “Wait… what was the most distinctive thing about him?”

“Oh…” Simon gasped, giving Joshua a look of sudden realization.

“His hair and his beard,” they both said in unison.

“Jinx,” Simon said.

“He is fucking hiding from someone or something,” Joshua said. “But what?”

“Well, I think we’ve got about four terabytes of data that might answer that question,” Simon smiled.

“Oh yeah. Oh, shit. Does Ausmann know where we live?”

“Dude, he doesn’t even know our real names,” Simon assured him. “The employment docs we submitted to him were fake as hell, since the whole job offer wasn’t exactly legit on his part either.”

“Really?” Joshua said.

“Really,” Simon replied. “Our checks from them have never gone to us in the first place, not like we’d notice. If he looks closely, he’ll see that he actually hired a 501(c)(3) that supports Peruvian widows.”

Joshua laughed loudly. “You are a goddamn beautiful fucking genius, Simon.”

“Well, I don’t know about beautiful — ”

“Shut up and take the compliment,” Joshua insisted. “When we get home, let’s dig in this dirt and take this bastard down.”

“I love it when you talk dirt,” Simon said.

They’d made it most of the way home when a call came in on Simon’s phone and the display in the Tesla showed “MASON BRENDA” and a number.

“What does she want?” Simon wondered, but Joshua gestured to stop him from answering.

“More importantly,” Joshua said, “How did she get your number?”

They drove the rest of the way in silence with the unasked question hovering between them. If some county employee could get their number, then couldn’t Ausmann? And, by extension… their address?

“We really need to find out what he’s hiding,” Simon said as they pulled into the garage, and Joshua just nodded in agreement.

* * *

Image: Adam Foster, (CC) BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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