Wednesday, May 11, 2011



A Novel


Phil Mershon

Chapter One

Colt Diver and the Fear Girls

For this child the “I’m Okay—You’re Not Okay” position is a life-saving decision. The tragedy for himself and for society, is that he goes through life refusing to look inward. He is unable to be objective about his own complicity in what happens to him...Incorrigible criminals occupy this position.

                                   —Thomas A. Harris, M.D.

     Colt was still in San Quentin. That’s Colt Diver I'm speaking of, in case some of you are a bit too young or disengaged to know about the dude. San Quentin was this really ugly prison place they used to put people who had committed what society thought of as vile and nasty crimes. The official name of the joint was San Quentin State Prison, just like in the Johnny Cash song of the same name, the prison in Marin County, California, a place so large it has its own zip code. When Johnny Cash played his concert there, the inmates felt such a sense of catharsis that he had to play his song twice just to keep the cats from rioting, that's how tough and hardened the entire internal structure was. 
    I visited Colt Diver in that dark pit back in August 1976. It all came about from a number of complex and not very imaginative coordinations on my part. What this little adventure came down to what that I was being granted an interview with the most notorious mass murderer of the second half of the twentieth century, a period that had beheld more than a few such killers, none of whom possessed the arrogance, determination and reach of the person I was to meet. 
     That was the funny thing, the odd, specifically bizarre thing--or at least one of them. I was nobody in particular. Back then you could bluff your way into almost any kind of situation, I suppose because most people--even heartless wardens who spiritually resembled Gila monsters and who physically resembled the type of grizzled Saturday morning cartoon characters they probably were deep down--clung to a sense of wanting to somehow believe that even a cocksure malcontent with more attitude than ambition, such as myself, could actually be on the up and up, a whole lot in the same way that a few misguided souls wanted to believe that Colt Diver was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. As one of his fallen believers has testified at the trial, "The times were weird and Colt was the right guy to exploit those times."
    Colt Diver also held deed to another psychological property that other mass murderers of his day did not possess. Even five years after the nine brutal killings that landed him and other members of his nomadic Commune in prison, even after being locked up inside prisons within prisons, and even after the alleged dissolution of his so-called sphere of influence, Diver continued to scare the bejeezus out of many people, not the least of whom being the thirty-five-year-old steak house cook who was sitting there waiting to interview him.
     That was the real reason this was happening. I very much needed to get over my terror. I know that people enjoy scary movies and frightening amusement park rides, mainly because those people own a safety switch in their heads, one that can turn off the fear whenever they want. But a real-life killing beast like Diver could not be turned off, whether he was wandering the desert or was leg-manacled and cigarette burned in San Quentin. I was visiting this well-lit dungeon to overcome my complete and total terror of the outlaw. That was no small order, given that ever since reading Doom Dirge by Plato Epsie a year earlier, I had not slept very well. Not slept well? That's a funny way for me to write it. I hadn't slept through the night once since the first time I'd opened that damned book. I hadn't said anything to anybody about it at first, mostly because I was afraid they'd think I was a coward or something. But after a while word got out. Nobody much said anything to me about it in a teasing way at all. That's a good measure of just what a heavy bastard Colt Diver was. When people you've known your whole life won't even ridicule you for an irrational fear of the guy, then maybe your fear just isn't that irrational. A branch falling near our bedroom window sent me clinging to the ceiling like some quivering animated cat frightened by a yapping animated dog, a peculiar conundrum considering we had neither trees in the yard nor fictional felines on the premises. It was all quite annoying and was exacerbated by the fact that I did not much enjoy being scared to death. This obsession was not the cheap thrill of some horror movie—my indulgence of nightmare visions was rapidly becoming a paralyzing condition. Determined to self-administer my own brand of therapy, I sat in what Assistant Warden Melvin Arbogast called the Inner Sanctum, waiting for The Man.
     I was waiting to meet Colt Diver. I was not happy about it, but I really had no choice.
     Unlike my friends and neighbors back home, Arbogast and his three brown-shirted troglodyte lackeys thought my apprehension was hilarious. They originally had perceived me as the sob sister reporter they believed me to be. Pretty quick, though, they realized that I was in way over my head and their collective big boy giggling very much ground on my nerves. I started to say something stupid to them, but thought better of at as I heard the weighty jangle of those leg-manacles approaching from down the hall. Arbogast lost his nasty smile fast, as did his droogish bulldogs. I resisted the urge to scurry under the table and instead swiveled around as if I met with mass murderers every so often and, oh look, there’s another one, say, I wonder what this sort eats? 
    I was seconds away from the embodiment of my total terror.
    The prison haberdashery had decked Diver out in the emasculating uniform of that day and age, hoping, I imagine, that his charisma would somehow be lessened. In reality, orange fatigues have never made anyone look less intimidating. Handcuffs and leg irons can take the edge off a heavyweight’s aura, but terrorist-alert-level clothing simply reminds the onlooker that the person he is gazing upon is a criminal in the eyes of free men and is in all likelihood somewhere short of enchanted with the wardrobe options.
     One thing needs to be understood: I was no tough guy. I didn't wrestle, I didn't football, I didn't box, I didn't get into fights with neighborhood bullies. Back then I was very much alone in my skin and more or less liked things that way. I had a few very good friends and an even smaller number of close ones, but I was far from being a socially adept member of the human race. I just sort of survived, occasionally content in the gloom of a book, or the uplift of a loud song, or the nausea of occasional confusion. Thirty-five is really a bit old to still hold onto those adolescent trappings, but they were, in a very real sense, all I had, so I kept those feelings close and held the, dear.
    That said, I did not much care for being inside a maximum-minimum security correctional facility, an institution that had until quite recently been the final destination for any man sentenced to death in the state of California. The Assistant Warden clearly regarded me as something that crawled out from beneath a plate of cod liver oil, and the three Corrections Officers oozed fake charm like a street corner blind man two days before Christmas. I was determined to stare right into the eyes of my nighttime nemesis. And I did. Diver himself responded with his legendary hate stare. He seemed to regard me as if I was the one in the criminal zoo. He scowled, then grinned, scowled again, his eyes narrowed, he squinted, smiled, chuckled, spat, laughed out loud, stuck out his tongue, pretended to try to shake my hand, barked like a dog, whistled, coughed, then sat in measured silence as if awaiting further instructions from from some cosmic voice.
    I introduced myself and he met my eyes with a kind of gleeful dread. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Colt Diver, crazy ass killer cult crusader and child o’ God with no mind left to blow."
   Arbogast and the others faded back against the walls and were fast forgotten. I said, "I have a few questions, if you don't mind."
   "Mind? Boy, you're in my house now. I'm your host. Ask me anything you want. If I answer the way you want me to, you'll walk out of here thinking to yourself what a big man you are. If I disappoint you, well, I guess that's just your karma at work."
   I shrugged off the karma remark. Even back then, my sense of the universe didn't lend itself to things I couldn't see. I said, "After all this time, Mr. Diver, you still receive baskets of fan mail. Do you think that's because disaffected people are looking for a leader, no matter how screwed up he might be?"
   He didn't even blink. He said, "What's a leader? A leader is just a guy who needs followers. I never was a leader, man. I was never a leader because I'm free in my head, you dig? If I was some messed up middle-aged mama's boy with an ax to grind, then maybe I'd need that kind of thing."
     He was going for the direct hit, right out of the shoot. Scared or not, I was more or less expecting something like that, so it didn't ruffle me too much. "You really are a magnet, though, you have to admit. All those murders and even after the trials, the Commune folks still maintain they did what they did just to make you happy. That makes you a leader. A very fucked up piece of detritus leader, but a leader all the same."
   He cackled. For a second I thought his brow was going to explode it was trembling so hard. I don't mean it trembled in a fearful way. It trembled like a brow that's just about to open up and let out a demon.
     At last he responded. "Leader? You still ain't told me what's a leader. Okay. We'll play it your way. I just followed the fear girls around and did what they told me. You dig? If following the kids around makes me a leader, then bring on the gas chamber because I'm a leader then. Bruce asked me for a knife and a gun and wondered out loud if he should take some rope with him, but I never implied anything to him or the girl children about hurting nobody and I’m sure not the messiah. What kind of questions you might have I really cannot imagine, unless I put my mind to it. You better hope I never do put my mind to it, Slim.”
     I hadn't selected this self-abuse mission without some small preparation. In addition to reading Epsie’s book, I had scoured the famous series of articles in Esquire, poured over an expose in McCall’s, immersed my fractured soul in Jay Robert Nash’s fourth volume of Bloodletters and Bad Men, and even listened repeatedly to the song Leonard Cohen had written about the killer who sat twitching a few feet from me. All of those sources were, by definition, two-dimensional. This was the real thing sitting there, studying my face, thinking who knew what kinds of thoughts.  Nothing had prepared me for this.
     I told him to slow down a little. He smiled, though not at me. One got the impression that Colt Diver was frequently in the act of telling himself jokes that he'd never heard before. "Hey, Colt," his mind must have been asking itself. "Ever here the one about the wealthy paraplegic who couldn't fight back when a gang of wild-eyed hoodlums kicked down his front door in the middle of the night?"  
   In a flash, the bravado disappeared, replaced with a look of mock-contrition. He smiled at Arbogast.  He smiled at the three CO’s standing stiff and ready to tackle him at the first false move, or any move, for that matter, falling short of righteousness.

     “I’ll tell you why I came here today, Mr. Diver,” I said, still trying to make it look as if I weren't struggling to maintain eye contact.
    "I know why you came here today, boy."
    I waived off his remark. "I have a couple reasons. The first reason is that I’m trying to conquer my fears."
   "Son, you're in the wrong place for that."
   "I’ve hunted copperheads, jumped out of planes and even eaten at Burger King to meet my fears head-on." That was true, but until then I had never felt the need to make a point of it. "Right now," I confided, "my biggest fear is you.”
     He fingered his goatee and tilted his head in an appraising style.  He ran a thin finger across his mustache. He tapped his feet under the table. He tousled his very long hair. He stuck out his tongue and touched his nose with it.  
    "You're just a goddamned coward, boy. I don't judge you for that. You have to judge yourself for that. That's your head, son. Yeah, but you got one up on these boys here: Arbogast and his three little princesses. I’ll tell you why. You ain’t afraid of being afraid.  I can prove that, I bet, because the other thing you want is to know who else we done in, right?”
     That was right, but I didn’t respond. If you want to know what terror feels like, just meet an experience that knows things about you that you can't even verbalize yourself. It sounds awesome, but when you actually meet up with it, it shivers your bowels. I just stared back at the man. I often forget how to talk when I suspect someone is doing his best to suck my soul out through my own eyeballs.
    Who else had they killed? The murder convictions that had landed him deep in this prison were thought by many to be a mere scratch on a badly fried body of killings. His known victims had flirted with celebrity. The others--if there were others--were people with names quickly forgotten, people you would pass on the street and never bother to smile at. They were like a lot of people I knew personally.
     “I might be willing to talk about that someday,” he said, breaking my unintentional trance and looking around as if he could detect pirouetting figurines the rest of us could not.
     Arbogast cleared his throat. “This young man has not got time for your word games, Diver,” he said. “Just tell him what he wants to know.”
     Colt cocked his head to one side and feigned amazement as his own hands levitated off the visitor’s table. He growled them to stop and dropped his shoulder onto his forearms to reverse their direction. It was a little hokey, as such things went, especially considering how many years he’d had to perfect it.
     “I don’t expect you to admit anything,” I told him, once his parade of contortions was over. “From what I’ve read, you’re a smart guy. You aren’t going to talk about crimes for which you haven’t even been charged. I just thought possibly you had heard some rumors, that’s all.”
     Colt stood up, all five feet two inches of him. It was like watching a giant lift up from a nap, a giant you mistook as a mountain. I stayed put. Even my sweat glands were immobilized. The officers leaned forward, no doubt interpreting this motion as potentially untrue. Diver leaned toward me and whispered, in an uncharacteristically uncosmic way. “Rumors? I’ve heard rumors you have blue curtains on your bedroom window. I’ve heard rumors your girlfriend is a blonde. I’ve heard rumors one of you keeps a bottle of Jim Beam in a shoebox in the hall closet. And I’ve heard rumors lots of kids used to drop by The Ranch. No way I could keep track of them all.” He sat back down, leaned away in his chair. His lips relaxed. He might have been anywhere but where he was.
     I’d been warned that Diver had checked up on me, or rather, that he’d had the checking done. His skill at compiling these details within an answer to my question was unnerving for all that. And he wasn’t finished. He tilted his head back as if addressing the ceiling. “You smoke Viceroy cigarettes,” he announced. “You drive an old MG-B. You think you’re hot shit, but that ain’t what nobody else thinks. You want to get control over your fear because the fear controls you. Well, what do I care about your fear? I have my own, man." He brought his head down slow and steady until he was speaking to the floor. "I’ve spent hundreds of years locked up in better tanks than this one and I’ve walked right out of more secure ones than this, too. These motherfuckers don't control me. Hell, this faggot Arbogast can’t even control his own wife. Can you, Arbogast? Up and left you for the prison shrink!”
     The Assistant Warden stared hard at Diver’s handcuffs. I don’t know why. Possibly he was making sure some joker hadn’t switched the real ones for a set of those edible models available in novelty stores.
     After Colt brought his gaze back my way, I said, “Mr. Diver, I’m trying to approach this thing in a respectful way: respect to you, respect to these men, and respect to the families of the other victims. What would it take to get you to answer my question?”
     Looking right at my throat, he blew off my question. “I’m totally unfit for parole,” he snapped. “I’m up for it in two years. Why should I have to wait? Huh? Get me out of here and I’ll remember all kinds of things.”
     It was then that I became vaguely aware of something kind of curious. My awareness of it had been building for a while, although it was the type of thing which could easily be dismissed in the presence of such a heavyweight. What I noticed was that ever since I had honestly admitted the real reason that I had come, that I wanted to get over being terrified and needed to know about any other murders he might have been a part of, at that exact moment, Colt Diver had started tapping his feet under his chair. At the time I didn’t associate it with anything except his theatrical persona or even possibly simple nervous excitement at being out of his cell for a few extra minutes. It wasn’t until I flew back home and played the tape recording for Olivia that the possible importance of this and other gestures began to suggest something more.

     My visit with Colt Diver lasted just under forty-five minutes. He freely admitted his active participation in the nine murders that had resulted in his concurrent life sentences. He was far more coy anytime I intimated that he might know a thing or two about even more murders that had not yet been conclusively tied to him. And he adamantly denied the possibility that any future homicides were planned, either by himself or by the few remaining active members of his Commune. As he was being escorted back to his cell, he wished me luck with fatherhood, a puzzling remark considering that—to the best of my knowledge—I was no one’s father.

     I may have been an emotional mess back in the cellars of Quentin, but I am a relaxed air traveler. As I sat between two anti-Castro Cuban exiles bound for Miami on my four hour flight, I thumbed the current issue of Newsweek, catching up on the travails of the infamous heiress Patricia Hearst, the new swimsuit line offered by Cheryl Tiegs, the departure of Ronald Reagan from the Republican presidential primaries, and the admission by Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter that he had lusted in his heart after women to whom he was not married. There was no mention at all of Colt Diver in the magazine, although before the summer was over he would twice make the cover.
     My two traveling companions, while unknown at me, were quite sincere and I probably should have felt some remorse as I deboarded the plane. After all, those two men were strangers who had never harmed me personally. It was unnecessary for me to whisper to the flight attendant that those two fans of the deposed Cuban dictator Batista had been speaking in a conspiratorial manner in Spanish and that the word “boom” had figured prominently in their discussion, punctuated as it was with sinister laughter. Even a situational scaredy-cat like me needs to have a laugh once in a while.
     Diver had been right about at least one thing: I did love my car. It was a 1959 MG-B that had looked old the day it was made. Baby-poop brown interior and white on the outside with a pair of red racing stripes, a standard four-speed and one of the first Brit-mobiles to sport something called fuel injection, my two-seater got a remarkable twelve miles to the gallon and could pass a fire truck if the latter were parked in front of a burning building. That MG-B meant more to me than the rock band Steppenwolf. And I liked Steppenwolf a lot.
     I swung the car into our driveway on Ludwig Drive and was hopping out before the vehicle had come to a complete stop. Olivia Stephens met me at the door with a leap off her toes and a bounce in her heart. This was a delight, although not much of a surprise since she lived there with me. Her straight blonde hair hung out of the back of a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap. She wore a white buttoned short sleeved shirt with the words “I didn't just fall off this thing last night” written beneath a picture of a turnip truck, and cut-off blue jeans with a patch on each knee. Her feet were bare. They twinkled. It’s funny the details a person remembers.
     As I say, Olivia and I occupied the house on Ludwig Drive together. Because my own parents lived just up at the other end of the street, the morality of the situation didn’t seem to concern anyone and it occurred to me that Mom and Dad might have been relieved at the drop in their utility costs. Our home was very much like all the other houses in the subdivision, with a well-mown half-acre lawn, a split-level design, two-car garage, a sprinkling of other hyphenations, a piano that somebody was always going to get around to tuning, a Lazy Susan, dishwasher and garbage disposal. The living area was the nicest room in the house. It had hardwood floors, some moderately swanky chairs and sofa, and an old oak coffee table only slightly smaller than a bowling alley. The neighborhood ambience was also solid with the aroma of middle class status symbols. Ten-speed English racer bicycles were popular among teenagers in our neighborhood. A few undeveloped properties made a nice area for kids to play baseball. In the summer, people visited the community pool. In the evenings cats arched their spines on the backs of sofas and dogs barked whenever traveling salesmen approached the front door. Neighbors argued about school taxes. In the fall it was common to come home from work with a dozen ears of sweet corn from one of the local farms. Thirteen tender ears came to sixty-five cents. This was still mid-August, so the best I could do was a to-go order from Puckett’s Hamburgers, to this day the best burger and fries I have ever had, and a subject to which I shall return presently.
     After a far too brief personal reunion, Olivia and I sat on the sofa, staring at the tape recorder that gawked back at us from its perch on the table. “How do you feel about your experience now?” she asked.
     I assured her that she was the finest women I had ever known. She assured me that she had been referring to my encounter with Colt Diver.    
     “Pretty intense,” I said. “If you’re asking if I was scared, I was. Am I still? You bet.”
     “As much as before?”
     It was always easy telling her the truth.  Those sparkling blue eyes said ours was the kind of relationship where trust was the epoxy that held everything together. Consequently, I had learned to be precise in my answers.
     “It’s a different kind of fear, Olivia. Before he strolled into that room, feelings I had were just abstract. Having sat right there across from him and lived to talk about it, I know I’m supposed to feel better, but the truth is that my feelings are just a lot more clear, more concrete. I know this: Diver wouldn’t hesitate for a second to shove a shiv in my throat.”
     “A shiv? When did you start talking like that?”
     “Ever since I got out of stir. But I’m serious about the fear.”
     “You saw that he was locked up? Incarcerated? Unable to leave?”
     “Oh yes. The problem is that his madness or insanity or whatever it is, it is so contagious that his Commune buddies believe he could float right out of San Quentin anytime he chooses. They all believe it. I think maybe Diver believes it himself. Now, the rational part of me knows it’s ridiculous. But no one ever accused me of being completely rational.”
    “Let’s give a listen to the tape,” she said.
     The voice that came out of the machine was the same fluctuating sing-song madcap wolf cry I’d heard a few hours earlier. As we listened, I recalled the manic energy that streamed out of Diver with every exclamation. Olivia clasped a pencil in her hand, on the ready to take notes. One of the first things she wrote on her yellow legal pad was the word “warlord.” It didn’t take her a minute to notice the foot tapping. “They’ve either got him on some high-power psychiatric drugs that are making him nervous or else he’s putting off some kind of code,” she said. “Not Morse, but something all the same. You didn’t pick up on that when you were with him?”
     On the tape I was throwing out the name of one of his suspected victims. A few seconds of nonresponsiveness were canceled with the slap of Diver’s feet on the cold concrete. Then we heard him ask if that was the person’s real or stage name. The slapping continued. Olivia was scribbling. Colt was talking. “I went out a lot in those days. Mostly I was looking for food. You people wouldn’t bring it to us, so I had to go out and get it for the children. Otherwise they’d of starved. Conrad motherfucking Gibbons can kiss my ass, Slim. What do they call you around the house?”
     A lot of his answers were like that. I had assumed his mind was in decline, but Olivia kept writing feverishly on her notepad. She had me stop and start the tape many times.
     She asked me who Conrad Gibbons was. I replied that he founded the Church of Pseudoscience, a group with which Diver had engaged in a brief flirtation.
     “Am I responsible for that boy’s death?” Diver snarled without prompting. “I’ll tell you this: I’m responsible for the break-up of the Doors, that’s what I’m responsible for. They couldn’t get off their lazy asses long enough to come find me, so Jim Morrison got all bummed out and had to sleep with the fish to love his woman. That’s what did it, man. People blame me for the crucifixion. The big one. But I tried to stop it. The Romans were organized, just like we were out at The Ranch. They were too damned organized. I couldn’t prevent what they did. That’s why I’m in here right now, with old lice-head Pilate there breathing down my neck. I told him Nancy Sinatra used to drop by and ask me to make love to her. She begged me, but her karma wasn’t ready for that kind of thing back then, you see.”
     Throughout this silly tirade and during a few others, Diver had been rapping out what Olivia became increasingly convinced was a hidden message. Had anybody other than Olivia made this claim, I would have responded with something between a raised eyebrow and the words, “Oh, you have to be joking.” But just as Colt Diver knew how to obfuscate, Olivia knew how to decipher.

     She had sailed through Logan Elm High School two years ahead of schedule, graduated from the writing department at Kent State at twenty, and excelled at Smith College where she earned her Doctorate before her twenty-third birthday. She was a frequent contributor to socio-linguistic journals, had color-illustrated three children’s books, knew her way around a baseball diamond, and earned a lovely salary by working at Red Star Dynamics as a Counter-Security Risk Analyst. To this day I am not satisfied that I know exactly what that means, but part of her duties involved the development of electronic signaling models. I don’t necessarily know what that means either, but coding and decoding were major parts of her duties. She was, in the vernacular of the time, a whiz kid. I was, in the vernacular of the time, not a whiz kid. I had been a cook in the same steak house restaurant for nineteen years. In fact, our friends used to take apparent satisfaction in telling me, “I can’t say I recognize what she sees in you, Perry.” I must admit that I didn’t care much for our friends. Although I would never have admitted it at the time, a big part of my practice of wiping out any fear that came along was a means of compensating for my rather sallow occupational choices. What our friends didn’t understand, Olivia assured them, was that I was the ultimate mystery that she hoped to one day unravel. When that failed to satisfy the doubters, she told them, “He likes the Big Red Machine, the band Steppenwolf, and a movie called Aloha, Bobby and Rose. That’s good enough for me.” What I loved about her was that she could come up with answers like that one.
     She was also one of the few sources of my ethical structure. “God hates a coward” was one of her favorite observations. I think many people project their own human passions and aversions onto the various Deities. Let’s put it this way: Had she instead been fond of saying “God hates a blond,” I would have invested in brown hair dye, and not because I was afraid of displeasing some omniscient supernatural being.
     It took her two hours to figure out the code.
     “When Diver makes that heavier of the two sounds with his feet on the concrete, he’s telling us that the first letter of the word that comes next is in the message. The rest of it is just a bunch of hooey.” She tipped her hat back on her head and rubbed her nose, typically an indication that the world was not a perfect place. “He also made a couple mistakes here and there. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s communicating on what we at Red Star Dynamics would call a sub-level. He’s either a genius or else he’s been rehearsing this for weeks.”

     She showed me her notebook. I saw she had transcribed sections of the interview and circled the letters she said had been accentuated with the heavy rhythm. “Here’s an example. When you asked him about Darnell Scott, he says to you, ‘The girls cut him.’ What he actually said to you was ‘Time has ways of making you hallucinate enough without you going insane from all the reactionary bullshit we get in here every day, like some crazy undertaker way over in the weeds somewhere. How is it possible? Don’t ask me.’ Now, because he’s Diver, that’s more or less the kind of thing we might expect him to say. When I first isolated the pattern, I thought I couldn’t possibly be onto it. I mean, this guy is crazy, right? But it happens throughout the interview. This is not a coincidence. He is talking to you—”
     “With his feet,” I said. “He must have had this kind of thing planned out in advance. Nobody could do this on the fly, could they? What else did he say?”
     “At one point he said that you wouldn’t break his code. That was clever.”
     That was one word for it. Another was cocky, followed by son-of-a-bitch. “You heard what he said about our house? About you?”
     “Nothing coded there,” she said, looking at me with her lower lip puffed out, a signal that I shouldn’t worry, which was unlikely. “He doesn’t offer specifics, but two things are clear. One, he admits to knowledge of the murders you asked him about.”
     I laid my hand on her wrist. “So I’ll need to talk to him again as soon as possible. What’s the other thing?”
     She laid her hand on the hand that was holding her wrist. “He says he’s going to have Arbogast killed.”
     “Hum. I suppose if I were looking in my rule book right now, I’d discover that’s a bad thing, right?”
     “One of the worst.”
     “That’s only because the rule book writers never met the Assistant Warden. Do you know he has dandruff?”
     “Murder seems a harsh punishment.”
     That was another thing I loved: her ability to maintain perspective.
     “God hates a coward,” I told her before she even had a chance to say it herself.
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     I did not share her perspective regarding authority figures. I do not mean to suggest that she was a fan of orders either given or taken. She had no inherent love for regulations and propriety. It’s just that my own aversion to these things was somewhat extreme. The reason for my contempt of things of a totalitarian nature stems from an unfortunate occurrence back when I was but five-years-old and cute as the dickens, as people used to say. Sometime just before the Christmas of my fifth year, the makers of a certain imitation honey-flavored breakfast cereal began placing tiny plastic toy cars in the bottoms of their cereal packages. My father, with some foresight, suggested that it may have cost more to manufacture the toy than it did the breakfast product—and possibly was more nutritious. That skepticism, however, did not discourage my personal fascination for the miniature racing demons. A total of five different models existed, the distinction being essentially one of color. I had four of the five. In fact, I had seven red, three blue, a pair of yellows, and a rather hideous purple one, but, alas, no green. What I did have was a home with several boxes of a certain imitation honey-flavored cereal in it, most of them waiting to be devoured. My mother put her foot down and then lifted it up again and said that we were not going to purchase any more of this “foul-tasting breakfast candy”  until what we had already purchased had been consumed. What my dear mother failed to recognize was that the makers of this cereal would eventually discontinue the manufacture of those glorious little plastic cars and if I did not acquire a green one soon, my opportunity for owning the complete collection would slip through my fingers. I do not recall at this time precisely why owning all five colors was so important, only that it was, and so I set out to rectify this gap in my personal development.

     One Saturday afternoon my mother and I went to a new grocery store. This was something of a festive occasion seeing as how Kroger’s was the only such place in which I had ever set foot. The new store was called The Big Bear, although in truth it was not nearly as exciting as that name suggests. It was very much like any other grocery store, with the same bored-looking boys to carry out the bags and the same gum-cracking cashiers who must have used the word “Hon” nine thousand times every day. It was also the same in the sense that it carried my favorite brand of cereal. While Mom was off looking for bargains on coffee or some such grown-up stimulants, I sneaked into the cereal aisle (a location all children of my age could have found by smell alone), and sighed in relief that the people who made a certain imitation honey-flavored cereal—the name of the manufacturer escapes me just now—were still in the business of giving away free plastic cars. My frustration lingered, though, because there was no sense asking my mother to make an exception. My parents tended not to make exceptions, and more to the point, I knew that good little boys who were indeed cute as the dickens never asked their parents to spend more money than was reasonable. Surveying the golden-colored packages, I recalled the pattern of the toy vehicles being invariably placed in the bottom of the cereal box. The obverse end of these boxes was always a bit more difficult to open than the top, but still I was quite resourceful for five years of age, and within three or four minutes I had opened close to a dozen cartons, retrieved the wondrous toy inside each, and discarded each one in turn due to its failure to pass the color test. I had just seized the next package and was preparing to rip it to shreds when a masculine voice high and from behind me boomed, “Ah-ho! So you’re the one! We’ve been looking for you, you little bastard!”
     As I was to learn later, I had not been the first child to prefer the toy over the edible product, and this particular Big Bear store had already fallen victim to pre-adolescent thievery. The clerk who caught me in the act of wanton robbery dragged me to a man wearing an ugly brown tie. He was a fat, heaving, blood clot of an oaf with purple dye on his fingertips. This man declared himself the store manager. He told me who he was and demanded that I tell him my name.
     “Go to hell!” I shouted, feeling quite put out by all the ruckus. After all, it was hardly my little cute as the dickens fault that the people who made a certain imitation honey-flavored cereal hadn’t packaged as many green cars as they should have.
     The manager tittered and said to his clerk, “We’ve got us a regular tough guy here, we have. I say we let the police deal with him.”
     “Go to hell!” I repeated, just to show I meant it.
     A policeman was summoned and a policeman came. He was younger than the store manager and a little older than the clerk. The manager informed the cop that I was a heathen and added with a wink that I probably needed to be locked away for the good of society. The policeman told me to give him my name. “Go to hell!” I told him, plain as day.
     The officer of the law marched me out of the store and into his patrol car. We drove to the police station where he turned me over to another uniformed individual who was substantially older than the first and he took me by the wrist and walked me over to what turned out to be the drunk tank. “How’d you like me to put you in there with all these filthy creatures? That’s where you’ll end up, telling officers of the law to go to damnation and stealing from grocers. Well, you have to learn, I suppose.”
     So saying, he unlocked the cell door next to the drunk tank and made me wait there while somebody at the grocers located my mother and told her what had happened. Nobody hurt me or tried to make me cry while I was waiting, although the odor of beer vomit was enough to strangle a fellow and the sight of those crumpled old men sleeping on the floor with stale puke on their shirts was horrible. When my mother came for me, the officers were all ever so polite. She took me by the hand and just as we neared the exit she turned and invited the entire police department to go to the same place I had suggested earlier. We left without any of them saying a further word.

     So it was that I grew up to be—at a minimum—distrustful of law enforcement officers in particular and of authority in general. Intellectually I knew they weren’t all hideous maniacs orgasmic over the thrill of their own power. The idea behind their little charade was that I was expected to identify with them and be repelled against the comatose and presumably villainous drunkards in the tank. The exercise had the exact opposite effect. I grew up to be on the side of the pathetic, self-abusing wrecks of society and hostile toward authority of any kind. Funny enough, I have met more than a few police types who have been among the nicest people one could want to encounter. But I still wouldn’t say I felt what one might call comfortable around them. Likewise, I have met more than enough rancid derelicts and street criminals for whom it would have been nigh impossible to muster an ounce of compassion. But on the whole, I continue to side with those lacking in power. It all traces back to a certain imitation honey-flavored cereal. Well, that and getting punched around a bit when I was a teenager, but that’s another matter for another time.
     The point of this digression is that it was not immediately obvious to me that rescuing Arbogast was necessarily any of my concern. Granted, he was not a cop, per se. But he was a corrections official and had probably bruised his knuckles on a few disadvantaged inmates in his time, so it took considerable effort on Olivia’s part to remind me that Diver was the bad guy here and that, like it or not, Arbogast needed to be warned.
     “Yes, dear,” I replied.
     I flew back out to sunny California two days later, having conversed with Arbogast’s assistant, thereby validating that even assistants have helpers. Cheryl Darcey, the penitentiary elf in question, informed me that San Quentin’s policy regarding visitations did not permit more than one non-next-of-kin encounter per month, but that Melvin Arbogast would be happy to meet with me, what with my connections at People magazine placing me somewhat beyond reproach. That last little comment from Cheryl Darcey left me a tad uneasy. I was not able to discern from her tone—having never spoken with her before—whether she was in controlled awe of my credentials or whether she recognized them to be the complete nonsense that they were. Of course, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know anyone with People. My friend Arthur (who prefers that I not use his last name) Flippo was a contributing editor for the magazine at the time and he assured me—his exact words were “probably not”—that if I could get any useful information from Diver that hadn’t been spilled out by every other news source in America already, he would see what he could do about securing me a half-page item without byline. With that type of encouragement, I reasoned that a Playboy interview, Book of the Month Club deal, and ABC “Movie of the Week” were all in my immediate future.
     I sat in Assistant Warden Melvin Arbogast’s outer office from 10:00AM until 1:30PM, occasionally glancing over at the plaque on the wall that read “Corrections is Everybody’s Business.” His assistant, the grotesque but otherwise statuesque Ms. Darcey, looked up from her crossword puzzle every few minutes to assuage my concerns. “I’m sure he will be with you shortly, Mr. LaMarke. Some days here are busier than others. I know you understand.”
     I bobbed my head, smiled, and resumed studying the nine-month-old copy of Corrections Weekly.
     Something resembling a small box buzzed on Darcey’s desk. She buzzed it back. It buzzed her once more in return. This looked like fun, but before I could inquire about joining in, she replaced her crossword puzzle book inside the drawer from which she had originally retrieved it, pushed herself back from the desk, stood, opened her arms, and addressed me. “You haven’t been completely honest with us, Mr. LaMarke.”
     I dropped the magazine to the floor. “I haven’t been honest with you at all, Ms. Darcey.”
     “Cheaters never win,” she said. “Winners never cheat.”
     I batted my eyelids. I did it slowly, just to show I meant it. “That is true, Ms. Darcey. But I was attempting to validate the liar’s paradox. In case you are not familiar, if someone who, let’s say, always and forever lies announces that, yes indeed, he always and forever does lie, does that mean he is telling the truth? And that’s before we reach the meta-level of cognition.”
     She brought her arms together and stepped toward me. “We in the California Department of Corrections do not appreciate dishonesty, Mr. LaMarke. Most of the people in our charge began their criminal careers by lying. Murderers, extortionists, smut peddlers: it all began with that first deception. I am extremely disappointed. Mr. Arbogast is simply outraged.”
     “Speaking of your boss,” I said, trying to change the subject to something I wanted to talk about. “When we met with Colt Diver the other day, it came to my attention that the prisoner made a subtle but real threat against Melvin—uh, Mr. Arbogast.”
     “That is highly unlikely,” she said. I recognized my personal stock had plunged below the line of scrimmage, if I may be pardoned a mixed metaphor.
     “It is commendable that you look after your employer. But I guarantee you that Diver was sending off a message and in that message he confessed to knowledge of at least one additional murder and also threatened—”
     “Do I bore you, Mr. LaMarke?”
     I looked at her as if she had just slapped me across the face with a reindeer kidney. She wore an expression not dissimilar from what one would expect to find on a skull lying in a taxidermist’s trash dumpster. Her perfume reminded me more than anything of spoiled mutton. And her voice possessed all the charm of a small incinerator in the process of burning a pile of moldy leaves. But for all that, Cheryl Darcey was not boring. “No, ma’am. You have treated me well, if being kept waiting three-and-a-half hours can be considered being treated well. Why do you ask?”
     She walked over to the office door and turned the knob. “Oh, just the idea that I would accept anything you had to say under any circumstances. I thought perhaps I bored you into thinking that.”
     “You think too much,” I replied, reaching for my hat, which it turned out I had left 2,451 miles away back in Circleville, Ohio. “I just want it understood that I warned you that your boss might be in some danger from a rambunctious group of miscreants known as the Colt Commune, the same group that spawned a girl who tried to stab the President last year. Really, the idea that I would travel across the country just for this foolishness is none of your concern. Or mine. Good day, Ms. Darcey.”
     Oh, I felt quite righteous marching out of that office.
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     Early on New Year’s Day, 1969, a woman walking down Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles discovered a purse, complete with cash, compact and credit cards. Responding to a report on the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Markita Haines—the girl to whom the purse belonged—the police began an air search of the brushy terrain nearby. When they finally did find her, she was dead. Her brown slacks and fur-trimmed coat were sticky with blood from the numerous stab wounds inflicted on her face and chest. When last seen alive—other than by her killer or killers—Markita had been leaving the home of her boyfriend’s parents and was on her way back to her own house, where she lived with her mother, actress Eloise Haines (ex-wife of writer Hannibal Haines), a trip of approximately twenty minutes duration. When Markita was discovered, she was lying in a ravine about four miles from home.
     The boyfriend, John Horn, told police that he and Markita had met two other couples in a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard the evening his girlfriend disappeared. The pair had returned to his house a few hours later, Markita leaving there and heading for her parents’ home at approximately 3:15AM. Fifteen minutes later, Eloise Haines was awakened by a commotion outside her house. Hearing the roar of a loud muffler, she looked out the bedroom window and saw a young man standing alongside her daughter’s sports car parked in the driveway. Behind this car was a black sedan which Ms. Haines did not recognize. The mysterious car backed out of the driveway and the man who had been standing beside Markita’s car ran up to the passenger side door and got in.
     Nearly eight years later, the murder of Markita Haines was still unsolved.
     A Los Angeles newscaster of my acquaintance convinced me that the police had done very little to find the murderer and that the case had not solved itself. But Haines’ mother was positive that Diver or some of his associates had been involved. It was more than merely the proximity in time between her daughter’s demise and the Sally Knight murders. There was also the same inexplicable savagery, the multiple number of stab wounds, and the rumors drifting along Bel Air that Markita had been seen in the company of members of the Colt Commune in the weeks before her disappearance. Ms. Haines was a friend of my Aunt Jean, the two having met during a seminar for the survivors of murdered children. My mother asked me to help as a favor to Aunt Jean. Actually, the way Mom put it was, “Your girlfriend is pretty smart. Maybe she could figure this thing out.”
     To the best of my knowledge, this and twelve other unsolved murders had links to the Colt Cult. I found the whole business quite creepy and wanted very little to do with it. But of course there were problems if I declined. One, doing so would leave a fear unconquered (and I had been doing so well there, what with traipsing into snake-infested woods with rolled up newspapers tied to my shins in search of poisonous reptiles, falling backwards out of a plane and counting to ten before yanking the parachute’s ripcord, learning to swallow Extra-Strength Bayer Aspirin tablets before they dissolved in my mouth). Two, I didn’t want people thinking Olivia was any smarter than me, even though there wasn’t much doubt about it. Three, my Aunt Jean was a nice gal and her child, my cousin Diana, had also been slain in a horrible manner and that murder too remained unsolved. If a friend of Aunt Jean was not getting justice, I didn’t have anything better to do before starting college.
     Yes, college. While Olivia had been getting fine marks prefatory to securing a job of no small status, I had continued to grill steaks and bake potatoes at the same place that had employed me since my sixteenth birthday. The grill was terribly hot, the tiled floor caused my legs to ache, the tasks were thankless and the owner was a despicable hypocrite, but I enjoyed the sense of camaraderie with my co-workers so much I had not been able to bring myself to leave. But over the course of this particular summer I had finally given in to Olivia’s polite suggestion that I enhance my knowledge with some university courses. It is a credit to her moral strength that never once did she ask me to quit working at the steak house and go get a regular grown-up job. It is also a credit to her intelligence that she imagined college would open new worlds to me and that I would one day recognize that there were other means of earning a living. Nevertheless, we both knew that one of the advantages of having a high school job at age thirty-five is that you can go off on expeditions such as this on very short notice without the world coming to an end. It was such a luxury that enabled me—against all reason—to look into the murder life of Colt Diver.
     A total of thirteen unsolved murders linked to a guy who had been in police custody since October 1969: the task was daunting, as cheapjack writers used to say, or as cheapjack sayers used to write. The police couldn’t make the legal connection, several district attorneys’ investigators hadn’t put it all together, and a fair amount of private citizens had likewise failed. But I was willing to give it a go. After all, I had almost a month before school began.
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     I checked into a subtly charming dump called the Hollywood Heater Hotel. A sign on the wall behind the counter said, “Ask us about our free local telephone calls.” I asked and was informed that all local telephone calls were free. That sounded good to me, so I paid up three nights in advance and threw my luggage on the hotel bed. Grabbing the phone (which had a sticker on the receiver reminding the user that there was no charge for this service), I punched up the number for Eloise Haines. She answered on the first ring and within a few seconds was confessing that she had just come from a local support group for relatives of the Diver slayings, a group headed by Doris Knight, mother of the late Sally Knight. I told her I was in town and was unofficially looking into the matter of her own daughter’s death. She thanked me at some length and suggested coffee at a restaurant around the corner from the hotel. I said I would meet her there.
     In the interim, I opened my suitcase and thumbed through the documents I had brought with me. These consisted of old newspaper articles, a few disturbing death photographs, some trial transcripts from the Sally Knight slayings, a notebook full of handwritten biographies of known Commune members, along with bios of suspected victims. In addition to the all-too-brief history of Markita Haines, these latter included details on Claudia Delancy, Nancy Wilson, Darnell Scott, Mark Walters, John Phillips, James Smith, Doreen Carpenter, Joel Cartwright, James and Lynda Rittenhouse, Ronald Devonshire, and Jane Doe 42, the last of these being so horribly butchered that the authorities were never able to establish her identity. I also had a little better than five hundred dollars in spending money, most of it saved from working too many hours at the steak house. About a half dozen maps fell out of the luggage, along with a slingshot that Olivia had packed for me. That girl had some sense of humor. So did I, and I stuffed the weapon in my back pocket, unaware at that moment of just what a wonderful gift this would turn out to be.
     With the exception of Jane Doe 42, in each of these cases some connection to Diver or to one or more of his followers was known, even to the Los Angeles police force. In the case of Darnell Scott, for example, the victim had been the brother of the man believed to be Diver’s father. Mark Walters had been a young kid who had hung around The Ranch when the Commune first moved in there. Ronald Devonshire had represented convicted Communard Leslie McMurphy. Markita Haines—who most people knowledgeable of the facts of the case believed had been kidnapped outside her mother’s home—had been on speaking terms with some of the Diver group, including Bruce Diego and Tonya Pittman. In and of itself, of course, this fact didn’t mean anything. However, placed in context, it did lead to reasonable speculations.
     First of all, according to police records, Diver himself was in Los Angeles at the time of Haines’ abduction. Any place Diver resided tended to accumulate an inordinate number of homicides. Second, the multiple stab wounds were highly consistent with the Commune’s modus operandi, as anyone who had seen the Sally Knight murder scene photographs could readily attest. The group was quite capable of poisoning, shooting, hanging and electrocuting their victims, but an overdose of deep and frequent stab wounds was their preferred method. Third, Jane Doe 42 was later found in almost the same exact spot as Haines. Admittedly, that argument was tautological, but if one did assume the Commune’s guilt in the one killing, it added suspicion they had participated in the other. And fourth, acquaintanceship with members of the Commune tended to shorten one’s lifespan. That was it. Everything else was just conjecture, and with so many other people dead and gone and so many more wanting to put this horrible stuff behind them, the case of Markita Haines and the twelve others had neither been closed nor solved.
     Having access to copies of various coroners’ autopsy and crime scene photographs was not helping end my sleep deprivation. In his book, Epsie had had the grisly details whited-out of the photographs. I wished there were some way to do that with my own memory. Most of the nine Knight victims (which consisted of the actress Sally Knight, her sister Madeleine, and seven of their overnight guests who had been in town for the premiere of a movie starring their hostess) had been stabbed deeply and repeatedly, while others had been shot, hung, or beaten. It had taken a while to accomplish all this. Looking at the pictures, I could not help but imagine the killers sitting on top of their succumbed victims, plunging in their knives over and over again. These killers had taken their time. They had been motivated and methodical. They had exacted pain and fear. Knowing this, under no circumstances did I feel any impulse to romanticize Diver and his acolytes. Neither did I desire that they be executed for their crimes. Private justice, I believed, should never have the sanction of the state or federal government. I simply felt that the relatives of these other victims deserved some sense of satisfaction or at least some feeling that the perpetrators had been identified, captured and locked up, if that was the case, just as the relatives of the Knight victims had been assured. In the final analysis, I needed to solve these murders so I could at long last get a good night’s sleep.
     The knock at the door jarred me from my mental reflections. Too much thinking and not enough sleeping had left me jumpy. It crossed my mind for a second that the Commune had somehow learned I was back in town and was looking to make trouble for them. But I put on a brave face and opened the door. Standing on the other side of the sunlit archway was a young man in red jeans, a tight blue shirt, and the smell of gin on his breath. “Hi,” he said in a charcoal voice. “My name’s Wesley. I live right upstairs. I’m a singer and—Do you happen to have anything to drink?”
     I told him I would check back with him when I returned from my AA meeting. He grinned and said he didn’t have any plans. “Unless Jackson Browne or Linda Ronstadt drop by, that is.” At this he coughed out a brittle little laugh and staggered up the stairs back to his room. I did not know it at the time, but I had just met the up and coming Wesley LeVon.

     Ms. Haines was waiting when I arrived at the Hamburger Hamlet. She assured me the food there was the pride of L.A., but I only ordered a coffee while she sipped her iced-tea.
     Eloise Haines was an attractive woman in her late thirties or early forties, and her good looks were only matched by her determination and impeccable English. “I realize most people who own knowledge of what happened to Markita are incarcerated,” she told me with a Swedish-American accent. “So they had no interest in making themselves worse off for their knowledge. But I too have knowledge and what I know is this Diver, this bad man, his friends and he killed my little girl.”
     I asked her to tell me about the morning of December 31, 1968. “Markita was a little wild. But John Horn, he seemed to be a good influence. At least to me. He lived with his parents. He was a nice boy. Then I find out he is five years older than my Markita. I find out he takes her to the nightclubs where she meets odd people. I know the young folks must rebel. I did the same thing in my days of youth. Perhaps you do, too. But these friends of John, they are dangerous young people. I think they tell John what they had done and John tell Markita. Or so these people maybe thought. I believe you might like to know John’s address. He lives in his own house now. He is still here in Los Angeles.”
     The waitress sat my coffee down and glanced at me as if I were somewhere between contempt and beneath it. Los Angeles was the gigolo capital of the United States. Possibly she assumed I was hitting on a slightly older woman. I gave her a twenty and she mumbled something about getting change. “What had they done?” I asked Eloise.
     Ms. Haines looked hard into my eyes. “Sacrifices along the beach,” she said, just above a whisper. “At first it was stray animals, a dog, a cat. Then soon they are caught up in the fury of ritual and Markita tells me she think John is afraid of these people. Well, I tell her that if a big strong man like John is scared of people, then I am scared for Markita. I say she had better end this relationship. But Markita, she was so sweet. She did not want to hurt the feelings of one she loved. Well, of course, I was her mother, always locked into old ways. Then the one night, the terrible night, I hear the strange car backfire outside my house. I see this man with no business there look inside my daughter’s car window. I hear another man tell him to get going, to get inside the strange car, and he jumps inside. They drive away. The hood of Markita’s car is warm to my hand, so I know they take her just as she was out of the car. Two men. Maybe others. Please, Mr. LaMarke, you will help me?”
     Once I realized the waitress was never coming back with my change, I assured Ms. Haines I would do my best, took the address, and drove off in the rental car, a Dodge Dart, quite possibly the most inconspicuous vehicle ever made.

     The Dart was so inconspicuous, as a matter of fact, that its own inconspicuosity—which technically is not a word but with any luck one day will be—served to draw attention to it. People standing on street corners as I drove by gave each other knowing laughs, as if to say, “Here comes Perry, thinking nobody knows it’s him. What a dope.” Or so I imagined. I think I mentioned I hadn’t been sleeping well.
     The environs of Los Angeles are hot in August. Driving out toward Laurel Canyon, I must have passed half a dozen hitchhikers who were drenched in sweat. At a traffic light I handed one of these people a five dollar bill. He asked what I wanted in return and I made a crack about common decency. He shot me the bird and tossed the bill back into the car. The heat makes everyone a little edgy.
     John Horn lived in a small house on the low end of Harding Avenue. I have noticed that streets named after deceased presidents tend to be a bit low rent, and one could not get much more deceased or lower than Warren Harding. The expression “smoke-filled room” had been coined as a way of describing the shady deals and goings-on in the Harding administration. The small boy from the Midwest who grew up to be President was inducted into the Ku Klux Klan while in the Oval Office. He was so inept that he required the press to write out their questions and submit them in advance. When he died two-and-a-half years into his term, he suffered from an embolism, broncho-pneumonia, and gastrointestinal disease. Ah, politics.
     Horn, who looked every bit as big and strong as Eloise had suggested, opened the front door as I was walking up the walk, having already driven up the drive. Loud music came from inside the house, not a note of it being Steppenwolf, and much of it sounding frighteningly like Peter Frampton, a guy who always struck me as a mix of David Cassidy and the Ohio Players, although not as funky as either, which isn’t saying much. A pair of large, mangy dogs tortured to insanity by this music scratched from the other side of the picture window. A young woman in nothing but a long white t-shirt stood between the two dogs, her expression a little unfocused.
     Horn had an opened beer bottle tucked into the back pocket of his coveralls. Seeing this reminded me I still had Olivia’s slingshot in my own back pocket, just in case those barking mongrels decided it was a nice day to do their mauling out of doors. I had dropped by while the mountain man was working on his AMC Gremlin. The man carried a crescent wrench in one hand, what looked like a motor mount in the other, and lost between his sleeveless shoulders, the tiny mouth in his oversized head was sucking on an unfiltered cigarette. I saw that in terms of physical size, Horn was considerably bigger than me, but still smaller than the average garbage dump.

     Around the smoke, he said, “I don’t know what it is, buddy, but I didn’t do it. That’s square.”
     I had no idea what the hell he was talking about and it was all I could do to concentrate over the growl of those monster dogs in the window, so I led John around between his car and mine and told him who I was and why I was there.
     “Ain’t that just the shit,” he said. He turned to face the window that continued to display his loving woman and two canine assassins. “Ain’t that just the shit!” I was uncertain if he was asking the woman, asking the dogs, or if he simply preferred to have his back turned to people when he talked to them.
     After a minute he spun back around and looked surprised that I had not vanished. He said, “Thought I told you to get in your car and drive off?” Even the dogs fell silent at this mystery question. The woman in the window scratched at her backside. I thought about offering her the crumpled five dollar bill on my car seat if she would agree to put on a pair of pants.
     “No,” I said to John. “If you had done that, chances are I would have pounded you about the face and neck. You probably just thought you had said that. In any case, I can see you’re busy, so I’ll try to make this a short visit. I know you must have run over in your mind who it was that killed your girlfriend way back when. You are obviously the kind of bright individual to give that sort of thing a long hard thought. Who do you suspect, John?”
     He spat the cigarette out so that it had to bounce across my shirt before it hit the ground. I snuffed it out with the toe of my shoe. He sat the motor mount and the wrench down beside the car, took a short step toward me and said, “Mister, my old lady you been staring at, she don’t like you. My dogs howling back there, they don’t like you. I’m beginning not to like you either. Suppose you just hop back in your stupid-looking car there and get your scrawny ass gone before I snap you in half.”
     I’d heard the “scrawny” remark before, sometimes even with the same type of split infinitive, so that didn’t especially bother me. What set my nerves on edge was his thoughtless comment about the Dart. I didn’t think much of that particular make of car either, but by God this was my rental car and I wasn’t about to allow the living inspiration for the encyclopedia photograph of the term “white trash” to stand there and badmouth it. I stepped to one side and, taking careful aim, kicked his left knee with all my might. The knee snapped and Horn fell to the ground. As he dropped, I grabbed the bottle out of his back pocket, smacked it against the side of his Gremlin, drove my knees onto his chest and placed the broken bottle at his throat.
     The woman followed the barking dogs out the door. “Call them off,” I told her, tilting my head toward the hand that held the broken bottle. She whistled and the two salivating hell hounds turned and hightailed it back into the house. This kind of thing probably happened there all the time.
     The woman shook her head, moaned at the sky, and said to her boyfriend, “You always got to play it like a tough one, don’t you, Johnny? I told you somebody someday wouldn’t back down. Welcome to today.”
     “Mister,” Horn said, holding back what looked like an intense desire to scream out in agony, “I’ll tell you what you want to know. I—We’d all been to the Psychedelic Pussycat, but somebody wanted to run down to the Whisky in West Hollywood that night. There was about eight or nine of us. Markita had a couple of drinks, but I was really tanked, you know. In those days when I drank, I talked a lot.”
      The woman said, “In those days. Right.”
     Horn rolled his eyes as if to evoke sympathy for all he had to endure. I said to go on.
     “I told her that Bruce had told me there were three kids buried back of The Ranch.”
     “Bruce Diego?”
     “That’s him. He didn’t say he killed them. Something about the way he told me, it was like he was telling what somebody else had told him, you know? But some of the Commune was at the Whisky while we was there. I knew Margaret and Tonya a little bit. ‘Whatcha talkin’ about?’ Tonya says to me, all smiling and eyeballing me. I don’t remember what I said but it wasn’t anything much. I do remember what she said. She said I shouldn’t ought to expect to see my girlfriend around anymore if I kept running my mouth. Markita, she heard all this herself, you know, and it really freaked her out, man. So we left and went back to my folks’ house and Kita was pissed, you know, pissed that these people had more or less threatened her and I hadn’t done anything about it.”
     “God hates a coward,” Olivia’s voice said in my mind.
     The woman sneezed. Then she looked at John and said, “You candy-ass pussy. You ain’t dick shit, you know that?” She turned around and went back into the house, scratching her posterior all the way.
     I was beginning to feel bad for John. Well, a little. Okay, maybe I was merely confused about the prospects of penile defecation.
     “We had what I guess you’d call an argument over all this. I would have made her leave, the way she was yammering away at what a loser I supposedly was, but on account of my parents liking Kita so much, I just sat there and took it. After she bitched me out for two-and-a-half hours, she got in her car and drove off. That—that’s the last I ever seen of her. Swear to God, Mister.”
     A useful rule to recall is that a big guy with a broken knee and the shards of a Rolling Rock beer bottle thrust at his neck leans toward honesty. Helping John up, I thanked him for his candor, smashed the neck of the bottle against his driveway, hopped into the Dart and drove around Los Angeles, wondering what the hell to do next.
     LeVon flagged me down outside our hotel. He suggested we go to the Feather Bucket Bar for a few drinks. I took him up on the offer and was glad of that because a couple hours into the evening he blurted out that he knew a guy who claimed to have evidence of seven more Diver murders.

Chapter Two
Bicentennial Blues
To my mind there is nothing more worthy of reverence and obedience, and nothing more sacred, than the authority of the freely chosen magistrate of a great and free people; and if there be on earth and amongst men any right divine to govern, surely it rests with a ruler so chosen and appointed.
                        —John Bright

     Wesley LeVon was a twenty-seven-year-old native of Phoenix, Arizona, who had moved to the City of Tomorrow (as he referred to Los Angeles) after Nicolette Larson and Neil Young had each recorded a song he had written called “The Surgeon’s Tears.” LeVon’s father had been a mercenary in the employ of the Congolese and his mother a calligraphy instructor. Wesley had been in Los Angeles three years now and was unique among Southern California singer-songwriters of his day in that he penned tunes “where even guys in white hats cast long shadows,” as a reviewer for Rolling Stone had put it. If his subject matter was dark, his melodies were often mocking, typically pairing an upbeat and jolly rhythm to a bleak and disturbing storyline.
     I should mention at this point that what appealed to me about Wesley was that even though he had an album out under his own name and even though that album was at this moment parked at number twelve on the Cashbox charts, it did not appear to strike him as peculiar to be sitting in a rundown bar in Los Angeles with a fellow who earned a living grilling steaks. On the contrary, he gave every impression that it was the most natural thing in the world.
     “I completely understand,” he said. “What you said about your job. I understand. Completely. Look at me. I’m supposedly part of the neuvo literati, or some such garbage, among purveyors of the L.A. sound, whatever the hell that is. But you know what I like to do for fun?”
     “Drink?” I hazarded.
     He took a monocle from his breast pocket and plugged it into one eye, all the better to squint with. “Yes,” he said. “I drink. But I like boxing. Me! The enfant terrible—that means terrible infant—of pop music and I like to go to the fights. I mean, did you ever?” He popped out the monocle and returned it to his pocket. I had to laugh.
     Three pitchers of beer into our afternoon, Wesley put a hand on my shoulder and told me in a low whisper that a friend of his, a mercurial miner named David, would be joining us soon. “David met up with these callous-eyed creeps before the big story broke. He’s scared of them, just like you are. But Dave knows things. You’ll want to meet him, I guarantee you.”
     I had heard stories of other Diver murders and, to be honest, I had not been all that impressed. But when LeVon introduced me to David Crockett, I knew I was onto something.
     The three of us got together in Wesley’s room, directly upstairs from my own. Crockett was a shaggy looking older gentleman, probably in his early fifties but showing far more wear than that age suggests. He smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, one after the other, drank almost as much as LeVon, and couldn’t seem to sit still for more than a few seconds at a time. I had read a little about Crockett in Epsie’s book, as well as in a rough draft of a manuscript by another chronicler. In literature as well as real life, he immediately came across as sincere, excitable, and very much into the mystic. He brought out a bunch of news clippings on Knight and some of the better known killings. I asked him what he knew about Markita Haines.

     He stopped pacing and stared right at me. “You can’t imagine the stuff I know about that little girl. Her Mercury was in decline, for one thing. She wouldn’t have had to say a word. Her essence was glowing hostile. But she told Colt right to his face that she just wasn’t interested in joining the Commune. Wow. I tell you, that took some guts and she was a spunky young thing. It was around that time that I started thinking to myself that people who displeased Colt would be showing up dead at some future point. But see, she was like that, Markita was. Always standing up to authority, no matter who. If you were the cops, she’d tell you to blow off. If you were on an astral plane that ran against the cops but still on your own power trip, like Colt was, she’d tell you the same thing. Yeah, she was one of the first ones they did in. Not the very first, but one of them. I’m not surprised nobody ever put the whole thing together. Shoot, Colt did his best to tie the killing to the Bernardino Bikers by leaving part of one of their motorcycles right next to her.”
     I hadn’t heard anything about a motorcycle at the crime scene. While I was jotting down that piece of information, Wesley chopped up some flake and offered it around. I declined, but he and Crockett indulged a bit. LeVon said, “Tell him what you told me last year, David. Tell him about those murders no one knows about.”
     “Before you get into that,” I said, “remind me how it is that you know anything at all about the Commune.”
     Crockett looked at Wesley for confirmation and apparently received it. He said, “Before I hit the big vein, I prospected out in the Panamint Mountain Range, panning for this and spooning for that. One day I’m shacked up in my little mining hut out there and these two kids who looked to be about seventeen or so came banging on my door and pleaded for me to let them in. I bring them inside and they tell me that this evil-eyed son of a bitch named Colt was chasing them, was gonna kill them, was gonna skin and scalp them, and they wanted to hide out with me for a while. A boy and a girl, it was, and they were burned all to hell from the sun and probably dehydrated, so I let them stay. I didn’t have even a place as big as this room, so it had to be temporary, I told them. One thing and another and they opened up to me about this guy Diver. They said they joined his Commune a few weeks earlier and now they were trying to escape. I guess they figured Colt didn’t want them running off because they were scared shitless. I’m saying wide-eyed and terrified.”
     Crockett learned a few interesting details from the couple. Colt Diver had convinced his desert followers that he was the melding of Lucifer and Jehovah and that he was here on earth to lead a rebellion against everything that people considered sacred. “I managed to calm these two down a little bit and it got so I grew fond of them. They could have been my own kids if things had worked out different. I couldn’t bring myself to just throw them out into Colt’s tender mercies, so I told them they could stay. One thing and another and a couple more of Diver’s ex-patriots came wandering along. Before you knew it, my hut had turned into a reclamation center.”
     Crockett tilted his head back for full effect and then leaned forward. “I know of exactly twenty people they offed. I’m talking besides Sally Knight and her friends. And can’t nobody pin none of it on them. It’s cosmic irony. See, Diver doesn’t do these killings himself. He farms it out, so to speak, to Bruce and the girls. I really think Colt gets a boner when one of his girls kills for him. Sicker than aardvark dung.”
     Crockett gave me thirteen names I already had and added seven more to the list. Then he surprised me. “I’m gonna tell you this even though Diver’s probably hearing us talk from right there in his cell, sticking pins in his David Crockett voodoo doll. I’d gotten tight with some of his ex-followers, so just out of curiosity I went to visit him back when he was in the county stir. He laughed when I asked him what was new. When he gets done laughing, he rolls out from under his tongue this thing, I didn’t know what it was. I thought maybe it was a loose tooth or something, and he spits it out into the tray under the dividing glass. I picked it up real nonchalant and unrolled it. You know what it was?”
     I said I had no idea.
     “It was a list of about thirty to thirty-five people they killed. God almighty, I said out loud and ole Colt just laughed. There was a little string attached to the wad of paper. He pulled that string hard and the paper flew out of my hand and went back over onto his side where he just popped it into his mouth and swallowed it. Christ, God, that is one wicked son of a bitch, that is.”
     Before I had a chance to evaluate just how little of this story I would accept, Wesley nudged Crockett’s shoulder and pointed to the old man’s pocket. The prospector pulled a crumpled photograph out of his shirt and handed it to me. I unfolded it and looked. The jail house camera had captured the image of Diver sitting on the other side of a glass divider from Crockett. The older man was reading words on a small strip of paper. Okay. So maybe I was believing it a little.
     I returned the photograph and Crockett went on. “It cost me thirty bucks to get that picture from the jail monitors. Sometimes I think that was a bargain and sometimes I think I was crazy to get so curious. All the same, I know why Diver showed me that list of names. That was a way he had of saying that unless I wanted to end up on that list too, I had better keep quiet about Colt and his philosophy, about Colt and his programming, and about Colt and snuffing people. Particularly the latter. After I left the jail, I ran outside and wrote down as many of the names as I could recollect. I didn’t get them all, but I got these for sure. I talked to some cat named Reichelderfer at the Los Angeles Police Department about what happened and got the bum’s rush for my trouble. But I reckon you think you’re going to solve this wave of murders, huh?”
     “I plan to try, Mr. Crockett. Let me see your list of names.”
     We swapped lists of murder victims. Between the two of us, the total came to thirty-five. Some were hunches, some were likely. And one that came from David’s list was familiar: Diane Spradlin, my cousin and the daughter of my Aunt Jean.
     “Okay. Here’s what you do. You need to have Wesley here take you out to visit Rudy Terzo.”
     “Rudy won’t like that,” Wesley said.
     “Am I supposed to know who that is?” I was still reeling and barely knew my own name.
     LeVon said, “He’s a musician who was close with Diver. Like everybody else in this mess, he’s scared.”
    Crockett agreed that such was probably the case. He continued. “The next thing you need to do is keep an eye out for this prick Arbogast. I’ll stake out his shack if you want. Hell, I hit big rock a couple years back. Don’t need to work unless I just want to.”
     “You’d need to be very careful,” I told him once he explained that “hit big rock” meant “struck it rich.”
     He grinned. “Careful is what I am all about, son. The other thing I’d suggest is talking to Suzie Dorchester over at the Church. She’s a head case, but she used to be friends with Bruce Diego and Diego was absolutely the guy who put the karmic snuff on little Markita. Not exactly by himself, you understand. On orders, you might say.”
     I asked what church he meant.
     “There’s only one church in Los Angeles,” Wesley said without a trace of humor.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     Early the following afternoon Wesley and I dropped David Crockett off down the street from Melvin Arbogast’s vaguely spacious Spanish-style ranch house outside San Bernardino. The old prospector told us he knew the area quite well and would be in touch when something happened. From there we circled back around and returned to L.A., stopping where Senegal Avenue crosses with Temple, right across the street from a place called Celebrity Circle.
     “I started to write a song about this place,” Wesley told me. “Then I realized I’d made enough enemies in town for one life time.”
     On our way across the street, he explained that Celebrity Circle was the Hollywood version of the Church of Pseudoscience. I already knew a little about the latter organization founded by Conrad Gibbons, but LeVon filled in some gaps. “What these people want to do is enlist performers in the entertainment industry—actors, singers, that kind of thing—to make them legitimate. Before you tell me that would never happen in a million years, ask yourself if you can imagine what people would think of the Hare Krishnas if Charleston Heston came on TV. Let’s say he told people he was one of the happy chanters and that the next time you see a brother Krishna at the airport to drop a few dollars in the cup? Well, that’s the idea here, except these guys don’t hang out at LAX. They hang out on the studio lots in Hollywood.”
     The receptionist at Celebrity Circle was a trim and clean-cut young man whose name badge said he was called Marvin. The young man spoke to Wesley, ignored me altogether, and directed us to the seventh floor. As we rode the elevator, Wesley told me that Suzie wouldn’t be likely to spill her guts in the office, but that if we could get her outside, maybe tell her we would line her up with Steve McQueen’s bowling coach, we might find out damn near anything.
     I said, “Steve McQueen bowls?”
     Wesley laughed. “Not that I know of.”
     Suzie Dorchester was the first person I’d met in Los Angeles who conformed to my mental stereotype of a teenybopper: pixie red hair, short flowered dress, heavy eye make-up, and the unending ability to literally gush at the mention of the name of any famous person imaginable: Linus Pauling, Walter Mitty, Aaron Presley—it made no difference. “Wesley, I simply cannot thank you enough for all the good words you put in for me with KKLA. God, that radio station completely refused our ads until I told them that they should keep playing your records and then all of a sudden it was like, whoa! You mean, you know Mr. LeVon? And I said that, why, yes, you and I had met, and then this formerly very uptight guy in their marketing division turns a smile on me and says, hey, maybe we can do business after all, so I just want to say, from the very bottom of my heart, Wesley, love, how much we all appreciate what you are doing for us. Sincerely. Yes. Hi!”
     That last word was intended for me. I shook her trembling hand, assured her I was no one of any genuine significance—a remark which drew a cautious laugh from her—and briefly explained that we would like to discuss some things outside the building.
     “It would need to be right away,” Wesley added, turning to me and saying, straight-faced, “’Cause remember, we’re supposed to go bow-hunting with Ted Nugent later.”
     Had there been a cylindrical object in the room, Suzie would have humped it. “Oh, we can talk right now. There is a divine little yogurt shop right across the street. Perry, do you like yogurt?”
     I told her I liked it just fine, hardly my first lie of the day. The three of us rode down in the elevator, smiled at front desk Marvin, crossed the street, ordered some nonfat blue vanilla cream cultures that I wondered how I was going to eat, and proceeded to speak with Ms. Suzie Dorchester.
     Some people, if you feed them drugs or booze, they will tell you anything and everything, including where they hid Aunt Mabel’s stolen diamonds, that is, if they have an Aunt Mabel and if she has had her diamonds swiped, not that I have any personal experience in such things. In the case of Suzie Dorchester, the plying substance appeared to be active yogurt bacteria. She ate three cups with us that afternoon. I had trouble digesting the one. Wesley drank coffee which he spiked from a flask of whisky. Our waiter was an actor who pretended to be French. I pretended to be impressed.
     Throughout the conversation that followed, Suzie Dorchester answered our questions most directly, or as directly as she could manage. Still, I could not help but notice that there was a shiftiness to her, a sly and measured deliberateness in each syllable she spoke. She gave this impression even when she joked, which, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, was often.
     “They liked Bruce Diego at the Church,” Suzie confided. “They liked him because he came off very confident, very strong and sure of himself. See, we get trained, you might say, to pick out certain kinds of people. I mean, wow, we just dig up on movie stars and totally groovin’ singers like Wesley, of course, and also we learn how to pick out people who need us, and just as much we learn to identify people who can help us. Bruce was that last kind of guy. He was sort of charming. At the time we all thought he was just the most ultra hip. He knew all these famous people like the Codeines and the Nostrils and it wasn’t all just bullshit either. You find a lot of people here in here Los Angeles who walk around claiming to know so-and-so and everyone acts like they go swimming with the governor every week-end. But Bruce was on the level. He really had a way with the ladies, especially the younger ones. I was at a party, supposedly trying to do some recruiting and actually just jamming on the vibes, where he and a couple ladies who later made the big plunge were there talking to him. They seemed close.”
     I said, “What do you mean, the big plunge?”
     She licked her spoon. “I mean, Perry, that they are now dead. Markita Haines was one of them. She was a sweet little thing, kind of feisty, if you know the type. Well, she and Doreen Carpenter, they were both marginals at our Church then and they were both very taken with Bruce. He was a tough guy, but a tough guy with brains and charisma.”
     Wesley asked when this party had taken place.
     “It was definitely right after Thanksgiving of 1968. Anyway, here’s the thing. Tonya Pittman was also at this party and she was like very uptight behind all the attention Bruce was getting. I mean, what did she care, right? Maybe jealousy, but more likely she just didn’t want all this flattery going to Bruce’s head. So she bumped right into me—which is one reason I remember this—and shouted right in Bruce’s face that he was a stupid cocksucker and that if he didn’t kill those two tramps then she sure as hell would.”
     I nearly choked. “You actually heard her say that?”
     “I heard her because I was listening and I was listening because she had almost knocked me down crossing the room to say it. I thought about putting the worm hex on her, but then I read my own future and saw that would have been hasty. But people think that just because I’m all Hollywood and have a high voice and a cute hairstyle that they can just run me over. Not that I get uptight behind it. I just mean that people should have better things to think.” While I was trying to imagine what a worm hex might be, Suzie concluded.  “Anyway, since that night, the only people who were at that party that I’ve ever seen again were Tonya and Bruce. The two girls, as you know, they died.”
     They hadn’t died. They had been slaughtered. Doreen Carpenter, age twenty, was found on Christmas morning, 1968, tied upside down on a neighbor’s mail box post. Murdered elsewhere, she had been stabbed forty-seven times.
     “There’s two other things I should tell you,” she said, finishing up what turned out to be her last cup of yogurt with us that afternoon. “One thing I should tell you guys is that I told all of this to the police back in June 1970, when they were still sniffing around for clues about other murders connected up with Diver. The second thing you should know is that we at the Church have a Clean-Up Division and I serve in the division. I mention this just so you can take what I’m telling you with a grain.”
     The Clean-Up Division, it turned out, was dedicated to countering claims that the Commune had been in any way connected to the Church of Pseudoscience. “There’s a reason I’m telling you guys this stuff,” Suzie said. “The reason is that I am personally opposed to what these people did. We don’t need that kind of publicity, sure. But even if we did, this is just disgusting.”
     I told her I agreed and thanked her for her time. She thanked me for the yogurt and said she would be seeing me again soon. That idea put a twist in my bowels that no amount of yogurt would untangle.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     Wesley was playing a solo at the Magenta Cascade Lounge that night, where he opened for a smart punk band called Granado and the Fingerprint Men. “I have to work once in a while or the owner of the hotel gets angry. Thought I’d placated him by writing that song that mentioned the place. You know the one I mean?”
     I admitted I did not.
     “That’s okay. Anyway, Dougie, the owner of the Lounge, he pays a flat fee, rather than a percentage of the door, so it doesn’t matter how many people show up. You want to come?”
     I said that would be great.
     Before the show I stopped by a record shop and picked up a copy of Wesley’s eponymous debut album and played it in the Dart’s tape deck. There it was on the last track, “Shattered Moon Reflection,” a reference to the very hotel in which we were staying. Cosmic, thought I.
     At the show that night, LeVon played solo piano on every song during his first set, a string of melodic and haunting tunes that made up the Wesley LeVon album. The crowd of about three hundred were politely enthusiastic, if not a little more reserved than I’d expected. During the break, Wesley joined me at the bar and asked if I played an instrument. “Drums,” I told him.
     “Yeah? Well, tonight you play guitar.”
     “How do you figure?”
     Wesley downed a shot glass of Johnny Walker Black and shouted at the bartender to pour another one. “Because you look like a guitar player, that’s why. Oh, and I may have told Dougie that you were a studio hack just to get you in for free. He thinks it’d be a hoot for us to team up tonight. All three of us. Doug plays bass.”
     I had a rough idea how to hold the damned guitar. Wesley told me to just smack the strings open-tuned, without actually chording, but to keep my left hand near the frets so it would look as if I knew what I was doing. That seemed reasonable.
     The three of us took the stage to lukewarm applause. LeVon leaned in towards the microphone and chuckled. He said, “You may have heard that this year is the Bicentennial.”
     The crowd laughed. You couldn’t go anywhere in the United States without being reminded of the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence. CBS-TV ran nightly updates on how exciting the world was going to be now that we were all a couple centuries old. Special commemorative quarters were minted. The sale of flag decals quadrupled. It was quite the rage. The singer continued. “Tonight we thought it would be appropriate to play a medley by that most red, white and blue band of all time: The Who.”
     As the brief laughter dissolved, we broke into a rather dreadful version of “My Generation,” which was a little humorous because Wesley couldn’t remember some of the words and made up inspired lines like “Things they do I never told/Hope I dry before I grow mold.” Rather than figure out how that British band’s song ended, we switched to “Magic Bus,” Dougie and I hollering “I want it” all over the place and cracking LeVon up. And we wrapped the set with a version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” one which brought tears to the eyes of a few folks sitting up front, although probably for all the wrong reasons. By that time I was actually enjoying myself a little and even struck a few deliberate chords that would never give a real guitarist a moment’s worry. When it was over, Doug and I smashed our axes into each other to a wail of painful feedback. Wesley thanked us for our time and finished off the evening with a song he’d written recently, one called “Blood in Pancake Make-Up.”
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     One of the things I liked about Los Angeles was that whenever there I could visit a bookstore called A Change of Rabbit. While emphasizing fantasy and science fiction, the Rabbit also stocked rare, unusual and otherwise out of print books for a mixed market of readers unlikely to be satisfied by offerings elsewhere.
     Walking along one aisle in particular, my feet stopped of their own volition. I turned and stared hard at the book and did not breathe, yearning for the courage to pounce. Long ago we had been friends, the book and I, but friends separated may rejoin as adversaries or, worse still, as indifferent to one another. The reunion already felt awkward, what with some minimum wage clerk having placed the white and brown jacketed volume in Mythology and Folklore instead of in the Essential Essays of the 20th Century section, an oversight quite unforgivable despite the fact that the latter classification did not, sad to say, exist.
     At last I exhaled. The sound of my own futile sigh took me aback and induced two women passing behind me to giggle. Ignoring them (in particular the one on the left who had a sharp wiggle in her bright red running shorts), I tilted my body at an angle, allowing myself a parallel view from which to read the title embossed along the spine of the tome. The details in the lettering looked just a bit different than I remembered, suggesting that this specific book might be of a more recent vintage or, just as likely, in the same way a man may error in bringing to the mind the color of an old friend’s eyes, I had misremembered the design of the title and author.
     I placed an index finger along the top of the compressed pages, drew in until my lungs rebelled, and at long last retrieved the book from the shelf, examined the photograph of the writer on the cover, and fanned myself with the scent of virgin pages trilling past my face like an old woman cooling herself in the pew of a southern church in late summer.
     As an aside, I refuse to apologize for this extended personification, a device most out of favor in our current age of rhetorical neutrality. For much of my life, inanimate objects—and especially books and records—have been consistent companions in ways that actual human beings have not. And so one of my first extended thoughts upon rediscovering George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays was how delighted the other books in my library would be to see the return of this misadventurous comrade. In all likelihood, they would have great stories to tell one another.
     Purely from habit, I searched for the price. The original cost, back in my junior high school days, had been sixty cents. The price this day was $2.95. Fair enough, I decided, and went on to examine the legal page. The treasure I held in my hands, as dear to me as any gob of gold appropriated from the crypt of an ancient Egyptian tomb, had been printed in 1976, the very same year in which I stood there holding it. Someone had marred it with a sticker that proclaimed this was the Bicentennial Edition. I uttered an hysterical laugh. Let the snobs have their uncirculated first editions of Voltaire’s Candide or autographed and vomited-on-by-the-author copies of Dylan Thomas’ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Let them search the catacombs for first folios of the Bard’s rendition of Richard III, Napoleon’s diaries at Elba, or even a pristine copy of the Galloping Gourmet’s latest cookbook. I had my hands on A Collection of Essays and it was only going to cost me $2.95!
     I examined the chapter titles with a greediness that had my palms perspiring. There they were, all the holy gems right alongside the lesser delights, the latter included to flesh out the manuscript so the prospective buyer would not feel cheated by a reduced number of pages: “Such, Such Were the Joys” (the title borrowed from William Blake’s “The Echoing Green”), “Reflections on Gandhi,” “Shooting an Elephant,” “Why I Write,” and smack in the middle, the life-altering, epiphianic “Politics and the English Language.” In between I was treated to one essay about Charles Dickens and another on Rudyard Kipling, a bit of class consciousness called “England Your England,” and an uncharacteristic bit of homage to Henry Miller.
     I walked with what might be called a determined pace over to the cashier, placed the book in front of her and actually said, “Make it snappy, will ya, Toots?” (Who the hell was writing my dialogue, Zelda Fitzgerald’s pharmacist?) The cashier demurred, giving me an extra ten percent off my already everyday low price.
     Then this same cashier, whose name tag said she was Betty, did something quite strange and wonderful. As Betty was handing me the change from my twenty (thereby proving herself to be of better stock than certain waitresses of my acquaintance), a tall man, smartly dressed, entered the shop wearing what looked to be a very expensive pair of leather riding gloves.
     “Sir! Sir!” Betty called to the man with an urgency that bordered on alarm, all the while glancing back at me in smiling spurts. “Sir, I’m sorry, but you’ll need to remove your gloves. This is a bookstore.”
     The gentleman complied with an embarrassed flush.
     Rest assured, time had not cheapened the effect of Orwell’s writing upon my discriminating yet still impressionable mind. Only one of these essays was written after the publication of 1984 and, in truth, the writer would only live two years after that, never seeing the animated version of his allegorical short novel Animal Farm, the one bastardized by no less a thug than E. Howard Hunt.
     George Orwell was not the first great writer to understand that all writing is in service to some ideology and hence is a first cousin—if not fraternal twin—to what enlightened people call propaganda. Shakespeare knew it; so did Rousseau; and the same is true for that great band of Rastafarians, Toots and the Maytals, whose seminal album, Funky Kingston, redirected Orwell’s thinking, or would have, had it not been recorded twenty-five years after his death.
     I let the master’s tired and bony hands take mine and lead me back to his British prep school, where he was beaten more than once for wetting the bed. We sulked through the occupation of Burma and gazed upon the carcass of a long-dead pachyderm. We rejoined the fight against Franco. We wrote famous passages in satire of modern English prose and debated whether T. S. Eliot had enough sense to come in out of the rain or if we would have let him come in had he so desired. The other books in my home library would lean forward on the edges of their shelves, all the better to hear a righteous example of what Dr. Johnson said was the purpose of literature: entertainment and elucidation.
     I could, I suppose, summarize each section or paraphrase pertinent paragraphs, but instead I will offer a condensed excerpt from “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” a piece which for me demonstrates all one need understand about this collection or about my personal mission in Los Angeles.
I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. . . It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. . . The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. (p. 199)
     I drove back to the hotel, the book beside me, and wondered how Olivia was doing. I did not know it at the time, but I had picked up two different tails. They were not the kind that wagged.

Chapter Three
Church of the Purloined Mind
Charisma is the numinous aura around a narcissistic personality. It flows outward from a simplicity or unity of being and a composure and controlled vitality. There is gracious accommodation, yet commanding impersonality. . . The charismatic man glows with pre-sexual self-love.
                        —Camille Paglia

     Wesley had been wrong about one thing: there were actually two religious organizations in Los Angeles. In addition to the Church of Pseudoscience, there was also something called the Process Servers of the Initial Judgment, a group which, as far as I can tell, is today defunct, but which as late as the 1970s still made its presence felt. Since religion raises its woolly and bearded head more than a little in this story, I shall digress just one more time and explain my own feelings on the subject.
     I came to God out of fear and left Him for the same reason. I am humble about this act of desertion and make no claim for absolute certainty. My decision to disbelieve is grounded in politics and I am convinced that if God does exist, He will understand my testimony.
     The glory of Jesus seized me in the men’s restroom in Puckett’s Hamburger stand in Circleville, Ohio. I had just finished giving back to the Earth what I had taken it from, when I glanced down between my feet and saw staring up at me a miniature comic book entitled: “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” I burped out a nervous laugh and then fell silent, remembering that one must never sound too delighted in a public facility. But I did reach down and pick it up, examining it with a sense of wonder. Someone else—some unseen entity—was concerned with the fate of my immortal thirteen-year-old soul. How strange, I thought. No less mystifying was the plot of the little comic. A naked man stood just outside a gated community. Between the man and the sparkling arches loomed a tree-tall angel, in front of whom was a lectern, upon which rested The Book of Life. The man’s aura of impatience was replaced with one of concern when the angel gazed down upon him. The man said “Ahem” and inquired if his name was written in The Book of Life because, if it were, he could continued on through the gate and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, the glorious sanctum sanctorum where people shorn of genitalia played harpsichord versions of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar inside a place that had the appearance and exclusivity of Studio 54. The angel scanned the book with an enormous index finger and said with a chilling finality: “Your name does not appear herein. Depart thee, thou accursed!” Realizing this angel to be the head bouncer of the Pearly Gates Nightclub, the naked man slumped his shoulders and turned to leave, in that same instant coming face to face with Old Nick Apollyon—the Devil himself.
     The other details elude me now, but the impact of that hot-breathed, wild-eyed, grinning demon scared me straight into the welcoming arms of my local branch of Christian Athletes and before the day was over, I was no longer a sinner.
     The transformation itself was easy. What proved difficult was maintaining my state of righteousness. The pleasures of the flesh threatened to consume me and many were the times over the next couple of years that I wanted to bite into the fruit that bestowed knowledge of lightness and darkness, freedom and bondage, good and evil. But I remained pure as the Virgin Mother, determined as I was to pluck out an eye rather than to stare too long at wicked temptations. But by my sixteenth birthday, I felt like an old heating stove that someone had filled with coal, yet for some sadistic reason prevented from letting loose with volcanic eruptions and billowing clouds of relief. I burned despite there being no place for my fire to shine. And even if by some miracle it did, I knew God would see it happening and tell one of His doormen to erase my name from the Magic List, and soon enough I would be shivering beneath the eternal heat of the Royal Satanic Majesty.
     As I say, on the evening of my sixteenth birthday, I had a party. There was a girl there named Olivia. We had met on the first day of school in third grade. Our friendship had been instantaneous. While most of the other students in our class sucked up to the teacher, Olivia drew sunflower sketches and magic castles, most of which she passed to me.  I played the typical male protective role, one which Olivia often had to rescue me from when on occasion I defended her from bullies who could have snapped me like a twig. We studied together, rode our bicycles together year round, wrote stories about one another, critiqued one another’s wardrobes, and came to know the other’s thoughts as well as our own. There had developed an occasional sexual tension between the two of us, but it had been unspoken, unacknowledged, and sublimated into a camaraderie that I have never known with any other human being. Then, that one evening, on my sixteenth birthday, our defenses slipped away as we found ourselves migrating aimlessly and in no time we were lying side by side, staring at the ceiling from the comfort of my bed.
     Later I was wracked with inexplicable guilt and promised that if Jesus would take me back, I would cease and desist with my unauthorized love makings. Sure enough, I was again filled with the Holy Spirit and just as quickly found the Sacred Glow replaced with the pounding cave wails of allegedly sinful desire. After a while I sensed that God was tired of making deals with me and I decided not to bother Him anymore.
     I must say a few more words about Olivia. My gaggle of envious friends tried hard to convince me that every housing subdivision had been blessed with at least one teenaged female nymphomaniac. In Jefferson Addition, where I lived, that girl had been assumed—incorrectly—to be Olivia. That puzzled me then and still does, because her emptiness, no less severe than my own, should never have been used against her just because she and I arrived together in unexpected commingling. That, I suspect, is where the real sin lay. Hypocrisy looms in all towns, small and large. Very little that occurs in high school has any significance beyond one’s eighteenth birthday. And some teenagers are perhaps more wired than others to radiate cruelty. But of two things I am sure: Olivia and I loved one another; and to this day those name-calling misogynists have no idea what I secretly added to their baked potatoes when they came into the restaurant.
     God and I have not been on a first name basis now for many years. Between watching old ladies send their Social Security checks to religious telethons and my study of epistemology, between seeing pictures of Holocaust victims and pictures of the Sally Knight fatalities, and between listening to lectures on quantum physics and listening to people describe themselves as spiritual rather than as religious, I have concluded that Purpose is a man-made concept and often a rather ugly one.
     I also came to recognize the importance of the concept of equality. So important is this concept that I believe the only laws one need obey are those enacted to insure that it is respected. This is why murder has always haunted me. It is not possible to kill another human being without convincing oneself that the victim is somehow inferior—that his life holds less value than your own. This issue is often dressed up in complex psychological terminology, but it is really no more complicated than that. To kill a peasant in a rice paddy, you must believe that the peasant’s life is less significant than the one you are living. To cut the throat of your country’s king, you must perceive him as a deranged tyrant who has devalued himself in the eyes of God and man. Whatever profit motive initiates a war, what pulls the triggers and drives the tanks and drops the bombs is the illusion that the other people are somehow less human than you. Curiously, behind that hate of a presumed inferior enemy is the horrific fear that just possibly the adversary may secretly be the superior one.
     I was too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam. I have known many good people who fought in one of those two wars. I have also known some who were not very good. I am glad I did not have to make a decision about my own responsibility in war. I have no faith in politics, no faith in supremacy, no faith in power.
     My faith lies with a woman named Olivia, a woman who one night, long ago, was searching for her own kind of salvation in my eyes on an important evening, while God, as usual, was silent on the subject.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     A lot of different people could have been following me. The people in the first car, as it turned out, were with the Process Servers. Brothers Gerald and Timothy finally tired of almost rear-ending me with my deliberate acts of stopping short. Gerald, who was driving a dark Lincoln Town Car, rolled up alongside at a traffic light and asked if I would mind pulling over because they wanted to talk to me. Back in Circleville, we had the occasional Jehovah’s Witness come to the door of our homes, but no religious group practiced stopping people in the middle of the highway. I was so impressed that I readily agreed.
     We slid over a near a small park just off Santa Monica Boulevard. I got out of my car. They got out of theirs. They walked over and introduced themselves. Brother Timothy did most of the talking. He wore his dark brown hair longer than the average rock and roller and watched me through eyes that might be described as penetrating. Brother Gerald had very short blond hair, a small scar in the shape of a question mark on his cheek, and a sudden habit of glancing over my shoulder while his colleague and I talked.
     “I hope we didn’t freak you out, Perry,” Timothy began. “It’s just that we were concerned that you might be in danger.”
     I smiled. “Danger? Here? In the sunshine capital of the world?”
     Timothy’s sullen expression did not change. He said, “We were contacted by our San Francisco office. They told us that you have been talking to some dangerous people. A Colt Diver. A Suzanne Dorchester. We were told that you are investigating some murders. We want to let you know that this may not be safe for you.”
     I scratched my head. “You guys have some terrific sources. I even agree with you that Colt is a very dangerous guy. But about Suzie, you must be kidding. She weighs what? Maybe one hundred pounds soaking wet, which is probably most of the time—”
     Timothy shook his head. Gerald kept looking over my shoulder out toward the expressway. Timothy said, “Books and covers are like friends and lovers.”
     I had heard quite a few remarks over the last few days that I didn’t understand. That one made the top ten list.
     He continued. “While some people may applaud your efforts at bringing to an end the suffering of certain survivors, we must urge you, in the most politeful manner, to allow us to protect you.”
     I shook my head, not without hospitality, I hope. I said, “I probably need more help than you two can provide. The truth is, though, that I operate alone. I’m not all that easy to get along with. And to be honest, Satanists give me the creeps. No offense.”
     “None taken,” Gerald said, still watching the road.
     “There’s also the problem that some of the people I want to get with would be uncomfortable with you two around. I just think it’s better this way.”
     Timothy sighed. “Two women have been following you for the last half hour. We recognize one as Lady Dorchester. The other is an agent in her employ. They will wait until you are away from your car, they will place an explosive beneath your car, and when you return to your car, they will blow you to fuck and back. Am I making myself understood, Perry?”
     I stopped smiling. “You mean to say that after going to all the trouble of getting ready to kill me, at the last minute they will change their minds and force me to undergo oral sex? Cool!”
     I thought I saw Gerald smirk at this, but I wasn’t certain. I did see something in his eyes, however. That something suggested I turn and look. When I did, I caught sight of a small, light blue convertible back at the last stop light. Suzie was driving and some chick out of an eighteenth century Horace Walpole novel was riding shotgun. Very Gothic. The light changed and Suzie turned the wheel hard and floored the gas, pulling the car straight in our direction. I wasn’t about to have to deal with the insurance people regarding damages to that Dart. As Gerald started to snatch what I imagined was a weapon beneath his jacket, I pushed Tim to one side. I grabbed the slingshot out of my back pocket, loaded it with a small stone, aimed, fired, and hit Suzie in the left ear, giving her an additional piercing. Her friend grabbed the steering wheel and swung them back out onto the road where they disappeared around the next corner, Suzie holding the side of her head, her friend extending a long middle finger salute high into the air. Guess they told me.
     I have been puzzled over why certain people have wanted to kill me ever since that day in high school when Darlene Quincel told the chemistry teacher that I was the one who had broken off a pencil point in the keyhole of the classroom door so that the lock would jam when someone tried to open it. In those days corporal punishment was still celebrated and by the halfway point in the beating administered by the principal I was beginning to suspect that public executions had come back into fashion. I always wondered why Darlene had taken such a lethal disliking to me, just as I now wondered what was going through the mind of “Lady Dorchester.”
     I shared my consternation with Brother Tim. He responded that the Church of Pseudoscience was obsessed with protecting its own image and would eliminate, if necessary, anyone who sought to besmirch it. He did not respond when I wondered aloud if committing vehicular homicide might not be frowned upon by the public at large.
     These fellows were a tough audience for a wise-ass, so I quickly went on to explain that what had just happened was evidence that I did not need the so-called protection of the Process Servers of the Initial Judgment. Timothy used it to confirm just how much I did need them.
     “The bottom line, gentlemen, is that I won’t accept your help. It’s a nice offer, but I decline.”
     Timothy motioned for Gerald to get back in the car. Before they left, Brother T said to me, “There is nothing you can do to keep us from helping you. The toy you carry will not protect you from everything.”
     I waved as they drove off. They were right about the slingshot. I needed to find some place that sold BB guns.
     When I returned to the hotel, Wesley looked upset. His brow was furrowed and the veins in his upper arms were pulsating. He grabbed me hard by the arm and said, “Suzie just called. She said you spat at her on the street or something? What’s the problem?”
     Wesley LeVon was possibly unique among Southern California singer-songwriters of that period in that he was a bit of a reactionary and when he was drunk, which was often, instead of getting mellow, he burned his own fuse. I told him that he was an idiot, that Suzie had tried to ram me with her car, and that if she was his idea of a friend, then he was welcome to stay away from me. I went on: “You SoCal creeps irritate me anyway, LeVon. You all read a couple of books by Raymond Chandler, play your albums backwards to promote some twisted lifestyle and then spend the rest of your time complaining about what a drag it is being famous. You twerps should just admit that what you really want is Reagan in the White House and pictures of Linda Ronstadt to jerk off to. My advice? Go kill yourself.” That possibly sounds extreme on my part, but dammit, I go all to pieces when someone tries to kill me. I honestly hate it.

     Wesley tightened his grip on my arm. “I’ve never read Chandler,” he said. “I’m more of a Jim Thompson man.” The distinction seemed to matter.
     I pulled my arm loose. “I never asked for your help in this. I sure never asked for your friendship. From what I’ve seen so far, you and all these other losers can’t operate without believing some stupid nonsense religion so you can think of yourselves as outlaws while you cry for your baby rattles. Plus, I get a little hysterical when people try to kill me.”
     I turned to walk away. Wesley said, “I’m not a loser, pal. But I am sorry for the misunderstanding. About Suzie, I mean. If you want to listen a second, Crockett called an hour ago. I guess he got bored waiting outside Arbogast’s and reconnected with some slattern named Tonya Pittman. I think they met when Diver was on trial. He figures she’s crazy as a shit house rat. Says she wants him to help break Bruce Diego out of prison. If he won’t help, he reckons she’ll kill him.”
     This just kept getting better all the time. I said, “Fine. We’ll go help David. But I don’t want you pissing me off anymore. I have a temper. I may be working on it. But it takes time. So just don’t assume that these psychos are alright, because they’re not. These psychos kill people. Got it?”
     LeVon insisted that we drive out to Pittman’s in his Ferrari, which I guess was his way of reminding me that he wasn’t a loser. I knew he wasn’t. I knew he had talent up the wazoo. I was simply low on sleep and patience. It was getting dark and I needed rest.
     The trip out to San Bernardino revitalized me, mainly because Wesley took curves at speeds that a more sober person could have never handled. We pulled into a tiny cul de sac off Hook Mouth Road. Even with the sun down, we could tell that the front yard of the tar paper shack had last been mowed sometime during World War II. Above us glowed two pairs of small green eyes belonging to a couple of little cats that had perched themselves on the roof. Someone had knocked out part of the living room picture window from the inside, probably to air the joint without going to the trouble of opening the front door, which I noticed had swelled shut during L.A.’s interminable summer heat. With a heavy dread, Wesley and I stepped over the jagged shards and into the dark house.
     Shadows exist even in a darkened room and this cold house had its share of shadows. The wooden floor moaned with a crawling agony as we inched our way along. Cobwebs wrapped around toasters and broken floor lamps. LeVon heaved behind me like an asthmatic, annoying me into whispering that he try not to breathe. A smell blended of rotten apples, cat urine and patchouli oil hung on the air like its own kind of smog. I motioned toward what I at first took to be a fireplace. We approached it and realized it was some type of altar. The remains of tiny singed bones lay on the hearth in the shape of a backwards question mark. Wesley touched my shoulder just as a door in the back of the house slammed shut. Three voices screamed at the same time. Our feet froze and our heads turned to look out a putrid stained window that gazed out onto the side of the house. We saw David running ahead of two women I had never seen before. They each had a long knife raised over their heads and appeared to be in pursuit. We unstuck ourselves and raced out through the shattered entrance.
     By the time we got outside, Crockett came running around the front of the house, holding his arm and screaming. “Get in the car! Get in the car!”
     No more than twenty feet behind him followed two knife-wielding women. I had had nightmares about this kind of thing, but in those dreams I was the one being chased. I snatched my brand new BB gun out of my back pocket, swung it by the barrel and clocked the first woman hard across the mouth with the butt of the weapon, dropping her to the ground. As she fell, the second woman brought her blade down into my shoulder, sending a river of pain surging through my chest and arm.
     “You stupid twat!” LeVon yelled. “Can’t you see he has a gun? You don’t stab a guy holding a gun on you!”
    I shared his outrage (if not his choice of words) and kicked the fallen woman under the chin because it looked like she might say something to annoy me. Then I shoved the thin barrel of my Daisy Air Pistol right between the stabbing one’s eyes. Wesley took the knife away from the other woman while David watched from the relative safety of the front seat of the Ferrari.
     The knife was still sticking into what turned out to be my deltoid muscle. I am not a masochist, but if I were, this level of pain would have been beyond enjoyable.
     Wesley punched each woman hard in the mouth and dropped them where they stood. Once both would-be killers were seated on the ground back to back, I handed Wesley the gun because I needed to take off my shirt to use it to try to slow the bleeding. When I gave him the weapon, he noticed that the weight was wrong and said, “What the hell is this thing? It feels like—”
     The women rejoined the conscious. “Which one of you is Pittman?” I snarled before Wesley could do any damage. I wrapped my shirt around my shoulder and cursed the pain.
     The shorter of the two women nodded. She had a question mark carved into her forehead. She was also the one I had kicked. “I’m going to give you a choice, young lady. You can tell me what you know about the murder of Markita Haines—”
     “Who?” she spat.
     “Or I’m gonna take my gun back and see if I can kill both of you with it in one shot. Yeah, that’s it! I’ll just point it at your forehead and see if the shell will travel all the way through to—What’s your name, honey?”
     “Me? Margaret.”
     “See if the shell will travel all the way through your skull and into Me Margaret’s. That way I save some ammo and the cops will be too confused to ever figure out what the hell happened. I’m in a lot of pain here, so if you want to test my patience, that’s fine. Wesley, give me the Goddamned gun.”
     He handed it back to me and I gave him a look that I hoped said to stay quiet. “I’m itching to kill somebody today, so it might as well be you two. Markita Haines. Speak!”
     Tonya spoke. “You guys are all going to fucking die anyway. Bruce killed her, along with some help from me and a guy who hasn’t been around for a while and I forget his name.”
     “That’s too bad,” I said, placing the tip of the barrel square against her forehead, my finger reaching for the trigger. The BB probably would not have killed Pittman and it certainly would not have gone through her head and into Me Margaret. But at that moment I was in so much pain that I actually imagined myself shooting off both their noggins.
     “Shoot them! Christ, they’re killers! Shoot them!” David Crockett bellowed. The truth was that I didn’t want to shoot anybody, even with a BB gun. On the other hand, the old prospector had lost a nick of skin to one of their Buck knives, so I could understand the sentiment.
     Me Margaret spoke up. “His name is Ed Bailey. He’s the one the old lady saw in the driveway. Shit, you might as well tell them, Tonya. Like you said, they won’t live long.”
     After ascertaining Ed Bailey’s present whereabouts, I convinced Crockett to return to the house to get some rope or chains or something so we could tie these two maniacs up. He returned with about half a dozen neckties. They were not ideal, but they did the job. Crockett and LeVon tied both women to the same metal drain spout. I was sure they would eventually free themselves, but when they did they would have to move fast because otherwise the overhang would promptly fall and crush them. Finally, we went inside and found some dinner for the cats which we sat out for them in small bowls.
     On our way to the hospital (where I was given a tetanus shot, sixteen stitches, and a great deal of pain killers), I started laughing, not without some hysteria. There I was, for all I knew, bleeding to death, and we had taken the time to feed the tabbies. What a bunch of dopes.
     The medical staff at the General Mercy Hospital seemed very excited to see us. Los Angeles was one of the few cities in the country at that time to have a Level One Treatment Facility. It was a very clean room with some well-scrubbed doctors and nurses. I was quite out of my head at the time, but I do remember a person—for some reason, I thought it was Crockett—suggesting they extract the knife and one of the doctors flipped out and said, no, they couldn’t do that until the wound stabilized. This same doctor insisted on asking somebody if I had dropped a lung and I kept trying to explain that my lungs had not slipped out through the wound, but everyone just sort of politely rolled their eyes whenever I repeated this. I do have a clear recollection of having two separate IVs in my arms and one of the nurses told me the knife had torn through my deltoid muscle, not typically a life-threatening injury. After a while I asked someone in a blue uniform when the hell they were going to take the knife out. The fellow in blue turned around and smiled. “Oh, they took that out about an hour ago,” he said, which was apparently correct because it was gone. Time was moving at its own pace and leaving me behind. I started laughing again, not entirely without cause. One of the nurses must have heard me carrying on because after a while she came in and asked if I was alright. I thanked her and tried to control myself.
     My reaction was only in part due to the pain and medication. Some of my laughter was in response to the general condition of irony. I was laughing because, if what the two women had told us was true, it would not be all that difficult locating Ed Bailey. He had been living for the last two months in a dump in downtown Los Angeles called the Hollywood Heater Hotel.
    That, however, was not our final surprise of the evening.

Chapter Four
Crucified Thieves
God be thanked, the meanest of his creatures
Boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with,
One to show a woman when he loves her.
                        —Robert Browning

     Olivia was waiting for us outside the hotel room door. Crockett, LeVon and I had all looked much better in our lives. Wesley’s hair was blown in as many directions as he had hairs to blow, David had refused medical attention for a cut which turned out to be considerably deeper than I had imagined and blood had dried through his shirt, and I was half euphoric from the shot of Demerol someone at the hospital had been humane enough to give me. It was probably a clerical error, but someone had also decided to bless me with a morphine drip. As a consequence, I was no longer suffering from anything except the occasional hallucination. There was also the vaguely amusing fact that a chunky old guy named David Crockett was sitting on my lap burbling something about reincarnation. Olivia Stephens, however, looked like a million bucks: her long hair had been done up by someone who knew what he was doing and her dark blue dress hugged her like a long lost friend. Better make that two million bucks.
     I crawled out of the car without bothering to open the door. “Olivia!” I howled. “You’re home!”
     She gave me a look I couldn’t quite place and said, “No, I’m in California. What happened to you?” Okay, three million.
     We hugged and at some point I realized I was ruining her dress with my secretions, by which I mean blood, by the way. I stepped back an inch or two and said, “Two Diver girls tried to kill us, but we fought them off with my new BB gun. There’s another one staying at this very hotel, except he’s a Diver guy. They gave me sixteen stitches and a big old shot of dope to make me talk funny. I sure am glad to see you. Oh, hey, this is Wesley LeVon, the singer from way out in Southern California, which is right here. He let me play guitar with him the other night. That was hilarious. And this fellow with the wrinkled eyes, this is David Crockett, vampire hunter and werewolf slayer. Boys, this is the beautiful Olivia!”
     They all declared how pleased they were to meet one another. I was simply pleased to be able to stand up.
     Olivia fished the room key out of my pocket and we all piled into our abode. I fell onto the bed and said, “Who would like to catch Olivia up on what has been happening?” Of course, the words actually came out, “Sensi bobo gleeful frickledom.”
     David decided that he was the most coherent of the three men, which I suppose tells you something about our collective condition. While Olivia put on a pot of hotel coffee, Crockett said, “Perry met with Markita Haines’ ma and she convinced him to go about finding a solution to her daughter’s kidnapping and execution. Wesley showed him some borderline psychotic sweet thing named Suzie who was supposed to be on our side, except that she works for the Pseudoscientists, and they’ve only got one side, which I could have told you all that if you’d of asked. So Perry shot this Suzie thing in the ear with that slingshot you gave him, a mighty fine present, in my opinion, young lady.”
     “Thank you, Mr. Crockett, if that is your real name.”
     “It is. Then, let’s see. Oh yeah. I went out to keep an eye on that silly-ass Assistant Warden fella, but that got old real fast, so I figured I’d check up on Tonya Pittman. Well, just my luck, I found her. That was one mistake. The second mistake was I told her I wouldn’t help her break Bruce Diego out of the hoosegow, so she decided I’d serve her purposes better if I resembled something you ate on Thanksgiving. Perry and Wesley came rolling up about that time and saved my life. I gotta tell you, young lady, I was never so glad to see anybody in my born days. Well, Perry here, he took a slice from a six inch knife that one of those crazy gals was swinging. I got a nasty cut myself, but I thought Perry was gonna snuff it right there. Damned if he didn’t slap that gal right in the chops with that pee shooter of his. Anything you want to add, Wesley?”
     “You came all the way out here from Ohio?” the singer asked.
     “Yes. Me and my dancing bears. I’m pretty glad we did, under the circumstances.”
     “Right. Yes. You didn’t happen to bring anything to drink with you?”
     At that point the Demerol gained total control and I blacked out for the night.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     When I awakened nice and refreshed and in considerable discomfort sometime after ten the next morning, I was lying flat on my back on the hotel room bed, a copy of the Los Angeles Times newspaper was strewn out across my chest, and Olivia was turning to the second page. Did somebody say four million? I noticed right away that the painkillers had worn off.
     She asked how I was feeling and I said something about twenty miles of bad road. She kissed me on the lips. I kissed her back. The bad road faded into the distance.
     I said, “What do you suppose makes these people the way they are?”
     “Stupidity,” she replied.
     I was unclear whether that was her answer to my question or an observation about me for having asked it. “How do you mean?”
      She stopped reading the paper and folded her hands on top of it. “So many things that we do and choices that we make are beyond our ability to reason things out. For example, you and I like to think that we are attracted to one another just because we happened to meet at a certain place and time and things worked out between us, you know, because we came to some sort of rational decision, or even some emotional decision. But the truth is—and we know this deep down, I think—that we have a predisposition toward certain types of people. You like strong, funny, intelligent women who fit a certain physical requirement. I like lean, caring guys who know how to make me laugh. Why do we like what we like? No rational decision about it. If we had a good relationship with our other-sex parent, that’s what we are looking for. Or if we had a lousy relationship with that same parent, we’re still drawn to that type of person as compensation. Same with our politics, religion, tastes in clothes, and so on. No intellectual choices happening there most of the time.”
     “But?” I prompted.
     “But we do choose whether or not to be idiots. I chose not to be, you chose not to be. But people like Diego, Pittman, and the others, they rationally concluded that being stupid was the better path. The funny thing is that it usually doesn’t work out for these people. So cognitive dissonance builds up. They wonder how to rationalize that they’ve made horribly bad decisions with the evidence that those decisions were in fact horribly bad. Leon Festinger, back in the late 1950s, developed the idea that humans have to get relief from cognitive dissonance. Have I told you this story?”
     She had. I liked hearing it, so I told her to please go ahead.
     “Festinger found a religious sect that believed their leader when she told them that space aliens were going to come and beam them all up on a certain day so they would be spared the holocaust of destruction that was about to wipe out mankind. Well, the appointed day for this beaming was announced and—big surprise—nothing of the kind happened. Well, what do you think? Did the members of the sect reject their beliefs, believe in the stuff even stronger, or believe it all just the same amount?”
     I got the answer wrong on purpose. “The same?”
     She smiled. “No! They believed the nonsense even stronger than before. They became die hard believers. In other words, they chose the stupidest option available to them because that was the only way to rationalize what they had been believing before.”
     I set the newspaper aside, uncomfortable as I was with being transformed into a human coffee table. “The Diver people, then, you are saying, chose to be zombies or whatever, to avoid admitting to themselves that Diver really can’t walk out of that prison up there anytime he wants, or that he can’t breathe on a dead bird and bring it back to life?”
     She leaned over to look at my stitches more closely and said, “Exactly. The more he fails at being a miracle man, the more committed his followers become. But he still has to perform a trick every now and then just to keep up general morale. How are you feeling now?”
     I thought about that. Emotionally, I wanted to marry her right there in that hotel room and make love with her during the ceremony. Physically, the muscles around my left shoulder hurt the way concrete would ache if it could feel during the use of a pile driver. I said, “I feel good. Maybe we should eat.”
     The faint glare of the sunlight trickling in through the curtains caught the gleam of her fingernails as they drew softly down my chest. She said, “David, if that is his real name, borrowed the car to go get some groceries. Wesley was still asleep a few minutes ago. He can really drink a lot. You know, Perry, I was very worried about you last night.”
     I sat up. “You let Crockett use the Dart? I didn’t know he could drive.”
     She shook her head. “Of course he can drive. He has to be in his late fifties. Why? Was that wrong?”
     “No,” I said, and couldn’t quite reason out why I was unhappy about this. Maybe it was because I had opted to decline the car rental company’s supplemental insurance policy. Something didn’t quite feel proper about him using the car.
     “You missed me?” I asked, changing the subject, one of my specialties.
     “I did. And I hunched that just possibly you needed some help.”
     She was something else. Thirty-five-years-old and second-in-command in her division at Red Star Dynamics. Already she was turning subject complements into verbs. “You hunched?”
     She returned to the newspaper. “Something like that. I don’t suppose you care that you almost got killed? Look, I know God hates a coward, but I’m beginning to think I’m in love with a fool. If you ever get your lazy keister out of bed, maybe we can round up the rest of these killers and get back home in a hurry, eh? Which reminds me: why didn’t you guys take Tonya Pittman to jail last night?”
     I nodded toward my shoulder. “Aside from the fact that I was bleeding to death? We only had one car with us and it’s a two-seater, crowded with three of us on board. Besides, there’s always the chance that the authorities might—”
     The newspaper was again forgotten. “Yes, of course. The evil authorities might actually kill a killer. Wouldn’t that be a shame?”
     “Or they might have killed someone who admitted being a killer because I put a gun to her head.”
     “A BB gun.”
     “All the same.”
     “I take it no one has as yet gotten around to warning Melvin Arbogast that Diver vowed to kill him?”
     “I told his assistant. She didn’t like me. At least not as much as you like me.”
     “How unfortunate,” she said as she fiddled with my belt buckle. “But the Process Server people have convinced you that the Pseudoscience woman is trying to kill you, although why we don’t know?”
     “We think it’s because I might be violating their Forget Colt Diver Rule. I mean, it’s that or simply the fact that as a member of that church she is de facto nuts.” As I tried to sit up she pushed me back down and threw one leg on either side of me.
     “At no point throughout this did you think to call 911?”
     “The police?”
     “No, the 911 Laundromat.”
     I was tempted to write that one down, but she was distracting me by removing her halter top. Besides, we didn’t have such highfalutin emergency services in Circleville. Back there, if someone needed help, they threw open the window and screamed. I said, “I think you know how I feel about law enforcement.”
     “I do. And I respect that. I’m just wondering, Perry, what you think we should do.”
     “I really think we’re on the right track.”
     That was when we heard the explosion outside. Actually, we felt it shake the window and bed and floor just half a second before we heard it. In that half second I thought it might have been an earthquake, which in turn led me to recall LeVon’s song:
Shattered windows, rattled cages
Children tremble, mother rages,
Buildings crumble in amazement
While I shiver in my basement.
That in turn reminded me I needed to give the hotel people money for another three days rent. By the time I had absorbed all of this, I actually heard the explosion itself, followed by the thud of a chunk of what turned out to be the Dart smashing against the side of the hotel. At that point, all free associations ceased. Olivia and I reached the door just in time to see David Crockett stagger across the parking lot toward us, his face, arms and hands black with smoke and powder, his eyes wide and tiny glowing balls of wonder. “Sorry,” he said, looking as forlorn as anyone I have ever seen. “The groceries were in the car.”
     The police did come this time, although neither Olivia nor I summoned them. Chances are some bad Samaritan rang them up and said, “It seems there’s been a small bomb of some kind over at the Hollywood Heater Hotel. Pieces of a Dodge Dart, California License DRF8W45, are drifting over the highway and the tourists are becoming confused. Could you send an officer, please?”
     Three patrol cars arrived almost immediately, sirens blaring and lights spinning, or possibly the other way around. If I had to guess at the time frame, I’d say it took forever for the final pieces of the car to fall back to earth, a condition that exacerbated my own frustration, as well as that of the police, who were shielding themselves from the falling debris with their elbows high in the air, as if hundreds of pounds of flailing Detroit metal could be so easily discouraged, or as if a strike against the elbow would somehow be less traumatic than one against the skull.

     The lead officer recorded the information in his pocket notebook. The vehicle belonged to Avis Rent-a-Car and was leased to Perry Eugene LaMarke on American Express card number 3731 336407 51002. State of residence: Ohio. DOB: 5/30/41. Time in California: three days. Reason for visit: recreation. Person driving vehicle at time of disturbance: David Crockett, address unknown. Cause of disturbance: Dodge Dart.
     I said to the lead officer, “I see the paperwork you’re filling out there calls what happened here a disturbance.”
     He was wearing dark mirrored sunglasses. He did not look up from his writing while he told me that was correct.
     “Disturbance is such an odd word,” I said, and this time he did look up, more or less at me, although it was hard to tell. “I mean, it almost sounds as if that were the reason you guys are here.”
     He poked the brim of his cap with the pen he was using and said, “That is why we’re here. We are here in response to a citizen complaint about a disturbance. The disturbance in question appears to have been the explosion of a car legally leased to you, which you admit you lent out—contrary to the terms of your agreement with Avis, incidentally—to Mr. Crockett. That makes you responsible for any damages caused by the vehicle, just as it makes you responsible for answering any complaints made against the vehicle.”
     I pondered this. “So you fellows aren’t here because of the explosion?”
     He sighed as if trying to explain quantum psychics to a mental defective. “We are here in response to a citizen complaint. That complaint was about a loud noise. The loud noise turns out to have been made by your car.”
     “No sir,” I butted in. “That loud noise was the bomb that someone used to blow up the car.”
     The officer would have none of that. “I don’t see a bomb,” he said. “What I see is parts of what used to be a car littering up this parking lot. I see an old guy over there who probably could use medical attention, if I ever get this report finished, which I would have had done by now if you weren’t asking me all these asinine questions.”
     That had been quite a speech. I made a note to write about it in my diary. I also made a note to remember never to voluntarily speak to a cop again.
     David had not been badly injured in the blast. He had lost only one tooth and suffered a sprained ankle from landing poorly. He was in good enough shape to hobble over to tell one of the police officers that the explosion had sounded to him like a pipe bomb. “Not just your run of the mill pipe bomb, either, Mr. Police Man. It was most likely placed there by this frantic broad named Suzie Dorchester. She’s an acquaintance of our pal Wesley and she is card-carrying member of the infamous Church.”
     “The Church of Pseudoscience?” the second cop inquired.
     “That’s the one,” David replied.
      “Whoever did it,” Olivia pointed out. “That person is almost certainly breaking the law.” Just like me, she was wondering why no one seemed to be emphasizing that aspect of things.
     The first cop—the one with the notebook and the mirrored shades—spoke as if beseeching divine intervention from above. “If someone makes a complaint about that, I’m sure LAPD will send out an investigator. What you people need to understand is that right here and right now there is an unlawful noise ordinance in effect. Further disturbances of this type will result in the detention of any and all suspected perpetrators.” He turned to me. “Here’s your copy, Mr. LaMarke. Please try to behave.” He handed me a carbon of his report, which also contained the information that I would be expected to pay a seventy-five dollar fine for the disturbance my vehicle had caused. The world was a fair place for neither man nor Dart.
     Wesley came stumbling down the stairs looking for all the world as spry and refreshed as he had in all the days I had known him, a count of three, if memory serves. I was certain he was going to ask somebody for a drink, but before he had a chance to prove me right, the two Process Server fellows, Brothers Gerald and Timothy, rolled up and got out of their car. Tim looked sullen as ever. Gerald wore a smirk that suggested self-satisfaction. Well, hell. They had told me so, hadn’t they?
     The three police officers were trying to get back into their own cars. David—who looked like a minstrel in burnt cork—approached the third one and told him that these two new arrivals were Satan worshipers. “Don’t that worry you none, officer?”
     “Freedom of religion,” the cop shrugged, as if that explained anything. “Mister, you need to clean yourself up.” He followed his two brother officers out of the parking lot and down the highway.
     Brother Timothy looked right at me and said, “The four of you are coming with us.” Olivia told him she didn’t think so. I made the customary introductions and finished by agreeing with her. Gerald flashed a .38 he had tucked between his belt and shirt. I cursed myself for leaving my slingshot and BB gun back in the hotel room, a cursing that reminded me I had some important business with the proprietor.
     The Process Server boys waited in quiet amusement while I paid another three days in advance to the clerk at the Hollywood Heater, a damned considerate move for a pair of kidnappers. The old lady behind the front desk didn’t say a word about the earlier explosion, as if such commotions were common practice in these parts of Los Angeles, which, for all I knew, they might have been. The free local telephone calls sign was still proudly on display. I thanked the woman and pocketed the receipt.
     We piled into the Process Servers’ Lincoln Town Car, Timothy, Gerald and David riding up front, Wesley, Olivia and my own bad self sitting in the back. Their luxury car was quite roomy, so the seating was not the least uncomfortable. The problem was that this scenario had all the trappings of a half-assed abduction, and, in my limited experience, that suggested a degree of unwanted danger. Olivia silently fumed. Wesley kept asking if we could stop at every liquor store we passed. David was laughing lightly in the aftershock of having been blown up in a car, and I was jonesing (or was it smithing?) for another shot of Demerol. I was also quite hungry. The two Processors up front said not a mumbling word, although Gerald did pass back a pack of California raisins.
     The car zigzagged through town, making turns and double-backing so that even an experienced Angelino would have been confused. At one point I saw that we were on Beverly Glen. Then about fifteen minutes later we were parked along a stretch of beach. The car stopped. Gerald got out, holding the .38 in his hand, which was probably more efficient than carrying it in his teeth. Timothy got out. The rest of us did the same. Timothy pointed in the direction of a tall copse of tree, behind which sat a dilapidated beach front bungalow with an anteater tied to a post on the porch. Then again it may have been an aardvark. I’m no zoologist. Either way it was a strange thing to see tied up outside a beach front hideaway. We walked inside and met a scary guy named Robert DeGrimestone, founder of the Process Servers of the Initial Judgment.

     There was a strong physical resemblance between DeGrimestone and Diver. The former was perhaps a bit taller and slightly less wan. But otherwise the similarities dwarfed the distinctions. Both wore their long brown hair parted in the middle and down to their shoulders. Both carried themselves with a relaxed intensity. Both gestured a great deal. Both stared right into the person they addressed. Both spoke with voices that would not have been ill-described as sandpaper sing-song. And both possessed what for lack of a better term I will call an aura, a glow, a self-made charisma that guarded them from nonbelievers.
     Timothy motioned for us to sit on the couch opposite DeGrimestone. We did. The two Brothers observed the situation from their lean spots at opposite walls.
     DeGrimestone sat with his legs crossed beneath a dark robe. His yellow eyes reminded me of those of a cat, although his body movements were more reptilian than feline. When he moved along the sofa, his motions were fast, deliberate, and brief. He seldom blinked.
     The reptile ambiance was enhanced by the dozens of lizards or geckos frozen in place on the walls. The décor was completed with black tapestries, unframed paintings by Edvard Munch, and sea shells hanging in the shape of reversed question marks.
     “I want to thank you all for coming today,” DeGrimestone began. “I rarely leave this house any more, at least not in the daytime. The sun hurts my eyes, not that it matters. You all appear terrified. Good. That said, the reason I sent for you is to persuade you to give up your search for the truth. You see, the truth, as you four think about it, is an abstraction, something that can never be nailed down, as it were. Your truth is Christ or Allah or Buddha. My truth is the crucified thieves. My truth in me and your truth in you are not compatible. You seek to find the truth behind these crimes, these murders, and that truth does not exist in any conventional way. You must say something to the slain ones’ parents? Tell the parents whatever you like. Say that the man in San Quentin killed them. Say it was the man in Corcoran. Say it was me, for that matter. Whatever you say will appease the families. Then you can go home.”
     He had a knot of string between his fingers. He was playing with it as he continued. “You do not understand what you have come upon in your investigation. You are searching for one thing and chasing another. You seek truth, but you are chasing a lie. Just as those who are sometimes seeking Christ catch up with Him only to find a wicked grinning devil’s head staring back at them, so shall the four of you be disappointed in what you find, should you foolishly continue your endeavors. I give you this chance then, right now, to ask what you want, and I will tell you my truth. I do not make this offer lightly. But I perceive that your motives are not vainglorious, so I will endure you for a time.”
     “Who blew up the car?” Crockett asked. That would not have been my first question, but it was definitely on the list.
     DeGrimestone tossed the string onto the floor in front of him. He looked right at Crockett and sounded disappointed when he said, “You know that answer already. Ask what you do not know.”
     I cleared my throat. “Who killed Markita Haines? We were told last night that Bruce Diego had a hand in it.”
     DeGrimestone frowned. “Diego did the actual sacrifice in conjunction with a man named Edward Bailey. The two women involved are known to me, but their participation was . . . marginal. Next.”
     I went through my list of murder victims and Crockett added his seven. All twenty were committed either by Diver or by his followers, according to the big daddy of dramaturgy. This didn’t prove anything, naturally, and I was getting more annoyed with every passing hunger pang. “Who killed my cousin, Diana Spradlin?” I asked, not without belligerence.
     DeGrimestone’s eyes actually twinkled. “This man in San Quentin, he was once with us, for a very short time, just as we were once with the so-called Pseudoscientists. His minions traveled to many places, growing strength from the fear of others. Diver was persuasive, enthusiastic. But Diver was a fraud, just as Gibbons was a fraud. I, as you have perceived, am the real thing. You, Mr. LaMarke, will be having some glorious nightmares inspired by Diver. When Diver himself has nightmares, my image is what his mind conjures. I am, in short, no one to fuck with, Mr. LaMarke. Whenever genuine evil takes place in this town, this state, or wherever it may happen, I see it, I hear it, and I feel it. I can smell the fear, just as I can smell it now on the four of you. I can taste the blood swelling up in the throats of the dying victims. I know what I am talking about! If you go out there and seek the proof, you may find it and lose your pathetic lives, the lives you are not fit to claim. Or you can take my advice and accept it. Timothy, Gerald, I am finished with these. Return them as you found them. And as you go, heed this: if I have cause to bring any of you to mind again, I will snap your necks like those of chickens and gorge my belly on your remains. Now get out of here.”

Chapter Five
Surfing on the Mainline
Charlie sounds good tonight, don’t he?
                        —Mick Jagger
     Back outside the hotel I made a lame joke about offering Timothy and Gerald fifty bucks to turn Ed Bailey over to the police for us. The cops had been looking hard not to find him ever since they picked up Tonya Pittman and Margaret Wheat for disturbing the peace the previous evening. Screaming, cursing, pulling down the overhang, scaring the cats—that sort of thing. At night court, the judge nearly bowed to the public defender’s request to release the two young women on their own recognizance, but Pittman blurted out a confession in the murder of Markita Haines before her court appointed attorney could figure out what was happening. Thus self-incriminated, she went on to accuse Bruce Diego (already safely incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison), Wheat and Bailey of direct participation. That was all well and good, but I was beginning to suspect that local law enforcement operated better when somebody else did all the hard work, like bringing the suspect to the jail house door, so I made my joke to the two Process Servers. They had a quick conversation between themselves and said they would do it for free, but that we could make a donation to their Church if we wanted. It took me a minute to realize that these guys didn’t have a sense of humor. I refrained from saying that it would be a cold day in hell and instead muttered something about a hot day in Anchorage. They exchanged puzzled glances and proceeded to drag Bailey out of his room, kicking and fussing, threw him in the backseat of their car, and sped off into the warm afternoon.
     This would have been the end to a fine day’s work had it not been for the nagging existence of the remaining nineteen killings. In the meantime, Markita’s mother, Eloise Haines, who I phoned with the news she had long wanted to hear, contacted the Los Angeles Times to let them know about the four people who had finally solved her daughter’s murder. In short order we became very temporary local heroes. I called Arthur Flippo in New York and told him the news, asking if anyone from his rag was really interested. He said he’d have a photographer out by that afternoon. I told him the four of us would be in Malibu, soaking up the waves—or whatever one did—and the camera guy could meet us there.
     Ms. Haines asked us what sort of compensation we wanted and Olivia mentioned that the rental car would need replacing. That done, we were now driving a Duster, replete with hood scoop and savage sound system. She even threw in four brand new surfboards.
     The trip out to the beach was memorable. This was 1976, after all, when the average median family income was $12,600 per year, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds because a first class postage stamp only cost thirteen cents. You can tell a lot about an economy by how much it costs to mail a letter. Ben Franklin said that, or certainly would have, if he hadn’t been chasing French maids up and down the streets of Philadelphia. Unemployment was 7.7%. Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg had won big at Wimbledon. The Viking I had landed on Mars. But the most important event of the year occurred when the Recording Industry Association of America announced the existence of the Platinum Award. This prize would be provided to any artist whose sales of a single 45 rpm record reached or exceeded two million dollars. The first time this happened was that very summer when a singer named Johnnie Taylor had a hit with something called “Disco Lady.” God, it was awful. Every generation believes theirs is cursed with some horrendous schlock on the airwaves, and rightly so. But 1976 had more than its share. Imagine: “Sara Smile,” “Play That Funky Music White Boy,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” all in the same year and you’ll see what I mean. The only reason I even bring this up is because those four songs just mentioned were the ones we heard on the radio on our way out to Malibu that afternoon. Things could only improve. And they did.

     Wesley and Olivia were a big hit with the press. In fact, all four of us were, but those two in particular played it very well.
     “Tell us something about yourselves,” shouted one reporter.
     Olivia shook her head and said, “Graham Nash was my favorite ex-Beatle. You mean that kind of thing?”
     Another hollered, “Will you be solving more murders?”
     Wesley replied, “We wouldn’t solve yours.”
     No one took offense to that, funny enough, and the press kept pressing, as presses will do.
     “What’s the secret of your success?”
     “Mallowmars,” Olivia answered. “Greatest cookie in the world.”
     It was all quite foolish and a good bit of fun. Once the media finally drifted away, I decided to give the surfboard a try. A hearty bearded fellow who looked like he knew which end of the board was up slapped my back and told me to follow him out. I tossed the board on the water, fell onto it just as he was doing, and we paddled our way out a good bit farther than I would have thought necessary, although it was clear by this point that he knew what he was doing. He crouched on his board. I did the same. “See that wave back there?”
     Despite the glare, I could make out what I’d estimate was a seven foot drift. I nodded.
     “We’ll come in at an angle, about half as fast as you’d think, you know? Just do what I do!”
     It was all I could do to keep the board from flying out from under me, but I bobbled in agreement and swung the board in the other guy’s general direction. I looked back on the beach. David was grilling something. Wesley and Olivia were watching me. That was just the kind of pressure I didn’t need.
     My trainer caught the wave like a major leaguer catches a line drive past second base. I kicked off against the ocean with my left foot and the next thing I knew a huge force buoyed my board so hard I thought I was going to flip off. I crouched down low and hung on. My mentor was ahead and to my right, standing up, his arms steady at his sides. As I tried to do the same, the wave made an incredible roar over and behind me. I could no longer see anything except the tip of my board shifting left and right and left again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind. Then the shore came up fast and I kicked up, fell on my back and limped on in to a smattering of applause.
     Olivia gave me a playful chuck under the chin. She asked, “When did you learn to swim?”
     “It’s on my list of things to do,” I replied.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     In order to do continued justice to the living, we have to go back in time even farther, back to a time before I knew their names. I would have been five or six years old. It was certainly not long after the infamous imitation honey-flavored cereal incident. My mother would come into my room, her countenance sad but willful. “We’re going to a funeral,” she’d say. “Please put on your good suit.” By this point in my life I was presumed mature enough to accept the responsibility of making myself acceptable for such an occasion. By around the time I entered first grade I had a vague understanding of what it all meant. Someone who had been alive had died and gone to heaven. While we would miss them, we were to rejoice that they were now with the Lord. This information was a great comfort to those closest to the recently deceased. It also reassured those at the service who anticipated going on a similar journey in the near future.
     My concept of metaphysics in those days was entirely informed by television cartoons. Whenever Sylvester the Cat died from electric shock or by having his skull crushed beneath his own falling anvil, the translucent image of his spirit would rise from the corpse, wings would sprout, and a halo would shine above his head. Once in a while the writers would get imaginative and send Sylvester the Cat to hell, which, based on my limited understanding, made a lot more sense, given his sinful behavior.
     Depending on the faith of the surviving family, the pre-internment service might include something they called a viewing. The dead person would have been placed in a casket surrounded by a cornucopia of floral decorations and sympathy cards. The eyes were closed to simulate a state of eternal tranquility and to quell any discussion of the mortician being a taxidermist on the side (Imagine the eyes of the deceased following you across the room.) His or her hands would be folded, one finger adorned with a wedding band. The clothes worn suggested a regal occasion, somewhere between a Sunday School Service and a coronation. (It was many years before I learned the men were put to rest with no backs in their jackets and slacks cut off above the knees.) The custom was to form a procession, allowing the reverential and curious alike to hazard one last look, that image lingering with the mourners until their own appointment with fate arrived.
     Now and again social scientists and other theologians plead that children must be shielded from exposure to the final stage of life. My suspicion, borne of personal experiences, is that until a child is twelve or thirteen, he or she cannot conceive of eternal loss. Long after the illusions of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Chicken Man have fled, a youngster will cling to the idea that the departed is eventually coming back. The discovery of this error is often slow. A trusted parent or guardian can take a younger child by the shoulders and say with constricted emotion that little Jimmy is never coming back because he is dead, singing hosannas with Jesus and simply unable to break away, and the child’s immediate response is irrelevant. Within a little while, he or she will be convinced that perhaps the messenger is an idiot, or that someone made a mistake, or that—like Lazarus—the dead will rise.
     By the beginning of the teenaged years, the ugly truth seeps in. The world is revealed to be just as rotten and hopeless as the cranky old men hanging around outside the drug store say it is. The child learns, sometimes to his horror, that not only is so-and-so not coming back, but that everyone else is moving on with their lives, almost as if the really tragic thing did not matter all that much.
     The first person to die with whom I had been on a first name basis was my Aunt Florence. I remember that she lived in a big two-story house in the city. Every dress she wore displayed a subdued flower pattern. This was so constant that I even imagined there was a special store where she shopped, one that catered exclusively to her need for understated obsolescence. Her complexion was milky white, she disliked cats (because she was afraid of stepping on one and losing her balance, she said), and she walked with a cane. We visited Aunt Florence every week or two as my family made their rounds of visiting the elderly on Sunday afternoons. Her living room was built around a large burgundy rug laid over a worn hardwood floor, and I smelled baked cookies every time we visited. I am embarrassed that I remember little else about the dear old woman. Looking down at her in her casket, I wondered how she would get along without her cane.
     One spring morning a few years later my parents and I were snuggled around the breakfast table eating pancakes and sausage, listening to the local radio station. As I have mentioned, we lived in the suburbs of a town called Circleville, and our little town had only one radio station. I knew something was up because the radio was rarely on in the morning and when it was on it was invariably tuned to one of the Columbus Top Forty programs. I was about to say something about this when my father said, “Listen.” What Dad meant when he said “listen” was for Mom and me to shut up so he could hear something. But it took too long to say all that. My father did not like to waste words.
     You wonder how the news will affect you, what you will do with the rest of your day, how other people will react, and still you are never prepared. Four teenagers had been out the night before, driving up and down the rainy and slippery dark Circleville streets. A boy named Benny was at the wheel when the car slid into a high speed skid, clipped a fire hydrant, spun, flipped, and careened on its top until it crashed into a telephone pole. Two of the passengers, Jan and Roberta, were dead. The other two, the driver and a girl named Chloe, were expected to be fine. Sheriff Radcliffe suggested that the teenagers had been drinking. Jan was a pretty sixteen-year-old who lived up the street from us. She had been decapitated.
     For the next two days every kid I saw had the same look: devastation. I didn’t know anything about Roberta, but Jan had been something of a local legend. As I said, she had been attractive, was an honor roll student, played on the school track team, and went with a boy named Darrell who had the worst complexion I have ever seen in my life. Jan was an inspiration to many of us because if a beauty like her would date a disfigured fellow like Darrell, we assumed there was hope for the rest of us. The story in the neighborhood was that Darrell had gone crazy, stolen his daddy’s deer gun, and was looking to shoot Benny, the driver who just happened to live two doors down from us.
     Benny was a bully, a wise guy and a drop-out who nevertheless had two distinct advantages over my friends and me viz-a-vis the female population: he had a car and at age eighteen he was able to buy something called three-two beer, which was lower in alcohol content than the regular stuff, but still carried the panache of being actual beer. He was the type of guy who would sneak up behind you and knock your books out of your arms, or step on the back of your shoe so that they slipped off, or make up vicious rumors about you that were sure to be repeated by lesser bullies in the neighborhood. Benny was not merely a bully, though. He was creepy. He was the kind of guy who, when someone’s dog or cat disappeared, you suspected he might have had a hand in it. If a row of mailboxes had been leveled with a baseball bat overnight, chances were that the police would come sniffing around his parent’s house. As a juvenile he had been arrested for grave robbing. I would have bet that, even as a young adult, Benny still wet the bed.
     Two days after the disaster, when I saw Darrell walking down the street, holding his father’s rifle in a very relaxed and confident manner, I actually had to contemplate the proper response. No one would cry if Benny was killed. Hell, even his parents—both of whom always seemed to be recovering from some “accident”—would have sighed in relief. Rationalizing that Darrell might not stop with shooting Benny, I begrudgingly moved toward the telephone, only to be halted by the squeal of a law enforcement siren. The Sheriff and his deputies tackled Darrell before he could get himself in any real trouble. A few days later, Benny enlisted in the Army, only to go AWOL during basic training. We didn’t hear any more about him after that.
     A couple years later I turned sixteen and began working in a restaurant called the Covered Wagon Steak House, later to be renamed the Blue Drummer Steak House. Being a cook there, as I was, was actually a bit prestigious because in that position, a boy got to wear a chef’s hat and kerchief, interact with all the other employees, and received an extra ten cents an hour, the only raise Chuck Orr, the owner, had ever been known to offer outside of cost of living adjustments.
     A lot of stories went around about what a tough guy Chuck Orr was. Most of those stories didn’t scratch the surface. During the nineteen years I worked for the man, I saw him pick up an employee named Jim Heacock by the collar and belt and throw him through the front door. I watched him fire Mr. Pauley on Christmas Eve. I watched him suspend a waitress named Wendy for telling a co-worker about a good tip she had received. I knew him to put the moves on jail bait. I smelled the foul displeasure on him two blocks away. I saw him berate, chastise, and intimidate people less than half his own age. He ran that restaurant the way a bribe-taking drill sergeant runs a Marine barrack. But when it came to the customers, he turned on the charm, smiling and calling many of them by name, making sure everything was one hundred percent hunky-fuckin-dory, as he liked to say it.
     The only real disadvantage to working as a cook there—and the one thing nobody had warned me about—was that the position made an employee constantly visible to Chuck Orr, which meant that whenever he was there, my performance needed to be one hundred percent hunky-fuckin-dory. Given my age, my lack of emotional development, and the unrealistic job expectations, I was living on borrowed time.
     Of course, he was not there every day. Sometimes he disappeared for stretches of a week or two, so many was the time when I very much enjoyed the job. As a matter of fact, to this day it remains the best job I have ever had. Then again, it was the only one I ever had. A genuine and permanent bond developed between many of us: Debbie Azbel, Roger Kellogh, Pam Martin, Pat Williams, Mark Kiger, Ronnie Easter and the others. I do not know how it is that I still remember their names, but short of contracting Alzheimer’s, I expect I always will.    
      One other name I will always retain is Jamie Wellover. He started cooking there only two weeks before I did. We were born just a few days apart, looked somewhat alike, had been there longer than any one else, and tried to have a good time with the job. He was also the only employee who was better at his job than me. Jamie had a knack for remembering what our customers usually ordered. He could look at a line of people and at least half of them would have their meals ready mere seconds after they requested them. This used to drive Chuck Orr crazy because he couldn’t figure out how Jamie was doing it.
     “How are you feeling?” Chuck asked him one day.
     “Hunky-fuckin-dory,” he replied. “Whatever that means.” Jamie didn’t take no mess.
     The last time I saw Jamie Wellover was the fall of 1975. He and I were sitting in his black Dodge Charger listening to some of the soundtrack to the movie Tommy on his eight track player. We had just finished closing up the restaurant. I was tired and sweaty and I guess that’s why I declined his offer to go riding around. The other reason was that I knew Jamie got high, just like he knew I didn’t, and I didn’t see any sense in complicating my life.
     The next morning was a Sunday, which meant that the steak house would be busy. I arrived fifteen minutes early and stopped in the dishwashers’ room to say hi to Ronnie Easter. I was trying to think of something clever to say when Ronnie turned and said, “You haven’t heard, have you? Jamie was killed in a car crash last night.”
     Ronnie told me later that from the look on my face, he’d thought I was going to pass out. I stood there, gazing blankly. Neither of us could think of a thing to say. A few seconds later, the thin metal door separating the kitchen from the dining room crashed open and in charged Chuck Orr. Before he was all the way through, he was yelling for us to get busy. Were we crazy? There was a line of customers out the door!
     Even now I wonder why I didn’t hit him.
     Chuck Orr knew what had happened. He had known since that morning when Jamie’s wife had called to let him know that Jamie wouldn’t be in today because his car had plowed into a large oak tree and Jamie would never be coming back because Jamie was dead.
     He was thirty-four. I was thirty-four. All the other employees there were in their late teens. Nevertheless, the lot of us staggered through our shifts like imbeciles. No one said much. There was no joking around. Some patrons asked where Jamie was. Some of the employees cried.
     I suppose that on one level the recollection of a man dying in a stupid car wreck is the corniest thing in the world. But I’m okay with corny because just possibly it is good in this age of irony to tell something sentimental once in a while, just to maintain perspective. Sentiment was badly wounded around the time of the Sally Knight murders, which is one reason why it still mattered that some solution—imperfect as it was bound to be—present itself.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

      I recalled all of this in just a few moments as I lay on my back on the beach, loving the feel of sand in my hair, the wind across my face, the natter of my friends gathered around me. Sometimes it is very easy to love certain people.
     The stout and bearded fellow who taught me to quick-surf off the coast of Malibu turned out to be a friend of Wesley. LeVon knew a lot of people and many of the people he knew were helpful to our investigation. Few were more helpful than the sole member of the rock band the Codeines who could surf: Rudy Terzo. It wasn’t entirely a coincidence that we met him that day. Wesley had recorded with Codeines’ members Carl Terzo and Billy Haunch and had been trying to get Rudy to agree to talk with us since our first conversation. Rudy had been most reluctant, given the topic of discussion, but when Wesley told him we had a beautiful woman in our little group, the nascent Codeine finally gave in and agreed to help. It didn’t take me long to realize that Terzo’s efforts to teach me surfing had less to do with him being a friendly stranger than with showing me up in front of my girlfriend, something I could have done without the help of others.
     Rudy had lived with Colt and the Commune for three months back in 1968, although he was quick to point out that he had never officially joined. That, Rudy confided, required a type of sacrifice he was unwilling to make. But he freely admitted that he had been intrigued with the Colt Diver package. “According to Colt, everything society had set up was backwards. Rules, work, taxes, the rat race: these are the things society values and yet everyone hates them. On the other hand, all the fun stuff, like making music, making love, surfing, whatever, all those things society doesn’t like and yet the people actually enjoy them. Well, I kind of agreed with him about that. The problem we had, the thing that finally drove us apart, was that he believed everything good was bad and everything bad was beautiful.”
      As with most everyone Colt got to know, the guru man managed to gain encouragement from the relationship. Diver, Rudy told us, was convinced that he was going to be the next big thing in the music business and that he, Rudy, was the stepping stone to making that dream a reality. “See, Colt wanted to be a big star for all the usual reasons: money, cars, girls, all that nice stuff,” Rudy told us. “But he also sincerely thought he had a message to get across to people. . . to the supposedly enlightened people. See, Colt didn’t like human beings much. He’d spent most of his life in prison and there are a lot of tough guys in prison. Here’s Colt, kind of short and cocky, and I guess he got the shit kicked out of him a lot early on, and when he did get the shit kicked out of him, it was more often than not somebody he didn’t even know doing the kicking. So he had this hostility, while at the same time he could be very charming. It was weird.”
     I asked about Nancy Carpenter and Claudia Delancy. Rudy groaned. “Aw, that was just awful. Nancy, she was that teenager killed out near Ukiah, huh? Yeah, her and her grandma. What I know about that is this: Nancy wasn’t more than nineteen at the time. She was married to a CHP and one of the guys in the Commune had knocked her up. They found her and her grandma beaten to death back in October 1968. Strangled with leather thongs, wasn’t it? Well, what happened was Nancy told her grandma what had happened about getting pregnant, except now she was saying it had been rape. Claudia, the old lady, she got it into her head that Colt was the Devil and that this baby would be the Antichrist. She was gonna tell the CHP officer about it and the idea was that if this cop found out what had happened, he’d come on out to The Ranch with all his buddies from the cop shop and burn Colt out. So they just dealt with it themselves.”
     Olivia held up her hand. “Okay. Stop. Who told you all this?”
     Rudy stared at his own feet. “Colt told me part of it right to my face. Part of it he told Roger Dwyer and Roger told it to me. See, when Colt left that jar of blood for me and said to tell me there were more where that one came from, I called him out at The Ranch and asked him, very nicely, what he meant by that. It was then he said, he asked me if I’d heard about the two broads killed out in Ukiah. I hadn’t heard, but I guess I said I had. He said to me, ‘Leather thongs, Rudy. I didn’t even need a gun.’ Well, I got some weird pictures from that. Before I could ask anything, he says that they would never trace it back to The Ranch and that if I ever said anything, I shouldn’t be surprised if I never saw my daughter again.”
     Olivia was writing feverishly in her bikini notebook. When she finally caught up, she said, “Dwyer will back up what you’ve told us? Are we supposed to know who he is?”
     Rudy shook his head. “Roger is very much persona non grata with the whole Colt crew. And he wants to keep it that way. He’s a record producer. A total hack, but good in a pinch. I mean, you could ask him, but chances are he won’t talk to you. If anybody asks me if I have talked to you—”
     Wesley finished the thought for him. “Don’t worry, Rudy. These folks are nice.”
     I said, “What did you do with the jar of blood? Don’t tell me you tossed it out.”
     “I don’t have it any more. I gave it to one of the investigators on the Sally Knight killings. A guy named Reichelderfer. This was years ago.”
     I asked what had happened. What I said was “And?”
     “And nothing. He thanked me. He said something about no chain of evidence and that was that. I never heard anything more about it.”
     I asked, “What have you heard about the death of Diana Spradlin?”
     “I don’t know that name. Who is she?”
     “She’s my cousin. She was.”
     Crockett finally worked his way into the conversation, saying something I imagine the rest of us had been thinking but were too cowed by the star lights to say. “You’ve been sitting on this information all these years, Rudy? That’s pretty chicken shit.”
     The Codeines drummer looked up into the sun, his hair cascading down his neck and shoulders. “Is it? I guess it is. All I wanted was a little fun, a little money, a place to hide out. I met Colt and my life has sucked ever since. If that makes me a chicken shit, fine. I’m a stinking coward, then.”
     “But you can surf,” I said, encouragingly.
     “And God hates a coward,” said Olivia.

Chapter Six
Los Angeles isn’t L.A. Anymore
The police force is watching the people and the people just don’t understand.
                        —John Kay

     Andy Warhol had it wrong. He said that in the future everybody would be famous for fifteen minutes. He made that remark because he lived in New York City. The real genius insight is that in the present, everyone who lives in Los Angeles is famous just for living there. It’s a great city, just like all cities are great unless you happen to be stuck in one of them. Then it’s a different story.
     Let’s look at the subject a different way. Cats, as you may know, do not like the taste of mice. I mean, who would? What cats do like is the flavor of cheese. Mice eat cheese. Cats eat mice to get to the cheese. It’s pretty much the same with psychos. I don’t mean that psychotic people prefer cheese more than the rest of us do. What I mean is that they do not necessarily enjoy the bustling beaches, sagging palm trees, sprawling ranchos and movie star panache of Los Angeles, but the people the psychos want to kill live there, so that’s where the psychos eventually end up. Most people, on some level, realize this, which is why when a serial killer strikes, say, in the Midwest, people are vaguely amazed. What? In Omaha? Thought all the crazy killer cretins lived out west! Yes, well, they belong out west, but some psychos have not learned how to read maps. Or often they are simply confused, a condition to which psychos are frequently prone. So when some advertiser rants about how marvelous California cheese is, better check to see if it came from L.A.
     None of this would have much relevance to the matters at hand except that it explains why when the Los Angeles police were unable to solve twenty murders connected to Colt Diver, few people thought anything about it. Angelinos collectively shrugged their sunburned shoulders and reckoned that with all the lunatics on the loose these days, it’s a wonder the police catch as many as they do.
     It is a wonder.
     All of this brings me to the agonizing recollection of talking to a homicide lieutenant at LAPD. I would rather undergo a vasectomy without anesthesia than even recall the situation, but it is an integral part of our story and so I must. I was making a mistake by going to the police. I knew it would be a mistake and it was. Although I make them all the time, I had been running a bit below quota, so I decided to make a month’s worth all in one day. It worked. That’ll teach me to be an overachiever.
     Olivia and I were still concerned that something untoward might happen to Assistant Warden Arbogast (actually, she was concerned while I was, in a word, indifferent), so we asked LeVon and Crockett to watch his house that Saturday afternoon while she and I kept an appointment with a Lieutenant Reichelderfer in the Robbery-Homicide Division in Room 318 of Parker Center. The truth is that the Los Angeles Police Department had only one Reichelderfer and he just happened to be a lieutenant. Huge mistake. How much of a mistake was this? Well, if every molecule of oxygen was one of my average mistakes, then this was enough oxygen to keep a team of astronauts breathing comfortably on the Space Stations for ten years. Yes, it was that big.

     One Parker Center does not sound like a large address. That was the second deception. The first deception was that we expected Reichelderfer to be at worst nonplussed to see us. As it turned out, he was altogether plussed. Tres plussed. Outre plussed. Just as plussed as can be.
     A uniformed officer led us in to what I’m sure Reichelderfer tells his wife and kids is an office. If he told them it was a walk-in closet for very small clothes he would have been nearer the truth. A particle board desk separated Olivia from the Lieutenant. Both of them sat. I stood, there being no other chair. Reichelderfer swiveled his head hello (this was the summer of what later came to be called Legionnaire’s Disease, and although that was happening across the country in Pennsylvania, one couldn’t blame the man for not wanting to encourage hand contact) and gave us the greasy eyeball. That seemed to be the one on his left, the right one preoccupied with rolling in the wrong direction. If his bloodshot nose and puffy cheeks were any indication, a glass of liquor had emptied itself down his throbbing gullet once or twice. Every bum in the county could have satisfied a nicotine fix on the stubs overflowing from the lieutenant’s fish head ashtray. Someone had thrown a handful of gravy on the glass-enclosed photograph of the mayor directly behind the Lieutenant’s chair, but I was far too polite to say anything about that. Olivia started to speak, but Reichelderfer cut her off.
     “It’s a real experience to meet the two of you. Where’s your buddies?  You know, Fart Face and Shit for Brains?”
     I moved over so as to be in line with the roving eye. “Lieutenant? I’m sure it’s an experience to meet you also. We have some information that we feel might be helpful to the Los Angeles Police Department.”
     The weird eye kept meandering about. Its owner said, “Oh really? It just so happens that I have some information that might be helpful to a couple of hot shot Okies who think they know how to do police work.”
     Olivia said, “We’re from Ohio.”
     The roving eye froze its focus on her. Reichelderfer said, “I don’t care if you’re from Kalamazoo. The news flash I have for you two and your scumbag friends is this: We do our own work in this town. You think this is like some episode of ‘The Rockford Files,’ don’t you, where you just walk in off the street and help save the day for poor old dumb-shit stupid-face Dennis? Well, here’s what I think: fuck you and anybody who looks like you. Twice on Sunday. What do you think of that?”
     Olivia said, “Kalamazoo is in Michigan. We are from Ohio. You know, round on the ends and hi in the middle.”
     Reichelderfer’s eye started roaming again. “What was that?”
     “There’s an o on both ends of the name of the state. An o is round. The word hi is in the middle. Get it?”
     “Olivia, I wonder if this is the time to discuss mnemonic spelling devices with the Lieutenant? By the way, sir, I see from the newspaper on your desk that you may have read about our exploits in your fair city.”
     He jostled the paper just to prove he could match up words with objects. “Yeah, I seen it. So what?”
     I finally gave up trying to figure out where that eyeball wanted me to stand and just stared at the other one. “So,” I said, “I sense that you and your men are a little upset. These reporters will say damned near anything to sell a paper, won’t they? Yes, well, here’s the thing. The California Department of Corrections is already holding quite a few people involved in the crimes Ms. Stephens and I are looking into, but—”
     “Looking into?” he snarled with a smile that implied we would be both welcome to trust him and crazy to do so. “Why, you’re too modest. You rat bastards have practically put away every red ball on our board for the last fifty years, ain’t you?”
     Olivia looked to me and then back to the Lieutenant. “We have no idea what that means, Lieutenant Reichelderfer, if that is your real name. But we do know that there are more murderers out there connected with this Colt Diver Commune. You have a job. I have a job. Even Perry has a job. The two of us talked about it and our thinking is that if they killed twenty people and, well, you know, basically got away with it, they might get all self-confident and do it some more.”
     “What do you mean, if that is my name?”
     “Beg pardon?”
     He stood. She stood. He said, “You said, if that is my real name. Just what the Virgin Mary on the shitter do you mean by a crack like that?”
     “It’s just something she says from time to time,” I observed. “Particularly if the name is as melodious as yours.”
     “Get out of my office.”
     It is possible I began pointing an index finger about this time. “Not just yet,” I said. “We have the names of some people you need to investigate.”
     The Lieutenant held up a hand. He walked over to his office door, opened it, yelled for somebody named Kozinski to hurry up and come on in. A young officer about half the weight but with more than adequate unpleasantness pirouetted into the room. Reichelderfer closed the door. He walked back behind his desk and said, “Kozinski, these are two of the rat bastards I was telling you about earlier. I wanted you to hear for yourself what one of them just said to me. You, LaMarke, repeat what you just said.”
     “In all this excitement, you’ll have to refresh my memory.”
     “I’ll refresh your skull if you don’t say it just like you did a minute ago.”
     Olivia said, “Twenty unsolved murders, Lieutenant? Different people with different jobs?”
     I thought for a moment. “I said that Ms. Stephens and I have the names of some people and we think you should—”
     Reichelderfer raised his hand again. “Wait. That ain’t what you said. Say it exactly the way you said it before.”
     “I’m at a loss here.”
     “Perry, I think the Lieutenant means that you said we have the names of some people they need to investigate.”
     Reichelderfer slapped his hands together. “That’s it! That is it. Yes. We need to investigate. Kozinski, do you know why we need to investigate these people they’re talking about? You’ll never guess. It’s because these rat bastards here got it figured that we are so incredibly stupid that we need dick wipes like them to tell us our job. Can you imagine that?”
     Kozinski spoke, his voice like that of an angry cartoon duck on his way home with second prize in a female impersonator contest. “Why don’t we lock them up, Lieutenant? This skinny joker here wouldn’t last five minutes if we put him in the cage with the perverts.”
     “You ever been in jail, LaMarke?”
     I flashed on the image of myself many years earlier. But I answered in the negative.
     “Oh, you’ll like it,” the Lieutenant enthused. “We got peepers and burglars and B&E guys and some molesters you just wouldn’t believe. Kozinski, is Palmer still in lock-up?”
     The duck grinned. “Oh, yeah,” he said.
     “I think maybe we ought to introduce our young friend here to Mr. Palmer. Miss, we won’t be holding you, but we need your lover boy here to spend a little time with Palmer. Fourteen homosexual rapes we suspect him of, although nobody ever gets around to pressing charges. Kozinski, how much you figure Palmer weighs on an average day?”
     The duck man was still grinning. I half expected him to salivate. He said, “If he’s had lunch already today, I’d guess he would tip the scales at four hundred pounds. Most of it muscle.”
     “Muscle,” Reichelderfer repeated. “He likes to stay in shape, pounding the pud of ass wipes like you, LaMarke. Oh, this is going to be some sweet shit. Kozinski, how many officers did it take to bring Palmer in this morning?”
     Kozinski’s grin never left his face, not that it would have been any less ridiculous somewhere else. “Seven,” he quacked. “Two of them are still in the ER.”
     “Still in the ER. You hear that, LaMarke? I guess the only thing left to do is to consider the charges we’ll be holding you on.”
     I looked at myself in the reflection of the gravy-soaked photo behind the Lieutenant. I looked angry. I looked like I was on the brink of doing something stupid. I had been doing my best not to lose control. But these idiots just had to push it too far. I said, “Let’s try disturbing the peace. That’s about all you L.A. cops are any good at handling.”
     Kozinski knotted up the web of his fist and struck me on the back of the head. It didn’t seem to hurt that much at the time, but I still can’t remember the name of my high school. He said, “Los Angeles is not L.A. anymore, mister wise guy.”
     I rubbed my head and said, “Why don’t we make it destruction of property?” With that I picked up the edge of the Lieutenant’s pitiful excuse for a desk and turned it over. The cigarette ashes flew. The newspaper drifted to the floor. I surprised the Lieutenant with this outburst. I surprised myself. Olivia, however, surprised us all by using this distraction as an opportunity to lift Kozinski’s revolver from his holster. Instinctively, she tried to unclick the safety only to discover that it didn’t have one. She then leveled the weapon at Reichelderfer.
     I moved one pace away from her, staggered back to where I had been standing, stared at her as she in turn stared at first the Lieutenant and then the suddenly respectful Kozinski, her hands wrapped around the gun and synchronized with her gaze.
     I looked from her to the two cops and back again. “Honey, Olivia, light of my life, what are you doing?” I sounded much more calm than I felt.
     She looked from the gun to the policemen and said to me, “I forgot for a second. I forgot that Glocks don’t have safeties. Not the ones cops use, anyway.”
     “That is very interesting,” I said. “It’s almost as interesting as what is happening right now.”
     She stared at the cops and said, “Perry and I are walking out of here. We don’t have time to meet your Mr. Palmer.”
     “You ain’t going anywhere, lady,” Reichelderfer said, sweat building above his upper lip.
     She ignored him and took a step back. “You and your little friends out there are going to let us walk right out of here. Understand? Don’t worry, Perry, they will cooperate. They’re smarter than they look.”
     She took another step back and I moved one of the chairs out of her way. She said, “Before we leave, you two need to strip off your clothes and throw them out the window.”
     The two cops furrowed their brows, deep in thought.
     “Don’t think about it,” she shouted. “Do it!”
     Kozinski said, “Lady, there is no way.”
     Reichelderfer concurred. “That will not be happening.”
      From her side, I looked deep into Olivia’s eyes and said, “I’m afraid it will, gentlemen. It was bad enough that you made me angry. Now you have pissed her off. Very huge error.”
     It took a little persuasion. It took a little time. It took a lot of nerve. But in a few minutes, Reichelderfer and Kozinski were as naked as jaybirds, a condition that hardly distinguishes jaybirds from other varieties, but yet their reputations live on. I had cop clothes in one arm and opened the window with the other. “Phew,” I said. “Someone needs new underwear.” With that I let the stash drop to the ground. We were three floors up, but the fall didn’t break the uniforms.
     A set of keys hung out of a tall metal locker. Olivia kept the gun trained on the cops as I unlocked the locker and discovered nothing but a half bottle of Scotch inside. I grabbed the juice and Olivia motioned the two unhappily undressed officers of the law inside. Kozinski whimpered. Olivia snarled, “Do not cry! There is no crying in police work! Jesus.”
     Reichelderfer shook his head. Olivia nodded hers. “I am very nervous and I will shoot off your testicles, Lieutenant Reichelderfer, if that is your real name. Now get inside. You too, Kozinski. Move!”
     Even though this was the first time they had met us, these fellows had been cops long enough to know better than to argue with Olivia when she was pointing a gun with a shaking hand. That or they were just afraid of losing their manhood, which, had such been entered into a court of law, the judge would have dismissed the case for insufficient evidence, if you catch my drift and I’ll bet you do.
     Once they were inside, I locked the door. Olivia jammed the gun in between the handles of the locker and together we sashayed the hell out of One Parker Center. Okay, maybe we didn’t sashay. We walked just fast enough to seem as if we had urgent business elsewhere and just casually enough not to draw any curious-minded police officers’ attention to us, not that such was likely.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     LeVon and Crockett were out near a city they had told me never to refer to as San Berdoo, for essentially the same reason one should never call San Francisco “Frisco” or Los AngelesL.A.”: that is, such a neo-naming is perceived by its inhabitants as disrespectful. Funny enough, back in our hometown of Circleville, we locals had gotten around to calling our fair city Roundtown—had in fact been calling it that ever since the town had been named for the curiously circular worms that at one time populated the farm region. The citizenry of San Bernardino suffered from no such agrarian constraints, and being the enlightened folks that they were and are, their request shall be adhered to by me and mine.
     Ahem. Yes. LeVon and Crockett. They were parked in a small, unwieldy field across the street from Assistant Warden Melvin Arbogast’s house, a fine place to be if one is intent on growing old in relative solitude, but not that exciting a place to spend one’s time otherwise. According to the records our two associates kept, Arbogast walked outside that Saturday morning at a wee past eight to retrieve his morning newspaper. Until a few minutes before 1:30PM—approximately the same time that Olivia was instructing two of Los Angeles’ foulest to divest themselves of all clothing—a rather curious thing nevertheless did occur at Arbogast’s residence, something as it turned which would only compile the problems we were all about to be buried beneath: LeVon and Crockett heard a short, loud blast, as if someone had let loose with a solitary firecracker. The sound came from deep within the Arbogast residence. Quite concerned and not a little intoxicated, Wesley and David exchanged looks and approached the house on foot with some trepidation. As they neared the front door and peered in through the glass archway, the two men were positive they saw and heard someone exit through the back door of the house. The rear door opened onto an abandoned golf course that in recent years had become overgrown with varying heights of unkempt shrubbery. Neither man was much interested in pursuing whoever it was who had left, concluding that possibly the person or persons might be unhappy to meet with them.
     Wesley pressed the latch on the front door and found that it was unlocked. They entered the residence with some stealth, becoming more concerned now that the sound they had heard had been a gunshot. Without a word they made their way through first one room, then another, finally entering the kitchen that led to a back door that opened onto the abandoned links. When they reached the kitchen, they saw a dense splatter of red matter on the wall. A moment later, they discovered Arbogast lying in front of the refrigerator. Part of his head had been blown off. A gun LeVon recognized as a .44 Magnum was lying beside the Assistant Warden, not far from his right hand. Crockett reached down to check the body for a pulse. Seconds later he looked to LeVon and just shook his head.
     Our two friends would later tell us that their first thought was that the person who had shot Arbogast had entered through the back door, shot him, then exited the same way. There was no chance, they insisted, that anyone had approached the house from the front without being seen. The idea of suicide simply never crossed their minds.
     More than a little concerned with being the only two living people inside the home of a dead man, they nevertheless mustered enough courage to retrace their steps, looking for what they hoped would be clues to the killing. The newspaper lay on the sofa in sections, indicating it had been read and digested. A pipe still smoldered in a thin ashtray. Though there were no cups sitting out, a teakettle on the stove was still lukewarm, suggesting the possibility that Arbogast had begun to heat some water for coffee or tea and had been shot before getting far along in that process, the killer going to the trouble of turning off the kettle. After all, we later asked ourselves, would a man intent on suicide start to make himself a hot cup and then change his mind?
     Again, that thought never actually occurred to Crockett and LeVon, and for good reason. A few seconds after they had discovered the warmth of the teakettle, Wesley looked back over at the rear door and saw, peering at them through the lace curtains, a scowling face littered with moles, discolorations and age spots. They further described the fellow as having beady little eyes, a military haircut, and ear lobes the size of a thumb.
     Had I been the one inside the house at that time, the next item on my Things to Do List would have been to faint dead away. Our two friends, however, did something quite brave. Wesley bent down and picked up the gun at Arbogast’s side while David went over and threw open the door. Yelling, “Freeze, you motherfucker!” LeVon held the gun with both hands in front of himself while Crockett wisely jumped back out of the way.
    Stepping inside, the visitor introduced himself as Delbert P. Zygote, an inquiring neighbor who had also heard the explosion and dropped by to see if anything was the matter. David explained to Zygote what they believed had happened. Wesley returned the gun to the approximate area it had been in. It was about this time that Crockett and LeVon began to sense that they were in serious trouble. This cognition was precipitated by Delbert P. Zygote saying, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll call the police. You see, the man’s dead and all and it just seems the thing to do. You two say you heard a bang, just as I heard a bang. But the difference is that when I reached that door over there, Melvin was already dead and the two of you were standing here in an agitated state, you see. Yes, I’ll call the police. That’s just the ticket. I’m sure you don’t mind.” When informed by Crockett that they did in fact mind very much, Zygote changed his tone from one of a milk toast to one more appropriate in a drill sergeant.
     Sensing that they were in a more tenuous position than they had heretofore realized, our two allies excused themselves, hopped in the Ferrari, and sped back to the Hollywood Heater Hotel where Olivia and I were throwing many things into our suitcases, planning at the moment to get as far away from Los Angeles as possible and still remain on the planet Earth.
     This was not proving to be as easy an escape as it might sound, primarily because Wesley had been using our room as a place to store his empty bottles of liquor. Perhaps he was saving them for a refilling party. In any event, the multitude of empties slowed us down a bit. There was also the matter of the hotel manager screaming that I had not bothered to inform him that Olivia would be a guest and he wanted extra money for that apparent inconvenience. This ridiculous discussion allowed LeVon and Crockett more than ample time to arrive.
     They quickly ran through the events just described. Olivia pointed out that neither man had revealed his actual identity to Mr. Zygote and so unless the latter had thought to copy down the license plate number of LeVon’s Ferrari, it was unlikely anyone would make the connection. That would have been true, I said, except that a picture of all four of us was on the front page of the largest newspaper in town, with a story that linked us to an investigation of the Diver killings. There was also the problem of Wesley having picked up the gun, an act that might have left some nagging fingerprints behind.
     Wesley reminded us that the Process Server people had offered to help and that this might be a fine time to enlist some scary Satanists to our side. The rest of us shook our heads. Some of us rolled our eyes. I kicked an empty bottle across the room.
     It was then that David Crockett provided an idea that seemed legitimately useful. “I have a ranch in the desert, you know. We could hide out there.”
     And so it was that we fled Los Angeles, en route to the outskirts of the desert, just as all-points bulletins were being issued for our collective arrests.

Chapter Seven
Yazoo Street Duck Walk
Men say they know many things;
But lo! They have taken wings—
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances
The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.
                        —H. D. Thoreau
It’s against the law to be a tonic man, but the widow knows she’s got the upper hand.
                        —J. R. Robertson

     Crockett had told us he had hit a good vein a few years earlier, but I’d assumed that he was either exaggerating or that the vein in question was less metaphoric. It turned out he’d hit the carotid of arteries because his ranch was secure and spacious. Located about halfway between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, down slope from the Techachapi (later called the Topatopa) Mountains off of Interstate 5, the Tejon Pass was home to any number of hermit types, but Crockett had a monopoly on isolation. Up an extremely narrow and winding one-lane gravel road completely lacking safety railings, down over a rickety bridge scaling a smelly dry wash, and underlooking a tall angelic archway that led nowhere in particular, lay a fallen street marker that said Yazoo Street Duck Walk. We followed that road in what was roughly a northern direction for half a mile or so until we arrived at chez Crockett. “I call it the Calamo,” he said with evident pride.
     Indeed, he had good reason to be pleased with himself. He had rebuilt the place from an abandoned military encampment that had probably been all the rage during the Mexican-American War. The building stood between two rises, each on the far side of the dwelling. Concerned that he might be in for some flooding on those rare occasions when the monsoon clouds deposited heavy rains, Crockett had erected his Calamo on a concrete abutment beneath which was a deep fresh water well. The building itself served to insulate the well from the harsh elements while the pool simultaneously worked as a reservoir for any runoff from the nearby foothills. A generator sat in the middle of a huge living area. From that energy source Crockett had attached endless cables which were affixed to solar panels on the outside and to different appliances and entertainment devices inside, one of which was a stereo with the largest speakers I have ever seen outside of a rock concert. Most of the walls were filled with Indian mandalas which Crockett claimed kept away the evil spirits. A furnished bedroom occupied each of the four corners of his estate. His kitchen had three enormous deep freezes, each of which was crammed with frozen foods. His cabinets were similarly stocked with canned fruits and vegetables. The place was like a survivalists’ paradise.
     We all might have enjoyed the first few days there much better had we known that the police were satisfied (and wrong in the presumption) that Arbogast had taken his own life. The police performed a paraffin test to check for nitrates on his hand and arm and had found plenty. He had just hung up the telephone a few minutes earlier after receiving a call from a pay phone at The Ranch. Nevertheless, the police did want to talk to LeVon and Crockett to see if they could put them on to where Olivia and I were hiding out.
     Olivia asked, “You live here by yourself?”
     Crockett grinned. “I do. There’s not much company way out here. In fact, this is where I met you, wasn’t it, Wes?”
      The singer nodded.
     The prospector continued. “Yep. He and his girlfriend—what was her name?—Tootie! That’s it. They were out here wandering around, high on mushrooms, I think it was. I’ve got sensing devices set up all over the place outside. Sure enough, I go running out with my shotgun and there they are, trying to dip some water out from underneath the house.”
     “We were thirsty, man,” Wesley explained.
     “I know you were, and no harm done. Anyway, I invited them in out of the heat and a few days later they moved on. Always stayed in touch, though. Which ain’t easy out here since I got no phone. How’s that little lady doing, Wesley?”
     LeVon shook his head. “Pretty well, I imagine.”
     Olivia said, “You say you don’t have a telephone? How do you make contact with other people?”
     Crockett grinned. “I don’t much. Naw, if anybody wants to get a hold of me bad enough, I have a two-way radio back in the den. All somebody has to do is contact the Park Rangers office and one of them will radio me. They call once in a while anyway, just to make sure I haven’t croaked or something. That’s the thing, you see. If I were to fall and break a leg, well, that could be a life-threatening illness out here. Maybe I couldn’t get to the kitchen. Hell, I could starve to death in a land of plenty. But, like I say, every now and then somebody’ll call from the ranger station and if I don’t answer after a while, one of those guys’ll drop by to make sure every thing’s all right.”
     I asked Crockett what he meant by sensing devices. He said, “It’s nothing too fancy, you understand. Just old common sense. I laid some fishing line taut out around in concentric circles. Have to keep the line fairly tight so a breeze doesn’t set off the alarm. Anyway, each line connects to the next one with a thin rod of copper. If one of those rods starts to wiggle, a little tube inside the rod activates one of the power switches on that generator and what happens is that every light in this place will start flashing off and on. It won’t stop flashing until I slap the kill switch. Now, I bet you’re thinking that when some coyote or critter comes running through here, the joint starts blinking like one of those Los Angeles nightclubs. Well, that is true. But I’ve noticed that most of the critters have learned to stay away since I sprayed the place with fox urine, which is how I like it. Still happens every so often, though. What do you all think of my little spread here?”
     Olivia and I were both nodding with admiration. She said, “I think it’s incredible you built this place yourself.”
     I thought Crockett was going to say “Aw, shucks,” the way he looked at her. But he surprised me. “Gets lonely sometimes,” he said. “What I mean to say is that I’d rather be by myself than to have the wrong kind of company, and most kind is the wrong kind. But the three of you are welcome to stay here as long as you like. Don’t worry, Wesley, I still got a shit load of booze in the back. Big place like this, you’d think there’d be a lot of chores to do, but that ain’t so.”
     “That’s a huge set of speakers,” I said.
     Crockett patted one of them on the side as if he were softening an obedient dog. “Wesley, you think I should show them the music room?”
     “Why not? You two won’t believe this.”
     The house had twelve rooms. Twelve was lucky, Crockett told us. He said it was a magic number. “All important things relate to twelve. Number of inches in a foot. Number of hours on the face of a clock. Highest count you can roll on a pair of dice. Twelve Disciples of Christ. Twelve tribes of Israel, each numbering 12,000. Twelve months in the year. Twelve signs of the zodiac. Twelve members of a jury. It’s the number of characters on one of those new touch tone telephones. And it is the number of rooms in this house. Well, here we are. The music room.”
     He threw open a door and we stepped inside what I can only describe as a vault. This vault had walls at least twelve feet high. The catacombs of the vault were lined with hundreds of varnished shelves. Each shelf was packed with record albums. The albums were alphabetized by artist and covered every genre from art rock to zydeco. I asked if he knew how many albums he had. He said, “It’s in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand, Perry. I once got silly and calculated how long it would take to play them all, just one right after the other. If you allow forty-five minutes on average for each record and no breaks for the bathroom, it comes out to something over fifteen years. Of course, I’m going to keep adding to it and adding to it. If I live long enough, I plan to reach one million. Then I guess I’ll stop. When that happens maybe I’ll get me one of those butlers to move out here and just start playing these albums for me one at a time. I’ll stay in bed and the butler can bring me my meals and if he’s interested I can maybe tell him a little something about the songs being played. My Daddy, you see, he gave me my love of music. He used to sing in the bathroom every morning while he was shaving. Lord, that man could carry a tune. And he sure knew how to shave. But yeah. That’s maybe what I’ll do.”
     I turned to Olivia. “Impressed?”
     She smiled. “I’d be more impressed if I knew the police weren’t looking for us. I would be even more impressed than that if one of us had a vague notion what to do next. Unless we plan to hide out here forever.”
     Wesley said, “I can think of worse things.”
     Olivia turned to him. “I’m sure you can, Wesley. You seem to delight in the dark side of adventures. But Perry here needs to get back so he can start school. I need to decide if he and I are going to get married, I have a little thing called a job to worry about, and all of these things and others you don’t even know or care about are being derailed right now because—because of things I can’t decipher. There’s too many pieces missing. I don’t like insufficient data.”
     I had been thinking something very similar. “There is somebody who might be able to shed some light on all this. I mean, it’s sort of obvious. I don’t know why it didn’t hit me. First thing we should have done, probably. We need to meet with Plato Epsie.”
     Crockett chuckled. “Good luck. You have any idea where he is?”
     “I heard he went into private practice right after his book came out. Then he was supposed to become a TV actor, but for some reason that never happened.”
     “It never happened,” Crockett told us, “because the man is too hard to work with. Lord, is he ever? Seems full of good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with those. He’s got a place out in Sherman Oaks. But I don’t have the slightest notion if he stays there in the summer.”
      Olivia smirked. “Failing that, what does anybody suggest?”
     Nobody suggested anything. Crockett said, “I’ve got a Cole’s Directory in the back. And I’ve got enough maps to open a store. If he’s out here, we’ll find him.”
     I didn’t doubt we could locate the man. It was enlisting his assistance that concerned me. For all we knew, Olivia and I were going to be arrested for unlawful detainment. Wesley and David, so our reasoning followed, stood a good chance of going up for murder, and if that happened, it wouldn’t be long before Olivia and I were on the hook for that one as well. We needed somebody’s help.
     “When you get hold of Epsie,” Wesley said over a pouting lower lip, “tell him not to piss you off.”
     I’m sure he intended that to be funny.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     One should not rely upon memory dreams for historical accuracy. They are better suited, perhaps, for revelations about personal truth. Perry LaMarke dreamed that night. He joined the dream in process, random seepage dissolving into scattered images as his mind’s cameraman set up the equipment. The lens emphasized golds, yellows and browns, an early sepia autumn afternoon with bare feet fluttering across a field. High-toned laughter, frolicking wonderment, hayseeds, pollen, and as the frame went wide-angle, the fall hues faded and the mind screen became an expanse of clover stretching to the horizon. Somewhere a dog barked. The two children stood and ran toward the sun.
     The girl, a ten-year-old, was four years the boy’s senior. She laughed as he panted to catch up. The clover grew deeper and thicker as bugs buzzed around his ears, joining the girl’s laughter like an hallucinogenic, the ground a mulch of eiderdown and ecstasy.
     He fell to his knees and screamed even before he felt the pain in his arch. The girl turned, still laughing, and made a slow approach. He fanned away the clover from his eyes and as the girl, his cousin Diana, looked on, he turned up his foot and saw the bee wiggling upon his tender arch. The pain had made him scream, but the sight of this bee still clinging to the stinger hooked into his foot made him shudder with fear. He did not know what to do.
     The warm and certain hand of the boy’s father fell upon his shoulder. The boy cried in shame and fear. The man said, “You must slap that bee away or you will die.”
     The boy cried some more and then flicked the pest away with his thumb. The stinger remained. The boy stared up at his father, a tall man who glowed like a radioactive statue. “Pull out the stinger. You must get to a hospital. You are going into anaphylactic shock.”
     The boy plucked the stinger loose as the girl scooped him up. The lights above the hospital bed glowed harsh rays into his eyes. A mask hung across his face, a tube stuck out of his arm, and he could see that his foot was enormous.
     As Diana looked on, his father’s voice came to him from far away. “You will live a long time, my son. The path you choose will be unique and strange to some. This fact must never frighten you. Stand up to your fears so that your life will reach to the mouth of the sky.”
     He heard Diana gasp. He looked and she was gone. The doctors and nurses had disappeared. He looked down and saw himself sitting in a swing, his foot now the normal size, falling through the air, the ground getting nearer and bigger. He closed his eyes and steeled himself for the collision. He landed in a strange house with women’s voices in the kitchen, all manner of cutlery catching the light, the flashes punctuated with heavy laughter.
     He got to his feet, appeared at the door, and took the knob in his hand. He opened the door and saw Diana, now a grown woman, lying naked and motionless upon a gray table in a foggy room. A man dressed in white saw him and said, “Your autopsy will come later.”
     The door slammed behind him.
     Perry LaMarke awakened and squeezed Olivia’s hand. He did not go back to sleep for several hours.

     On our first full day there Olivia and I stayed in bed reading. She had long wanted to study the biography of Leonard Peltier, Tomahawk Winter, so she settled into that while I refreshed my memory about the lost years in the life of Colt Diver.
     He had been born in 1941 in Dallas, Texas. His mother was an alcoholic and his father joined the Navy shortly after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, leaving the young boy in the care of a woman who—according to neighbors—spent more time in a popular bar called Boots than she did looking after her son. When Colt was two, his mother died of alcohol poisoning. Informed of this tragedy, Colt’s father was to receive a hardship discharge, but the ship that was carrying him from Okinawa en route to San Francisco was torpedoed by the Japanese. There were no survivors.
     Placed by the courts with his paternal grandparents, the young boy entered Dallas public school in 1946. His academic record was unremarkable until he began fourth grade, at which point he went from a solid C average to straight A’s. This transformation lasted only a short time, however, because Colt seemed bored with his classes and eventually stopped attending, opting to spend his afternoons in a neighborhood pool hall, the men who played there happily giving him dimes and quarters for running illegal betting errands. The pool hall was raided by the Dallas police in 1950. The only person ultimately arrested was the nine-year-old Master Diver.
     Declaring that he would never rat out the men who had hired him, Diver was sent to Reform School, a facility east of Dallas, and one which he apparently did not enjoy because he stayed there only six days, hitchhiking back to his grandparents’ house. The elderly couple was less than thrilled to see him. His grandfather refused to let him stay and so shortly before his tenth birthday, Colt was living on the streets.
     By the time of the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Diver had migrated north to Oklahoma City where he supported himself by petty theft and shoplifting. He fell in with a small group of teenagers who he later said enjoyed his company because he was quick enough to outrun the grocers and small enough to be the target of physical abuse from his peers. It was perhaps his speed and willingness to endure that kept him free of the law until 1953 when, at age twelve, he was arrested while holding a handgun on a jewelry store owner’s wife while the husband bagged up watches and rings at Colt’s directions. Convicted of armed robbery, he was sent to the Juvenile Boys Detention Center in Norman, Oklahoma, where he was to remain until he turned eighteen.
     Released in 1959, he sought out his maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Scott, in Casper, Wyoming. The grandfather offered the young man one hundred dollars to go away and to never return. Dejected, Colt accepted the bribe and promptly bought a bottle of Romilar and a prostitute. Almost immediately he convinced the young woman to leave her existing pimp and begin working for him. What Diver did not know was that her pimp was the cousin of the mayor of Casper. Two weeks after being released from the Detention Center, Colt Diver was once again locked up, this time in the county jail.
     Diver’s whereabouts between late 1959 and early 1963 were unknown to us at that time. However, in May 1963, he passed a high school equivalence examination and that fall he enrolled in Texas A&M. After two semesters on the dean’s list, he dropped out in June 1964, stealing a new Pontiac Catalina and heading for the west coast. He was pulled over in Fresno, California, for running a red light. When the highway patrolman ran the car’s plates, the officer learned the vehicle had been stolen. Informed of his arrest, Diver pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years for grand theft auto, five years of which was suspended. Three weeks after being incarcerated in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, he stabbed another inmate in the foot, an offense which added another year to his sentence. With that one exception, his stay in Lucasville was without incident. His good behavior paid off. He was awarded an early release and hit the streets in January 1968.
     By February of that year he had made his way to southern California. He got a job as a gofer for Paramount Studios, earning $17.50 per day. His evenings were even more profitable. Apparently enjoying the movie business, he set up his own film enterprise. His specialty: pornography. His first stars: Margaret Wheat and Tonya Pittman. His underground films featured members of certain motorcycle clubs and his two starlets, the latter pair well known in the industry for their ability to “pull a train.” With his proceeds from this line of work, Diver bundled together enough money to put a down payment on a piece of desert property that came to be called The Ranch, a spread of real estate that—by the summer of 1968—was the home of the church-commune, and as new followers joined up, each was guaranteed a percentage of revenue from their own subordinate congregations. Some of his recruits were disaffected members of the Church of Pseudoscience. Some were from the Process Servers of the Initial Judgment.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     Another night led to another dream about the past, with its distortions and delusions. The girl, Diana, was now a woman, although her features switched from one age to another and back again. She was driving in her Country Squire station wagon across the Tarlton Road Bridge when the front of her car struck a long metal chain. Someone beneath the bridge had stretched the chain across the bridge knowing that a car would strike it. When the woman’s vehicle hit it, an old scarecrow attached to one end flew up and flailed its lifeless arms against the side of her car. A trick. It had all been a trick.
     All the same, she stopped the car along the side of the road. She disgorged herself from the station wagon and examined the grinning face of the battered scarecrow. She dropped it alongside her car and stepped to the front of her vehicle to see if the chain had done any damage. The chain was gone. Turning back, the scarecrow had likewise disappeared. The sun moved behind an ominous low cloud. A chill crept through the wind. The car shifted itself into drive and rolled off down the west side of the bridge. The woman leaped around, searching for the sources of her own confusion. She heard faint giggling, as if a few very young girls were crouched nearby, their hands over their mouths as they hid in tall grass. She moved toward the railing alongside the bridge. The giggling had turned to guffaws, loud and unafraid. She leaned over the railing and peered down to the railroad tracks beneath the bridge. She saw nothing unusual. As she raised back up the laughter stopped, its abruptness as frightening as the sound itself.
     The blade struck her from behind, just beneath the right shoulder blade. Her mouth opened to scream but no sound came out. Her eyes grew in size as another blade sliced across the back of her neck. She could feel her own warm blood gush down her spine. Another strike came, this one around the front, in her abdominal area. She fell forward, dropped to the ground, her arms sprawled out in front of her. They were upon her.
     An itching seized Perry LaMarke as he fought to awaken from his night terrors. He dug his fingers into his own neck and scratched, the sound awakening Olivia. She shook him by the shoulders and still the dream refused to let him go. She slapped him across the face and he opened his eyes, his mouth dry and contorted. He asked where they were and she reminded him. He kissed her on the mouth and returned to sleep. He did not dream again that night.
     By the third day of my research, the stitches began to itch. Olivia assured me this was a healthy sign. I assured Olivia it was an indication that they needed to be scratched at my earliest convenience. While she and I debated the finer points of contemporary suturing, Wesley and David did some rooting through Crockett’s storehouse of maps and found a big stack that he had acquired from one of those Houses of the Stars solicitors. That was mildly funny because I had never thought of Plato Epsie as a star. I thought of him as a former Deputy Assistant District Attorney with a bit of an ego, a condition that made him formidable in the courtroom and—from all reports—a tad difficult in real life. Although his dream of playing himself in a weekly television series had never materialized, he had published several books in addition to the terrifying Doom Dirge, although none had been quite as popular as that one.
     While convalescing, I reread Doom Dirge, marking off certain interesting passages with a yellow highlighter. Epsie had done a tremendous job in not only securing guilty verdicts against Colt Diver and his co-defendants, but also in gathering evidence and interrogating witnesses and suspects, aspects of an investigation ordinarily left to police detectives. Reading the book for at least the twelfth time—which would have pleased Crockett—I began to get a sense that a mutual state of hostility existed between Epsie and LAPD. It was possible, I speculated to myself, that this animosity, if real, could be the reason the local police had been so touchy about any subject connected to the Diver investigation. I had not realized until my reread just how much effort Epsie had spent making himself out to be the brains of the investigation. The way he told the story, the police had routinely failed to follow-up on leads, conducted their interviews with amateurish abandon, were incapable of making connections between strikingly similar evidence in different crimes, and were not averse to pressuring the Medical Examiner into listing as self-inflicted any homicide wounds whose investigation might necessitate a little overtime. Epsie was also quick to point out that LAPD had long rejected suggestions from the media that a person or persons with the Commune might be involved in the Knight slayings until the evidence against the cult had become both abundant and embarrassingly clear.
     One of the things I had either forgotten or failed to recognize the importance of was that there had been a hierarchy of authority in the Colt Commune. Diver was its unquestioned leader. Fine. He was in San Quentin. Bruce Diego was second-in-command. No problem. He was locked up in Corcoran. Tonya Pittman, safely tucked away now in Frontera, was said to be third in the hierarchy. Epsie pointed out, however, the interesting fact that in the case of most of the known murders involving members of the Commune, Colt had enlisted people who were fairly low down on the rungs of the authority ladder. His three female co-defendants, for example, were just mutts in the organization, people who, Epsie argued, had helped carry out his dastardly plans to better ingratiate themselves in the group. The reason I felt this to be significant was that it left open the real possibility that any number of potential murderers who we did not even know about might try to do us in as a way of getting in good with Diver.
     Another point of concern I had was Diver’s connection to both the Church of Pseudoscience and the Process Servers of the Initial Judgment. Suzie Dorchester had already proven herself to be quite capable of trying to kill people, and while Brothers Timothy and Gerald seemed sane enough, their fearless leader was a serious head case who had made his own intentions clear. I did not believe for a minute that Dorchester’s crowd wanted us to go away because they were concerned about the stain that Diver would leave on them. These people did not deal in abstractions. If they were motivated enough to want to kill us, there had to be something real there. As to the Process Servers, I knew almost nothing about them other than what little Epsie had written. Here he is on pages 461-462 of Doom Dirge, discussing his own encounter with a Sister Tara:
While I was doing research for this book, she asked for a meeting. I agreed. She talked with me for nearly two hours. She denied that her organization had any similarities with the Commune. . . She was unable to explain, however, the coincidence that both groups not only worshipped animals but also used them in ritual sacrifices. She avoided the similarity in the faith that the last days of mankind’s rule over the earth was at hand. She refused to talk about the notion that both organizations professed a violent distrust of outsiders and nonbelievers, although each was willing to use the skeptical to accomplish their own ends. She denied that both religions preached hate and fear as positive things to incorporate into one’s daily operations and that both groups were quite willing to use violence if they deemed it necessary. . . Beyond these philosophic coincidences, I pointed out to Sister Tara, both groups utilized similar symbolism, had a tendency to communicate with their followers through communiqués released to the press, and held allegiances with what Sister Tara called “the dark forces.”
At that point Epsie rather abruptly changed the subject and never got back around to it. Granted, a book about all the possible variations, offshoots and influences on the Diver Commune could have filled the Extrapolation Library, if such an absurd thing existed. But one could get the impression—as I did, even the first time through the book—that Epsie had much more information that he had decided to withhold. As to why, I had not one idea.
     That morning’s newspaper—which must have been delivered by the universe’s most resourceful paper boy—did shed some light on our collective legal standing. Olivia and I were wanted for questioning in what the paper referred to as a “disturbance” at police headquarters. Perhaps more seriously, all four of us were being sought as potential witnesses in the shooting death of Melvin Arbogast, an occurrence that the medical examiner’s office was calling a suicide. The newspaper made no mention of a neighbor named Delbert Zygote. Anyone with information was encouraged to contact LAPD.
     “Speaking of unlikely names,” Olivia said over dinner that night, “I wonder what the Yazoo Street Duck Walk is all about.”
     Wesley cleared his throat. “That’s an old story out here. Back when Tootie and I used to bum around, we kept hearing people talk about the Yazoo Street Duck Walk. It had sort of a nice, jagging ring to it. But it was curious, too. The story turns out that there used to be this old Indian Chief named Yazuwana. I guess he was some sight, decked out in his headdress and all. Well, he had a habit of trying to teach the prospectors around here in 1849 how to increase their chances of finding gold and silver by doing this funky dance of his. When you’re out in the desert, you’ll take whatever advice you can get, so some of them imitated his dance, which looked to the prospectors like the way a duck walked, bent on one knee and the other leg held straight out at an angle. They’d be out in this desert here picking and scratching around for buried treasure or whatever it was and dancing like Chuck Berry. Must have been hilarious. But a lot of them got filthy rich and the ones too stubborn to do the dance starved to death and got picked apart by the buzzards. Well, when the time came to thank him, nobody could pronounce Yazuwana, so they mutated it into Yazoo, which sounds better anyway. Somehow or other this area grew a road and they named it after the old chief. Wild, huh?”
     Crockett said, “Now that’s the kind of thing you need to be writing songs about, Wesley. People like all those old Indian legends. Nobody gives a shit about liquor stores and sociopaths.”
     Wesley went back to eating his refried beans.
     Sociopath reminded me of lawyers. And that reminded me of our quarry. “You guys figure out where Epsie lives?”
     Crockett said, “Sure did. We can run up there tomorrow.”
     There were problems with all four of us going out in public together, not the least of which being that if the cops caught one of us, we were all fried. I told them I would go alone.
     “Okay,” said David. “But do me a favor, will you? If you try to get in to see Plato, ask him to autograph this book for me.”
     He slid across the table a thin paperback book called Trout Fishing in America. The author was someone named Richard Brautigan. I said, “You realize Epsie didn’t write this book?”
    Crockett nodded as he finished off his plate of corn. “I know that, sure. I’m not a damned idiot. But it’s my favorite book, so just ask him if he’d mind autographing it, will you?”
     He was such a charming host, how could I refuse?
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

     In his cell in San Quentin, Colt Diver fondled a lizard he had captured days earlier in the prison yard. He stroked its head and caressed its long tail. He rubbed its scaly underside and whispered into its ears. The lizard stared back at him with a calm indifference, a supplicant awaiting any command, regardless of the declaration, knowing it would always obey. With a piece of yellow chalk he drew an inverted question mark upon the floor, a larger version of the one carved into his own cheek. He placed the tiny lizard on the dot beneath the question mark and commanded the reptile to dream. The creature closed its eyes and sat motionless. Diver had been practicing this exercise for a week now. He was enjoying himself for the first time in many years.
     The 13000 block of Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks was where a large number of attorneys kept their offices. Unfortunately, I attempted to find Plato Epsie at his home up in the hills, only to be informed by his housekeeper that he kept regular work hours and to try him there. Once I finally located the proper building, I rang the bell and was greeted by a voice that sounded much like a cross between a Tasmanian Devil sporting a British accent and a Hoover Upright. “Whaddya want, ya bloody bastard? Mr. Epsie sees people only by appointment! Why don’t you go away, ya sod!”
     I was beginning to feel something like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, and, like her, I wasn’t to be put off so easily. “I’m here to see Plato Epsie on a matter of importance. Let me in.”
     There was a ferocious rumbling from behind the door. It settled down after a few moments and was replaced by that same unpleasant voice. “If ya want to make an appointment, ye vandal, feel free to contact ‘is appointment secretary , if ye kin find ‘er, since he ain’t got one! Now good day!”
     If I ever wanted to dodge a tax collector, the fellow on the other side of that door would’ve been a huge help. But what I really wanted at the moment was to kick down the barrier and start screaming at whomever I saw. I repeated, “You better let me in.”
     The rumbling came back, louder and a fraction sped up. Once it diminished, the voice softened just a tiny bit, as if its owner was considering options. “Oh? And why should I let in someone lackin’ a proper appointment? Answer me that one!”
     “Because,” I said, slapping my back pocket with the paperback book Crockett had given me, “I want Mr. Epsie to sign something for me.”
     The rumbling was quick and not so loud. The voice said: “I see! And what is it that you ‘ave that Mr. Epsie simply moost sign?”
     “It’s a book. I want him to autograph it.”
     The door flew open and I was met by an unlikely pair of individuals, one only a little too tall to pass through the door without kneeling and the other his dual opposite. It was the latter who spoke and proved to be the fellow with whom I’d been arguing. He shouted, “You want to disturb our employer, the one and only Mister Plato Epsie, just so he can autee-graph one of ‘is own books! You ‘ave your nerve, I’ll say.”
     I reached for the book and held it out to them. “Actually, it isn’t a book that he wrote. Now, gentlemen, this is a bit unusual, I’m sure, but it’s a book by Richard Brautigan.”
     The little man and the ogre-esque fellow exchanged a quick look of approbation. “Brautigan, is it? Wheech one?”
     “It can hardly matter, can it? The book is Trout Fishing in America.”
     The entire tone of the conversation took a dramatic turn upwards. The big guy smiled so wide I feared the doorway might get a pinch. The little man positively beamed with embarrassed delight and waved me in. “If we’d only known! Gads, lad, come on in, please! We do get some vile and pugnacious types stopping by ‘ere to trouble the boss. You should ‘ave said something sooner. An autee-graph! I say, a good one, that is. Well, come in, come in, ‘ave a seat ‘ere in this good chair. Brutus, pull out the chair for ‘im, will you? I’ll let Mr. Epsie know ‘e ‘as a guest! Sir, my name is Cadley. May I ‘ave the honor of knowing the name of yourself, please?”
     Brutus held out a chair large enough for seven. I told Cadley my name and he skirted from the outer office and disappeared down a narrow corridor.
     The big man spoke. He too had a trace of the Empire about him, but only in accent. His diction was more constricted. “Duster that you drive?”
     I hesitated. His voice was a few octaves below sea level, much deeper than I’d anticipated, to the extent that I had considered it at all. “I’m sorry?”
     He stopped leaning and walked to the window. “In parking lot. That is your Duster?”
     I tried turning in the chair but either it was too large or I was too small. I said, “Yes. Well, it was a gift, of course. But you know, it’s a bit conspicuous, isn’t it? I mean, anywhere else, that is. Here in Los Angeles everyone tries to draw attention to himself. That only leads to the rest of us turning our heads away. The truly amazing people probably drive a. . . well. . . What would it be?”
     “A Dart?” he grunted.
     I snapped my fingers. “I think that’s it. The perfect status symbol in Los Angeles is the Dodge Dart. Pity we haven’t one of those.”
     He nodded. “Yes. Pity.” I checked his knuckles for rug burns, suspecting he had only just learned to walk upright in the last few minutes.
     Footsteps approached from down the corridor. Attached to them was a pair of oxblood Italian shoes held in tension from feet with what I’m sure was a lovely pair of socks. Above all this was a whish of fine pants legs, thin belt, a dandy shirt, tie, tie clasp, and evening jacket, despite it being only half past three. I recognized the man inside all this as Plato Epsie. He looked the spirit and image of his photographs in the bestseller. Unlike his underlings, Epsie’s accent was not at all British. If anything, it spoke of a Manhattanite who had spent the last several years in the mountains of Colorado eating snow and elk right off the trees.
     Epsie was some piece of work to behold. His black eyes stared out sharp as razors’ edges. He had a little pug nose that wasn’t going to get in anybody’s way. His chin looked like it had joined him in a boxing ring a few summers earlier. But his smile: that sparkling sliver of ivory enamel was quite disarming. I made a point of holding onto my arms, just in case, a difficult task while shaking hands.
     He said, “I’m Plato Epsie. It’s a pleasure to meet a fellow fan of Brautigan, Mr. LaMarke. Do you accent the first or second syllable?”
     “Yes, I do. Pleasure to meet you as well. Sorry for the interruption, but I find myself in a quandary and I hoped you might be able to help.”
      Epsie nodded as if he understood. “I understand. But first accept my apologies for the rough treatment my friends gave you at the door. You see, we get so many guttersnipes stopping in from the advertising business, hoping to hook their products or services with the Epsie image. It’s quite revolting. Broom handles, detergent boxes, soap powder, hair cream, mouth wash. You name it. It’s repugnant. Do you read Orwell, Mr. LaMarke? Am I pronouncing your name correctly?”
     “Yes, I have read Orwell. George Orwell.”
     “Do you recall what he said about advertising? He said that advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket. Don’t you think that’s clever?”
     I agreed. “He also said that you can get anything in this world if you genuinely don’t want it.”
     Epsie’s smile faded a little. “I don’t understand.”
     “Neither do I, frankly. I thought perhaps we were going to discuss literature when what I really came here about was a bunch of murders that some people—quite possibly including yourself—suspect are linked to a man named Colt Diver.”
     He glanced at his friends and then flashed back at me. “You are the fellow in the newspaper! Haw haw haw! Let me shake your hand!”
     “All right.” We got that out of the way again.
     “Yes indeed. Trouble? I should say you are in trouble. Haw! I thought those Neanderthal nincompoops at LAPD hated my guts. Haw! Now it’s you they’re after for a change. I don’t mean to sound delighted. It’s just that I’ve wanted to meet you and your colleagues ever since that story came out. Mr. Crockett, of course, I’ve already met. How is he these days?”
     “Hasn’t changed much then. He and I had a signal of sorts worked out back during the investigation. When we met to talk, he wanted to make sure it was actually me and not some impostor. Well, I’ve learned over the years it’s best to humor your witnesses as well as you can. We traded password expressions. I would say ‘Richard Brautigan’ and he would respond with the title of that book. Ingenious in a way.”
     “In a cosmic way.”
     “Yes. Well. How may I be of help to you today?”
     I laid it out for him. He was sympathetic. “I sympathize. I really do. I wonder if may be there is something I can do.”
     I wondered very much the same thing.
     He leaned against the edge of his desk and seemed to be thinking. It was hard to tell. At last he said, “One thing I can do is get the Church of Pseudoscience off your backs. Brutus, drive out to Senegal in the City. See if you can persuade—what was her name?”
     “Suzie Dorchester,” I offered.
     “Right. See if you can persuade Dorchester to back off. Tell her you represent me. I’m sure you know what to do.”
     Brutus nodded. “I will, Mr. Epsie.” He donned an enormous Stetson from a huge hook, swallowed my hand up in both of his, and left the building.
     “Right,” Epsie said. “Now, I need to be able to trust you, Mr. LaMarke. Can I do that?”
     “There’s always that chance.”
     The razor eyes sliced my smile away. Epsie said, “Cadley already knows what I’m about to tell you. I would advise you not to let this conversation leave the room. From what you’ve said, you met Robert DeGrimestone. What was your impression of him?”
     I looked at Cadley. He didn’t talk much in front of his boss, but his intense little eyes conveyed much volume. I said, “He is mad, as in crazy. Also smart. Sort of poetic. Probably lethal. In love with his own authority.”
     “Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Very good. Now here comes the tricky part. The Process Servers of the Initial Judgment began back in the mid-1960s as a counterintelligence operation launched directly out of the Johnson White House. DeGrimestone was in charge of the operation.”
     I tried to stand up but the chair was simply too large. I felt like Shirley Temple trying to get off the world’s largest toilet. I said, “Mr. Epsie, what is it about this town that makes otherwise rational people say such conspiratorial things?”
     “LBJ used to have this joke he told around the Oval Office. He said that it was better to have your enemies inside your tent pissing out than to have them outside your tent pissing in. But I assure you this is no joke. I am the last person, I further assure you, to fall in with some ego-thrilling conspiracy nonsense. Look. You can believe me or not. But I’d advise you to listen. It was DeGrimestone’s duty to set up shop in the San Francisco area, latching onto the fringe element. Not the hippies and not even the radicals, but the crazies. The goat worshippers, the demonologists, the dark lunatics. What he was supposed to do was infiltrate these groups and assess their appeal to what was fast becoming the counterculture. But what happened was that he started believing his own line of bull. At least he managed to convince a hell of a lot of people that he believed it. He started putting on these extravagant exhibitions and celebrating the idea that the opposite of good is great. He claimed to be able to read the mind of any reptile ever born. Well, before long, half his operatives joined forces with him and the other half got spooked and ran. Everyone fell into one of those two camps. Everyone except—”
     “Colt Diver!” I exclaimed. Epsie nodded. He was not smiling any longer.
     “Colt Diver. Yes. His became something of a splinter group, an offshoot, if you will. All the kids and followers in the Commune thought they were taking orders from this anti-establishment, free love-advocating, countercultural rebel, when in fact Colt Diver had originally been Robert DeGrimestone’s right hand man. That much is absolutely true. What I’m about to say, however, is pure speculation. I think it is entirely possible that Diver was following DeGrimestone’s orders all along. It was either that or Colt was a deviant under the tutelage of another deviant.”
     I wasn’t certain how much of this I believed. But I was thinking about it. I said, “If this stuff is true, then why were all those people killed?”
     “Cadley? Get the photos in my Diver Cabinet, will you?”
     The little Lincolnshire person hopped up and skirted off back down the corridor. Epsie continued. “Sally Knight and her friends were killed for the very reasons I brought out in the trial, Perry, if I may call you Perry? Yes. They were killed to stir up fear and paranoia. Diver wanted—and maybe DeGrimestone wanted—to start a class war and a race war and a youth against old people war, all at one time. He felt that his own eventual arrest and conviction—along with those of his co-defendants—would be sufficient to spark just such a revolution. That all came out in the trial. What did not come out because the judge ruled it inadmissible—and he was probably right, but it’s still a damned shame—was the murders we could not prove. Markita Haines, et al. The problem counterintelligence people experienced when dealing with the lunatic fringe was that the lunacy became contagious. Highly trained former military officers who knew better than to blab suddenly couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Some of their blabbing was no doubt to impress their young followers, or potential converts. But most of it was just a drug-inspired craziness. Once these talkers sobered up and realized what they had done, they knew exactly what to do next. And they did it. You say you think the total count is close to thirty-five murders? I guarantee you it’s at least that high. Maybe higher. Cadley?”
     “Right ‘ere, boss.” The little man had returned without our notice. Epsie’s story had kept me engrossed. In particular, something about reading the minds of reptiles pushed itself to the forefront of my consciousness. Cadley handed his employer a manila envelope. Epsie opened it and shook out some enlarged photographs. He handed them to me.
     “The one on top, that’s DeGrimestone back in 1964, before he joined Operation Sheep. Haw! They called it that because everyone assumed that the young people they would encounter would be docile. He looks a little different from the guy you met the other day, doesn’t he?”
     He did. You could tell it was the same man—the facial features were less worn, less precise—but this was a different time and place. DeGrimestone had very short hair, a knowing and tense smile, and a set of Captain’s bars on his shoulders. His lapel was covered with citations and medals. I turned to the next photograph.
     “That one is Diver. The judge refused to admit this into evidence too. I might have agreed with his other decision, but here I feel he was one hundred percent wrong. The military is where Diver learned to kill, after all. It was relevant.”
     “When was this?” I asked.
     “During his mystery period. Late 1959 through early 1963. The time-frame nobody ever talks about.”
     He looked so young, if not quite as happy as DeGrimestone. There was an evident glow, even back then, but in this photograph as well as in the others Epsie showed me, the glow was less psychotic than quietly proud. Back then he had just been a good soldier doing his duty. Both men probably had. But both men had changed.
     “You can see, Perry, why a lot of people are upset with you right now. Haw! The only reason LAPD got all bent out of shape was because—and again I’m speculating, but again I’m right—someone from military intelligence got a hold of Reichelderfer and told him to squeeze you until you cried uncle.”
     I looked hard at Epsie. “I’m not fond of my uncles. Listen, if we assume for the sake of conversation that I accept all this—”
     “You can accept it.”
     “Okay. If I do, then I am still left with one head full of snakes here. I mean, I appreciate you sending Boris—”
     “Right. Sending him off to put the brakes on this Pseudoscience problem. I honestly appreciate that.”
     “But you don’t quite know what to do?”
     “I have no idea at all. I’m supposed to be starting college in a couple weeks. I have a girlfriend. I’m driving a Duster. What the hell do I know about all this nonsense? All I was trying to do, really, was to help Mrs. Haines and squelch my own fear.”
     Cadley piped in, “Are ya still afraid then?”
     “Yes. Oh, I may not act it, but these people scare me to death. The only way I cope with it is by hitting somebody every so often. If you know anyone needing a good beating, I’m about due.”
     Epsie said, “You don’t strike me as the type to run from his problems.”
     “If it worked, I would run for a gold medal. But it never does. To me, fear is like a bee sting. If you don’t treat it, it just gets infected and swells up like a melon. I always conquer my fears. At least, I did.”
     Epsie returned the photographs to their envelope and handed that to Cadley. I asked both men what advice they could give me.
     The attorney slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t look so forlorn. Haw haw! I do have an idea. You may think it’s a bit off, but if you’re willing to screw your courage to the mast. . . ”
     “If you’ll show me where the mast is, I’ll be happy to screw it.”
     Both of them laughed. I even joined in. It was the last good chuckle any of us had for quite a while.

Chapter Eight
The Best Laid Plans of the Emotionally Unstable
The project demanded an extraordinary control of behavior. We could not make any use of “the average pigeon.” We needed a real pigeon upon a real occasion, and we explored almost every condition that had any bearing upon its behavior.
                        —B.F. Skinner
One man’s civilization is another man’s jungle, yeah.
                        —The Rutles

     What I ended up doing, of course, was participating in the prison escape of certain members of the quasi Satanic cult nominally led by Robert DeGrimestone. Although college would have to start without me, I nevertheless received many forms of education, first by a Military Counter-Intelligence Unit, then by some close range combat experts, and finally by the quavering crew of fanatical fiends with the Process Servers of the Initial Judgment. Perhaps I should make clear at this point that I had no friendly feelings toward anyone in any of these three groups. Nor, I feel safe in adding, did many of them have a good case of the fuzzies for me.
     Epsie made some telephone calls while I waited in his office. He laughed a great deal. He raised his voice a bit. He scratched Cadley on the head. He smiled at me. When he finished with the calls, he offered me a drink of bourbon, which I gladly accepted.
     The MCIU people provided me with a disturbing array of strategic information, none of it theoretical, in the sense that the plans they described had been used both domestically and especially abroad, and much of it was designed to be lethal in the extreme. It was through their auspices that I met a pair of Army Captains who had gone through basic with DeGrimestone and had found him likable enough, at least until one day when they discovered him declawing a squirrel. By the time my six weeks with MCIU was complete, I knew volumes of information about the trials and tribs of DeGrimestone, Diver, and the others, as well as how to read verbal and nonverbal cues (Olivia would have loved that part) and how to think far more strategically than I ever would have imagined.
     Perhaps my biggest critic during my stint with MCIU was my Preparedness Instructor, a man with moles, discolorations, long ear lobes and age spots who was introduced to me as Major D. Pentacost Zygote. His beady little eyes searched me out no matter where I was or what I was doing. “You are a disgrace to this unit, a disgrace to manhood, and a disgrace to humanity!” he liked to tell me. “You can’t run, you can’t think, and you can’t shoot! What the hell good are you? None, that’s what!” Zygote was a man’s man, all right, by which I mean to imply that he played hide-the-snake with teenage boys. I don’t actually know that for a fact, of course. It just pleases me to remember him that way. His own specialty was “close with and destroy.” He had spent many years, he bragged, getting to know his targets well enough to be invited in the front door for Christmas dinner, shortly after which he would do his duty and be the very last person anyone would even suspect of a foul deed. He used the expression “foul deed” a great deal. To this day when I hear that term, I imagine someone encouraging me to drink battery acid from an iron cup. I also recognized that the front door was hardly Zygote’s only means of entrance.
     The close range combat experts were a pack of leathernecks the Marines had discharged for being “too enthusiastic.” One evening we were all sitting around after a full day of calisthenics bragging about various “war wounds” we had received here and there, and with a puff of my chest I opened my shirt to display the jagged scar from the Buck knife stabbing. One of the young fellows sitting nearby told me that was no big deal. When I cocked a skeptical eyebrow at him, he ripped open his shirt, bent his head down and took a large bite out of his own shoulder, an act that made my wound somewhat anemic by comparison. All in all they were a rowdy bunch and I was quite relieved when my month with them was over.
     While with the excommunicated leathernecks, I was taught to fire with accuracy weapons somewhat more sophisticated than the ones with which I had been accustomed. I also learned how to make several explosives from allegedly household items. I say “allegedly” because to the best of my knowledge I have never visited a home that had a supply of bat excrement. All the same, the technique is a simple one, requiring the user to blend a simple mixture of bat dung and pre-sweetened cereal into a pasty compound which is then allowed to dry. Voila! If someone were to, say, strike this newly created substance with a ball peen hammer or even a heavy foot, a mighty nasty and potentially murderous explosion would be realized. I considered sending this information to the makers of a certain imitation honey-flavored cereal with a suggestion that they include a small packet of bat shit in the bottom of each box.
     Another ridiculous but legitimate skill I learned was to lay out a line of crystal drain cleaner onto the shiny side of aluminum foil, roll the former up into the latter and then drop it into the target’s toilet. A thin, invisible and extremely combustible gas will seep out through the two ends of the Drano-Reefer, as the boys called it. Once the flame of a match or cigarette lighter is struck, the toilet will next be seen bursting through a hole in the roof on its way to Argentina, presumably carrying a somewhat surprised guest clinging to the porcelain.
     I learned how to construct all manner of improvised devices, such as zip guns out of car radio antennas and how to leave permanent scars by blending cayenne pepper into cold cream. It was all quite sick and of dubious practical application, but it did teach me to sniff my food before eating it.
     During this ten-week official training period, I was permitted some limited contact with Olivia, Wesley and David. When I say limited, I mean something in the neighborhood of three twenty minute visits. I was being sequestered deep in Baja California at a vaguely clandestine training encampment and the officials there looked with disrepute upon men and women who craved such luxuries of life as companionship and camaraderie. Sex was completely verboten, which may be one reason why most of the people there were so interminably hostile to one another. Given my own well-developed animosity toward things of an authority nature, combined with a yearning for Olivia which on occasion threatened to transform my entire body into a pulsating penis, I was in all probability the most hostile person any of them had ever met. Ah, well.
     Joining the Process Servers seemed to me a task far more daunting than it actually was. I simply met up over lunch with Timothy and Gerald, told them I had broken with my former associates and had come to feel there was something big missing in my life. Eager for any opportunity to pounce on a potential recruit, they allowed me to permit them to spend the next few hours proselytizing about the glories and benefits of club membership. I resisted the temptation to ask if one received discounts at motels and inns nationwide and instead stared back at them all wide-eyed and wondrous over my bowl of cream of mushroom soup. Within a couple weeks I was sitting right at the same dining table with both Brothers, a Sister Ruth, a Father Wally, and the Big Little Man himself, Robert DeGrimestone.
     About a week to ten days after I joined the tribe, the Big D held a meeting of the Inner Party, plus me. The Big Guy seemed to like me. I received far fewer beatings than other new recruits and was even allowed to eat with the great man. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall, stroking the back of his anteater. We sat around him in a semi-circle, never speaking unless we were invited to do so. The time had long passed, DeGrimestone informed us, for passive resistance in sparking our unholy war against those burping mediocrities, as he called them, who were too narcotized by television game shows and throbbing vaginas to start the war themselves. Again, discretion prevented me from suggesting that thirty-odd murders was hardly an example of restraint. Grimey, as I came to mentally refer to him, went on to inform us that we would be freeing certain incarcerated members of the flock from their immoral bonds at various penal institutions throughout the state. In a sort of inverted hierarchy of importance, the first to be liberated would be Tonya Pittman, a Level III inmate at what was then called Frontera, the California Institution for Women, located in either Corona or Chino, depending on whichever neighboring city had drawn the short straw for a given week. Following that, we would release Bruce Diego from his confinement in the Level IV Protective Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison, quite a feat since the facility would technically not be constructed until twelve years later but which did in fact exist as a warehousing station for excessively violent inmates. And our last act of breaking out would be that of Colt Diver himself, long overdue for an early discharge, or so thought the other members of our morbid little cult.
     The reason I was involved in these daring escapades was that Epsie had convinced the State’s Attorney General to order all existing charges against the four of us expunged in exchange for my cooperation in successfully infiltrating the Process Servers, the ultimate aim being to gather and provide information about Grimey’s operation sufficient to result in him being locked up for the rest of his life. If this necessitated that I investigate from alongside his role in the aforementioned unsolved murders, so be it. If I discovered his involvement in anything else of a criminal nature, that was fine too. Suffice it to say, the MCIU people wanted Grimey put down one way or another. To them he was an enormous embarrassment, one that simply refused to go away of its own volition. Had I offered to kill the bastard, no one would have sneered. But I didn’t offer. I was pretty sure that had someone else been trying to kill him, I would not have stepped in the way, but I had no thoughts at that time of doing it myself. The sad fact was that my nightmares had become most severe and I needed a respite. The only way I could be sure to get relief was to cooperate. And I hate to cooperate.
     The fact of breaking into a state prison may seem nigh impossible to many people. Indeed, there are easier things to do, such as winning at baccarat without knowing the rules of the game, or getting an honest answer from a naked politician. But there are also a few harder goals to attain. One of the more difficult challenges, for instance, is trying to break oneself out. The main reason this is such a headache is because the prevention against breaking out just happens to be where the Corrections Department places the majority of its emphasis. Somewhere along the line, somebody in the California Department of Corrections concluded that prisoners just might muster the temerity to get up and walk right out through the front door of those institutions if some series of mechanisms were not in place to discourage just that very type of behavior. This awareness led to the development of sharpshooters in towers, electric fences, guard dogs, shakedowns, frequent cell searches and friskings, and all sorts of vigilant activities geared to make escape from prison painful and unlikely. All the same, discouragement of an organized force intent on busting down the walls and snatching a given inmate out from under their watchful eyes is also on the list of things wardens worry about, but it is far down on that list. It was decided, therefore, that that would be our immediate mission.
     I was supine with an M-14 rifle propped on a bipod just up and to the right of me. The M-14 was one of the last of the battle sniper weapons issued to the Marines prior to the advent and dispersement of the better-known M-16. It held a magazine of thirty rounds, more than enough to suffice in civilian encounters. The range was upwards of three-quarters of a mile. One of Grimey’s ex-military buddies had gotten us a couple dozen of these obsolete weapons, any one of which was more than adequate for my personal task.
     I spat out the gum I’d been chewing into its wrapper and secured the package in my jacket breast pocket. I rolled over to line myself up with the rifle and gazed through the scope. A fraction to the right, a bit more lift, zoom in, okay, hey, there was my target. A middle-aged gentleman named Nicholas Bowler stood behind a Plexiglas screen in the watchtower, staring out over the recreation yard that faced the south end of the Frontera facility. I had been told where Bowler would be and at what time. The Level III inmates were granted thirty minutes outdoor time each day, weather permitting, which it usually was. The III’s were the bad seeds in the prison. Their recreation yard was on this, the far end of the prison, as far from the I’s and II’s as could be allowed. These were not the check forgers or prostitutes. These were the howling killers, screaming bomb-throwers, and assistants to national security advisors. This was where overenthusiastic female college girls were placed if instead of attending some sorority gala they just as mindlessly situated a pipe bomb beneath a police officer’s black and white. This was where the fights broke out between those women who were tough and those who should have been tougher than they were. Rows and scuffles were not uncommon. If everything went according to plan, there would be one happening any minute.
     Three secured perimeters guarded the south yard. The first was a ten foot electrified fence. Beyond that stood a second perimeter, a twelve foot concrete block wall. Even further out ran a shallow ravine flooded year round. Anyone who could violate those combined securities was free to flee. Despite the prison’s precautions, however, there were certain holes in their security. For example: the energy for the electric fence was supplied—until just after this particular day—by the local electric utility, so that if a power failure occurred as a result of some sort of, oh, let’s call it sabotage, the zap would be taken out of that nevertheless formidable boundary. Another fly in the ointment, so to speak, was the concrete wall. It was plenty tall enough and buried deep into the soil below to make tunneling an improbability. Its vulnerability was its thickness. A mere eight inches of concrete—even reinforced concrete, which we correctly guessed this to be—was no match for ten pounds of well-placed C4 plastic explosives. Funny enough, the most troublesome barrier in this particular escape was the shallow ravine. It was too shallow to swim across and just deep enough to make walking awkward. We estimated that Tonya Pittman would clear the fence less than thirty seconds after the concrete wall blew. It would take her another half minute to reach the ravine. That was all quite fine except it only allowed her another sixty seconds to cross the ravine and climb onto the back of the motorcycle that would sail from the rear of our van parked across the property. If she took longer than a total of two minutes, the back-up security force would reach the tower and shoot her through the skull as she clung to the expectant joy of freedom. To complicate things further, the rest of us had to do our parts and presumably escape as well. Personally, I felt this constituted an unnecessary risk for the sake of a woman who had knifed Crockett and me, but what the hell? As one of the MCIU instructors had been fond of saying: “I slept and dreamed that life was beauty. I awoke and found that life was a big bowl of shit.”
     Tonya was to use the promise of oral sex to bribe an old inmate nobody wanted to touch if the hag in question would spit on a particular guard’s shoes. This was likely to lead to some type of distracting altercation, such as a slap across the mouth or some such over reaction. At precisely three-thirty-five, I would fire one shot at the distracted Mr. Bowler in the South Tower. Struck, he would collapse. Witnessing this, Wally would detonate the C4. Hearing the explosion, Ruth would boil the cables running directly to Frontera. That last would automatically lock the cells of anyone inside and also signal a security alarm. By this time, Tonya would already be scaling the jagged fence and tasting the bittersweet jelly of escape. The back doors of the van would fly open, releasing Gerald to barrel his Suzuki 750 across the campus-like exterior yards where Tonya would presumably just be extricating herself from the chilly waters of the shallow ravine. By this time I would have packed up my rifle and be running inside the rear of the van where Ruth and Wally would be impatiently fussing with one another. Soon enough we would all be in some mindless argument about whose fault it was that things hadn’t gone smoother when all of a damned sudden Gerald would come rolling up the ramp with Tonya riding double. Wally would rap his knuckles on the cab glass. Grimey, riding shotgun, wearing dark glasses to keep the hated daylight out of his yellow eyes, would nod to Timothy, our van driver, and we would all escape, having a good laugh at what fools those prison guards were to think they could stop the likes of us.
     My watch emitted a short beep. That meant it was three-thirty-three. I’d had Nicholas Bowler in my sites for a while, tracing his methodical movements as he pondered and trudged from one end of the watchtower to the other and back again. I had decided not to go for a head shot, in part because of the mess and in part because the head is a much more difficult shot to make, especially if one is lying down while attempting it. Bowler was at a sixty-two degree angle from my base and that meant that my best opportunity would be either through the chest or upper back. If I hit him, he would drop like a sack and would have no time to call attention to himself. Through the scope I measured his movements. He was a seriously methodical man, as I have mentioned. Five paces to his left. A halt. A check through the field glasses. Then ten marks to the right. Same pause. Same use of the binoculars. He was just turning back to the left progression when he stopped and brought the glasses back to his face. I knew that meant the diversion was underway.
     I wiped my right hand on the side of my pants and studied the shot. He was standing perfectly still. I felt the butt of the rifle sturdy against my shoulder. My index finger steadied itself upon the trigger guard as my middle finger tightened at the crescent moon. I closed my left eye. The bastard was holding still, bless his heart. A second beep came from my watch and I squeezed off one clean shot that took Bowler just to the right of his left shoulder blade. In that same instant he fell to one knee, held in place, and dropped out of sight.
     “All right, all right, blow the damned wall,” I muttered to myself as I disassembled the M-14 and rolled it into its case. I tossed over on my back to remain as out of sight as possible, clutching the rifle case, waiting for the bomb. “You incompetent Satan-worshiping morons,” I said under my breath. “Drop the switch, set the spark and we’re halfway home. Come on!”
     The explosion was not as horrific as I had imagined it would be. It was somewhere between the sound of a low flying plane and Christmas dinner at my Aunt Jean’s house. Before the sound faded I was on my feet running toward the softer purr of a Suzuki flapping out of the back of our van. The run was two-fifths of a mile. I reached the van in what felt like five seconds, but it had to be much longer than that because Wally and Ruth were already arguing when I got there. Grimey was watching the action from his seat in the front of the vehicle. His binoculars looked new. There was no trace of amusement in his pristine smile. Timothy tapped on his side of the glass and motioned for Ruth and Wally to shut up.
     The seconds crawled. I kept checking my watch. A minute-twenty had elapsed since the wall had gone down. Tick-tock went my watch. Blam-blam went my heart. At last, var-room went the sound of the Suzuki.
     Gerald tore across that yard like the Devil himself was in pursuit. Of course, had the Devil been chasing him, I imagine Gerald would have stopped to engage in some type of chitchat. “Come on, come on,” I muttered again. It seemed to calm my nerves.
     They rode up the planks and into the van. Wally tapped the glass barrier. I pulled shut the doors. Grimey told Timothy to get moving. We drove off nice and steady. The alarms sounded across the yards. Tonya hugged Ruth. She hugged Wally. She hugged Gerald. She looked at me. She said, “What the fuck is this guy doing here?”
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     It is a fact that if a person deprived of sleep for an extended time receives no relief, he or she will begin to hallucinate; in effect, that person will dream while awake. While Perry LaMarke’s skills raced on all eight cylinders, his facility for everyday activities was waning. He had made his shot at the prison guard with little effort and yet the personal reality of Tonya Pittman was beyond his grasp. He stared at her, seeing a blur of blasphemies, an aura of anger and contempt. The object of her person pointed at him, shaking its finger in rage with him helpless to do anything but look on. He swallowed a capsule, or thought he did. It stuck to his throat. His mouth felt very dry. The blur ranted on while the other life forms in the vehicle tried to calm everything down. The capsule broke apart and he began to force the hallucinations away. The people still looked like someone had drawn their outlines and failed to give them any distinct features, but he eventually took command of his own senses.
     It took the better part of the trip to calm Tonya Pittman. I was groggy as hell, what with getting very little sleep over the past week or so. Damn those nightmares. Anyway, Olivia would certainly have recognized part of the problem I was having with Tonya as cognitive dissonance. After all, Pittman had tried to kill me. That meant I was an enemy. If I was involved in freeing her from captivity, it seemed reasonable that I was an ally. But how could I be both an enemy and a friend? The notion was incongruous. Therefore, I had to be a spy, a traitor, a filthy stinking God-fearing degenerate bent on the immediate destruction of all that was unholy, Satan forbid.
     Among this group of insiders, Gerald and Timothy were my most ardent loyalists. On the ride back to the safe house, Gerald kept insisting that I was as much a bloodthirsty killer as anybody; he had seen me slay the poor innocent sharpshooter with his own eyes. I considered telling him I had actually shot him with my M-14, but I was delirious and this didn’t seem the best audience for levity. By the time we reached the hide out, Tonya was no longer screaming for my execution. Sad to say, she never did completely trust me.
     “Man’s a cold-blooded killer,” Father Wally announced, slapping me on the back once we were safely inside and watching the Action News Special Report on television. The somber on-the-spot reporter looked right into the lens with Frontera safely in the background and announced that one security guard had been shot during the “daring daylight escape.” Nicholas Bowler, forty-eight, had died on arrival at St. Ignatius Catholic Hospital. No next of kin were reported.
     Before drifting off to sleep where I lay, I smiled in the knowledge that Nicholas Bowler was in reality convalescing aboard a jet airliner on his way to vacation in Miami Beach as a means of earning thanks for helping perpetuate this fraud upon the Process Servers. His double-lined bulletproof vest and flak jacket had insulated him from the shot I had fired. He had known all about the operation and was reportedly a big fan of Dade County. Indeed, he had family there. His sister-in-law was a former beauty pageant queen named Anita Bryant.
     Grimey loved it when we made the TV news. “The conceptualization of this phosphor-dot mammary gland is intended for the burping mediocrities. Now this, us, our group, we have made television worth watching.” I was a “Starsky and Hutch” fan personally, but I suppose we did add a little flavor in between reports of Patty Hearst and the swine flu.
     The usual problem with this type of media exposure—page two of the New York Times, page three of the Washington Post, and we even got a quick mention from Cronkite—is that one might expect a certain amount of police interest, even in Los Angeles. But in this instance the police had been told to lay off. The California Attorney General wanted information rather than arrests, at least for the moment. Naturally I couldn’t tell them all that, so I had to pretend to buy into their delusions of grandeur. We were important enough to justify paranoia. DeGrimestone made it clear that Wally and Ruth needed to scout a new safe house. Ruth was the matron for a little better than eighty recruits huddled in beach houses down in Del Mar. Wally was working on a recruitment drive in La Jolla.
     I felt a lot better after a six hour nap. I don’t remember any dreams so I assume the ones I had were uneventful. Stretching my legs, I found Timothy raiding the refrigerator. I asked him, “Where does the money come from for all this stuff?”
     He gave me an appraising stare. “All what stuff?”
     Brother T knew I was not a complete idiot, but at the same time I did not wish to overplay my interest. “I don’t know,” I said. “The beach houses, that wild-ass Town Car, the food in the fridge here, that kind of stuff.”
     “Are you hungry?”
   “No. No, I am not hungry. I was just wondering. Look, if you’re not supposed to say anything, I can dig that. Loose lips sink ships.”
     I hoped I had wounded his pride. He gave me a playful punch on my good shoulder. “I’ve been with this gang for almost two years. I don’t know where all the money comes from. Some we get from member donations. Like, when we bring in a college student, say, we have her take out a student loan and then she’ll sign that over to us. Maybe she’s got a rich daddy. The Process Servers attract mostly the middle-class.”
     “Okay. I see. Oh, I just thought maybe we had some big secret sponsor somewhere.”
     Timothy scowled. “And if we did, Brother Perry, do you think the Big Guy would want us talking about it?”
     Somebody was financing this thing and the money sure wasn’t coming from some kid’s piggy bank. I pretended to change the subject. “I really liked that motorcycle.”
     Timothy’s frown broke. “Oh, I get it. You just want to ride in style. Well, I do know this. Once every couple weeks, the Big Guy meets up with the Bernardino Bikers. They’re an all-Suzuki outfit. There’s about a dozen of them DeGrimestone works with. Maybe you really should get with him about it if you want a deal on a bike.”
     Bikers. Unexplained income. Gothic nightmares. This was such a lousy job. All I really wanted was to go home, hop in my MG-B, find Olivia sitting right there beside me, head out to the drive-in and watch Aloha, Bobby and Rose for the thirtieth time. I said, “Thanks. I think I will.” I walked away, making a mental note to follow-up with Grimey about the motorcycle. One of the things Major Zygote at MCIU had preached was that if you express interest in a subject as a way of gaining intelligence, don’t stop showing interest once you have that intelligence. People hang mental tags on you and it’s important that those tags be consistent. Right now Timothy had it in his head that I liked nice, shiny motorcycles. Whenever he would think about me, that was a tag that he would associate. If I took that tag away by not following through, he would come to distrust his own perceptions of me. It was a short hop from that to becoming suspicious of me. These were men and women whose suspicions I did not wish to arouse.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     DeGrimestone and I rode out to The Ranch together. Timothy had been correct: the Big Guy had made a meeting with the Bernardino Bikers. I was going to say the meeting had been scheduled, but one did not precisely schedule such things. One contacted the Bikers and said “See you Tuesday night” and some time or other people showed up. It was always preferred to be the final party to arrive, presumably conveying to the others that the final attendee was somehow confident that everyone else would sit around waiting for his or her appearance. Sure enough, the Bikers had gotten there shortly after sundown and we rolled in a bit before ten that night. This was my first visit to the infamous Ranch and I was well-rested and excited.
     I appeared to be the only happy person in attendance. The Bernardino Bikers—seven of them presented themselves—were royally pissed at having been kept waiting. Grimey feigned fury at all the busy things that were occupying his time these days. I didn’t want to hang too close to the Big Guy for fear of making him jumpy. Instead, I milled around here and there, always vaguely conscious of his movements without being too obvious about it.
     The only horses I had ever seen were either on TV Westerns or at the Ohio State Fair. It turns out that all the equine in the corral at The Ranch were Przewalskis, also known as hagenbecki. The stable girls told me the twelve such horses at The Ranch all came from the steppes of Mongolia and were otherwise thought to be extinct. They were certainly pretty enough—the horses, I mean. I fact, they strutted about as if they somehow knew that they were the last of their kind, a sort of dying royalty worthy of being kept together to prevent any nasty horse-style miscegenation. I guess elitists come in all species. But there they were, being led around the corral by the stable girls, getting their evening constitutionals, I suppose it was, while the Bikers leaned on the fences, smoking, laughing, and trying not to drool over the fear girls. The females themselves were all Communards, beholden to the immaculate obfuscator, Mr. Colt Diver, blissful in their ignorance that Diver himself kowtowed to Robert DeGrimestone, a man who personally did not give a tinker’s damn or a stinker’s shit about any of them.
     “When Colt gets out,” one of the fear girls told me, “we’re all going to get wasted and we’re all going to have the biggest orgy ever in history, and then after that we’re going to go out and have our retribution.” Sex, drugs and murder. The world was changing.
     Another fear girl agreed. “That is so right, man. These bikers are going to help a lot. They’ve got this phony Christian Mission going, man, where they bring in hundreds of dollars a week. Plus they’ve got pills for all the drop-outs and housewives.”
     “We rock,” enthused another.
     Another one asked me, “What’s your story?”
     I studied her. She was maybe fifteen and looked hard as nails. She was small or a little underdeveloped, with that long soft hair of teenage girls, yet something in her eyes was dead. It wasn’t just a sense of lost innocence that she radiated. It was more a fatalism, a sad acceptance of gloom and death. They all shared that same expression, as if whatever thrills they got from the things they did were only temporary and wouldn’t improve their lives, but hell, it was better than nothing.
     I also noticed that most of these girls were pretty and all of them spoke in a way that suggested at least a middle-class American education. The majority of them attempted to down play their appearances as well as their smarts, but both features clung to them all, perhaps a haunting reminder of lost opportunities.
     I remembered that I had been asked a question. “No story,” I said. “Just putting the chop on Mr. Good.” I should admit that these words meant absolutely nothing and I have no idea what brought them to mind. That happens to me a lot.
     “Putting the chop,” the fifteen-year-old parroted. “We can dig that!” They all giggled and the bikers laughed and I smiled like an idiot, bumming a cigarette from a red-haired rider named Mitch.
     Lighting the smoke for me, Mitch said, “I hear you were in on Tonya’s break out. That right?”
     The girls all stopped giggling and the other bikers stopped laughing. I looked right into Mitch’s eyes and inhaled the smoke. I held the stare and after a few seconds whistled the fumes out the corner of my mouth. “You’d have to ask DeGrimestone about that,” I said, not looking away for a second.
     Mitch lit a fag for himself. “She used to be my old lady is why I ask.”
     All the girls running around The Ranch to choose from and he had hopped in the saddle with Tonya. Hare fucking Krishna.
     As Mitch continued to slow-talk me about his brief history with Tonya Pittman, I saw that the other bikers who had been aimlessly lingering were beginning to congregate just behind and on either side of him. “I guessed you might have a thing for her,” Mitch went on. “If that was the case, I’d have to kick your ass. You being a stranger, I’m gonna kick it any way.”
     I had learned about this type of confrontation. It was the kind there was no avoiding. Some guy accused you of wanting to hump his ex, when what you really wanted was to scour her image off the inside walls of your brain. You couldn’t tell the fool he had lousy taste in women, you certainly couldn’t lie and tell him that you did want to sleep with her, and you couldn’t tell him he was mistaken because that was the same as calling him a liar. What you had to do was to either fight the guy, but not beat him up so bad that his friends felt the need to come to his rescue, or let him beat you up without making it obvious that you weren’t fighting back. We actually spent two whole days on this topic back at MCIU. I did not plan on taking a beating.
     “Tell you what, pencil dick,” I said. “Let’s limit this to a three-on-one.”
     Mitch spat out his cigarette. “Three-on-one? Meaning what?”
     “Meaning no more than three of you against me. That seem fair?”
     “Sounds good.”
     Sounds good? Shit. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
     Mitch hit me in the mouth so fast I didn’t even see it coming. The blood arrived before the pain. I wiped my mouth and spat on the dirt. Then I kicked him in the groin and grabbed his red hair as he leaned forward, punching him square in the face. The two bikers standing closest to him moved in. I dropped Mitch and hit the one on the left with the edge of my hand a second before the one on the right struck me just below the nose. That same guy dove around behind me so I spun on the balls of one foot and kicked out with the other, taking him high on the forehead. He rolled over and did not move. Mitch got up and screamed as he made a dash for me, but I sidestepped and tripped him as he tackled the third guy by mistake. The fear girls whooped and hollered as I landed on top of Mitch and his unintended adversary and punched both men in the ears. The fight was just beginning to leave them when I felt something from behind lift me up off the bikers and fling me high in the air. I landed flat on my back. For a second or two I could not open my eyes. When my baby browns decided to cooperate, I looked up into the angry face of Robert DeGrimestone.
     “This is their ranch, you stupid fuck,” he snarled, sotto voce. “If they want to beat you up, you damn well better let them.”
     I had not realized just how strong Grimey was. He had thrown me a good ten feet. I had also not realized the Bernardino Bikers owned The Ranch. It turned out Diver had given it to them just before going to prison.
     Here I was looking up into the stony features of the one man who scared the one man who scared me. I felt something. It wasn’t fear, but it was in the same neighborhood, possibly across the street where paralyzing terror hibernated. I didn’t say anything. I just kept holding his stare. We might still be glaring at one another had Mitch not said, “He’s alright, Bobby. Tougher’n he looks. Got guts. Yeah, he’s alright. Don’t off him on our account.”
     Grimey opened his mouth and spat right in my face. I didn’t so much as flinch. I did not resist at all. He looked up at Mitch and then jumped off me, even lending a hand as I got to my feet.
     Mitch put an arm around my shoulder and said there were no hard feelings. I told him that was just fine. Then he whispered in my ear, “Don’t ever piss off Bobby, man. It ain’t worth it.”
     Mitch and I made our way over to The Ranch Saloon, a sort of private office area for the Bernardino Bikers Motorcycle Club. The two of us were the only customers. The bartender was a fat woman with what smelled like axle grease in her hair. Before we even sat down, she filled two small glasses with whisky. We clinked our shots and downed them like old pals.
     After a few of those, Mitch lightened up and began filling in the blanks. Crockett might have struck a gold vein a couple years back, but I was at last locating a fairly healthy silver mine of my own.
     “We run meth out of here for another club,” he confided. “I won’t say which club, but you can probably guess. That buys us our hogs and our women.”
     “How do you feed all these people, Mitch? You must have close to a hundred mouths out here.”
     He shook his head. “Hundred and five. We got a great scam going. Your buddy Bobby—ain’t he got some temper?—he put us to it. Downtown L.A. The Free Ride Christian Mission. We get money from the state of California to preach the Gospel to recovering drunks and dopers, the homeless, hippies who still ain’t got their shit together. We get money to feed them, but unless they join up out here, they don’t get much food. Once they get out here, Bobby whips a whole different kind of religion on them. The dark side of God, man. The dark side. Ooo-WEE-ooo!”
     I emptied my glass and Mitch motioned for the bartender to refill it. Once she had done so, I asked my host, “You buy into all this Lucifer stuff?”
     He rocked on his stool. “Revolution? Repression? Shit, I got all I can handle getting rich off of my own con. Look, I know Bobby. He wants blood in the streets. He wants to be the monarch, the king, the big kahuna. Fuck, that’s fine. Just, he thinks we ought to get mixed up in it. Thinks we need to go riding through the suburbs, mowing down people walking home from Sunday school. Whack! What’d you call it? Putting the chop on people? That’s what he wants. Fuck, man, I just want to be rich.”
     He told me to roll up my sleeve. I did. He pulled a cigar out of his shirt and sucked on it until the cherry stayed lit. His sleeves were already up. He pushed his bare arm next to mine and dropped the cigar so that it burned evenly on both of us.
     Yeats wrote of “the widening gyre.” As one end of the cone expands, the other contracts, displaying cones within cones, the fabric of society and of consciousness, and yet all of this erupts from inside, shatters apart and awakens a beast, a hideous force, which returns to the beginning to wreak its evil destruction.
     Colt Diver had known such images. The lizard crawled along his arm, seeking, smelling, pursuing an answer to a question it could not ask. Diver’s blank face glowed with transparent tranquility. The lizard disappeared into his cupped hand. With his free hand, Diver drew on a sheet of paper with a charcoal pencil. He drew a large ranch surrounded by throngs of people. Over their heads circled large birds, their mouths salivating with desire. And on the way to the encampment, he drew a creature staring into the sun, its arms dragging at each side, its thighs thick and steady.
     He had never read the Irish poet and would not have cared if he had. He only knew that his own ascendance was returning, his mission clear, and his will enormous. The second coming was at hand.
     The Marines have a funny saying which goes something like this: “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” That’s a useful thing to tell yourself, I imagine. I have a saying of my own: pain is what you feel when a cigar is burning the flesh right off your arm and the doofus beside you is pretending it doesn’t bother him. All the while Mitch and I were acting like that fireball didn’t trouble us a bit, he continued saying things he probably had been warned against divulging. “I heard you met Lady Dorchester. Yeah. That one’s a freak. Yeah. Bobby loves her, though, man, so don’t even think about doing her. I bet you didn’t know she’s the one who got this whole thing into the real big time.”
     Rank as that cigar was, I could nevertheless detect the odor of melting skin. I would never complain about a paper cut again. I said, “What’s the real big time?”
     Mitch’s face was sweating, thank God. He said, “Talk about cons. Shit. That Church of hers sets people free, man. Frees them from drugs and gambling and hookers. Yeah. Except that’s where the money to operate the joint comes from: dope, dice and dames. Shit!”
     He pulled his arm away and the cigar rolled onto the bar. He and I would both have a scar from that little macho exercise.
     He considered his glass. It was empty. He pointed to it and the bartender did her job. When she walked back to the other end of the bar, Mitch said, “We’ll do it, you know. I mean, Bobby knows all about our little dope peddling operation. Got us by the short hairs. Fine. We’ll let him have his fun. We’ll carve up the straights if that’s what he wants.”
     I had had enough to drink. “He ever say why he wanted that?”
     “Sure, yeah, sure. He’s got this idea—you know, he’s a prick, but he ain’t stupid—this idea that when people get scared they go running for religion. But after all these years, Christianity and Judaism and Ayatollahs and Buddha still ain’t saved nobody from starving to death or from getting their kids killed in a war, or kept away the plague or whatever it is. So just when everybody’s given up hope, in walks bad ass Bobby with hundreds of broads and all us biker brothers and he says he’ll show people—the chosen people—how they can get out from under. So he takes his minions and gives them guns and knives and whack-a-do! They finish off the rest of the human race. That leaves Bobby DeGrimestone the head jackal of the pack. Then he kills off all the men except for us bikers and gets all the women to himself and he populates a whole new breed of human being—one completely under his control. Ain’t that some gas?”
     Actually, I had heard happier stories. I said, “You don’t believe it can be done?”
     “Shit. Anything can be done. I know this. If anybody can pull it off, Bobby can. Well, guess we drank our fill. Carmen, close her up for the night!”
     The greasy-haired bartender gave him the eye and didn’t say a word. Mitch and I walked back outside. I looked around and saw Grimey heading right for us.
     He said, “Mitch. We have a deal. You understand, yes?”
     “Yeah. I speak English. I got you. Deal. Yeah.”
     Grimey and I left in a cloud of dust. Riding double I could sense how pleased he really was. His body was trembling with excitement.
     The next day a devout Christian, Georgia farmer and intellectual was elected President of the United States.

Chapter Nine
Ready to be Scared
Power comes from the barrel of a gun.
                        —Chairman Mao
Training = motivation x ability x perception of the environment.
                        —Werner & DeSimone
     After helping break Bruce Diego out of Corcoran, I received permission for a two week respite before tackling the gargantuan problem of releasing Diver. Grimey told Mitch to provide me with transportation. I was granted a Benelli 750 Sei, an inline six, four stroke, 42.3 horsepower five-speed that someone had given a small handicap to by placing a fluid-proof tracking device in its 5.81 gallon gas tank. This was the type of machine designed and engineered either for men in their thirties with something to prove or borderline adrenaline junkies. I will leave it to others to decide into which category I fell. The bike was capable of 180 miles per hour on the straightaway and I didn’t want that tracking device slowing me down. I fished it out at the first gas station and stuck it under the rear bumper of a Winnebago with Alaska plates. Then I rolled out to Crockett’s castle to reconnoiter with Olivia and our two amigos.
     David was standing on the front porch pointing a shotgun in my general direction before I could even get off the bike. I gave him my best toothy grin. He squinted at me. I knew I looked a little different from the last time we’d seen each other. My hair was to my shoulders, I hadn’t shaved in a month, and I was getting off a mean midnight blue motorcycle. At last he leaned the shotgun against the house, rapped on the big living room picture window and ran up to me like I was his long lost son.
     I wasn’t the only one who looked different. David and Wesley had both gained some weight. I imagined this came from having somebody around the house who wasn’t afraid of cooking. Olivia, of course, looked just as beautiful as ever. Even without her Cincinnati Reds caps, I would have known that beautiful smile anywhere. She and I ran hand in hand to our bedroom. We did not rejoin the others until dinnertime.
     Over a wonderful meal of romaine lettuce, cucumbers, diced carrots, red onions, angel hair spaghetti with mushrooms, ground beef and tomato sauce, garlic bread, fried zucchini, and chocolate cake a la mode, we all stared at one another, wondering who should start talking first. They all seemed to have some news they were dying to tell me, so I urged them to go ahead. We had plenty of time for my tales of dread and gore.
     Finally Crockett pinched Olivia on the wrist and told her to go on, it was really her news, wasn’t it?
     With that hint, I developed a suspicion, but I waited for her to say it.
     “Perry, the news is that you and I are pregnant. We are three months along. A baby. Our baby. What do you think of that?”
     Her eyes were wide and her face muscles did not move. As she watched me for my response, I was debating with myself whether to shit or go blind. Then it occurred to me that those were not my only choices. Similar news had been delivered to a couple friends of mine and their reactions had not endeared them to their girlfriends. I was determined not to make the same mistakes. I said, “This is very exciting news! Three months along? Wow. Look, I am surprised. I am also potentially very happy. I’m supposed to be happy, right?”
     She gave me a playful whack on the head with her cap and then placed it on the edge of the table. “Darling, I have never been happier. I’ve wanted to tell you for three weeks. I’m so glad—we’re so glad that you’re back. A baby. We’re going to have a baby!”
     It’s funny. Had I been younger and wiser I might have thought of certain reasons why this was not necessarily such a wonderful occasion. But all I could think about was the light in her eyes, the glow in her belly, and the prospects of parenthood. I knew no pain. All I felt in the world was elation. I doubt I could have picked my own name off a list. A baby. The two of us. I was ecstatic.
     Under the circumstances I thought it best to wait until the next morning to catch everybody up on other current events. During a huge breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, gravy and the best tasting orange juice I have ever had in my life, I spilled the scoop about the short-term plans for Armageddon. Wesley and David were interested, but not as much as I would have expected. All they cared about was that they were going to be “uncles.” It was Olivia, smart cookie that she was, who brought the other two back to earth.
     She said, “You plan to just walk back into that gang of killers?”
     “I plan to think about it. I plan for us to talk about it.”
     “Wesley,” she said. “What do you think?”
     The singer stopped eating and looked me in the eye. As a matter of fact, he looked into both of them. “Too risky. It was too risky before. Now it’s just dumb. Why put yourself through all that?”
     Crockett shook his head at Wesley. He said, “LeVon’s got a point, I think. Hell, Perry, you have more than enough information to give the Attorney General. They can handle it from here on out. They get paid to handle it. You got other things you need to be thinking about now.”
     I held Olivia’s hand beneath the table. I said, “Don’t think for a minute that I disagree with any of you. The only reason I’m even considering it is this: what happens if one of these days, maybe months from now, or a year from now, DeGrimestone or Diver or whoever comes riding down the street with a big sword across the handlebars, a big friendly face on, and as he rides by he waves that cutlass and whacks off our heads? All the philosophy and monarchies aside, these people kill because that’s what they enjoy doing.”
     Crockett gave me a look of dire disappointment. “Like I said, buddy, that is for the cops to worry about. That Madam District Attorney. That Attorney General. Let Epsie write a book about it. You got responsibilities here.”
     On the word “responsibilities,” Olivia gave my hand a hard squeeze.
     I pointed out there was also the issue of many hundreds of other future murder victims. I was being conservative. The truth was that if DeGrimestone and Diver had their way, millions would die. I said, “I haven’t completely made up my mind. But if I had to decide right this second—”
     Olivia said, “Which you do not have to do.” She looked as if she might cry.
     Crockett said, “No. He does have to decide. Decide right now.”
     I was determined not to lose my cool. I said, “I would be in favor of staying right here with you folks.”
     Olivia’s eyes dried instantly. “Not because we pressured you?”
     “Because it’s the right thing to do. I want our baby to have a father. I’m not looking to get killed.”
     “Damned right,” Wesley said.
     Crockett said, “Watch your mouth in front of the child.”
     Everyone smiled and we finished our breakfast in a happy silence.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     I imagine the prospect of the Process Servers killing millions of people seems farfetched. Maybe it was. But I’m inclined to think that it may have been a near fetch instead. Ruth and Wally both had their own encampment of eighty-to-one hundred mutants each. Mitch had a gang of one hundred five. Now that Diego was on the lam, he and Tonya had regrouped their troop of forty-eight. If Diver really did get out of San Quentin—with or without my undercover assistance—he would unite each tribe and draw in a few hundred more like a porch light draws electricians. With the money they had from the Bernardino Bikers’ drug business and the state money from the glorified soup kitchen, they could afford to add to the already substantial cache of arms and ammunition they were amassing. Spread out all over Southern California, these moral slime could conceivably launch a war on two fronts. The first was the more overtly aggressive attack upon the private citizenry. Ransacking homes, knifing and shooting people in random progressions, and other forms of low level terror. The second was of course more insidious. They would reap the benefits of the chaos they themselves created by offering a solution to the violence: sign up with Grimey, Diver and Mitch and join in the slaughter of the rest of humanity. It was sick, it was total evil, and it seemed to me that it had a horribly likely chance of succeeding. But I always worry over little things like this.
     The next morning we all had a meeting at the State’s Attorney General’s office. By “all” I mean Olivia Stephens, Wesley LeVon, David Crockett, Plato Epsie, Cadley and Brutus, State’s Attorney General Alistair Mitchell, County Attorney Frank Fillenfooter, Los Angeles District Attorney Louise Becker, Lieutenant Reichelderfer, LAPD Captain Everett Schmidt, Timothy Garfield (aka Brother Timothy, who, I was surprised to learn, turned out to be another undercover operative, in this case one working for the County Attorney), and myself. Everyone except Olivia drank hot coffee. The entire group nibbled at bagels. All we need was three or four Parcheesi boards and we could have had a party. Crockett was so uncomfortable at there being thirteen of us that AG Mitchell ordered a stenographer to come in and take notes.
     “I want it understood at the outset,” Mitchell began, “just how much we appreciate the contribution of state, county and city law enforcement in this operation.”
     “Absolutely,” District Attorney Becker chimed in. She struck me immediately as being something of a kiss-ass, an impression that became even more solid before the end of the gathering.
     Mitchell continued. “It should also be noted that Messrs. Garfield and LaMarke’s cooperation have been essential to law enforcement efforts. Would you agree with that statement, Captain Schmidt?”
     Schmidt looked to be nearing retirement. I suspected that all he wanted in the world was for somebody to tell him what he was expected to say. Whatever it was, he would say it with conviction. Pull the string in the back of my neck and your sister wins a free shot of penicillin. The Captain cleared his throat as if a flock of small birds had been nesting there. “Yes, certainly, oh yes, quite a contribution, indeed.”
     Reichelderfer rolled one of his eyes at this but did not offer a contrary opinion.
     “Very well then,” Mitchell resumed. “It strikes me that our primary order of business this morning is to disseminate our next plan of action. I presume it goes without saying that what we are about to discuss is of the utmost secrecy? Very well. Upon the unauthorized release of Mr. Diver from the State Prison at San Quentin, the various leadership members of the Commune shall be relocated according to our original confidential assessment of last month.”
     I had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently neither did Plato Epsie because the author leaned forward in his chair and said, “Haw! That’s rich. What confidential assessment was that?”
     Mitchell brought a hand up to play with the mustache perched on his upper lip. “Perhaps Ms. Becker can illuminate this for you after the meeting this morning?”
     “Oh, I would be delighted, sir. Mr. Epsie, do you like Danishes?”
     Plato said, “I like them just fine, ma’am. What I do not care for is being jerked around. Haw haw! Unless I am the only one in the room who does not know what you are talking about, Alistair, I suggest you fill us in. This is important.”
     Brutus cracked the knuckles of both hands and said, “Important.”
     Mitchell continued to twirl the mustache. He tipped his head in Becker’s direction. She looked directly at Epsie and said, “The denouement, Mr. Epsie, of Operation Sheep, involves the relocation of the Commune Leadership.”
     “I gathered that, Louise. Where exactly are they being sent?”
     She gave a quick look back at Mitchell. He wasn’t about to be deterred from the obvious comfort he took in playing with his facial hair. Following a short sigh, Becker said, “The MCIU group has signed off on delivering them to Afghanistan.”
     Epsie shook his head as if to unjar whatever it was that had impeded his hearing. I pushed my chair back to get a better view of the others in the room. Wesley was scribbling something on a torn sheet of notebook paper. Cadley was eying his boss. Brutus seemed fascinated by the sight of his own knuckles. Olivia was watching me closely. Reichelderfer’s hat was lying top down on the table and its owner had one eye engrossed in watching whatever was growing inside it while fingering his boil. The Captain’s brow was perspiring, the way Captain’s brows often do, possibly in anticipation of being called upon to arrest somebody. Fillenfooter looked furious, although he had looked furious from the moment we all entered the room. Brother Timothy (Detective Sergeant Garfield) had his chin on his chest and his fingers interlocked behind his head. I can’t imagine my own demeanor. I suppose I wore the expression of one who is anticipating the worst.
     Epsie broke my concentration when he said, “Perry, do you know anything about talk of Afghanistan?”
     Becker interrupted. “There is no way he could, Plato. Let me explain. As I am certain you all know, the current administration in Washington is in a lame duck status, more or less just running out the clock until the new team arrives in January.”
     Epsie interjected, “Hells bells! What has politics to do with any of this?”
     Louise Becker smiled patiently. “I will tell you. The MCIU team and a member of the outgoing Vice-President’s staff joined us during our last conference and implored that we assist in subversion against the autonomy of the Soviet regime.”
     Epsie turned to Brutus and said, “I don’t think I like where this is headed.” Brutus stopped studying his knuckles and awaited further instructions.
     “Well, there is no way to sugar coat it,” Becker said. “These people—these human mutations—will be brought to the Afghan border shared with the Soviet Union. Once there, they will foment uprisings by the Mujahedeen rulers. They will, to be perfectly blunt, engage Afghan rebels in an aggression against the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The DRA will naturally seek help from the USSR. Ultimately, this aggression will serve to drain the Soviets of resources, sooner or later bringing about the fall of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe. This is a very good thing, Plato. We are fortunate to have been asked to participate in this operation.”
     Fillenfooter added, “This all hinges on Diver successfully initiating a break-out. He has to get away with it.”
     Becker smiled. “Oh, I don’t think we have anything to worry about on that score. Sergeant Garfield, do you concur?”
     Timothy Garfield looked across the table as if he had been daydreaming. He said, “LaMarke is more the point man on that part of the operation. You people really should hear what he has to say before making this kind of decision.”
     Becker turned to me. “Perhaps then, Mr. LaMarke, you would be kind enough to give us your interpretation of the success probability?”
     Olivia sat to my extreme right. Her arms hung at her sides. I took one of her hands in my own and said, “I think you have a great chance of getting what you want out of this. I mean, I won’t be helping, but I’m sure someone can pick up the slack.”
     Plato Epsie laughed.
     Becker glared. “What do you mean by that statement?”
     Olivia tightened her grip on my hand, our own signal for me to keep my cool. I said, “I do not speak in riddles. I work for myself, not for you. I have fulfilled my end of the bargain. I have more than fulfilled it. I have overfilled it. The crap is spilling out of the truck bed and into the streets. I am done.”
     Reichelderfer rapped his fist on the table and his eyes settled on either side of me. “Hey, scumbag. You are done when we say you are done.” I looked his way and saw that the boil on the side of his neck was annoying him almost as much as I had been. He had tried to disguise the inflammation with some ointment, but it was the size and color of a cherry tomato. I flicked a paper clip at the boil, but unfortunately I missed.
     Becker droned on. “Lieutenant, I am certain there is no need for foul language. Mr. LaMarke is simply confused, perhaps just as dear Plato was confused.”
     Epsie said, “Dear Plato is still confused.”
     Brutus growled, “Boss not like to be confused.”
     Becker looked a tad uneasy. She said, “If it is necessary to be completely candid, so be it. We are all operating under orders here. Orders are orders. Therefore, LaMarke has no real choice in the matter. None of us do. A great deal of time and expense has been invested in his training and education. He has been cleared of some very ugly criminal charges. I believe some of his cohorts have also been given favorable consideration in this regard. So you see, Mr. Epsie, Mr. LaMarke, Sergeant Garfield, all of you, Perry here will indeed be helping to break out, or whatever it’s called, that unseemly Mr. Diver fellow from San Quentin.”
     “That is well said,” Mitchell put in, presumably as a way of regaining control of the meeting—that or his mustache was wearing out. “There seems no real decision to be made, in my judgment. Madam District Attorney has said it best when she said that orders are orders. Indeed they are. If for some reason that I cannot fathom LaMarke fails to keep his commitment to this, we shall separate him from his friends here and dispose of the lot of them.”
     “Just a darned minute,” Crockett said, getting to his feet by the last word. “That’s a threat.”
     Wesley added, “A not very nice threat.”
     Mitchell said, “Then allow me to clarify. Someone is going overseas. Fail to cooperate and you will be divided up and shipped separately to the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union where you will have to fend for yourselves.”
     Louise Becker dabbed a handkerchief in the corner of her eyes. “We had so hoped that it would not come to this. After all you have done for us, it is a shame for it to end this way.”
     Olivia clapped her hands together. “I’m just the pregnant lady here, but I would like to ask a few questions. Am I to understand that the Vice-President of this country—?”
     “One of his aides,” three different people muttered.
     “Whatever. That they intend to sort of drop the Process Servers into Afghanistan, let them work the Mujahedeen strugglers there up into a snit and expect a war to break out between Afghanistan and Russia? Is that the plan?”
     Mitchell seemed pleased. “That is well put, my dear. Very well put. Of course, this is not merely war for its own sake. Oh no. We are not monsters. This war, this jihad, as the Arabs like to call it, will be a massive series of battles, possibly lasting for decades. It will be a drain on the Russian economy that the old red bear will not withstand. Godless communism in Eastern Europe will be a thing of the past. In the process, an ugly gang of U.S. criminals will be sent away. Life will be beautiful.”
     Olivia gave her head a brisk shake of disbelief. “You—we—you supposedly are the good guys, right?”
     Fillenfooter chortled. I know it’s a strange sound, but that’s what he did.
     Mitchell said, “Ms. Stephens, this situation is too vast to be dichotomized into such quaint categories. We have the opportunity to give the Soviet Union their version of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was an unwinnable conflict and severe drain upon the U.S. economy. Our country will be in economy recovery from Vietnam for decades, or until another war comes along. Happily, we as a nation have the opportunity to curse the Soviets with the same type of sinkhole and that is what we shall do. As we were asked by the Vice-President’s staffer, which would we rather have? A bunch of stirred up Muslims or the collapse of the Soviet Republic? What harm can the Muslims do to us? The answer is laughable, yes?”
     “Do any of you know anything at all about geopolitics?” Olivia countered. “Do any of you know what a mullah is? Can any of you even spell the word Mujahedeen? Please, people, you cannot be serious about doing this?”
     “We are doing it,” Becker said, “with or without your voluntary assistance.”
     Reichelderfer pulled a handgun out of his hat and pointed it in the direction of Olivia’s stomach. He said, “I have had about enough of this pussy-footing with these people. I’m not here for a lecture on world affairs. Stephens, I guess you think I looked pretty funny the last time we were together? Yeah, that was a real hoot, that was. Well, here’s a hoot for you and pud boy there: we got half a dozen National Guard troops out in that hallway. We got eighteen of the PD’s best shooters out there supplementing them. What we also got is me pointing a gun at your uterus. Now let me hear you say how Goddamned funny that is.”
     “Plato not like you point gun.”
     Olivia was pale with fear. I turned to Brutus and told him to relax. It crossed my mind that Reichelderfer might be getting paychecks from the MCIU in addition to his policeman’s salary. Even the typical psycho cop of which L.A. was at that time overrun couldn’t have been that daring unless he knew his ass was covered.
     Mitchell said, “Lieutenant Reichelderfer! Put that gun back where it was this instant!”
     “You ain’t my boss.”
     “Captain Schmidt! Please control your subordinate!”
     Schmidt cleared the returning bird’s nest out of his throat and said, “Lieutenant! You know better than to do this.”
     Reichelderfer looked around the room, trying to figure out who his friends were. He shook his head in disgust and returned the gun to his hat on the table. “You can’t reason with these people,” was all he said.
     As my party passed behind Reichelderfer on our way out of there, I teased the point of my ink pen into the skin around the boil on the Lieutenant’s neck. He screamed out in what sounded like gripping agony, fell out of his chair, grabbed the sore spot with both hands and kicked his legs in the air like a dying cockroach. It was just a little prick of the skin. Honest. Why he carried on so I’ll never know.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     We agreed. There was nothing else to do. We were reasonable people. As soon as we were outside, however, Plato advised us to head back out to the Calamo and stay there. He even offered to lend the services of Brutus and Cadley.
     I said, “I don’t know what the morality of this thing is. Do you all believe what they were saying? That Russia would eventually just collapse?”
     Epsie put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “That is for the Russian people to work out. Understand something here, folks. I am no commie. I love my country and its economic system has treated me just fine. I’m no isolationist either. I believe that sometimes you have to get involved in the other guy’s mess to keep it from spilling over into your own backyard. But this: this is insanity.”
     “But do you believe it?” I persisted.
     “My people are from Italy, Perry. In Italy, the government changes with the wind. Over there they have a saying. They say never to get in the way of your enemies when they are trying to kill one another. That is what I believe. The Church of Pseudoscience. The Process Servers. The Intelligence division of the outgoing administration. That clown Reichelderfer. The Soviets. The Mujahedeen. A whole bunch of crazy people, the lot of them.”
     “Crazy,” Brutus repeated.
     “Crazy as a soup sandwich,” Cadley added.
     “Haw! That’s right. If all these people want to destroy one another, let them. The moral thing? Is the moral thing to load the weapons for them? To hand them their guns and show them where to point? That’s what we’re talking about here. Helping these people in any way is tantamount to pulling the trigger yourself.”
     “We can’t hide forever, Mr. Epsie,” Olivia pointed out. “Mr. Crockett has a beautiful California Alamo where he has been letting us stay, but sooner or later one of those people upstairs will pick up the telephone and tell one of their pet zombies to kill us. God forbid they should actually kidnap us and ship us overseas like a crate of bananas.”
     Crockett said, “Ain’t nobody gonna penetrate our fortress, Olivia. Wesley here has sobered up mighty fine and I’ve been learning him to shoot. Neither one of us touches drugs no more. Jeez, we don’t even smoke now that you’re in the family way. Our wits is sharp, honey. Never would let anybody trouble you.”
     Putting my arms around Crockett and LeVon, I said, “How do you think Diver would take to being manipulated like this? If he knew?”
     “Haw!” said Epsie. “How would a mad dog like to find out he’d been chasing a paper kitten?”
     Olivia said, “The temptation of all that power, though, to topple an entire economic regime: it might be too much for him to resist.”
     “I hear you,” I said. “But what kind of revolutionary urban guerrilla is secretly working for the system? Think about it. DeGrimestone turned his back on that system. Even if Diver was willing to go along, Grimey would balk.”
     “If he knew,” Olivia said.
     “Haw! I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell him.”
     I agreed. It occurred to me that it might be better if he were to find out from someone who was not with us. In the meantime, I was unwilling to risk Olivia or our baby to the fragile mercies of those imbeciles we had just met. I decided to take one last action on their behalf. I would help Colt Diver break out of prison. Although I did not know it at the time, there would be one more risk to follow. That risk would make having Diver walking around free seem quite mild by comparison.

Chapter Ten
The Nonbelievers
Money is a kind of poetry.
                        —Wallace Stevens
     Olivia and I spent the next phase of our respite back in Circleville, Ohio. Neither of us had been to work recently and it was possible the neighbors were wondering how long they would be babysitting our pets. We had a German Shepherd Greyhound mix named Cody of whom I was particularly fond. The other two members of our household family were Gilligan and Baby Blue, a red-tailed African Grey and blue-crested Amazon, respectively, the former bilingual, the latter monosyllabic. The man across the street who had taken in the birds had taught Gilligan to say, “The fuck you been?” with genuine conviction.
     As mentioned earlier, Olivia’s value to her employers was sufficient that they could overlook an occasional extended leave. My own situation was a tad more tenuous. Although I was presumably a grown man, I still worked for the same steak house restaurant that had begun employing me nineteen years earlier. During that time I had received the occasional cost of living adjustment, but despite this only earned $3.10 per hour, making me the highest paid line cook in America at that time. Olivia herself never once criticized me for staying with the Blue Drummer. Her parents, however, dropped frequent hints that their prospective son-in-law could surely do better for himself and for his fiancée. Mr. Stephens, of the Stephens Tires fortune, had been nice enough to offer me a better paying job, with more pleasant working conditions, summer vacations and health benefits. The fact that I declined this and similar offers was among the reasons that otherwise perfectly pleasant people often told me I was an idiot.
     Most people assumed I was neophobic. That was inaccurate. Had I been afraid of change, I would certainly have confronted that fear as I had the others. It would have been more accurate to say that I did not welcome change, at least as it applied to me. I had had the same girlfriend for seventeen years, the same car for a similar period of time, basically the same haircut, many of the same clothes, and even one pair of special drumsticks that I never used but which sat atop my trap set in the garage.
     I was not without ambition. I was not without dreams. I was, however, upon our return to Circleville, without a job. Chuck Orr had finally had all of me he could take. He wrote a personal check for nine hundred dollars and handed it to me just to get me to go away. I begged him to change his mind. Perhaps he was neophobic, for he said that he never changed his mind. I even stooped to telling him that Olivia and I were pregnant. All Chuck would say was that no one person was indispensable, a remark which to this day I do not understand.
      It is one mark of Olivia’s devotion and insight that she did not stomp me to death when I said, “Well, there’s more than one restaurant in Circleville.”
     She did say, “I know you’re joking.”
     I was. But at that point I was far from certain what I was going to do to earn a living.
     We took our pet family to Deer Creek Park and laughed as Gilligan and Baby Blue insulted passersby. Cody was so happy being there and having us back that he began running in a short circle and couldn’t seem to stop until Gilligan did her imitation of a hissing cat. Hearing this, Cody recognized his own foolishness and for a few minutes hid under our picnic table with his front paws over his eyes.
     Back at our house, Olivia and I divided up the mail. Much of it was bills, many of them overdue. The check old man Orr had given me took care of those, leaving us just enough to buy seeds for the birds, Jo-Bo Brand Dog Food for Cody (their slogan was “Jo-Bo puts a smile on your dog’s face,” a rare example of truth in advertising), and approximately what we needed for gas and food to get us back out to California if we drove and if the trip was mostly downhill. Olivia insisted that we take the family with us this time. That was fine with me. It might be crowded in a two-seater with a big dog, two birds and a certain amount of luggage and supplies, so Olivia paid one month’s mortgage on the house and shelled out for a down payment on a 1976 Ford conversion van, neon blue exterior with dark purple wall to wall carpeting.
     The 2,451 mile trip took us four days. The birds entertained Cody and themselves most of the way, but I think we were all quite relieved to step out of the van and onto David Crockett’s property. Once again, the retired prospector ran out onto the porch with his shotgun. Once again he squinted in our general direction and then rapped on the window to let Wesley know the coast was clear.
     Crockett and Cody got along famously. The miner sat down in his own front yard, waiting for the dog to approach him. “You are such a good dog,” he said, rubbing Cody’s ears. “Did you have a nice trip? Were you a good dog? I’ll bet you were.” Then to us he said, “Reminds me of Rufus, the old Lab I had back when I first met Wesley. Wes, you remember Rufus, don’t you?”
     “What kind of birds are these?” Wesley asked, sticking a hesitant finger inside Gilligan’s cage.
     “Expensive,” Olivia said. “They love music. Maybe you can sing to them”
     “The fuck you been?” Gilligan said.
     “Mama’s boy, mama’s boy,” replied Blue.
     Wesley laughed and carried the cages inside the house. When Crockett stood to go inside, Cody gave the miner’s posterior a healthy sniff and seemed to approve.
     It was nice to be back.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     It was horrible being back. The Process Servers were waging an interpersonal petty-ass feud among themselves. Bruce and Tonya insisted that Colt Diver needed to stay in prison, their reasoning being that he would be more inspirational as a cloistered martyr than as a potential challenge to the authority of DeGrimestone. Ruth and Wally were equally convinced that Tonya was an opportunistic bitch and that Bruce couldn’t be trusted across the street because he was wrapped around Tonya’s middle finger. If Timothy had a viewpoint—either feigned or real—he never shared it. Personally, I was not thrilled with the notion of unleashing upon any part of the world a Pied-piping heavyweight psychotic vermin-licker such as Colt Diver, but I too kept my mouth shut. As for Grimey, indifference was not his way. He announced, “You may elect a path other than mine, if you desire. Your will is your own to command. Your flesh, on the other hand, belongs to me. So long as you inhabit your human guise, you will do as I say. Correct, Brother Policeman?”
     Before Tim could speak, DeGrimestone jerked an automatic pistol from under his robe, lodged the barrel beneath the detective’s throat and fired, all in one motion, the bullet tearing through Timothy’s chin, lips and nose before finally nestling in the ceiling. Tim’s knees buckled. He fell forward, bleeding onto the carpet, convulsing.
     DeGrimestone spoke. “If any of you moves to help this traitor, you can join him in death.” With that, he drew back a leg and kicked Sergeant Garfield in the head. None of us moved. There was nothing to do.
     I glared at DeGrimestone. At this point I did not care whether my cover was blown or not. All I cared about at that instant was a resolution I made to myself while memorizing every line on that bastard’s face: He will not make it to Afghanistan. I didn’t know if I could pull that off, but I was determined to try my best.
     People die. That was a fact. Covers get blown. Understood. But to just seize a weapon, point it at another human being and blow him away without so much as blinking? This was beyond my comprehension. My thoughts were flooded with questions. How had DeGrimestone known Garfield was a cop? Had he been acting on information or merely a suspicion? If the former, what else did he know? If the latter, he had been willing to execute someone based on a hunch, which meant that nobody was safe. People die. Some of them even have it coming. But not Jamie Wellover. Not Diana Spradlin. And not Timothy Garfield. I really hated this.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     Three days later we moved on San Quentin. Gerald was our inside man. His fraternal brother, Randall, was in administration there. Because of Arbogast’s untimely demise, Randall moved up one notch in rank. He was now the assistant to Cheryl Darcey, the new Assistant Warden. In his first act of nepotism, Randall had secured a position for Gerald as a Corrections Officer in D-Block, Quentin’s toughest lock-up. The inmates of D-Block were considered “at risk,” in the sense that other inmates, looking to make a name for themselves, would be tempted to slit the throat of many of these high-profile criminals. Sirhan Sirhan was in D-Block. Juan Corona was there. Charles Manson had been there before getting transferred to Folsom. The Block’s most notorious resident at the moment was Colt Diver.
          Inmates in this sector did not mix with the general population. On the contrary, their meals were brought to them in their twelve by ten foot cells, from which they were only excused for showers and a twenty-minute per day exercise period. Diver had attacked another inmate on Christmas Day, provoked, he said, when the other guy wouldn’t stop bellowing “Silent Night.” As a punishment, Colt was permitted out of his cell only for bathing. For the last two weeks, he had declined that privilege.
     On the fifteenth day of his cleanliness strike, Diver was informed that Randall Lasitter had issued a memorandum to the administrator of D-Block that any prisoner who refused to bathe would be hosed in his cell. Colt recognized this as the signal he had been awaiting. Two CO’s, Martin Hedgewater and Gerald Lasitter, were dispatched to escort the suddenly cooperative Prisoner Number 9038752, Colt Diver, to the shower at oh-nine-hundred hours.
    At 8:45 that morning, I approached the Primary Security Gate driving a delivery truck marked Marin County Uniforms & Supplies. Sitting in the seat adjacent to mine was Bruce Diego. We passed our identification to the security guard at Prime Sec. On a clipboard sheet he noted the name of our company, scribbled the information on our ID’s, and went to the rear of the van, waiting for me to unlock it. I hopped out, unlatched the three Yale padlocks that secured the door, and threw open the back gate for his inspection. He compared the weigh bill numbers on another sheet of paper with the ones on the boxes we were hauling. There was a part of me that hoped he would jiggle those boxes, just for the hell of it.
     As he stepped off the ledge of the deck, he returned our identification and said, “Gonna rain today, weatherman says.”
     I gazed skyward. The fat gray clouds looked fit to bursting. I said I hoped we had our deliveries finished before that happened. Then he directed us along a narrow driveway that curved around the north side of the facility and disappeared to the right. The security guard said, “Georgie ain’t working today?”
      Bruce started to speak, but I cut him off. “Never heard of no Georgie,” I said. “Course, we are new.”
     The guard tossed his clipboard back inside the tiny guard house. “Never met him myself,” he said. “All the other guys from your outfit tell me he’s kind of a prick. Well, I reckon you’ll find out. Take it easy.” With that he waived us on and we rolled down the drive and disappeared from his view half a mile ahead.
     Three trustees were waiting for us at the loading dock. One of them ran around to open the back gate of the van. When he did, he found Tonya Pittman kneeling toward him, pointing a .22 revolver at his face. An empty box lay open beside her.
     Gerald had knocked Martin Hedgewater unconscious inside Diver’s cell. Together the two criminals strapped the CO to Diver’s narrow bed and covered him with a sheet. Inside the shower facility, Diver shaved his face and head. Gerald removed his own outer uniform and handed it to Diver. Colt climbed into the loose-fitting uniform, donned the official cap worn in San Quentin by D-Block Corrections Officers, and marched with Gerald Lasitter to Internal Security Check R, where the man on duty buzzed them through without so much as looking up. From there they wound their way directly through the prison infirmary, Gerald even stopping for a moment to chat with one of the prison orderlies. Gerald and Colt exited the north end of the infirmary together and proceeded down a long hallway where two prisoners were engaged in a detail of mopping the floor. They both glanced up at the two uniformed men, but neither spoke. Once through the hallway, they reached the interior of the loading dock where Gerald informed a CO named Bremer that he was being relieved because they needed him back in sector R. It was something about a surprise party, Gerald said. Bremer punched his secret code into the exit door and smiled as he hurried on his way. Gerald Lasitter and Colt Diver looked out on the loading dock platform and saw me sitting behind the wheel of the delivery truck.
     Diego, Lasitter and Diver tied up and gagged the prison trustees assigned to the loading detail and shoved them into a corner of the inside of the dock. Diego returned to the front seat while Colt, Gerald, and Tonya crawled into the laundry bags in the rear of the delivery mobile and pulled the slip knots. Bruce climbed back into the shotgun position. I dropped the vehicle into gear and swung around toward the Prime Sec.
     “That was fast,” the fellow at the guard house told me.
     “Behind schedule,” I replied, hoping that would explain my perspiration. “Guess it’s good to be busy.” I hopped out and started to unlatch the rear of the truck again, but the nice gentleman just waived me on.
     “Job security,” the man said. “Don’t want to get Georgie PO’d at you. Take it easy, now.”
     With that, we eased through the front gate. A mile and a quarter farther, I pulled the van over into the parking lot of a Safeway Store. My motorcycle was waiting there. The others piled into the Lincoln Town Car. From there we all cruised our way out to The Ranch.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     The Bernardino Bikers perched on their crotch rockets along a semi-circle behind The Ranch house, ready to toss one of their World War II hand grenades at approaching enemies. Mitch was standing alongside his bike at the epicenter of the semi-circle. I motioned a thumbs-up gesture at him and a loud whoop exploded from the biker boys. As Diver hurried out of the Town Car, at least two hundred women and girls rushed from inside The Ranch house and flocked around him. You’d have thought the Beatles had reunited.
     The last person to step out of the house was Robert DeGrimestone. He was dressed in his customarily subdued manner: a long black robe (beneath which he carried a gun in a shoulder holster, as I now knew), Indian sandals, and an inverted cross hanging from a chain around his neck. Diver peeled out of his prison uniform shirt and tossed it high in the air. The females all started to squeal at this, but the edge of a whisper cut through their enthusiasm as Grimey approached. By the time he reached the crowd, even the wind was afraid to blow.
     DeGrimestone looked at Diver and said, “We are happy to have you back with us, Brother Diver. Far too long you have been away.”
     Colt wrapped his arms around the two women standing nearest him. He may have drooled; I couldn’t tell for certain. He said, “I know you want to get down to business, Bobby. But I’ve been away a long time. Need to do a little catching up first.” At this the girls giggled. I thought I might vomit.
     Grimey continued to give Diver the stare. Bruce sidled up next to the big kahuna and told him that everything had come off exactly as planned. DeGrimestone did not move. He did not say a word. He just kept on staring at Diver. It was so much like a tension out of High Noon that I half expected Gary Cooper to appear from the shadows. A light rain began to drizzle. No one mentioned it.
     Colt said, “Bobby, I’ll get with you right after sundown. That’s still your favorite time to play, I’ll bet.” Then he said, “Ladies, if you’ll follow me, I know a quiet little place inside where we can catch up on lost opportunities. Let’s go!”
     I don’t know what the personal record for one man in an afternoon is, but Diver must have come close to setting it. True to his word, however, he met us out by the corral right at sundown.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     In the hills above them, brush fires that had burned for months were out in minutes. Weighty clouds fell nearly to the earth’s surface, blowing wet dust down and across the hilltops. The deserts converging in Kabul, Afghanistan, responded with silence. The small group of Mujahedeen soldiers kneeled together and faced the sky as torrent after torrent blew across their fortified encampment. There had been no sightings of hail reported in the Afghan capital for nearly two centuries. In the pre-dawn hours this morning, the jagged ice balls struck all around the soldiers, dropping the temperature thirty degrees in just a few minutes. The soldiers had observed such signs for days now and were encouraged. The aide de camp commented to the general that nature was on their side. The general smiled and awaited the next uprising.
     It rained hard that evening. The spills rolled down off the mountains and turned parts of The Ranch into mud pools. The decades-long drought had left the ground so dense and dry that the rain couldn’t penetrate it. So the water just sat there, lapping up each new raindrop. It would’ve been a lovely thing to observe from inside a building. Being out in it was another matter entirely. Being out in it with a gang of sociopaths was even less of a thrill.
     By sundown more than a thousand flame seekers had arrived with tents and sleeping bags. Along with the Bernardino Bikers and the outer party members, the neo-groupies were piled up inside the bunkhouse, nice and dry. Only we hardcore loons lacked the sense to come in out of the rain. Grimey, Diver, Mitch, Bruce, Tonya, Wally, Ruth, Gerald and I stood beneath the overhang outside the stables, trying to keep our cigarettes dry and have a conversation.
     This was Tuesday night. The air raid and ground troop movements would strike at dawn Saturday. Most of the people standing with me would be captured, retrained, and removed to Afghanistan, where they would change the course of geopolitics forever. Or not.
     For good or ill, I assumed I was the only one present aware of the impending attack. The others appeared absorbed in their own plans of action. Diver wanted to wait a few days in order to allow the multitudes to swell, then arm them and attack different sections of Los Angeles. He and Mitch had worked out a scenario that involved eight teams of half a dozen bikers leading a squadron of seventy screaming psychos into the upscale regions, a series of attacks which neither the city cops nor state police would be able to begin to address. The others, according to Diver, would remain at The Ranch, fortifying the place against any type of police or military invasion. Already someone had strung field telephones and secured automatic weapons in bunkers throughout the acreage.
     DeGrimestone did not want to wait. He insisted the Commune launch a single assault first thing in the morning. His plan called for a series of rigidly-timed strikes against the public utilities, national banks, food distribution centers, telecommunications headquarters, and the Main Post Office of West Los Angeles, the idea being to disrupt public access to information while leaving signs of horrid destruction everywhere they went.
     Despite their differences, both plans were the products of disturbed minds and so were sure to have their many adherents.
     “Antiquated concepts of majority rule are meaningless,” Grimey announced. “Anyone who wishes to pursue a path other than mine is free to do so, just as he is free to endure the consequences.”
     “Hey, fuck you,” Diver said. “You think all these kids would be here right now, let alone Mitch’s boys, if it weren’t me drawing them? Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the break-out. But let’s face it, Bob. You did it to make the whole thing stronger. We’ll do things my way this time.”
     DeGrimestone did not say a word. He reached out and gripped Colt by the throat. He lifted him off the ground. He held him out at a seventy-five degree angle for several seconds, looking up at him as if he couldn’t decide whether to throw him out in the mud or swallow him for dinner. As it turned out, he did neither of these things. What he did was to howl. He let loose with a sound that made me imagine something unspeakable happening to a coyote. Diver looked very pale, from what I could see of his face. Just when it seemed that Colt would have to pass out or die, Grimey set him back down on his feet. “We will do it your way,” the robed one said. “After all, what can a few more days matter? Now, you will excuse me. I hunger.” So saying, he ran off around the side of the stables. Where he went I cannot imagine and neither shall I speculate. All I can say is that I was relieved. If DeGrimestone had insisted on having his own way in the matter, I would have been forced to find a means of notifying that bastard Reichelderfer, telling him they needed to move in ahead of schedule. The less conversation I had with that boil-necked cretin, the better my blood pressure.
     Wednesday morning. I woke up feeling someone tickling the soles of my feet. I recoiled and saw it was Tonya. I recoiled some more. The light was a desert-style, rain-just-cleared-out, early morning patch of beams, but I would have sworn she looked flirtatious. Her lids were half closed, the eyes beneath them turned up at the edges like cornea smiles, and her lips were wet and puckered. I was very uncomfortable. “What do you want?”
     “I never fucked a cop before,” she said, pulling a stiletto out from beneath her shirt. “Just trying to get in the mood.”
     I forced myself to yawn. “Get in the mood somewhere else,” I said and rolled over so my back was facing her.
     She gave my shoulder a gentle poke with the tip of her stiletto. “Too late, cop. We’re gonna do it. Then I’m gonna off you. You should thank me for letting you go out smiling.”
     Realizing this problem was not likely to go away on its own, I turned back around, still wrapped in my sheet. “Look,” I said. “What’s this all about? I am not a cop. Cops do not shoot state employees in guard towers. Cops do not break stiletto-wielding wenches out of prison. And cops do not sleep with slingshots.” The sheet dropped and I let fly a small stone to which I had stuck a trio of thumbtacks. The load took her between the eyes and she fell off the bed and onto the floor with a most annoying scream.
     Diego ran into my room as if he had been listening from just the other side of the door, which, of course, he had. “Tonya, are you alright? What’d he do to you? What did you do to her?”
     I stood up and pulled on a pair of boxers. “Get that stinking nit out of my room. The next time she wants to kill me, tell her to skip the black widow routine. I’m old-fashioned. No sex before death. At least, not immediately before.”
     She was going to be in a lot of pain for a very long time. That tiny spot right between the eyebrows—or in her case, in the center of the lone eyebrow—and where the bridge of the nose joins the forehead does not respond well to being pricked with weighted thumbtacks. The blow causes an instant migraine that may take months to go away. FYI.
     I was not really all that concerned with her headaches. I was very concerned, however, with what she had said. Being called a cop made me feel something short of clean, of course. More importantly, I wondered about the source of that remark. It was possible that she was just as crazy as a crab on a sun-drenched beach. It was also possible that she had turned up something. Worst of all was the possibility that she was parroting what somebody else here had been saying.
     Over breakfast, Diver mentioned the morning altercation. “Heard you nailed Tonya.”
     “No,” I said. “I tacked her.”
     Diver laughed like a rooster. “You did good, Slim. Real good. She tried that booga-booga shit on me once a while back. Back then, before she got all ugly, I almost agreed to it.”
     I laughed. It seemed to be expected of me. Inside, I wanted to fly away. I wanted to open my mouth and scream for a week. I wanted to choke on my own guts and leave this insanity behind.
     He said, “Not that she’s the only one who thinks you’re playing both ends against the middle.” He went on eating his cornflakes.
     “You always talk in riddles?”
     “Always. Ain’t you noticed? Shit, you didn’t even know I was sending you clues back when you interviewed me, did you? Naw, you sure didn’t. If you had, I might still be eating breakfast in Quentin. Don’t sweat it. I know you ain’t the fuzz, just like I know you ain’t no biker. You sure ain’t no biker. Just like you ain’t a Process Server. Just like you wasn’t with People magazine. I don’t know exactly what you are. But that’s alright. I ain’t worried. You worried?”
     I spooned some strawberries into my cereal. “I am thoughtful.”
     Colt seemed to approve of this answer. His body rocked forward in his chair. “Thoughtful,” he said. “You better stay just that way.”
     Wednesday night. Grimey woke up just after sundown. He walked into The Ranch sitting room, where I was sitting asleep, and kneeled down in front of me. “You have to do something about all these people,” he said.
      I rubbed my eyes and admitted that made a certain amount of sense. The walls were getting fit to explode from all the new bodies that kept arriving, most of them female, all of them young. “We could have a concert,” I suggested, an idea that I’d been nursing for a few hours. “I’m friends with Wesley LeVon. He knows everybody in the music business.”
     Grimey grimaced as if he had just picked up what he thought was a glass of soda that turned out to be Tang. But as it happened he must have decided he like Tang because he said, “Then why are you sitting here? Take care of it. Set it up on the roof. It will be like Altamont. Schedule it for tomorrow night, right after sunset. Run it through Friday night. Then Saturday morning we’ll kill the musicians. They’ll be our first new victims.” So saying, he rose, gave me a stare that begged me to defy him, and turned away and left when I didn’t.

Chapter Eleven
A Horse of a Different Color
Fair is foul and foul is fair.
     Thursday morning. Olivia delivered Wesley and David to The Ranch. Under any other circumstances that I can imagine, I would have been tap-dancingly elated to see her. But having the love of my life and mother of our unborn child in amidst a pack of murderers and would-be murderers grieved me to no end. She declined to discuss it and I couldn’t very well make a production because I didn’t want that pack of vermin overhearing that she was pregnant. If such information got around, it might make her a target, and there was no way I was going to allow that to happen. I bit my lip.
     Right behind this lucky trio came Granado and the Fingerprint Men, the only group Wesley had been able to get to play on such short notice at a desert resort for cultists. Granado and his band were not the least bit Satanic. They were just happy to have a large crowd. They also happened to be big fans of Steppenwolf, a passion we shared. I suggested that with so many bikers in the audience, it wouldn’t hurt to play some ‘Wolf tunes. The lead singer, known to the universe only as Joe, said they could play anything that group had ever recorded. I showed them to the roof.
     We finished setting up the instruments and amplifiers just before the lunch truck arrived. The Commune had run out of food sometime the previous afternoon and the natives were growing crabby, just as I’m sure the crabs were growing native. Navigating an eighteen-wheeler out to The Ranch had to be tricky business, but the flock of self-absorbed polytheists cared not a bit for that. Someone smashed open the back of the trailer with a pick-ax and before the truck driver—whom I recognized right away as Brutus—had even come to a complete stop, more than half the frozen food in his bed had been liberated. Brutus looked furious as he hopped out of his cab, but before he could even focus on what he planned to grunt, Colt Diver was standing right beside him with a large duffel bag.
     “This’ll cover your expenses,” Diver said. “Come back in three hours with another load and you can pick up a second sack just like that one.”
     Brutus opened the bag and fished around inside. His hand emerged with a knot of currency in it. His fury vanished. He mouthed his approval. The food raiding resumed.
     The delivery by Epsie’s bodyguard had been prearranged. The Attorney General had wanted someone to infiltrate and skedaddle, just to stay long enough to size the place up and vamoose. Brutus had volunteered.
     The driver-bodyguard shook Diver’s hand and was gone amid a cloud of dust and debris. “Three hours,” he hollered out his window. One of the things Epsie had told me when he and I had arranged for Brutus to make this food delivery was to not eat the carrots. He did not elaborate. It did occur to me that both DeGrimestone and Diver were vegetarians. I had not paid attention to the eating preferences of the other members of the inner party.
     Thursday afternoon. Suzie Dorchester rolled up with two cameramen and a sound girl. I guessed DeGrimestone really did want his own version of Altamont. The thought made me shudder. She also brought a briefcase for Mitch. It was crammed with mescaline. The head biker passed the drugs out to the “security force” and told them to set up a defensive formation along any possible entrance.
     I said hello to Suzie but she ignored me entirely. All these months later her ear still looked like it hurt.
     Thursday night. By the time the first chords hummed out of LeVon’s guitar—no one had thought to bring a piano—the crowd of what was now approximately 3,500 swarmed around the house from all angles. Wesley had told me he wasn’t about to play any of his own songs for these people and asked if I had any suggestions. I told him I did.
     Using Granado’s bass player and putting myself behind a much nicer drum set than the one I had back at home, we broke out with a twenty-minute extremely extended version of an old song by The McCoys called “Hang On Sloopy.” LeVon was no Rick Derringer, but he nevertheless did a damned fine long-ass guitar solo that even had the violence-prone Bernardino Bikers swaying from side to side. This was not a crowd we cared to alienate, so we turned the “stage” over to the Fingerprint Men once the song ended.
     Just as they were about to start, the big eighteen-wheeler full of food passed through the phalanx of bikers. This time the crowd spread to let Brutus through. Colt scurried up a ladder to the roof with another duffel bag, smiled at Crockett, who was sitting next to Olivia behind the make-shift stage, and grabbed the microphone. “Mr. Truck Driver,” he said. “Back your truck up and we’ll unload it for you. People, help the big man out, okay?”
     The crowd was much more civilized this time. They waited for Brutus to unlatch his cargo. They shifted the boxes of food out of the trailer bed and passed them over their heads, stacking the containers in neat piles outside the cafeteria area. Brutus smiled in appreciation and was blushing like crazy as he heeded Diver’s request to come up on the roof so everyone could see him and show their appreciation. I’m sure he was also looking forward to getting paid again.
     The camera people shined their spotlights on the bodyguard as he and Colt repeated the gesture of shaking hands. He accepted the duffel bag and was trusting enough this time not to even bother looking inside. After an appreciative round of crowd response, he stepped with some caution back down the ladder, threw the bag into the cab of his truck, got inside the cab himself, and made his way back out the way he had come. Granado and the Fingerprint Men accompanied his departure with the first of the sixteen Steppenwolf tunes in the evening’s repertoire.
     At the end of the group’s set, I saw Diver and Diego laughing together. “What’s so funny?” I asked in a decidedly snotty way.
     Diego put a hand on my shoulder and said, “That driver’s in for a surprise when those diamondbacks wake up.”
     “What are you talking about?” I demanded.
     Bruce related to me what Diver had just told him. Colt had etherized three full-grown rattlesnakes and buried them beneath the cash he had placed in the duffel bag. “By the time he gets around to opening that sack, they’ll be good and angry,” Bruce said. “Teach that pig to be late bringing us food.” The two men had a good laugh at that.
     Friday noon. In eighteen hours a military force would appear and round up the lot of them. How they planned to pull this off I did not know. It crossed my mind that just possibly a lot of people were going to get hurt, as in badly. I told Crockett I wanted him to take Olivia back to the Calamo. He told me he would do his best. I asked if he had any defensive weapons on him. He slapped his thigh and said that he had a sawed-off .410 strapped to his leg. I didn’t know if that was good or bad, but I tried to look encouraged.
     Friday night. Olivia refused to leave. Crockett promised he would not let her out of arms’ reach. I knew how much he looked forward to being an “uncle,” so I had to take what little consolation I could from that. Meanwhile, the carrots were half gone and I was damned if I could notice anything stranger than usual about either Grimey or Diver. The Bernardino Bikers, however, presumably as a consequence of ingesting so much mescaline, had begun punching one another, first with their fists, and soon enough with wooden chairs and anything else that wasn’t nailed down, which is one of the reasons I secured the bass drum to the roof. Granado and the Fingerprint Men started up again a little after ten that night. In just eight hours the beginning of the end would be nearing the middle.
     Realizing that my own contribution to this project had exhausted itself, I decided to take the five of us—I was now always including the baby in calculations—out of there before whatever type of operation it was going to be got started. Some miscreant had liberated the van’s engine, so we would have to escape on foot. Since Olivia had assured me there was no way she was leaving The Ranch without me, I guessed that this might make her happy. I guessed right. That is, I guessed right about her being happy. I guessed wrong about our ability to escape unharmed.
     We didn’t have much trouble finding a hole in the sloppy perimeter of quarreling bikers. With the band playing off in the distance, we got about three-quarters of a mile from The Ranch when Mitch came roaring up on the very bike he had given me. “The fuck are you guys going?” he asked.
     With what I thought was great aplomb, Wesley replied, “We’re on our way to a huge shit-in.”
     Mitch didn’t say anything. He just kept looking at us, trying to make up his mind.
     Wesley went on. “Yeah, I mean, it’s not really for just anybody, but what happens is a big group of people take laxatives and then try real hard to hold it in and then there’s this mass exodus of shitting right in a big screened-in area. Then everybody jumps in and rolls around. Some people think it’s kind of gross, but hell, we like it. Back to nature, you know. Say, man, you wanna come?”
     For a moment I thought Mitch was seriously considering joining us.
     He shook his head, told us we were fucking crazy, spun the bike around and left.
     Now by this time I think it is safe to say that the five of us were feeling quite relieved. Granted, we had a hell of a walk ahead of us—it had to be at least twelve miles (I know, I know, Crockett was thrilled) of going up and down rugged hillsides before we would reach civilization again—but the prospects of that were far more pleasant than whatever it was each of us individually imagined awaited the growing throngs back at The Ranch. My only regret was that I wouldn’t be there to help beat the devil out of DeGrimestone for what he had done to Timothy and likewise out of Diver for snaking Brutus.
     We were halfway up a narrow ridge when we paused to let Wesley catch his breath. Years of drinking and smoking hadn’t done his body too much good. I gazed up at the top of what was actually a small mesa, estimating that once we were there, we would be completely out of view of The Ranch. Olivia squeezed my hand as if she had been reading my thoughts. “How many miles do you think we’ve come so far?” she asked.
     None of us had heard him approach. There was no telling how long he had been standing there, hidden in the night shadows. When he spoke, the sound was like an old nail sliding into cold wood. “You are not going anywhere,” DeGrimestone said, grabbing a handful of Olivia’s long blonde hair in his rancid fist. He roped an arm around her neck. The hand holding her hair was pushing into her back so that if she tried to elbow or kick him, she would only strike the air.
     My first thought was of Crockett’s shotgun. Just as quickly I realized it would be useless because of its spread. The blast that would kill DeGrimestone would do the same to Olivia and our child. I honestly did not know what to do. It was a terrible feeling.
     “Let me go,” Olivia said.
     DeGrimestone gave her head a slight twist. Her face contorted in agony. Crockett made a move forward, but I motioned him back with a wave of my arm. Wesley stepped up before I could stop him.
     “Let her go,” LeVon told him, nice and easy. “Let her go and you can go back to The Ranch. You can rejoin all those people who love you so much. Nobody here needs you. Truth is, we don’t even believe in you.”
     DeGrimestone leaned the side of his face against the back of Olivia’s head and appeared to be listening for confirmation of something. His face grew a grotesque grin. He said, very softly, very strangely, “It’s the child that I want. The sacrifice must bless our new beginning. Everyone will know. Everyone will believe.”
     Wesley shook his head. “That’s not true, Bob. What’s true is that you’re just a sick bucket of scum with a messiah complex. Well, we’re the nonbelievers.”
     Grimey’s face went blank for an instant and in that instant Wesley jumped. He came in low, trying to tackle DeGrimestone, but the robed one recovered from whatever doubt he’d been having and sidestepped, tripping Wes and sending him face down into the dirt just as a low cloud passed beneath the moon. For some reason I thought of the finale of a movie I’d seen a year earlier. I shouted, “Smile, you son of a bitch!” as I leapt and punched Grimey in the forehead. He staggered backwards, but still did not let go of Olivia. However, he did snarl. He snarled long, like something wild in the desert, something not accustomed to being on the receiving end of violence, something that makes children cry, that makes old men reach for their wives, that makes the surfaces of graves cold. It was the snarl of a wild animal that knows you are strangers in its world. It was a horrible sound. My skin felt like ice.
     I punched him a second time. He barely moved. I hit him again and this time he did not move at all. My hand automatically went to my back pocket, but when it got there it found that my slingshot was missing. I cursed and punched him a fourth time. This time he laughed. This time he spat. This time he tossed Olivia down between himself and me. I took a step toward her but he reached beneath his robe and withdrew a cutlass. The cloud passed and the moon reflected off the weapon’s blade.
     From behind me Crockett said, “Move aside, would you, Perry?”
     Without thinking I dropped onto Olivia. I swear I could feel that blade breeze by as she threw her arms around me. I heard a sound that reminded me of a pop can being opened. I looked up and saw DeGrimestone holding his hand over one eye. I knew what had happened without even looking back. Crockett had snatched my slingshot and gotten off a good one.
     “Stay down, Perry.” That came from Wesley. He was on his feet and trying to tackle Grimey again. This time he made contact. But Robert DeGrimestone was the toughest Satanic short guy I have ever met. Wesley might as well have tried to topple a five foot three inch marble statue. Grimey brought the handle of the cutlass down on Wes’ head. LeVon grayed out and fell beside the bastard’s feet.
     I should have stayed down. I’ll be the first to admit it. I had seen Crockett reach under his pants and withdraw the shotgun. I knew he had a good chance of killing this extremely bad person. But for the first time in my life I actually wanted to kill someone myself. Telling Crockett to hold on, I jumped up. Olivia got to her feet and ran back behind David. Wesley moaned without moving very much. I told Grimey he was going to die now.
     The bastard brought his hand down away from his face and stared at me with the only eye he had left. He whispered, “I will eat you to death.”
     I said, “Time for you to suck the devil’s dick in hell.”
     DeGrimestone then did something that I thought was odd, even for him. He brought the blade of the cutlass across the palm of his opened hand and drew blood. He lifted the sanguine hand to his lips and sucked on it, as if he were trying to draw out some poison. Or maybe it was antitoxin. His muscles flexed. He shouted something in a language I did not recognize. He ran for me, cutlass slicing through the night air.
     After all, I had been through combat training. I snatched the wrist of the hand that held the cutlass. I grabbed it between my thumb and middle finger, almost as if I were planning to take his pulse. Then with my index finger I bent his hand forward as hard as I could. He dropped the blade and went to his knees. I brought my knee up and took him under the chin. Again, I considered what a strong creature this was. He was hardly fazed by my knee maneuver. I brought the base of my hands together about an inch below and back of his ears. You can hurt somebody very badly with this kind of action. It’s even been known to induce a stroke. Grimey shook it off like a pup sheds water from a garden hose. I seized the cutlass. The handle was sticky. I didn’t want to do it this way. But the bastard had planned on sacrificing Olivia and the baby, the dirty rotten fuck wad.
     The blast from a sawed-off .410 is very loud, especially in the desert at night. Technically, I suppose the sound is the same wherever it occurs, but in the night desert air it is perceived as louder than it might be if it were fired, say, next to a working soprano on the runway of a busy airport. Crockett had completely ignored my wishes and rounded off to the side for a clear shot. At a range of less than five feet, he fired. My God, it was loud. I was so startled I dropped the cutlass. It turns out that if Robert DeGrimestone and a pirate sword are dropped from the same height at the same instant, they really will land at the same time. Not that there was much left of Grimey once the shotgun shell discharged.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     We were on the mesa when the first hint of sunrise dared penetrate the ozone. Wesley was still groggy as an overfed house cat. Crockett twitched off and on as I sat there staring at The Ranch in the distance. Olivia had nodded off next to me. I was wide-eyed and anything but bushy-tailed. Wide-eyed and wondering, let’s say. I often get my best ideas at moments like this. Pity it wasn’t happening.
     What had happened was that my fear of Diver had vanished. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but later, months later, I realized my terror of this man had evaporated about the same time that I recognized faith was the food upon which men like he and DeGrimestone gained their sustenance. I no longer had faith in their invincibility. Without that control over me, Diver was no more troubling than a bird in a cage.
     One idea that was ruminating somewhere in my skull hole was what Wesley had said to DeGrimestone about not believing in him. Exhausted as I was, I nevertheless had no leanings toward anything of a metaphysical nature. Still, I had seen Grimey falter at Wes’ remark. You’re just a sick bucket of scum with a messiah complex. That had indeed been an accurate summation. And that suggestion—for only an instant—had rocked DeGrimestone into a state of catatonia. Other than Robert’s susceptibility to blasts from a shotgun, that had been the only sign of weakness I’d ever seen him show. I filed that idea away for future reference in case we managed to get out of our problem alive.
     While the rumble of Bell Helicopters variegated the dawn lull, I looked down from our perch toward The Ranch and saw at least two hundred people passed out on the ground. Maybe the thrill had been too much for them. Maybe Diver had excommunicated them permanently. Maybe they had eaten the carrots.
     The horses in the stable whinnied at the sound of the copters. That should have alerted the Bernardino Bikers, but I could see neither hide nor hair of them anywhere.
     Olivia muttered something in her dream, but I let it pass, not wanting to wake her. Crockett walked in front of us, pacing back and forth, his arms seeking some place to hang other than from his shoulders. He had thrown the .410 down off the mesa, saying he never again wanted to see a gun in his life. Wesley, unconscious again, was developing quite a rainbow bruise on the side of his face. I had already checked that no main arteries had been crushed and his vision—at least when awake—seemed as passable as ever, so I doubted his concussion was life-threatening. I’m no doctor, but his condition had given me something to think about while waiting for the raid.
     The first four helicopters squared off about half a mile above the hideaway. I wondered if they were just waiting to see what the folks on the ground would do and what their responses might be. One after another, the sleeping beauties beneath the helicopters woke up, each one in turn shaking awake his or her neighbor. Within a couple minutes, the lot of them were on their feet and looking skyward, silently jabbering amongst themselves about what might be happening.
     “What’s going on?”
     That was Olivia. I suspected it was less the rumble of the helicopters than the tension she felt pinching my body that brought her awake. I pointed up at the four hovering black things above The Ranch.
     She gave me a kiss on the neck and shivered as she tightened her hold on me.
     I guess I should have been thinking of other things, but I couldn’t quite let loose of the memory of LeVon and DeGrimestone. What was it that had caused the lapse? Had it really been a lack of faith?
     I was so exhausted that my normal defenses against any type of useful thought were no match for something obvious. The lapse in Grimey’s power hadn’t been due to a lack of faith; rather, the cause had been a lack of fear. When DeGrimestone had been threatening Olivia, the emotion I knew we had all felt was outrage. At that moment none of us had been thinking about any risk to his own personal safety. We were too busy being flooded with hate and fury at DeGrimestone, as well as with love for Olivia and our child. People such as the Process Servers inner party quite literally gained their strength from the weaknesses of others. There had to be some frailty on which they could capitalize or else no one would pay them any mind. Most of the kids back at The Ranch weren’t really crypto-Nazis. They had felt abandoned, neglected, lonely, alienated, or some combination. They had no doubt been looking for some answers to the painful mysteries of life. To them, morality had been a pittance to pay for an alleviation of their day-to-day existences. The acceptance of a near-constant state of fear had been a bargain compared to what they had gained. When Wesley had calmly approached DeGrimestone, the latter had recognized the only thing that ever frightened him back: the absence of fear in his adversary.
     It was all well and good to have this understanding. It was another matter entirely whether this personal insight had any practical application. I thought it might. I assessed myself sitting there with my friends. Despite needing a very hot bath and a refreshing three-day nap, I felt an unabashed love for Olivia and our friends. I felt a sense of sorrow for what had happened to Brutus, a sense of curiosity about Epsie, and a sense of suspicion about the new line-up of four helicopters whirling in between the ones already in position.
     “Bless my mother’s titties,” Crockett moaned. “Those boys mean serious business.”
     Tear gas canisters and smoke bombs hit the ground beneath the copters. We couldn’t quite hear the sizzle from where we were, but we could hear the yelling from the people on the ground. Another four helicopters arrived, each from a different corner of the sky. They scattered firebombs in a wide perimeter around the encampment so that no one could flee the smoke and tear gas by doing anything except running inside. There was an absolute military science to this operation.
     I asked myself what I’d be doing if I was a chicken shit little self-absorbed maniac like Colt Diver. The answer was that I would be gathering my own inner circle into some insulated underground hiding place and waiting out the melee, sort of like what the four of us were doing, except in reverse. The military minds behind this operation would have predicted such behavior, of course. Once the masses were pacified, the troops would roll in and seize the quivering warlords. From there it would likely be a few days of re-education and then a rollicking good flight due north, make a sharp left at the Polar Ice Cap and stop at the first turbans on your right. Eject passengers. Be back home in time for beans and biscuits. Aye, aye, Captain Bly. Tonsils and mainsails.
     Seven bikers stormed out of the bunkhouse on their machines. We couldn’t tell which ones they were because all of them had on gas masks. Somebody was on my bike and I suspected that was Mitch. They all roared out in different directions, delusional with the idea that at least one of them might escape alive. But the fire around the camp was thick as flaming molasses. Three of the bikers turned around and went back. The other four headed straight through the ring of fire. The motorcycles exploded one at a time, like the world’s largest popcorn kernels. Gas masks are very much overrated.
     The fire was just burning itself out when the first ground forces arrived from down the hills on the far side of The Ranch: forty-five to fifty men, probably in their early twenties, battle wear donned from head to foot, M-16s held across their chests, none of them apparently finding anything the least bit amusing in any of this. Even from our distance, we could make out their serious expressions. About half of their number dropped and took to the ready with their rifles aimed at different targets on the main ranch and bunkhouses. A commander of some sort emerged from the troops and shouted something in the direction of the house through a megaphone, but we couldn’t make it out over the drone of the aircraft. When there was evidently no response, he pulled a red flag from somewhere and waved it over his head. At that, several men behind him advanced and fired canisters, half into the main ranch and half in through the bunkhouse windows. Then everyone retreated about one hundred yards.
     The four of us were on our feet. Watching. Speechless.
     They came out with their hands on their heads. First it was a huge surge of dazed followers, then a trickle, followed by a larger throng, then no one, then part of the front wall of the bunkhouse collapsed as the remaining ones alive inside raced out, choking, coughing, wheezing and falling to the ground. We saw a few soldiers smack some of the people with their guns, but for the most part the round-up was orderly and without unnecessary violence, at least to the extent that any of this had been necessary.
     The same eighteen-wheeler that had delivered food the day before rolled in unmolested. For a moment I allowed myself the luxury of hoping to see Brutus lurch out of the cab, but from the height of the man who did, there was no chance it was him. The first group of wannabes were herded into the cargo hold of the semi and taken away, presumably to police headquarters where most of them would be questioned and released.
     It took a little under three hours to clear the area of humanity. The Bernardino Bikers required the longest and were the only ones who put up much of a fight. There had been no sign of any of the leaders of the Process Servers, causing me to suspect that my theory had been approximately correct. Reichelderfer, Kozinski and half a dozen of LAPD’s worst arrived a bit after two that afternoon, evidently intent on searching the facilities. Some type of argument took place between Reichelderfer and the commander. While they quarreled, Kozinski moved the men inside the bunkhouse. Even from the distance of our vantage point, it was possible to detect the commander quivering with rage. I had a pretty good idea how he felt, having tried to reason with cops a few times myself.
     It was just after sundown Saturday night before the last of the invading forces left. We were down to one-and-a-half canteens of water and no food at all. None of the military forces had made any effort to rescue us, assuming they even knew where we were and assuming that they had been so inclined. Now that the temperature was pleasant and Wesley was moderately functional, we decided to hike the rest of the way back to Los Angeles. We made it as far as the distant edge of the mesa when Olivia said, “What if Diver wasn’t in The Ranch itself?”
     We all turned and looked at her. She said, “Did you notice how calm those horses were? A little nervous when the helicopters first got there, but with all that commotion, none of them bolted or even got excited.”
     Crockett slapped his own knee. “That is true, young lady. There ain’t nobody in that corral, though.”
     “How do we know that?” she countered.
     Wesley said, “Because we don’t believe in invisible people.”
     “Well, where are they then?” demanded Crockett.
     “Getting ready to escape,” she said. We all turned to follow her back down. I glanced over my shoulder. The jigsaw puzzle that had been Robert DeGrimestone’s body was rotting in the morning sun.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     Somehow the return trip took longer than the original voyage up. By the time we reached the corral, the only light available was the half moon hanging directly overhead. No one had bothered to return the horses to the stable, and at first that suggested to me that Olivia had been mistaken, but before I could say anything I remembered that these people were not well-known for their humanity. Crockett crawled through the corral fence and kicked some dirt around. After a few minutes he came back out and whispered that he had found five long mounds of dirt that could have been covering up bodies. “Very shallow,” he added. “I think the young lady was right on the money.”
     Five. That probably meant Wally, Ruth, Bruce, Tonya and Diver. We all turned back toward The Ranch. We were not exactly vastly outnumbered. But they had the vantage of being inside, possibly watching us through the shattered windows. It was also likely that each of these five had secured a personal firearm while waiting out the storm. All we had was my stupid slingshot. Somehow I suspected that would be insufficient. And yet I felt no fear. I was not teaming with courage, either. But I no longer feared Colt Diver.
     Wesley whispered, “We know what we have to do. Let’s get this over with.”
     No one nodded. No one needed to. It was understood. The singer was right. Each of us knew we couldn’t just let that band of killers regroup and start up all over again. With the strides of those who know they are condemned, we approached the main house of The Ranch.
     Colt Diver was sitting at the kitchen table with his feet up on the chair next to him. The kitchen was faintly illuminated by a light that hung from the ceiling just above his head. He waved as we entered the room. “Wondered how long you all were gonna hang around out there. Come on in. Have a seat. Stay a while.”
     Crockett kicked the chair out from under Diver’s feet. “Where are the others, Colt?”
     My nemesis smiled. It was a facial expression I recognized. It was the arrogant look he had given me when I had interviewed him in San Quentin. The look said that nobody could touch him. We were welcome to do our worst.
     Diver pointed a thin finger at me and said, “I guess your woman unrolled my mystery, huh? Put together what I was saying about lice-head Arbogast? Didn’t do you much good, though, did it? Nope. That one’ll stay in the books as a suicide, other evidence to the contrary.”
     Crockett brought his fist down on the table. “I asked you where are the others!”
     Diver’s gaze traced a line from Crockett’s closed fist all the way up his arm and into his face. “I heard you, Old Timer. I heard you. I told you before, I got no mind left to blow, come what may, hail winds hail! You don’t need to worry about them. Nope. I figured out a few hours ago what the establishment was up to. They was gonna take the five of us and Bobby and use us. I don’t know how they was gonna use us precisely, but I know for a fact that was the plan. Well, that’s the thing, you see. I don’t get used.”
     “Let me see your hands,” I said.
     He held them out. “Slap the cuffs on me, Mr. Officer. I ain’t resisting. Where’s the reporters?”
     This was a ranch, so finding rope to tie up Diver didn’t take long.
     Blood was oozing off his hands onto the table.
     Wesley said, “Bastard cut his own wrists!”
     But he hadn’t. The blood was not his own.
     We found Ruth and Wally in the bunkhouse, tied to bedposts, turned upside down, their throats slit from ear to ear. Bruce was back in the ironically-named Living Area, impaled on what resembled a miniature javelin. Tonya had been strapped to a sofa. The buzz saw that divided her at the waist was on the floor next to an ashtray.
     When you discover people who are dead, people who have been murdered, people who have been slaughtered, it doesn’t make that much difference what you thought about them when they were alive. You become aware in an instant that at one time each person used to be a child, a baby nestled in the arms of someone to whom all the hopes in the world were focused on that very fragile life form. Then you see them dead and motionless and your guts heave. It doesn’t matter what the person was like when he was alive. When he was alive, there was always a chance of happiness, a chance of redemption, a chance of human feeling. Once the person is dead, there is only a chance of maggots and worms. The desire for retribution is the stupidest of all emotions.
     Once he was fastened to the chair, I asked him why he had murdered the others.
     “Too much information, Slim. Bruce got drunk too much and talked too much. Tonya was just a straight-up bitch that drove everybody crazy. Ruth and Wally, well, they had their uses, I suppose. Guess I was just feeling mean at the time.”
     I shook my head. “You’re a liar. Say it. Tell the real reason. Be a man.”
     He knew he had been challenged. He said, “There’s all kinds of levels of people in this world, Slim. All kinds. Those people you just found, they thought they wanted to go to the Middle East with Bobby. They said we were gonna start a revolution. Fuck them. It wasn’t my revolution, reading the Koran and burying people a certain way. Afghanistan? If I want the desert, I got it right here.”
     Olivia said, “You just like to kill people, don’t you?”
     Diver gave her a look of appraisal. He said, “Oh yes, ma’am. That I do enjoy.”
     Crockett and LeVon stayed and guarded Diver while Olivia and I hitchhiked back into the city. It would have probably been more considerate for her not to have to make the trip, but I was damned if I was going to leave her with Diver, alone or otherwise.
     A sheriff’s deputy picked us up near Chatsworth. Neither one of us had had much of an idea where we were going. We explained to the deputy just enough of what had been happening for him to radio his headquarters. From what I could tell over the radio, it sounded like Park Rangers would be dispatched to The Ranch immediately. After this, Olivia and I made our statement at the Sheriff’s Office. When the Sheriff was satisfied that we weren’t insane—which only happened about half an hour after the Park Rangers Office called him and backed up our story—he asked if there was any place they could drop us off.
     Olivia beat me to the punch. “The Hollywood Heater Hotel,” she said.

Chapter Twelve
Now, About Those Carrots
It’s all over now, baby blue.”
                        —Bob Dylan
     Wesley, Olivia and I moved back into the Calamo after Crockett insisted that he couldn’t bear to say goodbye to Cody and the birds just yet. It was five days before the lights flickered off and on.
     True to form, Crockett ran out to the front porch, only this time it was without his beloved .410. He had sworn off guns and that was apparently all there was to that. Besides, he had Cody with him. That German Shepherd Greyhound wasn’t quite as lethal as a sawed-off shotgun, but he had a hell of a bark when he got riled. Los Angeles District Attorney Louise Becker made everyone a little uncomfortable, even the people who had driven out with her. Cody bared his teeth.
     She arrived bookended by California Attorney General Alistair Mitchell and County Attorney Frank Fillenfooter. I considered asking the County Attorney if he had gone into government work to pay back all the people who had made fun of his last name over the years, but decided to bite my lip until we found out what these goose-stepping bureaucrats wanted.
     Olivia asked Cody to wait inside the house. He growled and gave our visitors a look that said, “Okay, but I’ll be right by the door if these varmints get out of line.”
     From inside the house, Gilligan made her presence known by hollering, “The fuck you been?”
     AG Mitchell appeared to plan to shake hands with us, but for some reason changed his mind. Perhaps the bird’s choice of words had offended him. None of us had any intention of inviting the Grim Reaper’s cousins inside, so Mitchell said, “We apologize for the interruption.” His hand went right for that mustache, as if one was a magnet and the other metal. “There was no way to contact you by telephone.”
     He seemed to have more to say, but Becker cut him off. “Since we are here,” she said, as if they had been on their way to the Elected Officials Annual Sodomy Competition when someone realized that we lived on the way, so what the hell? “I thought—we thought it appropriate to confide some information relating to the Colt Diver matter.”
     She took a breath and Fillenfooter seized his opportunity. “We have some idea—only some, I grant you—of what you have all been through. Things may not have worked out according to plan—”
     Evidently Becker had inhaled enough for the moment. She cut off her colleague and said, “Things did not work out at all. Still, I suspect there is enough blame to go around. The reason we are here, however, is to clarify a few points of interest. First of all, I want it understood that there are several options open to us regarding the disposition of your cases.”
     I almost called for Cody at this point. Instead I asked, “What happened to Brutus?”
     “Who?” Becker asked, looking annoyed at the way the subject had been changed without her permission.
     Fillenfooter said, “The truck driver? He was badly snake bitten, you may have heard. Well, rest assured he is recovering. Oh, it was touch and go for a day or two, the hospital said. I guess something about his metabolism is a bit slower than most people’s. He’s expected to be just fine.”
     Becker took a half-step forward. “In any event,” she said, “as to the disposition of your cases, we have chosen to weigh into account the cooperation you provided to law enforcement. We balanced that against the inefficiency in the unauthorized aspects of your participation. It is clear that the jeopardy of the operation was a shared responsibility.”
     Olivia said, “Where’s Diver? We haven’t so much as seen his name in the paper.”
     Mitchell tugged at Becker’s sleeve with the hand that was not occupied with facial hair and handled that one himself. “Yes, well, we have kept a tight lid on his situation. No harm in telling you people, under the circumstances. He is back in a cell at San Quentin. We don’t have solitary confinement in this state. Haven’t had it for years. But his situation is as close to that as it gets.”
     “He’ll be tried for the murders?” Olivia asked.
     “And convicted,” Fillenfooter added.
     “Which murders are those?” I said, looking at Louise Becker as if I wished her name had been on that very long list of homicides.
     She did not flinch. “The four persons you found at The Ranch.”
     I hadn’t lost my temper for the better part of a week and now all that effort had been for nothing. I yelled, “The others, you pusillanimous bitch! What about the others? Markita Haines, Mark Walters, Claudia Delancy—”
     Becker tried to interrupt me. “You should concern yourselves—”
     “Joel Cartwright, James Smith—”
     “—with your own circumstances—”
     “Ronald Devonshire, James Rittenhouse—”
     “—and worry a little less about things which—”
     “John Phillips, Doreen Carpenter, Diana Spradlin—”
     “—clearly do not pertain to you!”
     “And Jane Doe forty-fucking-two! Cody!”
     The dog barely gave Olivia time enough to catch and hold him by his collar. He didn’t like these people any better than I did, a fine mark of character in a canine. If I ever write a dog book, that point will have its own chapter.
     I thought Mitchell had changed his mind about shaking hands, but he was simply trying to give me a business card. I took it without looking and shoved it in my shirt pocket. He said, “That’s the name and telephone number of the State of California’s Litigation Department.”
     Wesley yapped, “I thought you said you weren’t going to charge us with anything?”
     Mitchell came up with a quick grin and then wiped it off before Becker could see it. After all, he was going to have to ride back with her. “You don’t understand,” he said. “The Litigation Department handles lawsuits against the State of California. You mean Plato hasn’t talked to you? Well, hell. Litigation suggested we make an appearance here and offer our apologies.”
     I thought Becker bristled at this, but I was admittedly transfixed on Mitchell at the moment. He continued. “Mr. Epsie has initiated a lawsuit against the State of California in general and the three of us specifically regarding the mistreatment he feels you may have received.”
     Fillenfooter, who I was beginning to like the best of the three of them, added, “It sounds like the State wants to settle.”
     “The State always wants to settle,” Becker moaned.
     “Give that office a call,” Fillenfooter said, and this time he and the others really did shake our hands. Fish all around.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
     Time passed. Summer bled into autumn, a short season in Ohio. The winter in Circleville was bitter. Olivia and I were excited to return to Los Angeles. Cadley did not give us quite as much grief as before when it came to getting in to see Epsie, meaning it took something less than thirty minutes. It was good seeing the wily barrister. “How much of a check were you expecting?” was his second question. His first was on the condition of Olivia.
     “We’re doing just fine, Plato,” she said with a pat on her tum. “Four months to go.”
     The answer to his second question depended upon whom one asked. If you asked Wesley, the answer was zero because he was sure the State would never settle, that they would drag out the lawsuit until everyone involved had turned senile, a condition I was already coming to get a handle on. Crockett, on one of the other several hands, insisted that we would get one hundred million dollars, a sum he maintained would be split five ways because he intended to include the child in the payoff. Olivia, perhaps a bit more modestly, perhaps more sensibly, suggested that the grand total would hover around one hundred thousand. As for myself, I anticipated we might split seven hundred dollars before legal fees. Call me silly.
     “Before I show you the check, there’s somebody who wants to see you,” Plato announced. “Cadley, would you bring him in”
     The short man slid down the hall as if he were in his stocking feet.
     While we were waiting, I asked Epsie about the carrots. “Why did you tell us not to eat them?”
     “It’s not important,” he said with a dismissive waive of his hand.
     “I’d really like to know. It was important enough at the time for you to make a fuss about.”
     “Some other time, really.”
     We saw the shadow before we saw the man. Brutus came to a stop at the end of the hallway. He looked very tired, but his huge eyes lit up when he saw us. He picked me up under the shoulders and brought me eye-level to him. “You still drive Duster?”
     “Haw! Brutus is a car bug.”
     “No, my friend. Back to driving the MG-B.”
     He turned and looked out the window toward the parking lot. He saw the car, probably imagined himself trying to fit into it, smiled and returned my feet to the planet from which they came.
     Epsie couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. He said, “Now that we’re all here together, let’s open the mystery envelope, shall we?”
     I imagined Olivia and I driving up to Sausalito, having a hearty pair of plates of spaghetti and meatballs, a couple sodas, all before hitting the road back to Circleville. Epsie pulled a business-size envelope from his inside vest pocket. He held it up to the light as if to ascertain that this indeed was the proper document. He accepted a letter opener from Cadley the way a skilled surgeon might handle a scalpel, poked the point into the gap on the edge of the missive, and drew the blade across. He pulled out the contents and tossed the envelope on his desk. He cleared his throat. He read, “’The People of the State of California, in consideration for damages and penalties in the case of LaMarke et al, Versus California, on this, the 17th Day of January, 1977, hereby issues this check as a final and irreversible settlement, in the amount of $7,500,000’ Congratulations, everybody.”
     Plato handed me the check. Everyone else gathered around to make sure this wasn’t a joke or that Epsie hadn’t been confused by a decimal point. Seven million five hundred thousand dollars was what it said.
     Not to put a damper on the excitement with which this offering was met, Plato pointed out that his attorney fees would be deducted from this. That amount came to two million two hundred fifty thousand dollars. That left us five million two hundred fifty thousand dollars, or one million and change apiece, if you included the baby, which Wesley and David now both insisted be the case.
     When you haven’t ever had a lot of money and come into a sudden windfall, there may be a strong inclination to go ape shit and spend it all as fast as possible. With her understanding of psychology, Olivia could probably tell you why this is. You should ask her sometime. I was determined not to yield to this remarkably strong temptation, or at least to not yield to it as much as I wanted. I bought David a whole lot of groceries to make up for the ones Olivia and I had eaten. I paid the Hollywood Heater Hotel more than they were suing me for against the damages to their parking lot. I bought Brutus a brand new 1977 Plymouth Duster. Black, of course. Baby Blue and Gilligan would have plenty of high-priced bird seed and Cody would never need worry that we were running out of Jo-Bo, thereby ensuring that he maintained his smile. There was likewise no reason why our baby girl, Emma Michelle, would ever want for anything. We promised Crockett we’d be out that summer for an extended vacation. We wanted our daughter to meet her uncles. We guaranteed LeVon we’d keep buying his albums as long as he kept making them.
     As it happened, I was not the only one with an inclination to be generous. After our wedding Olivia made Chuck Orr a cash offer for his steak house. He accepted, naturally, and welcomed the stipulation that he had to get out of town. I cooked there and Olivia ran the cash register on the weekends so the teenagers who worked for us could have a little time off to be kids before they had to rush on with their adult lives. If you ever happen to be driving on Route 23 just a little past Chillicothe and right before you hit Roundtown city limits, stop on in. Emma Michelle will give you a discount. She runs the Blue Drummer now, although it’s more of a vegetarian place these days. Wesley started drinking again, recorded three more exceptionally fine albums, then sobered up and saw his musical career decline. He and Crockett operate a pet store just outside of Chatsworth. They have a picture of Cody, Gilligan and Baby Blue hanging in the window. David is closing in on one million albums. If anyone knows an out of work butler, you know what to do.
     We received a letter from Plato about a year ago. We had sent him a few notes mentioning how things were going, asking about Cadley and Brutus, one thing and another, and I always made a point of reminding him that he had never quite gotten around to saying why he had told us not to eat the carrots. Finally, after all this time, he decided he would unload. It came in the form of a P.S. It said, “Because I wanted to eat them myself.”
     I was afraid that would be his answer.  

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