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

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

Lunch Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything, really,” Rita replied.

“Really?” Brenda wondered.

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

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

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

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

“So it’s not as stupid as it looks?”

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

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

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

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

“I what?”

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

“Why were you following them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They didn’t tell you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

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

“Joshua and Simon,” Brenda said.

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

“Yeah, good point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My mother still is,” Brenda replied.

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

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

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

“As if!” Brenda scoffed.

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

“Did you just use the G-word?”

“Gay?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” Rita asked.

“Yes, really. You,” Brenda said.

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As what?” Brenda replied.

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

“What?” Brenda asked in surprise.

“It’s ED, AI,” Rita replied.

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

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

* * *

Gumbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other guests came outside to crowd around.

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

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

“Well, fuck,” he muttered.

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

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

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

The end results were amazing.

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

“What do you two do for a living?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He thought so,” Simon countered.

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

“Um… who?” Simon asked.

“John Wayne?”

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

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

“Right,” Simon replied. “And?”

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

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

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

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

“That kind of shit,” Joshua said.

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

* * *

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

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

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

All-American Slam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, share?” Joshua replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here,” Joshua replied.

“Well, the Valley,” Simon said.

“West… Valley…” Joshua added reluctantly.

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

“Eew!” Joshua and Simon chimed in together.

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

“Sounds… interesting,” Joshua said.

“Very,” Simon added.

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

“So tell,” Simon said.

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

“Agreed,” Joshua replied, Simon nodding.

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

* * *

Anabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is your fault,” he suddenly shouted.

“Sorry, what?” Aldous replied.

“You and your modern science death cult ways — ”

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

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

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Saving your child,” she spat at him.

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

“Enough!” grandfather shouted.

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

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

“No, but try me.”

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

“And then?” Aldous asked.

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

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

“So be it,” she replied. “Deal?”

“Deal,” he spat back at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #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.

* * *

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