Sunday Nibble #86: Teachable moments

Thinking back on one of my favorite screenwriting teachers, and how he had so much to teach us.

An offhand comment that an older friend made on my Facebook timeline today reminded me of one of my old college professors who, sadly, is no longer with us. I had commented on my timeline that we were finally getting serious rain, and his reply was “Burt Lancaster.”

I totally didn’t get the reference, so I googled it and saw that Burt Lancaster was in the film The Rainmaker. Now I knew of that film but had never seen it, but the reason that I did know of it was because of this professor.

He was one of my many screenwriting teachers in college — that was my Major — and one thing he loved to do was give us the set-up for what we later found out were old movies that came out long enough before any of us were born that we probably didn’t know them, and then have us write the first ten to twelve pages of a screenplay telling that story, or write a treatment of the whole film, etc.

It was actually a great exercise, and The Rainmaker entered into it when he told us to write a synopsis based on a con artist who travels the old west trying to sell people on his thundersticks, which will cause rain.

Or something like that. I don’t remember the exact set-up he gave us, but these were always such great exercises because each of us in the class would come up with something so wildly different that it was hard to believe we’d all been given the same prompt.

Okay, actually, no, it wasn’t. That’s how creativity works. Everyone sees a different story in their head.

I was going to say that this would be like doing the same with college kids now, except pitching them films from the 80s and 90s, but there’s one problem with that. Culture has now become permanent and everything exists in a perpetual “now,” so that if you toss them the plot of, say, the Steve Martin film Pennies from Heaven — a man during the Great Depression escapes from the realities of life by imagining everything as elaborate movie musical numbers — they could probably figure out what the source was with a couple of searches.

Either that, or it was in their parents’ video or DVD collection while they were growing up.

Yes, we had VHS and video rentals when I was in college, thank you, as well as laser discs and CDs. We just hadn’t gotten to DVD yet. Or streaming video everywhere online. But unless a film was a classic that got rerun on TV all the time or one that we were shown in various film classes or saw at one of the many revival theatres around town, once it ended its run it ended.

Even though we had VHS, we didn’t have everything on it. A lot of the time it involved conflicting rights issues, which prevented transfer to that format. There were two other biggies. One: Music rights — as in the original song rights were only licensed for a theatrical film release or TV showings, but since home video hadn’t even been conceived at the time, there were no provisions for it.

This is exactly why you will now usually see a clause that says something like, “grants all rights for re-use in whatever media now existing or to be devised throughout the known universe.” It seems extreme, but it covers all the bases.

The other were residuals for above-the-line people, who got them for theatrical release and TV broadcasts. Again, that hadn’t been conceived of when home video showed up, so the various unions for directors, writers, producers, composers, and so on, had to negotiate to get the right to be paid for whatever future form home video took.

But, trust me, at least for the Writers Guild, and I’m sure for the Directors and Actors, it was like pulling teeth to get that extended to cable, then to DVD, and finally to streaming, mainly because the producers and studios would claim, “Oh, we don’t make any money off of that.”

Yeah, my quarterly residual checks say otherwise.

And how appropriate that I digressed into a mini film-history lesson in a story about a screenwriting professor.

His name: Bob Merrill. You may not recognize it, but you’ve probably heard of his work. He was one of the top pop music composers of the 1950s, with hits like Mambo Italiano, which popped up in restaurant commercials in the early 2000s, and just made an appearance in a teaser trailer for the upcoming Lady Gaga/Adam Driver Film House of Gucci.

The song was originally performed by Rosemary Clooney. You may have heard of her nephew George.

Even though he didn’t play an instrument, Bob wrote the lyrics for several Broadway shows, including Funny Girl, and the music and lyrics for others, like Carnival! He also wrote the song How Much Is that Doggie in the Window, and I vividly remember him telling the story of how that happened.

It was the early 50s (the internet tells me the song was first recorded in 1953) and Bob and his writing partner were working for Perry Como’s musical variety show, which had just made the transition from radio to simulcasting on television. It was only a 15 minute program (imagine!) but it did air three times a week, sponsored by a cigarette company (imagine!)

Because of this, Bob and his partner had to pump out about six songs a week for Perry and his guests to perform, so they had to come up with ideas quickly, and it often involved taking a walk around Hollywood to see what they could see.

One day, they were walking around and saw a woman walking her dog, then an elaborate store window display, and Bob found himself looking between the two. Dog. Window. Dog. Window. Seeing the price tags on the clothing in the window, that gave him, “How much?” and then the rest just happened.

Having gotten ideas myself in just this way, it was was utterly credible.

The great thing about Bob, though, was that he had had this long and illustrious career and, while he did love to share his stories, he was very down-to-earth, and never gave the impression that we had to bow down to him because of what he’d created or whom he’d worked with.

Rather, and I think particularly because he was getting way up in years by this point, he just loved sharing his history and knowledge with us in order to help us all become better writers. His delivery was very laid-back and droll, and he always encouraged even when he had to give criticism.

This was unlike some of the other professors in the department, who had no qualms about shitting all over a student’s work if they didn’t like it, even if them not liking it was clearly a generational issue. But I won’t mention any of their names.

But it was a wonderful example of what age and experience can share with youth — even if they don’t speak the same slang or share the same in-jokes and memes. As long as there was mutual respect — which Bob gave us and we gave him — the important thing he taught us was how story worked, how to create memorable characters, and how to write brilliant dialogue.

Sadly, he passed away not too long after college ended for me, although after I’d had my first big successes. Suffering from various physical ailments and not wanting to become a burden to his family in his late 70s, he committed suicide in his car parked in Culver City. (Note that the news article linked there is wildly off on his true age. He was 78, not 74.)

Sadder still, according to his wife, none of his ailments would have proven life-threatening. The desperation was just magnified by his depression.

If you feel that you’re suffering from depression (and its too common companion substance abuse), please contact the various helplines available. In the US, the number is (800) 662-4347. You can also find various helplines in Canada, India, Nigeria, China, the UK, and Germany. Sorry, Ecuador — apparently, that’s not quite a thing there yet.

And yes, I am paying attention to where my readers are coming from, thank you all!

Momentous Monday: Media madness

I’m still surprised, even in this modern era, how naïve most people outside of the entertainment industry bubbles are about how it all really works.

I started out in my early years interning for network TV, then moving to a studio writing program before going on to TV production, finally ending up in film/animation production, staffing, home media, and then back in TV production via the talent and website end of it.

And what I can tell you is this: People who’ve never worked in any aspect of the industry have absolutely not a clue how it works at all. But I already said that.

When I interned for network TV, it was for a company that produced game shows at the latter end of the wave before they briefly died, but judging from all of the fan mail we got, one thing was very clear: People in places outside of major media centers — meaning Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, seemed to think that whoever it was they saw hosting that show and holding the mic actually produced and ran everything.

So every single letter was addressed to the host of the show, and way too many of them were sob stories about how, “We’re so poor, if you just put us on, you could change our lives!” Since one of our shows was on a network that also had a popular soap opera at the time, it wasn’t unusual for us to receive mail for the stars of those shows, but addressed via our show, and it was the same damn thing.

Yep… direct appeals to the people onscreen who had fuck-all to do with actually creating the content on those screens.

In the case of game shows, there are entire staffs of people who do nothing but audition and select contestants and, with rare exceptions (Jeopardy while Alex Trebek was still with us, for example), the host of the show has nothing to do with it except for those taping days which, depending on how they schedule it, could be as little as two days a week to tape five shows, or five days a week to tape an entire season in a month.

Bring it up to modern times with total scams like America’s Got Talent, and every damn thing is manipulated and controlled from beginning to end — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I got to the studio writing program, I learned something else: Executives will pay lip service and bend over backwards trying to support… whatever. In my case, I was supposedly part of their push for LGBTQ representation. Another colleague in that program was meant to represent older women, and we had several POC as well.

And what happened? When we tried to write our stories, they were mostly ignored because they were “not what we’re looking for right now.”

Okay, so then why were you looking for us in the first place?

When I finally got into TV production for a primetime series or two, that was actually fun. I only ever wrote one episode for the second show I worked on, but otherwise, we were a great staff, and worked with fun people. Still, the fan mail was totally buggy because, again, the great unwashed just assumed that the actors they saw onscreen created everything on the spot and were in control of it.

So… god forbid that the producers created a story line that the fans didn’t like, because then the actors in those roles would get hate mail, and it was totally stupid.

Oddly enough, I never saw this problem while working for animated features, or in home entertainment, but that probably makes sense. However… what I still see to this day, especially in people having the misguided impression that anybody can become a billionaire superstar overnight on social media is exactly the same as I saw back in those days of analog broadcast media with rural fans begging the hosts to make them rich.

And I hate to break it to people, but all those big pop stars they adore? Yeah… every single one of them was discovered and then exploited by a major media company. Yes, they may be talented — or may be propped up by a team of really talented people — but, otherwise, they are all just smoke and mirrors.

You can certainly enjoy their stuff, of course, but don’t mistake the artist for anything more than the product, and don’t think that they’re solely creating it, in the same way that your favorite actor on your favorite TV show is creating that.

Sure, there are some who get lucky enough to finally take the reins. Prince is a good example but, don’t forget — there was a point in his career where he was so controlled by Warner Music Group that he rebelled by becoming The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and identifying himself by an unpronounceable symbol.

At the time, outsiders thought he was nuts, but there was method to his madness. By making the change, he made it damn near impossible for Warner to easily publicize his product — and he was holding back his best stuff, just putting out the bare minimum to fulfill his contract.

The second that contract expired, boom. Prince was back, and he started releasing new and amazing material immediately.

Other exceptions include the obvious, like Oprah, but of course it took her years to get to that position. Another is JK Rowling, who was about the only person Warner Bros. gave final approval to, although she may have finally scuttled that deal by going full-TERF.

For game show examples, Simon Cowell is directly involved in the production of his shows, as Alex Trebek was with Jeopardy, as a very hands-on producer but also a very nice guy.

But these are the rare exceptions.

Otherwise… every last act you see mentioned in the mass media, or listed on Billboard charts, or popping up on the trending lists on sites like Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever, is just a packaged product being sold to you, good or not. And, like it or not, they really have little control over which of their product actually gets out there.

Why? Because it’s a money game, run by mostly rich white men who are the gatekeepers of media. Play along, you get to be a playa. Don’t fit their marketing model? Then you get to be a poor artist. Who gets picked is a total crapshoot — or an absolute calculation.

Go look up the history of One Direction, or any boy band, for example.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, step one is to stop consuming crap from artists being sold to us by major media companies and, instead, to seek out local indie artists and supporting them. Second… go make your own art, or find your friends who do, and then tune out anyone being sold to you by a major record label, media company, movie studio, or etc.

Photo © 2018 Jon Bastian, Emmy Statue, forecourt of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, North Hollywood, CA.

A company town

Despite its size, Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is entertainment — film, television, and music, and to a lesser extent gaming and internet. So, growing up here, seeing film crews and running into celebrities all over the place was always quite normal. Hell, I went to school with the kids of pretty big celebrities and never thought much of it. “Your dad is who? Whatever.”

It looks like that company is finally coming back to life after fifteen months of being semi-dormant. It’s tentative, of course, and we may wind up locking down again, especially if a vaccine-resistant variant suddenly pops up. But, for the moment, movie theaters and live venues are reopening, along with the restaurants and other businesses that survived.

But here’s one thing I don’t think a lot of non-locals understand: None of the major studios are actually in Hollywood. How the city of Hollywood — which is where I was actually born — became conflated with the movies is a very interesting story. Once upon a time, there were some studios there. Charlie Chaplin built his at La Brea and Sunset in 1917. It was later owned by Herb Alpert, when it was A&M Studios and produced music. Currently, it’s the location of the Jim Henson Company. The Hollywood Hills were also a popular location for celebrities to live, and a lot of the old apartment buildings in the city were originally designed for young singles who worked in the industry.

Come to think of it, they still serve that purpose, although given the cost of rent in this town, a lot of those studio units are cramming in two tenants.

The one thing that Hollywood did have in abundance: Movie premieres, and that’s still the case to this day. The Chinese, The Egyptian, and the El Capitan are perennial landmarks, and the Boulevard itself is quite often still closed down on Wednesdays for red carpet openings. Although Broadway downtown also boasts its own movie palaces from the golden age of cinema, it was always Hollywood Boulevard that had the great grand openings. It’s also still home to the Pantages, which is the biggest live theater venue outside of downtown, although they generally only do gigantic Broadway style musicals. (Side note on the Chinese Theater — although it’s technically called the TCL Chinese because, owners, nobody refers to it that way, and you’re still more likely to hear it called what it always was: Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Want to sound like a local? That’s how you do it. You’re welcome.)

There is one Hollywood tradition that does not date from the golden age of cinema, though, and it might surprise you. The Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t proposed until the 1950s, and construction on it didn’t begin until 1960 — long after all of the movie studios had left the area.

In case you’re wondering where those studios went, a number of them are in the oft-derided Valley: Universal in Universal City (they like to call themselves “Hollywood” but they’re not), Warner Bros. in Burbank, Disney in Burbank and Glendale, and Dreamworks Animation SKG in Glendale (across from Disney Animation!) all come to mind — and damn, I’ve worked for three out of four of them. On the other side of the hill, in L.A. proper, Sony is in Culver City, 20th Century Fox is in Century City (which was named for the studio), and Paramount is in L.A. proper, right next to RKO, which really isn’t doing much lately, both due south of Hollywood and right behind the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — which isn’t in Hollywood either, but which has a large number of dead celebrities. I think that covers most of the majors. YouTube Studios is in Playa del Rey, on the former sight of the Hughes helicopter factory that also happens to be right below the university I went to for film school, Loyola Marymount.

Like I said, company town.

The other fun part about growing up here is all of the film locations that I see every day, and there are tons. Ever see Boogie Nights? Well, most of that film was basically shot within a five mile radius of where I grew up, with only a few exceptions. Dirk Diggler’s fancy new house once he became a porn star? Yeah, my old hood. Location of the club where Burt Reynold’s character finds Mark Wahlberg’s character? I took music lessons a few blocks away from there. Parking lot where Dirk is mistakenly gay-bashed? Pretty close to the public library where I fell in love with reading.

Remember The Brady Bunch or the movies? Well, that house is only a couple of miles away from where I live now. The OG bat cave? Let me take you to Griffith Park. If you’ve ever seen Myra Breckenridge (you should if you haven’t) the place where Myra dances in the opening is right next to where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now and two doors down from the now Disney-owned El Capitan.

The Loved One (an amazing movie) — Forest Lawn Glendale, where I happen to have at least four ancestors buried. Xanadu? The major setting was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a burned down wreck in my day, but it’s where my dad used to go on date night to roller skate. Go to the Vista Theatre? It sits on the site where D.W. Griffith built one of his biggest sets for Intolerance, his “mea culpa” for making The Birth of a Nation.

I’m not even going to get into how many times the complex I live in has been used for various epic TV shoots (which is a lot) or, likewise, how the area in NoHo I worked in is used by everybody, from YouTubers to major studios. Although, I can tell you that having to put up with film crews and their needs is always a major pain in the ass, especially when it comes to parking vanishing. That’s right — there’s really no glamor in show biz outside of that red carpet.

But I guess that’s the price of admission for growing up and living in a company town and, honestly, I’ve never had a single adult job that wasn’t related to that company ever. (We won’t count my high school jobs as wire-puller for an electrical contractor and pizza delivery drone.)

Otherwise, though — yep. Whether it’s been TV, film, theater, or publishing, I’ve never not worked in this crazy stupid industry that my home town is host to. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. What? Wait tables? Never. Although sharing my home town with tourists is a distinct possibility. I love this place. A lot. And you should too, whether you’re a visitor or a transplant. Welcome!

Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

In honor of the Magic Castle slowly reopening, here’s a reprint of a piece inspired by my visit long ago to the place, in November 2018. It was my second trip but, I hope, not my last.

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!

Sunday Nibble #56: Town and country

I really consider myself a city dweller through and through, and enjoy the liveliness and bustle and sheer scale of large urban areas. I was born in Los Angeles — East Hollywood, actually — and grew up in what I guess would be considered an exurb of the city rather than a suburb.

But the exurb I grew up in happened to be pretty well-developed even at the time. It was, however, about as far as you could get from Hollywood and Downtown L.A., seeing as how our city limits shared its western border with L.A. County proper. Cross that line and you’d wind up in Ventura County.

It was a major bedroom community for the rest of the city outside of the San Fernando Valley, though, and for most of my life growing up, my dad worked right next to Century City. In fact, his office building at 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard abutted the border between Beverly Hills and L.A.

They were on the Beverly Hills side, but my dad could walk a block and wind up in Century City, which was a development actually designed and built by the architectural firm he worked for.

It opened in the mid-60s, but really felt like the city of the future and definitely stood in for just that in a lot of TV and movies shot in the 60s and 70s.

Now, from when I was around about nine years old or so, my dad started taking me to the movies, either in Century City or Hollywood, and once I hit my teens, it was a big treat to catch the bus by my middle school once we were dismissed and ride it all the way down Ventura Boulevard to Hollywood and Highland to meet my dad and go see a movie.

To this day, Hollywood and Highland is the “landing point,” if you will, for public transit from the Valley into the City. It’s the first Metro Red Line Station on the other side of the hill — or the last one if you have a city POV.

At the time, it was about an hour and a half bus ride — actually, it still is — even though it could theoretically be about twenty minutes by car outside of rush hour. Then again, the old 83 bus didn’t take the freeway, and it made stops. But it got me there.

So dad and I would go to Grauman’s Chinese, or the Egyptian, or the El Capitan, or sometimes he’d drive me to another part of town, like Century City, and we’d see a movie together, and it was awesome.

It’s a big part of why I made the stupid decision to try to become a film director only to realize too late, in film school, that my talents weren’t geared toward directing, but rather writing. I would have been an English Major, Spanish or History minor otherwise, I suppose. Or any mix of the three.

But the combination of films we went to and all those trips on public transit through urban corridors also gave me a major interest in Science Fiction, and I whiled away a lot of those bus trips imagining that I was actually on some sort of futuristic monorail or, if I got really creative, that we were on an interstellar craft.

Yeah, I was a total nerd. Still am.

But… besides movie night with dad, there was one other thing in my childhood and teen years that I loved more than anything else, and it belies me being a city boy. That is, a couple of times a year, usually around Easter and Thanksgiving, and sometimes in the summer, mom and dad and I would travel up north about 350 miles to visit my dad’s mother and stepfather on their farm in Atascadero.

Oh, my parents and grandparents always called it The Apple Orchard, but it was a farm as far as I was concerned. But first some backstory.

My dad’s mother was actually born in Oklahoma but wound up in Kansas, where she met her husband, who worked for the railroad, which connected Topeka, Kansas, to Victorville, California. Important later.

She always lied about her birthplace, though, saying that she’d been born in Missouri and had traveled to Kansas when she was three with her family by covered wagon.

Cute story, but… I eventually found official documentation that told me she was born in Oklahoma, and by the time she was three, they had cars and shit, so she didn’t make any trip in a covered wagon.

What she did do that was amazing — and she never bragged about this — was manage to be a single parent raising two boys after her husband basically abandoned the family when the kids were 15 (my uncle) and 12 (my dad). And she was working as either a hotel maid or waitress at the time.

Oh yeah… the other little detail is that my uncle was born way sooner than nine months after my grandmother and grandfather got married, and he was born in… Victorville, which is also where they got married.

So what it seems like, since she was 18 and he was 19 at the time, is that grandpa knocked up grandma, it became a scandal back home, abortion was out of the question, so they fled west. Interestingly enough, though, all of grandpa’s immediate family followed, and they all wound up in Los Angeles.

Grandma’s family, not so much.

But back to the single mother raising two sons. Said sons went off to war and grandmother married her second husband, and from that point on seemed to realize the value of investing in real estate.

So I know that she variously owned homes in Burbank, then Pacoima, and then a house in Atascadero proper and then, ultimately, The Apple Orchard (cough — farm) further up in Atascadero, which was fourteen acres abutting a creek and with its own well.

The two of them built their own house on the property despite being in their 60s by that time, and the only thing they didn’t do on their own was dig the basement and pour the foundations.

Oh… one other thing to mention is that to me, Neva and her second husband Sam were always my grandparents, even though he was really my step granddad. Meanwhile, to my much older half siblings, who had known my biological grandfather, Sam was just “Sam.”

I never met my actual grandfather because he was a resident of the mental hospital in Camarillo for more than half his life and you had to be eighteen to visit. He died when I was thirteen.

But back to city boy/country boy… to me as a kid, The Apple Orchard was magic for a ton of reasons. First off, it was its own little enclave at the end of a long dirt road, with this simple house that was always brightly lit and smelt of the wood stove.

It had a basement with all of my grandpa’s audio equipment — and he was quite the audiophile — but also, there was a slope behind the house that led to the rest of the property. The first chunk was my grandfather’s iris garden — although “garden” really isn’t a big enough word for what he had going.

He was actually pretty well-known as an iris breeder and pioneer in creating new types, so this part of the place was basically a huge experiment in action.

At the bottom of the slope was the poultry pen, with ducks and chickens and roosters, and the Evil Fucking Goose. I call it the EFG because it would spread its wings and hiss at everyone, plus the bastard nipped me more than once. Best revenge was the Easter Dinner when that fucker was the greasy main course. No regrets.

Beyond here, though, there were several storage buildings full of amazing artifacts from my grandparents’ lives, and then just more wilderness.

Meanwhile… on the upper half across from the house, this was where the sheep and pigs lived, and I totally loved going over there to hang out with them. Pigs are very smart and affectionate and, actually, so are sheep.

Walk into a group of them and show some respect, and they’ll just smile and “Baaa” at you for days. Plus rubbing their wool with your hands is one of the best moisturizers ever. (Look it up, it’s called lanolin.)

On top of all that, a bunch of peacocks lived in the trees in front, and the neighbors in the house beyond that had horses, and yes, I spent plenty of time at their fence just talking to and petting those beautiful animals.

So combine all of that with waking up in the mornings to the smell of wood fire and bacon, then walking outside into frequently cool crisp air to just listen and realize that what you were hearing was almost total silence, only broken by the occasional caterwaul of a peacock, baaa of a sheep, distant burbling of the creek, or wing snap of a flock of birds taking flight, and it was another kind of paradise.

Oddly enough, this world fed into my Science Fiction thing as well, so that in addition to one of my themes in writing it being, “Wow, what great things can we bring in the future?” another one is always, “Okay, so what if we fuck it up and have to go back to living in simpler times?”

Of course, in my modern life, since I’ve finally landed a position that is 100% remote work and which may only necessitate occasional travel, I really might be able to live anywhere I want to. The only drawback is that it would be more of an effort to visit IRL friends I care about but, then again, there’s always Zoom, and if I move to some place more like my grandparents’ farm, then I may become the incentive to be the one visited instead of having to do it the other way around.

Who knows? The decade is young and the plague isn’t over, but anything can happen. And, as far as I’m concerned, I’m happy with either city or country. All I need to bring along are my brain and my senses.

Well, and the computer and internet, too.

The Saturday Morning Post #56: The Rêves Part 34

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Nothing good ever happens on Tuesday

It was a bright, warm Tuesday afternoon in Hollywood — August 29th, to be precise — and the buskers were setting up early around the Metro Station at Hollywood and Highland and all down the street past the forecourt of the Chinese Theater, which was pretty much all that was left of the original place by now, but they had managed to stay in business by charging people to come in to see the prints in cement and gawk at the faux-Sino architecture of a bygone era.

Madame Tussauds had managed to hold on, but only because they were an international enterprise on four continents, and the places that hadn’t closed for all that long subsidized the ones that did. They had also early on figured out ways to increase the distance between displays and control traffic, so that people could come and stare at wax visages of celebrities, some alive and some dead.

Except that, recently, the actually dead celebrities had started to infringe on things, not only on the Hollywood site, but at the Washington D.C. version, and concern had gone all the way up to the home office in London.

It was a matter of concern, because a lot of these alleged celebrities showing up in the streets actually infringed upon licensing agreements that the museum had made with the dead celebrity’s estates.

So they sent out a fleet of lawyers and investigators to determine two things: Number one, who the hell was behind this stunt? Number two, who could they serve with papers in order to sue their asses off, on behalf of both the museum and the license-holding estates.

In fact, the whole legal team had been on the job for at least a week, when all of these so-called “ghosts” started to get media attention, but in all of that time, not a one of them had come back with a single piece of plausible evidence tying the whole thing to any single human or corporate entity.

The suits in London were getting more and more annoyed. Well, in American terms, pissed, although by this point, given the frustration of a fruitless investigation, they were probably now getting regularly pissed in the British sense.

It didn’t help that while D.C. was plagued by dead politicians and other American figures left and right, the detectives there couldn’t come up with any answers, either.

Bette Davis loved to hold court in front of the Chinese Theater, regaling fans with stories of her films, while Valentino still insisted on creeping around by Hollywood High. W.C. Fields preferred to stick to the bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, and the Marx Brothers just did their shtick up and down the Boulevard, from Highland to Vine and back again.

Marilyn, being Marilyn, hung out wherever the light was best.

As for the rest of them, they just wandered around at random on the streets of Hollywood, as they did when they were still alive, veering north and south off of the holy path that ran from Grauman’s Chinese eastward to the fabled Hollywood and Vine.

Back at Hollywood and Highland, various remote news crews had set themselves up, from all of the major networks and streamers, and all did their own stories from here. But if someone were to cut them together, it would all be the same exact video.

They all pretty much led with some variation on “Ghosts in Hollywood?” immediately tipping savvy readers off via Betteridge’s Law: If a headline ends with a question mark, then the answer to the question is, “No.”

Of course, in this case, the answer to the question was actually, “Sort of yes,” but what all of the stand-up reporters were hinting at and trying to discover was the mastermind behind what was clearly a viral campaign of some sort, backed by some very high tech.

What they failed to notice in their coverage was that elsewhere on the Boulevard, social media influencers had descended, and they were corralling these Rêves left and right, in order create their own viral things.

It was a weird dynamic, because some 20-ish kid would Google lens a Rêve, look up their bio and memorize the titles of or quotes from some films they’d never heard of, then do the old “rush and gush,” convince the celeb that said kid is their biggest fan, and then either get some selfies with them or, ultimate goal, talk the celeb into doing a short TikTok dance.

What the Class II Rêves never caught onto, of course, was their lack of understanding the current power dynamic. In their minds (or at least their trapped memories) they were the major celebrities whom the world loved. So they were more than happy to help the sweet kids who came up raving about their works.

What they didn’t know and couldn’t understand was that any one of these kids was more famous — at least to their generation and maybe the one before — than any Class II Rêve could ever be now, mostly because the fanbases who knew them live had died off long ago.

But Bette Davis had no idea, and Alec Queen, better known as AQMDj, Insta, YouTube, and TikTok superstar around the world, got her to dance with him in her Baby Jane persona, and overnight became the first person on Earth to get a billion views on two out of the three platforms.

“While we can’t identify some viral marketing campaign behind the sudden invasion of what appear to be the ghosts of famous people,” ran the rather boring and generic ending of all those mainstream media reports, “What we can say for sure is that whatever is wandering around Hollywood are not ghosts. Back to you… [Insert local anchor’s name.]”

Along the Boulevard, character Peter Lorre tried to get the attention of the young people he saw taking pictures with the other Class II’s, but none of them paid him any notice. He finally sulked into a corner and sat, brooding, epitomizing every character he had ever played.

“Why does everyone hate me so?” he said in the strongest version of his accent that he only played up for the public.

Fortunately, character Peter Lorre had sucked up every last bit of real Peter Lorre’s self-doubt, because that was the engine that drove his performances.

He finally just got sick of the spectacle and whisked on back to his grave.

At the same time, up in the mountains, Pearl and Anabel were walking around the ruins of what had been Ausmann’s cabin while the Hadas swarmed around them. They were quite aware of where Jerry had been buried, and the circumstances of his death, but Pearl used their powers to keep the Hadas focused away from any kind of revenge and keep them centered in, well, Pearl.

“Do you think that they’ll succeed once Simon comes back?” Anabel asked.

“Don’t discount the power of love,” Pearl said. “And the power between those two is strong. Plus, they’re both very smart. If anyone can defeat our enemy, they will.”

“They don’t seem all that well-armed,” Anabel countered.

“Oh, actually, they just obtained their superweapon after the funeral,” Pearl explained.

“What’s that?” Anabel asked.

“An apparent Class II who really isn’t,” Pearl said. “All it’s going to take is Joshua arming it before taking it into the field, but we are absolutely certain that he can do that.”

“I’m… not even sure what you’re talking about,” Anabel replied.

“Think back to the questions Ausmann asked you when he had you in captivity,” Pearl said, but Anabel just shrugged. “I know, it must have been traumatic, but I was watching. He wanted to know all of our secrets and how we could be destroyed.”

“Oh, right,” Anabel muttered. “I kind of — ”

“I know, Pearl said. “I kind of wiped that memory. But look at the brilliance. Joshua has turned the table on Ausmann, and he’s never going to see it.”

“I’m not sure I see it, either,” Anabel said.

“It’s simple,” Pearl replied, but then they were interrupted by several black helicopters suddenly pulling into view at the same time as dozens of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s vans came screaming up the mountain, lights and sirens in full effect, and they all converged on the ruins of Ausmann’s hideaway.

The lead vehicle was marked “Arson/Bomb Detail.”

The Hadas chose this moment to flee the area — or at least fade into the trees.

“Well, this ought to be interesting,” Anabel said.

“Indeed,” Pearl agreed.

Numerous armed and armored law enforcement officers poured out of the vehicles while more heavily armed and armored law enforcement officers dropped from the helicopters, assault rifles at the ready.

They did a search around the area, guns drawn, calling clear to each other at various points, focusing on the crater that stood where the cabin had been.

“Fire in the hole!” one of them called out, the others slapping on ear-guards and covering their eyes just before the flash-bang that one officer had tossed into the crater went off.

It revealed nothing.

“Stand down!” another voice called. “We are considering this a sterile site, perp not present.”

“What about booby-traps?” someone called out.

“We think he shot his wad,” the first voice replied. “What we’re looking for — very gently — is any bit of forensic clues we can scrounge up to give us the motive. Consider the location safe, and proceed accordingly.”

The officers proceeded to sweep the area, some with metal detectors, others with UV flashlights, and still others with trained dogs. There were even those few rare humans who had no apparent tools, but who had been in the business so long that they could see other things that most people, even professionals, missed.

The younger officers privately derided them as “The Gummer Shoes,” a term they would never use around the first officer, who had told them to stand down.

And why wouldn’t they? Because Captain Schrantz followed the rules and sailed a tight ship, and she would have psychologically slapped the shit out of any of her subordinates who acted, as she put it, “Like a whiny little 2020 karen.”

When she called out, “Officer who dropped that flash-bang, report to me immediately,” knees went weak and testicles retracted as every man on the squad empathized with whoever would have the balls (if not for long) to respond.

Meanwhile, every woman on the squad quietly smiled and nodded internally. They were really over this toxic masculinity bullshit.

Of course, everyone was surprised as fuck when Lieutenant Ramirez stepped forward, because he was famous as the first transgender person to have been accepted by San Bernardino County. In fact, it was his court case that finally forced the county to recognize transgender individuals and correctly gender them on all county forms.

When Ramirez finally dumped his dead-name and became forever and legally Lucas, it opened major doors. Everyone on his squad knew this, which is why they were doubly shocked when he stepped forward after the Captain’s request.

“Did you drop that grenade?” Schrantz asked.

“Sir, yes sir!” Ramirez replied.

“And why did you do it?”

“Because it was an honorable action, sir.”

And it was as if the entire squad took a collective breath, because no one had any idea how this was about to play out.

The Captain stared at Ramirez for a long, long moment, then finally asked, “So… why did you consider that action honorable?”

“Simple, Captain,” Ramirez replied. “We really had no idea whether the place was safe, given our briefing, and the psycho-history of the perp. He’s coming damn close to being a serial killer, and per his profile, taking out a few law enforcement officers, regardless of station, would have been a feather in his cap.

“So, sorry if I overreacted, but I was just doing what good officers do, which is clearing the area before they have to enter the danger-zone. Sir, thank you, sir!”

Lucas snapped his heels together, nodded, and stepped back.

Schrantz considered his words for a long, long time, finally just sighing and muttering to herself, “Well… fuck.”

“We can’t fault you for helping,” she finally said. “And we can’t penalize you for being sincere. Just… in the words of Darth Vader, ‘No disintegration!’”

This lightened the mood immediately, as Schrantz had intended. One of her strongest leadership skills was the ability to defuse a tense situation with an unexpected bit of improvised humor.

“We found something!” one of her officers called out over the radio, and so all of them converged on a spot where they quickly excavated the grave that held Jerry’s body.

“Son of a bitch,” Schrantz muttered. “Any ideas?”

“Bullet hole in his head says it was probably homicide,” Ramirez explained. “We can airlift him to the coroner, run a full autopsy. Might want to have the forensics crew check the body for ID now, start looking for connections to our perp.”

“Excellent idea,” Schrantz said, nodding to a nearby officer, who went to notify the forensics team. By the time they were loading the body onto the helicopter an hour later, Schrantz knew the man’s name and address, and a quick check of his phone showed that his last phone call had been from a very familiar name.

The display just read, “Ausmann,” and the call came in the early evening just over a week ago. She was willing to bet that when they recovered the GPS history from the phone, that was also when it would move from L.A. up to Big Bear, and then stop.

That wasn’t the only connection to Ausmann though, at least not according to what Captain Davis of the Simi Valley PD had explained when she’d called after the bulletin about the explosion went out. In fact, that was the reason why Schrantz and her crew were up here in the first place.

Random explosion, possibly an accident with a propane tank. But when a cop tells you, “You know, this guy’s house down here was also destroyed under mysterious circumstances during that freak storm, and we found his wife’s corpse in it,” well, that’s when you pay attention.

After the helicopter lifted off and on the way back to the command car, Schrantz called Davis, who answered immediately.

“Captain Schrantz!”

“Captain Davis. I have some… interesting news, but it certainly bolsters your case.”

“Oh my god, what?” Davis asked.

“Our boy is apparently a murderer in two counties now, although he wasn’t as careful to make this one look accidental like you told me he did with his wife.”

“Really?” Davis replied, incredulous.

“Really,” Schrantz said.

“So, how do we coordinate from here?”

“APB time, I’ll coordinate the southern counties, maybe even let them know in Nevada in case he tries to flee east. You keep an eye out up there in case he sneaks back to the roost, and I’ll also loop in the Pasadena PD.”

“Excellent,” Davis said.”

“On the way back down to HQ, I’ll call our tech guys and have them set up a private intranet to use as a multi-divisional clearinghouse for all information on the case. And I do mean all. No matter how tiny or stupid you think a hunch is, share it.”

Davis just laughed. “You kidding?” she said. “Some of my biggest busts have happened because I took a tiny, stupid hunch seriously. Hey, we’ll have to get together and talk shop some time when this is over. Is there a Mr. or Mrs. Schrantz?”

“Sadly, no,” she replied. “Well, unless you want to call my badge ‘mister.’”

“I so get that,” Davis replied. “Don’t give up hope. But let’s definitely meet up. My husband is an amazing chef.”

“I’ll definitely keep that in mind,” Schrantz said. “Okay, I’m heading back down now, and I’ll keep you posted.”

“Okay, bye.”

They hung up and Schrantz got into the car. Meanwhile, Davis dialed Lewis’ extension.

“Yes?” he asked when he picked up.

“Guess whose hunch was right,” she sing-songed to him teasingly.

“Get out,” he replied.

“Get in here, and I’ll tell you the whole story.”

As Lewis hung up his phone, Ausmann was answering his.

“There are some cops here asking about that guy,” Austin said.

“Thank you,” Ausmann replied. He had already taken to keeping himself heavily disguised in latex at all times as “sunburnt old homeless person.” He now got into the wheelchair he’d had delivered and rolled himself down the hall, into the elevator, and to the lobby.

He casually rolled past the main desk, where several L.A. County Sheriff’s officers were asking the desk clerk about a Mr. Ausmann, and busied himself with the tourist pamphlets next to the concierge desk, where Austin was helping a tourist couple who didn’t speak English. Ausmann was rather surprised when Austin replied to them in fluent Korean.

But then the clerk directed the cops to Austin, and he apparently told the Korean couple to wait as he answered their query. They showed him photos and told him the name, and asked if that man had been in the hotel, and Austin immediately answered, “Nope. Haven’t seen him, and nobody by that name is on the books.”

“Are you sure?” one of the Sheriffs asked.

“It’s my job to know who’s in our hotel, and that man is not,” Austin replied.

The Sheriffs looked at each other, disappointed, then thanked Austin and exited.

Austin went back to helping the Korean couple. Ausmann waiting until he was done and they left, then rolled up to the desk.

“Hi,” Austin announced breezily. “How can I help you?”

“Remember me?” Ausmann said, waiting a beat while Austin looked confused, and then slapping a trio of Franklins on the desk. “Excellent job at informing me, and deflecting them. More to follow if you keep it up. And I think I’m a couple of steps closer to getting to Ausmann before they do, so thanks!”

“Thanks?” Austin replied, pocketing the money. As an employee in his position, he lived in a suite at the hotel, so didn’t pay rent, but he certainly had plenty of other expenses.

At home, Brenda was sitting on the porch swing out back alone, sipping a glass of McBride Sisters Collection Central Coast California Red Blend, 2016 vintage, contemplating life and everything that had happened in the last month or so.

Well, almost a month, and that’s what made it even weirder to think about. It had been a very eventful August, indeed, and it had made her reconsider her current place in life.

Oh, she was absolutely head over heels in love with her whole extended family and their situation. They all got to be together, the kids were turning out great, Jonah continued to evolve as a person… and so did she.

Which is why she realized that she was getting tired of government work, had absolutely no interest in moving up that food chain, and was really looking for a change. Fifty was barreling down the tunnel at her and would be here in a few years. She wanted to leave a legacy as more than just a Metro line functionary.

But what? She had considered going into advocacy for transgender children for obvious reasons, but was resistant because, as a straight cis-woman, despite her experience as the mother of a transgender child, she did not feel qualified to speak on their behalf.

Oh, she could support their rights at every turn, and she sure as hell would. She just knew that it wouldn’t be right to speak as an authority on their lives — something she wished that more people got in all the various combinations. “Stand with us, but stand behind us, then hold us up when we get shoved,” should be the motto every marginalized group uses with their “allies.”

She had found herself really fascinated with Joshua and Simon’s work, and incredibly moved and saddened that it had led to Simon’s death. She was seriously considering talking to Joshua about doing something in that field, although it would not be for the county or state government. She’d want to go strictly freelance and, by this point, she had a feeling that Joshua wanted to help these ghostly companions.

What was it he said they preferred to be called? Oh, right. Rêves. Well, except for the mysterious oldest and all-powerful ones who hung out in nature and were a collective. What was the word again? Las hadas silvestres.

And he’d explained to her at one point that their ex-human representative, as it were, was an entity that comprised all of them at once, sort of, went by the name of Pearl and the pronouns they, them, and theirs, although most commonly, Pearl appeared as who they had been originally before taking on the collective.

“Janis Joplin,” he said.

“Oh, get out!” Brenda had replied, but he insisted it was true and explained why. Something about cremation changed the dynamic, so the Rêves of the cremated, which Hadas technically were, didn’t come back in the same form.

The only reason that Janis managed it was because so many people still knew her when she died and remembered her, which gave her the strength of a Class I, but the powers of a Hada. She ultimately chose the latter.

The rest of them were mostly those forgotten in the early days of the AIDs epidemic because they had died far from home, shunned by their families, and often even by their friends after the diagnosis. A lot of them died indigent, with no one to claim the bodies, so it was into the county incinerator they went.

Brenda wanted to help them all — not just the Hadas, but the Rêves, especially the poor Class IIs, who were forever trapped in someone else’s version of who they had really been.

She hadn’t asked Joshua yet, but she knew the backstory on Preston and Danny, and wanted to know what they were considered, seeing as how they were essentially the same person, but separated into two different classes.

That was it then, she decided. She wanted to work with Joshua to create some sort of agreement between the humans and all of these others, maybe even enlist the Hadas to help humans fix the environment.

Joshua had also explained that the mystery storm almost two weeks ago had been the Hadas doing, so if they could move the weather in a calamitous direction like that, perhaps they could move it the other way as well.

As Brenda sipped her wine, Joshua was explaining his plan with Lorre to Danny and Preston. He definitely needed them there to reassure their… guest, but assured them they could leave if the idea of a Rêve in a cage was too traumatic.

Both of them insisted that it wouldn’t be, so Joshua continued.

“Okay,” he said. “It’s a two-part thing. The first is, we need him to tell us what the Rêves are vulnerable to — that is, what will kill them. Likewise, the Hadas. Second is, we need to tell him what to tell Ausmann so he winds up not killing any of them and shooting himself in the ass.”

Danny and Preston looked at each other and laughed.

“Dude, what are we?” Danny asked.

“You do know that all of us know the answer to the magic question, right?” Preston continued.

“You… what?” Joshua looked at them confused.

“Yeah, it’s a funny thing,” Preston said, “But when we first come up — you know, pop out of the ground and back into awareness — it’s like this voice is speaking in our heads, telling us what we can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do, why we’re here, and what could end it. It’s probably Pearl.”

“You both know?” Joshua asked them, stunned.

“Well, duh!” they said in unison.

“So…?”

“So,” Preston went on, “Your fancy machine created us and keeps creating new Reves, but it’s at just the right level. We all get some energy from it, but would get enough from the environment alone to continue on — ”

“He means actual sciencey energy,” Danny interjected, “And not the bullshit woo-woo kind.”

“Thank you!” Preston said before he continued. “You probably think that stopping the machine or turning it off would kill us all, but it’s the other way around. Increasing the energy output would rip us all right out of existence.”

“It would take about a ten percent increase, actually,” Danny said.

“Wow,” Joshua said. “But shutting it down would do nothing?”

“We just know that it wouldn’t kill us,” Preston explained.

“If ‘kill’ is the right word,” Danny added.

“Hm,” Joshua mused, pacing. “Okay, okay. But, as far as I know, it’s a machine that can’t be turned off. At least not easily. Too many fail-safes and command chains to go through.”

“Couldn’t you just unplug it?” Preston offered. Joshua gave him stink eye.

“You’d have to nuke Pasadena to do that,” he said, “And even then, it’s not a guarantee.”

“Fuck,” Danny reacted.

“Indeed,” Joshua said. “Okay, we’re going to have to leave Mr. Lorre on ice for a bit longer while I figure out whether there’s a way to disable the machine. Do either or both of you feel like reporting to General Pearl and General Anabel that we do have our secret weapon, but it’s going to take a bit longer to arm?”

“Of course!” they both replied.

“Dude, you take fake mommy, and I’ll take the Hadas, okay?” Preston asked.

“Why?” Danny replied.

“Because I’m dressed for one and not the other.”

“You aren’t wearing shit.”

“Exactly,” Preston shot back. “Bye!” and then he ran out onto the balcony and shot into the air.

“I guess he has a point,” Danny muttered, waving to Joshua and making his own exit.

Joshua dipped into the stolen files yet again, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening searching every last nook and corner of the data for information on how to stop the machine.

Danny and Preston returned just after midnight while he was still going at it, and he told them to do what they wanted while he worked, so they binged more stuff they hadn’t seen.

Joshua’s journey down the rabbit-hole continued endlessly until about four in the morning, when he was fighting nodding off on the keyboard, and trying to focus on technical diagrams of the primary transmitter for the machine, which was on the JPL end.

He studied the specs over and over, did some calculations, and realized that he just might be onto something. He carefully documented his idea in a memo to himself that he printed out and then set on the laptop keyboard before shutting down and closing the lid.

He’d work on it in more detail tomorrow. But, for now, he just needed sleep. He said his good-nights to Preston and Danny, and headed to his room, where he said his own good-night to Simon, at least in his head, as he had every night since the day his husband had died.

No, hadn’t died. He had been murdered. He didn’t shuffle off this mortal coil. He was pinky-lifted, false-cut, and bottom dealt into the abyss. Now, Joshua was gunning for the evil sorcerer who had done it, and he was not going to miss his target.

* * *
 
Image source Antoine Taveneaux, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Saturday Morning Post #52: The Rêves Part 30

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

A grave undertaking

The next day, Joshua made the arrangements with the cemetery. Well, he activated them at least, because they’d set up the plot, marker, and other extras previously. Neither of them had ever planned to have a big to-do, and they certainly never planned to have it so soon, although they had taken the precaution when they decided to go into the ghost-hunting business, just in case.

“Metro Stations can be dangerous,” Simon had advised Jason, who agreed.

Funeral insurance covered the cost, and Simon’s life insurance payout would give Jason a nice donation to make, via the Ada Lovelace Foundation, to Simon’s favorite charities.

“So at least I won’t be completely useless in death,” Simon had half-joked when he had explained those wishes.

Preston and Danny stuck with Joshua the entire time, and he really appreciated having them there. He jokingly referred to them as “My emotional support Rêves,” wondering whether this meant that he could take them into stores everywhere.

“Only if he learns how to materialize clothes,” Danny joked about Preston.

“I think I should just call you Dr. Manhattan,” Joshua said.

“Dude!” they exclaimed simultaneously, and then said in similar words at the same time that Watchmen was their absolute favorite book, and they even liked the movie if it was… different.

Joshua agreed with them, although they had both also read Doomsday Clock, the graphic novel sequel while he had not.

“You know they made a sequel miniseries based on it?” Joshua told them. “It came out four years ago or so.”

“No shit!” Danny gushed.

“Is it any good?” Simon replied.

“Oh, yeah,” Joshua told them. “Hey — we’ve got nowhere else to go until the funeral, and it’s only about nine hours. Want to binge it?”

“Yes!” they both announced excitedly, so Joshua dropped the black-out shades, fired up the big screen, and they all settled back for a marathon.

It had been as good as Joshua remembered from his first three viewings, and it was nice to watch it with someone who’d never experienced it. Danny and Simon were squeeing left and right like total fanboys, shuddering in giddy excitement at every sudden revelation and big plot turn.

The appearance of the teleported squid in Episode 5 really sent them into ecstasy, because this was one of the biggest — and most criticized — changes in the movie version.

Joshua couldn’t help but notice, too, that time apart, so to speak, had let Danny and Preston differentiate a bit. Not that they had started out as the same people, mentally, but their reactions were not absolutely identical, even if physically they were.

The only difference between them were their haircuts, which made sense because Preston had had access to and the means to afford high-end stylists while Danny hadn’t, but the changes were subtle enough that he really had to look for them.

They had started the marathon around eight in the morning and finished it, with an hour break for lunch and slightly longer for dinner (well, for Joshua) just after 7 p.m., at which point he opened the shutters and went onto the balcony with his phone, leaving Danny and Preston to eagerly discuss what they had just seen.

Nerd pornstar. Who knew?

He called Brett and Drew first to let them know the details of the funeral, then had to talk them out of inviting anyone else along.

“We’ve both always wanted this to be very private,” he said. “So I hope that you’d respect Simon’s wishes.”

They insisted on hosting a huge funeral procession, but Joshua explained that the funeral home was on the cemetery grounds, so it would be one hearse bringing the coffin out to the gravesite before the mourners arrived, and there wasn’t going to be any kind of religious service at all.

“A reception. You need a reception!” Brett insisted.

“Yeah, well… maybe an intimate dinner at someplace with great steaks after,” Joshua said. “But that’s it.”

“Done, and on us!” Brett replied.

“Thanks,” Joshua said. “See you there, then.”

His next call was to Brenda, for the same reason, and after she took down the details and agreed to the invite, he said, “Hey, so tell me about your family.”

She explained that there would be five of them — in addition to Brenda, one husband, two children, and one mother, hers. They had one other daughter, but she was off to school, and hadn’t come home for summer break because she was picking up extra units in summer school.

“Oh… I should explain,” Brenda added. “Our youngest is transgender.”

“Oh, cool,” Joshua replied. “What are their pronouns?”

“She, her, and hers, and thank you for asking,” Brenda said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Joshua replied.

“A lot of people are not understanding and, sorry to say it, that includes gay people as well.”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” he replied. “I’ve met plenty of transphobic gay men, generally the older ones, who can also be total racists. Just because we’re part of a traditionally oppressed group doesn’t mean we can’t be bigoted assholes, too.”

“Amen to that, brother. So, we’ll see you at the funeral, then. Is there a service before, or is that family only…?”

“No service,” Joshua said. “And our friends were and are our family. We’re probably doing dinner or something after though, and you all are absolutely welcome.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Brenda said.

“Thanks. See you there.”

Joshua hung up and realized that he’d probably just added another really close friend to his group, and it had all started with a government official harassing him and his husband while they were doing their job. Who knew?

And that had been only… what? A week and a half ago at most?

At the mortuary, the mortician started his work on Simon the afternoon after he arrived. It was always sad to see someone so young die. Fortunately, his cause of death had left him looking relatively intact.

Contrary to popular belief, human beings do not explode like watermelons when dropped from a great height. Most of the damage is internal, and Simon had been no exception. A lot of his bones were broken, and presumably he had suffered major internal organ damage — at least that’s what the attending physician’s report had said.

After the embalming part was done, the mortician, Olam Sharon, took a look to see what he had to work with.

It was going to take a lot of packing of the chest cavity to give it some sort of shape, since the hospital had removed the internal organs in the autopsy and the ribs were too fractured to support anything.

Oh, the organs were all there. They were just sealed in a biohazard bag left in the abdomen, and it wasn’t a mortician’s place to put them back together like an anatomical model. He just left them in there as he filled in the rest of the cavity.

Olam placed an assortment of newspaper, sawdust and florist’s foam in the space, with more florist’s foam on top so he could easily mold the chest into something looking normal. This was made easier by the fact that they hadn’t sewn up the Y-incision that ran from each of the decedent’s armpits to a midline just below his sternum, then all the way down to just above his pubic bone.

Olam preferred to never think of his clients by name for two reasons. One was that it made it much easier for him to think of them as precious objects to be restored for their loved ones. The other was that thinking the name could alert evil spirits to their presence, and should their soul still be hanging around, the evil ones might snatch it instead of letting it be extinguished to leave only their good deeds and life behind.

Okay, he didn’t really believe that last part, but his bubbe Mavet had told him many tales, including why you should never name a child after a living ancestor.

Once he’d filled in the decedent’s chest and abdominal cavities, he folded the skin back in place and then began to sew it shut, from top right all the way down, then from top left likewise, to give double stitching down the abdomen.

He’d learned to sew from his uncle Moishe, who had been a tailor, and at one point his family expected him to go into that business. Olam had wound up taking a different path, though, after his best friend died in a terrible accident just after they both became bar mitzvah.

They’d been playing around the train tracks near where they lived in the West Valley — this was back in the mid-1970s — and given that safety standards were a lot looser back then, the freight trains thundered down the rights-of-way mere feet from the back walls of tract homes, with nary a gate or wall to keep curious kids from wandering onto the dirt sidings next to them.

The only precautions were the flashing lights and guardrails that dropped across some (but not all) at-grade intersections.

Decades later, this line would be converted into the Metro G line, a busway, with huge warning signs saying “Keep Out!” on the sidings at every crossing along with fences blocking pedestrian access.

But Olam and Jakov were free-range children and had been playing near the tracks that summer afternoon, doing their usual shenanigans of putting pennies on the rails. When the penny came flying out flattened, Jakov ran to retrieve it, but misjudged it somehow and got too close to the train. The bottom of a ladder on a boxcar caught a sleeve on his jacket, whipped him around to slam his face into the metal, and then dragged him over a hundred feet before he fell off.

Olam screamed and ran to him, but it was obviously too late, and Jakov’s face was a bloody, unrecognizable mess. Olam ran the two blocks home, his mom called the authorities, and Jakov was buried two days later.

The thing that must struck Olam was that they actually had an open-casket viewing for Jakov (his father was Catholic), and that he looked so… perfect. No sign of the trauma at all. Sure, he had a sort of artificial, overly made-up look, but who knew that such a thing was possible?

So Olam switched from the idea of being a tailor to being a mortician. His parents weren’t happy at first, but once he’d learned that sewing was part of the process, and that it was kind of medicine adjacent, they supported him fully.

He’d been in the business for years, but every time he had a client who had died young and in a terrible accident, he took special care, and this decedent was no different.

Normally, he’d leave the torso a little lumpy, because the inevitable fancy clothes that would be put on them would cover imperfections, but here Olam made sure that everything looked as normal as possible.

He had even used his best, finest but strongest thread that most matched the decedent’s skin-tone so that should anyone happen to look (they wouldn’t) his chest would appear intact. Finally, he put matching foundation over any obvious bruises on the front of the body and blended it.

Next was the face, which he carefully tightened up by pulling back the muscles that had been cut in order to remove the top of the skull and excise the brain. Normally, a mortician would just stuff the mouth and cheeks with couch-packing cotton to keep things from sagging too much, but Olam had an additional trick that he used on decedents he really felt sympathy for, and this was one.

Part of his training involved anatomy, so he brought each facial muscle back to its original bone process to reattach, although he pulled them a little tighter than they normally would have been because they had lost some elasticity in death.

He had several reference photos to work from and only four muscles to put back in place — one on each side, and two in the front, stretching up roughly above either eye.

Obviously, he couldn’t sew muscles to bone and expect them to hold, but that was okay. He had glue. What they used was a generic, but it was similar to and stronger than what civilians knew as Krazy Glue or Super Glue or generically as a cyanoacrylate. It had been used during the Vietnam war to seal up wounds on the battlefield, hence its notorious ability to stick fingers together.

That was exactly what Olam needed, so he misted the skull and muscle with water and while wearing gloves that the glue would not affect, held the muscle with his right hand while slathering the skull with a generous coating of the glue.

When he was done, he pulled the muscle and put it in place, adjusting it and watching the decedent’s face tighten until he was happy with the results, then pressed his palm down and held it while he counted to one hundred.

He repeated the procedure for the other frontal muscle, then gently turned the decedent onto his left side, placed a block behind his shoulder to keep him in place, and did likewise for one side muscle. Lather, rinse, repeat for the other before he was flat on his back again.

While he’d been doing this, he noticed that someone at the County Morgue also knew their trick for putting the skull cap back on after it had been sawn off — denture adhesive — and they had aligned it perfectly.

He was also amazed to see that the decedent had managed to not fracture his skull at all, but that made sense then, because he’d read in the coroner’s report that he’d been brought to the hospital alive after a fifteen-story fall.

“Okay,” Olam thought. “That all looks good,” so he then went to work on making up the face.

Normally, this would just involve slapping on enough base to hide the pallor of death — maybe a little eyeshadow and lipstick if it was a woman, pale lipstick and rouge if it was a man.

Oh, he referred to the “make-up” as that, but you’d never find this kind in a fancy department store or a woman’s boudoir. It was made special for the industry because it had to stick to dead skin. It was more like very waxy paint, and designed to conceal.

Despite his injuries, this decedent didn’t look as bad as a lot of them. Quite often, there were bruises to cover up, or discolorations due to lack of oxygen or gangrene or dozens of other things.

They even had a trick for people who died due to liver conditions and came in incredibly jaundiced — just run a tank of condensed milk through the veins before the embalming fluid, which was Olam’s preferred method. He also knew of morticians who plopped four Alka-Seltzer into the pre-injection chemicals, added a gallon of water, pumped it in without letting it drain and let it sit for fifteen to thirty minutes before flushing it out.

This one didn’t need any of that, but got the full-on beauty treatment. Base first, and then a Hollywood studio-worthy process of blended layers that made him look about as life-like as possible and match him to the pictures his husband had provided.

When Olam was happy with that, he slathered the still exposed skull with a ton of the glue, then pulled the scalp flap up and over, being sure to yank it taut before bringing it back down in place. Fortunately, the decedent’s shaggy hair style would cover the incision, although he of course camouflaged it himself.

When he was done, he stepped back and looked at his work, before giving himself the chef’s “finger-kiss” salute. The finishing touches involved washing and manicuring the hands, which probably made total sense to people.

But the last bit before he dressed the corpse was one that was necessary and, probably, unknown to most civilians. He placed a rigid plastic plug up the decedent’s anus, making sure it was in tight. No need to have sudden anal leakage ruin the festivities, after all.

The last step was to put on the clothes that the husband, Joshua, had brought, and Olam couldn’t help but wonder what kind of interesting people these two were. Well, one was, one is. The outfit is a long brown duster, with a brass gauntlet on the left hand, a ridiculously dark black ruffled silk shirt, tan suede trouser and elaborate oxblood boots, engraved in paisley, with contrasting tan areas.

Olam is thankful that the accident made it easier to get the boots on, because if not, he would have had to shatter the decedent’s ankles. Otherwise, everything has been slit down the back and put in place in rather the same way that one would put a fitted sheet on a mattress.

The final touches were attaching his cellphone to his left hand, and placing a low top hat, in the same tan suede as his trousers but with an oxblood band, in the crook of his right elbow. No crossed arms for this one, and he didn’t have to strap down the hands because the arms weren’t “floating” as they often wanted to do.

When Olam is done, he steps back and gasps. This one has got to be his masterpiece and, although it is ridiculously against the rules, he cannot help himself but take several photos of the results.

At least he’s smart enough to never share them on social media, or with anyone. But he does make a mental note: “Drop by this funeral. It’s got to be spectacular.”

There was a witness to his transgression. However, she could not have cared less. As soon as Simon’s corpse had been delivered, she had felt something, but couldn’t name it.

Ironically, what had finally drawn her in was Olam’s deep concern over this one, even though he’d neither known nor met Simon in life.

But that kind of emotional attachment to a dead person was like firing off a signal flare to the
Rêves, so she had hurried over to the mortuary to keep tabs.

To Olam’s credit, she had no idea who he was working on until he had completed his amazing job on Simon’s face, and the clothes had just cinched it.

“Holy shit,” Anabel muttered under her breath. “He’s going to be on our side now?”

She wasn’t sure what to think or do, but if this one was here and the other one wasn’t, then she just might have acquired the dual generals who would win this war.

Against her better judgement, she summoned Pearl. The Hadas had to know about this one. It was news too big to keep quiet.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #50: The Rêves Part 28

Reunions

Brenda actually had no doubts at all that Ausmann had found them and killed Simon, but Joshua was covering that up for some reason. Maybe he was still under threat. She realized then how badly she and her family might have screwed things up if they actually had called the cops to report the intruder.

But what was the point? Ausmann was an old white man, probably well-off and with Federal connections. And Jonah had had his regular share of run-ins with cops, despite being a well-dressed professional in a clearly expensive yet family-oriented car, and in only the “good” neighborhoods.

But, of course, that was because a certain class of cop didn’t see the “well-dressed professional” part. They only saw a Black man. Well, in their minds, they didn’t use the “B” word, she was sure.

Then there was her father, gone for almost thirty years now, same reason, only one time turned violent, maybe because he’d finally had enough and tried to say “No.”

So they didn’t call the cops because they couldn’t trust them, even though they were upper-middle class, owned their own home, sent their kids to private school, and had the stability of three generations under one roof.

Because a certain class of cop wouldn’t see any of that. Hell, a certain class of people — but at least those people didn’t make it a habit to hang out in Brenda’s neighborhood. And their neighborhood was at least Black enough — and historically so — that the one indignity Jonah had avoided was being harassed on his own street, or in his own front yard.

She and Jonah had given Samuel The Speech multiple times, and still gave it to Malia, just in case. The Speech had nothing to do with sex; that was the white people version: “Here’s how to not knock her up/get knocked up.” No, their speech was all about not if some cop pulled them over for no apparent reason, but what to do when it inevitably happened, aka “Here’s how to not get shot.”

So she’d be keeping what was no doubt Joshua’s secret, because the timing of Simon’s death was way too coincidental, but she’d be doing it to protect her family, and was sure that Joshua was doing it to protect his.

Meanwhile, she flipped through her contacts until she found one, a family court and probate judge based out of the Superior Courthouse in Van Nuys, and she realized that this was the one who had handled Rita’s divorce case, and she knew she had her woman.

Rita’s divorce had been contentious, and Brenda had got to listen to her complaining about “That unfair bitch in the black robes” after nearly every single hearing. Of course, Rita didn’t know that Brenda had gone to college with Judge Bonita Valdez-Levi, nor that Brenda was regularly hearing things frrm Bonita of the, “I’m really not supposed to tell you this, but this crazy bitch in this divorce case is out of her mind.”

Bonita had no idea that Rita was Brenda’s boss, either.

Ultimately, Bonita found heavily in Rita’s ex’s favor, fined her for contempt twice, and even sanctioned her lawyer when he gave what he knew was a legally specious motion for mistrial.

“You don’t get to do that after I’ve rendered my verdict, sonny,” she reminded him. “What? Did you go to an online law school or something?”

“Yale,” he muttered.

“Ah. Harvard. Sorry.”

Although that was really just icing on the cake, and she’d only bring up the little detail about Joshua and Simon telling Rita to go fuck herself if Bonita were reluctant to help. But why would she be? They were old friends, she heard cases in family court, this was a family matter, and, most importantly, her wife happened to be a deputy coroner assigned to the North Valley, i.e. exactly where Simon’s corpse was currently pretending to be a 6’4” naked popsicle in a drawer.

If anyone is wondering — no, Brenda did not go to Harvard. Bonita only went there for her law degree. Undergrad, they both spent at Cal State University Northridge, aka CSUN, or was they loved to call it “Berkeley for Valley Kids.” They’d even been roommates for junior and senior years, and Bonita had bitched more loudly about it when Brenda was not cast as Mama Morton in Chicago.

So Brenda dialed the number and when Bonita answered, launched into it. “Hey, girl!” she gushed. “Long time no hear. What’s up?”

“Girl, we are all over each other’s shit on the social medias all the damn time, so what’s so important that it’s voice?”

“Perceptive as ever Okay. I need a really big favor.”

“Figured,” Bonita replied. “As long as it’s legal, I can probably do it. So… shoot.”

Brenda launched into her explanation and, about ten minutes later, after Bonita did some hmming and thinking out loud, she finally replied, “You know, I think that Miriam can manage that ASAP. I mean, as long as it wasn’t a homicide, but you already said — ”

“Tragic accident,” Brenda reminded her.

“Hm. I wonder if housing needs to take a look at the safety of the balconies in that — ”

“No, my friend told me that his husband had this stupid habit of sitting on the railing that he’d warned him about a hundred times,” she improvised on the spot, “Even though he was very tall and sometimes clumsy.”

“Got it. Operator error. Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you so much, Bonita.”

“Don’t mention it. But you owe me one now.”

“Well, duh, of course,” Brenda replied. “Hey — are you going to the class reunion?”

“Me?” Bonita said. “Oh, hell no. You?”

“Of course not!” Brenda told her, then they both laughed, said “Bye” and disconnected.

“Um… oh, hey…” Pearl was startled to see a regular Rêve up here, but he was looking at them like he knew them. They assumed, since he was a Rêve up here, that he was the one that Preston and Danny had told her about.

“Hello,” they said. “Do I know you?”

“No,” he replied. “But oh my god, I was at your last concert. Harvard Stadium. 1970. Six months after my 16th birthday, so I was able to drive up from Baltimore with some friends. Hell, the ticket was two bucks — what I made in my gas station job in about an hour and twenty minutes, but it was worth every second… what are you doing out here?”

“Living the life, baby,” They said. “And I guess that you’re kind of new to this whole being a Rêve thing?”

“Is that what I am?” he asked. “I thought I was just a ghost — ”

“We don’t like the ‘G’ word,” they warned him. “That’s a different thing, mostly because it doesn’t exist.”

“Wait. They don’t, and we do?”

“Bingo.”

“Oh… did I mention, I’m Jerry,” he announced, extending his hand, “And I am a huge fan, Ms. Joplin. ‘Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches — ’”

“Stop!” Pearl shouted at him. “God, I hate the song.”

“But it was — ”

“I know,” they admonished him. “But that was so very long ago and very far away.”

“But I’ve remembered that concert since forever. Ms. Joplin. Janis?”

“Yeah, we did it and then died,” they snapped back. “I’ve kind of expanded things since then. Personas, genders, whatever. It turns out that we’re very flexible once we’re dead. But… you saw what you call my last show?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jerry said. “I mean, is it rude to mention that you died just under two months after that amazing concert?”

“What did I just tell you? And what was the last concert you saw?”

“Um… god, I have no idea,” Jerry replied, then took a couple more moments and said, “Ah… it was a Bee Gees tribute band thing out in NoHo, and we liked it.”

Pearl just laughed. “I think I heard of them. I don’t really remember, but they were crap.”

“Were they?” Jerry asked.

“Are you in any position to argue?”

“You know, I really don’t know…”

Of course, what Jerry really didn’t know was that Pearl — no, actually the Janis part of Peart who had actually met young Jerry — was not engaging his adult self. Rather, she’d and/or they had been talking to the 16-year-old Jerry who had attended that last concert at Harvard Stadium.

And had not taken his young ass at all seriously.

So a vital clue about Ausmann was not passed on to the Hadas.

Meanwhile, another vital clue was passed on almost by accident, when an oral surgeon and his realtor wife went for their early morning power walk through their Simi Valley neighborhood, only to run into an old neighbor, except that she looked… different.

“Um… Coraline?” the wife, Becca, asked.

“Oh, hi!” Coraline replied. “Do you know where my husband is?”

“Do you know where you are?” Ralph, Becca’s husband, replied.

“Well, at what’s left of our home, duh,” she said. “But is he alive?”

Becca and Ralph just stared at her. They’d been watching the news, and Coraline looked just like what they’d seen, except that she wasn’t an old Hollywood actor.

“Dear,” Becca asked gently, “Are you possibly aware of the fact that you might be… well… dead?”

“What?” Coraline snapped.

“Oh, you haven’t been watching the news, have you?” Ralph inquired.

“No, I’ve been rather busy dealing with the ruins of my house and wondering where my husband is, thank you. And have you seen him?”

Becca and Ralph shook their heads. “No, dear,” Becca replied, “But we’ve seen the news, and even if you’re not famous, well… hang on.”

Becca tapped around on her phone, then showed Coraline news footage from earlier, with all the celebrity hosts popping up all over Hollywood.

“What makes you think I’m one of them?” Coraline demands.

“Well, two things, actually,” Ralph offers, demurely, looking to Becca.

What?” Coraline hisses.

“Um…. sorry to tell you this, dear, but we watched the county coroner take your body out of the basement of your house after the storm.”

“Apparently quite dead,” Ralph added. “Right into the body bag. Boom, zip.”

“You are liars!” Coraline insisted.

“Well, there’s that one other bit,” Becca explained.

“What?”

“Um… you know that footage about the ghosts in Hollywood?” Ralph offered.

“Yeah, and I’m not one of them there,” Coraline insisted.

“No, but you might as well be,” Becca said, turning her phone to Coraline again. Apparently, she’d been recording her during the conversation, and when Coraline saw the footage, her blood ran cold. Well, actually, it was the moment that she realized that she had no blood to run cold.

“I have to find Ausmann,” she said. “I do remember he studied these ghosts. I wonder if he’s in Hollywood. I have to go there!”

As soon as she said it, she found herself flying, heading southeast out of Simi Valley and into the San Fernando Valley. She didn’t get out this way often, but she was always amazed at how much bigger it was than her own valley, and how straight all of the streets were that ran between the two freeways — the 118 in the north and the 101 in the south.

That all changed at about the 5, a state highway that ran into the city diagonally from the mountains below Santa Clarita, aimed south by southwest splitting into the short 170 on its right fork and maintaining its identity as the 5 on the right fork, the 170 soon merging and vanishing into the 101 as it turned south for Hollywood.

When all of those east-west Valley streets passed the 5, more or less, they suddenly veered, mostly to the left, to run diagonally southwest to northeast, and it was particularly noticeable in Burbank, which itself had been laid out on a diagonal instead of a grid aligned to the cardinal directions.

The rest was paving anarchy, but that was because the city developed in different sections aligned to local landmarks or landscapes, the roads having to hook up eventually. The longest straight streets were the ones that had originally been lone country highways in the middle of nothing that connected distant developments, like Downtown and West Hollywood.

The Valley, meanwhile, had started out as immense, flat farmland, covered by huge rancheros originally owned by a handful of Mexican families, back when the southern third of California was still part of Mexico. Coraline would never have believed that of course, and it was a very unpopular subject to bring up in Simi Valley, but it was true.

While what Valley people called “the other side of the hill” developed in fits and starts beginning well before the 19th century and exploded from around WW I and after, only parts of the East Valley, like North Hollywood and Burbank, started to develop, as early as the late 1800s. Up until WW II, the eastern boundary was pretty much Van Nuys, with few and far between from there west.

Well, no houses, but quite a few companies engaged in the war effort. This was where they built the bombs and planes.

Once the war ended, there was a land boom, and the land was flat and wide, so turning it into a grid was the easiest thing in the world to do — a roughly 8 by 10 mile grid with very few breaks in its regularity.

But then she found herself over the Cahuenga pass, following the freeway that ran through a gap between two sets of mountains, and finally to Hollywood, landing at Hollywood and Highland, where she found the ghosts of the famous to be quite active.

She asked some of them if they’d ever heard of Ausmann. None of them had.

“Then I guess it’s time to go free-range,” she announced, and wandered off down the street. She could tell that people were looking at her and asking, “What’s she famous for?” but she ignored them.

She was a bit star-struck by all the celebrities she did see, even if they were all dead — Bette Davis, always the center of attention; the Three Stooges (Curly, Moe, and Larry era) hamming it up for the crowd; Peter Lorre, looking very sketchy; Alfred Hitchcock, leering inappropriately at every young blonde woman he saw — he was a Class III because there were still a lot of people alive who had known him, but he still liked to use his celebrity; Valentino, posing for selfies and proving very popular with gay men; and Gloria Grahame, appearing in glorious color as Ado Annie from the movie Oklahoma!.

But there was one Rêve who had been watching her, because Pearl had sensed something and sent a Hada to give him the word. Ausmann’s wife was apparently now one of them, and she was out here — the Hadas had sensed it and reported it to Pearl.

The message was to try to bring her to Anabel so that they would have a bargaining chip to use against Ausmann, and the message was sent to Ritchie.

As Coraline got close to the Hollywood and Vine station, he approached her. “Excuse me,” he said.

She stopped and looked. He seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place the name. “Oh. I’m Ritchie Valens,” he said. She was clearly still drawing a blank, so he sang a quick phrase: “Para bailar la bamba…”

“Oh,” it dawned on her. “I love that song. But… do you know me?”

“Was your husband named Ausmann?” he asked.

“Yes. Have you seen him?”

“No,” he told her, “But I may know where he is,” adding a lie to his truthful statement.

“I really do need to find him,” she said.

“Great. If you come with me, we can go look.” He nodded and lead her down into the Metro station, then to the platforms and the eastbound tunnel.

“Let me show you how our kind prefers to travel,” he announced, and then took her with him.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #45: The Rêves, Part 23

The broadest of daylight

“Your little friends are a couple of real pricks,” Rita was raving at Brenda over the phone. “Complete and total assholes.”

“Why?” Brenda asked, feigning shock and trying not to laugh. “Did they ask too much for the job?”

“No,” Rita snapped back. “They told me, and I quote, ‘You can take that job offer, shove it up your ass via the governor’s, and then you can all go fuck yourselves two-to-the-sixth ways from sideways. That is how much we don’t want your shitty little government job.’ End. Motherfucking. Quote.”

Brenda had to hit the mute button on her phone for a second because she couldn’t help but laugh long and loud. Goddamn, she knew she’d liked those guys from the start.

 “Why do you think it took me a day and a half to call you? I was livid. Did you hear me?” Rita demanded.

Brenda took a couple of deep breaths, then unmuted her phone. “Yes,” she said. “So they don’t want the job?”

“Apparently not,” Rita huffed. “Which means it’s yours, more than ever — ”

“I already told you, I’m not relocating to Sacramento.”

“I know that,” Rita said. “You wouldn’t need to. We’ve done further studies with the state, and L.A. is the hotspot anyway. What else is new? And, I don’t know, maybe you can persuade your friends to do some occasional contract work for you, as a favor?”

“I could try, but I doubt it. Did they tell you the real reason they don’t want the job?”

“I took it that they aren’t big fans of government work.”

“I thought I told you that when I found them, they were working for the feds, so that’s not it,” Brenda explained.

“Then what?”

“They don’t do it for the money. Those guys are richer than shit.”

“I know. I’m the one who told you that. But then what do they do it for?”

“I think it was originally curiosity. But it’s sure not for vengeance, and they may have gotten the idea that that’s the state’s motive for it.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Rita scoffed. “You saw what that storm did down here, across three counties. It’s a combination of vengeance and prevention.”

“They might take the second,” Brenda said. “But I know them enough to say they’d never accept the first.”

“All right, all right. If we keep talking about them, our conversation is going to fail the Bechdel test — ”

“Ooh. Did you just make a meta joke, Rita? I do believe you’re developing a sense of humor.”

“Fuck you, Brenda. Do you want the position or not?”

“Mostly work from home, budgeting is ad hoc, not annual — and guaranteed — my salary is the same as the Lieutenant Governor’s, full benefits — ”

“Hey, hey… you know that I’m only sort of the middleperson here, I can’t promise anything. All I can say is, the need is getting a bit more urgent.”

“What do you mean?” Brenda asked.

“You haven’t kept up with the news today, have you?” Rita replied.

“No, what?” Brenda said, grabbing the remote to turn on the TV, flipping around and not finding any news.

“There were lots of dead celebrities roaming around Hollywood this afternoon, trying to chat up the tourists.”

 “In broad daylight?” Brenda asked.

“In the broadest of daylight,” Rita told her.

“Well… shit.”

“Think about the offer,” Rita continued. “Call me when you’re ready to say ‘Yes.’”

Before she could say anything else, Rita hung up. Brenda wandered out into the living room, dazed, where Jonah was playing some board game with Samuel, Malia, and Esme. He looked up at her and smiled.

“There she is,” he beamed. “Top secret negotiations going on?”

“Something like that,” she replied. “I’d rather be out here, where everyone admits they’re actually playing a game.”

“Well, we’d just finished,” Jonah said, “Because Malia just won. She’s too good at this.”

He gave her a meaningful look but she was already ahead of him, turning to Esme. “Hey, Mama E, isn’t it time for the kids’ evening walk?”

“Of course it is,” Esme said, standing, Malia and Samuel jumping up, excited. She took their hands and headed for the front door. “Let’s see what new adventures there are to be had,” she told them before they exited.

Jonah turned back to Brenda and they just looked into each other’s eyes for a long moment before she hugged him tight.

“I saw what you did there,” she told him.

“What?” he teased her. “I didn’t do nothin’.”

“The hell you didn’t, mister,” she chided him. “And thank you.”

“Yeah, well…” Jonah continued. “I mean, when some freak storm comes along and you’re suddenly afraid that you’re going to lose your entire family, silly little shit doesn’t matter anymore. I was hung up on the ideas that my parents raised me with. But you know what? I don’t see either of them here involved in our kids’ lives like your mom is. All they care about is whether I’m going to drag my kids into their church and, oh, hell no.”

“I love you,” Brenda whispered, kissing his forehead.

“And you know I love you, Bren,” he replied. “I’m sorry it took me so long to pull my head out of my ass and accept the truth, but it’s a beautiful truth. I have one lovely son and two amazing daughters, and the most incredible wife in the world.”

“Flattery still ain’t getting you that Tesla,” Brenda says, playfully slapping his arm.

“No… but is it going to get me a shot at child number four?”

“At our ages?” she replies. “We don’t got time for that shit.”

“Well, we can at least go through the motions,” he tells her suggestively.

“You are such a typical man. Although I’m glad you brought up going through the motions…”

“Oh.” He suddenly lets go of her and steps away, and she swears that all of the blood has drained from his face before she catches herself.

“Oh, no, no, no, honey,” she quickly explains, taking his hands. “Not us. I’m talking about my county job.”

“Oh. That. Damn. Damn, baby, that’s a relief. I thought you were going to — ”

“Shut your mouth and never think that, Jo Jo Dancer. Come on…”

She took his hand and led him into the backyard, which was still a mess, although they had managed to get the porch swing back together and working, even if it now let out a horrible groan with every oscillation.

They sat next to each other, holding hands, her head leaning on his left shoulder as she told him the whole saga — the “ghost” hunters, Rita’s original offer, the storm, how the job offer had escalated to the state level, and where she was at now.

“And I just don’t know what to say,” she concluded. “Take the job? Say ‘no thanks?’”

“Y’all know how I feel about ghosts,” Jonah told her.

“They aren’t necessarily ghosts,” she said. “We don’t know what they are.

“Creepy A-F is what they are.”

“Oh, Rita told me… hang on…” She took out her phone and searched up the local news channel, then found the link to a story: “Hollywood Hauntings?” She clicked it, started the video, and handed the phone to Jonah.

They both watched, and then their jaws dropped. A reporter was doing a stand-up near Hollywood and Highland, and what Rita had said was true. There was a veritable brigade of obviously ghostly celebrities strolling around, engaging with the tourists, some of the apparently dead quite recognizable.

Of course, not everyone thought they were ghosts. Several on-the-street interviewees raved about the special effects, or commented that it must have been some viral marketing scheme and the latest holographic technology, although a couple of people were definitely freaked out.

One woman ranted, “This is what happens when you take Jesus out of the schools. Demons! Hollywood liberal elite demons everywhere!”

The irony was probably lost on her that, right as she said this, John Wayne strolled by and tipped his hat with a, “Mornin’, ma’am” directed at her.

Another passer-by, who identified herself as a curandería who worked at a bodega just off of the Boulevard, also agreed that they were the spirits of the dead, but showed no fear of them. “They just come out earlier than día de los muertos,” she explained. “You be friendly at them, they not hurt you. I see them all the time in the shop.”

The finale of the piece was an interview with Bette Davis, in full-on Margo Channing mode, who assured the reporter that they were all there in peace, in order to join forces with the living humans.

“And what are you joining forces for, Ms. Davis?” the reporter asked.

“Miss Channing,” she corrects him, “And it’s simple. To defeat that bitch Anabel and her allies.”

As she makes a fittingly Channing/Davis exit, the reporter looks at the camera, a little confused, before explaining, “In case you’re wondering, there aren’t any special effects going on here. She looked just as transparent in person as she probably did on camera, and our researchers have assured us that there are absolutely no hologram projection systems in existence that can do this in broad daylight. So… viral stunt? Actual ghosts? Something else? That’s what we’re all wondering. Live from Hollywood and Highland, I’m Casper Muir. Back to you, Belle Drury.”

The anchors proceeded to go to expert interviews, but Jonah just let the phone fall into his lap before staring off into nothing for a long, long moment.

Brenda finally looked up at his face, watched for a bit, then quietly muttered, “Honey?”

“Fuck…” he responded under his breath. “Is this real?”

“Apparently,” she said.

“Take that goddamn job,” he suddenly told her, rather confidently and forcefully.

“Really?” she replied.

“If this shit is going down in Hollywood right now and the state thinks you have the know-how to make it stop? Then, oh hell yes, you are going to tell the governor right now, ‘I accept this fucking job.’ And then you are going to be one hell of a ghost-buster.”

“And what about the attention it brings to you? And my mom — ?”

“Doesn’t matter — ”

“And our kids?”

He hesitated on that, then looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“Public figure, government official. It seems like by definition fifty percent of people are going to hate me, whether or not my position is political — which this one certainly isn’t. But the hater assholes like to go after families…”

“I can deal with it,” Jonah insisted.

“Great. What about Theresa, Samuel, and Malia?”

“Shit,” Jonah replied.

“So, like I said, not an easy question, is it?”

“No,” he sighed. “Of course, you know I do my best thinking after a good — ”

She put a finger over his lips, knowing exactly where he was going. “So do I,” she said. “But how long could that walk with my mom and the kids be?”

“Right…”

They headed back inside to find Esme, Malia, and Samuel in the living room, playing another board game. “Hey,” Jonah announced, “You all want to go to the movies? That new Disney film just came out. You can probably still catch the first evening show.”

All three of them exploded in excitement. Actually going to the movies had been a rare thing the last few years, especially when so many people now had 8K and ultra-high-speed connections at home. And no one liked to think about the long time out.

Jonah pulled his card out of his wallet and handed it to Esme. “Tickets, popcorn, snacks, and all that,” he said. “Oh, and take my car.” He handed her the keys, which she took with a smile and a wink.

The kids ran out to the kitchen and into the garage, Esme trailing behind, turning back before she left to admonish them. “At your age, three is enough! And at my age, two is almost too many! Don’t forget protection,” she called back laughing as she exited, leaving Jonah and Brenda to look at each other, nonplussed.

“I guess it is true,” Brenda finally said.

“What?”

“Moms know everything going on in the house.”

“Do they now?” Jonah asked.

“Oh yeah,” she replied.

“Shit. Then I guess I’m fucked,” he told her.

“Not until you get that big round ass of yours into that bedroom you’re not,” she replied, giving it a good, hard smack.

“Yes, ma’am!” he saluted before running into the master suite, shedding clothes all the way.

Brenda took her time strolling in, thinking all along, “Ah, it’s good to be the queen.”

* * *

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

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Paperwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.

“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.

“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”

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

“Stop! They might hear you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who, Theresa?” he said.

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

“We only have one daughter,” he continued.

“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.

“Um… excuse me?” he asked.

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

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

* * *

Tailed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you — ” Simon started.

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

“No,” Simon replied. “What?”

“Exempt.”

“Shit.”

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

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

“What do we do?” Simon asked.

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

“Sorry,” Simon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”

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

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

“I know,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”

“Make you shit your pants?”

“Joshie!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how would that one know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next week,” Simon replied.

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

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

“Nope,” Joshua replied.

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

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

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

* * *

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