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

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

Anabel and Ausmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” she demands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We all, who?” Ausmann asked.

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

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

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

“When  have I ever gone full — ”

She shot him a look that shut him up.

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

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

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

“Why not?” she asked.

“I don’t trust you,” he replied.

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

“Fine!” he spat back.

“Fine,” she waved him off.

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

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

“I’ll ignore that,” Ausmann replied —

“Please don’t,” Anabel spat back.

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind even are you?” Ausmann demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what are you?” he asked.

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

“A scientist,” Ausmann replied.

“Mad scientist?”

“Don’t be dramatic,” he sneered.

“Well, what branch of science?”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” he said.

* * *

Split

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young daddies?”

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

“No,” Preston replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember the end of May?”

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

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

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

“Yards,” Simon corrected him.

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

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

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

Preston laughed again as Simon gave Joshua a jaundiced look.

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

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

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

“And then?” Joshua asked.

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

“And?” Joshua and Simon both asked quietly.

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

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

“Well, she was my mother, right?”

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

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

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

“No,” Preston said.

“Do you remember that first shoot?”

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“Well, I can probably arrange that.”

“Cool.”

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

“This was your first shoot,” Joshua said.

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

Joshua nodded and Simon restarted the video.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” Winston asked.

“Danny,” Preston/Danny answered.

“Danny what?” Winston asked.

“Just… Danny.”

Joshua gestured and Simon hit pause.

“Danny what?” Joshua asked.

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

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

“Well, yeah, duh.”

“So you’re really Danny… who?”

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

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

“Hollywood,” Preston insisted.

“And… Danny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah,” Danny replied. “Pocatello.”

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

“What do you mean?” Danny asked.

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

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

“Take your clothes off,” Winston said.

“All of them?” Danny asked.

“All of them,” Winston replied.

Simon paused the video again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Winthorpe… Win… when…? Fuck…”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Angry fuck?” Simon said.

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

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

“What?” Joshua asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #31: The Rêves, Part 9

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.

The inimitable Danny Winthorpe

The first thing that Danny could remember after staring at the mobile of pink and yellow stars spinning above his crib was screaming and slapping. Not much more than that, other than a blonde woman being thrown into a wall and leaving a big dent, then nothing more for a while because nothing stuck.

A vague memory of helping men in black uniforms march a man out of the house down the narrow hallway, red and blue lights flashing, but he was never sure later on whether this was his memory or someone else’s. It did stick, but he always doubted it later on.

Then, one day, sitting on the floor in his bedroom, playing with some Playmobil thing as the morning Sun shone down through the window blinds while dust motes danced in it, he suddenly became aware of having hands, arms, legs, and body parts in general.

It was like a switch got turned on in his head. He still didn’t know his name, but he pretty quickly learned that there was this really pretty blonde woman who loved him and took care of him and her name was Mom.

And then he lapsed into awareness and consciousness, went to pre-school, identified himself as Danny, didn’t grasp the concept of Winthorpe as a last name until he went on to grade school and had to awkwardly print it on forms, and then he began to grow from infant to adult.

Or, as he’d learned in first grade thanks to biology lessons, from tadpole to frog.

Danny thought of himself as a tadpole, hoping to become a frog, but only for a while. Or maybe a toad. Or maybe something else. But when he was about nine, he realized something else.

He had boy parts downstairs, but he was also interested in other people with boy parts, and had no interest in people with girl parts, which just confused him. This also happened to be the year that Will & Grace went off the air but still ran in syndication, and he found the show and realized, “Oh my god, I’m Jack!”

And so life went on until Danny got a lot more daring when chatrooms and webcams became a thing, and while his single mom was cutting people’s hair in the front of their double-wide in Emmett and he was still only thirteen, he was stuck in the back pretending to be older than he was, and figuring out that men would pay him money to show his shit and whatever.

At least their home had survived the flood near the end of that spring, right at the start of June, but the haircutting business got slow for a while, so Danny started upping his game and his prices to help her out. As a cover, he made up a story about selling digital are online and doing custom work, and since he actually did do digital art, it was at least plausible.

“You get a lot of custom work, hon?” his mother asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he explained. “I make stuff for my customers all the time, and I do it all by hand. Well, I mean on the computer, but… you know.”

He was rather proud at having made an absolutely true statement about how he earned the money without her being any the wiser.

Unfortunately, he never figured out the true blackmail potential of his naïve stupidity, and so missed out on actually nailing three Senators, two Congressmen, a Federal Judge, and a beloved children’s TV star big time. Oh well.

When he was sixteen, he finally came out to his mother and she was… not happy. In fact, she kicked him out of the house. He tried to find refuge with each set of grandparents (nope!) and a metric butt-ton of aunts and uncles (likewise nope) and so bought a bus ticket and headed right to L.A. He’d never even bothered to come out to his older sister.

That was after he’d spent a year homeless in Pocatello, of course, so that when he finally left for L.A. he was only four months shy of his eighteenth birthday. Once he’d landed, he hooked up with some porn producer who made him a deal: He could sleep on the couch until he was legal, and then he’d consider bringing him into the business.

What really surprised Danny was how business-like everything was, like he was signing up for a real job and everything. There were W-4s to fill out, and an application which was mostly just for contact info, especially since experience didn’t seem to be a requirement.

One of the running jokes he’d learn as he did get more experience was that “Everyone starts in porn in an entry-level position.”

There was also the government form requiring his proof of age, and he happened to have his birth certificate and fairly new California driver’s license, so that was covered.

And, so Danny Winthorpe did a jerk-off video a week after he turned eighteen for the Desperate Dudes channel, got a lot of hits, and then moved on into real porn.

That first time had been… interesting. The guy who ran the channel and who had let him sleep on the couch was kind of older, totally bald with a gray goatee, but the one thing Danny had always noticed about him was that he was actually totally respectful, which just made him feel really comfortable.

Meanwhile, once they came around to the shoot day, boss dude, who went by the name Winston Winters, introduced his photographer, Jason Blake, who looked to be about thirty, and, to Danny, also really hot, and he had the DSLR on the tripod as well as two other cams, and the first thing he said to Danny when he came into the room was, “Relax, dude. This is going to be the most fun you’ve ever had making money.”

It had seemed a little weird at first, as Winston interviewed him, all the while making it seem like Danny was straight (as if!) until he finally talked him into stripping off and lying down on the tacky mohair couch that looked like it had been stolen from a dorm room lobby.

But then Jason was squatting over him, camera aimed at his crotch, and the vision of easy money danced in his head, and he was suddenly hard as a rock, and he forgot everyone and everything he knew back in Pocatello. Honestly, fuck them all — and he yanked his crank hard and honest until he just looked up into Jason’s eyes, moaned, and shot a load all over the place.

“Cut!” Winston shouted. “Holy shit, boy. That was amazing. So… If you’re interested in doing more, all I need is a contract and a porn name. Any ideas?”

“Not yet,” Danny said. “But… can I get back to you?”

“You fucking well better,” Winston smiled at him.

Meanwhile, Jason leaned down and whispered in Danny’s ear. “You got no place to stay, my couch is open,” he said.

“Oh fuck yeah,” Danny muttered.

He wound up on Jason’s couch, although Jason was a total gentleman, and Danny was the one who had to get aggressive. However, Jason was also a great host, so he took Danny on the grand tour of touristy L.A., especially the cemeteries, because they were both into dead celebrities, and that was how Jason inadvertently led Danny to choosing his porn name.

Jason took him the LeCard Cenotaph, Danny took one look and nearly came in his pants, and then settled on it, the family, and his porn name: Preston LeCard. It just had a really nice ring to it, and sounded very classy. He said it out loud a couple of times to Jason.

“Preston LeCard,” Danny said. “What do you think?”

“I like it,” Jason replied, and that was that.

Meanwhile, nobody back home had any idea what had happened to Danny Winthorpe and the only ones in his family who cared were his cousins, who were his age, so… that identity died once he hit the coast, while his version of Preston LeCard became a Rêve. Easy peasy or, as they said out here, pan comido.

Preston proceeded to do a new video featuring him masturbating at the rate of about two a week at $250 a pop, and he couldn’t believe he was actually getting paid to do something that he already did two or three times a day anyway.

“If only my goddamn family could see me,” he thought, although he secretly suspected that at least two of his uncles probably would because they had been big, closeted hypocrites when they rejected him. He knew for a fact that at least three of his male cousins definitely would run across his work, although they would never rat him out.

In addition to doing the shoots — and every legit film term was naturally funny in porn — Preston also worked part time in the Desperate Dudes offices because he happened to be really good at social media and SEO.

Pretty soon, he was making enough to rent a very small studio apartment in a very old building in Hollywood, one that felt like it should have been haunted, and one that was a block from the Metro Line, which was great, because Preston didn’t have a car anyway. At least not yet, but he had dreams of owning something big, red, and sexy as fuck.

It was around Thanksgiving when Winston asked Preston if he was interested in doing any scenes yet, but Preston just looked confused. “I thought I was shooting scene,” he said.

That’s when Winston realized that Preston didn’t know the terminology. Basically, he’d been doing solos — one performer, one hand, one dick. The next step up didn’t really have any particular term, although Winston referred to them himself as handies — one performer, one dick, someone else’s hand, but only one money shot.

“Those sound interesting,” Preston said as Winston explained the premise. Generally, the ostensible stories were either some young college stud came to get a massage and it had a happy ending, or said young college stud went in for a doctor’s exam that became way more intimate than their insurance probably covered.

“A scene is when we get to the full-on fucking with another person,” Winston continued, “But it’s just that — one couple, one fuck, nothing fancy, everyone cums, the end.”

“That sounds even better,” Preston replied. “Anything after that?”

“That’s called a ‘movie,’” Winston said. “Multiple scenes, semblance of plot, god-awful dialogue, tons of fucking, but we really don’t make those as much anymore.”

“Why not?” Preston asked.

“The death of DVDs, streaming video, short attention spans, and most guys can blast off just from the last ninety seconds of watching a solo, so why get so elaborate?”

“Fascinating,” Preston said, a little disappointed that he wouldn’t become the Tom Hanks of fuck flicks. “But what about those handies?” he asked.

“Those are three hundred seventy-five each,” Winston replied, “Unless it involves tying you up in any way, in which case it’s five hundred. However, we don’t shoot those at the same rate with the same performer as we do the solos, so you’d maybe only do one a month.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Preston replied. “Sign me up, then tie me up.”

Winston just smiled. “You’re going to be a superstar in no time, kid. A viral sensation. Oh… but in the good, not sick way, you know. Not the old, bad one.”

“Got it,” Preston laughed.

A week later, they were shooting Preston’s first handie. Jason was on camera again, and it turned out that Winston was going to be the other performer. “Don’t worry, kid,” he explained. “My clothes are staying on. I don’t want to traumatize you.”

“That’s… people stay clothed in porn?” Preston asked.

“It’s all part of the thrill of the scene,” Winston explained. “One person fully clothed, the other completely naked and vulnerable, the viewers can project themselves into either role. Or both. This one is going to be a massage scene, but you said you wanted to be restrained, right?”

“Extra pay, right?”

“You got it,” Winston said. “I’ll make up some bullshit once I get you on the table about how… I don’t know…”

“Binding the limbs helps free the tantric energy in the chakras?” Justin offered.

“Perfect!” Winston replied. “Oh, don’t worry. These are soft cloth ropes, the other ends are not really going to be tied to anything, and the safe word is… pick a safe word, Pres.”

“Um… Idaho.”

“Got it,” Winston replied. “Ready?”

“Fuck yeah,” Preston told him.

If anything, this experience had been even better than his solo videos because it started out as a pretty legitimate massage with Preston not “restrained” at all, and Winston was clearly a professional at that. By the time Winston told him to roll over, Preston was no longer acting at all. He was just enjoying the moment.

Winston went through the whole chakra/binding spiel, the ropes were put in place fakely, and pretty soon Preston lost all sense of anything besides the crazy waves of pleasure that were wracking his entire body, head to toe.

Winston was clearly a professional at this, too, and it seemed like hours because he knew just when to stop and then start again until, finally, Preston couldn’t take it anymore, arched his entire body off of the table, fired a load that hit the wall two feet behind his head, and screamed in ecstasy like a banshee.

He could have sworn he heard Winston mutter, “Fuck,” under his breath, but then felt a warm, wet washcloth dropped on his crotch, a long moment of silence, and then Jason muttering, “Cut.”

Preston thought he heard a whispered conversation off to the side, but he was too spent to pay much attention until he suddenly started laughing before looking to his right to see Winston and Jason staring at him.

“What?” he asked.

“Winston was just telling me that you are a fucking goldmine, kid,” Jason said.

“No, what I said was, A Star is Porn!”

“Yeah, but I’d never put it like that, you old queen,” Jason laughed. He and Winston looked at each other, laughed, and hugged.

“What?” Preston demanded, thinking they were making fun of him.

“How would you like to start doing two scenes a week for us, minimum rate one grand per?”

“I… so… that’s fucking and stuff, right?” Preston asked.

“Right,” Winston said. “Only if you’re comfortable.”

“I guess it depends on who I start out fucking,” Preston said.

“Or who’s fucking you?” Jason replied.

Their eyes met and Jason smiled. Preston had a little involuntary aftergasm on that moment. “Or… that…” he said, staring right back at Jason. “So… minimum one grand, what ups that rate?”

“Bottoms make fifteen hundred, minimum,” Winston said.

“When do I start?” Preston asked.

He was beginning to realize that his biggest aphrodisiac was money but, on the other hand, if it meant that he’d actually get to get with Jason, there was a bonus involved. He wasn’t really sure about the whole bottoming thing, but everyone had already been so accommodating that he wasn’t worried.

So…when it came the day to film his scene with Jason, the conceit was that Preston’s character had come over to pick up Jason’s character’s little sister to take her to Prom, but Jason was very protective, insisted on giving Preston’s character a private interview and, of course, it eventually led to Jason’s character fucking Preston’s character. But, of course.

You know. Porn logic.

Preston wasn’t quite sure how this was going to work, and he still had Idaho as his safe word, but the instant they got to that point where Jason started rimming him, that was it.

“It feels this good, and they’re going to fucking pay me this much?” he wondered. “Sign me the fuck up fifteen ways from Tuesday.”

By the time Jason introduced Preston to his prostate, the kid was wondering why he wasn’t paying them to perform, but then did manage to restrain himself with the thought, “Nah. That would be totally stupid. You are the product here.”

And he went on to have a really amazing career for five years, winning all kinds of awards, making an additional fortune off of his OnlyFans once that became a thing near the end of his life, and making the name Preston LeCard go viral.

Then came that day in May 2020 when he got the ridiculously lucrative offer to come appear at a Memorial Day gay circuit party in Miami, with fan meet-ups, autograph sessions, and a live strip show. How ridiculous? A half a million dollars’ worth of ridiculous.

Jason tried desperately to talk him out of it. They’d sort of become lovers in a very open relationship ever since their first scene together, not to mention that Jason was also Preston’s agent and business manager, so the kid should have put some stock in someone making money off of him wanting to turn down such an offer.

“It’s not safe,” Jason said. “There’s no reason to expose yourself to this risk. And you are at risk, despite your age. Go read up what peer-reviewed studies are saying. Please!”

Meanwhile, Winston had a different take. “Oh, honey, you’re young, you’ll be fine. Plus it’s hot in Florida, it’s open air. Want to know a secret? I’m old as fuck. When I was your age, it was the height of the AIDS crisis, and I was sucking cock and riding dick left and right in back alleys and bathhouses, and look… Ta-da! In the words of the immortal Stephen Sondheim as sung by Elaine Stritch, I’m still here.”

Preston cringed a little as Winston belted out the notes, but he seemed to have a point.

“Yeah, Sondheim knew. Hell, that motherfucker still does, he’s still alive! You’re young. You’re strong. You’ll be fine.”

Preston wound up taking Winston’s advice, and four weeks later he wound up in an ICU in L.A. an induced coma, with a ventilator down his throat.

Since he hadn’t done anything in the way of power of attorney and there was no apparent family to be found, a doctor had to make the very sad decision to pull Preston out of ICU in order to make the bed available for a 30-year-old mother of three whose husband, a firefighter, had died fighting a brush fire the year before.

It was only because Jason somehow managed to learn about Preston’s location that he arrived fifteen minutes too late to see him die, but he had at least talked him getting married just in case right before it was clear that he’d have to go into the hospital.

They did the whole thing over Zoom, with Winston as the witness, so Jason was able to take custody of the body and arrange for a proper burial.

He had pondered burying Preston as Danny but, in his heart, knew that the kid would have hated that, so he made a compromise with the cemetery.

He bought a small triangular plot next to the LeCard cenotaph, arranged for Danny/Preston to be dropped in there in a standing coffin (to take up minimal space) and then leave it without a marker so that, for all time, Danny would kind of get to forever be associated with his assumed persona.

The Board was never aware of this, of course, but if they had been they probably would have bitch-slapped Jason fifteen ways from Tuesday. Talk about the ultimate travesty of dead-naming, although in a weird sort of reverse way.

Still… barring anyone but Jason and Danny knowing, Preston LeCard was buried a second time that day, and so Preston LeCard would wander the Earth, only as a porn star instead of a scion.

Such was life.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #30: The Rêves, Part 8

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.

Bette’s Bunch

Rather than congregate in one of the bigger and more popular cemeteries closer to Hollywood, the eight of them had come together in a small cemetery in Chatsworth, at what Bette immediately referred to as “The steaming ass-end of the Valley.”

They had chosen the location because it didn’t get a lot of visitors, didn’t really have anyone famous buried there, but did have a large mausoleum with an interior space where they could gather undisturbed.

They were all Class II, and rather prominent ones — besides Bette Davis, the gathering included Humphrey Bogart, Clara Bow, W.C. Fields, Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, and Rudolph Valentino.

Truth to tell, it was like a gathering of a bad Hollywood mural, or the poster art at any of the dozens of tourist trap shops on the Boulevard. What made it worse, of course, was that each of them looked and acted exactly like their most well-known public personas.

Ausmann had been onto something. The Rêves — well, the entities, because he didn’t know how they referred to themselves — were not the ghosts of the famous. They were manifestations of the memories of the living but had somehow become autonomous, sentient, and self-aware.

There were those only remembered by their friends and families, and they clung most strongly to who they really were, especially if those friends and families had a long tradition of passing down lore and memories of their ancestors.

There were also celebrities who had died more recently, so they still had a large number of people who knew them in real life, meaning they tended to alternate between their public and private personae, but were able to do it consciously.

As for the ones too long gone to really be in the living memory of very many people if any, they only showed up as the most famous roles they played. They were also the ones most strongly leaking into the living world of late.

As they entered the crypt, Bette couldn’t help but exclaim, “What a dump!” Meanwhile, Marilyn oohed and cooed at all the fixtures, white dress flapping up in a non-existent breeze. Ginger Rogers, elegant in her own white dress that stayed down at her ankles, twirled and tapped her way across the marble floor.

“Nothing like tapping on marble,” she exclaimed before capping it all with four really fast right buffalos and a flourish.

“Nice job, sister,” Humphrey Bogart said, tipping his fedora to her.

W.C. Fields, wearing his famous outfit from Poppy, complete with top hat, surveyed the place and remarked, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

Jimmy Stewart, looking as earnest as possible, surveyed the room and stuttered his way through, “Drafty old barn of a place. Wonder we don’t all catch pneumonia.”

This left Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino to have an animated conversation with each other, faces very expressive, but despite their mouths moving, all that came out was silence.

“All right,” Bette finally exclaimed. “Anybody have any brilliant ideas, or do I have to come up with everything myself as usual?”

“I don’t know why we’re so upset,” Marilyn exclaimed breathily. “I mean, it’s not like this Anabel person was really in charge of any of us, right? I mean, she was a nobody.”

“Some nobodies are real somebodies, sweetheart,” Bogart replied. “Depends all on whom you ask. And if you don’t ask the right people, you go home in a body bag.”

“Ah, Anabel,” W.C. exclaimed. “Anabel, sweet Anabel. It’s a name that trips right off the tongue. My dear sainted grandmother was named Anabel. So sad that she died in that brewery accident. Beer all over her antimacassar.”

“So, so, so, let’s look at, at what we do know, then,” Jimmy said. “Somebody came and just took, took Anabel. We don’t know who, don’t know who, and so, so, she’s — ”

“Jimmy, honey, I loved you in It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bette snapped, “But can we maybe go Rear Window and get on with it?”

“Right,” he replied, suddenly seeming way more serious. “What we have to wonder is who would have taken her and why? What were they expecting to get out of it?”

Clara jumped forward with an eager opinion as Bette just gave her the side-eye before spitting out, “Nobody can hear a word you’re saying, bitch. And can you try to do something besides the black and white?”

Clara glared at her then looked to Valentino, who pointed to Jimmy, nodding frantically. Since he was dressed as The Sheikh, he had a velvet bag at his side. He took it off his belt, opened it, and poured gold coins onto the floor, although, being insubstantial, they hit and vanished without a sound.

“Money,” Ginger gasped.

“Yeah, but I didn’t see no ransom note, and that’s usually what happens in these situations,” Bogart explained. “You’d especially think so with a dame like Anabel.”

“Why do you act like she’s so goddamn important?” Bette suddenly shouted. “She’s not one of us, clearly.”

“A lot of us seem to think she is,” Ginger replied.

“No. A lot of little people act like she is. “But what do you think they’re going to do about it?”

“The little people are my biggest fans,” Marilyn cooed. “I love them.”

“So are we going to go rescue this dear Anabel or not?” W.C. drawled. “If so, I volunteer!”

“We don’t even know who took her,” Jimmy replied.

Clara started giving some impassioned speech but, again, without sound. Bette stared at her, looking to the others to express her disapproval, then finally said, “How the hell did they ever get your legs close enough together to put you in the coffin, you little whore?”

Clara visibly gasped, eyes going wide, but Valentino held her back. “Oh, right, like you’re going to protect her, you queer wop,” Bette spat.

“Do you have anyone besides Margo Channing you want to pull out of your bag of cheap tricks?” Jimmy asked her.

“Why?” Bette replied. “Margo gets shit done.”

“Does she?” Bogart said.

“I got this meeting together, didn’t I?” Bette spat back at him.

“And it’s accomplished about as much as a weather vane in the basement,” W.C. opined.

“Who asked you, you fucking lush?” Bette said.

“I believe your statement was a question, you harridan,” W.C. replied. “You did not limit the choice of respondents.”

“So then what do we do?” Ginger asked.

“If this Anabel is so important, then I think we need to go find her,” Marilyn stated confidently.

“You kind of need to know where she went first before you can do that, sweetheart,” Bogart drawled.

“So do any of you sons of bitches know where the hell they took her?” Bette shouted, both arms raised at her sides and bent up at the elbow, as if they held two full brandy snifters.

“I didn’t even know who she was before today,” Marilyn gushed.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Bette muttered under her breath.

Just outside of the mausoleum, in a place where they could spy through an upper window while not being observed, Richard and Holden watched the proceedings, and it was all they could do to not laugh their asses off.

They had had no problems at all tracking these celebs to their “secret” meeting because, well, Holden was Class 1, and Richard was one of those mixed cases leaning toward Class 1. Anything that pure Class IIs did leaked out into the Rêve world like crazy, although only the Class 1s noticed.

Holden had also known all of them personally during his life, and he kept giving Richard a running narrative. He had fond memories of Valentino, whom he’d fucked before his film career took off, and admiration for Clara Bow, who really had screwed the entire USC football team. He was less kind to Bette, loved W.C., admired Bogart, and regretted that Jimmy didn’t have a gay bone in his body.

Of course he was totally into Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, the former more than the latter, though, as he quoted the oft-mentioned canard: She did everything that Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.

Really, Ginger had been an early feminist icon. She just never knew it.

But the more they listened to the meeting, the less they worried. Being mere shadows of the public images of themselves, it was doubtful that any of them would ever come up with any meaningful plan, much less figure out where Anabel was, who had taken her, or why.

Not that the Board and the Class 1s had done much better — but at least they didn’t have to worry about this little cabal. Or, as Holden quickly described it, “Bitchy Bette’s fucking clown show.”

* * *

Brent and Drew

There were really only two areas in their lives that Joshua and Simon considered to be their “oil and water” moments. One was in their respective diets. Each of them considered the other’s preferred food choices to be gross. Still, their love was strong enough that Simon easily forgave Joshua’s love of red meat, and Joshua loved Simon so much that he gave the abomination of pineapple on pizza a pass.

But only for him. Anyone else who tried that shit in his presence could just fuck right off.

The other “oil and water” moment centered on the subject of being a naturist, as in Joshua totally was, while Simon really wasn’t. Still, they managed to make it work, so that Simon would go with Joshua to nude beaches or resorts in Palm Springs or to various other nude meet-ups, and Joshua was free to just let it all hang out while Simon kept his shorts on.

Somewhere during all of that, they’d met Brent and Drew, a richer than fuck older gay couple who lived in the Mount Olympus part of L.A., and who’d taken a liking to the boys in a rather paternal way. They’d known the two a while but, by this point, Drew, the older member of the couple, was 97. Brent, meanwhile, was a spring chicken at 62.

Anyway, they had an amazing house, a really private backyard, and a very deep swimming pool and, during the summers, they’d given Joshua and Simon an open invitation to come swim.

Oh… that was possibly a third point of disagreement between Joshua and Simon. The former wanted to buy a house so they could have a secluded yard with a pool. The latter insisted that it would do too much damage to the carbon footprint. As much as he tried, though, Joshua could never prove Simon wrong on that point — although he was sure that one day that he would, and it would probably involve dogs somehow. Or cats. Whichever.

Anyway, they had “Uncle” Brent and Drew’s place to swim, and it was, finally, the one place where Joshua had convinced Simon to drop trou and just enjoy being nude outside. Well, clearly, Simon was really nervous and hesitant about it, and it didn’t help that one time that Drew had gone total perv and jiggled his dick, which Simon really didn’t appreciate.

But… this time around, Drew probably had valuable information. He had worked in the industry since forever, for one thing. Second, he had compiled gay history during that entire time. Third, well, it would probably involve Simon letting his dick get jiggled again, but Joshua didn’t mention that part.

They drove up Laurel Canyon, turned left on one of the streets named Doña something, and then wound up in Mount Olympus, the most pretentiously named development in the entire city, entered the gate code at the bottom of a steep driveway, then drove on up to park in front of a Mid-Century Modern pile of steel and glass that had a commanding view of Los Angeles.

Brent was standing in the doorway in a silk dressing gown that barely covered anything, sipping his coffee, and he shouted, “Hello!” as they approached, giving each of them a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Neither Brent nor Drew were related to Joshua or Simon, although the older men insisted on calling themselves the younger men’s gay aunties. Brent escorted them into the house calling out loudly, “Drew, the boys are here!” before leading them on into the backyard.

It was a rarity for most of Mount Olympus to have a backyard since so much of the place was built on top of mountain ridges. If you’ve ever seen photos of those infamous L.A. homes that stick out from the side of mountains and are supported on stilts, this was one of about three neighborhoods that had them.

Of course, what people don’t realize is that those stilts aren’t really what’s holding the house up. Instead, they’re supported by huge steel beams that go back into the mountain and are usually at least twice as long as the whole house is deep. The dangling bit is all illusion.

But Brent and Drew’s place not only had a huge yard, it was surrounded by high walls, part of the mountain, and lots of tall trees, so it was basically completely secluded. The centerpiece was a huge pool that was ten feet at its deepest — unusual in itself, since most suburban built-in pools in the city maxed out at seven or eight feet.

That was probably because it had originally come with a diving board, but extra homeowner’s insurance costs had led to the removal of most all of those years ago.

“Soda? Beer? Wine? Tea?” Brent offered.

“Water, please,” Joshua and Simon said in unision.

“Well look at you good little boys,” Brent smiled at them, adding, “Get comfortable, get wet,” before going inside.

To outsiders, it might have looked creepy. After all, Brent was more than twenty years older than either of them while Drew was actually twenty years older than twice their ages. But nothing untoward had ever happened except for that one time that Drew had grabbed Simon’s dick, but that was very early on, Joshua had mentioned it to Brent because he knew how much it had creeped Simon out, and it never happened again.

So as Brent went in, Joshua put his towel down on a deck chair and was naked and in the water in about thirty seconds flat. Simon was always more deliberate about it — he carefully folded everything and placed it on a second lounge chair — so Joshua had already done a couple of laps by the time Simon dove in.

“We should really buy a house with a pool,” Joshua told Simon.

“Do you have any idea how much bigger the carbon footprint of a house is?” Simon replied.

“Not if you go completely self-sufficient,” Joshua reminded him. “All solar, sell power back to the grid, recycle everything, grow your own vegetables, 3D print things you need — ”

“Which takes plastic,” Simon said.

“They have a new kind of material that isn’t plastic and it composts,” Joshua answered. “Besides, we could have dogs if we had a house.”

It was a conversation they’d had a dozen times, although Joshua hoped to win the argument one day. Meanwhile, they swam to the side of the pool in the deep end and hung on the wall, enjoying the sun and the cool water.

That was when Drew wandered out, wearing a very bright Hawaiian shirt, blue shorts, and a huge floppy sun hat. Brent insisted on the hat because Drew was completely bald now and had several adventures with melanoma.

Still, he wasn’t doing bad for being 97, and other than a little hearing loss, he was sharp as a tack and virtually a walking encyclopedia. He had worked in the entertainment business for almost his entire life, starting when he was eight years old as a comedic tumbler with his uncle’s comedy act in a Burlesque show in Hollywood.

He had told them once, “Vaudeville was all about the comedy and music, but of course Burlesque was all about the tits and ass. Every show would be two comics and six strippers — they called them ‘coochie dancers,’ and that referred to exactly what you think it did.”

He’d actually worked with some really famous people at the time — this was the early 1930s — and it had been an eye-opening experience. “Back stage, it was nothing but knockers and twats all over the place, and that’s why I realized I was gay at that age. Because none of it did anything for me.”

“So Brent said you had some questions for me about some porn star,” Drew said.

“We do!” Simon called out as the two of them swam to the shallow end and stood facing the wall next to where Drew had taken a seat on a deck chair. In addition to everything he knew about all aspects of entertainment in Los Angeles in the 20th century, Drew had also always been a connoisseur of everything having to do with gay porn.

There was an entire addition to the house, as a matter of fact, that housed his extensive collection of magazines, films, videos, DVDs, clippings, photos, and memorabilia documenting absolutely everything. He had often threatened to write a book or two on the subject, but never did, although professional historians did from time-to-time come to take advantage of his archive.

So yes, Drew knew porn stars.

“What do you know about Preston LeCard?” Joshua asked.

“First, I didn’t know he was a porn star,” Drew replied.

“Why do you say that?” Simon asked.

“Because I knew him. We were born the same year, went to school together up through high school.”

“Wait… you knew Preston LeCard?” Joshua said, incredulous. “The one whose mother was Anabel?”

“Well, that was her name, but she died when he was born. I think that fucked him in the head a little. Probably always felt guilty about it. But no, he never did porn of any kind. Anyway, he was straight as a bone.”

“I think we’re talking about a different Preston,” Simon explained. “This one died about three years ago, when he was twenty-three.”

“AIDS?” Drew asked.

“Corona,” Joshua replied.

“Hm. Any other names?” Drew asked.

“Not that we know of, no,” Joshua said. “Hang on.” He got out of the pool and grabbed his phone, scrolling through it. Simon noticed where Drew’s eyes were pointed, and he kind of envied Joshua’s ability to just be so casual about being nude around other people. He was still trying to get used to it.

Joshua found something and brought his phone to Drew, showing him something. Drew held it at full arm’s length and looked, then tapped to zoom.

“Ah. This one looks familiar. Come up to the archive. I think I can help you.”

They headed upstairs. Simon grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his waist. Joshua did not.

Upstairs felt like a combination of a shrine and a library, carpeted in a thick burgundy plush that helped lend the silence of Importance to the room. Photos on the walls documented the state of the art of gay erotica from almost the beginning of photography up to the present day, and it was easy to see the dividing line in the late 1960s, when suddenly the posing straps or strategically placed hands went away and cocks were liberated in art.

The next dividing line came in the early 1990s, when all the bushes and body hair started going away, although this seemed like the next logical step that had started with the porn staches vanishing in the early 1980s and the mullets and big hair going away by the late 1980s.

Joshua remembered hearing a rumor that a massive outbreak of crabs in West Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York in 1992 was what ultimately led to everyone shaving and waxing everything, and then it stuck. It was still a thing just over thirty years later, although neither Simon nor Joshua were fans of it.

Meanwhile, Drew had taken position at his computer work station in the archive, and it was just another reason that Joshua admired him so much. Simon did too, reluctantly, but it was still going to take him a long time to get over that one dick-grab. Drew was clearly very conversant with computers.

Joshua had figured that out the first time he looked at his desktop to see that it wasn’t cluttered with five hundred icons and fifteen toolbars. The second impressive thing was that Drew had created an insane Excel workbook to track his collection, and he said that he had programmed everything himself.

But first, he had Joshua read off the URL of the video he’d found on his phone and entered it on his computer, then took down a few details. The actor was definitely credited under the name Preston LeCard.

“But you don’t know him?” Simon asked.

“I’ve been a little lax on updating the last few years, and since his career couldn’t have legally started before… 2015, I probably missed him.”

“Didn’t stop Brent Corrigan,” Joshua muttered.

“True. It doesn’t stop any of them. Ah, but… that might be the way in. Hang on.”

Drew got up and went to a locked cabinet, opened it and pulled out a DVD. He brought it over and put it into the computer where it booted up its own software apparently, with a main screen that read “18 U.S.C. § 2251 Database UD 20230415.”

“Why does that look familiar?” Joshua asked.

“Proof of age on file records,” Drew said. “If you want real names of porn stars, this is where to get them.”

“But how did you get that?” Simon asked.

“I have friends in low places,” Drew smiled. He tapped a few keys, searched for Preston LeCard, and the program said “NO RESULTS FOUND.”

“Well, merde,” Drew muttered.

“So… he doesn’t exist, or he wasn’t eighteen?” Joshua asked.

“Or… he only ever filed under a different name in the first place, and the studio just stuck with those records,” Drew said. “Hang on.”

He clicked around and tapped, went back to the original video, then dragged and dropped it into yet another program. This one was called VidViper, and it showed a simple dark green screen with a snake logo. Drew added the words “-Preston –LeCard” into the search field and clicked. A yellow progress bar slowly went from left to right.

“You know, we could really use you on our team,” Joshua said as Simon grabbed his ass and squeezed as if in warning. “What?” Joshua asked him.

“I believe the term is… um… ix-nay?”

“He’d understand that one,” Joshua whispered. “But the judges will accept ‘chill.’”

“Got it. Love you.”

“I know.”

“A-ha!” Drew announced as one result came up on the VidViper screen. “They doxed the kid on his audition film, which was the standard $250 jerk-off session. Since he only ever worked for the same studio, voilà, no need to update the records with his new name.”

“So what’s his name?” Simon asked.

“Patience,” Drew said. I still have to look up the jerk-off name against the official filing.”

“Jerk-off name?” Joshua asked.

“Danny,” Drew said. “Just Danny, but that’s pretty typical.” He went back to the 18 U.S.C. database program, entered the name Danny, the name of the studio, and the title of the video. It searched for a few seconds and then gave one result.

“Interesting,” Drew said. “The video was posted on August 30, 2015. Date of birth on the records, August 23, 1997. Kid couldn’t wait, I guess.”

“So who is he?” Joshua demanded.

“Well, the first name was accurate. Danny. Danny Augustus Winthorpe. Born in Pocatello, Idaho. Here…” Drew tapped a couple of keys, and the proof of age on file printed out in full color. It included a couple of forms and Danny/Preston’s ID, being his California Driver’s License, but under his birth name. Joshua and Simon both looked at it, then at each other.

“That’s him!” Simon announced.

“Definitely him,” Joshua agreed, “Oh, Drew, you big fucking beautiful detective genius!”

“You’re welcome,” Drew said. “Any time.”

“Now what?” Simon wondered.

“I guess we need to…” Simon shot him a warning glance. “You know.”

“Go talk to your little ghost friend?” Drew asked.

“Dude, what?” Simon exclaimed. “Did he tell — ”

Drew just laughed. “Boys, nobody told me shit. I’ve been on this planet damn near a century, I’ve been running all this Sherlock and Batman shit for… hell, I don’t know… I was probably your age when I started it. Only thing was I didn’t have all your cool steampunk drag and fancy field gadgets. I would love to help your team. Ooh… can I be Q? Or is it R now? So damn hard to keep up with which letter and which Bond.”

Joshua and Simon stared at each other for a long moment, then just smiled and laughed.

“Holy shit,” Joshua said. “And I think I speak for my future husband when I say that he says — ”

“Oh, fuck yes,” Simon chimed in.

“Future husband?” Drew perked up.

“Oh, yeah, right…” Joshua said.

“We hadn’t announced it officially yet, but — ”

“Brent!” Drew shouted about as loudly as he could. “Brent, get your happy ass upstairs!”

After a couple of moments, Brent came racing up the stairs looking like he was totally expecting to have to call an ambulance, and then looking totally relieved. “You rang?” he said sarcastically.

“Our boys are finally going to get married,” Drew said.

“Oh, clutch the pearls,” Brent replied. “Really? About goddamn time. And don’t you date object at all, but we are paying for the most fabulous, gayest goddamn wedding for you two ever, okay?”

Simon and Joshua just smiled at each other and agreed. That was another thing they had never revealed to their gay aunties — that they could have bought and sold them both fifteen ways from Friday.

Not that they ever would. Anyway, the information that Drew had provided them today would actually prove more valuable than all of the dollars and donuts in the world, at least as far as they were concerned.

Next up on their roster: the hunt for Danny Winthorpe, and his reunion with Preston LeCard.

Yeah, that was going to be interesting.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #29: The Rêves, Part 7

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.

Paperwork

Since Brenda was management, and therefore salaried, she was lucky enough to not have to report in the morning after the… adventure at Universal City station. Unfortunately, since she was management, she was expected to come up with some write-up of what had happened, and since she knew that all of the CCTVs scattered all over the place would show… something, she spent all of the next day after she’d woken up well past noon trying to come up with some plausible narrative… and she was drawing a blank.

She was also kicking herself for not getting contact info for the two guys who had been involved in the whole thing. All she knew were their names, Joshua and Simon, and that they lived somewhere in the NoHo Arts District, in one of the high-rise condo complexes that had sprung up like weeds in the late ‘10s.

She did manage to get her assistant to email her all of the CCTV footage from Uni City station, as well as the plaza and all of the street cams from there up to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, and Riverside/Camarillo, but there were apparently problems with anything north of that.

The footage from in the station wasn’t really helpful, since all it showed was various people freaking out and acting stupid. Same thing with the footage up the escalators and on the plaza. Lots of people in view, not a lot of… not people.

“Fuck,” Brenda muttered many times while reviewing the footage. She had definitely seen the things, and so had the dudes she’d gone to breakfast with — where were they now?

She decided to go take a drive, and wound up at the same Denny’s, flashed her credentials at the day manager, and managed to finally get somewhere — the CCTV footage of her visit the night before with the two would-be ghost hunters.

And while it didn’t reveal a whole lot other than their meal, when they left it at least gave her a direction, and she was able to call in a favor from an old family friend who worked for the L.A. Traffic Department, and those cams and footage traced those boys right back to their doorstep. Well, at least the building their condo was in.

She filed the paperwork that gave a pretty general idea of where to find the guys who claimed to be ghost hunters while claiming no knowledge of the thing herself; the perfect dodge. Except that two of her assistants had been accurate way beyond their paygrade, apparently.

They had also taken advantage of their connections to look at cell phone location data.

She’d thought that their info only included the building address, but it didn’t. It included the unit number and a link to the Zillow page on it. She hadn’t read their entire doc before she put it an email to Rita and hit “send.” Why would she? She trusted them, and it was already pushing four in the afternoon.

Ironically, considering where she worked, she wasn’t really able to take public transit to and from the office even though the Metro did run downtown to Culver City. The problem was that it ran too far away from her neighborhood, Blair Hills, to make it easy to get there without relying on a taxi or Über or something else, and there was no way in hell at her age that she was going to hop on one of those stupid scooters.

Anyway, her commute would have taken three times as long.

Unfortunately, she was in the wrong department to do anything about that. But she managed to get home by a quarter to five, half an hour before her husband Jonah did, to find her two youngest, Samuel and Malia, sitting in the living room vying to the death on a video game.

She had only recently gotten used to thinking of her younger son… no, daughter… as Malia instead of Barack, and she tried to drive that dead-name out of her mind, appreciating her youngest daughter’s very interesting choice of new name. Samuel and her oldest, Theresa, who was majoring in law at Penn State, hadn’t even skipped a beat when Malia made the announcement last Christmas, and immediately welcomed her as their sister.

Unfortunately, her husband Jonah was having a bit of an issue with it, but that probably had more to do with worrying about how to handle it with his parents, who were hard-core old school Baptists.

Brenda had had none of those problem with her parents, who were old-school radicals. Well, she knew that her father wouldn’t have had a problem, but he was long gone, shot in the head during a routine traffic stop by a white cop when Brenda was still in college back in the 90s. This had radicalized Brenda’s mother no end, and she had gone on every protest march possible after that — Black, LGBTQ+, Native American, Union, whatever.

This had had a huge impact on Brenda, especially her mother’s words: “Honey, it don’t matter your color, sex, race, whatever. What matters is who hates you for the way you were born. And then, take a good hard look at them, lock arms with the others who get hated for how they were born, and go kick their fucking hateful asses.”

And Brenda’s mother, Esme, had been her babysitter since each of her kids were born. Brenda and Jonah has specifically looked for a house with a so-called “Mother-in-Law Flat” out back — in this case, a full one-bedroom guest house — and had moved Esme in at the same time they did.

Malia was the first one to tell Esme her secret: “I’m not a boy.”

When Esme told Brenda about the conversation and repeated her reply, Brenda just broke down in tears and hugged her mother hard.

“She said, ‘I’m not a boy,’” Esme told her. “And I said, ‘That’s great. So tell me who you are to you, because that is forever who you’ll be to me.’”

It was five-thirty when Jonah pulled into the garage and came through the door into the kitchen, and grabbed Brenda to give her a huge hug and kiss, interrupted by Samuel and Malia running into the room to hug his legs while shouting, “Daddy!”

“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.

“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.

“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”

“It all depends on how soon Mamaw gets home to wrangle the kidlets, stud.”

“Stop! They might hear you.”

“Okay, what I got cooking is dinner, but you know your job.”

“Oh, right.” Jonah smiled and whistled, pulling five bowls out of the cupboard as the sound of twenty paws skittering along the floor, finally reaching a crescendo. Three dogs and two cats stopped in the doorway in anticipation.

The dogs were Libby, Prince, and Orpheus — a yellow Lab, black Lab, and German shepherd. The cats were Desdemona and Ophelia, a calico and a tabby. Ostensibly, each of the dogs belonged to one of the kids and each of the cats to one of the parents, but in reality, Jonah was the wrangler of them all.

But not the boss. Oh no, not that. Because all of the animals and all of the humans just knew and understood that Desdemona was in charge of them all, and Ophelia was her lieutenant.

It was kind of exactly like the Brenda and Malia thing, actually — right down to no one ever mentioning it.

By six o’clock, they were all seated at the dining room table — well, except for the dogs and cats, who had long since finished dinner and had wandered off to go snooze in whatever space they had picked — and Brenda set out their meal.

Honestly, this was her favorite part of every work day — when they all got to sit down and everyone told her about what had happened in their day. And it didn’t matter how “stupid” or trivial it seemed. To Brenda, it was about her family, so every single bit was the most interesting thing ever, and she never had to fake that.

So… Samuel had actually talked to Melissa at her locker today, and while Brenda could easily see that the girl had no interest in him, he was over the moon at having taken the chance. And Malia reported that she’d met a fellow student, Lance, who was a transboy, and they’d really kind of hit it off and were having lunches together.

Jonah sort of rolled his eyes at this, but Brenda kicked him under the table.

After dinner, while Jonah and Samuel did the dishes, Brenda called Theresa to check in, and she was already considering focusing her legal studies on social justice issues, but she had to cut the conversation short because there was a sorority event coming up.

Later on, Esme came over to look after the kids, and Brenda and Jonah headed up to their room to, as she put it, “binge and fringe,” although as he held her in his arms, she looked into his eyes and said, “You really need to lighten up and deal with our daughter.”

“Who, Theresa?” he said.

“No,” she replied. And she was beginning to think that he might have been the only reason that she didn’t just come out and share all the Metro ghost shit with everyone else, because they might have had actual ideas. But then he dug it deeper.

“We only have one daughter,” he continued.

“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.

“Um… excuse me?” he asked.

“No. Excuse me,” she replied, slamming her way out of the room and calling back, “Her name is Malia,” adding under her breath, “You are such an asshole sometimes.”

And that was when she remembered the thing she liked least about family dinners. Still, she figured that Jonah would eventually come around. It had taken a few months to get him to stop dead-naming Malia and he was making fewer mistakes with the pronouns, at least when she was around. But for god’s sake, he was nearly fifty. He should give a damn what his parents thought anymore.

* * *

Tailed

The next morning, Simon and Joshua got up, got ready, had breakfast, then headed down to the garage, carrying the trap with Anabel in it in the velvet bag. They were dressed casually and Joshua had called dibs on driving, which was fine with Simon anyway. They hopped into the Tesla, Joshua put his foot on the brake and shifted into gear. The car hummed to life.

It would be fair for anybody to speculate how a couple of guys their age who only seemed to hang out in subway stations dressed as refugees from a Jules Verne novel could afford a Tesla, much less their own condo, along with all of the geegaws and gadgets involved in their ghost hunting.

The short answer was that in the previous decade, the two of them had designed a series of killer apps that had a habit of being bought up for anywhere in the high seven to mid-eight figure range. Simon was the idea man and Joshua was the coder and tech nerd, although it was Simon’s really uncanny ability to figure out what the Next Big Thing was going to be a year or two before it was that drove things.

But they had also made an agreement that they would never allow themselves to be worth more than a certain amount. They had originally set that at a billion until they exceeded it and realized how ridiculous a billion dollars was for just two people, so they cut it down to a hundred million, then finally settled on ten million.

Anything in excess of that went away as charitable donations, or to any of several dozen anonymous educational foundations they had set up around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to sneak a server a few grand as a tip, or buy a house and “rent” it to a homeless woman and her children for a dollar a year, or provide necessary supplies for a struggling school.

Still, they considered themselves to be the Banksy of charity — they never announced any of what they did, never put their names on it, and swore their beneficiaries to silence.

“We’re like thieves in the night,” Simon liked to say,” Except Robin Hood.”

They did start a charitable organization that would handle everything, but they had named it the Ada Lovelace Foundation, which they both felt appropriate for two reasons. One was that she was basically the world’s first computer programmer, back in the nineteenth century when “computers” were entirely mechanical.

The other was that she was an important character in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which both of them had read and loved as kids and it was considered to be raison d’être for the entire steampunk genre.

Of course, as far as Ausmann ever knew, they were forever broker than shit and relied on their job with him and his largesse. This just gave them leverage that he didn’t know existed.

Joshua pulled out of the lot and turned right onto Tujunga, heading south toward Magnolia. As they crossed South Chandler — named for a family not related to the Chanlers — he and Simon both noticed a vehicle pull away from the curb by the park a little too quickly and obviously.

“Did you — ” Simon started.

“Yep,” Joshua replied. “Did you notice the license plate?”

“No,” Simon replied. “What?”

“Exempt.”

“Shit.”

In California, this designated that it was a government-owned car, although which level of government wasn’t certain — it could be city, county, or state. And, contrary to what some under-informed people thought, it did not mean “Exempt from obeying all traffic laws.” Rather, it meant “Exempt from taxation,” so the car wasn’t subject to annual registration, sales tax on transfer from one exempt entity to another, and so on.

Although the driver had been so eager to pull out on Joshua’s ass that they had cut off another driver who gave an angry honk.

“What do we do?” Simon asked.

“Drive casually until we figure out who they are,” Joshua explained as Simon turned to look out the back window. “And don’t look at them!”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“Don’t we have an app that does the license plate thing?” Joshua asked.

“Oh, right,” Simon replied, taking out his phone and pulling up the app, porting the output to the car’s tablet. He activated the back-up cam, got a clear photo of the front plate, and in a few seconds the screen displayed the answer.

CALIFORNIA VEHICLE EXEMPT PLATE
JURISDICTION LEVEL: COUNTY
AGENCY: LOS ANGELES METRO
DIVISION: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
LEO?: NO

“Shit, that’s it?” Joshua laughed. “We’re being followed by customer service? What are they going to do, make us take a survey?”

“We still don’t know who’s in that car,” Simon replied.

“True, but…” Joshua tapped the screen, went to the back-up cam and titled it up, pulling slightly away so he got a look at the driver and passenger. “Well, it’s not Brenda, at least,” he said.

“I really have a feeling she wouldn’t sell us out,” Simon said. “Besides, we never even told her where we live.”

“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”

They continued up Tujunga and turned left on Magnolia, crossed under the 170, then turned left to hop on the on-ramp and head south. Traffic was light at least, so Joshua hit 70 and stuck to the leftmost number one lane carpool, apparently continuing down the 170 into Hollywood, Metro vehicle behind all the while.

“You want the other side,” Simon told Joshau.

“I know,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”

“Make you shit your pants?”

“Joshie!”

“Sorry, honey. We need to shake a tail.”

Joshua accelerated to eighty as the approach to the lanes that cut off to the 170 and Hollywood neared. Then, at the very last second, he yanked hard right and swept over three lanes, punching it to ninety and heading down the 134.

The Metro vehicle behind them managed to make it one lane over before a BMW cut them off and Joshua sailed it down the interchange and onto the freeway to Pasadena without their pursuers, bringing their speed down to 65 to Simon’s great relief.

“I hate it when you do that,” Simon told him.

“You’re still hard right now,” Joshua replied, and they both knew that it was true.

“Yeah, but it’s a fear boner,” Simon explained sheepishly.

It had subsided by the time they got to JPL and made it down to Ausmann’s office. On the way, knowing full well by now that he’d probably already seen the footage, they had to come up with a plausible reason for Preston’s escape, so they had decided to blame it on the woman from Metro who had left with them.

She demanded to know what was in the other trap, against their better judgement they opened it, and Preston flitted off into the night, as these things were wont to do.

But, surprisingly, Ausmann didn’t even ask about Preston after they’d placed the other trap on his desk and removed it from the bag.

“Apparently,” Simon explained, “Her name was Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.”

“Really?” Ausmann replied, looking stunned. “You two mooks managed to capture Anabel?”

“You know her?” Joshua asked, just as stunned.

“I know the name,” Ausmann said. “But are you sure that’s who she is?”

“That’s who the other entity said she was.” Simon explained.

“And how would that one know?”

“Apparently, he was her son,” Simon added.

“Did you bring the other one?” Ausmann suddenly asked.

“Uh… we caught him, but, um, he… got away,” Joshua offered.

“Oh,” Ausmann replied, but didn’t say anything more about it, just staring at the trap on his desk. “If this really is Anabel… I think you two are in line for a couple of bumps up the ladder.”

“You mean… up our pay grades?” Joshua asked, pretending that it mattered.

“Oh, yeah, that too. No, I meant… more on upping your security clearances. But… that all depends on whether this is Anabel or not.”

“Who was… is Anabel, anyway?” Simon asked.

“You don’t get that story until I’ve bumped you up from public trust to secret. Good work, boys. See you next time. Last stop is North Hollywood, right?”

“Next week,” Simon replied.

“Can’t wait to see what you pull in then. Thanks!”

Simon and Joshua left the office and headed up top. Once they were in the elevator, Simon asked Joshua, “Has he ever told us ‘thanks’ before?”

“Nope,” Joshua replied.

Back in his office, Ausmann turned the trap over and over in his hands. It was an amazing piece of work, really, and he had no idea how the two managed things like this on what he paid them. Still… Anabel was a name that had come up countless times in their failed attempts to keep these entities either trapped down here or from suddenly melting into nothing.

Except for the ones who popped up claiming to be famous people — a sure sign of insanity — most of the others cried out one name before fleeing or disappearing. “Anabel.”

In the chess-game Ausmann had been playing, it felt like he had just captured the Queen.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #28: The Rêves, Part 6

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.

Falling short

Ausmann had made some progress with the samples he had managed to keep from escaping, although what Simon and Joshua’s had captured from Hollywood and Vine was disappointing.

The best Ausmann could figure, after he’d called in a colleague to translate, is that he was some young kid who had come with his family from Cuba, and he’d been run down by a drunk driver in Boyle Heights about ten years ago.  His name was Ramón.

He told Ausmann, mostly through the interpreter, that he had been a busboy at a restaurant, lived with his entire family in a two-bedroom apartment in the Heights, and that his mother and sisters still kept a memorial on the corner where he had died, regularly replacing the flowers and photos, and all of the neighbors helped maintain it, too.

He was nineteen when he was killed. The driver was never apprehended, but Ramón knew that his mother firmly believe that he never would be, because he was someone connected.

Ausmann found the information to be underwhelming. The story he’d heard was that these wandering spirits were echoes of the famous, kept alive precisely because of their fame. It made no sense that some glorified dishwasher who probably didn’t look before jaywalking would be among them.

The kid had tried to manifest in the larger containment several times, but mostly just looked like an inky shadow drifting around in a large, waterless aquarium.

“¿Y ahora puedo irme?” he asked. “No me gusta estar en una jaula de vidrio.”

“What is he muttering about?” Ausmann demanded.

“He wants to leave,” the interpreter said. “He doesn’t like being in a glass cage.”

“Tell him I don’t care what he likes,” Ausmann replied.

“Al jefe, no le importa lo que te gusta,” the interpreter explained. “Lo siento. Pero él es un gran pinche pendejo.”

“I do know a few words in Spanish, Victor,” Ausmann said, dryly. “Do watch it.”

“Let him go if you’re done with him,” Victor said.

“What makes you think I’m done with him?”

“He’s alone and he’s scared,” Victor countered.

“He’s dead,” Ausmann explained.

“But he’s still human.”

“Is he? I’m done interviewing him for now.”

He turned away from Victor and focused on his notes, which was Ausmann’s well-known way of telling people, “Please leave before I turn around and look at you.”

He was generally hated by his colleagues. As Victor’s lab partner, Estelle, a charming woman from Texas, put it, “Wouldn’t no one around here piss down his throat even if his guts was on fire.”

Once Victor had left, Ausmann put Ramón back in the small mirror trap and filed it, making the note, “Probably of no further use.”

Then he took out the trap from Hollywood and Highland, and hoped that this one would be more interesting. He released its contents into the larger holding trap and watched as the inky smoke drifted around.

“Hello,” he said. “Can you hear me?”

“Where am I?” the voice asked. Clearly female, American, and with a strong Boston accent.

“Who are you?” Ausmann asked.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I think I’m the… Black Dahlia?”

Well, this was intriguing, he thought, quickly tapping in a search. Some of the details fit. Elizabeth Short was from Boston, so the accent checked, although why she didn’t identify herself that way was a bit of a mystery.

“Do you remember your own name?” Ausmann asked her.

“Do you?” she asked. “Because it’s all kind of foggy.”

Indeed, he thought. And then he checked further details, only to see that she had been buried in Oakland, California, which was well over 300 miles away as the crow flew from Los Angeles. That didn’t match what little data they had compiled at all.

“Does the name Elizabeth Short mean anything to you?” Ausmann asked. The smoke in the box immediately seemed to gather into a corner as if shocked away from the other three sides, and then spun and solidified before it all landed with an audible thunk on the bottom, in the form of the top half of a young woman who had been bisected at the waist, and she wasn’t moving at all.

“Elizabeth? Can you hear me?” Ausmann asked. “Elizabeth? Miss Short…?”

Nothing.

Well, this shit was getting him nowhere. Plus the sight of half of a dead woman lying in the bottom of his holding tank was really disturbing, so he turned the valves to put her back in the original trap, but nothing happened.

“Fuck,” he muttered. He turned his attention to his internet searches for Elizabeth Short and the Black Dahlia, quickly realizing that while she seemed to be aware of her real identity, most of who she was in death had been defined under the nickname.

That gave him a bit of a Eureka moment. Of course. It all started to make sense now. Especially the biggest non-sequitur he’d come across so far with her. Normally, these creatures stayed local. Bury them, and they’d not go too far beyond a hundred kilometers in any direction.

The body of Elizabeth Short had been buried in Oakland, but the memory of the Black Dahlia had been interred in Los Angeles. He shut the valves and spoke into the microphone.

“I’m sorry,” Ausmann announced. “I was mistaken. You are the Black Dahlia, aren’t you?”

The figure of the half body suddenly burst into smoky mist again and drifted to the top of the tank, and then swirled around until it formed a jet-black dahlia, which looked like a bastard cross between a dandelion and a marigold.

“I think I get it now,” Ausmann muttered to himself, then he opened the valves again, and the image of the flower and all that was Elizabeth Short was sucked back into the original trap. He tried to ignore what sounded like screaming, then, as he’d done for Ramón, sealed it up and filed it.

His hunters had better bring him something really interesting next time around. Otherwise, he was seriously considering ending the contract. Possibly with extreme prejudice, as they used to say in old gangster films.

Or was that an old government expression? Who knew? Ausmann was too busy working on his own reality down here.

* * *

Morning after

Joshua and Simon had stumbled home just before five in the morning, put their latest catches in the vault, then dropped the blackout shades, stripped off, and fell asleep in each other’s arms in about five minutes.

When they woke up, they smiled at each other and snuggled, then grabbed their phones, both of them rather annoyed to see that it was only nine a.m. They both futzed around with email and social media for a bit, then cuddled and went back to sleep.

Both of them went through a bit of sleep, dream, wake, snuggle, repeat, until Simon finally announced, “Fuck. It’s two-thirty.”

“I know the second part was a statement of fact,” Joshua said, “But was the first part an interjection or a request?”

“You know that what they used to call ‘interjections?’” Simon asked, not waiting for an answer. “Ejaculations.”

“So it was a request?” Joshua smiled up at him.

“It’s still two-thirty,” Simon reminded him.

“And it’s the day after a catch, our traditional day off,” Joshua said, “So we don’t have to get up for anything. I mean, we could get up to one thing…”

“Was that a request?” Simon teased him.

“It’s two-thirty,” Joshua said. “Fuck?”

When it came to Joshua — especially when he turned on his ‘cute face’ — Simon had no resistance, so his interjection became Joshua’s request and, eventually, both of their ejaculations. It was about four in the afternoon when Simon finally said, “Okay, I think we have to get up for real now.”

“Shower, supper, and binge watch?” Joshua suggested.

“Right time for the first, too early for the second, and we have more important things than the third.”

“Yes, daddy,” Joshua muttered, faking resentment. “So what’s more important than stream — ”

“What we caught last night.”

“Oh,” Joshua realized. “Right. Well, one of them is interesting, anyway,” he said. “The other one scared the shit out of me.”

“Me, too,” Simon said. “I assume you’re interested in the shadow who seemed like he wanted to be caught, too.”

“Oh, hell yeah,” Joshua agreed. “I sure as hell don’t mean Scary Mary who went all Goth Chick once she got tazed.”

“Yeah, that was a first. But I have a weird feeling that it’s going to get Ausmann to up us a couple of pay grades.”

“Ooh. It makes me so horny when you talk money.”

“Honey, it makes you horny when I breathe. Admit it.”

“Okay. Guilty. What? You’re fucking sex on legs, shut up. What do you say, then? We get brave and let Smoky out of the bottle?”

“Yeah,” Simon said. “Why not? Although we should probably be presentable, right?”

They jumped out of bed, hit the shower, then made coffee, checked social media again, then retrieved the mirror trap from the vault and set it on the granite living room table, all windows now open to let in the sunny view over NoHo.

“So,” Simon said, “You know the general history. Pull the top off, and these… things run away.”

“Right,” Joshua replied, but remember what was different about this one?

“We got caught by Brenda mid-snatch?”

“Eew, don’t say ‘snatch,’ and no. This one wanted to be caught. I mean, wasn’t that obvious?”

“It did feel a bit different.”

“And then Goth Girl showed up, but she seemed more like, oh, I don’t know… an over-protective big sister or, more likely, a super Fag Hag.”

“So, what are you thinking?” Simon asked.

“I’m thinking that the one we’ve got in the vault right now — ”

“Nasty Morticia?” Simon said.

“Ooh, I like. Yeah, her. I think she’s a lot more valuable to Bossman than the one in the mirror.”

“Oh my god, dude. Bossman. That’s new. Did you just think of that?”

“Yeah, it just came to mind.”

“Love you.”

“Love you more, dork. So ready to unscrew?” Joshua picked up the trap and held it between both hands.

“I guess so,” Simon replied. “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Our place winds up haunted and we could rent it out for a fucking fortune to one of those fake ghost-hunter shows? Maybe this spirit is union? I don’t know. Personally, the worst that could happen is that it flies out the window and goes back home.”

“Well, then,” Simon said, “Let’s unscrew him.”

“Phrasing,” Joshua muttered under his breath as he grabbed the top half of the trap and turned it counter-clockwise while holding the bottom steady. After three turns, the top came off, revealing the mirror, and nothing happened.

“Hm,” Simon said, then, “Shit.” The mirror remained dark as they both stared at it. “You think we killed it?” Simon finally asked.

“I don’t know,” Joshua replied, staring down into the silvered glass and seeing his own distorted face. “Hey, little dude. You okay down there? You want to come out and talk to us, it’s okay. Hell, if you want to come out, you’re free as you want to be.”

Nothing happened, so Joshua tapped the mirror. “Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey,” he called out, remembering something that his Aussie grandmother had used to wake him up with.

Suddenly, wisps of shadow, looking like black smoke, started to drift up from the mirror. They lazily gathered above the table, eventually drifting into a vaguely human form, although a not very tall one, like a silhouette painted in the air, with a clear head, arms, legs, and torso.

The arms reached out, one toward Joshua and one toward Simon. They looked at each other, not sure what to do.

“I… I don’t think he’s dangerous,” Simon finally said.

“Neither do I,” Joshua replied.

They gave each other the secret look they always did before agreeing to do something dangerous and stupid — silent eye contact, a half smile, and then a very subtle nod of the head that said “One, two, three,” and then each of them reached out and grabbed one of the inky-smoke hands reaching for them.

As soon as they did, they both felt a sharp but harmless static shock through their bodies, and then the vague and smoky form on the table resolved itself into a quite visible human being.

He’s not tall — maybe 5’7” — but he does have a wide, smiling face with a lupine nose, and eyes that are almond both in shape and color. His hair is a russet chestnut, a little shaggy without being long. He’s also completely nude, not that Simon or Joshua have any complaints, but it only takes one look at the ass and face before they look at each other and gasp.

“Preston LeCard?” they say in unison.

“What?” Preston replies.

Neither Simon nor Joshua knows what to say. They never expected to have trapped one of their favorite porn stars while hunting, and certainly not one who’d only been dead for a few years, and not for any of the usual porn star reasons.

“So… what brings you here?” Simon finally asks.

“I’d like to lie and say two hot nerd daddies like you,” Preston tells them, “But, sadly, no. Honestly, it was my control freak mother.”

“Do we know her?” Joshua wondered.

“Know her?” Preston laughed. “You met her last night.”

“Are you sure?” Simon asked.

“Anabel Chanler LeCard. Does that ring any bells.”

“No,” Simon said. “But do you want us to let her go?”

“You caught her, too?”

“Right after you surrendered to us,” Joshua explained. “But if you think we’re letting her go — ”

“Oh, hell no,” Preston said. “You can keep her for now.”

“So what do you want, really?” Simon asked.

“I have no fucking idea,” Preston replied, “Except that I seem to be the prisoner of two hot daddies, and whatever you want to do, just go on and fucking do — ”

Before he could finish that sentence, Joshua slammed the lid on the trap. It was a crapshoot, but it managed to suck everything back in and shut up Preston. Joshua casually walked into the bedroom, dropped the trap into the vault, and came back out to the living room.

“What the actual fuck?” Simon muttered.

“Never mind,” Joshua replied. “Maybe we toss both their asses to Ausmann next Tuesday. Meanwhile… supper-time. What do you want to eat? And shut up, I’m not on the menu until dessert.”

“Oh, you cock-teasing asshole,” Simon replied, smiling. “Then how about… Victory?”

“Pussy!” Joshua smiled and walked away.

“Never!” Simon called after him, but he could only smile in admiration before trembling in fear. What if they hadn’t defeated that Preston thing? And then he had another awful thought as he headed after Joshua.

“Shit, Joshie. Do you think that Preston wanted us to… fuck him?”

“Seemed like it,” Joshua replied.

“Wouldn’t that be… necrophilia?”

“Hm,” Joshua mused. “No… necrophilia is when a living person wants to fuck a dead body. So when a dead person wants to fuck someone alive…? Hm. I wonder what that would be.”

“Vivephilia?” Simon offered.

“That’s a new one,” Joshua said. “I wonder if it’s just as icky to most of them as other way around is to most of us.”

“One could hope,” Simon replied. “Wait… what did he say Anabel’s full name was?”

“Anabel Chanler LeCard,” Joshua replied.

“So they’re related?” Simon wondered.

“The name sounds really familiar,” Joshua said, tapping on his phone. “Ah. Apparently, her family was quite the thing around here early last century… oh. Check this out. She died in childbirth but her son survived. Her son Preston.”

“So he is her son?” Simon said.

“Now I remember why the name sounded familiar,” Joshua said, scrolling. “We had a gig at her family tomb last year, didn’t pan out but… sure. Here it is… holy shit. Well, that can’t be right?”

“What?” Simon asked as Joshua showed him the screen. It was a photo of the rosette in the center of the family mausoleum. “So?” he asked.

“Died 1926,” Joshua explained.

“Right. And?”

“You do know that your difficulty with math is one of those traits I find really endearing, right?”

“Fuck you, silly. What?”

“Okay. How old is… was Preston LeCard when he died?”

“Um… twenty-something-ish?”

“Twenty-three,” Joshua reminded him. “So he was born in… 1997.”

“Right.”

“And Anabel is his mother?”

“That’s what he…” Simon stopped mid-sentence and started at the photo. “Aw, fuck.”

“Exactly,” Joshua continued. “Unless that was the longest labor ever, or he was born way, way post mortem — ”

“His ’mom’ died more than sixty years before he was born.”

“Bingo! So, Simon, what does this tell us?”

“Preston LeCard is not who he says he is?”

“No,” Joshua replied. “He’s not who he thinks he is. He’s who we think he is. Oh, of course! Oh my god. This could change everything.”

“Really?” Simon asked.

“Really,” Joshua replied before doubling over in laughter.

“What?”

“Okay, this is evil, but hear me out. We keep Preston on ice, as it were, until we can figure out who he really is, but we toss Anabel to Ausmann.”

“And why do that to her?” Simon asked.

“Because she does know who she is, and I have a feeling that she’s the first of their kind we’re going to toss down his rabbit hole who does.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because… she was never a celebrity to anyone,” Joshua explained.

“Shit,” Simon replied, getting it. “So there really is more than one type of these things running around?”

“Oh yeah,” Joshua answered. “I’d bet my left nut on it.”

“Please don’t,” Simon said. “That’s my favorite one.”

“Hyperbolic metaphor, honey,” Joshua replied. “Anyway, we need to figure out who Preston really was, and maybe get some dirt on Anabel, so grab your sunscreen, because we’re going to have to drop in on my uncle Brent and his husband Drew.”

“Do we have to?” Simon asked.

“Yes,” Joshua insisted. “What? Drew’s only ever grabbed your dick once.”

“Yeah, but he’s 97,” Simon replied.

“So… who better to ask about ancient shit like this?”

Simon wanted to resist, but the look Joshua gave him made him relent. They’d stumbled on the biggest mystery of their careers, after all, one that might even be bigger than anything Ausmann could handle and, as they would have said in character as their steampunk ghost-hunters, “In for a penny-farthing, in for a pound sterling.”

Or… whatever. Josh was the one with actual Brits in his background. Simon was stuck with Portuguese and Danes.

* * *

 

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

The first installment of this piece appeared last week, and it started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

The Hunt

ONE COMING UP YOUR SIDE NOW HEAD TO FOOT

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

WHEN I GO BE RIGHT BEHIND ME?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon and Joshua both let out a huge sigh.

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

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

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

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

As usual, Joshua surrenders immediately.

* * *

Enter Preston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Super heroes?” Preston offers.

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

“Cosplayers,” Preston replies confidently.

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

“Steampunk.”

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

“Kidnapping… um… us?” Preston asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“Never heard of her,” Preston insists.

“Before your time,” she tells him.

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

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

“And what do they want?”

“We have no idea.”

“Ransom…?”

“No one’s asked.”

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

“Then what is it?” she demands.

“Probably a serial killing,” Preston explains dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re sure of that?”

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

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

“That’s the description.”

“Hm. They do sound hot.”

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

“It’s the 21st century, Anabel.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The Valley?”

“We’re in the Valley now.”

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

“Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

“Then… see you tonight?”

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

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

* * *

Brenda Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She debates for a moment, then calls her supervisor.

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

Joshua and Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Ausmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joyce would never have been able to read that tie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Underground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever the hell that name means.

* * *

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

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Finale

Here is the final installment of the novella. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top with excerpts from the short stories here.

TAKING HOPE

The crowd started to thin out after A-Pop left, mostly because it was getting late, but DJGomes and VJBDJ didn’t let that deter them, and the place was flooded with pumping EDM from the end of A-Pop until the end of the party, at four o’clock Monday morning. Toby and Adrian had stayed until the end of that show, at which point both of them looked at each other, and both of them felt some kind of dread that the other wanted to leave.

But Adrian broke the silence. “So… we don’t have to hang out together, boss,” he said, “But if we’re either off tomorrow or you have a business call in a couple of hours — ”

“Off tomorrow,” Toby cut him off to answer. “So hang around as long as you want.”

“It’s totally innocent,” Adrian replied. “I mean, whether I’m on the clock or not.”

“I don’t care,” Toby said. “Do what or whom you want to, whenever you want to.”

“I would,” Adrian finally replied nervously, “But that’s okay. It’s all ace.”

“Ooh. You feel like ice cream?” Toby suddenly said excitedly.

Adrian just smiled. “Sure. But what’s open at this hour?”

“Follow me,” Toby nodded, and led him to the top of the middle of the park,where they went to the station to wait for whichever train came first, the B or the D line. Their routes overlapped briefly so either would get them to where they were going. The D line won, so they hopped on and headed back up two stations, past Pershing Square and then getting off at the 7th Street Metro. Once above ground, they walked a block down 7th from Flower to Hope and came to a Walgreens. Toby still remembered that infamous night there at about this time of day on the early morning before the earthquake, and he noticed by Adrian’s expression that he probably remembered the story, too.

“Is this…?” he trailed off and glanced up.

“Yep,” Toby replied, and they walked in.

There wasn’t a crowd this morning. The place was practically deserted. They went back to the freezer case and were confronted by what Toby knew as The Paradox of Choice. There were so many flavors that it would be hard to decide for someone who didn’t have a favorite, but Toby didn’t have that problem. He used to be a fan of rocky road, but after the quake he had drifted toward butter pecan. While it had similar qualities when it came to “mouth feel,” the flavors and aromas were far more relaxing and sophisticated.

As for Adrian, he kept wavering back and forth between all of the varieties that only involved chocolate —chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough, chocolate fudge brownie, chocolate fudge swirl, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate peppermint, chocolate trio, chocolate vanilla swirl, chocolate with OREO bits, chocolate with ‘Smores, mint chocolate chip, red velvet, and, of course, rocky road.

And then there were the brands, each of which had most of those flavors, or their own variations: Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Dreyer’s, Häagen-Dazs, Halo Top, Nice (the Walgreens house brand), and Tillamook.

That all worked out to 91 possible predominantly chocolate-based variations.. Never mind all of the other main flavor bases — vanilla and all of the fruits. And don’t forget to give some room for sorbet and frozen yogurt and non-dairy. Or sizes. Pint, quart, half gallon, gallon? “Fun cup?”

Have you ever wondered why the ice-cream aisle in a store’s frozen section takes up so much room? Well, there’s your answer. And don’t forget all of the “frozen novelties” — ice cream sandwiches and bars, popsicles, fudgesicles, Otter Pops, Klondike Bars, ice bombs, and even Frosty Paws dog “ice cream.”

This was one crowded department. Now, Walgreens did tone it down by including only the brands that gave them the best margins and least complicated ordering process, so… Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s, and Tillamook. If the manager had had her druthers, she wouldn’t have carried Nice, but she had no choice, for reasons that should be obvious from three paragraphs back. In order to cram it all into the space she had, she only stocked pints and quarts, and allowed in Häagen-Dazs pints of the three most popular flavors in the area, but those were only available in a so-called “coffin cooler” near the front of the store.

If you’re not getting that term… it’s a top-loading freezer with, usually, glass doors on top that either slide or lift, and all of the product is displayed stacked underneath. Retailers since time immemorial took to calling it a “coffin cooler” because you had to lift the lid to get to the cold, hard stuff.

But, Adrian and Toby don’t know any of this, and by this point it’s about a quarter past four in the morning. They’d made good time hiking up Grand Park and also lucked out in hitting the station right as a train arrived, so overall it had only taken them about ten minutes to get here.

Toby could see Adrian’s brain practically melting over the options and he really felt sorry for him, so he finally just said, matter-off-factly, “By the way, I gave you another bonus after we convinced the mayor to screw with Wendy, and it should be in your account by now. Buy yourself something nice, but the docking or hangar fees are all going to be on you.”

Adrian just turned to Toby, gawked for an instant, then opened the cooler and quietly pulled out two pints: Tillamook chocolate peanut butter, and Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie.

“Good man,” Toby said, and they headed for the checkout, where the manager that Toby had once thought of as a tiny transwoman had now become a person in his mind, because he’d gotten to know her over the last couple of months. Her name was Ramona, and she was working her way through law school at Loyola downtown. Yes, she was transgender, but Toby had long since stopped thinking of her as anything other than her preferred pronouns and gender. Or, as he liked to think of them, her real ones. She’d taught him a lot.

He also knew that most people of his class would find it very weird that he loved walking down here, often in the middle of the night, to buy things that he could have (in their minds, should have) ordered from the best names in the world: toiletries from Bolin Webb, Clinique, DIOR, Erno Lazlo, Foreo, Kiehl’s, Tom Ford, Truefitt & Hill, and on and on. “Prove your worth by having them sent next day a.m. from Harrods. Don’t cheap out by ordering American!”

“Or, for god’s sake, order your ice cream from the Langham Hotel in Chicago, Maubossin in Manhattan, or Serendipity 3 in New York, so you can at least say that you’ve paid a respectable $1,000 for a pint, minus express shipping by private jet on dry ice. Otherwise, you’re embarrassing your class!”

God, Toby hated rich people, himself most of all. He noticed that Adrian hadn’t checked yet, but this latest bonus to him would probably also be the last one — not because Toby would be inclined to cut them off, but because he had finally realized that Adrian was worthy of elevation, since he wasn’t like the others who would insist on dropping a grand into another billionaire’s pocket for ice cream just to brag about it. The last one Adrian had gotten was six digits. This one is eight. In fact, Toby had looked it up. Adrian is 27, so he made it for a gross of $27,000,000, but then structured it as a dividend payout, rather than income, so he wouldn’t get fucked on the taxes like the little people do. He’d net about $23,000,000, and Toby knew that Adrian would know what to do with that kind of money and not become an asshole.

They got into line with their ice cream in hand behind four other people, and Toby noted that two of them were “Karens.” Great. And those two were followed by a bathtub. And then Toby looked at the guy ahead of him in line and thought, “Oh, holy fuck. What are the odds of this?”

He couldn’t forget the face he’d studied so intently just over five months ago, the man he’d spoken to, and the literal shitshow that had happened. Although something seemed different about him today. He wasn’t buying toilet paper, and he didn’t have the same hollow-eyed desperation. Instead, he had a couple of greeting cards in his hand, which seemed totally anachronistic in this day and age, although medical science was getting better at keeping centenarians around, so who knew?

The transformation Toby saw was amazing. This man seemed totally together. And it was definitely the same guy, so Toby leaned forward and said, “Perdóneme… ¿nos hemos conocidos anteriormente?”

The man turned, took one look at Toby, and just stared in amazement.

“Oh my god,” he muttered. “I remember you.”

“You speak English?” Toby asked.

“Of course I speak English.”

“But that night…”

“I speak both. Oh… I guess you do too. Yeah, I just tend to go to my native language when I’m feeling distressed, which I obviously was. But here’s the thing I never forgot. You were the one person who didn’t look at me with disgust or hate when… well… you know. ‘It’ happened. And I’ve always felt like you would have helped if I hadn’t run because I felt so goddamn ashamed.”

“Wait,” Toby said. “What? Oh my god… you have just forgiven me such a huge sin… Oh. My name’s Toby. Toby Arnott. And you are…?”

“Winford,” the man replies. “Well, to friends. Dr. Quintana to my patients.”

“You’re an MD?” Toby asks, seeming flustered.

“Yes,” Dr. Winford Quintana replies, “And that was why what you saw happen happen.”

“My god, I totally misread you,” Toby said.

“Yeah, I guessed that.”

“Holy crap,” Adrian suddenly piped up. Is he…”

“Yes, and shut up,” Toby shot back tersely.

“Oh, it’s okay,” Winford said.

“How did all of that happen, though?” Toby asked, feeling very awkward, but the doctor seemed very inclined to explain.

“Pardon my French, but goddamn dumbass anti-vax parents. Our ER was jammed about a week before with tons of kids having symptoms, and tons of idiot parents trying to get the staff to only use homeopathic or “holistic” treatments, and god, I wish that I could ban people like that from the campus in a heartbeat. But… no.

“Now, I’m not working ER that night, but I am working intake with the actual urgent non-measles cases getting passed through. The problem is, the volume in ER is so high that people are getting sloppy, especially with hygiene, and somewhere along the way, somebody with giardia comes in dirty, but I don’t know it. Hospital intake isn’t a sterile environment because it’s just assumed that all precautions have been taken on the way. So… I’m not absolutely sure who, but pretty sure that the intake exam I did on this fourteen-year-old soccer player from City of Angels High School blasted me with the parasite and I didn’t know it.

“Why would I? He presented with a broken leg, compound fracture. What I didn’t know is that he’d just come back from a team trip to Guatemala. Also, he had a minor case of diarrhea, and didn’t mention (until much later to his mother when the hospital asked) that he’d basically had an aerosol shart on the way from ER to my exam. And, since I’d assumed procedures had happened, well, kind of my fault, too, for not dipping the entire room in alcohol.

“By the time I was almost home and this shit, pardon the expression, caught up with me a week later, I realized that I’d need some heavy-lifting, and, how do the kids say it? An attempt was made. And you saw it fail.”

“Anyway, since that night, I’ve always imagined that I’ve turned into a case of ‘The Fortunate Fart’ around here.”

“Oh my god, you know that?” Adrian suddenly spoke up. Toby was about to rebuke him, but Winford smiled back and said, “Yes. You’re a fan of folklore?”

“For sure, doc. Did you know Abraham Lincoln used to love to tell a version of that story, mostly as a way of figuring out whether — ”

“—whether to trust politicians or lobbyists?” they finished together, and Winford gushed. “Yes!”

“Oh, wow,” Adrian added.

“Okay,” Toby said. “So… Oh what’s that old line from the movie? I have a feeling that — ”

“— this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Adrian and Winford chimed in in unison.

“Fuck this ice cream,” Toby announced. “You, buy your cards, but I have a fantastic idea.”

“What’s that?” Adrian asked.

“Breakfast?” Toby said. “The Pantry isn’t that far away, and I feel like that place fits the theme of now.”

“What?” Winford asked. “Hungry people?”

“No,” Toby replied. “Forgiveness. You don’t know the story, do you?”

Winford and Adrian both shrugged, and Adrian sighed, then went on. “It’s a total bullshit legend, of course,” he said. “But the rumor is that this place used to only hire ex-convicts and felons in order to rehabilitate them.”

“Is that true?” Adrian asked.

Winford and Toby looked at each other, smiled, and said, “Nah.”

“But who cares?” Toby added. “Sometimes, the sentiment is far more important than the truth.”

And so the three of them walked out of Walgreens, ice cream put back into the coolers but Winford’s greeting cards safely in his suit-coat pocket, and they turned the corner and walked from 7th to 9th, taking Hope all the way.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 7

Here is the penultimate installment of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

Fumiko had wanted to leave after the reception, but her nephew Haru had convinced her to stay and come down to the concert, and they’d been there ever since Maná and Natalia Jiménez had taken the stage at 6:30. Haru was a little pissed that they’d missed OK Go’s full show. On the other hand he did get to see their private number after the wedding, and he had made his aunt hang back so that he even got to high-five the quartet, especially his favorite, Andy, who also signed his program and took the time to have a short, friendly conversation.

Even though she didn’t understand Spanish much when it didn’t have to do with sizes and colors of cloth, Fumiko still seemed to enjoy the first act, and she seemed absolutely beside herself when Bette, Cher, and Barbra took the stage.

When A-Pop came on, she seemed a bit… confused.

Meanwhile, Alice and Edna had stayed, and Edna commented to Alice when the kids came on, “Damn. They’re hot. Probably all gay, too, but so what?”

“I… don’t know about this,” Alice muttered.

“What? They’re pretty good dancers and singers. Enjoy the show.”

“The one on the right, okay. He’s fine. And the one on the left. But…”

“But? Oh, damn. Is this one of those cultural things that my privileged white ass is missing?”

Alice just nodded, and then she noticed Fumiko, standing just to the other side of Haru. Of course, she didn’t know their names. All she knew was that Fumiko was giving her the same hateful look that she was shooting back, while the boy looked completely neutral, if not a little startled by Alice.

“Care to explain?” Edna asked. “Sincere question.”

“Thai boy on the right, everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the left, my home team. In between? Japan, Korea.”

“Sigh. So, in Western terms?”

“Think… World War Two, and you’re American. The Thai boy on the right? Canada. Everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the right? G.I. Joe. Your home team hero. In between? Germany, then Italy, in that order.”

“Okay,” Edna replied, “Except that nowadays, Americans don’t hold any particular grudges against Germans or Italians, although we still like Canadians. And the Thai. And now I know what you’re talking about, and it has to do with Nanking, doesn’t it?”

Alice just sighed and nodded. “It has everything to do with it.”

Edna took a deep breath, then threw up her hands. “I understand. I mean, I don’t agree with it, but I have absolutely no place to try to explain. Obviously. All I can say is just try to enjoy the concert, and how those four boys are working together so well.”

“I know,” Alice said, “But… it can be so hard with a reminder.” She nodded toward Fumiko.

“Or so easy if you just say ‘Hello?’” Edna asked. “No, sorry… sorry. I’m just going to shut up and maybe move over there to watch the show. You enjoy the rest of the evening.”

Edna moved off to the side, and she felt really conflicted. Honestly, she had no place saying anything about whatever deep-seated ethnic tensions existed between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people, even several generations removed. That would be like the Sultan of Brunei telling her how to feel about that whole British/Irish thing, given her ancestry.

On the other hand, it had really taken her aback to see clear racism in a person who wasn’t white. She didn’t think that such a thing was possible. She still didn’t. This had to be something other than that. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just another example of her actually being racist. Either way, it made her preconceptions spin, so she had to step away and just enjoy the music.

This didn’t keep her from watching as Alice and Fumiko gave each other the side-eye. Of course, Edna had no idea who Fumiko was, nor did she know who the young man with her was. She assumed that he was her son.

Toward the end of the concert, the young man finally walked right up to Alice, despite Fumiko trying to stop him, but he was insistent, and they exchanged a few brief words, Alice finally suddenly looking at him, incredulous, then at Fumiko, who glanced away proudly. Alice nodded to the young man, touched his shoulder, then walked over to Fumiko and got her attention, at which point she bowed deeply. Fumiko seemed legitimately shocked, throwing her hand over her face and leaning back but, after a moment, she stepped away from Alice backwards, and bowed even more deeply.

Edna had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to be progress, and the young man was beaming. In that moment, A-Pop were singing their finale, a song in English with the lyrics:

We know no borders and no countries

Religions don’t exist at all

Age and race and lies like these

Should never build a wall

All our genders are social fiction

All our sex is just some friction

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

The two women looked at each other, seeming to acknowledge the lyrics, then stood upright, paused for a moment, and walked away, leaving the young man to stand there looking very confused and sad. Edna wanted to run over and hug him, but didn’t, not knowing what was appropriate to do.

What she hadn’t heard was what had been said. Haru went to Alice and said, “My aunt knows of you, because she met that white woman you helped, and after she heard that story, she told me, ‘Haru, I don’t care if she’s Chinese. She has a charitable heart. I truly admire her.”

Alice said nothing, but just looked at Haru, incredulous, then past him at Fumiko, who glanced away and Alice knew that it was in embarrassment and shame. She nodded to Haru, touched his shoulder in a gesture of thanks, then went to Fumiko and did the only thing she knew to mitigate the woman’s shame because, truth to tell, Alice was suddenly feeling a lot of shame herself for having hated someone on sight who, clearly, admired her actions. Once Fumiko glanced her way, Alice bowed deeply, as she knew that this was a sign of respect among the Japanese.

Unfortunately, Fumiko seemed taken aback by this gesture, covering her mouth, eyes wide, gasping audibly and stepping back. She bowed even more deeply, and Alice understood that they really weren’t communicating as equals, because now they were in a struggle over who could say “sorry” the hardest, even though Alice knew that she was clearly in the wrong.

They stepped apart, regarded each other sadly, and then walked away. Haru couldn’t help but take the last lyrics of the song to heart…

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

As the line repeated, Haru looked up toward the stage, and realized that Li-Wei seemed to be singing it right to him, then noticed that the boys were marching down the steps, repeating the last lines alternately in unison in each of their own languages in turn — and Li-Wei was practically eye-fucking Haru. The only thing Haru knew to do was make strong eye contact, smile, and then do his best demure school-girl by tossing his hands in front of his face, giggling, and looking away.

Of course, there was no way that Li-Wei heard the giggle, and Haru wasn’t even sure that he’d understand that the move was a gigantic come-on. He didn’t even know whether Anime, or its successor Simume, had even made it to China. Or was Li-Wei just a Chinese boy from the west?

And then the Thai boy on the end announced, “Who wants to have a ball with us?” and Haru felt someone grab his hand. It was Li-Wei, and the other three were grabbing people from the crowd as well. Hiroji and Seojun grabbed two very pretty girls their own age. Hiroji’s was black and Sojun’s was most likely Eurasian. Haru wasn’t sure, but he suspected Vietnamese with at least one if not two American grandfathers courtesy of the tail end of that failed war. As for Kiet, he found a man who was probably old enough to be his grandfather, or at least his father, and one that Haru could not find subjectively attractive in any way, shape, or form. Then again, who was he to judge? And he tried as hard as he could to block his grandmother’s words about Thai men from his mind. She hadn’t been kind.

Well, hell. She hadn’t been kind about any kind of Asian other than Japanese, or anyone who wasn’t Asian at all. Haru had always found this odd, since his grandmother was sansei. Her parents were the first generation born in America. She was the third. She was as American as George Washington.

Of course, her big criticism of Thai men was, “Oh, they’re all just fags,” which had really hurt Haru, although he was afraid to say anything about it. That changed when he told it to his favorite auntie, Fumiko and, upon hearing the news, she went off on a tirade against Gran Shizuka, who was her mother, in front of the rest of the family.

That made for one tense and awkward birthday party for Fumiko’s sister Fukumi, who was Haru’s mother. But once Fumiko began berating Shizuka for basically tossing hatred on her own uncle, Masakatsu, now deceased, but who had always been openly gay, she won the argument, and Shizuka fled the party. It was only the intervention of Fukumi that kept the woman from going full-on drama gramma by pretending to perform an ancient suicide ritual.

“Really, mom?” everyone heard Fukumi say from the hall. “We’re in America. We’ve been in America for damn near 75 years now. Nobody does this shit anymore. Not this homophobia, and not this gutting yourself because you got embarrassed. Now grow the fuck up and come back to the goddamn party.”

From that day forward, Haru seemed to be Gran Shizuka’s favorite, so he had high hopes that people could change. And if that was whom Kiet loved, more power to him. Haru was absolutely loving the fact that he was being dragged by the hand back up to the top of the steps — one of the chosen few — by this hot Chinese-American boy who was probably at least half a dozen years older than him, but that was okay. At nineteen, Haru was tired of being a virgin, and he had a feeling that tonight he was going to lose his V-Card to an international superstar.

After a few choruses of wild dancing at the top, the song suddenly turned slow and the lights became muted and colorful, and Li-Wei pulled Haru in close, leading as they did a slow and sensual fox trot.

Haru really hoped that Li-Wei wouldn’t feel the raging boner in his pants, but then Li-Wei pulled Haru in by the small of his back, which was when they pretty much realized that they were both hard as hell.

“What are you doing after our show?” Li-Wei asked him, staring deeply into his eyes.

“You…?” Haru muttered, a breathless question.

Li-Wei pulled him closer. “Oh. I’m Li-Wei. And you?”

“I know,” Haru replied, feeling immediately stupid, then adding “Haru” after an awkward pause during which he couldn’t remember his own name.

“Well then… when this song ends, the exit is right across to City Hall doors, and then we get our own private elevators down to the limo, and to our hotel suites. But once we get there, I think I know where the entrance is.”

Li-Wei moved his hand and grabbed Haru’s ass, hard, one finger slipping as far up his crack as Haru’s trousers would allow. Haru just moaned a little and looked up at Li-Wei with hungry eyes.

“Oh… Senpai,” he sighed, not knowing what else to say.

“I’m getting to like you more and more by the second.” Li-Wei smiled back down before adding, “Kōhai.” Haru’s knees went weak and he almost turned into a manga character right there. He was equally bowled over by a Chinese boy knowing something that he thought only Japanese people and white American weeabos knew. Then the song ended, and the band and their insta-dates marched off towards the doors to city hall, but the evening and rest of the next day were only just beginning

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 6

More of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

Adam and Tony had finished getting dressed and exited by the time the crowd went wild, and there was a sudden very bizarre opening medley of greatest hits. Both of them knew that their parents had liked this music, and their grandparents more so, and while they didn’t have a lot of experience, the women in question were still iconic enough that they knew their names, at least.

“We should watch this, dude,” Tony commented and Adam just nodded agreement and took his arm and they wandered across the street to the bottom of City Hall steps to try to find a good viewpoint.

“Oh my god, did I just cum so hard I died?” Tycho announced to his group. They had managed to snag a spot center stage, at the bottom of City Hall steps, so they essentially had front row seats, and Tycho had been a big fan of two of these women since forever, thanks to his favorite gay uncle having exposed him to their music.

Finley had no idea who any of them were except Cher, and he was kind of a fan, but more of her movies than her music. James couldn’t care less about Bette or Cher, but had been a Barbra queen since forever. Adam and Tony only knew their names, but Bette seemed to be the funniest one with the best jokes, and even if the music was way too last century for them, they still dug the personalities. It was like three naughty grandmas just letting loose and having fun.

Jackson and Cindy were huddled together against one of the multi-lingual steles declaring the place “The park for everyone,” really enjoying what to them was a nostalgic trip back to elementary school when each of these women had first started to become popular. When he was nine, Jackson’s parents started to watch Sonny and Cher on TV, and they didn’t go off the air until he was fifteen, so he thought it was just one show that had been on a long time. What he never realized back then is that The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour ran from 1971 to 1974, and then The Sonny and Cher Show came on in 1976, but only lasted a year.

He vaguely remembered some Bette Midler song from around sixth grade that sounded like it was from WW II and was very up-tempo and fun, but was never really into Barbra because most of her stuff was just too slow.

Cindy mostly remembered Cher for her song Dark Lady, which was all over the radio starting from when she was about nine. She’d been a little too young to remember Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves, but Jackson certainly did. And two of Cindy’s favorite films, which came out during and just after her junior year of college, starred Bette Midler — oddly enough playing two different characters named “Barbara,” in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. Now that woman was funny. When the icons were finished, Jackson gave Cindy “that” look, and she just smiled back. They walked out of the park hand-in-hand and rode the A Line back out to where they had parked somewhere with a lot more space and much cheaper, as in free. Sure, Jackson could have easily afforded to drive all the way downtown, or even rented a self-driver for the day, but neither Cindy nor he wanted to appear to be part of the upper-crust, preferring to hang with the real people at the bottom of the Park for Everyone.

After this part of the concert was over, Tycho and Finley decided to wander off and James followed. Tony wanted to go, too, but Adam insisted that they stay.

“It’s late, babes,” Tony replied.

“I know, but come on. Next up is Shakira, Maluma, Pit Bull, and some secret special guest. No way are we leaving now.”

“Really? Tony protested.

“If you stay,” Adam told him in a sing-song, “I will fuck you to within an inch of your life once we get home.”

“Can the other guys watch?” Tony asked.

“Duh,” Adam teased back.

“Okay, then!” Tony smiled and they held hands and wandered around the crowd until the next performance started at 10:30. Along the way, they ran into Rafael and Vince, who were there for the same reasons. No way in hell was Rafael going to miss this one, and he dragged his bromantic partner along.

A half hour into that show, the reception in upper Grand Park for the rich people came to an end, and the staff began ushering them out, with Park staff guiding them up the hill to 2 Grand Avenue, which was the designated loading area for their various limos. People this rich simply did not “park” anywhere, and god forbid they drove themselves, although a good number of them arrived in their self-driving cars and then sent them off to wait until summoned at one of the special “robo-park” garages around the area. These were basically giant car filing cabinets that used vertical space.

The typical configuration comprised six lifts next to each other with thirty stacked spaces, and what was essentially an elevator shaft going up and down thirty floors above and below street level. They would load from the top down, first come, first served, and self-driving cars only. A car would drive in, payment would be authorized wirelessly, and the preferred charging method would be instigated, whether via plug-in or battery swap. Some of them even offered brushless washing. After each car, the lift would rise to make the next space available, and so on,

This meant that one of these garages could pack 180 cars into the parking footprint of six spaces and, since the part going up, but especially the part going down, was essentially just an elevator shaft with no cables — the whole thing was driven by ratcheted motors — construction was fairly cheap.

As for the guests, the park employees had herded all of them to the top level of the park above the fountain within twenty minutes, and the main reception area was vacant of all but staff. They had already gotten the message to assemble in the Mosk Courthouse lobby after the party shut down, and the people giving the message had acted sufficiently anxious, so everyone was a bit nervous and on edge, most of them wondering, “Damn. What did we fuck up?”

Alejandra finally entered, and went into her best actress mode to appear pissed as hell. She paced back and forth in tense silence a few times, shooting an occasional look at the staff, none of whom made eye-contact. Finally, she stopped and said, in her best sarcastic tone, “Yeah, I want to thank you all so much for your ‘help’ with my only daughter’s wedding.”

“I noticed that none of you had anything at all to do with convincing our various guests to open their wallets and donate tonight.” She knew that this would get an angry but hidden reaction, because she had never said that was part of the job. She let it rest for a moment, then decided to give the big reveal. She had tortured them enough.

“Of course, that’s because no one asked you to. That was my job, and they sure as hell donated to charity tonight. Thanks to them, we took in over a hundred million dollars for my favorite charity.”

This was met with a lot of nonplussed looks, as in, “Okay, so?”

“Oh, silly me. I forgot to mention my favorite charity. And that each beneficiary of that charity is going to get about two hundred grand.” She took a dramatic pause, then gestured toward the staff. “Um… that’d be you. All of you. You’ve done a fantastic job making this event a success, and your bonuses are going to net out to just what I said.”

She had brought the crowd from confusion to disbelief, but then members of her accounting staff began to pass out the checks. Archaic, she knew, but this would have more impact, and she watched as people quickly ripped open the envelopes, looked at the amounts, and most of them suddenly started crying tears of absolute and sincere joy.

“See, if you hadn’t made things run so smoothly, nobody would have been inclined to donate anything. So, no, I never asked you to make our guests open their wallets tonight because I didn’t have to. You did it all on your own, and on top of that, you made this one of the best nights of my life, along with my family. On behalf of my daughter, son-in-law, his parents, my husband, and the City and County of Los Angeles, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. Now head on down to City Hall and enjoy the rest of the People’s Concert. You’ve earned it!”

She blew them a kiss and exited, and the room erupted into chatter, cheers, hysterically happy tears, group hugs, and general jubilation.

It actually wasn’t until Alejandra left her bonus ceremony that Adrian finally managed to buttonhole her and introduce himself to her. As soon as he said the words “Toby Arnot,” though, she started to pull away, but Adrian went into full-on schmooze mode and told her, “He’s actually very anti-gentrification, and if you just give him five minutes, I’m sure you’ll want to help him.”

“He has two,” she snapped. “Starting now.”

Adrian hustled her to where Toby had been waiting, not ten seconds away, and he wasted no time launching into his spiel. He explained how he wanted to maintain a former motel with affordable housing, as well as support an arts group and Alejandra seemed interested but indifferent. But then he uttered what were apparently the magic words. “Wendy Rue is trying to eminent domain both properties and — ”

And that was as far as he got. “— and turn the places into unaffordable housing for foreign billionaires who really shouldn’t own shit here. Right?” Adian and Toby nodded. “I’ve heard enough,” she said. “I’ll make a note, and first thing Tuesday, I’m going to file the RAI on her. Just send me the property addresses. Actually, do you know of anything else in the area she’s trying to pull the ED on?”

“No,” Toby said, “But I can find out.”

“Well, so can I. On second thought, I’m just going to put out a general RAI on anything in her district.”

“Thank you so much,” Toby told her.

“No,” she replied. “Thank you. And you,” she added, nodding to Adrian. “Without people like you to point out how the elected are trying to abuse the city, we don’t really know. We’ll be in touch.”

“Do you need my — ”

“No, Toby,” she replied. “Everyone downtown knows who you are!”

She walked away and Toby turned to Adrian with the biggest grin Adrian had ever seen on his boss. “Wow,” Toby muttered. “Beyond amazing!”

Adrian’s knees went a little weak on that one, wondering what kind of bonus was going to come from the superlative version of the magic six-digit bonus phrase.

Mission accomplished, the two of them finally wandered down to the People’s Concert, arriving just before the start of the portion featuring A-Pop, a boy band from Asia with members from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand — Li-Wei, Hiroji, Seojun, and Kiet. They were known all around the world, so didn’t require family names, and the crowd went nuts when they took the stage.

* * *