Beware of Darkness, Part 1

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

So…here starts a new story. Probably need four chapters to wrap it up, and this is a short one  today so a Coke will probably do the job. I guess if you need some music George Harrison will be the obvious choice, or you can try this for a change of pace.

Right…off we go.

Part I: Photons

Leaves of poplars pick Japanese prints against the west.

Moon sand on the canal doubles the changing pictures.

The moon’s good-bye ends pictures.

The west is empty. All else is empty. No moon-talk at all now.

Only dark listening to dark.

                                            Carl Sandburg                         Moonset

It had been, oddly enough, the moon that first captured the little boy’s imagination. Hanging up there in the sky as he waited for sleep, waiting in the shadows of dreams waiting to be.

“A man in the moon? Oh, really? Where?” he remembered crying, once upon a time.

“It’s right there! Can’t you see him?”

“No! What are you talking about?!”

Even then the myths so casually passed along made no sense to the boy. Because, he realized, the people who pretended to know everything really didn’t seem to know very much at all.

But…there had to be more.

There just had to be more to it than their lies and evasions.

An odd encounter. With, of all things, a telescope. On a camping trip with friends in Cub Scouts.

A kindly old man with a pristine four inch refractor set-up on the simplest alt-az mount imaginable, yet when he first set his eyes on the moon through that telescope he felt his entire world shift underfoot. He’d stared at the crescent orb for so long his eyes almost hurt, trying to memorize everything he saw. He realized sometime during the night that he never wanted this journey to end.

Books followed, leading to his first steps on the way he’d chosen. Simple books with big pictures because, after all, he was only a second-grader. An Atlas of the Moon waited for him under the tree the very next Christmas, and just five months later he watched as Alan Shepard and Freedom 7 kicked off a mad decade of exploration and experimentation – everything coming into sharp relief when Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took a stroll on his beloved moon. 

His father was a physicist; his mother a physician; both taught at Stanford. He grew up on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park, California, and in schools teeming with bright students he was considered the brightest star of them all. He’d developed a profound intuition for mathematics, especially for the calculus, by the time he left grade school. He learned to play the piano simply in order to explore the mathematical possibilities within music notation and was considered something of a prodigy – until he grew bored with music’s limited range of expression.

And still he turned his eyes to the sky, but almost always to the moon. 

Until one night, on a field trip to the Mount Lick Observatory just east of San Jose.

The boy had, of course, seen pictures of globular clusters, and he’d even looked at M13 through a small telescope once before, but the experience had been underwhelming – and so he’d thought little of them since. Until that first night up at Lick.

One of the twenty-inch astrographs was being collimated that night, so no cameras were attached as technicians and astronomers aligned and realigned set screws on the delicate front objective, and actual eyepieces were being used to fine tune the scopes final alignment. At one point, when the boy happened to be standing nearby, this team of astronomers pointed the ‘scope at Eta Herculis, then at M13 – the  primary globular cluster in the Hercules asterism – and then one of the astronomers looked down and asked the boy if he might want to look at something interesting.

“Of course I would,” the boy said as he made his way up to the viewing platform.

“Well then, try this out for size.”

Eugene Sherman made his way to the eyepiece and after just a few seconds observing the cluster he knew his world had shifted once again, then he turned to the other astronomers up there with him and he smiled.

“Do you have a bigger telescope?” Eugene Sherman asked.

The boy was only a little surprised when his question caused all the other astronomers to break out in gales of knowing laughter.

+++++

Yet Saturday mornings in autumn were the best days of all.

Because from the time he first sat sit on his father’s knee, when the Stanford Cardinals were playing at home he and his Old Man made their way over to the stadium to catch the game. When “Gene” Sherman was just starting out in elementary school they started throwing the football, and by the time he went to middle school he was good enough to play quarterback, and he only improved with time. By his junior year, by the time he was ready to think about college, schools like Harvard and MIT wanted him. So did Stanford and even Princeton.

Only…Gene Sherman had decided he wanted to go to Annapolis, because by then he’d decided he wanted to be an astronaut. He wanted to walk on the moon. He wanted to build an observatory up there, too, and he figured he was probably the best person for the job. But getting into Annapolis wasn’t as straight forward a thing as getting into Harvard or MIT. Getting into a service academy meant getting appointed by a member of congress, so this he set out to do…in the same patient, methodical way he’d turned to whenever he really wanted to get something done right the first time.

And so he made it in, and he reported for duty in August, 1972. 

He played football. He studied astronomy and physics, and because this was the Naval Academy, he studied aeronautical engineering, too. When it became more than apparent there was no way into the astronaut corp without first completing test pilot school, which of course meant becoming a Naval Aviator, he set out to do this, too – though there were some in the great scheme of things who were disappointed by his choice. They’d seen him working in more theoretical realms, more than likely working to develop a new sort of satellite based navigation system, but they had decided to let him pursue his dreams – for now. He’d earned that much respect and consideration, or so they said.

So…off the boy went, to Pensacola – because, by his best calculation, that was still the best way to the stars.

+++++

April, 1979. Strait of Hormuz. Sitting in the cockpit of an A-6E on Cat 1 aboard the Coral Sea. Three in the morning and the temperature was almost ninety degrees; with the canopy retracted air dripping with humidity was pouring onto his face, and sweat was rolling down his neck and from there down into his flight suit.

Gene “Tank” Sherman was flying Texaco this morning, waiting for the word to launch and get airborne so his Intruder could refuel the ready flight that had launched fifty minutes ago. Iranians had been holding the US Embassy in Tehran for almost three months, and tensions were high, the mood on the streets ugly. And his squadron – VA-165 – had been tasked to bomb airfields in and around Tehran…should the need arise…and everyone on board hoped the need was there. Because they were ready. And because everyone wanted revenge, blood was in the air – all the time now.

‘Even I do, too,’ Sherman said to himself. ‘But why? Why another war when there’s so much else we need to be working on…?’

He leaned back and found Hercules up there in the early morning sky, and out here hundreds of miles from land he could see M13 with his eyes…a faint little smudge hanging up there – almost right where his heart should be…but that didn’t make sense. Did it?

Nothing made sense. Not now.

Apollo…canceled. No more moon shots. Just more war. And something new was in the works, something they were starting to call a space shuttle, but this latest thing looked like just another black hole, another government boondoggle designed to spread pork all over the aerospace industry. Damn! Even Stanley Kubrick could see the future better than the morons at NASA! We need infrastructure…up there – in space…in orbit – so we can built things up there…and not a taxi to nowhere! And no more ‘meet ’n greets’ with the goddamn commies!

‘Two years of my life…spent out here,’ he thought, sighing as he watched M13 slide behind another wall of cloud.

“Well, ain’t life grand?” his navigator said – just as the carrier sailed into a wall of cool, deep fog. “I didn’t think fog made it this far north?”

“An eddy in the current,” Sherman said, “but it won’t last.”

Then the CAG up in Pri-Fli came on over the radio. “Our Phantoms just reported two, possibly four Bogeys just went airborne, lighting them up. Launch the tanker, standby to launch Alert Three and Four.”

“They be playing our song, Tank,” Pete “Putter” Masters, his navigator, said.

Sherman secured the canopy and checked lock on the wings once again, and when he got the all clear from the deck-apes he started engine one, watching the tape come up to 40% and hold steady. He looked right and got the all clear and rolled two, watching power come up and stabilize. After the JBD, or the Jet Blast Deflector came up he added power slowly to FMP, or Full Military Power, before dropping back down to 60% for the hold. The F-4N on Cat 2 ran up to FMP and as suddenly cut back, and that was that. Now it was his turn.

Power to FMP again and watch the tapes for ten seconds, then he looked at the ape crouching out there almost on the edge of the flight deck, the wands in his hands beating out the rhythm of the fight. He saluted as he flipped the nose gear light on and off, then pushed back in his seat, waiting for the…

…slam in the back…that kick in the ass…and he fixed his eyes on his panel because out here on the other side of the glass there was nothing but black. Pure, solid black fog.

‘Positive rate,’ he said to himself, ‘gear up, trim up, flaps and slats up. Check vertical rate, start a gradual turn ten to the left and climb to Angels Five.’

“Outta the fog,” Masters said a moment later.

“Got it,” he said, still not taking his eyes off the panel, not yet. Heading 340, angle of attack five degrees up, climb at 215 KIAS. “Man, this pig is wallowing tonight,” he said a minute later, when he could finally breathe easily again.

“Feeling heavy?”

“Yeah-man. We there yet?”

“Call it thirty seconds, then start your track.”

“Got it,” Sherman said as he zeroed out his clocks, keeping one eye on the altimeter and the other scanning the sky…then he started his hack and began a slow, standard rate 180 to the left.

Then the E-2B from VAW-117 came on the net. “Boomer 5-0-2, Banger-3, come right to 0-3-0, signal Buster, repeat Buster, inbound flight Bingo.”

“5-0-2 to 0-3-0 Buster,” Sherman replied, turning hard and adding power.

“502, 3, Reaper 2-0-2 reports three Bandits now up and heading for the merge. Ready Three and Four have the intercept. 2-0-2 took a hit, needs a visual for BD.”

“5-0-2 roger.”

“5-0-2, make it Angels 10.”

“5-0-2 to 10.”

“5-0-2, call it fifty miles now.”

“5-0-2, got it.” Sherman replied as he started his climb from five to ten thousand feet.

“Picking up four airborne sets,” Putter said, “and they look like that new AWG-9 set in the -14,” – indicating there were at least two hostile aircraft up right now with advanced search radars operating, because Iran now had four operational squadrons of F-14As – all of them fully armed with the latest American air-to-air weaponry…and all of that vastly superior hardware courtesy of the now-deposed Shah. Coral Sea’s Phantoms in VF-21 were F-4N models, with 60s vintage avionics and radar, and they were no match for a Tomcat’s Phoenix long range fire control system.

“5-0-2, come right to 1-7-5, speed 220, set pos now.”

“5-0-2 right to 175, 220 and we’re lighting up now.”

“Reaper 2-0-2, got your lights, gimme 1500.”

“Reaper 2-0-2, 1500 set, drogue one out, advise…”

“Banger-3…Break-break! Two launches, I think they’re…check that…two confirmed AIM-54s in the air, track while scan mode is active…”

“Reaper 2-0-2 breaking right!”

“Boomer 5-0-2 going left,” Sherman added, launching chaff and flares as his Intruder broke formation. He climbed left and rolled inverted, starting a dive to the hard deck and sending out packets of chaff along the way when he felt heat all along the left side of his body, then Putter shouting “Eject…eject…eject!”

Then…darkness. Everywhere.

And then – salt. Salt water. Sea water. 

He opened his eyes, tried to turn his head but everything hurt.

“You okay?” he saw Putter asking as he swam up to him.

“I can’t hear,” he managed to say – just before the light came for him.

+++++

He recognized the lights overhead. He was in an operating room, and people were moving him from a gurney to an operating table.

‘This can’t be good,’ he thought, then he saw people talking before he realized he couldn’t hear a damn thing they were saying. Then he realized his left leg really hurt and he tried to lift his head to take a look…

…then explosions of hot light filled his mind’s eye, and as suddenly he started vomiting.

‘Sea water? I’m barfing up sea water?’

Helping hands held his face while others turned him on his right side, and then waves of pain crushed him and held him down under an impossible weight. Then people were helping him onto his back again, and a mask went over his mouth and nose as an IV was inserted in his left forearm. He was awash in enveloping warmth after that, so he was never aware that his left leg was being amputated just above the knee.

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

The Boo Angel

An odd diversion, true enough.

What’s a Boo Angel, anyway? A play on words, perhaps? The Blue Angel might come to mind, but poor Professor Unrat’s demise has no relevance here. No, this little tale is perfect for Halloween, as it is full of black shadows and looming…ooh…I can’t give away the story!

Sorry for the delay again. Another surgery on the same eye, this time trying to salvage even a tiny bit of vision. Unfortunately I don’t think that will be the case, so getting along on one eye now. There is something profoundly strange about having an eye operated on – while wide awake. “Uh, that hurts a little?” followed by an increase in pain med in the IV, while still able to feel instruments being inserted into the eye itself.

There…is that creepy enough for you? Trick or treat! Happy Halloween!

So? Does music still matter? Of course it does. Try this for starters. That one doesn’t work for you? Okay, try this instead.

This little tale is not quite a hundred pages at 1.5 line spacing, so pull up your favorite chair and grab a cup of strong joe. Seeya on the other side.

The Boo Angel

Chapter One

Interventions

God himself could not alter the course of nature.

Goethe, 1820

He always stayed at the Marriott just off the Gänsemarkt, a modern hotel near the old city center, deep in the reconstructed downtown area of Hamburg, Germany. Staying here was habit now, nothing more or less than that, because as far as chain hotels went this Marriott was better than most and, when he thought about the matter he thought the staff always treated him well, and what more could one ask of a hotel? Besides, he thought, The Four Seasons over by the lake was simply too pretentious, and it was too far away from all the action.

Because Hamburg was, after all was said and done, all about the action.

The man’s name was William Taylor, though few ever dared call him Bill these days. He was a big man full of big ideas for making big money, and for the past twenty five years he had been doing just that. Growing up on a ranch northwest of Billings, Montana, he’d never once considered staying out there on the windswept prairie with his family, and he had never felt any familial obligation to continue ranching. He instead went to the University of Southern California on a full-ride football scholarship, yet he – somewhat uncharacteristically for a jock on an athletic scholarship – took his studies seriously. He majored in economics and did well, though he carried a minor in film production – for reasons that will soon become clear. Still, his future was taking shape nicely, though he needn’t have worried, not really. 

He’d been an outstanding talent in high school, and became a fearsome middle linebacker respected by every team USC faced, and while he had a reputation of being a little too mean every now and then, he was also considered a “fair” player – whatever that meant. USC went to the Rose Bowl twice while Taylor was on the team, and he won the defensive MVP his senior year when SC won another national championship, and Taylor almost singlehandedly shut down Notre Dame’s final drive, preventing their ‘go ahead’ score and insuring that USC took home yet another national title. He was drafted by the San Francisco Forty Niners and played there seven years, and he was instrumental in San Francisco’s two Super Bowl wins during that time. His football career was, however, cut short by a cheap shot in what turned out to be his last playoff game, in a heartbreaking loss against the Dallas Cowboys. He flew home weeks later with his shattered left femur and knee still in a cast, with a host of metal rods and plates in his leg. While effectively ending his professional football career, this injury had lasting effects: he used a cane to walk, and the pain was usually so bad that walking more than a quarter mile left him in tears. 

But after this career ended, and not yet having turned thirty years old, he realized that he still had friends all over California, and none of them seemed too put off by his limp and his growing collection of eccentric canes. Friends in The City, and even closer friends down in LA, were more than helpful, and in no time at all Taylor went to work for a film production company working out of the Twentieth Century Fox studios adjacent to Century City. His first real assignment was to join one of the location scouting teams working on the second trilogy of a popular science fiction film series, the first film he was involved with concerned the early childhood years of a kid named Skywalker. The rest is, as the saying goes, History.

Because he did well on this first project, and because he did he took on a more active, participatory role on the two sequels that followed, moving into production for the third installment, learning the ropes from masters of their craft all along the way as he progressed. Smaller independent projects followed, but he was credited as an Associate Producer on an Oscar winner and that was pretty much that. He’d made it into the big leagues once again and soon bought a house on Foothill Road in Beverly Hills, then he picked up a nice sailboat which he berthed down at Marina del Rey. Life seemed good. Better than good, really, yet people talked. Perhaps because through all his meteoric rise William Taylor had remained resolutely unattached…and so he was by the time he first limped into his house on Foothill Road considered a confirmed bachelor. Except…there was a history he refused to talk about.

Because, in point of fact, he wasn’t a bachelor, at least not in his mind, or should we say heart? No, he wasn’t…not really. At least, he didn’t want to be, yet while being single certainly wasn’t the result of a conscientious decision on his part, by the time Taylor made it to Hamburg he really didn’t seem to care anymore whether he was in a relationship or not. And perhaps because he was in his mid-forties, though in his mind he was fast approaching fifty-years-old, and this despite the fact that most of his business associates considered him a decent enough looking fella. No, maybe it was because, despite his good looks and all his newfound money he’d never really grown all that comfortable about his leg. He was, in fact, still something of a jock, too – at heart, anyway. He’d soon grown comfortable with the fact he’d never run again, yet even so he almost religiously went to a gym over on Sunset at least four evenings a week. He kept in shape that way, yet because his left leg had begun to wither and atrophy, he became increasingly insecure about it. 

Even so, a bunch of stuntmen types worked out at the gym he used, a couple of B-listed actors he knew as well, and he did in fact make a few new friends there from time to time, too, but then again he always did. And even though lots of actresses worked out there, he’d never bumped into anyone special. Nothing ever developed, these girls were more than willing to go out for drinks.

Because William Taylor just wasn’t that kind of guy. He was a guy’s guy, true enough, and he had an easy way around beautiful women that most found completely disarming, but you might consider that it was all a ruse. People liked him, and probably because they found him genuinely easy to talk to, and he was, predictably enough, a popular guest at parties all around the West Side. He had that Super Bowl ring, too, and in a status driven town like Los Angeles a little chunk of metal like his opened all kinds of doors, doors that might otherwise remained firmly closed, especially to a cowboy from the Middle of Nowhere, Montana. And yet even in the rarified places he soon frequented, his easy going smile and kind eyes always carried the day, and he easily made new friends wherever he ventured – even in locales as varied Tunisia and Tibet, or yes, even in cities known for more reserved citizenry, places like Hamburg, Germany.

Taylor’s production company had just begun work on a small production in Stockholm and he had decided to come down to Hamburg to decompress before heading back to LA, and he’d reserved his usual top floor suite for the night. After he arrived he showered and changed into the same clothes he always wore, before he made his way down to the taxi stand off the lobby, yet right away he did a double take – because there were, literally, dozens of priests walking around everywhere he looked. Even members of his own security detail stopped and gawked, because the sight was almost comical…like herds of penguins out walking the streets of Hamburg as a light snow began falling.

These days his security team was never really far away. Like the famous, big name actors the studios used for their biggest productions, Taylor was now considered a ‘high-profile target’ and when he was abroad the studio regularly kept a large detail on him. If the threat level was considered high enough, a team regularly followed him around Los Angeles.

And then there was the matter of his clothing, which vexed these security contractors to no end. Taylor always wore a black suit and a white shirt – topped with a bright red bow tie. Everywhere. No exceptions. And the same heavy black wingtips. The closet in his suite at the Marriott had four freshly laundered suits and four freshly shined pairs of identical shoes, everything custom made in London; even his socks and briefs were identical, and when members of his detail swept the rooms for listening devices they came away making up jokes about the clothes in Taylor’s closet.

But these priests out here on the street were, however, another matter entirely. They were everywhere. Standing in clusters noisily chatting away. Gaggles of them walking along like penguins playing on Antarctic shores – all of them noisily chatting away. Taylor had never seen anything quite like it, not even in Rome, and he laughed a little as he stepped outside, because the sight of so much ecclesiastical garb out on the sidewalks of Hamburg was faintly preposterous. Still, he wondered what was going on and why they all seemed so excited. In the end, he bunched his lips and shrugged, then hopped into the next taxi that pulled up to the stand, asking the driver to take him down to the Reeperbahn.

+++++

Yes. The Reeperbahn. That Reeperbahn. Ground Zero for fun in Germany.

After the Beatles played Hamburg – once upon a time – the city became a stop where every semi-serious musicians of every stripe called from time to time. Yet Hamburg was also famous for semi-naked chics sitting in overstuffed chairs, their recumbent forms lounging in open windows – even in the middle of winter! – selling their bodies and, just maybe, little slices of their souls – one cheap little fuck at a time. Cheap dance halls, too, all usually overflowing with sailors just off freighters fresh in from faraway ports, and these fetid establishments lined many of the side streets just off the Reeperbahn, with all kinds of garish strobes pulsing to deeply unsettled music and with steaming, testosterone-fueled lust running headlong into the cool, calculating economies of hard-eyed girls from eastern Europe – their darting eyes like double-edged stilettos, looking to settle a few quick scores in the night just ahead. 

 Yet the real heart of the Reeperbahn remained steadfast in everlasting, blazing, neon-hued agony: because if sailors didn’t get lucky in the dance halls there were always the dozens of adult video arcades waiting with open mouths everywhere they turned, ready and willing to take whatever bodily fluids came their way. Less reputable girls – and boys – worked in all those dark shadows, poor souls lost in the depths of a bottomless food chain.

For William Taylor, however, music mattered most of all – because music was the real beating heart of the city. And not just any music. Taylor was pulled like a moth to the flame by the city’s jazz clubs. Little out of the way hole-in-the-wall places with a good piano on a tiny stage, a decent bar and maybe a kitchen. Taylor loved jazz and he always had, but to him Hamburg was special. His veins pulsed with the piano infused, gin fueled music of minor keys, and the soft musical wanderings he found in Hamburg really, really tripped his trigger. Who knows…maybe it was all the debauchery going on just outside the walls, around the Reeperbahn? Maybe the dualities of life…like the other people just outside, out there walking along neon-bathed sidewalks, tripping and falling their way to the other side of their lives, while he sat inside listening to music most would never understand. Maybe he enjoyed his little island in the middle of an ocean littered with the falling, and the fallen.

He was, you see, still that middle linebacker who’d played for ‘SC and the Forty Niners, still at heart a rather mean human being, and still blessed with a very cold heart. He knew that, deep down at least, the easy smiles and free-flowing conversations he devised were simply a ruse, they always had been, and when he’d had a few drinks he was willing to admit – if only to himself – that he was filled with a deep hatred for people. His fellow man. Not ambivalence, mind you. A deep, abiding hatred. And he’d felt that way all his life – because, as it is with most people who feel this way, he’d learned this way of approaching life from his father.

The drive from the hotel took less than five minutes, even in the dense, early evening traffic and, because it was almost Christmas, the sun had been down for some time, the temperature, too. As a matter of fact he felt it was almost too cold for this kind of nonsense, but when the taxi stopped William Taylor paid his driver and stepped out into the cold; he began walking the last few steps to his favorite old jazz club just off the Gerhardstrasse – a funky little building that looked like a purple and black house stuck inside an inconvenient alcove off an alley of ill-repute more than anything else. The dive was conveniently just out of sight, too, which was probably a good thing. Hookers and trannies stood in deep shadows while middle-aged worshippers got down on their knees and prayed at their alters, and everywhere William Taylor looked he saw desperate eyes quietly in search of flagging weakness…predators on the prowl for fresh blood, for the next kill. Oh, how he hated what he saw.

He made it into the club and through that press of besotted humanity gathered near the door and he found a table not far from the tiny stage, his back up against a brick wall, a wall that had probably last been painted a deep, glossy black sometime in the early 50s. An old Steinway sat on the stage in funky purple shadows, along with a gleaming upright bass and a decent sized drum kit, and he looked at his watch while he tried to stifle a deep, jet-lagged yawn as he sized-up the crowd – such as it was. A handful of officers from ships, a couple of bespectacled, middle-aged businessmen with their too interested mistresses – their current playmates of the mouth – and even a couple of hookers at a table near the bar, surrounded by a half dozen kids fresh off the boat from Liverpool, or someplace like that. A cocktail waitress dropped by a minute later and asked what he needed – not wanted, mind you, but needed – and he grinned his order for a gin and tonic to her bored eyes then watched her walk away with a brief shake of his head. When she dropped off his gin he tipped her fifty euros and she instantly grew more solicitous and cheerful, and that made William Taylor a very happy fella, indeed. He looked at discovering and rediscovering again and again that his fellow man was nothing if not a craven, hollowed out creature – with no morals at all beyond an unquenchable hunger for money – and this was an event to be cherished, as something that justified his outlook on life.

But when a bunch of penguin-walking priests toddled into his old cave few patrons bothered to look up from their whiskeys or biers – which Taylor also found more than a little amusing. Hiding, were they? Of course they were, especially the beer bellied men with their mistresses. Most of the priests went to two big adjoining tables, but a couple of stragglers came in late and walked around in states of holy confusion, looking for one last vacant table – only now there weren’t any. One of the singletons found a table with sailors in a far corner, and when these drunkards didn’t object the poor priest sat with them. Taylor could just imagine their inner conflict as he watched them, and he grinned at their misery.

But now one last priest was roaming the room, and when he spotted Taylor’s table he ambled over, a hopeful gleam in his eye.

“Sorry,” the old priest began. “I hate to intrude, but would you mind if I sat here?”

Taylor smiled genially. “Not at all. Please, make yourself comfortable.”

“Ah. You’re American. I can’t tell you how good it is to hear your voice.”

“Oh? Why’s that, Father?”

“I’ve been over here a week and hardly anyone speaks English these days.  They can, mind you, but we’re so passé these days. Like a venerial disease running rampant through a convent, I should think. Anyway, I can’t wait to get back home.”

“Really? Where’s home?”

“I’m teaching these days, in South Bend.”

“Ah. Notre Dame,” Taylor sighed, remembering his Rose Bowl victory over that school while wanting to smash this fucking priest against the brick wall – as he rubbed his left knee in thoughtless ambivalence.

“Don’t tell me. You’re a football fan.”

Taylor grinned. “I played for USC, once upon a time. Against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yup. Then for the Forty Niners.”

“The NFL? Splendid! Now all I’ll need to make my night complete will be to contract HIV.”

Taylor chuckled. “Not a fan of the sport, I take it?”

“A mild understatement, my good friend and savior.”

“Sorry, Father, but I’m nobody’s savior.”

“I see. You aren’t Catholic, I take it?”

“Montana, so yes indeed, I certainly am. But perhaps lapsed would be a better word…”

“Ah,” the priest sighed, nodding. “Most of the early settlers there ran right into the open arms of the missions we’d established for the indigenous.”

“My great-grandparents first among them, Father, you’ll be so happy to know.”

Again, the priest chuckled…a very good natured, easy-going smile on his face. Taylor found him easy to talk to, and he started to relax a little. “So,” the priest asked, grinning smartly now, “do you come here often?”

Taylor laughed. “Not the most original pick-up line out there, is it, Father?”

“No, I suppose not, yet I couldn’t resist…”

“Why are there so many priests in town right now?”

“An academic conference on the Vatican and the Holocaust, and, dear boy, there’s not a mackerel left in the city, not from what I’ve heard, anyway. What about you? Fishing for Lost Souls, perhaps?”

“Hah! No, I was wrapping up a project in Sweden and I try to come here every time I’m in the area.”

“A project? Mind if I ask what?”

“Motion picture. I work in Hollywood, if that’s still an accurate descriptive. What do you teach?”

“History, of course. That’s about all us Jesuits are really good at these days, or so they tell me? We had a front row seat to the whole shooting match, after all.”

“A seat? I heard you were the guys behind the curtains pulling all the levers.”

The old man shrugged. “Wishful thinking, I’d say, or so sayeth the Wizard. Did you study history at USC?”

“No, not really, at least not beyond the requisite survey courses. I majored in Econ, was thinking about law school if football didn’t pan-out.”

“Pan-out…oh-ho, Forty Niners. That’s a good one…I like it. I’ll have to remember that.”

The lights dimmed and three people walked out onto the stage. The pianist was an old white guy who walked with a limp, the bassist was black and appeared to Taylor to be about twelve years old, while the drummer appeared to be only vaguely human, though he was of course carrying his sticks like they were knives. The pianist once had a reputation as a bad boy and was still kind of famous, at least among the jazz set, and everyone in the room seemed happy to find him still at the keys and actively touring again.

Taylor leaned back and took a long pull on his gin and when the first set ended – about an hour and a half later – he found he’d been barely breathing the entire time. The pianist then announced they’d be taking a short break, and as the lights came up the room seemed to collectively exhale and visibly relax – if only just a little.

“Incredible,” the priest sighed.

Taylor nodded. “Saw him up in The City first time, oh, I think it was back in the early 90s. He’s mellowed since then, I think.”

The priest seemed to struggle for a moment. “Ah. You met him before the bad times.”

“Really? What was that all about? Drugs?”

“I’m not sure, really. Just rumors, probably nothing of consequence, but he disappeared for years. Still, he’s always been something of a lost soul, something of an enigma.”

“A lost soul? How so?”

The priest sighed then turned to signal their waitress. “I think I’m going to need a drink. You? Need anything?”

“I could use a bite to eat, actually.” 

When the waitress came over to their table Taylor asked if they had anything to eat – after the priest asked for a Drambuie – and when she mentioned wurst and kraut Taylor seemed to think that was about right so he ordered a plate and some mustard. 

“What about you, Father?” the girl asked. 

The priest turned and looked almost expectantly at the girl: “Ich hätte gerne geräucherte Felchen, bitte.”

“Danke, Vater,” the girl said, her kind voice almost an awestruck whisper.

“They’ve always had a perfectly respectable smoked whitefish here,” the priest said as he turned back to Taylor. “I always have a little whenever I come back to Hamburg.”

“Really? I’ll have to give it a try sometime.”

“That was really something,” the priest added, lost in thought. “He’s playing better than he has in years, but he must be ninety years old now.”

“So…you’ve been following him for some time, I take it?”

“Yes. Some time.” 

The waitress brought the priest’s Drambuie and Taylor thought better of it and asked if he could have another G&T as well. The girl nodded and walked off.

“So, Father, should I know your name, or do we keep it simple tonight?”

“Oh, I am sorry. Andrew Kerrigan, Cynical Jesuit – late of South Bend.”

Taylor laughed. “I didn’t think Jesuits were allowed to be cynics.”

Which only made the priest laugh more – and quite loudly. “Jesuits are born cynics, Mister…ah, I am sorry…but I didn’t catch your name?”

“William Taylor.”

“Not Bill, I take it?”

“Not Bill.”

“Oh, yes, I remember now. William Taylor, number 55. Middle linebacker for the ‘Niners. Two Pro Bowls and then a devastating knee injury – against Dallas, was it not? MVP in your Rose Bowl victory against Notre Dame, if I remember correctly. And you were something of a celebrity around San Francisco for a while, I seem to recall.”

“I’d hardly call it that,” he said, and, as he always did, Taylor looked away. Disinterested, you might say. Habitually so, even if his disinterest was an act.

“Involved with charities, too. Kids’ hospitals, that sort of thing, at least I seem to remember something like that. Then you won an Oscar not long ago, did you not?”

Taylor shrugged while he fiddled with a fingernail.

“You know, William, sometimes modesty is nothing more than pretense.”

“I never liked being around braggarts, Father, and I’ve always assumed it’s better to remain quiet about that stuff.”

“But some people bask in all that reflected glory, William. Your accomplishments make them feel so important…”

“What?”

“Of course! There they are, sitting at a table with You – so they must be Important too, right? Isn’t that how the game is played? All those Pretenders? The Second Handers – trying to grab you  unawares and hang on for their free ride as long as they can?”

Taylor shrugged, but he didn’t disagree.

“An equitable trade,” the priest added, “And now you’re out there making millions off of them, aren’t you? Isn’t that a part of the game too? The reward, if you will?”

Then their plates came; sausages, sauerkraut, and mustard for Taylor, and a nice filet of smoked whitefish for the priest.

“Vielleicht ein bisschen Meerrettich, bitte?” the priest asked.

The waitress smiled and nodded, then left them to their food.

“You’re not really the shy type, are you?” Kerrigan asked – out of the blue.

“No, I suppose not. I mean…really…what’s the point…? Odd, but I’ve never looked at fame in quite the way you describe,” Taylor said, rejoining the string of their earlier conversation.

“Nor would I,” the priest sighed, smiling while doing his best to walk away from the unintended irony. “So, Sweden? A new film, you said? But tell me, how is your sausage? It looks rather good…”

“Decent, thanks. And Sweden is always delightful. I love it there.”

“Yes. Nothing at all like Los Angeles, is it?”

“Yes, the wildfires are really getting troublesome now,” Taylor replied blandly.

“Not to mention all those pesky homeless encampments next to the Maserati dealership down off Little Santa Monica,” Father Kerrigan said – as his fork skewered the pale flesh of the fish on his plate – even though he was still waiting for his horseradish.

Yet Taylor only nodded, as if Kerrigan’s sarcasm was merely a pedantic, if too obvious, observation, self evident in the extreme and so not really worthy of further comment. The priest sighed then took another bite of his fish.

“So tell me, William, I’m curious. Have you read Faust?”

“Faust? No, never got around to that one. I do recall a movie, I think it was Tombstone? One of the writers told me that key elements of the timeline were developed with Faust in mind.”

“Tombstone?” Kerrigan grinned. “You mean the Val Kilmer film?”

“He was in it, yes. Val Kilmer and Kurt – oh, what’s his name. Kurt Russell, right? Yeah, the Russell kid. There were, well, there are a bunch of references to Faust in the narrative arc.”

“The narrative arc?” Father Kerrigan said, smiling broadly now. “What on earth does that really mean, William? I mean, really mean? That seems such a worn out phrase these days…!”

“Oh, don’t you know? Tell you the truth, Father, I’m not really sure I know myself, but all the writers seem to use the term every time they’re pitching a screenplay to the development team, so Hell, it must mean something, right?”

“Just so,” Kerrigan said, smiling again, enjoying this jock’s passive-aggressive ignorant-arrogance almost more than was healthy.

“Yeah, just so. I mean…an arc even sounds impressive, ya know?”

“It certainly does, William. So, speaking of arcs, are you familiar with the concept of fallen angels?”

Angels? Fallen angels? You’re referring to Lucifer, right? To Satan, to the devil and that kind of stuff?”

“Indeed, William, truer words have never been spoken.”

Taylor shrugged. “My mother was into all that stuff, at least she was near the end.”

“Your mother? Really? Tell me…”

“Yeah, but I really don’t know about all that stuff, Father. That was her little part of our universe, but not really so much when we were growing up, ya know? Everything we knew probably came from The Exorcist, I reckon?”

“We? You have brothers and sisters?”

“I had a brother, yeah. He stayed on the ranch after I left for LA, wanted to take over the business after the parents were gone. I guess you could say things didn’t work out the way he thought they would…”

“Oh? And what happened to him, William?”

Taylor looked away, still trying to push all that from his mind’s eye, even after so many years. Unsuccessfully, he now realized. “He got drunk one night, I think. He was driving back out to the ranch in a snow storm.  Happened coming up to Lavina. Rolled the truck. Had the window down a little and his head got caught between the top of the window and the truck’s roof as it collapsed. Popped his head like a zit, his brains landed in the snow like fifty feet away from where the truck stopped rolling.”

“How’d your parents take that, William?” the priest said, taking in the vacant denial fixed like a wedge inside Taylor’s lost eyes.

“Dad…he…uh, well, he had a hard time with all that stuff. Kind of came undone. Never the same after that, ya know?”

“And your mother?”

Taylor shrugged. “Dementia, or maybe it was Alzheimer’s. She’d already pretty much come undone by then, and Dad ended up putting her away up in Lewistown.”

“Lewistown?”

“That’s where the state hospital is, on the way up to Great Falls.”

“And…is she still there?”

Taylor shook his head. “She died,” he whispered, “a few years ago.”

“And your father?”

“He passed away a few months after she did. Couldn’t take being alone, I think.”

“Oh? Where were you?”

“Africa. Working on a film.”

“When did you last see him?”

“At Frank’s funeral, I guess.”

“Frank was your brother, I take it?”

Taylor nodded. “That’s right.”

“And if I’ve got this right, Frank died before your mother went to the hospital?”

Taylor nodded, not quite evasively but even so he was growing visibly uncomfortable now.

“So tell me, William. Do you think a person can die of a broken heart?”

“You mean, like, some kind of psychological thing…like a collapse?”

Father Kerrigan nodded.

“I suppose that’s possible, but if so I’ve never heard of something like that happening.”

Kerrigan nodded again but still he remained silent.

“I guess maybe I could have spent more time with him,” Taylor added, but the priest could see a certain indelible insincerity in the man’s eyes, like some kind of hardened inability to understand another human being’s need, and that basic failing had been permanently etched inside the man’s soul – and probably before he’d been conceived.

“But…you were working on a movie? Right?” the priest added, coaxing Taylor now.

“That’s right,” Taylor sighed. “Dad understood all that.”

“Understood?”

“The money involved. The risk.”

“So, money was important to him?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And to you to, I take it?”

Taylor looked at the priest and smiled. A hard smile, almost hurtful. “Certainly, Father,” Taylor said. “I am, after all, only human.”

And Father Kerrigan smiled too. “Excellent!” the priest said. “A man should know what he’s all about! Now, how was that sausage!”

They said their goodbyes after the pianist’s second set, and Taylor walked out into the night feeling pleasantly numb from his third gin and tonic. He passed garishly lit windows that framed pink neon ladies of the evening, yet all their plaintive entreaties left him feeling little more than cold and resolutely alone, like he had grown too old for all these kinds of things. For all these human kinds of things. Because after all…they weren’t selling sex…they were working a con for some easy money, and all he felt was hate.

But…wasn’t he doing just that very thing? Didn’t that priest as much as say so?

And as he passed window after window he wondered why that had sprung to mind. Why was money so central to everything we did? And why was renouncing money so central to…

He stopped as he came to a very strange looking window, indeed.

There was a woman inside, but her room was a dark space unadorned by light, and not even shadows seemed welcome there.

He could just make out that she had blond hair, and that her skin was ferociously pale. The space around her eyes had been airbrushed – like something out of the old, original Blade Runner film – only this girl was dressed in purest white. Stockings, garters, heels – and maybe even a g-string, but he couldn’t be sure – because everything was pale off-white in her ambient shadows, pale yet almost lavender. Yet she was selling the purest white, he thought at once, because she was selling little pieces of her virginity in the darkest part of her little room, and what was that if not pale?

“What are you staring at?” the coiling blond hissed.

“Oh, I’m sorry! Was I staring?” Taylor said as he walked past her window without stopping.

“And rude, too! You won’t even stop to speak to me?”

“Why would I do that?” Taylor said as he stopped and turned to face her.

“Simple politeness? To another human being, perhaps?”

“But why…you’re…a prostitute?”

“Ah, so, am I therefore sub-human? Not worthy of even a modest ‘Hello, how are you?’”

“Well then, hello, how are you?”

“I am fine. And you?”

He looked at the hooker, this ur-woman, not at all sure what to say next, or even if he should say anything at all. He didn’t feel like being pulled into whatever con she was playing, but the simple fact that she was almost surreally attractive might have had something to do with the things he suddenly felt. “I’m not sure,” he said at last.

“Not sure – how you feel? And how is that?”

“I’ve just spent several hours talking to a priest. I found it very unsettling.”

She watched his hands now. Deep inside his trouser pockets, fingers twirling like tumblers inside an iron vault door. “Unsettling? Did the priest speak in truths to you?”

“‘Speak in truths?’ Now there’s an odd thing to say?”

She smiled, but – in truth – he could hardly see her features – hidden as she was in the peculiar near darkness of her lavender shadows. “Odd? Perhaps that is so, but isn’t that how our priests talk to us? In the hard absolutes of faith and redemption? In the hard truth of human existence?”

“Ya know…I think I’ve had enough philosophy shit for the night. You have a good one, alrighty?” He turned and started to walk off into the pale slanting light and lavender shadows surrounding her little window-like fortress, glad to be done with her – and that fucking priest! – when he heard a crisp snap…like she’d just snapped her fingers…and – at him!”

He turned and glowered at her.

“Why did you leave me like that?” the woman said, her eyes locked on his.

He cleared his throat, now – suddenly – feeling more than a little angry. “Because I really don’t feel like having a goddamn Princeton Debating Society marathon with a mother-fucking whore standing out here in the snow!” he bellowed. “Does that make any fucking sense at all to you? Am I being clear enough for you?”

She seemed to recoil under the weight of his assault, the fury behind his words tearing into her like physical blows, and quite unexpectedly he watched as she turned and began to cry. Gently at first, and when she realized what was happening she ran off into the back rooms of her little flat, leaving him standing there in flat-footed, open-mouthed wonder.

“Imagine that,” he sighed inwardly. “A hooker…with feelings.”

He walked over to her little window and peered inside. He saw a little sliver of light coming from under a closed door on the far wall, then…out of the corner of his eye…he saw an arm…from, he guessed, another hooker’s window, flinging something his way. Some sort of liquid was arcing through the air, headed his way, and he suddenly realized it was too late to react.

Piss, and a lot of it, rained down on his head and shoulders, and the acrid odor was instantly recognizable. He looked down and shook his head, then he stepped closer to the now abandoned window and knocked on the glass.

Another arm appeared from yet another window, and another cup full of urine headed his way, but he stepped clear of this assault before he walked back out into the light to address this shooting gallery of well-armed whores. 

“If any of you does this to me again,” he began, pointing at the first woman who’d pelted him, “I will see to it that you feel some real pain. Tonight.” He continued to stare down this first woman as a third cup of piss arced in from behind, and this huge colloidal mass splashed all over the back of his head, running down his neck and then under his shirt – as a new, uncertain gravity took hold of events. He reached in his coat and took out his phone and began photographing each laughing woman, and each obligingly flipped him the middle finger before flinging even more piss his way, cackling as he simply stood there, their pee raining down all around, and over, him.

He brought his phone up and punched a number, then he put the conversation onto the speaker before he turned up the volume.

“This is 11-780. In Hamburg tonight.”

“Yessir. We have two teams on you, and they report matters are getting a little out of hand on your end.”

“Is that so? Well, let you team know I do NOT appreciate your team letting this happen. Be that as it may, I’d like your team to wrap this up for me right now. And right now wouldn’t be too soon,” he said – just as he noticed a pimp of some kind coming out of one of the shadows.

“Yessir. What did you have in mind.”

“Something on the severe side, maybe just a little short of too much. Something no one around here will soon forget…if ever. And there’s a pimp headed my way…”

“Yessir. On him.”

By the time he turned to face the whores again all their windows were slamming shut and their garish pink neon lights were flickering off. The pimp was now, however, face down on the pavement, both legs broken, an arm too.

And William Taylor smiled.

But then, for the benefit of whoever might still be watching, or listening, he gently, almost smartly said: “You can run, ladies, but you can’t hide.”

Then, as he didn’t want to endure the humiliation of a taxi ride, he walked to the Marriott with his detail trailing a block behind. Seething. All the way. As a light snow fell on his piss-soaked shoulders.

And while he didn’t notice the woman following him in a taxi, two members of his security detail most certainly had. Their ‘Client’ was a Big Deal and now he was mad – very mad – because they’d fucked up.

And that would not, could not happen again. Not on their watch…

His detail let him out at the front lobby entrance, and the woman followed him inside. She kept a discrete distance, but she made it onto the elevator with him. And with two members of his team.

By the time Taylor pulled the wallet out of his jacket and held it up to the door to his suite, the woman was just a few meters behind, while the two members of his security team were right behind her. By then she was looking nervously behind as she walked up to Taylor, and now she appeared to be more than a little scared.

“Could I speak to you?” she said to Taylor as his door popped open.

“Ah. The philosopher-whore, and imagine my surprise, how complete you’ve made my evening,” he said, now addressing the two armed mercenaries watching over him. “Imagine that, gentlemen. She wants to talk to me, in all my piss-stained glory. Me. I am flattered.”

“Please,” the woman continued, “I would like to apologize.”

“You would? How interesting. I was thinking that maybe you’d rather go up to the roof and enjoy a complimentary flying lesson. Think you could arrange that for my apologetic friend?” he said to one of the men, the one with the Walther in his hand.

“Yessir,” the lead mercenary said, doing his best not to grin.

“Please?” the woman asked again, only now she was almost on the verge of crying. “I’d really like to speak to you.”

His eyes moved fractionally until he was looking at her, and she seemed to tremble when his brown eyes grabbed hers. “Talk?” he growled. “About what would you like to talk? Please, Whore…do tell.”

“Truth. About what the priest talked to you about. That kind of truth.”

“I’m tired,” he started to say…motioning to the lead mercenary.

“And you need a bath,” she stammered quickly, just like she was looking to get out of this situation alive. “Could I at least do that much for you?”

“What?” he said a little too melodramatically, startled by this sudden, unwarranted audacity. “Give me a bath? You?”

“Yes, please. While we talk.”

He thought for a moment then pushed the door to his suite open, stepping back and holding the door open for her, letting her enter. He held it open as his security detail walked in behind the woman, too.

“Wait out here,” he told the men as he walked into his bedroom, the woman trailing behind him by a step or two, then he closed the door as she entered the room.

Her hooker shoes looked vaguely pathetic in this setting, the raccoon makeup around her eyes beyond obscene as he pulled out his phone and dialed his security coordinator – this call still on the phone’s external speaker.

“Yessir?”

“Call Huff, would you? I want to be wheels up by 0600 latest. Get the car here in two hours, and someone to pack my bags in an hour.”

“Yessir. Anything else?”

“The women? What happened to them?”

“On the way to the hospital now, sir.”

“Fine, fine. Let your team know I appreciate the extra effort.”

“Yessir. Anything else?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Yessir.”

He cut the line and turned to the wide-eyed, terrified prostitute. “Well, what are you standing there for?” he said as he slipped out of his shoes and walked to the bathroom. She followed him into the palatial, marble-lined room and he stared at her reflection in the mirror as she came in. “Get that shit off your face,” he snarled as he pointed to the sinks and the assortment of soaps on the marble countertop, “before you fucking do anything else.” He turned on the water in the huge shower and when it was warm enough he stepped under the spray and let it run through his clothing, not bothering once to look at the wretch as she undressed and washed her face. With his arms outstretched he leaned into the wall and slipped off his trousers, then his shirts, the hot water now coursing down his back, then he felt a cool blast of air as the woman entered the shower.

She soon had a lathered sponge ready to go and started on his back, then the backs of his thighs. He moved the spray and she applied more soap to her sponge before she worked on his sides, then his shoulders.

“Go there, please,” she said, pointing to a marble bench along one side of the shower, “and sit for me.”

Feeling totally relaxed now he demurred, and without protest he went and sat. As she began washing his hair he closed his eyes and let his mind drift until he felt an easy sleep coming for him – with his forehead resting against her belly. ‘How maternal,’ he thought as a completely unexpected wave of emotion rolled over his thoughts, her gentle fingers sending him inward to a haunted landscape of unwanted memories he’d thought long buried beneath a cold Montana prairie.

“You speak English very well,” he said a moment later, running from long hidden feelings lurking in the steam.

“I spent most of my childhood on a farm near Bristol,” she began. “When my parents divorced I moved back here with my mother.”

“College?”

“I have had…an education,” she sighed, in-charge and smiling now, at ease once again.

“And what did you want to be when you grew up?”

She chuckled at his diffident disdain. “Before life turned sideways, you mean?”

“Yes, I suppose I do.”

“I always wanted to have horses. Nothing else mattered to me.”

“No interests, nothing you always wanted to do?”

“No, not really. Friends always said I should be an actress, but to me that seemed a frivolous thing to pursue.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” he said slowly, gently and on-guard now, his eyes wide open in the mist – like he knew there was a snake in the grass just ahead. Looking through her pubic thatch to her knees and feet, watching the water run from his head down her legs before pooling around her feet, he was suddenly very much aware of her presence, of every nuanced beat of her personality, and of all the warning lights in his mind blinking red.

“Oh, I was never pretty enough for all that drama stuff,” she sighed. 

“Well, the question is…are you an actress now, or are you not?”

“I studied a little, and I was in a play in London once…”

He stood abruptly and pushed her gently to a far corner of the shower. “You are at the front door of a house. You are a police officer and you have come to tell the mother of a boy you found earlier in the evening that her son is now dead, and that he was killed in a motor vehicle accident not two hours ago. My hand is the mother’s face…so now, follow my hand, her face, as you tell her what has happened…”

He watched her snap to and begin an ad-libbed dialogue with this imaginary, unseen woman, her movements deceptively true to character…empathy written all over her face, the strength of her fictional police officer’s resolve immediately believable, and while she spoke he studied her face, her eyes, as she worked through her hastily improvised sketch. When she finished he looked at her with something akin to respect in his eyes, and now he spoke with kindness in his voice.

“Have a passport?” he asked.

“Yes, of course. Why?”

“You want to make a movie? In Hollywood? Make a bunch of money, maybe enough to buy a some land, maybe a horse or two?”

She looked knowingly at this strange man – and she knew he wasn’t kidding now. “You would do this for me?” she asked humbly, smiling innocently as she watched his fall begin.

“I can put you in a position to make all this happen, yes. You’ll have to believe in me. To trust me – and I know that won’t be easy for you – not after tonight. You’ll have to do the hard work, all of it. Understand? I can get you in the door, but the rest will be up to you. You do that and yes, I can do that for you.” He watched her reaction closely, thinking ‘At least I can make some dreams come true, for some people.’

She nodded as she gauged his reaction to her smile. “Okay,” she cooed. “I accept your proposal.”

He held out his right hand and she looked down and took it. “We’re partners now,” he said, adding, “You take care of me and I’ll take care of you. That’s how the game works. Okay?”

“You mean, like sex or something?” she said, grinning – though still innocently.

He laughed – then shook his head. “Oh…Hell no. I don’t have time for that shit anymore, and besides, I seem to have zero interest in people these days. So, no…I mean I’ll look out for your business interests and you look out for mine. But at the same time, if you try to screw me you’ll be back out here on the streets before you can figure out what happened to you. Is that clear enough for you?”

“It is, yes,” she said, still holding his hand. “But…could you please tell me what this is really all about?”

+++++

After a quick stop at the prostitute’s flat – to collect her passport as well as some clothing – Taylor’s limousine made the short hop out to the main international airport just north of the city center. His driver avoided the large departure hall and drove to the south side of the airport, parking just outside the side entrance of a nondescript commercial building that, at five in the morning, looked completely barren, and except for a few lights inside, almost lifeless. They walked into the FBO and a customs agent cleared them to leave Germany, and then a Mercedes van drove their group out onto a bustling biz-jet ramp. Fuel trucks zoomed by while airliners taxied out to the nearby runway, and even in the blowing snow everything out here felt loud and important.

And when she saw the jet, the hooker couldn’t, apparently, believe her eyes.

The jet they’d pulled up to was huge, larger than many of the commercial airliners she saw parked over at the main terminal building, and as they walked up the air-stairs this impression was only magnified. In small italicized block lettering by the main door she saw the words Boeing Business Jet Max 900, and then she recognized the aircraft was some sort of modified Boeing 737. One of the jet’s pilots met them just inside the door, and someone from their security detail took her bag and carried it aft. A large polished mahogany table – in the center of the aircraft and just ahead of the wing – had been set for breakfast, and one of the flight attendants was just now pouring glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice into tall Waterford tumblers. Another shuttle pulled up down on the ramp and another small entourage made its way up the air-stairs and into the cabin, and she smiled and tried not to stare as two extremely famous actors – a husband and wife duo almost constantly in the tabloids – came to the table…saying “Hi!” to “William” as they sat at the ornately set table.

She hardly realized it at first, but the aircraft’s door had shut and the engines – though almost completely silent from inside the cabin – were starting. Seatbelts were checked and the cabin lights dimmed before the jet started to taxi out to the runway, and though she had flown before she thought this takeoff felt very smooth, and very quiet. A minute after takeoff, plates loaded with fresh bagels appeared as the lighting increased a bit, then smoked salmon and cream cheese arrived on another plate, followed by thin slices of onions and tomatoes on yet another. A fourth, smaller plate appeared, this one loaded with capers and caviar and other unknown garnishes, and she watched as everyone reached out and grabbed what they wanted, constructing huge open faced bagels loaded with enough stuff to feed a family.

The man, who she now assumed was named “William,” stopped rubbing his left leg and leaned over to speak to her just then. “Would you like me to fix you a bagel?”

“Could you, please?” she smiled. “Is there something wrong with your leg?”

Though he nodded he seemed to avoid her question as he took her plate, and he fixed a mountain-sized monstrosity of salmon and caviar and hard boiled egg and then set it down in front of her. Flutes were filled with champagne, then their plates were cleared just in time to make room for even larger platters loaded with eggs and steaks and thick slices of pepper encrusted bacon, everything covered in sautéed mushrooms, and with the freshly seared meat covered in a thick, creamy Béarnaise sauce. She watched as the husband and wife team wolfed down their steaks and eggs and then, without a word, she smiled as they disappeared into the large aft cabin.

And then, quite suddenly, she was alone with the man.

“My name is William Taylor,” he began without preamble, “and I make movies. More to the point, I produce movies. I’m going home now after working through some pre-production issues with my latest project, which for the most part will be filmed in Stockholm in early Spring,” he said as he opened a briefcase, pulling out a book from inside and setting it on the table. “I’ve secured the film rights to this book, and we’ll begin pre-production in a couple of months,” he continued. “It was written by a cop, works for the LAPD. A girl, as a matter of fact; works out of Rampart, that’s like South-Central, that kind of thing…so non-fiction, if you get my drift. Lot of guts, tough girl. She impressed the Hell out of me. And that brings me to you, and why you’re here.”

She looked at him and nodded. “Yes?”

He handed her the book. “Turn it over,” he said.

And she did. And there on the back cover was a photograph of the author, dressed in her LAPD uniform, and she smiled knowingly as she studied the other woman’s face.

“Yes,” William Taylor said, “you could be her twin sister, only younger. I couldn’t see that until I got that goddamn raccoon makeup off your face, but it was obvious the moment I…”

“I understand. It is almost uncanny, is it not? Is that the correct word, William?”

“Uncanny? Yes. Perfect.”

“So…I should read this book, no?”

“Do you read English?”

She smiled. “Of course I do, William. Raised in England, remember?”

“Ah, right. Just so. We’re running your passport right now. Background checks with German police and Interpol. Anything I need to know about?”

She shook her head – slowly.

“No arrests? Any drug use I need to know about?”

Again, she shook her head.

He looked down at a photocopy of her passport. “Your name is Angel Stardust? Really?”

“Yes. That’s correct.”

“What was your father’s name?”

“Gabriel.”

“Your mother?”

“Arcade,” she whispered, though it sounded like she had said something that sounded a little like Ar-caw-dah. “Though her given name is Lailah,” she added.

“How do you spell that?” he asked, and as she spelled it out for him he jotted notes on the  margins of his photocopy. “That first is an odd one. Not sure I’ve heard that before.”

“It is a name that is not used much these days,” she said, smiling just a little.

“I see. And the last name? Isn’t that a little unusual…?”

She shrugged. “It is what it is and I never asked about it.”

“I’m just thinking of how it might look on a film poster, or, you know, in the trailer for the film? Angel Stardust? Hm-m? Oh well, I’ll turn it over to marketing, and I’m sure they’ll come up with something interesting. They always do.”

“Yes, I’m sure they will. Do you know what happened to the girls out there tonight…?”

“No.”

“Could you find out for me, please?”

“No.”

“I see. Well, if the opportunity should arise…”

“It won’t. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Of course not, William,” she said, smiling into his explicitly implied meanness.

“Okay. Angel.”

She stood and went to one of the windows and looked out into the pre-dawn sky. “That is an unusual aurora, is it not?”

“What’s that?” he said as he came over and looked out the window. “Gee-zuz!” he cried as the scale of the display hit him, and just then the BBJs captain came on over the intercom.

“Sorry about this, y’all, but there’s some kind of intense solar activity going on right now, mainly over Canada and the United States, but GPS sats are going down all around the planet and most radio transmissions appear to be offline now, too. We’ve just passed Bergen, Norway, so we’re diverting to that airport right now, and we’ll stay there on the ground until we know it’s safe to continue on to California. Again, sorry about the delay, but your safety is our priority at this point. We’ll let you know as things develop, and just as soon as we hear something we’ll let you know.”

“Well, damn,” Taylor sighed as he looked at his watch. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

She turned and smiled at him. “That’s understandable, William,” she cooed. “Things like this are seldom predictable. Or convenient.”

One of the flight attendants came back and asked them to take a seat and to get belted-in, and Angel smiled as she looked around, taking a more traditional seat on the left side of the aircraft near the forward galley. William, however, needed to go to the WC so he darted forward before he returned, eventually sitting just across the aisle from her.

She watched the aurora as the jet maneuvered around the airport beneath scattered clouds, and a few minutes later they were on the ground and taxiing to a corporate aviation ramp just north of the main terminal. Men were standing down there on the pavement, hands in pockets as they looked up at the sky, and at the intense display still visible – even though the sun was now rising. After the jet’s main door opened, and as cold winter air flooded the cabin, she and William walked to the opening and stood there watching the sky – and listening to the weird noises coming from the far side of the clouds.

“It almost sounds electric, doesn’t it?” he said – just as the captain came out the cockpit door.

“I’m glad we made it down when we did,” the pilot said as he came over to the door. “Tower reports that some jets are down over in the States, especially out west. Not sure why just yet, but I’m sure glad we didn’t have to come in on instruments this morning.”

“You said that the GPS is down?” Angel asked. “Doesn’t that effect your navigation systems?”

“Some. Yes,” the pilot said, still looking a bit shaken. “I’ve never run into anything quite like this before, and I’ve been flying for thirty five years…”

“Air Force?” Angel asked, smiling gently.

“No, Navy, then commercial until I retired – before I started with Fox.”

“Then we were in capable hands, Captain,” she said, smiling at the pilot.

He nodded. “Maybe God was just keeping an eye on us…?”

She smiled. “Can we ever really know about such things, Captain…?”

“I don’t know, but yeah, well, I think I became a true believer about a half hour ago,” the pilot said, grinning as he leaned out the door, listening to the cacophonous shrilling buzz the aurora was making right now. “Goddamn…but I ain’t never heard nothin’ like that in my life…!” he whispered. “Sounds like, I don’t know…like ghosts howling in the clouds, ya know?”

“Perhaps, yes,” Angel said, still smiling: “I can’t place your accent, Captain. Are you from Texas?”

“Yes Ma’am. Alpine…on a little spread just outside of town.”

“Cool nights there, even in summer,” she said.

“You’ve been?” the old pilot said, sounding a little surprised.

Her head nodded a little. “Yes, once, when I was younger. We went to Big bend, to the park, then we drove to Carlsbad Caverns before we went on to the Grand Canyon.”

“Sounds like a nice trip.”

She smiled – as if the memory was a warm one. “Yes, it was.” Then she noticed William was staring at her, like he was suddenly quite interested in how easily she seemed to connect with complete strangers, so she smiled at him then turned and walked back to her seat.

“Impressive,” he sighed as he sat across the aisle from her once again. “You’re not really the shy type, are you?”

“No, I suppose not. I mean…really…what’s the point…?”

And then it hit him. Hadn’t he said almost exactly the same thing to the priest – and just a few hours earlier? He turned to look at this creature – and found she was now staring intently…right back at him. And she was still smiling too. A soft, almost demure smile. Inviting, yet smiling in a way he had never seen, or felt, before. It was…a knowing smile…full of secrets too long obscure.

And then his mind drifted back to the few minutes they had shared together in the shower. The simple humanity of his forehead against the soft skin of her belly, the gentle streams of water running from his face down her legs. He’d wanted to put his arms around her and pull her close, to feel everything there was to feel about this strange girl, but then he’d felt the need to put some real distance between such feelings and all the tense ambiguities he’d felt in the dark shadows beyond  and within the hidden world of her lavender windows.

But then here she was again – and quite suddenly, too – running her fingers through his hair, his scalp alive with electric currents of her own design, spiky sensations running like a million coiled tendrils snaking through his mind before washing down his spine, reaching into his gut as smoking waves of lava might on a cold night, the smile inside his mind’s eye so blindingly obtuse – because it suddenly felt as if someone – or was it some vast thing? – had just spoken to him at length in the forgotten language of simple truth. Yet in the span of a single heartbeat he felt a tremor deep inside, and for the very first time in his life, William Taylor felt the icy-hard claws of death scratching at his door.

Chapter Two

Introspections

What I didn’t know was that if I didn’t stand with my back to the wall, Hollywood people would unscrew my ass and sell it down the river.         Joseph Wambaugh

For as far back as she could remember, Jennifer Collins had wanted to be a cop. When she was a little kid just starting out in school, when she fell ill, as happens from time to time, what she remembered most was sitting in the living room and watching TV shows like CHIPs and Adam 12 among the early morning repeats. Her parents, of course, hated these shows, maybe almost as much as they hated cops. Her father was a lawyer, and while he made a decent enough living off of all the damage that followed in cops’ wakes – and, it seemed, wherever they went – all he had to say about them around the dinner table wasn’t fit for conversation with kids present. Not that that stopped him.

Whether or not her mother agreed with him wasn’t really something that ever concerned Jennifer Collins. When she stayed home, which wasn’t really all that often, her mother didn’t bother to change the channel – so an unfettered Jennifer watched all her favorite shows. Then one morning she watched a new show called Emergency!, about the adventures of a new type of fireman working in the LAFD. Paramedics. They were called paramedics, and as far as Jennifer Collins was concerned these new firemen were cooler than cool. They were like battlefield medics, only the war they were fighting was happening right outside her front door.

The Collins household wasn’t, however, really all that close to the action. Not really. Her father’s place, a little ranch style house with thick cedar shakes on the roof, was located on the sliver of land located between Loyola Marymount to the north and Los Angeles International Airport immediately to the south, and Jennifer’s unobstructed bedroom windows looked directly over the airplanes landing and taking-off all day and all night long. When the DC10s and L-1011s started their engines they seemed to let slip a long, low moaning sound as they came smoking to life, and those moans mingled with the pulsing roars of jets reversing thrust just before the next waiting airliner turned onto one of the runways to begin it’s loud sprint back into the clouds.

Jennifer’s first school was located just a few blocks away from that house, just across West Manchester over on Emerson Avenue, a street just like any one of the other tree lined streets close to the college, and there was a Safeway grocery store not too far away from her school, another store just like any one of a number of such stores on the West Side. Her school was one of dozens built just after the war, a little Bauhaus inspired thing that looked like a series of brick boxes that had been stacked one on top of another – until some precocious toddler had come along and knocked them all down, scattering little brick boxes along the edge of Emerson Avenue. And there were days when she felt like one of those bricks, too.

Her father’s house had reddish bricks on the outer walls, but only up to about waist high. The upper reaches were planked and painted sage green, and there were fake white shutters flanking the aluminum framed windows. The grass was green on her father’s lawn and he was fastidious about such things. He mowed the grass once a week, every Saturday morning, and then he edges along the sidewalks and driveway – meticulously. When she was old enough, Jennifer began helping her father, falling more and more, or perhaps deeper and deeper, into the rhythm of his life. 

One Halloween, when her mother was helping get her costume situated, Jennifer’s father put a sheet over his body and, pretending to be a ghost, he jumped out in front of the little girl – shouting ‘Boo!’ and almost scaring the shit out of her. In the end his big ‘Boo!’ made her laugh and laugh – and in point of fact more than she had ever laughed before – but it made her father laugh, too. And it was a funny moment between them because after that she increasingly became ‘Daddy’s little girl,’ and Halloween became ‘their time together.’ And after a few years he started calling his daughter his little Boo Angel, and soon she looked forward to Halloween more than any other time of the year.

Because love is funny like that. You never know when or how, or even why…

She started middle school at another Bauhaus brickyard not all that far away from the elementary school she’d attended, this school named for Orville Wright, which made a certain kind of sense given that Los Angeles International was located just a few blocks away. Still, she thought the name sounded kind of stupid. “Really,” she used to say to her friends, “who names a kid Orville?”

And…maybe she had a point. Yet, come to think of it, and, as her father often loudly proclaimed around the dinner table, the teachers at Orville Wright Middle School weren’t exactly churning out test pilots and rocket scientists, were they?

And while Jennifer wasn’t exactly a rocket scientist, she wasn’t a slow learner, either. She hated math but loved science, a rather basic conundrum that might have bothered her teachers – had they cared. She disliked social studies, too, yet she loved English, because, as it happened, she liked to write – and so she did whenever she could. Her writing skills followed her along to high school then on to Cal State Long Beach, where she thought she might major in Creative Writing. She took a couple of screenwriting classes just for fun, but in the end Jennifer decided to opt into the school’s Criminal Justice Program – after another formative experience altered the course of her life.

One of her creative writing teachers had been a cop up in LA, and she dropped by during office hours from time to time – just to shoot the breeze more than anything else – and he talked to her about all those old television shows she had watched when she stayed home on sick days. He talked to her about his own experience of being a cop, too. And these conversations hit a raw spot, or an exposed nerve, you might say, and one thing led to another. She talked to people in the criminal justice department about career options, then one night she went on a ride along.

In South Central.

And the experience shattered her previous way of looking at the world, the colloquially sheltered Weltanschauung of her father’s house. Jennifer was naturally a very empathetic person, and because of her experience of the people she met that night, the literal experience of South Central rocked her world. Because she’d never seen houses like those she saw between Slauson and Vermont – because white girls like her just didn’t go over there. Because it was too dangerous for white girls over there around all those – black people. Yet even more to the point, going on that ride along was an act of open rebellion. That night was Jennifer’s open declaration of independence  – from her father – because by that time she just didn’t agree with his take on law enforcement, or even with his take on the people who lived in South Central.

So…she graduated from Cal State Long Beach and by the time she applied to the LAPD her mother wasn’t all that surprised, though her father was, not surprisingly, beyond furious – indeed, he instead went ballistic. In fact, he took her application as a personal betrayal and didn’t speak to her for weeks, then months, and when she was accepted, making it into the January academy – the LAPD Academy located up in the hills that made up Elysian Park – her father was so so angry Jennifer thought he might not ever speak to her again. He in fact talked of disinheriting her, and then came talk of wiping the slate clean, of perhaps maybe even starting a whole new family, and maybe even finding with a new wife – because something had obviously gone terribly wrong with this life…! 

But because Jennifer had taken a couple of psych classes she thought she saw her father’s tantrums as symptoms of something much deeper. Like…Middle Aged Crazy, maybe? She met him for lunch a couple of times a few months later and noticed a lot of things that simply didn’t feel quite right to her, like some physiological symptoms just weren’t adding up, so she told her mother about her concerns. Yet her mother was now very deep into the whole five o’clocktail thing and had become, in just four short years, a real non-functioning alcoholic. Her mother, in short, simply didn’t care anymore what her father did, or even with whom he did it.

There was no love left in the little house over by the airport, Jennifer realized. There was no soul. And how could her mother survive living like this, she wondered? Still, something didn’t feel quite right with her father, so despite her own misgivings she called the family’s doctor and made an appointment for her father.

It took only a couple of lab tests to confirm the cancer diagnosis, and it turned out that her father’s pancreatic cancer was so advanced that even a modest intervention was discouraged. In fact, he passed three weeks later, leaving Jennifer in a complete stay of shock, and after that her mother fell into the bottle and hardly ever came up for air.

Yet because her mother had never worked a day in her life, and therefore had not one marketable skill, Jennifer knew that real trouble loomed. Worse still, her mother had not the slightest inclination to do anything other than to sit around the house drinking all day, and at fifty five years old that was not a prescription for enduring happiness. With that in mind, Jennifer moved back into the house by the airport and started taking care of her mother. At least she did until academy began, because both their lives changed after Jennifer first drove up to Elysian Park.

Because that other way of life was suddenly and completely over and done with, and for Jennifer the real work began. But then the real emotional torture began, too, as the essential nihilism of police work began to take root. The endless double-binds of that life grabbed her by the throat and soon made it hard to breathe. And she knew she was neglecting her mother, and that she was going to have to if she was going to, somehow, make a life of her own. But, let’s face it, when Jennifer first arrived at the Academy in Elysian Park, that was also her first real encounter with what was soon to become the central dilemma of her life. The one real fact of life she had ignored up ’til then, and that had, perhaps, been the one central fact of her mother’s life, as well.

Because Jennifer was the odd man out in Elysian Park – from day one. Literally. Because all her instructors were men, and all but one other classmate was male, too, and to make matters worse the other female in her class was a dedicated, hard-core lesbian. Instructors berated the girls, they were belittled horribly in front of their peers, and when those tactics didn’t get them to resign, their instructors began to systematically abuse them, both physically and emotionally. All under the guise of toughening them up to meet the demands that would be placed on them once they hit the street.

Yet Jennifer Collins knew the score. She’d heard all about this shit from her teachers in Long Beach, so she was ready for the assault, even for the duration and intensity of their torture. Because her instructors really weren’t all that clever, and because she realized there was a kernel of truth behind their motivations to destroy her. Female officers were still not at all the norm around LA, not even in the 90s, and in a peculiar way she knew her instructors really were looking out for her. Just like they were looking out for every other cop out there on the street, because the street really didn’t care if you were male or female or if your skin was black or white or any shade in between. No, Jennifer Collins understood that the only thing the street cared about was strength, and weakness. Mental strength, physical strength, and, perhaps a good measure of moral integrity, too; these were the only things that stood between cops on the beat and uncertain death, because every street in Los Angeles was full of death. Every street was an ecosystem unto itself, with apex predators lurking around every corner.

And the weak cops, she understood not long after she hit the street with a field training officer, were like the rest of the little fish around the reef. They depended on the big sharks to leave them alone, and the weakest cops did this by taking payoffs, by being paid to look the other way at just the necessary time of day, or night. Her first FTO was a decent enough cop, and he pointed out the weaker cops and even the various ways they were paid off.

“Why don’t you say something?” Jennifer asked, shocked as reality bit once again.

“You keep your mouth shut and you might just live long enough to understand all the reasons why,” her FTO replied.

And she listened to him, because she wasn’t naive. Because she knew the score, at least she thought she did, but more importantly she knew this old cop did. Because he had been around long enough to have seen reality. To know what reality looks like when you walk around a corner and run into it, face to face. Reality, she soon learned, exists within the split second when reality chooses to reveal itself. Everything else is pure guesswork…and preparation – for that moment.

So…she started keeping notes. Then she started to really think about all the things she saw, and experienced, out there on the mean streets of LA. And, as it happened, it turned out she was a very good observer of the human condition, and, as it happened, she still enjoyed writing. For whatever reason you want to imagine…call it boredom or call it simple human need…she began writing.

+++++

There’s a long history of cops in the LAPD who take up pen and paper to record their experiences, and some notable fiction has sprung from the pages crafted by these cops. Television series have been based on these works, and more than a few movies, too. Powerful stuff, really, about the human condition, and about the costs paid to police the fringes of this so-called condition. And while the LAPD doesn’t exactly frown on the activities of these writers, there are rules. Like – you write on you own dime. If you write fiction it must be easily identifiable as such. You do not discredit the department in general nor anyone who has or who is actively serving on the streets. Jennifer Collins, by and large, agreed with these rules, and she even understood the institutional necessity that had made these rules and procedures a practical necessity, so she wrote – quietly, unobtrusively – in her old bedroom. The same bedroom she had grown up in, the same little room in the same little house over by the airport. Her father’s house, where – if she listened hard enough, she could still just barely hear the faraway laughter of a little Boo Angel running into the open arms of a smiling father.

She’d been with the department and on the street for about five years when she started her very first short story, yet when she finished this effort she filed it away under ‘Too Embarrassing’ and gave up on the whole idea of writing – for a few months, anyway. When she next wrote another story she soon realized the waiting page was kind of like a blank canvas, a hidden place where she could paint in all the broad, dark strokes she found on the street, but then she found that the colors she rendered were more like a release of dark energy, the kind of catharsis she might have expected to find deep inside her nightmares. When she finally understood the nature of this budding relationship she began to spend more time with pen in hand, committing to the page all the feelings she couldn’t express elsewhere. Feelings she’d dared not express to her fellow cops.

So, at some point along this razor thin edge, she realized that almost everything she was writing was in direct contravention of every rule and procedure the department had put in place to prevent being discredited by disgruntled insiders. Yet, she said to herself, I’m not disgruntled. I love the department. I always have, and I always will. It’s just a few bad apples giving the department a bad name. So she kept writing, yet she soon decided she wouldn’t even try to get her works published. Not now,  she told herself, and maybe not ever.

And then one night she came home from her shift, and this was after about ten years on the force, and she found her mother in the kitchen, lying face down in a pool of blood and vomit. She called for paramedics and they pronounced yet another woman, her mother, dead at the scene – just one of dozens who passed in the night. The medical examiner’s report concluded her mother had suffered a stroke and had, more than likely, hit her head when she collapsed and fell to the floor, hitting her head on a countertop on the way down; she might otherwise have survived the stroke as the clot was small and the area of the brain affected was relatively insignificant, but it didn’t matter. Her mother fell and was gone and so the woman who carried and brought her into this world died alone, face down in her own vomit. Gee, sorry Mom.

And that’s what Jennifer Collins understood in the aftermath: her mother had died face down in a pool of vomit, drowning in bourbon infused bile. She died alone, perhaps like any one of the other hundred and ten human beings who had died that night – in The City of Angels – only her mother died from neglect. After she picked up her mother’s ashes from the funeral home, and after she mixed them with her father’s ashes, she drove her parents up to the top of the Angeles Crest Highway and held them before the wind’s embrace – and just like, with the passing of a gust, she was alone, really alone in her little corner of the universe. Soon the only human companionship she could find was either in the briefing room at Rampart or on the pages she created at home on her days off.

Yet, another one of those inflection points happened after she spread her parents to the wind. When she got back to her house later that evening she went into the living room and turned on the the big stereo system. It had been one of her father’s prized possessions, she realized, like just about every other item inside this living mausoleum, but – like everything else her father had bought, the hi-fi was perfect. A big old Marantz receiver hooked up to some truly massive JBL speakers, he’d probably bought the damn thing so he could drown out the airliners coming and going – except the houses here by the airport had been built so close together that playing music that loud would’ve earned a visit from the local patrolman.

She didn’t bother changing the station that night, and because he never changed the station maybe she left it tuned where it was so she could listen to the same music her father had. Sinatra. Dean Martin. Perry Como, voices from another time. Voices out of place and out of time but who nevertheless remained ready to fill in the empty shadows in all the lonely hearts out there. Music was a connection to that past and she missed it so much that night it hurt, and when the music came on she sat in the darkness and watched the never-ending string of lights as airliners, strung out like infinite pearls in the night, lined up to land. Soon each light resolved into wings and bodies full of people expecting to run into a happy embrace, then the jet’s engines roared for awhile as the jet slowed to turn off the runway – but then perhaps ten seconds later another jet would line up and streak down runway, leaping into the sky at the last second, still more people in an endless rush to open arms and a loving embrace, each new set of roaring machinery blending into the one before, and the next one after that to the one just before. 

Endlessly. 

Roaring. 

Embrace.

Then – a different song. 

Strong, deep bass, a punchy, almost syncopated bass line.

The Beat Goes On. Sonny and Cher. And she hadn’t heard the song in ages. Absolute ages.

Then she listened to the words, something about ‘drums and how they keep pounding a rhythm to the brain.’

Life keeps on coming at you. It never stops pounding away at you. The beat goes on.

The beat goes on and another jet lands. The beat goes on and another takes off. The beat goes on and lost people run into open, outstretched arms – and they are found again.

She turned up the volume to an insane level and the house shook and rumbled, but who could tell, really? One jet after another, the beat goes on. My mother passed out in her vomit and the beat goes on. She died and I just threw her ashes to the wind and still the goddamn beat goes on.

And it ain’t ever gonna stop, is it? Daddy died and he hated Mommy and I just mixed their ashes together and still the beat goes on. On and on and on and on…

But she turned down the hi-fi before her local patrolman stopped by for a visit, yet for the rest of the night that driving bass line never left her. Not once, not for one mother-fucking minute.

+++++

Her first real published novel, published after twenty two years on the street, was titled The Beat Goes On, and for some reason the book sold well. When a glowing review in the LA Times came out, her phone started to get busy. She went on The Tonight Show – not in uniform – and not long after that her agent got a call from a producer over at Twentieth Century Fox. 

“Some guy named Taylor, William Taylor.”

“Is he the guy that won an Oscar a couple of years ago…?”

“Yup, he’s the one. Look, he’s made an offer for the rights, and it’s a good one. More than fair for a first book.”

“And? What are you not telling me?”

“Nothing, really. I think you should jump on it. He’s off to Sweden tomorrow but he saw you last night and his people called me first thing this morning.”

“Okay…?”

“The thing is, he’s not sure about you writing the screenplay.”

“So? I’m not sure I could, or even if I should.”

“So…that’s not a problem?”

“Not as far as I’m concerned.”

“You want any creative control?”

“Look, as long as they’re not making snuff porn I could give a good goddamn. I guess I just expect you to get the best deal we can and let me get on with my life. Beyond that…leave me out of all the Hollywood bullshit. I’ve got to make briefing in two hours…know what I mean, Jelly-bean?”

“You open to doing publicity?”

“Yup. Sure. Why the fuck not?”

“And he mentioned something about doing a ride-along – with you.”

“Up to the department, Amigo…not me.”

“Okay, I think I got the contours. I’ll talk to you tomorrow…”

+++++

After nearly a quarter of a century with the department, Jennifer Collins had become sort of a fixture around both Rampart and the old South Central neighborhood in Southwest. Both divisions were regarded with disdain by most officers in and around LA, but to those officers who worked these meanest of the mean streets, being assigned to either was a badge of distinction, if not honor, and the men and women who worked in either were often regarded by outsiders as kind of a different breed. You needed a special kind of iron-fisted empathy to make it in South Central, if only because the population there, especially around the University of Southern California, was about as African-American as any neighborhood in America. And because USC was located in the heart of South Central, and because USC was about as patrician-lily-white as any school in Southern California could possibly be, this rather overt collision between the Haves and the Have Nots had, by the time Jennifer Collins started working there, generated more than it’s fair share of toxic animosity – and it had for well over fifty years. Even the  Fire Department’s paramedics wore bullet-proof vest when they worked South Central because, well, it was just that kind of place.

Jennifer was still assigned to Patrol Division, just as she had been right out of academy. She’d been pressured to take the sergeant’s exam – and more than once, too – and while she’d placed at or near the top of each successive sergeant’s list she always turned down the offered promotion. Becoming sergeant would, she explained to a succession of curious watch commanders, taken her away from the street – where she was happiest and, more importantly, where she felt most needed. Perhaps even more important, becoming sergeant would, she said, drive a wedge between herself and the men and women in Patrol, because in a very real sense she’d no longer be ‘one of them’. She would become a supervisor, and that was something she really, really didn’t want to be. It felt, she liked to say – especially when she explained these feelings to her coworkers after a bad shift, – like she belonged out there in a patrol car, out there in the middle of everything, right out there in the middle South Central, mired chest-deep in the human debris of a never-ending, undeclared war. The war she was fighting with the other officers assigned to Rampart and South Central by her side. She couldn’t leave them, she couldn’t let them down. Not now…

Not now…

“Why not now?” William Taylor asked during negotiations to secure the movie rights to The Beat Goes On.

“You, like, read the book…right?” Jennifer Collins replied.

“I did,” Taylor began pleasantly enough – and not at all defensively, “but I’d kind of like to hear your thoughts about all that right now. The book’s been published, and it’s been well received. The men and women working by your side in South Central have praised your work, yet I take it that’s kind of unusual. At least, I think that’s a little more than out of the ordinary, so I’m just curious. More than curious, really, about this bond you describe. This bond between officers.”

“What are you curious about, Mr. Taylor?” Jennifer asked, actually a little confused now.

“Well, actually, I think because I have my own preconceptions about being a cop, and about the camaraderie officers feel, about what it must actually feel like…for you?”

“Were you ever an officer,” Jennifer asked, and when he shook his head she continued. “Were you in the military?”

“No.”

“Ever belong to a group where other people depended on you for their safety, even their very existence?”

Taylor shrugged. “You know, the closest I came to anything like that happened just down the street from here,” he said, pointing in the general direction of the USC campus. “I played football here at ‘SC, then I played up in SF for the Forty Niners, but really, when I look back on those years the time I had here at ‘SC was most like that.”

“Okay,” Jennifer said, unimpressed even though she knew he’d tried to throw her off balance by bringing up the whole professional football player thing, “I get that, but maybe there are a few key differences between what you experienced and what we experience here in South Central – every day…”

“Hell, after reading your book that comes through loud and clear.”

“Well, thanks, I’m glad…but I’m still not clear what’s behind your curiosity?”

He drew in a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, almost like he was studying the ceiling, searching for just the right words…

“Look at my problem this way, if you could for just a moment,” Taylor began again. “I’ve got ninety minutes, maybe one-twenty to get your point of view across. Your book is almost six hundred pages of non-stop action, yet there are really just a handful of key ideas I can convey to our audience in that time. My problem – and I guess it’s kind of your problem too – is which key ideas do you feel – and I mean feel strongly about, like deep in your gut – we need to include in our representation of your work?”

“Okay, I get where you’re going,” she sighed. “First up, you’ll need to paint a picture of LA, and by that I mean the department, before Rodney King, before the verdict and the riots. Up next, and this is crucial, was the return of troops after Desert Storm, in ’91 and ’92, and then the whole George Bush push to get cities to hire troops returning from the war for their police departments…”

“And why is that so crucial?”

“Because police departments have always been “Us versus Them” institutions, but so are military institutions. What happened in the early 90s represented a huge change because police departments, especially out here in Southern California, incorporated more of the military elements into what had been…”

“Okay, I get that. Go on. What’s next, but remember…we’ve can really only cover just so many…”

“You know what, Mr. Taylor…I really need to sit down and think about all this before I…”

“I understand, Jennifer. And I know you didn’t expect to be grilled like this during our first meeting, but I’m off to Stockholm tomorrow and won’t be back until Christmas. I really kind of wanted to get a few of these ideas clear in my mind before I left, but I get it.”

Collins smiled and nodded. “I understand. Really. You know, I took a couple of screenwriting classes…”

Taylor smiled too – while inwardly he groaned. “Good. Look, just thinking out loud here, but why don’t you work on this for a couple of weeks then call my office. If you can swing a week or two, why don’t you come over to Sweden and we can get together with casting and one or two of my writers; we’ll put our heads together and clean up some of these questions…”

+++++

She’d always instinctively shied away from Hollywood types; most cops did…especially the cops who worked the West Side. Too much money, and way too many lawyers, and if you got too close…well, it was moths to the flame. You could get sucked-in by all their drama, all the deals those guys promised but that never seemed to come to anything. Jennifer Collins had heard those stories for years, but when she seriously started to write she began to ask around. Who was dialed in. Which production companies were more inclined to take an interest in another cop story…those kinds of questions. Because this was LA – La-La-Land – and LA would always be all about making movies – she wanted to be ready if opportunity came knocking on the door to her father’s house.

Only now they had come looking for her. And they wanted – Her!

And now here she was, sitting in First Class on a huge SAS Airbus taxiing out to the very same runway she had been looking at all her life. When the Airbus began its charge down the runway she looked out her window and caught a fleeting glimpse of the little house, her home – yet she was struck by how little everything looked as it streaked by. Maybe her life was little too, she thought, just before the airliner leapt away from the earth and began a long, steady climb into the empty sky.

She’d never been anywhere but Mexico before. A trip to Cabo once, with her parents, and a couple of trips to Tijuana with some friends right after academy. Trips to San Diego and San Francisco didn’t count, not really, not if you were from LA – so this was her first big trip – and she was excited.

First Class! What a way to go. A little cabin all her own and a glass of champagne as soon as she sat down. Canapés served before the jet even pushed back from the gate, then a procession of appetizers and entrees that boggled the mind.

‘All because I wrote a book?’ she said to herself. ‘This is crazy!’

But then again it wasn’t. Not really. This was business. She was business. She had created a product and brought it to market, and sitting here in this jet was just a part of the process of becoming a commodity that would be exported all around the world.

Ideas. Her ideas. Her experience.

Her life.

A commodity?

She tried to wrap her head around that idea, but soon found the notion gave her a headache.

Yet champagne, she soon discovered, helped. A lot. So did the Beef Wellington, but by then the surprise had worn off.

+++++

For an American abroad, and really for her first time, Stockholm was a crazy place – and the most crazy thing of all were the prices. Almost ten bucks for a cheeseburger – at Mickie-Ds! – while a Coke, with no free refills – cost almost five bucks. The same thing in South Central was a couple of pennies more than two dollars, and the shock of this hit her street sensibilities like a slap on the face. Her tiny suite at a local chain hotel was costing Taylor’s production company more than five hundred bucks a night, so no wonder he was using as many locals as possible while filming on location. Just how much money could it cost to make a movie? Taylor and one of his writers took her out to lunch her first full day there and the tab for the three of them was just short of four hundred dollars, and they’d only had beer!

But after lunch that first day the writer, a kid from Beverly Hills named Ethan Cohen, took her for a long walk around town – which involved getting on boats, sometimes just to get across the street! Small islands overgrown with trees and ornate gardens also were dotted with a few dozen stately homes, and these islands constituted little neighborhood in and unto themselves, while another island just across a nearby canal was loaded with shops and restaurants. Little boats, actually part of the local transit system, carried people everywhere, and within a few hours she didn’t give a damn about the high prices anymore.

Which almost instantly made her think of Disneyland, down in Anaheim, which was quite possibly the cleanest, most well-kept “neighborhood” in all Southern California…yet from everything she saw that first day, Stockholm was cleaner. People weren’t dropping scraps of paper on the sidewalks as they walked along their little cobbled lanes, and public transit wasn’t splattered in neon paint with the miscreant ravings of deluded gangbangers. By the end of her second day in the city she was thinking of contacting a realtor and renouncing her citizenship.

“You know the ‘love it or leave it’ crowd?” Cohen said at dinner after her second day touring the city with him.

“Who?”

“You know, those so-called patriots who go around putting up billboard that scream – ‘America! Love it or leave it! Those clowns…?”

“I’ve heard about that stuff, but not so much around South Central,” Jennifer replied.

“Yeah? Lucky you. Well, the thing is, most of those people have never been out of the States so they have absolutely no idea how people in places like Europe or Japan or Australia live. As far as these people are concerned the only people who enjoy the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness live in Kansas, well, in truth, only in Red states. Democrats are socialists and so is Europe…”

“And Sweden?” she sighed.

“Yeah. It IS socialist, but only to a degree. And yeah, the taxes are brutal but you don’t need to worry about getting sick or growing old or how you’re going to pay for college. Denmark and Finland are even more heavily socialized than this place, and you know what? They rank highest on the UNs happiness index, and that’s a whole bunch of parameters that measure quality of life and all the little things that make life stress free. The love or or leave it crowd just can’t wrap their heads around the reality that democratic institutions are robust over here, that most people are politically engaged and have voted time after time to keep these social institutions. Talk to anyone here about the cost of medical care and about the biggest gripe you’ll hear is about how expensive it is to park near the hospital. Ask about student loans and people won’t know what you’re talking about. Old age isn’t stigmatized, and old people aren’t warehoused in shitty conditions, basically, you know, left to rot and die. And all this wasn’t rammed down the people’s throats, either. They voted for politicians that created this sorry state of affairs.”

“I’m already thinking about looking for a realtor,” Jennifer said, only half in jest.

“I’m not sure I’d bother. We’re considered damaged goods these days, not really welcome anymore.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“I have my ideas, but while you’re here maybe you should ask a few people what they think about what’s going on back at home. I think you’ll find it’s a real eye opener.”

“So, where do you live?”

“The Hills of Beverly, Ma’am, only on the south side of Santa Monica.”

“Ah.”

“What about you?”

“Westchester, over by LMU.”

“Ah, over by the airport?”

“I have a great view of In and Out Burger and the jets on final approach!”

“Man, I’d kill for that view!” he said, but only half-jokingly. “I go over there once a week or so to sit under the lights and feel the jets as they pass by just overhead.”

“And…admit it…for an order of Animal Fries!”

“You know it, man!”

“LA isn’t all bad, Ethan.”

“Never said it was, Officer. I just get tired of the bitching about Europe. To me it’s just ignorance, but it’s also a kind of willful turning away from reality.”

“Willful?”

“Yeah, willful. It’s like these people aren’t even willing to take a look at how other people are constructing solutions to the problems we face, they’re just plowing straight ahead while waving the flag – so they’re not really even aware that they’re running straight for the edge of the cliff, and they’re willing to take all us over the edge with them.”

“So? What’s the solution?”

“Buy a fucking house, in Stockholm.”

+++++

As they walked around the city and all those canals, Ethan Cohen asked Jennifer Collins all kinds of questions about what it was like working around Rampart Division and the South Central neighborhood. “There’s not really a South Central Division, is there?” he asked.

“No, not officially. It used to be called University, and nowadays it’s called Southwest, but everyone knows what you’re talking about. South Central means the area around SC, and the neighborhood around the school has been called South Central for a really long time.”

“Is it still predominantly Black?”

“Ninety percent is the number I keep hearing. It feels higher to me.”

“Jesus…” Cohen sighed. “And is it still really like a war zone?”

Collins shrugged and looked away. “Depends on where you’re coming from, Ethan.”

“Look, Jennifer,” Cohen said, needling her just a little, “I need to know the score. The real deal, so if…”

“I’m not keeping anything from you, kid,” Jennifer sighed. “At least nothing you don’t already know. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, Ethan. I’ve done my research too, ya know? Like you went to high school in Beverly Hills, then you went on to the film school at USC, so you drove the same streets I do everyday. And so here’s the deal, the real scoop: don’t run this ‘I’m Mr. Innocent and don’t know diddly’ con on me, okay? I can smell a con from two miles away, and if you’re going to run one on me right now you might as well get lost.”

“What else did you learn about me?”

“Enough.”

“Like?”

She shook her head. “Trust me. You don’t want to know.”

He looked at her and shook his head. “I have fucked up a few times,” he finally whispered.

“You have.”

“I guess I should’ve figured you’d run my history. You are a cop.”

“I am indeed, and if I were you I’d take my time before heading back to the states.”

“Warrants?”

“Yup. Two state, one federal.”

“Fuck.”

“You’re a decent writer, Ethan, but you’ve got, as they say, a few issues.”

Cohen nodded. “I wasn’t planning on going home, you know? Thing is, there aren’t many places you can run.”

She shrugged. “None of my business,” she said as she looked around the restaurant. “Ain’t my jurisdiction, if you know what I mean. Besides, you’re a pretty good tour guide.”

“Hey, my new calling!”

“Now, you want to ask some real questions, or you wanna keep tryin’ to blow some more sunshine up  my ass?”

“Man…I can’t get a handle on you, Collins.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re like a lemon, before you squeeze it and get all the juice out.”

“How so?”

Well, you’re going to take this the wrong way, but here goes. You’re almost like a woman, but not quite. You’re like a woman that’s had all the feminine squeezed out, ya know?”

She looked down, suddenly no longer hungry, no longer sure she wanted anything at all to do with this whole movie business any more. Because, in a way, she knew he was right. She’d squeezed all those things people called femininity out of her system twenty years ago and it really didn’t matter to her, or at least it hadn’t, because she went to work every day with men and women who counted on her being tough enough to deal with whatever the streets through her way…

“Look, I’m sorry. I knew that was going to come out all wrong…”

She turned and looked at Ethan. “You’re not wrong. As a matter of fact…”

“Look, like I said, I’m sorry.”

“What I was going to say, Ethan, is that I haven’t thought about it much, but I think you just might have perfectly described me. I don’t date because I’m not attracted to people anymore, and I don’t date because when I look around I see people like you everywhere I go. Criminals and perverts hiding in plain sight, and really, I guess I just don’t want anything to do with people anymore. It’s not just because as a human being you’re a total failure, Ethan. It’s because the world is full of people just like you. Always on the run. Always hiding, but you make the mistake of thinking the rest of the world really gives a damn. How could they, Ethan, when everyone is just like you?”

“Jesus, you are a cynic…”

She chuckled at that. “Cynicism is just another way of turning your back on reality, kid…another way of letting it sneak up from behind and stick a knife in your back.”

He nodded. “Were you always like this?”

“No, not really, but if you’d read my book you’d already know the answer to that one.”

“Wanna give me the condensed version?”

“No.”

“Fair enough. Well, how shall we proceed?”

She shrugged, but her eyes were a little like laser beams just then, hard and focused and cutting through his flesh.

“Yeah, well, I guess I’ll leave you to it, Officer Collins,” he said as he pushed away from the table. “You have a nice life.”

“You too, dirtbag,” she sighed as she watched him walk through the restaurant and out into the midnight sun.

+++++

“Ethan tells me you gave him a pretty hard time last night?” William Taylor snarled when he met her for breakfast the next morning.

“You should run background checks on your employees, Mr. Taylor.”

“Oh?”

She shrugged. “Sorry, I’m not at liberty to discuss what I know or learn about people during the course of my duties.”

“Your duties? Are you telling me you’re on duty right now? In Stockholm?”

“I’m a sworn Officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, sir, and not your office assistant. And I take the oath I swore seriously.”

“Maybe too seriously, Jennifer?”

“No such thing, Mr. Taylor.”

“Okay, fair enough, and I understand how you feel about Ethan. Now comes the hard part…can you work with him?”

“Certainly I can. The question you need to ask yourself, or that he needs to think about, is ‘Can he work from the LA County Jail?”

“What the earth has he done to get you so riled up?”

“For one thing, he’s got a federal warrant out for possession of child porn, and I can tell you that much because that’s out of my jurisdiction, but don’t ask me about what else is pending out there, okay?”

“Jesus, are you fucking serious? Kiddie porn?”

Jennifer shrugged. “Not sure what your exposure is to any of this, but if you’ve got a couple of lawyers on retainer you might want to run this by them. At least your PR people should know…”

William Taylor seemed genuinely startled, and she watched as his pupils dilated and as the skin on his face and ears flushed, both pretty good indicators his reaction was genuine. 

“You still want me to work with him, sir?”

He shook his head, then backpedaled and shrugged a little. “Hell, Jennifer, I don’t know what to say right now. Ethan has, had, a real good take on your story…”

“He told me he hasn’t read the book yet. Just in case you’re curious.”

Again, William Taylor kind of mentally shuddered to a stop. “He what?”

“It’s more likely he has a problem with cops in general and wanted to use this to work up a nice little hatchet job on the LAPD…”

“Jesus H Christ!” Taylor cried. “That’s all I need!”

“Look, I…”

“Jennifer, I can’t apologize enough. You’ve done me, and, well, the studio one hell of a service by bringing this to my attention…”

“Mr. Taylor…?”

“Would you call me William, please?”

She shook her head. “We’re not there yet, sir. But I would like to call your attention to one more thing before we move on. Ethan is innocent until proven guilty, sir, and if I was in your position I wouldn’t say or do one damn thing to him until he’s proven guilty, or hell, innocent, by a jury. And frankly, sir, if you happen to think he’s the best writer for the job then we’ll just have to work around things until this project wraps up.”

“You know what…? I’m not sure I’ve ever been around anyone quite like you before. You don’t, like, get flustered real easy, do you?”

“The city doesn’t pay me to lose my shit out there, sir. Peoples lives depend on that.”

Taylor shook his head as he took a deep breath. “Ya know, I don’t get it…I just don’t get it. Where do they find people like you?”

She smiled. Then she looked him in the eye. “They don’t, sir. It’s the job. Academy starts the process, then comes training with other, more experienced officers, but all that just sets the stage for what comes next.”

“Which is?”

“The street, sir. The street is the real classroom, and if you live long enough – or if you don’t get religion or get really smart and quit – the street begins to work its magic on you. You begin to see through people, and after a while you begin to realize there aren’t any innocent people out there. Everyone lies. Everyone cheats. Everyone steals, and more than anything else, sir, everyone you run into out there on the street is absolutely full of hate.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

She shrugged again. “Maybe it sounds harsh, but…”

“No, no… No, I’m just trying to figure out how to get all your intensity onto the screen…”

“If you did that, sir, I can guarantee you that about four people would come to see that movie. And that would be worldwide,” she added, grinning.

“Then…you see my problem. Somehow I’ve got to figure out how to bottle the reality of life out there on the streets…so that other people can…”

“Why,” she said, interrupting his train of thought, “if you don’t mind me asking?”

Taylor leaned back and sighed again. “Okay…I’ll bite. Why’d you write the book you did?”

“Because I think people need to know the human truth behind that life, and the cost people pay to do this job well. And it doesn’t matter if I’m talking about a cop in LA or up in, maybe, a place like Vermont. The job’s the same because the people are the same, like as in everyone, everywhere.”

“Liars and cheats, all full of hate?”

“Yessir.”

“And you don’t, maybe, like think you might be burnt out a little?”

“No sir, I think I’m burnt out a lot, and there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about that, like maybe even when I’m standing in the shower, but even so all that shit gets put away when the uniform goes on. It has to. And when I started on this story I had to figure out how to keep all that anger from getting in the way of the truth I needed to tell.”

Taylor held out his right hand and she took it. “Then it’s my job, Jennifer,” he began, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he pushed back a tear or two, “to help you make this happen, but in order to do that I’m going to have to rely on you to tell me if I stray too far off the path you made for us. In other words, Jennifer, I’m going to need you to be my conscience, that little voice whispering in my ear, and I hope that’s okay with you. Because this is Hollywood, and I’m going to need you to be like a little angel sitting up there on my shoulder, if you know what I mean, helping all of us down the path you’ve set out…

Chapter Three

Paper Rock Scissors

If god created this world, he should review his plan.

Goethe 1820

Angel loved to walk along the Venice Beach Boardwalk at any hour of the day or night, yet the odd thing about it was that after arriving in Los Angeles she’d asked to go there almost immediately. When William Taylor had asked her why, Angel simply informed him that the Venice Beach area was someplace she’d always wanted to see. Of course, he’d had other plans. His production company maintained a couple of residences in the Century City area, and these were nice homes set aside for actors and actresses who didn’t already have established homes in the area. And not that anyone would, but these homes were so close to the studio that anyone could easily walk there.

Then again, it seemed no one in LA ever walked anywhere. Ever. ‘It must be a law,’ he thought.

But Angel wasn’t buying into the whole “close to the studio” thing, not by a long shot.

“You live in Beverly Hills and it takes you ten minutes to drive to the studio, right?” she said, still smiling. Always smiling. “I have always lived by the sea,” she explained, “and I doubt it will inconvenience anyone if want to live on the beach in Venice.”

Taylor had learned the hard way; these days he found it somewhat easier to give in on these kinds of peripheral demands, if only because he could then use his own willingness to compromise to his own advantage when and where it counted most: either working on location or shooting on a sound-stage. So…he had given in easily and noted he’d have to get one of his assistants to find her a house on the boardwalk and arrange a rental. And then almost immediately he’d had the assistant get Angel a cell phone…because she could never be found in the little house by the beach…because she was always out walking.

And so one day William Taylor decided to go down to Venice and catch Angel early in the morning, in time for a coffee, and then maybe he’d get to go out with her on one of these long walks she seemed to be taking all the time.

He drove down to her place, a new single family house on Speedway at 26th, and he shook his head in disgust at the overcrowded conditions in the area, and that was before he ran into his first homeless encampment. There was hardly enough space to walk between houses down there, and no yards to speak of, and it felt like every house along the boardwalk was built right out to the limits of its property line, and then went straight up about three stories – or more. Stucco boxes too, all of them, and about the only difference he noted between them was the color of the paint – and most of the paint he thought looked garish and out of place on houses in this price bracket.

He parked in her garage – because of course she refused to drive a car – and walked up to the door that led inside and he found a note taped there. 

“Be back by 6:30. Make yourself at home.”

He looked at his watch and sighed. It was already six fifteen…so, he had fifteen minutes to kill…but he also had a more than busy day ahead. He tried the back door and sighed when he realized she hadn’t even locked it, like it just didn’t matter that a couple thousand homeless freaks lived on the beach just a couple hundred yards away! Hell, the sidewalk was swimming in discarded syringes! He scoffed at her carelessness and was about to go inside when he heard an odd sounding car pull right behind his Beemer, so he turned and looked…

“Yup…that figures,” he snarled, looking at her in the passenger seat of a Prius – driven by – a fucking priest! She waved at him before she leaned over and hugged – hugged! – the priest, then she climbed out of the Tree-Hugger-Mobile and came over to him – hugging him too. Only now she smelled like grocery store after-shave, that blue crap that looked like radioactive waste – and smelled worse!

“Ready for some coffee?” she chirped brightly.

“My, aren’t we bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning?!” he said, but then he realized she was wearing surgical scrubs.

“I had a good night,” she added, smiling.

“A good night? Look, pardon my curiosity, but you look like you’ve been on the set of MASH…?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m volunteering over at St. Mark’s.”

“Doing what, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Just helping out, with the sick.”

“The sick?”

“Yeah, William, the sick. And the homeless, people like that…”

“And what are you doing there, Angel, with the sick and the homeless?”

“Just helping out.”

“Yeah. Okay. Sure. Whatever you say, kid. So…off to the coffee truck? Pumpkin-spice latte?”

“That sounds good. You lead and I’ll follow,” she said, again sounding very chipper for this time of the morning.

“You must either be a night owl or a real morning person,” he said as they made it to the boardwalk. 

“I don’t need a lot of sleep.”

“Lucky you. Some mornings I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

“Maybe you should.”

“What?”

“Sleep until you feel like you don’t need to anymore. You might feel better.”

“And go out of business too, you mean,” he said, chuckling at the thought. 

“Can’t hurt to give it a try,” she added. “Now…what was so important it couldn’t wait?”

“The department has finally given us the green light. Next Thursday you’re doing a ride-along with Miss Collins out of Rampart, but the big deal is one of their Public Affairs Officers is going to tail you two throughout the shift, and we’re going to have a crew from CBS riding along. So, we’re…”

“You’re going to film any calls we go out on. Yeah, I can see that being pretty useful. Congratulations. Has anyone done something like this before?”

“No, no one I’m aware of,” Taylor said, grinning. “Took a while, but the mayor stepped in and helped make it happen.”

“That’s quite a responsibility, William,” Angel said, smiling.

“Responsibility? How so?”

“Well, obviously both the department and the city trust you to present an impartial, unbiased account of the evening, but doesn’t that also mean that’s what they expect from the movie?”

“Oh, sure, sure. They’ve all read the book. They know the score. And they know this movie is going to be about as pro-cop as anything any of them could hope for…” Taylor shuddered to a stop as the enormity of the human condition on display out here confronted him. “Jesus Fucking Christ! Look at the tents! There must be hundreds…”

“Closer to two thousand right now,” Angel said, “and more every day.”

“Fuck! No wonder property values around here are dropping like a hot rock!”

She looked at him and smiled. “Yes. Like a very hot rock.”

“Goddamn! Look at that…that guy’s taking a shit, right there in the open! Right there in the fucking bushes!”

“Someone should arrest him, shouldn’t they, William?”

“God damn right they should!”

“So? Why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what?”

“Arrest him.”

Taylor shook his head and sighed. “Where’s the truck?”

“All the food trucks are about two blocks – this way,” she said, pointing. “Good breakfast tacos at the place I like to go to.”

“Tacos? For breakfast?”

“It’s the world you live in, William. You’d better get used to it.”

He snarled. “Better to just load ‘em all up in airplanes and…”

“And what, William? Push them out the door? Maybe without a parachute?”

“I was going to say fly them back home, but that works too.”

“A lot of people out here were born here, William.”

“Too bad for them. And the rest of us.”

She looked at him and smiled broadly. “What a lovely day,” she sighed as she turned and looked at the sky.

Taylor kept looking at all the tents and at all the squalor, but he turned to her now and then followed her eyes up at the sky. “I hear a Santa Ana is coming this afternoon.”

“A Santa Ana? What’s that?”

“Hot winds come down from the desert and blow out to sea. Gets very windy, lot of dust in the air, and it gets real hot, too.”

“Ooh, I love it when it’s hot out, don’t you?”

“I might…if people weren’t shitting all over the beach. It’s gonna fucking smell like a latrine down here.”

She nodded and smiled, then wrapped her arm in his.

“Jennifer tells me her two meetings with you have been productive,” Taylor said gently, not at all sure what to make of her affections this morning. “How’d you feel about meeting her?”

“She’s very bright, but like you she seems very set in her ways.”

“Like me? How so?”

“Well, for one, she seems to have issues with people, uh, in general.”

He smiled. “Ah. Yes. Well, there is that, but who told…”

“You told me as much, William, once upon a time,” Angel said, sighing as warm breezes came for them. “You don’t remember?”

But just then an obviously scared and more than likely homeless girl walked up to Angel.

“Excuse me please, but are you a doctor?” the emaciated waif said to Angel.

And Angel nodded. “Yes, I am. Are you not feeling well?” William turned and stared at Angel and scowled at her blatant lie as the girl explained that her mother was sick, and that she was “just over there” – while pointing to a tent on the margins of the beach. “Well then, let’s go see what’s wrong,” Angel added as she took the girl’s hand.

But Taylor quickly pulled her aside. “You, like, do know that it’s a felony to impersonate a physician, don’t you?” he admonished. “Just what the Hell do you think you’re doing?”

And Angel stopped and turned to him, the same gentle smile on her face. “I’m not impersonating anything, William. I’m board certified in General Surgery, William, and I completed all the requirements for national certification after I finished my residency at Stanford.”

“You…what?” he cried. “But…I found you in that window, working as a…” he added, dizzy now as confusion tugged at his feet.

“We see what we want to see, William. Or are you telling me now that isn’t always the case?”

“Please,” the girl said, “it’s not much further!”

It was a little three-man tent, bright red but not well ventilated. Flies were buzzing around the vestibule and it was more than apparent that people, a lot of people, had been defecating nearby. The girl opened the tent’s zippered rain-fly and Taylor could see the woman inside…red as a lobster, her skin rolling in sweat…and Angel put on some latex exam gloves before she bent down and crawled inside.

Taylor watched as she performed a complete exam, then she came back out onto the grassy sand.

“Did you bring your phone with you?” Angel asked Taylor.

“Yes, of course.”

“I’m pretty sure that woman has cholera. I need to call EMS and Public Health,” she whispered as she took Taylor’s phone and stepped away so as not to alarm the little girl.

“Is my mommy sick?” she asked William.

Taylor knelt yet instinctively kept his distance. “She might be, yes,” he said, “but we’ll find out soon and see if we can make her all better.”

“Will they take her away,” the little girl said, her eyes starting to fill with tears.

“I don’t know. I’m sorry, but I really don’t know much right now.”

“What’s your name?” the girl asked, tears now rolling down her grimy face.

“William, but I’ll tell you a little secret, honey…you can call me Bill,” he said, smiling a little as he looked at the fear in her eyes.

“My name is Gretchen,” she said, her voice cracking a little as she looked down at the sand.

“Taylor, isn’t it?” another voice said, a man’s voice, and William turned to look and see who was asking. “William Taylor, right?” And it was, he saw, the priest from the jazz club in Hamburg! Something Kerrigan, wasn’t it? Andrew? Andrew Kerrigan? Wasn’t that it?

“Father Kerrigan? What on earth?”

“William! Well, imagine finding you down here! You’re the last person I’d expect to find around a place like this!” the priest said as he walked up, holding out his right hand – which Taylor took warmly in his own.

“I’m here with a friend,” Taylor said by way of excuse. “And you? What are you doing in our neck of the woods?”

“I was posted to Loyola Marymount in August, teaching European History as luck would have it. I come down here on my mornings off, just to see if I can lend a hand…”

“Lend a hand?”

“Over at St. Mark’s. Our free clinic there serves the homeless in the neighborhood. And you? Your friend?”

“Long story, Father, and frankly, I’m not really sure I know all the pertinent details yet,” William said, frowning just a little.

“And who is this?” Father Kerrigan said, kneeling down to meet the little girl on her level.

“This is Gretchen,” Taylor said. “We’re looking after her mother just now.”

“Ah, she’s nearby, I take it?”

“In there,” William said, pointing to the red tent. “My friend is calling paramedics now.”

“I doubt they’ll take her, my friend. The system isn’t really set up to cope with the destitute, you know?”

“They’ll take this patient,” Angel said, walking up to William. “Father Kerrigan? Nice to see you down here so early!”

“Angel? You know this man?” the priest said, taking William Taylor by the arm – as he was now standing by Taylor’s side.

“Yes, he’s a friend,” she said, smiling.

“Father Kerrigan,” William added, “is the priest I mentioned talking to in Hamburg the night we met.”

“Really?” Angel said, now beaming. “Now…isn’t that an interesting coincidence?”

“Did you get in touch with the Health Department?” William asked, looking from Angel down to the little girl.

“Yes. The paramedics will coordinate with them when they arrive.”

“Coordinate?” Father Kerrigan kind of moaned. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked.

“She has cholera,” Angel whispered, “I think,” and Father Kerrigan nodded.

“Understandable,” the priest sighed. “I assumed it was bound to happen down here…sooner or later, anyway.”

Angel nodded. “We’ll need to isolate everyone down here, keep them from mingling on the boardwalk…”

“Good luck with that!” Taylor snarled as he looked at the mass of filth around the encampment…and, he shuddered, at all the piles of hidden excrement lurking just under the sand… 

“Well, Father, we were off to get coffee. Would you care to join us?” she said as she pulled off her gloves.

“Coincidence, you said? In Hamburg?” the priest sighed, looking at Angel, then Taylor.

“What?” Angel replied.

“You said my meeting William in Hamburg was a coincidence.”

“Did I?” she said through her smile.

“There are no coincidences,” the priest added, though Angel still smiled at Kerrigan’s bemused expression.

“Am I missing something?” Taylor said, looking at the exchange between the priest and Angel, but then he knelt back down and pulled the little girl close. “How are you feeling, Gretchen? Hungry?”

She shrugged.

“When’s the last time you had something to eat?”

“Yesterday.”

“Well, what would you like for breakfast today?”

Angel and Father Kerrigan stepped back and watched Taylor intently now, for he was acting somewhat out of character for a man who professed to despise humanity…though both were smiling now as they watched him.

The little girl shook her head.

“There’s a place that has tacos for breakfast! Imagine that! Tacos for breakfast! Does that sound good?”

The little girl nodded now – and just the barest hint of a smile appeared.

Father Kerrigan watched in utter amazement as Taylor picked up the little girl and hoisted her to perch on his left shoulder. “Angel? Where’s this taco truck? I’m gonna head down and get an order going.”

“You can see it from here,” Angel said, grinning at the girl. “The one with the red and white awning just past that palm.”

“Got it. What do you want and I’ll pick it up?”

“Migas con avocado y queso,” she said.

“Father? Want to come with me? We can grab a table and talk…”

Kerrigan looked to Angel, who – still stunned by Taylor’s apparent display of kindness for the little girl – simply nodded. “Go ahead,” she added when she saw the priest hesitate a little.

“Alright,” Kerrigan nodded, “we’ll see you there.”

Taylor winced as the extra weight of the girl on his shoulder bit into his left knee, but he carried-on regardless until they made it to the taco stand. “What sounds good to you?” he asked Gretchen.

“Whatever you have,” she said shyly, but then she put an arm around William’s neck and Father Kerrigan watched as Taylor’s heart seemed to melt on the spot. “Father? Do you know what to get?”

“I can handle it, William. You go find a table for us.”

Taylor made to fish his wallet from a pocket and Kerrigan put a stop to that. “My treat today. Remember? You paid for my drinks and whitefish at the club, and…”

“That’s right! And you said you’d get the next one, didn’t you?”

“I did indeed. See? No coincidences!”

Taylor found a table and cleaned it off a bit, then he settled in next to Gretchen and waited, by this point feeling a little hungry, too. Kerrigan arrived with a tray loaded with all kinds of goodies – burritos loaded with scrambled eggs, guacamole, while the loaded hash browns piqued Taylor’s interest right away – then Gretchen asked for one of the tacos with eggs, avocado and cheese. There were a bunch of those, and when Angel arrived everyone unwrapped their food and started eating.

“I forgot drinks,” Father Kerrigan sighed.

“I’ll get them,” William said, standing. “Angel? Coffee or juice?”

“A latte, I think.”

“The pumpkin spice thing?”

“Yes, please.”

“Father? You?”

“The same, I think?”

“Gretchen? How does orange juice sound?”

The little girl nodded and smiled and Taylor smiled with her. “Okay, I’ll be right back.”

“Your mother is going to be fine,” Angel said to her as Taylor walked away, but the change that came over the little girl as he disappeared into the melting crowd was terrifying to watch. She seemed to go catatonic, suddenly appeared almost lifeless – as if she was paralyzed with fear. “What’s wrong, Gretchen?” Angel asked.

“Something is going to happen – to him. I’m afraid now.”

“It will be alright,” Father Kerrigan sighed. “Nothing is going to happen to your mother.”

“I’m afraid for him,” she said again.

“Him? You mean William?” Angel asked. “Why? What do you see, Gretchen?”

But the girl simply shook her head now, yet still she was clearly very much afraid – until William returned with their drinks. And the change that came over the little girl was almost frightening in its intensity.

She latched onto “Bill’s” arm and it looked as if she was holding on for dear life – as if she was more afraid for Taylor than she was for her own mother, and Father Kerrigan watched all this as it unfolded with more than a little passing interest.

And as soon as Gretchen had finished eating her eyes grew heavy; a few minutes later she asked if she could lay down on the bench and “maybe take a little nap?”

“Sure, Honey, you go right ahead,” William said, speaking now in low, soothing, almost fatherly tones. “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

‘Not we’ll be right here, but I will be here…’ Father Kerrigan noted as he looked at the exchange between Taylor and the girl, because his mind had wandered back to the conversation at the club in Hamburg, between sets when they ate. Taylor was acting in a way that simply didn’t compute, so the comment suddenly became much more interesting to the priest. Hadn’t Taylor, in effect, abandoned his parents after his brother was killed in that accident? And now, wasn’t this little girl experiencing a certain kind of abandonment? And wasn’t that why Gretchen had so gently attached herself to Taylor? And if so, was Taylor feeling guilt right now, guilt for, in effect, abandoning his own parents? Was he, then, feeling a growing sense of attachment to this little girl as a result? Was he trying to compensate, perhaps? Or was this over-compensation?

More troubling still, Kerrigan felt as he watched Taylor, was where feelings like this might lead. What if the girl’s mother passed away? Would Taylor step in? How would the little girl react if he did?

And as an observer of the human condition for most of his adult life…Father Kerrigan thought Taylor’s comforting the little girl was interesting – if only because he had learned to enjoy watching life rearrange itself from time to time, like a picture-puzzle being knocked off a table and scattering on the floor, then taking shape once again before his eyes – only in new – and often unexpected ways. Could a hole in Taylor’s life be refilled by this little girl? A homeless, abandoned child? Could she rearrange Taylor’s life? Or…would the puzzle remain on the floor, scattered and abandoned?

“William?” Kerrigan spoke quietly now so as not to wake the child. “May I ask you a personal question?”

Taylor looked at the priest, measuring intent in the man’s eyes. “Sure. Go ahead…as long as it’s not too personal.”

Kerrigan smiled. “When we spoke in Hamburg you never mentioned any sort of strong personal attachments. No girlfriends, no wives, in fact no one at all…and I wondered why?”

Taylor leaned back a little, like he was studying a passing cloud or watching a bird fly by, and then he crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s a little personal, don’t you think? I mean, even for a priest?”

“Is it?” Father Kerrigan responded, his voice still gentle…if a little insistent. “I would have thought it was a natural enough question, and I certainly meant no offense…”

Taylor looked at the priest, then at Angel – who was stirring her coffee and, apparently, taking no notice of Kerrigan’s question. “I had a girl friend once. At ‘SC.”

“Was it serious?”

Taylor looked away, as if the memory had been chasing him for years and he was afraid it might be gaining on him, but then he nodded. “Yeah. Serious. That’s as good a word as any, I guess.”

“If you don’t mind, could you tell me about her?”

Taylor’s arms seemed to constrict around his chest a little, then he looked down at Gretchen and shook his head in just the slightest way imaginable, like he had re-experienced the deepest regret of his life. 

“Freshman year, November. Three games left and we had to win all three if we were going to make a bowl game. I was still a red-shirt, kinda like a rookie and not on the main roster, but one of our linebackers was taken-out in our game against Oregon, so they moved me onto the main squad, the travel squad, and they told me I was going to start against Stanford. It was a big deal, ya know?”

“Yes, I can only imagine.”

“I called the parents to see if they wanted to come to the game but no. Zero interest.” He stopped and took a deep breath – then – oddly enough he closed his eyes. “There was a party, weekend before Thanksgiving – and we were going to Palo Alto the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving so we could have a practice session on their field – but anyway, I went to this party even though as I freshman I wasn’t supposed to. It was at someone’s house in Beverly Hills, that was all I knew.

“So I went with a friend from the team, and besides, I didn’t have a car and needed a ride. House was huge, I mean bigger than anything I’d ever seen before and the back yard was just colossal. Two pools, a tennis court, a back house with a separate patio, and fucking Elton John was playing the piano in the main house. The guy who owned the house owned the label, and he’d gone to ‘SC too and gave this big party for the team every year. The thing is, not everyone was invited, but somehow my name made it on the list and there I was. Man…I felt like a hick, like I had straw in my hair…”

“Kind of imposing? A new experience for you?”

“Yeah, you could say that, but even so I was really self conscious about the whole thing, really way more than uptight. Then this girl takes my hand and takes me to the piano and she asks Elton to play Take Me to the Pilot and I was like – bam! – blown away that this girl had chosen me. Me! And she…knew Elton!”

“Was she pretty?”

“Pretty? Yeah, pretty, but at the same time she was kind of bookish, kind of wonky and exotic at the same time.”

“Ah, yes.”

Taylor nodded. “Anyway, we danced a little but I couldn’t, not really, but she understood and we drifted away from the main party after that, out to the backyard. And we, like, talked. For hours. Turned out it was her dad’s place and he was like the CEO of Universal or something like that, and it was her first year at ‘SC, too.”

“And you’re leaving out the most important part, aren’t you?”

Taylor nodded. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Her family was Jewish.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Did that matter…to you?”

Taylor looked at Father Kerrigan just then, and with tears in his eyes he shook his head slowly, gently. “Tell you the truth, Father, I’d heard about Jews in Social Studies but Montana wasn’t exactly overflowing with anyone that didn’t go to Sunday mass.”

“So? What happened next?”

“I fell in love with her, Father. I mean…all the way. She started coming to games just to watch me, then her old man started coming too. My sophomore year he started taking me to the studio, introducing me to everyone. Her mother began to treat me like I was her own son, and it wasn’t long before I loved her parents as much as I loved my own. We played Texas in the Cotton Bowl that year and got our asses handed to us, and then her family became the glue that held me together. My parents? They never came to a game, never, not once. It was like I didn’t exist, but it didn’t matter because I had these new parents, and they cared for me, they loved me, and they were there for me when things didn’t go right.

“Her father really helped after the Cotton Bowl thing. Like a counselor, like a friend…you need to start planning for life after college, and then life after football…”

“The NFL? Was that a possibility even then?”

“Oh yeah. Coaches talked about it so Mr. Sorensen heard about it, and Debra heard…”

“Sorensen? Ted Sorensen?”

“Yup, the one and only.”

“Holy cow, William… Sorensen ran Hollywood from the 60s through the 80s, and you were dating his daughter?”

William nodded. “We weren’t dating, Father. We were in love and I didn’t mind if anyone knew. She was like my shadow, ya know? Always by my side.”

“And her parents? They didn’t mind that you weren’t Jewish?”

“Not at all. I went to services with them, and more than once, too, and Father, I couldn’t tell any difference except the whole sacrament thing, the wine and the wafers, ya know? Talk about God seemed pretty much the same, too. Not a lot of talk about Jesus, but I guess that goes without saying, huh?”

“I’d say so, yes,” Father Kerrigan said, smiling.

“I played tennis with her mom, golf with her father, I tossed the football with her little brothers every time I went over to their house, and to this day all I remember about that time is a feeling that I belonged there. That I was loved. That this was how families were supposed to be.”

“Not like your family?”

“My parents were cold, Father. I mean…really, really cold. Like…I can’t remember once when either one told me they loved me. Not once. That’s what I mean by cold, ya know? And then here comes Mrs. Sorensen and she’s cooking me all these meals and her father is surrounding me with everything I’d ever need to make it in Hollywood and then there was Debra. To this day when I think of what the word love means I see her…”

“What happened?”

“What happened? I took her home for Christmas my senior year. I wanted to ask her to marry me, and I wanted to ask her with my parents around.”

Kerrigan knew what was going to happen but he let Taylor have his say. “And? What happened?”

“I learned about anti-semitism, Father. And that my parents were raving anti-semites. There was this horrible fight and Frank…”

“Your brother?”

William nodded. “That’s right. And yeah, so, Frank sees what’s going down and gets us out of the house and drives us down to Billings, to the airport, and it was snowing like crazy. Anyway, we got a flight out and Frank took off back to the ranch, and that’s when he got killed, Father. He wasn’t drunk. In fact, he’d only had his driver’s license for about a year. He was just a kid, Father,” William said, weeping openly now. “He was just a kid trying to do the right thing and it killed him. I killed him, and when we found out once we’d made it back to LA it was like I came undone. That’s when I pulled back. From everything. Everyone. Ted couldn’t shake me out of it, neither could Debra or Mrs. Sorensen. I just fell into the fucking black hole and disappeared for a couple of months…”

“Ah, and then the Rose Bowl, and Notre Dame?”

“I went out on that field with nothing but pure Hate in my heart, Father. I went out there to murder anyone who got in my way and I kept at it for the next eight years, until someone with more Hate in their heart took me out in Dallas.”

“And Debra?”

“I’d changed, Father. Into something she didn’t recognize anymore. We let it go at that.”

“And still you love her, don’t you?”

Taylor nodded, bowing his head as if in prayer. “Yeah, of course I do, but we all have our cross to bear, right, Father?”

“Yes. All of us.”

When William finally looked up he noticed that Angel was gone and he looked at Kerrigan, confused. “Where’d she go?”

“I think she realized this was something she probably didn’t need to be in on, William; I think perhaps she went to go make a call about Gretchen’s mother.”

Taylor looked down at the little girl still asleep with her head on his thigh, and absent-mindedly he ran his fingers through her hair. “Who knows, father. Maybe I could have had a little girl, maybe like this little girl.”

“Maybe you still can, William.”

Taylor shook his head. “Not me, Father. There were two people in the world whose love I was sure of, that I knew would last forever. Debra’s and Frank’s. They’re gone now and that as they say is that.”

“But surely Debra isn’t gone. Do you ever hear from her?”

“Every now and then I get a Christmas card, a note on my birthday.”

“Did she ever marry?”

“I have no idea, Father, but the point of all this is that Hatred I talked about. Father? That Hate took over my life. It destroyed everything I loved and that Hate still consumes me.”

“Are you sure, William?” Father Kerrigan said – as he watched William Taylor’s fingers gently running through a starving homeless girl’s filthy hair. “Are you really sure?”

Taylor smiled – just a little. “Father? I’m just going through the motions now, you know? Just breathing, one after another – because that’s all I know how to do.”

“Tell me something, William. If you could ask God for just one thing, what would that one thing be?”

And without hesitation Taylor spoke: “Frank. I’d ask God to go back and take it all back. To let Frank live the life he should have.

Father Kerrigan smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with your heart, William. At least nothing that a sweet little Jewish girl couldn’t fix…”

+++++

Gretchen’s mother had bounced in and out of various private mental health facilities in California and Arizona until what meager funds she had were exhausted, at which point the home  she’d been awarded after her divorce was attached to a mental health warrant to pay for continuing treatment at the state psychiatric hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. When the money equal to the value of her house was exhausted she was declared cured and summarily discharged, now homeless, onto the street. Gretchen’s grandmother reluctantly surrendered the little girl back to her mother’s care and almost immediately the two of them took off for La-La-Land, where both had lived before her mother’s most recent hospitalization. Gretchen was, when her mother was discharged from the hospital in Phoenix, seven years old, and the only roof over she’d experienced recently was when she stayed at her grandmother’s house in Scottsdale; she was, however, an expert at setting up and taking down tents – in a hurry – because being homeless meant you never really could stay in one place for very long.

She was holding William Taylor’s hand as her little entourage entered the main campus of the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood. Father Kerrigan was still with William and Angel, and one of Taylor’s office assistants was with them now too; he had picked them up and ferried them to Westwood, and now the group walked onto the Medicine floor and Taylor quickly found the nurses’ station.

“I’m looking for Margaret Marlowe,” Taylor said to one of the nurses sitting behind the counter. “Any idea where we could find her?”

“Seven-F,” the nurse said – without looking up or otherwise acknowledging his presence.

“Okay,” he said with a brusque shake of his head.

And they walked down to 7-F to find – an empty room.

So back the little group went to the nurses’ station.

“Uh, sorry, but there’s no one in 7-F,” Taylor growled, and that made the nurse look up from her paperwork.

“Let me see if she’s scheduled for imaging,” the harried woman added as she pulled up a screen on her computer. “Nope, nothing,” the woman said, standing and walking towards the room in a sudden hurry.

Still gone.

The nurse trotted back to her station and called a supervisor, who put out a security alert, but all to no avail. Margaret Marlowe had simply slipped into some clothes and vanished…

Yet Gretchen was unconcerned. “She’ll come back to the beach. You’ll see.”

So William and Angel and Father Kerrigan and the production assistant drove back to Venice Beach, and once they had parked in the garage at Angel’s house William pulled his assistant aside.

“Get me a tent,” he began – as his assistant began taking notes on a spiral notepad, “and something to sleep on. Maybe a cot and an air mattress. A light-weight sleeping bag. Better make sure the tent is big enough for four…”

“Four cots, then?”

“Yeah…better safe than sorry, right?”

“Yessir.”

“Get a bunch of those Yeti coolers and load ‘em up with ice and drinks, plastic cups, maybe a table and chairs, and anything else you think we’ll need…”

“Okay. Got it, sir.”

“And Henry? Ask Susan if she could look up Debra Sorensen’s contact information, that’s Ted Sorensen’s daughter. I think she still lives over on Palm or Alpine.”

“You just need a number, or email and social media?”

“Telephone. That’ll do for now.”

“Should I bring…?”

“Where you picked us up earlier.”

“You’re really going to stay down here?”

“Yeah…and oh, before I forget, bring me about five grand in cash. Hundred dollar bills.”

“Yessir.” Henry Gordon was used to his boss’s eccentricities, but even this was a little over the top. Still, Gordon went camping in the Sierras all the time so knew exactly what Taylor needed, and where to get everything. He did not, therefore, go to Wal*Mart.

+++++

“William? Is your leg bothering you?” Father Kerrigan asked as Taylor’s security detail finished helping get the campsite set-up.

“A little.”

“I’m just wondering, but why the tents? Why not stay at Angel’s house?”

“I want to experience what Gretchen has experienced,” Taylor sighed, standing slowly after getting one of the tent’s sun-shades staked out. “I need to understand what it feels like to live like this.”

“You…need to? Why’s that? Have a sequel to Sullivan’s Travels in mind?”

Taylor thought about that for a moment, but then shook his head. “No, not really, but I suppose like everyone else in this town I do love that movie.” He bent over a little and rubbed his left thigh, like he was working out a knot, then he stood again and looked at the huge encampment. “You know, I think My Man Godfrey was a better film, and yes, I know sitting down here with all the comforts of home hardly qualifies, but I feel like I need to do this. To connect with these people, even for a day or two.”

“Kind of put yourself in their shoes?”

“Maybe. Maybe just a little, but I hardly ever think about what these people live like, let alone how they survive…”

“Well, the truth of the matter, William, is that too many of them don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Survive.”

“You mean they just die out here, on the streets?”

Father Kerrigan nodded. “Yes, alone and feeling rather forsaken, I think you might say.”

Taylor turned and looked at the priest then. “What happens to them?”

“The bodies?”

“Yeah.”

“Processed and buried in pauper’s graves, I suppose, though I’ve heard the bodies are simply cremated these days.”

“How many homeless are there, Father?”

“In Los Angeles? Hard to say, really. Some estimates are as low as fifty thousand, but most put the number between sixty and a hundred thousand.”

“What about in the country?”

“Again, William, it’s hard to say. Conservative estimates put the number at around six hundred thousand, but some groups put the number closer to one million. You know, funny story about that. About twenty years ago, back during the second Bush administration, a federal study put the number of homeless in New York City at fifteen thousand, but a few months later a book was published and the authors noted that they’d found more than fifty thousand homeless living in abandoned subway tunnels all around the region. They had power, their own government structures, and the authors also talked to hundreds of children who had never once seen the sun.”

“That’s fucking outrageous, Father…oh, uh, sorry Father…excuse my French.”

Kerrigan shrugged then smiled: “There are all sorts of realities out there, William. More than you know.”

“More than I know,” Taylor whispered as once again he looked around the encampment. “I don’t understand that, Father.”

“Neither do I, William, but it’s a problem that never goes away…the homeless have been with us since David and Jesus walked the streets of Bethlehem.”

“But why here, now? Aren’t we the richest…?”

“We are indeed, but the social safety net that caught these people and stopped their fall into homelessness was abandoned in the 80s and it’s never been replaced, so the numbers grow, year after year…and this,” Kerrigan said with a sweep of his arms, “is the result. No real long term mental health facilities so those people end up here on the street. No prohibitions against predatory lending so homes are taken, and more people fall through the cracks. The list is long, really, but there are simply too many ways to end up here, and literally millions more people are just a few steps away from finding a similar fate.”

“But why, Father?”

“Because no one wants to think about it, William. It’s far easier to turn away from all this than it is to confront the reality that a similar fate awaits anyone if just a few critical missteps are taken. And now, William, I must insist that you get off that leg!”

Taylor nodded. “I know, I know, but somehow…”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, William, and you won’t solve this problem through the lens of a guilty conscience, so let’s find you a chair.”

“This way, sir,” Bill Tucker said. Tucker was Taylor’s Chief of Security and had been summoned by the studio to get down to the beach and assess the situation – Right now! – and he had gathered all available resources to help Taylor get set up down here. Tucker was a retired Navy Seal and had decades of experience in places like Somalia and Afghanistan, so setting up a secure camp on the sand was nothing new to him, but doing so in the middle of LA was, and in the middle of a homeless encampment full of American citizens was even more confusing. In fact, all of Tucker’s men had similar life experiences, and to a man all were equally upset by the sight of so many destitute Americans wandering around the boardwalk area panhandling or begging for handouts, and as his men were well-dressed, filthy children came up and asked for food, reminding many of them of their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taylor made it to a folding chair and sighed, then he called out for Henry Gordon again. “Hank!”

“Here sir!”

“Good work down here, Hank.”

“Thanks.”

“Bill?”

“Sir?”

“I want to lay on dinner for these people, all of ‘em.”

“Yessir?”

“And probably for the next week or so, until I can get something organized with the mayor. I’m going to need you to organize that so we don’t create chaos. Hank? What about Porta-potties? Can we do something along those lines?”

“Not really, sir. They need permits to do that, and if permits are issued that means the city is sanctioning this encampment. The fact of the matter is, sir, that the Sheriff’s Department conducts sweeps down here every month or so…”

“Sweeps?”

“Yup. Officers come down and give the people camped out here a day to clear out, and dozers show up the next morning to scoop up any camp sites that remain…”

“But…where do they go?” Taylor cried, and Gordon shrugged.

“You see the problem now, William,” Father Kerrigan sighed.

“Yeah, Father,” Taylor said, clearly annoyed. “But every problem has a solution.”

Gretchen came up just then and took his hand. “I’m hungry,” the little girl said, and the words seemed to fall on Taylor’s shoulders like an unbearable weight.

“I know you are, sweetheart. What would you like?”

She pointed at the cluster of food trucks parked nearby. “Anything,” she said.

“William?” Father Kerrigan said. “You sit and rest that leg. I’ll take care of this.”

But Taylor shook his head as he stood, then he picked up Gretchen and scooped her up onto his left shoulder again. “Bill, let’s head up and warn the owners of these trucks what’s coming. Hank? Call the mayor and see if he can come down here this evening. Tell him I’ve got a few ideas I’d like to go over with him.”

“Yessir!”

“And once you’ve done that, get me Ted Sorensen on the phone.”

+++++

“I think your proposal her merit, Bill,” Ted Sorensen said – just after the mayor and his entourage left the beach, “and I applaud your sense of drama – or should I say humor. You could not have chosen a better venue, and I do believe His Honor was truly shocked when you told him you’d be sleeping down here for the next week.”

Taylor looked up at the milky sky and nodded. “Ideas started coming to me this afternoon, Ted, because it seems to me now is the time to act. The political will to act is certainly here, and the problem has reached crisis proportions. But Ted, none of the ideas I’ve read about have a snowballs chance in Hell of succeeding.”

“And you think yours does?”

“No, not really, but someone has to make the first move, and that first step is going to have to include thinking outside of the box.”

Sorensen nodded. “The oil companies will never grant access to all that land, however, I think the studios just might do it. The publicity would be enormously helpful, and even the tax implications…”

“How’s Debra?” William Taylor said, interrupting the old man.

Who seemed to hesitate just a little before he began speaking again. “You know, when I watched them carry you off the field in Dallas I knew your career was over, yet I think a part of me expected that you’d call us after that. I hoped you might, anyway.”

“I wanted to, Ted.”

“Oh, how I wish you had.”

“You know I couldn’t do that.”

“Do I?” Sorensen said with a sigh. “You know, I never understood what happened up there. Not really. Debra tried to explain…”

“I was humiliated, sir. Not by what my parents said to your daughter, but by my acquiescence to their hatred. I failed to stand up to them, but at the same time – and who knows, maybe in the same way – I failed to stand up for her. The problem, sir, is that I’ve never felt worthy of her love since that day.”

“And then your brother.”

“Yeah, and then…Frank.”

“And you’ve still not forgiven yourself?”

“I’ll never be able to do that, sir. I’ll never stop hating myself, for my weakness, for my selfishness, for everything else that happened that day – but most all for letting Debra down.”

“She forgave you, but I think you know that.”

Taylor shook his head. “I don’t know why or how, Ted. I really don’t, and I never…”

“Because she loves you,” Sorensen cried, “you silly bastard! Don’t you know that?”

William looked down at his hands, then he looked at the tent where Gretchen lay sleeping. “Is love really that powerful, sir? Can love really endure in the face of so much hatred and neglect?”

“Why don’t you do us both a favor, son? Why don’t you call her and find out?”

+++++

Gretchen’s mother had simply disappeared, but Taylor soon learned from social services that this wasn’t the first time she’d bugged out, and even the little girl seemed to take it all in stride.

“How do you take something like that in stride, Father?” Taylor asked Father Kerrigan the next day.

“You stop feeling disappointment, William, when each fresh round of pain begins to feel a little more pointless.”

“Pointless?”

The priest frowned as he looked at the crowd gathering for their second free dinner, then he turned to face Taylor. “William, what happens when you leave these people? You’ll have filled their stomachs, but what comes after?”

Taylor ignored the evasion and sighed. “I hope I’ll have more answers for you tomorrow morning, so until then I’ll just keep this up…”

“The word’s out, you know? People from Skid Row will start showing up down here this afternoon, and I’ve heard more will be coming from as far away as South Central and Long Beach.”

“I know. By tomorrow the residents around here are going to be major league pissed…”

“Which brings me full circle, William. Why are you doing this? Where are you taking these people?”

“I’m doing it because I can, and I want to help break this cycle of dependence.”

“Indeed,” Father Kerrigan said, but a little voice inside wondered if that was really the case.

“It’s really simple, Father. The City has been trying to “formulate policy” for years, but now their best solution involves building a couple hundred housing units for almost three hundred million bucks. Ya know what, Father? That’s like more than a million bucks a pop, and that’s just absurd. There’s got to be a better way, and I had a, well, let’s just call it a brainstorm and be done with it. I think I have a sort of solution that’s in all our best interests, and I’m going to see if I can’t make it happen.”

Henry Gordon appeared and held up his wrist, pointed to his watch. “Your meeting with Jennifer is in five minutes,” Taylor’s assistant said. “She’s waiting up at the house,” he added, meaning Angel’s beach house – because all his assistants were now working out of the living room there.

Taylor nodded. “You’ll excuse me, Father…”

“That’s alright. I’m done with classes for the day so I’ll stay here with the girl.”

“Thanks,” Taylor said as he took off across the beach; several of the homeless squatters smiled at him as he passed, and a few even waved, but he began to notice that piles of trash left over from all his free meals were scattered all over the beach, creating yet another set of problems to be solved. But why? Why couldn’t they police their own garbage? Was something fundamentally wrong with these people? An image of Sisyphus came to mind and as he looked at fetid taco wrappers blowing across the beach he wondered if he’d embarked on a fool’s errand. ‘Well,’ he said to himself, ‘I’ll know soon enough.’

Angel and Jennifer Collins were sitting outside on the upper patio located on the building’s large, flat roof, and while Angel was sitting in sunlight, Jennifer was in shade provided by a vine covered trellis. There was a pitcher of limeade on the table and a glass waiting there for him, already running with silvery condensation, and then he noticed the girls were wearing navy t-shirts and yellow gym shorts, both emblazoned with LAPD insignia, and both soggy with gallons of sweat.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Angel said as she made to leave. “I’m sure you both have lots to talk about.”

Taylor sat but tried not to smile. “Thanks. Looks like you could use a shower,” he said to them both, but then he took a sip of limeade and watched Angel as she disappeared down the stairs.

“You know what, Bill?” Collins said, smiling at this little challenge.

“No. What?” he said, clearly annoyed that she’d called him ‘Bill.’

“The truth of the matter is she doesn’t.”

“Doesn’t what?”

“Look like she needs a shower. What do you know about her?”

“Just that she’s got a German passport…” he started to say, then he remembered she’d told him she’d done a surgical residency at Stanford and his brow furrowed. “What are you getting at?” he added.

“The Chief invited her to come down to the academy this morning, and I think he wanted her to follow one of the classes while they did their morning PT, or maybe watch a physical combat class.”

“Yeah. So?”

“You ever seen the run, Bill? At the Academy?”

“The run?”

“Yeah, at the Academy. It’s a meat grinder, Bill. A lot of cadets quit first day because of that run.”

“So?”

“Ever been up to the Academy?”

“Nope.”

“Dodger Stadium, maybe?”

“Not a baseball fan,” he scowled. “Where are you going with this?”

“The Academy is just above the parking lots on the north side of Dodger Stadium, in Elysian Park. There are trails all over that park, Bill. Steep trails. Steep, unpaved trails, and it was 93 degrees up there this morning. And you know what we did, Bill?”

“I suppose you’re going somewhere with this?”

“Yeah Bill, I am. We went for a run, Bill, with an Academy class that’s set to graduate in two weeks. In other words, with a class in top physical shape, Bill. I couldn’t keep up with the slowest cadet, but Angel gets out there and smokes them. Every fucking one of them, Bill. Even the Academy Instructor running with her could barely keep up.”

“Really?”

“Then we went to the combat class. Care to guess what happened?”

“Not really.”

“You ever hear of Koga? Bob Koga?”

“Can’t say that I have, no.”

“LAPD officer back in the 50s, started teaching hand-to-hand. Aikido. Little guy. That kind of thing. He’s been gone a while but a few of the instructors up there were his pupils, and they’re good, Bill. Real good. She watched a short demonstration then one of them asked if she’d like to demonstrate what she’d just learned. She took out the instructor, Bill, in two moves. And she hurt him, too. Then she bends over him and starts a complete medical examination, and you know what?”

“Yeah, she’s a physician.”

“Yeah, Bill, she’s a doc and she can do a mile in under four minutes, then ten minutes later take out a fifth degree black belt in Aikido, and after all that she’s barely sweating…but she’s still smiling, Bill. Smiling like she’s just come in after a little walk in the park.”

Taylor blinked rapidly then cleared his throat. “So…what’s the punch line?”

“I don’t have one, Bill. The department runs a serious background check on anyone that asks to come out on a ride-along and I’ve read all there is on the girl. Her background is perfect. I mean, it’s fucking perfect, and in our business a perfect background check usually raises all kinds of red flags so CID did even more checking. And everything is still fucking perfect.”

“I’m still not sure where you’re going with this, Jennifer.”

“I got nowhere to go, Bill. You found this perfect – perfect! – younger version of me to star in your movie, except she just happens to be a surgeon who also – ta-dah! – also just happens to be a fucking world class athlete,” she said, scowling into her limeade. “And the whole thing feels kind of off to me, Bill. Off, as in weird, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah. I do. And you’re not the only one, Kiddo.”

“You…when did…why didn’t you say something?”

“Like what? Like you said…she’s perfect for the part and I’m always on the lookout for perfect. What the hell was I supposed to do? Turn my back and walk away?”

“You fucked up, Billy-boy. Big time.”

“Oh? How so?”

“Yeah, you. You shoulda brung us a bottle of Cuervo, ‘cause you and I need to get shitfaced…then we need to get to the bottom of this.”

+++++

Gretchen really liked the carne asada tacos at the red and white food truck, and she loved her refried beans, too – and Taylor really enjoyed watching her eat. She wasn’t bored, she wasn’t trying to score points or play him, not like all the wannabe writers working an angle to sell him a screenplay. She was still an innocent – because all the world’s cynicism had yet to grab her by the throat and fill her mind with hate, and even Father Kerrigan seemed to enjoy spending time with her.

When Taylor returned from his meeting with Jennifer the priest had gone back up to LMU for the evening, to the Jesuit residence on the edge of the bluffs that looked out over the Marina – and to the sunsets beyond the Malibu range – but he said he’d drop by tomorrow afternoon after classes.

Taylor was beginning to really like the old priest, too. He was easy to talk to and smart as could be, but it was his insights into the human condition that had impressed him most. Who better to talk to about the true dimensions of homelessness than a priest dialed into liberation theology and who worked in his spare time at a free clinic? Besides, the old man looked the part, like Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus but dressed like a priest.

The sun had slipped into the sea and now he was sitting outside his tent, Gretchen asleep by his side, and they were sitting in camp chairs by a fire pit. And as he stared into the flickering fire his mind wandered through events of the recent past.

I met a priest, a priest at a jazz club, a jazz club in Hamburg, Germany. Just before I met Angel.

Angel. Sitting in a prostitute’s window. An angel sitting in a prostitute’s window.

Her father’s name? Gabriel Stardust, wasn’t it?

‘Gabriel was an angel’s name, wasn’t it? And her mother? What was that name? Lailah? Just what the hell kind of name is that? Arabic?’ he sighed as he picked up his phone and opened the browser. ‘Let’s see here…’ he said as he entered the name and parsed the results.

‘Lailah – the Hebrew Angel of Night, from the Old Testament’ he said, reading off the information he’d just opened. ‘So Lailah was the only female Angel, right? So, Angel’s father was Gabriel, aka the Archangel, and her mother was Lailah, the Angel of Night. Now…just what the hell does that make her?’

“Uh, excuse me, Mr. Taylor,” Henry Gordon said, “but there’s someone here to see you?”

He hardly reacted – distracted as he was – but when Taylor turned around he saw Debra Sorensen standing there in the firelight, only she was looking at the little girl by his side. 

And yet, he sat there – lost – trying to make sense of all the sudden feelings beating the in air over his head. Like vultures, vultures beating the air, waiting for me. I here I am, overwhelmed by my very own Angel of the Night. Was that it? Was Angel…an angel? Or was Debra an Angel, my angel? But what about Guilt? Where was Guilt? Surely there was an Angel of Guilt? Where was he now? What shadows was Guilt lurking in – what fires consumed his wings as he fell? Is that what I feel now, Guilt’s melting wings beating the air as he falls?

He stared at her for what must have been hours, perhaps even days, then he stood and went to her – where, just like any other fallen angel, he fell into the arms of the only woman he would ever love – just as two embers might, lost and drifting among the stars.

+++++

Rampart.

Even the name is vaguely foreboding, but especially so as the name of a police division. In Los Angeles, Rampart Division stands between the western suburbs and South Central – and it was, once upon a time, the moat standing between the slums south of downtown and the western suburbs of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Malibu. In time, as boundaries grew more diffuse and the western neighborhoods less severely segregated, Rampart became less of a mote and more like a cork in a bottle of explosively bubbling waters. These days, ever since the bloody aftermath of the Rodney King riots, Rampart and Southwest have been tasked with keeping the metastases somewhat contained.

The Division morphed over the closing decades of the last century. It grew. More detectives were added so they had to rely less on Central. Patrol districts were tightened, so cops on the street could focus on problem areas, and so back-up units could be dispersed in tighter grids for quicker response times. But there were growing pains. Including a scandal that almost took down the department.

Jennifer Collins spent most of her career working out of Rampart, yet that was just the way she wanted her career to play out. She had, true enough, worked out of Southwest from time to time, but those few occasions had come about because of staffing shortages, not out of choice. She felt at home in Rampart because she knew the rhythms of life there, she knew the streets and she knew the players in the gangs that roamed those streets. Not many people would be willing to admit they could take pride in all that esoteric knowledge, but Jennifer Collins could – and she did.

Gang members knew her as an honest broker, as a good cop. Shopkeepers too regarded Collins as a committed cop interested in stopping crime before it happened, and getting to the bottom of things when she was too late. She usually worked the four to midnight rotation, primetime for robberies and domestic disturbances, and like all experienced cops she understood both types of incidents could rarely be prevented. Most robberies were small-time, opportunistic crimes that involved little or even no planning, while domestics – like all arguments between husbands and wives – seemed to roll gently along at a low boil – until something caused a boil-over. Most bad domestic disturbances happened after dinner on Thursday nights, Thursday being the day before payday and the boil over starting when discussions about past due bills exploded into physical confrontations. As there were way too many poor people in Rampart, explosive Thursdays were guaranteed.

The real payoff from being assigned to just one patrol district, or beat, at least from the perspective of people trying to prevent crime, is that over time you get to know all the bad actors in your area. You get to know which “Stop ’n Robs” are more than likely to get hit at five in the afternoon and on what days of the week, and to know which apartment buildings have the most violent people living there, and therefore which are more likely to have the worst domestic disturbances.

“It ain’t rocket science!” Jennifer Collins told the rookies she trained from time to time.

Or…was it?

Because in a way it really was rocket science, because for the past thirty years computers had been keeping track of all kinds of information, and because patrol cars were now equipped with data terminals allowing direct computer access to all that information. Because information reflects experience and experience is knowledge and knowledge is power. 

And if that ain’t rocket science, what is?

Yet the human engineering inside a patrol car is all wrong, and sometimes dangerously so. You can’t type on a small keyboard in a patrol car racing to respond to a hot call. If you’re typing on that keyboard while stopped on the side of the road someone with evil intent can sneak up behind you while you’re concentrating on the tiny screen. Technologies exist to augment these human-machine interface-engineering deficiencies but they’re costly, yet go back to movies of the not so distant past and you can catch glimpses of spoken interfaces that really could enhance patrol operations. So there are still times, in this age when readily accessible knowledge is easily harnessed power, when getting your hands on that power isn’t as trouble free as it could be. The essential problem is that as a result of this power imbalance a lot of people die. Perhaps…needlessly.

And this remains especially true in Rampart, where needless death is a daily occurrence.

+++++

Rampart Division’s briefing room is large enough to hold the dozens of officers that gather there just before each shift begins. The walls are covered with statistics and charts that illuminate crime stats and trends for each and every patrol district, these stats covering changes day to day and month to month, and some even by time of day. Burglaries, robberies, assaults, criminal mischiefs, and domestic disturbances are highlighted, and gang related incidents are covered, as well. There are other announcements posted on the walls, too…for things like continuing education credits and other personnel matters, and sometimes department events are posted up there for all to see, for things like Academy graduations and, of course, funerals.

Motor-jocks from Traffic sit in on these briefings too, because if not out working a traffic stop or assigned to work an accident, officers on motorcycles can often respond more quickly to a hot call than officers in patrol cars. These motor-heads, as Traffic Division officers are sometimes called, come into the briefing room in their tall riding boots and with their ‘aviator’ styles sunglasses pushed up on their foreheads and go over accident stats pinned to the walls so they might better identify certain areas where they need to focus their efforts during the coming shift, but then they usually head-off and sit in small groups by themselves – and then barely pay attention during the rest of the briefing. Motor-heads think they are God’s gift to women, and when not writing tickets that’s about all they talk about. Well, that…and motorcycles.

Detectives assigned to the shift attend briefings, too, because, oddly enough, if they’re not actively engaged investigating a case they too respond to calls. This makes sense, especially when you consider that most will be assigned to work the follow-up investigation after a major call, and when working a homicide, especially when working a homicide, being among the first on scene is a big advantage, because way too many cases are lost because of disputed chain of evidence questions in court. 

On the few occasions when a civilian is allowed to ride along during a shift, the civilian is required to attend briefing, too. These ride alongs happen most often when a new grand jury is seated, as most new members of the jury are patently unfamiliar with police procedures – and most want to learn as much as they can without actually having to go through the academy. The department has good reason to want these jurors as well-versed in proper procedure as possible, so senior officers are assigned to these jurors, and sometimes these ride alongs cover multiple shifts and cover more than one division.

High profile ‘celebrity’ ride alongs aren’t uncommon, but rarely are these ride alongs allowed in Rampart or Southwest, unless there’s an overriding reason why the ride along needs to happen in these areas. Movies with principal photography scheduled to occur in the area, and that have plot lines that revolve around these districts, are the obvious exceptions, and such was the case with the the new William Taylor film, The Beat Goes On. That the film’s protagonist was a working patrol officer still assigned to Rampart might have seemed a little unusual, but there was precedent for that, too. Hollywood was, you see, located just down the street, and to make matters even more obscure, it sometimes felt like half the division was signed up for the next screenwriting class at Cal State LA., so everyone at Rampart felt like they were more than ready to meet this Angel so-and-so.

Then word filtered through the department and, eventually, to the briefing room at Rampart, of her performance on the academy trails around Elysian Park, which was met with a collective shrug – like, so what? She’s a runner, so no big deal. Then word hit about her taking out one of the department’s Koga-trained instructors, and everyone looked up when that one rolled through the room. That wasn’t supposed to happen, because some unknown movie actress certainly wasn’t supposed to be able to pull off something like that.

So by the time Angel was supposed to show up for her ride along with Jennifer Collins, everyone at Rampart was more than a little curious. Then more pieces of the puzzle began quietly slipping  into place. 

A film crew was going to follow her throughout the shift, starting here in the briefing room. The film crew would be split between a department SUV following Collins’ patrol car, with another photographer actually inside the patrol car, providing complete coverage for a documentary slated to come out just before the film’s general release. And rumor had it the film’s producer, William Taylor, was going to be in the department’s car too, and that a narrator of some sort would be coming along to provide a running play-by-play commentary of the evening.

“Sounds like a clusterfuck to me,” the evening shift sergeant said the day before the ride-along was supposed to happen, yet, by and large, most of the other patrolmen in the division were simply jealous of all the attention Collins was getting – because the book they planned on writing would be much better.

+++++

All eyes were on Angel as she slipped quietly into the briefing room, walking in right behind Jennifer Collins and taking a seat at the table furthest from the shift sergeant’s desk. Then the film crew came in.

Eyes rolled. Cops turned away and a low breaking wave of knowing grumbles swept over the room. Then William Taylor walked into the room, limping along with his cane and as always dressed in his black suit, crisply pressed white shirt adorned with his blazing red bow tie, and just as the wave had already broken, now it was time for the waters to recede, to slide back out to sea. Faces turned to look over the famous producer because, let’s face it, if he could produce one movie about cops he might just as easily produce the novel that each and every one of the officers in that room was planning to write. As one, they all made room for Taylor, and a couple of the cops even asked to see his Super Bowl ring, and so solicitous was this welcome that Taylor felt an immediate sense of gratitude. And, of course, his film crew had already disappeared into the woodwork and was busily capturing the essence of the moment.

Even so, Jennifer Collins was grateful for the distraction.

Angel had, apparently – and much to Jennifer’s annoyance – stopped by the studio and a make-up artist had really gone to town, and Angel now looked like exactly what she was being groomed to be: an A-list movie star at the top of her form. Her blond hair was radiant, the make-up brought out the cobalt pools in her eyes, and human lips had never looked prettier, or poutier. And though she was wearing khaki slacks, a white LAPD polo shirt and a navy blue windbreaker, everyone in the briefing room thought she looked sexy as hell. Everyone, that is, except Jennifer Collins.

Who felt dowdy and somewhat neglected, and not a little jealous of the attention shifting to Angel.

The shift sergeant called the room to order at 1530 and everyone took their seats, steno pads opening and ballpoint pens hovering expectantly, waiting to do battle once again. Roll was called and cars assigned, the day shift sergeant recited his list of crimes and misdemeanors the evening shift needed to know about, and then a detective went over some vague intel about a supposed gang hit that was rumored to be going down around 2100 hours that evening. Target addresses and patrol patterns were adjusted, because if the targeted area was crawling with patrol cars, the hit could – or so went the thinking – be averted.

As Rampart Division is technically part of the Central Bureau, it borders Central Division along its east flank, and Central Division encompasses the downtown CBD, or Central Business District, which on weeknights tends to be relatively quiet. Chinatown is in Central, which is home to one distinct set of gangs, while a large Korean population resides in and around Rampart – with an entirely different group of gangs working this area. On the north side of Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, the Northeast Division rides herd on one of the largest concentrations of hispanic gang activity outside of Mexico or El Salvador, but it is also worth noting that within a five mile radius centered on the Rampart Division substation you will find five of the most violent gangs operating in North America. Because Southwest Division, while not technically a part of either Rampart Division or the Central Bureau, forms most of the western border of Rampart Division, and Southwest is home to the Bloods and the Crips – which are the two largest gangs in Los Angeles, and probably in the United States, as well.

Gangs would never have flourished in Los Angeles, or in the United States more generally, without the drug trade, and nothing was more important to the development of these gangs into transnational criminal enterprises than the emergence of ‘crack cocaine’ as a popular street drug in the mid-1980s. When considering the impact of crack cocaine use on the development of street gangs in America, it it important to consider that the two primary effects of crack cocaine use are experiencing feelings of supreme confidence, but then this first euphoric period is followed by brief periods of intense paranoia. These are potent human reactions with deadly implications for police officers.

By the time Angel walked into the briefing room at Rampart on All Hallow’s Eve, crack cocaine had long been endemically established throughout inner city neighborhoods in every large metropolitan area in the United States, and the simple fact of the matter was that the gangs that came of age around Rampart and South Central had long been the primary distribution conduits for both crack and crystal meth in urban areas throughout North America. There was more than anecdotal evidence that this trade truly came of age when these gangs spread by way of higher incarceration rates for Black males, and that the ever expanding prison population in the United States became the prime driving force for the explosive growth of the drug trade. This is euphemistically called the Law of Unintended Consequences by late night comics on television.

It’s also no secret that narcotics addictions are both directly and indirectly responsible for a huge percentage of violent street crime, but so too are other criminal acts against property, principally burglary. Given that gangs still operating out of Los Angeles are now also responsible for heroin and illegal opiate distribution nationwide, is it unrealistic to conclude that most of the reported urban street crime in North America these days can be traced back to street gangs that started in and around South Central Los Angeles? 

And was it wrong to think of Rampart as being in the eye of that hurricane?

+++++

Jennifer Collins wasn’t assigned a patrol district that evening; her unit – 2-Zebra-41 – was assigned to float in the area on the north side of MacArthur Park, and with ‘Zebra’ indicating she was on a special detail. Because she had a ride-along her unit would not be assigned primary response status – period. She could back-up other units if absolutely necessary, but her assigned ‘duty’ was to ‘fly the flag’ on major thoroughfares when all other units were tied up on calls. Keeping her passenger ‘safe’ was Jennifer’s primary responsibility, even though all concerned had signed pages and pages of liability waivers. Even so, Angel and Taylor had been strongly advised to consider that ‘things happen out there’ and that they might respond to ‘violent and unpredictable’ incidents during their ride.

The shift sergeant going over assignments for the evening also added that it was Halloween, and so groups of kids would most likely be out on the streets just after sunset, or after 1830 hours. Motor-heads from Traffic would be working ‘speeders’ on the smaller side streets for the first four hours of the shift, then shifting to accident coverage and DUI enforcement until midnight. The sergeant also added, primarily for the benefit of the film crew, that Halloween was falling on a full moon – adding that “crazy shit happens with a full moon” as he grinned. He did not have to add that this was also a Thursday night, and that bad family disturbances would begin to pick up around 2300 hours. Everyone that worked evenings, and that did not routinely have Thursday evenings off, already knew this as a simple fact of life, and yet the sergeant left that information unsaid. Maybe he thought that Halloween falling on the night of a full moon would be entertaining enough, but already the old hands could feel something building in the air. Something kind of like a storm you can’t see yet, a feeling like walking in the woods on a dark night – and then the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. 

So, as it happened…as officers left the briefing room and walked out to their patrol cars, the old timers could already feel something lurking out there, and Jennifer Collins felt it, too. As she walked into the parking garage she turned and looked over her shoulder, and when she got to her Ford Explorer she turned her face into the wind and actually sniffed the air – like any hunter might, or any predator.

And, like any good hunter, she thought she understood the predators she sought, and she even thought she knew their territory, their range. She knew predators could run and hide, or that they could turn the tables and begin to stalk the hunter. Worst of all, she remembered, was the silent predator that laid up in the shadows, waiting in stillness with eyes spoiling for a fight.

+++++

Collins checked-out her patrol car, a fairly new black and white Ford Explorer SUV. There was a good supply of road flares and orange traffic cones in back; the Remington 870 pump ‘Riot Gun’ had five rounds of ‘double-ought-buckshot’ up the tube and there was more ammo in the glove box. The data terminal was up and running, and with all her chores marked-off she checked into service with dispatch then turned to the guy in the back seat with the Nikon.

“Okay, here are the rules. Don’t talk when I’m on the radio and don’t get out of the car unless I tell you it’s okay. Got it?”

“Got it,” said Russ Simmons, looking at her on the Z9s folding rear screen, making sure focus was tracking on the cop’s eyes even though he was shooting through the heavy metal grate used to separate prisoners in the back seat from officers up front. He was going to shoot the evening with the 58 Noct, because he wanted to get all the detail possible, even in low light.

Collins turned and looked at Angel. “You have any questions for me, you need to ask ‘em when I’m not on the radio or busy on the terminal. Clear?”

“Yes,” Angel said, smiling gently, as she always did. “Are you worried about something?”

“No, not really. Why?”

“You seem agitated, almost angry. I wasn’t expecting that,”

Collins grinned. “I just wish it wasn’t Thursday. Bad shit always comes down in Thursdays…”

“The family disturbances? Is that what you mean?”

“Yeah. That – and it’s Halloween…”

“The full moon?” Angel asked. “What’s with that?”

“You’ve worked in an emergency room, right? Surely you know about full moons…”

Angel looked away for a moment, then shrugged. “I guess I never made the connection. Sergeant Evans said ‘crazy shit’ happens. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you because of a full moon?”

“Oh, it’s not like it’s just one thing. It’s more like the number of calls, and the types of calls that you get. Like all the crazies come out of the woodwork, if you know what I mean. And everything happens like all of a sudden.”

“Is it that way every time there’s a full moon?”

Collins shook her head. “Probably not, but I have seen statistics that show we get more disturbances, most with, well, crazy people, with…”

“Crazy? You mean diagnosed mental illness?”

Collins nodded. “That’s right, but more often than not undiagnosed. Maybe when some of ‘em see the full moon they stop taking their meds…who knows.” She shrugged as she filled out the header on her DAR, or Daily Activity Report form. “God, I hate this fuckin’ paperwork.”

“May I help?” Angel asked.

“Wish you could, but no. It’s all on me tonight.”

“And I’m to wait until you tell me it’s alright to get out of the vehicle, correct? At each stop?”

“Yeah. Look, in case anything goes south on us, you know how to handle a shotgun?”

“If you mean with that 870, yes, I’m familiar with both safety mechanisms. Is a round chambered?”

“No. Do you know how to…”

“Yes, of course.”

“You sure you weren’t a cop in your last life?”

Angel smiled at that question, then she shook her head. 

“Well, okay, so we’re just going to putter around for now, head on over to Liechty, uh, that’s the local middle school – about a block away, and we’ll keep an eye on the kids hanging around the playground for a while,” Collins said, pulling out of the station garage and turning left onto Union. She looked in the rearview mirror at the cameraman in the back seat just then: “You guys up for Tommy’s tonight? Our usual mealtime is 1800, uh, six o’clock…”

“Fine by me,” Simmons said, “as long as you don’t mind a car full of methane.”

“Methane?” Angel asked.

“Farts,” Jennifer clarified.

“Ah,” Angel added. “Why methane?”

“You’ve obviously never had a Tommy-burger before, have you?” Simmons said, grinning.

“Not yet,” Angel sighed, “but I keep hearing lots of stories about them.”

“Stories? About Tommy-burgers?” Jennifer said, feigning astonishment. “Don’t tell me, you like In-N-Out Burgers better, right?”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Simmons grinned.

“Not if you work Rampart,” Jennifer said – with finality.

The radio chirped then a dispatchers voice came over the speaker: “2-Tom-21, 36-C, 8th and Union, suspect vehicle a white SUV, possible Chevy Tahoe, suspect identified as female, white, 30s, blond hair and known to reporting person.”

“2-Tom-21, code 5.”

“That’s a hit and run about a block away from the middle school with a motorcycle officer en route,” Collins said…

“And there’s a white Tahoe with a blond – right down there,” Angel said, pointing to the right, down Wilshire. 

Without thinking Jennifer turned on Wilshire and punched the accelerator and, closing on the white Chevy, she turned on the Ford’s lights and siren. The driver of the Chevy decided to run, and so without warning the chase was on.

“2-Zebra-41 in pursuit of 36c suspect, have vehicle westbound on Wilshire from Union. Start a 27 on Charles Ocean Ocean Tom One, possible 502.”

“502? Simmons asked.

“Under the influence,” Angel said, and Jennifer cast a sidelong glance her way.

The Tahoe turned left on Bonnie Brae but swung wide and slammed into the back of a parked pickup truck – in what turned out to be a massive collision.

“2-Zebra-41, show us out on a major accident with that vehicle, 1700 South Bonnie Brae, start paramedics this location.” Jennifer shook her head then turned to Angel. “Stay here!” she said as she got out of the the Ford and ran up to the wrecked Chevy – but almost immediately she motioned for Angel to come join her, and the plain black Explorer carrying Taylor and the rest of the film crew pulled up seconds later.

Angel and Russ Simmons walked on the sidewalk and then out onto the street, and when Simmons saw the driver he almost lost his lunch. The woman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt and the airbags had failed to deploy; her face and neck had been crushed by the steering wheel and she was bleeding profusely from the mouth and nose. Taylor and the other photographer walked up, and Simmons seemed surprised when a priest walked up with Taylor.

Angel leaned in and within seconds she was hauling the woman out of the seat and getting her on the pavement. “Her left clavicle is fractured. It’s impinging on the left lobe, maybe the pulmonary artery, and she might bleed out,” she said as she felt around the woman’s chest. “Tell the paramedics to expedite, but this woman is going to need surgery, and fast.” The priest came out into the street and knelt beside the injured woman, taking her hand as he whispered in her ear. Simmons got it all, never missing a beat, and Taylor smiled at the scene as he looked at Angel and Jennifer working side by side.

“2-Zebra-41,” Jennifer barked into the radio clipped to her shoulder lapel, “advise paramedics to expedite, and be advised we’re going to need air EVAC at Wilshire and Bonnie Brae.”

Simmons continued filming, constantly moving and changing angles as medics and motor-heads arrived, and he continued filming as fire trucks and patrol cars blocked traffic for the medevac helicopter, but forty minutes later they were done and he stopped filming as Taylor came over to talk. Collins gave her statement to the Motor-head assigned to work the report and they got back in the Explorer and Collins checked back into service; Taylor and his team then walked over and got in their Ford. Almost immediately the shift sergeant got on the tactical channel and asked Collins to meet him over by the park.

“Well, fuck-a-doodle-do,” she sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Simmons asked.

“Sergeant’s gonna ream me out for getting in a chase with you two in the car. And the thing is, he’s right. I shouldn’t gave done that…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Angel said reassuringly.

And Jennifer was right; the sergeant was pissed and as soon as her window was down he let her know it in no uncertain terms.

But then, the unimaginable happened.

“I spotted the goddamn car,” Angel snarled, “and we were almost right on top of it. Just what the fuck was she supposed to do? Maybe shade it with some harsh language?”

The sergeant didn’t know what to say. No one talked to him like that…no one!

“Look, no one was hurt,” Angel continued, now batting her eyes seductively, “and besides, I was hoping you’d join us at Tommy’s this evening…”

That did it. End of problem.

“Sure,” Sergeant Evans cooed. “I’d like that. You checking out at six?” he asked Collins.

“Yessir,” Jennifer said.

“Okay! Seeya then!”

“Yessir.” Jennifer rolled up her window and cranked up the air conditioning as she drove off, then she turned to Angel. “That was pretty slick, Kid. Well done.”

“You’re welcome,” Angel said, grinning. “Russ? Did you get some good stuff?”

Simmons was chimping his screen, nodding as he looked up at her. “Yeah, yeah man, good shit. Fuckin’ CNN would kill for some of this shit.”

Jennifer sighed, shook her head then looked at her watch. “Man, I gotta give you a heads up,” she said, looking at Angel with a little grin. “Sarge is like a penis on four wheels. He hits up on everyone…”

“Everyone?” Simmons asked, arching his eyebrows rapidly.

“No, no,” Jennifer added, “he like hits up on girls wherever he goes, so, you know, just don’t be too surprised when he comes on to you.”

Angel smiled. “Okay,” she said. “But I think I can handle him.”

“I’m sure you can, just don’t overreact. He’s really kind of pathetic, if you know what I mean.”

Angel shrugged. “I guess some boys never grow up, huh?”

“Yeah, you could say that. Do you think that woman will make it?”

“Maybe. We got blood expanders into her quick enough so her volumes probably didn’t fall off to fast…but the bigger problem will be brain damage.”

“Yeah, that’s one way I’d hate to go,” Collins said. “Dementia, Alzheimer’s, any kind of brain damage. I’d hate to be laid out like that, not really aware of things going on around me. Might as well be dead, I reckon.”

“Not me,” Simmons interrupted. “Just prop my ass up and plug in some pornos. I’ll do just fine, thank you very much.”

Collins rolled her eyes. Angel smiled.

“What’s with the gang hit,” Simmons added. “Does that happen a lot around here?”

“You ever hear of drive-by shootings?” Jennifer said, looking at the photographer in her rear view mirror again.

“Yeah, of course.”

“That’s a gang hit.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, it just sounds nicer this way,” Jennifer added.

“How do you find out about things like this?”

Jennifer shrugged. “Undercover operations and snitches, usually. Every now and then I’ll be driving along and someone will flag me down, tell me they’ve heard such and such is going down. Simple as that sometimes, I guess.”

“Snitches?” Simmons said. “Like jailhouse snitches? That kind of intel isn’t reliable, is it?”

“No, that stuff you have to take with a grain of salt, but the snitches we deal with trade information with us out here on the street.”

“Trade? Like what?”

“There information, usually for a favor of some kind or another.”

“Oh?” Angel said, interested now. “Like what kind of favors?”

“You never know, really. It could be as simple as passing along a note to someone in jail to just driving by someone’s house to check on them.”

“You, like, ever take money?” Simmons asked – a little nervously.

And Jennifer shook her head. “Geesh, kid, try to keep the stupid questions to yourself, okay?”

“Stupid?” Angel said, a little defensively. “How so?”

“Well, come on, think about it. If I was taking bribes out here – which, by the way, is a felony – I sure as hell wouldn’t talk to you guys about it. Beyond that, no, I don’t go in for that shit.”

“Do a lot of cops at Rampart still belong to…?” Simmons began.

“That was a long time ago,” Collins cut him off, defensively. “All that’s over with, but you got to think before you talk, man. If there were cops doing that kind of stuff now they sure wouldn’t go around advertising it, and not even to you studio guys, but my general sense is no, there just isn’t that kind of stuff happening around here now. The worst thing happening around here these days is the ongoing war with the Bloods.”

“But didn’t that conflict grow out of the Rampart Scandal,” Simmons asked.

Collins just shook her head. ‘It’s gonna be,’ she thought, ‘a long night…’

+++++

“Did you get all that?” William Taylor asked the cameraman sitting up front.

“Great stuff, Chief, really great! This story’s gonna write itself!” Frank Luntz said, talking over the blasting air conditioner. “Blood ’n guts and a fuckin’ helicopter! Talk about action! And I got enough of their car in the chase to set up the action…I’m tellin’ ya, Chief…just great stuff! Great!”

Taylor nodded and visibly relaxed, slumping back into the seat. 

“I hope that woman survives,” Father Kerrigan added. “She looked in a bad way.”

“Yup, her face was a mess. Angel looked pretty good, though.”

“She always looks good, William.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Uncanny how much she looks like Collins.”

“Uncanny. Yes. Tell me, did you have dinner with Miss Sorensen this week?”

Taylor looked at the priest and hesitated, then he nodded. “Yeah.”

“How’d that go? Nicely, I hope?”

Taylor sighed, if only because he’d been trying not to think about the evening ever since. It had gone ‘nicely’ alright. Almost too nicely. Like Debra had been too agreeable. Too nice, and not at all reluctant to pick up where things had left off – twenty five years ago, and for some reason he’d begun to feel like he was stepping into a trap. “Nice evening, Father.”

“I see,” Kerrigan sighed, more than willing to drop the subject. “Any idea how Angel and this Jennifer Collins are getting on?”

“Pretty good, apparently. You’re sure the Bishop is signed on with you doing the narration for our little documentary?”

“Yes, as I said, your efforts on behalf of the homeless have secured his support,” Kerrigan said, looking at Taylor.

Taylor nodded. “Good…good. You know, you remind me of Edmund Gwenn. You know, the guy who did…”

“Yes, yes, Miracle on 34th Street. I think I’ve heard that before, William.”

“You’ll be perfect, Father. Your voice is just like his. Calming. Yeah, that’s it. Calming.” Taylor looked at his watch and sighed. “Almost time for dinner. I can’t believe she picked Tommy’s. I’ll have heartburn for a week.”

“They only get a few minutes for meals, William, and I understand they must remain available for calls even when eating.”

“Yup, that’s a perfect recipe for heartburn. Damn!”

“I do hope that young woman will be alright,” Kerrigan sighed.

+++++

Collins checked out for their meal at exactly 1800 hours, and as everyone crawled out of their SUV they involuntarily stretched. Moments later the shift sergeant pulled into the lot and parked, then he bounced over and stood beside Angel.

“So glad you could make it,” Angel cooed, batting her eyes coquettishly at this penis on four wheels.

“Wouldn’t have missed this for the world, Ma’am,” Sergeant Dale Evans said, grinning madly. “So? How many Tommy Burgers, and how many chili-cheese fries?”

When everyone had their goo-bombs the group went and stood around the sergeant’s patrol car, putting their food on the hood and roof while they ate and talked. Angel focused her energies on the sergeant, flirting outrageously with him, leading him on in the most perfectly cruel way imaginable – by simply being nice to him…

…and, of course, the cameramen took turns filming this part of the ritual. Cops as human beings was the heart of the story they wanted to tell and, after all, there wasn’t anything more human than chowing down on double chili cheeseburgers loaded with extra onions. Stories were told and captured for posterity, Angel giving her undivided attention to the senior patrol sergeant, hanging breathlessly on his every word as he told ‘war stories’ for the doting civilians.

The cameras panned from Angel to Jennifer and on to the sergeant, lingering on faces and eyes, even capturing passersby on the sidewalk – who stopped and looked at the cops and their weird little entourage, wondering what all the hubbub was about – all while staring into the cameras. Before the confab broke up, however, Jennifer pulled the sergeant aside…

“Any more intel on the hit?” she asked…

…but he shook his head. “No, nothing new.”

“My gut’s bothering me, Sarge. Something’s going down tonight. I can feel it.”

Evans nodded. “Yeah. Me too. I’ve been feeling it all week, like something’s…”

“…been building. Pressure. Like a goddamn volcano.”

“One of the guards at Chico overheard something a few days ago, something about retribution, starting a war, something like that…”

“Jesus, Sarge, why haven’t we…?”

“Because the information wasn’t deemed reliable enough.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah,” Evans sighed, “that about sums up how I feel, too. All I can say, Jenn, is keep your head down, and take care of those civvies. All we need…”

“I hear you, Dale. You be careful, too.”

They nodded then walked to their respective patrol cars, yet Collins paused before she got inside her Ford, standing tall and taking a long, slow look around the intersection – like any good hunter. Nothing seemed out of place, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, not yet. But – she realized – everything felt wrong. Like there’d been a seismic shift deep inside the earth and suddenly everything was – different – and then the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.

“You okay?” Russ Simmons said as he came up to the Explorer’s back door.

Collins raised her face a little and sniffed the air, her eyes darting here and there, then she saw Evans standing outside his patrol car doing the same. Then they looked at one another again and grinned. “Yeah, I’m good,” she said to Simmons, “but I’m going to need a couple of antacid tabs – and soon.”

“Man, I gotta warn you. I’m not real good about holding in farts.”

“You’re not the only one, Ace.”

“Oh boy,” Simmons growled as he folded himself into the back of the SUV, “this is gonna be a real fun evening.”

Sergeant Evans pulled over after Jennifer got behind the wheel, and then, window-to-window, he finished talking on the radio before he turned to Collins. “New intel from CID. Word is the hit is still on, supposedly for around eight to so, and somewhere around Pico Union. I want you to run a racetrack on 6th and Wilshire, just hold the fort and show the flag and for god’s sake stay out of trouble for a change – at least ’til shift change. Okay? Got that?”

Collins shook her head. “Yeah, understood, but Sarge, this doesn’t feel like some kind of hit. It feels bigger than that.”

“Like what, Jenn? Ain’t no Rodney King trial going on? Bloods got no reason to stir up shit…?”

“Maybe something we don’t know about,” she sighed. “Something that broke the truce.”

He curtly shook his head and looked away. “Just keep your eyes open, Jenn. And stay out of trouble,” Evans said as he rolled up his window and drove off.

“What truce is he talking about?” Simmons asked…

…but Collins ignored the question. “Seat belts on?” she chirped. “Okay, let’s hit it,” she said as she turned right out of the lot onto Beverly. Almost immediately a dark red BMW ran the red light at Rampart – right in front of them – and Collins turned on her lights and siren and soon fell in behind the Beemer.

“Okay,” she began, after she’d checked out on the radio, “stay in the car until I come back. It’s a white girl so probably some kid on her way back to BH…”

“BH?” Angel asked.

“Just sit, stay,” Collins said as she stepped out of the Ford, beginning her approach. 

Angel studied her; the way she walked – with one hand on her pistol and the other just ahead,  free, ready to react. Head just so, listening, ready to react. Walking on the balls of her feet, light, ready to react. “She looks like a cat,” Angel said.

But Simmons was filming now, moving his Nikon from Collins to Angel and back again, even as Collins came back to the Ford. She pulled out her ticket book and began typing on the data terminal, then writing the ticket. “No wants, no CCH,” she sighed, then she turned to Angel. “Okay, you two stay on the curb, but Simmons, no filming faces…got it?”

“Understood,” Simmons replied, and they got out when Collins did, then followed her movements, only from the sidewalk. 

It was all very procedural, almost like a scripted or choreographed event, Simmons thought as he focused on the way Jennifer spoke to the driver. He heard phrases like ‘You did this,’ or ‘You did that’…and not ‘I saw you do this or that.’ By doing so, she placed the onus on the driver and removed herself from the drama, placing the blame squarely where the blame belonged, and moments later they were back in the Ford, buckling up again as the BMW drove slowly away.

And only then did Simmons note there was another patrol car parked across the street, in effect backing up Collins without any need for her to ask for backup.

‘That must be where the whole brotherhood thing comes into play,’ he guessed, and when Collins waved at the patrolman across the street the other patrolman waved back before he drove off – and Simmons smiled, because he understood now. ‘They’re not lazy,’ he smiled, thinking about all the times he’d seen cops pulled over in weird spots, ‘they’re just covering each other…’

Then Evans called, asking Collins for her location – but, in effect, telling her to get to her assigned racetrack and STOP putting her passengers at risk.

Collins double-clicked her mic and u-turned for Wilshire, then cleared from the traffic stop.

“That almost looked rehearsed,” Angel said. “Do you…?”

“Follow a script? Yeah, as much as possible. Everything we say on a stop is meant to defuse the emotions of the situation. I mean, let’s face it, when a cop pulls in behind you it triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response that we’re all hard-wired with. Adrenaline starts pumping into the system, but not everyone has a predictable response to adrenaline. For most people, reason and social conditioning kick in; for others its gonna be stop and fight or turn and make a run for it. But once we’re out on the street with the perp we’re exposed and suddenly the tables are turned. We have certain advantages but we’re also vulnerable.” She let that sink in for a moment until she stopped for a red light, then she turned to Angel. “When we pulled in behind the car, what did you look at?”

“The driver.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

Jennifer nodded. “I’m looking at the registration stickers and the trunk.”

“The trunk? You mean the boot?”

“Yeah. I’m looking for any signs there might be someone hiding back there, so when I walk up  to the driver no one pops up outta nowhere with a 44 mag. But these days I also look at people on the sidewalk too, anyone who might get pissed at the sight of a cop pulling over someone and decide to have some fun…” 

“Jesus,” Simmons whispered. “So everyone is a threat?”

“Potentially, yeah,” Collins said, looking at the photographer in the rearview mirror again. “That’s the reality, but probably more so here in LA because of the heavy concentration of gangbangers. You spend a lot of time out here looking at shoelaces…”

“Shoelaces?” Angel asked.

“Reds and Blues, man, as in flying the colors. Bloods and Crips. Shoelaces are an obvious choice, but you just have to keep up the scan because you have to know who’s around at all times.”

“But you can’t really see that well at night, can you?” Simmons asked.

“It’s not easy,” Jennifer Collins said, “but if you want to stay alive out here you learn, you adapt, and if you don’t, you die.”

+++++

Eight o’clock, or 2000 hours, came and went – and the streets remained quiet. Then Simmons chimed in: “Man, I hate to break it to you, but if I don’t tap a kidney soon I’m gonna have a real problem back here.”

Collins nodded as she flipped on her left turn signal, and a moment later they were parked outside of a neighborhood Burger King. Taylor’s SUV pulled in beside theirs a second later, and everyone bailed out and stretched – and not thirty seconds after that Sergeant Evans pulled-in and parked beside Jennifer’s side with his Explorer.

“Anything new?” she asked as Evans crawled out of his Ford.

He shook his head as he stood on his tiptoes and stretched. “Nothing,” he growled, yawning.

“It’s too quiet,” Collins said. “And I haven’t even seen many kids out ‘Trick-or-treating,’” she added.

Evans nodded. “Yeah, it’s like the word’s out…so everybody’s stayin’ inside.”

“I got time to take a leak?” Simmons asked, and when Collins nodded Taylor and the cameramen bolted for the lobby.

“I better hit the head, too,” Evans said, pausing as Angel walked up. “How are you doing, Ma’am?”

“I’m fine. A little stiff, but otherwise okay.”

“Back in a flash,” Evans said as he too darted inside.

“You need a Coke or anything?” Jennifer asked.

“No, I’m still trying to process that…Tommy Burger…”

Jennifer laughed at that. “Man, I wish Simmons would stop cutting cheese back there…”

“Cutting cheese?”

“Farting. Man, that guy can really let ‘em slip out low and slow.” Jennifer looked at Angel just then and could tell she really had no idea what she was talking about, and then she made real eye-contact. ‘Now that’s strange,’ she thought. ‘I can usually read people pretty good just by looking them in the eye, but not her. I can’t tell what she’s feeling…or even…if she’s feeling…’

She heard the guys coming out of the restaurant just then and turned to see they’d each picked up a large soda – and they were all laughing about something, even Evans, when…

…automatic weapons fire, and a lot of it…

“2-Baker-335, 33 – officers taking fire, Olympic and Alvarado…”

“Fuck,” Evans cried as he dropped his drink and ran for his patrol car. “Collins, head to the station, now!”

Then more automatic weapons fire, this time to their east…

“2-Baker-21, officer down at Wood and Union…need an ambulance now,” another officer screamed – and Evans looked at Collins…

“That’s near the station,” Evans said as he looked at Angel, suddenly very concerned for her safety.

Then more heavy weapons fire, south of their location – but this time very close…

“2-Baker-521…were taking fire now too, location 12th and Westlake…Code Six George!”

“Goddammit to fucking hell,” Evans said as he pulled up his mic. “2-Baker-2, notify SWAT, advise 100 we have an all units, all bureaus tactical callout in progress, repeat in-progress, and get me some air over here – FAST!” he screamed, then he turned to Collins: “Jennifer, get on the fuckin’ freeway and head for the beach and get these people out of here and I mean NOW!”

“Excuse me,” Angel said, interrupting Evans. “But this enemy is utilizing classic ambush tactics. Notice how each location is away from a central point? These are diversionary skirmishes, Sergeant Evans, and they are designed to pull your forces away from the intended target.”

“What?” Evans said. “And you know this how?”

“Simple deductive reasoning, Sergeant.”

“Alright, Einstein. So tell me. What’s the target?”

“We are,” Angel said. “More specifically, I’d say that William Taylor is the intended target.”

Jennifer nodded. “That makes sense. Taylor is about the highest value target out here tonight.”

Another burst of heavy weapons fire erupted, and once again this was just to their east and another unit checked in, reporting they were also taking fire now.

“We are being herded,” Angel added. “That’s three attacks to your east, so this enemy wants you to head west.” 

Evans sighed: “The closest on-ramp is at 20th and Hoover. Southwest, in other words.”

“We will not make it,” Angel said, now looking directly at Jennifer. “You should head north and east.”

“The 11th Street on-ramp just re-opened, didn’t it?” Jennifer cried.

“Shit, that’s right!” Evans said. “Let’s roll! Jenny…you follow me!”

There are three driveways into the Burger King at Bonnie Brae and West 8th Street near the Rampart Division substation in southwest Los Angeles, and at that point in time several cars and SUVs pulled into that parking lot, immediately and effectively blocking all the exits. Several men, all Bloods, got out of these cars and, Jennifer Collins saw, most were armed with AK-47s or AR-15s, though more than a few carried Remington 870 pump shotguns, and everyone seemed to open fire at once, including Collins.

Angel saw Evans go down first, then the officer driving the other patrol car went down. Jennifer  Collins was down on one knee, picking targets with care and shooting accurately, when Angel saw her fall to the pavement. She turned and saw that William Taylor was now down, too, and that Father Kerrigan was kneeling over him with a silver crucifix in hand, then the Bloods got in their cars and trucks and disappeared into the night.

The entire fight had, Angel guessed, lasted less than twenty seconds.

She walked over to William Taylor and listened as Father Kerrigan administered Last Rites, then she walked over to Jennifer Collins, ignoring the onlookers who were already gathering in the shadows.

She knelt and faced Collins, then took the officer’s face in her hands as she looked the fallen in the eye.

“It’s alright now,” the Angel said. “You’re going to be fine. Just don’t fight it, Jennifer. You can let go now, because you’re coming home now.”

Jennifer Collins was aware of the words but she couldn’t breathe now and she knew she was dying. She felt hands on the sides of her face and fought her way back to consciousness and looked up at the Angel, looked into the most stunning blue eyes she had ever known. “Boo!” she just managed to say to the passing memory, laughing just a little as she always had – before blood filled her mouth and as her eyes closed for the last time. One lingering, slightly frothy exhale marked the moment of Jennifer Collins’ passing, yet she left this life with an ever so slight grin on her face.

Angel’s hands remained on Jennifer’s face for a few minutes more, then she stood and walked over to where Father Kerrigan had been kneeling over William Taylor, but the priest was leaning against the SUV now, tears running down his face.

“So many things left undone,” Kerrigan sighed, looking a little lost as Angel walked up to Taylor’s body. She knelt over Taylor and placed her hands on both sides of his face, but she shook her head and stood, looking down at him for a moment before she turned and looked at the priest.

“What did he say to you?” she asked.

“He spoke of his concerns for the little girl…”

“You mean Gretchen?”

“Yes, that’s right, and he had a message he wanted me to pass along to Ted Sorensen, and to Debra. He started to say something about the movie, but he didn’t get…he just didn’t have enough time,” Father Kerrigan said, breaking down again and openly weeping.

She looked around the parking lot and went to Sergeant Evans’ patrol car and got on the radio.

Within minutes dozens of patrol cars and ambulances would arrive at the scene, but Angel walked around the parking lot looking at spent cartridges and angles of fire, committing everything about the scene to memory, then she found Father Kerrigan and returned to stand by him as the first responding patrol cars arrived. 

Helicopters were soon overhead; not from the department but loaded with camera crews from several local TV news organizations, and when the priest looked up at them Angel could see the anger and contempt in his eyes and on his face.

“Jackals,” Father Kerrigan muttered – though just barely under his breath.

Angel continued to look at the priest, measuring the anger she witnessed, and she walked by his side as he made his way to Jennifer Collins’ body. The old priest knelt once again, his head bowed in prayer, his entire body shaking.

Then detectives from CID swarmed over the parking lot, taking witness statements from passersby who just happened along at the wrong time before they interviewed Angel and Father Kerrigan. An hour or so later a captain from Central Bureau drove them home…Kerrigan to the Jesuit Residence at Loyola Marymount and Angel to her rented house down on the boardwalk in  Venice. She woke Henry Gordon, William’s assistant, and he hadn’t heard the news and quickly came undone, then she walked upstairs and put a few items in a carryon bag and summoned an Über to come pick her up and take her to LAX.

She made an early flight out on Southwest and settled back into her seat, recognizing Jennifer’s house as the Boeing charged the runway and lifted into the clear morning sky. She looked out over the right wing as they climbed to the north, and she spotted two small fires still burning sear Sequoia National Park and the huge fire that had been burning for weeks between Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes, then they were descending over San Jose and the South Bay, lining up to land at SFO. She noted their flight was eight minutes early and sighed.

Coda

Everything not made by God was invented by engineers

    attributed to the Royal Navy

Sumner Bacon sat in the conference room, adrift on seas of ambiguity.

This had been one of their most audacious attempts yet, but in the end the entire operation had gone horribly, disastrously wrong. Mr. Richardson had been informed as soon as he made it into the office, but he’d just nodded and disappeared inside his suite, his wheelchair whirring away as he motored down the hallway to his office door.

Bacon had of course already sent emails warning him of events, but there wasn’t all that much to say. Not yet. But this morning’s news was already full of scattered, uncollated reporting, and so far none of it looked good. 

William Taylor…killed during what appeared to be a massive, coordinated strike by a criminal gang in South Central Los Angeles, or, much more likely, by an unknown group masquerading as a gang.

Officer Jennifer Collins…killed. Two videographers…killed. And at least two other police officers…killed…and one of these a sergeant close to retirement. And who else might turn up as collateral damage? Was this tally even complete?

And so now the most immediate and pressing concern: was all this death simply the result of poor planning? Had he allowed too much operational flexibility to inform key decisions?

And Sumner Bacon knew that Mr. Richardson disliked poor planning. And that Richardson absolutely abhorred any instance of unnecessary death. And events in South Central overnight were shaping up to have been a complete and total bloodbath.

Bacon looked at his notes then at his watch. ‘Her flight should be on the ground by now,’ he sighed, and as if on cue he heard a helicopter circling the building, then he saw a falling shadow as the aircraft began its descent to the helipad. He watched as the silver and red Callahan Air Transport   Bell 412 settled down on the pad outside the wall of glass that lined one corner of the conference room, then he looked at her as she exited the helicopter as she made her way to the side entrance.

He opened the file and red through the outline of the operation once again, killing time now, waiting for her to make it to the conference room…yet just then the intercom on the table chirped.

“Sumner?” Mr. Richardson’s voice came through the box.

“Yessir?”

“I’ll be tied up in here with a Visitor for the time being. We’ll meet you in the lab.” Bacon saw the red warning light blink twice, their prearranged signal for possible Visitor video surveillance, and he sighed. 

“Understood,” Bacon said. “I’ll let you know when we start across campus.”

“Thanks.”

Bacon looked at the intercom, and at the blinking red light, then he killed the feed and cut off the blinking light – just as she came into the conference room.

Bacon stood and looked away from her, then he walked over to the glass wall overlooking the vast lawn surrounding the main building. The helicopter was still out there but as he watched the turbines spooled up and it slowly lifted into the air above the campus. Then its nose dropped a little as the ship turned to the north, he assumed heading back to SFO, and as he turned to face her he was still unsure how to proceed.

“I thought we’d decided on picking him up in Stockholm, and that would be the optimal way to make contact,” he said.

Angel looked at the engineer and shook her head. “It was to be my decision, was it not? To determine the best way to make contact? Was that not a part of the test?”

“Yes, it was. Lay out your rationale, please.”

“I determined the optimal approach would make it look like the meeting was simply the result of pure chance. Neither Stockholm nor the jazz club in Hamburg afforded such an opportunity.”

“So…the hooker disguise seemed optimal to you? Seriously?”

“It made me look vulnerable, almost destitute. I was in this way able to best define the power relationship to suit my needs.”

“To suit your needs?” Bacon growled. “What do you mean by that?”

“These needs best suited the objectives of the operation.”

“Indeed? How does Taylor’s death suit the needs of the operation?”

“I have identified a suitable alternative.”

“Have you indeed?” Bacon said as he walked over to examine a tear he’d just seen in her jacket. “Were you shot during the exchange?” he said as he fingered the bullet holes in the fabric.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Let me see.”

She pulled up her tunic and he examined the synthetic polymer mesoderm. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he sighed as he pulled the fabric down again. “We can patch it in the lab before you return to LA. Now, who do you have in mind for secondary contact.”

“Ted Sorensen.”

“He’s too old.”

“He is otherwise not perfect, however. And I could extend his lifespan.”

“You will not make any offers in this regard, to anyone. Am I making myself clear?”

Angel nodded. “I understand.”

“Let’s go to the lab. Mr. Richardson is waiting.”

Bacon turned and made his way through the main building with her by his side, and as they crossed the campus he looked at the nearby linear accelerator beyond the little reservoir on the far side of the expansive lawn, and to Palo Alto beyond…but everything was brown now. Brown…and dry…and just above…an endless string of aircraft lining up to land at SFO. Like red blood cells in unseen arteries, life-giving oxygen in each aircraft moving around the body of the country…

He held the door open for her and followed her into the main lab.

Mr. Richardson was already there – with one of Them.

He just couldn’t get used to the sight of Them, either.

Ten feet tall, her pinkish body covered in feathers. Then there were the wings. Huge, leathery wings folded up against her back. And those amber eyes… He shuddered but nevertheless tried to hide his revulsion.

“Take off you clothes,” Richardson said as his wheelchair approached Angel. “Show me your wounds.”

“Looks like one round,” Sumner Bacon said, bending down beside Richardson.

“Hand me some forceps, would you, please,” Richardson said as he slipped a finger inside the spongy mesodermic layer. “I think I feel one, maybe two in here.”

The Visitor stepped close and watched as Richardson removed two 9mm rounds from Angel’s midsection, visibly quite curious now but still not speaking.

“Tell me,” Richardson said to Angel now, “why do you think Sorensen is a viable target now?”

“First Mark Stuart, then Kenji Watanabe. Both immensely wealthy, and both disfigured, so both men powerful but vulnerable. So…similar to William Taylor in key ways. Sorensen is still both respected and powerful, yet his age makes him vulnerable. I think I can make that work to our advantage.”

“I see. I need access to your primary port now, please,” Richardson said, his voice soothing and calm.

Angel looked at the visitor, and when she nodded Angel knelt and lifted the hair above her neck, exposing a small mag-port. Sumner Bacon attached the port and stood back.

“Playback the moment of Ms. Collin’s death,” Richardson said gently, “would you, Angel?”

An image flickered and stabilized on a huge flat panel display, and everyone watched the final moments of the gun battle in the Burger King parking lot – only from Angel’s vantage point, because her ‘eyes’ had been recording everything that had happened – for months.

She was kneeling in the image now, and on the screen everyone watched as Angel’s hands cupped Jennifer’s face, and when Bacon saw frothy blood welling up from her Collins’ open mouth he wanted to turn away…

“Freeze frame here,” Richardson said.

And the image froze.

“What were you doing here?” Richardson asked. “What were you doing with your hands?”

“Downloading her thoughts,” Angel said.

“What? I wasn’t aware you have that capability?”

“The included sensor array in my fingertips is more than capable, so I made the necessary adjustments to my programming,” Angel said.

Richardson turned his wheelchair and looked into Angel’s eyes. “And if you don’t mind me asking, what else did you manage to download?”

“I am still collating data, Mr. Richardson, but I believe I may have also downloaded what you might call the soul.”

“The…soul? Are you serious?”

“I am. I am now incorporating elements of this download into my programming.”

“Downloading? A soul?”

“Yes. Along with personality traits and characteristics that belonged to Jennifer Collins. Assimilation will be complete in two hours, and I will be ready to approach Ted Sorensen.”

Bacon looked over at Richardson, the growing sense of alarm between them now almost palpable…but then he realized the Visitor had simply vanished.

‘But…why did She leave so suddenly…?’ he wondered.

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com all rights reserved, and as usual this was just a little bit of fiction, pure and simple. Hope you enjoyed.