The Saturday Morning Post #58: The Rêves Part 36

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

White rabbit

It was light out when Joshua woke up, although he had no idea what time it was. Simon was wrapped around him and still quite warm and tangible, and the sex the night before had been beyond amazing. There was something else going on beyond the physical.

More than a few times to Joshua it felt like his own soul and consciousness had suddenly left this head, bubbled up under his taint, shot up his asshole, and then ridden his spine into his skull before exploding out into the universe, leaving him a quivering pile of ecstasy.

When it felt like his mind and soul came back, it also felt like he and Simon were the same person before he would slowly feel his limbs and body unfold back into place and his eyes would open to see that everything had a deep violet glow.

Preston had been right about the difficulty of keeping silent, too, although when Joshua and Simon were at the peak and the Danny and Preston started to audibly moan and wail as well, it just intensified everything.

Joshua turned to stare at a sleeping Simon, content that they had gotten to be back together — sort of — and reconciling himself to both how they did it and to the fact that Preston and Danny had now also sort of fucked him, or something.

“Band of Thebes,” he thought as he remembered that they were about to march into war and, with any luck, win the only battle and save the Rêves. And, honestly, the humans, because Joshua had a feeling that if Ausmann did manage to do what he wanted to, it would not affect Pearl or the Hadas, and they would take their revenge by scrubbing the planet of humanity.

Although this morning, it wasn’t so much a feeling as it was just something he believed.

Simon stirred and his eyes opened and they smiled at each other, and then followed their first of the month tradition.

“White rabbit!” they said in unison, and they smiled harder and hugged.

“How the hell is it September already?” Joshua asked.

“Wake me when September ends,” Simon replied.

“Oh, don’t even, you putz!” Joshua warned him, playfully slapping his shoulder.

“What?” Simon asked, sincerely.

“You’re quoting elevator music, okay?” Joshua shot back.

“I like Green Day,” Simon said.

“I know,” Joshua said. “But I don’t want this September to end. I don’t want this day to end, or this… this whatever it is.”

“See? We fucked that tune right out of you?” Simon said, with a smile.

“What tune?”

“Your whole resistance to, um… guests? Observers? Um — ”

“We can hear you,” Preston’s voice suddenly called out.

“Them,” Simon added.

“And we can feel you,” Danny said.

“And we are totally fucked out, thank you!” Preston continued.

“My god,” Joshua whispered to Simon. “We out-fucked porn stars?”

Simon kissed Joshua on the forehead, then hugged him tight. “This wasn’t mere ‘fucking,’ honey,” he explained. “It was… well, in video game terms, leveling up before the boss battle. You’ve got a little bit of Rêve in you now — ”

Little?” Joshua scoffed.

“Stop!” Simon ordered him. “You know what I mean. We’ve kind of tagged you as one of us, meaning one of the Rêves, and that is your armor in case they ever go after the humans.”

“Why would they do that?” Joshua asked.

“They wouldn’t,” Simon said, “Unless we fail.”

“So we can’t fail, dude,” Preston and Simon both whispered.

“Okay, so how do we win?” Joshua asked.

“Simple,” Simon said. “Make sure all the pieces favor us calling checkmate. And in order to do that, you need to power up as many Pawns as you can to be Queens.”

“I hope that’s a chess reference and not — ”

“Yes, and no,” Simon said. “I’ve already been given the ultimate power-up, but you need a bit more of a boost.”

“Wait,” Joshua called out. “You don’t mean you’re going to kill me and turn me into a Rêve. Right?”

“Of course I don’t mean that,” Simon explained. “You just need one more trip up the magic mountain in order to see what we see. So, ready?”

“I… don’t know,” Joshua replied. “How do I get up there?”

“Simple,” Simon explained. “I get behind you and push.”

Joshua just laughed at the absurdity of it all. Did it really come down to his husband fucking super powers into him, was this all just bullshit, or what?

He kind of didn’t care, so he rolled onto his left side and called back. “Okay. Do your worst. But you’re the one who gets to wash the sheets.”

This one immediately felt different and far more intense, plus it felt like Joshua’s body was being stroked by more than just two hands — at least six, but probably more than that. And then he started to hear voices — not just Simon, Danny, and Preston, but dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of others.

The words were not distinct, and he had the impression that they were speaking many languages, and the speakers were all possible ages and genders.

And then, he began to see… things. There were swirling lights in green and blue that he thought at first were those typical images he saw before falling asleep, but then everything became symmetrical, as if it turned into a kaleidoscope of lace or stained glass, and the green and blue melted into an electric shade of cyan that was quickly joined by neon violet, with red creeping in from the center and the edges.

All of the speaking tongues suddenly melded together into one human voice singing a soaring chorus not made up of words but of sounds — Joshua thought that maybe they were the primal noises humans made that eventually became language — and then he realized that the music beneath it consisted of chords clearly played on a piano.

He fell out of his visions and landed clearly in a past memory. He and Simon were sitting in a micro-brewery in San Francisco’s North Beach. Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky was playing over the speakers, and Joshua realized that there was a spinet piano right behind his bench, so he turned around, opened the cover, and started playing along to the song.

Here was the weird part: While Joshua had musical training, he could never play by ear, but his mind just told him that the song was in D minor — well, technically, in F Major, but the relative minor took precedence, and away he went, picking out the cords and blending right in.

Weirdly, it was a talent he’d sort of retained, but then present Joshua realized that he was peeking in on past Joshua, at least fifteen years earlier, and then realized two things more.

The Simon who had come back looked exactly as old as he had during their brief six months in San Francisco. And, second, that particular night in that particular North Beach microbrewery, Joshua had been tripping balls on shrooms.

That realization was the instant that he was yanked back into current reality, probably by Simon’s death grip on his nipples and his persistent pounding, but then he remembered Simon’s comments about giving him another power-up, and he once again felt that weird build-up between his legs and just behind his balls.

But then time seemed to fracture and crystalize, and suddenly Joshua was simultaneously reliving every single time in his life he’d ever cum, and it wasn’t just with Simon. From around the time he turned 12 until he graduated high school, that was well over 6,500 times — and those were just guitar solos.

And so on and so forth. But every single one of those orgasms started playing on repeat in his brain and body at once, and he lost his fucking mind in the white noise of ecstasy.

What could have been seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years later, Joshua woke up in the bedroom, alone, naked, and feeling like a glazed donut.

“Simon?” he called out, but there was no response. “Danny? Preston?” He tried again, but nothing.

And then he stopped thinking about them and suddenly saw in his mind where they were, so he headed right out the doors, onto the balcony, and up to the roof via the ladder on the balcony, where the three were hanging out.

When he appeared, they applauded.

“You just passed your final, dear,” Simon said, and this was when Joshua realized that he and the boys were quite separate.

“What?” he asked. “I don’t get to fuck y’all again?”

“Didn’t we it do enough already?” Preston asked.

“Probably,” Joshua said. “I still feel like I’m not quite on the planet.”

“Like how you figured out we were up here when we weren’t moving or talking?” Simon asked him.

“Oh, yeah. Right. How did I know that?”

“I told you, dude. You’ve leveled up. Now are you ready for that boss fight?”

“I guess it’s now or never,” Joshua replied. “Let’s go get ready.” They headed downstairs.

In San Bernardino, Captain Shrantz had just been informed that the FBI had taken an interest in the case of the exploding cabin not because the alleged perpetrator worked for the federal government, but because the cabin was located on federal land, in the middle of a National Forest.

Her supervisor hinted at the fact that if her division managed to trap the perpetrator first, it would look really good not only for her division, but would help the Sheriff-Coroner’s next election bid, even though it wasn’t for another three years. And if Shrantz wanted to be promoted to Deputy Sheriff and move onto the executive staff…?

He left it hanging, but she got the message. She had a gut instinct that despite all of the LEO’s looking for him, he would ultimately run to ground at his basecamp at JPL. So this would require some coordination with L.A. County, the City of Pasadena, and either the FBI or Federal Marshals.

Of course, her division probably wouldn’t get the bust even if they made it, but their presence would be mentioned in the media.

She discussed her thoughts with her Lieutenants, and Ramirez was, as usual, playing Devil’s advocate — a big part of the reason that Shrantz just admired the fuck out of him.

“Why the hell would he go back there?” Ramirez exclaimed. “That’s like painting a giant target on your ass, bending over, and screaming, ‘Well hellooooo, boys!’”

“I think it all depends upon who you think is coming to put some fire in the hole.”

“Oh, nice call-back,” Ramirez said, sincerely.

“Thank you,” Shrantz continued. “If he doesn’t think it’s the feds, then he might be lulled into a false sense of security that no agency on a lower level can penetrate his fortress.”

“Still a big risk.”

“Is it, though?” Shrantz replied. “He already had a team of campus police and Simi Valley amateurs out there…” she squinted at the report. “Sorry, Federal Marshals, but they didn’t get…” she looked at the paper again. “Sorry, again. No, Simi Valley cops, with some LAPD, and campus cops, and none of them could get in.”

“But does he know that?” Ramirez asked.

“Well, apparently, he was there at the time,” Shrantz told him. “So if we want to find our killer, that’s where we need to go.”

“Right. But if all those others couldn’t get in, how the hell could we?”

“Simple,” Shrantz explained. “Once we’re in place, then we call in the Feds, because I’m sure they would have the keys and passcodes and whatever to get down into that place in two minutes.”

“They make the bust, we get the tip-off credit?” Ramirez wondered.

“Exactly,” Shrantz exclaimed.

“Okay. I like it,” Ramirez replied. “So when do we go?”

“Crap. It’s Labor Day weekend, isn’t it?” Shrantz realized. “They’re not going to want to invest in a helicopter for this trip and traffic both ways is going to be shit, so… tomorrow morning?”

“Sounds good to me,” Ramirez agreed.

“Exellent,” Shrantz replied. “Make it so.”

Ramirez nodded and headed off to coordinate plans.

Davis and Lewis had just finished a late lunch and he was doing the dishes when she told him, “You know, I have gut-feeling.”

“Again?” he replied.

“You know they’re always right,” she said.

“I know,” he shot back, “But they tend to get us in trouble.”

“Except when they solve cases,” she insisted. “Anyway, I know where we can find him.”

“And where’s that, Sherlock Holmes?” Lewis teased her.

“Simple,” Davis replied. “Where’s the last place you’d look?”

“The ruins of his house in Simi,” Lewis said.

“Okay, technically true, but they’re way too exposed. Where can he hide underground, with multiple layers of protection?”

“A nuclear missile silo?”

“Okay, honey, now you’re just being silly.”

“I know,” Lewis grinned at her.

“JPL. Well, at his facility beneath it. From all the reports I’ve seen, it’s been closed down since the storm, but if he can get in there…”

“Perfect hidey-hole,” Lewis added.

“Exactly.”

“But isn’t absolutely everyone watching it?”

“Maybe,” Davis said. “But he was the boss. He had the keys to everything, and here’s a thought. A facility like that might have one obvious entrance, but what about emergencies?”

“Oh my god,” Lewis suddenly realized. “You’re right. They must have Swiss-cheesed multiple escape routes out of there. But wouldn’t those just be one way exits?”

“Maybe,” Davis explained. “But if you’re the boss, and you’re as paranoid as we think he is —”

“Is he?”

“Didn’t you read the psych reports on the server? Anyway, he had complete control of the place, so I’m sure that for every secret exit, he’s found a way to make it his secret entrance.”

“So what are we waiting for?” Lewis demanded.

“Back-up, I suppose,” she replied. “And it’s probably better not to hit at night — ”

“It’s only three o’clock.”

“You know full well that multi-agency shit takes time. Doing it within twenty-four hours would surprise the hell out of me.”

“But making the bust and turning it over…?” he suggested. “How good would that make the SVPD look?

“Are you going all politician on me?” she asked.

“Since when have I ever run for anything?” he replied.

“Kiwanis Club president, 1998,” she snapped back.

“And I lost!” he retorted. “I’m a bad politician. But a good chess player. And it seems like if we take your hunch, get there first, and make the arrest, well… good things for you?”

“I’m just not like that,” she finally said, crossing into the living room and grabbing her laptop off of the coffee table to bring it back into the kitchen. “It takes a village,” she said. “Or… whatever. But, all right, let’s roll the dice. You said they can’t pull multi-agency together in 24 hours? Time to test that theory.”

She had been typing and tapping the entire time she’d been speaking, but paused both at the same time. Lewis turned from the sink and looked at her, suddenly panicking.

“Oh god,” he said. “What did you do?”

“Nothing yet,” she smiled back, index finger hovering over the enter key.

“What the hell are you about to do?” he demanded.

“Bringing someone who is probably a serial killer to justice, no matter who gets credit?” she replied. “Duh?”

And then her finger dropped onto the enter button and the image of the message on her screen vanished.

“Duh and done,” she added.

Lewis just stared at her for a long moment, then realized that she was right. It didn’t matter who stopped this asshole, as long as someone did.

“So do we really need to schlep out there tomorrow morning?” he asked.

“What?” she replied. “You think I want to piss away the chance to be the one to arrest him? Oh, hell noes. But I want to keep it a fair chase, and minimize his opportunities of escaping. Capisce?

Lewis sighed and smiled. “I knew there was a reason that I loved you,” he said.

“Liar,” she replied. “There are at least twenty-three.”

“True,” he shrugged.

Brenda was back at work, anticipating an early shut down for the holiday weekend, when Joshua called her.

“Guess who’s back!” he said.

“You’re kidding!” Brenda replied.

“Nope. Not in the flesh, but definitely in the spirit.”

She could hear him turn the phone and then heard Simon say, “Hi, Brenda. Happy September 1st.”

“I’ll be damned. But isn’t that weird to you both?” she asked.

“Little bit,” Joshua replied. “But it has its benefits. Anyway, we just wanted to let you know that we’re both safe, we’ve gone over all of the information we have, have gathered all the protection and… weapons that we need, and tomorrow we are stopping Ausmann.”

“That sounds really stupid and dangerous,” she chided them, going into Mom mode. “Why not just turn him over the authorities or something? He did kill your husband.”

“But they don’t know that,” Joshua spurted, realizing his mistake almost immediately.

“And neither did I, until now,” Brenda said. “Look. I will keep my mouth shut about that, I never heard you say it, but on one condition. You let me help you two, so that you don’t get your ass killed, and Simon doesn’t get his killed a second time.”

Joshua wanted to tell her that his ass had already been absolutely murdered four or five times in the last twenty-four hours, but refrained. Instead he asked, sincerely, “Um… what can you do for us, Brenda?”

“Bitch, I’m with L.A. County Government, and where the hell do you think you are?”

“Even JPL?”

“Last I looked, Pasadena was in L.A. County.”

“But JPL, and especially Ausmann’s project, is under Federal jurisdiction.”

“But a lot of the infrastructure around it is ours. Look, what would be the most useful thing I could do for you?”

Joshua and Simon thought about it a moment and discussed it quietly, then Joshua turned back to his phone. “I suppose,” he explained, “Keep out any unnecessary interference, at least until we can get him to where we need him.”

“’Interference’ as in the metric fuckton of law enforcement agencies that are no doubt looking for his ass, right?”

“Exactly!” Joshua and Simon exclaimed together.

“Yeah, I can pull some strings and get some emergency street and off-ramp closures set up tomorrow. And it’s in Pasadena, so it will inconvenience old white people, so yay!”12.

“Won’t it inconvenience us and Ausmann in getting there?” Simon asked, Joshua relaying the question.

“No, because I’m going to give you the magic words to get through. Well, the magic QR code you can flash on your phone. Although I’d really recommend that you arrange to drive Ausmann yourselves, to avoid him being seen.”

“I think we could do that,” Joshua said. “It’s a Tesla, plenty of storage space in the trunk and under the hood.”

Simon gestured for Joshua to hold the phone his way. “You only need to stall things until we confirm that we’re down there,” he told her, “And then let them loose.”

“Any particular reason for that?” Brenda asked.

“Sure,” Simon said. “The proper authorities have got to be there to arrest his ass once we’ve stopped his plot to kill all of the Rêves.”

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” Brenda said.

“OMG,” Joshua said. “You know your Shakespeare! No wonder we all get along so well.”

I count myself in nothing else so happy, as in a soul remembering my good friends…” Simon added, somewhat wistfully.

Tomorrow in battle, think of me,” Brenda said.

“That’s not the best advice, considering the source,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit, right. You better not put away your swords and despair!” she admonished him.

They all laughed, then fell into a moment of quiet.

“Tomorrow morning,” she finally told them. “It’s soon, but I think I can set this up.”

“Let us know whether you could or couldn’t,” Joshua told her. “Securing that will actually be the go signal for our whole mission.”

“Ooh. Now I feel so important,” Brenda said.

“That’s because you are and always have been,” Joshua told her.

“Thank you,” she replied simply. “So, is seven in the morning tomorrow too early for you to be up to call me?”

“It all depends on what we get up to tonight,” Joshua said coyly, giving Simon the eye, which made Simon slap him on the arm, but with none of the impact that came with having Danny and Preston inside him.

“Save it for tomorrow night,” Brenda said. “I know that Jonah ain’t gettin’ none until this is all over.”

“Thanks,” Joshua replied.

“Don’t mention it. But now I have to get my ass in gear, because half the idiots around here have already shifted into long weekend mindset, and I’ve only got a couple of hours before we shut down early to get shit sorted. Talk to you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Joshua said. Bye!”

The call ended, and Joshua and Simon looked at each other.

“Well, that left it unfortunately open-ended, didn’t it?” Simon asked.

“Probably for the best,” Joshua advised him. “No use going into the final battle without all of your chess pieces lined up for that move to checkmate, right?”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“It makes total sense?”

“It makes absolute sense,” Simon agreed.

All that was left to do was wait until Saturday morning, although Joshua did manage to convince Simon and the boys that Brenda had said nothing about them not having some early afternoon into evening fun as long as they went to sleep early, and so they all went a few more rounds before a late dinner — well, for Joshua, at least — at 7:30, then some streaming entertainment until bedtime, which came at the ridiculously early (for them) hour of 10:30 p.m.

Warriors did not stay up late. Unfortunately, that was exactly what they had become.

* * *

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

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

Double Indemnity

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, tell me. I’ll bite.”

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

“So how much is it?” Ausmann asked.

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

“Really?” Ausmman asked.

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

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

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

“And how much for three?” Ausmann asked.

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

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

“Analog fail-safes,” Charles said.

“Right. That. Why do I need them?”

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

“What feature?” Ausmann asked.

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

“Uh… I guess?” Ausmann replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that and something else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, useless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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