The Saturday Morning Post #1 (rerun)

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

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

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

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

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

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

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

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday Wonders: There’s science to art?

In reviewing an upcoming repost of an article about William Shakespeare, I was reminded of something about my creative process that I’ve seen at least one other writing teacher mention online, but it’s something I’ve been doing since forever, and I think that if writers of fiction adapt it, it will make their lives so much easier.

It’s simple, really. Who writes your novel, play, screenplay, or short story?

If you answered, “I do!” then you’re wrong. First of all this is why a lot of people think that writing is hard or suffer writer’s block. You’re laboring under the notion that you are doing everything.

But here’s the real answer. Who writes your dramatic work? Your characters.

What this means is that your job is to sculpt those characters first. For each of them, figure out their wants and needs, their personalities, they manner of speaking, and so on. Chart this all out — and trust me, it will be more useful than elaborating plotting out your story.

Figure out which characters get along and which ones don’t. Pay attention to their background, age, education, political leanings, and so on.

The only things you need to worry about plot-wise are these: 1) Who is my protagonist? 2) Who is my antagonist? 3) Where to they start? 4) Where do they end.

Sure, you can blop in rough route markers if you have major set pieces you want to happen. But in order to write your story, you begin by setting the scene, dropping in your first speaking characters, and then just standing back, shutting up, and letting them do the talking.

Now, that probably sounds kind of weird and difficult, especially if you’re writing prose and not a script. But it’s the same either way. Plus, in prose, you get the bonus of being able to let your readers know what your character is thinking or feeling at any moment. Hard to do that in a play or screenplay without reflecting it in the dialogue.

For a long time now, before I start writing everything, I create a spreadsheet with rows for each of my characters, and a series of questions I ask about them, which covers things like what do they want right now, what do they want as their major life goal, how do they see themselves, how do others see them, and so on.

One of my favorite parts of this, which I picked up from one of my writing teachers and best friends, Che’Rae Adams, is creating a metaphor to describe your character, because you can go wild with these. Maybe your character is a nervous Chihuahua in a room full of veterinarians, or a bowling ball tossed down a staircase, or your grandmother crashing your bachelor party while the stripper is there, or whatever.

This can be a nice little anchor that brings all the character traits together in a very powerful visual and emotional shorthand.

So, again, got all that? Good. To write a scene, put two characters in that room and let them start talking. All you’re doing is transcribing the conversation. All you need to keep in mind that each of those characters is going to steer things toward what they want or need. You only need to nudge them if they start to veer away from your overall route from beginning to end.

And yes, this is where learning how to do improv is really, really helpful, because what this style of writing essentially is (and it took me decades to realize that I’d always been doing this) is this: You’re doing a long-form improv act, but the entire cast is You.

For those of you who’ve been following my fiction on here via the Saturday Morning Post, either from the first excerpted short story/novella collection The Rocky Road from Walgreens or the later serialized in full novel The Rêves, this was exactly how I created the stories.

I knew where I was starting out. I knew where I was going. But I spent my development time creating the characters instead of the plots.

And, wouldn’t you know it? This is pretty much how TV writing has always worked. Irony alert: I never wanted to go into TV writing because, before the second golden age of streaming, I thought that most of it was crap.

I still think that, but I also see how TV has always focused on character over plot. And this is even true of police procedurals or medical shows or any of that kind of shit. Yeah, there’s a mystery to solve or a disease to cure — but it’s in the context of our (quirky, difficult, independent, etc.) protagonist fighting the system in order to be vindicated.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess the only reason it sucks in TV is because it gets repetitive for any particular show. “Oh, look. House is pissed off again.” “Oops. Walter White kind of overreacted. Again.”

Or maybe the problem is that a lot shows start out with characters and Point A, but never nail down the landing at Point Z because it’s a crapshoot over how long the series will run.

Just look at American Gods. It sure seemed like they were going to get another season, so they pulled a big risky season finale and… whoops. The end. Sucks when that happens.

But back to novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. Don’t let all that TV shit discourage you. If you do wind up in TV, make sure to A to Y each season while always having the ultimate Z in mind that you can swap in at a moment’s notice.

And, always, don’t burden yourself with writing the story. That’s your characters’ job, and if you learn to listen, writing will become a breeze instead of a chore. Trust me.

<em><a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dictaphone.jpg”>Arnaud 25 (original image)Pechristener (cropping)</a>, <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0″>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons</em>

The Saturday Morning Post #56: The Rêves Part 34

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

Nothing good ever happens on Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” Anabel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed,” Pearl agreed.

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

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

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

It revealed nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you drop that grenade?” Schrantz asked.

“Sir, yes sir!” Ramirez replied.

“And why did you do it?”

“Because it was an honorable action, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain Schrantz!”

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

“Oh my god, what?” Davis asked.

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

“Really?” Davis replied, incredulous.

“Really,” Schrantz said.

“So, how do we coordinate from here?”

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

“Excellent,” Davis said.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, bye.”

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

“Yes?” he asked when he picked up.

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

“Get out,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Janis Joplin,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danny and Preston looked at each other and laughed.

“Dude, what are we?” Danny asked.

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

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

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

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

“Well, duh!” they said in unison.

“So…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” Danny reacted.

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

“Of course!” they both replied.

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

“Why?” Danny replied.

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

“You aren’t wearing shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Saturday Morning Post #51: The Rêves Part 29

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

Yestern Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then… not a damn thing happened.

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

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

“What?” they ask in unison.

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

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

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

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

“Things changed, but not…”

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

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

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

“And that’s it?” he asked.

“That’s it,” Brenda replied.

“Thank you,” he said, blankly.

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

“What do you mean?” Joshua asked.

“Does the name Ausmann mean anything to you?”

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

“Don’t be,” Brenda said.

“Yeah, so…. do you know where he is?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But not officially a homicide,” Joshua noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know that?”

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

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

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

“Will do. And thanks again.”

“No problem. Bye.”

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

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

“Thanks, guys,” he said.

“Don’t mention it,” they replied.

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

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

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

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

“Not sooner?” Joshua asked.

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

“Really?” Joshua replied, truly amazed.

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

“Sure,” Joshua said.

“Great. Initial here, and sign there.”

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

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

She said nothing, but just nodded.

“Sorry. And thanks!”

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

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

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

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

“Children?”

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

“Is your son not married?” Anabel asked.

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

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

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

“Gay?” Anabel questioned. “Happy?”

“Um… homosexual?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doesn’t he love you, Coraline?”

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

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

“On what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On what?” Anabel asked.

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

“Yes, like that.”

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

“Well, not when we slept.”

“But if the electricity went out — ”

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

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

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

“So you can remember whether Ausmann killed you.”

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

She froze, staring as her eyes went wide.

“What is it?” Anabel asked.

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

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

“Tell us,” Anabel prompted her.

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

“You’re absolutely sure?” Anabel asked.

“Yes,” Coraline insisted. “Oh, yes.”

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

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

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

“But what can I really do? I’m dead.”

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

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

“And he’s a murderer,” Ritchie added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very impressive,” Coraline said.

“Thank you.”

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

Ritchie nodded and sailed off into the cemetery.

“Lawyers?” Coraline asked, nervously.

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

“Is that what this is?”

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

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

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

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #49: The Rêves Part 27

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.

Book Three

Hunter sans Aisling

Joshua hadn’t slept well after that first bout, which was a long, disturbing dream in which he was chasing Simon down an endless Metro station, running while Simon walked, but never catching up. Rêves moved around them in slow motion, paying them little attention.

Joshua finally did catch up as Simon stopped to get on a train, pushing Joshua’s hand away and entering, the doors closing before Joshua could follow. The train started to pull away slowly and Joshua ran after it, but it started to speed up.

As the last car passed him, he looked in the windows and could see Ausmann standing there, laughing. After the train disappeared down the tunnel, there was a sudden burst of flames and a loud explosion, which woke Joshua up.

He didn’t see Danny or Simon, so he wandered around the place, had a glass of water, stood on the balcony looking at the stars when he wasn’t staring at the spot where Simon had landed. Fortunately, he had no intentions of following — Joshua just wasn’t like that.

He also knew that, since Simon had died, the police would be back for a statement, and he had to figure out what he was going to say. Tell them it was murder, or an accident? He knew that he owed it to Simon’s memory to insist that it wasn’t suicide, and at least he knew he was right about that.

And he’d been left weirdly free of complications. Simon had been an only child, and his parents and grandparents were all dead. They had their circle of friends, of course, but he could involve them later. He felt that he definitely had to let Brent and Drew know.

There were also the implications of what Ausmann had said about Joshua “needing his help,” as well as Preston and Danny insisting that Simon would be back. Yes, but not as himself. Would he just be an echo of Joshua’s memory? And, if so, how idealized would he be?

He returned to the living room and decided to play his hunch. “Preston? Danny? You guys still here?”

After a moment, the two of them materialized. They were on the couch, nude and spooning, so Joshua had no idea which was which until Danny’s clothes quickly materialized as well — he was the big spoon.

“How are you doing?” Danny asked.

“Oh, not great,” Joshua replied. “Look, you seemed pretty sure when you said that Simon would be back…”

“Well, yeah. That’s how it works,” Preston said.

“Are you sure though? And that it’s not all people who were already dead when they turned on the machine?”

“Sure we’re sure,” Danny replied. “We just met a guy who’d been killed the night before.”

“Really? Who?” Joshua asked.

“Some guy named Jerry,” Danny explained.

“And you know the guy who killed him,” Preston added.

“Ausmann,” they said in unison.

“Ausmann killed Jerry? Why? He was such a nice guy.”

“He knew too much,” said Preston in his best gangster impersonation.

“Ausmann offed his wife, apparently, and told Jerry,” Danny went on.

“Wait… what? I can’t even imagine why, but this is kind of helpful news. I mean, whether anybody knows his wife is dead yet or not, he’s killed at least two… fuck. Three times. So he’s definitely acting like a fugitive, which means he won’t go anyplace they’d expect him to go.”

“Unless he’s incredibly stupid,” Danny replied.

“Batshit insane,” Joshua noted, “But not stupid. It’s like he’s on a crusade to get rid of your kind, and if he can kill that many living humans that easily, imagine how little he’d think of the dead.”

“Hey, we don’t like being called ‘The Dead!’” Danny jokingly snapped.

“Yeah, please. ‘The Previously Lived-In,’ for sure,” Preston added, laughing.

“I’m going to stop him,” Joshua promised them. “I just have to figure out how. What time…” he glanced over at the clock visible on the kitchen microwave. Just after 3:30 in the morning. “Okay. I have some phone calls to make in the morning, but I’m definitely going to need your help, okay?”

“You got it,” Preston asserted, Danny nodding his agreement.

“But first, I really need to try to sleep again.” Joshua headed for the bedroom. “Oh. We’ve got guestrooms, if you want, or whatever’s most comfortable for you.”

“Ooh. A real bed!” Preston gushed.

“Not like we can really feel it, but it’d be a first in a long time. Thanks!”

They started for the hallway as well, stopping when Joshua called out.

“Hey, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but… were you two, like… fucking on the couch there?”

Preston and Danny looked at each other and laughed. “Oh, I wish,” Preston said.

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Danny went on. “We can’t really… I mean, parts don’t work like that.”

“But we can swap energy and have what feel like the most incredible orgasms in the universe,” Preston added.

“Basically, all boom and no bust,” Danny explained.

“So… ghost fucking?” Joshua teased them.

“Don’t make me come over there and cover you in ectoplasm!” Preston replied.

“Good night, boys!” Joshua said, waving as he exited to the master bedroom.

“Good night, daddy!” Preston called out, Danny slapping him on the arm before they disappeared into the guest bedroom, not bothering to open the door first.

This time, Joshua slept through the night, only waking up one time who knew when, and he could have sworn he heard Simon lying in bed next to him, breathing until he realized he wasn’t. He cried again a little bit. He could be prone to insomnia, and one of the things that had always comforted him through that was lying with his back against Simon’s chest, listening to his slow inhales and exhales, and feeling his warm breath on the back of his neck.

The next time he woke up, light was streaming in the windows and when he checked the clock it was nearly ten a.m. He dressed casually and headed out into the living room to find Danny and Preston in the kitchen.

“Morning!” Preston called out.

“We were going to make you breakfast,” Danny said, “But it’s kind of really, really difficult for us to manipulate physical things all that well.”

“I mean, we can do it a little,” Preston added, “But it’s exhausting as hell.”

“Hey, speaking of that,” Joshua asked, “If you can walk through walls, why don’t you fall through floors?”

“We don’t really walk ‘through,’” Preston explained. “It’s more like we push. So floors and the ground always feel squishy to us, but we don’t fall through the floors because we’re not trying. Although we can if we want to.”

“Wow. That answers that question,” Joshua replied.

“That’s a thing?” Danny asked.

“You kidding?” Joshua replied. “That’s like Sceptic vs. Ghosts question number one.”

“Oh, about the ‘G’ word,” Simon admonished him.

“Eye roll, okay, what?” Joshua replied.

“I’m sure you’ve been told, but we are not ghosts, we are Rêves. Kind of a difference.”

“Right, right, sorry,” Joshua demurred. “Ausmann got a little bit into my head with the ‘G’ word.”

“Have you managed to get into his head?” Danny asked.

“Into batshit la-la land?” Joshua answered. “No. But I’ve got some business to take care of. Hey… are you guys at least able to maybe scroll a mouse and read stuff on a computer?”

“That, we can do,” Preston said, excited. “It takes both of us rolling the thing, but we can manage.”

“Great,” Joshua said. “While I’m calling people, I’ve got some files I’d like you to look at, give me your opinions on them from your Rêve point of view.”

“Sure thing!” Preston replied.

“Is it about science? I hope it’s science, because I am such a science nerd,” Danny gushed.

“Me too,” Preston protested.

“It is,” Joshua told them.

“Sweet!” Danny smiled, high-fiving Preston.

Joshua led them to the cache from Ausmann’s computer and set them loose, then went out on the balcony with his phone.

His first call was to the hospital, to determine how to claim Simon’s body, only to be told that it was on hold pending a police investigation due to the circumstances of his death.

Well, that wasn’t good.

His next call was to Brent and Drew to break the news, and he got them to join a Zoom conference — surprisingly, it was the older one, Drew, who was the tech whiz with that. Or maybe not surprising, considering his years in the entertainment business. When Joshua told them that Simon was dead, the two of them just lost it, and Brent immediately said, “We’re paying for the funeral, shut up and don’t say no.”

“Brent, we’re both heavily insured, so thank you, but it’s taken care of.”

“You two were always so smart about money,” Drew chimed in.

“It’s going to be a small ceremony, but I don’t know how soon, because his body is kind of tied up. Possible homicide and all that.”

“Was it?” Brent asked, clutching invisible pearls.

“No,” Joshua lied. “I was kind of the only one there, but I wasn’t out there when he fell.”

“Fell!” Brent and Drew exclaimed together.

“Do you mean fell,” Brent started, “Or could he have ju— ”

“No. No, no, no. A hundred times over. Simon would have never done that.”

“Let us know when the ceremony is,” Drew added. “We’ll be there, of course. Oh, we’ve been spending so much time in cemeteries and with the dead lately, haven’t we? Weird times.”

“Indeed,” Joshua said. “Thanks,” and then he disconnected.

He thought about what the hospital had told him, then went online on his phone to look into who handled the whole death thing, only to find out that it was county — and then remembered Brenda. He found her number on his phone from when she’d called them both, and dialed.

“Joshua? What’s up?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“Uh… no,” He started, trying not to cry. “I hate to tell you this, but… Simon is dead.”

“What?” she exclaimed. “Did Ausmann find you two?”

“No, no he didn’t,” Joshua insisted, and then he told her the whole “fell off the balcony” story. She sounded skeptical but seemed to buy it, and then he explained how the body was being held up, but that Simon personally believed that a corpse should be buried as soon as possible after death.

“Oh. Was he Jewish?” she asked.

“Um… yes,” Joshua lied, not realizing that was an actual Jewish thing. “So, it’s apparently the county that handles the whole death thing and all that, and since you work for the county…”

“You’d like some strings pulled?”

“Pretty please, with sugar and sprinkles on top?”

Brenda laughed. “Well, there’s one little snag here,” she explained. “You two really, really pissed off my boss.”

“Um… you told us to do that,” he reminded her.

“I know, I know. My bad. Which is why I’m inclined to help you, as a make-up for it. I just have to figure out who at county hates her with enough blazing passion to help you all out. Give me a couple or two, okay?”

“Oh, thank you, Brenda. Oh — couple of days…?”

“Minutes or hours,” she replied. “All I ask is that we get to come to the funeral.”

“We?” Joshua asked.

“I’ve got a family,” she replied.

“I… I had one,” he said.

“I know. I’ll do my best and get back to you. Bye.”

“Good-bye. And thanks — ”

Although she’d disconnected before he could say thanks.

Having no more calls to make, he came back inside to find the boys huddled together over the laptop, absolutely enthralled with the screen. He had to clear his throat before they noticed he’d returned.

“Oh, dude!” Preston exclaimed. “Did you read about what this thing does?”

“Telegrams to the past?” Danny shouted. “That concept just made me jizz myself. Well, figuratively.”

“I mean, do you see what you’ve got here?”

“Oh… fuck…”

Joshua just stared at them and sank onto the sofa, a wave of possibility and hope thundering over him. Of course! He’d read it but forgotten the most significant part. Ausmann’s machine turning the dead into Rêves was just a side-effect. Its real purpose was something completely different and…

“Telegram to the past…” he muttered. “Kind of like an instant re-do.”

“You’ve got it,” Preston replied.

“Holy shit.” Joshua exclaimed, moving to his laptop and sitting, not really realizing that he kind of sat in Preston and Danny before they moved away. He read the page they were looking at, then brought up a Word doc and started typing.

When he was finished, he looked up and added the exact coordinates, address, condo number and time, then saved the message and copied it to the USB drive hidden in his fake car key.

“Now what?” Preston asked.

“Now… I need to get to JPL, and you two need to go see whether Simon is back yet.”

“Are you sure that JPL is safe?” Danny asked.

“Completely,” Joshua replied. “I told you. No way in hell that Ausmann would go there.”

“I hope you’re right,” Danny called out.

“Oh, so do I,” Joshua said.

As the boys Supermanned off of the balcony, Joshua closed and locked the doors, then headed down to the garage and drove the Tesla like a madman out to Pasadena.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #48: The Rêves Part 26

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.

This is the last chapter of Book Two, and let’s just say brace yourselves for a huge twist.

Wheeling and dealing

Pearl had tasked Danny and Preston with keeping tabs on Ausmann as he left the mountain and beyond, and they had taken up position for the rather boring duty of watching his ass after he’d parked at the bottom.

After sunrise, and as soon as one of the two auto businesses opened, Ausmann sprang into action. The car dealership opened first, and he grabbed a briefcase from his car before heading on in.

They watched as the lone salesman toured Ausmann around the lot, and then took him on a test-drive in what Preston recognized as a dark blue Chrysler Pacifica, probably about a 2017 model, a hybrid, although its mileage wasn’t really all that impressive — 84 per gallon on electric power, 32 per for gas, clearly visible on the info poster on the back driver’s side window.

The most notable bits were its four doors and an obvious butt-ton of storage space, not to mention that all of the rear windows were tinted.

“I thought that was illegal here,” Preston mused.

“How would I know,” Danny replied. “I’m from Idaho.”

“Emphasis on ‘ho,’” Preston reminded him with a playful ass-slap.

“Hey — I taught you everything you know.”

“Oh, I learned plenty on my own.”

Ausmann and the salesman disappeared into the store for what seemed like forever until they both emerged and shook hands, the salesman handing Ausmann a set of keys and a thick pouch full of documents. A few moments later, someone who obviously made nowhere near as much as the salesman drove the SUV around and parked it. As Ausmann started to unload his stuff from his trade-in to the other, the driver stopped him, and a whole crew descended to carry out the off-loud in about two minutes.

Then Ausmann was on his way, heading west, and Danny and Preston Peter-Panned their way after him, leaving him none-the-wiser.

Still, as they followed him, they noticed something that they’d first kind of picked up on back at the cabin but really hadn’t paid much attention to until it was just them following him in his new SUV.

Ausmann was sort of… well, flickering. That was the best way they could describe it. It was like he was two people at once, although both of them were him.

“Dude, this is like that time we did shrooms behind the Gern Island Complex,” Danny said.

“I never did…” Preston started until he remembered. “Oh. Right. With, like, that whole Hindu god multiple face and arm shit going on?”

“Exactly,” Danny replied. “But I know that I’m not tripping, and you’re probably not, so that’s probably him. What do you think is going on?”

“I have no fucking idea,” Preston answered. “I guess all we can do is what Pearl asked us to.”

“Agreed.”

So they followed Ausmann back into L.A., where he parked at the Universal City Metro Station and took the escalators down to the platform, where he waited. Danny and Preston followed him down as well and didn’t show themselves — to humans — but fired out a warning to any Rêve who thought about entering that station.

It was only after a few hours and by the point that Ausmann got kind of vocal that it became clear that he was hunting for his ghost hunters, which Danny and Preston quickly determined would have been Joshua and Simon.

“Well… fuck,” Preston finally said.

“Yeah, we kind of like them, don’t we?” Danny asked.

“Yeah, they kind of introduced us,” Preston replied. “So what do we do with Captain Shithead here?”

“I have no idea,” Danny said. “Except maybe stick to his ass and protect those hunter dudes?”

“Agreed,” Preston said.

“Hey… you remember where they live?” Danny asked.

“Shit. Vaguely?” Preston replied. “Why?”

“Um… shouldn’t we go there first and warn them?”

“Yeah, duh,” Preston said, “But… do you remember where they live?”

There was a long pause before Danny replied, “No. I thought you did.”

Another long pause before they looked at each other and muttered, “Fuck.”

“I know it was in the Valley,” Preston said. “And near a Metro station. That’s where they caught me.”

“Which station was it?” Danny asked.

Preston thought about it, and then realized that there was a blank spot. He remembered being in a station, just not which one. “I think being in that trap messed with my mind,” he said.

“What was it like in there?”

“Complete unconsciousness, so no time passed at all from when I went in to when I got out.”

“I wonder if Anabel remembers.”

“She’s not exactly our biggest fan right now,” Preston explained, “Seeing as how we ran off with Pearl.”

“Wouldn’t she want to protect Joshua and Simon?”

“When they’re the ones who turned her over to Ausmann?”

“Oh, right,” Danny realized. “But if we told her we knew where Ausmann is — ”

“She’d probably just turn her army on him.”

“Yeah, but wouldn’t that save Joshua and Simon, then?”

“I don’t think Pearl wanted Ausmann harmed,” Preston said. “Otherwise, she would have just had the Hadas take him out back there in the mountains.”

“That storm sure looked like a serious attempt to take him out,” Danny said.

“Or was it just a very elaborate way to send a message?”

“What, like storms are some universal language?” Danny joked, but Preston suddenly went wide-eyed.

“Universal. Universal City Station. That’s where they caught me! Right here. I remember now. Thanks, dude!”

“Uh… you’re welcome?”

They headed upstairs and explored the area around the station, but the closest residential buildings and the neighborhood in general looked nothing like what they’d seen when they’d fled Joshua and Simon’s place.

“So… north or south?” Danny asked.

“I’m pretty sure it’s north,” Preston said. “Nothing we flew over on the way out looked like Hollywood.”

They traveled OG Rêve style, down the subway tunnel, one southbound train traveling through them, which was always a total rush when it happened, then arrived at the North Hollywood station and headed up. As soon as they exited to the plaza above, Preston pointed.

“I remember that black tower!” he exclaimed, indicating the Kaiser Permanente Medical Office Building at Lankershim and Weddington. “And this station, too,” he said, pointing back at the three metal arches above the entrance, in shades of orange, yellow and green. Danny had always assumed that they were a reference to oranges, lemons, and limes, which had been a major part of California’s agricultural economy since forever.

That probably wasn’t the case, though.

“I guess we can go up and see if we recognize any landmarks we flew over,” Danny suggested.

“It would be so much easier if it was nighttime now,” Preston said.

“There’s probably no time,” Danny replied. “I mean, Ausmann was their boss, he must have their address, right?”

“Shit. Okay. Let’s fly.”

They shot up into the air and started looking, almost immediately recognizing the G Line bus transit station across Lankershim from the B Line Metro station — and then veering to the left to a building just north of North Chandler at Tujunga — a square tower of fifteen stories with wraparound balconies on the front and back sides.

“That’s it!” Preston called out, ecstatic. They made their way to the nearest top-floor balcony and strolled inside since, being Rêves, they could just do that, but it looked like nobody was home.

“Now what?” Danny asked. Preston just shrugged.

“Now what?” Ausmann thought as he parked in a far and empty corner of the lowest level of the Westfield Fashion Square mall garage. Since the mall itself had been mostly abandoned in the plague years and then subsequently converted to homeless and low-cost housing, the garage didn’t see the kind of traffic it used to.

That was true of most indoor malls in the U.S.

He wracked his brain, trying to remember anything that would give him a clue to where Joshua and Simon lived, coming up blank, so he went back to his video archives, searching through all of the Metro footage he had of them until he came to a rather interesting bit from the Universal City Station, when they were actually approached by an employee.

The video was high-res enough that he was able to grab her name from her badge: Brenda Mason. And he also checked the footage showing her driving off with the two of them from the station.

So he’d found his way in, checked in the several databases he was (still) privy to as a Federal employee, found her address in Baldwin Hills, and headed on over.

Meanwhile, 88 miles (or 141 kilometers) almost directly due east and many hours earlier, Pearl and the Hadas were startled as the ground under Ausmann’s cabin erupted in a shower of dirt followed by a blue fireball that sent the above-ground building itself skyward in a storm of blazing splinters.

The ground collapsed in a gigantic crater that took out even more of the land, followed by a secondary explosion of fire.

The shattered cabin flew in all directions into the forest, igniting the trees, and the Hadas flew into action immediately, gathering high above and firing down a sudden and very localized hail storm that managed to quench the flames before they did much damage.

Pearl watched with a sigh of relief, but then another of the Hadas materialized next to them — one of the few who would have been Class II if he hadn’t been cremated instead, and that was Rock Hudson.

“And you just want to let him go like that?” he asked.

“Yes,” Pearl replied. “Number one, because I do not believe in killing, even if it’s to fight genocide. Number two, because what hate he’s going to show us now is also going to show us how to defeat him.”

“Ah,” Rock replied. “Know thine enemy?”

“Exactly,” Pearl answered with an awkward fist-bump.

Meanwhile, Esme innocently answers the door to find Ausmann pointing a gun at her face. “Hello,” he says. “Is this where Brenda Mason lives?”

“What do you want?” she demands, tensing up in preparation to using her taekwondo training to kick his ass, but he’s already grabbed her by the throat, spun her around, and put one of her arms in a compliance hold. She grunts and leads him to the living room.

Jonah and the kids are playing another game, Exploding Kittens, when a madman with a gun enters. Jonah doesn’t hesitate and goes full-on linebacker (flashback to his college days) in order to take this motherfucker out, except — he gets smacked hard in the temple with the butt of a gun and goes down.

And then Brenda comes in from the hallway to see what all of the commotion is, and crazy man points his gun at Malia.

“Pick one,” he says. “If you tell me nothing. Save both if you tell me what I want to know.”

“What the fuck do you want to know?” she demands, gesturing for her kids to come to her, which they do, hiding behind her legs.

“Where do your little ghost hunter friends live?” the gunman demands.

“You think I know?” Brenda replies.

“You have three chances to say no without people dying,” the gunman replies. “Husband, this kid or that kid. Boom, boom, boom. Who do you really want to protect?”

“I never went to their house, you fucking asshole,” Brenda replies. “God’s honest truth?”

“Really?” the man replies, pointing his gun at Jonah’s head. “Want to try again?”

“I only ever went to Denny’s with them!” Brenda practically screamed.

“Which one?” the gunman demanded.

“Lankershim and Burbank,” she replied.

“I think you need more incentive,” he said, turning his gun toward Malia. “Where do they live?” he demanded again.

“I don’t fucking know!” she screamed, and then she pulled out her phone and flung it at his face with all her strength. Remarkably, it hit dead-center on the bridge of his nose and brought him down, gun flipping from his hand and tumbling to the carpet.

To their credit, Brenda didn’t have to say anything. Malia threw herself on top of the gun while Jonah grabbed the gunman in a chokehold and Sam restrained his arms.

“I’m calling the cops,” Brenda announces, but this just sets the gunman off. With a burst of strength, he manages to break free from Jonah and Sam’s holds.

“Bring it. Asshole,” she announces, adding, “Sorry kids.”

Before she can say anything else, he flees out the front door. Esme restrains Jonah from following him and Sam slams and bolts the front door.

“Okay,” Esme finally says. “What was that all about?”

“I think I know,” Brenda replies, grabbing her phone and dialing.

Joshua and Simon had just arrived home, ready to settle down for a quiet evening of binging the latest series of Doctor Who when they were interrupted, first by finding Danny and Preston in their living room, and then by Brenda’s phone call.

They all had the same message: “Ausmann is looking for you both, and it’s probably not good news.” Of course, Brenda didn’t know their intruder was this Ausmann until Joshua asked her, then explained who he was.

“Do you happen to know where he is now?” Simon asked.

“Um… no,” the other three answered.

“Last we saw him was at Universal City Station,” Danny explained.

“And does he know where we are?” Joshua and Simon asked.

“No,” they agreed.

“And he’s looking for us because, why?” Joshua said.

“I have no idea,” Brenda responded.

“Because I think he’s out to kill you,” Danny and Preston said.

“Well, that’s one hell of a difference,” Simon said.

“True,” Joshua agreed, then asked Brenda, “Wait. How the hell did he find you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m guessing that he was watching Metro videos, like I was?”

“Not encouraging,” Simon muttered to Joshua.

“Not at all,” Joshua replied.

“What do you mean?” Brenda asked.

“You know how much we all had access to via video as county employees?” Simon asked.

“Well, yeah,” she said.

“Well, Ausmann — and both of us — had Federal access, meaning that city, county, and state shit was free rein.”

“Meaning…?” Brenda asked, sounding scared to death.

“If he found you and tied you to us — ” Simon started.

“He’s fucking found us,” Joshua finished.

“Not your fault,” they both added. “At least we’ve got warning,” Simon continued.

“So thanks!”

“You’re welcome,” Brenda said and then signed off. Immediately afterwards, Ausmann kickied in the front door, leading pistol first and grinning like an idiot when he saw them. Unfortunately, he’d had to leave his favorite gun behind at Brenda’s house. This was one of his back-ups from the car.

“Hello, boys,” he announced. Danny and Preston immediately faded into the shadows, but neither Joshua nor Simon took it as a bad thing. Rather, it was probably the Rêves’ best attempt to protect the Vivants.

“So… what the hell do you want?” Joshua demanded, his usual defiant self.

“Oh, you know,” Ausmann said. “Self-preservation, protection, loyal minions… although I don’t think that either of you can provide any of that. At least without incentive.”

“There’s no incentive you can offer us, you asshole,” Joshua replied.

“Ooh. Burning bridges already? I like that. It’s spunky!” Ausmann said. “You haven’t even listened to my offer.”

“I think my husband said we’re not interested,” Simon replied in a totally uncharacteristic moment of candor. “So… no, maybe?”

Ausmann laughed. “All I’m asking for is the key to winning this goddamn ghost war, nothing more nor less, and since you’re both living, I assume that that’s the side you’re on. Right?”

“You’re assuming that we see this as a war,” Simon said. “But we don’t.”

“Ah,” Ausmann spat back at him. “So you’re traitors to your kind?”

“You want to blow that dog whistle any harder, fuckface?” Joshua chimed in.

“No, I want to recruit an ally,” Ausmann said, marching outside onto the balcony.

Joshua and Simon exchanged a look, Simon restraining Joshua from picking up a heavy lead bust near the doorway with obvious lethal intent.

Out on the balcony, Ausmann gestured at the landscape. “This belongs to people,” he said. “Living, human people. Fuck the dead. And I have figured out the way to figure out how to defeat them, but it requires one tiny bit of your help.”

“Okay, I’ll humor you, but I won’t say yes,” Joshua replied. “What tiny bit do you need?”

“Simple,” Ausmann replied. “Bring me the spirit of Peter Lorre. That’s it. He’s going to share all of the secrets to destroying them, and guarantee my mission.”

“Peter Lorre?” Simon scoffed. “How are we supposed to find him?”

“I suppose you’ll need to find an ally on the other side,” Ausmann said.

Joshua wanted to tell him, “We’ve already got two,” but restrained himself — there was no telling how this madman would take the news. Besides, he didn’t exactly want to call out Danny and Preston when they were most likely watching but hidden.

In fact, they were watching, and the thing that they noticed was that Ausmann was doing his weird “Hindu Time” bit again, seemingly stronger than it had been before, and that was when time blurred.

“I can’t think of any of those existing ghosts who’d trust either of you,” Ausmann said. “But I know who would.

Abruptly, Ausmann started to spin around but then there were two of him, one a ghostly image and the other more solid. Both of them spun together to hit Simon hard in the chest, knocking him backwards over the balcony raining and into fifteen stories of air. As they turned back, it looked like the back of the ghostly one’s head exploded in a spray of red mist, and then it fell.

At the same time, Joshua screamed and ran to the railing.

“You’ll need his help,” Ausmann said as he wheeled around Joshua, keeping the gun aimed at him until he’d exited via the condo and out the front door.

Joshua didn’t want to look down. Meanwhile, the ghostly Ausmann had fallen to the ground and winked out of existence.

“What the fuck was that?” Danny asked Preston.

“I have no idea.”

Noticing Joshua moving slowly toward the balcony railing, they materialized and hurried to stand on either side of him. Joshua finally looked down. Simon was lying in the middle of the southbound lane of Tujunga and a small crowd, probably from the shops on the ground floor, had already gathered. Since the fire station was a block away, an ambulance arrived almost immediately.

“Dude, trust us, he’ll be back,” Preston explained, putting an arm around Joshua’s shoulders even though he couldn’t really touch him.

“But not like himself,” Joshua said before he turned and ran inside, grabbing his phone and keys, throwing on a coat and heading out, locking the door behind him. He got to the street as the EMTs were transferring Simon, strapped to a body board, onto a gurney, then wheeling him into the ambulance.

Joshua felt some relief when he saw that they had put him on oxygen. Good. Still alive. There was still hope.

He turned and saw a police officer nearby and went to her.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m his husband. Can I… what can…?”

“You can ride to the hospital with him, of course,” she said. Give me your name and number. I’m not going to bother you for a statement right now. Except — was it an accident, attempted homicide, or… um…”

She trailed off, avoiding the “S” word, and Joshua had a dilemma. If he said that it was murder, he’d have to say who did it, and that would lead to revealing way too much information about everything. He’d have to stop Ausmann on his own, and he was not unaware that even if Simon came back as a Rêve, he’d still be obliterated if Ausmann carried out his plan.

“Accident, I’m pretty sure,” he said. “I wasn’t out there, but I looked when I heard the siren. He… he didn’t have any, you know, suicidal thoughts at all. Simon was a happy guy.”

“Simon. That’s my brother’s name. Your husband is still breathing, so there’s that. Go on, get in the ambulance.”

“Thank you,” Joshua told her, then went to one of the EMTs and explained the same. It was the longest ride of his life, even though they went with sirens blaring for just under seven miles to the Kaiser ER in Panorama City.

Simon was admitted immediately and the surgeons went to work as Joshua waited. About forty-five minutes later, a surgeon entered through the back doors. There were other people there, but Joshua could tell from her body language that what was coming was not good news.

“Please be for someone else,” he told himself, but then the surgeon spoke the three words that would destroy his world.

“Joshua Hunter-Aisling?” she said to the room.

He raised his hand and walked toward her, but all he could remember were the tears that would not stop and the violent sobs that wracked his entire body.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she said. He only heard random words. Extensive trauma. Gross insult to internal organs. Multiple fractures. “Most people who fall from that height are dead on impact,” she finally said, and this phrase burned itself into his brain. “I really thought we had a chance with him.”

Everything after that was a blur as he wandered out of the hospital, called a cab, and headed home. Danny and Preston were still waiting there, and read his mood immediately. The three of them just sat in silence, Danny and Preston leaning their heads on his shoulders as best they could.

“We’re here for you,” Danny said.

“Whatever you need,” Preston told him.

Joshua looked at the two of them, thinking, “You’re dead and not really corporeal. What could you possibly do?” He started laughing at the absurdity of it, but then looked at their sincerity, and it hit him that despite their deceased state, recent experiences actually had matured them both. Preston was much less the shallow porn star and Danny less the naïve L.A. import who had not yet gone down the porn path.

The tears came again until he fell asleep on the couch between the two spirits who did not emanate any heat, but showed plenty of love.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #44: The Rêves, Part 22

Escape to which mountain

Ausmann had been mulling over the document in the Operation Ghost Toast for most of the three days he’d been down here. He didn’t have access to the unredacted version, but the order had been put out after they were all aware of these abominable ghosts.

This probably meant that turning the machine off would do something even worse, like make them permanent. Or more powerful.

He also knew that there wasn’t a simple “Off” switch on the thing, and that it was hooked up to so many redundant power supplies that it would take an apocalypse worse than anything actually turning it off could do in order to shut it down.

But the machine had to be the key to sending these things back to where they came from, permanently, and erasing them from the human world. His hunters, Joshua and Simon, had shown that they were subject to the laws of physics, after all. Well, some of them.

During the brief time he had interviewed Anabel, she had hinted that the Rêves did have rules, and possibly vulnerabilities, although she had refused to reveal any. Maybe they knew what could destroy them, and what turning off the machine would do.

But how to get the information? He wondered whether it was common knowledge among them, then decided that it must be. That’s what communities of beings did — educated new members on what was safe and what wasn’t. The trick was finding someone who would spill their guts and who’d been dead long enough to have learned everything.

He thought about this for a long time before he realized that famous Rêves always appeared in character, and he wondered if they were stuck in them somehow. If that were the case, then he just had to pick a dead celebrity famous for playing cowardly, sell-out characters, get them in the lab and scare the hell out of them.

He was laughing to himself at his brilliance when there was a ding and he looked up at the monitors showing the security cameras outside.

There seemed to be a police presence, although he knew it couldn’t be the Simi Valley PD, since JPL was not only in a different county, but even a city beyond — it was outside of the jurisdictions of both Ventura County and the LAPD in the city of Los Angeles.

Of course, technically, it was outside of the jurisdiction of the Pasadena PD as well, but that’s who these two officers seemed to be, so he relaxed, knowing that there was no way they had been able to get any kind of warrant that would break down these doors.

Then he felt a sudden weird wave of vertigo and started seeing double for a moment. He rubbed his eyes and sat back down until he didn’t feel dizzy, then looked at the monitor again to see that the uniforms poking around outside the guard station were all Federal Marshals.

There were six of them, very armed, accompanied by a pair of nervous-looking campus police. He couldn’t hear the conversation. He could only see that they tried the door before peering through the windows into the empty and semi-darkened guard station.

They stood around outside talking and taking notes, occasionally speaking into their radios. It couldn’t be about his wife, he told himself. At least not about her murder. They must have been looking for him to tell him she’d died, in which case they’d have bought his alibi, meaning he had no reason to worry.

But… why send out this kind of force just to tell him, “We regret to inform you…” No. This had “pending arrest” written all over it. The only things saving him at the moment were the lack of authorized guards up top and the level of security clearance required to enter — something he doubted that any of these feds had.

Still… they’d found his den, and that was not good.

Ausmann had a habit of always listening to the most paranoid part of his mind, which had always served him well. He had to assume the worst. Those assholes on the Simi PD had decided that he’d murdered his wife and had put the word out…

And all they could muster were the two Pasadena PD, most likely rookie and first year officer who would write up a lengthy report summarizing nothing. But he kept going over the back and forth: Informing him of her death, or accusing him?

They had to think that if he weren’t at home, this was where’d he’d be, and since his home was rather a more valuable pile of rubble than it had been before the storm, where else could he be? But those fucking Marshals up there would get down here eventually. Hell, they might do it in the next five minutes. All it would take were a couple of phone calls to the right people in D.C.

So Ausmann made his phone call first, dialing Jerry. The conversation was short and sweet.

“I need your help right now,” he said. “A ride from the lab up to Big Bear.”

“Right now?” Jerry balked.

“Yes, right now,” Ausmann barked at him. “Meet me on the side road, at the emergency exit.”

“I really can’t do that right — ”

“You sure as hell can, and you will,” Ausmann replied, calmly. “Remember. I’ve kept you on as a consultant. It would be a shame if you had to lose that insurance.”

“Are you threatening my wife?” Jerry asked, mouth going dry.

“No,” Ausmann continued. “I’m actually threatening you. I know all about those little deals you made on the side. Fortunately, only with friendly countries. Still, if word got out about that, well, there’s no statute of limitation for espionage, I don’t think…”

He let it trail off and there was a long silence. Finally, Jerry spoke weakly on the other end. “I can be there in forty minutes.”

“Make it thirty,” Ausmann said. “I’m in a bit of a rush.”

He hung up the phone and turned back to the monitors. The guards seemed to have moved away from the windows of the booth. Of course, what he had missed was one of the Pasadena PD looking through the window, noticing a red button on the phone suddenly going out, and then ignoring it completely.

What he looked up to see was a Federal Marshal looking through the window and clearly noticing that one of the buttons on the phone on the desk was solid red before it went out.

He turned excitedly to the others and started asking the campus police about it. They confirmed that it meant that somebody was down there.

Unfortunately, these campus police didn’t have clearance to enter the lab either, so the Marshals spent the next twenty minutes trying to figure out who could grant them clearance to go in, and then another fifteen trying to get ahold of that person.

When they finally did and tried to explain the circumstances, it didn’t help their case. They only knew the reasons they were sent, but not a lot more behind that, so this particular Deputy Director was inclined to scoff. “So you’re saying he might have committed a crime?” she asked.

“Might, yes,” the head Marshal on site replied. “That is what we were told.”

“That’s really shaky probable cause,” she told her. “Is there anything more to go on?”

“The information came from your department,” the Marshal insisted.

“Really?” the Deputy Director spoke, sounding like her eyebrows shot past her hairline. “And what the hell would we in Arlington have to do with a crime he might have committed in Pasadena?”

“Not might have committed,” the Marshal insisted. “Might commit.”

“Oh, now you’re not making a lick of sense.”

“I can only report what we were told to check on.”

There was a heavy sigh from the Deputy Director’s end, then she spoke deliberately. “Goddammit. I’m going to have to take this one up the food chain. Do you know how much I hate to do that?”

“I can imagine, ma’am. So… we are not to proceed?”

“You are to stand down until further notice. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Marshal replied, dejected. As she hung up, she looked at her fellow officers, disappointed. “Stand down,” she said quietly. Noting their disappointment, she added, “Don’t worry. We still have time.”

Ausmann’s confusion suddenly cleared and he gave the monitors another glance to see the Pasadena PD officers both leaning on the roof of their cruiser, writing out copious notes, looking like they hated life.

He headed down the hallway and out the same door in the mountain that had saved Joshua and Simon’s bacon not long before, then waited five minutes before Jerry finally pulled up.

“What took you so fucking long?” he demanded.

“I had to get gas,” he explained.

“Right. Drive. Asshole.”

Although Jerry tried to make small-talk, Ausmann was having none of it, and for most of the ninety minutes, they rode in verbal silence, awkwardness buried in Jerry’s playlist of old 70s classics.

Of course, these weren’t coming from his phone via Bluetooth or even playing on the radio. Nope. He had a ton of home-burnt CDs clipped in holders to the sun visors. Ausmann almost wanted to applaud him for not having an 8-track player in this hunk of junk.

Ausmann himself was not a fan of “classic” rock at all. To him, it sounded like demented teen boys screaming while drugged-up chimps abused washboards with barbed wire far too close to bullhorns feeding back into their own speakers.

And the music wasn’t helping the fact that Ausmann felt completely out of place during the whole trip, like he was seeing things out of eyes that were pointed in opposite directions, or like something was trying to rip him in half.

If he’d bothered to mention it to Jerry and confess to killing his wife, he would have gotten a solid hour-long lecture on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and maybe a hint of the much more economical and readable version of the story, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

But Ausmann didn’t mention it, and just kept on feeling the terrible malaise all the way through San Bernardino and then up the foothills and into the mountains leading to Big Bear, although Ausmann had Jerry pull off long before they reached the summit, up a long and dark dirt road, finally reaching a hidden and isolated cabin that Ausmann had owned for years.

He’d always thought of it as his apocalypse retreat, a place to go to if the world below went to hell, and even his wife had never known about it. He would visit about twice a year to make sure that the stockpiles were up to date. The huge basement, which doubled as a bomb and fallout shelter and panic room, held enough supplies to sustain one adult human for a year, and enough guns and ammo to fight off a few hundred.

The part above ground looked like a simple, rustic cabin, although what appeared to be wooden walls were actually four-inch steel with wood veneers and bullet-proof windows. The woods around the place were dotted with sensors and night-vision cameras, as well as booby-traps.

When he and Jerry arrived, the entire place was in pitch darkness, but Ausmann lit it up by tapping a fob he always carried with him.

“Wow,” Jerry said. “This your place?”

“Yep,” Ausmann explained. “I bought it right about the time we fired up our little experiment at JPL. Since I know you know what it does, I probably don’t have to explain why.”

“Of course not. Great retirement home for you and Coraline, though, right?”

“Oh, she never knew about it,” Ausmann explained. “Drink?”

“If I’m driving back, then nothing adult, but sure, thanks.”

Ausmann nodded and turned to the bar, which had its own secret compartments, wondering what Jerry’s choice would be if he knew he weren’t driving back.

Ausmann revealed a hidden ice bucket, fully loaded, and a bar fountain, then filled a glass with ice, fired a spritz of club soda into it, then added a shot of grenadine. He topped it with a maraschino cherry, grabbed something from one of the compartments and pocketed it, then turned to hand the drink to Jerry.

“Shirley Temple,” Ausmann announced, “So you know it’s a virgin.”

They both laughed and Jerry took a sip. “But Coraline doesn’t know about this?” he asked. “You sly dog.”

“It’s really only designed to support one person,” he said. “Besides, she’s never going to know.”

“Yeah, but women have a way of finding things out,” Jerry said. “I mean, Esther never should have figured out about my little… side piece in Reno, but — ”

“Dolores?” Ausmann announced, laughing. “Jerry, even the guys on the gardening crew knew about her.”

“What? How?”

“You’re just naturally bad at keeping secrets. Hey… when was the last time you saw real stars at night?”

“It’s been ages,” Jerry said.

“It has, old friend. Come on.”

Ausmann led him outside and they walked a good distance away from the cabin, farther into the woods, until they came to a clearing and looked up. The sky truly was stunning. Unlike down in L.A., it was full of stars, from one end to the other, shimmering in quite visible shades of yellow, red, and blue. They could even see the shape of the rim of the Milky Way itself from here.

“Wow,” Jerry said.

“Indeed,” Ausmann replied. “See, there are advantages to being so far away from everything else. We are as invisible here as those stars are back down in the city. We might as well be a million miles away from everything, which is why I asked you to bring me up here.”

“Um… why did I bring you up here?” Jerry asked.

“Remember, I told you that Coraline is never going to know about this place?”

“Right, but why wouldn’t you tell her?”

“Well,” Ausmann said matter-of-factly, “By now, I can’t, because I killed her.”

Jerry gasped and turned toward Ausmann. Although it was dark, his eyes had adjusted enough to realize that he was starting down the barrel of a gun.

“Which is why I asked you to bring me up here. Because you can’t keep a secret for shit. You should have asked for the adult beverage. Sorry!”

Jerry never heard the bang and didn’t even see the flash, but Ausmann heard one and saw the other, as well as the violent red mess briefly illuminated as the top of Jerry’s head flew off.

Fortunately, for Ausmann, he had always planned for this contingency no matter who had to take the bullet, and had managed to have Jerry be standing with his back to a ten-foot-deep, coffin-sized hole that he had dug out years ago. He always kept enough lumber, a small gas-powered cement mixer, and various bits of copper piping and tin barrels nearby to make it plausibly seem to be a legit and ongoing construction project.

It wasn’t, and once he’d made sure the body was in it, he shoved all of the dirt back into the hole, smacked it flat with a shovel, and then made a note to come back and finish concealing it tomorrow.

The property had been bought in the name of a completely fictitious company that could never be connected to him, and cell service up here was practically non-existent, although he had installed a satellite system that provided TV, phone, and internet.

He returned to the cabin, descended to the basement and noted that he was a bit blood-splattered himself, so took off the clothes he’d been wearing, tossed them into the incinerator, and took a long, hot shower.

Afterwards, he picked out a pair of silk pajamas from the well-stocked bedroom closet, then fell into the California King-size bed, turned on the local news, and watched, satisfied to see that he wasn’t being mentioned. After the timer shut off everything, he drifted off to sleep, contented, only one thought on his mind.

Which one of these fucking celebrity ghosts should he capture in order to get the dirt that would destroy them all?

In the morning, he woke up and automatically turned on the TV to one of the channels that only showed old movies, pre-1980. He went about preparing breakfast, the film broadcasting to the screens in the bedroom, kitchen/living room and bathroom.

It was an old classic, Casablanca, and right about the time Ausmann was sitting down to his Eggs Benedict, he heard a familiar line being screamed on screen: “Rick, hide me. You must do something. You must help me, Rick!”

He stared at the screen and realized that he’d found his target. Of course. Peter Lorre — well-known for playing villains or cowards, but quite often the character who gave it all up when his life was on the line.

Ausmann did a quick search and determined that Lorre was buried right where most of them were, in one of the hot spots for Rêve activity. Now all he needed to do was trap that asshole, and he was sure he could learn all of the secrets that would destroy them all.

The only problem was that he couldn’t do it alone. He needed his hunters, but he wasn’t exactly sure what his status was with them anymore. He hadn’t seen them since well before the storm —

And then he had a rare moment of Duh. “Of course not,” he thought. “You’ve been too busy killing your wife and escaping that, and why the hell would they come back to JPL any…”

“Fuck!” he suddenly shouted, tossing his dirty breakfast dish into the tile above the kitchen sink, where it shattered to bits and cracked the tile, spraying bits of food everywhere.

“That was them!” he grunted out to no one in particular, remembering his last arrival at the lab, before the cops showed up, when it seemed like someone had been there, but maybe not — and now he cursed the fact that he could not return because of… because… He couldn’t even remember at the moment which group of law enforcement it had been.

And he couldn’t even guess at what his hunters had stolen… It had been something. But what? They had taken information. And whose side were they on?”

He spent the next hour pacing around the room, planning and counter-planning, guessing and second-guessing. Either Joshua and Simon were allies or they weren’t. If they were, then they would capture Peter Lorre for him. If they weren’t, then they would refuse.

Hell, if they refused such a simple request that would make them a lot of money, then they were probably working for the other side.

His way out of this mess suddenly became clear. He had to find Joshua and Simon and make them an offer. He laughed as he realized that both of them were probably too young to get it, but it was going to be an offer they could not refuse.

The real jokes, though, were that A) Of course they knew the reference, it was only one of the most meme’d to millennials movies ever, and B) When it came to playing high tech hide and seek, Ausmann was an amateur, while Joshua and Simon were pros.

Of course, Joshua and Simon didn’t know they were playing hide, but Ausmann was sure as hell going to be playing seek. Not that he’d found anything after the first day, but he was pretty determined.

* * *

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

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

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

Slingback

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

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

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

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

“LatEEN-ex,” Preston replied.

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

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

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

“What happened?” Danny asked.

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

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

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

“Drag queens?” Joshua joked playfully.

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Simon explained. “Tachyons.”

“Theoretical!” Joshua reminded him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEST UNK TIME FACTOR UNK CONTENT STAND ON ZANZIBAR

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

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

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

“Give or take eighteen minutes,” Simon added.

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” Joshua replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As crazy as it sounds,” Joshua started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Force majeure?” his Lieutenant asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should,” Juan agreed.

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

“Ass-kisser,” Cobre muttered.

“What about the water?” Pedro offered.

“What about it?” Jerry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you fucking tease,” Juan sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never heard of him,” Preston said.

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

You did that?” Danny asked in amazement.

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Danny asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Talk about what?” Joshua replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“What for?” Joshua asked.

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

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

“No,” they said in unison.

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

“We’ve learned too much.”

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

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

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

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

“See this condo?” Joshua said.

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

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

“Sorry,” Simon said.

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

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

“Cool,” Simon said.

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

“Oh, we can,” Simon said. “We will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it always?” Joshua laughed.

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

“Record it,” Joshua reminded him.

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

“Boys!” she greeted them. “Hello!”

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

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

The Saturday Morning Post #42: The Rêves, Part 20

Race against time

Brenda had come back home from her conversation with Mom pissed as hell for a lot of reasons, so she did the two things she knew she could do to get absolute privacy. First, she asked the kids if they wanted to play board games with Esme, and none of them could be happier, so they all retreated to the living room.

Next, she ducked her head into Jonah’s office. “If you want to binge some Oprah episodes with me, come on into my office.”

He just grunted, but she knew that this was, to him, the best way to tell him, “Stay the fuck out of my office” without putting it in those words — reverse psychology at its finest.

She did go into her office to binge, but it wasn’t Oprah. Instead, it was CCTV footage from Metro Stations but, more specifically, since she had figured out Joshua and Simon’s working order and timing of things, she started with the first station they’d been spotted at, then worked her way backwards.

Her goal was to find some way to contact them, and she was hoping for some moment when one of them would expose something on cam, like a phone, that would give a full name, or number, or something. She also quickly figured out that their preferred nights to work were Tuesday or Wednesday for the most part, and they never came down over the weekend, probably because the stations were too crowded.

Their outfits also changed, and she watched a sort of backwards evolution as later accessories — hunting tools? — disappeared on the reverse path. Still, nothing that would give them away.

When she’d followed them farther up the A Line into Pasadena, she had a sudden moment of kicking herself, realizing she’d been watching the wrong thing.

They had to get into the stations, and they had to do it with their TAP Cards, so she went back and pulled the time stamps from each station at every moment they had used TAP to enter. Next, she pulled up the TAP usage database, used a query to create a spreadsheet, then used INDEX and MATCH in Excel to pull up matches to the info she’d compiled.

She was practically over the moon when it revealed that all of the check-ins had been done on the same two TAP cards, revealing their numbers and card nicknames: ECTO-J and ECTO-S.

“I’ve got you now, you motherfuckers!” she muttered as she copied the TAP card numbers, then pulled the specific information on to whom they were registered.

“Shit!” she replied at the results, because Joshua and Simon had managed to register the cards with completely fake information, and use anonymous, pre-paid debit cards to fund them. She could tell on sight, because nobody lived at “1234 Main Street, This Town, USA, 90000,” and certainly nobody had the email address goodfucking@luck.com.

And while they had used the first names Joshua and Simon, she really doubted that they both had the last names “McBiteme.”

“Fucking kids,” she muttered, not realizing that both of them were actually on the older end of being millennials, and pushing forty.

She went back to the videos from Pasadena, and then traced them to the Arcadia station where, on a whim, she followed them back out only to see that they had come there from Santa Anita Race Track, and it was one of the few times they’d come down on a Saturday and had arrived at the station so early.

She marked the date and time on a hunch, but then wondered — who did she know at Santa Anita who could give her the info? This would be a major way in for one big reason: While TAP cards weren’t really that regulated, race tracks and gambling were heavily regulated, and no way either of them could get away with fake names or pre-paid debit cards if they wanted to gamble and actually win.

She wondered who she knew who had a connection inside Santa Anita, but then the irony of the answer made her laugh.

Rita’s husband was head of security at the place. Brenda hit the intercom on her home office phone.

“Yeah?” Rita answered.

“Want me to find those boys and get them to call you?” Brenda asked.

“Which part of ‘I already asked you that’ did you all miss?” Rita replied.

“None,” Brenda said. “So, your hubby still works at Santa Anita?”

“Yes,” Rita said. “Why?”

“I’m going to email you some dates and times. I need all of the surveillance cam footage from inside for those, plus any kind of pay out info he can provide — Tax ID, winnings, whatever.”

“Are you fucking shitting me?” Rita asked.

“Nope,” Brenda replied.

“Okay. I can probably get him to give you the video footage,” she explained, “But tax records and IDs?” She let out a belly laugh. “No fucking way. You know that. He’d lose his job, and so would I.”

“Okay, okay, got it,” Brenda said. “But if I can maybe point you to two specific people at a specific time and place, and he can use that info to give us the names and phone numbers…?”

“Dubious,” Rita said, “But I’ll ask. How soon you need this shit?”

“How soon did you want them to call you, again?” Brenda replied

“On it,” Rita answered, then she hung up.

Brenda typed out her email with the info, and ten minutes later a response came back, which Rita had forwarded from her husband. It contained a link to the CCTV videos from Santa Anita for the day she had requested.

“Finally,” she said, poking around until she found the point when Joshua and Simon had left the park to walk to the station and backtracking from there.

She jumped through the footage, tracing backwards from end of race to post time, and at no point did either of them approach the cashier window in order to collect. She was beginning to think that they were bad at this whole thing until very early in the day, when she caught them celebrating at the end of a race.

That’s when she followed them forward via the cameras. Maybe she had just missed the one that showed them collecting. But then, after they’d come downstairs she saw them looking around and then approaching a young black woman who was just sitting in the corner with her son, looking distraught.

There was no audio on this footage, but Joshua and Simon engaged her in conversation until, finally, Simon held out a ticket and handed it to her. She looked at the ticket, then up at them in disbelief, covering her mouth and crying.

Joshua and Simon shrugged and smiled, and then the woman jumped up and hugged them both before heading toward the cashier. Joshua and Simon smiled at each other before heading off to video Brenda had already watched.

She hit pause angrily on her computer. “Oh you goddamn generous motherfucking privileged little white boys!” she grumbled. “Who the hell are you?”

She had almost despaired running back through all of the footage until she hit a point when the two had arrived. Joshua headed toward the restroom while Simon waited, but then Simon pulled out his phone and scrolled — and it was in that moment, one single frame, that Brenda found the holy grail.

It showed Joshua’s full name, as well as a phone number. She screen-capped it, wrote it down, and refrained from screaming in joy.

“Suck it, bitch,” she muttered to herself with Rita in mind as she picked up her own phone and dialed, but after about a ring and a half, it went right to voice mail.”

“Assholes,” she thought, but after the tone, she left a very long and detailed voice mail, hoping that they would actually listen and respond.

But, assuming they wouldn’t, she decided on Plan B: As soon as the streets were passable, she was going to pay them a visit, come hell or high water. Well, so to speak. Also, note to self: See who she knew who could link Joshua’s number back to the one that had texted it at that specific moment…

* * *

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

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

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

Plan B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good point,” Joshua replied.

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

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

They both knew what that meant, though.

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

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

“Makes sense,” Simon said.

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

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

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

“And part two?” Simon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit!” Simon snapped.

“What?” Jason asked.

“Visitor,” Simon said.

“Who?” Jason asked.

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

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

“But you’re sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you mean?” Joshua asked.

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

“Oh. Shit!” Joshua exclaimed.

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

“Good or bad?” Joshua asked.

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

“No.”

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

“Minute fifty.”

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

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

“Almost done,” Joshua said.

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

“Can you slow him down?”

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

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

“Thirty seconds,” Joshua said.

“Great,” Simon replied.

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

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

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

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

“Fifteen seconds.”

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

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

“Well then hurr — aw, fuck!”

“What?” Joshua asked.

“Guards turned the elevator back on.”

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

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

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

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

“Now what?” Simon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. It was freaky, man.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Jinx,” Simon said.

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

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

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

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

“Really?” Joshua said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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