Hip Cities and Lost Souls
At first, Jimmy thought it might have been a jack rabbit. Nocturnal life in the desert was richer than people thought, as thriving as a jungle. Sometimes he came out before dawn with a low-caliber rifle to beat the sand for supper. Only now, it wasn't a low-caliber rifle in his hand, or jack rabbits he was hunting.
On either side of him, others waited, laying siege to the dusty warehouse. Mister Gil had ordered them here, something startling his instinct for danger-- though lately, Jimmy worried about the man, seeing the fear in his eyes. Something haunted him.
Movement to the left. A flash of something near the corner of the building. Not a light, but a reflected bit of metal in the starlight. Everything else stayed dark. He glimpsed a figure moving across the pale stucco wall of the building, dressed dark for the dark work of a thief.
Jimmy glanced towards Mister Gil. But the man motioned for them to wait, as if wanting the figure to get inside where they could trap him better. God only knew what a thief wanted here-- a temporary storage place for their fleet of vehicles. Mister Gil had shut it down till the heat was off. The building contained only the silly hippie van.
Jimmy waited. A good soldier obeying orders even when they didn't always make sense. Mister Gil had saved him from death on the citrus groves, giving him food, dope, and never once made him feel like a slave. Mister Gil rewarded loyalty and courage.
Inside the building, real light appeared. Not much of it. Maybe a hand held over a flashlight beam with some spilling out between the fingers. But Mister Gil's little army stirred as the signal came for them to close in.
Like always, Mister Gil went first, sleek form sweeping across open ground towards what had once been the front door. Broken frosted glass jutted from the frame like teeth, grinning out at the darkness. Another hand signal sent men around the sides, Jimmy moving along the western wall as part of the prearranged trap.
It felt like TET again with the same throb in Jimmy's chest and head. Please God. Don't let me kill anyone tonight, he thought, though knew he would if he had to.
Rule number one: Survive. His job was to secure the back door.
Don't go inside, Mister Gil had said. I don't want us shooting at each other. Just sit and wait and let us flush the bastard out.
So he and two others scurried back to a low stone wall marking the property's rear boundary-- though boundaries out here meant little with so much open space. The fences had long ago decayed and faded away. A man could almost walk forever if he chose.
Others moved in on the side, covering the window. Back here, two windows grinned out of the darkness with a huge garage door in between. Like a face, he thought, shifting his 30-06 to kill anything that moved.
When the pop came, he almost didn't recognize it as a shot. A silencer had never been in the realm of his experience. But the man to his right slumped forward, something glistening down his cheeks. The second pop took out the man on his left, and by the time the third pop came, Jimmy rolled over the wall and to the side facing the building. The old panic leaped into his head. How many and where were they hiding?
Survive, his instincts screamed as he rolled and crawled, waiting for the pop and flash that would locate his enemy. Was there one behind him in the building? Or had some flaw in the plan allowed the invader to detect the trap? Did the gap under the garage door mean something.
He didn't see the flash, but felt his head rolling forward, even before the pain rushed up from his chest, bringing down blackness...
Gil shoved open the door then stood there. Mike leaped to his feet.
"What's wrong?" Mike asked. "What happened?"
The smile plastered to the man's face didn't fool him; rage boiled in the eyes.
"Happened, friend?" Gil said, staring hard at Mike. "What could have happened?"
"You're mistaken," Gil said. "I've come to inform you that you are free to leave in the morning."
"Free?" boomed Dan, rising from the couch. "Really?"
The others stirred from their rooms, attracted by the voices. Old Beatles rose from Lance's room despite the late hour. Mike felt Gil's tension.
"Why the sudden change?" asked Lance from his door.
"I found what I wanted," Gil said, his voice cracking a little.
"The shipment?" Chris asked, stepping out from the direction of the bathroom. She looked more awake than the others.
"And signs of Buckingham," Gil said through gritted teeth.
"What?" Mike exploded. "Where did you see him?"
"I didn't see him. Only his shadow and his touch at the warehouse where your van is kept."
"Our van?" Lance said.
"Nothing has been damaged," Gil said, stepping forward to put a packet of dope down on the coffee table. "Take this. Celebrate tonight."
Dan lifted the packet with two fingers. "Acid?"
"Perhaps the best ever manufactured," Gil said. "I've taken the liberty of bringing your van here. Feel free to use it and go where you want. But for safety's sake, keep to the fringes of the city."
"Go where?" Lance asked, his puzzled expression reflecting those of the others. Mike studied Gil's face, wondering why they'd been set free, but said nothing.
"I know where to go," Dan said grinning, as he picked through the compressed tabs. "I know the perfect place for a trip."
"Enter," Gil growled gruffly.
Mike twisted the handle and found the door unlocked-- no guards up or down the dark planked walkway in either direction. Gil sat on the couch off in the northern corner of the room, away from the now-dark desk or the fireless hearth. A dim lamp glowed over his shoulder, emphasizing his rigid face.
"It's you," Gil said, his pistol falling limply to his lap.
"You expected someone else?"
"He's here in my city," Gil mumbled. "And it can only be for one reason."
Mike eased in and locked the door. "I think you're being paranoid," he said. "Buckingham can't get you in this place."
"But he was here already."
"What!" Mike said alarmed. "When?"
"Tonight. Just after dark. At least my guards saw someone near the perimeter."
"It might have been Demetre."
"Maybe. But Buckingham was at the warehouse, searching through the van."
"The shipment was in the van?" Mike said in disbelief.
"Yes. I suspected as much. Buckingham or Demetre put it there."
"Demetre never got near the van in Albuquerque," Mike said, flopping into an armed chair across from Gil.
"Then it was Buckingham."
Gil shrugged. "Perhaps he needed a means of transport, or wanted to set a trap for me. I've made mistakes with him. I presumed his primary interest was in the drugs. I've pain for those mistakes. I lost three good men tonight."
"Slaughtered. In a trap I think was meant for me."
"Damn!" Mike said. "Is that why you're letting us go?"
"Only partly," Gil said. "Bringing all of you here was one of my mistakes. I trust you, but I'm not sure of the others, and I've exposed by whole operation to them. Things must be changed rapidly, a new operation established. Have the other gone out?"
"Except for Marie."
"Good. They will distract attention away from what I am doing. Demetre and Buckingham will watch them."
"You think they'll be hassled tonight?"
"I suspect not," Gil said. "They will be watched to see who they contact."
"But they won't contact anyone; they'll be tripping."
Gil smiled. "But those who watch won't know that. Every move will have significance, creating false leads and dead ends. But in the morning I think the police will make a move. It would be wise if you did not leave with them."
"But I need to get to L.A."
"There are other ways."
"Maybe," Mike said. "But Dan has contacts."
"Then meet them later-- if they survive."
Mike pondered this. "I suppose I'll have to," he said rising.
"One more thing," Gil said. "Did anyone leave your apartment tonight?"
Mike frowned. "Not that I know of, but I wasn't keeping guard. Why?"
"One of our vehicles was stolen. We found it about a mile from here, dumped into a ditch."
"Maybe. But it seems too much a coincidence. But go get some sleep. If I don't see you in the morning, I'll have a vehicle left behind the house for your use. But don't leave town with it. Just park it somewhere we'll find it later."
"Just let me off downtown," Chris said, as Dan steered the van back into the maze of streets again. Gil's little empire vanished behind the stand of trees, non-existent, like lost shangrala
"You're not going to party with us?" Dan asked, a note of disappointment in his voice. His plans seemed to have included Chris.
"Can't," Chris said, staring straight out into the darkness, her gaze tight and angry. "I have things to do."
"Here? In this town?" Dan said. "What the hell can anyone do here?"
"Gather news," Chris said. "Gil's been pretty closed-mouth about things. I want to know what the cops are up to."
Lance felt it, too-- something had happened which Gil had not told them. The gift of drugs seemed inappropriate and he would have preferred leaving town altogether. A cloud hung over the van despite the startling sky-full of stars.
"Party pooper!" Dan grumbled, then twisted the van onto one of the main concourses south, darkened houses with long artificially supported lawns in front of each, sprinklers repairing sunlight damage with small floods. The streams of each crossed the road at intervals, the van's tires swishing over them, emphasizing the silence.
Dan pulled the van over a few blocks short of downtown. "Gil warned us to keep our distance," he said. "I'll let you out here."
Chris popped open the side door then paused. "Don't rely on him if you get in trouble," she said.
"We're not going to get in trouble," Dan said with a grin. "Not where I'm going." But Lance shivered, feeling trouble swarming around them.
"Fine. I'll make my own way back to Gil's," Chris said and leaped out, pausing for a moment on the illuminated sidewalk before finding a shadow to melt into.
"Well," Dan said, lighting up a cigarette, his reflected face in the glass looking particularly dark beneath the floppy hat. "It's just the three of us again, eh? So be it."
"Why don't we just lay low somewhere," Lance said. "This dope thing strikes me as crazy."
Dan gaze glared across the cab at Lance. "Are you going to spoil the party, too?"
"I don't mean to," Lance mumbled. "I just don't feel comfortable."
"Then loosen up, pal," Dan barked. "We've been cooped up and chased for so long, we need the break."
But not here, Lance thought, feeling someone's eyes on him out of the shadows. Demetre, maybe? Or Buckingham? All the whispered meetings between Gil and Mike haunting him. It didn't make sense to send them out tonight.
Dan shifted gears and began a slow weave through side streets with indian names, preserved in asphalt like grave stone markers, much of their original significance lost except to the dying tribes.
"Where exactly are we going?" Sarah asked. She hadn't spoken much in the last day or so, though he could still feel her anger bubbling under the surface, despite her sudden announcement to return to L.A.
"South," Dan said. "Near Tempee. A small park where we can trip in peace. In fact--" He reached into his shirt pocket and produced the packet Gil had given them, casting it to Lance. "Divide it up and take it now. We'll be off by the time we get there."
"That doesn't seem like a good idea," Lance said.
"Damn it," Dan growled. "Is everybody going to be a party poop. Give me mine. I'll take it." He grabbed several taps and popped them into his mouth, sucking on them as if they were candy. "Ah, tastes good, too."
Good if one liked chemicals, Lance thought.
A sour-faced Sarah duplicated the act, though let the pills tumble into her palm for a moment. Lance had not seen their kind before, more like medication with a shimmering external surface. On the street, the dope had always looked like small sweet-tarts. She threw back her head and tossed them into her mouth with a single jerk.
"Well?" Dan asked, noting Lance's reluctance.
"Shouldn't one of us stay straight in case something happens?" Lance asked.
"No," Dan growled. "We all know how you get."
Scared, that's how Lance got. Straights weren't supposed to witness people on the edge, and each experience had left him liking the crowd and drug less-- unable to comprehend the stumbling and mumbling travelers or their visions. He was more comfortable tripping with them, as along for the ride.
"Take it," Dan commanded.
"But I've never tripped outside," Lance said.
"No problem," Dan said. "This place is magical. It'll seem okay. An old indian burial ground. Real hip."
Lance felt the first tingle of interest. "Really?"
"Really. Now take it, damn it."
Lance nodded and lifted the pills to his mouth, Dan's gaze following the procedure with intense scrutiny, then relaxed and grinned and shifted again, humming a bit of Jimi Hendrix as he continued the weaving journey.
"What is it?" Marie asked, propping herself up on her elbows, her breasts plopping out from under the sheets like two small loafs of dough.
Mike had risen, trying not to wake her, his naked form illuminated by a beam of moonlight half way to the door.
"Nothing," he said tightly. "Go back to sleep."
"But where are you going?"
"Just into the other room. I need to think."
Sleep had eluded him for hours, and the room, as silent as it was, had been filled with the echoes of Gil's words. Earlier, he had hear the bustle of moving things and starting engines. The sense of a retreating army pervaded the place. But for the last hour, quiet had come, covering over the usual night noises, the breathing of sleeping figures, the coughing or joking of the guards. The building bled the last of its humanity into the dark, a slow death from which there would be no resurrection.
"Think about what?"
"About going to see the old man."
"Now?" It must be after midnight!"
The clock said 12:15.
"In the morning it will be too late," Mike said.
"But he won't be up this time of night, he's ancient. And it won't want to see you anyway. Not after all this time."
"He knows I'm coming," Mike said, fishing in the darkness for his pants and boots.
"Knows? You've talked to him?"
"I don't have to talk for him to know," Mike said, the restrictive denim rising up over his naked self like chains. "But he knows-- and I know, and I'd better go alone."
"NO!" Marie snapped. "You go and I'll never see you again."
"Nonsense. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"I'm going with you," she said, shoving the sheet from her.
"Marie..." he started, but knew better than to argue with her and continued to dress.
They drove northwest. Reseverations infested the region like amusement parks, encircling Phoenix as if around a circle of wagons. Mike remembered the details of the road though he had come there only once. Over and over he had travelled it in his head, each time imagining himself begging the Old man's forgiveness. Now the wheels of the silver Pinto kicked up the dust, bounding over the dirt road like a real steed.
"Are you all right?" Marie asked, touching Mike's hand on the wheel, polished nails shimmering in the light like tiny knifes.
"What's wrong? You never said."
What wasn't, he thought, but mumbled: "Nothing."
He had no way to explain the feeling, the ache inside his head when he sensed something wrong. The whole affair with Gil had left him more confused than when he'd come-- and slightly empty. He lacked Chris' loyalty to clan upon which to lean during hard times. The rituals of his mother's blood long washed out of him. He felt trapped but didn't know by whom or what. Worse than on the farm with the cops closing in.
He needed clarification. Only the old man could give him that.
The headlight bobbed over the dark yard, eliciting pieces of the place, concession stand, faded tee-peas, signs for arts & crafts. Like some child's show paled by too much exposure to the sun.
For the tourists, Mike's mother had said.
The tourists expected tee-peas, and totems, and weaved baskets, and blankets. The mixture of cultures mattered little to them. They learned their history from television westerns where all had been combined into one large mass of savage mythology all labeled under the vague description of "Indian."
But behind the facade of souvenirs, a proud race decayed. There were no ovens here, or guards, but death stalked the red man as if there was, killing the culture with alcohol and regulations. The fact the place remained at all surprised Mike with the way Phoenix expanded. He'd almost expected to find another retirement village here, or citrus groves.
The old man stood on the porch of a shack, the walls and roof crumbling around him, his face and raised hand as gnarled as dark wood, illuminated briefly in the headlights. He didn't smile or move, but waited with the mixed facial expression of a totem pole as Mike parked the car.
"Wait here," Mike told Marie.
"Because he hates white people."
"You're half white."
"I know," Mike said, staring out into the dark where the old man waited. "And so does he."
He slammed the door and slowly crossed the broken earth. Dried ruts of car tires showed the devastation of recent rain, the gushing rain that had ripped up the top soil making farming futile.
"Hello," Mike said, stopping at the foot of the sagging porch steps.
"You've come," the old man said.
"To find some answers."
The old man said nothing for a moment, his eyes half closed. Starlight shimmered over his face, revealing lines like those of a tree, his nose and mouth protruding from them like knots. Slowly the head shook from side to side. "No answers now," he said. "Your blood fights itself. There can never be peace in you."
"But what if I find this man, Buckingham? Will I find peace out of the country?"
The old man's eyes opened, laughter showing in them. But the humor did not spread to the rest of the face. "There is love in such places," he said. "But you must know how to look for it."
Relief spread through Mike like a chill. He had other questions, but the old man turned away, back into the dark building.
"Thank you, old one," Mike whispered and hurried across the broken ground to the car. Only then did he realize he'd been sweating.
"So? What did he say?" Marie asked.
"I'm not sure it translates well," Mike mumbled and turned the key, the car engine leaping to life under them. "But I think we're on the right track. We've got to find Buckingham."
"How?" Marie asked.
Mike grinned. "By taking an ad out in the newspaper, of course."
"In L.A. there's an underground newspaper," Mike said, turning the car back the way they'd come, tires thumping over the ruts.
There is love in such places, the old man had said. What did he mean? Partnership? Friendship? Did Mike know Buckingham without knowing it?
"Mikie," Marie whispered, grabbing hold of his arm. He blinked out of his thoughts.
"What is it?"
"I saw something out there," she said, pointing off to the sides of the road as the headlights swung around across the carnival-like face of the village. Pale faces floated between the tee-peas. Strange small men dressed in suits and ties like a batch of bankers plucked from board room and bank. He blinked, but they remained, flashlights cropping up in their hands on three-- now four sides. They didn't look like cops, nor did they fit the kind of army Mike imagined Buckingham to have.
"Daddy's men," Marie muttered as Mike steered the car around the small patch of graveled earth tourists used for parking.
"Tinkertons? Here?" Mike said in utter disbelief. The road here from Detroit had twisted too much for them to have followed. Not to this place where the old man waited. Even Mike hadn't known to come here until an hour ago. And yet someone else knew Mike well enough to predict it, and hated Mike enough to call them in. Just who didn't matter half as much as escaping them.
"Hold on, Marie," he shouted and aimed the car towards the on-coming flashlights and pressed down hard on the gas.
"You getting off?" Dan asked, downshifting for a traffic light. Lance smelled citrus through the open window, but had lost track of their journey through the twisting streets. His dose melting in his sweating palm.
"I feel something," Sarah said, her voice dreamy and sad. "How long till we get there?"
Her face told Lance everything-- flushed even in the dim light of passing street lamps, eyes dilated into penny-sized circles. He remembered L.A. and knew it would be a rough night.
"Not long now," Dan said, unable to contain the drug-induced humor. He'd been giggling to himself for blocks. "Another mile or two."
Lance had his own suspicions. They had been travelling around in circles for an hour, passing several houses a number of times, the effect of the drug creating its own reality.
"Why don't you let me drive?" Lance suggested.
Dan looked over indignant and stoned. "But you don't know where it is, my boy."
"Neither do you," Lance said as the red light turned green and the van didn't move, Dan staring out into space missing Lance's remark, missing everything but his own special vision. What planet had the man landed on? Or time period visited? Or had the man slipped into the folds of reality the way some hippies did, examining the intricate details of the atoms themselves.
"Dan!" Lance barked.
"Huh?" Dan said and shook himself back, glancing across the cab at Lance. "Oh, there you are. Are you off yet?"
"That's it!" Lance growled. He yanked open the door and leaped out, circling the van to Dan's side. He yanked this door open, too, but stopped suddenly, aware of a car twenty feet behind them. Stern straight faces stared back at him. Not cops, but men like those Mike and Chris had embarrassed in the mountains. Denver men. Men who slowly climbed out either side of the car with pistols in their hands.
Cong! Charging out of the jungle at them. And he, poised with his wounded grunts at the mouth of a chopper, hovering a foot from the ground, the perfect target...
"Move over!" Lance screamed, shoving at Dan.
"Don't argue with me, fuck head, just move!"
Dan fell more than moved, like the first domino in a line, knocking Sarah into Lance's vacated space. Lance leaped in, jabbing down the clutch as the sound of quickening steps came on either side of the van. The van moved, bumping forward in first with the gear shift refusing to make the transition into second-- the faces of the men floating in the windows, banging on them with pistols.
"What the....?" Dan roared.
"It's nothing," Lance shouted as the gears changed and the van picked up speed, leaving the spirits behind. A flash came, followed by a snap. Two more patterned holes added to the collection in the rear windshield.
Where now? Dan's panic faded quickly as he and Sarah pointed to the houses along the side of the road, development houses all built from a single mold, reminding Lance of home. It ached in him, though only God knew what these two saw. Monsters creeping out of the windows perhaps? Or fairies?
Lance made a sharp left at the next corner as the roar of another motor sounded behind them. Pursuit! Not a mig this time, just a fast sports car. The van convulsed with the turn, unable to keep up speed-- a loose rod or joint rattling under the thing. They wouldn't out-run anyone in this. He snapped off the lights.
"Hey! What did you do that for?" Dan howled. "You stole all the colors."
"Just look at the stars," Lance growled, making another left, onto a broader, flatter street. More Pleasant Valley Sunday houses on either side, promising invisibility, the privacy of uniformity. No crying soldiers demanding he ease their pain, no death on his door step. Life like his uncle lived it, without jungle or despair.
He shook himself, then jerked the wheel again, not up a street, but into someone's driveway and a small grove of trees. He stopped the van and turned off the engine.
"Is this the park?" Sarah asked, leaning forward to peer out, her face made pale by the starlight.
"Not exactly," Lance said. "Just sit tight, all right?"
Dan uttered something incomprehensible, but not negative, hat falling back as he stared up at the sky. Sarah giggled and discovered Dan, her hand settling over his as her mouth puckered into a suggestive grin. She had reached the next stage. Lance grit his teeth as Dan and Sarah struggled over the back of the seat to the bed. He pretended not to hear the giggling or their passion. But his face looked grim in the driver's side mirror, the way it had too often in Nam.
Darkness settled on the ranch. The crew had gone, taking the bulk of the operation over to the west side of town. Not a good place, but someplace different. Gil felt the ache of it, as if digging up the bones of ancestors. A wiser man would have been better prepared, alternate sources of drugs. But some scent in the air said bad things about the future of big empires and great drug lords. Big business had moved in, bringing violence where none had been needed before.
He sealed the second suit case, his personal stash of drug that would hold him over until he found new connections, looking up to the sound of the tumblers falling from his locked door. A shadow eased in.
"Who is it?" Gil asked, standing on the wrong side of his desk, not quite able to reach the drawer with its pistol.
"You know," the whispered voice replied from just out of the circle of light.
"That is a name I use sometimes."
"Look, friend, you don't have to kill me. I've closed up shop. You can take over the town..."
"And those?" The point of a pistol appeared out of the darkness, jabbed at the suitcases. "Are those the drugs you stole?"
"The last shipment and some I've stashed over time," Gil said, easing to the side of the desk, hand reaching for the suitcase handle. "Take them."
But instead of the handle, he went for the drawer. Two quick snaps sounded; two small holes appeared in his chest. He fell, feeling a rush of what might have been the beginning of an LSD trip, but one that would last forever...
The Ford came to a wobbly stop at the shoulder of the road, the axile bent from cross-country driving with various other unintended damage underneath. Gil hadn't been specific on the condition, just didn't want it to leave town.
Mike hopped out. Dawn peaked over the distant mountains, blinking out the street lamps one at a time. Early morning traffic thundered by, grove help and mining workers in pickups and rusted cars. Marie leaned against the headrest, shaking to the vibration of the cars.
What now? His little jaunt had shaken her father's army, but they wouldn't get far now. Not that he intended to return to Gil's. He felt the heat. Tinkerton's only a small part of it. Gil had warned him. The cops would hit the van this morning.
Better to skip out now while on a roll.
"Marie?" he whispered and shook her shoulder. She opened her eyes, makeup and dust like crust around the lashes. "We got to go now."
"Go?" she said sleepily, glancing out at the road, stiffening only then at the memory of the chase.
"L.A. We're going to hitch a ride from here."
"What about the others?"
"They'll figure it out. We'll meet up with them in Hollywood later. Come on."
She climbed out, stretched, then retrieved their packs from the back seat. Mike slung one over his shoulder then stuck his thumb out. A rickety red pickup truck full of Mexicans pulled over, their pudgy round faces gawking at Marie.
"Only going to Blythe, man," the driver said.
"Good enough," Mike said, throwing his pack into the back before helping Marie up into the read bed. It would be a windy ride, but a start in the right direction. He didn't look back once, afraid he'd see her daddy's army walking across the sand.