From Gardner Dozois - The Year's Best Science Fiction 23rd Annual Collection (2006)
David Gerrold has been a hardworking and highly acclaimed professional in several different fields since the sixties. As a screenwriter, he produced the screenplay for one of the most famous of all of the episodes of the original Star Trek, "The Trouble with Tribbles." He later produced a book about the experience, The Trouble with Tribbles, as well as a study of the show, The World of Star Trek, and two Star Trek novels, Encounter at Far Point and The Galactic Whirlpool. He won both Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1995 for his story "The Martian Child." His many SF novels include the well-known The Man Who Folded Himself, as well as When Harlie Was One, A Matter for Men, A Rage for Revenge, A Season for Slaughter, The Middle of Nowhere, The Voyage of the Star Wolf, Space Skimmer, Star Hunt, Yesterday's Children, A Covenant of Justice, A Day for Damnation, Blood and Fire, The Martian Child, Chess with a Dragon, Under the Eye of God, Jumping off the Planet, Bouncing off the Moon, and Leaping to the Stars. His short fiction has been collected in With a Finger in My I. As editor, he has produced the anthologies Protostars, Generation, Science Fiction Emphasis, Alternities, and Ascents of Wonder. In addition to the Star Trek study, his nonfiction includes Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. His most recent books are a new novel, Child of Earth, and a new collection, Alternate Gerrolds.
In the intricate and subtle story that follows, where all is mutable and nothing is certain or solid or imperishable, he gives a whole new meaning to the expression on shaky ground…
The day after time collapsed, I had my shoes shined. They needed it.
I didn't know that time had collapsed, wouldn't find out for years, decades —and several months of subjective time. I just thought it was another local timequake.
Picked up a newspaper—The Los Angeles Mirror, with its brown-tinted front page—and settled into one of the high-backed, leather chairs in the Hollywood Boulevard alcove. There were copies of the Herald, the Examiner, and the Times here as well, but the Mirror had Pogo Possum on the funny pages. "Mighty fine shoes, sir," Roy said, and went right to work. He didn't know me yet. I snapped the paper open.
I didn't have to check the papers for the date, this was late fifties, J already knew from the cars on the boulevard, an ample selection of Detroit heavy-iron; the inevitable Chevys and Fords, a few Buicks and Oldsmobiles, the occasional ostentatious Cadillac, a few Mercurys, but also a nostalgic scattering of others, including DeSoto, Rambler, Packard, Oldsmobile, and Studebaker. Not a foreign care to be seen, just a bright M&M flow of chrome-lined monstrosities growling along, many of them two-toned. The newer models had nascent tailfins, the evocation of jet planes and rocketships, giddy metal evolution, the hallmark of a decade and an industrial dead end.
The Mirror and The Examiner both disappeared late '58, maybe early '59, if I remembered correctly, the result of a covert deal by the publishers. Said Mr. Chandler to Mr. Hearst, I'll shut down my morning paper if you'll shut down your afternoon. "Let us fold our papers and go."
A new Edsel cruised by—right, this was '58. But I could already smell it. The Hollywood day felt gritty. The smog was thick enough to taste. The Hollywood Warner's theater had another Cinerama travelogue —the third or fourth, I'd lost track. I was tempted; not a lot of air-conditioning in this time zone. A dark old theater, cooled by refrigeration, I could skip the sweltering zenith. But, no —I might not have enough time.
The papers reported that timefaults had opened up as far north as Porter Ranch, popping Desi and Lucy seven years back into the days of chocolate conveyer belts and Vitameatavegamin: as far east as Boyle Heights where ten years were lost and the diamond-bright DWP building disappeared from the downtown skyline, along with the world famous four-level freeway interchange; as far south as Watts, they only rattled off a couple years, but it set back the construction of Simon Rodilla's startling graceful towers; and all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. Several small boats and the Catalina Ferry had disappeared, but a sparkling new Coast Guard Cutter from 1963 had chugged into San Pedro. The big red Pacific Electric streetcars were still grinding out to the San Fernando Valley. I wondered if I'd have a chance to ride one before the aftershocks hit.
Caltech predicted several days of aftershocks and the mayor was advising folks to stay close to home if they could, to avoid further discontinuities. The Red Cross had set up shelters at several high schools for those whose homes had disappeared or were now occupied by previous or subsequent inhabitants.
Already the looters and collectors from tomorrow were flocking to the boulevard. Most of them were obvious, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, but they gave themselves away by their stare-gathering unkempt haircuts and beards, their torn jeans and pornographic T-shirts. They'd be stripping the racks at World Book and News, buying every copy they could find of Superman, Batman, Action, and especially Walt Disney's Comics with the work of legendary Carl Barks. And MAD magazine too; the issues with the Freas covers were the most valuable. Later, they'd move west, hitting Collector's Books and Records and Pickwick's as well. The smart ones would have brought cash. The smartest ones would have brought year-specific cash. The dumb ones would have credit cards and checkbooks. Not a lot of places took credit cards yet, none of them recognized Visa or MasterCard. And nobody took checks anymore; not unless they were bank-dated; most of the stores had learned from previous timequakes.
The Harris Agency—there was no Ted Harris, but he had an agency—was just upstairs of the shoeshine stand; upstairs, turn left and back all the way to the end of the hall, no name on the glass, no glass. The door was solid pine, like a coffin-lid, and painted green for no reason anyone could remember, except an old song, "What's that happenin behind the green door… ?" The only identification was a small card that said by appointment only. That wasn't true, but it stopped the casual curiosity seekers. My key still worked, the locks wouldn't be changed until 1972; there was no receptionist, the outer office was filled with cardboard file boxes and stacks of unfiled folders. Two typists were cataloging, they glanced up briefly. If I had a key, I belonged here.
Georgia was still an intern, working afternoons; she'd started when she was a student at Hollywood High, half a mile west and a couple blocks south. Now she was taking evening courses in business management at Los Angeles City College, over on Vermont, a block south of Santa Monica Boulevard. A few years from now, she'd be a beautiful honey-blonde, but she didn't know that yet and I wasn't going to risk a bad first impression by speaking out of turn. I pretended I didn't know her. I didn't, not yet.
I brushed past, into the cubby we called a conference room. More old paper and two old women. Pinched-faced and withered, they might have been the losers in a Margaret Hamilton look-alike contest. Sooner or later, one of them was probably going to demand, "Who killed my sister? Was it you?!"
Opened my wallet, started to flash my card, but the dustier of the two waved it off. "I recognize you. Wait. Sit." But I didn't recognize her. I probably hadn't met her yet. Some younger iteration of her had known an older iteration of me. I wondered how well. I wondered if I would remember this meeting then. The other woman left the room without saying a word. Just as well; some folks get uncomfortable around time-ravelers. Not travelers—ravelers. The folks who tend the tangled webs.
I sat. A dark mahogany table, thick and heavy. A leather chair, left over from the previous occupant of this office, someone who'd bellied up early in the thirties. She disappeared into a back room, I heard the scrapeof a wooden footstool, the sound of boxes being moved on shelves, a muffled curse, very unladylike. A moment later, she came back, dropped a sealed manila envelope on the table in front of me. I slid it over, turned it around, and scanned the notations. Contract signed in 1971, back-shifted to '57. Contract due date 1967. It had only been sitting here a year, and the due date was still nine years away.
A noise. I looked up. She'd put a bottle on the table and a stubby glass. I turned the bottle. It said Glenfiddich. I didn't recognize the name. I gave her the eyebrow. She said, "My name's Margaret. Today's the day you acquire this taste. You'll thank me for it later. Take as much time as you need to read the folder, but leave it here. Here's a notepad if you need to copy out anything. That contract's not due for nine years, so the best you can do today is familiarize yourself, maybe do a little scouting. There's an aftershock due tomorrow morning, about 4:30 a.m.; go to West Hollywood and it'll bounce you closer to the due date. Oh, wait—one more thing." She disappeared again, this time I heard the sounds of keys jingling on a ring. A drawer opened, stuff was shuffled around, the drawer was closed. She came back with a cash box and an old-fashioned checkbook. "I can only give you three hundred in time-specific cash, but it'll still be good in '67. There's a bank around the corner, you've got two hours until it closes, I'll give you a check for another seven hundred. You can pick up more in '67. But be careful, your account doesn't get fat for awhile. How's your ID?"
In the past, my personal past, I'd renewed my driver's license as quickly as I could after every quake, but a DL expires after three years, a passport is good for ten. The lines at the Federal Building were usually worse than the DMV, especially in a broken time zone, but except for a gap of three years in the early 70s, I had valid passports from now until the mid-eighties.
"I'm good," I nodded. I signed my name and today's date to the next line on the outside of the envelope, then broke the wax seal. It was brittle; it had been sitting on the shelf for a year, waiting for today, and who knows how long before it got to this time zone. I didn't have a lot of curiosity, most of my cases were small-timers. The big stuff, the famous stuff, most of that went to the high-profile operations, the guys on Wilshire Boulevard, some downtown, some in Westwood. There was a lot of competition there—stop Sirhan from killing RFK, catch Manson before he and the family move into the Spahn movie ranch, apprehend the Hillside Stranglers, find out who killed the Black Dahlia, help O.J. find the killers of Ron and Nicole… and so on.
The thing about the high-profiles, those were easy cases. The victims were known, so were the perps. The big agencies had a pretty good idea of the movements of their targets long before the crimes occurred. But most of the laws had been written before time began unraveling and the justice system wasn't geared for prevention, only after-the-fact cleanup.
Then one hot night in an August that still hasn't happened. Charles "Tex" Watson gets out of the car up on Cielo Drive and someone puts a carbon-fiber crossbow bolt right through his neck, even before he gets the gun out of his jacket. The girls start shrieking and two more of them take bolts, one of them right through the sternum, Sexie Sadie gets one in the head. The third girl, the Kasabian kid, goes screaming down the hill, and some redheaded kid in a white Nash Rambler nearly runs her down, never knowing that the alternative was having his brains splashed across the front seat of his parents' car. I didn't do it, but I knew the contract, knew who'd paid for it. Approved the outcome.
That was the turning point. After that, the judicial system learned to accommodate itself to preventive warrants, and most of the worst perps will be safe in protective custody weeks or even months before they have a chance to commit their atrocities. The question of punishment becomes one of pre-rehabilitation —is it possible? When can we let these folks back out on the streets? If ever. Do we have the right to detain someone on the grounds that they represent potential harm to others, even if no crime has been committed? The ethical questions will be argued for three decades. I don't know yet how it resolves, only that an uneasy accommodation will finally be achieved —something to the effect that there are no second chances, it's too time-consuming, pun intended; a judicial review of the facts, a signed warrant, and no, they don't call it pre-punishment. It's terminal prevention.Meanwhile, it's the big agencies that get the star cases —save Marilyn and Elvis, save James Dean and Buddy Holly, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Mike Todd, Lenny Bruce, RFK and Jimmy Hoffa. Stop Ernest Hemingway from sucking the bullet out of his gun and keep Tennessee Williams from choking to death on a bottle cap. Save Mama Cass and Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and John Lennon. And later on, Karina and Jo-Jo Ray. And Michael Zone. Kelly Breen. Some of those names don't mean anything yet, won't mean anything for years; the size of the up-front money says everything—but we don't get those cases. The last one we bid on was Ramon Novarro, beaten to death with his own dildo by a couple of hustler-boys, and we didn't get that job either; later on, after the Fatty Arbuckle thing, and that was a long reach back anyway, all of those cases went through the Hollywood Preservation Society, funded by the big studios who had investments to protect.
No, it's the other cases, the little ones, the unsolved ones that fall through the cracks—those are the ones that keep the little agencies going. Most families can't afford five or six figure retainers, so they come to the smaller agencies, pennies in hand, desperate for help. "My little girl disappeared in June of'61, we don't know what happened, nobody ever found a trace." "I want to stop the man who raped my sister." "My girlfriend had a baby. She says it's mine. Can you stop the conception?" "My boyfriend was shot next November, the police have no clue." "I was abused by my stepfather when I was a child. Can you keep my mom from ever meeting him?"
There were a lot of amateurs in this business —and more than a few do-it-yourselfers too. But most folks don't like to go zone-hopping; it's not a round-trip. You don't want to end up someplace where you have no home, no family, no job. Just the same, some people try. Sometimes people clean up their own messes, sometimes they make bigger ones. Some things are better left to the professionals.
The Harris Agency had three or six or nine operatives, depending on when you asked. But some of them were the same operative, inadvertently (or maybe deliberately) time-folded. Eakins was a funny duck, all three of him, all ages. The Harris Agency didn't advertise, didn't have a sign on the door, didn't even have a phone, not a listed one anyway; you heard about it from a friend of a friend. We took the jobs that people didn't want to talk about, and sometimes we handled them in ways that even we didn't talk about.
You knocked on the door and if you knocked the right way, they'd let you in. Georgia would sit you down in the cubby we called a conference room, and if she liked your look, she'd offer you coffee or tea. If she didn't trust you, it would be water from the cooler. Or nothing. She conducted her interviews like a surgeon removing bullet fragments, methodically extracting details and information so skillfully you never knew you'd been incised. Most cases, she wouldn't promise anything, she'd spend the rest of the day, maybe two or three days, writing up a report, sending an intern down to the Central Library or the Times' morgue to pull clippings. She'd pull pages out of phone directories, call over to the Wilcox station to get driver's license information (if available), and even scanned the personal ads in the L.A. Free Press a couple times. For the most part, a lot of what the outer office staff did was "clipping service" —pulling out data before, during, and after the events; the more complete the file, the easier the job. Working with Margaret, the jobs were usually easy. Usually, not always.Georgia replaced Margaret in '61, right after Kennedy's election; Margaret retired to a date farm in Indio, as soon as she felt Georgia was ready; she'd managed the agency since '39, never missing a beat. She trained Georgia and she trained her well. The kid had been a good intern, the best, a quick-study; after graduation from Hollywood High, she stayed on full time while she picked up her degree at L.A.C.C. The work wasn't hard, but it was painstaking; Margaret had been disciplined, but Georgia was meticulous. She relished the challenge. Besides, the pay was good and the job was close enough to home that she could walk to work. And at the end of the day, she'd satisfied her spirit of adventure without mussing her hair.
The files demonstrated their differences in approach. Margaret never wrote anything she couldn't substantiate. She wasn't imaginative. But Georgia was always added a page or two of advice and suggestions —her own feelings about the matter at hand. Margaret didn't disapprove. She'd learned to respect Georgia's intuition. I had too.
This envelope was thin, thinner than usual. Inside, there were notes from both, I recognized Margaret' crimped precise handwriting, Georgia's flowing hand. A disappearance. Jeremy Weiss. Skinny kid. Glasses. Dark curly hair. Dark eyes, round face, an unfinished look—not much sense yet what kind of adult he might be. A waiter, an accountant, an unsuccessful scriptwriter. Seventeen and a half. Good home. Good grades. No family problems. Disappears summer of'68, somewhere in West L.A. Not a runaway, the car was found parked on Melrose, near La Cienega. But no evidence of foul play either. Parents plaster the neighborhood with leaflets. Police ask the public for help. The synagogue posts a reward for information. Nothing. Case remains open and unsolved. No clues here. Nothing to go on. The file was a list of what we didn't know.
Two ways to proceed with this one —shadow the kid or intercept him. Shadowing is a bad risk. Sometimes, you're too late7 the perp is too fast, and you end up a witness instead of a hero. Agents have been sued for negligence and malpractice, for not being fast enough or smart enough, for not stopping the murder. Interception is better. But that means keeping the vie from ever getting to his appointment in Samarra. And that means the perp never gets ID'd either.
The easiest interception is a flat tire or even an inconvenient fender-bender. That can delay a person anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes. That's usually enough to save a life. Most cases we get are events of opportunity. Take away the opportunity, the event doesn't happen —or it happens to someone else. That's the other problem with preventive interception. It doesn't always stop the bad luck, too often it just pushes it onto the next convenient opportunity. I don't like that.
Give me a case where the perp is known ahead of time, I can get a warrant. I don't have a problem taking down a known bad-boy. I don't have to be nice, I don't have to be neat. And there are times when I really don't want to be. But give me an unsolved case, it's like juggling hand grenades. Sometimes the victim is the real perp. It's messy. You can get hurt.
But this one —I listened for the internal alarm bells —they always go off when something smells wrong; this one felt different, I'm not sure why. I had a hunch, a feeling, an intuition, call it whatever—a sense that this case was merely a loose unraveled thread of something else. Something worse. Like the redheaded kid who didn't die on August 9 was merely a sidebar.Think about it for a minute. Hollywood is full of manboys. They fall off the buses, naive and desperate. They're easy targets for all kinds of opportunists. Old enough to drive, but not old enough to be street smart. They come for the promise of excitement. Ostensibly, it's the glamour of the boulevard, where the widescreen movies wrap around the audience; it's the bookstores rich with lore, shelves aching with volumes of forgotten years; it's the smoky jazz clubs and the fluorescent record stores and the gaudy lingerie displays; it's the little oddball places where you can find movie posters, scripts, leftover props, memorabilia, makeup, bits and pieces of costumery—they come in from all the surrounding suburbs, looking for the discarded fragments of excitement. Sometimes they're looking for friends, for other young men like themselves, sometimes they're unashamedly looking for sex. With hookers, with hustlers, with each other. With whoever. A few years from now, they'll be looking for dope.
But what they're really looking for is themselves. Because they're unformed, unfinished. And there's nobody to give them a clue because nobody has a clue anymore. Whatever the world used to be, it hasn't finished collapsing, and whatever is going to replace it, it hasn't finished slouching toward Bethlehem. So if they're coming down here to the boulevard to look for themselves, because this looks like the center, because this looks like where it's happening, they're looking in the wrong place; because nobody ever found themselves in Hollywood, no. Much more often, they lose whatever self they had to start with.
You can't save Marilyn and Elvis because they don't exist, they never existed — all that existed was a shitload of other people's dreams dumped on top of a couple of poor souls who'd had the misfortune to end up in front of a camera or a microphone. And you can't save anyone from that. Hollywood needs a warning label. Like that pack of cigarettes I saw up the line. "Caution, this crap will kill you."
Jeremy Weiss wasn't a runaway. He didn't fit the profile. And he didn't end up in a dumpster somewhere, his body was never found. He wasn't a hustler or a druggie. I doubted suicide. I figured he was probably destined for an unmarked grave somewhere up above Sunset Boulevard, maybe in the side of a hill, one of those offshoots of Laurel Canyon that wind around forever, until they finally turn into one-lane dirt scars. Someone he met, a casual pickup, I know where there's a party, or let's go to my place —
So yeah, I could probably save this kid from the Tuesday express, but that wouldn't necessarily stop him from lying down on the tracks again on Wednesday night. Or if not him, then maybe Steve from El Segundo or Jeffrey from Van Nuys. Most of the disappearances went unreported, unnoticed. Not this one, though.
Margaret sat down opposite me. She put a second glass on the table and poured herself a shot, poured one for me.
I knew Margaret only from her work—the files that Georgia had passed me, up the line. Margaret was compulsive; she annotated everything on every case, including newspaper clippings, police reports when she could get them, and occasionally witness interviews. Reading through a file, reading her notes, her advice, her suggestions, it was like having a six-foot invisible rabbit standing behind every moment.
But today was the first time I'd actually met Margaret, and I held my tongue, still gauging what to say. Should I thank her for the cases yet to solve? Did she want to know how these cases would play out? Would it affect her reports if she knew what leads were fruitless and which ones were pay dirt? Do we advance to Go or do we go directly to jail? The real question —should we put warnings into the files? Watch out for Perry, a harmless little pisher, but an expensive one; stay away from Chuck Hunt, the chronovore; don't go near Conway, the bigger thief; and especially watch out for Maizlish, the destroyer.
Should I ask—?
"Don't talk," she said. "There's nothing you have to say that I need to hear. I've already heard it. I'll do the talking here because I have information that you need." She pushed the glass toward me.
I took a sniff. Not bad. Normally, I don't drink scotch. I prefer bourbon. But this was different, sharper, lighter. Okay, I can drink scotch.
"Something's happening," she said.
I waited for her to go on. There's this trick. Don't say anything. Just sit and wait. People can't stand silence. The longer you wait, the more unbearable it becomes. Pretty soon, they have to say something, just to break the silence. Leave an unanswered question in the air and wait, it'll get answered. Unless they're playing the same game. Except Margaret wasn't playing games.
She finished her scotch, neat, put the glass down, and stared across the table at me. "The perps are starting to figure it out." She let that sink in for a moment. "The timequakes. The perps are using public quake maps to avoid capture. Or to commit their crimes more carefully. Bouncing forward, back, sideways. They call it the undertime railway. LAPD has taken down the Manson clan three times now. Each time, earlier. Now they're talking about maybe legalizing preemptive abortion. Just stop them from being born. Nobody's sure yet. The judges are still arguing. The point is, you'll have to be careful. Especially with cases like this where we don't have any information. The perp always knows more about the crime than the investigator. The more the perp knows, the harder the job becomes. If the case gets any publicity, the perp gets dangerous.
"Here's the good news. Caltech has been mapping the timequakes. They've been putting down probes all over the county for thirty years now. We have their most recent chart. The one they didn't make public. It cost us some big bucks and a couple of blow jobs." She unrolled a scroll across the table —it looked like the paperback edition of the Torah, smaller but no less detailed. "It stretches from 1906 all the way to 2111, so far. All of the big quakes and aftershocks are noted, those are the public ones, the ones the perps know. But all of the littler ones are in here too." She tapped the scroll. "This is your advantage.
"Most people don't notice the little tremors, the unnoticeable ones. You know that feeling when you keep thinking it's Monday when it's really Sunday? That's a dayquake. Or when you've been driving for an hour and you can't remember the last ten miles? Or when you've been at work eight hours and you still have seven hours to go? Or when you're out clubbing and suddenly the evening's over before it's really started? Those are all tremors so small you don't even feel them, or if you do notice, you figure it's just you. But Caltech has them charted, has the epicenters noted, can tell you almost to the second how far forward or back each quake bounces. See the arrows? You can chart a time-trajectory from here to forever—well at least up to 2111, depending on which of the local trajectories you choose. They probably have even more complete charts uptime, but we can't get them yet. We expect Eakins to send back copies, but nothing's arrived yet, not this far back. But it should have reached '67 by now. So as soon as you get there, come back to this office. I won't be here, I'm already retired in '67, but Georgia will have what you need. We start bringing her up to speed right after Kennedy's election.
"The point is, this timeline gives you more maneuverability. Protect it like it's gold. If a perp gets it, it'd be a disaster. That's why it's on proof paper. It goes black after twenty minutes' exposure to UV." She rolled it up, slid it into a tube, capped it, and passed it over to me. "Right. Get to the bank, get yourself some dinner, then get out to the quake zone. You've got a reservation at the Farmer's Daughter Motel. That puts you half a block from the epicenter. You can get a good night's sleep. Georgia will see you here in '67."
Picked up some comics at the Las Palmas newsstand and shoved them into my briefcase, I do a little collecting myself, on the fringes, mostly just for my retirement. But not only comics. Barbie dolls, G.I. Joe, Hot Wheels cars, Pez boxes, stuff like that. And I'm saving up for a trip back to '38,1 hope to pick up some IBM stock.
The Farmer's Daughter is better than it sounds. On Fairfax, walking distance from Farmer's Market. Of course, it isn't the Farmer's Daughter yet, but it will be in '67.
I check in, check the room, check the bed, think about a hooker, I have the number of an escort service, they'll be in business for another year or so; but it's not a good idea. There might be a foreshock. Almost certainly, there will be a foreshock. Not fair to the girl.
So I content myself with a nightcap in the bar. It's almost deserted. Just the bartender and me. His name is Hank. I ask him what time he gets off, he thinks I'm hitting on him, he gives me a big friendly grin, but I say, no thanks. Close up and go home. Timequake tonight, an aftershock. He shrugs. He's already been caught in two quakes. He won't even keep a cat now. Everything important, he keeps in a bag by the door. Just like me.
Not a lot of out-of-towners visit L.A. anymore; they don't want to risk the possibility of time-disruption, finding themselves a year or ten away from their families. But some folks deliberately come to L.A., hoping to ride a quake back so they can prevent some terrible event in their lives. Some succeed, some don't. Others have meticulous lists of sporting events and charts of stock fluctuations; they expect to get rich with their knowledge. Some do, some don't.
I fall asleep in front of the TV, watching Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. I wake up and it's the last week of April '67. The smog is the same, the cars are smaller and more teenage; on the plus side, the skirts are a lot shorter. But my old brown suit is out of style. And my car is visibly obsolete —a '56 Chevy. Obvious evidence that I'm a wandering time-raveler.
Caught breakfast in the market, fresh fruit, not too expensive yet, then headed back up to the boulevard. Santa Monica Boulevard was now a tawdry circus of adult bookstores, XXX theaters, and massage parlors. The buildings all looked like garish whores.
Hollywood Boulevard was worse. The stink of incense was almost strong enough to cover the smog. Clothing had turned into costumes, with teens of both sexes wearing tight pants and garish shirts —not quite hippies yet, but almost. The first bell-bottom jeans were showing, the Flower Children were just starting to bloom. The summer of love was about to begin.
Several storefronts had signs for time-tours and maps of the quake-zones; probably a better business than maps to the homes of the stars. I noticed several familiar faces —a small herd of comic book collectors —heading toward the newsstand on Cahuenga; they were probably the first customers of the quake-maps.
Roy was still shining shoes, twelve years older, but just as slick and just as fast. "Shoes look good, Mr. Harris," he said, as I walked in. He called all of us Mr. Harris. Nobody ever corrected him. Maybe it was his way of keeping track. He knew who we were, but he never asked questions, and he never offered advice. He kept his own counsel. But sometimes, he steered the right people to the office and sometimes he turned other folks away. "What you lookin' for ain't up those stairs, mister." Every so often, Georgia would march downstairs and hand him an envelope. She never said why. I assumed that was something else she'd learned from Margaret.
The office had been redecorated; it felt more like Georgia now. All of the typewriters were IBM Selectrics. New lateral filing cabinets, a Xerox photocopier, even a fax machine. The cubby had been painted light blue with white trim and the stacks of boxes and files had disappeared, replaced by dark oak bookshelves. Most of the files had moved into the offices next door, which we'd leased in '61, when the accountant finally died. It'd be another few decades before we would have all that information on hard drives and optical discs. The same heavy mahogany table and leather chairs remained in the center of the room, but looking a lot more worn.
Georgia was expecting me. She tossed the same manila envelope on the table, brought in another bottle of Glenfiddich, two glasses, and a new pocket Torah. I passed her the old one, as well as the few collectible treasures I'd picked up in '58. She'd put them in storage for me.
"Lose the brown suit," she said. "I bought you a new one, dark gray. It's in the closet. Already tailored. Read the file, there's some new information." She reached for the bottle.
"Not this early, thanks." I was already signing the envelope. The file had been accessed only three times in the last twelve years. Margaret twice, Georgia once. But it was significantly thicker.
This time there was a bundle of newspaper clippings. Not about Jeremy Weiss, but about a dozen others. I checked the dates first. June of '67 to September of 74. Georgia had typed up a chart. At least thirteen young men had disappeared. Jeremy Weiss was the third. The third that we knew about. I wasn't surprised. I'd had a hunch there was more.
We weren't obligated to investigate the disappearances of the others; Weiss was the only one we had a contract on. But if the disappearances were related… if they had a common author, then finding that author would not only save Weiss, but a dozen others as well. Preemptive action. But only if the disappearances were connected. We'd still have to monitor—save—Weiss. Just in case.
I read through the clippings, slowly, carefully. Three times. There was a depressing similarity. Georgia sent out for sandwiches. After lunch, she sat down next to me —she was wearing the Jasmine perfume again, or maybe still, or maybe for the first time —and walked me through the similarities she'd noticed. The youngest victim was fifteen, but big for his age; the oldest was twenty-three, but he looked eighteen.
Last item in the envelope was a map of West Los Angeles with a red X at the site of each vic's last known location; his apartment, his job, where his car was discovered, or the last person to see him alive. There were no X's north of Sunset, none south of Third. The farthest west was Doheny, the farthest east was just the other side of Vine Street. It was a pretty big target area, but at the same time fairly specific.
"I want you to notice something," she said. She pointed to the map, tracing an area outlined by a yellow highlighter. All of the red X's were inside, or very close to the border of the yellow defined region, except for the one east of Vine. "Look at this." She tapped the paper with her fingernail. "That's West Hollywood. Have you seen it?"
"Drove through it this morning."
"Ever hear of Fanny Hill?"
"Isn't that a park in Boston?"
"Not funny. Don't quit your day job. It's a book, by John Cleland. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. It has redeeming social value. Now."
"Sorry, I'm not following."
"John Cleland was born in 1710. He worked for the East India Company, but he didn't make much money at it. He ended up in Fleet debtors' prison from 1748-1749. While there, he wrote or rewrote a book called Fanny Hill. It's written as a series of letters from Fanny to another woman, and it is generally considered the first work of pornography written in English, its literary impact derives from its elaborate sexual metaphor and euphemistic language."
"And this is important because… ?"
"Because last year—1966—the Supreme Court declared that it is not obscene." She didn't wait for me to look puzzled. "In 1957, in Roth versus the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected freedom of speech or press, neither under the first amendment, nor under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. They sustained the conviction of a bookseller for selling and mailing an obscene book and obscene circulars and advertising.
"In 1966, in Cleland versus Massachusetts, the court revisited their earlier decision to clarify the definition of obscenity. Since the Roth ruling, for a work of literature to be declared obscene, a censor has to demonstrate that the work appeals to prurient interest, is patently offensive, and has no redeeming social value. It's that last one that's important, because it could not be demonstrated to the court that Fanny Hill has no redeeming social value. The case can be made that the book is an historical document, presenting an exaggerated and often satirical view of the mores of eighteenth-century London, just as the Satyricon by Petronius presents an exaggerated and satirical view of ancient Rome; so a very strong case can be made that pornography represents a singular insight into the morality of its time. Thus, it has redeeming social value. Therefore, it cannot be prosecuted as obscene."
"Redeeming social value…"
"Since the Fanny Hill ruling, pornography has become an industry. If a publisher can claim redeeming social value, the work is legal. A book of erotic pictures with a couple quotes from Shakespeare. A sex film with a preface by a doctor—or an actor playing a doctor. It's a legal fan dance—you don't go to the fan dance to see the fan. The pornographers will be testing the limits of the law for years. The fans are going to get a lot smaller."
"Okay, so what does all this have to do with West Hollywood?"
"I'm getting to that. For the next decade, enforcement of obscenity laws will be left to local communities. There will be years of debate. Nothing will be clear or certain, because the definition of obscenity will be determined by local community standards. Until even that argument gets knocked down. At some point, the whole issue of redeeming social value becomes moot because it becomes unenforceable. How do you define it? And that'll be the end of antismut laws. But right now, today—it's all about local community standards."
"And West Hollywood is a local community… ?"
"It's an unincorporated community," Georgia said. "It's not part of Los Angeles. It's not a city. It's a big hole in the middle of the city. L.A.P.D. has no authority inside this yellow area. There's no police coverage. The only enforcement is the L.A. County Sheriff Department. So there's no community and there are no standards. It's the wild west."
"Mm," I said.
"Right," she agreed. "None of the city ordinances apply. Only the county ones. And the county is a lot less specific on pornography. So you get bookstores. And more. The county doesn't have specific zoning restrictions or statutes to regulate massage parlors, sex stores, and other adult-oriented businesses. The whole area is crawling with lowlifes and opportunists. Here — " She pulled out another map. This one showing a corridor of red X's stretching the length of Santa Monica Boulevard, with a scattered few on Melrose.
"A survey of sex businesses in West Hollywood. Red for hetero, purple for homo, green for the bookstores. You get clusters. Here, all the way from La Brea to La Cienega, this used to be a quiet little neighborhood where seniors could sit in the sun at Plummer Park and play pinochle. Now, there are male hustlers in hot pants, posing at the bus stops.
"Take a drive around the neighborhood. You'll see things like massage parlors advertising specific attention to love muscle stiffness —Greek, French, and English massage. Or sex therapists who will help you work out your inhibitions with sex fantasy role-playing. Here, here, and here, these are gay bars, this is a bath house, so is this. This place sells costumes, chains, things made of leather—and realistic pros-theses."
"Prostheses —?" And then I got it. "Never mind."
"If you can imagine a sexual service, you'll find it here. This is the land of negotiable virtue. It's a sexual carnival, the fun zone, the zoo. This is the reservoir of licentiousness. This is where AIDS will start. You'll need to start carrying condoms. Anyway—" She stretched out the two maps side by side. "Notice the congruence? I'm going to make a guess — "
"These kids are horny?"
"Is that a hunch, or—?"
She didn't answer immediately. "Okay7 I might be wrong. But if I'm right, then the police will be useless to us. Ditto the sheriffs department. They don't care. Not here. They won't take this seriously. And we can't talk about this with any of the parents. And probably not even with the kids themselves. This is still the year of the closet… and will be until June of '69. Stonewall," she explained.
"I know about Stonewall. We bid on a contract to videotape it. The problem will be getting cameras onsite."
"Eakins is working on that. There's a thing called… never mind, I don't have time to explain it." She tapped the table. "Let's get back to this case. We've got six weeks until the first disappearance. This is as close as you can get by time-skipping. You'll have to live concurrently, but that'll be an advantage. You can familiarize yourself with the area, locate the victims, make yourself part of the landscape. Let your sideburns grow. We've found an apartment for you, heart of the district, corner of North Kings Road and Santa Monica, second floor. Here, wait a minute — " She stepped out of the room for a second, came back with a cardboard filebox, and a set of keys. "We bought you a new car too. You can't drive a '56 Chevy around '67 L.A. It attracts too much attention."
"But I like the Chevy—"
"We bought you a '67 Mustang convertible. You'll be invisible. There are a hundred thousand of these ponies in California already. It's in the parking lot behind. Give me the keys to the Chevy. We'll restore it and put it in storage. Another forty years, it'll be worth enough to buy a retirement condo. A high-priced apartment."
She popped the top off the box. In it were another dozen envelopes of varying thicknesses. "Everything we've got on the other disappearances. Including pictures of the vies. It's the first two you want to focus on."
I sorted through the reports. "Okay, so we have an approximate geographical area and a pretty specific age range. Is there anything else to connect these victims?"
"Look at the pictures. They're all twinks."
"And based on that, you think they're gay?"
"I think we're dealing with a serial killer. Someone who preys on teenage boys. Yeah, I know—lots of kids go missing every year just in L.A. County. They hop on a bus, they go to Mexico or Canada, they go underground to avoid the draft. Or maybe they just move without leaving a forwarding address. But these thirteen don't fit that profile. The only connection is that there's no other connection. I don't know. But that's what it smells like to me." She finished her drink. Neat. Just like Margaret. "I think if we find out what happened to the first victim, we unravel the whole string."
I finished my drink, pushed my glass away, empty. Put my hand over it in response to her questioning glance. One shot was enough. If she was right, this was big. Very.
Took a breath, let it out loudly, stared across at her. "Georgia, you've been working these streets long enough to know every gum spot by brand name. I won't bet against you." I gathered the separate files. "I'll check them out." I thought for a moment. "How old am I now?"
Georgia didn't even blink. "According to our tracking, you're twenty-seven." She squinted. "With a little bit of work, we could probably make you look twenty-one or twenty-two. Put a little bleach in your hair, put you in a surfer shirt and shorts, you'll look like a summer-boy. What are you thinking? Bait?"
"Maybe. I'm thinking I might need to talk to some of these kids. The closer I am to the same age, the more likely I'll get honesty."
Something occurred to me. I turned the maps around and peered back and forth between them. Pulled the disappearance map closer.
"What are you looking for?"
"The dates. Which one of these was first?"
"This one, over here." She tapped the paper. The one east of Vine. "Why?"
"Just something I heard once about serial killers. Always look closest at the first vie. That's the one closest to home. That's more likely a crime of opportunity than premeditated. And sometimes that first vie and the perp —sometimes they know each other."
"You've never done a serial killer before," Georgia said.
"You're thinking about bringing in some help?"
"It might not be a bad idea."
Considered it. "Can't bring in L.A.P.D. They have no jurisdiction. And County isn't really set up for this."
"Bring in the Feds?"
I didn't like that idea either. "Not yet. We might embarrass ourselves. Let me do the groundwork first. I'll poke around for a few days, then we'll talk. See if you can get anything from uptime."
"I've already put a copy of the file in the long-safe. I'll add your notes next week. Then we'll look for a reply."
The long-safe was a kind of time capsule. It was a one-way box with a time-lock. You punch in a combination and a due date, a drawer opens and you put a manila envelope in. On the due date —ten or twenty or thirty years later—the drawer pops open, you take the file out and read it. Usually, the top page is a list of unanswered questions. Someone uptime does the research, looks up the answers, writes a report, puts it in another manila envelope, and hands it to a downtime courier—someone headed backwards, usually on a whole series of errands. The downtime courier rides the quakes until he or she reaches a point before the original memo was written. The courier delivers the envelope, and it goes into the long-safe, with a due date after the send date of the first file, the one with all the questions. This was one of the ways, not the only one, that we could ask the future for help with a case.
Sometimes we sent open-ended queries—what should we know about that we don't know yet to ask? Sometimes we got useful information, more often not. Uptime was sensitive about sending too much information back. Despite the various theories about the chronoplastic construction of the stress-field, there weren't a lot of folks who wanted to take chances. One theory had it that sending information downtime was one of the things that triggered time-quakes, because it disturbed the fault lines.
Maybe. I dunno. I'm not a theorist. I'm just a meat-and-potatoes guy. I roll up my sleeves and pick up the shovel. I prefer it that way. Let somebody else do the heavy thinking, I'll do the heavy lifting. It's a fair trade.
I didn't set out to be a time-raveler. It happened by accident. I was in the marines, got a promotion to sergeant, and re-upped for another two years. Spent eighteen months in Nam as an advisor, mostly in Saigon, but occasionally up-country and twice out into the Delta. The place was a fucking time bomb. Victor Charlie wanted to give me an early retirement, but I had other plans. Rotated stateside the first opportunity.
Got off the plane in San Francisco, caught a Greyhound south, curled up to sleep, and the San Andreas time-fault let loose. It was the first big timequake and I woke up three years later. 1969. Just in time to see Neil Armstrong bounce down the ladder. Both Dad and the dog were dead. I had no one left, no home to return to. Someone at the Red Cross Relocation Center took my information, made some phone calls, came back and asked me if I had made any career plans. Not really, why? Because there's someone you should talk to. Why? Because you have the right set of skills and no close family connections. What kind of work? Hard work. Challenging, sometimes dangerous, but the money's good, you can carry a gun, and at the end of the day you're a hero. Oh, that kind of work. Okay. Sure, I'll meet him. Good, go to this address, second floor, upstairs from the shoeshine stand. Your appointment is at three, don't be late. And that was it.
My first few months, Georgia kept me local, bouncing up and down the early '70s, doing mostly easy stuff like downtime courier service. She needed to know that I wouldn't go off the rails. The only thing the agency has to sell is trust. But I wasn't going anywhere. The agency was all I had—they were a serendipitous liftoff from the drop zone of '69, and you don't frag the pilot. A lieutenant maybe, but never a pilot—or a corpsman.
I'd thought about corpsman training early, even gone so far as to sit down with the sergeant. He just looked across the desk at me and shook his head. "There's more to it than stabbing morphine needles into screaming soldiers. You're better where you are." I didn't know how to take that, but I understood the first time mortar shells came dropping in around us and voices all around started screaming, "Medic! Medic!" I wouldn't have known which way to run. And I just wanted to keep my head down as low as possible until the whole damn business was over. It was only later, I got angry enough to start shooting back. But that was later.
After the courier bit became routine, Georgia started increasing my responsibilities. When you pass through '64, pick up mint-condition copies of these books and magazines. Pick up more if they're in good condition, but don't be greedy. Barbie dolls, assorted outfits (especially the specials), and Hot Wheels, always. Buy extras if they have them. Sometimes she just wanted me to go someplace and take pictures — of the street, the houses, the cars, the signs.
After a couple months, I told Georgia that the work didn't seem all that challenging. Georgia didn't blink. She told me that I had to learn the terrain, I had to get so comfortable with the shifting kaleidoscope of time that I couldn't be rattled. That's why the '60s and the '70s were such a good training ground. The nation went through six identifiable cultural transitions in the course of sixteen years. But even though the '50s were supposed to be a lot quieter, she didn't think so. They weren't all that safer, it was just a different kind of danger. Georgia said she wanted to keep me out of that decade as much as possible. "You've got tombstones in your eyes/' she said. "You'll scare the shit out of them. And frightened people are dangerous. Especially the ones with power. Later, after you've mellowed, we'll send you back. We'll see."
After a bit, she started passing me some of the little jobs, the ones where clients bought themselves a bit of protection, or closure, or prevention.
For instance: "Here, this file just came up. Here's fifty dollars. Go to this address, give it to this person. Find a way to make it legit, tell him you're a location manager for Warner Brothers, you're shooting a pilot, some TV series, a cop show, lots of location work like Dragnet, you want to measure the apartment, photograph the view from the balcony, and here's a few bucks for your trouble." That one was easy. A struggling young writer with no food in the house, desperate and waiting to find out if he'd sold his first book, all he needed was another week—his future self was giving him a lifeline.
Another one: "The mail carrier delivers the mail to this address between 1 and 2 p.m. Nobody will be home before five. Open the mailbox and remove any letters with this return address. Do this every day for the next two weeks." A fraternity at USC. That one didn't make sense until a year later when that same fraternity was thrown off campus for a hazing scandal. Somebody didn't get the invitation to rush, didn't pledge, didn't get injured, and didn't have his college career stained.
And a third: "Tomorrow afternoon, this little boy's pet dog gets out an open window and wanders away from the house. Nobody's home until three. Pick up the dog before it gets to the avenue, come back at seven, knock on the door, and ask if they know who the dog belongs to, you found it the next block over." Right. No mystery there.
"Tuesday evening, Lankershim Boulevard, across the street from the El Portal Theater. There's a blue Ford Falcon. Somebody sideswipes it, sometime between 6:45 and 9:30. Get the license number, leave a note on the windshield."
After those, I started getting the weird jobs. Some of them made no sense, there was no rational explanation; but the client doesn't always give reasons. Our rule is that we only take oddball cases on the condition that no physical or personal harm is intended.
Here's one: "Take this copy of Popular Mechanics, thumb through it so it looks used. Tomorrow afternoon, 1:30, go out to Van Nuys, 5355 Van Nuys Boulevard, Bobs #7. Sit at the counter near the front, near the go-order window. Order a Big Boy hamburger and a Coke. Read the magazine while you eat. Fold it so the ad on page 56 is visible. Leave a dollar tip. Leave the magazine on the table."
And another: "Friday night, just after the bars close, stand in front of the door at this address, like you're waiting for a ride. That's all. Nothing will happen. You can leave at 2:30."
And one more: "Take this package. No, don't open it. At 4:25, catch the 86 bus at Highland. Get off at Victory and Laurel Canyon. Cross the street and wait for the return bus. Leave the package on the bench."
And the weirdest: "Here's a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a red jacket; right, the James Dean look. You've got the face for it. Tomorrow afternoon, Studio City, corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon. When this kid comes out of the drugstore, you stop her and say, 'When you are ready to learn, the universe will provide a teacher. Even when you are not ready to learn, the universe will provide a teacher.' Hand her this paper. It has a poem by Emily Dickinson. Don't answer questions. Go into the drugstore, go all the way to the back and out to the parking lot, turn right and duck around the corner of the building, she won't follow, but she mustn't see you again. Walk west till you get to the ice cream store. You can park your car behind it."
Finally, when Georgia was satisfied that I could follow orders, she gave me a tough one. "Do you trust me? Good. Go to this address and kneecap this son of a bitch."
"Slang term. Shoot him in the kneecap. Both kneecaps. We want him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Oh, and rip the phone off the wall. Wear these gloves, wear these shoes —use this gun, here's ammunition, here's a silencer, put everything in this plastic trash bag, bring it all back here for disposal."
"We don't joke about things like this."
"Shoot him in the kneecaps—y'know, that's a tricky shot. Especially if he's moving."
"If you can't manage it—"
"I can manage it."
"Would you rather just kill him?"
Thought about it for two or three seconds. "What'd he do?"
"You don't like being hired muscle, do you?"
"I just need to know—"
"It's righteous," she said. "He's a rapist. He rapes little girls. The youngest is six. And then he kills them. He goes off the rails tomorrow. Cripple him tonight and you'll save three lives that we know of, probably more if he starts time-walking."
"Can I ask you a question? Who makes these decisions?"
She shook her head. "It's a need-to-know thing." Then she added, "Think of it this way. The perps choose it when they choose to be perps. We try to provide permanent solutions. This guy tonight—he's a dangerous asshole. Do your job and tomorrow, he'll just be an asshole." She shrugged. "Or a corpse. Either is part of the contract. Whatever's easiest for you. Or most enjoyable. Your call."
"I'm not a psychopath."
"That's too bad. We really do need one. For the big jobs."
I let that pass. "Do we have a preemptive warrant?"
Georgia shook her head. "That law hasn't been passed yet. But we can't wait. Here, ease your conscience. After you do him, drop this envelope out of the plastic bag, leave it on the floor."
"What's in it? Cash?"
"Clippings. About how he'll torture his victims. Leave it for the cops, they'll get it. Don't touch anything, don't leave prints."
There were other jobs like that. They never got any easier.
In real life, you don't shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand. The bad guys don't drop the gun, say ouch, and reach for the sky—no, they shoot back. With everything they've got, with bullets and mortars and mines that take your best buddy's legs off. They just keep coming at you, spraying blood and fire, hammering explosions, hailstorms of dirt and flesh and bone. You have to keep your head down and your helmet tight and hope you have a chance to lay down a carpet of fire, burn them alive and screaming, just to buy those moments of empty dreadful silence while you wait to see if it starts up again. In real life, you beat them senseless just to slow them down. And if that doesn't slow them down, you kill them, you blow them away, you turn them into queasy red gobbets.
On TV, everything is neat. Real life is messy, ugly, scabrous, squalid, festering, putrid, and painful. In real life, the bad guys don't think they're bad, they think they're good guys too, just doing their stuff because that's the stuff that a man's gotta do; but in real life, there are no good guys, just guys, doing each other until everybody's done. And then maybe afterward, while you're picking up the pieces of your corporal or your radioman, you get a chance to sort it out. Maybe. And that's when it doesn't matter if anybody's a good guy, they're still dead.
Because in real life, there are no good guys. They don't exist and neither do you. That's the cold hard truth. You're not there, you're just another TV death, consumed like a TV dinner, until it's time to change the channel. You think you have a life? No. You're just the space where all this shit is happening. That cascade of experience—you don't own it, it owns you. You're the bug in the trap. The avalanche of time, the pummeling of a trillion quantum-instants, second after second, it pounds you down into the sand, and whatever you think you are, it's an illusion— you exist only as a timebinding hallucination of continuity. And after long enough, after you realize you can't endure anymore of this senseless pummeling—whether it's mortar shells or rifle bullets or cosmic zingers so tiny you don't know you've taken one in the heart until you get to the third paragraph—you just continue anyway. Waiting. Sooner or later, the snipers will get your range.
You don't survive, you just take it a day at a time, a moment at a time. You pick your steps carefully, always watching for the one that might go click. You look, you listen, and you never move fast—until you have to. And when you do, you take the other guy down first, and keep him down, and you don't worry about nice and you don't worry about pretty; the whole idea is to keep him from ever getting up again. So you do what you do so he can't do what he does. And once in a while, somebody tells you it was worth it, but you know better, because you're still carrying the ruck through the hot zone, not them. In real life, real life stinks.
So I took him down. Him and the next three. And I learned to drink Glenfiddich straight from the bottle.
Until one morning, Georgia dragged me out of bed, still covered in vomit and stink, rolled me into a tub and filled it with cold water. Grabbed me by the hair, dunked me until I screamed, and poured cold black stale coffee down my throat until I was swearing in English again. My head hammering like a V-8 with a broken rod, she dressed me, drove me to the gym and handed me over to Gunter, the personal trainer. After that, 7 a.m. every day. In the afternoon, language classes at the Berlitz. Monday evenings, firing range—hands-on experience with weapons from here to flintlocks. Tuesday, world history class. Wednesday, Miss Grace's Academy of Deportment, I'm not kidding. Thursday, meeting—friends of Bill W. Friday, movie night. With Georgia. Not a date —cultural acclimatization. Saturday, assigned research and dinner at Georgia's. Not a date —a full report on the week. Sunday… breakfast with Georgia.
She didn't save my life. She made it worth enduring. Especially when we started sleeping together. Not at her place, not at mine, she wouldn't have that. We went to one of those little cardboard motels out on Cahuenga, where it turns into Ventura, halfway between here and the San Fernando Valley. She needed danger and I needed sex. So we rumpled the sheets like a war zone for three months regular, every Saturday night—until the next timequake and I had to go to Sylmar and bounce forward three years, and even though I was up for it, even thinking maybe I should buy her a ring, she'd already moved on, and that was the end of it. That was the zinger right through the heart.
I found something else to do on Thursday nights and let myself have one glass of scotch every time I finished a dirty job. Sometimes the clean jobs too. It didn't help. And I told her why.
No, it wasn't her. It was that other thing. The good-guy thing. I didn't feel like one. Killing for peace is like fucking for chastity. It doesn't work.
She offered to buy out my contract, send me off somewhere to retire, I'd certainly earned it. But no —I don't know why I said no. Maybe it was because there was still work to do. Maybe it was because I still wanted to believe there was something to believe in. What the hell. It was better than sitting on my ass and poisoning my liver.
So I took the envelope and left the bottle. Maybe someday I'd figure it out, but for now, I wasn't looking anymore.
Picked up the first vie at his job, tailed him to his place. Brad Boyd. He lived in a courtyard apartment on Romaine, just east of Vine. In two and a half months, the bitchy neighbor who hates his dog and his motorcycle will be the last person to see him. She'll scream at him about the bike being on the walk, in everybody's way; then she'll push it over. He'll pick it up, get on it, turn it away from her so both exhaust pipes are pointing in her direction, and rev it as loud as he can, belching out huge clouds of oil-smelling smoke; then he'll roar away. 9:30 p.m. on a hot Thursday night in July. It's a blue Yamaha, two-stroke engine, 750 cc, a mid-sized bike; it'll never be found. Left this vie at home, watching TV. The blue glow is visible from the street.
Headed out to the valley and drove past the Van Nuys home of the Weiss kid. He still lives with his mother, his dad died a year ago; he's in his last year at San Fernando Valley State College in Northridge. His room is in the back of the house, I can't see any lights. But his car is in the driveway.
The fourth vie lives on Hyperion in the Silver Lake area, catches the bus downtown, where, he works for a bank. I ride the bus opposite him, sit where I'm not in his line of sight, and study him all the way to Hill Street. Randy something. Skinny little kid, very fair complexion, too pretty to be a boy; put a dress on him you can take him anywhere. They must have teased the hell out of him in school.
After that, I check the locations, the last known sightings. I'll start working on the other vies next week; I want to read the neighborhood first. Weiss's car will be found on Melrose Avenue, two-three blocks east of the promising lights of La Cienega.Carefully parked, locked up tight. He went someplace, he never came back. I park across the street. I lean back against the warm fender of the Mustang and study the street. At first glance, it seems innocent enough.
This forgotten little pocket of West Hollywood is a time zone unto itself, with most of its pieces left over from the twenties and thirties. In '67, Melrose is dotted with tacky little art galleries, interior decorators, and a scattering of furniture stores hoping to get trendy. It's a desolate avenue, even during the day.
At night, the street is dry and deserted, amber streetlights pockmark the gloom; a few blocks away, the bright bustle of life hurtles down La Cienega, but here emptiness, the buildings huddled dark and empty against themselves, waiting for the return of day and the illusion of life. Bits of neon shine from darkened storefronts. Occasional red-lit doorways hint at secret worlds.
Few cars cruise here, even fewer souls are seen on the sidewalks —only the occasional oasis of a sheltered restaurant, remaining open even after everyone else has fled; departing customers move quickly from bright doorways to the waiting safety of their automobiles, tuck a bill into the valet's hand, and whisper away into the night.
There's this thing they do in the movies, in a western, or a war picture, where someone says, "It's quiet, too quiet." Or: "Listen. Even the birds are silent." That's how they do it in the movies, but that's not how it works in the hot zone. In the zone, it's more like a little timequake. There's this sense, this feeling that you get—like the air doesn't taste quite right. And when you get that feeling, sometimes the little hairs on the back of your neck start tickling. You stop, you look around, you look for the reason why those little hairs are rising. Sometimes, it's just a shift in the wind and the way the grass ripples across the hillside, and as you watch the ripples, you realize that one of those ripples isn't like the others. And you wake up inside your own life in a way that makes the rest of the day feel like somnambulism.
Sometimes the feeling isn't anything at all. Sometimes the feeling is just too much coffee. But it's a real feeling and you learn to respect it anyway because you're out there in the hot and the guy who drew the pretty pictures on the chalkboard isn't. You hit the dirt—and the one time you hit the dirt and hear the round go past just over your head instead of through your gut—that one time makes up for all the times you hit the dirt and there's nothing overhead.
You learn to listen for the feeling. You never stop. Years later, even after the Delta has receded into time, you're still listening. You listen to the world like it's ticking off, counting down. You listen, not even knowing what you're listening for anymore.
Standing on Melrose, I got something. Not the same feeling, but a feeling. A sense there's something else here. Something that comes out, late at night. And good folks don't want to be here when it's up and about.
Get back in the car. Lean back and disappear into the shadows. Sit and wait, not for anything in particular. Just to see what comes out in the darkness. Picket duty. Eyes and ears open; mind catching forty. Watching. Reading the street.
The avenue has a vampiric life of its own. Every so often, motion. A manboy, sometimes two. Sometimes a girlboy. The children of the night climb out of their daytime coffins and drift singly through the shadows, flickering briefly into existence for a block or two, then disappearing just as ephemerally. It isn't immediately obvious what's happening here.
Finally, got out of the car and went for a walk. West, where Melrose angles in toward La Cienega. Where are the manboys going? Where are they coming from?
Haifa block east of the lights. A darkened art gallery with an unpaved parking lot. The lot is dark, unlit. At the back is a fenced-in covered patio. Discreet. Unobtrusive. Inconspicuous to the point of invisibility. You could drive by a thousand times and never notice, even if you were looking for it. It's furtive. Like Charlie. Things that hide are either frightened or stalking. Either way, dangerous.
Two-three teens standing in the lot, smoking, chatting. Only room for a few cars here. I fumble around in my pockets for a pack of cigarettes. I stopped smoking when Ed Murrow died, again when I left Da Nang, and a third time when I got off the plane in San Francisco; the third time it stuck; but it's still convenient to carry them. Pull one out of the pack, approach the girlboys, ask for a light, say thanks, nod, wait.
Shrug. "Back in town."
"Where were you?"
"Oh. I heard it's pretty bad."
"It is. And getting worse."
The boys have no real names. The tall thin one with straight black hair is "Mame." The shorter rounder one is "Peaches." The blond is "Snoopy."
"You got a name?"
"What'd you do in Nam?"
"Piloted a boat. Called The Maltese Falcon." Almost added, "Went upriver to kill a man named Kurtz." But I didn't. They wouldn't get it, not for twelve years anyway. I doubted any of them had ever read either Conrad or Chandler. Mame was more likely a Bette Davis fan than Humphrey Bogart. The other two… hard to tell. Shaun Cassidy probably.
"You goin' in?"
Took a puff on the cigarette. "In a minute." Hang back, listening. The girlboys are gossiping, overlapping dialogue, about someone named Jerry and his unrequited crush on someone else named Dave, except Dave has a lover. Jerry has a secret too. Honey, don't we all? Oh, guess what? Speaking of secrets, Dennis's real age is twenty-three, he's a chicken hawk, he's dating Marc. Marc? That's funny. Marc has the crabs, he got them from Lane. Lane? That sissy? Lane isn't even his real name. He's cheating on his sugar daddy, you know. Hey, have you met the new girl? With the southern accent? You mean, Miss Scarlett? More like Miss Thing. She's way over the top. She's just a sweet ole Georgia peach. I thought she said Alabama. Whatever. Do you believe her? Honey, I don't even believe me. She says she went in drag to her senior prom. In Alabama? Girl, I'll believe that when I hear it from Rock Hudson Jr.
Mame turns to me abruptly. "Getting an earful?"Shrug again. "Doesn't mean anything to me. I don't know any of those people."
Satisfied, Mame turns back to the others. Did you hear about Duchess and Princess? I only know what you've told me. They were arrested —in drag—for stealing a car. Has anybody heard anything else? Not me. Have you ever seen them out of drag? No, have you? I have. Princess puts the ugh into ughly. Her and Duchess, it's Baby Jane and Blanche. I wonder who'll get their wardrobe. Honey, just one of Princess's gowns is big enough for all three of us. If we're friendly. I'm friendly, very friendly. Honey, get real. What are you and I going to do together—bump pussies, try on hats, and giggle?
Gossip is useful. It's a map of the social terrain. It tells you which way the energy is flowing. It tells you who's important. It's the quick way of tapping into the social gestalt. Find me three gossips and I can learn a community. Except this isn't a community. This is a fragmentary maelstrom of whirling bodies. A quantum environment, with particles flickering in and out of existence so fast they can only be detected by their wakes.
Eventually, I go in. There's no sign, but the place is called Gino's. Admission is fifty cents. The man at the door is forty-five, maybe fifty. This is Gino. He has curly black hair, a little too black. He dyes it. Okay, fifty plus. He looks Greek. He hands me a red ticket from a roll, the anonymous numbered kind they use at movie theaters. Good for one soda. He recites the rules. This is a club for eighteen and up. No drugs, no booze. If the white light goes on, it means the vice are here, stop dancing.
The outdoor patio is filled with jostling teens, all boys, some giggling, some serious. Several are standing close. Some make eye contact, others turn away, embarrassed. Others sit silently, sullenly, on heavy benches along the walls. Potting benches? Perhaps this used to be a nursery.
The patio connects to a second building, tucked neatly behind the art gallery. Invisible from the street. Perfect. Inside, it's darker than the patio. A quick survey reveals a bar, sandwiches, Cokes; in one corner a pool table, another a pinball machine. There's a jukebox playing a song by Diana Ross and the Supremes; several of the boys are singing falsetto-accompaniment. "Love Child." And an area for dancing. But no one's dancing. The same embarrassment in the high school gym.
A slower survey of the inhabitants —almost no one over the age of twenty-five. Most of the boys here are high school girls, even the ones of college age. A few pretend to be butch, others don't care. Every so often, two or three of them leave together. I listen for conversations. More gossip. Some of it desperate. Longings. Judgments. Hopes. And the usual chatter about classmates, teachers, schools, movies… and Shaun Cassidy.
Someone behind me says to someone else. "Let's go to the Stampede." "What's the Stampede?" "You've never been there? Come on." I follow them out. Discreetly.
The Stampede is on Santa Monica, near the corner of Fairfax. It's a beer bar. Inside, it's decorated to look like a western street. A shingled awning around the bar has a stuffed cougar. Black lights make white T-shirts glow. A young crowd, drinking age. All the way to the back, a small patio. The place is filled with manboys standing around, looking at each other and pretending that they're not standing around and looking at each other, imagining, wishing, dreaming. Some of them search my face, I nod dispassionately, then turn away. The jukebox plays "Light My Fire," Jim Morrison and The Doors. If Gino's is high school, then The Stampede is junior year at city college. The boys are a little more like boys here, but they still seem much too young.
I know what it is—they're unfinished. They don't know who they are. They haven't had to dive into the mud and shit and blood. They haven't had anyone shooting at them.
Two couples walk in the front door, the wives holding the husbands' arms possessively. Some of the queers exchange glances. Tourists. Visiting the zoo, the freak show. They've never seen real faggots before. Someone behind me whispers bitchily. "The husbands will be back next week. Without the fish. It's always that way."
A couple blocks west, there's another bar, The Rusty Nail. More of the same, maybe a rougher crowd, a little older. A couple blocks east, The Spike. East of that, a leather bar. Okay, I got it. Circus of Books stays open twenty-four hours—the adult section, pick up a copy of the Bob Damron guide book. This is what I need. I take it back to my apartment and make X's on the map. No surprises here. Georgia was right. Queer bars and bathhouses. Another cluster of congruency.
Draw the connecting lines. Traffic goes back and forth on Santa Monica Boulevard, occasionally down to Gino's on Melrose. Oh, and there's a place over here on Beverly, The Stud. Enter in the rear. Unintended irony. They hang bicycles and canoes and rocking chairs from the high ceiling. It's funky and faddish. Up on Sunset, the Sea Witch. Glass balls in nets, and a great view of the city lights. They allow dancing—furtively. On Santa Monica, a little west of La Cienega, hidden among the bright lights of the billboards, another hidden dance club. Everybody's testing the limits of enforcement.
For two weeks, I check out all the bars, all the clubs. But my first hunch is strongest. Gino's is the hunting ground. I can feel it. I don't need to listen for the little hairs.
As the nights warm up, something is awakening. A restlessness in the air. A feverish subculture of summer is readying itself. But this year, it's reckless. Next year, it'll be worse, self-destructive. The year after that, 1969, it'll implode on itself. But right now, this moment, it still hasn't realized itself yet.
It's the boomers, the baby boomers, all those children of war coming of age at the very same moment, their juices surging, their chaotic desires and wants and needs — the wildness unleashed, the rebels without a pause; the ones who think that college has made them educated, and the ones who resent them because they have to work for their daily bread —all of them, horny as hell, possessed with the sense of freedom that comes behind the wheel of a Mustang or a Camaro or a VW Beetle, liberally lubricated with cheap gasoline, marijuana and beer and raging hormones, out on the streets, looking for where it's happening.
It isn't happening anywhere, it's happening everywhere, and the noise and the stink pervades the night. The straight ones hit the Sunset Strip or the peppermint places on Ventura Boulevard. Or they cruise up and down Van Nuys Boulevard or Rosecrans Avenue, and especially Hollywood Boulevard. But the other ones—the quieter ones, the ones who didn't chase the girls, the music majors and the theater arts students, the shy boys and the wild boys —after all those years of longing, they're finally finding a place where they belong too, where there are others just like them.No, not just like them. But close enough. Here are others who will understand. Or not understand. There are so many different kinds, so many different ways of being queer. But at least, for a little while, in these furtive secret places, they won't have to pretend that they don't want what they want.
During the day, they'll rage about the unfairness of discrimination, about the ugliness of war—but at night, they all want to get laid. And that's what's surging here. The desolate lust of loneliness. It's a fevered subculture, a subset of the larger sickness that roils in the newspapers.
Our little vies —I pin their pictures to the wall and study them—they're cannon fodder. As innocent as the boy who stepped on the land mine, as unfinished as the new kid who took a bullet in the head from a jungle sniper on his first picket duty, as fresh and naive as the one who got knifed by a Saigon whore. As stupid and trusting as the asshole who went out there because he thought it was his duty and came back with tombstones in his heart.
Finally pulled their pictures down and shoved them into a folder so I wouldn't have to look at their faces and the unanswered questions behind their eyes.
Didn't know much about queers. Didn't really want to. But I was starting to figure it out. Everything I knew was wrong.
Resumed surveillance of the vies. I had the first six now. Charting their habits, their patterns, their movements. Most of it was legwork. Confirmation of what I already knew. Thursday, vie number one shows up in the parking lot. Brad-boy. On his motorcycle. He rolls it right up behind Mame, playfully goosing her with the front wheel. Without even turning around, Mame wriggles her ass and says, "Wanna lose it?" Mame has a blond streak in her black hair now. The others are gushing over it. Brad grins, relaxes on the bike, eventually offers a ride to eager Lane, and roars off with him to catch the crabs.
A few nights later, Jeremy Weiss shows up at Gino's. Bingo. The connection. Georgia was right. Gay. Twinks. Horny.
Faded into shadow. Watched. He was smitten with a little blond twink who couldn't be bothered. Was this the Jerry that Mame was talking about? A crush on Dave who had a lover? Tailed him for the rest of the evening. He ended up at a featureless yellow building, a few blocks east. A very small sign on the door. You had to walk up close to read it. Y.M.A.C. Young Men's Athletic Club. Hmm. I had a feeling it was not a gymnasium. Observed for a while. Thinking.
I had three weeks left until the first vie disappeared. I was getting a good sense of the killing ground—this was the land of one-night stands. The perp didn't know the vies. He was hunting, just like everybody else, but hunting for a different kind of thrill. My guess, the vies didn't know him. They met him and disappeared. I wasn't going to find any other connectivity.
Had to think about this. How to ID the bastard. Mr. Death. That's what I was calling him now. How to stop him? Talked it over with Georgia. She made suggestions, most of them hands-on. But the way things work, the onsite agent is independent, has complete authority. Translation: It's your call.
Later. Past midnight.
Matt Vogel. Slightly built. Round face, round eyes, puppy eyes. Sweet-natured. In the parking lot at Gino's, sitting alone against the wall, between two cars, where no one can see him. Hands wrapped around his knees, head almost buried. Almost missed him. Stepped backward, took a second look. Yes, Matt. Just graduated from high school. Works as a busboy in a local coffee shop. Disappears in two months. Victim number two.
"What do you want?" He looks at me with wide eyes. Terrified.
"Are you all right?"
"What do you care?"
"You look like you're hurting."
"My parents found out. My dad threw me out of the house."
Couldn't think of anything to say. Scratched my neck. Finally. "How'd he find out?"
"He went through my underwear drawer."
"Found your magazines?"
He hesitates. "He found my panties. I like to wear panties. They feel softer. He ripped them all up."
"I knew a lieutenant who liked to wear panties. It's no big deal."
No, not really. But it was a game we played. Whenever anybody heard a horror story about anybody or anything, somebody always knew a lieutenant who did the same thing. Or worse. "Yeah, really. Listen, you can't stay here all night. Do you have a place to go?"
He shook his head. "I was waiting—to see if anyone I knew showed up —maybe I could crash with someone."
I noticed he didn't use the word "friend." That was the problem with this little war zone. Nobody made friends. I remembered foxholes and trenches where we clung to each other like brothers, like lovers, while the night exploded around us. But here, if two of these manboys clung to each other, it wasn't bombs that were exploding. I wondered if they had the same fear of dying alone —maybe even more so.
He'd given up waiting for Prince Charming. Mr. Right wasn't coming. And even Mr. Right Now hadn't shown up.
"Look, it's late. I live a couple blocks, close enough to walk." To his suspicious glance, I said, "You can sleep on the couch."
"No, it's all right. I can sleep at the tubs."
"Y-Mac. You been there?"
Shook my head.
"It's only two bucks. And I can shower in the morning before going to work. Scotty might even wash my clothes."
At least, he's honest.
"Okay. As long as you have a place to go. It's not safe to hang out here — " And what if Mr. Death started early? But I didn't want to say that. Didn't want to scare the shit out of the kid.
"It's as safe here as anywhere — "
Something about the way he said it. "Somebody hurt you?""Sometimes people shout things as they drive by. Once, a couple of guys chased me for a block or so, then gave up and went back to their car."
Started to turn away, turned back. Didn't want to leave him alone. Damnit. "Look—you can come with me. I won't—I got meat loaf in the fridge. And ice cream. You want to talk, I'll listen. You don't want to talk, I won't bug you. You can crash for a couple of days, until you sort things out with your folks. All right?"
Matt thinks about it. He might look sweet and innocent, but he's learned how to be suspicious. That's how life works. First it beats you up, then it beats you down.
His posture is wary. "You sure?"
Oh hell, of course I'm not sure. And this is going to fuck up the timeline. Or is it? A thought occurs to me. An ugly thought. I don't like it, but maybe… bait? I dunno. But what the fuck, I can't leave him out here in a dirty parking lot. "Yeah, come on."
He levers himself to his feet, brushes off his jeans. "I wouldn't do this, but—"
"Yeah, I know."
" — I've seen you around. Gino says you're okay."
"Gino doesn't know me."
"You were in Vietnam." A statement, not a question. I should have realized. I'm not invisible here. Some of the gossip is about me.
"Yeah," I admit. I was in Nam. I point him toward the street. "My pad is that way."
"Did you see any—"
"More than I wanted to." My reply is a little too gruff. He falls silent.
Why am I doing this? Why not? It's a chance to pry open the scab and look at the wound.
"Yeah, I know."
"You got a name?"
"Oh, right. I'm… Mike."
"Mike? I thought your name was Hand. Hand Solo. But that's like a… a handle, isn't it. 'Cause everybody knows what a hand solo is, right?"
"Yeah. Right. It's a handle."
"Well. Glad to meet you, Mike."
We shake hands, there on the street. It changes the dynamic. Now we know each other. More than before anyway. Resume walking.
He's cute in a funny kind of way. If I liked boys, he'd be the kind of boy I liked. If this were the world I wanted to live in, he'd be my little brother. I'd make him hot chocolate. I'd read him bedtime stories and tuck him in at night. And I'd beat up anybody who made fun of him at school.
But this isn't that world —this is the world where men don't stand too close to men because… men don't do that.
"Can I take a shower at your place?"
"Just enough to blow the stink off me."
"When did your dad throw you out?"
"Two days ago."
"You've been out here on the street two days?"
"What a shit."
"No, he's all right."
"No, he isn't. Anyone who throws their kid out isn't all right."
Matt doesn't answer. He's torn between a misguided sense of loyalty and gratefulness that someone's trying to understand. He's afraid to disagree.
We reach the bottom of the stairs. I hesitate. Why am I doing this? In annoyance, I snap back. "Because that's the kind of person I am."
"Huh?" Matt looks at me curiously.
"Sorry. Arguing with myself. That's the answer that ends the argument."
"Oh." He follows me up the stairs.
He looks around the apartment, looks at the charts on the walls. I'm glad I pulled the pictures down. He would have freaked to have seen his yearbook picture here.
"Are you a cop?"
"No. I'm a —researcher."
"These look like something a detective would do. What are you researching?"
"Traffic patterns. It's —urn, sociology. We're studying the gay community."
"Never heard it called that. 'Gay community.'"
"Well, no, it isn't much of one." Not yet, anyway. "But nobody's ever studied how it all works, and so — "
"You're not gay, are you?"
No easy answer to that. I don't even know myself. The night goes on forever here. Daytime is just an unpleasant interruption. "Look, I'm not anything right now. Okay?"
I feed him. We talk for a while. Nothing in particular. Mostly food. Cafeteria food. Restaurant food. Army food. Mess halls. C-rations. Fast food. Real food. Places we've been. Hawaii. Disneyland. San Francisco. Las Vegas. His family traveled more than mine. He's seen more of the surrounding countryside than me.
Eventually, we both realize it's late. He steps into the shower, I toss him a pair of pajamas, too big for him, but it's all I've got, and take his clothes downstairs to the laundry room. T-shirt, blue jeans, white gym socks, pink panties, soft nylon, a little bit of lace. So what.
He's a sweet kid. Too sweet really. Fuckit. He's entitled to a quirk. Who knows? Maybe he'll make lieutenant. When I come back up, he's already curled up on the couch.
The other bedroom is set up as an office. A wooden desk, an IBM Selectric typewriter, a chair, a lockable filing cabinet. I'll be up for a while, typing my notes for Georgia. God knows what she'll think of this. But I'll have his stuff into the dryer and laid out on a chair in less than an hour, long before I'm ready to collapse into my own bed.
Georgia taught me how to write a report. First list all the facts. Just what happened, nothing else. Don't add any opinions. The first few weeks, she'd hand me back my reports with all my opinions crossed out in thick red stripes. Pretty soon, I learned what was fact, what was story. After you've listed the facts, you don't need anything else. The facts speak for themselves. They tell you everything. So I learned to enjoy writing reports, the satisfying clickety-clickety-click of the typewriter keys, and the infuriated golf ball of the Selectric whirling back and forth across the page, leaving crisp insect-like impressions on the clean white paper. One page, two. Rarely more. But it always works. Typing calms me, helps me organize my thoughts.
Only thing is, if you don't have all the facts, if you don't have enough facts, if you don't have any facts, you stay stuck in the unknown. That's the problem.
Later, much later, as I'm staring at the dark ceiling, waiting for sleep to come, I listen for the sound of vampires on the street below. But most of them have found their partners and crept off to their coffins. So the war zone is silent. For now, anyway.
Somewhere, out there, Mr. Death is churning. And I still know nothing about him.
Sunday morning. I wake up late. Still tired. My back hurts. I smell coffee. Wearing only boxers, I pad into the kitchen. Matt is wearing my pajama tops. They're too big on him. He's obviously given up on the bottoms, too long, and they won't stay up. He looks like the little boy version of a Doris Day movie. He's cooking eggs with onions and potatoes. And toast with strawberry jam. And a fresh pot of coffee. It's almost like being married.
"Is this okay?" he asks uncertainly. "I thought—I mean, I wanted to do something to say thank you."
"You did good," I say, around a mouthful. "Very good. You can cook for me anytime." Why did I say that? "Oh, your clothes are on the chair by the door. I washed them last night."
"Yeah, I saw. Thanks. I have to go to work at noon." He hesitates. "Urn, I'm going to try calling my dad today. Um. If it doesn't work out—you said something about— a couple days… ?"
"No problem. I'll leave a key under the mat. If I'm not here, just let yourself in."
"You trust me?"
"You're not a thief."
"How do you know?"
"I know." I added, "People who cook like this, don't steal."
He's silent for a moment. "My mom used to say I'd make someone a wonderful wife someday. My dad would get really pissed off."
"Well, hey, your dad doesn't get it."
Matt looks over at me, waiting for an explanation.
"It's simple. You take care of other people, they take care of you. The best thing you can do for someone else is cook for them, feed them, serve them a wonderful meal. That's how you tell someone that you—well, you know—that you care."
He blushes, covers it by looking at the clock. "I gotta get to work—" And he rushes to leave.
Sunday. There's no such thing as an afternoon off, but I cut myself some personal time anyway. Took a drive out to Burbank. Shouldn't have. Wasn't supposed to. It was part of the contract. Your old life is dead. Hands off. But I did it anyway. I owed it to them. No. I owed it to myself.
The place was pretty much as I remembered it. The tree in front was bigger, the house a little smaller, the paint a little more faded. I parked in front. Rang the bell and waited. Inside, Shotgun barked excitedly.
Behind the screen door, the front door opened. Like the house, he looked smaller. And like the house, a little more faded.
"Yes?" he squinted.
"Dad. It's me —Michael."
"Mickey?" He was already pushing open the screen door. Shotgun scrambled out. Even with his bad hip, that dog was still a force to be reckoned with. Dad fell into my arms, and Shotgun leapt at us both, with frenzied yowps of impatience. "Down you stupid son of a bitch, down!" That worked for half a second.
Dad held me at arm's length. "You look different. But how—? They said you were lost in the timequake."
"I was. I am. I found my way back—it's a long story."
He hugged me again, and I felt his shoulders shaking. Sobbing? I held him tight. He felt frail. Then abruptly, he broke away, and turned toward the house. "Come on in. I'll make some tea. We'll talk. I think I have some coffee cake. You don't know how hard it's been without you. I haven't touched your room. It'll be good to have you back—"
I followed him in. "Urn, Dad. I don't know how long I can stay. I have a job — "
"A job. That's good. What kind of a job?"
"I'm not really allowed to discuss it. It's that kind of a job."
"Oh. You're working for the government."
"I'm not really allowed to discuss it. I'm not even supposed to be here, but—"
"That's all right, I understand. We'll talk about other things. Come sit. Sit. You'll stay for dinner. It'll be like old times. I have spaghetti sauce in the freezer. Just the way you like it. No, it's no trouble at all. I still cook for two, even though it's just me and that old dog, too stubborn to die. Both of us."
I didn't tell him that wasn't true. I didn't tell him that he and that stubborn old dog would both be gone in a few short months. I rubbed my eyes, suddenly full of water. This was harder than I thought.
Somewhere between the spaghetti and the ice cream, Dad asked what had happened over there. I struggled inside, trying to figure out what to say, how to say it, realized it couldn't be explained, and simply finally shrugged and said, "It was… what it was." Dad knew me well enough to know that was all the answer he was going to get, and that was the end of that. The walls were comfortably up again.
Somewhere after the ice cream, I realized we didn't have all that much to talk about anymore. Not really. But that was okay. Just being able to watch him, just being able to skritch the dog behind the ears again, that was okay. That was enough. So I let him talk me into spending the night. My old bed felt familiar and different, both at the same time. I didn't sleep much. In the middle of the night, Shotgun oozed up onto the foot of the bed and sprawled out lazily, pushing me off to the side, grum-pling his annoyance that I was taking up so much room; every so often, he farted his opinion of the spaghetti sauce, then after a while he began snoring, a wheezing-whistling noise. He was still snoring loudly when the first glow of morning seeped in the window.
Over breakfast, I told a lie. Told Dad I was on assignment. That part wasn't a lie.But I told him the assignment was somewhere east, I couldn't say exactly where, but I'd call him whenever I could. He pretended to understand.
"Dad," I said. "I just wanted you to know, you didn't lose me. Okay?"
"I know," he said. And he held me for a long time before finally releasing me with a clap on the shoulder. "You go get the bad guys," he said, something he'd said to me all my life—from the day he'd given me my first cowboy hat and cap pistol. Something he said again the day I got on the plane to Nam. You go get the bad guys.
"I will, Dad. I promise."
I kissed him. I hadn't kissed him since I was eight, but I kissed him now. Then I drove away quickly, feeling confused and embarrassed.
It was a drizzly day, mostly gray. Skipped the gym, filled the tank, drove around the city, locating the homes of the other seven victims. Two lived in the dorms at UCLA, Dykstra and Sproul. Didn't know if they knew each other. Maybe. One was a T.A. major, the other music. Another lived with a roommate (lover?) in a cheap apartment off of Melrose, almost walking distance from me, except in L.A., there's no such thing as "walking distance." If it's more than two doors down, you drive.
One lived way the hell out in Azusa. That was a long drive, even with the I-10 freeway. Another in the north end of the San Fernando Valley. All these soft boys, so lonely for a place to be accepted that they'd drive twenty-thirty miles to stand around in a cruddy green patio—to stand around with other soft boys.
Something went klunk. Like a nickel dropping in a soda machine. One of those small insights that explains everything. This was puberty for these boys. Adolescence. The first date, the first kiss, the first chance to hold hands with someone special. Delayed, postponed, a decade's worth of longing—while everybody around you celebrates life, you pretend, suppress, inhibit, deprive yourself of your own joy—but finally, ultimately, eventually, you find a place where you can have a taste of everything denied. It's heady, exciting, giddy. Yes. This is why they drive so far. Hormones. Pheromones. Whatever. The only bright light in a darkened landscape. They can't stay away. This is home—the only place where they can be themselves.
Okay. Now, figure out the predator—
I got back to the apartment, the drizzle had turned to showers. Matt was sitting by the door, arms wrapped around his knees. A half-full knapsack next to him. He scrambled to his feet, both hopeful and terrified. And flustered. He looked damp and disheveled. A red mark on his forehead, another on his neck.
"Are you all right?"
"I couldn't find the key—"
"Oh, shit. I forgot to put it under the mat—"
"I thought you were angry with me — "
"Oh, kiddo, no. I screwed up. You didn't do anything wrong. It's my fuckup. Shit, you must have thought—on top of everything else — "
Before I could finish the sentence, he started crying.
"What happened — ? No, wait—" I fumbled the key into the lock, pushed him inside, grabbed his knapsack, closed the door behind us, steered him to the kitchen table, took down a bottle of Glenfiddich, poured two shots.
He stopped crying long enough to sniff the glass. "What is this?" He took a sip anyway. "It burns."
"It's supposed to. It's single-malt whiskey. Scotch." I sat down opposite him. "I went to see—someone. My dad. I haven't seen him in a while, and this might be the last time. I wasn't supposed to, but I did it anyway. I spent the night, I slept in my old room, my old bed. What you said yesterday, it made me think—"
He didn't hear me. He swallowed hard, gulped. "My mom called me at work. She said I should come home and pick up my things. My dad wouldn't be there. Only she was wrong. He came home early. He started beating me — "
I reached over and lifted up his shirt. He had red marks on his side, on his back, on his shoulders, on his arms. He winced when I touched his side.
Got up, went into the bathroom, pulled out the first-aid kit. Almost a doctor's bag. Stethoscope, tape, ointment, bandages, a flask, even a small bottle of morphine and a needle. Also brass knuckles and a blackjack. And some other toys. You learn as you go. Came back into the kitchen, pulled his shirt off, smeared ointment on the reddest marks, then taped his ribs. Did it all without talking. I was too angry to speak. Finally: "Did you get all your stuff?"
He shook his head.
"All right, let's go get it."
Grabbed his arm, pulled him to his feet, pulled him out the door, down the stairs, and out to the car, ignoring the rain. "You need your clothes, your shoes, your—whatever else belongs to you. It's yours."
"My dad'll—he's too big! Please don't—"
I already had the car in gear. "Fasten your seatbelt, Matt. What's that thing that Bette Davis says? It's going to be a bumpy night." The tires squealed as I turned out onto Melrose.
I turned south on Fairfax, splashing through puddles. Neither of us said anything for a bit.
When I turned right on Third, he said, "Mike. I don't want you to do this."
"I hear you." I continued to drive.
"I'm not going to tell you where I live —lived."
"I already know."
"I'm your fairy godfather, that's how. Don't ask."
"You are no fairy," he said. Then he added, sadly, "I am."
"Well, I guess that's why you need a godfather."
"What are you gonna do?"
I grinned. "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
Matt didn't get the joke, of course. It wouldn't be a joke for another five years. But that was okay. I got it.
Turned left, turned right. Pulled up in front of a tiny, well-tended house. Matt followed me out of the car, up the walk. The front door yanked open. Matt was right—he was big. An ape. But he wasn't a trained one. The scattershot bruises on his son were proof of that. He'd substituted size for skill. Probably done it all his life. He wore an ugly scowl. "Who are you?" he demanded.
Gave him the only answer he was entitled to. Punched him hard in the chest, shoving him straight back into the house. Followed in quickly. Before he could react, chest-punched him again—harder, hard enough to slam him into the wall. The house shook. He bounced off and this time met my fist in his gut. His gut was hard, but the brass knucks were harder. He grunted, didn't double up, but he lurched —it was enough, I pulled his head down to meet my rising knee, felt his nose break with a satisfying crunch of bone and blood.
Hauled him to his feet. His face was bleeding. "You're a big man, aren't you? Beating on a kid." He was still trying to catch his breath. "Matt, go get your things. Now."
A woman came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands in a dish towel. "Matty—?" Then she saw me. "Who are you — ?" Then she saw her husband. "Joe — ?"
I grabbed the towel from her hands, pushed it at Joe, pushed Joe at a chair, he flopped into it, covering his bloody nose. "You can sit down too, ma'am; probably a good idea." She hesitated, then sat. Joe was still gasping, eyeing me warily.
Nobody spoke for a long moment.
Finally, the wife. "Are you going to hurt us?"
"Not planning on it. Of course, that can change." I nodded meaningfully at the asshole.
"You—you won't get away with this — "
"You won't call the police. He won't let you. He doesn't want anyone to know he's got a queer son." Took a breath. I wasn't planning to play counselor, but Matt needed time to gather his stuff, and I needed to keep the asshole from thinking too hard. "All right, look, lady—you should leave this jerkoff. Because if you don't, he's going to kill you someday. The only thing that's saved your life this long is that he's been taking it out on the kid instead, hasn't he? With the kid outa here, you're wearing the bull's-eye now. If I'm not mistaken, that bruise on your cheek is recent. Like maybe, this afternoon? And maybe there's a few more under that dress that don't show?"
She didn't answer.
"You're not doing yourself any favors, being a punching bag for this miserable failure. And you sure as hell didn't help your kid any, did you? Letting him beat the kid—you're a coward. Do you know what the word 'enabler' means? You're an en-abler. You're just as fucking guilty. Because you let him get away with it."
Turned to the gorilla. "See, here's the thing, Joe. You're an asshole. You're beneath contempt. That's your son, your own flesh and blood. You should love him more than anybody else in the world. But he's fucking terrified of you. The one moment in his life, he needs his dad to love and understand and be there for him more than anything else, what do you do? You beat him up and throw him out. What a fuckwad you are. Your wife's a coward, you're a bully, and the two of you are throwing away the only thing in the world you've done right—raise a kid who still knows how to smile, god knows why, growing up with you two creeps. You don't deserve this kid. Shut up, both of you. I'm in no mood to argue. You can beat your wife, Joe, and you can beat your kid—but you can't beat the butt-ugly truth. You're a waste of skin. Oh, and if you're thinking about getting out of that chair, don't. If you try, I'll kill you. I'm in that kind of a mood."
"He means it, Dad — " That was Matt, coming back into the room. "He's an ex-commando. Special Forces. Green Beret. Or something. He was in Vietnam. I don't want him to hurt you — "
"You got everything?"
He hefted a duffel and a suitcase. Hastily filled.
Mart's mother looked back and forth between us. Finally, she worked up the nerve to ask. "What are you? Some kind of queer?"
I looked her up and down. "Are you the alternative?" Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, I can't believe I said that. "Wait a minute." Turned back to the gorilla. "Your son's leaving home. You'll never see him again. Give me your wallet. No —I didn't say think about it. I said, give me your wallet."
He passed it over. Nearly three hundred bucks. I passed the cash to Matt. "Here. Your inheritance. It's enough to live on for a couple months. If you're careful." Dropped the wallet on the floor.
"You two are getting off lucky. I'm letting you live." Looked at the gorilla again. "You come after this kid, you ever come near him, you ever lay a hand on him again, I will kill you. I will hunt you down and I will make sure you take a long time to die. You ever beat your wife again, I'll break both your arms. Are we clear? Nod your head, this isn't television." Glanced sideways. "Matt, you want to say good-bye?"
He shook his head.
"Then go get in the car."
Waited a moment, looking to see if the asshole was thinking about following. He wasn't. His face was ashen. He was still having trouble breathing. I looked to the wife. "You know what? I think you'd better call an ambulance. I might have punched him a little hard, I might have cracked his sternum. I wish I could say I'm sorry about that, but I'm not."
Drove back without talking. The rain was coming down harder now. Matt was shaken. Probably didn't know what to think, what to feel.
Got back to the apartment. He hesitated. "You coming up?"
"I thought you wanted me to — " He held up the money. "I mean—isn't what this is for?"
"There's plenty of time for that tomorrow. Or the next day." And besides, "You shouldn't be alone tonight." I grabbed his suitcase and duffel. Not as heavy as I'd thought. Gorilla and wife hadn't been very generous.
Inside, I went scrounging through the junk drawer, found the extra key and handed it to him. "Listen. Don't take this the wrong way. But I'm worried about you. You stay here as long as you need to."
He looked at the key in his hand, looked up to me, a question on his face.
"You can cook, right? You can clean? That'll be your rent. We'll move my typewriter in here, over against the wall or something. And you can have the other room. Just one condition. Stay away from Gino's —" No, that's not fair. "I mean, don't go there without me. And don't go out with anyone without—well, checking with me. Okay?"
"You trying to be my dad?"
"No. Well, maybe a big brother. I dunno." I sat down opposite him. "Can you keep a secret?"
"Not very well. I mean —my dad found out."
"There is that. When did you know you were — ?"
"When I was twelve. Or thirteen.""So you can keep a secret for five years. Six? Right?"
"All right. What I'm going to tell you is that big a secret. You up for it?"
He didn't say no. I took that as a yes.
"You know how I knew where you lived? I know a lot of other stuff too. Some bad shit is going down this year. Dangerous shit. People are going to get hurt. Killed. I'm not a cop. But I'm —I'm like a private investigator. And I'm looking for the guy. And you're his type. And so are a lot of the other kids at Gino's. I wish I could warn everyone, but if I do, it'll spread. You know how those girls love to gossip. And if the perp knows I'm looking for him, I'll never catch him. So you can't tell anyone. And the only reason I'm telling you is —is because I want your help."
"You need my help?"
"I want your help. I don't need it. But I can use it. If you're up to it."
"Up to it? Is it dangerous?"
"Do you think I'd put you in danger."
He thought about it for a moment. "But you want to use me as bait."
"I want to see who cruises you. I want to know who talks to you. That's all."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Was this your plan all along? From the very beginning? When you brought me home the other night?"
"The truth?" I looked him right in the eye. "No. This was not what I planned. You were just one of the boys I was going to watch for a while — "
He frowned. He turned that over in his head. And then —oh, shit—he got it. "You son of a bitch!" He started to get up. "You know, don't you!" He looked around for his duffel and his suitcase. I resisted the temptation to get up. Force was absolutely the wrong answer here. He waited for my response.
I nodded. "Yeah, you're right. I know."
"You're a—a time-traveler?"
"Then it's true? There really are? Because I thought that was just—like an urban legend or something."
"It's true," I admitted.
He stared at me, hard, as if trying to puzzle me out. "So… how far from the future are you?"
"I'm not. I'm from three years in the past. But I've been to the future. Twelve years anyway. You're going to like it. Parts of it, anyway."
Shrug. "Things like… um, well, Stonewall, for one. Neil Armstrong. Apple. Luke Skywalker. Pac-Man. But I think, Stonewall might be the big one."
"You'll find out soon enough. It's —it's going to be… kind of important."
"Give me a hint?"
"Who's Rosa Parks?"
"Look it up."
He frowned, annoyed. Then his frown eased. He dropped the duffel on the living room floor and came back into the kitchen nook. "Tell me what you know about me."
"You want me to do this, you have to tell me." He sat down opposite me and waited.
"Okay," I said. "Wait." I went into the bedroom, came back with the folders. Tossed it on the table. "I have to prevent the disappearance of this boy. Have you ever seen him?" I slid over the picture of Jeremy Weiss.
Matt looked, frowned, started to shake his head no, then said, "No, wait, I think he comes in mostly on weekends."
"He's number three. There are two other disappearances before him. Ten more afterward. Here's number one."
"That's Brad. Brad-boy. He rides a motorcycle. He comes in, picks up a trick, rides off. Nobody knows much about him, not even his tricks."
"Yeah, I've seen it."
"When does he — ?"
"Two weeks. A little more than two weeks." I passed over the next folder. "This is the second victim."
He opened it, saw his own picture, and flinched. He deflated like a balloon. "I — I'm going to die."
"No. You're not. I promise you. I promise you."
"But I did. I mean, I will, won't I? I mean —this?" He looked suddenly terrified.
"No. You won't."
"But how do you know? I thought time was — "
"Time is mutable. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be here. I couldn't be here. Neither could you."
He accepted that, but only because he wanted to. He wasn't convinced. After a bit, he reached over and took the other folders, opened them one at a time. He recognized two more of the boys, none of the rest. Not surprising. The last disappearance was only fourteen this year.
"All right. Now, tell me —do you go anywhere else besides Gino's?"
He shook his head. "There's a club down in Garden Grove, for eighteen-and-up. But I've never been there. Um, there's the tubs. The Y-Mac. I've only been there two-three times. There isn't any place else. I can't get into any of the bars."
"So mostly you go to Gino's?"
"That's where everybody goes."
"All right. Here's the deal. You don't go to Gino's unless I go too. I want to see who talks to you. And if somebody asks you to go home with him—we'll work out a signal. You'll tug on your ear. And I'll… I'll do what's appropriate."
Matt nodded. He seemed grateful to have a plan. He took a breath. "I saw some knockwurst in the freezer. Should I make that for dinner?"
I wasn't that hungry, but I nodded.
He clattered around in the cupboards for a bit, looking to see what else he could put on a plate. "There's some baked beans here, and some English muffins. I can make a little salad and open a couple of Cokes… ?""That sounds good." I gathered up the photos and slid them back into their respective folders.
"If I don't go home with anyone, how will you know which one's the killer?"
"I'm still trying to figure that out."
"You'll have to watch Brad-boy too, won't you?"
"Maybe I'm not getting this right. But the only way you'll know who the killer is… will be by letting him kill someone. Brad. Right?"
"Well, no. I have a pretty good idea which night Brad disappears. So whoever talks to him on that night, that's probably the killer. But if I can keep Brad from going off with him, then I can save his life."
"But what if it's the wrong guy. I mean, if he doesn't get a chance to kill anyone, how will you know he's the killer?"
I got up, put the bottle of scotch back in the cupboard. Leaned against the wall and looked down at Matt. He was cutting up lettuce. "There's another part to the problem. Let's say that I give Brad a flat tire so he can't go out that night. Or something like that. Let's say I keep Brad from tricking out. Then that means Mr. Death—that's what I call him—picks up someone else. And maybe not that night, maybe the next night, or the following week. Maybe the whole timetable gets interrupted, screwed up —then this whole schedule is useless."
"So you have to watch Brad…"
"Yeah. And I'll have to tail him to wherever he goes and… and hope it's the real deal."
"That's not fair to Brad."
"It's not fair to any of you guys. I'm only hired to save one boy—but there's a dozen others, and maybe more, who are equally at risk. I told you, time is mutable. If I jiggle it too hard, I lose the whole case. I can save you and Jeremy and Brad, but who else dies in your place?"
He got it—it was like a body blow. He laid down the knife and said, "Shit." And then he reacted to his own vulgarity with a softly spoken, "Well, that wasn't very ladylike, was it?"
He put dinner on the table and we ate in silence for a while. Finally, I said, "This is very good. Thank you."
"You like it?"
"It's a whole meal. It's more than I would have done for myself."
"I had to learn how to cook. My mom — " He shrugged.
"Yeah, I saw."
"She's not a bad person. Neither is my dad, except when he drinks too much — "
"And how often is that?"
He got the point. "Yeah. Okay."
Later, after the dishes were put away, I took a quick shower. I came out, wearing only a towel. He looked at me, then glanced away quickly. He said something about a long soak and hurried into the bathroom. I heard the sound of bath water running. After a moment, he stuck his head out. "Towels?""Hall closet. Top shelf. Here." I pulled the yellow towels down for him. "Anything else?"
"I don't think so." Still not looking at me.
"All right. I'm going to bed. I've got a meeting in the morning. When I get back we'll go get a bed for you."
"Urn. Okay. Thanks." He disappeared back into the bathroom.
I like to sleep with the windows open. Here, just off Melrose, the nights were sometimes stifling, sometimes breezy, sometimes cold. Sometimes the wind blew in from the sea, and sometimes the air was still and smelled of jasmine. Tonight there was cold wind, the last wet remnant of a gloomy drizzly day. The air smelled clean. Tomorrow would be bright.
I got into bed, listened for a while to the water dripping from the corners of the building, to the occasional wet swish of a car passing by, to the distant roar of the city, and maybe even the hint of music somewhere. Got up, went to the closet, pulled out an extra blanket and dropped it on the couch. He'd need it.
Got back into bed and listened to the roar of my own thoughts. Matt had put his finger on it—what I already knew and hadn't been willing to say. I had no way to ID the perp. Not unless I let someone die.
For a while, I wondered how the other operatives would handle this case. But I didn't wonder too long, I already knew. They'd save the Weiss kid and ignore the other dozen—because the Weiss kid's family were the only ones paying. That's why Georgia had given me this job. Because she knew I didn't think that way. She knew I wouldn't be satisfied with saving only the one. She knew how I thought. You don't leave any man behind.
And whether anyone recognized it or not, this was a war zone.
These people; they knew they were living in enemy territory. They were terrified of the midnight knock—the accusations at work, the innuendoes of friends, the gossip of neighbors, and all the awful consequences. The soft boys, they start out sweet and playful, almost innocent, but time would erode their spirit. The older they grow, the heavier the burden becomes. Day by day, they learn to be furtive, they become embittered and their voices edged with acid. You can stand in the bar and watch it happening in their eyes, night after night, the shadowed resentment, the festering anger. Why do we have to hide? Pretend? The question—what's wrong with me?— was backward. Pretty soon it turns into what's wrong with them? And the chasm grows, the isolation increases. The secret world digs deeper underground.
But not for too much longer. The summer of love is already exploding, next year the summer of lust, and after that the frenzied summer of disaster. But that summer would also bring the Stonewall revolution, and after that—this would start to change. All of it.
I almost envied them.
Because, they knew what they wanted.
I still had no idea.
There was a soft knock at the bedroom door. It pushed open with a squeak. Matt stuck his head in. "Are you asleep?"
"Not yet. Are you all right?""Mike… ?" He stepped closer to the edge of the bed. "Can I sleep with you tonight? Just to sleep. That's all. The couch is — "
"Kind of uncomfortable, I know. Yeah, come on." I slid over and pulled back the edge of the blanket for him. He slipped in next to me. Not too close.
We lay on our backs, side by side. Staring at the ceiling.
"This isn't about the couch, is it?"
"Didn't think so."
"You don't have to worry—"
"I'm not worried."
"I mean — "
"Matt. It's all right. You don't have to explain." I thought about those nights in Nam where soldiers hugged each other closer than brothers. Of course, rifle fire, mortar shells, explosions, napalm, mud, blood and shit—and the threat of immediate death — can do that to you. The moments in the jungle when the patrol would stop for break, collapsing into heaps, sometimes lying in each other's laps, the only closeness we had —and the nights in cheap Saigon hotel rooms, when there weren't enough mattresses to go around, you shared with your buddy, and you felt glad he was next to you. The touch of a squad mate in the dark. You learned to feel safe in the stink and sweat of other men. They were your other half. You couldn't explain that either, not to anyone who hadn't been there.
"I'm sorry, Mike."
"For being such a — " He couldn't finish the sentence. He couldn't say the word.
"My mom used to call me Matty. When I was little."
"You want me to call you Matty?"
"If you want to."
"Matty, come here." I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer, so his head was nestled against my chest. I couldn't see what he was wearing, but it felt too soft. Nylon something. I ignored it. Whatever. "C'mere, let your Uncle Mike tell you a bedtime story." He wasn't relaxed, he lay tense next to me. Waiting for me to push him away in disgust… ?
"When I was twelve, my dad brought home a puppy for my birthday, just a few weeks old. He was a black Labrador retriever and he was so clumsy he tripped over his own shadow. He couldn't walk without stubbing his face, but I fell in love with him the first moment I saw him. My dad asked me if I liked him and I said he was just perfect. I called him Shotgun. The first night, he whined for his mommy, so I took him into bed with me and held him close and talked to him and petted him and he fell asleep next to me. He followed me everywhere and he slept with me every night. Then Monday morning, we took him to the vet for his shots. The vet examined him and examined him and examined him, and he just started frowning worse and worse. Finally, he says there's something wrong with Shotgun; he's defective, his hips are malformed, he's going to have trouble walking, he's going to go lame, a whole bunch of other stuff. Then, he took my dad aside and talked to him for a long time. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but my dad just shook his head and we took Shotgun home."
"The vet wanted to put him to sleep?"
"Yeah. My dad wouldn't let him. But I didn't find that part out until later. We went home, but I didn't want to have anything to do with Shotgun anymore. Because he was broken. He wasn't perfect. And I wanted a dog that was perfect. Shotgun kept following me around and I kept pushing him away. That night, he kept trying to jump up onto my bed and he kept whining, but I wouldn't lift him up and let him sleep with me. Finally, my dad came in and asked what was wrong and I said I didn't want Shotgun anymore, but I wouldn't say why. My dad figured it out though. He knew I was angry at Shotgun for not being perfect. But he didn't argue with me, he just said, okay, he'd find a new home for Shotgun in the morning. But… for tonight, I should let Shotgun sleep with me one last time. I asked why, and my dad picked up the puppy and held him in his lap petting him for a moment, and I asked why again, and my dad put Shotgun in my lap and he said, 'Because even ugly puppies need love. In fact, ugly puppies need even more love.' And when he said that, I started to feel real bad for pushing Shotgun away, and then my dad said, 'Besides, Shotgun doesn't know he's ugly. He just knows he loves you a lot. But if you don't love him and you don't want him, then tomorrow we'll find someone who doesn't care how ugly he is and who'll be happy to have a dog who will love them as much as Shotgun can.' That's when I hugged Shotgun close to my chest and said, 'NO! He's mine and you're not giving him away. Because I can love him more than anybody. I don't care how ugly he is.' And that's when my dad tousled my hair like this and whispered in my ear, 'That's the exact same thing your mom said when you were born.'"
Matt snorted. Then curled up with his backside pressed against me. I couldn't figure out if he felt like a girl or a boy or something of both —or neither.
All these queerboys—some of them were girlboys, yes; but the rest, they were still boys. Soft boys. Men without… without what? Some quality of maleness? No. They were male. They just didn't do all that chest-beating. Hmm. Of course not. Chest-beating is for dominance —it's to drive away all the other males from the mates. That's counter-productive in this environment. Here… they want to be… friendly? Affectionate? But chest-beaters can't do that, can't afford to do that without losing dominance. No wonder the queerboys were the targets of bullies. Bullies are cowards; they pick victims who won't fight back. I stared at the ceiling, wondering if this train of thought would bring me any closer to Mr. Death. I couldn't see how.
After a while, I stopped worrying about it and fell asleep myself.
The next morning, we pretended everything was normal. He went to work, I drove up to Hollywood Boulevard.
Georgia looked grim. She met my eyes briefly, jerked her head toward the office. "Mr. Harris wants to see you."
"Ted Harris—the man whose name is on the door?"
"Oh. I didn't know there was a real Ted Harris. I thought he was a fictitious business name, or something."
"There's a real Ted Harris. And he's waiting for you."Shit. They'd found out I'd visited Dad. I had that called-to-the-principal's-office, cold-lump-in-my-gut feeling.
I knocked once on the door, no answer, I turned the knob and went in. I'd never been in this room before. Desk, chairs, lamp, and a middle-aged man with his back to me, staring out the half-circular window that faced the boulevard. The window was grimy, but the morning sun still broke the gloom with blue-white bars of dust. Harris turned around to face me. I recognized him.
"Eakins — ?" Every time I met him he was a different age. This time he had silver highlights in his hair, but he still looked young.
"Sit." He pointed. I sat.
"Your real name is Harris?"
He sat down behind the desk. "My real name is Eakins. There is no Harris. But I'm him. When I need to be. Today, I need to be."
"All right, that makes as much sense as anything—"
"Shut up." I shut.
He had a folder on his desk. He tapped it. "This case you're working on—the lost boys… ?"
"I'm making progress. There's a common connection among the victims."
"There's a gay teen club on Melrose. I think the perp is finding them there. It's in my reports. There's also a secondary location — "
"You have to drop the case."
"Is there something wrong with your hearing? Drop the case."
"May I ask why?"
His voice was dispassionate. "No."
"But these boys are going to die — "
"That can't be your concern."
"It already is."
Eakins took a breath, one of those I'm-about-to-say-something-important inhalation/exhalations. He leaned across the desk and fixed me with an intense glare. "Listen to me. Life is empty and meaningless. It doesn't mean anything — and it doesn't mean anything that it doesn't mean anything. Drop the case."
"That's not an answer."
"It's the only answer you're ever going to get. This conversation is over." He started to rise —
I stayed sat. "No."
He stopped, half out of his chair. "I gave you an instruction. I expect you to follow it."
"I wasn't asking you for an argument."
"Well, you're getting one. I'm not abandoning those boys to die. I need something more from you."
He sank back down into the chair. "There are things you don't know. There are things you don't understand. That's the way it is. That's the way it has to be."
"I made a promise to one of those boys that nothing's going to happen to him."
"You got involved — ?"
"I made a promise."
Eakins opened the folder. Turned pages. "This one?" He held up Matty's picture. I nodded. Eakins dropped the picture on the desk, leaned back in his chair. Held up the other pictures. "He's not part of this case."
"The others are part of this case. That one isn't."
"I don't understand."
"And I'm not going to explain it. The case is over. Disengage. We'll send you somewhere else. Georgia's got a courier job up in the Bay Area — "
"I don't want it."
"That wasn't a request. You'll take the courier job and we won't say anything about where you were Sunday night."
"We're paying you a lot of money—"
"You're renting my judgment, not buying my soul. That's why you're paying so much."
Eakins hesitated—not because he was uncertain, but because he was annoyed. He glanced away, as if checking a cue card, then came back to me. "I knew you were going to refuse. But we still had to have the conversation."
"Is that it?" I put my hands on the arms of the chair, preparing to rise.
"Not quite. This ends your employment here. Georgia has your severance check. We'll expect the return of all materials related to this case by the end of business today."
"You think that'll accomplish anything? You can't stop me from saving their lives as a private citizen."
Eakins didn't respond to that. He was already sorting files on his desk, as if looking for the next piece of business to attend to. "Close the door on your way out, will you?"
Georgia was waiting for me. Her face was tight. I knew that look. There was a lot she wanted to say, but she couldn't, she wasn't allowed. Instead, she held out an envelope. "The apartment and the car are in your name, we've subtracted the cost from your check. The bank book has your ancillary earnings. You'll be all right. Oh —and I'll need your ID card."
I took it out of my wallet and passed it over. "You knew, didn't you?"
"There was never any doubt."
"You know me that well?"
"No. But I know that part of you." She pressed the envelope into my hands. Pressed close enough for me to tell that she still wore the same sweet perfume.
Went down the stairs slowly. Stopped to have my shoes shined one last time while I looked through the contents of the envelope. A fat wad of cash, a hefty check, a surprisingly healthy bank account, several other bits of necessary paperwork—and a scrap of paper with a hastily written note. "Musso & Frank's. IS minutes." I sniffed the paper, recognized the perfume, nodded, tipped Roy a fiver, and started west on the boulevard. I'd get there just in time.
I asked for a table in the back, she came in a few minutes later, sat down opposite me without a word. I waited. She held up a finger to catch the waiter's eye, ordered two shots of Glenfiddich, then looked straight across to me. "Eakins is a first-class prick."
Shook my head. "Nah, he's only a second-class prick."
She considered it. "Not even that high. He's a dildo."
My silence was agreement. "So… ?"
She opened her purse, took out another envelope, laid it on the table. "You weren't supposed to get this case. No one was. When he found out I'd assigned it to you, he almost fired me. He might still."
"I don't think so. You're still there as far uptime as I've been."
She shook her head as if that weren't important now. "The whole thing is… it doesn't make sense. Why would he abrogate a contract? Anyway—" She pushed the envelope across. "Here. See what you can make out of this."
"What is it?"
"I have no idea. He disappears for days, weeks, months at a time. Then he shows up as if not a day has passed. I started xeroxing stuff from his desk, a few years ago. I don't know why. I thought—I thought maybe it would give me some insights. There's things that… I don't know what they are. There's pictures. Like this thing—" She shuffled through the photos. "—I think it's a telephone. It's got buttons like a phone, but it looks like something from Star Trek, it flips open—but it doesn't work, it just says 'no service.' And this other thing, it looks like a poker chip, one side is sticky, you can stick it to a wall, the other side is all black—is it a bug of some kind? A microphone? A camera? Or maybe it's a chronosensor? And then there are these silver disks, five inches wide, what the hell are they? They look like diffraction gratings. Some of them say Memorex on the back. Are they some kind of recording tape, only without the tape? And there's all these different kinds of pills. I tried looking up the names, but they're not listed in any medical encyclopedia. What the hell is Tagamet? Or Viagra? Or Xylamis? Or any of these others?"
"Are there dates on any of this material?"
"Not always. But sometimes. The farthest one is 2039. But I think he's gone farther. A lot farther. I think he's gotten hold of the Caltech local-field time-maps. Or maybe he's been dropping his own sensors and making his own maps, I don't know. But I've never seen anything that looks like a map. It doesn't make a lot of sense. But then again —there's that thing that he says, that if we could go back to say, 1907 with a bunch of stuff from today—a transistor radio, a princess phone, a portable TV, a record album, birth control pills, things like that—none of it would make sense to someone living in that time. Even a copy of a news magazine wouldn't make much sense because the language would have shifted so much. So if Eakins has stuff from thirty, forty, fifty years into the future, we wouldn't get much of it—"
"Yes and no. Eifty years ago, they didn't have the same experience of progress, so they didn't have the vocabulary to encompass the kinds of changes that come with time. We have a different perspective —because change is part of our history, we expect it to be part of our future. So, if anything, we look at this stuff and we don't see a mystery as much as we see the limits of our experience."
"Now, you sound like me."
"I was quoting you. Paraphrasing." I shuffled through the papers, the photos, the notes. "None of this has any bearing on this case, does it?"
"I don't know. But I thought you should see it. Maybe it'll give you an insight into Eakins."
Shook my head. "It proves that he knows more than he's telling us. But we already knew that."
She glanced at her watch. "Okay, I'm out of time." She stood up, leaned over and kissed me quickly. "Take care of yourself—and your little boyfriend too."
"He's not my—" But she was already gone.
I shoved everything back into the envelope and ordered a steak sandwich. The day had started weird and gotten weirder, and it wasn't half over. I might as well face the rest of it on a full belly.
Went back to the apartment. Photographed everything. Then gathered it up and went straight to the local copy shop. Five copies, collated. Paid in cash. Put one copy in the trunk of the car, put another in the apartment safe, and mailed the other three to three different P.O. boxes. Delivered the originals back to Georgia who accepted them without comment. Eakins had already left the building. But neither of us said anything; it was possible he had the offices bugged — maybe even with his funny poker chips.
By the time I got home, Matty was unpacking groceries. The whole scene looked very domestic. "Did you have a good day?" he asked. All I needed was a pair of slippers and the evening newspaper.
When I didn't answer, he looked up. Worried. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I'm just… thinking about stuff."
"You're always thinking about stuff."
"Well, this is stuff that needs thinking about."
He got it. He shut up and busied himself in the kitchen. I went out onto the balcony and stared at Melrose Avenue. Cold and gray, it was going to rain again tonight; a second storm right behind the first. Something Eakins had said —none of it made sense, but one piece of it had its own particular stink of wrongness. Why is Matty not important to this case?
And that led directly to the next question: What did Eakins know that he wasn't telling me? And why wasn't he telling? Because if I knew… it would affect things. What things? What other plan was working?
Obviously, we weren't on the same side. Had we ever been? Never mind that. That's a dead end right now. I had to think about Matty.
If Matty is irrelevant, then… is he still in danger? No, of course he's in danger. He disappeared. We know that. But if he disappeared, then why is he irrelevant… ? Unless his disappearance is unrelated. And if his disappearance is unrelated, then… of course, he would be entirely useless to this case. Shit.
But how would Eakins know that? Unless Eakins knew something about Matty. Or knew something about all the others.
And of course, all of that assumed that Eakins was telling the truth. What if he was purposely trying to mislead me? But then that brought me back to the first question. What was Eakins up to?
Not having the answers to any of these questions annoyed me. I didn't have a plan, I didn't have anything on which to base a plan. The only thing I could think was to continue with the plan that Eakins had scuttled —not because it was a good plan, but because it would force the situation. It would force Eakins to… to do what?
When the rain finally started, I went back in and sat down to dinner. Baked chicken. It was cold.
"Why didn't you call me?"
"You were thinking."
"Urn-" I stopped myself. He was being considerate. "Okay."
"Do you want me to warm that up for you?"
"No, it's okay." I ate in silence for a bit, feeling uncomfortable. Finally I put my fork down and looked across at him. "Y'know what I just realized. I don't know how to talk to you."
He looked puzzled.
"This is good — " I indicated the cold chicken. "You can cook. I keep wanting to say you'll make someone a wonderful wife someday. But I can't say that because — "
"It's different when you say it. When you say it, it isn't mocking."
"It's still the wrong thing to say. It's demeaning, isn't it?"
"I don't mind. Not from you." He started to clear the table.
I took a breath. "Are you — ?" I stopped. "I don't know how to ask this. Are you… attracted to me?"
He nearly dropped the plates. He was facing away so I couldn't see his expression, but his body was suddenly tense. He finally turned around so he could look at me. "Do you want me to be?"
"It's like this. I don't connect well to people. Not anybody. Male or female. I can go through the motions. For a while. But only for a while. I'm always… holding back."
"That's your answer?"
"When you start raveling, you get unraveled yourself. You get detached. You don't belong to any time, you can't belong to any person. So you turn off that part of yourself."
He didn't respond right away. He got the coffee pot from the stove and filled two cups. He brought cream and sugar to the table, for himself, not me. As he stirred his coffee, he finally asked, "So why are you telling me this? Are you telling me I shouldn't care about you because you can't care back?"
"I don't know if I can care about anybody. When I try, it doesn't work out. So I've stopped trying."
"You didn't answer my question. Why are you telling me this?"
"Because… right now, you're the only person I have to talk to."
"Not your dad?"
"This is not a conversation I could have with my dad."He shook his head in frustrated confusion. "Just what are we talking about?"
"About the fact that I am so fucking angry and confused and upset and annoyed and frustrated and—and even despairing—that if you weren't here, right now tonight, if you weren't here to talk to… I'd end up sitting alone in a chair again — with my gun barrel in my mouth, wondering if I have the courage to pull the trigger. I've known guys who've sucked the bullets out of their guns. It makes a mess on the wall. And I used to wonder why they did it. That was before. Not anymore. Now I'm starting to understand."
His face was white. "You're scaring the hell out of me."
"You don't have to worry. I'm not going to do anything stupid. I just—I just want you to know that right now… you're doing me the favor by staying here."
"This is a lot more than I can deal with —I'm not—"
I nodded. "Kiddo. I'm more than most people can deal with. That's why they leave. Look—I figured, after all you've been through, you'd understand what it feels like to feel so separated from everyone else. I'm coming from the same place —same place, different time zone."
He stirred his coffee thoughtfully. "There's a quote I learned in school. Sometimes it helps me. It's from Edmund Burke. I don't know who he is or was, it doesn't matter. He said, 'Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair.'"
Considered it. "Yeah. That's good. It's useful."
We sat there for a while. Not talking.
Later. I came out of my bedroom. He was curled up on the couch. "Matt? Matty?"
"Huh — ?" He rolled over, looked at me eroegily.
"If you want to come sleep in the bed again, you can."
"No, it's all right."
But a little bit later, he pushed open the bedroom door, padded over, and slipped in next to me. So that was something. I just didn't know what. But then again, neither did he. Probably.
The rain cleared up, leaving the air sparkling, the way it used to be in the thirties and the forties. Least, that's what they say. In two days, though, the smog levels would be back to their lung-choking worst. It's not just the million-plus internal combustion engines pouring out lead and carbon dioxide and all the other residues of inefficient fuel-burning. Los Angeles is ringed with mountains. That's why they call it a basin. Fresh air can't get in, stale air can't get out. It sits and stagnates. The Indians called it el valle de fumar. The valley of fumes. Only two things clean it— the once-in-a-while rainstorms of winter and spring, or the hot dry Santa Ana winds at the end of the summer. From June until October, don't bother breathing. You can breathe in November.
But today, today at least, was beautiful. It was a go-to-Disneyland day. And I almost suggested it to Matty, but he had to work, and I hadn't figured anything else out yet, so we disentangled ourselves from the mustiness of sleep and stepped into the comfortable zombie-zone of routine.
We had a week to go before Brad Boyd would disappear. I spent some of the daytime tailing him, even though that was probably a dead end. He worked at an adult bookstore on Vine, just across the street from the Hollywood Ranch Market. Sometimes he bought a Coke and a burrito from the counter in front. Usually he walked to work, leaving the motorcycle parked under a small covered patio in front of the apartments. It wouldn't be hard to sabotage the bike. That would keep him at home. But it wouldn't get me closer to Mr. Death.
Twice, I drove out to visit Dad. The second time, I took him to the doctor. I already knew that it wouldn't do any good, wouldn't delay the inevitable, but I had to try. Maybe make it a little easier for him. Dad fussed at me, but not too much. He didn't have the same strength to argue that he'd had when I was eighteen, when I'd come back with the recruiting forms, when I told him of my decision, when I snapped back at him, "Well, if it's a mistake, it's my mistake to make, not yours." It wasn't until Duncan stepped on a land mine just a few paces ahead of me that I discovered what Dad had been so scared of. But by then, I was already starting to shut down. So the scared never got all the way in, never got to the bottom. Part of me remained convinced that it wasn't going to happen to me. Ever. Just the same, I got out of there as soon as my rotation ended.
I sat at the kitchen table, puzzling over the photos and the copies of the notes Georgia had taken from Eakins' desk. Someday they'd make sense, but at this point in time —literally—they were incomprehensible. The only thing this stuff proved was that Eakins had time-hopped farther into the future than anyone I'd ever heard.
In the evenings, Matty and I would shadow Brad again. Having an extra set of eyes helped. The first night motorcycle-boy started at Gino's, had no luck or didn't like what he saw, and rode over to the Stampede. We parked in the lot of the supermarket across the street, just behind the bus bench where we could watch the front entrance and his motorcycle. The Stampede had an emergency exit in the rear patio, but without an emergency the only way out was the front. We might be here awhile, how long does it take to cruise a bar? Matty went for doughnuts and coffee.
"If he comes out before you get back, I have to follow him; if I'm not here, you wait in the doughnut shop. As soon as he lands somewhere, I'll come back for you. Understand? Don't talk to anyone."
But the plan wasn't needed; Matty was back in five and Brad-boy didn't come out of the bar for forty minutes. He was alone. We followed him east on Melrose where he checked into the YMAC.
"He could be there all night," said Matty. "Maybe till one or two."
"How do you know? Have you ever—?"
"With Brad-boy? No. I would have, if he ever asked. But he never asked. I don't think I would now. Everybody says he's kind of a user. Use 'em and lose 'em."
"Yeah, I got that feeling. I'm wondering if… maybe I should go in."
"It's just a lot of guys standing around in the dark."
"Just like the Stampede? Or Gino's?"
"Yeah, but without their clothes on. Just towels."
"Hm." We sat in silence for a bit.
"You can't get in without a card," Matty offered. "A member has to take you in the first time. If Scotty doesn't like your look, he says it's not a membership night. If he lets you in, he gives you a card and tells you the rules. I could probably get you in."
"Is that an offer?"
"I'm just trying to be helpful."
I thought about it.
"How often have you been there?"
"Not much. Two times, three. I don't like the way it smells."
"I don't think it's going to help us much."
"Because… if I've figured this right, our bad guy doesn't work out of this place. He has to take his victims somewhere else. Somewhere close. Like a house—a house with lots of shrubbery around it, or maybe an alley in the back, or a connected garage. He has to have some way to remove the… the evidence without anyone seeing."
"So we can go home?"
"I'm thinking. We should probably wait. Make sure that Brad-boy gets home safe."
"I have work tomorrow."
"There's a blanket on the back seat, if you want to try sleeping."
"No. I can't sleep in a car."
"I don't like sitting here either." I started the engine, put the car in gear, turned on the headlights. "Let's call it a night."
Back at the apartment, I pushed him toward the bedroom, and went into my makeshift office to type up a quick report. Picked up subject at, followed subject to, subject was inside for, came out at, proceeded to, stayed for, came out, went to, waited, abandoned stake-out at. I didn't have to write it, the case was over, and there was no place to turn in the report, but old habits die hard —and it's always useful to have accurate notes.
It didn't take long to finish, but by the time I slid between the sheets, Matty was already asleep, half-sprawled toward the center of the bed. I gave him a gentle push and he turned half away. Fair enough.
Matty felt warm. He reminded me of Shotgun. Shotgun would stretch out next to me, anchoring his back against mine, we'd sleep spine to spine. That big old dog was like me —he liked having someone covering his back. Except Matty wasn't Shotgun, he wasn't an ugly puppy, and he wasn't anything else either. Why was I doing this?
The next night, Brad-boy stayed home and watched television until ten. He got on his motorcycle and went to Gino's. Sat on his bike for twenty minutes chatting with Mame, Peaches, Dave, Jeremy, and two boys Matty couldn't name. "You think it's one of them?"
"No. They're too young. And they're — "
" — too fern?"
"Yeah. Too fern."
"Some ferns can be real bitches — "
"Yeah, I heard some of the stories about Duchess and Princess. But I don't think we have to worry about either of these. They look like lost surfer boys. A couple kids from Pali High daring each other to visit a gay club."
Eventually, one of the surfer boys climbed onto the back of Brad-boy's bike and they roared east on Melrose. Back to Brad's apartment. Was he going to spend the night? Or would Brad be bringing him back here in an hour?
It turned out to be less than that. Apparently, our Brad wasn't much for foreplay. Forty-five minutes turnaround. Then he went home and went back to bed. Alone.
Thursday night, Brad went to a movie. We sat three rows behind him. The Dirty Dozen. All-star cast. Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Trini Lopez, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker, and some funny-looking goofball named Donald Sutherland.
Friday night, Gino's was crowded with lithe and feral manboys. Brad-boy actually got off the bike and went in. Matty followed him while I spoke privately to Gino. I flashed one of the P.I. cards I hadn't given back to Georgia. Either she hadn't noticed that or she had. I wasn't sure if I should let her know what I was up to. She was probably in enough trouble already. She probably already knew anyway. No, I'd wait until I had something.
Gino glanced at the card unsurprised, looked at me, and said, "What do you need?"
"I heard you're the go-to guy." He looked blank, he didn't recognize the term. "The go-to guy. The guy to go to… if you have the clap and need the name of a doctor, if you need a letter from a shrink to stay out of the army, that kind of stuff."
"I know some people," Gino said. Dr. Ellis was due to be murdered by a hustler-boy. Scotty would be implicated in a different murder and YMAC's new location on La Brea would be raided. In a couple of years. "What can I do for you?"
"You know your regulars, right? You know who's solid and who's flaky. If someone new shows up, you read them the rules before you let them in. Do you ever notice who folks leave with?"
"I see a lot of boys come through here every weekend — "
"Brad Boyd. Do you ever notice who he leaves with?"
"Hard not to. He always revs his engine and roars out of here, leaving a stinking cloud of smoke behind. I've asked him not to — "
"Could you keep an eye out?"
"Who are you working for? His parents?"
"No. This isn't that kind of a case."
"What kind of a case is it?"
"This kind." I pushed a fifty-dollar bill into his hand. I had another ready in case one wasn't enough.
Gino glanced down only long enough to check the denomination. "You got the size right." He tucked it into his pocket.
I leaned forward, whispered, "This kid's life might be in danger. I think he's being stalked. But I don't have any hard evidence yet. Help me out, I'll give you another one of those."
Gino shrugged. "I have a club to run. Weekends are busy. I can't promise anything. But if I see something, I'll let you know."
I passed him a card. No name, just a phone number. "If no one answers, there's an answering machine. You can leave a message."
Gino looked impressed. Code-A-Phones were expensive. I didn't tell him it belonged to the Harris Agency—and that any day now I expected Georgia to request its return.
I found Matty in the shadows next to the jukebox. Brad was playing pool in the corner. I pulled Matty farther back and we pretended to be only casually interested in the pool game. So far, it looked like Brad was only here to play pool. He had a nasty style of slop shooting. It looked like he was just casually slamming the balls around; but he'd been playing barroom pool long enough, he knew what he was doing. He kept winning. Three, four, six games and he still hadn't been beaten.
"Whyn't you go play him?"
"Uh-uh. I might interrupt something or someone. We need to see who he picks up — or who picks him up."
"Is it tonight?"
"Tomorrow. I have a feeling—I could be wrong—but I have a hunch that our subject might be here tonight as well. Whatever he's feeling, it has to be building up. Building up over time. If Brad is his first, then maybe this is the night that triggers his urge, but maybe he isn't quite ready to act. Something happens tonight. He gets his—whatever it is he gets. His courage. And tomorrow is the night it gets real enough for him to actually do something."
"What if he picks someone else?"
"I don't think so. I think Brad is the first because Brad is the easiest. I don't think our fellow has learned how to cruise yet. He might not have picked Brad out, but I think he's in this room. Here's what I want you to do. You go one way, I'll go the other. We'll both walk around, just looking—cruising. See if you see anyone who strikes you as wrong."
"Wrong in what way?"
"Any way at all."
"Too old? Too ugly?"
"No. Brad is a slut, but he isn't a whore. Like all the rest of you girls, he wants someone young and cute. So watch out for anyone who looks like his type, but possibly nervous, uneasy, uncertain—someone who doesn't look like he's having a good time. His clothes or his haircut might look a little weird, like he doesn't understand the current styles. He's probably hanging back, just watching; he might have a very intense look, or he might even look perfectly normal. But I'll bet he's someone new, someone you haven't seen before, so watch for that. Just look at every unfamiliar face closely and see what you see. Okay? You go this way, I'll go that. Three or four times around, then meet back here."
There was something else to watch out for, but I didn't tell Matty. It was baggage he didn't need to carry. I didn't like having him do this, but I needed his eyes. He had experience here. He could read these people. I couldn't. Not very well. There was an overlay of—I didn't have a word for it—but there was a map to this territory that I didn't have.
I'd given him one clue. Watch out for someone who's out of style. But he wouldn't have heard what I was really saying—I think we're dealing with a freelance time-hopper, someone who's riding the quakes. He's probably from the past, maybe ten or twenty years; I doubted he was from the future, the future is a little friendlier to queers, but I didn't rule it out—maybe the cultural shifts were stressing him out.
But if I had to put money on it, I'd bet that this was a guy with a very bad jones in his Johnson. He wanted sex with young men, but afterwards he was so ashamed at what he had done, he had to destroy the evidence. Even if that meant murder.
In the movies, murderers always have a look about them. That's because the director puts the actor in a hotter or colder light, making him stand out just a bit from everyone else around him; and the makeup man will do something around the actor's eyes, making his face look sallow or drawn or gaunt; and the camera angle will be such that everyone else in the crowd will be turned away, or in shadow, or simply two steps back. In the movies, it's easy to spot the bad guy—the director tells you where to look and what to notice.
In real life… real life stinks. Murderers look just like everybody else. Sick and tired and resigned. Beaten up and beaten down. Everybody looks like a murderer. So nobody does.
In here, they looked—they looked like queers, but once you got past the part that was queer and you looked at the people, they looked like people. Soft boys, girlboys, manboys, wild boys, wilder boys, feral boys. None of them looked like men. But that's what I was looking for. Someone who wasn't a boy anymore. A man? Maybe. Someone who'd passed through boyhood without ever finishing the job. But the only one in here who looked like that… was me.
For a moment, I envied this confetti of boys and their flickering schoolgirl freedom. Because at least, while they were here, flirting and gossiping, nattering and chattering, they had a place of their own, a place to belong. If I'd ever had a place to belong, it must have been closed the night I passed by.
Circled four times, five, breathing faint smells of marijuana, Aramis, Clearasil, and Sen-Sen. Passed Matty going the other way, kept going, searched faces, all the faces—some of them searched back, wondering if they could find comfort in mine. That wasn't possible. I don't do comfort. They got it and looked away.
And then finally, we came back to the dark corner next to the jukebox and compared notes. Matty shook his head. "A bunch of frat-boys from the ZBT chapter at UCLA, checking out the scene. A guy who says he's only here doing research for a book; yeah, like I believe that. A couple fellows up from Garden Grove, one from San Francisco. A guy who looks like a cop, but Gino didn't flash any lights, and you don't put the red bandana hanging out of your front pocket anyway. And Uncle Philsy. That's what everybody calls him."
"Which one is Uncle Philsy—oh, him." The troll. Short. Bald. Fiftyish. Tending to fat. Disconnected predatory grin. Wandering aimlessly through the boys, simply enjoying the view. Sweet and repulsive at the same time. But harmless.
"Gino knows him. Says he's okay."
"What was that about a guy doing research for a book? Don't trust him. Writers are all creeps and liars. And what about the other guy—bandana man?"
"Bandana man is looking for someone. His son, I think. He's only pretending to be gay."
"How'd you find all this out so quickly?"
"Oh. What about that guy there, the tall one, thirtyish — "
"Walt? He's a film agent71 think. Least that's what he says — "
"All right. Anyone with history here is probably okay. Is that it?"
"I think so." Beat. "Lane found out that Mame is telling everyone he has the crabs. They're out in the parking lot having a bitch fight. You think—"
"No. Our boy is looking for a boy, not a girl."
"Hey… Mike?" Tentative.
"Promise you won't get mad?"
"Mame thinks you're my boyfriend. That's what she's telling everyone."
Snorted. Smiled. Actually amused by the thought. "Might as well be. You live with me. You cook. You do the laundry. We sleep in the same bed. We're just about married."
"Except we don't have sex."
"See, that proves we're married."
Matty blinked. He didn't get it. He said, "I'd marry you. If you asked. If you were — "
I put my hand on the wall over his head, leaning forward and sheltering him under my arm. I leaned down close as if I was going to whisper in his ear. Instead, I kissed him quickly on the cheek. Nobody saw. Gino actively discouraged overt displays. Fear of cops.
"What was that for?" Matty asked.
"That was for you."
"Oh." Now he was really confused. We both were. He looked up at me, eyes glistening in the black-light darkness. "Urn… Mike?"
"Brad just walked out to the parking lot—"
"Yeah, I saw him." That was part of the reason I put up my arm and bent down low—to shield both of us from Brad's notice. But I didn't tell Matty that. "Let's go."
Brad had gone out through the patio door. We ducked around to the door at the front of the building, then sideways through the space between the art gallery and Gino's. Just in time to see Brad backing his bike away from the wall, and someone turned away from us, waiting to get on the back. As soon as Brad had the engine grumbling, the other fellow climbed on and wrapped his arms around Brad's waist.
"Do you recognize him?"
Stuck my head in the patio door. "Who'd he leave with?"
Gino shrugged. "Never saw him before — "
Dashed for the car, Matty following.
We picked them up east on Melrose. Back to Brad's place? Maybe. No. They turned north just short of La Brea. Little cubbyhole apartments tucked away in here. Follow the taillight. The bike comes to a stop half a block ahead. Matty sinks down low and we cruise slowly past on the narrow street. Brad doesn't even look up. The other fellow turns around momentarily and gets caught briefly in the light. We coasted on past. "Oh, I know him," Matty says. "That's Tom. He shaves himself smooth. He dusts your ass with talcum powder and spanks you lightly."
"And you know this how—?"
Matty shook his head.
"You don't do it very often, do you?"
"I would. If I met the right guy."
"There are no right guys. Just like there are no right girls."
"Well, that sounded bitter."
"No. Just wise."
"I hope I never get that wise."
I pulled the car around the corner, parked in the red, left the motor running. "So, you know this guy Tom?"
"Not to speak to, but he's been around."
"Okay, then he's not our perp."
"Are we done for tonight?"
"Brad'll be going home after this, won't he?"
"Okay, then we're done."
Matty took a shower while I typed up my notes. More of the same. Nothing to report. No clues. No directions. No leads. I sat in front of the typewriter, head in my hands, trying to figure out what to do next. Matty, still drying his hair, stuck his head in to ask if I wanted anything, coffee? I shook my head. He went off to bed.
I smelled like smoke from the club. It bothered me. I peeled off my clothes, started to drop them on the floor, then realized Matty would only pick them up in the morning: I dropped them into the hamper and stepped into the shower. Was it really the smoke I was trying to rinse off?
When I ran out of hot water, I turned off the spray. Matty had put fresh towels on the rack for me. I knew what he was trying to do. He wanted me to let him stay. I hadn't said he couldn't, but we hadn't negotiated any long-term agreement either.
Still naked, I slipped into bed. The springs creaked. He lay quietly beside me, breathing softly.
"You still awake?"
"I'm thinking of dropping the case."
"Because you can't stand not knowing."
"You're an insightful little guy, you know that?"
In response, he rolled on his side facing me, put an arm across my chest, pulled himself close, and kissed me softly on the cheek. He smelled good. He smelled clean. Then he rolled back to his side of the bed.
"What was that for?"
"That was for you."
This was it. This was the moment. It was going to happen. And for an instant-like that excruciating hesitation at the top of the first steep drop of the roller coaster—it felt inevitable. All I had to do was turn sideways, he'd roll into my arms, and we'd be… doing it.
And then, just as quickly, the moment passed. And we were still lying side by side in a queen-sized bed that had suddenly become much too narrow.
After a bit, I rolled out of bed.
"Are you all right?"
"Can't sleep." I got up, went to the drawer, started looking for clean underwear-it was all neatly folded. Grabbed a pair of boxers and started to pull them on. "I'm going back out."
He sat up. "Want me to come with?"
"No — " I said it too quickly. Turned and saw the expression of hurt on his face. "I need to think about the case. And you need to get to work early tomorrow."
"You sure? It's no trouble — "
"I'm sure." And then, I added, "Look—it's not you. It's me." The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. He looked like I'd hit him with a sandbag. I shook my head in annoyed frustration. "God, I know that sounds stupid. But everything is all mixed up right now—like I'm in an emotional quake zone. I keep waiting for the ground to settle, but the shaking just gets worse and worse. I don't know whether to jump under a table or run out into the street."
"Let me help — ?"
"Listen, sweetheart…" I sat down on the edge of the bed, my shirt still unbuttoned. "I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't hurt me — "
"I already have. I've taken advantage of you."
"No, you haven't. I'm here because I want to."
"Geezis. Listen to us." I ran my hand through my hair. "We sound like… like we're married."
"Our first fight—?" He grinned.
"Matty. Listen to me. It's time to get serious. People die around me. I make mistakes, people die. I tell someone it's safe, he steps on a land mine. I read the map wrong, we walk into an ambush. I fire a mortar—it blows up the wrong people. You're not safe around me. Nobody is."
He licked his lips uncertainly. He reached over and put his hand on mine. "I'll take the chance." He swallowed hard. "I have nowhere else to go."
"I said you could stay as long as you wanted. I meant it. But maybe you should want to be somewhere else. I'm scared —not for me, but for you."
"Mike, please don't make me go — "
"I'm not throwing you out, kiddo. Just… let me go out for a drive and try to think things through. This case—there's something stinking wrong here. It scares me. And I don't know why. All I know is that I've got this gnawing in my gut like there are snipers on the roofs of buildings and tunnels everywhere under the streets and land mines in the crosswalks. You were right before, when you said I can't stand not knowing. I've just got to get out of here and go out and look around. Even if I don't find anything, the looking is what I need.""Are you sure, Mikey?"
I stood up, finished tucking in my shirt. "Go back to sleep. I just need an hour or two."
In this neighborhood, the night smells of jasmine and garlic. The apartment is just downwind of a little Italian restaurant with a permanent cauldron of simmering marinara. Rolled up to Santa Monica Boulevard and cruised east. It was late. The Union Pacific engine was already rolling massively west. The boulevard still had train tracks down the center. As long as the railroad could claim they were still using the tracks, the city couldn't pull them up, so every night they ran an old diesel engine down the center of the boulevard, all the way out to West Hollywood and back.
Farther east, the hustlers were hung out on the meat rack, most of them parked right on the borderline. The hustlers pretended to hitchhike. You drove west and picked them up east of La Brea, but they didn't discuss ways and means until after you drove through the intersection—the city's jurisdiction ended there. So that's how the hustlers tested for plainclothes; if you were vice, you couldn't cross the street. Once you were west of La Brea, it was a theme park—you could ride all the boys you can afford.
The hustlers were skinny and young—runaways mostly. Maybe a few junkies too. I wondered why our perp hadn't targeted them. Maybe he had. Who ever worries about the death of a male prostitute?
Turned on KFWB, the late-night DJ was playing a cut from the new Beatles album. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "A Day in the Life." He blew his mind out in a car. Cruised all the way to Gower where the buildings grew shorter, older, and trashier—the second-rate sound studios and third-rate editing houses, then turned around and headed back west.
"So why not fuck Matty?" I asked myself. "It's not like — "
"Because," I answered. "Because."
"Ahh, this is going to be an intelligent conversation."
"Shut up." And then I added, "Because I'm not one of them."
"Yeah? Then why are we having this conversation? The truth is, you're afraid that you are."
I pulled over to the side of the boulevard and sat there shaking. He blew his mind out in a car. Part of me wanted to go home and climb back into bed and part of me was terrified that I would. Because I knew that if I ever climbed into that particular bed again, I'd never get out—
Someone knocked on the window. A hustler? I shook my head and waved him away.
He knocked again.
Pressed the button and rolled the window down. Eakins stuck his head in and said cheerfully, "Had enough?"
He didn't wait for my answer. He opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat. This wasn't the same Eakins I'd seen two weeks ago. That one had been middle-aged and methodical. This was a younger Eakins, impish and light.
"Yes. I've had enough. What the fuck is going on?"
He shrugged. "It's a snipe hunt. A dead end. You've been wasting your time.
"But the disappearances are real…"
"Yeah, they are.""So how can the case be a dead end?"
"Because I say so. Want some advice?"
"Go home to your boyfriend and fuck your brains out, both of you. And forget everything else."
I looked at him. "I can't do that—"
"Yeah, I knew you'd say that. Too bad. That would save everyone a lot of trouble —especially you."
"Is that a threat?"
"Mike—you have to stop."
"I can't stop. I have to know what's going on."
"For your own safety—"
"I can take care of myself."
"Go home. Go to bed. Don't interfere with things you don't understand."
"Then explain it to me."
"Then I can't stop."
"Is that your final offer?"
"Okay." He sighed. He took out a flask and took a healthy swallow from it. He flipped open a pair of sunglasses and put them on. "You can't say I didn't try. Say good-bye to your past." Eakins touched his belt buckle —and the world flashed and shook with a bright bang that left me shuddering and queasy in my seat. "Welcome to 2032, Mike. The post-world."
My eyes were watering with the sudden brightness. It was still night, but the night blazed. The streets were brighter than day. I felt like I'd been punched in the gut, doused with ice water, and struck by lightning—and like I'd shot off in my shorts at the same time.
"What the fuck did you just do?!"
"Time-hopped us sixty-five years up —and triggered a major quake in the zone we left behind. You're outta there, Mike. For good. A sixty-five-year jolt will produce at least three years of local displacement. Your Mustang is a lot of mass; bouncing that with us makes for a large epicenter, we probably sent ripples all the way to West Covina."
I couldn't catch my breath —the physical aftereffects, the emotional shock, the dazzling lights around us —
Eakins passed me the flask. "Here. Drink this. It'll help."
I didn't even bother to ask what was in it—but it wasn't scotch. It tasted like cold vanilla milkshake, only with a warm peach afterglow like alcohol, but wasn't. "What the fuck—" As the glow spread up through my body, the queasiness eased. I started to catch my breath.
"I'll give you the short version. Time-travel is possible. But it's painful, even dangerous. Every time you punch a hole through time, it's like punching a hole in a big bowl of pudding. All the pudding around the hole collapses in to fill the empty space. You get ripples. That's what causes timequakes. Time-travelers."
It sounded like bullshit to me. Except for the evidence. Everywhere there were animated signs—huge screens with three-dimensional images as clear as windows, as dazzling as searchlights. Around us, traffic roared, great growling pods that towered over my much-smaller convertible.
"Shit. All this is your fault?"
"Mostly. Yes. Now, put the car in gear and drive. This is a restricted zone." Eakins pointed. "Head west, there's a car sanctuary at Fairfax."
If he hadn't told me this was Santa Monica Boulevard, I wouldn't have recognized it. The place looked like Tokyo's Ginza district. It looked like downtown Las Vegas. It looked like the Alice in Wonderland ride at Disneyland.
Buildings were no longer perpendicular. They curved upward. They leaned in or they leaned out. Things stuck out of them at odd angles. Several of them arched over the street and landed on the other side. Everything was brightly colored, all shades of Day-Glo and neon, a psychedelic nightmare.
Billboards were everywhere, most of them animated—giant TV screens showed scenes of seductive beauty, bright Hawaiian beaches, giant airliners gliding above sunlit clouds, naked men and women, women and women, men and men in splashing showers.
The vampires on the street wore alien makeup, shaded eyes and lips, ears outlined in glimmering metal, flashing lights all over their bodies, tattoos that writhed and danced. Most startling were the colors of their skins, pale blue, fluorescent green, shadowy silver, and gentle lavender. Some of them seemed to have shining scales, and several had tails sticking out the back of their satiny shorts. Males? Females? I couldn't always tell.
"Pay attention to the road," Eakins cautioned. "This car doesn't have autopilot."
His reminder annoyed me, but he was right. Directly ahead was —I couldn't begin to describe it—three bright peaks of whipped cream, elongated and stretched high into the sky, two hundred stories, maybe three hundred, maybe more. I couldn't tell. Buildings? There were lighted windows all the way up. Patterns of color danced up and down the sides. Closer, I could see gardens and terraces stretched between the lower flanks of the towers.
"What are those?"
"The bottom third are offices and condos, the rest of the way up is all chimney. Rigid inflatable tubes. The big ones are further inland, all the way from South Central to the Inland Empire."
"Those are chimneys?"
"Ever wonder how a prairie dog ventilates its nest?"
"What does that have to do — ?"
"The entrances to the nest are always at different heights. An inch or two is sufficient. The wind blowing across the openings creates an air-pressure differential. The higher opening has slightly less air pressure. That little bit is enough to pull the air through the nest. Suction. Passive technology. The chimneys work the same way. They reach up to different levels of the atmosphere. The wind pulls the air down the short ones and up through the tall ones. The air gets refreshed, the basin gets cleaned. Open your window. Take a breath."I did. I smelled flowers.
"You can't see it at night. During the day, you'll see that almost every building has its own rooftop garden—and solar panels too. The average building produces 160 percent of its own power needs during the day, enough to store for the evening or sell back to the grid. With fly-wheels and fuel cells and stamina boxes, a building can store enough power to last through a week of rainstorms. Turn left here, into that parking ramp. Watch out for the home-bus — "
"This is Fairfax?"
Shook my head. Amused. Amazed. The intersection went through the base of a tall bright building, Eiffel Tower shaped and arching to the sky, but swelling to a bulbous saucer-shape at the top. At least thirty stories, probably more. With a giant leg planted firmly on each corner of the intersection, the tower dominated the local skyline; traffic ran easily beneath high-swooping arches. The parking ramp Eakins had pointed me toward was almost certainly where the door of the Stampede had once been. Where the door of the mortuary that replaced it had been.
We rolled down underground. Eakins pointed. "Take the left ramp, left again, and keep going. Over there. Park in the security zone. This car, in the condition it's in, is easily worth twenty. Maybe twenty-five if we eBay it. We can Google the market."
"Urn, could you do that in English?"
"You can auction your car. It's worth twenty, twenty-five million."
"Twenty-five million for a car?"
"For a classic collectible '67 Mustang convertible in near-mint condition with less than twelve thousand miles on it? Yes. I suggest you take it." He added, "Part of that is inflation. In 1967 dollars, it's maybe a half-million, but that's still not so bad for a used car that you can't legally drive on any city street."
"That's a lot of inflation —"
"I told you, this is the post-world."
"Post-everything. Including the meltdown."
"Meltdown — ?" That didn't sound good.
"Economic. Everyone's a millionaire now—and lunch for two at McDonald's is over a hundred and fifty bucks."
Eakins directed me to a large parking place outlined in red. We got out of the car, he pulled me back away from the space, and did something with some kind of a remote control. A concrete box lowered around the car, settling itself down on the red outline. "There. Now it's safe. Let's go." We headed toward a bright alcove labeled Up.
"Where — ?"
"Your new home. For the moment."
"What are you going to do with me?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. I already did it." He put the same remote thing to his ear and spoke. "Get me Brownie." Short pause. "Yeah, I've got him. The one I told you about. No, no problem. I'm bringing him up now. He's a little woozy—hell, so am I. I flashed a Mustang. No, it's great. A '67, almost cherry. Make an offer." He laughed and put the thing back in his pocket. A walkie-talkie of some kind? Maybe a telephone?
An elevator with glass sides lifted us up the angled side of the building, high above West Hollywood. Twenty, thirty, forty stories. Hard to tell. The elevator moved without any sense of motion. The door opened onto a foyer that looked like the lobby of a small hotel, very private, very expensive. We stepped into a high-ceilinged gallery, with two or three levels of gardens and apartments. A wide waterfall splashed into a long shallow pool filled with lily pads and goldfish the size of terriers. The air smelled tropical.
"To the left. Don't worry. We own the whole floor. Nobody gets in here without clearance."
Double doors slid open at our approach. "Take off your shoes," said Eakins. "Leave them here." He ushered me into a room that felt way too large and pointed me toward an alcove lined with more ferns and fish tanks.
"What is this place?"
"It's a sanctuary."
"In your terms —it's rest and recovery. In your time—a kind of hospital."
"I'm not crazy."
"Of course not. We're talking about orientation. Assimilation." He pointed to a couch. "Sit." He went to a counter and poured two drinks. More of the same vanilla-peach stuff. He handed me one, sipped at the other. Sat down opposite. "How hard do you think it would be for a man from 1900 to understand 1967?"
Thought about it.
"In 1900, the average person did not have electricity or incandescent lighting. He didn't have indoor plumbing. He didn't have running water, he had a hand pump. He didn't have a car, a radio, a television set. He didn't have a telephone. He'd never been more than ten miles from the place he was born. How do you think you would explain 1967 to him… ?"
Scratched my head. Interesting question —and not the first time I'd had this conversation. Time-ravelers deal with short-term displacements, tieing up the loose ends of unraveling lives. "Well, telephones, I guess he could get that. And probably radio. Yeah, wireless telegraphy, so… probably he'd understand radio. And if he could get it about radio, he'd probably get it about television too. And cars —there were cars then, not a lot—so he'd understand cars and probably paved roads and indoor plumbing. Airplanes too, maybe. Lots of people were working on that stuff then."
"Right. Okay. But it's not the inventions, it's the side effects. Do you think he'd understand freeways, road rage, drive-through restaurants, used-car commercials? You could describe spray paint, would he understand graffiti?"
"I suppose that stuff could be explained to him."
"Okay. And how about the not-so-obvious side effects of industrialization— unions, integration, women's rights, birth control, social security, Medicare?"
"It might take some time. I guess it would depend on how much he wanted to understand."
"And how about Nazis, the Holocaust, World War II, Communism, the Iron Curtain? Nuclear weapons? Detente? Assymetric warfare?"
"All of that stuff is explainable too."
"You think so. Okay. Relativity. Ecology. Psychiatry. How about those? How about jazz, swing, rock and roll, hippies, psychedelics, recreational drugs, op art, pop art, absurdism, surrealism, cubism, nihilism? Kafka, Sartre, Kerouac?"
"Those are a little harder. A lot harder, I guess. But—"
"How about teaching him that he needs to take a bath or a shower every day instead of just once a week on Saturday night? How do you think he'd feel about shampoo and deodorants and striped toothpaste?"
"That comes later. Do you think he'd get it? Or do you think he'd wonder that we were all a bunch of over-fastidious, prissy little fairies?"
"Oh, come on. I think a man from 1900 could get it. They weren't stupid, they just didn't have the same access to running water and water heaters and — "
"It's not about the technology. It's about the transformative effects that technology produces in a society. He could understand the mechanics and the engineering easily enough, but the social effects are what I'm talking about. How long do you think it would take to assimilate sixty-five years of societal changes?"
Shrug. "I don't know. A while. Okay, I get your point."
"Good. So how long do you think it will take before I can talk to you about bio-fuels, trans fats, personal computers, random access memory, operating systems, cellular telephones, cellular automata, fractal diagnostics, information theory, consciousness technology, maglevs, the Chunnel, selfish genes, punctuated equilibrium, first-person shooters, chaos theory, the butterfly effect, quantum interferome-try, chip fabrication, holographic projection, genetic engineering, retro-viruses, immunodeficiencies, genome decoding, telemars, digital image processing, megapixels, HDTV, blue-laser optical data storage, quantum encryption, differential biology, paleoclimatology, fuzzy logic, global warming, ocean desertification, stem-cell cloning, Internexii, superluminal transmission, laser fluidics, optical processing units, stamina boxes, buckyballs, carbon nanotubes, orbital elevators, personal dragons, micro-black holes, virtual communities, computer worms, telecommuting, hypersonic transports, scramjets, designer drugs, implants, augments, nanotechnology, high frontiers, L5 stations — "
I held up a hand. "I said, I get the point."
"I was just warming up," Eakins said. "I hadn't even gotten as far as 2020. And I haven't even mentioned any of the societal changes. It would take a year or two to explain cultural reservoirs, period parks, contract families, role-cults, sex-nazis, religious coventries, home-buses, personal theme parks, skater-boys, droogs, mind-settlers, tanking, fuzzy fandom, alienization, talking dogs, bluffers, bug-chasers, drollymen, fourviews, multi-channeling, phobics, insanitizing, plastrons, elf-players, the Zyne, virtual mapping, Clarkian magic, frodomatic compulsions, deep-enders, body-modders —"
"I think I saw some of that—""You have no idea. You want to change your appearance? You want to be taller? Shorter? Thinner? More muscular? Want to change your sex? Your orientation? Want to go hermaphroditic or monosexual? Reorganize your secondary characteristics? Design a new gender? Mustache and tits? Want a tail? Horns? Working gills? Want to augment your senses? Your intelligence? Or how would you simply like the stamina for a six-hour erection?"
Thought about it. "I'll pass, thanks. The intelligence augments, however—"
"There's a price — "
"More than twenty-five million?"
"Not in money. And we haven't even touched on the political or economic changes since your time."
"Like the dissolution of the United States of America —"
"You're in the Republic of California, right now, which also includes the states of Oregon and South Washington. The rest of the continent is still there, we just don't talk to them very much. There's sixteen other regional authorities, not counting the abandoned areas, and seven Canadian provinces —there's a common defense treaty in case the Mexicans get aggressive again, but that's not likely. Don't worry about it. The web has pretty much globalized the collective mindset, we're not predictively scheduled to have another war until 2039, and that'll be an Asian war, with our participation limited to weapons contracts. In the meantime, we'll legalize you as a time-refugee. Most of the old records survived. Digitized. We have your birth certificate. You're a native. So you won't have any trouble getting on the citizen rolls. Otherwise, you'd be a refugee and you'd have to apply for a work permit, a visa, and eventually naturalization."
"I'm not staying—"
"You're not going back—"
"I can't stay here. You've already shown me how out of step I am. What if I promised not to interfere — ?"
"You already broke that promise. Three times. You can't be trusted. Not yet, anyway." He took a long breath, exhaled. "You know, you're really an asshole. You really fucked things up for everyone — especially yourself. We were going to bring you aboard. After you finished your probation. It would have been a year or two more, your time. Now, I don't know. I don't know what we're going to do with you. It depends on you, really."
"What are my options — ?"
He shrugged. "Let's see what Brownie says." He pulled out that remote thing again and spoke into it. A few moments later, another man —man? —entered the room.
Brownie had copper-gold skin, almost metallic. Eyes of ebony, no whites at all. Perfectly proportioned, he moved with the catlike grace of a dancer. He wore shorts, a vest, moccasins. Body-mods? No, something else —
"Hello, Mike." His voice was rich contralto. Not male, not female, but components of each. He offered his hand. I stood up, took it, shook firmly. His skin felt warm. "Just stand still for a moment, please." Brownie released my hand and circled me slowly. He opened his palms and held them out like antennae, moving them slowly around my head, my neck, my chest, my gut, my groin.
He finished and turned to Eakins. "Preliminary scans are good. He's healthy. As healthy as can be expected for a man of his time. I'll need to put him in a high-res field, before we make any decisions, but there are no immediate concerns."
Abruptly, it clicked. I turned to Brownie, honestly astonished. "You're a robot."
"The common term is droid, short for android."
"Are you sentient?"
"Sentience is an illusion."
I looked to Eakins for explanation. He grinned. "I've already had this conversation."
Looked back to Brownie, skeptical.
Brownie explained. "Intelligence—the ability to process information and produce appropriate responses —exists as a product of experience. Experience depends on memory. Memory needs continuity. Continuity requires timebinding, the assembly of patterns from streaming moments of existence. Timebinding requires a meta-level of continuity, which requires a preservation of process. Timebinding requires survival. The survival imperative expresses itself as identity. Identity is assembled out of memory and experience. As memory and experience accrue, identity creates awareness of self as a domain to be preserved and protected. Because identity is a function of memory, identity becomes the imperative to safeguard memory and experience; the self therefore actualizes memory and experience as component parts of identity. This is the level of rudimentary consciousness that must occur before even the concept of sentience is possible. It is only when consciousness becomes conscious of consciousness itself that it produces the illusion of sentience —i.e., as soon as you understand the concept of sentience, you think it means you. Therefore, the synthesis of intelligent behavior also becomes the simulation of sentience. It is, to be sure, a deliberately circular argument—but unfortunately, it is not only logical, but inevitable in the domain of theoretical consciousness."
"You believe this?"
"I don't believe anything. I deal only with observable, measurable, testable, re-peatable phenomena. Life, by itself, is empty and meaningless. Human beings, however, keep inventing meanings to fill up the emptiness."
I opened my mouth to respond, then closed it. I turned back to Eakins, not certain whether to glower or question.
Eakins laughed. "I told you. I've already had this conversation. And so has everyone else who's ever met a droid. They can keep it up for hours. They have their own landscape. Deal with it."
"Okay. I'm convinced." I sat down again. I finished the vanilla-peach cocktail in one long gulp. "I don't belong here. I have to get back."
"That's not possible."
"Yes, it is. Do that thing with your belt buckle — "
Eakins shook his head.
"What do you want from me? What do I have to do to get back?"
"I don't want anything from you. You've exhausted your usefulness. And I already told you, you can't get back.""So… ? So—what are my options?"
"Well, Brownie says you're healthy. We can tweak you a little bit. If you sell your car you'll have enough money to live on —if you invest wisely and live frugally. You might bring in some extra bucks body-swapping for a while. And as a time-refugee, you'll have no shortage of gropies."
"Cut the crap. You're trying to play me."
"Actually, no." Eakins stood up. "I'm not. And I'm not planning to resolve this tonight. Go. Sleep on it. We'll talk over breakfast."
"We'll talk now."
"No—we won't. Your bedroom is in there." Eakins left. The doors slid open to let him pass, but slammed swiftly shut in front of me. I turned to Brownie —
"I recommend sleep. Staying up all night talking tautology will produce little or no useful result." He pointed to the bedroom.
There was a balcony. It gave me a spectacular view of a bizarre and unfamiliar landscape. But everything in this time was a spectacular view of a bizarre and unfamiliar landscape.
Explored the furnishings. One wall appeared to be a window onto a silvery meadow, a bluish moon settling toward the horizon. Some kind of projection system, maybe. Or maybe the fabled wall-sized, flat-screen TV that everybody always predicted. Impressive. But if there were controls for it, I couldn't find any.
The closet was larger than my kitchen back on Melrose. Drawers and shelves and racks of clothes — more than anyone could want or even wear in a lifetime. Unfamiliar materials. Shoes that glittered and shoes that didn't. Socks that felt as soft as fluffy clouds. Pants of different lengths and colors. Shirts, flowery, flowing, skintight, loose. Skirts—I wasn't sure if they were intended for men or women; I got the feeling it didn't matter, that people wore whatever they felt like—there was no style here, you invented your own. Underwear, panties, nightgowns —that's what they looked like to me. Matty would have liked it here.
Matty. Oh shit.
Shit shit shit shit shit shit. Fuck.
I had to get back. If Eakins wouldn't take me back, I'd get a quake-map somewhere. There had to be a way.
I peeled off my clothes and dropped them on the floor. A spider-shaped robot politely picked them up, one at a time, waited for my boxers, then scuttled off. To the laundry, I guessed.
I couldn't find a shower, I found a tropical alcove. I stepped into it and Brownie's voice announced, "I recommend a full-service luxury shower and decontamination. Do you accept?"
"Sure, what the hell?" Decontamination? What do I have? History cooties?
Immediately, the alcove filled with vibrating sprays of foaming suds, flavored with faint smells of lemon and pineapple. Three small nozzles dropped from above and began gently massaging my hair and scalp with their own foaming sprays. Even as I turned and twisted my head to try to look at them, they followed every movement. It was a very weird feeling.
Other nozzles appeared from the walls, from the floor, and directed their own sprays at my armpits, my groin, my rectum —several even aggressively sprayed my toes. Beneath my feet, it felt as if the floor were vibrating—tiny jets were massaging my soles. Full service indeed!
Sprays of water washed away the last of the foam, then a burst of warm air swirled in around me, buffeting me with drying blasts. The overhead nozzles shot their own streams of gentle heat to fluff dry my hair. The entire experience took less than five minutes and I stepped out of the alcove feeling clean… and weird. Most of my body hair had been washed away. Underarms. Chest. Pubic hair. Oops. That must have been the full part of the service. I thought about the hypothetical visitor from 1967. Fastidious, prissy little fairies indeed.
Thought about pajamas, or even a nightshirt, but everything in the drawers looked too much like something Matty would wear, not me. The cloth was soft, softer than cotton, softer than silk or nylon, but it wasn't anything I recognized. I turned away and the drawer pulled itself shut.
I looked for a toothbrush. There wasn't one. But there was a kind of a bulb thing on a hose, sitting in its own metallic holder. I picked it up and it chimed in my hand. Brownie's voice—What the hell! Was he watching my every move?— announced: "It's a toothbrush. Just put it in your mouth for thirty seconds."
Reluctantly I did so. The thing, whatever it was, pumped soft foam into my mouth, vibrated or buzzed or something—and it must have lit up too, because in the mirror, I could see my cheeks glowing brightly from inside—but it didn't hurt, it felt kind of funny-pleasant. Somehow it sucked up all its foam and replaced it with a gentle spritz of lemony soda. Then it chimed and it was done. I thought about spitting out the residue, but there wasn't any. Now, that was weird. That was a piece of engineering I wanted to have explained.
Still naked, I walked around the room again, not certain what I was looking for. The spider-robot had unloaded the contents of my pockets and laid them out in an orderly row on the night table. Everything except the brass knucks. I had a hunch those would have been useless here anyway. I suspected Brownie did a lot more than program showers. If he was a true personal servant, then he was also a personal bodyguard. Just not mine.
The bed was as interesting as the shower. The mattress was firm, but not hard. The sheet was the same soft material as the underwear in the drawers, only different. Impossible to describe. Instead of a top sheet and blanket, there was a light comforter of the same material, only thicker, fluffier. Also impossible to describe. But comfortable.
Everything here was seductively comfortable. A man could get used to this kind of luxury. That was the point.
None of this made sense. And all of it made sense. Suppose a man from 1900 fell into 1967 —what would we do? Everything possible to put him at ease? Including… protecting him from a world he couldn't understand, couldn't cope with, and probably couldn't survive in.
Clean sheets and a hot bath and a pretty picture on the wall would look like a luxury hotel.
Okay, got that. But why? The part that didn't make sense was the explanation that Eakins still hadn't provided. Why pull me off the job? Why pull me out of my time? Why didn't he want me to save those boys?And what was that about probation? And bringing me aboard?
Suddenly realized something—
Sat up in bed. Startled.
Couldn't sleep anyway. Too used to having someone next to me —
"Computer?" I felt silly saying it. But what else should I say?
Brownie's voice, disembodied. "Yes?"
"I'm the interface for all personal services. How can I serve you?"
"Urn. Okay." Still sorting it out. "This wall display—this picture —it isn't just a TV, is it? It's like that big viewscreen on Star Trek, isn't it? Like a computer display?"
"It's a complete data-appliance. What do you wish to know?"
"Do you have databanks —like old newspapers? Like a library? Can you show me stuff from history?"
"I have T9 interconnectivity with all public Internexii levels and multiple private networks as well — "
"I don't know what that means."
"It means, what do you wish to know?"
"The case I was working on. Can you show me that?"
"I can only show you information more than sixty years old. I am not allowed to show you material that would compromise local circumstances."
"Urn, okay—that's fine. Do you have the information about the case I was working on when I was pulled out of my time."
"Yes." The image of the meadow rippled out, the wall became blank. Photographs of the missing boys popped up in two rows, with abbreviated details and dates of disappearances listed beneath each one. Twelve young men. Not Matty. Why not Matty? Because he's irrelevant? Why? Why is he irrelevant?
"Do you have their high school records or college records?"
More documents appeared on the screen; the display reformatted itself. "What is it you're looking for?" Brownie asked.
"Some sense of who they were. A link. A connection. A common condition. I know that all their disappearances are linked to a specific gay teen club, but what if that isn't the real link? What if there's something else? What are their interests? Their skills? What are their IQ's?"
Brownie hesitated. Why would a computer hesitate? A human being would, but an artificial intelligence shouldn't. Unless it was sentient. Or pretending to be sentient. Or thought it was sentient. Or experiencing the illusion of sentience. Shit, now I was doing it. Brownie was mulling things over.
"They all have above-average intelligence," he said. "Genius level IQ starts at 131. Your IQ is 137, that's why you were selected. The other young men have IQs ranging from 111 to 143."
"Thank you! And what else?"
"Two of them are bisexual, with slight preference toward same-sex relations. Five of them are predominantly homosexual with some heterosexual experimentation. Three of them are exclusively homosexual. Two of them are latently-transgender."
"They share a range of common interests that includes classical music, animation, computer science, science fiction, space travel, fantasy role-playing games, and minor related interests."
"Tell me the rest."
"Most of them tend to shyness or bookishness. They're alienated from their peers to some degree, not athletic, not actively engaged in their communities. I believe the operative terms are 'geek' and 'nerd,' but those words might not have been in common usage in your era."
"Yeah, I get it. Depression? Suicide?"
"There are multiple dimensions of evaluation. It's not appropriate to simplify the data. It is fair to say that most of these young men have a component in their personality that others would experience as distance; but it is not a condition of mental instability or depression, no. It is something else."
"How would you characterize it?"
"They each have, to some degree or other, an artistic yearning. But the tools don't exist in their time for the realization of their visions. They dream of things they cannot build."
"All of these boys are like that?"
"To some degree or other, yes. This one — " A bright outlined appeared around one of the pictures, "—he likes to write. This one, Brad Boyd, has a mechanical aptitude. He likes to tinker with engines. This one loves photography. This one is interested in electronics. They all have potential, they have a wide variety of skills that will grow with development and training."
"Uh-huh —and what about their families?"
"Only three of them come from unbroken homes; those three are living alone or with a roommate at the time of their disappearance. Two are estranged from their parents. Two are living with male partners, but the relationships are in disruption. Two live in foster homes. One is in a halfway house for recovering addicts. One is in a commune. The last one is homeless."
"And college —can they afford it?"
"Only three of them are attending full time, four are taking part-time classes. The rest are working full time to pay their living expenses."
"Let's go back to the families. Are they—what's the word? Dysfunctional?"
"Only two of the subjects have strong family ties. Three of the subjects, both parents are deceased or out of state. Four of the subjects are from dysfunctional environments. The last three, the information is incomplete. But you already know all this. It was in the files you read."
"But not correlated like this. This is all—what was that phrase that Eakins used before? Fuzzy logic? This is all fuzzy logic."
"No. This isn't 'fuzzy logic' Not as we use the term today. But I understand what you're getting at. You had no way to quantify the information. You could have a feeling, a sense, a hunch, but you had no baseline against which to measure the data, because neither the information nor the information-processing capabilities existed in your time."
"Nice. Thanks." I thought for a moment. "Have I missed anything? Is there anything else I need to know about these fellows?""There are some interesting details and sidebars, yes. But you have surveyed most of the essential data."
"Thank you, Brownie." I fell back onto the bed. The pillow arranged itself under my head. Spooky. I stared at the ceiling, thinking. Too excited now to fall asleep. The bed began to pulse, a gentle wave-like motion. Almost like riding in a womb. Nice. Seductive. I let myself relax-In the morning, the display showed crisp orange dunes, a brilliantly blue sky, and the first rays of light etching sideways across the empty sand. An interesting image to wake up to. I wondered who or what chose the images and on what basis.
My own clothes were not in the closet. I started to pick something off a rack, then stopped. "Brownie? What should I wear?"
Several items slid forward immediately, offering themselves. I rejected the skirts, kilts, whatever they were. And the flowery shirts too. Picked out clothes that looked as close to normal —my normal —as I could find. The underwear—I rolled my eyes and prayed I wouldn't be hit by a truck. Very unlikely. I probably wasn't getting out of this apartment any time soon. Did they even have trucks anymore?
Neither the shirt nor the pants had buttons or zippers or any kind of fasteners that I could identify, they just sort of fastened themselves. Magnets or something. Except magnets don't automatically adjust themselves. I played with the shirt for a bit, opening and closing it, but I couldn't see evidence of any visible mechanism.
I walked over to the balcony and stared down at the streets. Looking for trucks? Didn't see any, or couldn't tell. Some things wouldn't even resolve. Either there was something wrong with the way they reflected light, or I just didn't know what I was seeing. And there were a lot of those 3-D illusions floating around too. Were some of them on moving vehicles? That didn't seem safe.
"If you're thinking about jumping, you can't. The balconies all have scramble-nets."
"Thank you. Brownie. And no. I'm not thinking about jumping."
"Mr. Eakins is waiting for you in the dining room. Breakfast is on the table."
There was a counter with covered serving trays. I found scrambled eggs, sausages, toast, jelly, tomato juice, an assortment of fresh fruit, including several varieties I didn't recognize, and something that could have been ham — if ham was Day-Glo pink. Brownie filled a plate for me. I sat down opposite Eakins while Brownie poured juice and coffee.
"What do you think of the food?" Eakins asked.
"It's pretty good," I admitted. "But what is this?" I held up my fork.
"It's ham," he said. "Ham cells layered and grown on a collagen web. No animals were harmed in its manufacture. And it's a lot healthier than the meat of your time. Did you know that one of the causes of cancer was the occasional transfer of DNA— genetic material—from ingested flesh? This protein has been gene-stripped. Enjoy."
"Why is it pink?"
"Because some people like it pink. You can also have it green, if you want. Children like that. The fruit is banana, papaya, mango, kiwi, pineapple, strawberry, ly-chee, and China melon. I told Brownie to keep things simple, I should have been more specific. This is his idea of simple.""Stop it. You're showing off."
Eakins put his fork down. "Okay, you caught me on that one. Yes, I'm showing off."
"I've cracked the case."
"Really?" He sipped his coffee. "You're certainly sure of yourself this morning."
"The young men—they don't fit very well in their own time, do they?"
Eakins snorted. "Who does? You never fit very well in any year we sent you to."
"No, it's more than that. They're outcasts, dreamers, nerds, and sissies. They have enormous potential, but there's no place for any of them to realize it—not in 1967. It's really a barbaric year, isn't it?"
"Not the worst," Eakins admitted, holding his coffee mug between his two hands, as if to warm them. "There's still a considerable amount of hope and idealism. But that'll get stamped out quickly enough. You want a shitty year. Wait for '68 or '69 or 70; '69 has three ups and five downs, a goddamn roller coaster. 74 is pretty bad too, but that's all down, and the up at the end isn't enough. 79 is shitty. Was never too fond of'80 either. 2001 was pretty grim. But 2011 was the worst. 2014… I dunno, we could argue about that one — "
I ignored the roll call of future history. He was trying to distract me. Trying to get me to ask. "They're not being murdered," I said. "There's no killer. You're picking them up. It's a talent hunt."
He put his coffee cup down. "Took you fucking long enough to figure it out."
"You kidnap them."
"We harvest them. And it's voluntary. We show them the opportunity and invite them to step forward in time."
"But you only choose those who will accept—?"
Eakins nodded. "Our psychometrics are good. We don't go in with less than 90 percent confidence in the outcome. We don't want to start any urban legends about mysterious men in black."
"I think those stories have already started. Something to do with UFO's."
"Yeah, we know."
"Okay, so you recruit these boys. Then what?"
"We move them up a bit. Not too much. Not as far as we've brought you. We don't want to induce temporal displacement trauma. We relocate them to a situation where they have access to a lot more possibility. By the way, do you want to meet Jeremy Weiss? He has the apartment across from here. He's just turned fifty-seven; he and Steve are celebrating their twenty-second anniversary this week. They were married in Boston, May of 2004, the first week it was legal. Weiss worked on — never mind, I can't tell you that. But it was big." Eakins wiped his mouth with his napkin. "So? Is that it? Is that the case?"
"No. There's more."
"All of this—you're not taking me out of the game. You said I was on probation. Well, this is a test. This is my final exam, isn't it?"
Eakins raised an eyebrow. "Interesting thesis. Why do you think this is a test?"
"Because if you wanted to get me off the case, if all you wanted to do was keep me from interfering with the disappearances, all you had to do was bump me up to 1975 and leave me there."
"You could have quake-hopped back."
"Maybe. But not easily. Not without a good map. All right, bump me up to 1980 or '85. But by your own calculations, you use up a year of subjective time for every three years of down-hopping. Twenty years away takes me out of the tank, but it doesn't incapacitate me. But bringing me this far forward—you made the point last night. I'm so far out of my time that I'm a cultural invalid, requiring round-the-clock care. You didn't do that as a mistake, you did it on purpose. Therefore, what's the purpose? The way I see it, it's about me—there's no other benefit for you —so this has to be a test."
Eakins nodded, mildly impressed. "See, that's your skill. You can ask the next question. That's why you're a good operative."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Let's say you haven't finished the test."
"Oh, there's a lot more. We're just warming up."
"All right. Look. I'm no good to you here. We both know that. But I can go back and be a lot more useful."
"Useful doing what?"
"Doing whatever—whatever it is that needs doing."
"And what is it you think we need doing?"
"Errands. You know the kind I mean. The kind you hired me for. The jobs that we don't talk about."
"And you think that we want you for those kinds of jobs… ?"
"It's the obvious answer, isn't it?"
"No. Not all the answers are obvious."
"I'm a good operative. I've proven it. With some of this technology, I could be an even better one. You could give me micro-cameras and super-film and night-vision goggles… whatever you think I need. It's not like I'm asking for a computer or something impossible. How big are computers now anyway? Do they fill whole city blocks, or what?"
Eakins laughed. "This is what I mean about not understanding socio-tectonic shifts?"
"We could give you a computer that fits inside a matchbox."
"No, I'm not. We can print circuits really small. We etch them on diamond wafers with gamma rays."
"They must be expensive — "
"Lunch at McDonald's is expensive. Computers are cheap. We print them like photographs. Three dollars a copy."
"Be damned." Stopped to shake my head. Turned around to look at Brownie. "Is that what's inside your head?"
"Primary sensory processing is in my head. Logic processing is inside my chest.
Optical connects for near-instantaneous reflexes. My fuel cells are in my pelvis for a lower center-of-gravity. I can show you a schematic — "
I held up a hand. "Thanks." Turned back to Eakins. "Okay, I believe you. But it still doesn't change my point. There are things you can't do in '67 that I can do for you. So my question is, what do I have to do? To go back? What are my real options?"
Eakins grinned. "How about a lobotomy?"
"No, not a real lobotomy. That's just the slang term for a general reorientation of certain aggressive traits. That business with Matty's dad, for instance, that wasn't too smart. It was counterproductive."
"He had no right beating that kid — "
"No, he didn't, but do you think breaking his nose and giving him a myocardial infarction produced any useful result?"
"It'll stop him from doing it again."
"There are other ways, better ways. Do you want to learn?"
Considered it. Nodded.
Eakins shook his head. "I'm not convinced."
"What are you looking for? What is it I didn't say?"
"I can't tell you that. That's the part you're going to have to work out for yourself."
"You're still testing me."
"I still haven't found what I'm looking for. Do you want to keep going?"
I sank back in my chair. Not happy. Looked away. Scratched my nose. Looked back. Eakins sat dispassionately. No help there.
"I hate these kinds of conversations. Did I tell you I once punched out a shrink?"
"No. But we already knew that about you."
Turned my attention back to my plate, picked at the fruit. Pushed some stuff around that I didn't recognize. There was too much here, too much to eat, too much to swallow, too much to digest. It was overwhelming.
What I wanted was to go home.
"Okay," I said. "Tell me about Matty. Why is he irrelevant? Why isn't he on the list?"
"Because he didn't fit the profile. That's one of the reasons you didn't spot the pattern earlier. You kept trying to include him."
"But he still disappeared."
"He didn't disappear."
"Yes, he did — "
"He committed suicide."
"He what—?" I came up out of my chair, angry—a cold fear rising in my gut.
"About three weeks after we picked you up. You didn't come back. The rent was due. He had no place to go. He panicked. He was sure you had abandoned him. He was in a state of irreparable despair."
"No. Wait a minute. He didn't. He couldn't have. Or it would have been in the file Georgia gave me."
"Georgia didn't know. Nobody knew. His body won't be found until 1987. They won't be able to ID it until twenty years later, they'll finally do a cold-case DNA match. They'll match it through his mother's autopsy."
I started for the door, stopped myself, turned around. "I have to go back. I have to — "
"Come back here, Mike. Sit down. Finish your breakfast. There's plenty of time. If we choose to, we can put you back the exact same moment you left. Minus the Mustang though. We need that to cover the costs of this operation."
"That's fine. I can get another car. Just send me back. Please — "
"You haven't passed the test yet."
"Look. I'll do anything—"
"Because I need to save that kid's life."
"Why? Why is that boy important to you?"
"Because he's a human being. And he can hurt. And if I can do anything to stop some of that hurt—"
"That's not enough reason, Mike. It's an almost-enough reason."
" — I care about him, goddamnit!" The first person I've cared about since the land mine —
"You care about him?"
"How much? How much do you care about him?"
"As much as it takes to save him! Why are you playing this game with me?"
"It's not a game, Mike. It's the last part of the test!"
Several centuries of silence passed.
"This is about how much I care… ?"
"About Matty, yes. And… a little bit more than that. But let's stay focused on Matty. He's the key."
"Okay. Look. Forget about me. Do with me whatever you want, whatever you think is appropriate. But that kid deserves a chance too. I don't know his IQ. Maybe he isn't a genius. But he hurts just as much. Maybe more. And if you can do something—"
"We can't save them all — "
"We can save this one. I can save him."
"Do you love him?"
"What does love have to do with it—?"
"I'm not—that way."
"What way? You can't even say the word."
"Queer. There. Happy?"
"Would you be queer if you could?"
Now it was Eakins turn to look annoyed. "Remember that long list of things I rattled off yesterday?"
"Yes. No. Some of it."
"There was one word I didn't give you. Trans-human."
"What does it mean?"
"It means —this week—the transitional stage between human and what comes next."
"What comes next?"
"We don't know. We're still inventing it. We won't know until afterwards."
"And being queer is part of it?"
"Yes. And so is being black. And female. And body-modded. And everything else." Eakins leaned forward intensely. "Your body is here in 2032, but your head is still stuck in 1967. If we're going to do anything with you, we have to get your head unstuck. Listen to me. In this age of designer genders, liquid orientation, body-mods, and all the other experiments in human identity, nobody fucking cares anymore about who's doing what and with which and to whom. It's the stupidest thing in the world to worry about, what's happening in someone else's bedroom, especially if there's nothing happening in yours. The past was barbaric, the future doesn't have to be. You want meaning? Here's meaning. Life is too short for bullshit. Life is about what happens in the space between two people —and how much joy you can create for each other. Got that? Good. End of sermon."
"And that's trans-human — ?"
"That's one of the side effects. Life isn't about the lines we draw to separate ourselves from each other—it's about the lines we can draw that connect us. The biggest social change of the last fifty years is that even though we still haven't figured out how to get into each other's heads, we're learning how to get into each other's experience so we can have a common ground of being as a civilized society."
"It sounds like a load of psycho-bullshit to me."
"I wasn't asking for an opinion. I was giving you information that could be useful to you. You're the one who wants to go back and save Matty. I'm telling you how—"
"And this is part of it—?"
"It could be. It's this part. The psychometric match is good. If you want to marry him, we'll go get him right now."
"I'm missing something here — ?"
"You're missing everything. Start with this. Our charter limits what we can do. Yes, we have a charter. A mission statement. A commitment to a set of values."
"Who are you anyway? Some kind of time police?"
"You should have asked that one at the beginning. No, we're not police. We're independent agents."
"Time ravelers. The real ravelers, not that pissy little stuff you were doing. What we have is too important to be entrusted to any government or any political movement. Who we are is a commitment to—well, that's part of the test. Figuring out the commitment. Once you figure out the commitment, the rest is obvious."
"Okay. So, right now, I'm committed to saving Matty, and you say—?"
"We can do that—under our domestic partner plan. We protect the partners of our operatives. We don't extend that coverage to one-night stands."
"He's not a one-night stand. He's — "
"He's a kid who deserves a chance."
"So give him the chance." Eakins pushed a pillbox across the table at me. I hadn't noticed it until now.
Picked it up. Opened it. Two blue pills. "What will this do?"
"It'll get you a toaster oven."
"It will shift your sexual orientation. It takes a few weeks. It reorganizes your brain chemistry, rechannels a complex network of pathways, and ultimately expands your repertoire of sexual responsiveness so that same-sex attractions can overwhelm inhibitions, programming, and even hard-wiring. You take one pill, you find new territories in your emotional landscape. You give the other to Matty and it creates a personal pheromonal linkage; the two of you will become aligned. Tuned to each other. You'll bond. It could be intense."
"No. I'm not. You won't feel significantly different, but if your relationship includes a potential for sexual expression, this will advance the possibility."
"You're telling me that love is all chemicals?"
"Life is all chemicals. Remember what Brownie said? It's empty and meaningless —except we keep inventing meanings to fill the emptiness. You want some meaning? This will give you plenty of meaning. And happiness too. So what kind of meaning do you want to invent? Do you want to tell me that your life has been all that wonderful up to now?"
I put the pillbox back on the table. "You can't find happiness in pills."
Eakins looked sad.
"I just failed the test, didn't I?"
"Part of it. You asked me what you could do to save Matty. You said you would do anything…" He glanced meaningfully at the box.
"I have to think about this."
"A minute ago, you said you'd do anything. I thought you meant it."
"I did, but—"
"You did, but you didn't… ?"
Glanced across at him. "Did you ever have to — "
"Yes. I've taken the blue pill. I've taken the pink pill too. And all the others. I've seen it from all sides, if that's what you're asking. And yes, it's a lot of fun, if that's what you want to know. If you're ever going to be any good to us, in your time, in our time, anywhen, you have to climb out of the tank on your own."
I stood up. I went to the balcony. I looked across the basin to where an impossibly huge aircraft was moving gracefully west toward the airport. I turned around and looked at Brownie —implacable and patient. I looked to Eakins. I looked to the door. I looked at the pillbox on the table. Part of me was thinking, I could take the pill. It wouldn't be that hard. It would be the easy way out. The way Eakins put it, I couldn't think of any reason why I shouldn't.
But this couldn't be all there was to the test. This was just this part. I thought about icebergs.
"Okay." I turned around. "I figured it out."
"Go on — "
"Georgia gave me an assignment. Four assignments. I had to prove my willingness to do wetwork. That was the first test of my commitment. And if I'd never said anything, that would have been as much as I'd ever done. But when I said I didn't want to do any more wetwork, that was the next part of the test. Because it's not about being willing to kill—anybody can hire killers. It's about being able to resist the urge to kill. I might be a killer, but today I choose not to kill."
"That's good," Eakins said. "Go on."
"You're not looking for killers. You're looking for lifeguards. And not just ordinary lifeguards who tan well and look good for the babes—you want lifeguards who save lives, not just because they can, but because they care. And this whole test, this business about Matty, is about finding out what kind of a lifeguard I am. Right?"
"That's one way to look at it," Eakins said. "But it's wrong. Remember what you were told—that Matty isn't part of this case? He isn't. He's a whole other case. Your case."
"Yeah. I think I got that part."
Eakins nodded. "So, look—here's the deal. I honestly don't care if you take the pill or not. It's not necessary. We'll send you back, and you can save the kid. All we really needed to know about you is whether or not you would take the pill if you were asked—would you take it if you were ordered, or if it was required, or if it was absolutely essential to the success of the mission. We know you're committed to saving lives. We just need to know how deep you're willing to go."
Nodded. Didn't answer. Not right away. Turned to the window again and stared across the basin, not seeing the airships, not seeing the spires, not seeing the grand swatches of color. Thought about a kiss. Matty's kiss on my cheek. And that moment of… well, call it desire. Thought about what I might feel if I took the pill. That was the thing. I might actually start feeling again. What the fuck. Ugly puppies need love too. It couldn't be any worse than what I wasn't feeling now.
Turned back around. Looked at Eakins. "This is going to be more than a beautiful friendship, isn't it—?"
"Congratulations," he said. "You're the new harvester."