The Saturday Morning Post #27: The Rêves, Part 5

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.

All-American Slam

“Wow,” Brenda said after Simon and Joshua had finished their tag-team explanation of what was going on. “Oh, wow,” she repeated, absently finishing up the last of the seasoned fries which was the last of bit her breakfast.

They had agreed, by the time they’d gotten here, that the evening had left them all very hungry. Joshua had gone for a custom cheeseburger, with double patties, Swiss and cheddar cheese, bacon, mayo, caramelized onions, and red-skinned potatoes on the side.

Meanwhile Simon built his own omelet, with fire-roasted bell peppers and onions, jalapeños, sautéed mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, feta and pepper-jack cheese, an English muffin, seasonal fruit instead of potato, and fresh avocado on top.

Yeah, while Joshua and Simon were alike in a lot of ways, they weren’t when it came to food choices. That made cooking at home a bit awkward.

“I figured that would be your reaction,” Simon replied to Brenda’s “Wow.”

“But it makes so much sense now,” she said. “Of course that’s what’s going on. Okay, okay. I guess now it’s my turn to share.”

Of course, Joshua and Simon had only told her what they knew, which was naturally limited because Ausmann hadn’t been so forthcoming — and they had left out any mention of him or JPL, just that they were doing it for someone with government connections, while Joshua had done a brilliant job of tossing in the deflection of, “Well, this person is affiliated with a government organization we wouldn’t want to have anything to do with directly in a million years.”

Simon was actually proud of that one. Anyone who knew the two of them knew that they would each give their right nut, and probably toss in the left one, in order to have legit careers at JPL. Hell, offer to send them to Mars, they’d probably cut off their dicks as well.

“So, share?” Joshua replied.

Brenda proceeded to tell them about L.A. Metro lore, the stories that were passed along down the years, and shared as almost a rite of passage tradition for new employees — especially when a foreman was breaking in new tunnel crew who had the graveyard maintenance shifts of cleaning and repairing the trains, scooping dead rats out of the track beds, finding suicides that had been missed because they managed to get down a tunnel and in front of a train without a driver noticing, and so on.

That and constantly power-hosing piss and shit out of everything, because humans were pigs.

“Ghost stories to haze new employees?” Simon asked when she was done.

“That’s what I always thought, yeah,” she said. “But then I got into management, and then upper management, and then wound up actually seeing the so-called ‘R-Files.’”

“Is that anything like the X-Files­?” Joshua asked.

“Sort of,” Brenda said. “R. As in Riordan. Does that name ring any bells?”

Simon and Joshua looked at each other, both drawing blanks, finally replying, “No.”

“Yeah, y’all were probably too young. Where’d you grow up?”

“Here,” Joshua replied.

“Well, the Valley,” Simon said.

“West… Valley…” Joshua added reluctantly.

“So your parents probably voted for him. I was a junior, maybe senior in high school. So I knew of him, only knew I didn’t like him because he was an old white man, and a Republican — ”

“Eew!” Joshua and Simon chimed in together.

“And yet he marched in the Gay Pride Parade while was mayor. In the 90s. But the real shit was kept under cover, and that’s what’s in the R-Files.”

“Sounds… interesting,” Joshua said.

“Very,” Simon added.

“Yeah. Basically, it validates everything you’ve just told me, but I think it also fills in a lot of the holes in what you I know.”

“So tell,” Simon said.

“All right,” Brenda said, “But I think this is going to require coffee and dessert.”

“Agreed,” Joshua replied, Simon nodding.

Brenda went for the New York style cheesecake. Meanwhile, when it came to dessert, Joshua and Simon were the perfect match, so it was one chocolate lava cake, two forks. And then three large coffees all around.

* * *

Anabel

She knows that any Class 2’s or Class 3’s captured by the type of traps these assholes are using will, mercifully, be unconscious until they are released. She also knows, from what she’s seen, that those traps would not have captured her, and so was completely surprised to find herself taken in by something that left her entirely aware, and yet trapped like a butterfly under glass, able to see outside, and yet not get there.

She also couldn’t hear anything — the device she was sealed in was soundproof. Also, the dark-haired one had hung it back on his belt, and she was now sitting in her cage on the fake leather bench in what seemed to be a cheap diner booth, in between her two captors.

Even more infuriating than being imprisoned and not being able to hear what was going on, though, was that while she’d been alive she was the ruling power behind her entire extended family because she knew how to manipulate the patriarch of the clan, her paternal grandfather, Winthrop Stuyvesant Chanler, whom she always called Papaw Winnie.

She also had no brothers, only younger sisters, as did her father, which put her in a unique position, especially after her father died in a horseback riding accident while surveying one of their family’s many rancheros in the Eastern San Fernando Valley.

She was 13 at the time and it was 1906, about six months after the northern branch of the family had lost so much in the San Francisco earthquake. Or would have lost so much, except that when Anabel heard the news, she went to her grandfather and told him exactly how to use the disaster to make a fortune.

She told him he needed to go start a bank, to offer personal loans and to finance rebuilding; buy up real estate that seemed worthless; start several development companies; and get a few of her cousins into politics on the state level.

It turned out that the hardest part was starting the bank, but only because Amadeo Giannini, who had started the Bank of Italy in San Francisco two years earlier, had seen the promise in the idea, and had the gall to recreate it as the Bank of America with two Burgundy type wine barrels and a plank in the middle of the wreckage in North Beach, where he started handing out money to mostly Italian-Americans.

Fortunately, Anabel’s grandfather hated the people he always called “The Wops,” and made sure that all the bigger loans and better property went to the good old Anglos.

Ironically, decades later, the spot where Amadeo had started his bank would be near the site of the famous Transamerica Pyramid. Transamerica was Bank of America’s holding company. The Chanlers had always considered the Gianninis to be major-league assholes. The feeling was mutual.

But, in 1906, Anabel’s advice led to a flurry of telegraphs from her grandfather, as well as quickly booked train trips to as close to the Bay Area as they could get before riding in on horseback and horse-drawn cart, and over the next few years, Anabel’s plans succeeded beyond even her own wildest dreams. But between start and finish, her father died, leaving her as the only logical heir, which grandfather declared her to be on her eighteenth birthday in 1911.

This was when she pulled her second coup, seeing what was going on in Europe, and advising him that the best way to become rich in war-time was to provide arms. “To which side?” he had asked her.

“To all of them,” she said. And even though he had to compete with the Krupp dynasty of Essen, he gave them a run for their money, despite them having been in the arms business for almost 300 years at that point.

By 1918, the family had made another huge killing, grandfather had set Anabel up in several businesses of her own, making her a multi-millionaire, and everything looked great — then she caught the Spanish flu at the end of the year and it looked like she wasn’t going to make it.

Grandfather was beside himself, and consulted all of the experts as quickly as he could — starting with doctors, but then Anabel’s husband, Aldous LeCard, recommended several… less conventional “medics,” including spiritualists, faith healers, and mystics.

One of them, Madame Wilhelmina, happened to give the grandfather the idea that as long as a member of the family was remembered and honored by the rest of the family, no harm could come to them, so he immediately demanded that everyone think about and pray for Anabel five times a day.

He might have been a bit distracted and missed the doctor who had immediately started Anabel on the so-called “open air” treatment — that is, moving patients from inside of hospitals and into the outdoors onto field cots, which would be tented from direct sunlight but would receive adequate ventilation.

Second, while patients were still in the first stage of the illness, which Anabel was, doctors would give them several injections of quinine hydrochloride. All the while, medical staff would monitor lung function to make sure that pneumonia did not set in.

And, while there was no vaccine, Anabel lucked out by having a doctor who wasn’t against taking huge chances and, while medical science wouldn’t finally confirm his method for another sixteen years, he took the bold (and secret) risk of injecting Anabel with blood from a matched patient who had recovered from the Spanish flu.

Unfortunately, the end of her symptoms and his announcement to her family that she had completely recovered came exactly seven days after grandfather had started them all on Madame Wilhelmina’s mystic treatment.

Guess which one got the credit? And who wound up on the family payroll as “spiritual advisor?”

Aldous himself was not happy about it, but probably because he had finally consulted with professionals like Dr. Richter, and realized how wrong he had been. But try telling grandpa that. He had privately confronted Wilhelmina and accused her of being a fraud, but she had just laughed in his face.

“You’re not signing my checks,” she said.

“Yet,” he replied. “And hell will freeze over before I ever do.”

Ultimately, though, all that mattered to Aldous was that Anabel survived and thrived. Let the old man believe what he wanted to. Although they had both been too focused on business to think about starting a family at the time, six or seven years later, when they had both reached the ridiculously ancient age of thirty-two, it seemed like the right idea.

So, in late April that year, they went on a vacation far away from the family, taking the train to New York, then a cruise to London, a ferry to France, another train to Paris, and then a coach ride to a luxury hotel in the First Arrondissement, because of course they could.

They proceeded to lock themselves in, dine on only the best of room service — especially oysters — and then fuck like rabbits on Easter for the next three weeks. Aldous hadn’t picked Europe and was not thinking of rabbits at random, though. Here was where some scientists were working on a very experimental method to detect pregnancy early, and it happened to involve killing bunnies.

The current method prior to that innovation involved a doctor basically looking at a woman’s lady bits for color changes which may or may not indicate pregnancy, but which would also take one to two months to appear.

Meanwhile, a couple of Germans studying hormones had discovered that if they injected the urine of a woman who was likely pregnant into a group of rabbits over a series of five days and then cut the rabbits open to look at their ovaries, if any or all of them had, in fact, started to ovulate, then the woman was pregnant.

Aldous knew enough about biology and science to understand why it could work, and enough about American puritanism to understand why it wouldn’t make it over there for decades, if at all. What? Teach women more about their bodies and, god forbid, give them enough warning about an unintended pregnancy to end it before anyone else could ever know?

He wondered whether they should ever go back, although even now, in the spring of 1925, it was clear that Europe would not remain stable for long — although Anabel’s family would certainly rake in several more fortunes and their child, he hoped for a son, would go on to start his own monopoly, one that in the world of the far-off 1940s and 50s would see the world’s first billionaires.

The first positive results came through in mid-May, on the 14th, and the next four rabbits were also popping eggs. Anabel was pregnant, she and Aldous were going to be parents, and it was time to sail back home and deliver the triumphant news.

They made it back to L.A. by late June, and the rest of the year went along swimmingly, with Anabel and Aldous really becoming the center of the apparently rising Chanler-LeCard dynasty. That Christmas, grandfather made it official. The two of them were going to be his sole heirs, at least of the main companies and assets. However, everyone else would get more than enough from his personal accounts and various smaller real estate holdings that they should be happy and just shut up.

“And this is how capitalism kills us,” Aldous thought as he hugged his pregnant bride, but he smiled and said nothing.

And then early one morning on Groundhog Day in 1926, Anabel went into labor and they all rushed to the hospital — which happened to be the Chanler Family Medical Institute — and as things progressed, they seemed to become more and more dire for Anabel. Her blood pressure dropped, she wasn’t dilating, her lips started to turn blue, and her doctors put the word out to the family.

“We may have to decide whether to save the mother or the baby,” they said.

Grandfather, Aldous, Anabel’s sisters, the cousins and aunts and uncles sat in silence until grandfather stood and glared at Aldous.

“This is your fault,” he suddenly shouted.

“Sorry, what?” Aldous replied.

“You and your modern science death cult ways — ”

“Again, sorry, what, old man? I seem to remember my ways saving her from the Spanish flu.”

“Do you?” grandfather bellowed, gesturing. Madame Wilhelmina swept in, glaring at Aldous.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Saving your child,” she spat at him.

“You are nothing but a fraud,” Aldous replied.

“Enough!” grandfather shouted.

“You saved nothing, old woman!” Aldous shouted.

“Shall we make a deal, then?” Madame Wilhelmina replied.

“No, but try me.”

“All right,” she said. “I will save your wife, and you will save your son.”

“And then?” Aldous asked.

“You get to keep the one you love more.”

“I chose the one who is still alive, then,” he said.

“So be it,” she replied. “Deal?”

“Deal,” he spat back at her.

She turned to the family members in the lobby and exhorted them. “Most of you remember how we saved her before. We need to do it again. Do you remember?”

“We have to remember,” a lot of them muttered.

“Exactly,” she smiled, and then started them in a chant. Meanwhile, Aldous went to the OR room doors and signaled. A doctor in scrubs came out, dropping his mask. “You can’t come in,” he said, “But are you the father?”

“Yes,” Aldous said. “So, what’s the situation?”

“We have about four minutes to save your child, but only via C-section. I’m sorry, but your wife… she’s already… I mean, there’s nothing we can do.”

“I understand,” Aldous said. “Save the baby no matter what you have to do.”

“Thank you,” the doctor said, pulling his mask back on and vanishing beyond the doors. Aldous came back out to the waiting room, took one look at his relatives chanting like useless assholes and all he could do was laugh.

He announced quietly, but was sure that none of them heard him or cared. “I saved my son, you morons. My wife is dead.”

Later that day, Aldous would leave the place with his son Preston, never to have anything to do with his wife’s family ever again. Fortunately, they had left him with one autonomous company that would leave them well off. Even more fortunately, it had nothing to do with weapons or war or any of that crap. It had been a hand-off because a company creating art and architecture didn’t interest them at all.

What he never knew was that Madame Wilhelmina had done such a snow-job on the family and had managed to be half right that Anabel would keep on haunting his world, even long after he and his own son had died.

Papaw Winnie, meanwhile, died that August, and hadn’t yet gotten about to changing his original will, so Aldous and Preston wound up with almost everything, anyway. When the rest of the family tried to contest it, he just told them, “Why don’t you have that fraudulent medium of yours pray for it to happen?”

Anabel had been very proud of Aldous that day, although she couldn’t tell him. She also couldn’t tell him that Wilhelmina’s tricks had worked — sort of — although not in any way she had ever intended. But she was going to be around for a long time.

She was starting to think that this late-night meeting was going to last an eternity when, finally, the group got up, apparently said their farewells, and headed off their separate ways. She never got a good look at who the hunters were talking to — presumably, the woman she’d seen down in the station — but the men walked home and came to a high-rise condo and buzzed themselves in.

“Great,” she thought. “Elevator.” At least she could be pretty sure that they weren’t going to leave her in here, but as they passed through the open doors and went inside, everything went black.

She came too briefly to catch a glimpse of what was their headquarters, although it looked just like a normal condo, even if the décor leaned a bit toward the eclectic and nerdy side. But then one of them slipped the trap she was in into a velvet bag and everything went dark again, although she was fully aware as she sensed the bag being carried and then quickly lowered.

She bided her time. Everything was as quiet as the grave.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #26: The Rêves, Part 4

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.

Preston on watch

Preston had spent most of the early evening drifting around the plaza next to Universal City station, invisible except when he got bored enough to take on the guise of a pigeon and jump into one of the flocks that had gathered around an old woman who kept tossing them breadcrumbs, even after she had been told by multiple authorities to stop.

To him, the best part about that had been the weird looks the other pigeons gave him. They weren’t really intelligent enough give it any expression other than a sideways look that said, “What the fuck, dude, you ain’t no bird,” but he was pleasantly surprised that they at least acknowledged him.

When it had gotten sufficiently late, he took the stairs down to the platform and then he spotted the dudes just as they were coming off of the train. They were pretty much what Anabel had described and he popped back into his human form — naked as usual but totally invisible — and just gawked.

He gauged them both to be probably about mid- to late-30s, but Anabel hadn’t told the whole truth. Sure, she had described them as a couple of lanky steampunk nerds, which had already got Preston going, but she had omitted the two most important words.

Hot daddies.

That had been Preston’s entire stock-in-trade back in the day. His catnip, his raison d’être. His raison d’être cet. He suddenly realized that getting captured probably wouldn’t be all that bad a thing and he started to strut toward them when Anabel suddenly popped up in front of him and, unlike a lot of the stuff around here, she had the power to physically stop him in his tracks.

“Glad you made it,” she said. “Don’t get jumpy.”

“I’m supposed to let them catch me, right?”

“Yes, but… again, can you just kind of fake clothes?”

“What? None of them can see — ”

“Or at least slap down the Angel Lust?”

“The… what?”

“Goddamn, you are way too new.”

“Yeah, sorry I’m not old like you… Anabel. Rose.”

“Shut up — ”

“Catherine.”

“You shut up now!”

“Chanler — ”

“You shut your fucking whore mouth!”

“LeCard.”

Anabel looked like something had punched the wind out of her sails and every aspect of her started to go monochrome before she recovered, grabbed the air, shrieked, although no one but Preston heard it.

“Who told you that?” she demanded.

“No one,” Preston replied. “I figured it out on my own.”

“Impossible,” Anabel said. “You’re… you…. no…”

“Oh, sorry. Were you about to say that I’m too stupid?”

“You heard me.”

“Yeah. I did. Ms. LeCard. Who died in 1926. Oh. Oh my god, stupid little himbo pornstar whore gets it — somehow, you married your ass into my family, so you’ve got some goddamn connection here. What is it?”

“Who told you that?” Anabel screamed at him.

“Architecture,” he replied. “So… why should I turn myself over to become the little prisoner of those two hot daddies?”

Anabel glared at him, shot him a look like she wanted to rip his head off, and then just sighed and shook her head. “Number one, because you fucking want to, you little whore. Number two because… yeah. I guess I know what architecture didn’t tell you.”

“What?”

“That Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard had a son. Named Preston.”

“You’re… your my mother? Then why are you asking me to sacrifice my ass in the first place?” Preston shot back. He turned away but she grabbed him and dragged him to the far end of the platform.

“Not yet. Idiot,” she hissed at him. They faded into the shadows and waited. It was still a little too crowded.

She was more infuriated that he’d figured out — sort of — who she was. She knew he must have stumbled into the family mausoleum, but also knew that he never would have bothered to do it on his own. Somebody must have tipped him off, but who could have done that? And why?

At least she didn’t have to worry about him not getting captured. He was going to let his usual lusts drag him into trouble. While she’d told the truth that she was going to keep an eye on him, they really had no intentions of rescuing him. They just wanted to figure out where the two hunters were going to take him and what they intended to do.

She was pretty certain that it didn’t involve any of the things that Preston was hoping that they’d do to him. Maybe she shouldn’t be so angry, though. So what if he’d learned her full name and a little truth? It’s not like he was going to be around much longer to do anything about it.

She contemplated just throwing him into the elevator and sending it all the way up. Underground, those things were fine, but once they’d risen aboveground, even a little, they were death traps to her kind.

* * *

Shadows and sparks

Joshua was the one who spotted the shadow first and he signaled. Simon. They both got up and readied their equipment, but this shadow acted differently than the other ones. When it clearly had sensed their approach, instead of pretending to be an actual shadow or trying to hide among them, it actually seemed to become darker and more defined and stopped, as if waiting for them.

It almost looked like the actual shadow of a human being cast on the wall. Joshua and Simon stopped waited.

“Well, this is new,” Simon said.

“And very disconcerting,” Joshua added.

“Excuse me — ”

They both turned at the sudden voice to see Brenda approaching them. She was dressed in civilian clothes but had a name tag and badge identifying her as a Metro employee. “Can I help you two with something down here?”

“Um… just waiting for a train,” Simon replied.

“Long wait,” she said. “Are you sure it’s a train you came down here to catch?”

“It’s not an airplane,” Joshua offered, trying to lighten the mood.

Brenda huffed, pulled out her phone and tapped, then showed them the footage of themselves from the previous week, as they tried to evade the creature on the stairs. “Look familiar?” she asked.

“That’s not us,” Joshua said.

“They have a great fashion sense, though,” Simon added.

“Cut the bullshit,” Brenda shot back. “Mind telling me what’s going on here?”

“We can’t,” Simon told her.

“Sorry, yeah, can’t,” Joshua said. “Government stuff.”

“Very classified,” Simon explained.

“The other one’s got bells on it,” Brenda said dryly.

“Are you a cop?” Simon asked.

“No,” she said.

“Oh, good. Bye!”

He grabbed Joshua’s arm and they took off running, catching Brenda off-guard. Before she could do anything, the shadow suddenly darted after them, looking exactly like a human form racing along the platform.

“Oh, hell no,” she muttered to herself as she took off in pursuit. She could see the two of them racing up the escalator even as the shadow ran up the stairs. This one was fast, too. Faster than the faceless beast from the other station. All of them were faster than Brenda, who’d been driving a desk for too long.

Then, as she was almost at the bottom of the escalator, a similar creature to the one from Hollywood and Highland passed right in front of her, looking at her briefly with its absolutely blank and indistinct fact, but it seemed to have no interest in her as it passed on and started up the steps.

Joshua and Simon made it up to the plaza, looking behind to see that it didn’t look like anyone was chasing them — but then the shadow drifted up, overtook them, stopped in front of them and, presumably, stood to face them.

“What?” Simon demanded.

The shadow flickered and became slightly less umbral. Suddenly, there was just a hint of detail, enough for them to see that this appeared to be a short, young man. He was smiling at them and holding his arms out in what was clearly an “Arrest me” gesture.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Simon said, but Joshua had already pulled out a mirror trap and opened it. Looking extremely grateful, the young man leaned forward, went into shadow form, and whooshed right into the mirror with none of the sound and fury of their previous catch.

Joshua screwed the lid on. “Well, that was easy,” he said.

“Too easy,” Simon countered. “I guess we’re walking home from here.”

“I guess,” Joshua replied before adding, “Aw, shit,” making Simon look as well. Another one of those faceless creatures was standing at the top of the stairs, just watching them.

“How the hell did it get out of the station?” Joshua asked.

“We never knew for sure that they couldn’t, just that they didn’t,” Simon explained. “Do you think it’s trying to rescue our guest?”

“You know,” Joshua said, “I think it’s time to find out what these things can do. Here.” He gave the trap to Simon and started for the creature.

“Josh — no!” Simon called out, but to no avail. Joshua was stalking right up to it.

“Hi!” he called out. “Can I help you?”

It stared at him — well, metaphorically — but didn’t move. It seemed suddenly confused, but stood its ground. As Joshua drew closer, it actually seemed to shy away a step or two, and then transformed into the form of a wolf. Well, more of a werewolf, since it was standing on two legs.

“Cute,” Joshua said. “Look, we’d really appreciate it if you’d go back into the station and to wherever you came from. Our business is with… someone who apparently wanted to come along peacefully. So go on. Run along…”

The creature didn’t move, but it did go back to its more benign hooded, faceless form. “Oh my god,” Joshua suddenly said. “You’re not trying to stop us this time, are you? Of course. Simon!”

Seeing that Joshua hadn’t been attacked at all, Simon had already been on his way over. Now he broke into a trot and joined the other two.

“So,” he said to the creature, “Do you have anything to tell us?”

The creature gestured, as if urging them to be on their way and both Simon and Joshua got the sinking feeling that it wanted to follow them home. But before they could reply, there was a sudden loud snap, and then the creature was suddenly covered in arcs of electricity, like one of those plasma lamps. It went rigid and then its form changed to that of a quite normal-looking human woman who just stood there, transfixed.

Without hesitating, Joshua grabbed one of the tools from Simon’s belt, turned it on and aimed. This was one of their more high tech devices, and the creature, whatever it was, vanished into the mouth of the device with a pop. Joshua capped it and turned it off.

With the creature gone, Brenda was visible, standing there with a taser.

“I thought you weren’t a cop,” Simon said.

“I’m not,” she replied. “But I’m also not stupid. You two want to explain?”

“I guess we should,” Simon told her. “But… unofficially, maybe?”

“Oh, by this point, it damn well better be unofficial, because I don’t want anyone at work thinking I’m crazy. Coffee?”

“Sure,” Joshua replied.

There were a lot of coffee places in the area but it was also after three in the morning, so, since Brenda had her city car parked here, they all wound up at the Denny’s a few miles north on Lankershim, a couple of blocks from the NoHo station. Not exactly super-classy, but it seemed like the appropriate place to have this conversation.

* * *

Classes in crisis

There wasn’t really an official Rêves council, but those who were Class 1 had quickly realized that they really needed to create some sort of hierarchy, and then figure out how to deal with what they had wound up with.

Class 1 and Class 3 were not the problem. The former knew who and what they were, while the latter had no idea who they really were yet, but no problem being who they thought they were. The members of Class 1 thought of them as refugees or recent immigrants, since there had been such a sudden huge increase of their numbers.

The real problem were the members of Class 2, who thought they were more important than they were, had no idea who they really were, and were just generally a pain in the ass.

Meanwhile, while Brenda was having her conversation with Simon and Joshua at Denny’s, there was a sudden emergency meeting that took place in the forecourt of the Grand Mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — although reluctantly, because this was clearly a place where Class 2’s could try to run roughshod, so it was up to the Class 1’s to get there first, rope the Class 3’s onto their side, and proceed…

That was why the announcement didn’t go out via the underground to the Class 2’s until about an hour after the meeting really started, which was also two hours after Brenda and company had sat down at Denny’s.

By the time the Class 2s did show up, the board had already been established, and they were mostly Chinese and Hispanic. The lower board, meanwhile, had no obvious identities, but a lot of enthusiasm, and the Class 2s had little say in the matter.

The real issue was that a lot of their kind, mostly Class 2s, were being kidnapped and trapped by various rogue hunters, for unknown reasons, and the group was meeting to figure out what to do.

Richard, who was on the upper board, explained what Anabel had explained to Preston earlier. He had been a wise choice for this position because, while he shared a lot of the attributes of Class 2, he had the family connections to keep him firmly in Class 1.

“As far as we know,” he said, “There are not secuestros, kidnappings. Nobody has demanded a ransom or made any demands at all — ”

“At least not as far as we can tell,” a woman on the board named Yut Ho added. While Richard didn’t know her personally — she had died long before he was even born — he had heard her story. Her abduction led to a gunfight between two rival companies in Chinatown, inadvertently killing a white man in the crossfire. This led to the Chinese Massacre of 1871, as a group of white people, many immigrants, invade Old Chinatown and proceeded to burn, loot, and lynch.

Seventeen people were lynched, ten perpetrators were brought to trial, eight were convicted — and every one of their sentences was overturned on a technicality. He hadn’t learned that from her, though. She never talked about it.

He had learned it from an historian who had worked for the city of L.A. until his death in the early 1980s. Specifically, he specialized in Hispanic, Latin, and Chicano history and culture in the city, particularly centered around the original Pueblo downtown.

The first Chinatown in Los Angeles had started on land leased from a Mexican family that owned agricultural land around the Pueblo, and it was founded long before California even became a state, when it was still part of Mexico. Eventually, Old Chinatown would be destroyed to make room for Union Station, the fancy new train depot that connected the newly thriving entertainment capital to the rest of the country. The New Chinatown would move farther east.

Richard couldn’t help but wonder if these disappearances weren’t in a similar vein to all of those situations where a  particular racial, ethnic, or religious group would be driven off of their land in order to make room to “improv” it i.e., make it more profitable to already wealthy people.

Hell, he had lived long enough to actually see the Battle of Chavez Ravine and read about it for almost every day of his life. It lasted from when he was about five until he was fifteen, and it was the same story. Rich people decide they want a piece of land to put something on, never mind that people already live and have a community there.

Ironically, the original intent had been to build public housing in the Ravine, but once the people had been removed, the voters of Los Angeles said “No.” They didn’t want no public housing, dammit, and a newly-elected conservative mayor agreed. Hell, being anti-public housing was part of his platform.

And so, Dodger Stadium happened instead, and it housed exactly no one.

Not that the people were originally happy about that, but they failed to ultimately vote against it.

It had been thirty years since the Rêves had made their arrangement with another L.A. Mayor who was really conservative in name only, so they allowed the Metro system to be built through their territory as long as they were allowed to inhabit it and use it for their own purposes.

They even agreed to protect it from acts of terrorism, and these were the only times, short of protecting one of their own, that they would show themselves to humans. They never even pointed these instances out to the authorities. They just made sure that they didn’t happen.

Since 1993, they had averted seven would-be acts of terrorism, including bombings, mass-shootings, and one bio-chemical attack. Funny how many of the would-be terrorists flung themselves before oncoming trains once a Rêve or two made an appearance.

The discussion continued, with the Class 3s being the most gung-ho to go out and figure out what was going on, while the Class 2s were most interested in making nice with the humans.

“They’re not all bad, after all,” one of them, who had been an iconic actress until her premature death, announced in a breathy voice that was the public perception of her but not at all reality. “I mean, I liked them once. I was one!”

“We all were, Norma,” one of the board members replied with full bitchy venom. That would be Holden Sutter. Not generally known to the public at large, but a famous and larger-than-life camp figure of the late 50s and early 60s who hosted the most amazing parties up in the Hollywood Hills.

The public never knew him, but all of hidden gay Hollywood did, and so did a lot of not-hidden straight Hollywood. He could get you anything you wanted, legal or not — men, women, weed, coke, opium. He also had dirt on absolutely everyone, and referred to himself as The Bullet-Proof Bitch.

That turned out to be not so much the case when he was murdered in 1967. Officially, a couple of punks had heard about “this rich fag up in the hills,” pretended to be rent boys in order to get inside, then knocked him unconscious, tied him up, and proceeded to grab and pack anything valuable they could get their eyes on.

Holden died not from a knock on the head but because they had left him on his back, he vomited while unconscious and proceeded to aspirate and die.

But, of course, everyone in the industry, and especially in the gay demi-monde, just “knew” that Holden had been murdered by some politician he had threatened to blackmail, usually a City Council Member said to be fond of the boys, sometimes a U.S. Senator, and that the two perpetrators, who were never caught, were actually his lovers.

Of course, if anyone asked Holden now, he would just laugh. “Oh, silly twats,” he’d reply. “No. It was nothing so sordid. Daddy got greedy and hired two really hot stripper twinks to come on up and have a good time. One was both 19, the other was 16. I was 67. I came and went and then they left, but I died a very happy man.”

This story had always stuck with Richard not because it was so sordid but because it was exactly the opposite. There was no great big conspiracy anywhere — just a tale of natural human weakness, and how the Reaper is often summoned by one’s own needs.

But if there wasn’t any vast conspiracy going on, who was grabbing the Rêves, and why? And why were so many of them Class 2?

Then there was a sudden commotion as a Class 1 burst onto the scene from underground. Richard recognized her as Anabel’s great-grand-niece. He thought her name was Cyntoia, but wasn’t quite sure.

All eyes turned to her as she looked at them nervously.

“Anabel!” she announced, panicking. “Anabel. They’ve taken Anabel!”

There was an audible gasp. They’d all been wondering why she hadn’t been here because she was, in fact, head of the board and president of the council. That would explain it.

“Well fuck me sideways,” Holden muttered.

“What do we do now?” Yut Ho asked, but no one replied.

* * *

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

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

Delivery

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

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

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

“Anything else, boys?” he asked.

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

“Really?” Ausmann insisted.

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

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

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

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

“So…?” Simon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me neither,” Simon added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Chanlers

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Richard,” the kid said.

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

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

“What about her?” Preston asks.

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

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

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

“For me? Why?”

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

Chanler

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

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

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

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

“Well… it’s big.”

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

“Rich as hell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin David Chanler Gomez Jr.

Beloved Son, Brother, Husband, and Father

April 14, 1978 — September 23, 2013.

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

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

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

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

In loving memory of Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.

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

August 1, 1893 — February 3, 1926.

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

He ran back out of the mausoleum and to Richard.

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

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

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

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

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Figure out who she married and why.”

“Yeah, well… shit, what time is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Arming up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not? It was only fair. Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Image © 2017 Jon Bastian. Content, © 2017, 2020, Jon Bastian. All rights reserved. This content cannot be copied in any form or format without express written permission of the copyright holder.

The Saturday Morning Post #24: The Rêves, Part 2

The first installment of this piece appeared last week, and 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.

The Hunt

ONE COMING UP YOUR SIDE NOW HEAD TO FOOT

Joshua sees the text flash up on the surface of his watch and taps out a quick reply. Although the watch face is small, the predictive text and shortcuts are amazing, so he answers Simon quickly.

WHEN I GO BE RIGHT BEHIND ME?

As Simon’s response in the affirmative comes back, Joshua let his eyes drift up without moving his head. A shadow is just now coming around the column and it continues down the platform, growing in length and then shrinking as it moves toward the next column. There’s nothing casting the shadow because the shadow is all that’s going by.

Joshua abruptly sits up, dropping his coat onto the bench but picking up his cane. Simon is right behind him, tapping away at the gauntlet on his arm. They follow the shadow, slowly at first but then picking up speed.

Although they try to be as silent as possible, several columns down the shadow suddenly snakes up the tile and then stops, appearing like nothing more than, well, a shadow on a column. Joshua and Simon catch up to it and stop, looking at it.

“What kind do you think it is?” Joshua asks.

“Hard to say,” Simon replies. “You know none of them like to appear as themselves.”

“Makes it tricky,” Joshua agrees, pulling something out of his pocket.

“You sure you want to try that first?” Simon asks.

“Ironic, since you’re the one who always wants to start with the high tech.”

“Our subjects aren’t usually so… two-dimensional,” Simon calls back, betraying the joke with the smile that Joshua fell in love with.

“Cute,” Joshua replies before raising his hand to hold something up before the shadow. It’s a round mirror, about four inches in diameter. He dances it around for a bit, raised slightly above his head and angles down. Nothing happens for a few seconds. Five. Ten. Twenty. But then…

The shadow suddenly darts from the column and right toward the mirror, condensing and growing darker as it approaches, and then going into the mirror, looking like a cone of black silk being sucked sideways down a drain. There’s a strange sound with it, although neither Joshua nor Simon can say exactly what it resembles. It sounds like an ocean distant in space, or applause distant in time; a long, quiet moan that could be pleasure or pain, or both; and a banging rattle that grew uncomfortably louder, like a train going over a trestle bridge or a rockslide.

And then the shadow and the sound are gone and Joshua immediately slams a metal cover over the mirror, giving it a couple of twists to secure it and then putting the whole thing into a black velvet bag and pulling the drawstring tight.

“Score one for me,” he announces to Simon proudly. Simon gives Joshua a quick kiss that makes his heart flutter and his knees weak.

“Then let’s get out of here fast,” Simon whispers to him. They hurry to the center of the platform, grab their coats to put them on right-way around, and then go to the escalator which, thankfully, is toward the center of the platform where they are.

“Good thing they don’t like escalators,” Joshua tells Simon as they’re halfway up.

“But they have no problem with stairs,” Simon whispers back, gesturing subtly. Jason glances past him to see a figure walking up the adjacent stairs. He’s moving very slowly and deliberately, but he is moving.

He looks normal enough, mostly. Hard to focus on, for some reason, especially when you notice that he doesn’t have a face. He has a head and all the other extremities, but on the front of the skull there’s… nothing. It’s just a flesh-tone void, or maybe not even that. It’s the blurriest part of him. When most people see him, right after they get to the face they suddenly lose interest. Not so Joshua and Simon, who’d trained themselves to never look away.

“So you want to take this one with us?” Joshua asks under his breath.

“No!” Simon snaps back. “I want to make sure this one doesn’t take us.”

“What’s the plan?” Joshua asks just as they reach the top of the escalator.

“Run!” Simon suddenly shouts, taking off, Joshua in hot pursuit. They run to the next escalator, Joshua cursing to himself that this station was built so damn deep. They step onto the bottom step and hesitate for a moment, then look to their left.

The faceless man is there on the steps beside them, looking their way, if a creature with no face can be said to be looking at anything. He moves at his same deliberate pace, but this escalator, being taller and steeper, also seems to be moving more slowly.

Simon and Joshua sprint up the rest of the way, the faceless man plodding along. At last, the couple makes it to the top of the station, looking back just in time to see the faceless man make the top of the stairs and walk toward them. Simon grabs Joshua’s arm and they back out through the opening and onto the sidewalk. The faceless man continues relentlessly onward toward them, then reaches the opening and, as he walks through it, fades away and vanishes.

Simon and Joshua both let out a huge sigh.

“You knew that was going to happen, right?” Joshua finally asks him.

“Um… I hoped it was going to,” Simon replied.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Joshua utters quietly. Simon nods and takes his hand and they walk down to Orange and across the boulevard to the south side where they had actually managed to find a parking spot. Then again, one in the morning on a Tuesday night that was no longer Tuesday was probably a good time to find that sort of thing in this neighborhood.

They’re home within fifteen minutes and nude and all over each other within fifteen minutes after that, Simon really only letting Joshua pause long enough to refill the dogs’ kibble and stow their little mirror trap in the vault under their bedroom floor. Of course, Joshua kneeling on the floor to open and close that vault just gives Simon ideas. The second Joshua secures the vault door, Simon launches the surprise attack from behind.

As usual, Joshua surrenders immediately.

* * *

Enter Preston

Preston LeCard is doing his best at the moment to give a Glendale housewife the impression of being a rather large and nervous skunk running through her backyard, but she isn’t buying it. He had just almost made it through the Mission Road loop and was about to cross Cathedral Drive and go into the cemetery proper. And now this crazy bitch was in his way, wielding a broom.

Preston debated turning around and stomping his feet, hoping that she knew this bit of skunk lore, but as he started to turn she took a swing at him. Well, that just wouldn’t do. But what could he do? The Rêves tried to never draw attention to themselves, and he couldn’t exactly change disguises now. He regretted having not gone for something that could run faster or jump higher, but one of his fatal flaws was always trying his best to be cute, and in the quite literal sense of appearance rather than behavior.

His behavior was far from cute, but when you’re really cute everyone will let you get away with that. Well, everyone had let Preston get away with it, which was why he is trying to convince a Glendale Housewife that he is a rather large and nervous skunk.

“Of course,” Preston thinks. “It’s the nervous bit. Not confident enough. Let’s try angry skunk.”

He turns and bares his teeth at her, hissing, and is rewarded for his efforts by a broom in the face.

“What the fuck?” he tries to cry out, but skunks don’t exactly have the vocal cords for that, so it just turns his hiss into sort of the gobble of an angry old man who speaks a language no one else knows. This gets him the broom again.

Instinctively, Preston pulls away and he can’t control it as he abandons the skunk effort and shoots the woman the impression of being a very large and hostile coyote. He snarls at her, slowly approaching, yellow eyes giving the effect of glowing in the early morning sun.

He must be doing something right, because the woman abruptly faints and he quickly hops the fence, crosses the front yard, then bounds over Cathedral Drive and into the cemetery itself. He doesn’t stop until he’s well-hidden behind a large and ornate monument, at which point he abandons the coyote disguise altogether and blends back into his true appearance, or as true as he can bother to muster it nowadays.

It comforts him to return here every day and sit next to the cenotaph dedicated to the family LeCard. It’s red marble, about twenty-five feet tall, and sits on a large red marble sphere. Preston’s grandfather was the first LeCard buried under it, but was not the last.

The marble is still polished enough that he can see his face in it, so he takes a moment to adjust himself to optimal cuteness. It’s not much of a shift, but enough, from his real self to his ideal self. He couldn’t explain it if he tried. It was just a feeling, really, and then the way he looked would change, at least as he saw it. It probably was nothing more than a little adjustment in attitude, but Preston had always believed that what you thought was what you saw, and not the other way around.

He isn’t very tall — probably 5’7” on a good day — but he is perfectly proportioned without being overly muscled. His torso is a rectangle, his ass is round, and his legs are strong. There’s something animalistic in his face even when he isn’t trying to pass himself off as one, but it’s in a good way. He has a wide, smiling face with a lupine nose, and eyes that are almond both in shape and color. His hair is a russet chestnut, a little shaggy without being long. Although his chest and stomach are naturally hairy, he’s been waxing them since he was 19. He’s been a sex worker since he was 17. Now, at 23, he’s considered an old pro.

Well, he was an old pro, Preston thinks. He also reminds himself that he hasn’t been planning to retire. There’s no reason to. He still has his looks — and he’s admiring them in the reflection when a familiar voice calls out.

“Hey, Pres! Put something on. Nobody wants to see that!”

“Hello, Anabel,” Preston calls back without looking. “Nobody can see me like this anyway.”

“I can,” Anabel retorts. With a huff, Preston comes around from the monument in a black t-shirt and blue jeans, although still bare-footed. As usual, Anabel wears a long blue evening gown and matching elbow gloves, her jet black hair streams down her back in a highlighted waterfall, one tress in front covering half of her right eye, which only emphasizes her thin face, alabaster skin, and glossy red lips. Her eyes are jade green and intense between dark black lashes, above sharp, high cheekbones, and below carefully penciled brows, set off by a pale dusty rose eyeshadow that serves as a quiet echo of her lips.

Her shoes match her lipstick, and Preston always marvels when he sees how well they actually work with her ocean blue dress instead of against it.

Things never seem to go so well between the two of them, though, despite running into each other all the time — Anabel’s family crypt is a neighbor to the LeCards.

“Don’t get all dressed up on account of me,” she tells him, her irony as wet as those lips. “We do require your assistance, however.”

“We?” Preston repeats. Anabel always seems to think of him as part of some imaginary royal first person while Preston never does. Especially because whenever she brings up “we,” trouble follows. “What is it this time?” he asks her, trying to sound as weary and wary as possible.

“They’ve been kidnapping us, for a start,” Anabel intones, this time entirely sincere.

“Fuck…” Preston mutters as he sinks to sit on top of the nearest tombstone. “Details?”

“We only know what they look like, but haven’t been able to follow them anywhere. They’re… I forget the term, but grown men who dress up in costumes — ”

“Super heroes?” Preston offers.

“No,” she corrects him. “Not professionals, they do it for fun.”

“Cosplayers,” Preston replies confidently.

“Mmmm… I don’t think so. Or… it’s very specialized. When they look like they broke out of a Jules Verne — ”

“Steampunk.”

“That’s it. These two tall, skinny, white, nerdy steampunks have been doing it.”

“Kidnapping… um… us?” Preston asks.

“Yes,” Anabel answers. “But that should make it easy to find them, right? The costumes?”

“Oh, sure,” Preston replies, trying not to grin. “That should make it easy to find… about two hundred of them, downtown, on a Saturday night.”

“It’s all we have to go on,” she shoots back in frustration.

“Who did they get this time?” Preston asks.

“Elizabeth,” Anabel replies. Seeing his expression, she adds, “Short?”

“Never heard of her,” Preston insists.

“Before your time,” she tells him.

“Isn’t everything?” he shoots back. “So… you know who got kidnapped, not who did it or where they’ve taken her. Wait… you said ‘kidnapping us,’ didn’t you? As in… she’s not the first.”

“You catch on fast,” she teases in her best film noir bad girl voice. “She’s the third.”

“And what do they want?”

“We have no idea.”

“Ransom…?”

“No one’s asked.”

“Really…?” Preston muses, finally sighing and turning to Anabel, seeing that she hasn’t gotten it yet. “No ransom, no demands. That’s not a kidnapping.”

“Then what is it?” she demands.

“Probably a serial killing,” Preston explains dryly.

“That would actually be better,” Anabel insists. “More of a chance of escaping.”

“You really miss a joke sometimes, don’t you?”

“No, darlin’. I catch ‘em and throw ‘em back.” She raises her left eyebrow to top off her gun moll impression.

“You know those routines don’t work on me,” Preston tells her.

“I’m not working you,” she insists. “As if any of that matters anymore.”

“Don’t remind me, sunshine,” he replies in his best Bogart — which isn’t that good, since he barely knows who Bogart was and has only met him twice despite them sort of being neighbors. “But speaking of working,” he continues, “What exactly is it you need me to help with if you don’t know who took them, you don’t know why, and you have no idea where they are?”

“We need you to… be taken by them,” she finally explains reluctantly. Preston just stares at Anabel for a long moment. Then…

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he explodes. “So then I vanish and you have no idea where I went?”

“That’s just the point, Pres,” she tells him as calmly as possible. “We can’t do anything to catch or follow the two kidnappers, we can only scare them. But one of us will always know where you are, and we can follow you.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“You know how it works,” she insists. “If you don’t let us down, we won’t let you down.”

He thinks about it a moment. Then, “You said two tall, skinny, white nerdy guys?”

“That’s the description.”

“Hm. They do sound hot.”

“Stop it,” she tells him, playfully swatting at his shoulder. “You know that kind of thing is really frowned upon among us.”

“It’s the 21st century, Anabel.”

“Not the gay thing, okay? You know damn well what I’m talking about.”

“You forgot to throw that joke back,” he smiles at her.

“You can’t catch it if it’s not funny,” she replies. “So, yes or no?”

“All right,” he finally tells her. “Yes. When?”

“Tonight, after the last train, Universal City Station.”

“The Valley?”

“We’re in the Valley now.”

“Glendale… really doesn’t count. You can see downtown!”

“Whatever.”

“Hey, if you don’t know who they are, how do you know — ”

“We know their habits,” she interrupts him. “They’ve been doing a different station every weeknight, moving northwest. Universal is next.”

“Couldn’t even have made it just one stop earlier and hit Hollywood, could they?”

“They already did and you missed them. But you’re more likely to get your big break right next to an actual studio,” she winks at him.

“Then… see you tonight?”

“See you then,” she replies. “You let them get you, and I’ve got your back.” She gives him a little wave as she turns and walks away in a fading shimmer of blue beneath a black streak, buoyed on tiny stilts of red. Preston turns to the marble monument and looks down at the letters etched deep into it in a serif font: “LE CARD.”

It was weird to be looking at a grave with his own name on it like that. Granted, it wasn’t as unsettling to Preston now as it had once been, and he really didn’t mind spending time here. In fact, he’d gotten so comfortable that he lied down on the red marble slab that marked the newest grave and, despite the sun and distant city sounds, he fell dead asleep. And in all that time he slept, nobody saw him there.

* * *

Brenda Mason

Brenda Mason hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to the first two reports from Metro staff and had barely reviewed the cam footage. After all, two tall white guys dressed up like they survived an explosion in a Victorian KMart were nothing unusual in L.A. But the third report piqued her curiosity, and then the fourth really got her attention.

For one thing, they always showed up the same approximate time each week, on one of the last trains into the station. As she finally took the time to watch all of the footage, she saw that their approach was always the same. Disguise themselves as homeless, fall asleep back to back and facing opposite directions, and then at some point suddenly get up and chase… something.

It was the “something” part she couldn’t figure out, because there wasn’t anything visible on the footage. And yet, every time, the two of them pursued it, and if they were both just pretending, they were damn good actors, because their focus was so strong that Brenda could always tell in her mind exactly where their prey was supposed to be and how it was moving even though, again, they were running after thin air.

Hell, their acting was so good that she even imagined she did see some fleeting shadow darting ahead of them a couple of times, but she was experienced enough with the equipment to know that those were probably just artefacts.

But then she came to the Hollywood and Highland footage, which had been reported a couple of nights early but which she hadn’t gotten to until Thursday morning. The usual thing, at first, and they seem to “catch” something rather quickly, then start to leave, heading up the escalator.

And then, they’re not alone. Brenda hadn’t noticed anyone else on the platform, although he could have just been out of range. But this person is walking up the stairs between the escalators, and the two Victorian-looking dudes notice him and start to move faster. Something is clearly freaking them out.

Brenda keeps watching. The figure wears a long, hooded coat, moving away from the camera and up the steps, walking at a constant pace even as the other two start to try to race up the moving stairs.

She switches cameras at the upper landing, where the two men run for the next escalator of three. This is when the other figure steps off of the stairs and walks casually toward the next set and Brenda finally gets a good look at its face.

Well, not its face, its… she’s not sure what. He could be wearing a mask, except that there’s something strange about it. A mask would appear solid, even if of a uniform color. And, in any case, there’d probably be eyes visible, or at least eye holes.

She saw nothing. And, more importantly, the “mask” didn’t appear to be at all solid or uniform. The best she could describe it was like the hood was full of smoke which occasionally wafted around the hood to obscure its edges even though it didn’t appear to be smoke at all.

That’s when she noticed the “hands” for the first time, as well. Wispy and not really tangible, just roughly the size and shape of hands at the end of the sleeves. The figure continued up the stairs.

She switched to the next camera, looking down the last flight that came up to the street as the two men bounded to the escalator. The figure continued its pursuit, seeming to catch up with the men faster than he should.

The duo steps off of the escalator at the top, turning to look back down. The taller one grabs the shorter one’s arm and they back out onto the covered forecourt that joins the sidewalk. The figure reaches the top of the stairs and then suddenly fades away to nothing, gone.

Brenda can’t hear how the two men react, but she mutters under her breath. “Well fuck me goddamn sideways.”

She debates for a moment, then calls her supervisor.

“Rita,” she says. “Bren. I’ve got something I think you need to see… No, as soon as possible. It’s… okay, let me put it this way. You all are going to want to see this shit… Great. See you in five.”

* * *

Image © 2018 Jon Bastian. Content, © 2017, 2020, Jon Bastian. All rights reserved. This content cannot be copied in any form or format without express written permission of the copyright holder.

The Saturday Morning Post #23: The Rêves, Part 1

The following is an assembly of separate sketches I started working on about three years ago, inspired by my love for the L.A. Metro System, as well as the various lesser-visited places and monuments in town. My intent was to weave them into one cohesive story, but this is the first time that I’ve put the three original sketches together and then started to expand on the idea.

* * *

Joshua and Simon

You could be forgiven for thinking that two Edwardian gentlemen from somewhere in Europe had suddenly teleported into the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station. You could even (and more probably) be forgiven for thinking that they were cosplayers going to a convention or costumed characters from some movie you’re too old to care about ready to skim the tourist waves for some sweet money.

To be honest, Joshua and Simon would prefer that this is what everyone assumes. It makes their job a lot easier. You’re not wrong in thinking that the costumes are part of the job, but not in any way that you’d think.

They’ve tailored themselves to be midway between Steampunk and Dandy, with Simon leaning toward more of the former and Joshua the latter. Simon’s the one wearing the greenglass goggles and long brown duster, with the strange sort of brass gauntlet on his left hand, cellphone strapped to his right in a case that looks like leather and steel but which is actually ballistic nylon and aluminum. His shirt is a black silk so dark that it’s almost impossible to focus on, ruffled in front but, again, hard to see unless you’re right in front of him.

Various small and arcane looking instruments in wood, brass, and glass dangle from various places on his belt. He wears tan suede trousers and oxblood boots engraved in elaborate paisley with contrasting tan coloring in select areas.

Joshua, meanwhile, is wearing a long black and dark green velvet brocade coat over an orange flocked paisley vest with matching tie and handkerchief, crisp white shirt with cellulose Pembrook collar — the actual kind that detaches, none of this modern fakery — dark black pants with very crisp seams and wing tips in shiny black and dark, emerald green. The phone in his pocket was connected wirelessly to the shiny glass watch on his left wrist. In his right hand he holds a walking stick of dark ebony wood, topped with a glass sphere that reflects a brilliant green from some angles, fading through the rainbow from others.

He did not have the cane due to any specific physical need for it. He, like Simon, was simply armed for whatever occasion they might run into.

Joshua and Simon can’t remember exactly how long they’ve known each other anymore, but it’s one of those friendships that began with a conversation that left both of them feeling like they’d known the other one for years. Now whether it’s that friendship or just the way things are, they resemble each other physically in so many ways that, were their faces not so different, they would be mistaken for brothers.

Both of them are tall and thin, Simon just a bit taller than Joshua’s 6’2” — maybe; it’s a point they constantly argue between themselves, although usually jokingly. Somehow, though, Simon always gives the impression of being skinnier than Joshua even though they can and do wear each other’s clothes all the time. That’s probably because Simon’s shoulders are broader while Joshua’s legs are much more muscular. The effect is that Simon looks leggier and Joshua looks squatter, but that effect, like their costumes, is entirely an illusion.

Joshua’s hair is as ginger as Simon’s is jet. Joshua’s eyes are deep blue except at those times they appear gray, while Simon’s are a very dark jade green. Joshua is pale although sometimes mildly tan. Simon has a much more golden complexion that betrays his Northern Italian ancestors on his mother’s side.

Other than the color, their hair is pretty much identical — thick, wavy masses that dance across their foreheads, and intentionally grown out to abet the costumes. Joshua generally has a beard but one that’s always only just under half way between nothing and full, at about two-thirds full scruff, while Simon sometimes has a goatee, but only that part and no moustache.

Joshua is the older one, but only by a year or so. Neither one of them really ever thinks of age, anyway.

For a long time, their friends have been playing the “Are They or Aren’t They?” game, trying to figure out whether the two were more than just roommates. In fact, they were — but both had been too busy with their current project to arrange the time to gather their nearest and dearest and make the announcement. They had contemplated doing it by Facebook, but then decided that it would just be too impersonal. It wasn’t just going to be a “Hey, we’re a couple now” announcement. It was going to be an engagement party.

Oh, a couple of their very closest friends know already and are very happy for them — although the wedding date still isn’t set.

At home, Simon had framed and hung this quote from Plato over their bed: “Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” It was a reference, probably, to the Sacred Band of Thebes, the army of lovers that could not be defeated. He and Joshua thought of themselves now as an army of lovers, and they had descended into the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station ready to do battle.

They had reached the platform at two minutes after one in the morning on a late Tuesday night — which was technically no longer Tuesday. The last train going toward North Hollywood had passed through exactly twenty minutes earlier. They would wait, until the last train to Union Station came through eight minutes from now. After that, it would be three hours and twenty one minutes until the morning train, again headed to North Hollywood, would hit the station, at 4:31 in the morning. The southbound train would come through nine minutes after that.

As they both know from experience, it wouldn’t be until about half an hour after the last train leaves that things on the platforms would start to get… well, Joshua likes to think of it as “lively,” and he’d be the first to tell you that he was being completely ironic with the choice. Simon would describe it as “creepy weird,” with an accent that had started in that part of the Atlantic coast trapped right between north and south but which had been altered by more than thirty years in LaLa Land — especially under the influence of Joshua’s strong Southern California drawl, which used to be a lot more obvious to Simon, who couldn’t even really hear it anymore.

It’s a completely different drawl than the southern kind, anyway.

As the station clears out, they find a bench at the center, which is farthest from the engineers’ layover booths at either end of the platform. This will minimize the chances of them being seen and, as they also know from experience, the various Metro workers seem to have been instructed to leave them alone if they seem homeless.

The bench was long enough that if they laid on their sides facing away from each other and bent their knees up, they could both fit comfortably, with the backs of their heads touching. This gave them maximum visibility. Joshua was facing one side of the platform with an easy glance toward his feet to see the outbound end of the tunnel. Simon was facing the other side with an easy view of the inbound tunnel.

Before they lie on the bench, they take off and reverse their coats. Worn the other way around, they look like they are old, filthy, and badly battered. Simon also stows his goggles and they both put knit hats on their heads. They lie down and curl into position, pretending to go to sleep. But they keep watch, waiting for the next thirty minutes, after which they will start to show up.

* * *

Ausmann

People just called him Ausmann, and nobody knew for sure whether that was his first or last name, or even if it was a real name. He refused any titles as well, so he could have been just a mister, or a doctor, or a father. The one title he did have was the one that always appeared under his name on any company literature or presentations, or when he did his rare media appearance: “Quantum Ethics Consultant.”

But that was just the term they used so that the scientifically illiterate would get some idea, and Ausmann hated it with a passion. But he hated any abuse of the word “quantum,” especially when it was randomly slapped together with any word from the soft sciences, like sociology, or the non-sciences, like philosophy.

Yes, he would insist that philosophy is not a science, and this would lead to many arguments with staff from the philosophy department. They would remind him that his own discipline, ethics, was part of philosophy.

“And I’m no scientist,” he would reply, “So you prove my point.” Of course, he was, in fact, a scientist. His other PhD was in quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, and he was an accomplished theoretical physicist.

“So you’re a philosopher,” his scoffing colleagues would remind him, “”Since all you do is think about what’s going on at the tiniest levels.”

“What I do is play with the math that describes those levels,” he would reply, “And mathematics is the queen of all science.”

That was usually when he would tilt his head back, sniff disdainfully, and walk away. Ausmann was very imposing whichever direction he was walking. He was tall, pushing 6’5”, and thin to an almost ethereal extent. His face was oval and his dark eyes somewhat hollow, and he always seemed to have the beginning of an enigmatic smile teasing his lips. He grew an exceedingly long  goatee from his chin down to his chest under a bushy moustache, and had long black hair with a single white stripe that swept away above his right eye.

The visual impression was somewhere between a wizard and the demigod Pan, although he dressed in emulation of a character most often known as Jerry Cornelius, who resided in a neighborhood of many books and stories that had become their own legend. The uninitiated would probably look at him and assume it was steampunk, but it wasn’t.

The original Cornelius fashion ethos was pure Edwardian fop as interpreted by 1970s tastes, meaning ridiculously bright and clashing colors. Ausmann kept the Edwardian and the fop, but updated everything else to modern sensibilities, so the color scheme was a muted burnt orange velvet long coat over a dark brown suit. He wore a cellulose Westminster collar and a tie that looked like it was made of faded parchment, but it actually held, in 2-point type, the text of the first chapter of Finnegan’s Wake in a typeface that mimicked Joyce’s handwriting — his early writing, from pornographic letters to Nora Barnacle, not (ironically) his later writing, in which he composed this very book using crayons to scrawl large on butcher paper because his eyes had gone so bad.

Joyce would never have been able to read that tie.

Ausmann wore two-tone wingtips in burnt orange and brown and a top hat in the same shade as his suit. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in London in 1905 — but since he was a consultant working at JPL in Pasadena, he was even less out of place on campus.

He wasn’t actually working for JPL, just at a facility buried in a building under a building deep on campus, through two security checkpoints with three different biometric checks. Whoever he was working with he didn’t know, as they liked to keep things very compartmentalized. Ausmann thought that this was just bad science because the free exchange of ideas would lead to breakthroughs — it always did. But it was because of this separation of specialists that he always just knew the whole thing was a government project.

Hell, just from knowing what the actual machine did, he could tell that no private person or corporation had funded it. There was some major black ops taxpayer money being expended sixteen stories beneath Pasadena. There were even rumors that this was the entire reason that the Metro A Line which ran through the city had been built as an at-grade and elevated train instead of as a subway, even though the latter option is what the mayors of all the cities and the County Board of Supervisors involved all wanted.

Ausmann was undecided, thinking it might be the equivalent of the old “the auto industry killed LA’s mass transit in the 1950s” stories; something that everybody believed because it’s what they were taught growing up, but which was 100% false. The joke was that the mass transit system wasn’t killed by the auto industry. It was killed by people deciding to buy cars and stop riding the streetcars and trolleys. The real purpose of the legend wasn’t to spread the word about Giant Evil CorporationTM. It was so the people could absolve themselves of the guilt of having destroyed the whole thing in the first place.

People did a lot of that. Ausmann knew this. He ran into it constantly as an ethicist — people trying to absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility for unpleasant things.

And now whoever was running this project had brought Ausmann on to try to deal with exactly that: abolishing the guilt and responsibility for the unpleasant thing that happened.

Ausmann also knew for certain that there was another team working on the so-far unsuccessful effort to actually turn off the machine they had started, but what he did not know was why they couldn’t or the actual effect it was having. Meanwhile, it was the guilt over and responsibility for that effect that he was apparently here to get rid of.

In layman’s terms, his call to action had been, “Help us cover our asses whether or not we get this thing shut down, and figure out how we can spin it so that it is not your country’s fault.”

The last part had never been stated, only implied, but Ausmann was a very intelligent man. He was also endlessly curious and energetic, so he had found Simon and Joshua and assigned them to their task. They had gotten results very quickly, although Ausmann had botched the first three because he hadn’t yet figured out how to contain them while studying them, and they had a bad habit of running away at the first opportunity. Like humans, they didn’t like being detained.

They’d exhausted all of the stations coming southbound to downtown on the A Line and then made it as far as north as Wilshire and Vermont on the B Line before Ausmann had solved the escape problem. From there, they had eight more stations to hunt in. They hadn’t even tried at Union Station — that place was too busy no matter what time it was.

Ausmann also had Joshua and Simon start collecting data, observing their guests, and classifying all their various traits. They were proceeding toward North Hollywood, progressing to one new station per week night. Well, actually, from Sunday through Thursday nights, but these would have been Monday through Friday morning, technically, by the time Ausmann’s two steampunk hunters had hit the platforms.

He had been pleasantly surprised when the two of them had both come up with the idea of emulating his fashion sense in order to do their job. “After all,” Simon explained, “The best way to not stand out in L.A. is to look like you’re trying to.”

“Only tourists will stare at you,” Joshua added, “But they don’t count, because they just assume everyone is weird.”

“Besides,” Simon said, “Tourism is still down since the plague tapered off.”

“Plague,” Ausmann snorted. What he didn’t say out loud because he couldn’t was, “If only people knew.”

But… the boys had been doing their job, getting more successful as they rode the line, and there were only three stops left on the B Line before they hit its northern terminus and would then double back to follow the E Line.

After Ausmann had successfully contained and kept their results from Hollywood and Western, there was only the existing sample from Hollywood and Vermont, and the ones to be caught at Hollywood and Highland, Universal City, and NoHo stations left to go.

That would give him five strong samples, he hoped, and then the real investigations could begin. And, maybe, the stupid mistake they’d made down here could finally end.

* * *

Underground

They come down into the subway stations because it’s always warm and safe, and because most people who pass through are in a hurry from one place to another, so they won’t take the time to notice. As for the employees who are there all the time — they know of the existence of these regular visitors and also know to leave them alone and let them do what they want to. In exchange for that, the Metro workers are protected.

It’s a peace that had finally been negotiated back in 1993, after what was originally the Blue Line (now the southern part of the A Line) was finished and as the Red Line (now B Line) was just beginning. It was one of Mayor Riordan’s proudest moments, although one that he could never reveal to the public. Unfortunately, the public face of his secret endeavor manifested itself in cost overruns that plagued his entire administration — but there was no way that he could ever defend them without revealing the truth.

In exchange for being mostly left alone, they have looked after the trains and tunnels and observed the passengers ever since. They refer to themselves as the Rêves, but no one knows whether that’s a description of what they are or a common surname. The workers who’ve seen them have said that many of them look alike, but they can never remember details of the faces they’ve seen. Oddly, some of them don’t remember even seeing a Rêve when coworkers right next to them have.

I have a hypothesis on the source of the name. I think it might be short for “reveler,” and they’re a bunch of drunken party guests who got lost in the system one day but who have been allowed to stay. Of course, I only share this idea with people who come poking around about their identity at which point I refer to it as my theory because these idiots wouldn’t know the difference between that and a hypothesis if it bit them in their asses.

What the people who know about them don’t generally realize is that the Rêve bunch isn’t limited to staying in the subway tunnels no matter what time of day it is. They’re free to wander around the city and stay where and when they will. If you know L.A., you can find a lot of old, familiar places they’ve found to hang around in — and they’re far less confrontational outside of their territorial “dens” underground. They’re big with cemeteries, for example, although only certain ones, particularly one of the Forest Lawns, another that’s right next to a studio, and the other improbably at the edge of an airport.

A surprising number of them would hang out in Hollywood, just watching the tourists, sometimes intently so, and another large contingent would loll around the beach, especially around sunset and sunrise. This last group had been overjoyed when the Expo (later E) Line finally opened its last stop in downtown Santa Monica, blocks from the ocean, so that they no longer had to wander so far afield in ways to keep themselves inconspicuous because their general modes of aboveground transportation were rather… unconventional.

When they traveled this way, they preferred to stick to shadows, darkness, and alleys. They would also often use suburban streets and skip through the front-to-back-to-back-to-front yards of the homes, using their skills to give the impression of being a particular bit of wildlife most likely to discourage further investigation.

Tricking people into thinking they’d seen a rabid raccoon or a large skunk was their specialty, although the occasional coyote guise came in handy.

If they absolutely had to, they would take public transportation, but only if they got caught having to cover a long distance by daylight. Since they were willing to wait sunset out most of the time, it would take something extraordinary to force one of them to get on a bus. A Rêve could cover the distance that a forty-five-minute bus ride would take in two thirds of that time under their own power.

But that all became moot when the Santa Monica station opened and the entire E Line tunnel system became just another part of the great underground kingdom of the family Rêve.

Whatever the hell that name means.

* * *

Image: © 2017, Jon Bastian. Content, © 2017, 2020, Jon Bastian. All rights reserved. This content cannot be copied in any form or format without express written permission of the copyright holder.

The Saturday Morning Post #1

Now for a slight change of pace and a bit of creative writing, because that’s what I do when I’m not being less fictional here. The following is the first half of the first chapter of what became a 90,000 word novel set in Los Angeles and comprising 13 short stories capped by a short novella that brings all of the characters and story threads together in a massive wedding celebration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and in Grand Park in downtown L.A.. And, as it worked out, each successive short story was taken over by the point of view of someone introduced or referenced in the previous story.

This whole thing happened because of a late-night shopping trip to a chain drug store near my house that’s open 24 hours. I don’t even remember what I needed to pick up, but I found myself in line behind a middle-aged man who was buying two twenty-four packs of TP at that hour, and nothing else, and he seemed to be in a bit of a rush, so of course the line took forever.

Originally, I was only going to write the short story because the whole concept popped into my head as a whole before I even finished my transaction, but once I had written it, I had to ask myself, “Okay. Where does this character go next?” I found the answer to that question in another character starting their day in the next story, and so that set the structural pattern

None of the bad things in the first story happened in real life, but that’s why we write stories. The parameters I set for myself were that it took place in very identifiable locations in Los Angeles and happened a decade in the future. And, slight spoiler, an earthquake does figure into things because, L.A., of course — but only a few days after I finished the first draft, we had an earthquake in Southern California of exactly the magnitude and in the approximate location as my fictional one. You’re welcome! Now on with Chapter One.

* * *

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