Friday Free-for-All #80: Corporate screw-ups

How McDonald’s made a bet on the Olympics and lost big and how a former boss of mine shot himself in the foot.

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. Yet again this week, I had three questions ready, but the first one took up the whole article.

What is the funniest corporate/business screw up you have heard of?

One is corporate and the other is personal.

The corporate one happened during the 1984 Olympics, which took place in Los Angeles. This was kind of a big deal, because it was only the third time that the U.S. had hosted the summer Olympics, the two previous times being in 1904 and 1932.

It was even more of a big deal because the first Olympics in the U.S. had been hosted in St. Louis, Missouri, while the second, 28 years later, took place in Los Angeles, California — and by the time the Olympics came back to the U.S., they also came back to Los Angeles, 52 years later.

McDonald’s saw a marketing opportunity, and so they launched this promo: For every medal that the U.S. won in competition, customers would get a free item — a soft drink for Bronze, fries for Silver, and the big-ticket item for every Gold medal, a Big Mac.

Just one problem: In retaliation for various things Olympics related, including the U.S. led boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (in addition to the USSR just being pissy in general), the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics, along with 17 other countries, although several of those (Albania, Iran, and Libya) boycotted for entirely different reasons.

Without competition for those countries, the U.S. had a very good year, taking home a total of 174 medals: 30 bronze, 61 silver, and 83 gold.

Remember: This was a national promo by McDonald’s, so they had committed themselves to giving out those prizes in all 50 states, for the duration of the Games. And while the U.S., USSR/Russia, and China are consistently the top-three medal winners, 1984 was a particularly good year for Team America.

While McDonald’s has always been tight-lipped over how much, exactly, they lost through this promo, since the Big Mac was one of their biggest money-makers and they had underestimated the number of gold medals badly, combined with many franchises just plain running out, their losses have been estimated in the millions.

Ironically, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles were one of the few successful Olympic Games in history. Not only did it not bankrupt the city (like it did many others), but it made over $200 million in profits, largely by enlisting big corporate sponsors, like Coca-Cola, M&M/Mars, and… McDonald’s.

As for the biggest business mistake, personal edition, I could have sworn I’d written about this one before, but I guess not. In this case, it was an attorney I worked for very briefly — just under a year and a half.

I had been through a very interesting transition leading up to the gig. I was abruptly fired from my first office job after six and a half years in one of those typical, “Department splits, new manager comes in, figures out which supervisors he can control and which ones can think, gets rid of the latter.”

I was the latter. Plus I probably could have made a very solid case that homophobia was definitely an element in my firing but… I was over that corporate gig. Besides that, earlier that same year, I had taken second place in a major playwriting competition at a big regional theater, and while I’m not exactly certain, I think that I must have found out that said theater was going to produce my play some time before I got fired.

So I spent the next few months living on a nice severance plus unused sick time from former employer, unemployment, and then weekly royalties, although I had to start looking for work pretty quickly after the play ended and then… the L.A. Riots (the Rodney King ones) happened, and put a crimp in the works for a bit.

As they were ending, I signed up with a temp agency, and they sent me out on an assignment that, they said, was with an attorney in Brentwood, working as his bookkeeper. I agreed, and it wasn’t until I got the address on Monday, my first day, that I realized it was in Inglewood.

If you know L.A., you know that Brentwood and Inglewood are polar opposites of each other. Also, we had just been through a major race riot, and ground zero for that was actually about half a mile from this attorney’s office — he’d escaped being attacked while driving back from the courthouse in Downtown L.A., in fact.

Now, while I was a giant white guy driving a Honda, I also knew Inglewood, since I’d worked there during and just after college and my college was in the next neighborhood over, and Inglewood was basically the black version of suburbia in L.A.

So it was kind of offensive to me that the temp agency felt like they had to lie to get me there in the first place — or maybe it was the client who had lied to them, which was probably the more likely scenario.

In any case, I started working as bookkeeper for an attorney who was one of the least ethical people I’ve ever met. For one thing, he only handled bankruptcies and evictions — but for the banks and landlords, not for the debtors and tenants.

He also represented a couple of governmental entities that served as mortgage lenders and guarantors. In other words, a right, total bastard.

My job as basic bookkeeping — keep track of the bills that came in and what was due, keep track of his hours and what he was owed, bill clients for same, and then every two weeks give him a report basically saying, “Here’s what you’ve earned, here’s what’s been paid, here’s who you need to write checks to.”

Now, you’d think that someone who regularly represents creditors would get it, right? Pay the people you owe money to, period. Except maybe it was because he represented these bastards that he felt like he knew how to skate around it, so inevitably I would hand him a stack of bills, many of them 90 or more days past due, explain to him what needed to be paid, and he’d look at the stack and brush it aside.

“Write me a draw for $200,000,” he’d say, while refusing to sign any of the checks I’d placed before him. In laymen’s terms: “Make out a check to me for $200,000.”

He certainly had enough to cover it in his corporate account, but he also had enough to cover all those other expenses, and then some — largely because he overbilled the hell out of clients, his government contractors in particular.

At least he was always able to cover payroll, the one small touch of decency about him.

Anyway, long story short, he was a total asshole. In October of 1993, I flew to Dallas for what was supposed to be just the weekend because I was in a crazy stupid long-distance relationship at the time. Between the Friday I arrived and the Sunday I was supposed to leave, the budget airline I’d flown on went out of business, stranding all of its return passengers.

Luckily, I had a free place to stay, but I had to call the boss up to tell him that I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to make it back, and he took this as a sign that I had embezzled all of his money and was about to run off to Brazil.

He demanded that I get the next available flight back to L.A., but since that would have cost at least $900 — more than my rent at the time — I politely told him, I would if you paid me more, but you don’t, so I can’t.

Then, near the end of that week, my immediate ex had a stroke of conscience and left a message on my home phone, which I heard when I finally got back the Sunday following. I had been accepted into a year-long screenwriting fellowship program, meaning that I no longer needed to work for asshole attorney.

I wrote and printed out my two-weeks’ notice that night, and handed it to him in the morning, after I’d found out that he had hired some forensic specialist to go over my computer to see how I’d ripped him off. (Spoiler: I hadn’t.) He accepted the notice immediately even though I knew something that he didn’t, and this is where the funniest business screw-up, personal edition, kicks in.

See, being a total nerd, I had cobbled together his entire accounting system using a consumer version of Quicken, and a bunch of macros in order to get Excel and Word to speak to it. I’d enter hours in Excel, have it generate invoices in Word and export data to Quicken, enter billing data to Quicken and have it export data to both Word and Excel to generate payment statements and track those costs per creditor, and so on.

The key to it was knowing which macros to run in which programs through which keystrokes, and at which point in the data-entry process. And I’d given two weeks because I knew that I’d need to teach that to someone.

But… Captain Asshole had refused, so when I walked out, I was done. I received three more phone messages from the office, moving up the food chain from receptionist to paralegal to boss, each one basically saying the same thing. “Please call. We can’t figure out the system you set up.”

I replied to none of them and just laughed. Should have thought about that before he accepted my two weeks’ notice immediately because he was being paranoid — although projection is frequently a trait of the greedy.

Theatre Thursday: When things get meta

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nine years now since I was blessed to be part of Playwrights’ Arena’s amazing project in celebration of their 20th anniversary called Flash Theatre L.A.: 20 in 2012.

What this involved was a playwright creating a short piece designed for a specific environment, most often also involving singing and dancing, then a rehearsal period on weekends, usually at the then home of Playwrights’ Arena at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) which, I can tell you, felt like the most New York experience possible in L.A., especially if one took the Metro down to Pershing Square, walked to the theatre, and it was a misty morning on a weekend in February.

Good times.

During that year, I performed in 13 out of the 20 performances, which took place everywhere from the very west side to the very east side of town, and from as far south as the Adams District to as far north as Silver Lake — although a lot of our stuff happened in Downtown L.A., which is where the performance I’m thinking about took place.

It happened in Pershing Square, so was within walking distance of the theater, and it was a piece called Meat by Donald Jolly. (The original idea had been to stage it further east in the warehouse district, with most of the cast lying in the back of a truck, but that was beyond our means.)

The division of roles were: A) The “meat,” which were a bunch of people in skimpy bathing suits with all kinds of anti-capitalist slogans drawn on them; B) The radical faeries, who would ride in and save the day, and C) The Authorities, who would try to stop all this shit from happening.

I was cast as one of the two Authorities, and my counterpart was an actor named Bill. I’d worked with him a few times over the whole Flash Theatre thing, and we had definitely bonded because we were about the same age (i.e., older than a lot of the other cast members), had the same weird sense of humor, and had already been cast in roles that got weirdly intimate and, even though he was straight and I was not, it worked out, because he was cool about it and I wasn’t attracted to him anyway.

Funny how that works.

But… getting back to Meat… We all marched from the theater to Pershing Square, and this got a lot of attention mainly because there were a ton of half-naked people on the streets of DTLA, plus a number of them also decked out in glitter and boas and riding scooters or the like. Then there were these two white guys dressed like Secret Service.

We got to the venue. We took our places. And just as I was about to launch into, which meant that I was supposed to charge our audience and tell them, “Nothing to see here, please disperse,” an actual security guard got up in my face and told me that we couldn’t perform there.

Well… that was kind of a problem. I knew that I couldn’t launch my own character in his face and tell him to step off, because that wouldn’t end well. At the same time, the idea of a muggle screwing with my show really pissed me off.

So I did the only thing I could do, which was to give him the look of death and slowly point at Playwrights’ Arenas artistic director, who I knew for a fact had it covered when it came to the whole “Yes, we can perform here” angle.

The guard headed over to talk to Mr. Rivera, I launched into my shtick (and actually scared the shit out of a couple of good friends standing in front because I committed to it so hard), Bill got into it as well, and the whole thing finally came off, ending with the Radical Faeries glitter bombing the Authorities and wrapping us in boas until we wound up mesmerized and dancing together to the music that had started playing, which I think was the song Sway with Me.

But it was definitely my weirdest Flash Theatre experience ever, because someone who was the real-life version of the character I was about to play tried to fuck with what we were all about to do, and I essentially managed to misdirect him so that he could be neutralized, exactly like my character and Bill’s in the show.

Wow. Trippy.

Postscript: Years later, I volunteered for the annual Playwrights’ Arena fundraiser, Hot Night in the City, just before the year of COVID, and my job was as off-stage announcer and various wrangler of stage equipment. I was stage left, and the other guy was stage right, and we were also working various other prep stuff together for a long time.

He looked familiar, but we didn’t recognize each other until we finally did. It was Bill, and the reason we didn’t recognize each other is that we’d both lost a shit-ton of weight since 2012, and both for very similar reasons.

This was also when I found out that he was about five years younger than me, but my journey had been through congestive heart failure that had led to a weekend in the hospital, me quitting smoking, diuretics squeezing a lot of that weight out, and then a change in diet doing the rest.

In Bill’s case, he had to have a triple bypass or something like that, but otherwise the same idea. That experience led to major lifestyle changes for him as well.

It was a very weird reunion. But again, very meta. He and I got cast in the same roles for theater. We just had no idea that we’d be cast in the same roles in real life.

Small planet, eh?

Image source: Downtowngal, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Friday Free-for-All #69: Phobia, city, actor, trend

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What would be the worst thing to have a phobia of?

This question reminds me of a quote attributed to Morgan Freeman, although he never said it. “I hate the word ‘homophobia.’ It‘s not a phobia. You are not scared. You’re an asshole.” It came from a now suspended Twitter account called Tweets from god that used a picture of Freeman from the movie Bruce Almighty, where Freeman played god.

Now, granted, it has a lot more impact if you hear it in his voice.

So, by definition, I’m not going to include things that are called phobias, like homophobia or transphobia, because they do not come from fear, but rather from ignorance and hatred. Oh, they are very bad feelings to have, to be sure, but I doubt that anyone seriously starts quaking in fear on sight of member of the LGBTQ+ community.

If they did, we wouldn’t have any hate crimes because the would-be attackers would be running away.

So, if we get into true phobias, which do induce panic and anxiety if not outright terror, there’s a very long list of them. Probably the worst and most debilitating one to have, though, would be anthropophobia, which is a fear of all other people, regardless of the circumstances under which you run into them.

This includes not just random strangers, but rather everyone — friends and family included. It sounds like a perfect diagnosis for Emily Dickinson, actually. She could write you a mean poem, but would prefer to never see you in person.

It’s far different from and far worse than social phobia, which was reclassified as social anxiety disorder anyway. At least with these two, you can go outside and conduct routine business without going into a total panic attack. But if you have anthropophobia, then you should probably live alone in an isolated shack on a remote, unpopulated island, and hope that you don’t also have cynophobia.

What city would you most like to live in?

The main consideration is somewhere that’s not going to be burnt out in a heatwave, flooded by rising tides, or have more than a handful of Trump 2024 campaign signs within the county limits, with four of those preferably all being on the same property.

Then there’s the affordability issue, because this question has both “money is no object” and “you have to be able to afford it” versions.

Without regard to affordability, I’d probably opt for the Bay Area, preferably a place from which San Francisco would be easily accessible at any time, but in more of a flat, suburban layout — I’d rather have a modest house on a big lot with a pool and privacy than an in-city Victorian with multiple floors, big rooms and windows, and no yard space.

So it would definitely be either to the east or south of the City, although swimming pools don’t seem to be that common up there. San José is also an interesting option. It reminds me a lot of L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, and isn’t that far from San Francisco, either.

If we want to go realistic, then I’d have to take my California income to somewhere where it would buy me that house and yard — but since I work from home, my location is a little less important. The trick, of course, is finding a place.

I wouldn’t want to be anywhere prone to tornadoes, so that leaves out a big chunk in the middle of the country. And while I love thunderstorms and the like, those places also come with ridiculous heat and humidity in the summer. I can handle Palm Springs, even if it did get up to Death Valley temps, because there’s no water in the air and it’s easy to sweat and cool down.

But I’ve been in much cooler yet more humid weather in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York and… no thank you. a dry 110°F (43.3°C) summer day in Los Angeles is far more pleasant than a humid 95°F (35°C) summer day in Pennsylvania any day.

Okay, we can get a touch muggy in L.A. because we’re near the ocean — but the canyons between the L.A. Basin in the south and the San Fernando Valley in the north keep a nice airflow going that also helps dry the atmosphere out and, even on the hottest of days, we often get fog up along the ridgeline that is Mulholland drive, where the trip up from one side turns into the trip down into the other.

And, honestly, if the affordability thing were not an issue, I’d probably stay in L.A. and buy the house here.

If you were an actor, what kind of roles do you think you would be good at?

There’s no “if” on this one, and I know what kind of roles I’m good at. For one thing, I have an affinity and knack for playing non-human characters — a depressed bear, a Jesus figure with supernatural powers, the Grim Reaper, a zombie Pope… those are a few of my favorites that I’ve actually done.

And yes, while a couple of those were in human form, I consider their powers as putting them into an entirely different category.

When it comes to humans, I’ve discovered an ability to play ones that are awkward and easily intimidated, or who are only brave when the danger has passed. For example, I once played a friar who kept his mouth shut until after the threatening knights had left the building, and then he went off in a fiery and threatening monologue solely for the benefit of his fellow monks and the women hanging around in the cathedral.

I did this a lot in improv, too, choosing to play a so-called “low-status” character because it’s fun to be the butt-monkey in a scene. Yes, that’s a real term, although you can use “chew-toy” if you prefer.

I also love ensemble roles, because it affords a chance to work closely with fellow actors and create the background and mood that supports the leads. Hey — I’ve got no problems at all using my concentration to put focus on the most important speaker on the stage at any given moment, and it’s also a lot of fun.

Of course, I have had my time playing the villain, and in those cases I find that going 180° from who I really am is the key — big, loud, brash, and bigoted. Although, if you want to learn how to play a villain the best, go no further than studying Alan Rickman’s performance as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

All of the best villains have two traits in common: 1) They’re the hero in their own story, period. 2) They do not show their villainy by being threatening or loud or over the top. The scariest villains smile and whisper.

What trend are you tired of?

I’m not sure whether I’m more tired of the endless parade of super-hero movies of of social media influencers. However, as Marvel starts their 4th wave, it sounds like they might be getting tired of the super-hero thing as well, and might be taking the characters but putting them in different genres.

Ironically, as a kid I was into DC but not Marvel. As an adult, I can tolerate the occasional Marvel film, but have found nothing to like in any DC movies except for both Deadpool films but, then again, he was the super-hero who could say “fuck.”

If only they could do a Deadpool/Star Lord crossover…

Now, Wandavision was good, although I could not get past the first half of the first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I haven’t ventured into Loki yet, but I probably will once all of the episodes are up.

As for the influencers, I do have to admit that there are a few TikTokkers I’ve wound up finding via Instagram and I do follow if only because I find them amusing. But, at the same time, they generally don’t seem to be trying to sell me anything, and are often genuinely funny and entertaining.

Oh, they’re probably marketing stuff out their asses and it’s just that I’m nowhere near their likely target demographic of teens. But that’s okay.

I think that the bunch which infiltrated my feed are all kind of related, and as far as I can tell, they’re based in Orange County, California. They may or may not collectively be called The Squad. But some of the names are The Stokes Twins (Alan and Alex), Brent Rivera, Ben Azelert, and Jeremy Hutchins.

Generally, they all alternate between short comedy routines, well-choreographed TikTok dances, lip-synced dialogue moments, and pranking each other. Speaking of which, I remember reading that the Stokes Twins were arrested sometime last year in Orange County for pulling a prank involve a fake bank-robbery escape through a crowded outdoor public mall, although that story vanished from the news, and they never mentioned it.

Maybe they’re actually as rich as their videos make them seem, and they just bought their way out of it.

Now, speaking of apparently rich as hell, there’s Danny Duncan, who somehow crept into my feed, and I’m very ambivalent about him. on the one hand he often comes across in his videos as very warm and genuine, and someone who truly cares about his friends and family.

On the other hand, he can quite often be a quite destructive little asshole doing his own private version of Jackass, Jr. Now, he’s almost a decade older than the squad, but I’ve watched him destroy his own Tesla intentionally, give one away to a fan in a contest, pull all kinds of stupid stunts in moving vehicles (including driving at ludicrous speeds in traffic), and destroy a door with his head.

I’m not sure exactly how he became rich and famous, either, despite trying to find the answers on-line. He sells a ridiculous amount of branded (and somewhat overpriced) merch with slogans like “Virginity Rocks,” “Fet’s Luck!” and “Big Dick Is Back,” and at at least one point in the past went on a multi-city tour with live shows that seemed to constantly sell out.

One of his other venues is Danny’s Cream Pies, which has long existed in Florida, with a restaurant made to look like a walk-up ice cream truck. His products are stupidly cheap ice cream and the like, and ridiculously expensive merch.

He opened a second store in Los Angeles earlier this month, on Fairfax near Canter’s Deli, with the same menu and prices, and during its opening weekend, the line to the door ran multiple blocks. Granted, it was stretched out by social distancing, but it was still of 70s blockbuster movie proportions.

And I’m still not sure how I feel about him. On the one hand, he’s obviously had huge success doing this, is generous with his fortune, and a generally accepting all around when it comes to age, physical ability, sexual orientation, and so on.

But he also still has that chaotic and destructive energy that often makes him just seem like a fourteen-year-old boy who can afford to destroy whatever he wants just because it’s fun.

The scary part, really, is that he has so many fans who don’t seem to have any issues with the negative parts even as they focus on the positives.

And that’s probably the biggest issue with influencers. Their influence is quite obvious and visible. Whatever entity is managing it behind the scenes is hidden.

Like I mentioned, some of them don’t even have any visible sponsors, although the branded clothing can be obvious. And a lot of them do giveaways like they’re McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. The Stokes Twins often have YouTube competitions with friends where they pay the winner $10,000, for example, and while they sell some of their own merch, they don’t seem to plug it all that often.

Still, every last one of these kids is clearly just the marketable front for someone who’s raking in the big bucks thanks to their online work. And remember what they say: If a huge company offers you something for free, beware, because what they’re really selling is you.

Influencers are just the far more subtle version of product placement and celebrity endorsements.

Sunday Nibble #64: Out of the ashes

As of today, it will have been fourteen days from my second Moderna vaccination, so I am now technically immunized against COVID — well, at least most strains, although it’s not clear yet whether this vaccine also works against COVID-19 variants alpha, beta, or gamma.

In case those designations don’t look familiar, it’s because they’re new, and are designed to follow the same recently introduced guidelines that ended the practice of naming a virus or flu strain for the area it was first spotted.

So I’ll be keeping my mask on in public for a while even though California is set to end the requirement on June 15th. It’s still not clear whether Los Angeles County is going to follow suit, though.

But the main thing is that it does feel like we’re reaching the beginning of the end, at least in some places in the U.S. But even as we slowly emerge back into some form of more public and social life, the signs of what we lost are starting to become apparent.

It reminds me of another great plague, the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665. It hit the cities particularly hard because they were crowded and unsanitary. A lot of people who could fled to the countryside as the city of London basically shut down.

This included a 23-year-old Isaac Newton, who found himself isolated in his country home in Woolsthorpe. As a result, he started to develop his theories of optics and gravitation, as well as create (or possibly rediscover) calculus.

Then, in September of 1666, London burned down. The Great Fire, as it became known, devastated everything within the old Roman walls as it tore through the city over the course of four days. The problem was a lot of wooden construction, jammed together haphazardly, but the actions of the Lord Mayor didn’t help at all.

Fire-fighting practice at the time was to create firebreaks by demolishing adjacent buildings that weren’t burning so that the fire couldn’t jump, and then focus on the structures that were on fire. But Mayor Thomas Bloodworth was having none of that. In a classic and short-sighted case of “buildings are worth more than people,” he refused to authorize the tearing down of a lot of warehouses because they couldn’t contact the owners.

Ironically, if he’d just had two houses torn down at the beginning, they might have stopped the thing at the bakery in which it started.

That’s not the only irony, though. The fire itself actually helped end the plague because it either killed or drove out the rats that were infested with the fleas that spread the infection.

Now, Los Angeles hasn’t burned down. Sure, lots of Southern California likes to burn up regularly, but our irony is that we tend to only lose rural neighborhoods while the cities, which are mostly concrete and steel, stay intact. But the city has burned metaphorically and, in a lot of ways, what we lost over the last year may have inadvertently helped slow down the spread of our plague as well. And, unlike Bloodworth, our mayor actually did the right thing, even if far too many people got selfish and bitched and complained instead of following the rules from the beginning.

Yes — if we had all just completely locked down and stayed at home for the first six weeks, we probably would have slowed things way down. But we didn’t learn the lesson that Bloodworth ignored as well: Sometimes, in order to save a lot of businesses or properties or homes, you have to intentionally destroy a few.

In fact, as of February 2021, Los Angeles County had lost the most small businesses of any county in the U.S. These were mostly restaurants and bars, small retail stores, salons, and gyms. The general category of “personal services business” was particularly hard-hit, especially because there were so many such businesses in the county.

But there were bigger victims. Larger retailers like Fry’s Electronics folded, and K-Mart and Sears shuttered a lot of locations. A huge movie chain, Pacific Theatres and Arclight Cinemas, shut down permanently, putting the status of L.A.’s historic Cinerama Dome in limbo. (That one particularly hurts because my dad was one of the architects involved in its creation early on in his career.)

Surprisingly, AMC survived despite rumors of it going bankrupt in 2020, and it’s now re-opened and thriving. And at least some of the arthouse cinemas live on, like the New Beverly, which just re-opened this past week. Of course, that one is owned by Quentin Tarantino, who’s got the money to have kept paying for the lease while it was dormant.

Just too bad he insisted on opening it with one of his history-mangling messterpieces.

As an antidote to that, the Nuart also survives, and that’s good news, although they do seem to be focusing on longer runs of obscure documentaries instead of the “you can’t find this online” arthouse stuff they used to thrive on. And, sadly, nary a sign of the return of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet.

Then again, that film is rapidly creeping up on 50 years old. On the other hand, it was so far ahead of its time and so much in tune with current attitudes that I don’t see why it wouldn’t still play with current Gen-Z audiences.

Don’t dream it… be it.

Between the original film and the 2016 TV remake (which decidedly does not suck), it covers all of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC bases. Although the fact that they missed getting that remake done during the 40th anniversary year is just sad. But bonus points for casting Tim Curry as the Criminologist.

So… do I think that everything is going to go back to normal in a couple of weeks? Oh, hell no. And I’m going to be keeping my mask on for a good while after this. Why? Because being able to unmask depends entirely on having been fully vaccinated, and I still don’t trust people enough to not lie.

I mean, come on. People have no problem lying about their untrained mutts being “therapy dogs” in order to bring them everywhere — even though, legally, “therapy dogs” are not a thing, and it’s only trained service dogs that should be allowed.

Not to mention that the anti-vax crowd actually crosses political lines. You’ll find just as many on the far right as on the far left. Yes, for different reasons, but same end results. They’ll refuse the shot, but then lie about it in order to regain their “freedom.”

So even as Southern California and Los Angeles pull that phoenix trick and rise from the ashes, I’m still going to take precautions. Meaning that this mask is staying on my face in public until we’ve vaccinated the fuck out of everyone and/or there have been no new cases of COVID-19 of any form diagnosed in the state for at least three months.

So… see you next fall, maybe?

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!

The Saturday Morning Post #1 (rerun)

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

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

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

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

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

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

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

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Nibble #57: Shook

Today, April 18, 2021, is the 115th anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, which struck at 5:12 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Estimated to have been a magnitude 7.9 with a Mercali intensity of XI, it leveled much of the city. A lot of the rest of it was destroyed by the multitude of fires that broke out in the aftermath.

But let’s take a look at Market Street, one of the main crosstown thoroughfares in the city, on a Saturday afternoon just four days earlier. This footage has been uprezzed, colorized, and the frame rate adjusted to 60 FPS, but that only serves to make it more amazing.

For me, a few things are significant about this. One is the total chaos of the traffic patterns, with pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicle, automobiles, and streetcars all somehow co-existing without any kind of traffic signals or apparent control.

Sure, everything is probably going eight miles an hour, but it’s still a pretty impressive feat.

Another thing to pay attention to is the behavior of the people. Other than the outer trappings of clothing, you can see that they have the same needs and concerns, and even some of the same reactions to the camera passing as people do now to spotting the Google Map Car.

But something else to keep in mind while looking at this footage: A lot of these people would be dead in less than in less than 96 hours — 3,000 died in the quake — and most of what you’re looking at was destroyed. About 80% of the city either fell over outright or burned.

Collapsing was pretty common along Market which, like most big cities of the time, was full of unreinforced brick and masonry buildings. The quake even shifted the course of the Salinas River by an incredible distance of six miles.

Remember, at the time, San Francisco was the ninth largest city in the U.S., and the largest on the West Coast. (Los Angeles really hadn’t happened yet.) The City was the center of trade, finance, and culture for the west, operating a busy port known as the Gateway to the Pacific.

The quake changed everything, and while San Francisco rebuilt quickly, the vast majority of its 410,000 residents were still homeless for a couple of years. A lot of them headed south and wound up in Los Angeles, which eventually took over as the principal city of the West Coast.

Total property damage, adjusted for inflation, was over $11 billion dollars, only $6.7 billion of it covered by insurance.

Since San Francisco was a banking center, immediate cash was tied up. All of the major banks did have fireproof vaults, but they had to wait days before they were cool enough to open. Meanwhile, only one bank, the Bank of Italy, had been able to evacuate its funds and started making rebuilding loans immediately.

That company changed its name to Bank of America in 1929, but it wouldn’t have become so big without the quake. The Transamerica Tower — the famous pyramidal structure in The City’s North Beach — is named for the holding company that owns Bank of America and its corporate parent.

California in general and San Francisco and Los Angeles in particular have survived plenty of earthquakes since 1906, of course. L.A. got its first big jolt — well, the county, not the city — in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which led to some of the first big building code reforms.

A lot of the buildings that lost walls and façades were made of unreinforced brick, so in the ensuing years, these structures were strengthened with steel rebar (i.e., reinforcing bar) which would run through the bricks beneath floors as well as up the vertical height of internal supporting walls.

You can spot the telltale signs to this day on brick buildings. Just look for the things that look like stubby bolts sticking out of square metal plates in regular lines. Unreinforced brick buildings are still standing in all the older parts of the city, including Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, South L.A., and so on.

Los Angeles next got hit in 1971 with the Sylmar Quake, and San Francisco followed with the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, which hit during the opening of a World Series baseball final taking place in the city, making it one of the few quakes seen nationally in real time.

In 1994, Los Angeles was rattled by the 1994 Northridge Quake — and things have been weirdly quiet since then, really — down south and up north.

Although California did experience not one, but two 1906-worthy Big Ones on consecutive days in 2019 — a 6.4 out in the desert on Independence day, which turned out to be the intro to the 7.1 quake that hit the following evening.

This happened 150 miles northeast of L.A., and I did not feel the first one — but the second was one of the most surreal quakes I ever have experienced.

I was still working for ComedySportz L.A. and doing improv at the time, and we had just started our Friday night 8 p.m. show when the entire place started to sort of… shimmy.

It wasn’t a hard shaking by any means, but there was definitely motion. Thinking quickly, the cast onstage opened the on-set doors, which backed up to the actor entrance doors behind the stage, opened those, and hurried everyone out to the street, probably a better option than rushing them out under the (at the time) 93-year-old steel and neon marquee out front.

Meanwhile, the house manager and I stood in the lobby, wondering, “Okay. Little one nearby, or big one far away?”

We eventually strolled into the lobby and chatted with the main theatre company’s house manager as the floor continued to vibrate.

The two weirdest things to me were that while the motion was detectable, it really wasn’t alarming, just strange. The other was just how damn long it continued. Nobody timed anything, but objectively, it seemed like a couple of minutes at least, maybe more. Then it finally stopped.

Now, if we felt that one so strongly in L.A. why didn’t feel the one from the day before at all? True, the second one had 11 times the energy of the first and I was about three miles closer. Still, there should have been a jolt. Except, this is a weird quirk I’ve discovered about the place I’m living now.

For some reason, not a lot of small quakes seem to even rattle things here. I’ve been online when people nearby in North Hollywood or over at the Sherman Oaks Galleria have posted, “Good shake. Did you feel that?” And I felt nothing.

Not even a swinging blind-rod or a tell-tale creak. Hey, I’m not complaining. I remember the Northridge quake quite well, and it scared the crap out of me.

But there is one other thing. For some reason (knock wood), Los Angeles has always had very low mortality rates in earthquakes. Then again, other than 1906, it’s been the same for San Francisco.

Only 63 people died in the 1989 quake in San Francisco, despite the double-decker Marina Freeway pancaking during evening rush hour. In the Northridge quake of 1994, only 72 people died, and the death toll for Sylmar in 1971 was 64 people, 49 of whom died in a single location when the VA hospital practically sitting on the epicenter experienced multiple structure failures.

My dad had actually worked for the architectural firm that had designed and built the place, and since he’d been a photographer in the Air Force and did all of his own processing and printing, they had him come along to document the damage, part of a process that became essential in figuring out what failed and how to prevent it from happening again.

Of course, he kept a complete set of prints for himself, and I remember looking at them years later. A few photos stuck out. One was a wheelchair balanced precariously in the edge of a parking structure that had partially collapsed, so that it was hanging by its back wheels, five stories up.

Another was of a supporting column, probably three feet square, that had sheared off. This exposed the maybe 1-inch rebar inside in I’m guessing a five-by-five array. This solid, braided steel had been bent in several directions by the shaking, so that it resembled more of a hybrid S/J shape in the gap between the lower and upper parts of the column.

The most disturbing, though, was the one that looked the most normal. It seemed to be just a non-descript one-story medical building, nothing out of the ordinary. It had no broken windows, wasn’t leaning in any particular direction, and seemed to have survived.

I asked my dad about it and he said, “Oh. That was a two-story building.”

Because of things I’ve learned over the years, I will always shun living or working in any building between 4 and 8 stories, because those tend to resonate with earthquakes. This means that once the shake starts, the natural rate at which the building will propagate that shaking up its height before damping it from the bottom makes the shaking stronger.

This was particularly apparent in the Northridge quake, when a lot of fatalities occurred in an apartment complex that was… four stories tall. The top three pancaked the bottom and, since it was 4:31 in the morning, a lot of people were sleeping down there.

The other type of apartment building to avoid is what’s called “Dingbat Architecture.” Popular in the 1950s and 60s, they were a cheap-to-build style that popped up all across the Sunbelt. In Los Angeles, they’re all over the West Side, Culver City, and the San Fernando Valley.

One of their defining features is a second story that just out over open parking spaces and is supported by rather thin columns. Depending on whether the parking was on the street or in the back, the second floor above it would be either the living room and kitchen areas or the bedrooms and bathrooms.

Needless to say, being in a bedroom above a parking area like this is generally not the safest space to be in a quake. Surprisingly, it’s a lot safer to be in a much taller building.

I had friends who, at the time of the Northridge Quake, ived in a high-rise on Wilshire, near Westwood. They were on the 23rd floor of what I think was a 25-story building. Their perception of the quake? “Oh, it was just a little rattle, not worth getting up for.”

They didn’t learn the truth until they got up hours later, went to make coffee, and turned on the news.

So, yeah, I’d prefer to be in a building like that. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but here’s the thing — structures that tall naturally cancel out the shaking. Why? Well, because when the ground floor shifts, it takes a while for that movement to make it to the top.

Say that the ground floor starts out with a shift of five feet west. That will start traveling up the building, but this is an earthquake, so it’s very likely that half a second later, the ground is going to shift five feet east, and send this impulse up. And… repeat.

What you wind up with is the equivalent of a starting a very fast vibration in a very long string. And the longer the string, the lower the note, because that fast vibration slows way down. A move in one direction might only make it to the third floor by the time the next move cancels it out, and so on.

On top of that, for really tall buildings, they have to counter the very real effect of wind-sway so that occupants on the top floors don’t get motion sickness — yeah, those suckers can swing a few feet in any direction at any time. To do this, a lot of really tall buildings have counterweights built into their cores. These are basically heavy pendulums that naturally fight the building’s need to sway.

Hey — wind, earthquake, whatever. The counterweights do their job.

Barring either of the above, then a single-story, wood frame, free-standing house with everything earthquake strapped, bugout kits in the cars, and earthquake beds would be the other ideal. The one advantage over the high rise, of course, is that you’re not stuck with the choice between staying home for a week or two or walking down and then possibly back up way too many flights of stairs.

Still, my grandmother would call my mother after any report of any quake and ask her, “When are you moving back home to Pennsylvania?”

My mom would reply, “You have floods, and the effects of those last for months and years. An earthquake is over in seconds, and things get back to normal quickly.”

I always grew up thinking the same way. Give me the choice between floor, tornado, hurricane, and earthquake, I’ll take the quake — provided that I’m living somewhere, like California, that takes them seriously enough to make things as safe as possible.

The Saturday Morning Post #51: The Rêves Part 29

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.

Yestern Union

Joshua drove the Tesla up to JPL, parked right outside, and was surprised to find when he walked up that there was nobody in the guard station. The outside door was locked, but one of the gadgets they’d always kept on hand was a belt buckle with all the necessary keys hidden in it.

Joshua unlocked the door and entered, noticing that not even the JPL Campus Cops were around.

No one was in the guard station, and he met no resistance when he walked to the elevators and pushed a button. One of them soon dinged its arrival, so he stepped in and descended to the lab.

Again, no challenge, so he went to Ausmann’s office, then unlocked and opened the gray door behind his desk — the one they’d never seen opened, but knew about.

Behind here, there was a long cat-walked corridor that seemingly stretched off into infinity. Next to it was a huge tunnel that was basically bordered by thick yellow pipes set at 60 degree angles, but no other separations. And, down the center of that border defined by the pipes, a hot, pink plasma snaked its way to who knew where.

Well, Joshua had a pretty good idea where, and then he spotted the gray door on the side of a square room that was located just below the point where the yellow pipes all came to a single focus.

He unlocked it and entered to find a small room with a single terminal and screen, and it wasn’t even password protected.

He sat and looked. There was an input box under a message. “Text here, ETA T-minus 6 Days, 16 hours.”

He put the USB stick in the port on the computer and a pop-up appeared. He dragged and saved the file to the desktop, then opened it, then copied the text. He finally switched back to the input box, was relieved when he was able to paste, then clicked send and sat back, happy.

It read: “To whom it may concern: I am sending this message via the machine created at JPL in Operation Slingback, and it concerns a murder that is going to take place in your near future. As best as I can tell, it will be approximately five days after you receive this, in North Hollywood, California, and the perpetrator will be the director of the project himself, a man named Ausmann. Exact date and details will follow, but if this machine works, please do whatever you can to prevent this crime, as it involves the murder of someone very dear to me, and a fellow contractor on a side-job connected to Operation Slingback that, in retrospect, may not have been all that authorized. Date, time, and precise location information follows. Sincerely, Joshua Hunter-Aisling. Employee ID 04J-23M-K42-06. The perpetrator is a man named Gustav Schliemann Ausmann, who heads Operation Slingback here at JPL, but he seems to have gone rogue. Consider him armed and dangerous.”

“Location of the crime: 5400 Tujunga Ave, North Hollywood, CA, Unit #1501, 15th floor, on the balcony on the northeast corner. 34°10’10.4″N 118°22’44.8″W, altitude approximately 743 feet above sea level, Wednesday, August 23, 2023. About 5:00 p.m. Perpetrator throws the victim off of the balcony onto Tujunga, below.”

And then… not a damn thing happened.

“Of course,” he thought. No reason I would have brought Simon here, so let’s go back home. He went back up, hopped in the Tesla, set it on auto, and did what he said, arriving back home, only to find that nothing has changed, and Simon isn’t there.

“What the fuck?” he wonders out-loud as Preston and Danny pop up out of the furniture.

“What?” they ask in unison.

“I did the thing. I fixed it in the past, but… where is he?”

“Oh, dear,” Danny said, rushing over to hug Joshua.

“You don’t know how it works, do you?” Preston added, joining the hug.

“What are you twats on about?” Joshua demanded.

“Things changed, but not…”

Before Danny could finish, Joshua’s phone rang and he answered. “Hello?”

It was Brenda, with a simple announcement. “So… where do you want to have Simon sent? All you have to do is show up at the hospital with your marriage certificate.”

Joshua’s stomach fell. Nothing had happened. Simon was still dead.

“And that’s it?” he asked.

“That’s it,” Brenda replied.

“Thank you,” he said, blankly.

There was a long silence, and then Brenda said, “I could not have done it for a nicer couple, but I don’t think that any of us are out of the woods yet.”

“What do you mean?” Joshua asked.

“Does the name Ausmann mean anything to you?”

“Oh… fuck,” Joshua muttered before adding, “Sorry!”

“Don’t be,” Brenda said.

“Yeah, so…. do you know where he is?”

“No,” she replied, “But one question I want you to answer honestly, with one sincere promise from me. No matter what you say, I will never deviate from the story that Simon fell and died in an accident.”

“Um…. why would you think he didn’t, Brenda?” Joshua asked.

She sighed. “Crazy man who knew where you lived, and whom you worked for, threatened my entire family to learn your location, which I didn’t give, and then the love of your life suddenly falls backassward off your balcony? Yeah, there’s one part of that story that just sets off my bullshit meter — ”

“Okay, I’m trying to catch Ausmann before the cops do, because it’s probably the best way to protect the Rêves. If that makes me seem like an asshole —

“No, no, not at all,” she said. “I know all about the things we do for love.” There was another silence, and then she added, “Look, I know you probably don’t know how this shit works, but it took some really major string-pulling to get Simon away from the Coroner, mainly because his death was sudden, violent, and unexpected — ”

“But not officially a homicide,” Joshua noted.

“Doesn’t matter when you score three for three,” Brenda explained. “When was the last time he saw his doctor?”

“Um… I don’t know. Maybe around his last birthday, in February?”

“So not within 20 days. Yeah, I’m guessing that’s what his HMO told them. Anyway, you need to go to the County Coroner’s office, I’ll text you the address, bring proof you’re family, and the name of the mortuary you want to send him to.”

“But then… we can do the funeral as soon as possible?” he asked.

“Well, probably not before Saturday,” Brenda said, “But I guess that really all depends on what the cemetery can do.”

“Even though I’m an atheist, I’d buy them a new chapel or some shit to make this happen fast.”

“I know you would, honey,” Brenda said.

“How do you know that?”

“Bitch, please! I saw the way you always looked at him during the brief time we were all hanging out.”

“Busted…” Joshua replied, actually laughing a little.

“There. More of that, okay? You’ll get through this. And call me if you need anything. At all. Okay?”

“Will do. And thanks again.”

“No problem. Bye.”

They hung up and Joshua felt the tears and sobs coming again. Danny and Preston hurried over to comfort him in their way. “I tried,” he said. “I really tried, but I guess the machine is just a gigantic lie, too.”

He wanted to scream, but then Danny and Preston put one hand on either side of his head and the other on his chest and back and he felt a sudden wave of peace and calm sweep over him.

“Thanks, guys,” he said.

“Don’t mention it,” they replied.

He went to the condo vault and dragged out their marriage certificate and, for good measure, both of their birth certificates and passports, then hopped in the car and headed to the County Coroner’s office, which was located on the north edge of the County USC Medical Center, which was located nowhere near the campus of USC itself, but of course.

USC was about five miles southwest of USC Medical Center, but only as the crow flew. As the car drove, it was probably at least a good thirty minutes, or pushing an hour on public transit.

He drove down, gave the clerk all of the paperwork, and she vanished for a long time into a back room to retrieve the file. She had been cordially icy for the first part of the transaction, but when she came back, flipping through the rather thin file, she was deferential as hell.

Joshua signed a few forms, she explained that the mortuary would have to submit two forms of their own but that Simon’s last attending physician had already certified, and she estimated that they’d be able to release the body and transport it out to Forest Lawn Glendale by the next morning.

“Not sooner?” Joshua asked.

She looked around to see whether anyone was listening. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “I don’t know who you know, but a case like this would normally take at least two weeks.”

“Really?” Joshua replied, truly amazed.

“Really,” the clerk told him. “But, hey, it’s not for me to judge, just to do the paperwork. Would you like a text message when we ship the body out?”

“Sure,” Joshua said.

“Great. Initial here, and sign there.”

He did, she snapped out a yellow NCR copy of the form and handed it to him — how quaint — and then said, “Thank you for visiting the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office, where Law and Science serve the community.”

“Oh god,” Joshua said. “They make you say that?”

She said nothing, but just nodded.

“Sorry. And thanks!”

He walked out from the natural oppressiveness common in any government building and into the bright sunlight of a late August day. Nothing to do now but wait, he supposed. He couldn’t get this show on the road — or in the ground — until the funeral director said so.

At the same time, Ritchie had finally managed to deliver Coraline to Anabel, who was circling that woman with a critical eye.

“Do you love your husband?” Anabel asked her.

“Oh, yes,” Coraline replied. “He’s given me a very good life.”

“Children?”

“Two. A daughter and a son. Three grandsons and a granddaughter, all from our daughter.”

“Is your son not married?” Anabel asked.

“Oh, he is, but they could only have kids if they adopted, which they aren’t inclined to do.” Coraline explained.

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Anabel faked sympathy. “Is she barren?”

“No, they’re gay. Anyway, my husband won’t talk to them at all. Only I do.”

“Gay?” Anabel questioned. “Happy?”

“Um… homosexual?”

“Oh. But here’s the really important question. What do you know about your husband’s work?” Anabel asked.

“Not a whole lot,” Coraline replied. “I mean, it’s up at JPL, so I assume it’s got to do with space and stuff, maybe the upcoming Mars mission, or establishing that Moonbase, finally. He can’t tell me a lot, anyway.”

“Um… wait, mission to Mars? The Moon? And what is JPL?”

“Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of course,” Coraline tells her. “And yeah, we’ve put people on the Moon and all kinds of probes on Mars. You haven’t heard of all that?”

Anabel just stared, not sure what to think. She didn’t even know what a jet was, and cursed the fact that Preston and Danny had abandoned her to go hang out with the crazy Hadas, because they probably could have interpreted.

And she was getting distracted, so tried again. “So what was your husband doing for this… JPL, exactly?”

“That’s just the thing,” Coraline explained. “I couldn’t tell you. He’d go off in the morning, come back at night, sometimes twelve-hour days, and not a word. I started to think that it was something besides space travel, because those missions always got hyped and were very public, while his… nothing.”

“Exactly,” Anabel smiled and took Coraline’s hands in hers. “That’s what we think, too, that he was involved in something completely different.”

“Which, to his credit, he never breathed a word about.”

“Doesn’t he love you, Coraline?”

Coraline took a moment, then laughed. “You must have never been married. No, he hasn’t loved me since just before I birthed our second child, and I still think he blames me for Ronnie being gay. As if. But… I’ve tolerated him, mainly because, well, I live in this ridiculous patriarchal society, so might as well hang on for what I can keep, right? Anyway, he probably won’t outlive me, right? Statistics!”

Anabel sighed, then looked into Coraline’s eyes. “I thought you’d already picked up on it, dear.”

“On what?”

“On the fact that you are quite dead while your husband is still quite alive. What do you know about that?”

“My Gustie is still alive?” Coraline suddenly lit up. “Where is he?”

“I hate to disappoint you,” Anabel explained, “But we happen to think that he may have actually been the person who killed you.”

“No, of course not,” Coraline denied it. “If I died, it was because of that storm. And why would he want to kill me? He’d be all alone otherwise, and I happen to know he’s not seeing anyone else.”

“What do you remember?” Anabel asked. “Concentrate, and relive your last moments.”

“We’d been through that storm,” she explained. “We went down to our shelter in the basement. It’s really elaborate, we could survive down there for months he always said. And we locked ourselves in and watched the news on TV — ”

“On what?” Anabel asked.

“It’s not really important for you to know,” Ritchie whispered to her. “Think of it like a tiny movie screen in a box, but it runs on electricity.”

“Yes, like that.”

“And you watched it all the time?” Anabel asked.

“Well, not when we slept.”

“But if the electricity went out — ”

“We had plenty of back-ups,” Coraline explained. “Generators and batteries and all that. And we got our signal through a cable that was buried about thirty feet below the basement. But we did lose all of the monitors upstairs, so had no idea what was going on.”

Off of Anabel’s look, Ritchie told her, “They’re like little TVs, except they show the view of various rooms in the house.”

“We were in there all that night, and the next day, and then into the next… why am I telling you this, again?” she asked.

“So you can remember whether Ausmann killed you.”

“Oh, right. Of course he didn’t. I mean, when I wanted to leave that room, he insisted on making sure it was safe to do beforehand, then he opened the door for me. I went out into the hall, and the house above us was completely gone, nothing but sky. And I headed for the stairs. Well, I hoped they were still there, and then I…”

She froze, staring as her eyes went wide.

“What is it?” Anabel asked.

“Mrs. Ausmann, are you all right?” Ritchie added.

“That son of a bitch,” Coraline muttered under her breath.

“Tell us,” Anabel prompted her.

“Some insulation stuff had fallen into the hallway and was lying at the end, and it was very reflective. I could see myself in it, then I could see Gustav raising a piece of wood with both hands, and then he swung it. And then… nothing.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” Anabel asked.

“Yes,” Coraline insisted. “Oh, yes.”

“You know, you just might become the first murder victim to personally testify at their murderer’s trial,” Anabel told her, with a gleam in her eye.

“Oh they do that all the time,” Coraline replied. Anabel just looked nonplussed, so Coraline added, “Well, I see it on all the shows — the CSIs, and the SVUs, and the like. The victims are dead, but their corpses leave plenty of testimony.”

“O… kay?” Anabel said. “But I’m sure you wouldn’t mind getting a little revenge on him.”

“But what can I really do? I’m dead.”

“We all are,” Anabel went on. “But here’s the thing you don’t know. We’re here because of that little project of your husband’s, which had an unintended side-effect, and now he wants to use it to destroy all of us. Or, in other words, he wants to kill us — and you — again. He wants to take away your second chance.”

“It all makes sense now,” she said. “I mean, he’s never been the nicest person. I’ve never known him to give to charity, and he never let the kids have a dog.”

“And he’s a murderer,” Ritchie added.

“And that,” Coraline agreed. “All right. So what do you need me to do?”

“I knew you’d see things our way. What we need you to do is to tell us absolutely everything you know about him — habits, likes, dislikes, places he likes to go. All of it.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be going back home any time soon,” Coraline told them.

“True,” Anabel replied, “But when I was alive, I learned that if you want to persuade someone to do something, you needed to learn their patterns, along with their desires and fears, then use the former to figure out how to exploit the latter two until you maneuvered them into doing what you wanted while thinking it was their idea all along.”

“What did you do? I mean, when you were alive?” Coraline asked.

“Helped my family build their empire,” Anabel explained, proudly. “All this land you’re standing on? Yeah. We owned this.”

“Very impressive,” Coraline said.

“Thank you.”

Anabel turned to Ritchie. “Go see if you can find Bugliosi. I think he’d be perfect for taking down this information. Oh, and Oda,” Anabel added. “She was an old family friend and one hell of a lawyer. Oda Faulconer.”

Ritchie nodded and sailed off into the cemetery.

“Lawyers?” Coraline asked, nervously.

“Of course,” Anabel said. “Who better to take a deposition, right?”

“Is that what this is?”

Anabel just nodded. “But relax. You’re not the criminal here.”

Coraline nodded and sat, waiting. Anabel couldn’t have been more chuffed over this coup. Not only were they going to get all of Ausmann’s darkest secrets, the kind that only a spouse would know, but she had neglected to tell Coraline one thing in her whole speech about persuading someone.

The information she’d asked for was also the best way to find a fugitive when you knew they were in the city, but not exactly where. Just like a poker game, everyone had their tells, and Anabel was about to get all of Ausmann’s on a silver platter.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #46: The Rêves Part 24

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

Shot in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heh heh, you’re a dick,” Danny said.

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

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

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

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

“What is that?” Daniel asked.

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

“Duh…”

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

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

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

“I’m Danny,” Danny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who told you that?” Preston demanded.

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

“Interesting,” Danny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two questions,” Danny interrupted.

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

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

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

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

“His cabin?”

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

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

“We can do that?” Jerry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“You recognize the name.”

“Sure. But?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No shit?” Pearl replied.

“No shit,” Danny told them.

“Where is he?”

Preston turned and pointed at the cabin.

“You’re sure?” they asked.

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

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

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

Well, apparently not all of them.

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

“What are we waiting for?” Anabel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How about a challenge?” Anabel announced.

“Like what?” Ausmann replied.

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

“Catch me with what?” he asked.

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

“Make it ten, bitch,” Ausmann replied.

“So you accept?” Anabel asked him.

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

“Knock yourself out,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #43: The Rêves, Part 21

After a brief hiatus for my Christmas Countdown, your Saturday fiction feature is back, and I broke at a good point because this next one is an omnibus chapter that weaves together all of the characters that we’ve been following so far, and it brings a big revelation about The Rêves, Las hadas selvajes, where they came from, and what they want.

This is the turning point leading into the final beats of Act II of the book. You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or the previous chapter here.

Slingback

Pearl was walking with Preston and Danny through the woods, following no particular trail, occasionally coming across a deer that would regard them, but react with disinterest rather than fear.

“We were the first,” she said. Well, Janis was the first of us, in the autumn of 1970. That’s where we got the name Pearl from, although we didn’t really start to pick up numbers until a little later in the 70s, and it always seemed to be gay men who had died away from their families — and abandoned by them — without any close friends here to notice their loss.

“A lot of Them were new in town, wound up homeless and addicted. Maybe that’s why we somehow found Janis. Then things really took off in the 1980s when our numbers swelled.

“That’s also when we started thinking of ourselves as Las hadas selvajes,” Pearl explained. “That was partly because of an activist group called the Radical Faeries, but also because we had a sudden Hispanic and Latino and Latina influx. Oh, I know they use “Latinx” nowadays, Pearl said, “But no one has explained to me how to pronounce it.”

“LatEEN-ex,” Preston replied.

“Ah,” Pearl said. “Thank you. Anyway, we pretty much kept to ourselves and stayed in unpopulated, undeveloped area — which were shrinking rapidly. We weren’t visible to humans, although some of them could sense us, and we liked it like that.”

“But something made you decide to cause that storm?” Preston asked. Danny shot him a look, but Pearl was clearly not upset by the question at all.

“Yes,” They explained. “You see, it was just shy of twenty years before things suddenly changed.”

“What happened?” Danny asked.

At the same time and just under 85 miles almost perfectly due west, Joshua and Simon had started digging through the data they had skimmed from Ausmann’s network, and decided to start with the oldest documents they could find.

Although none of the files on the network were that old, they did find a folder called “Archives,” and it was structured as a top layer of subfolders per year, each one with its own set of folders by month. The earliest one was for 1985, and the earliest month was April, with a PDF physically dated April 15, 1985, although the computer file was dated October 2012.

It was a memo, from someone at DARPA (name redacted) describing a project called “Operation Slingback.”

“Drag queens?” Joshua joked playfully.

“No, silly!” Simon replied, slapping his shoulder as he scanned the document, finally just looking away from the screen and muttering. “Oh. My. God.”

“What?” Joshua asked, knowing that anything that would get Simon to say that must have been extraordinary.

“Faster than light communications,” he said. “That’s what this project was. It was some Cold War bullshit. If spies could send messages faster than light, they could essentially send them back in time, meaning that they could literally get intelligence to our side even before the Soviets knew they’d created it.”

“Freaky,” Joshua replied. “Does it say how it was supposed to work, since you can’t send anything with mass at or above lightspeed?”

“Sure,” Simon explained. “Tachyons.”

“Theoretical!” Joshua reminded him.

“I know,” Simon continued. “But they seemed to think not.”

The two of them poured through the documents on their own laptops, Joshua taking even months and Simon taking odd — purely based on whether their birth month was odd or even — and then Joshua finally found an “A-ha!” moment dated October 28, 1987.

“Look at this,” he told Simon, and they huddled together peering at the screen. The document was heavily redacted, so while it was clear what they had done, everything about how they did it was censored. That really didn’t matter though. What did were a few brief lines.

27101987 16:34:17 [JUL 87300] OP SLINGBACK TXF RECD SUCCESS…

ORIGIN 29101987 13:15:06 [JUL 87302] CONTENT STAND ON ZANZIBAR

29101987 13:16:32 [JUL 87302] OP SLINGBACK TXF SENT

DEST UNK TIME FACTOR UNK CONTENT STAND ON ZANZIBAR

“Okay,” Joshua said. “So if the people in the past received and documented the message the people in the future sent, how is that any kind of time travel at all? I mean, dudes on the 27th get some random text, write it down, and now dudes on the 29th know what to send.”

“Look at the methodology,” Simon replied. “They were two separate teams. Senders were at Livermore, receivers were here. The received message was sealed until after the point that the senders confirmed they had done their thing, and the two messages were compared by an independent team at Berkeley.”

“Wow,” Joshua replied. “So they managed to send a message back, what… forty-five hours or so?”

“Give or take eighteen minutes,” Simon added.

They continued reading until Simon hit March 22, 1991, when Operation Slingback was folded into Operation Wayback, and a permanent tachyon transmission line was set up between JPL in Pasadena and the Pentagon.

Again, a lot of the theory was redacted, but one intriguing bit was left in. Simon read as Joshua listened.

“Choice of baseline approximately seven times longer than JPL to Livermore by moving end points from JPL to the Pentagon improved time distance transmission by the inverse cube of the distance, from 45 hours to approximately 160 hours. Setting base points slightly longer, from Livermore to the Pentagon, would have yielded lead times of about 240 hours, but this preferred route was vetoed by Code Name Rainbow.”

“Who the fuck is ‘Rainbow?’” Joshua asked. Simon did a quick Google, then laughed.

“Shit,” he said. “That was Nancy Reagan’s Secret Service code name.”

“Really?” Joshua replied.

“Really,” Simon said. “So… then what?”

They kept searching the records and, while Pearl didn’t have access to them, she had lived through the results.

“May 23, 1989,” They said. “That was the day the Earth shook and the ground buzzed, and we could feel that something weird was going on. And that was the day that the other classes suddenly popped up.”

“We haven’t always been here?” Preston asked, sounding nervous as Danny took his hand.

“No, dear,” Pearl said. “It’s been barely 34 years. “Now Class I and Class III knew how to behave and stay hidden, for the most part. If they did wind up appearing around a human, they would be sure to make it brief and ambiguous, always leaving doubt whether anything had been there at all.”

“Is that why I can appear like an animal around humans?” Preston asked.

“I’m getting to that. And I should tell you that we do have another word for them besides humans, since we are also humans. Mostly. We call them vivants. And we started having big problems with them because — no offense, Preston — Class II’s just couldn’t keep themselves from showing off to vivants, and things started to get really, really weird, especially in all the tourist spots — which happened to coincide with the new L.A. Metro system they were creating.”

“Shit,” Joshua exclaimed as he found a document with a bunch of stories with a ‘Haunted Hollywood’ theme, all of them starting in the late spring of 1989 and continuing for a few years. Somebody on the project had felt it necessary to compile them, even though most of them seemed to come from trashy rags.

At one point, a psychologist even posited a term for the condition: “Cinema psychosis,” hallucinations and delusions caused by an obsession with films and old movie stars. W.C. Fields was often seen wandering drunkenly along side streets off of Hollywood Boulevard, while the Marx Brothers were fond of hanging around the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, along with Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn.

Rudolph Valentino would regularly pop up near Hollywood High School, while Clara Bow seemed very fond of USC. The stories went on and on in the tabloids, but there was not a single clipping of a story from a mainstream outlet save one, a brief blurb in a TIME magazine from 1992 that talked about alleged hauntings at the Roosevelt, although in the most skeptical of terms.

It concluded by saying that such reports had suddenly increased in the last few years — odd for celebrities that had been dead for much longer — and wondered whether it wasn’t some publicity stunt by the city in order to increase tourism even as the new Metro Rail system was working its way from downtown to Hollywood and points north.

That particular part of the story was highlighted with a cryptic note scrawled in the margin: “If only!”

“So… they fired up this machine to send messages into the past,” Simon recapped, “And it somehow brought back all of these… not ghosts, exactly, but ‘echoes,’ was it? Echoes of people who had died, and while the unknown ones seemed to keep to themselves, the famous ones started popping up everywhere?”

“As crazy as it sounds,” Joshua started.

“Dude, we have been dealing with some pretty crazy shit for the last five years now. I mean, in a weird way, it’s kind of nice to know that there is a scientific explanation for it.”

“Don’t forget that other part, what Anabel told us.”

“Right,” Simon continued. “Ausmann wants to ‘Commit genocide and destroy my kind,’ she said. So we know what that kind is. We just have to figure out how he intends to destroy it.”

“The obvious guess would be to just turn off the machine,” Joshua offered.

“I know,” Simon said. “But the fact that they haven’t done that implies that it’s not the answer at all. Let’s do a little digging closer to the present.”

Earlier that day out in Simi Valley, the police finally did some digging in what was left of Ausmann’s house. It had been an obvious target for their attention for two reasons. One, there were no signs of life. Two, it was the only place in the entire neighborhood — indeed, the entire city — that had been razed by the storm.

When Detective Davis saw the homeowner’s insurance records that his staff had pulled on the place, he was immediately suspicious.

“Insured for twice market value, and that benefit is locked in,” he explained to one of his Lieutenants. “It’s written so that force majeure events are covered with triple indemnity.”

Force majeure?” his Lieutenant asked.

“Also known as ‘act of god.’ This guy have any other insurance?”

Twenty minutes later, the Lieutenant came back with the benefit details on the life insurance policies Ausmann had on himself and his wife, and Davis nearly shit his pants, thinking “Thank god HIPAA confidentiality only covers health insurance.

He sent his forensics team in to carefully explore the ruins, and they found Coraline’s body in about twenty minutes, face down in the hallway outside of what was clearly a panic room, the ceiling dumped on top of her.

Davis sighed. This was going to be one of those cases, he thought. A shit-ton of circumstantial evidence that pointed to a really guilty spouse taking advantage of this sudden act of god and murdering his wife, or one really unlucky son of a bitch who happened to lose his wife to an act of god that only served to make him look guilty as hell.

Davis was still looking over the records when Chief Lewis arrived and popped up next to him. “So,” she asked, “What do you think? Natural disaster, or homicide?”

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “I really don’t. It all depends on whether we find her husband, whether we find him alive, and whether we can figure out where he was when this storm hit.”

Lewis looked at the insurance documents and let out a low whistle. “Well,” she said, “I can give you my professional opinion.”

“I think I know it already,” Davis replied.

“Damn straight, skippy. Guilty as hell unless he’s got an iron-clad alibi.”

Inside, Davis’ heart sank. Pursuing a guilty verdict against someone who was clearly richer than god was any LEO’s worst nightmare. Those assholes could afford to fight back, and make his life hell for the next decade.

“Okay, people,” he called out to his staff, “New assignment. Find her husband. All of his deets have been BT’d to you.”

Ausmann wasn’t stupid, and this exact scenario had been playing in his head from the second he decided to slam that board into his wife’s skull. He’d taken an Uber under an assumed name, using a burner phone with its GPS permanently disabled, and an untraceable pre-paid debit card. This got him from Simi out to Warner Center, where he hopped on the F Line, again using an untraceable TAP card paid for by that same debit card, then eventually made his way up to JPL via a last mile Uber that he ditched at the entrance.

His first lucky break came when he walked in to see all four of the guards staring intently at one monitor, and then he saw what was on it — porn. In fact, porn that had clearly been recorded in the parking lot Ausmann had just walked through where no sex was actually happening.

He cleared his throat loudly and they all looked at him. “I know that’s not one of our cams live,” he said. “Know how I know? Follow me.”

He led them outside to show them that the spot in the video had neither the car depicted nor the fucking couple, then he led them back in, telling the supervisor, Jerry, to shut off the monitor. He paced for a bit, then finally looked at them all and said, “Sorry. This is a severe violation of so many rules and regulations that I have no choice.”

“We thought it was a live — ” Pedro, the youngest of the guards started to say, but Jerry shot him a look that shut him up.

“You’re all fired,” Ausmann told them. “Watching porn at work, and where any visitors could see it? Really? Really? You’ve got one hour to clear out your things and go. Meanwhile, I’m confiscating the physical log books for the week, and I want you all to write down your network log-ins and passwords.”

There was a lot of grumbling, but Jerry wisely rode watch on them, which Ausmann appreciated. Of course, he would let Jerry’s medical benefits continue by keeping him on payroll as a “consultant,” but mainly because he knew that the man was not a boat-rocker.

How could he be? His wife was on chemo, and it was only through the gold-plated insurance that this Federal job gave them that he could afford to keep her alive.

The rest of them? Yeah, they were young and healthy, Ausmann thought. He couldn’t have been more wrong, of course.

Ausmann headed down the elevator, cut off from the sudden grumbling upstairs. Meanwhile, Pedro, Juan, and Cobre let the anger loose, and Jerry let them vent for a while.

“What a motherfucker,” Cobre declared. “Can we cut the oxygen off down there?”

“We should,” Juan agreed.

“That’s… a bit extreme, boys,” Jerry cut in.

“Ass-kisser,” Cobre muttered.

“What about the water?” Pedro offered.

“What about it?” Jerry asked.

“I mean… he doesn’t have to know that it’s not off because of the flood, right?”

Juan and Cobre agreed. “What’s the worst that can happen? He can’t flush a toilet or wash his hands?” Juan asked.

Jerry pondered for a long moment, finally agreeing. “Okay,” he said. “You can turn the water off. But, trust me, I’ve known him for a long time, and he is hiding something. Your best defense is to pretend that you know nothing.”

“Didn’t you already tell us something?” Cobre replied.

“Fuck,” Jerry said. “Okay. This. Get the hell out of here, forget you ever worked here, and I will do what I can to make sure that you wind up with better jobs somewhere else.”

“As long as it doesn’t involve sucking cock,” Pedro shot back.

“Oh, you fucking tease,” Juan sighed.

“No,” Jerry explained. “You forget that Ausmann wasn’t here before the storm, you don’t talk to anyone about it, and as far as you know, he came down as soon as it started raining.”

Juan, Pedro, and Cobre stared at Jerry for a long moment, until Cobre let out a quiet but dismayed, “What?”

“I think it’s called ‘selling out,’ Pedro said.”

“Ah,” Juan replied. “Right. So… Jerry… how much is that really, really worth to you?”

Twenty minutes later, each of the three guards had a net worth increased by half a million, and none of them would ever say a word about Ausmann. Or Jerry who, by this point, was just as guilty.

After all, the only reason he could afford to transfer them each that kind of money in cryptocurrency was because he had long ago sold the secret of what they colloquially called the Retro Telegraph to several foreign nations for far more than that — not so much to help them as to cause them the same kinds of problems it had caused here.

He wasn’t supposed to know about the machine, of course, but one of the secrets of the security industry was that the guards always knew everything. They kind of had to, although the “kids” in his charge generally didn’t. But Jerry had been given the same clearances as Ausmann when he had taken on the job as head of security.

Then his wife got sick, and he saw his opportunity. England, France, Switzerland, Mexico, and Holland all got a lot more “haunted” after that.

When he’d finished packing his things, he turned the water back on downstairs, then left for the last time, his ID, keys, and all that other rigmarole left on the counter inside the guard station. Naturally, he had a duplicate set at home.

He made sure the door was locked from inside behind him as he left, then hopped into the 2003 Toyota Corolla that he always drove to work. He was smart enough to know that most spies got caught by being too flashy with their purchases.

Ausmann arrived downstairs after the elevator stopped briefly. He figured that it must have been a couple of the guards fucking with him, but fortunately he had the override codes. He just had to find them, which took him a bit.

He had intentionally left his cell phone at home in the bedroom rubble, although he had also made sure to smash it after deleting any information older than the morning of the day the storm hit. Since he never used it to make calls and he had physically disabled the GPS in it, there wouldn’t be anything there to prove that he had been at home or hadn’t been at JPL for the last few days.

“I never take my phone to work with me because I have one built into the car, and I can’t take it down to work with me anyway, officers,” he had rehearsed in his head a million times, along with, “I asked my wife to give me a ride to work that morning because I knew we were going to be there for a few days on a critical mission, so I wanted her to have both cars, just in case.

“What’s that? No, I’m sorry, it’s highly classified work for the Federal government, so I can’t tell you that. Just that it involves monitoring of… scientific data, and we were expecting a lot to come in once forecasts of the nature of the storm started to arrive.”

He had been doing a lot of rehearsing in his head today, and once he found the tiny cryptic card with his most important passwords written on it, but encoded in a way that only he could understand, he punched in the override and the elevator moved again.

When the doors opened, he thought he heard noises coming from around the corner, followed by an echoing boom, so he ran to the pull-switch in the wall and activated lockdown. The sirens started doing their annoying as hell three second whoop, silence, repeat, and red lights with spinning reflectors lit along all of the hallways as the main lights dimmed.

Ausmann grabbed a flashlight, put on night vision goggles, and strapped a motion detector to his wrist. Well, one that would detect motion happening more than ten but less than fifty feet away from him, then he made a full circuit of the floor, finding nothing and no one.

“Must have been one of those fucking ghosts,” he grumbled. “He repeated this procedure for the other levels of the complex until he was satisfied that he was alone, then went to his office and shut off the lockdown protocol.

Finally, he was ready for his real mission with all of the distractions gone and himself sequestered in a safe place where not even the cops could get to him. He turned his computer on, logged into the network, and navigated to one particular folder.

“But what’s going on right now,” Pearl warned the boys after explaining all of the history of the Rêves and Las hadas up to that point, “Is that one vivant wants to commit genocide and destroy our kind.”

“Is that why those dudes have been hunting us?” Preston asked.

“They were unintentional pawns in the game,” Pearl said, “But we’ve looked into their hearts, and they feel so guilty about being used that they are now on our side. Even as we speak, they are working against the real enemy, a man named Ausmann.”

“Never heard of him,” Preston said.

“Lucky for you. He’s the entire reason that we unleashed that storm on the city the other night.”

You did that?” Danny asked in amazement.

“Of course,” Pearl said. “That’s our domain. Nature. We try to avoid human war because it’s full of things like hate and vengeance. And, as I said, this Ausmann person — I shouldn’t really even dignify him with the title vivant — wants to commit genocide and destroy our kind.”

“How do you destroy the dead?” Preston asked.

“My god, that motherfucker has no imagination,” Joshua said as he pointed to a folder that had been updated four days ago, the most recent one in the stack. It was titled Operation Ghost Toast.

“That’s the problem,” Pearl replied to Preston. “It’s not easy. But those idiot Class II’s — again, no offense — have mostly decided to join forces with Ausmann in favor of the humans.”

“Why?” Danny asked.

“Because without them we would be nothing!” Bette exhorted the troops rallied around her in the Westwood Cemetery. “They created us. They sustain us. So we will march with them!” She had taken on her persona from her appearance in the WW II era film Hollywood Canteen, and had turned this whole thing into a rally the troops moment with all of her other Class II’s who’d been there.

“But don’t take my word for it,” she announced. “Here’s a real treat for you all! Miss Betty Grable!”

Betty came dancing on in all of her full pin-up glory, and she proceeded to give a rousing speech urging all of the Class II’s to join their fight to defend Ausmann from the evil, greedy, and unknown Class I’s and the pretentious Class III’s. There was also a good dose of shaming of the Class II’s who had fled to Anabel’s side.

There was also a rousing speech from Valentino, finally, once one of the Rêves realized that he’d actually heard the man’s voice when he worked as a PA in the early days of Hollywood, before he’d gone on to minor fame as a character actor, and the Sheikh spoke in a strong accent that was heavily influenced by living his first eighteen years in Italy.

But the content of the speech was unmistakable as he excoriated Anabel, and he felt uniquely qualified to do so because they had been contemporaries. In fact, she had died exactly six months and twenty days before he did, although she had been older.

Still… he had stories about how she had screwed over Italian immigrants in San Francisco after the Great Earthquake, hadn’t been the nicest person ever, and how she now had a deep and bitter hatred for humans because giving birth to one had killed her.

He managed to fire the crowd up, partly because he was handsome and charismatic, but also because no one had ever heard Valentino speak before.

“A toast!” a voice cried out, and it was John Wayne, sitting on a ghost horse. “That dago tells the truth,” he announced. “Never trust a woman who goes into business,” he said. “Always trust the white man, because he will never do you wrong.”

“We never should have trusted Ausmann,” Simon said as they looked at the folder. “Operation Ghost Toast my ass.”

The first file in the folder was titled “READ ME.PDF,” so Simon, Joshua, and Ausmann all clicked.

The ensuing document was heavily redacted, and despite Joshua trying the copy and paste to text trick immediately, it didn’t matter. This document was truly redacted. It had the DARPA logo at the top, a time and date stamp, and then the From, To, and Subject fields were all blacked out, as was the greeting before the message, which itself read:

NOTICE REGARDGING TERMINATION OF OPERATION SLINGBACK: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MAY THE EQUIPMENT BE POWERED DOWN IMMEDIATELY DUE TO UNEXPECTED AND DANGEROUS AFTEREFFECTS POSSIBLY INVOLVING ████████████████████████████. PROPER TERMINATION PROCEDURE IS DOCUMENTED IN PUBLICATION SCP-██████ CLASSIFICATION LEVEL SUPRA EYES ONLY PER DIRECTIVE ██████████████████████, 27112004 ISSUED BY █████████████. INSTANT POWER DOWN IS ONLY AUTHORIZED IN CASES OF NATIONAL EMERGENCY PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED BY POTUS.

“Well, fuck.” Joshua and Simon exclaimed together.

“There’s no way to shut this thing down?” Ausmann had wondered.

“So… if we break it, we can really fuck shit up?” Joshua asked, and Simon just shrugged.

“I love it when you’re non-committal, honey.” Joshua announced, but then both of their phones and the downstairs buzzer rang.

“What the fuck?” Joshua asked as Simon looked at, then answered, his phone. When he finally hung up, he looked at Joshua and his WTF face.

“What, dude?” he said. “That was Brenda, she found us and wants to come up to talk, so I gave her the entry code.”

“Talk about what?” Joshua replied.

“Dude, chill, she’s not a narc,” Simon said.

“But what does she want?” Joshua demanded, right before the elevator doors opened and Brenda entered.

“Hey, boys,” she said. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you all for a long time. So, tell me. Earth is getting weird. Anything you want to say about it?”

Joshua and Simon just looked at each other, then at Brenda before giving weak smiles and sinking into their sofa in the living room, directing Brenda to the most comfortable seat.

They quickly caught her up on what they learned, leaving out the last bit about shutting down the machine, at the end of which she jumped up and said, “Oh my god. Then you absolutely have to call my boss, Rita.”

“What for?” Joshua asked.

“Apparently, they’re creating a department at the state level to basically do what you do, there are hints that they want me to run it, and my boss is strongly urging me to bring you along as our specialists.”

Joshua and Simon just started at each other a long moment, then turned back to Brenda.

“No,” they said in unison.

“We don’t want anything to do with this business anymore,” Joshua said.

“We’ve learned too much.”

Brenda took a deep breath. “All right. All right. I can understand. But, for me, can you please at least Zoom my boss and tell her no yourselves? She promised me a big promotion if you did that…”

Joshua and Simon exchanged another look between them that clearly spoke unstated volumes. Simon nodded, and Joshua replied.

“All right, fine. We’ll Zoom her, but can we at least tell her to go fuck herself and take her job offer and shove it?”

“Do you have any idea how much this position would pay?” Brenda countered.

“See this condo?” Joshua said.

“We… we own it,” Simon muttered , bashfully.

“This one, and the other one on this floor. Outright, free and clear, paid cash. You’ve seen our car. Anything your boss could offer us would be pocket change.”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“So, do we have your permission to tell her to go — ”

“Oh, hell yeah,” Brenda said. “Just don’t tell her that I said you could.” She scrolled and tapped her phone and Joshua’s and Simon’s chimed. “I just sent you the Zoom link. It’s a standing meeting that’s she’s got open, so any time you check in, she’ll notice.”

“Cool,” Simon said.

Brenda stood and headed for the door. “Thanks. And I do understand why you’re pretty tired of this shit. I just wish we could work together to end it.”

“Oh, we can,” Simon said. “We will.”

“There is something in the works. It just takes a few more steps. But we will definitely be in touch when we need you,” Joshua added.

“Thanks, guys!” Brenda said, and then she left. Simon and Joshua looked at each other.

“So,” Joshua said, “Now we just have to figure out how to save all of these innocent Rêves who did nothing while also saving a guilty human or two, and averting some sort of apocalyptic supernatural war.”

“Sounds to me like the most direct approach is to just turn off the machine,” Simon said.

“Yeah, but how are we going to get to it?” Joshua asked. “Even if Ausmann isn’t a factor, it sounds like that shit is probably under a fuckton of security codes and is probably harder to shut down than it is to launch a nuclear missile.”

“True,” Simon said. “But the real trick is figuring out the million dollar question.”

“Which is?”

“What does Ausmann want to do? Because whatever that is, we need to do the opposite.”

“Oh. Right,” Joshua replied, but then he had a sudden weird moment of vertigo in which he literally saw double when he looked at Simon. Of course, his eyes were watering, so the ghostly double-image he saw was probably a result of that. He took a moment, wiped his eyes, then carried on when things went back to normal. No reason to alarm Simon.

“So how do we figure out what he wants?” he asked.

“Good question,” Simon replied. “Meanwhile… good time to tell a bureaucrat to go fuck themselves?”

“Isn’t it always?” Joshua laughed.

Simon grinned and sent the Zoom address to their widescreen. Might as well get the full effect.

“Record it,” Joshua reminded him.

“Done,” Simon said, right before Rita let them into the room.

“Boys!” she greeted them. “Hello!”

That opening made the impending “go fuck yourself” all the sweeter.

* * *
Image source: CERN, (CC) BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.