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.
Brenda got the text from Rita at ten a.m. the next morning. “Lunch, Grand Central Market, Wexler’s, 13:00?”
She replied with a thumbs-up icon, then wondered what could be possibly going on with that. Rita hated face-to-face things, and wasn’t really into doing lunch. Still, Brenda wasn’t going to question. How could she?
She left her office at about a quarter to one and walked the mile down to GCM, entering from the Broadway side opposite the Bradbury building and stopping at the Wexler’s counter with Rita nowhere in sight. She ordered a Reuben. Five minutes later, Rita entered from the Hill Street side, ordering a Philly Cheesesteak.
Both of their sandwiches arrived wrapped at about the same time, so they decided to go outside and find a table on Broadway, where they sat and unwrapped in silence, until, finally…
“So… what’s on your mind?” Brenda asked.
“Everything, really,” Rita replied.
“Really?” Brenda wondered.
“Oh, yes,” Rita said. “Are you kidding? You’ve managed to raise so many questions and bring up so many issues, with proof, that… my god, Brenda… you don’t know the chatter downtown, but you just may have funded an entire department and, if you play your cards right, you’re going to wind up heading it.”
“And what would you say if I told you that two gay white guys actually did it?”
Rita stared at her for a moment, then laughed and replied, “I’d say that you wanted to get demoted to dog catcher. Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in the footage. Why do they dress like that?”
“A fashion statement?” Brenda said. “Actually, they told me it’s because they figured that the best way to not stand out in the Metro is too look like they’re trying to. Everyone just assumes they’re some kind of street performers heading to Hollywood and Highland and ignores them.”
“So it’s not as stupid as it looks?”
“Personally, I think it looks kind of sexy on them,” Brenda replied.
“At least we know exactly where they live,” Rita said.
“We got the building address, anyway,” Brenda said.
“Don’t be modest. You got their exact unit number as well.”
“But… those two are very clever,” Rita continued. “They figured out almost immediately that we were watching, and gave our crew the slip.”
“Why were you following them?”
“To figure out their methods. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to slip GPS on their car, so the last we saw them, they were headed generally toward Burbank. Or Glendale. Or who knows where else out the 134.”
“I wonder if it was Forest Lawn,” Brenda mused.
“Which one?” Rita asked. “They’re all over the damn city.”
“But why do you need to follow them to figure out their methods? You can pretty much see them on all the videos.”
“Well, methods and motives. I mean, you must have wondered,” Rita whispered. “What do they do with these things once they catch them?”
“I assume that they’re working for someone,” Brenda said.
“They didn’t tell you?”
“No. I mean, only vaguely. They hinted that they couldn’t say anything because it’s some government organization they work for.”
“Oh, goddammit!” Rita grunted. “How are we going to steal them to work for us if they already work for some government agency? And are they rivals within the county, just city level, or something else?”
“They only alluded to the idea that it’s an agency they’d normally hate working for, so given that they a couple of gay millennials, I’d say that it has to be federal.”
“Hm…” Rita mused. She took out her phone, tapped and swiped, then handed it to Brenda. On it was a photo of a Tesla that had been painted purple with an orange racing stripe running along its length. It had California vanity plates that read ECTO-42.”
“Damn,” Brenda said. “Double nerd reference. And who the hell paints a Tesla?”
“Someone who owns it,” Rita said. “But what government agency could they possibly work for that they own a Tesla?”
“Especially that one,” Brenda replied. “Tesla X, Performance version. That’s the most expensive one.”
“Why would you know that?” Rita asked her.
“I had to talk Jonah down from a little mid-life crisis a couple of years ago. Got him to settle for a Prius instead.”
“That’s not all,” Rita went on. “They own their condo, too. Free and clear.”
“Although, of course, while we could get the info about that, we couldn’t get their names.”
“Joshua and Simon,” Brenda said.
“Yes, but Joshua and Simon what?” Rita asked.
“Yeah, good point.”
“Shit,” Rita sighed. “I mean, even if you want to hire them as contractors, I guess…”
“Yeah, but wait. You know how long it takes government to do anything, especially the county, because the supes have to figure out how they can grease their palms off of it first and I did not just say that out loud to you, thank you — ”
Rita gave a loud, hard laugh at that, put her right hand on her heart, raised her left and said, “Amen, sister.”
“But why the hell would I want to actually run an agency or department or whatever when all that does is shove me in the spotlight?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Bump to the highest pay grade, county executive? Brenda, you could by your husband and all three of your kids their own Teslas.”
“Not really,” Brenda replied. “What are they even thinking of calling this department, anyway?”
“Well, we can’t exactly call it the Los Angeles County Department of Investigating Supernatural Shit Going Down in our Metro System, can we,” Rita said. “So we were thinking something like The Riordan Legacy Project, since this was kind of his doing in the first place.”
“You do know that that mofo is still alive, right?”
“And didn’t you tell me that you voted for him twice?”
“Only once,” Brenda insisted. “I was two young the first time. Second time was because Tom Hayden seemed a little too scary radical for me.”
“Weren’t your parents like crazy old-school hippie activists, though?” Rita asked.
“My mother still is,” Brenda replied.
“And your… Oh, shit. I’m so sorry. I forgot.”
“It’s okay,” Brenda said. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay — what happened. But I don’t expect everyone to constantly, you know. Life goes on.”
“Okay, but seriously, we create a special department to investigate these things, with an eye on maybe — just maybe — eventually revealing the truth to the public — ”
“As if!” Brenda scoffed.
“What would you call it? What title would you like, which county building would you like your offices in, and how much should we pay those cute little gay ghost hunters of yours?”
“Did you just use the G-word?”
“No. Ghost,” Brenda said. “I’m not even sure that’s what we’re dealing with here.”
“Then what do you think they are?” Rita asked.
Brenda shrugged. “I don’t know. Something… different? Weird? Maybe not even a spiritual or supernatural phenomenon at all?”
“So you do want to know!” Rita smiled, pointing at Brenda, who looked up, then down, then back at her.
“Okay. Busted,” she replied. “But no way in hell I want to run the whole show. Nuh-uh, not in a million years. I’d rather be behind the scenes, with my two cute little gay guys. Why don’t you run it?”
“Really?” Rita asked.
“Yes, really. You,” Brenda said.
“Oh my god, thank you,” Rita replied. “See, I told them that you’d never want the top spot, but they didn’t believe me. But I never in a million years would ever try to talk you out of it. Which I didn’t, right?”
“Of course you didn’t. Girl, you practically shoved me into.”
“So, wait… who did you tell, and why do you sound like this thing is already going to happen?”
“Fair questions,” Rita said. “Obviously, I told the Board of Supervisors when they brought me in to describe the project and suggest you for the top role.”
“The fucking supes. Of course,” Brenda sighed. “And…?”
“The Los Angeles County Bureau of Anomalous Events. Seems bland enough, right?”
“Did some asshole downtown actually try to make that acronym be BAE, or was it an accident?”
“Is it…” Rita paused, thought it out, then laughed. “Holy shit,” she said. “That must have been one horny fucker in Norwalk who pulled that one out of his or her ass.”
“Yeah, that County Seal is going to look ridiculous.”
“So… are you onboard?” Rita asked her.
“As what?” Brenda replied.
“Well, I don’t think they’d go for a title like Assistant to the Beautiful Latinx Goddess in Charge, so how about… BAE Deputy Director?”
“I don’t know,” Brenda replied. “I was thinking more along the lines of Chief County Fag Hag?”
“No, you silly bitch. But, how about we dump the BAE and deputy anything, and make it… oh, I know. Executive Director of Anomalous Investigations?”
“Ooh. Now you’re thinking like a bureaucrat, girl. Yeah, I think that’s doable. What am I saying? They gave me carte blanche. Of course it is. Although your acronym is about sad robots.”
“What?” Brenda asked in surprise.
“It’s ED, AI,” Rita replied.
“Oh shut up,” Brenda snapped back at her, and then they laughed and high-fived.
Yeah, Brenda thought, this might actually turn out to be interesting.
Joshua and Simon got home from visiting Drew and Brent late in the evening because Brent was a southern gentleman with Cajun roots, and if there was one thing he always did for his guests, it was to feed them, so the boys were not allowed to leave right away, especially after announcing their engagement — clutch the pearls!
Brent ran off to the kitchen, and set to cooking the famous Cajun “Holy Trinity” (onions, bell pepper, and celery) as the basis for what was going to become chicken gumbo.
He also phoned a few friends to come on over, and they started arriving within half an hour. Joshua and Simon knew some of them, but not all of them, although Joshua had stayed naked and in the pool while Simon had gotten completely dressed at the first hint of company.
It wasn’t even anywhere near dark, and wouldn’t be for a while, Joshua thought. Why waste good daylight?
“You know, I’d love to stay for dinner,” Simon told him, “But we picked up some really important information here, and I’d love to act on it as soon as possible.”
“So do I, dear,” Joshua replied. “But think about it. First, we’re going to have to come up with a strategy and a game-plan, and that’s going to take more than five minutes. And then, what? We’re going to try to pull it off after dark, which we both know is when these things seem to be the most alert and active?”
“But we have a chance to test our biggest theory!” Simon insisted.
“I know,” Joshua said. “But that is exactly why we need to take our time doing it. Tomorrow will be fine. Tonight… just relax and enjoy dinner, okay?”
“I’m sorry, honey. Really. You know how anxious I get about this shit. But, you’re right. We have time. Preston isn’t going anywhere.”
“Love you,” Joshua replied, and Simon just smiled back at him and nodded.
That was when Brent came outside and saw them and announced loudly, “There you two are!” It always struck Joshua as really funny that, while Brent never drank, something about his natural accent always made him sound drunk, and particularly right now.
The other guests came outside to crowd around.
“The nude one is Joshua, the really hot but shy one is Simon,” he announced. “They are very dear friends of ours, have been a couple forever, but finally decided to make it official, so this is their ad hoc and impromptu engagement party!”
Everyone cheered and applauded and Simon looked into Joshua’s eyes.
“Well, fuck,” he muttered.
“Roll with it, dear. Dinner will be worth it.”
By the time dinner was served, the sun was setting, and Joshua had finally deigned to get dressed again. He and Simon sat together at the head of the long table, and they both were amazed at how much food Brent had managed to make happen mostly by himself in such a short time.
Oh, he had the help of some guys he’d recruited to chop this and stir that, but otherwise, he was a one-man maniac in the kitchen.
The end results were amazing.
During the meal, Joshua and Simon were the center of attention, with Brent helping to drive the conversation, and the guests had so many questions, but they both decided that they had to be vague.
“What do you two do for a living?”
“Um… we code,” was about all they said. This had the advantage of making the much older guests, who were the majority, completely lose interest in that line of thought. Meanwhile, the younger ones had too many more questions.
“What do you code?” they asked. “Apps? Games?”
“Nothing you’ve ever heard of, really,” Joshua explained.
“It’s niche apps for very specialized industries, like oil drilling or logging,” Simon said.
“Ooh, good ones,” Joshua thought, just staring at his fiancé in awe. If there were two choices that would throw people off of the trail, those were them. Plus they were of less than no interest to the twenty-somethings who had asked what they coded.
They managed to steer the conversation onto musical theatre, and that finally took them out of the center of attention.
It was a bit after nine p.m. that they both finally managed to extricate themselves, politely rejecting the huge Tupperware bucket of gumbo that Brent wanted to send them off with, then they headed back down home, Simon driving this time while Joshua rode shotgun on a couple of their never released to the public apps.
One of them constantly tracked the Bluetooth and WiFi of every phone and vehicle around them to see if they were being followed. The other compared a database of government vehicles to their know tracking tokens, in case any of them got too close.
But they made it back down Laurel Canyon, right on Magnolia, left on Tujunga, and into their garage and down to their spot without being followed, all before ten p.m.
Once they’d gotten back upstairs, Simon was eager to grab the trap and let Preston out, but Joshua stopped him.
“I told you already, honey,” he said. “This one is way too delicate to rush.”
“What is the worst that could happen?” Simon asked. Joshua sighed.
“Sit,” he said. Simon sat on the sofa in the living room, and Joshua tried to explain his thoughts.
“Okay, so… ask yourself this. Dude is born as Danny Winthorpe. That’s who he grows up as. That’s who he is, his entire life, but then…?”
“Well, I mean… apparently, he died and was buried as Preston LeCard, right?”
“Exactly!” Joshua said. “But was he ever really Preston?”
“He thought so,” Simon countered.
“So did we,” Joshua said. “Okay, here’s another one. Who remembers Marion Morrison?”
“Um… who?” Simon asked.
“Oh, right,” Simon brightened. “Yeah, I remember him, even though he was a gigantic, conservative racist dickhead.”
“But you only remember him under the one name, see?” Joshua said.
“Right,” Simon replied. “And?”
“Preston only remembers himself under that name because that’s the only name everyone knew him under. I mean, until we made the connection.”
“Okay,” Simon said. “So what’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is that these things apparently thrive on the memories of the living. So… what happens if one of them is suddenly confronted with two very different and conflicting memories? Is he Preston? Or is he Danny? Which one survives the battle?”
“Oh…” Simon replied, finally getting it before adding, “Shit. So… Tomorrow morning, strategy session, heavy planning, that kind of shit.”
“That kind of shit,” Joshua said.
“Done,” Simon replied, and they hugged for what seemed like an hour, then put thoughts of unleashing Preston out of their minds and went to bed.
* * *
Image: Grand Central Market Downtown L.A., author unknown. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).