My buddy Mark Simon, who does storyboards for The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, and a bunch of other cool shows, put together this animatic of the opening sequence for my TV pilot adaptation of The Villain’s Sidekick. I think it’s kinda fun.
Word of the bombing spread virus-quick across the hi-tension infovine, fingers pointing and accusations flying through the humid miasma of Puerto de San Frantic. Free D. knew about it soon enough to make a few bucks off it before it hit the metamedia. Possibly the last readicash he’d lay hands on for quite some time. Situation ripe for a riot, had been for months, years, maybe the whole of the century, and most of the one before. Free D. could smell the bitter end of his own San Frantic era, already laying the groundwork for his next move, a new base of operations in another hotspot far from home, another 3rdWorld subsidiary a year or two from absolute boilover. For San Frantic, the moment had finally arrived. Thousands of angry citizens, many indigenas, pressed to the limits of their long-seething outrage. Such a minor indignity, this, an indefinite number of civilian casualties caught within the blast radius, wrong-place/wrong-time pedestrians, extras in the epic pageant of subsidized violence, bit players in the corporate cold war. Somebody’s spouse, still and all, somebody’s sibling, parent, offspring. Innocence could only be measured in degrees, but these unlucky few were now instant martyrs, unable to enjoy their elevated status, the spontaneous emergence from anonymity into historic posterity, 15 minutes of posthumous fame for a few dozen corpses blown to glory.
A rally in the zocalo, bracketed by the church, the Edificio Federal, the Nordstrom’s and the US Embassy, remained peaceable for nearly half an hour before incendiary remarks sparked volatile tempers and rebellious fire smoldered, flared and finally blazed out of control. Free D. watched it all from the vista of a penthouse suite at the Mono/Hilton, sipping top shelf scotch with foreign journalists from all over the 1stWorld, tuning in on the Wavemonitors an event that was occuring live right outside their windowall. Copying each other’s notes, Xeroxing each other’s dispatches, transfaxing glib, indifferent, and utterly half-assed reports to UPI and the InterSystem Wavewire, vocalizing contempt for the wretched citizenry and their ill-timed pseudocoup, interfering as it did with 3rd World Cup coverage and delaying payoffs from the bookmakers. Only Free D. and a couple of others watched it live, a Frenchman from the Paris Match overcome with ennui, way past horror or disgust, just plain bored, and a hearty blonde from Lapland, oohing and aahing and trying to figure out just who she should root for; in the end, she went with Nordstrom’s.
On the square, rocks, sticks, bottles, claw hammers, axe handles and small arms flew, swung, and fired, even as gun-happy government thugs rubber-bulleted, tear-gassed, stun-gunned, and billy-clubbed the huddled masses. Clashers on both sides fell, clutching bloody head wounds only to be trampled by boots, sandals, sneakers, and high heels. Not that there were sides, as such. Just a surging mass of bodies, the individuals who comprised the whole somehow able to distinguish the enemy in the midst of all that heat and dust and chemical smoke. Clusters of luckless rioters found themselves coated in fast-hardening crowd-control foam spewing from hoses like a monster-mutant moneyshot from some XXX-rated Japanime. Still others were snared in Taser-charged webs of shocknet. But they were greater in numbers than the better-armed goons, and even the high-tech hand-me-down weaponry was no match for the amorphous collective of raw primal fury.
Free D. looked on, rapt, fascinated, secretly loving it for a bundle of contradictory reasons, happily sucking back the ill-gotten booze from these ratbastards’ double-stocked minibars, ignoring the sophomoric babble of wisecracks and Catholic jokes and Universal toilet humor delivered and traded in two dozen languages, most of which Free understood. Outside, the American Embassy troops remained blandly neutral, stony eyes observing events from their own semi-remote vantage, behind the electrified perimeter gates, as a section of the hostile mob detached itself and surged up the steps of the federal building, into a stuttering hail of real bullets this time, panicky soldiers on full automatic. Another group, mostly women, some kids, swept south, hurling fury at the plate glass display windows of the department store, the overwhelmed Nordstrom’s security contingent resorting to their own lethal means of merchandise protection, negative publicity be damned. Only the church, more or less defenseless, remained immune to the conflagration, regarded by the mob as both sanctuary and headquarters, though a lone altar boy guarded its entrance, equipped with an Israeli flame thrower, mostly for show. Within the cathedral, priests, nuns, and other clerical workers were shuttling gilded treasures to a basement vault, just in case.
Rioters inside the fed edifice now, Free D. didn’t even have to use his imagination; Wavelinx connected the metamedia suite to all the action, covered now by oldschool wallmounted vidcams, images instantaneously colorized as they came over the monitors. Bloodthirsty San Franticanos carrying the carnage down the sumptuously carpeted and ornately adorned halls, into the offices and apartments and conference chambers, bludgeoning hapless secretaries and low-echelon civil servants, left behind when el Presidente and his entourage fled for safety through the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels that led west to the airport, east to the harbor, or straight down to the fortified bunker, an artifact of the Atomic Age. The vidcams down there had all been disabled by a previous administration, during the turnover coups of Decade Zero. Apparently that long-gone dictator’s mistrust of the metamedia joybuzzards extended to the potential betrayal of his sanctuary location; should he be compelled to flee, he didn’t want either his destination or hiding place broadcast to the free world, or even a roomful of pisstakers like this one; from what little history Free D. could remember of that era, the epaulet marionette in question didn’t reign—or survive—long enough to realize his concerns.
Back in the present, whatever passed for leadership on either side was maintaining a profile so low as to render its representatives invisible. Free D. couldn’t help thinking that if the movement possessed any organizational faculties, they might take this opportunity to install a new leader, claim their restless uprising as a legitimate coup, wait for the smoke to clear, the blood to dry, the world to recognize their legitimacy, and the corruption to take hold. But this was classic chaos, old-fashioned anarchy, even the ostensible instigators and principle agitators no longer held any sway over the teeming throngs, their outrage now a multi-headed, many-limbed beast of its own, mythic in proportion, mindless at the core. Wild-eyed, unrelenting, some among its number now armed with the lethal machinery absconded from fallen loyalists, catching each other in the misdirected crossfire of their sadistic ire.
As the melee swirled outward and on, something less than thirty minutes having passed since the first stone was cast, the zocalo ran red with the slick spillage of vital fluid, bodies broken and scattered, assuming impossible contortions, faces frozen in expressions of agony, surprise, terror, and dismay. Even way up here, safe and soundproofed, the screams of the injured and dying could be heard, mingling with the frenzied cacophony of righteous defiance and unbridled contempt, the same rage no matter who fought on which side.
Looters pouring out of Nordstrom’s, Free D. aware of his companion, the girl from reindeer country emitting throat-stuck ululations of outrage and envy as the desperate citizens rushed around frantic and antlike down below, clutching clothing and cosmetics, jewelry and appliances, furniture and housewares. Politics forgotten, ideals abandoned in the mad rush of conspicuous consumption, seizing whatever useless gewgaws were at hand, possession at last of the material trappings so long denied them, inanimate iCons of the good life, as if bath towels and table lamps and IntraVid rigs guaranteed sudden prosperity, an instant change of status inherent in their bulk and heft, the softness of cloth or solidity of hard plastic, the aesthetic freshness of something brand new, mass-produced items heretofore known only to those among them fortunate enough to be involved in their production, handling each fleeting item as it rolled by on the ceaseless assembly line. Willing now to catch a bullet to bring home a handful of the middle-class dream.
And so it raged, bloody and feverish and savage, well into the night, the antic madness backlit by the hellish glow of burning dumpsters and shopfronts and an occasional warning flame from the altar boy when things got too close for the church’s comfort. Diplomats within the embassy reporting events to stateside liaisons, who in turn kept the corporate interests apprised, as the stock market closed at a record low for the day.
Dr. Atlas’ World’s Only Solid Light Rodeo Circus and Wet Methane Carnival was a hybrid of wild west show and science fair. Atlas, a charismatic, vibrant octogenarian, had lived and worked on the cutting edge of designer science for over half of the century. Once Dean of the College of Sciences at a large, state-run University in the Southwest, the good Dr. was hounded out of the institution and into a decade of exile when a secret, privately funded experiment he was conducting on the academic premises was discovered by prying, paranoid, unimaginative campus liberals, who brought it to the attention of the University Board, who informed the mayor, who went to the Governor, who contacted the FBI, who, as it happened, had a vested interest in busting Atlas, and in keeping the whole matter out of the public consciousness.
Atlas was able to spirit away the subjects of his research, his charges, his children, and to escape himself, along with most of his team, thanks to a healthy personal and chemical relationship with key members of the true American underground, the secret class of revolutionaries, resistors, defiers, defilers, soldiers in the war on oppression and ignorance, the ongoing struggle for the means of production and control.
The babies went to orphanages, foster homes, private care facilities established and operated by the dedicated members of the Movement. Atlas travelled the low road, a circle as elliptical, and often convergent with, that of the fugitive Yippie, Abbie Hoffman. The two even struck up a friendship, Atlas picking up where Leary left off as a guru and guide through the dualistic realm of the spiritual sciences; Hoffman provoking Atlas to new levels of understanding as to the insidious, body-and-soul-mangling reality oozing wetly through the ripped and bulging seams of capitalism’s plastic veneer. Atlas finally and formally politicized, a champion of equality, justice, and self-determination for every living being. Hoffman, and indirectly Kesey, inspired Atlas to create his carnival, a free-roving, year-round source of entertainment and edification for the Great Unwashed Masses. He also felt obligated to acknowledge his inspirational debt to Walt Disney, Spanky and Our Gang (“Let’s put on a show!”), and PT Barnum. Ten years below street level had garnered a lot of contacts, an entire invisible community of lifelong friends, extended family, fellow travelers with the knowledge and skill and spirit to aid in his offshoot of the struggle. Technicians, performers, inventors, designers, builders, promoters, producers, day laborers, ticket-takers, hand-stampers, devoted fans and followers. All his as if for the asking, all because he had a contribution that they all found worthwhile enough to sacrifice for, as long as they felt they were getting a return on their investment, if only a sulfurous flash of matchstick enlightenment.
With a Disneyesque entrepreneurial spirit and an Einsteinian level of genius, Atlas brought his fellow citizens of the world into a reality of his own creation. While many of the inventions and technological advances displayed at the Carnival over the years had practical applications, many in use worldwide as a result of his efforts, nothing gave greater satisfaction to the Dr. than to bring delight, fear, wonder, and awe to the faces of young, old, and undetermined. And oftentimes for free. One stint per year at a strategic time and place could earn enough to keep the show going for the other 51 weeks, depending on weather conditions and the sometimes lingering doldrums of the slow season.
This year’s marathon moneyfest was being held at Govt. Site #11.7b, which had once been the city of Detroit. On the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the catastrophe which had decimated that town, Atlas and his merrily determined crew were driving stakes, raising tents, setting up camp for a week-long run in the Motor City Crater, as the location was popularly known. Advertised as the Armageddon Follies: Old-fashioned Spellbindin’ at Newfangled Prices, or Gimme Dat No-time Religion. The name led to Atlas’ first post-exile legal entanglement when a letter arrived from a man on the West Coast who called himself Leland deMand and claimed to be putting on a three-day musical slugfest that he was billing as the Armageddon Follies. Atlas was indifferent to a lawsuit, but Farley Weege knew of deMand, a son-of-a-bitch LA bigsnot, he said, who probably stole the name from them but would sue them down to sawdust if they didn’t let it go. Weege suggested renaming the show the EndTimes ReVu, and Atlas liked that, thought it sounded like a radical newspaper. Both men thought that would be the last word from Leland deMand, that their selfless consent would leave the sue-happy crew boss of corprock wannababies with nothing to do but stamp his feet like Rumpelstiltskin until he was forever wedged and enraged in the wings of some outdoor ampitheater built astride a high-stress faultline. They had misjudged the competition.
deMand showed up on Thursday afternoon, his vintage ‘Nam-era Bell Huey rising as if from the urban rubble and swooping pterodactylly down to the crusty craterbed. Bodyguards preceded him, steroid-pumped, coke-fueled, twitchy motions of weaponry and personal field phones, constant contact, brains abuzz with hive mentality, data feed readouts to and from the core consciousness to whom they answered instinctively. Catch one alone, all it can do is sting in defense and flee in terror.
Perimeter scans, radiation-level readings, X-ray specscan of all Carnival personnel in immediate vicinity. An all-clear finally signalled and deMand descended with the jaunty ‘life’s so cool and so am I’ spring-step of someone used to being constantly on, on the air, onstage, on-camera, out there in the limelit glare and vacant gaze of the public eye, taking all the credit for what went on behind the scenes, just so everyone knew that their cultural heroes, pop icons, didn’t get there by themselves, were in fact more product, an important but not essential aspect of all he was responsible for creating.
“If you ever so much as catch me in a pair of shades like his, don’t even check for a pulse. Just gut me and stuff me.”
“On me honor, Doc,” Weege replied in his rolling brogue.
“Gentlemen,” was the first lie to come motoring out of his mouth as deMand extended one professionally-manicured and recently palm-read hand.
Atlas responded with a reticent, lackadaisical handshake, and Leland deMand got down to business. Is there someplace we can talk.”
“This isn’t a place?” Atlas jibed him, gesturing at the ashen landscape.
“Truth to tell, I am in a hurry. But I wouldn’t say no to a drink.”
“Spring water okay?”
deMand sighed slightly, response otherwise inscrutable behind mirrored wraparounds.
“Won’t you join me in my tent?”
“If you’re here to serve suit, I think you’re going to be sorely disappointed when you get a peek at our tender boxes.”
“Don’t fuck with my illusions, Atlas. You’re ass-deep in gold, huckster. But I didn’t come here to pose legal threats. I mean, you don’t send a man to do a lawyer’s job, right?” guffawing at his own cheap shot.
“I suppose. Then, at risk of seeming abrupt, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
deMand went from uproarious to no-nonsense in .o6 flat.
“I’m asking you to vacate the premises.”
“For the Armageddon Follies.”
Atlas was furious. “It’s not enough you take our name, now you want our venue?”
“Chill, Doc. I’m in the middle of a presentation. Let me finish.”
A long draw of the Spring water did nothing to cool Atlas’ rage. deMand lit a Castro and continued his spiel.
“Yes, I am forced to find a new location for my extravaganza. Maybe you heard something about that little incident of civil unrest in my hometown? They blew up my stadium. And yes, I did consider grabbing this scene of unnatural wonder out from under you, just because I could, and I’ve trademarked my name by undercutting the competition.”
“Backstabbing, more like.”
“Uh-uh. Backstabbing I reserve for family and close friends. Which I like to think we will be.”
“I find it rather unlikely.”
“You’re in a really negative space, Doc. Please don’t take me there.”
“You’re scum, deMand. Pitiful, wretched, carcinogenic spawn of all the tragic, ruined masses have been trained to hold dear. Everything I despise processed, battered and fat-fried into one ugly little McNugget.”
“True enough, and you’re a semi-reformed fascist turned bleeding-heart philanthropist and New Age Mr. Wizard to make amends for all those years spent helping manufacture A-bombs and other war toys.”
“You’ve done your homework, Mr. deMand. So you see, we don’t have too much in common.”
“Au contraire, mon frere. We’re entrepreneurs, entertainment enthusiasts, and regardless of differences in method or motive, we both know that the only way to keep the show afloat is to turn a tidy profit every now and again.”
“Am I to assume, then, that I am about to recieve a proposal?”
“I hope you don’t expect me to get down on my knees.”
“The point is all I require.”
“Alright. How can I put this? I got a thing, you got a thing, everybody’s got a thing, right? It’s all showiz, to a certain extent, whether you’re putting on Woodstock 4 or just putting the moves on some babe. You gotta give em some of that razmadazzle, the ring-a-ding and bod-a-bing-bod-a-boom wham-bam thank-you-very much for coming goodnight Houston! kind of thing. You know what I’m saying?”
“Sure you do. I’m talking about butts in seats and smiles on faces, I’m talking about what you love most in the world. Making the people happy.”
“Actually, I prefer making them think.”
“I hear you, baby. That’s great, that’s noble. I could use that kind of balance in my organization.”
“You could have your people fitted for souls.”
“You’re a funny man, Doc, and I love to laugh.”
“Are you trying to…hire me?” Atlas shuddered.
“Oh no, Dr., I would never insult you in such a fashion. I am actually interested in more of a partnership. I had this brainstorm, you see, when I was considering aquiring your property lease. Why should the two biggest events of the summer be at odds with one another? Why not team-up? Why not combine our two events and really give em a show. The kind of thing they’ll be flocking from all over the globe, hell, they’ll be streaming in from other planets to check out this action. What say, huh? I can see it now: deMand Product in Conjunction with Dr. Atlas World’s Only Solid Wet Rodeo and Whatall Present THE ARMAGEDDON FOLLIES!!! How about that?”
“Forgive my shortsightedness, Mr. deMand, but I fail to recognize the potential benefits of this…partnership, as it pertains to my own enterprise.”
“Audience, Doc. You want to teach people, I can bring in students. Young, hip, deemed unteachable. But you could reach em, Doc. And believe me, if anyone in this world could use some schooling, it’s these rocknroll kids. Not to knock em, I love these kids, my bread and butter.”
“Do I detect intimations of altruism in your snake‑oil scheme?”
“You’re reading me like a press kit, Doc. It’s like we’re synched up or something. Like this was meant to be.”
“Yes. Perhaps.” Sardonic and wry.
“Are you with me, Doc? Are you in?”
“I don’t understand…”
“The location change. We’re already here. Why can’t you just bring your act here?”
“Well, I’ve given this a lot of thought, Doc, and let’s face it, the Crater’s a dead scene, totally last year. There’s a much hotter venue for our gig, perfect for a concept like the Follies.”
“And where might this be?”
“The Belt, baby. Where else?”
“The Safety Belt.”
“The whole region is off‑limits. Verboten. I hear they’re shooting people on sight. And I doubt seriously the govt.’s going to lift its ban and tear down the barbwire so that you and I can put on a show.”
“Who’s asking? That’s the beauty of it. Two outlaw venture capitalists stage a wild west voodoo millennial extravaganza in the most sought‑after getaway spot this side of the sun, you get fat, I get fatter, and you don’t even have to compromise your precious underground populist credibility.”
“Who’ve you got?”
“Are you kidding me? Fucking with me? What? This roster defies comprehension, and all laws of industry physics. I got Sham Rage. I got Godlips. The Liver Spots. Lungbutter. Shark. Bob Dillo. Kneel Jung. I got fuckin Motorcade. The list goes on. And that’s just the musical groups. This thing’s maximultimedia, full sensory meltdown. I even tried to cop some of your weird science vibe, went and did what no other major promoter has yet succeeded in doing, signed fucking Coathanger Med School. Y’know, that industrial art‑freak anarchist lo‑tech fx crew? Whatever they do, it’s wild, and I tell you, these kids, they fucking eat…What’s up, Doc?”
Atlas had gone glassy and slack somewhere around the mention of CMS, and remained so, staring at nothing, until Leland couldn’t take it anymore.
“You with me, Doc?”
“I’m in, deMand.”
Without another pause, Leland pressed a tiny button on his left cufflink, spoke into it hastily.
“Umploon, bring me the contracts.”
Victoria Atomblast. Damon goddam Ross. Fuckin Anthrax fuckin Ripple. The Bogart bitch. Not to mention, the Feds®, the Mob®, Disney®, and every easily offended religious group in the flippin’ freakin’ fuckin’ world. He had nowhere left to go, no country could, would, hide his sorry ass, not even if he offered to pay off their national debt, and there were not a few hot spots his fortunes couldn’t aid considerably.
So here he was, halfway to heat stroke in Sedona, Arizona, waiting for a MONOlimo to haul his ass to Reno, when he really wanted Canaveral, one shot, off-world, hitch a ride with the boys from Global Armed Service, lay low on the moon until things cooled off, or catch a McD® shuttle, assume a whole new ident and buy into a franchise outlet on the Galleria Cluster.
Absurd, what it was. Irving Pentler, wanted for no greater crime than entertainment, a felony count of giving the people what they want. Consumercide. The devil out of context, convenient fall-guy for overzealous neo-Victorians and the self-righteous ultra-Right. But even the Farther Left refused to embrace or endorse him as the last bastion of free speech, and so he remained its bastard. Lonely token of absolute truth in marketing; one man’s sin was another man’s religion. He dealt straight dope to the masses.
Sedona was supposed to be some kind of “power spot,” this according to one of the girls who worked his psychic sex line, 1-900-MINDFUK, something about a High Magnetic Resonance, which she’d probably read in one of those TIME/LIFE® books, Mystic Drivel, or somesuch. Meant nothing to him, Irving being a fast and firm pragmatist, believer in the here and now, that which could be seen and touched, bought and sold. Commodity dogma, the only $piritual rhetoric he understood. Televangelist of the flesh. The guru of bodily fluids. Metaphysician of earthly prurience. The High Priest of Porn, one journalist had called him, and he liked that.
He’d been waiting three hours in a window booth at Ronnie’s Super Pumper just off 89A, still no sign of his scheduled pick-up, the thought of which gnawed at the greasy edges of his still-digesting Western Omelette, butterfly anxiety sloshing about forlornly in a pot and a half of truck-stop coffee; the fellas at MONOLITH were notorious sticklers for punctuality. Couldn’t help wondering if he’d somehow slid from their favor, if they were just fucking with his head or maybe they were out to whack him, too.
6am, almost, no one else in the place but the short-order, the hash slinger, a couple of road-bleary long-haulers trembling on the verge of amphetamine psychosis, apple pie a la mode for breakfast and they just sat there watching the ice cream melt.
A Meat City wagon pulled off the highway and rumbled across the lot, belching smoke and pissing radiator fluid, obviously fresh from a Safety Belt run, punctured from grill to mudflaps with bulletholes and crossbolts, armored side panels scorched and rent by various explosive projectiles. Shuddered to a stop in the space right out front of Irving’s booth, blocking his view of the road.
“Bastard,” he muttered, rising from his table to go confront the thoughtless trucker. Stopped short when he saw the Caddo Indian lower his burly frame from the cab, bare-chested except for a denim vest emblazoned on the back with the famous tongue-and-lips logo of the Rolling Stones. Sputtering expletives, Irving fumbled for his wallet, cursing further when he noted the lack of cash within; he didn’t want to use plastic, too traceable.
The Indian eyed him darkly, and Irving shivered involuntarily; the trucker passed the wait station, indicating his desire for coffee with the slightest flip of his twin ponytails, came straight for Irving’s table, motioning for him to sit back down, which Irving did, much to the chagrin of his own whim.
“Mr. Pentler,” the Indian said, no question of doubt in his rumbling voice. Seated himself without invitation.
“Can I help you?” Irving asked, a taste of venom in his tone, tapping his MONOVisa debit card against the linoleum tabletop.
“My name is Benedict Red Eagle,” the Indian replied, sliding one of Irving’s First Strike’s from the pack on the table. “Gotta light?”
Snarling inwardly, Irving flipped his Zippo open and thumbed the spark wheel, butane reek tingling his inflamed nostrils as he proffered the flame. “So, whattaya want? Free meal? A job? I ain’t a freakin’ flippin’ fuckin’ charity, red.”
Ben Red Eagle laughed, hearty, borderline maniacal, took a long drag and lapsed into a deep, phlegmy fit of coughing. “I got a job, Mr. Pentler.”
“Yeah, uh-huh, lemme guess, delivering meat, right?” Irving snorted derisively, jerking a thumb at the battered wagon just outside the window.
Red Eagle smiled, smoked. “You could say that.”
“Look, Geronimo, it’s a little early in my mornin’ for Native American crypticisms, aright?”
“Sure, sure,” Red Eagle replied, watching his smoke ring spread, then exhaling a series of smaller ones, each passing neatly through the center of its predecessor. “You’re, uh, waiting for someone, right? A ride, I think.”
“I dunno, yeah, maybe. Who the fuck are you, know so much?”
“You’re who? Goddam Crazy Horse?”
Irving wanted nothing more than to wipe the insipid grin off this redskin’s hatchet face, feared losing his fingers to a sudden tomahawk. “This some numbfuck’s idea a funny?”
Ben Red Eagle shook his head, a shadow of solemnity passing over his features. “I don’t think so.”
Irving eyed the truck, turned back to the driver. “Uh-uh. I don’t know what those MONOLITH sonsabitches is tryna pull, but I ain’t goin nowhere in that rollin’ target.”
“You don’t really have much of a choice.”
“I suppose yer gonna tell me it’s for my own safety.”
“Safety?” Red Eagle smirked. “Sure, sure, it’s all about Safety.”
Irving rubbed his itching eyes, his pounding temples, his burning nostrils, contemplating his options, which amounted to little more than nervous breakdown, psychotic episode, toxic personal apocalypse. “So, yer, like, takin me to Reno, is that it?”
“Somewhere,” Ben Coyote answered, shoveling a mouthful of home fries from the plate the waitress had just wordlessly set in front of him.
Irving blinked, confused and jonesing. “Reno.”
“Whatever,” Coyote said, ketchup staining his heavy lips, grease dribbling down his hairless chin. “You da boss,” the red man doing an absurd and awkward Stepin Fetchit parody.
“I’m dead,” Irving muttered.
“Not yet, chemo-sabe.”
“Can we get outta here?”
“Fuckit, I’m usin’ the toilet, an when I’m done, we go. Kapeach?”
No stall door in the john—”fuckin christ”—but Irving drew out his stash anyhow, used his Beamer key to scoop up a hefty clump of white powder and raised it to his nose, hand suddenly possessed by a violent paroxysm, watching in frustration and horror as the coke tumbled into the backed-up toilet bowl like soft snow falling on wet mud. Attempted again and again to administer his quarterly dosage, each time losing it just as the fine flakes tickled his nose hair. Emptied the bag that way, finally licking his finger in desperation and sticking it in the crystalline residue, but another convulsion shook him and the baggie followed its contents into the vat of fecal stew. He knelt on the sticky floor, wanting to scream, to sob, to mourn this worst of all possible losses. Furious, stricken, he scanned the toilet seat for a hint of the dust, but whatever might have landed there was now dissipated in droplets of urine. He slammed out of the bathroom, sweaty and fuming, stormed over to the table and gestured wildly at the masticating Indian.
“Okay, Sitting Bull, let’s go.”
“No luck, huh?”
“What the fuck’re you talkin’ about?”
Red Eagle pointed at the men’s room. “You were in there a long time,” he explained, mopping at his mouth with a napkin. “And you still look like you need to take a shit.”
I am sprawled, languid and insouciant, on Irving’s king-and-a-half-size bed, the gelatin mattress molded around my edges; the industrial-strength muscle relaxants have just started doing their thing and I can barely focus on the wall monitor, incessantly flashing life-size high-res images of burning Los Angeles and its blood-crazy citizens, like a riot right here in the penthouse being staged for my benefit. I fumble for last night’s half-finished champagne, unable to remember who I shared it with, or when they left me by my lonesome. Flat and warm, of course, but it’s Dom ’53 so I drink it anyhoo, straight from the bottle like the cheap piece of street trash I really am inside. Gargle it like mouthwash, almost choking on it when I hear the elevator gate crash open, spitting up a fine spray of the stuff at a noise like ten thousand jackboots goose-stepping my way across the vast living room.
“Irving! Where are you, you son-of-a-bitch! You better not be here cause I am fully prepared to disembowel your skinny little cokefiend ass, pull your guts right out through your deviated septum!” A screeching harpy drawing ever nearer, pounding on the bedroom door with a fist apparently gloved in iron. I slip a hand under one of the pillows, searching for Irving’s Magnum; it isn’t there.
The door splits its hinges with a thunderclap, wood splinters and plaster particles exploding inward, and framed in the ruined doorway stands a sneering Amazon warrior goddess, a living mythic entity, fire flashing from ice-blue eyes, robust and muscular body apparently tensed to pounce, ethereal, evil, delicious. I want her instantly, wet and hard all at once.
“What the fuck are you?” she snarls, glaring darts and daggers.
I could very well ask you the same, I want to say, but my vocal chords are suddenly rendered dysfunctional, as if by some wicked magick being perpetrated from her unfathomable power source.
“Ow–ow–outta town,” I stammer, embarrassed and awed.
“Bullshit. I can smell him,” she declares, cruising the bedroom, tearing open closets, wardrobes, chests, disappearing into the master bath. “Son-of-a-bitch!” she shrieks, fuming at the absence of her prey.
“Wh-what is it, hon?” I manage with uncharacteristic timidity. “Maybe I can help?”
“I doubt it, sister,” she states, matter-of-fact now, her narrowed eyes taking me in with a hint of interest.
“I’m—my name’s—Tom-boy,” I inform her, trying to smile.
“Victoria,” she replies, clasping, nearly crushing my hand in her vinyl-gloved grip.
“Oh my God,” I gulp, overwhelmed by this unexpected brush with greatness. “Not the—”
“Victoria Atomblast,” she says curtly, apparently unimpressed by the attentions of yet another adoring fan.
“So,” she continues, giving me a frank and slightly contemptuous appraisal. “You must be Irving’s new…plaything.”
“You…could…say that…” I mutter humbly, blushing at the fragility of my own ego, crumpled now to the proportions of a spitball.
“Well, tell that despicable prick I stopped by,” Victoria says, kicking the broken door aside with her heavy-duty paratrooper boots. “I’ll be back to kill him later.”
“Waitwaitwait!” I cry, attempting to stay her determined departure with tremulous outstretched fingers.
“Whattayawant?” she spits over one shoulder, pausing in the threshold.
“You,” I respond, shy and docile.
She hesitates, eyes narrowed to frightening slits, then whirls around and comes straight at me…
“So, if you’re such a big fuckin fan, how come you didn’t recognize me when I kicked in Irving’s door?” Victoria asks me later, her enhanced pneumatic frame bunched up against me. For a moment, I’m at a loss. But only for a moment.
“Maybe ‘cause you look so much like you do on the tube, I thought you had to be an impersonator,” I say, opting not to tell her that it’s really because she’s so much more…diminutive, ahem, than I anticipated. She isn’t a dwarf, by any means, nor disproportionately endowed, just kind of small and stocky, a full-figured gal, Rubenesque, all that, except in miniature. She is sort of cuddly, subtly passive, exuding an unexpectedly sisterly eroticism, which only vaguely dampens my initial desire. Not at all the insatiable ball-busting freak-fucking dynamatrix whose flagrant sexual caprice has made her not only a household name, but in This Thing’s not insubstantial estimation, the greatest star who ever shone her light on this unworthy little ball of dung.
She is mine for an hour, maybe two, and then she splits, off to run some other tedious errand of vengeance, apparently her second occupation, though she claims she just does it to unwind. I am left with her smell all over me and the small depression she’s made in the sheets.
Didn’t even get to ask why she wants to kill Irving. I consider warning him, figure he doesn’t wanna be bothered on his vacation, blow it off. Besides, it’s just so much…effort.
“Look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
Hey, look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
It’s the Orange Blossom Special
Bringin’ my baby back…”
The Orange Blossom Special by Ervin Thomas Rouse
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.