There are people who drive to warehouses heavily-armed in the middle of the night, and there are people who don’t. The two groups are not equal in distribution, and there is a stark divider. Anyone can be a murderer. Moment of passion, drunken decision. But driving to a warehouse heavily-armed in the middle of the night is only for a select few. First, you needed to have a problem that driving heavily-armed to a warehouse in the middle of the night will solve. If the bank is foreclosing or your wife’s cheating, driving heavily-armed to a warehouse in the middle of the night will do nothing for you; nothing legitimate can be fixed this way. Second, you needed to be dumb. Driving heavily-armed to a warehouse in the middle of the night is by no metric intelligent. Ordering someone to do it might be the smart move, but getting in the car yourself?
“You got a better plan?”
“Don’t need to have a better plan to realize the one we’re going with is dumb,” Deacon Blue said.
Precarious Lee was driving, and Deacon Blue was in the passenger seat of a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. They were heavily-armed and headed towards a warehouse. The deacon had removed his suit jacket and tie, and unbuttoned his shirt. His cuffs were rolled up, and there was a tattoo on each forearm: faded naked woman, and newer golden cross. There was a shotgun on his lap pointed towards the door, a Remington with the barrel sawed off.
“What’s bad about it? We send Casper in to immobilize the van and reconnoiter the area, make sure they don’t have guns, and then we go in. Grab Tommy. Leave the rich girl and her little buddies standing there wondering where everything went wrong. No scandal. Tommy owes us. What’s bad about it?”
“Something,” Deacon Blue grumbled.
“Don’t call me Casper.”
Officer Romeo Rodriguez was in the backseat. He was a ghost.
“Sorry,” Precarious said. “Jacob Marley?”
The deacon smiled and said,
Officer Romeo Rodriguez was sitting in the backseat of the Cadillac; then he was sitting in the front seat between Precarious and the deacon. Both of them pretended not to notice, and Romeo was a little let down. He thought it was a very spooky move.
“You guys are being real assholes,” he said.
“I was fucking murdered. I was a kid. I was trying to help people, and I got shot in the face. I’m dead. A little respect, huh?”
“Nah,” Precarious said. “You’re undead.”
“The rest of the stuff I said, you have no comment on?”
“No,” said Deacon Blue. “Vampires are undead. He’s the living dead.”
“Get the fuck out of here. Living dead is zombies. He’s not a zombie.”
Precarious pinned his eyes open in mock terror, turned to Romeo.
“You’re not a fucking zombie, are you?”
He slammed on the brakes and the Cadillac SCREEEEECHED and shuddered to a stop on Banner Street right next to the wholesale toilet outlet, leaned out his already-open window.
“ZOMBIE! Save yourself!”
And then he looked back at Romeo, screwed a cigarette into his mouth, lit it FFT and blew out PHWOO and the Cadillac glided forward again.
“I understand what you thought you were going to do. I really do. You believed that I could be convinced. You believed that since you were so patently right, that I would see the error of my ways.”
“You say that like I’m not right.”
“There! There you go! The ‘right’ thing. You’re hung up on it. It’s like a splinter, and you can’t get it out. You think ‘right’ means anything. You think that ‘right’ exists at all.”
“Of course it exists.”
“Show me. Use your finger and point to it. I think maybe you got a nice figure under that suit.”
“You’re a fucking pig.”
“The way the fabric folds over your hips.”
“You’ll never know, will you?”
“Whatever it is, I’ve seen better.”
“You so sure?”
“Yeah. I fucking am.”
A small white hand in a large black one. The small hand had sky-blue nails that were chipped, and the large one was limp but came to life and squeezed. Big-Dicked Sheila had been dozing off, but she felt the Reverend Arcade Jones twitch and grasp, and she hucked out a great sob. Sheila did not generally cry this much, but she had been up for a very long time and felt skinless.
The Reverend’s eyes wandered opened. Hospital. Dammit. Gown. Dammit. IV. Dammit dammit. Sheila. Well, that’s wonderful. Y’know, on second thought: the hospital was wonderful, too. And a lovely gown. A spectacular IV. Sheila is my favorite person in the world, and I love her so. The Reverend Arcade Jones was on a heroic lash of opiates.
“Don’t try to talk,” Sheila said, and she stroked his forearm with the hand that was not holding his.
Arcade smiled, and it exhausted him and exhilarated him. He had a guiltless opiate high, and that is rare, indeed.
“Precarious and the deacon are going to rescue Tommy. And the ghost cop. Do you know him?”
He blinked magnanimously.
“Oh, good. Yeah, I’m pissed at him. And Penny. Not team players. And Tiresias. I might actually beat that bitch, I’ll be honest. Oh. Sorry for the language.”
Arcade blinked again. He felt like the Buddha, but with more Jesus.
“But, yeah. Precarious is on it,” she said.
Sheila stopped rubbing the Reverend’s forearm, and her hand rested there.
“Precarious says he’s on it,” she repeated.
High atop Pulaski Peak, the 100-inch telescope that was the point of Harper Observatory was rotating in sync with the stars, slowly and smoothly and silently, and like the sky it mimicked you could not watch it move; just notice that it had. Below the telescope was the building, which was an exact copy of the White House, but bigger. To the west of the Observatory was a ten-acre park in the shape of a rounded diamond, with a crescent-shaped stand of trees at the far end. They had knotty and bruised trunks, and waxy green leaves the size of a child’s hand.
There was a hermit up there, too. He lived 35 feet from the parking lot. He was a terrible hermit.
There was a Ford with two teenagers in the backseat. They had been to The Tahitian that evening–the movie wasn’t so hot–and come up to Pulaski Peak for some light-to-heavy petting; both were sound asleep. A Chevy with different teenagers; neither could unfasten their safety belts. Another Chevy, different teenagers still: they were sucking on chili dogs, having been 86’ed from the Tastee-Freeze.
“God bless you.”
“Name of the star you’re looking at.”
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, and Penny Arrabbiata, who was in charge of the Observatory, were in the Prime Focus. You could monitor the telescope through computers–there was an office for that on the ground floor–but there was also an eyepiece, and it fit one eyeball, and you could look right the fuck at stars without those asshole machines getting in the way. Assemble lenses and mirrors in the right way, and you can see right up God’s puckerhole.
The Prime Focus was a cylindrical chamber 80 feet up a narrow set of utility stairs. It was ten feet in diameter, and there was one chair and exposed piping and it was cold when the roof was open. Penny loved it up there, and had grown to hate the rest of the world for not letting her stay there all the time. She could hunch over the eyepiece for hours, and she swore she could smell the stars.
“I should’ve told Precarious.”
“I don’t know why you didn’t,” Gussy said without taking her eye off the ‘piece.
“The element of surprise.”
And now Gussy straightened up.
“That’s for the other guys, Pen.”
“I’m not used to being part of a team.”
“Can I smoke up here?”
“Absolutely fucking not.”
The warehouse district did not have streets, just rows. There were right angles everywhere, and the right angle is the most impersonal of all the angles: 150 degree angle is your friend, and a 20 degree angle hates your guts, but a right angle has no opinion on the matter. The warehouse district had no name, because no good can come from advertising warehouses–people will steal from them, or live in them–and neither did the rows: they were numbered, and not in any particular order. Some of the numbers were foreign, and some were just drawings of dicks. It was very easy to get lost in the warehouse district.
“You’re the worst cop I’ve ever met, and you’re the worst ghost I’ve ever met.”
“You’re the one who got lost,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez yelled from the backseat of the Cadillac. “I told you: go straight down Row 61አንድ, turn left at the veiny dick, a right onto 3ᎦᎵᏉᎩ8, and then another right at the curved dick.”
Precarious’ knuckles were white and strained on the humongous steering wheel. There were many things that Precarious Lee did not like: littering, and bad tippers, and circuses. He stayed away from liars (at least ones who couldn’t help themselves and lied with no strategy; man’s gotta tell a fib every now and then, if only to spare a feeling) and he distrusted self-promoters. He rejected flattery, and had no patience for politics, but he did not hate any of these things. He had only one hatred.
Precarious Lee hated being lost.
“With the shotgun?” Deacon Blue answered.
Romeo leaned back, and in a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham that is a far distance, and crossed his arms and stared out the window. Cop beat roadie. Like in rock-paper-scissor? Cop beat roadie. Hell, cops used to beat up roadies. In any situation involving two roadies–ex-fucking-roadies, at that–and a cop, the cop was supposed to be in charge. Driving, at least. Not sitting in the back getting fucked with. Officer Romeo Rodriguez was 90% sure he was being fucked with.
“Let me go and I’ll blame it on the other two.”
“Why do you want to knock down the Observatory?”
“I’ll say you were never here. Those other two? Those schmucks? Blame it on them. They’ll say you were here, but I’ll say it was just them. There’s a door over there. You cut me free and run. Go out the door. You were never here. This was a bad dream.”
“Tell me about the Observatory.”
“Original. This is not a standing offer. One-time. Cut me loose and cut yourself loose.”
“I’m here. I’m here and so are you, Tommy.”
“So is tearing down a building people love because you’re a dick.”
“Not because I’m a dick.”
“Because I can. And because I want to.”
“And why the fuck do you want to?”
“I want to because I want to.”
“You owe the neighborhood an explanation.”
“Nah, fuck that. I don’t owe anyone anything. I owed the previous owners some money, and then I paid them. Now, I don’t owe jack shit. I’m free and clear. You could be. Door’s over there. Cut the tape and run, sweetheart. You don’t know what you’re doing, and you don’t realize who you’re doing it to.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones was not yet up for speaking words, so he made a noise like HMMMuhhhh when Sheila put the puppy he had named Emergency on his shoulder. (She figured that placing anything, even a very small and rusty-gold colored dog, on the torso of a man just out of surgery was a bad idea.) The pup licked his face desperately, and Arcade tried to keep his lips away from the dog’s tongue but mostly failed.
“Emergency. Good fucking name, Preacher. Oh, excuse me.”
He blinked his eyes at her, tried to smile, got tired.
“Do you remember that time you prayed with me? When those asshole Nazi fucks came to the neighborhood? I don’t know if I thanked you for that. Thank you. Thank you very much. I think about that a lot, the way you treated me. You got a heart like a welcome mat.”
The puppy had stopped wriggling, and settled in the Reverend’s clavicle; it was wide enough to be like a hammock for him, and his eyelids began to bob up and down.
Sheila stroked the Reverend’s forearm: wrist to elbow and back, wrist to elbow and back.
“It’s two stars. That’s the current consensus, at least. Chimerical solarity. A blue giant was just sitting there minding its own business when WHAM a red dwarf comes rocketing through the galaxy at five percent of the speed of light and rams it head-on.”
“Is five percent of the speed of light fast?”
“It’s fairly swift,” Penny Arrabbiata said.
“What percent of the speed of light does a plane fly at?”
“What about a really fast plane?”
“Still zero. Five percent of the speed of light is unimaginably fast.”
“I’ve got a good imagination.”
“So the two stars collide. This is a one-in-a-trillion shot, mind you. Space is big. Really big.”
“I read that somewhere,” Gussy said.
She was looking in the eyepiece of the Observatory’s 100-inch telescope, and Penny was sitting in the raggedy office chair. There were several empty tallboys of Arrow on the grated floor, and a fresh one in each woman’s hand.
“And this is the only chimera we know of. Dextrabus-6 only makes sense if it’s two stars pretending to be one. That’s the only way the math lies flat. The red dwarf got rocketed out of its own system–by what, we can only guess–and smashed into the blue giant with the force of…of…of–”
“Leave Him out of this,” Penny said. “The collision exploded the stars outwards until they were almost a light year across, and then they collapsed, and re-cohered and reignited. But not as one. There are two stars in there. The only way it makes sense is if you see both stars at once. Co-existing.”
“Comedy and tragedy,” Gussy said.
“Leave them out of this, too.”
“Can’t, Professor. They built the telescope.”
When Gussy drank, she got poetic sometimes.
“A team led by a man named Arwen Dwight built the telescope.”
When Penny drank, she was still a scientist.
“Him, too. We should go to the hospital.”
Penny pointed at Gussy as if to say “Yes,” and then she said,
“Can you drive?”
“We’ve got eight flights of stairs and a mountain road before we hit civilization. If I can’t drive, we’ll be dead long before we get anywhere near innocent people.”
Precarious was punching into the backseat of his Cadillac like a terrible father on a family vacation, but Officer Romeo Rodriguez just let the blows go through his head.
“You’re not doing anything here.”
“I’m making myself feel better.”
The aluminum walls of the warehouses were commerce canyons out either window, and the Segovian Hills were not visible, so now not only was Precarious lost, he didn’t even know which way was north; this was having a deleterious effect on his mood.
“There’s books in Venable’s shop about how to deal with your type.”
“Arcane magicks, shit like that. I’m gonna bind your ass.”
“Kiss my ass.”
“Make you my servant.”
Romeo said to Deacon Blue,
“Are you hearing this?”
And Deacon Blue replied,
“You could’ve drawn a map, son.”
Precarious threw a few more punches.
When the red bulb flicks off on a stoplight, the green goes on; after stagnation, movement. On the streets, the absence of a red light is a party and a joy, but in a teevee studio there is nothing to take the place of the red light; it just stops existing, and so does Draculette and her show, all at the same time, and there is a different quiet than when the program goes to commercial.
Sisyphus’ sigh. That’s what Tiresias Richardson thought of that moment. Three hours of live and semi-unscripted teevee, giant rock: same thing. Roll it up the mountain. Try to keep your footing. If you don’t have a good joke, shake your tits at the camera. Five minutes of her bullshit, then five of movie and five of commercial; you don’t think five minutes is a long time, then just step on a stage. Stand in front of the red light. Five minutes is forever. Wipe your hands on your thighs and push that rock, Sisyphus.
And then the red light flicks off, and then the boulder slips and caroms back down the path you’ve carved, and you realize you gotta do all this bullshit all over again.
So she sighed, like Sisyphus.
“Good show, Tiresias,” the cameraman she had nicknamed Bruiser said.
He put her in the wheelchair stolen from St. Agatha’s and rolled her down to her dressing room, which had an accidental six-pointed star on the door, and was thus named Masada.
“Do you need any help?”
“Sweetie, if there’s one thing I can do, it’s undress myself. AAAAHahaha!” and she flopped herself on the ratty blue couch and Bruiser said good night.
Tiresias was lying. Getting in and out of the Draculette dress was a two-person affair, but Sheila had left during the show and she was on her own. She pulled the skirt up as far as it would go, so it was almost over her head, and then she rolled down to the floor and got a knee on the fabric. She shimmied her whole torso backwards, and lost her balance and now she was on her side on the carpet with her dress completely flopped over her head, and far too much pride to call for Bruiser. Up on her knees. Get a foot on the hem, Tiresias, she said to herself.. She did, and leeeeeeeaned back and there was not an audible POP but she imagined that there was.
I’ll just lay here for a moment, she thought. Lie here? Lay here? I’ll just stay here for a moment, she thought. She had unstrapped her shoes on the ride to her dressing room, and taken off her wig on the couch, so she was naked from the waist down except for two sets of support garments, and from the waist up except for makeup. I’ll just lay here, she thought. It’s cold here, she thought.
Tiresias had been up for two days, and she had been drinking and taking pills that did not belong to her. She had eaten fried chicken and completely fucked up a meeting. She was almost certain that she had been on a magic highway. She had watched a preacher get hit by a van. She had done a three-hour semi-unscripted teevee show.
And that deserved a drink, didn’t it?
“Do you have one eye closed?”
“I’m used to looking through telescopes. Trust me.”
Harper Observatory had a 1972 Ford F-100 Ranger. It was two-tone: Rangoon Red on the top, and Wimbledon White on the bottom. The vinyl bench seat was same color scheme. The gearshift stuck out of the steering wheel column, and the speedometer took up the whole dash. The radio did not work when it was purchased; the radio does not work now.
There was a saying in Little Aleppo: if you’re drinking, don’t drive; and if you’re driving, don’t drink; but if you’re drinking and driving, take Mint. Mint Avenue ran parallel to the Main Drag and had very few pedestrians, at least not local ones. Anyone walking on Mint Avenue’s sidewalks had to be a tourist.
Penny and Gussy had made it down Skyway Drive without killing themselves; they took that as a good sign. Mint was quiet, and the pickup weaved across the double-yellow line lazily. Headed towards the Downside, headed for St. Agatha’s. Penny was still in jeans, button-down, and fleece vest. Gussy was in the yellow dress she had picked out to cheer herself up.
They passed beggars and thieves; a conman practicing his rap to a mailbox; there was a husband having his clothes thrown at his from the third floor; windows bled blue from the teevee light; Eighth Avenue, and all its whores; dumpsters in alleys no one passed through; trashcan rhapsodies; the Cry of Epsilon.
“What the fuck’s the Cry of Epsilon?”
“No idea,” Penny said. “Shut up and lemme drive.”
WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO TAKE POSSESSION OF THE VEHICLE’S SYSTEMS?
There was a matte-black metal object with no seams in between them, the size and shape of a mailbox on its side.
“Why did you bring this thing?”
I AM NOT A THING. GUSSY, DEFEND ME.
“I don’t know why I bring this thing anywhere,” Gussy said.
“Kid, you didn’t think this through.”
“Old man, you’re in no position to tell me anything.”
“I think I am. You’re not gonna kill me. You’re a coward. You’re a follower. Those other two are worse. Pussies, all of you. Every way this ends is with me walking away, and you going to jail. Or worse. Probably worse.”
“Why won’t you do the right thing? Rename the place after you, who gives a shit. Leave the Observatory like it is.”
“Fuck you. That’s why.”
“No. But I’m not explaining myself to you.”
“Because I don’t have to. So, fuck you. You have to let me go sometime. You have to et me go sometime. And when you do, I’m gonna slit your throat. I won’t crucify you. I’ll slit your throat.”
“I will. Your friends? Those two assholes hiding behind the van and letting you do all the talking? Them, I’m gonna crucify. That’s not a euphemism. I’m gonna nail ’em to a fucking cross. Out in the desert. I’ll sit there with ’em, and watch ’em die.”
“You won’t watch anything.”
“No. Fuck you, Tommy, you fucking cunt. You’re not going to watch anything.”
Tommy Amici had eyes as green as the Verdance in the summer. Melisandre Boone had a knife.
First, they heard the screaming. Precarious had his window down, like usual, and so they heard the screaming. It was a familiar timbre. Deacon Blue hit the button for his window, but nothing happened. He hit it again. Nothing. Tried to palm the glass down while holding the button down. Nothing.
“Yeah, that doesn’t work anymore since Shitty fucking Pryde phased through the door,” Precarious said.
He started driving towards the sound, which had not stopped, and then a gray van barrelled down the row from the opposite direction; Precarious had to swerve the Cadillac to avoid getting hit, and Cadillacs are not particularly good at swerving: the front left quarterpanels of the vehicles clashed and bounced off each other.
The deacon turned around and yelled at Romeo,
But the ghost cop was already out of the Cadillac.
There was a warehouse ahead with an open door, big enough for a truck to fit in, and the light from a work lamp burning inside. Precarious pulled up outside, and he and the deacon got out of the car. Precarious had a .45, and Deacon Blue had a shotgun.
They did not need their weapons.
“Let’s just get him in the car.”
When Gussy saw Sheila, she kissed her. Gussy gathered the short red hair at the back of Sheila’s head, where the neck met the skull, with both hands and pulled Sheila towards her, and she planted one that forced Sheila’s lips open and then Gussy slammed her tongue into Sheila’s mouth like a wet battering ram. Sheila was not much for swooning, but she did, she swooned just a bit into Gussy’s arms and yellow dress; she was about to start playing with Gussy’s tits when she remembered she was at the sickbed of a preacher.
Emergency woke up, waggled, received scritchy-scratches from Penny.
“How are you, Reverend?”
Penny reached down and held his hand.
“I’ve felt like that, too.”
Gussy and Sheila were not at his bedside, and the puppy was still waggling.
Downstairs at the ER, a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham SCREEEECHED to a stop in the drop-off lane, and both front doors opened. You could hear screaming; it was a very familiar timbre. Deacon Blue pulled Tommy Amici from the backseat, and Precarious ran around the back of the car with the deacon’s suit jacket. He threw it over Tommy’s head and they brought him right through the waiting room. No one cared. Everyone had their own problems, but some problems were more serious than others in Little Aleppo, which was a neighborhood in America.