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.
In the afternoon, the fog hadn’t burned off and it was still raining, although the hail and thunderstorms had stopped. Joshua’s cell rang, which was really unusual — no one called anyone anymore — but he looked at the display and saw that it was Brent, so he answered.
“Uncle Brent,” he said, “How are you and Drew doing? Survive the storm okay?”
“We did,” Brent replied, “We’re fine, although we lost a lemon tree. And you boys?”
“Holding up on the top floor,” Joshua said. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”
“Oh, too bad,” Brent said. “We’re downstairs, wondered if you wanted a ride.”
“You’re what? How?” Joshua asked.
“You’ll have to come down to see,” Brent teased.
“So, the flood waters are gone?”
“Oh, no, they’re not. But the fog only comes down to about fifteen feet. So do up your faces, dress warm, put on your hip-waders and get your asses down here.”
“Okay,” Joshua replied. “See you in a few minutes.” He hung up and turned to Simon, who looked completely confused.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Joshua said.
The funniest part was that they actually did own hip-waders, although they had to look around to find them. At one point, Simon had gone through a big fishing phase and Joshua had gone along with it. It wasn’t that he liked fishing. He didn’t. He despised it. But if Simon was there, he didn’t care.
So they dressed warmly, put on the hip-waders, took the stairs down to the lobby and found that it was still flooded up to almost their armpits. Outside, they found Brent and Drew, sitting in the front seat of a goddamn hovercraft.
Oh, it wasn’t one of those full-on military versions, or the kind that ferried passengers commercially. It was about the size of a wide minivan, with an open cockpit and seating for four. Brent was in the driver’s seat, Drew next to him in his usual sun hat.
“Climb aboard,” Brent announced.
“Well fuck me,” Joshua muttered.
“Sssh!” Simon hissed at him.
Joshua went up the ladder first, then helped pull Simon up, and they took their seats in the back.
“Why do you even have this?” Simon asked.
“Oh, past life,” Brent explained. “Doing biological and environmental impact surveys in the wetlands around here. Also fun for vacations. And this is one of the few electric models.”
“You know how bad the mileage is on the gas ones?” Drew chimed in. “You’re lucky to get eighty miles on a full tank, and that’s a regular car-sized tank.”
“Do you have anywhere in particular you need to go?” Brent continued.
Joshua and Simon looked at each other, not sure.
“Ausmann?” Simon said quietly.
“We should probably avoid him,” Joshua said. “What about Danny and Preston?”
“How are we going to find them?” Simon wondered.
“I’d start with where he’s buried,” Joshua whispered.
“Okay,” Simon agreed.
“This is going to sound weird,” Joshua said, “But can you get us to Forest Lawn Glendale?”
“We can sure give it a try,” Brent replied, and he fired the thing up and started it moving.
Since they were basically sitting on top of an inverted air hockey table with a fan in the back, the thing was a little loud, and the sudden ballooning of the skirt as the craft noticeably lifted was an unexpected noise, a sudden “fwoomp.”
The acceleration was also kind of slow, so they weren’t going all that fast as Brent took them east on South Chandler toward Lankershim. That didn’t really matter, though, because there was no traffic at all. The streets were empty and silent, the sky above about three stories up was solid white, and everything between there and the filthy water in the streets was full of falling mist.
Surprisingly, the traffic lights were still working, although all of the buildings they passed were dark, many of them with busted-out windows.
“Didn’t the news say they shut all the roads?” Simon asked.
“They did,” Brent explained. “Fortunately, I have an exemption.”
He pointed to an official state permit that was laminated in a frame on the dash: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I’m still deputized, even if I’m retired,” Brent explained. “So we have permission to be wherever we need to be.”
“Sweet,” Joshua grinned. Of course, he still hadn’t decided whether their single-craft armada was the coolest or most ridiculous thing ever. On the one hand, Drew was huddled in the front wrapped in what looked like a Snuggie, huge floppy sunhat hiding most of his head and face, and Brent was actually wearing a boat captain’s cap with all-white shirt and pants and a pea coat.
Joshua and Simon couldn’t have looked much better, what with their black rubber hip waders covering their lower halves, only to reveal flannel shirts under cable knit sweaters, both of them also wearing elaborately patterned toques.
Then again, there was no one to see them, so Joshua supposed they looked as cool as they wanted to.
Brent turned left on Magnolia, which seemed to be flooded a bit deeper, and then gunned it, and suddenly they were actually moving at decent car speed down the street. It was absolutely the most surreal moment that Joshua and Simon had ever experienced. The worst flooding they had ever seen before in the Valley was when the water backed up to barely cover the sidewalks, with flumes shooting out of overloaded storm drains.
This was something else entirely, and they could only imagine what it was like in the center of the Valley, which was its low point, with a huge public park designed to do double duty as a flood control basin.
But Brent continued eastward down Magnolia, and Joshua and Simon lamented all of the storefronts and businesses that were inundated. This stretch happened to hold a lot of places that had supplied them with their costume bits over the years, as well as a couple that had provided their tech. A lot of them had even managed to survive the plague years, but neither of them knew how they would survive this.
Their favorite costume shop of them all, where they had gotten a lot of custom work done, was inundated right up to the bottom of the marquee sign above its single story.
“Fuck,” Simon muttered as they passed it. Joshua just grabbed his hand and held it tight.
Eventually, they neared the bridge on Magnolia that leapt over the freeway and train tracks — although it was just a raging river down there now — but Brent turned right before they crossed it and headed south on Victory.
This took them past Griffith Park, which was a strangely unaffected island rising above the chaos below, and finally to a point where they crossed over the freeway on a sudden dry stretch and came back down outside of the cemetery gates.
This was the first moment when all of them just kind of did a collective “What?”
The water in the streets here was still about three feet deep, and Forest Lawn didn’t really have any kind of substantial walls around it, just some low brick work and very open wrought iron. And yet… not a drop of the floodwater on the outside spilled over onto the property.
“Oh fuck me sideways,” Simon blurted out. “How the hell is this even possible?”
“Honey, how is anything we’ve seen recently possible?” Joshua replied.
“Bitchin’ Hollywood special effects?” Brent offered.
“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Drew explained. “Shall we go in?”
Brent didn’t even wait for an answer. He powered ahead into the cemetery.
“So which dead body are you all looking for?” he asked.
“Who do you think?” Joshua asked.
“I know,” Drew said, and he led Brent right to the red marble cenotaph for the LeCard family, where they parked.
Preston’s marker was there, even though the body under was not him — or at least not the Preston they knew, although they also had no idea whether it was Danny. In either case, neither of them were there.
But someone else was, and she was walking toward them.
“Oh shit,” Simon muttered under his breath, turning to Brent. “You might want to move back a way,” he advised.
“Don’t ask twice,” Brent replied, turning the hovercraft around and moving far down the road.
Meanwhile, Joshua stepped forward boldly, hands raised at the elbows, palms out.
“We come in peace,” he said.
“I think your boss might be dead,” Anabel said.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Joshua replied, and she actually raised an eyebrow.
“Anyway, if he’s dead, wouldn’t he be playing for your team now?” Simon asked.
“Phrasing…” Joshua whispered.
“He only plays for his own team,” she replied. “I… urged him last night to stop doing what he’s doing, but he refused.”
“Isn’t he doing what we’re doing?” Simon asked.
“What do you think he is doing?” Anabel asked.
“Well, I mean, like us, it’s basically catch and release, right? For research?”
“You really think that?”
“It’s what we’ve been led to believe,” Joshua explained.
“He told you that he lets us go when he’s done?” she asked.
“Well, funny thing about Ausmann,” Simon said. “He never really says anything in any straight forward way, but we asked him flat out. ‘Do you make sure that they’re let go unharmed when you’re done with them?’ And he said ‘Yes.’”
Simon hesitated a beat, then sighed. “Aw, fuck.”
“He’s never done with them, is he?” Joshua asked.
“Nope,” Anabel replied.
“So, wait,” Joshua said. “You asked him to stop and he refused, so you killed him — ”
“Not me, but he might be dead — ”
“Right. But if he is dead, doesn’t that pretty much stop him?”
She huffed, put her hands on her hips and gave him a jaundiced look.
“Oh, yeah. I guess not. So… what are you suggesting?”
“I get the impression that you only work for him because you had the necessary skills, but no idea what he was really doing. Correct?”
“Absolutely,” Simon replied.
“So how did you get those skills?” she asked.
Simon and Joshua looked at each other, and then shrugged. “Just a couple of coding nerds who got way too curious after they saw something weird in a subway station,” Simon finally offered.
“When was that?” she asked.
“Early in 2017?” Joshua said, hesitantly. “Something like that.”
“And you saw…?”
“Harold Lloyd,” Simon said. “It was really late at night, and he just wandered down the platform, but there were two things wrong.”
“First, we could kind of see through him,” Joshua said.
“Second,” Simon added, “He had all of his fingers.”
“The real Lloyd didn’t,” Joshua explained.
“We were never the kinds to believe in ghosts or any of that shit,” Simon continued.
“But there we were, looking at a ghost,” Joshua said. “But… if he was a ghost, then why did he have all of his fingers?”
“Which Lloyd, in real life, didn’t.”
“So you decided to start hunting us?” Anabel asked.
“I don’t like the word ‘hunting,’” Simon replied.
“Studying,” Joshua offered. “And since we were both basically retired — well, had been a couple of years — we figured, what the hell, why not use our skills to figure out what was going on?”
“Retired?” Anabel asked, incredulous. “From what?”
Simon and Joshua looked around, both of them making sure that Brent and Drew were far out of earshot.
“Okay. Coding and apps, basically,” Simon said.
“Spies?” Anabel asked.
“No, not spies,” Joshua said. “Making apps for people.”
“Oh, applications?” she replied.
“Yeah,” Simon said. “Those.”
“For… what? Insurance? Mortgages? Jobs…?”
“Oh…” Joshua and Simon said in unison, looking at each other, Simon finally continuing, “When did you… um… you know…”
He gestured vaguely.
“Die?” she asked. “It’s okay, you can use that word. It was in 1926. I am caught up on a lot of things, thank you, but not everything.”
“Ah…” Joshua and Simon said in unison again.
“A hundred years of linguistic evolution — my god, this is a primer for time travel, isn’t it?” Joshua asked Simon, laughing.
“We basically became filthy rich and made a lot of money making…” He paused, bouncing one hand palm up in the other, trying to come up with some way to explain it, looking to Joshua, who was more of a history buff.
“Um… yeah, it’s like… Oh… oh, dammit, no, 1920s, too early.”
“Telegraph?” Simon asked.
“No… home appliances. Crap!” Joshua sighed. “Wait, wait, okay. Kind of got it here, maybe. Phonograph?” he asked, looking to Anabel.
“Okay… so imagine that phonograph records aren’t just for music, but they can also be used for information and learning. Like, you play a record, and it’s a dictionary or a cookbook or something.”
“Uh… they don’t really do that, but — ”
“We’re getting metaphorical here, okay? Go with me, because here comes the next stretch,” Joshua continued. “Imagine now that you have like a typewriter connected to the phonograph, and you can control what part of the record plays by typing words.”
“All right,” Anabel said. “So then what does it do?”
“So it’s… um a cookbook, and you want to know how to make… beef stroganoff. You type that on the typewriter, the needle searches, and boom. It plays back the one recipe you want. And if you want to get really fancy, we can also make that work over a telephone, too.”
“Dude… that was the single most steampunk thing you’ve ever done,” Simon said.
“Love you too,” Joshua replied.
“So… you make records?” Anabel asked.
“We make… tools!” Joshua finally gushed when he landed on the right word. “And while the tools of our time may be things that you can’t possibly understand, men in your time were doing the same thing and making the same kind of money and so, yeah, we both retired right around thirty.”
“Anyway, that’s why we had the ability to create all the stuff we use to identify and track and… study your kind.” Simon offered. “We were already working with portable super computers, so why not take it up another notch?”
“I underestimated you,” Anabel said. “Here, I thought you were just a couple of Ausmann’s underlings, willing to do his bidding. But if I understand correctly, you don’t need him or this job at all.”
“That would be one hundred percent,” Joshua replied.
“Well, then,” she said, “Maybe we can make a deal, and you can help us stop him — ”
“If he’s not dead,” Simon offered.
“Right. Let me rephrase that, then,” Anabel went on. “Stop what he started, but which is apparently stuck in motion. We need to put on the brakes.”
“On what?” Joshua asked.
“On his entire project,” she replied.
“We would still have clearance, wouldn’t we?” Simon offered.
“And it would be a glorious ‘fuck you,’ wouldn’t it?” Joshua added.
“And, honestly, we’ve probably got better firepower, at least on the tech side,” Simon added.
“Okay, so… I guess the only question is whether he’s dead or not,” Joshua replied, “But either way, I think we still have an in, so… yeah. Let’s stop whatever he was trying to do.”
“Thank you,” Anabel replied. “You won’t regret it.”
“What was he trying to do?” Simon asked.
“Commit genocide and destroy my kind,” Anabel explained before suddenly vanishing in a puff of black smoke.
“Yeah, way to hide the reveal,” Simon muttered.
“What?” Joshua replied. “Isn’t stopping genocide , like, the best thing ever?”
“I know,” Simon said. “But we didn’t get to thank her for the opportunity.”
Joshua laughed and kissed Simon, then gestured for Brent to come on back. He swung the hovercraft around and they climbed in the back.
“Was that a fucking ghost?” Brent demanded.
“What else would you expect in a cemetery?” Joshua replied. “Now… home, James.”
Brent gunned it, and the rest of the trip back to NoHo happened in silence.
By the time they’d gotten back home, the floodwaters had receded here. Joshua and Simon bid their adieus to Brent and Drew, then headed into the lobby.
“You want to check the damage now, get it over with?” Simon asked.
“Sure,” Joshua replied.
They took the stairs down to the parking garage, coming out on the floor where there car was parked, expecting to find it a soaked, muddy, and useless mess. Instead, the floors and everything else were as dry as usual, and the lights were even on. All of the cars here were completely untouched.
“What the hell?” Joshua muttered happily as Simon just stared.
Nearby, a maintenance man was walking back to his electric cart. He laughed.
“HOA didn’t want them flood doors until they got talked into. ‘L.A. never floods,’ they said.” He laughed. “Rich old bastards just saved themselves a fortune in lawsuits on that one. Have a great day.”
He hopped onto his cart and rode off as Joshua and Simon just stared at each other.
“Shit,” Simon finally said. “Wasn’t that our idea?”
“I seem to remember paying for it, too. That was the only way they’d do it.” Joshua said.
“Son of a bitch,” Simon muttered, laughing. “Son of a bitch.”
They threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and headed back up, checking to see if the elevator was working. It was, although it smelled a bit… moist.
* * *
Image source: digicla, licensed under (CC BY 2.0)