Ensconced in the splendor of the air‑conditioned Prevost, Hix and co. were either too stoned or altogether wrung out to note the queasy bumpity‑bump, the hissing air brakes or the grinding of gear teeth as the tour bus negotiated the lonesome little dirt turn‑off road that led to the remote habitat of one Dirk Francis Whitestock. Not only ignoring but actually taking out the hand‑lettered wooden sign—”Just Keep Movin”—at the highway juncture, the monstrous bus chugged up the boulder-strewn, ever‑narrowing path towards its isolate destination, all occupants save Leland and the driver lost in hangover daydreams or succumbing to chemical giggle fits. At the zenith, just out of reach, sat the house, almost quaint, sort of a cottage, beastly automobiles of every assemblage and era strewn askew around the property, more than half of them already driven to death, sorry, sadly beautiful mules crushed under the whiphand of Whitestock’s willful caprice.
Fifty some‑odd meters shy of the house, the driver, Turk Foster, decided he couldn’t push his girl any further, reared up on the rocky shoulder and sat wondering how he was ever going to back her the fuck out. deMand checked the clip in his Glock and re-holstered it in his shoulder rig, yanked the handle for the door and let its vacuum whoosh suck him out onto the roadside. Two bodyguards had his back as he proceeded, megaphone in hand, on up towards Whitestock’s secluded mountain retreat. Boggy Creek, scene of many a fondly, if barely, remembered night of true Roman vomitorium‑style debauchery, a political fringe‑dwellers violent rethink of the Playboy Mansion. Three‑day, three‑week, three‑year swirling soirees of ever‑escalating mischief and mayhem, presented, presided over and production‑supervised by a gun‑toting fire-breathing patriarch of the doomed, at once giddy tyrant and malevolent court jester. A profound thinker and a prehistoric bully, lit like the Vegas strip on a carefully measured imbalance of every conceivable toxin, synaptic stopgaps blasted wide open even as the cells around them gasped, shuddered and died in a neural Holocaust. Blowing moose calls, brandishing chain saws, hoisting bazookas, tossing dynamite and c4 willy‑nilly like they were mere Black Cats and every day that wasn’t New Year’s had to be the 4th of July. The more sedate and unsuspecting guests, invited for just such purpose, sought cover from the gleeful onslaught, ran for their cars and their lives. (On one occasion, an assistant to the state attorney general, peaking on laboratory mescaline, fled shrieking into the woods behind the house, never to be heard from again; in otherwise inscrutable testimony before an investigatory panel, Dirk swore up and down that the bobcats must have got him.) Everyone else was either already hip to Whitestock’s cataclysmic shenanigans, else learned to love them, or at least steer clear of the crossfire. The kind of events—extravaganzas, really—that most were lucky to experience once in a lifetime and survive; only the hardiest of the lot endured and returned, time and again. Leland, a much younger man then, had been a regular, one of Whitestock’s elite inner cirlce of “true‑to‑life balls‑out earth‑shaking demigods.”
“Here’s where we separate the carnivores from the herbivores,” the pistol‑packing journalist once confided to Leland, just as he lit a cigarette from his own burning shirtsleeve.
Within sight of the cabin, Leland took cover behind a rusted out, bullet‑riddled International Scout and raised the bullhorn to his thin, wind‑burned lips.
“Dirk Whitestock! I know you’re home! I know you’re listening! This is not a raid! I repeat, this is not a raid! We mean you no harm! We have—”
The morning split wide, spitting lead and fire. deMand felt his hairpiece ruffle as the bullet whizzed by overhead.
“Goddamnit, Whitestock, it’s me—” but before he could finish identifying, the invisible gunman fired another warning shot across the porch, taking out the driver’s side mirror on the Scout. Leland got a bead on where the shots were originating; through the front door, where the peephole might have once been, a rifle barrel protruded through a bored‑out circle. Considered pulling his own piece, thought better of it.
“Whitestock! You son‑of‑two‑bitches! It’s me! Leland deMand! Yer ol pal! I come bearing booze! And drugs!”
“What about women?” came a voice from behind the door, loud and clear, though a little fuzzy around the edges.
“Not with us. But I can make a few calls.”
The oiled black gunbarrel hovered in its eyehole a few seconds longer, for effect, then withdrew. A cork was then jammed in its place. After an interminable period of rattling locks, clicking tumblers, and clanking chains, the door swung open and Whitestock emerged, clad in a red nylon goose down deer hunting vest, pajama bottoms, a Denver Broncos gimme cap, and mirrored cop glasses. From his snarling lip hung the eternal cigarette. Beneath the vest, Leland could see, his old hell‑ raising chum wore crisscrossing bandoliers that held everything from grenades and mace to ballpoints and a Selfphone. A Colt .45 revolver was tucked in the elastic waistband of his pj’s and in his hands he gripped an AR‑15, still pointed menacingly at the half‑concealed entrepreneur.
“What do you want, you greedhead weasel bastard? You still sniffing around for mineral deposits?”
“What’s with the get‑up, Whitestock? You look like some kind of weekend bandito. Been licking those poisonous toads again?”
“You’re the first one I’ve seen around in a while.”
“Good to see you haven’t let your guard down. And all those chemistry experiments haven’t dulled that keen writerly wit one bit.”
“I shoulda killed you when I had the chance, deMand.”
“I’m right here, Dirk buddy.”
“Too easy. I like a moving target.”
“We could always draw down. I’ve improved my speed quite a bit.”
“Speed only matters in typing, Leland. It’s accuracy that counts. Besides, when does a deal‑wheeling soul‑stealing corporate succubus like yourself find time to practice between the Faustian takeover bids and the PT Barnum publicity stunts?”
“In this biz, it goes with the territory.”
“But what’s my territory got to do with your biz?”
“I got a proposal, Whitestock. A legit paying gig. Very high profile. Just the kind of jumpstart you could use to boost those flagging book sales.”
“Hey, Hate and Hypocrisy in High Places made the Times bestseller list. 13 weeks.”
“13 weeks and you never got higher than number 29. 29. Pretty low score, buddy.”
“We’re not buddies, Leland. Not for a long time.”
“C’mon, Dirk. Aren’t a little cold brew, hard drugs, and some fast easy cash impetus enough to set old differences aside and sit down to a little breakfast at the bargaining table?”
“There’s conspiracy afoot. I recognize the stink.”
Thus was the bargain sealed, and the devil once more awarded his due: an eight‑ball of pure Andes mountain snowcap, three fifths of Maker’s Mark, a half‑ounce of Madagooska Thunderfuck, two cases of Spatterbrau Amber Ale, and a bottle of Dom ’57 brought from the drop safe beneath Whitestock’s desk. The schiz-tempered journalist refused to sign any kind of binding or legitimate contracts, but he did autograph Ace Kilo’s well‑weathered copy of Peace, Love and Anarchy; or, How Thomas Jefferson Failed the Counterculture, his two‑decades ancient magnum obit of the Boom Generation’s slapstick effort at revolution. Not in blood, but India ink.
Decision made, the inveterate muckraking uberscribe went into overdrive, further tearing apart the already‑ravaged cabin, rummaging in drawers, upending furniture, opening strongboxes with a hammer claw, kicking empty wine bottles into the fireplace. He played his Tasmanian Devil games for what seemed to Leland hours, and when all was said and done, Whitestock had assembled, in a small clearing in the middle of the living room, a surprisingly tidy and well‑ordered assortment of personal necessities: five handguns, plenty of ammo; an equal number of notebooks and pens; his Taser; custom‑made snap‑apart Mannlicher‑Carcano sniper rifle in hand‑tooled leather case; dop kit with all essential toiletries; medicine bag; portable bar; all manner of audio and video recording devices. Now clad in a stealth‑black flightsuit and olive‑drab bomber jacket, steel-toed combat boots, a white cowboy hat, and the aforementioned bandoliers. The ubiquitous cigarette temporarily replaced by a Meerschaum hash pipe. Whitestock surveyed his work, checked his watch, shuddered.
“I’ll need a few more things,” he said vaguely. “We’ll have to make a couple of stops.”
Midnight once they stumbled from the tumble‑down cabin, closer to one AM by the time they stowed all Whitestock’s gear and were at last ready to once more hit that rocking road.
“How do I‑‑?” Turk Foster started to ask.
“I’ll get us out of here,” Dirk stopped him, gently shoving the driver into the buddy seat. Expertly cranking the monster bus to life, throwing her straight into reverse without so much as a moment’s warmup, propelling the rig and all passengers backward at no less than twenty‑five mph down the winding, rubble‑ridden mountainside towards the waiting highway.