Saturday Morning Post #86: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 3)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. This story focuses on the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre Company in Hollywood, and its owner, Bill, who believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves. His latest effort involves Max and PJ.

Fifty minutes later, Bill crept back into the theatre, careful not to make any tell-tale noises. He snuck up to the darkened booth and edged to the glass. He looked down at the stage and smiled. He’d gotten the acting breakthrough he’d hoped for.

Max and PJ were on the bed, shirts off, PJ on top, making out like a couple of horny teens. If he could get that onstage, everything would work out. Max started pulling PJ’s pants off and PJ made no objection, but Bill knew they’d had enough rehearsal for today. He snuck back downstairs, opened the front door quietly, then slammed it, making sure it was quite audible. He turned on the lobby lights and dawdled, counting to fifty before he entered the theatre.

Max and PJ were sitting, keeping their distance on the stage, shirts on, although PJ’s was inside-out.

“Hi guys,” he called out. “How did it go?”

“I think I get the scene now,” PJ explained, Max covering a laugh and a glance.

“You two want to try it once, then?” Bill asked as he took his seat in the front row.

“Sure,” PJ replied, moving to the bed, Max joining him.

“Okay. And, lights are off, anticipatory laughter from the audience, cue the maid, she turns the lights on — go.”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then they vacuum-locked their faces together, PJ wrapping a leg around Max, Max dragging PJ in with both hands and the moment was beautiful. It really would bring the house down, the big revelation when everything else made sense.

The boys finally broke and looked at Bill, who applauded. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ve got a winner on our hands.”

And indeed they did, at least for this third of the cast. All through the rest of rehearsal, PJ was flying, nailing everything, not holding back at all. Bill had broken the wall, freed his talent and he saw that it was very good.

One down, two to go…

* * *

The secret was always discovery, not revelation. With actors, it was like training lab rats. Never show them the cheese, let them wander the maze and think they figured it out themselves. Donna was great at figuring things out, but lousy at letting herself realize she had.

Then Bill saw her walk into a car. She was coming to rehearsal and happened to arrive at the same time as Vince, and they were both crossing the street, talking but not looking at each other, at least not openly. Since they were jaywalking, they had to go between parked cars and Vince lead the way, but Donna was paying no attention at all and — wham!

Right into the side of a big, brown American beast, rebounding, stopping. Bill heard her call out, “God, I am so stupid.” Vince hurried over to Donna, took her arm gently, probably asking if she was all right. He guided her between the cars to the sidewalk, looking very concerned. She kept nodding, looking for the hole to crawl into, but Vince’s concern was completely genuine.

They both spotted Bill, walked toward him.

“You didn’t see that, did you?” Donna asked him.

“See what?” Bill lied. “Hey, guys, you know what? Your director did a stupid thing tonight. Come on inside.”

They entered the theatre and Bill explained his faux pas. He had intended to work with Mark and Donna, but had called Vince instead. It was too late to fix that, and anyway all of Vince’s scenes were fine. But would Vince mind reading Mark’s part tonight, working with Donna?

And of course he wouldn’t, and so they did, Vince reading from the script as Donna played the scene — and played it with something much different than had ever appeared opposite Mark. That was, of course, the plan. Donna’s character was supposed to be madly in love with Mark’s but afraid to say it, until this moment in the play, when she confessed her love. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mark’s character was madly in love with her, et cetera, et cetera. Each of them was supposed to think they were talking about someone else.

Suddenly, it played beautifully. Donna was a little giddy and shy and hesitant, and so was Vince and the whole thing positively reeked of two people crazy about each other but unable to just say it. Artifice catapulted to reality, and Bill gave himself a mental pat on the back. This show was going to come together like none of the others ever had.

And by opening night, it did. He’d heard rumor among the company that Donna and Vince went out for coffee one night, then dinner and a movie soon thereafter. The grapevine reported that Vince finally admitted he was crazy about Donna but was still in the middle of getting a divorce, something he’d kept secret though, so he hadn’t dared say anything to her. But, as soon as it was final, would she…? And she would and they did, eventually, and on opening night, their acting soared.

So did PJ’s and Max’s. The curtain call got a standing ovation and the opening night party was rambunctious with the joy of success.

Except that Max was standing alone afterwards, PJ nowhere in sight. Bill walked over to him. “Good job, Max. But where’s your leading man?”

“He’s not mine,” Max explained, looking around. “There he is.” He pointed and Bill looked, seeing PJ talking to other cast members, his arm around a young man who wasn’t part of the company.

“He’s got a boyfriend already?” Bill asked, amazed.

“He’s had him for six months,” Max said. “He finally decided to let the big secret out.”

“And you?”

“You cast us on purpose, didn’t you?” Max answered.

“Okay, I confess,” Bill said. “I did. I thought…”

“No, I appreciate it, really. He’s a good kisser. He’s just taken, that’s all.”

Bill smiled, nodding. This play had been more of a success than he could have hoped for. He excused himself, started to walk away when Max continued. “And Vince and Donna. And Mark and Loretta. Funny how every time we do a show, some new couple gets together, isn’t it?”

Bill stopped, looked at Max, wondering if he’d figured it out yet. Maybe, but Bill wasn’t going to tip his hand. “Funny how theatre works that way, isn’t it?”

“Very funny,” Max answered, and Bill was sure his secret was safe. “So what’s next for us, Little Billy?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” Bill replied. “You’ll see.” He made a mental note. Max had mentioned once that he never thought he’d be able to do nudity onstage. That was an actor’s block that needed to be removed, one more step in Bill’s big mission. And removed, it would be.

All their blocks would be removed, eventually, and they would be better people for it. True love would be discovered and true talent revealed and Bill’s company would continue to be one, big happy family. That was the promise he’d made when he’d cashed that big check, the promise he’d continued to keep. It was the price he’d agreed to pay for his windfall, but it was a debt that constantly paid him back with happiness.

His fear had been removed, and he was going to do his best to do the same for others, for this big, wonderful company. His children, his stars.

Because stars were meant to shine, after all, and the show would go on.

Significant dramatic pause, and then Bill exited to his office, already working on his next play, hoping for another rousing success.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #85: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 2)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. In the first installment last week, we met Bill O’Ferral, owner of the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre in Hollywood, having just opened another successful original play and starting work on his next — but he has ulterior motives, as he believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves.

The first read-through had been hilarious, with Andy and the actors constantly cracking up. Only a few minor rewrites required, then they were good to go.

PJ was waiting for Bill afterwards, when everyone else had gone.

“Hey, PJ, what can I do for you?” Bill asked, ushering the actor up to his office.

“I like the play, a lot,” he said when they were upstairs. “How are you going to stage the… some of the stuff?”

“You’re worried about kissing Max, aren’t you?”

“Well… a little.”

“Let me tell you my theory of comedy. The more intensely real the actors play it, the funnier it is. The magic word is ‘commitment.’”

“Yeah, but all three times?”

“My other theory of comedy. First time, warning. Second time, reminder. Third time, brings the house down. Fourth time, never.”

“Okay, but… why do they kiss, anyway?”

“Because… your character thinks he’s in the room with Stella, and the other guy thinks he’s with Elaine. This is it, they’re finally alone, or they think they are, with the woman of their dreams, wham. It ain’t gonna be a peck on the cheek. And then the maid walks in and turns the lights on. Boom. Funny.”

“Okay, but the second time — “

“You think you’re with Elaine now, and he thinks he’s with Stella. Only this time, both guys are much hornier, because now they think they’re finally with the women of their dreams, et cetera, et cetera, funnier.”

“Right. So why — “

“And the third time is kind of the point of the play, when the lights come on and the two guys see each other, significant comedy pause… and realize they’re the man of each other’s dreams. Set up, topper, reversal, house down.” God, Bill thought, I sound like some alta cocker ex-Vaudevillian. “Look, it’ll be a riot, people will remember you. You want to get noticed as an actor, this is the perfect part.”

“Okay. But it’s comedy, I’m more of a dramatic actor.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me you wanted to try doing comedy?”

“I… yeah. But I thought more like, you know. Verbal, like Neil Simon, wordy, witty… Comedy. Not farce.”

“Farce is the ultimate extension of comedy. Much more difficult to pull off. If you can do farce, you can do anything.”

“Really?”

“Think about it. How many Oscars does Tom Hanks have? Do you remember ‘Bosom Budd…’ No, of course you don’t. Well, it was a farce, and that’s where he started. And he was wearing a dress.”

“Tom Hanks?”

“Yes.”

“But he didn’t kiss anybody, did he?”

“I don’t remember, but probably. Because it was a farce.”

“They’d never let men kiss on TV.”

“Not in a drama, no, because a drama is all real and serious and scary. But comedy, you can get away with a lot more.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’m not even going to get to that in rehearsal for at least three weeks. Maybe four.”

“Okay. Can I think about it?”

“You will anyway. But in four weeks, I think you’ll be ready.”

PJ nodded and left the office. Bill hoped this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe hearing an audience laugh and knowing he did it would loosen him up eventually.

Bill also wished he could convince him to stop going by PJ and use his full first name, Peter. The initials sounded like a kiddie actor or a porn goddess. Of course, that meant he would absolutely have to change his last name. Or maybe not. Memorability was a plus.

Still. His last name was Packer.

His parents were either incredibly naive or terribly twisted.

His middle name was Johnson.

Twisted.

* * *

Donna was bumping into the furniture again.

Normally, this would have been a problem. However, Bill had written exactly this awkwardness into the part and it was working like a charm. Funny how she didn’t start doing it until Vince was at the same rehearsals. Yes, Donna was doing a scene with Max, Vince wasn’t even on the stage, but Bill knew exactly why she had turned into a fumfering schoolgirl. He made no comments about it during rehearsal, even though he could see that it was annoying the hell out of Max — but that was part of the idea, too. Max was a nice guy, but the part he was playing needed to have the limits of his patience tested. That’s what Bill was seeing on the kid’s face right now and it was perfect.

“I am such a clumsy, big-footed ox,” Donna whined to him afterwards. “I’m sorry, I was lousy up there today.”

“No you weren’t,” Bill said. “You mean you weren’t acting all that stumbling around?”

“No — “

“Well, you fooled me. That’s exactly what the scene needs to work.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Of course Stella is awkward, she’s madly in love with this guy, but she can’t tell him. You see?”

“Oh…”

And Donna smiled, sort of, a rarity, and went on her way. Bill saw Max sitting in the front row, looking at his script, sulking. He walked over to him.

“Hey, Max, nice job up there.”

“Wasn’t easy. She was — “

“All over the place, I know, I told her to do that. And I need you to remember that anger, use it. That’s what makes the scene work.”

“Really? But it’s a comedy.”

“A lot of comedy is really very angry underneath. Remember, you think you’re madly in love with Elaine and you’re trying to go talk to her, and Stella won’t leave you alone. You’re too polite to tell her to go away, but you let just a little bit of your annoyance show. You’re like a teapot waiting to blow its whistle, except that it doesn’t happen until the next scene.”

“Ah…” Max nodded, conviction in his eyes. “Of course. Now it makes sense. Thanks.”

Bill gave him an encouraging smile, then went onstage to work with Vince and Loretta. Vince was staring off into the house. “She’s good,” Vince said.

“You mean Donna?”

“Yeah. I had no idea she was such a natural comic actress. I’m jealous.”

“Well, keep an eye on what she does. Study her, and you’ll learn a lot. Now, let’s get cracking, act one, scene four, Martin and Elaine, you each think the other one is madly in love with you, but you’ve both been misinformed, let’s take it from the top…”

And they ran through the scene, Bill noticing that neither one of them was quite crackling like they should. Loretta never had that problem with Mark onstage. Those two clicked. Of course, they’d been dating since the middle of rehearsal for their last show. Max and PJ had that chemistry onstage, too, more or less, with Max enthralled and PJ distracted, which would make the ending work perfectly. They hadn’t rehearsed any of Vince and Donna’s scenes yet, by design, nor had they gotten to the big moment between Max and PJ. But they were going to, soon, and that particular rehearsal would be crucial to making this whole thing work.

Max and PJ, right. Bill turned toward the house, where the two were sitting, different rows, not together. “Guys,” he called out, “This is going to take a while. Could you two go up to my office and run your lines?”

Max hopped to his feet while PJ dragged his stuff together and stood. Bill watched them leave, then turned his attention back to Vince and Elaine. An hour with them, then it was time for act two, scene five.

That was exactly why PJ was so broody tonight. The kid was still nervous. Bill had assured him many times, “It’s only acting. None of it is real, you’re just playing games up there.” PJ always nodded and agreed, but it hadn’t seemed to have sunk in yet. It had better, tonight, or Bill just might trash this whole project. No sense re-casting at this point. But, as a director, he had a lot of tricks left to use. That was always the secret — make the actor find it in him or herself for real, then remember it, use it, be it.

If PJ and Max could manage their big scene, the others would be easy. If they couldn’t…

But Bill pushed those thoughts from his mind as he worked with Vince and Loretta.

* * *

Act two, scene five. The kiss.

Max was sitting on the bed onstage, PJ on one of the chairs, as Bill explained his approach. They weren’t going to start right in on the scene. Instead, they were going to do some exercises. He had the two actors stand toe-to-toe and hold their arms out, placing their hands palm-to-palm. Max complied like a trooper, but PJ was being sarcastic, making jokes, trying to distract himself.

“Now,” Bill said, “Here’s the hard part. I want you two to look at each other, so the ends of your noses are touching, and stare right in each other’s eyes. And you’re going to stay that way until you can do it for three minutes straight without looking away or losing it. Ready?”

“You better not get snot on me,” PJ cracked.

“Ready…” Bill reminded.

PJ nodded, put his nose to Max’s, then scrunched it up and shook his head to make it an Eskimo kiss, stepping away and laughing.

“Sorry. Sorry…” he called out. “Okay. Here we go.”

They assumed the position again, but after about thirty seconds, PJ lost it once more, letting out a snorted laugh. He apologized again, got back into place, but it just wasn’t working. Bill paced, thinking. After about five tries he’d reached his limit. “All right, all right, let’s try something else.”

“What are we trying to do?” PJ asked. “I mean, if you tell me — “

“It’s called trust,” Bill answered. “You two have got to trust each other completely if this is going to work.”

“I trust him,” PJ insisted.

“Then kiss him,” Bill shot back.

PJ made a face, then planted a perfunctory peck on Max’s cheek.

“Excellent,” Bill dripped out with sarcasm. “When Max plays your grandmother, that’ll be perfect.”

“Can we just try the scene?” Max asked.

“Fine, let’s just try the scene,” Bill gave up. “Max, come here a second.”

He pulled Max aside, where PJ couldn’t hear them, whispered. “Do me a favor, help snap him out of this for me.”

“How?”

“One word. Tongue.”

“You want me to — “

“If you don’t mind.”

Max laughed, smiled. “Okay. As long as you admit it was your idea, because he’s going to freak out.”

“No problem.”

The actors took their places, kneeling on the bed, arms around each other. Bill sat in the front row, called out, “All right, the lights are off, lights off… maid enters, lights on. Go!”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then nothing, and then Max took the initiative and flew into the kiss and two seconds later, PJ was jumping away, wiping his mouth.

“Hey, hey. Gross. Jesus, he fucking frenched me.”

“I know,” Bill called out. “I told him to, that’s what his character would do. And yours.”

“No one’s going to see that.”

“I can see it fine from here.”

“Can’t we do a stage kiss?”

“Not in a theatre this size, not if you want this to be the funniest moment in the show. Come on, you want the critics to call you a wimp, PJ?”

“Sorry,” Max whispered.

“Not your fault,” PJ replied.

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Bill stood. “No tongues, but do the kiss and I want you to imagine it’s a wrestling match. Both of you try to push each other off the bed. Got it? Take it again.”

They repeated the scene, but this time the kiss looked different, more real, sort of, the two of them locked together in combat. One of Max’s legs slipped off the bed, but he braced himself against the floor, pushed back. The two of them toppled the other way, sliding to the floor, Max on top. He pinned PJ’s arms, lips still together, but then PJ turned his head away.

“Okay, uncle, you win.”

Max sat up, staying on top of PJ, and turned to Bill.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Better,” Bill said.

“Dude,” PJ called out, “Up, up. You’re busting my nuts.”

Max climbed off and they both sat on the floor, looking at their director, who was looking contemplative.

“Well?” PJ asked.

Bill rattled his fingers on his script, other hand pressed to his lips as he thought about it. He couldn’t recast and change Max’s part to an actress, that would undo too many other threads in the piece. He couldn’t replace PJ. Anybody else would be all wrong for this role. But what to do? Finally, he stood up again, grabbing his briefcase.

“I think I might be the problem here,” he announced. “I’m making you both self-conscious, and that’s unfair of me. So, I’m leaving. But — you still have another hour of rehearsal scheduled, and here’s what I want you two to do. Give each other a backrub. Keep the clothes on, it’s just a stress thing. And while you’re doing it, the massagee is going to tell his life story and answer any questions the massager has.”

He walked to the door, Max and PJ silently nodding, watching him. Before he left, he turned back and said, “I’ll be back in exactly sixty minutes. And remember, it’s all about the show. The play’s the thing, and all that.”

He turned off the houselights as he left, then ran up to the booth and adjusted the lights, dimming them and bringing up the blue gels they still had hung. He waved good-bye to them from the booth, killed the work lights up there, then made sure they heard him exit out the front door, then went down the street for a late bite to eat. The rest was up to them.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #84: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 1)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer.

Opening night and the play was working like a charm. Near the end of the first act, Bill knew he had a success on his hands. He’d cast the leads perfectly, and their big emotional scene was dynamite onstage. They had achieved something beyond chemistry, and the entire audience was riveted in dead silence. That was always the measure of the success of a piece — the cough ‘n shuffle factor, Bill called it. Make an audience stop doing both of those things, and you knew you had them in the palm of your hand.

When the moment finally came, the big moment, when Mark and Loretta suddenly expressed their forbidden love and kissed for the first time, the audience gasped. In the world of Bill’s play, the priest and the nun had just crossed a line, broken taboos, connected… And Bill could see from his vantage point in the booth that these two weren’t just stage kissing. As the fade out on the first act came, Bill smiled to himself. Everything he’d just seen onstage was incredibly real.

As the play ended and the audience applauded the curtain-call, Bill left the booth and went down the dark, warm, narrow hallway, down the hollow-thudding stairs and opened the lobby doors. It was a small place but all his, one of hundreds of small theatres scattered all over Los Angeles. He’d been smart enough to pick a place near the great off-white way in Hollywood, along with all the other small theatres, near a subway station. It was named the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre, in honor of his mother. He wasn’t in this business for fame and riches.

The usher opened the theatre door behind him and the flood of houselights poured forth. The small audience snaked out, cigarettes deploying among the few who smoked as soon as they hit the sidewalk. Bill went back into the theatre where some of the cast were already wandering among the seats, ready to party. “Good show, everyone,” he called out. “Excellent work.”

“Author, author!” someone yelled back. It was Andy, the stage manager.

“What’s next, Little Billy?” That was PJ, one of the actors. Everyone called Bill “Little Billy” because he was six-foot-five.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with his best enigmatic grin. He did have a very specific part in mind for PJ, and thought he was ready to tackle it. Bill just hadn’t fine-tuned it all yet, so he didn’t want to tip his hand.

The party was as much of a success as the show, with everyone in a great mood. Somebody took over the sound system and kept an endless techno-beat going, and the company were dancing on the stage or schmoozing in the aisles. Bill looked around the room proudly. There were fifty people in the company, and he felt like they were all his children, even though he was only forty and, while most of them were in their twenties and thirties, there were a number of members older than Bill. Of course, the company felt like a family and quite a lot of them literally became family. They’d had eight marriages, all of them still together; half a dozen gay and two lesbian couples that had met here; and one very Bohemian ménage between two straight actors and a goth actress named Brigid. Yes, the place was incestuous, but in a good way.

Then Bill noticed Mark and Loretta, off in a corner together, his arm around her. It looked like the ninth marriage might be on the way. If not now, then definitely by the end of the run. It always amazed Bill how the veneer created by acting could make two people incredibly intimate insanely quickly. That was the truth highlighted by falsehood, the freedom of disguise. It was the secret of all great acting and all great art — revealing everything while appearing to conceal it.

He spotted PJ, sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, watching the dancers. He was an interesting kid, with a lot of raw talent, recently arrived from one of those flat, green midwestern states. But there was something holding him back so far, a certain timidity whenever parts got too intense, especially if they involved any degree of sexual tension. Bill had no idea what the wall was. Maybe it was just the insecurity of youth. But he was determined to crack it and make PJ a great actor.

Insecurity. That was the word for Donna. She was a walking neurosis machine, and she was off in her own corner, too. Bill didn’t even have to follow her eyeline to know that she was staring at Vince, resident young male romantic lead in the traditional mode. Donna was always staring at Vince when she wasn’t asking anybody she could buttonhole, “Do you think… does Vince like me?” It was as annoying as hell, but Bill knew better than to tell her the obvious because she’d crack like an egg. He’d seen the result once when Loretta had finally snapped at Donna.

“Why don’t you just fucking ask him instead of all of us?”

Donna fled the theatre in tears that time. She was a champion at fleeing in tears. Bill would have to write that into a play soon.

He really wanted to do something to help her, but he knew that telling Vince about her obsession would be risky. Then again, how could he not know about it? Everyone knew everything here. Or most everything. But Donna had reached the point in her delusion that she was saying things like, “He’s a Libra and I’m a Cancer. That’s a good match.”

But how would she ever know…?

Maybe that was the problem. People never wanted to know the answers to their most burning questions. Certainty would leave an unfillable vacuum behind, and fire can’t burn in a vacuum. Bill knew that every question answered always led to more, and those often led to interesting adventures, but that was a lesson he preferred not to force on people. Such things were always better discovered than revealed.

But Donna had spotted him and swooped, and now she was standing there, eyes darting to the floor when they weren’t staring at him with bothersome intensity. There was chit chat, mixed with random compliments, then the inevitable Vince question. “Do you think he’d go out with me?”

“Donna,” Bill gave her his most encouraging smile, “Why wouldn’t he? Have you asked him out?”

“Oh, he doesn’t know I exist.” She said more, she always did, but Bill wasn’t listening. He was already working on the next play in his head.

Bill’s eyes wandered and he saw PJ, who had been cornered by Natalie. She was talking and he was mostly listening, often gazing past her at the dance floor, at nothing in particular. But no, Bill knew, it was someone in particular. He could just never figure out whom. PJ was very sly about that — it was impossible to tell which company member had caught his eye, and he was as reluctant to approach as Donna.

Well, at least he didn’t talk about it. But Bill was going to figure it out. And he’d figure out a way to solve that acting problem, too.

But he had half of his next play cast already.

* * *

Gloria O’Ferral was Irish as far back as anyone knew. Her great-grandfather and his brother had arrived in the nineteenth century, via Ellis island. The name had originally been Farrelly, but underwent an immediate metamorphosis upon arrival.

Contrary to popular myth, though, the names were not changed by disinterested employees on Ellis island. Rather, the immigrants self-reported and, depending on circumstances, that could lead to big changes right there. Some were illiterate and couldn’t even spell their names, so you might wind up with Connelly, Conelly, Connelloy, Conley, Coneley, and so on in the same family.

Others wanted to sound less foreign, so a name like Schmidt might become Smith. Still others were proud of their heritage, and that was the case with Gloria’s ancestor, who proudly added the O’ prefix that his family did not have, then simplified the rest. Farrelly became O’Ferral.

Meanwhile, his brother couldn’t spell the name in Gaelic, where it had about four hundred letters, half of them “H,” so he just simplified it and scrawled it out the way he thought it was spelled in English, so he became a Fearl. Of course, they were both dead now…

As was Gloria O’Ferral. That had been thanks to a little sloppiness at the dialysis center she’d been going to, and their failure to completely purge the cleaning fluid out of a machine before jacking it into her. Ironically, she died half an hour before her pager went off announcing a kidney had been found. Bill, only child, widowed, orphaned, had finally been encouraged by his friends to pursue a lawsuit, and the payoff (after attorneys and taxes) had still been like winning the lottery.

He bought his dream, the theatre, and his other dream, a house, and still had enough left in the bank to live like a corporate executive on investment interest alone for the rest of his life. It had driven the dialysis center into bankruptcy, which was only the cherry on top of a sundae whose sweetness could never make up for the bitter dish in which it was served. But Bill could make up for it and would make up for it. His theatre was more than a hobby or a vanity project. It was a mission.

When his attorney had handed him the check and Bill counted the zeroes, an amazing thing happened. All of Bill’s fear and doubt vaporized. He didn’t have to do it anymore, didn’t have to justify himself to the world. He didn’t have to need or want, he didn’t have to kiss someone else’s ass. There was only one thing to do with that kind of windfall. Share it.

He invited his five closest friends to dinner a week after he got the payoff, and under their dessert plates, each of them found a check for two hundred thousand dollars. Two months later, he was showing off his new house and three months after that, was giving a tour of the theatre just before it opened. They were not a huge commercial success at first, but word of mouth started to spread, and eventually they were selling out. The location didn’t hurt, either. It became easy to get actors to join the company. Then again, it was always easy. Bill didn’t charge any dues, and the word “free” was thespian catnip.

And in two years, they had a thriving, happy company and the theatre critics only had to say “at the O’Ferral,” and everybody knew where that was.

Another show over, and Bill was spending his days writing the next one. That was how he liked to work. Concentrate on one project from beginning to end, then let it go after opening night and dive into the next one. He’d have a good first draft finished by the time this six-week run was over, or extend the run if he wasn’t ready yet. Then, he’d work it with the actors for two or three weeks, polish it up and start rehearsal. There would always be another play running during this process, but Bill left those to Andy to choose and direct, reserving only the right of casting approval for himself.

That was the key to it all for him — casting. He’d actually postponed plays if a particular actor wasn’t available. He was always very specific in his writing.

The next play was a romantic comedy. That was also in keeping with his pattern, since the previous play had been a tragedy. It was going to be something of a bedroom farce, involving three couples, lots of entrances and exits and missed cues and misunderstandings, with everything resolving itself at the end. Vince was a natural for the lead, and so was Donna. Anyway, Bill was always encouraging her to do comedy, and this was the perfect chance.

PJ had the doe-eyed innocence that made ribald situations even more amusing. Maybe Mark and Loretta would want to play the other couple. That just left one part open, the role that would be paired ultimately with PJ’s character. At the moment, Bill didn’t have a clue who to pick. He didn’t know enough about how this play would end, and that often dictated a character more than anything else.

He was still wondering about it a week later when they had a reading in the theatre of one of the plays Andy wanted to do. PJ was in the audience and Bill mentioned the role for him at intermission. PJ was excited about it, wondering who he’d be playing with. Bill told him he wasn’t sure yet, asked if PJ had anybody he wanted to work with.

“What about Brigid?” he asked.

“Hm…” Bill pretended to think about it, but Brigid was all wrong. A goth was already comic enough and he was doing farce, not satire. Besides, he was waiting until he could cast her as Lord Byron’s doomed sister, Augusta.

It was after the show, during the milling around time, that Bill noticed PJ off talking to Max. That’s when it hit him, and the play solved itself before his very eyes. Of course. If he matched up two actors as the third couple, then the comic implications multiplied. Suddenly, anybody could be suspect with anybody else. It was perfect. As he wove the knots in his mind, they all collided to form the tapestry with the answer. Yes. Start out with the male couple not knowing they’re gay, and using that complication to drive the other two couples together, apart and back together again.

He rushed out of the party and upstairs to his office, where he locked the door, turned on the coffee pot and started his frantic typing.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #61: The Rêves Part 39

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles. We’re close to the end, with only two chapters after this one.

Septennials

Many media outlets had dubbed the incident The Day of the Dead, although there were also a lot of objections to this phrase, which was essentially cultural appropriation. Other media outlets preferred to use The Resurrection, while social media had a number of references: Heaven’s Last Call, Tomb Evaders, Coco Oh-no! and the probably inevitable Forest Lawn of the Dead.

In the first year after the incident, things changed a lot, some good and some bad. From the beginning, a lot of religious groups took it as the literal Resurrection of the dead that heralded the End Times, but for a lot of them it made no sense, because certain events had to happen first, and they hadn’t.

Three schools of thought on it emerged. One was based on the idea that no one could know the hour of Jesus’ return and that he’d come like a thief in the night, so it didn’t matter whether this Resurrection fit in with all of their hypotheses and prophecies. That wasn’t for humans to decide, so it was absolutely the real deal.

A second group took exactly the opposite tack: This did not fit their theology at all, so something was wrong. Their pastors and scholars had studied the Bible deeply, and had mapped out exactly what would happen when. Since this incident didn’t occur when it was supposed to in the grand scheme of things, it must have been the work of Satan, and all of the resurrected were actually demons. This group sought to have them all hunted down and eliminated.

The third group also believed that it was the Resurrection proper, but went off the rails to the extreme. While there were not as many members of this category, there were still enough that there was a substantial jump in mass suicides among families and small congregations who figured that there was no point in waiting around anymore, since they had already seen others brought back in the flesh.

Meanwhile, after about six months, scientists had a pretty good idea of what had happened, especially after a stunned government allowed a select team access to all of Ausmann’s files, as well as to Joshua and Simon, who had been intimately involved.

Of course, none of the cameras in the complex had been on at the time, so their story was that Ausmann had gone a little crazy — backed up by evidence from both the Simi Valley PD and the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office — and while giving some insane rant from that top platform about using the machine to take over the world had slipped and fallen.

Since he’d been keeping Joshua and Simon at bay at the bottom with a gun at the time, they weren’t able to save him. Presumably, the gun had been vaporized along with the hand and arm that had been holding it when Ausmann fell through the plasma stream.

The end result was a 900-page report detailing all of the science, and which nobody in the government could even begin to understand outside of the science wonks, but Congress Peoples’ eyes would just glaze over whenever those wonks spoke, so the real content of the report only got through to a few.

Joshua, Simon, and the authors knew the whole story. Outside of that circle, it was heavily redacted, particularly to eliminate any mention of a machine designed to send messages back in time. That was a highly classified secret.

What was allowed out was an explanation that the machine had generated exotic matter in an effort to figure out what dark matter and dark energy were, how they interacted with regular matter, and what effect gravity had on them.

It was a completely bullshit explanation of purposes that a lot of physicists both astro- and quantum had picked up on immediately, but they also understood that the real reasons probably couldn’t be unveiled, and so kept their silence, at least publicly.

When it finally dripped down to the popular science media before becoming completely distorted in the laymen’s press, the story was that this exotic matter experiment had set up resonating wave fronts that, in effect, made people hallucinate projections of their own memories, which was why there were a combination of dead celebrities and people with living friends.

As for the physical resurrection of people, that happened when the machine was damaged, and this was the only point where they invoked time travel, but not as an intentional effect. Rather, when the generator broke down, the exotic matter briefly converted into something that in turn caused a “local temporal anomaly,” which is what de-aged the living LEOs up at JPL, and physically brought back the corpses in all the cemeteries within certain areas.

When it hit trash rags like the NY Post and The Daily Mail, the headlines were things like, “Science Smash the Dead to Life,” or “Atom-Smasher Accident Brings Back Your Gran.”

Naturally, all kinds of conspiracy theories popped up in the aftermath, including a group calling themselves the 9/2 Truthers (or 9tooTru, as their logo and T-shirts read), clearly taking inspiration from another totally discredited group from over twenty years before — although, to be fair, they did manage to dance around the hole in the donut, mainly the lack of references to working and intentional time-travel in the final report, mainly because they didn’t have access to that.

Where they went totally wrong, though, was insisting that the whole thing had been an intentional government plot to create a “resurrection beam” as well as fountain of youth, and what had happened was supposed to be a small, controlled test that got out of hand.

At least that final report had assuaged the fears of those who were not religious and had no idea what to make of it all. But it still left the problem of dealing with all the extra new people. Even if they didn’t need to eat or take up resources like that, they still needed shelter and a way to pay for it.

The County had greenlit and set up Brenda’s new Department of Post After-Care Entry Services almost immediately — and yes, the acronym was PACE, as in Requiescat in Pace, or Rest in Peace. They set up her offices in Culver City in a 32,000 square foot warehouse that had formerly hosted the county’s Internal Services Department. On the one hand, she wasn’t all that happy about it being a huge, windowless place. On the other, it was directly adjacent to Holy Cross Cemetery, which was ridiculously appropriate.

It was also a really short commute from home, although she could work remotely quite a lot. Within a month of everything being opened and the space allocated, she went to work getting it converted.

It would be a combination of intake/interview center, resource warehouse providing mostly clothing to their clients (accommodating any era-based, cultural, or religious preferences they had), as well as a temporary shelter. This was also where their social media and marketing offices were located, with a final corner of the old warehouse serving as a transit bay for the various shuttles that would take their clients to their new housing and jobs as assistants to the various historians, librarians, and archivists working all over the city.

They also kept their eyes out for certain very necessary lost skills in the modern age. For example, anyone who happened to know the programming language COBOL was immediately referred to high-end government work at various levels, since so many government computers were so old that they still ran it.

Oh, that wasn’t a function of government being out-of-touch, though. Quite the opposite. Part of it was because the scale of government would make updating hardware and software on the same schedule that people replaced iPhones ridiculously expensive and time-consuming.

Add on top of that continuity gaps in service and retraining people in new software and hardware, it was an undertaking to only be carried out every few decades and, even then, only one department at a time, very carefully.

The other big reason for not modernizing was that if no one knew how to code in the language, then no one knew how to hack it.

The drawback, of course, was that untangling the code, simplifying it, and making internal updates could only be done by the people who knew it.

There were some other “ancient” talents that were the new hot jobs to have, at least for the Rêves — who now called themselves Revivants — and Brenda’s people were tasked with keeping their eyes out for those.

One that nobody had to spot came directly to Brenda. It was Anabel, who expressed her true admiration for what Brenda had done. This surprised her, because what few interactions she had had with Anabel made her think that she disdained humans.

But Anabel had a plan and a request. She was very happy that Brenda was helping her kind back into society, but Anabel also felt that she had something to offer, and she described her vast and successful business experience, which blew Brenda away.

For one thing, she knew how young Anabel was when she had originally died. But she also knew that women were still fighting for the right to vote, and didn’t even get it until not long before Anabel did die. So she just assumed that a woman of the era wouldn’t have had any experience in business, beyond maybe typing letters and sending telegrams for some Wizard of Wall Street.

Experience shared, Anabel went on with her plan. She wanted to help the female Revivants who had only ever been trapped in domestic roles to break out of them by teaching them business skills, considering that the field was a lot more open to women now.

She reasoned that the basic psychology of business and marketing that she had intuited hadn’t changed because people hadn’t. Where she needed Brenda’s help, beyond making the connections, was in borrowing people to train these women in the modern tools they would need to use Anabel’s universal techniques for success.

Anabel could speak the language of the formerly dead women of the past, and translate the jargon of the social media and computer kiddies to them as well. If anything, it would become a sort of trade school intensive that would help re-integrate these women back into society, and at a higher level than they could have ever dreamed of the first time around.

Brenda didn’t even have to think twice. “Done!” she said. “I’ll just have to find a property where you can set up shop, and then assign you some of my social media and marketing people. Oh, hang on…”

She picked up her phone and dialed. “Stacey, who do we have in our vocational training department who’s really good at developing curriculum…? Uh-huh, yeah. She’d be amazing. Is she here today…? Great. Can you send her to my office? Thanks!”

She hung up. “Step number one. Design your course.”

Brenda’s door was open, so the woman in question strolled right in, all positive energy. “Howdy,” she announced, “What can I do you for?”

She was an older woman with a cascade of curly gray and black hair that tumbled down her head and well past her shoulders, with a friendly face and metal-rimmed glasses with circular lenses. Anabel liked her instantly. Of course, she had that effect on a lot of people.

“Anabel, this is Simone. Simone, Anabel is a Revivant I met before the incident. She has an amazing idea for a course to train women in business and marketing, and I want you to help her plan the curriculum. I’ve assigned her to the USC satellite office.”

“Fantastic,” Simone gushed. “I really look forward to working with you, Anabel,” she said. “When do we start?” she asked Brenda.

“You already have,” Brenda replied, grabbing a page that came out of her printer and handing it over. “Here’s the office info. Pick up the keys in operations. If you need it, I’ll have a driver take you both, and thank you so much for doing this.”

“Don’t mention it!” Simone said.

Anabel’s program turned out to be one of the most successful, and it was amazing how well the women she trained took to what she taught them. More than a few of them at some point would have the “A-ha!” moment. “This was exactly how I manipulated my husband into doing what I wanted while making him think it was his idea…”

“And that, ladies, is marketing!” Anabel would announce whenever the thought came up. “Or to put it in more modern terms: Sex sells. Well, the promise of sex, anyway.” There would always be nervous but knowing laughter after this.

Within a year, Brenda’s department had made a huge dent in re-integrating everyone, and she had been written up in countless publications, both internal government and business pubs, and in the mainstream media.

“The Woman Giving New Life to the Dead” was a common theme.

Despite her initial reluctance, Jonah and Esme urged her to get out more into the public eye and become the face of the department, and pretty soon she was the go-to expert anytime a reporter was writing a story about the Revivants, and then anytime any major media outlet was doing a piece on the same.

She started to get requests to appear on talk shows and balked until her mother sat her down and talked some sense into her.

“Do you not realize what a gigantic opportunity this is?” she said. “They are begging you to come on as the expert in your field. And when white people are begging a woman of color to do that, you do that. No ifs, ands, or buts. You elevate yourself, you elevate us all.”

Esme’s sincerity and intensity almost brought Brenda to tears, but then she replied, “The only reason I’m reluctant is because I don’t want my kids dragged into this.”

“Why would they be?” Esme asked.

“For one thing, Malia is kind of newsworthy. Especially since her doctors okayed starting hormone replacement therapy in about a month.”

“And if they bring her up?” Esme snapped back. “Simple. First, tell them that she’s got nothing to do with this. Second, tell them that if they’re trying to use her status in any way to paint you as a failed parent, they are wrong as hell, and turn it around. Ask them why they wouldn’t support their own child 100% in any of their decisions. That’ll put them on the ropes.”

“I can handle their bullshit, Mom,” Brenda said. “But what about Malia? If she sees herself being trashed in the media — ”

“Oh, child,” Esme replied. “I spend a lot of time with my granddaughter, and you want to know a secret? She is one of the strongest people I have ever met. She has long since learned the power of not caring what other people think about her, and if you don’t rip all them all new assholes for going after her, she will do it herself with a vengeance. That girl has got some salty in her.”

“Really?” Brenda just said, stunned.

“Well, why the hell not?” Esme replied. “She’s her mama’s daughter — and you are my daughter. We are one tough bunch of biddies, and you know it.”

“Well, okay then,” Brenda finally agreed. “If you believe in me, then I believe in me.”

“You better believe it,” Esme smiled at her.

Right after that, Brenda checked in with Rita, who hooked her up with a major Hollywood talent agency as well as the County Communications and Social Media Department, and then the bookings came fast and furious.

Over the next few years, she became a regular guest on talk shows left and right, as well as getting called on regularly to do stand-up news interviews after various events, both positive and negative, effecting the Revivant community.

A couple of years in, she tried to contact Joshua and Simon to see if they’d help out, but she could only get hold of Danny and Preston, who were kind of vague and only explained that the other two were off on some fact-finding mission and impossible to reach.

It would be years before she suddenly heard from the twins again out of the blue, but what they had to tell her was going to be very exciting news. She had asked the boys how they were doing, and while they didn’t provide specifics, they did mention that they were finding great success as entertainers.

Elsewhere, there were two performers for whom it hadn’t been so easy: Lewis and Davis. Or sometimes Davis and Lewis. They had gone through a year of improv classes with an excellent teacher and amazing classmates, but, for them, it just wasn’t clicking.

Each of them had their strengths and weaknesses, but they did not add up to a sum greater than the parts. When it came to anything with words, like rhyming and pun games, Davis would just freeze up and, for the life of her, not even be able to rhyme a word like “cat.”

The concept of puns eluded her completely, while Lewis could reel them off one after the other, effortlessly. He could also rhyme like a son-of-bitch on wheels.

But… when it came to scene games, which were all about building stories with characters, that was where Davis excelled, and Lewis just went flat. Davis could remember everything that was set up, while Lewis could remember nothing.

So Davis would walk into a scene in which “Jill” and “Susan” were established as sisters working on their glove farm in Oregon and glue herself to those names and concepts and build on them, but Lewis would go into a scene, even one where both characters had named each other at least three times, and immediately address “Bill” as “George” and “Ken” as “Keith,” and then also completely forget the relationship and insert a new one.

That could get awkward if, for example, Bill and George were father and son, but in Lewis’ mind, Ken and Keith were a couple. He was what improvisers quietly referred to among themselves as a “platform killer.”

After about six months, they both despaired of ever becoming the next Nichols and May, but then an off-hand comment during the warm-down huddle after a class changed everything.

One of their classmates, Ryan, mentioned that he’d started taking stand-up classes at a nearby theater, and another one, Tyler, chimed in to say that he was taking the same class and it was great.

Davis and Lewis made sure to catch up with the two of them as they all walked out the stage door, and asked them about the class. As it turned out, there was a new session starting in two weeks.

“So… for this, you write your shit out in advance?” Lewis asked.

“Of course,” Ryan explained. “It’s all about honing your story-telling and refining your jokes and your persona.”

“Hey, if they can make my sorry ass funny,” Tyler said, “They can do it for anyone.”

“Oh, honey,” Davis told him, “Your ass is far from sorry. I happened to think that you are totally hilarious.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Yes, duh,” she insisted.

She took down the information, and the next day she and her husband contacted the teacher and signed up. They were a little sad when they had to email their improv teacher to tell him that they wouldn’t be continuing, but Rick was an understanding guy, told them that he totally got it, and wished them luck.

Six months after their first stand-up class, they entered a beginner’s comedy competition at the club Flappers in Burbank — and Ryan was one of their competitors. They did a couple’s act in which they talked about their marriage, but each of them with obviously differing points of view and complete blindness to the other person’s — and it brought down the fucking house.

They took first place, then started to do the premium Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. gigs around town, took their act toward a political bent by pretending to support different presidential candidates starting around June (they didn’t, they were on the same side), and wound up being invited to do their thing on SNL’s October 2024 premiere as a feature in the opening sketch.

After that, the offers came left and right, but so did the press attention, once their former lives as cops combined with their de-aging during the incident came to light, but there was the downside, because the little revelation that they were a pair of fifty-somethings who only appeared to be in their mid-20s thanks to a lucky accident brought out the resentment in people.

It died down a bit leading up to and after the election, and they dropped the dueling politics aspect right after, but then decided to address the other part head-on. They spent the rest of the year figuring out how to write funny about their situation, and brought Ryan, Tyler, and their teacher into it, as well as continuing to take classes.

They even went back to improv, and while Davis still couldn’t rhyme or pun for shit, Lewis had suddenly gotten a lot better at listening and doing scene games. After about three years, they both managed to audition and join the main company, and a couple of years after that, an agent approached them after a show.

“You two have really got something,” he told them. “You’re probably way too young, but you remind me of Nichols and May.”

Davis and Lewis shot each other a look, their smiles telling each other to not give it away. “Really?” Davis said. “We don’t know who they are, but what are you thinking?”

He presented his card and said, “I book some of the major showrooms in Vegas, and we’re always in need of opening acts for the headliners. It might include having to relocate, for at least part of the year, but given your talent, I’m sure we could work something mutually lucrative out.”

Lewis and Davis exchanged another look, then turned back to the booker. “Hit us,” they said.

He gave them the paperwork and a week. Four days later, they had signed and were scheduled to do their first shows in two weeks. They would regularly be taken by limo to Burbank Airport and flown the half-hour to Vegas, put up in whatever hotel owned the showroom, then do their opening act for six nights plus a matinee (the non-filthy version) before being flown back to L.A. for two weeks.

Lather, rinse, repeat, ridiculous paycheck.

After a year or two of this, they got a gig being the audience warm-up act for Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, and that became the game changer. It was a lot more money spread over a shorter shooting schedule, and with better accommodations.

They even worked up an act where Davis played Penn and Lewis played Teller and they mocked the relationship as an old married couple. They were nervous as hell when they first presented it, but the real Penn & Teller laughed their asses off, taught the duo a couple of stage illusions, and let them loose on warming up the audience.

They eventually went from warm-up act for the TV show to opening act for the main stage show, in which Lewis played an arrogant, know-it-all magician, and Davis played the mostly silent assistant who was clearly the actually talented one, and the big joke of the act was the audience slowly realizing that the magician would have fucked up every single trick if the assistant hadn’t suddenly helped him.

It was a total crowd-pleaser and got rave reviews.

What was even more amazing was that by this point Teller was in his early 80s and Penn was in his mid-70s, and neither one of them showed a single sign of slowing down.

Then again, neither Lewis nor Davis had shown the slightest hint of aging since that particular “incident” at JPL which was now about seven years ago.

Coraline never knew enough to realize the irony that the same incident that had brought her back to physical life was also the one that had taken her (former?) husband out of it permanently. But when she finally made her way home the first time after a couple of weeks to find a completely vacant lot, she wasn’t sure what to do.

Her first instinct was to visit her daughter, Gretchen, which she immediately realized was a bad idea when she answered the bell, opened the door, screamed and fainted. Her husband, Henry, hurried into the foyer to see what happened, took one look at Coraline and just stared.

“Um… hello?” Coraline offered.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he asked.

“One of…?” she replied.

“One of those abominations from hell,” he shot back before slamming the door in her face.

“Rude!” she thought, so then she went to her son’s house. When he opened the door, Valentin seemed a bit more accepting of her, but there was still a certain wariness in his attitude.

“Mom,” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

“My house isn’t exactly livable right now,” she explained. “And has anyone mentioned that your father killed me?”

“What?” Valentin exclaimed. “Oh, crap.”

“Yeah, that’s a good description.”

“No, not that… we’ve already filed probate, since Dad left wills for both of you, and we found out a couple of days after the whole… thing that he’s dead, too.”

“Oh,” she replied with no feeling. “Was it painful?”

“They kind of only found bits of him from the tits up and thighs down.”

Coraline tried not to laugh.

“Anyway,” Valentin went on, “That’s kind of a done deal, because in the wills, everything went first to whichever one of you survived, and then next fifty-fifty to me and Gretchen. That included any property or possessions or, since those clearly aren’t a thing anymore, any insurance benefits. It’s already been settled.”

“But, I guess there’s a hitch now,” Coraline replied. “Because I’m not quite that dead anymore, so it sounds like everything should go to me, since I survived.”

“Except that you and your kind are not considered legally alive, Mom. Sorry. But that’s how it goes.”

“So… that’s it? You have nothing to offer you mother who’s been put through this ordeal of being murdered and then brought back to have nothing?”

“Um… I hate to say it, Mom, but you and Dad were never the best parents in the world. He was totally abusive to us, and you just let it happen.”

“Because he was just as abusive to me!” she exclaimed. “Couldn’t you see that?”

“No,” he replied. “What? It’s hard to see someone else’s abuse when all you see is your own. You two totally fucked it up raising us. Gretchen and I haven’t spoken in years, although I suspect that her husband beats her. But I can’t force myself to care. And when I heard the news that Dad was dead? I felt an enormous sense of relief. No, almost joy. May that motherfucker rot in hell!”

“Valentin!” Coraline snapped. “This is not the man we raised you to be!”

“Oh, no, Mother. This is exactly the man you raised me to be. I finally pulled the lever and hit the jackpot with those wills, you don’t have a legal leg to stand on, and you can just fuck right off. Have a nice day.”

He smiled and gently closed the door.

Coraline didn’t know what to do, so she wandered, but the closer she got to L.A. itself, the more she suddenly started having feelings, like voices in her head, telling her, “Find Brenda!”

She had no idea what that meant until Anabel suddenly appeared next to her. “Family problems, huh?” she asked. “You need to talk to my friend.”

Coraline hooked up with Brenda, and the first thing she managed was freezing all assets and payments Valentin and Gretchen were scheduled to receive — they hadn’t gotten the checks yet — and then setting County lawyers off to prove that Ausmann had died and Coraline was not dead. It took about four years, during which time Coraline studied with Anabel and started her own business.

Eventually, she collected on all of Ausmann’s life and property insurance, reminded Valentine and Gretchen’s husband of their reactions when they came sniffing for their slice, and used her new-found fortune to retire to a nice little ten-acre ranch in 29 Palms.

Coraline had had to deal with being dead and trying to prove herself alive again, but it was just as difficult for the LEOs at JPL, who had abruptly dropped three decades in age.

Once it became public knowledge that there were a number of officers between the ages of just under 31 and about 42 who had suddenly been turned into anything from newborns to 12-year-olds, actions had been taken to either find their actual parents, or to find families to take them in.

All along, no one ever questioned how they managed to retain their memories all the way into how long they’d lived, but that was probably a good thing, because the scientists who had studied it knew exactly how. To explain it would be to reveal too much, because it was all wrapped around the idea that the machine could send thoughts and concepts back in time, which it had when it failed.

In essence, even as it dredged up the hardware via the physical bodies, it downloaded the last back-up, which was the one in their heads either right before the LEOs were de-aged, or the last time a Rêve hung out with humans or any other entity giving them any kind of input.

Again, no one outside of the land of science ever thought to ask that, so social workers did what they could, but this also meant that Schrantz was a bit SOL, being apparently too old for the criteria.

What she did get was temporary housing, a promise of disability pay until she had returned to adulthood, and an ancient cell phone that wasn’t even smart, but at least wasn’t a flip. It was an early 00s slider.

While she got the housing, she wasn’t going to see any money until Congress ironed out the whole deal on how to declare people no longer dead, and she wasn’t holding her breath, so she finally gave in and called her parents in Indianapolis, and got both of them talking on the same cell phone speaker.

They had seen the news stories and heard mention of her agency being involved, and had been beside themselves. She spent the first half hour reassuring them that she was fine, mostly, before she broke the big news about her now much younger status.

“So, it’s kind of weird,” she went on, “But I’m like this adult teenager in limbo, until Congress figures out how to classify us. I’m wondering, then, can I come home and live with you both again until this all resolves itself? Or five years, whichever comes first.”

There was a long silence on the other end, and then her mother spoke. “Of course you can, dear,” she said. “But… can we tell everyone that you’re our niece or something?”

“Why’s that?” Schrantz asked.

“Been a lot of bad blood out here between the living and the undead,” her father replied in his unvarnished way. “Not that we actually have any undead here. But mother and I wouldn’t want you getting killed or anything,” he continued. “I mean, if that’s possible.”

“I’m not ‘undead,’” she reminded them. “Just… unaged.”

“We know that,” he continued, “But people in these parts are not the most critical of thinkers, and you popped up at the same time, so you’re all the same in their minds. But sure, of course we’ll take you in.”

“Of course, dear,” her mother continued. “How soon can you be here?”

“Well, that’s the other thing,” Schrantz sighed. “I kind of need a ticket to ride, as the Beatles said. Bus, plane, train, some cousin I’ve never met who’s driving that way…”

“Right,” her mother replied, her father obviously sighing heavily in the background. “But, how are you going to get on most of those when your ID probably doesn’t match what you look like now? I mean, if that whole de-aging thing is true.”

Schrantz froze and looked at the screen. “Shit!” she finally muttered.

“I think you can still do the bus,” her mother went on. “Although you do have a cousin who’s about to drive out here.”

“Really?” Schrantz asked. “Who?”

“You remember Tommy?” her mother asked.

Schrantz did, and her immediate reaction was to say “Oh hell noes,” but she didn’t, because all of her negative reactions to him had happened, oddly enough, before the time she’d aged into the form she was stuck with now.

And the more she thought about it, while those moments had been creepy, they had also not really been rapey either. Then again, he was the same age as her, which she wasn’t now, so she didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll give him a chance, Mom,” she finally replied, “But he used to be really creepy, so if I say no to him — ”

“Understood, dear,” her mother replied. “I think you’ll find that he’s changed.”

“Whatevs,” Schrantz thought, but she finally told her mom to send him along. What’s the worst that could happen? She could easily dick-punch him into the next county if she wanted and if he tried any crap, since she’d been trained in that.

All her worries vanished when he pulled up to her place and hopped out of his car, a Toyota Yaris with a huge rainbow flag sticker on the back. He certainly had changed since the days of being a creepy youth. He was tall, thin, all glowed up, a bit on the flamboyant side, and a very snappy dresser.

“Cousin Becky!” he cried out. “Look at you, girl. I remember you at that age. And I remember you a lot older.”

“I didn’t think I’d seen you since I was about fourteen.”

“We were both at grandma Remy’s funeral,” he explained, “Although we didn’t talk because I didn’t stay for much of it. It was right before I came out to the family, so I wasn’t in the mood to be social just then.”

“Well, you’ve certainly changed,” she said.

“Nah, I haven’t changed. I just burst from my cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. Now, come on, baby girl. We’ve got some driving to do to get you home.”

They loaded her stuff into the car — she had stored or sold almost everything, although she had to rely on a friend on the force who hadn’t de-aged to handle renting the storage and arranging movers.

They took a few days to drive back to Indiana, staying in nice hotels when they stopped — and always two separate rooms. Tommy explained up front that Schrantz’s parents had paid for everything and reserved the rooms online.

He finally got her home and stayed for the evening and the next day socializing with his aunt and uncle, then continued on his way. As for Schrantz, she finally did wind up living at home for the next five years. Somewhere during that, although not soon enough, the governments involved finally got the whole restoration of personhood thing sorted, and she began to collect her permanent disability benefits from San Bernardino County and the state of California, despite not living in the state, which was a thoughtful exemption they’d included.

Once she’d been declared a person again and had her prior information restored, she used her graduate degrees in Law and Criminal Science to get into a PhD program and, while she couldn’t qualify for Quantum Physics like she’d wanted to, she did get into a PhD program in Quantum Ethics, finishing the program as part of the class of 2030, at the technical age of 20 going on 50.

She would never know the irony: She had gone into exactly the same field that had brought Ausmann to Operation Slingback in the first place.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #59: The Rêves Part 37

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

Zero Hour

Simon and the Boys made sure that Joshua was up well before seven in the morning, although Joshua himself was uncharacteristically ready to go. At seven on the dot, he called Brenda.

“Hi, Josh,” she answered when she picked up in the middle of the first ring. “Construction barriers have been set up on all freeway routes into Pasadena, with at least three-mile detours before off-ramps, but which will lead to really complicated street routes back, and we’ve also shut down all Metro stations in all of Pasadena.”

“Wow,” Joshua replied. Thanks! So… once you re-open, how long will it take people to get to us?”

“Usual time,” Brenda said. “Which is why we’re not going to open until you tell us to. The only complication might be Federal agents, but we can at least provide them with enough union rule headaches to stall them for half an hour or so.”

“Great,” Joshua said. “So, we are going to send the message and go pick up the package. Thanks!”

“You too. Good luck!” Brenda hung up and Joshua dialed Ausmann’s burner.

It took him a few rings to pick up before he answered with a terse, “Yeah?”

“Hey, Assman,” Joshua replied in high spirits, “We’ve got Lorre, he can definitely tell you how to destroy the Rêves, and it’s go time. We can be there to pick you up in half an hour or less.”

“What do you mean ‘pick me — ’”

Joshua didn’t let him finish. “You heard me,” he said. “It’s for your own protection.”

“How the hell do you even know where I am?” he demanded.

“Because we have spies,” Joshua said. “What? You thought that turning my husband into one of them wouldn’t have consequences?”

“Oh, goddamn you!” Ausmann spat.

“No, dear,” Joshua replied glibly. “God has already damned you. Now get ready, because we’re going to be there really soon. Bye!”

Joshua hung up and the four of them headed downstairs and piled into the Tesla. Joshua drove — of course — and they were actually in DTLA and at the Alexandria hotel in about eighteen minutes — the advantages of a traffic-free Saturday because most people had already fled the city for the holiday.

Preston and Danny took advantage of their physical state to skip the elevators and head on up, while Simon also begged off of the elevator, but promised he’d wait for Joshua upstairs. Joshua took the slow human transit and, when he arrived, found Simon true to his word.

They went to Ausmann’s door — the boys had told them the number — but before they could knock, they heard a lot of commotion inside.

“Fuck it,” Joshua said, moving to ram the door open, but Simon stopped him and pushed his way through it, unlocking it from inside.

Joshua’s entrance startled the other occupants — Simon, Danny, and Ausmann.

“All right,” Joshua called out. “Fucking freeze. We are here to take you back to JPL in order to do what you need to do to end the Rêves. Okay?”

“What makes you think I want to go back there?” Ausmann demanded.

“Because it’s the only place you can do what you want to,” Joshua explained.

“What if I don’t believe you?”

“Well, then,” Joshua replied, approaching him, “I believe that the term is… oh, what is it?” He quickly swung up his arm and jammed the high voltage Taser into Ausmann’s shoulder, bringing him to the ground. “Oh yeah. Right. Bringing you into custody in a subdued state. Boys?”

Simon, Danny, and Preston merged together and picked up Ausmann’s unconscious body. They dumped it in the convenient wheelchair, and then the three-in-one of them rolled it out and down the hall, letting Joshua take it into the elevator.

They all reconvened in the lobby, got Ausmann out to the guest parking lot three stories down, then dumped his ass in the trunk, shut the lid, and set off for JPL.

They made their way out of downtown via the 110 and then the 2, heading almost due north. As they approached the 210, Joshua saw the brilliance of what Brenda had done — the entire interchange between it and the 2 was shut down, allegedly for construction, traffic being rerouted off the freeways in all directions.

Joshua pulled up to one of the workers standing by a barrier and rolled down the window. Danny and Preston were hiding in Simon again so that he would appear like a normal human and not draw any attention.

“Road’s closed,” the man said, but then Joshua showed him the credentials Brenda had sent him on his phone. The man pulled a device from his tool belt, scanned it, then nodded and whistled loudly.

He was soon directing some of his men and they quickly lifted one of the concrete rails and moved it out of the way. One of the other men waved Joshua and he drove through, onto the completely deserted 210.

“Wow,” he said to Simon. “Want to see what this thing can really do?”

“I’ve seen what your thing can really do. Besides, you don’t want to overshoot the exit.”

“Party-pooper,” Joshua teased him. But it was true. They were at the exit to Oak Grove Drive in no time. Joshua drove up, but not directly onto the campus. Instead, he pulled up outside of the emergency exit they had used the last time they left.

Simon took a still groggy Ausmann out of the trunk and carried him to the door, which is when Simon realized that it had no keypad or keyhole on the outside, Danny and Preston slipping out of him once he had put Ausmann down.

Meanwhile, Joshua did a quick search of the neighborhood, found a safe residential street nearby with no parking limits, and sent the Tesla off to park and wait until he called it back.

When he got there, Ausmann was starting to focus, and he looked at the door.

“We can’t get in from this fucking side, you idiots!” he spat at them.

“True,” Simon replied, slowing pushing his way through the door, then opening it from the inside. “Ta-da!”

“This way, please,” Joshua said, gesturing Ausmann in, and they all headed toward the tachyon generator chamber.

There was a surprise waiting for them before they got there.

“Well, hello, dear!” a voice called out as a trio of women stepped around the corner into view. Joshua and Simon recognized two — Anabel and Pearl — but not the third.

“Coraline!” Ausmann exclaimed, stunned.

“I bet you never thought you’d see me again, dear,” she said. “Correction: hoped. I would get my revenge on you in the obvious way, except that your machine would just bring you back, meaning we really would be stuck together forever.”

“Revenge? You died when the house collapsed.”

“I saw what you did,” she countered. “That’s what you get when shiny things fall into the basement from the upper floor. I knew you couldn’t resist coming here, so I brought some friends.”

There was something weirdly mythical about it, Joshua thought — the young and ethereal Anabel, the earthy Pearl, and the very senior Coraline, standing shoulder to shoulder, apparently with one goal.

“So what are you going to do?” Ausmann asked nervously.

“We can’t stop you,” Anabel explained, “If that’s what you’re wondering. All we can do is let you try.”

“I will succeed!” Ausmann insisted.

“No, darlin’,” Pearl cut in. “You will fail and see the futility of your efforts, and then maybe you’ll turn yourself over to human justice for all your crimes.”

“There is no futility!” Ausmann shouted. “I have a secret weapon.” He turned to Joshua. “Where is he?”

Joshua looked anxiously to the women, but Pearl gave him a look and a feeling shot over him that he understood as full permission. He took the trap out of his pocket and opened it. The usual smoke shot out and coalesced into Peter Lorre, in character.

He was about to speak to Ausmann when he looked past him. “Pearl?” he said nervously.

“Mr. Cairo,” they replied, but said nothing else while giving him a serene look as he heard the whispers of the Hadas in his ears.

We know exactly what you’re all doing and what you have planned, so do it as you planned it, and we will play along. But don’t be afraid of anything we say, except in character, of course.

Pearl smiled broadly at him, and then Lorre turned to Ausmann, feeling an enormous sense of confidence and relief — so he turned up the performance as weasly sell-out lackey to ten.

“What do you want of me?” he pleaded to Ausmann. “I am innocent, I did not do anything.”

“I want information,” Ausmann said.

“Anything, anything please, I beg you,” Lorre went on in a very convincing manner.

“All right,” Ausmann said. “What will destroy the Rêves for good?”

Lorre started at him bug-eyed, then looked at Pearl nervously. She glared at him while sending him encouraging thoughts on his performance.

“I… no. No, please, anything else, but they are my friends. I cannot let you destroy them.”

“So it is possible?” Ausmann asked him.

“Of course it…. oh, damn you! Damn me, you have made me say too much,” Lorre exclaimed, making what could have been melodrama work by sheer virtue of his well-crafted creepy little screen persona — which was nothing like him in real life.

“And you know how to do it.” Ausmann announced in triumph. “So give me the information.”

“Or what?” Lorre attempted defiance, but it was backed by terror.

Ausmann just pointed to the trap. “Back in there for you, sealed in forever and no getting out. Didn’t that happen to you in a movie with Vincent Price?” he suddenly asked.

“I was in that movie,” Lorre replied, briefly changing character, “But I was Montressor. I could be again, but then I would not negotiate.”

“Fine, then back to whatever sniveling little coward you were.”

“Is there anything else I can tell you, please?” Lorre groveled.

“No.”

“But you have no idea what they’ll do to me if I tell you,” he said, looking at the three women, terrified.

“If you tell me, they’ll be gone,” Ausmann explained. “They couldn’t do anything.”

“But I would be gone, too,” Lorre added sadly. “You are asking my suicide.”

“Actually,” Simon suddenly spoke up, “If he’s in the trap, he should be protected from anything that happens to the rest of the Rêves, and we can let him out later.”

“So there’s your offer,” Ausmann said. “Save yourself, or I swear that I will get one of you to give the information. After all, if you have it, one of them must — ” he gestured toward Simon and the boys, “And I don’t care who I have to torture to get it.”

Lorre realized that this was the climactic moment of the scene, so he fell to his knees, tearing up although he didn’t go so far as to sob. His eyes darted from the women to Ausmann to the men and back, and he finally let his entire body sag in defeat.

“Deal,” he said. “I will tell you.”

The women feigned outrage — well, all except Coraline, who wasn’t faking it, but Anabel and Pearl easily held her back. Meanwhile, the other four were quietly elated.

“It’s fucking working,” Joshua thought to himself.

“So tell,” Ausmann replied.

“It is the machine sustaining us,” he explained. “In order to destroy the Rêves, you need to create a paradox.”

“Doesn’t the machine already do that?” Ausmann asked.

“Apparently not,” Lorre said.

“There’s a certain self-correcting dynamic in time travel,” Simon explained. “It helps prevent paradoxes.”

“So how do we uncorrect it?” Ausmann demanded.

“I do not know what it means,” Lorre explained, “But they have told me, you have to drop mass into the containment field.”

Joshua stepped forward in a fake a-ha moment. “Of course!” he said. “So far, we’ve only been sending messages on the thing. But if we sent something with mass back, it kind of breaks the rules of physics, which would create one hell of a paradox — ”

“And un-create all of us,” Lorre added sadly.

“So what kind of mass?” Ausmann asked. Joshua pretended to do some quick calculations, then announced, “Not much. Maybe a kilo. And not that big. I mean, you want it to pass between the super-conductor pipes, right?”

“I know just the thing,” Ausmann said, heading for his office. The other men followed, while the women and Pearl stayed behind.

In his office, he took a highly polished metal sphere off of a stand. It was about four inches in diameter. “Beryllium,” he said. “This is a kilo. Highly valued in the aerospace industry because it’s so light. It should do the trick, so let’s go play ball.”

As they started off, Joshua caught Lorre’s attention and pulled out the trap, indicating it. Lorre nodded and Joshua opened it, pulling him back in for safe-keeping. Ausmann led the way back to the generator itself, and then they all ascended the many flights of stairs to the catwalk above.

Neither Joshua nor Simon had ever seen the view from up here, but it was beautiful, really, the lightning-like stream of electric-blue plasma flying down the space between the six bright yellow pipes that shepherded it all the way to Virgina.

It was an impressive feat, really. Kind of a shame to shut it down, although Joshua felt no regrets now because, obviously, the thing didn’t really work. Telegram to the past, my ass, and he knew that first-hand.

But then, Joshua noticed something that wasn’t apparent on the ground, nor was it in any of the specs. He could see a reflection from here, between the pipes, and it obviously wasn’t coming from the plasma, since that was impossible.

The overhead lights were reflecting off of some sort of transparent shielding around the plasma itself. “Shit,” he sighed.

“What?” Simon asked him.

“Reflection,” Joshua pointed as Ausmann announced, “All right. We’re all doing this together, because if this shit blows up, we’re all going together, okay?”

He headed up the last stairway, which led to a railed observation platform that was directly above the first stretch of the plasma and tubing.

Only now, Joshua and Simon were feeling uncertain. Why hadn’t that shield been mentioned in the specs? Was it made of some top-secret indestructible material? Were they about to fail spectacularly as the sphere bounced off of it harmlessly?

They and the boys followed Ausmann up to the platform, Joshua and Simon exchanging a look, then glancing at Danny and Preston, who decided to suddenly take refuge in Simon just in case.

Ausmann stood at the rail looking down.

“I know she’ll survive this,” he said. “Oh — the machine, not my former wife or any of those creatures down there. But it’s probably going to be interesting.”

“No doubt,” Joshua said.

Ausmann leaned forward and held the sphere over the tube, closed one eye to aim, and then started counting down. “Three… two… one.”

On one, he let the sphere go but, at the same time, Joshua and Simon — who of course was able to do so — grabbed each of Ausmann’s legs, lifted, and pitched him over the side.

They could hear the sphere shatter glass first, but then an instant later, Ausmann hit the pipes. Danny and Preston abandoned Simon and they all took off in Rêve fashion, Simon warning Joshua as they went, “Run!”

Joshua didn’t need to be told twice. He skipped putting his feet on the stairs and rode the hand rails down as many cases has he had to until he was able to burst out a door and slam it behind himself.

That left no human witnesses to what happened next.

The sphere cracking the glass actually did nothing. It dropped through and vaporized almost instantly when it hit the plasma. The containment field did its thing.

But when Ausmann hit, he was flailing and had managed to twist sideways, so that his entire torso hit two of the pipes. They didn’t give right away but, true to Simon’s calculations, the joints to the adjacent sections had been weakened enough that they were slowly giving away.

Ausmann was stunned enough to do nothing for a few seconds, which was also all the time it took Joshua to get his human body away from the area and onto the safe side of thick concrete walls. Then, right as Ausmann tried to roll over and get up, the pipes gave way.

He and they fell, shattering the tube completely, and he kept right on going. The parts of him between his shoulders and his knees were incinerated instantly, the other bits hitting the concrete below.

When the pipes broke, liquid hydrogen immediately boiled out, sending up white clouds that were still very cold. With the containment gone, the plasma suddenly expanded as well and, unlike the hydrogen, it began to cool down rapidly. The blue glow vanished almost immediately, and by the time the burning plasma had expanded to about three times its original volume, it was no warmer than a Finnish sauna.

With the containment gone, the tachyons were free, and they had actually firehosed out of the initial small breach in the plasma, which had happened in the first microseconds after Ausmann fell in. Unlike the other escapees, no one could see the tachyons because they were gone before they got there, so it looked like nothing was happening. At least below ground.

But that stream shot up and got wider as it went, a like lawn sprinkler sending up a cone of water.

What Joshua and crew also couldn’t see was that they had a lot of company upstairs, and they’d all basically arrived at the same time about half an hour ago, traffic block notwithstanding, because all of them had originally intended to make this a pre-dawn raid, which meant they’d been aiming to arrive by six a.m., not nine.

Captain Shrantz and her crew were here, along with Captain Davis and Lieutenant Lewis on their own. About twenty minutes after they’d arrived, the FBI did show up — and then none of them could figure out how to get into the complex, so there were a lot of calls to home base and haggling back and forth, so all of them were distracted when… something happened.

There was no big bang or flash or anything like that. There was definitely a feeling that came with it, but suddenly everything within about a hundred foot radius just… changed.

No one knew what had happened, only what they experienced. Davis and Lewis suddenly both looked like they were in their late 20s again, although their cruiser and their uniforms — and all of their clothes and other possessions — had vanished, with the exception of Davis’ chai necklace, which her grandmother had given her when she became bat mitzvah, and which she never took off, and their wedding rings. They had married at 26.

The same thing happened to countless other law enforcement officers around them, with most of the vehicles in the lot within the area suddenly gone, the few exceptions being employee vehicles like a fully restored OG Volkswagen Bug, a couple of vintage cars from the 30s or 50s, or anything from earlier than about 1990.

And the place was populated with hordes of now naked people of varying ages, all the way from infants to, at most, maybe mid-40s, but the latter were few and far between.

Shrantz found herself thirteen again, or so she estimated, and awkward and embarrassed as hell, although that was a very common reaction from everyone right now.

Then it became apparent that a lot of the younger officers in their 20s were just gone. Not there at all. Vanished. And though no one noticed, the trees were shorter and younger, some of them not even there, and the buildings, especially Ausmann’s complex, looked decidedly newer.

So did some of those 80s and early 90s clunker cars still remaining.

But everyone was blind to the obvious because they were all so focused on their own situation and their inability to process what had happened. That, and suddenly being naked in front of their co-workers.

Well, except for two Mormon FBI officers, who had owned the same sets of secret underwear since their mission days in their early 20s, which they had almost caught up with, but not enough that they lost their undies. Of course, to them, that was just as bad as being seen in nothing.

But if they had actually taken a moment to think about what had apparently happened, their next question would have been, “But then why do I remember my future?”

Down below, Joshua had seen none of this, and he had managed to get to where Simon and the boys were before shit went down. This also happened to be where Pearl and the ladies were, and he joined them, breathing heavily.

“Well,” he said, “I think that worked.”

He smiled, and then the other six of them abruptly vanished.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #47: The Rêves Part 25

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. And brace yourselves for next week’s installment. As some of the characters might say, it’s a doozy.

Laughing boy

When Joshua and Simon saw the afternoon news about the famous Rêves showing up in Hollywood, they headed over as quickly as they could. Fortunately, the Metro was running again, although large sections of the platforms were still closed off for cleaning, and parts of the tunnel walls were still visibly muddy.

A lot of stores were still boarded up on the Boulevard, although many of them had “Come in we’re open” painted on the boards in neon colors.

It didn’t take them long after they’d come up onto the sidewalk to spot their first celebrity ghost. It was W.C. Fields, as he appeared in the film Poppy, with the long black frock coat over pinstriped trousers, and a tall, white top hat. He wore an ascot and carried a walking stick.

He probably kept showing up in this outfit because it was everyone’s most well-known image of him, and the one most frequently slapped up on murals around town. Like a lot of the older Rêves, his image was a ghostly grayscale, shadow of the black and white films he appeared in.

He noticed Joshua and Simon staring at him and wandered over, appearing to be completely drunk because that was his screen persona. (It was also his real-life persona, but that was a different story.)

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he began in his familiar-side-mouthed banter. “I see that you clearly recognize me, and the memorialization of me with my aficionados via photography seems to be very popular nowadays. So, I will accommodate you and, for the mere price of the visage of Mercury, a mere bit of silver, one thin dime, I will pose for you both.”

They fished in their pockets, and Simon actually came up with a dime, handing it to W.C., who squinted at it askance. “Since when do they put a sitting president on money?”

“They did that right before you d — ” Joshua started to say, but Simon elbowed him, then the three of them moved together and Simon held up the “camera.”

“Oh,” he said. Forgot to take off the lens cap.” He removed the cover, and Fields whooshed into the trap, which Simon closed.

“What did you do that for?” Joshua demanded.

“I have my reasons,” Simon said. “Give our gay uncles a call, and ask Drew whether he knew W.C. Fields.”

“How would he possibly — ”

“He’s ancient,” Simon reminded him.

“Right,” Joshua said, dialing. After putting up with a bit of small-talk, he finally asked, “Look, did you actually know W.C. Fields?”

“Knew of him,” Drew replied. “Gigantic lush, so they said, but I never actually met him.”

“Oh,” Joshua replied, face falling. Simon gestured to him and took the phone.

“Drew, hi, it’s Simon! Yeah, fine, we’re doing great, wedding still on schedule… aw, thank you. Anyway, I don’t suppose you’ve seen the news about what’s… no, I guess there hasn’t been anything good on the news in over a decade now. But… let’s put it this way. Which famous Hollywood celebrities did you know pretty well and personally?”

“Well… Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Jack Nich — ”

“No, Uncle Drew… I mean dead ones?”

“Oh. God, I couldn’t possibly tell you all. Do you have any specific ones in mind?”

Simon looked around the crowd, seeing lots of Rêves, but not recognizing all of them, so he finally just turned on the camera and started transmitting live to Drew.

“Holler if you see one,” Simon said.

He scanned past a bunch of them with Drew offering his quiet “No’s,” until he finally said, “Wait, stop, go back.”

Simon panned the camera back to his left and stopped on Drew’s word on a rather striking-looking Hispanic man with a very intense gaze and a pencil moustache. Like Fields, he appeared as a grayscale phantasm.

“Him,” Drew said. “That one. I knew him rather well.”

“Who is he?” Simon asked.

“I knew him as Ramon Samaniego. The world knew him as the famous film star and Latin Lover slash Ladies’ Man Ramon Novarro. Gigantic fag who liked the younger boys, and that is how and why I knew him.”

That well?” Joshua chimed in.

“You have no idea,” Drew laughed.

“Thanks!” Simon said, hanging up, gesturing to Joshua. “Photo time.”

“And then what?”

“Trust me.”

“Of course.”

They headed over to Ramon, who didn’t seem to be getting much notice from the crowd, so Simon went into his best fanboy routine. “Oh my god,” he said. “Aren’t you Ramon Navarro?”

“Why, yes, I am, young man,” he replied in Hollywood’s version of the way an Hispanic person spoke circa the 1930s.

“Can we take a picture with you? Please?” Simon asked.

“Of course,” Ramon said, and they posed next to him. Simon popped up another trap, removed the “lens cap,” and captured Ramon, capping it and slipping it into his pocket.

“Now what?” Joshua asked.

“I’ll make the sacrifice and head up to visit Brent and Drew,” Simon said.

“You know you secretly love hanging out up there,” Joshua teased him.

“I know that I’d love Drew giving us a way to stop this war a lot more,” Simon replied.

“Oh. What about W.C. Lush?” Joshua reminded him.

“Right,” Simon said, taking out the first trap and removing the lid. Fields shot out, resolving from a puff of black smoke to wind up sitting on the street, looking very confused.

“Godfrey Daniels!” he called out to no one in particular. “Must have gotten hold of a bad batch of the old moonshine. I hereby reject the Demon Rum! Angel Whisky will have to suffice henceforth.”

Joshua and Simon took the Metro back home, then hopped into the Tesla and drove up to the top of the mountain to visit Brent and Drew. Drew had already laid out an enormous buffet lunch for them all — of course — and Drew was urging them to go swimming, but Joshua gestured to Simon.

“We have a present for you,” he explained and Simon took out the trap.

“Make-up?” Drew asked, confused.

“No. Old acquaintance. Maybe you can remind him about those days of yore.”

Simon opened the trap and Ramon appeared much the way W.C. Fields had — a wisp of black smoke that coalesced into human form leaving him standing on the poolside terrazzo, looking confused. He appeared to be in about his mid-30s, although Simon had read up on him on the drive over, and knew that he had died at 69 in 1968, murdered by a couple of hustler brothers who’d talked their way up to his Laurel Canyon home, promising sex but really hoping to steal the vast stash of cash they’d heard was hidden in the house.

Spoiler alert: There was no cash. Novarro’s career had slowed down considerably after he left MGM in 1935.

“Ramon…” Drew said quietly when he recognized the Rêve. At this moment, Ramon’s specter took on a pale wash of living color, but his appearance didn’t change as he turned to look at Drew.

“¿Nos conocimos, señor?” he asked. Noting Drew’s confused look, he continued, “Have we met?”

“Oh, you bet we have,” Drew replied. “You remember your house, on Laurel Canyon, about two miles up from Ventura?

Ramon shook his head blankly. “I don’t remember any such place,” he said.

“Where did you live?”

“I am Judah Ben-Hur,” he announced, suddenly appearing in the costume from that 1925 silent epic.

Joshua and Simon looked at each other, confused, but then realized that Brent had wandered outside, munching on a broccoli floret and staring.

“My god, is that — ”

“Sssh!” Joshua hissed at him, then whispered. “Yes, but stop thinking of him like that.”

“But — ”

“Drew knew him, and that’s what we’re counting on. Didn’t you know him?”

“Bitch, please. I was like… seven when he died? And I certainly didn’t learn about it until I read Hollywood Babylon.”

“This is a very delicate operation that could avert a war,” Simon explained calmly. “So… please?”

Brent rolled his eyes, but then retreated inside with a “whatever” shrug.

Meanwhile, Drew had approached Ramon. “That’s exactly what you said to me the first time we were alone together. Remember?”

“Who are you?” Ramon demanded.

“You said, ‘I am Judah Ben-Hur,’ and I said, ‘Who the hell is that?’ And the look on your face was so stunned that I just started laughing my ass off. And you smiled and said, ‘Well, at least you know that movie of mine.’ Of course, I didn’t.”

“So I’m not Judah Ben-Hur?”

“Well, yes and no. I mean, actors can be many different people.”

“I’m an actor?”

“Honey, what the hell did you think you were?” Drew laughed. “And, hate to tell you, but the way they’d put it on Wikipedia is ‘was an actor.’ Past tense.”

“So who are you?” Ramon practically spat the words at him.

“Oh… a little fling you had right after we met at your 42nd birthday party, which happened to be right after I turned fifteen, and we had our fun for a few months anyway. I probably never would have done it if I’d known you were famous. I mean, thrown myself at you like I did.”

Ramon just stared at Drew in silence.

“Do you remember what you called me?” he asked. Ramon said nothing. “That’s okay, it was a long time ago,” he continued. “After the first time, you called me ‘Little Dandy Andy.’ Ring any bells?”

The image of Ramon collapsed to the terrazzo in a tumble of black smoke. Drew tried to move toward it, but Joshua and Simon held him back.

“Trust us,” Joshua said. “I think you’re on the right track.”

After a moment, Ramon solidified out of the black smoke, lying on his side, facing away from Drew. At the same time, gray smoke drifted toward Drew and then coalesced into another manifestation of Ramon, this one a bit older, and not dressed in a fanciful costume.

Real Ramon materialized, staring at Drew. “Andy!” he finally said, rushing to embrace him. Famous Ramon stood and also stared, not sure what to think or do.

What none of them except Real Ramon knew was that he was seeing Drew has he’d been on that night in mid-winter of 1941, when they’d first met.

Simon looked about over the moon, smiling at Joshua, but Joshua didn’t seem so sure.

“What?” Joshua said when he noticed Simon staring at him.

“I think we’ve found the key to preventing the war!” he said.

“You really think so?” Joshua replied. Simon gave him a “duh” look, but then Joshua gestured back to the others. “Think again,” he sighed.

Simon looked. The two Ramons were facing off, insulting each other left and right in Spanish before starting to physically grapple, finally blasting off into the sky in two different directions.

Joshua gave Simon a smug look, to which Simon replied, “Hey, Danny and Preston did that, and they seem to get along now.”

“How the hell would you know that? We haven’t seen them since they flew off.”

“We haven’t…?” Simon searched his mind, and then realized that Joshua was right. And yet he had a vivid memory of Preston and Danny returning, both of them working together. This was followed by a weird moment of vertigo and he had to find a chair to sit on immediately.

“You okay?” Joshua asked as he hurried over.

“Yeah,” Simon answered. “Fine. Just a little head rush.”

“Hm. Lose one word from that sentence, and you may have found the cure.”

“Stahp!” Simon fake-demurred.

“Let’s get you home anyway,” Joshua said, helping Simon up, only to see Brent standing in the doorway.

“You all are taking some of this home,” he said.

“We really don’t — ” Simon started, but Joshua pinched him.

“Of course, Brent. Not too much, because we’ve got limited freezer space, but definitely the good stuff.”

Sure, it was a lie. They had enough freezer space to store ten dead elk. Not that either of them would condone killing elk, of course. They wound up leaving the place laden down with half a dozen grocery bags full of disposable plastic containers stuffed to the gills anyway.

Good thing that Teslas had trunk space front and back, since it didn’t have a traditional engine. They wound up stopping at the 170 and Tujunga underpass on the way home and dropping off most of the food for the homeless camp there.

Waste not, want not.

And, more importantly, how were they actually going to prevent this damn war?

* * *
Image source Ramon Novarro in Mata Hari by kndynt2099, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The Saturday Morning Post #46: The Rêves Part 24

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

Shot in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heh heh, you’re a dick,” Danny said.

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

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

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

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

“What is that?” Daniel asked.

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

“Duh…”

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

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

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

“I’m Danny,” Danny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who told you that?” Preston demanded.

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

“Interesting,” Danny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two questions,” Danny interrupted.

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

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

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

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

“His cabin?”

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

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

“We can do that?” Jerry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“You recognize the name.”

“Sure. But?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No shit?” Pearl replied.

“No shit,” Danny told them.

“Where is he?”

Preston turned and pointed at the cabin.

“You’re sure?” they asked.

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

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

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

Well, apparently not all of them.

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

“What are we waiting for?” Anabel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How about a challenge?” Anabel announced.

“Like what?” Ausmann replied.

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

“Catch me with what?” he asked.

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

“Make it ten, bitch,” Ausmann replied.

“So you accept?” Anabel asked him.

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

“Knock yourself out,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #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