Hip Cities and Lost Souls
†"I hate you!" Marie said, staring across the table at Mike emblazoned eyes, her make-up cracked around her mouth in a permanent expression of grief.
†"No you don't," Mike said, calmly stirring his cup of coffee. "It's all in your head like you said it would be."
†"I said Daddy would convince me to come home," Marie snapped. "He didn't. I convinced myself. And you helped. If I never heard Daddy's voice, things might have been different. I wouldn't have cared. I wouldn't have thought of home. But I miss him. I miss being home. And I'm going back."
†"Why don't we wait until things blow over," Mike said. "Then we can talk more rationally about it."
†"I am being rational," Marie said. She looked around the food establishment and caught sight of Lance seated at the counter, his shoulders hutch in a deliberate attempt to seem uninvolved, taking his time coming back as to not interrupt the conversation. He seemed strangely vulnerable, lost among the supermen to whom she'd become attached, like a child with nowhere to go. And she wishing she could take him home with her.
†Look what I found on the road, Daddy. Can I keep him, please?
†"It's not going to blow over, Michael," she said. "It's going to blow up and I don't watch it, it'll blow up in my face. In the end, I'm going to wind up crying over your dead body, and I don't want that. I'd rather go back to Daddy where I won't have to think about you, this place, or anything we've done together, where I can be pretty little rich girl again and let people like you shoot each other."
†"Would it help if I promised to settle down?"
†"Because even if I believed you this time-- which I don't-- I'm not sure that's what I want."
†"But if you go, you may never get away from your father again."
†Marie nodded, staring down at her shaking hands, noting the chipped nail polish and how the flesh itself seemed worn-- from picking pot plants to washing blood out of Mike's clothes. "I know. But I'm older now. And a few years in the house won't kill me."
†"And life with me would?"
†She looked up and straight into his eyes. "Yes, Michael. It could."
†They were gone, as if by magic, their bumpkin faces vanishing from the crowds, leaving only the real tourists behind, the tourists who leaned too far over the edges of their boats in the lake to examine the lily pads, or clicked pictures constantly of everything that moved, chattering over the dark history that had left countless dead bodies among the trees. Baby bodies and ex-lovers showed up here often. Sometimes in pieces. Sometimes stuffed in cardboard boxes. A few years before, the park had made headlines when two bikers drowned in the lake, clinging to their cap-sized boat while hundreds of tourists clicked pictures.
†Advertisements for a "buck an hour" boat rides rested among the wooden ruins near the south end of the water, while in the center ducks quacked from the elevated surface of an equally decrepid raft. It had once been painted green, but now was mostly duck shit.
†In the distance, Lance could hear the cheering crowds from Dodger Stadium, more mumble than actual voices, echoing between the walls of the valley crease from which the lake had gotten its name.
†Though there were other names for the place, mumbled among various ethnic residence, each dating their invasion. Lance like "red gulch" best, though "High Heaven" seemed popular among the hippies. There were many of these, cluttered around the V-shaped lake like ducks, stretched out on blankets or unzipped sleeping bags. Some were naked and making love. Others too stoned to move.
†Twilight put most of the park in shadow, and what light there was floated down through the tips of the trees in a deep, orange glow, or reflected from the tips of the mountains to the east. On the darker lower sides of the valley, house lights twinkled like stars.
†"I don't like it," Mike said, sitting up the embankment from the lake in a small tangle of trees. The wind brought the smell of pot across the lake.
†"What?" Lance said, startled from his revere.
†"The feeling's wrong here."
†"That's what you said before when the Tinkertons were here."
†"I know. I just can't figure it out. It seems complicated. Like there were too many bad vibes pressing in from too many directions. But it's out there." He waved a hand in the general direction of the lake. "And I'm missing some important detail."
†"Maybe you're just used to the Tinkertons," Lance suggested, and saw the pain erupt again in Mike's dark eyes, rekindled coals of pain over Marie's going.
†"Maybe," he mumbled, then stiffened, his expression tightening into one of sudden enlightenment. "No!" he said and jumped to his feet. "But you're close. What's missing are the cops. I haven't seen one goddamn foot patrol since we sat down here."
†"You bet it is," he growled and couched and glanced more carefully around, as Lance rose to join him, feeling the old panic begin, as if something would leap out of the trees-- an AK-47 erupting to cut down soldiers.
†"But why?" Lance asked. "I thought you'd want less cops, not more."
†"The normal amount would do," Mike said. "It would mean everything was normal. But someone's pulled all the uniforms out as to not upset the game."
†"You mean the cops know what's coming down?"
†"So it would seem," Mike said. "And I'm willing to bet Bobo's dope that there's more cops hanging around this park right now than there were Tinkertons before. Damn! That screws up the whole ball game."
†"I don't see why?" Lance said. "If no one sees them, what difference does it make?"
†"Buckingham'll notice, just as I did. He has the same instincts as I do. He'll feel the trap and avoid it." Mike stood up. "Come on."
†"Out of here. We'll have to set something else up for another place and time."
†But they just reached the gravel path along the lake when someone shouted, and out from the trees on the south side came Dan and Bobo, waving like tourists, much to Mike's chagrin.
†"Damn it, shut up!" he said, but not nearly loud enough for them to hear, or as loud as they got with their shouting. They charged on down to another part of the path as it wound around the south end of the lake.
†"Mike! Lance! Over hear!" Dan shouted and waved.
†"They're a fucking advertisement," Mike said, grabbing Lance by the arm and hurrying him to the eventual meeting of ways at the southern most point.
†And the closer Lance came, the more easily he could see the bundles of weapons the other two carried, like rookie soldiers wandering into the jungle for the first time with field packs filled for every eventuality.
†"Just the men we wanted to see!" Dan said, pausing, short of breath from the jog down the hill. "We've come to get you out of here."
†"You're going to get us busted," Mike said. "There are cops all over this park."
†"That was Dan's doing," Bobo said. "He told Demetre everything."
†"What?" Mike exploded.
†"I had to," Dan said, casting a dark look at his armed companion. "It was the only way we could get in to see Free Press Bob."
†"What happened to him?"
†"Buckingham got to him," Bobo said. "But was in too much of a hurry and muffed it. Left the poor boy alive. At least for the moment."
†"Did Bob see Buckingham?" Mike asked.
†"No," Dan said. "But I think I know who he is."
†"Not that old theory again?" Bobo moaned.
†"Who?" Mike asked, ignoring Bobo.
†Mike stared at Dan for a moment, then laughed. "Demetre as Buckingham? Have you lost all your marbles, Dan?"
†"But it makes sense!" Dan insisted.
†"Not to anyone who knows him as well as I do. He's as straight as an arrow, and no more Buckingham than I am. But you've fucked things up pretty well."
†"But if Demetre isn't Buckingham, who is? There aren't many suspects left."
†"But there is one," Mike said. "One with what would appear to be a never-ending supply of dope."
†"Dale?" Bobo said. "That old Beatnik's less likely than Demetre."
†"Is he?" Mike asked. "Where did he get his dope then with the town as dry as it is?"
†"He has connections up in Frisco," Bobo said. "Everybody in town knows that."
†"And what was all that back at the house? It looked like some kind of cult."
†"Maybe," Bobo said. "But everybody's into something these days. That doesn't make him Buckingham or a killer."
†"No," Mike admitted, shifting his feet as he stared down into the water. Something small leaped from one of the lily pads. "But I have a feeling he's connected, and we've already seen what connections to Buckingham mean."
†"NO!" Lance shouted, his voice echoing off the distant hills. "He can't go and kill them all!"
†"Calm down, boy," Dan whispered. "You're attracting attention."
†Indeed, faces looked up from various ends of the park, lovers from their embraces on the benches along the water, men walking their dogs along the higher grass. Even a few of the hippies looked, suddenly less stoned than they'd appeared a moment before.
†"Calm down?" Lance roared. "How can you tell me to calm down? That's my old lady back there."
†The fire flared up in him. He could see visions of death, whole villages roaring into flame or blown to pieces, not all guilty of being the enemy.
†Sometimes the innocent get hurt, one officer told him. Sometimes they have to die for the good of the whole.
†Innocents dying for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for doing stupid things and making foolish mistakes, like accepting love with the wrong community, or taking communion with the wrong cult. Wasn't that what had happened with the Manson people? Hadn't they made the mistake of trusting the wrong leader, or letting themselves go too far?
†Lance staggered a step, then another step. Confused again. Hearing the sound of choppers as they flew down out of the clouds.
†No choppers. A passing jet. And yet, war had come home with him. People had died. Back on the road from Denver, Dan had killed two men. And then again, in Phoenix. And again in Griffith's Park. He still felt the blood from the cop on Vermont, as if he had done the killing himself.
†The horror of it! The shame! What right did people have to bring war home, to fight it over and over again in the streets, in the name of peace and love.
†How dare America become a world like that!
†"Someone stop him!" Mike shouted. But Lance had started running, his legs obeying some deeper command, some instinct that even Vietnam had not used up.
†Sarah! I'm coming, Sarah!
†Lance leaped like some insane kid, down the grass and along the asphalt path, running the circle the way the joggers did-- though screaming Sarah's name the whole while. People looked up, jumping away from him as if he was a bull enraged. He had to get to that house before Buckingham did! Had to yank Sarah out of harm's way.
†Bobo, Dan and Mike all shouted, their own footsteps thumping down the turf after him. But theirs were not the only footsteps. Others rose out of the shadows like ghosts, up from blanket beaches and park benches, out from behind their cameras. Strangers all with the professional glint of cop in their eyes.
†Something hit Lance's legs and bowed him forward into a hard hitting tumble. He found Bobo tackling him, rolling down the embankment towards the scummy water. Ducks scattered and their feathers fluttered in their air like odd-shaped dust, coming down onto both men as Bobo pinned Lance.
†"You idiot!" Bobo growled. "What are you trying to do, get us all killed? Calm down, or I'll knock your craziness out of you!"
†"No time for that," Mike said, sweeping down the hill. "The cops are onto us. Run!"
†Dan stumbled and coughed as he caught up, a pistol in either hand. "Some of them aren't cops," he said, his face, a mixture of expressions. Panic tainted with something that looked to Lance like relief.
†"Buckingham?" Bobo said, swinging his own heavy pistol out of his belt.
†"Drug company boys," Dan hissed and couched, peeping up over the lip of the hill at the approaching figures. "Somebody's been very busy spreading the news of this."
†"Then run, damn it!" Mike growled, shoving each of them back. "The dip for the lake'll give us cover. Don't shoot unless you have no choice. God knows most of them probably think we've already been killing cops."
†Mike and Dan charged ahead. Bobo yanked Lance to his feet. "Come on, fool," he said. "Let's see what the army taught you over in Vietnam."
†The "We never close" sign blinked orange in the window, more prominent in the growing dark than the conventional Pioneer Market sign. Several cars had pulled up to the curb with people at the take-out counter. Sunset Boulevard traffic whirled by, despite the traffic light. Sinister figures in cut-off denim jackets leaned against the counter eyeing Mike and Dan as they cross the street from the park. Around their ankles, empty hamburger bags swirled like sage brush. Mike glanced back. Lights from distant traffic twinkled through the trees but no sign of pursuit.
†"Inside," he said, motioning Dan towards the double doors.
†Dan paused, studying the park's low wall and overflowing tree branches, both hands gripping pistols.
†Denver men! Here in L.A.!
†The chill of it ached in his bones. He felt giddy from it, and strangely relieved, as if the burden of expectation had been lifted from his shoulders. He could quit worrying about when it would happen and happily die.
†Though now he had to wonder how they'd found him-- perhaps as part of some more devilish scheme the way Marie's father's men had been, a distraction thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.
†"Dan!" Mike hissed again. "Get inside."
†Dan nodded, the right-hand door sticking as he pushed on it. The narrow aisles greeted him with anxious Chicanos and stoned hippies, all looking at the pistols in his hands-- each fully expecting the obvious, frowning when Dan and Mike pushed passed them up the aisle.
†"We've got to get away from the windows," Mike said, pushing on, passed tin-can displays of spanish vegetables and bags of beans and rice. Back to the rear frozen food case.
†"Who knew it would come to this?" Dan said head swirling with inappropriate humor. "Dying with the frozen fish."
†"Shut up," Mike growled, crouched behind a stack of cans, eyeing the front door.
†Outside, on the other side of the grease-stained glass, the Denver men in their grey suits came to a halt. They peered in. Dan stiffened and lifted one of his pistols. Mike knocked it down.
†"Don't," he whispered. "They haven't seen us yet."
†"Why give them a chance?" Dan asked. "They're only going to kill me when they do."
†"Or move on without us," Mike said. "Around here, one hippie looks just like another to them. Take off the hat."
†Mike grabbed it and shoved it into the frozen case. It pressed against the glass like some exotic fish, brown and crumpled. The men stared back at Mike. Dan sagged, the pistols down into a bin of walnuts. He looked stoned with his eyes closed. But the stare of the men moved on, and after a moment, both vanished back into the night.
†"Oh God!" Dan moaned and leaned back against the glass.
†"Now I wish we had the van," Mike said. "It's a long walk around the park back to Dale's. I wonder where Bobo and Lance got off to."
†"Probably the loony bin with the way Lance was acting," Dan mumbled, recovering some of his color, though he made no move to recover his hat. "I thought the cops were going to hop all over us when he screamed."
†"They should have. Some of them started to. But I think Demetre's holding them back to see if Buckingham's here in his net. He doesn't care anything about us little fish right now."
†"Was Buckingham there?"
†Yeah, Buckingham was there. Floating out in the dark. Mike felt him the way one twin felt another. As if it was his own reflection showing in the water as he walked. Part of him. Inside and outside his head. He wanted to shake the feeling off, but couldn't. It had already wrapped itself around him like a shroud.
†"I think he's watching the store," Mike said. Like a cat. Playing with his victims before devouring them.
†"So what do we do?" Dan asked, lifting his weapons again like the useless claws to an already crippled lobster. "We can't stay here all night.
†"You're right. But we're rested now. And less panicked. Maybe we can think our way out of here."
†"Can thinking stop bullets."
†"We'll stay out of the park and take the long way around. Down Alvardo to Beverly, then cut back towards the park to Dale's. If that doesn't confuse the son of a bitch, nothing will."
†"That'll take an hour," Dan protested.
†"At least, and by then, things should have calmed down a bit. Cops get bored easy when nothing's happening."
†"Sure," Dan mumbled. "But Demetre's bound to think I screwed him over."
†"Better that than Buckingham thinking we set him up."
†"All right, all right," Dan said. "Let's get on with it. I'm not fond of walking this neighborhood after dark..."
†Mike took a deep breath and nodded, pushing up the narrow aisle, feeling the odd tingle again, ignoring it-- his senses were confused by the night and its accumulated dangers. And yet... he hesitated at the door.
†The spanish clerk eyed him suspiciously. "Hey man, what you steal, eh?" The man grabbed Mike's arm.
†"Calm down, Chico," Dan said, shoving the man out of the way. "We're not shoplifters..."
†The first shot shattered the glass doors. And Dan's head jerked up to look, only to catch the second shot full in the chest, his spine blown out the back of him in a spray of blood and flesh.
†Mike wheeled around and fired twice, catching one of the suited men in mid-charge. A third shot aimed at Mike went wild, pinging off tin cans like a furious bee.
†The other man's footsteps clicked along the sidewalk as he ran. Mike didn't pursue, but knelt down beside Dan who had crumbled to the floor.
†The clerk stared down in frozen horror, then let out a yelp and a string of Spanish. Mike paid no attention, even as the man ran for the phone.
†"Dan?" he said.
†The figure on the floor squirmed but didn't answer, coughing up blood in the process of speech. But if there had been words attached to the action, they died with the blood.
†"Damn you, Dan," Mike growled. "Didn't I tell you to be careful?"
†A thousand times. Here and in New York. But Dan had never been the kind to take advise, from friends or doctors. At least now, he wouldn't die of disease. Mike let the man's head down gently. There was no time to grieve. Later, when everything got straightened out. When Buckingham was found and disposed of. When he could think. Now the shots would only have attracted attention. Police attention. And Buckingham's. Out there in the dark, people made decisions, undercover cops leaping up at Demetre's command to find out what had happened, to close in on this spot in the mistaken presumption they had snared their man. Meanwhile, the ghost would head away, out from the circle. But to where?
†That seemed to closest refuge now. And possibly the only place where Buckingham could have hidden over the last few weeks, paying for invisibility in drugs. Perhaps the man had disguised himself as a true believer, slipping away while the others partied.
†It was also the place to which Bobo would run upon hearing the shots, no doubt thinking to cut off the villain's retreat and eke revenge of his own.
†Somewhere between here and there, Buckingham would see him, Buckingham's instincts warning him of the danger the way Mike's instincts would have warned him.
†Bobo had to be stopped. No time for the indirect route around the park. Mike would have to chance slipping through the closing net of police. He re-gripped the sweaty handle of his pistol and plunged out the shattered glass door.
†"Don't move!" Demetre shouted, stepping out from the shadows of the park gate, a shotgun leveled at Mike's chest.
†Mike staggered back, staring at the enraged black face moving towards him. Buckingham? Maybe there had been some validity to Dan's theory. Maybe Demetre had lied all along. And yet, it still didn't come together in Mike's head. Demetre had had opportunities to kill Mike. Times alone where no one would have known the better.
†Instinct and logic said Demetre was not Buckingham, and instinct was all Mike had at the moment.
†"Don't stop me, Demetre," Mike warned. "People's lives are on the line here."
†"You mean like this fellow's?" Demetre asked, pointing towards the fallen Drug company man with the barrel of the shotgun.
†"No, more like the man back inside the store," Mike said.
†Demetre glanced around Mike as other cops arrived, cops in hippie clothes and tourist clothes, and suits straight out of Brooks Brothers. The tall black cop's expression tightened, emphasizing his scar.
†"That's Newhaul, isn't it?"
†"You shoot him?"
†"No way," Mike growled. "That asshole did." He jabbed his own weapon at the dead man on the sidewalk. "There was another asshole just like him, but he got away."
†"No he didn't," Demetre said. "We snatched him. And now we got you."
†"But you don't have Buckingham," Mike said. "And if you don't let me go, Buckingham's going to have a few more victims to brag about."
†Mike's voice sounded strange, much like the pleading voice that had asked a judge to spare him his kid, that had begged for a chance at a normal life, that had cried later from the rooftops of Detroit when Demetre had snatched them away again.
†Demetre's shotgun lowered. "All right," he said. "My car's around the corner."
†The house looked and sounded vacant. The booming rock & roll of hours ago seemed an illusion now, like some dark nightmare Lance had dreamed up-- he half expected to wake to the scream of mortars and find himself in the jungle again, someone shaking him, someone telling him wounded men needed his services.
†He smelled death wafting down the stairs from the house instead of sound or light. He had come to know it at a distance.
†"Something's wrong up there," Lance said, pinching Bobo's shoulder in the dark. "There should be some kind of noise."
†"Maybe they're meditating," Bobo said.
†"Don't be so upbeat, pacifist." But Bobo sounded tired, and his gaze studied the house without its usual spark.
†"Why can't we go in, at least."
†"Because I want Mike and Dan here first," Bobo said. "The more of us the better. If Buckingham's in there, I don't want him slipping out the back when we charge in."
†Then, both heard the shooting, the echoes of the shots carrying off the sides of the valley the way they did in Vietnam, like voices crying of death in the distance. Bobo turned and stared at Lance, his gaze uncertain.
†"It's them," Lance said. "Mike and Dan are in trouble."
†"Bullshit," Bobo barked. "It's probably the cops shooting at each other. You know how armed men get having to wait."
†"But what if it is them?"
†"Shut up, damn it. You're giving me the jitters, too."
†"Maybe we should get out of the car. We're too easy a target in here."
†"And go where?"
†"The garage," Lance said.
†Bobo glanced across the street. "Is there an entrance into the house from inside it?"
†"I didn't notice. Maybe."
†"All right," Bobo said. "We'll go for it. But you do as I say-- no more freak-outs. Okay?"
†"I'm all right," Lance said. Yet things spun inside his head as if inside a moving top, swirling round and round. He could smell it. Not napalm or gun powder, but death itself. In the heat, the rotting started quick.
†"Out," Bobo said.
†Lance pulled up the handle with a click and pushed out the door, easing into the night. The silent night, in which the house and city seemed to have muffled itself. Even the gush of traffic on the freeway seemed subdued, the crease of earth in which Echo Lake hid had blanketed itself with quiet. No sirens. No cries from the trees. The pre-moments before a fire fight.
†Bobo kept close to the car, a pistol in his hand and another poking out of his belt. He didn't look the part of a western gunfighter, but more a Mississippi Gambler lacking only the string tie and brass-buttoned vest. Lance slid around to the driver's side and followed the man as he made the leap from the shadow on one side of the street to the shadow on the other, avoiding the pale blue islands of light that spilled from the street lamps. Then, they charged through the one remaining unavoidable island to the doors of the garage. It was closed but not locked. Lance could see the back of the van inside like an old friend's face.
†"You open it, I'll cover you," Bobo said.
†Lance reached for the worn rope handle and pulled the door up. It rose in a solid piece, springs groaning as the wheels moved along the track. It was loud in the silence, and for a moment, Lance hesitated. But nothing seemed to notice their small violation.
†The street light poured over the van, but the blue glow dampened the bright paint, leaving it more varying shades of grey. The side door jutted out slightly from Mike's visit perhaps, though Lance felt something quivering within, a sniffling sound like that of a frightened puppy easing out.
†"And what the hell are you doing?" Bobo hissed sharply.
†"Checking the van."
†"Just checking," Lance said and swung the door open more, letting the light from outside fall in on the interior, upon the huddled and still-naked figure of Sarah.
†She leaped out, all nails and teeth, striking straight at Lance's throat like an animal gone crazy. "You won't get me!" she screamed.
†Lance fell back, but tripped over something on the garage floor, a suitcase abandoned earlier, and Sarah fell upon him, hissing and tearing at his face with her hands.
†Bobo moved, wrapping his arm around her throat. She struggled, yet couldn't reach back.
†"Leave me alone!" she screeched again, kicking at Bobo's shins.
†"Shut her up, Lance," Bobo growled. "She'll bring all hell down on us if you don't."
†Lance clamored to his feet, staggering forward, hushing Sarah. But the dilated woman's eyes stared back at him like the blank dark interior of a double-barrelled shotgun.
†"Leave me alone!" she screamed again, this time louder than before.
†"Shut her up!"
†Lance's open palm struck her once across the face. It was enough. Her body stiffened-- gaze focusing for a moment on Lance, then clouded as she sagged. She whimpered as Bobo lowered her to the ground.
†"Damned crazy stuff," Bobo said. "What the hell is she doing on here like that anyway?"
†"Hiding," Lance said. He had seen such things before, kids curled up in boxes and baskets hoping to escape the slaughter of their village, crying out first in Vietnamese, then in English, not total sure which side had come on them this time. All sides wore the same face after so many years. All sides brought bombs and misery.
†And stoned as she was, Sarah looked every bit a child, clutching her knees to her chest as she rocked back and forth on the cold concrete floor.
†"Something's happened in the house," Lance said suddenly. "Something ugly."
†"You can tell all that from here?" Bobo said.
†Bobo glanced around the interior of the garage. Two broken windows showed at the rear, half buried in leaves and trash. There was no door up into the house.
†"She must have come out the front door," Bobo said.
†"We have to go up and look," Lance mumbled, his hands shaking. He felt it now, the inevitable throb, not cowardice, but horror. He knew what he would find upstairs. He simply didn't believe it had come home with him on the plane, the ghost of war spreading out in his own country the way it had through theirs.
†"All right," Bobo said. "But you're not going up there unarmed."
†Lance refused the weapon. "I won't use it," he mumbled and tried to lift Sarah. She yanked her arm away from him, whimpering about not wanting to go back "in there."
†"Leave her," Bobo said.
†Lance nodded. It would take time to unwind her. Time and patience. And he had to see the thing upstairs for himself, to look at it, and then let it go again, as if it echoed in his head with the sound of dripping blood.
†Out he went with Bobo at his heals, and up the stairs, taking them three at a time. Had to see it. Look at it. Get it out of him. Then forget it. Had to exorcise it the way he had a thousand similar scenes from Nam.
†"Slow down, boy," Bobo said, grabbing his arm at the door. "You don't know what's...."
†Lance tore away from the grip and pushed the door in, feeling it stick on something soft, watching the limp hand fall free and the door swung in. The dead and naked body tumbled after it like some poor practical joke.
†But it was no joke. Nor was the body the only one. Such bodies filled the whole front room, pale flesh sprawled here and there in positions of love-making like dolls. They had moved on into some new cycle of life in which these carcasses were no longer needed and had been left this side of the cosmic door. In the heat they had already begun to stink.
†"NO!" Lance roared as Bobo reached to flick on the light switch. "Leave it off."
†"But some of them might still be alive," Bobo said, retching himself as his face twisted with the horror, a green horn in this world despite his tours overseas.
†"Someone is alive," Lance said, feeling it. "But not in this room."
†"You seem to know an awful lot," Bobo said, stepping over the fallen limbs as if they were trees. "What exactly is going on here?"
†"I think they were poisoned," Lance said.
†"It might have been self-induced," Lance said, moving towards the curtain that separated the external orgy from the inner sanctum. "But I'm no expert on suicide. Let's look in the other room."
†Lance pulled aside the curtain. More bodies. Only these hadn't been poisoned. The floor, walls and ceiling were flecked with bits of flesh and speckles of blood. The figures had fallen in place, as if part of some frenzied dance, perhaps one celebrating their passage to the next world, celebrating the death of those outside. In the midst of it all and still seated on his throne, Dale sat, staring at Lance and Bobo, the bloody machete still dangling from his fingers. He looked exhausted, not stoned, though his face wore an oddly satisfied expression.
†"Welcome, pilgrims," Dale said with a laugh. "Have you come to pass on to the new world?"
†"Why you son of a..." Bobo screamed.
†"No, Bo!" Lance shouted and leaped at the upraised pistol. But the shots came, one after another, each bullet ripping through the unprotected chest of the seated man. Dale sagged forward, blood pouring out his still-smiling mouth.
†Lance fell against one of the stereo speakers as Bobo's arm lowered.
†"That's for Jake," Bobo whispered.
†"Who's Jake?" Lance asked, out of a daze.
†"The man this son of a bitch killed. But I got to Buckingham first," Bobo said with a laugh. "And paid up the debt in full."
†Lance shook his head. "Then you shot the wrong man. Dale's not Buckingham."
†Bobo looked up sharply. "But he has to be. What about all these people..."
†"Dale killed them. But that's the doing of a fanatic. Hardly the calculating soul everybody's been mumbling about."
†"If he's not Buckingham, who is?"
†Lance didn't answer; two shots did. The exit holes burst from Bobo's chest in another spray of blood and flesh. Bobo twisted around, his top half seeming to separate from his bottom as he fell, joining the carnage already on the floor.
†Lance rolled to the side, then crashed through one of the blacked-out windows. He landed with a thud on the side of the hill. The pistol fired again, splattering glass and wood above his head. Lance let gravity take him, rolling down the slanted ground along the side of the building, leaves and dust kicking up around his face, chasing the smell of death from his nostrils. He hit the trunk of a fallen tree, then rose, staggered over it, and ran.
†Flashes of color burst in his head. Explosions in his ears. The night had ripped open into jungle and flame, burning villages cropping up around him where L.A. had been before, and groaning villagers dying on either side.
†Machines guns and mortars.
†His heart screamed in his chest, begging for the mercy of death, wanting to slip out of it the way the junkies had, a mellow answer to the unmellow world. Maybe Dale had been right. Maybe man wasn't meant for this side of the door, that only on the other side was there any sense of peace.
†A hand grabbed him out of the darkness as soon as he fell to the street, a shotgun pushed its way up into his face.
†"What the fuck is going on here?" Demetre demanded.
†"Buck--" Lance groaned. "Bobo-- Dale-- all of them dead."
†"Buckingham?" Demetre growled. "In there."
†"Fine!" Mike growled, moving around from behind the cops and towards the stairs. "It's about time all this shit came to an end."
†"No, Michael," Demetre shouted. But the man had already leaped up the steps.
†"We can't let him go up there alone!" Lance said and struggled to follow. But Demetre pressed down on him.
†"You stay with me," he said, dragging Lance back across the street and behind the line of parked cars. Bobo's car. His own car. Other cars likely those of the already fallen inside. Demetre positioned himself with the shotgun laid across the hood. He removed a pistol from his belt and put that on the hood as well.
†Shots sounded from inside. A surging series of shots that seemed more a conversation than a battle, first one, then another, repeated for a moment, then followed by silence. Demetre's hands tightened on the shotgun. A figure appeared at the front door and staggered down the stairs like a drunk, one hand holding closed a wound in the chest.
†"Halt right there," Demetre shouted. The figure paused half way down, lifted the pistol and fired. But only the sound of clicking empty chambers came.
†Demetre rose and moved around the front of the car, abandoning the shotgun for his pistol. The figure staggered forward again as sirens wailed from various directions.
†Police cars screeched as they turned down the street and stopped, headlights filling the broken asphalt with brightness, each catching the face of the figure as if fell forward from the stair.
†"Chris?" Lance yelped and charged towards the fallen woman. She looked up and smiled, and like Dale, bubbled blood from her lips.
†"Hello, pacifist," she mumbled and coughed. "One hell of a place for you to be, eh?"
†"But why, Chris?" Lance demanded. "What was all this about?"
†"I loved him," she said, through another series of coughs. "And he was going away."
†""Mike?" Lance shouted and rose, letting go of Chris' clutching hand. "Mike?"
†Some cops tried to stop Lance as he mounted the stairs. But Demetre waved them off. He plunged through the door and over the carnage and found Mike slumped near the broken window, a stream of blood pouring from a cavity in his chest. His hand still gripped his pistol. But he had gone beyond the point of using it again. Dead. And yet his eyes and face still wore the expression of utter disbelief. He had met Buckingham and she had killed him. His was the expression of a man betrayed too many times.
†Demetre waited for Lance at the bottom of the stairs, his tall black shape a full head above the sea of blue uniforms and flashing lights.
†Like a parade, Lance thought. A welcome home celebration with no heros to honor. Only dirty-faced men lying face down in a room of death, fighting the war over and over again in their heads and hearts, this side of the cosmic door, and maybe on the other side as well, killing insanely for petty kingdoms and abuses of love.
†Lance felt sick and retched, nothing coming up from his stomach but air. He had eaten nothing in what seemed like days.
†"Leave him to me," Demetre said, pushing the approaching cops away. His arm fell around Lance's shoulder. "Is he dead?"
†Demetre's scarred face tightened with a twinge of pain. "I suppose it had to end like this," he said, looking up at the house. "Nothing could tame him, and Jail would have killed him, too, only more slowly."
†Lance shuddered. "So what happens now?"
†The cop looked down at Lance. "Happens?"
†"To me and my old lady?"
†Lance pointed towards the garage. "She's hiding in the van."
†Demetre's gaze seemed to focus on the open door for the first time, the bumper of the psychedelic VW just visible in the flashes of police light.
†"Well, boy," he said softly. "I don't think anybody would look twice if you hopped in that van and rode out of here."
†Lance glanced up at the cop. "You're not going to arrest me?"
†"Ah," the cop said with a smile. "In all this, you think a few thousand dollars is a big deal? Get out of here, boy. Get out of this town and don't look back."
†The man shoved Lance towards the garage, and stood with arms folded as Lance gathered Louise up and put her in. He found the spare set of keys in the glove compartment and fitted them into the ignition, his hand shaking the whole time. The engine started with a cough, but it started, and he backed out into the street.
†Sarah's cries sounded distant as she huddled among her precious possessions like a beaten dog. Lance lifted his hand in farewell to the cop as the van putted past the line of cop cars, headed towards the freeway entrance and the long road north.