Hip Cities and Lost Souls
Mike stopped in front of the stucco house. He recognized it instantly even after two years. The hippies behind the hedge gave it away, sprawled out on the grass as if at Woodstock, the smell of their pot wafting across the sidewalk-- strong enough to stone a straight a half a block away. Love-making went on, too, squirming bodies thrusting to the limit of sleeping bags and tarplins. He shook his head and stepped around their humping forms and across the narrow path to the driveway, where a line had formed along the side of the house.
"Hey!" one of the slumped figures here howled as Mike advanced towards the screen door near the rear of the house. "Where do you think you're going?"
The protocol of waiting, Mike thought and grinned. Nothing changed. People still depended upon Free Press welfare to survive. What had it been during his time here? Six cents a paper? Sell enough and a man could buy a joint or burger. Often only one or the other.
"I'm not here for newspapers," Mike explained, pushing Marie ahead of him in through the door.
The air choked him. Pot smoke, incense, patouli, newsprint and ink, swirling together into that unmistakable scent of the past.
Home. Safety. Friends.
Chris had talked of clans and blood. His was here. Sweated into him at a time when he still believed he could beat the system. Tinny Santana music rasped out naked two-inch speakers hung in the corners. A low counter divided the room in half long ways with bundles of newspaper stacked on the inner side. Free Press Bob looked up from counting newspapers, his bearded face like that of Christ's, stained near the nose and mouth with pot resin.
"I told you people one at a time," he snapped.
"The same old routine, eh, bob?" Mike said.
The man frowned, pushed twenty-five papers into a waiting girl's hands, then rose, studying Mike closely. "You!" he said in a hiss as his dilated eyes narrowed.
"Me," Mike laughed.
"Damn you, close that door and lock it," the man barked, grabbing up a pack of Lucky Strikes from the counter. But he flipped out a pre-rolled joint and light it, sucking deeply on the smoke.
"I should have known," he said after a long while, smoke exhaled with the words.
"Why? What have you heard?" Mike asked suspiciously.
"Heard? Nothing. But things have gone wrong-- and it makes some odd sense for you to appear in the midst of it. How the fuck are you, anyway?"
"I've been better," Mike said, motioning for Marie to sit. The office had no furniture, but a few bundles of old-issues had obviously been used as chairs. Mike remained standing as Bob waited. It would come. Mike felt it coming. Like vomit. The whole tale regurgitating in him, needing to be told again. To sympathetic ears. The Free Press man more family than the old man had been.
Just where Free Press Bob came from, no one knew. Rumors said he'd been a Learyite early on in the movement, disillusioned by the direction of its followers. There was an air of faith to him that everyone sensed, a religiousness that haunted people at first meeting, though vanished after a time. But for those like Mike who knew him well and long, the feeling never totally vanished. It return in hours of need.
And yet, Mike resisted it-- feeling the vibes wrong for any kind of confession, feeling the envelop of evil around the place pressing in. Another time. Maybe another place. He could talk more freely.
"I want to take an ad out in your newspaper," Mike said finally, watching something in the man's brown eyes close, leaving a residue of disappointment behind.
The man slapped a note pad down on the counter. "What kind of ad?" he asked coldly.
"I need to find somebody."
Free Press Bob's eyes gave him away, a sudden surge of alarm which he quickly stifled. "Shoot," he said, pen poised.
"You write it," Mike said. "I'm not good at words. I need to find a man name Buckingham."
The pen popped out from between Bob's fingers. "What the fuck to do you want with him?" he asked.
"You know him?"
"I know of him. Rumors of him are everywhere. But I'm not sure he exists."
"If he does, then I want to meet him."
"And do what, Mike?" the newspaper man asked. "I thought you said you've changed. He's bad news."
"In what way?"
"He kills people, and they don't always have to be in his way."
"What more do you want?"
"Details," Mike said, pacing towards the door-- a subtle breeze creeping through its cracks relieving a bit of the room's stuffiness. A loose front page of the current issue flapped at his feet. "Rumors aren't very reliable. Look what they've said about me over the years."
"They call you a hero," Free Press Bob said.
"And I'm not!" Mike growled, turning upon the newspaper man enraged. "And if they can be wrong about me, maybe they're wrong about Buckingham."
"Maybe," Free Press Bob said with a doubtful note. "What exactly did you need him for?"
"To get me out of the country."
"What makes you think he can?"
"He's connected. He's been competing with Denver's drug routes for years, if you can believe any part of the rumors. From overseas. I've got friends in India where I can hide out until things cool down here."
"That could take years."
"Maybe. But things'll never cool down if I stay here where every hotshot cop can spot me."
"You mean Demetre?"
"I mean anybody."
"Buckingham'll want something," the newspaper man pointed out. "Can you afford it?"
"That depends upon what he wants," Mike said. "And God knows I might not honor an agreement once I'm overseas."
"I wouldn't double-cross him, Mike. He sounds the type who'll find you no matter where you go."
"I'll worry about that when the time comes. Just write the ad."
Lance stared at the tourist flocking to Grauman's Chinese Theater. Around him, guitar players and tarot readers squeezed pennies out of them for bad songs and distorted fortunes. He hated the hawaiian shirts and pudgy faces, and envied their ability to go home when they were done-- each of them acting the way his uncle acted, snapping pictures, pointing to the oddities of the Boulevard: Jesus Freaks on one corner, Bikers on another, Gays on a third.
If there was a job to be had, he couldn't see it. He had vaguely hoped for something around the theater, a guide job showing off the foot and hands prints perhaps. But the gold and red uniforms of the theater ushers reminded him too much of the army.
"Well, well," a harsh voice said from the shadow of a store front awning, a glint of leather and broken teeth telling Lance exactly who it was.
"What do you want, Billy?" Lance asked, almost relieved at the familiar face after so many strangers.
The man staggered out like a cowboy, his broad face and blond hair pure California, thought twisted and scarred from life on the street. Not a big man by biker's standards, but tough from finger to toe, his upper arms smeared with countless tatoos.
"Not even a hello?" the man said, mocking hurt. "You go away and you forget all about your old friends."
"I'd hardly call you a friend," Lance said, trying to maneuver around the man. But Billy grabbed his arm.
"Friend or not, don't walk away from me when I'm talking to you."
"Or what?" Lance said, feeling the grimy fingers tighten.
"Do I have to say it?"
"I guess so," Lance snapped. "I don't seem to get your drift."
Billy threw his head back in what sounded like a howl. People looked from around them. Tourist and others, thinking it some new attraction.
"You're a pip, Drummond. Even for a wimp."
"The word's pacifist," Lance said, unhooking Billy's fingers from his arm. "Are you through talking yet? I have places to go."
The veins on Billy's forehead thickened like vines, the eyes narrowing into something akin to anger. Yet deep in them, doubt appeared. Billy didn't know Lance. He only knew the rumors of money and Sarah's fast lane party life, resenting being left out of the social set.
Dan had warned Lance against him months earlier.
He's bad news, Dan had said. You let him in he'll take over.
And the few times on the street, Lance had felt the discomfort of the man's attraction towards Sarah-- and Sarah's attraction back. As if he'd needed any other reason to keep Billy distant.
The smile vanished from Billy's cracked lips.
"I was just being neighborly," the biker said-- though his eyes held Lance's questioningly, as if trying to evaluate how much he knew. Had Lance or Dan uncovered his trashing of the McCadden apartment?
Lance shivered, recalling the holes in the walls, picturing the savage disappointment with which the man had made them.
"Fine," Lance said. "Be neighborly with somebody else." He turned, but Billy grabbed his arm again, twisting him back, sticking his stinking face close to his. The smell of pot and booze and rotting teeth nearly made Lance sick.
"You said you weren't coming back," the man whispered, studying Lance's face more closely, more suspiciously, with just an edge of fright around his eyes.
"We're back because we're broke," Lance said, shaking this grip loose, too. "I'm out looking for work."
"Work?" the man hissed, spitting out the word as if it was something dirty, his eyes narrowing into slits. "Don't con me, man. Everybody knows how rich you are."
The why sparked up in his eyes. And for the first time, Lance felt the fear boiling up inside the man complete with the name Buckingham. He half expected the biker to ask him the question outright the way Gil had.
Are you Buckingham? Is that how you got all your money?
But the man only spat to the side and stepped away from Lance, shaking his head. "You're not gonna find no work in this town, Drummond. People don't like hippies working for them."
But I'm not hippie! Lance's mind screamed. Despite his long hair and ragged clothing, and the company he kept, Lance felt like his uncle, dreaming the same dream of comfort and security. The word home echoed in his head as he stumbled away.
Hours later, Lance climbed the stairs-- each step draining the last of his strength as if weeks on the road had drained him. He opened the door and tossed the wrinkled newspaper onto a small round table just inside.
"Sarah?" he called.
A faint reply rose from one of the rooms deeper into the apartment. He closed and locked the door behind him, still shaken by his meeting with Billy and the perpetual sense of being watched. The whole walk home, he'd eyed around him, trying to catch sight of someone, finding only his own lengthening shadow.
The apartment had taken a few staggered steps back to its old form, a table here, a wall hanging there. Even the beaded curtain separating the hall from the main room had been replaced. Nick-knacks and spice shakers decorated the kitchen's serving bar and he peek around it into the kitchen.
A frying pan with the remnants of burned egg said she'd eaten. He hadn't. But the stale smell did not appeal to him. He flicked on the hood fan, noting the full cabinets of dishes and canned good. Sarah had been busy.
He called again, and again came the reply, muffled by the beaded curtain. He crossed the room and pushed it aside, the tingle of glass part of Sarah's oriental motif. Huge pillows. Low tables. Water color wall coverings. All reminding him of a time and place he didn't like to think about, but thought about often.
The hall felt cooler and the scent of eggs vanished into one of laundry soap and fresh linen. The open closet to the right held both and both reminded him of home.
Not here. But his uncle's home back east.
The urge to soak in a warm tub struck him as he peeked into the bathroom. It was empty, too. As was Dan's room through the open door at the end of the hall. That left the master bedroom whose door was closed.
He tapped lightly, feeling odd. He'd never been total comfortable here. The wall to wall carpeting and large rooms making it seem like a motel or someone else's home. No one answered his knock, though Sarah could be in no other room.
"Sarah, are you in here?" he said, twisting the handle. It was not locked and the door fell open onto a scene of half unpacked suitcases and Sarah seated back to him on the bed. "Sarah. Can't you-- what's wrong?"
She transmitted pain with her hunched shoulders and her slumped head-- a head moving slowly side to side. She turned at his approach, her face pale and her eyes stitched open into an expression of horror.
"I--I found something," she stuttered, and indicated one of the suitcases on the floor at her feet. Lance recognized the tan zig-zag pattern from their first trip west-- one of the cheap, worn suitcases her father had given her long before that. The inside, however, had something Lance had never seen before: bags and bags of dope.
Pharmaceutical quality stuff marked with the drug company name and dosage. Some still with the original cardboard backing. Most of it loose. One bag of pills looked particularly familiar, matching the shape and color of those Gil had given them in Phoenix, the pills still deep in his pocket.
"The shipment," he whispered with horror of his own, then sagged down onto the bed beside Sarah, staring at the brown splotches that stained some of the bags. Brown splotches of Gil's blood.
The others stared down into the suitcase, each looking as dumbfounded as Lance felt-- and with the same edge of uncertainty in their eyes.
"How did it get in Sarah's suitcase?" Lance asked. "It couldn't have been there when the cops stopped us."
"Maybe they put it there," Dan said, a long brown cigarette dangling forgotten from his lips, the smoke curling up into the folds of his floppy hat.
"Why on earth would they do that?" Sarah asked in the same strained voice she'd used in answering him earlier. She looked ready to explode into tears. The violated apartment had been one thing; but this seemed to have come right under their noses.
"Don't ask me," Dan said. "I don't even know why they let us go."
"The question is: what do we do with it," Mike said. He and Marie had slipped in quietly during the initial shock. Now all Lance wanted to do was bar the doors and windows and hide beneath the bed.
"Why's that a problem?" Dan asked.
"Because someone's going to come looking for it sooner or later," Mike mumbled. "We've obviously been their mule for bringing it to town. We ought to bury it somewhere safe."
"And where would that be?" Dan asked.
Mike shrugged. Marie shuddered, but licked her lips as she eyed the selection. "I don't know."
"I don't think we ought to move it," Dan said, drawing a panicked glare from Lance who wanted it out as quick as possible, even if it wound up in the trash. "And since the place has been searched twice already, we're better off leaving it."
"That's crazy," Lance objected.
"Better yet, let's stick the thing in the closet and call for a party," Dan said.
"What?" Lance roared.
"It only makes sense," Dan said. "It'll seem like we have nothing to hide."
"No, no, no, no, no," Lance said, rising from the bed to face the others. "That'll put us in the limelight more."
"It would look normal," Dan said.
"But I'm sick of that kind of normal," Lance growled. "That's what we went on the road to escape."
"I think it's a good idea," Sarah said, her eyes expression suddenly cheerful again with the prospect of being at the center of Hollywood hip society again.
"Me, too," Marie agreed, still eyeing the dope.
Mike shook his head. "It sounds risky," he said. "It seems dangerous to call attention to this place, dope or no dope."
"But they already know we're here," Dan argued. "And how we normally live. We start acting different someone will suspect something."
Mike sighed. "You're just weaving a web for Bobo," he said, eyeing Dan carefully. "But since I'm not going to be around here for a while, I suppose you can take what risks you want."
Marie looked up sharply. "Are we going somewhere?" she asked.
"Not we, me," Mike said. "I have an appointment."
"But you can't leave me here alone!" Marie protested, looking hurt and scared. Lance guessed she'd not been far from Mike's side since hooking up with him.
"You won't be alone," Mike assured her. "You'll be here with the others. They'll take care of you."
"But why can't I come?" she asked.
Mike glanced up at Dan-- some private message passed between them which Lance only guess at. But he seemed to come away with the name Demetre. "Because you can't," he said, still looking at Dan. "But I could use someone to back me up."
Dan shook his head. "I have a party to put on, remember?"
"I'll come," Lance said, drawing a surprised look from Mike.
Lance couldn't explain it openly. But the prospect of meeting Demetre again seemed mild compared to one of Sarah's parties. He shrugged.
Mike pondered the offer for a moment. "All right," he said finally. "I'm not sure how good a pacifist will be backing me up. But I could use the company."
They walked slowly. Lance still stunned by the prospect of a party. Dope. Death. Apartment searches and cops. And Dan wanted to party. Trap or not it seemed insane and Lance wanted no part of it. And yet, walking beside Mike along Fountain, he felt strained. A gentle drizzled had started, wetting his face and hands and clothing, the last of winter's touch before the long, hot and dry summer. The chill went deep into him. He tugged closed his coat, but felt naked.
Mike had less on. A white shirt and ragged shorts. His long blond hair dripped as if with sweat. He didn't seem to notice. Nor did he say much as they walked, except to direct Lance away from the Boulevard.
"We don't want to be noticed," he said-- something for which Lance was immediately grateful. One meeting with Billy Night Rider had been enough. Yet at the end of this walk, Demetre waited, and now he felt less sure about his options, preferring perhaps a corner of the apartment instead.
Dope. Death. Let's have a party.
The silent figure beside Lance looked over, the high cheek bones dark under the ruined hair, for the first time looking sharply indian as if all the Irish blood had been washed away.
"I don't understand this party stuff. It seemed nuts to me."
"Dan's fishing," Mike said gruffly and seemed to fall back into his own thoughts.
"For Bobo. He's sending the man a message."
"That he's got the shipment."
"But I thought he wanted to hide that fact."
"Not everyone will read this the same way," Mike mumbled. "Word's out on the street that Bobo's trying to make the town dry. God knows the reason or if it's true. Maybe he wants to cut down on competition or jack up prices. But he won't like Dan's message."
"How the hell does he send a message by having a party?"
"By inviting the right people."
"He thinks Bobo'll come?"
"Maybe. But I wouldn't if I were Bobo."
"What would you do?"
Mike seemed to think this over for a moment, then shrugged. "Send someone to check it out. Then do something to stop it."
"Like call the police?"
"No. More likely I'd try to make a deal. Buy the shipment just to keep it off the street."
"And if he tries?"
"Dan gets his shot at him."
"And what if someone else reads the message the same way?"
Mike stared hard at Lance's face. He didn't ask who. Lance wasn't even sure who he meant, Billy, Demetre, or Buckingham. But all seemed equally dangerous now that he came to it.
"Then Dan screwed up," Mike said finally. "But let's not worry about it now. We've got things to do."
Posters for the play Hair marred the outside of the Aquarius theater with green and red, like tattered band aids covering the face of the exotic building. Pink flood lights illuminated the columns as Lance and Mike paused across the street, a pink flamingo among the more serious structures on either side. Even the Ed Sullivan Theater a half block east looked tame with a tamer line of people waiting before its doors.
The play had a later starting time and its cast hung out in front, dressed in feathers, denim and makeup, a slice of the life that went on nightly a few blocks up Vine on the Boulevard.
Lance smelled pot and craved a hit, and followed Mike across Sunset into the tangle of shadowed columns. A hand reached out and grabbed Mike's arm.
"You got any downs, boy?" a black man said, dressed in the tan uniform and helmet of the California Highway Patrol, though the make-up and dilated eyes said he was part of the cast.
"Afraid not," Mike said, smiling weakly, though his eyes looked annoyed. He dragged Lance out of sight, deeper into the alcove of columns. Urns full of potted plants surrounded them like a jungle, their leaves looking black under the pink light. Some other cast members eyed them with dubious alarm, then shrugged thinking them dealers. There were always dealers here and Lance had come here a few times to score, wary of the equal chance of stumbling on a narc.
There's a knack for knowing the difference, Dan had told him.
Lance never had it, feeling as nervous and cloddish now as he had the first time, like a child in a twisted world of perverts and rapists and killers, the faces of each stranger deeper and more troubling than the last. He felt as if anyone with a keen eye could spot him, even hidden as he was in shadow.
"Demetre's supposed to meet you here?" Lance asked, fingers fumbling open a pack of marlboros. He barely got it lit after three shaky tries.
Mike nodded. "But not for an hour yet."
"Why are we here so early?"
"To see if it's a trap," Mike said, taking a hit off Lance's cigarette as if it was a joint. "You get to things like this early enough, you can see a trap developing."
"You think it will be a trap?"
Again came the shrug as Mike handed back the cigarette. "Can't tell yet. But I've got a feeling it could be."
He didn't need to name Buckingham, but that seemed to be the magic word, and Lance leaned back against the warm pillar, watching the world begin to take shape, dealers arriving just ahead of the crowds, striking up quick deals and exchanges of cash and dope.
The crowds themselves came in drips and drabs. A few freaks dotting a mass of mostly straights. People in suits and evening gowns. Tourists in hawaiians shirts strung with Japanese cameras. All had come to see how the hippies lived, as if they didn't quite believe the reality walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard. They chewed cigars and spat onto the sidewalk. The exuded perfume and cologne. They waited and paced, dancing around each other with the civility of pigeons.
Lance felt trapped.
Each face was a portrait of his uncle's, reflecting the benign, brain-dead families of the suburbs he'd left behind: two-car garages and colored TVs, life lived through a view-finder with a world amounting to little more than a post card home. Reality was the mortgage, hospital bills, repairs to the car. There was no room in that view for pictures of Vietnam, starving people or run-away daughters pimped on the porno meat market. They lived their lives in ignorant bliss-- and he envied them, aching for a mind like theirs which could shut itself off at will.
If only he could find a job. Maybe the rest would follow...
And then, among them, floated the familiar black face-- a full head above the crowd. Stark, and yet less so than Lance might otherwise have imagined, somehow managing to blend in with the others despite the height and skin-color, wearing an hawaiian shirt and carrying himself with the same slumped gait of a working class slob.
But the illusion dissipated the minute Demetre's gaze caught on Lance, the limbs of the professional cop suddenly taunt under the shirt, making it all an obvious disguise. The gaze shifted and studied the crowd, as if it was the cop who expected the trap.
Lance turned to tell Mike and found him gone-- his long hair blending into the invisibility of the crowd, even more adept at it than Demetre-- who now bore down on Lance's hiding place fiercely determined.
Lance tried to follow Mike, but his legs lacked the dexterity to weave through the knees and elbows, and the cop's cool hand easily gripped his shoulder, twisting him again. Demetre slammed Lance against one of the pillar and pressed himself into him, something hard and metallic poking Lance's ribs through the hawaiian shirt.
"All right, pal," the cop hissed-- the smell of spearmint thick on his breath. "What kind of game are you playing here?"
"I--I--" Lance stuttered. "I'm not playing a game."
"Then why did you leave a message for me at the station saying you were Buckingham? Are you?"
"I left the message," Mike said, easing back into the shadow as deftly as he had left it, coming to it from a different angle with the light at his back.
Demetre whirled around, yanking the pistol free of his shirt, his scar growing tight and pale as he squinted to see who had trapped him. "You?" he said as the hand with the pistol fell again to his side. Mike eased an inch closer, his sharp features growing clearer and he neared, drawing a pained expression from Demetre.
"What the hell are you doing here?" the cop growled, casting a quick glance towards the lighted area in front of the theater, like a criminal looking for witnesses. "Are you crazy?"
"No," Mike mumbled. He didn't look or sound like the Mike Lance had met on the road, but like a shy boy again, bumbling out the words. "I just needed to talk to you."
"And get yourself busted in the process," the cop barked.
Mike looked straight into the man's face, his gaze questioning. "Are you going to bust me?"
"I didn't say that," Demetre said and shoved the pistol back under his shift. Something sounded from the theater doors and the crowd began to shuffle in. "But there are others in this town beside me. Any one of them would love to have your head for their collections."
Mike smiled. "But you've already got it."
"Damn it, boy. I'm serious." The thinning crowd seemed to bother the cop and grabbed Mike and Lance by the arms, dragged them deeper into the shadow. "I'm a cop, boy. I can't go around cohorting with you like I don't know who you are. You can't rely that heavily on my guilt."
"You know what I mean," the cop said, refusing to meet Mike's stare
"I know you shouted in the court room when the judge took my kid away."
"It was an inappropriate judgement," Demetre mumbled, looking less and less comfortable. "In any other state but Arizona, it would have come out differently. I forgot myself when I hauled you in. It was a mistake. But you can't expect me to pay for it forever."
"Not forever," Mike said. "Just one more time."
"So you do want something from me. What?"
Demetre's face didn't change, but the eyes did, the pupils dilating as they focused finally on Mike's face. "And what exactly did you want to know?"
"Background. Who he is. Where he comes from. Where I can find him now."
"You want a lot for your money."
"Please, Demetre," Mike said. "Let's not make a game of this."
"No games, Mike," Demetre said, still staring. "But this is the wrong time and place. Tomorrow would be better."
"Where and when?"
Demetre stared away into the dark as if working out the details of his schedule. "Can't say right now. I'll leave word at that hippie newspaper for you."
"All right," Mike said.
Demetre glanced once more at Mike, then at Lance. A deep crease appeared across his brow as his eyes photographed each detail, they seemed to promise little good and Lance was glad when the man moved on.