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Callahan’s Endtimes Saloon

Categories: Case Histories

By Mark McFadden, (c) 1999

I watched helplessly as Nicholas and Niobe entered the lawyer’s office. Nicholas was scrubbed and collegiate; our Niobe was all rosy to be in the field. Her IRS credentials and CPA training were going to be more useful in the interview than my skill set, so she was taking point.

The lawyer, P. Harte Layton, wasn’t suspected of anything, really. But his name had appeared on enough paper connected to enough property connected to enough investigations to set Niobe on the trail. So it was really her investigation, I tell myself.

Layton just shook his head slightly and listened impatiently while Nicholas and Niobe tried to work up a Good Cop/Cute Cop dynamic. Niobe was Ally McBeal-ish and calculatedly showing too much leg for a professional. This was supposed to be a milk run. We just wanted to find who was bringing Layton all the business. Background checking. No one could have .

About ten minutes into the interview Layton stood up.

“You two are bracing me over my signature on some paper? As the witness on some legal documents?”

He seemed to grow larger, more present. How do I know this? Certainly his voice took on a white noise ambience.

“Who are you two? No lies, I’ll know. Don’t look at each other, look at me.”

They had made it to their feet, but that is as far as they got. They were frozen like deer in a spotlight. Layton sat on the edge of his desk and regarded them from the abyss of his gaze.

“I am in a bad mood. 60 Minutes is going to show up any time now to ask me about manipulating the Beanie Baby market or some fucking thing. INS is staking out the snuff factory and putting production behind schedule. Clean up has become a full-time pain in the ass. This mask is about used up and I just don’t give a fuck. So give.
“I’ll make it easy for you. You! Sit. Stay.”

Niobe sat down again, as if programmed.

“Get psyched cutie, I’m going to take my time with you.”

His gaze turned to Nicholas, who convulsed backwards in his chair, arched rigidly, with his eyes rolled back until only the whites showed. His mouth was held open in a painful rictus, his breath gargling from far back in his throat, almost a death rattle. Layton regarded him with head cocked, listening.

“You’re Feds? Oh great. That’s just splendid. Now I’ve gotta go offshore. Wait. What was that? What was that? This isn’t official? Give G-boy!”

Nicholas convulsed again, air bubbled through foam-flecked teeth.
“Delta Green. Delta fucking Green. Nicholas, you have not made me happy.”

He went to Niobe and gently opened her blouse, as she sat paralyzed. He made a great show of surprise at finding her wire. How did I see this? He pulled the mic loose and sniffed it.

“Mmmm. Chanel. Can’t go wrong with the classics. Nicholas! You haven’t made me happy yet. I’m afraid you’re going to have to bend over backwards to please me. Now.”

And then he looked right at me! Which didn’t make sense because I was Zeppo on this one. And I shouldn’t be able to see him because
He blew into the mic.

“Testing testing one two three. Don’t touch that dial, cuz we play all the hits. For the next few hours I’m going to lead this sweet thang in a little two-part harmony. Then, after a cigarette and a snack, I’m going to track you down, faithful listener.”

There was a series of popping sounds, like cracked knuckles, and a sharp hiss of air through teeth.

“Nicholas! I know it’s painful…. ah ah, I’m talking now. I know it hurts, but you’re a big bad Delta Green agent. So be a man and keep it to yourself.”

There was another pop.

“Better. You’re almost there. Remember, pretty pictures! Point your toes.”

He turned once again to Niobe, who was whimpering softly through paralyzed lips.

“Stand up dear. Oh my, you’re all goose pimply. You know how hot that makes me, you minx.

“What’s that? Don’t hold anything back. Give! You know you can tell me anything.”

Her teeth chattered.

“Guess what, faithful listener. She thought you were cute, too. Hey, that’s great! This is so poignant I could plotz.

“Touch your toes sweetie, and talk into the microphone. It’s showtime.”

Eventually, I managed to drive out of range.

 

Where was I now? Light from somewhere. Nondescript floor. Featureless walls.

 

I had sent a 911 up to Oz, and didn’t even think of going home. Then I broke discipline. Force majeur and all. Rather than using any of the one time 800 numbers or newsgroup subject codes, I went straight for my spooker in Orange County and headed out of John Wayne Airport for another time zone, as another person.

 

The door flew open and I could see down an infinite hallway. Layton was striding towards me, perspective gone all arbitrary.

“You have been meddling with the primal forces of Nature, and you will atone! Hey, Sparky! What movie is that from?”

His nostrils flared and his eyes glittered with feverish hilarity. Closer now.

 

I had paid for the room with cash. I had arranged a wakeup call. I had

 

I had fallen asleep.

I may have dropped discipline, but my training was still on duty. Dreaming 101. Look at your hands.

I looked at my hands.

Just like don Juan taught Castaneda. People usually don’t see their hands in dreams. Look at your hands and take control of the dream.
I slammed the door shut but knew it wouldn’t hold long.

I had to get out. I had to go. I had to go someplace safe. I needed people around me and time to think.

I needed a drink.

 

I was in a small bar. A very small bar.

“Hi. I’m @man.”

“At-man?”

“Pronounced At-mon, I’m from “@” cell. Welcome to The Green Box. If you don’t mind me saying so, you look like shit.”

“See, that’s where looks can be deceiving, I feel like clammy cat vomit,” I replied. Who was this guy?

“When I’m not hanging around here I’m a Fed with the DEA.”

He didn’t have the look. That ‘I’ve got a bottomless budget and no one really expects results, hey, what’s this house worth?’ smirk usually associated with those cowboys. He didn’t fit the profile.

“That’s Dramatic Exposition Agency, I’m on loan from the National Plotline Commission. I suspect I belong to one of these guys,” then, shouting over his shoulder, “who might consider doing a little less drinking and a little more work on my backstory!”

I could see now that he had black hair and vaguely Indian features.
“I’ll show you around, since I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Incidentally, I have a wry sense of humor and am fond of puns.” He turned to the ubiquitous bartender, “Harry! A new customer.”

“Which one of you punks just made me ubiquitous?” Callahan growled, scanning the room like a Leone gunslinger. Someone did a spit take.
“That’s better.”

He looked at me kindly and said “Stranger, you need to get back in that saddle. As your bartender I prescribe Irish Coffee, repeat until loose. It’s not like you’re driving.”

“I think I will. Make it strong and whip the cream to a frenzy. Then put it up wet,” I said, getting into the style of the place.

Down the bar, an unlikely looking spud was waving a glass.

“This is dirty, Harry. Could ya maybe sorta kinda rinse it out with a fresh Travis McGee?” he called to the omnipresent barkeep.

“One Planter’s Punch, no sugar; one Irish Rebellion and would someone stop thinking of me as pervasive? We’re in a cargo container at Terminal Island. How ubiquitous do I have to be to cover the bar?”

He turned to an expresso machine that was designed to look like Moloch in Metropolis. A truly scary bubbling, hissing commotion began in the bowels of the infernal machine.

@man introduced me to a man at the bar who was wearing a leather flight jacket with Flying Tigers patches and a U.S.S Nautilus ball cap. His face blurred between Tom Clancey and Wolf Blitzer. He had been sitting in profile like Douglas MacArthur, his eyes behind sunglasses turned upward as if listening to some higher authority, an unlit corncob pipe jauntily clenched between his teeth. He took the pipe from his mouth and shook firmly.

“They call me The Herald.”

“No they don’t, Michael,” said Harry, casually wrestling with the hissing, spitting fire god.

“Well, they should. I’ll send you a comprehensive multimedia presentation demonstrating the numerous and well-organized reasons why; but Christopher said someone has to ask.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

Harry, who was right there, naturally, with no supernatural overtones, handed me my Irish Coffee.

Travis McGee announced to the room, “I am now the Lizard King! I can do anything. Trust me, I’m a professional.” Whatever he was selling, he was his own best customer, because he was having giggle fits. He looked something like Bill Hicks, if Bill Hicks was wearing glasses and shoulder length purple hair.

“What the hell is that color, Your Highness? Technically, I suppose it can be found in Nature, but never on primates,” said Harry, handing the fellow his drink.

“The box said Burgundy. Avant-garde iconoclastic technical shaman externalizing his unique take on the world? Or, midlife crisis and poor time management? You make the call.”

“Left it on too long?”

“Boy howdy. I’m starting to like it, though. No, really! The industry is a circus, and clowns keep the show going. Clowns have the authority of a shaman and the privileges of a court jester. I bear this Bozo crown with dignity, purpose, and a fervent commitment to, dare I say, honor. Taunt if you must this old grape head.”

“He can go on like that for, well, until somebody stops him,” said @man,” I also rock climb and I think I saw a Deep One. Did I mention that I’m fond of puns? Anyway, I’ll tell you about the rules as I introduce you to some of the regulars.”

“Rules?”

“Ground rules, really. First and foremost: no porn stars, in case you were thinking of bringing a date.”

“It didn’t seem like that kind of place.”

“Exactly. Second, but just as important, never call up what you can’t put down.”

“Which goes for the drinks, too.”

“Thank you, Harry. Third, the smoking section is on the roof. Don’t worry about being seen, all of the night watchmen are retired NPCs. And it’s not exactly Coventry up there, incidentally. We’ve got comfy chairs, ashtrays and a dumbwaiter rigged for freshening drinks. The weather’s always pleasant and you’re already outside in case of earthquake. Even the non-smokers like it up there. I collect Franklin Mint chess sets.”

“You get earthquakes here, too?”

“Pardon my intrusion, but were you asking about the correlation between the seismic activity of Southern California and the daily temblors in LA? Because I have some thoughts on the subject.”

@man introduced me to Doctor Dee, who was elegant in his mod tailored suit and Italian loafers. Slightly unshaven, he wore wraparound shades and carried two .45s in a John Woo rig at the small of his back.
“Harry,” asked the Doctor, “could I have one of those Goth drinks He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned was concocting last time?”

“Fuzzy Pierced Navel?”

“The very thing. Thank you, Harry. Now, then… when Fritz Leiber first wrote of Lankhmar, he placed it in the Dreamlands. And, being the Dreamlands, there was nothing odd about a city thousands of years old appearing virtually overnight, with history in place. Lovecraft advised Leiber that Lankhmar was rich enough to be its own world; he should make it his own. So Lankhmar became the center of the bubble universe of Newhon. Thank you, Harry. Aaaahh. Now, Leiber lived in Los Angeles, and he has said several times that Los Angeles was the template for Lankhmar. Throughout the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories the connections and parallels between the two cities grew stronger and stronger. And as movies and television gave the world new symbols and archetypes to dream of, they also gave everyone a common setting for those dreams. Los Angeles. Or simply, LA. They merged where it began, where it belongs; in the Dreamlands.

“It has a strong presence for it grew from dark, rich soil. Cain and Chandler and Ellroy were some of the wise men that attended it.

“So, why are there earthquakes in LA? Because there are earthquakes in Los Angeles.”

A group of Brits in a corner waved him over. He excused himself and went to join them.

@man drew me aside.

“We’re still a little unsure about the status of our colleagues from the other side of the pond. Frankly, we need their problems like we need a hole in the head. I can never keep them straight in any case, they’ve got cover names from some Brit random name generator. There’s, let’s see “Berkeley” Busby, and Adam Crossingwood or some damn thing. Oh, and “Dylan” Thomas the Cardiff giant. Try to remember he’s a Welsh Brit. We all get along by not mingling and yelling across the room.”
“And by spontaneously bursting into song. Refill?”

“Thank you, Harry,” I said, “Are there any other rules I should know about?”

“Just be on your best Kindergarten behavior,” Harry replied, “No hitting. Share. Don’t eat the paste. Use Inside voices. Don’t run with scissors. Hang up your coat. Play nice. And when I say it’s nap time, it’s nap time.”

“Harry! The new daddy needs refreshment, and I’m off duty my ownself.”
The newcomer was some kind of LEO judging from the haircut and tell-tale duty gun bulge at kidney height. He was also wearing lawyer suspenders, so I pegged him for headquarters. Slight accent, like Andy Taylor after college.

Before the hollow-eyed fellow with him could say a word, he suddenly sat up straight as if an alarm had gone off. “Two o’clock feeding. Back later,” he muttered, then, uh, faded out.

“Shane! Come back, Shane!” chorused the room.

“You should meet Elliot,” said @man, leading us over to the newcomer.

“He’s a cop in ‘real’ life.”

“And a lawyer,” added Harry, serving Elliot his drink.

“Aw now, don’t start…” began Elliot.

“He’s a cop on the edge!” came from the other side of the room.

“He’s a lawyer with a thirst for justice!” added another voice.

“He’s a floor wax!”

“He’s a dessert topping!”

“Candy mint!”

“Breath mint!”

“Tastes great!”

“Less filling!”

“Thank you. Thank you, one and all. Now move along, nothing to see here…” said Elliot.

We were joined by the purple haired spud.

The Lizard King extended his hand, “King. Lizard King. Shaken, not stirred.”

Not exactly like Hicks, but jamming on the same theme. Maybe it was the black Aussie drover coat. All his other clothing was black as well. Jeans, Reeboks, T-shirt and some sort of fishing vest.

No, he couldn’t be. Please. Not him.

I must have shown something on my face because he looked at himself quickly. Something clicked.

“Oh no. No no. No no no no no. And by the way, making that mistake can get you killed or worse in some neighborhoods, if you can smell what I’m reheating. I’m dressed for work; show people like their gurus to look like gurus. I must have crashed on the couch after dinner.”

We were joined by a smug man of middle years, dressed in turtleneck and academic tweed. His skin was orangey, like TV makeup, and he conducted his conversation with the stem of an unlit pipe.

“The Id has been mentioned, you’ve been talking to the Ego, it falls to me to play Superego. Doctor Richard Skinner. I don’t shake hands. Don’t bother to introduce yourself, I know you inside and out. This is, after all, a dream, and that is my milieu. Don’t mind me; just free-associate with no blocking. And don’t be afraid to hug. Later, we’ll go over this together and I’ll help you realize that your sweaty, sordid, guilty little secrets aren’t really that original and everyone around you can’t wait to hear each and every insignificant and pointless detail about how marvelous you feel now that you are no longer responsible for your assholish behavior. Then we’ll roleplay, and I’ll hypnotically regress you to relive Toilet Training Trauma and we’ll look for repressed memories of abuse at the hands of either a coven or alien probers. And if we don’t find anything, we’ll just have… to go… deeper….”

“Yo! Back away from the newbie and keep your hands in plain sight!”
His shirt was immaculate, shining white. The suit: matte black and tailored to micrometer precision. He stood powerfully, majestically, with fists on hips; his wide, manly shoulders were thrown back and his massive, chiseled chest thrust forward. Light unaccountably gleamed from his confident smile. His eyes, unseen behind Ray BansTM somehow made their liquid nitrogen presence known. His shoes were polished like the Hubble mirror. He was inexplicably backlit and a breeze tousled his perfect hair. He was hung like a black velvet matador painting.

Huh? Oh, right. Dream.

Skinner’s eyes danced merrily. He chewed his unlit pipe like “Bob” Dobbs on Methedrine.

“Ah, the Man in Black. My old nemesis. Your firm apricot buttocks are sending mixed signals. Do you want to talk about that?”

“My rock-hard, sculpted glutes are sending one clear, unambiguous signal on all hailing frequencies; and that is USDA Prime CHICK MAGNET~!”

“Give me puberty or give me death? And how is your self image doing tonight?”

“You want that in Euroweenie metric or American FUCKING Standard-like-God-intended-it? Quick! Look at the pretty red light.”

After the flash, the doctor stood unblinking and vacant, waiting for someone to stick a fork in him.

The Man in Black smiled grimly, then turned to the other man in black.
“Look, bra. If I have to leave BUZZ~! at home, you’ve got to curb Dick Skinner. If you can SMELL WHAT I’M COOKIN’~! This is where we come to relax for fuck sake.”

The Lizard King was looking confused, but thoughtful.

“That’s just it. I didn’t bring him. He was a one-trick pony, I didn’t even know what he looked like until he showed up. And I never suspected he was such a prick.”

“Maybe you’ve got UNRESOLVED ISSUES~!”

“If you want to analyze my dreams, Mr. Black, this is one of them. Mr. Black, right, that reminds me; has anyone else ever seen Reservoir Dogs as a Delta Green Op gone bad?

Doctor Dee joined the group with a fresh drink.

“The Mexican Standoff at the end was pure Feng Shui.

“With good reason, it was inspired by Hong Kong cinema. Did you know Tarantino wanted James Woods to play Mr. Orange, but Woods’ agent wouldn’t pass-on scripts by indies?”

“That’s worth a separate circle in Hell.”

As the two film buffs chattered amiably, I took the opportunity to inspect the bar in detail. The Brits were playing darts and doing depraved imitations of Teletubbies. The Man in Black was ordering a Homey Gangbanger, heavy on the Sloe Gin and stirred with a car antenna. Elliot let Michael touch his gun. A group of gun fondlers were in a circle and making a lot of clacking metallic noises, accompanied by hoots and chest beating. Some martial artists were bumping into furniture and courting a dart in the ear. I thought I could grow to like this place.

I saw a familiar silhouette sitting unnoticed in a shadowy corner. Just as I was thinking something along the lines of “How the hell does someone go unnoticed in a cargo container?”, the figure leaned forward into the light.

 

It was P. Harte Layton.

I reached for my gun but it wasn’t there. I wasn’t wearing any pants, could the others see that?

Layton stood up and tsk-tsked.

I had forgotten my homework and I moved in slow motion, like I was in syrup.

“Pop quiz, Sparky,” he crooned, “you’ve caught the attention of a key player. What do you do? What do you do?”

I fought to raise my arms against the pressure.

“Drop and give me twenty, maggot. You overslept and missed your final exam. Now I want you to stand right there and think about that. You’ve been a terrible disappointment to your poor mother.”

Almost there.

“Stop squirming! I’ll give you something to cry about.”

I looked at my hands.

“Shoot him!” I shrieked.

 

Conversation came to a stunned halt, and I was heartened to see that Elliot and a few others were cautiously aiming at Layton.

Someone asked “Why?”, but I was watching the Lizard King looking wide-eyed at Layton and mouthing “What the fuck?”

Layton had stopped his advance and was looking disdainfully at the customers. “And what are you posers going to do? Shoot me?” he sneered.

“Uh, guys? I don’t think we should listen to him,” interjected the Lizard King, “I think we should, uh, shoot him. Now.”

“I think we should, uh, shoot him. Now,” mimicked Layton.
“Do it!” I bellowed. “Shoot it now! Can’t you see what it is?”

The Man in Black drew a ludicrously large, shiny weapon from under his jacket and took aim. “Spread out,” he said, “and fire on three.”

Soon a bristling array of automatic, semi-automatic, single- double- and pump-action hardware was leveling on Layton.

“One!”

“Oh, please don’t shoot me por favor. What’s that from?”

“Two!”

Layton was holding his fingers in his ears.

“One! Fire!”

There was a confused checking of safeties and clips.

“Amber Effect, you fucking morons. Your bullets don’t work in the Dreamlands. Only the locals have working firearms.

Many of the customers were drawing blades or taking various ready stances.

Layton surveyed them contemptuously and spat. “Who are you losers trying to kid? I’ll grab the first one of you I can reach and pop his head like a pimple. And he’ll be the lucky one.”

Everyone looked about uncertainly.

“And now that we have that foolishness out of the way where was I?”
The Lizard King was looking like a light bulb had lit. He turned to Harry, who was glaring at the uninvited guest from under the shadow of his hat. “Harry, you heard him. Locals rule.”

From under his serape, Harry drew two weapons that could only be described as Hawglegs. He seemed to grow larger, more vivid. He was a streetwise cop, a mountain-climbing assassin, and an American commando. He was a veteran Marine and a bare-knuckle boxer. He had taken a bullet for a president, come back from the dead and burned a town to the ground. He’d killed women and children. He’d killed just about every thing that walks or crawls.

“Alright,” said Layton, “fun’s fun, but this is going too far. Now, I’ve got to…”

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?”

And Harry cut him down with a storm of bullets.

It was that simple.

Before the body could fade away, Harry caught it in the eye with a well-aimed squirt of tobacco juice. “A man’s got to know his limitations,” he said.

Everybody exhaled.

Harry was the bartender again.

He turned to the customers. “Last call for alcohol; and what are you looking at?”

As the regulars reflexively made their orders, there was a relieved babble as everyone tried to understand what had just happened.

“Where are the Pagans? They missed the excitement.”

“Open Mic Night at Club Apocalypse or something.”

“I think it’s an East Coast/West Coast thing.”

“Was that a, uh, incarnation of….?”

“Avatar,” corrected the Lizard King, looking directly at me.

“Yeah, right. Avatar. Was it?”

“You mean Harry just killed a….?”

“Wouldn’t that be nice? No,” replied the Lizard King, “I think Harry just blew away an Avatar’s dream. Which, I might add, is impressive enough.”

“How would you know?”

“I have my methods,” he retorted, “Harry, I’m going up to the roof, could you send up a nice single malt? Glen Mac Loch something or other and whatever the new guy is having.”

He took me in tow, murmuring “C’mon, we’ve got to talk.”

As we were exiting, I could hear the discussion continuing.

“What was that about an amber effect?”

“Zelazny, Guns of Amber; cordite didn’t work in Amber, but jeweler’s rouge did.”

“Did what?”

“Burned like cordite. The hero had bullets made with jeweler’s rouge and armed his troops with them.”

“Cool.”

 

The Lizard King stopped at the bottom of the ladder.

“It would be nice if it was that simple. But it takes more than tricks to get the edge here.”

He climbed to the roof and waited for me.

I followed.

The roof was as nice as @man described. The Lizard King led us to easy chairs facing the city and sat down with his feet up on a milk crate.
I took the other chair and we sat in an oddly comfortable silence. I realized that it was good to be alive.

“Ah, this is all kind of new, so bear with me,” said the Lizard King.
I grunted agreement.

“Well, first thing, uh, my name is Mark. And your name is Patrick Leary. You’re divorced, no kids, no family, no friends outside of ‘N’ Cell. You’re plagued by nightmares and under scrutiny by Internal Affairs. Your only hobby is high stakes poker at the card clubs in Gardena. Your life sucks.”

“How would you know?” I asked.

“I wrote it.”

While I mulled that over he fetched our drinks from the dumbwaiter.
When Mark returned he handed me my Irish coffee, and we sipped our drinks and looked at the city lights in the distance. The night was clear and warm. I could see the Hollywood sign.

Mark cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I made such a mess of your life.”
What do you say to a statement like that?

We sat and listened to the ebb and flow of traffic on the freeway.

“Mark, what is Harry?”

“Hmmm? Oh, Harry’s an Archetype. He’s the focal point of so many fantasies and daydreams and sequels that he came to life. Poor bastard. He won’t get any rest as long as his movies are watched. Or remembered.”

“Are there others?”

“Oh yeah. Marlowe is out there. Bogart was retired and enjoying his sailboat, and then cable brought him back. There are Cops On The Edge, and Foreign Terrorists, and Cynical Reporters, and Corrupt Politicians and Beautiful Women With A Dangerous Secret. Name your cliche, you’ll find it in LA. Hell, it’s where most of them come from.

“Look at it out there, Patrick. It’s the biggest electric train set a boy ever had. You can see the Hollywood sign from here. You can see the Hollywood sign from anywhere in LA. In the monochrome neighborhoods it seems to say Hollywoodland. The place is like a hologram: what you see depends on where you’re standing.

“It’s the cynosure of Western dreams. I’m not sure if LA takes its shape from our dreams, or if we get our dreams from LA. Probably both.
“And much of it is glamour and ghosts. Absurd incongruities like the Terminators or the giant ants in the storm drains. Or the Bladerunner neighborhoods. I think those might be second unit stuff from the future.

“But don’t limit your imagination to movies. Think of the implausible urban legends that only work if you set them in Los Angeles. The snuff films. The thriving kidney harvesting industry. The gallons of jizz pumped from various celebrity stomachs. The arcane body rituals of the rich and famous, and their decadent sexual practices. The gang initiations. The rave-hopping Goth blood drinkers.

“For the conspiracy minded, Los Angeles is a nexus of spooky activity. You’ve got most of the defense industry surrounding the Air Force Space Command. It’s where satellites come from. If Southern California seceded from the Union, they’d probably get a seat on the UN Security Council. It would be a First World country.

“So of course LA is influenced by that as well. I’m dreading the day when we’ll have to find out what’s in the Black Holes of El Segundo.
“Sometimes it’s scarier than hell. Dudley Smith is waiting out there. So is the Manson Family. Crips. Bloods. La Familia. Drive-bys. Earthquakes.

“At other times I put the top down and drive. I just inhale the wonder among the scents of eucalyptus and madrone. I cruise through the timeless monochrome neighborhoods with the hats and big shoulders. Or the bopping Tarantino sections on their borders. I’ll make a pilgrimage to Rodeo Drive and watch the celebration of Mammon. Or I’ll have myself paged by poolside as I watch this year’s crop in swimsuits and high heels.

“There’s a theater in Noir Town showing John Huston’s black and white version of Jaws. Humphrey Bogart as Quint, Henry Fonda as Chief Brody, and a young Spencer Tracy as Matt Hooper. You have got to hear Bogart do the USS Indianapolis speech. ‘I’ll never wear a life jacket again.’ I still get chills.”

He paused, and looked at me steadily for a moment.

“You could make a new life for yourself here.”

And what do you say to a statement like that?

“I mean it. I can direct you to a couple of Green Boxes and spookers with enough cash to set you up. Don’t worry about tying up loose ends, just drop out. Trust me, there is nothing to go back to.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Mark stood up and stretched.

“I won’t push. I’m done with that,” he looked at me seriously, “I’m never going to write about you again. You’re free.”

And what do you say to a statement like that?

“Look, you found this place. Now you can come back any time. Just look at your hands.”

He was doing a little getting-ready-to-go ritual, patting pockets and checking his surroundings. He stopped and looked thoughtful for a second.

“Oh, yeah. If you’re going to explore LA, you’ll need a car.”

He reached into his pants pocket and then tossed me a set of keys.

“It’s the primer gray Kharman-Ghia. It looks like shit, but it has a tuned suspension and a Porsche engine. Think of it as a rolling metaphor for The Big Orange. You’ve got to get under the skin to find the juicy parts.”

“Are you this glib in real life?” I said.

“I like to think so.”

“Will I see you again?”

“Maybe. I spend a lot of time out there.”

We stood companionably for awhile, watching the city’s lights.

“Mark?”

“Yeah?”

“Why did you name me Nemo?”

He visibly winced. Then he gave a lopsided grin and shrugged.

“I was working on a character that could travel in the Dreamlands, so I thought of…”

“Little Nemo.”

“Exactly. Just the sort of convoluted in-joke that always tickles me unduly.”

“Oh. I was always under the impression I was supposed to be into submarines or something.”

“It gets worse. I was originally going to end this with Agent Nemo woke up to find it had all been a dream,’ but that was so…”

“Lame?”

“Yeah.”

We could hear the crowd downstairs belting out The Gun Fondlers Anthem.

“So how are you planning to end this?”

“That’s the beautiful part. I’m not.”

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