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

The Saturday Morning Post #39: The Rêves, Part 17

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.

Double Indemnity

The ticking of the analog wind-up mantel clock had been annoying, but at least it had kept time. Ausmann had set it to his phone soon after he and Coraline had locked themselves into the panic room, and the sales rep who had set this whole place up for him had assured him that it would be accurate to within ten seconds per month, although he should never have to stay down here that long.

It also displayed day and date, and it was just one of the extra analog features that the rep, Charles, had talked Ausmann into.

He didn’t see the point, but Charles had been very convincing. “What if all of the power goes out and you use up your battery back-up as well?” he explained. “For one thing, you can’t open the door to get out, so might as well call it your tomb.”

“But if the lights go out, how do I even find the damn door?” Ausmann scoffed.

“Ah, you see my point!” Charles beamed. “So, you need to add in the fail-safe Kerosene lamps. Only two of them, but the design is so clever, it’ll knock your socks off.”

“Okay, tell me. I’ll bite.”

“Great!” Charles replied, scrolling on his tablet to bring up the sales page. “Hard-wired into the electrics with a magnet holding a pulley and striker as long as it’s powered. Lamp is pre-filled, but also vacuum-sealed so that the oil is guaranteed not to evaporate for at least forty years.”

“So how much is it?” Ausmann asked.

“Worth every penny!” Charles replied perkily. “So, the power goes. You’re in complete darkness. But… when the power goes, the magnets turn off, and the pulley drops. Two things happen. One, at the top it triggers a hammer that breaks the glass on top of the lantern which unseals the vacuum. The sudden pressure difference sucks that oil right up to wet the wick. About two seconds later, the striker hits the flint, you get a spark, and boom… Light like great-great-grandma knew it.”

“Really?” Ausmman asked.

“Really!” Charles beamed back. “I’m kind of proud of this one because my brother invented it, but at eight hundred bucks per unit installed, it’s worth it.”

“What if I have a 29 cent box of matches?” Ausmann asked.

“Only if you can find them in the dark, but then you have one hand full,” Charles replied. “If you buy two units, one for each side of the exit door, it really cuts down the cost, because the major expense is installation — so it’s nine-fifty for two.”

“And how much for three?” Ausmann asked.

“Eleven hundred,” Charles replied, adding, “But, honestly, you don’t need three. These are basically just emergency exit lights.”

“I see,” Ausmann said, impressed that Charles had discouraged a sale, so trusting him more — never realizing that this was exactly as Charles had planned. “What about these other… what did you call them?”

“Analog fail-safes,” Charles said.

“Right. That. Why do I need them?”

“Like I said,” Charles went on. Worst case scenario, you lose all contact with the outside, you have no idea whether it’s safe to leave. So… what happens if you open the door with… oh. I see you don’t have that feature.”

“What feature?” Ausmann asked.

“Well, again, if all power fails and such, well, the door model you ordered is a mechanical lock instead of magnetic. A magnetic lock would fail along with the power but it’s also not the most secure, for obvious reasons. But a mechanical lock works by physically dropping pistons into hollow cylinders bolted to the doors. You’ve seen how a door hinge works, right?”

“Uh… I guess?” Ausmann replied.

“Yeah, you know, it’s that brass thing, one side has two open cylinders, so does the other, stick ‘em both together like linking your fingers, then drop a bolt down the hole. Boom. They aren’t coming apart.”

“But a hinge is how you open a door, right?” Ausmann asked.

“Right,” Charles replied, “But if you put it on the other side, it’s also how you lock a door. Now the analog version of this one is actually cheap and simple. All it requires is that we drill a shaft under that piston on the locking side, sheer off the flat-top on the piston, and then add in a hidden slider cover that you can open with a crank on the inside.”

“I… I’m not sure what you’re describing,” Ausmann said.

“Sure,” Charles replied, again scrolling on his tablet to bring up a diagram of the thing, and it really was that simple. Drop a rod in place to lock the door, use electricity and a magnet to haul it back up into its cubby on the first floor to unlock.

Without that electromagnetic hauling capacity, then the only way to unlock the door was to create a trap door beneath the cylinder in order to drop it into a shaft below the basement and release the hinges.

The price on this one wasn’t all that ridiculous, either. Charles set it at five hundred bucks if Ausmann agreed to a steel rod with an iron cap instead of pure copper.

By this point, Ausmann was realizing that all of these extras added nothing, not when he’d already agreed to a mid-six-figure price for the entire job. So the addition of what Charles described as “Your last, best line of defense” at three grand was a no-brainer.

This was basically a set of sensors using very old-school analog methods and with likewise analog readouts in order to inform anyone in the panic room whether it was safe to come out.

The instruments would indicate whether the basement hallway was flooded or not, what the ambient temperature was, whether there was sufficient oxygen or any toxic gases, current weather conditions above ground, and whether any other human-sized creatures were lurking about upstairs or on the grounds.

“That last one is only a caution and should never be a reason for not leaving after a few days,” Charles warned Ausmann. “They could be bad guys, but those don’t like to stick around, so they’re more likely rescuers. So just exit carefully and armed, but be slow to shoot.”

Remarkably, all of this analog sensing was all done through a series of rubber hoses, copper tubes, and valves and diaphragms attached to brass and glass instruments that looked like something out of a Jules Verne novel.

Ironically, this was long before Ausmann met and hired Joshua and Simon, but the two of them would have been quite at home with this. Or pretend to be.

And when the storm and a day had passed, the room went dark and the Kerosene lamps had lit themselves, Coraline woke with a start and hurried to the door, punching in her code with no result.

Ausmann hurried over and stopped her. “Relax!” he demanded. “Stand back.” He opened the brass panel over the analog sensors and peered at the readouts — which were luminescent. Everything looked absolutely nominal and safe.

“Well, then,” he said, “Coraline, my dear, you may proceed.”

He reached down to the floor to the right of the door and turned the wheel which looked like it belonged on a submarine. After a few turns, he heard a tell-tale “thud” to the left of the door.

“There you go,” he said. “Give it a try.”

Coraline grabbed the handle, slid the heavy door to the right, and it opened. She stepped into the dark basement hallway.

Ausmann grabbed one of the Kerosene lamps — that was the other feature he had paid for. They were detachable and portable — then he followed his wife.

The hall was a mess, open to the sky, fallen timber and floorboards everywhere, and it was almost impassable. And then inspiration hit.

Well, that and something else.

He grabbed a fallen 2×4, set down the lantern, then took advantage of the lack of ceiling and his college baseball career to raise it far over his head and then crack it down on Coraline’s skull.

It only took one hit to send her to the ground, at which point he picked up the lantern, carefully set the weapon against the wound, stepped around the body, then did what he could to kick and shake some more debris on down, finding a couple of really heavy chunks to drop directly on her skull with his arms raised over his head.

He took no chances and hung around long enough to make sure that she had absolutely no pulse.

And why not? He thought. He had invested well with Charles, but he had invested better with Carl, his insurance agent, who had sold them double indemnity insurance policies, based entirely on all of the safety shit Charles and company had installed.

Meaning that if Coraline died in an accident that destroyed the house, Ausmann got twice as much. She was worth ten million to him dead under these circumstances and, frankly, she’d been worth not a lot to him for years.

So it had been a win-win, he supposed. That, and the house had been fully insured for well over its market value as well. This little storm had managed to give him both freedom and even more wealth, with which he could probably strike out on his own in order to destroy these pesky Rêves once and for all.

He briefly considered how he would eventually explain to authorities how his wife had died in the basement hallway while he had survived, then decided he didn’t need to. He’d explain that he’d been at his lab under JPL but, unfortunately, he couldn’t provide any of the logs because his work was top secret.

He could just drive there and no one would ever know otherwise. He already knew that the whole place had been evacuated because of the storm. That was one of the last texts he had gotten before he went into the panic room, and the texts that came piling in after he emerged confirmed that the place would be closed the rest of the week.

There would be no human security around his complex because it wasn’t necessary, and this had also been by Ausmann’s design. He alone could get in without leaving any fingerprints behind, as it were.

What he didn’t know, though, until he’d come above ground and walked to what was left of the garage — which wasn’t much — was that he wouldn’t be driving, because both his car and his wife’s SUV resembled a photograph taken from above with a telephoto lens — flat and dimensionless.

Also, useless.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. And Simi was full of cops, so he really had to get out without being noticed in order to establish his alibi. Fortunately, he’d been paranoid enough to have set up a complete second set of ID and a pre-paid and untraceable debit card that he had funded with cash deposits over the years. That would get him to where he needed to be without being tracked on the grid, but there was that other issue of appearance.

He headed back down to the Panic Room, realizing that the only reason the kerosene lamps had come on was that he had forgotten to switch on the battery back-ups in the first place. Once he did that, the lights came back and he headed into the bathroom.

He looked at his face in the mirror, and his long-cultivated hair, goatee and moustache, all of which would make him stick out like a sore thumb.

“No time to be sentimental,” he thought as he grabbed the clippers from the bag in the cabinet, tapped the switch to make sure they were charged, turned them off, and then pulled off the guard.

He couldn’t risk even leaving a little length, lest the skunk-stripe in his hair flag him. He took a deep breath, turned the clippers on, and then started shearing.

It took longer than he thought, and by the end of it the pile of hair on the floor was incredible. He probably could have knit an entire suit out of it. He left his eyebrows intact, but looked into the mirror to realize a few things.

One — it had been far too long since he’d seen his upper lip or chin. The former seemed way bigger than he’d remembered it, while the latter seemed smaller. And the obvious tan lines on both the top his head and the bottom of his face stood out — he’d have to do something about that.

The other thing was that his head appeared much bigger than he’d ever thought it was, and his ears were huge. He stared at his reflection, then laughed.

“Holy shit, I’m fucking Lex Luthor,” he said. “Thank god I’m not up against Superman.”

He wondered what to do about the obvious tan line, then went to his late wife’s medicine cabinet and started digging through it until he found a bottle labeled “Liquid Foundation.” He remembered that word from somewhere, although whether it was Coraline complaining about running out of it or one of his many mistresses asking him to buy them some, he could not remember.

All he knew was that it was a woman’s ultimate secret — literally the foundation upon which was built the lie of their appearance.

Well, that was how Ausmann saw it, anyway. He never saw how men like him were part of the problem that made that necessary in the first place.

But he opened the bottle, squeezed it, and started with a little smear of a kind of thick and gooey beige splat on top of his head that had a very faint and oddly greasy smell. He started to spread it around, and then continued adding foundation and spreading it around until he’d covered the top of his head, then his forehead, nose, and cheeks, finally down his face to his chin, and his neck.

To him, he wasn’t trying to do anything fancy, just hide the lack of tan. But when he was done, he realized that he had a new problem.

Everything was too uniform. He looked like a mannequin. And sure, that wouldn’t be obvious running around the streets of Simi Valley.

He wondered what to do, then he remembered something he’d heard once and had been appalled by — lots of young women were making a fortune on YouTube by doing make-up tutorials.

Well, the survivalist’s motto was “Do what you have to,” so he gave a command to his phone that he never thought he would in a million years. “Make-up tutorials.”

He was soon presented with tens of thousands of options, most of which seemed to be aimed toward creating Glamazons, male and female.

Sure, that might be the best disguise of all for Ausmann, but no way in hell he’d go there in a million years. He tried refining it by adding “that don’t make me look like a mannequin,” and the first three results that popped up looked promising.

He skipped the first two, though. Number one was a woman trying to, as she put it, “Teach you plain Janes to glow up!” Number two was a gay dude with the tag line, “I finna make you bitches fierce.”

The third, though, seemed up his alley, because there didn’t seem to be any glamor involved. They (those were the only pronouns displayed, to which Ausmann thought “Okay…”) went by the name Estar. Not Ester, or Lester, but Estar.

And looking at… them, Ausmann really wasn’t sure whether it was a man or a woman, but the lesson started out with, “Okay, you cholas and jotas, you want to butch up and go Drag King, vamanos!”

He kept watching these videos for three or four hours, and learned all kinds of tricks until he finally managed to use his wife’s make-up and Estar’s advice to turn his face into something that could kind of pass as a much younger man. The big secrets were blush and blending.

But at the same time, Estar’s video’s had been full of asides and advice from actor friends, and so Ausmann got a completely different lesson beyond “Change your face with make-up.” It was “Change your entire personality with your body.”

By the time he’d finished his face and didn’t even recognize himself in the mirror, he started hunting through his and Coraline’s emergency wardrobe closets for items that would most disguise a skinny 6’5” guy, and wound up settling on a down vest to pad out his body underneath an extra-large T-shirt. Baggy pants that allowed him to walk with his knees bent to reduce his apparent height, all of it hidden by a long overcoat which helped complete the effect.

He also stooped his shoulders and practiced not making eye-contact and mumbling. He topped his head with a baseball cap into which he had glued and sewn his own hair, although nowhere near as long as it had been and leaving out the white stripe. He burned the rest of the hair in the bathtub and rinsed down the ashes. Wow, did that make a stink.

All of this had been advice that he’d gotten online, and he was seriously considering recruiting Estar and their friends to work for the government, because he had gotten an amazing course in espionage for free, and none of these kids even knew it.

If he ran into trouble, a quick duck around a corner and he could ditch the hat and hair and padding, stand up straight, walk the other way, and not be noticed by his pursuers.

Happy with his look, Ausmann checked for any last-minute texts from work, found none, and headed up. Making sure that nobody was looking, he quickly hit the sidewalk and started walking west, checking other apps of his to see whether there was any active police chatter in the area.

Oddly enough, there wasn’t. So he kept walking, doing his best to impersonate some Gen-Z douchebag, at least until he could get to a point where he could hop a ride all the way to JPL.

* * *
Image Source: Boone County Fire Protection District in Joplin (MO), used unchanged and licensed under (CC BY 2.0).

The Saturday Morning Post #33: The Rêves, Part 11

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.

Anabel and Ausmann

Ausmann had been so amazed by the possibility of having finally trapped the infamous Anabel that he did nothing with the trap for a while. No — he wanted to learn everything about her first, because he was definitely all about “Know thine enemy.”

He certainly wasn’t going to ask Joshua and Simon for information, because that would just tip his hand and make him seem weak. He gleaned what he could from their comments, but then went right to the online archives and files.

The main thing he could determine about her is that she had never really been famous and had died almost a hundred years earlier, in childbirth. However, when he searched for her son, all he found online were completely indecent search results pointing to some guy who had been born over seventy years after she died.

Now, her family had been well-known, and they were connected to several wealthy families back east, but given the theory he’d been developing on who had been remembered, how, and why, Anabel made no sense.

Everything he’d gleaned indicated that she was very important to all of these… things… but why would they settle on her?

He contemplated the trap that the boys had given him. It was unlike all of the others, which looked like nothing more than flat compacts with matte black exteriors. The only thing that they lacked was some sort of fancy branding, like an embossed silver stamp of J&S. Or S&J. He had no idea who was the boss in that relationship, but he didn’t really care.

This trap holding Anabel, though, was much more elaborate — an amethyst teardrop in a cage of gold that reminded him of the Kabalistic tree of life in three dimensions. He actually wasn’t totally sure they hadn’t been trolling him, but he decided, finally, once he’d had enough info, that it was time to unleash the beast.

He set up a triple containment field — two secured boxes, with an electromagnetic grid around that — then sent the trap up through the double airlock and used the remote manipulator arms to open it.

The usual fog shoots out of it, but this one is a vivid shade of blue, and seems to have more agency then most of them. Indeed, it isn’t long before the blue fog shimmers out into a human form, followed by pure white mists that form the head, neck, and arms, and then a black shoot that creates the cascade of hair.

In under a minute, there is the form a young woman in a long blue evening gown and matching elbow gloves. Her jet black hair streams down her back in a highlighted waterfall, one tress in front covering half of her right eye, which only emphasizes her thin face, alabaster skin, and glossy red lips. Her eyes are jade green and intense between dark black lashes, above sharp, high cheekbones, and below carefully penciled brows, set off by a pale dusty rose eyeshadow that serves as a quiet echo of her lips.

Her shoes match her lipstick, and she is just as tall as she needs to be to stand up in the inner box, although that isn’t full human height, of course. The images reminds Ausmann of the small ghost that says good-bye to guests going up the final exit ramp at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in both size and appearance.

“Who are you?” she demands.

“It’s not your place to ask, Anabel,” Ausmann replies. “I’ll be asking the questions here.”

“The hell you will,” she fires back. “Do you know who I am?”

“That was actually my first question,” Ausmann answers. “Who are you?”

“You already said my name, so it’s too late to play stupid. Who are you?”

“That’s not important. You are the one trapped in a box,” Ausmann shot back.

“Do you really think that we all don’t know who you are and what you’re doing?”

“We all, who?” Ausmann asked.

“Have you ever actually trapped a true celebrity?” she suddenly asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied. “The Black Dahlia. How’s that?”

Anabel just laughed. “No, come on. Someone you’d heard of before going full asshole on them?”

“When  have I ever gone full — ”

She shot him a look that shut him up.

“Well, I’m sorry, but I had questions.”

“So do I, “Anabel replied. “Want to let me out of this cage and talk like adults?”

There was a long pause before Ausmann finally replied, “No.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“I don’t trust you,” he replied.

“Probably wise,” she said, “But I don’t trust you either.”

“Fine!” he spat back.

“Fine,” she waved him off.

After a while, he asked her, “Do you know where you are?”

“Not specifically,” she said. “Duh. But I do know that I’m a lot farther underground than I usually am. Do all of the evil assholes happen to have hidden underground lairs?”

“I’ll ignore that,” Ausmann replied —

“Please don’t,” Anabel spat back.

“Next question,” Ausmann  continued. “What do your people want from us?”

There was a quiet moment, and then Anabel began to laugh very hard. In fact, so hard that Ausmann began to worry that she might injure herself, so he cut down the pressure in the tanks and opened the inner tank to the next one.

“Are you all right?” he finally asked her.

“Oh, peachy,” Anabel replied. “I was laughing because you’re arrogant enough to think that my people want or need a damn thing from yours? Right. Hint: We are all goddamn dead, so we don’t need to eat or sleep or… anything, ever again.

“And that could easily get so boring, except that we’ve vowed to entertain ourselves as long as you aren’t doing something more interesting. So I suppose, to answer your question, what we want is for you to leave us alone and stop kidnapping our kind.”

“What kind even are you?” Ausmann demanded.

“We refer to ourselves collectively as The Rêves,” she replied, “Although that’s not so much a description as it is more of a family name.”

“Rêves,” Ausmann repeated. “French for ‘dream.’”

“That’s part of the reason,” she said. “It also refers to ‘revenant,’ a person who’s come back from the dead.”

“That could be a ghost or a zombie,” Ausmann said, “But you don’t look like a zombie.”

“We aren’t zombies, and we’re not truly ghosts, either.”

“Then what are you?” he asked.

“Bored by this conversation,” Anabel said. “So, what are you?”

“A scientist,” Ausmann replied.

“Mad scientist?”

“Don’t be dramatic,” he sneered.

“Well, what branch of science?”

“Several that hadn’t been invented by the time you died,” he explained. “Let’s just leave it at physics. I think that branch was around in your day.”

“And what would a physicist have to do with our kind? I thought that you science people didn’t even believe in spirits or ghosts.”

“I don’t believe that you are ghosts,” he said.

“Then you tell me what we are,” Anabel snapped back.

“Don’t you know?”

“No,” she insisted. “I’m not a scientist. How would I know?”

“Well… what rules do you follow?” he asked.

“Oh… it’s impolite to scare humans, never manifest in your current, actual physical form, especially if you’re still in that awkward decomposition phase, never try to have sex with a human — ”

“No, I meant more like… actual rules. Physical things that seem to control or limit you.”

She tilted her head and stared at him for a moment, then just laughed. “Do you think that I’m that stupid?” she replied. “Your real question is, ‘How can we control you?’ Sorry. We are not interested.”

“I already seem to be controlling you,” he said, tapping the side of the outermost box. “And it doesn’t seem that difficult. Look at what a tiny trap my boys caught you with.”

She picked up the trap, which surprised Ausmann because he didn’t think they could do that. She stared at it. “Such a pretty thing to be so dangerous, don’t you think?” she asked him, but something in her tone made it ambiguous whether she meant the trap or herself.

“You’ve got a lot of voltage running around outside this box. Well, not anything that would kill a human through air contact, but pretty similar to how these little traps work. There’s a problem with that, though.”

“What?” he asked.

“I remember a teacher in school — it was biology class — answering someone’s question. ‘What if an ant was suddenly as big as an elephant?’ The short version of her answer was that its legs would immediately shatter under its own weight, and it would suffocate and dehydrate at the same time.”

“What does that have to do with us?” Ausmann asked.

“Some things don’t scale up,” she said. “And when you give a thing a power source, you give it great power. I enjoyed our conversation. Good-bye.”

She smiled at him, then abruptly shoved her arm right through the Plexiglas of the traps and then her hand made contact with the static field that was supposed keep the Rêves in.

As soon as it did, the entire inner box filled with a bright blue flash, Anabel shot up to full size and through the top, where she stood there for just a moment, seeming more substantial than she had already, and locked eyes with Ausmann.

“Leave us alone,” she said. “That’s your only warning.”

And then she blinked away, but it was so fast that Ausmann wasn’t sure which way or where she’d gone. He hit the general alarm button, then buzzed security.

“An entity has escaped containment,” he announced. “I don’t know whether it’s still on the premises, but consider it keter. Put the complex on full lockdown.”

As alarms sounded everywhere, Ausmann sank back into his desk chair and sighed.

“Fuck,” he said.

* * *

Split

Joshua and Simon got up, showered and dressed, made and had breakfast, and then moved on to the main event of the day. Joshua retrieved the trap with Preston/Danny in it from the vault while Simon prepared the holding trap they would interview him in.

They had gone back and forth over whether to just let him go free range like last time and, while he had made no attempt to escape, they weren’t so sure he’d stick around after today’s interview.

Simon also made sure that what they called The Tank was set up with a perfect view of their living room widescreen, and he had already cued up the programming that would appear on it.

They set the trap into the slider that would take it into the holding tank, which unscrewed the lid as it moved to the center. A mechanism slid into place to lift the lid once it was there, and the inky black smoke they were so used to drifted up to fill the tank, swirling around for a while before it resolved into Preston in his favored garb.. He looked around until he saw the two of them, then smiled and pressed himself up against the glass. “What?” he asked. “Don’t you trust me now?”

“Today’s questions might be… difficult,” Joshua replied. “We want you to be safe.”

“Around two hot daddies like you?” he said. “I’d always feel safe.

“Stop,” Simon replied. “We’re not ‘daddies.’”

Young daddies?”

“Didn’t your sex drive go away when you died?” Joshua asked.

“No,” Preston replied.

“You mean you can still — ” Simon started to ask.

“Wanna watch?” Preston said, licking his lips.

“No, and no, don’t answer that question,” Simon said, looking away.

“We were wondering how much you remember, so tell us about this scene,” Joshua said, nodding to Simon, who tapped the coffee table, which had touch screen controls built into its top. On the TV, video played.

It was Preston with two other guys in what was probably a fancy apartment, probably east coast judging by the city view out its windows, which were clearly from high up and full of skyscrapers.

The three of them were mostly clothed at this point, but were making out heavily.

“Oh, yeah,” Preston said. “Last full scene I remember doing. That was… Blake Alan on the left and… Gabriel Stokes on the right.”

“Do you remember where you shot it?” Joshua asked.

“Yeah, it was this sweet apartment in Manhattan that our producer rented for the month, right near the south end of Central Park with a great view of mid-town,” Preston explained fondly. “God, this was so hot to shoot.”

“Do you remember when you shot?” Simon asked.

“Right at the end of the video, baby,” Preston replied. “Twice.”

“Oh, goddammit,” Simon muttered. “Really?”

“What was the date?” Joshua asked, giving Simon a loving look in hopes of calming his embarrassment.

“Oh… this was like the beginning of April, probably, so I think it was the last thing I shot with other people. Winston did let me stay in the place until the end of the month, then made it the end of May. I was all alone, but doing Only Fans stuff all the damn time. Otherwise, everything kind of stopped after that for a while. No more scenes, and not even bringing a crew in for a solo.”

“Do you remember the end of May?”

“Yeah. I mean, I definitely remember the middle of May, when Winston gave me this insane offer to go appear in Florida.”

“The Memorial Day circuit party in Miami?” Joshua said.

“Yeah. God, that was amazing. And not just that I banked five hundred K for the appearance, but I made a goddamn mint on top of that in tips for stripping, signing autographs, selling underwear, doing escort work. The whole… what’s the word? Nine inches?”

“Yards,” Simon corrected him.

Preston laughed. “Did you know that ‘yard’ is British slang for cock?”

“Really?” Simon replied, but the tone was one of disdain, not interest.

“Yeah, Winston told me that. It came from naval slang. Yardarm on a mast holds up a sail, and it sticks out like a hard-on.”

Preston laughed again as Simon gave Joshua a jaundiced look.

“Okay, so you did the party, the whole weekend, I’m assuming, then what?” Joshua asked.

“Let’s see…” Preston thought. “I went back to L.A. Jason — my kind-of boyfriend — suggested I just stay at home and focus on doing my own shit for Only Fans.”

“Not that any of us were really selling by that point,” he continued. “At around the beginning of May, there was this sudden explosion of new OF accounts, so there was too much in the market. Plus customers were out of work, so nobody wanted to pay anything for it. Not that I needed money by that point.”

“And then?” Joshua asked.

“June… middle of June…?” Preston trailed off and stared, seeming lost in thought. “I remember suddenly feeling really bad, and Jason and Winston and I did this video conference thing with some woman in a black robe… oh. Yeah, I think we got married. Jason and I, not Winston. And…” he trailed off.

“And?” Joshua and Simon both asked quietly.

“I remember being in Jason’s car, in the back, and then… sitting all alone in the cemetery before Anabel walked up to me.”

“She was the first one to come to you… after?” Simon asked.

“Well, she was my mother, right?”

Before Simon could speak, Joshua gave him a warning look. “Do you remember when and where you were born and grew up, Preston?” he asked.

“Hollywood. The first thing I remember is the first day I worked for Winston.”

“Really?” Joshua continued. “Nothing before that?”

“No,” Preston said.

“Do you remember that first shoot?”

“Just me and my fist,” Preston said. “That’s pretty normal for this business, right?”

Joshua nodded to Simon, who seemed apprehensive, but he tapped the coffee table anyway. Another video ran. In this one, a clearly younger Preston sat on a mohair couch that looked like it had been stolen from a university dorm break room, completely dressed, with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

A voice from off camera asked questions, starting with innocuous things like, “So, you said you just got here and you need money?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I can probably arrange that.”

“Cool.”

Before it got to anything too personal, Joshua gestured for Simon to hit pause.

“This was your first shoot,” Joshua said.

“Really?” Preston said. “Wow. Yeah, I kind of remember that one, but it was so long ago.”

“Not that long,” Joshua explained. “But I want you to pay very careful attention to the questions and answers, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And you’re absolutely sure that’s you in the video?” Simon asked.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Preston said. “I still have that… still had that hat.”

Joshua nodded and Simon restarted the video.

“So, pay close attention to the questions and answers, then,” he said.

The off-screen voice, who must have been Winston, continued.

“So, you just got here and you have no money, is that it?” Winston asked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty broke. I was sleeping in the bus station.”

“What would you do for fifty bucks, then?” Winston continued, and a hand holding a fifty dollar bill came into screen.”

“Um, I don’t know,” onscreen Preston/Danny replied. “What did you have in mind?”

“What’s your name?” Winston asked.

“Danny,” Preston/Danny answered.

“Danny what?” Winston asked.

“Just… Danny.”

Joshua gestured and Simon hit pause.

“Danny what?” Joshua asked.

“Just… Danny? Danny who?” Preston replied.

“That’s you in the video, right?” Joshua said.

“Well, yeah, duh.”

“So you’re really Danny… who?”

“Dude, don’t you know that porn is all fake names and shit?” Preston replied. “I probably didn’t want people to know who I was.”

“So… you went on to have a porn career under your real name? That seems backwards,” Joshua said. “Where was Preston born?”

“Hollywood,” Preston insisted.

“And… Danny?”

“In some dude’s fucking imagination, I don’t know,” Preston shot back.

“That’s good,” Joshua told him. “That’s it. Hold that thought. Preston, who is the real you, did tons of porn so that he wouldn’t be identified under his real name. Meanwhile… where was Danny born?”

“Shit, I don’t know. The second some fat old fuck with money decided to pay me to jerk off?”

“Or was that when Danny died?” Joshua went on, giving Simon the signal. The video continued.

“Danny. Nice name,” Winston said. “So, where were you born?”

“Idaho,” Danny/Preston replied in the video.

“Ah. Potato planet,” Winston laughed. “Boise?”

“Nah,” Danny replied. “Pocatello.”

“Oh my god,” Winston laughed. “Did they name everything in that state one off from some kind of porn reference?”

“What do you mean?” Danny asked.

“Well, first of off, ‘Boys-me.’ Second, you’re from ‘Poke-a-Fellow?’”

“Yeah, but I grew up in Emmett. Fuck, that kind of sounds like ‘in it,’ doesn’t it? I never thought… oh, holy shit, you’re right!” Danny started laughing, then reached out and grabbed the fifty. “What do you want for that?” he asked.

“Take your clothes off,” Winston said.

“All of them?” Danny asked.

“All of them,” Winston replied.

Simon paused the video again.

“Hm. Innocent little Danny from Pocatello Idaho, on the casting couch. You’re sure you don’t know who he is?” Joshua asked.

“It was all just made up shit, for the business. You know, stage names,” Preston insisted.

“All right,” Simon chimed in. “This still doesn’t make sense. You came to L.A., did one little jerk off vid under a fake name, then started doing legit porn under your real name?”

“That’s right,” Preston replied. “All that Danny shit was just to get in the door.”

Joshua and Simon looked at each other, not sure what to do, but then Joshua signaled to Simon… let it roll.

He restarted the video, and it went through the rest of the set-up and story. The first fifty had gotten Danny naked, the next hundred got him hard, and the last hundred came after he did, and all the while Winston was asking him about his life back home, and he just kept giving details.

When it was over, Simon shut off the TV and Joshua decided that it was time to play bad cop. Not that he hadn’t kind of been already, but this felt like it needed extra attention.

“Okay,” he said. “So Danny was just this dude you made up for the first film, right?”

“Right,” Preston replied. “I didn’t even remember that until you reminded me.”

“Telling,” Joshua whispered to Simon. “Okay, so then you must have lied when you finally signed up to take the job.”

“What do you mean?” Preston demanded. Joshua snapped his fingers, and Simon put all of Danny’s proof of age docs up, which were all under his real name — and this seemed to have a slight effect when he read aloud…

“Winthorpe… Win… when…? Fuck…”

In the box, he collapsed out of his visible form back into the black mist. Simon and Joshua exchanged a concerned look, but then Joshua whispered to him, “Sorry. Ace in the hole, dear.”

“That seems really, really cruel,” Simon replied.

“Yeah, so do most of the things they do in rehab,” Joshua said. “Cue it up, and I’ll signal when I’m ready.”

Joshua went right to the box and pressed his ear against it as he spoke. “Hey, Preston. Hey, you okay? We were just trying to clear up all this thing, because rumors were starting to spread that you were not Anabel’s son, and we were hoping to, you know… stop that shit?”

There was a long moment, but then the black smoke sank and coalesced again, with Preston huddled in the bottom right corner of the box that Joshua had been speaking to.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“So am I,” Joshua replied, then he signaled to Simon, who fired up the screen again, this time with a copy of Jason and Preston’s wedding certificate — except that the name on it for Preston wasn’t Preston. It was Daniel Winthorpe.”

Preston turned, stared at the document, then began to shudder while letting out inchoate moans of some kind of existential angst and fear. He started to de-coalesce into a cloud of gray gas while keeping his naked porn star form. On the other side of The Tank, that gas reformed into a clearly younger, totally clothed, and more innocent looking form of Preston who was clearly Danny.

Each of them now knelt at opposite sides of the box before turning to stare at each other in disbelief. After a moment, both of them turned to stare at Joshua and Simon on the outside, then glare and point at them.

“Goddamn you,” they both said in unison, rising as best they could to point. “What the fuck have you done to us?”

“What’s your name?” Joshua demanded, defiant.

In unison, they each answered with the name they thought they had. “Danny Winthorpe.” “Preston LeCard.”

And no sooner were the answers out of their mouths that they turned to stare at each other in fear and anger.

Joshua turned to Simon and they nodded at each other, reaching for the emergency trap activation switch, but it was too late. Danny flew out of one side of The Tank and Preston flew out of the other, shattering the glass before they both roiled into trails of smoke and blasted out of the open patio doors and off into the night sky above NoHo.

“And… that went well,” Simon muttered to himself.

“Just shut up and fuck me if you know what’s good for you,” Joshua replied.

“Angry fuck?” Simon said.

“Yeah, I guess I kind of deserve that. Shut the doors and batten down the hatches. It’s going to be a humpy night.”

“Honey?” Simon told him as he slid shut the patio doors.

“What?” Joshua asked.

“We just managed to pull off a gigantic fuck-up. So all you’re getting tonight is, maybe, a little bro cuddle, And then we have to figure out what and how we’re going to explain this shit to Ausmann.”

“Are you saying that like it’s my fault?” Joshua demanded

“No,” Simon replied. “And that’s my point. We just both had a massive joint-fuck-up.”

Joshua stared at Simon for a long moment, then sank into the sofa in disbelief.

“We… lost one, didn’t we?” he finally said.

“No. We made two, then lost them both,” Simon replied.

“How the fuck did we make two?” Joshua asked.

“I have no idea,” Simon replied, “But that might be important later.”

Joshua sighed at the ceiling, tried to come up with an answer, but had nothing so, finally, he just pushed Simon onto the couch, climbed on fully clothed with his back to him and said, “First, I’m sorry. Second, just be the big spoon and bro-cuddle the fuck out of me tonight, because I think we’re going to need it for tomorrow.”

“Ditto,” Simon whispered into his ear before they drifted off together.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #32: The Rêves, Part 10

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.

Lunch Meeting

Brenda got the text from Rita at ten a.m. the next morning. “Lunch, Grand Central Market, Wexler’s, 13:00?”

She replied with a thumbs-up icon, then wondered what could be possibly going on with that. Rita hated face-to-face things, and wasn’t really into doing lunch. Still, Brenda wasn’t going to question. How could she?

She left her office at about a quarter to one and walked the mile down to GCM, entering from the Broadway side opposite the Bradbury building and stopping at the Wexler’s counter with Rita nowhere in sight. She ordered a Reuben. Five minutes later, Rita entered from the Hill Street side, ordering a Philly Cheesesteak.

Both of their sandwiches arrived wrapped at about the same time, so they decided to go outside and find a table on Broadway, where they sat and unwrapped in silence, until, finally…

“So… what’s on your mind?” Brenda asked.

“Everything, really,” Rita replied.

“Really?” Brenda wondered.

“Oh, yes,” Rita said. “Are you kidding? You’ve managed to raise so many questions and bring up so many issues, with proof, that… my god, Brenda… you don’t know the chatter downtown, but you just may have funded an entire department and, if you play your cards right, you’re going to wind up heading it.”

“And what would you say if I told you that two gay white guys actually did it?”

Rita stared at her for a moment, then laughed and replied, “I’d say that you wanted to get demoted to dog catcher. Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in the footage. Why do they dress like that?”

“A fashion statement?” Brenda said. “Actually, they told me it’s because they figured that the best way to not stand out in the Metro is too look like they’re trying to. Everyone just assumes they’re some kind of street performers heading to Hollywood and Highland and ignores them.”

“So it’s not as stupid as it looks?”

“Personally, I think it looks kind of sexy on them,” Brenda replied.

“At least we know exactly where they live,” Rita said.

“We got the building address, anyway,” Brenda said.

“Don’t be modest. You got their exact unit number as well.”

“I what?”

“But… those two are very clever,” Rita continued. “They figured out almost immediately that we were watching, and gave our crew the slip.”

“Why were you following them?”

“To figure out their methods. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to slip GPS on their car, so the last we saw them, they were headed generally toward Burbank. Or Glendale. Or who knows where else out the 134.”

“I wonder if it was Forest Lawn,” Brenda mused.

“Which one?” Rita asked. “They’re all over the damn city.”

“But why do you need to follow them to figure out their methods? You can pretty much see them on all the videos.”

“Well, methods and motives. I mean, you must have wondered,” Rita whispered. “What do they do with these things once they catch them?”

“I assume that they’re working for someone,” Brenda said.

“They didn’t tell you?”

“No. I mean, only vaguely. They hinted that they couldn’t say anything because it’s some government organization they work for.”

“Oh, goddammit!” Rita grunted. “How are we going to steal them to work for us if they already work for some government agency? And are they rivals within the county, just city level, or something else?”

“They only alluded to the idea that it’s an agency they’d normally hate working for, so given that they a couple of gay millennials, I’d say that it has to be federal.”

“Hm…” Rita mused. She took out her phone, tapped and swiped, then handed it to Brenda. On it was a photo of a Tesla that had been painted purple with an orange racing stripe running along its length. It had California vanity plates that read ECTO-42.”

“Damn,” Brenda said. “Double nerd reference. And who the hell paints a Tesla?”

“Someone who owns it,” Rita said. “But what government agency could they possibly work for that they own a Tesla?”

“Especially that one,” Brenda replied. “Tesla X, Performance version. That’s the most expensive one.”

“Why would you know that?” Rita asked her.

“I had to talk Jonah down from a little mid-life crisis a couple of years ago. Got him to settle for a Prius instead.”

“That’s not all,” Rita went on. “They own their condo, too. Free and clear.”

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

“Although, of course, while we could get the info about that, we couldn’t get their names.”

“Joshua and Simon,” Brenda said.

“Yes, but Joshua and Simon what?” Rita asked.

“Yeah, good point.”

“Shit,” Rita sighed. “I mean, even if you want to hire them as contractors, I guess…”

“Yeah, but wait. You know how long it takes government to do anything, especially the county, because the supes have to figure out how they can grease their palms off of it first and I did not just say that out loud to you, thank you — ”

Rita gave a loud, hard laugh at that, put her right hand on her heart, raised her left and said, “Amen, sister.”

“But why the hell would I want to actually run an agency or department or whatever when all that does is shove me in the spotlight?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Bump to the highest pay grade, county executive? Brenda, you could by your husband and all three of your kids their own Teslas.”

“Not really,” Brenda replied. “What are they even thinking of calling this department, anyway?”

“Well, we can’t exactly call it the Los Angeles County Department of Investigating Supernatural Shit Going Down in our Metro System, can we,” Rita said. “So we were thinking something like The Riordan Legacy Project, since this was kind of his doing in the first place.”

“You do know that that mofo is still alive, right?”

“And didn’t you tell me that you voted for him twice?”

“Only once,” Brenda insisted. “I was two young the first time. Second time was because Tom Hayden seemed a little too scary radical for me.”

“Weren’t your parents like crazy old-school hippie activists, though?” Rita asked.

“My mother still is,” Brenda replied.

“And your… Oh, shit. I’m so sorry. I forgot.”

“It’s okay,” Brenda said. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay — what happened. But I don’t expect everyone to constantly, you know. Life goes on.”

“Okay, but seriously, we create a special department to investigate these things, with an eye on maybe — just maybe — eventually revealing the truth to the public — ”

“As if!” Brenda scoffed.

“What would you call it? What title would you like, which county building would you like your offices in, and how much should we pay those cute little gay ghost hunters of yours?”

“Did you just use the G-word?”

“Gay?”

“No. Ghost,” Brenda said. “I’m not even sure that’s what we’re dealing with here.”

“Then what do you think they are?” Rita asked.

Brenda shrugged. “I don’t know. Something… different? Weird? Maybe not even a spiritual or supernatural phenomenon at all?”

“So you do want to know!” Rita smiled, pointing at Brenda, who looked up, then down, then back at her.

“Okay. Busted,” she replied. “But no way in hell I want to run the whole show. Nuh-uh, not in a million years. I’d rather be behind the scenes, with my two cute little gay guys. Why don’t you run it?”

“Really?” Rita asked.

“Yes, really. You,” Brenda said.

“Oh my god, thank you,” Rita replied. “See, I told them that you’d never want the top spot, but they didn’t believe me. But I never in a million years would ever try to talk you out of it. Which I didn’t, right?”

“Of course you didn’t. Girl, you practically shoved me into.”

“Exactly.”

“So, wait… who did you tell, and why do you sound like this thing is already going to happen?”

“Fair questions,” Rita said. “Obviously, I told the Board of Supervisors when they brought me in to describe the project and suggest you for the top role.”

“The fucking supes. Of course,” Brenda sighed. “And…?”

“The Los Angeles County Bureau of Anomalous Events. Seems bland enough, right?”

“Did some asshole downtown actually try to make that acronym be BAE, or was it an accident?”

“Is it…” Rita paused, thought it out, then laughed. “Holy shit,” she said. “That must have been one horny fucker in Norwalk who pulled that one out of his or her ass.”

“Yeah, that County Seal is going to look ridiculous.”

“So… are you onboard?” Rita asked her.

“As what?” Brenda replied.

“Well, I don’t think they’d go for a title like Assistant to the Beautiful Latinx Goddess in Charge, so how about… BAE Deputy Director?”

“I don’t know,” Brenda replied. “I was thinking more along the lines of Chief County Fag Hag?”

“Really?”

“No, you silly bitch. But, how about we dump the BAE and deputy anything, and make it… oh, I know. Executive Director of Anomalous Investigations?”

“Ooh. Now you’re thinking like a bureaucrat, girl. Yeah, I think that’s doable. What am I saying? They gave me carte blanche. Of course it is. Although your acronym is about sad robots.”

“What?” Brenda asked in surprise.

“It’s ED, AI,” Rita replied.

“Oh shut up,” Brenda snapped back at her, and then they laughed and high-fived.

Yeah, Brenda thought, this might actually turn out to be interesting.

* * *

Gumbo

Joshua and Simon got home from visiting Drew and Brent late in the evening because Brent was a southern gentleman with Cajun roots, and if there was one thing he always did for his guests, it was to feed them, so the boys were not allowed to leave right away, especially after announcing their engagement — clutch the pearls!

Brent ran off to the kitchen, and set to cooking the famous Cajun “Holy Trinity” (onions, bell pepper, and celery) as the basis for what was going to become chicken gumbo.

He also phoned a few friends to come on over, and they started arriving within half an hour. Joshua and Simon knew some of them, but not all of them, although Joshua had stayed naked and in the pool while Simon had gotten completely dressed at the first hint of company.

It wasn’t even anywhere near dark, and wouldn’t be for a while, Joshua thought. Why waste good daylight?

“You know, I’d love to stay for dinner,” Simon told him, “But we picked up some really important information here, and I’d love to act on it as soon as possible.”

“So do I, dear,” Joshua replied. “But think about it. First, we’re going to have to come up with a strategy and a game-plan, and that’s going to take more than five minutes. And then, what? We’re going to try to pull it off after dark, which we both know is when these things seem to be the most alert and active?”

“But we have a chance to test our biggest theory!” Simon insisted.

“I know,” Joshua said. “But that is exactly why we need to take our time doing it. Tomorrow will be fine. Tonight… just relax and enjoy dinner, okay?”

“I’m sorry, honey. Really. You know how anxious I get about this shit. But, you’re right. We have time. Preston isn’t going anywhere.”

“Love you,” Joshua replied, and Simon just smiled back at him and nodded.

That was when Brent came outside and saw them and announced loudly, “There you two are!” It always struck Joshua as really funny that, while Brent never drank, something about his natural accent always made him sound drunk, and particularly right now.

The other guests came outside to crowd around.

“The nude one is Joshua, the really hot but shy one is Simon,” he announced. “They are very dear friends of ours, have been a couple forever, but finally decided to make it official, so this is their ad hoc and impromptu engagement party!”

Everyone cheered and applauded and Simon looked into Joshua’s eyes.

“Well, fuck,” he muttered.

“Roll with it, dear. Dinner will be worth it.”

By the time dinner was served, the sun was setting, and Joshua had finally deigned to get dressed again. He and Simon sat together at the head of the long table, and they both were amazed at how much food Brent had managed to make happen mostly by himself in such a short time.

Oh, he had the help of some guys he’d recruited to chop this and stir that, but otherwise, he was a one-man maniac in the kitchen.

The end results were amazing.

During the meal, Joshua and Simon were the center of attention, with Brent helping to drive the conversation, and the guests had so many questions, but they both decided that they had to be vague.

“What do you two do for a living?”

“Um… we code,” was about all they said. This had the advantage of making the much older guests, who were the majority, completely lose interest in that line of thought. Meanwhile, the younger ones had too many more questions.

“What do you code?” they asked. “Apps? Games?”

“Nothing you’ve ever heard of, really,” Joshua explained.

“It’s niche apps for very specialized industries, like oil drilling or logging,” Simon said.

“Ooh, good ones,” Joshua thought, just staring at his fiancé in awe. If there were two choices that would throw people off of the trail, those were them. Plus they were of less than no interest to the twenty-somethings who had asked what they coded.

They managed to steer the conversation onto musical theatre, and that finally took them out of the center of attention.

It was a bit after nine p.m. that they both finally managed to extricate themselves, politely rejecting the huge Tupperware bucket of gumbo that Brent wanted to send them off with, then they headed back down home, Simon driving this time while Joshua rode shotgun on a couple of their never released to the public apps.

One of them constantly tracked the Bluetooth and WiFi of every phone and vehicle around them to see if they were being followed. The other compared a database of government vehicles to their know tracking tokens, in case any of them got too close.

But they made it back down Laurel Canyon, right on Magnolia, left on Tujunga, and into their garage and down to their spot without being followed, all before ten p.m.

Once they’d gotten back upstairs, Simon was eager to grab the trap and let Preston out, but Joshua stopped him.

“I told you already, honey,” he said. “This one is way too delicate to rush.”

“What is the worst that could happen?” Simon asked. Joshua sighed.

“Sit,” he said. Simon sat on the sofa in the living room, and Joshua tried to explain his thoughts.

“Okay, so… ask yourself this. Dude is born as Danny Winthorpe. That’s who he grows up as. That’s who he is, his entire life, but then…?”

“Well, I mean… apparently, he died and was buried as Preston LeCard, right?”

“Exactly!” Joshua said. “But was he ever really Preston?”

“He thought so,” Simon countered.

“So did we,” Joshua said. “Okay, here’s another one. Who remembers Marion Morrison?”

“Um… who?” Simon asked.

“John Wayne?”

“Oh, right,” Simon brightened. “Yeah, I remember him, even though he was a gigantic, conservative racist dickhead.”

“But you only remember him under the one name, see?” Joshua said.

“Right,” Simon replied. “And?”

“Preston only remembers himself under that name because that’s the only name everyone knew him under. I mean, until we made the connection.”

“Okay,” Simon said. “So what’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is that these things apparently thrive on the memories of the living. So… what happens if one of them is suddenly confronted with two very different and conflicting memories? Is he Preston? Or is he Danny? Which one survives the battle?”

“Oh…” Simon  replied, finally getting it before adding, “Shit. So… Tomorrow morning, strategy session, heavy planning, that kind of shit.”

“That kind of shit,” Joshua said.

“Done,” Simon replied, and they hugged for what seemed like an hour, then put thoughts of unleashing Preston out of their minds and went to bed.

* * *

Image: Grand Central Market Downtown L.A., author unknown. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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

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

All-American Slam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, share?” Joshua replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here,” Joshua replied.

“Well, the Valley,” Simon said.

“West… Valley…” Joshua added reluctantly.

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

“Eew!” Joshua and Simon chimed in together.

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

“Sounds… interesting,” Joshua said.

“Very,” Simon added.

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

“So tell,” Simon said.

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

“Agreed,” Joshua replied, Simon nodding.

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

* * *

Anabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is your fault,” he suddenly shouted.

“Sorry, what?” Aldous replied.

“You and your modern science death cult ways — ”

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

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

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Saving your child,” she spat at him.

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

“Enough!” grandfather shouted.

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

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

“No, but try me.”

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

“And then?” Aldous asked.

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

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

“So be it,” she replied. “Deal?”

“Deal,” he spat back at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Preston on watch

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

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

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

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

Hot daddies.

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

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

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

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

“What? None of them can see — ”

“Or at least slap down the Angel Lust?”

“The… what?”

“Goddamn, you are way too new.”

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

“Shut up — ”

“Catherine.”

“You shut up now!”

“Chanler — ”

“You shut your fucking whore mouth!”

“LeCard.”

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

“Who told you that?” she demanded.

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

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

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

“You heard me.”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Shadows and sparks

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

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

“Well, this is new,” Simon said.

“And very disconcerting,” Joshua added.

“Excuse me — ”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not us,” Joshua said.

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

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

“We can’t,” Simon told her.

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

“Very classified,” Simon explained.

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

“Are you a cop?” Simon asked.

“No,” she said.

“Oh, good. Bye!”

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

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

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

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

“What?” Simon demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Joshua replied.

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

* * *

Classes in crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well fuck me sideways,” Holden muttered.

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

* * *

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

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

Delivery

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

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

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

“Anything else, boys?” he asked.

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

“Really?” Ausmann insisted.

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

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

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

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

“So…?” Simon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me neither,” Simon added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Chanlers

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Richard,” the kid said.

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

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

“What about her?” Preston asks.

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

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

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

“For me? Why?”

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

Chanler

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

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

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

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

“Well… it’s big.”

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

“Rich as hell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin David Chanler Gomez Jr.

Beloved Son, Brother, Husband, and Father

April 14, 1978 — September 23, 2013.

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

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

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

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

In loving memory of Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.

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

August 1, 1893 — February 3, 1926.

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

He ran back out of the mausoleum and to Richard.

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

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

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

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

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Figure out who she married and why.”

“Yeah, well… shit, what time is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Arming up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not? It was only fair. Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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