SleeplessBy: Charlie Huston
PARK WATCHED THE HOMELESS MAN WEAVE IN AND OUT OF the gridlocked midnight traffic on La Cienega, his eyes fixed on the bright orange AM/FM receiver dangling from the man's neck on a black nylon lanyard. The same shade orange the SL response teams wore when they cleared a house. He closed his eyes, remembering the time an SLRT showed up on his street at the brown and green house three doors down. The sound of the saw coming from the garage, the pitch rising when it hit bone.
Techno-accented static opened his eyes. The homeless man was next to his window, dancing from foot to foot, neck held at an unmistakable stiff angle, flashing a hand-lettered sign on a square of smudged whiteboard:
Park looked at the man's neck.
The people in the cars around him had noticed it as well; several rolled up their windows despite the ban on air-conditioning.
Park opened his ashtray, scooped out a handful of change, and was offering it to the wild-eyed sleepless when the human bomb detonated several blocks away and the explosion thrummed the glass of his windshield, ruffling the hairs on his arms with a rush of air hotter than the night.
He flinched, the change falling from his hand, scattering on the asphalt, the tinkle of it hitting and rolling in every direction, lost in the echoes bouncing off the faces of the buildings lining the avenue, the alarms set off when windows were shattered and parked cars blown onto their sides.
By the time the coins had stopped rolling and the homeless man had gotten down on his hands and knees to scrabble for his scattered handout, Park was reaching under his seat for his weapon.
The Walther PPS was in a holster held to the bottom of the driver's seat by a large patch of Velcro. Clean, oiled, and loaded, with the chamber empty. He didn't need to check, having done so before he left the house. He took it from its holster and dropped it in the side pocket of his cargo pants. It was unlikely any of his customers would be this far west, but it would be typical of the universe to send one just now to see him with a sidearm clipped to his waist.
Climbing from the car, he closed and locked the door, secure in the knowledge that the traffic jam would not be breaking up before sunrise. He was working his way through the cars, all but a very few of them sealed tight now, their occupants rigid and sweating inside, when the street was plunged into sudden darkness.
He stopped, touched his weapon to be sure of it, and thought about Rose and the baby, asking the frozen world to keep them safe if he should die here. But the darkness didn't invite any new attacks. Or if it did, they were yet to come. More likely it was an unscheduled rolling blackout.
He edged between the cars, watching a man in a sweat-twisted suit pounding the horn of his newly scarred Audi, raising similar protests from the cars around his. Or perhaps they were intended to drown out the screams coming from the flaming crater at the intersection.
Those flames were the brightest illumination on the street now, almost all the drivers having turned off their engines and headlights to conserve gas. He could feel them on his face already, the flames, baking the skin tight. And he remembered the cabin in Big Sur where he took Rose after they first knew about the baby, but before the diagnosis.
There had been a fireplace. And they'd sat before it until nearly dawn, using what had been meant as a weekend's supply of wood on their first night.
His face had felt like this then.
He tried to recall the name of the cabin they had stayed in. Bluebird? Bluebell? Blue Ridge? Blue something for sure, but blue what?
The name painted just above the door had been Blue Moon. With a little star-accented teal crescent that Rose had rolled her eyes at.
Are we supposed to think we're in fucking Connecticut, for Christ's sake?
He'd said something in response, some joke about not cursing in front of the baby, but before he could remember what it was he'd said, his foot slipped in a great deal of someone's blood, drawing him back to the present, and the flames here before him.
The wiper blades on a Hummer H3, one of the few vehicles with intact glass this close to the blast, were beating furiously, cleaner fluid spraying, smearing blood, batting what looked like a gnarled bit of scalp and ear back and forth across the windshield, while the young woman inside wiped vomit from her chin and screamed into a Bluetooth headset.
Looking at a man on the edge of the crater, his entire jawbone carried away by a piece of flying debris, Park only wondered now at the instinct that had made him take his weapon from the car rather than his first-aid kit.
IT WASN'T THE FIRST human bomb in Los Angeles. Just the first one north of Exposition and west of the I-5.
The sound of the detonation rolling across the L.A. basin and washing up against the hills had brought me out to my deck. One expects the occasional crack of gunfire coming from Hollywood on any given night, but the crump of high explosives in West Hollywood was a novelty. A sound inclined to make me ruminant, recalling, as it did, a pack of C-4 wired to the ignition of a VC colonel's black Citroën in Hanoi, as well as other moments of my youth.
Thus nostalgic, I came onto the deck in time to see a slab of the city, framed by Santa Monica, Venice, Western, and Sepulveda, wink into blackness. Looking immediately skyward, knowing from experience that my eyes would subtly adjust to the reduction in ground light, I watched the emergence of seldom seen constellations.
Under these usually veiled stars, the city burned.
Only a small bit of it, yes, but one of the more expensive bits. A circumstance that would no doubt have serious repercussions.
It's all well and good in the general course of things if Mad Swan Bloods and Eight Trey Gangster Crips want to plant claymore mines in Manchester Park, or for Avenues and Cyprus Park to start launching RPGs across Eagle Rock Boulevard, but suicide bombers less than a mile from the Beverly Center would not be tolerated.
Uncorking a second bottle of Clos des Papes 2005, I rested secure in the knowledge that the National Guard would be shock-trooping South Central and East L.A. at first light.
Nothing like a show of force to keep up the morale of the general citizenry in times of duress. The fact that the display would be utterly misdirected and only serve to brew greater discontent was beside the point. We had long passed the stage where the consequences of tactical armed response were weighed in advance. Anyone with the time and wherewithal to put a map on a wall and stick pins in it could see quite clearly what was happening.
I had such a map, and said wherewithal, and many pins.
If red pins are acts of violence committed by people traditionally profiled as potentially criminal perpetrated against those who have not been so profiled, and yellow pins are acts of violence perpetrated between peoples traditionally so profiled, and blue pins indicate acts of violence carried out by uniformed and/or badged members of the soldiering and law enforcement professions upon peoples so profiled, one can clearly see patterns of tightly clustered yellow pins, encircled by blue pins, concentrated to the far south, east, and north of the most prime Los Angeles real estate, which is, in turn, becoming pockmarked by random bursts of red pins.
It is, on such a map, the vastness of the territory devoted to yellow-on-yellow acts of violence and blue responses in relative proportion to the wee acreage dotted with red, that should give one pause.
It looked, upon little or no reflection, like the pustules of a disease spreading inexorably against the feeble resistance of a failed vaccine, carrying infection along the arteries of the city, advancing no matter how many times the medics raised the point of amputation up the ravaged limb.
That it was a symptom of a disease rather than the disease itself was an irony I never chuckled at. There being little or no humor to be found in the prospect of the end of the world.
But I did appreciate it. The irony, and the fact that the disease that was killing us ignored the classifications and borders that defined so clearly for so many who they should be killing and why.
The disease didn't care for distinctions of class, race, income, religion, sex, or age. The disease seemed only to care that your eyes remain open to witness it all. That what nightmares you had haunted only your waking hours. The disease considered us all equal and wished that we share the same fate. That we should bear witness as we chewed our own intestines, snapping at what gnawed from the inside.
It wished that we become sleepless.
I could sleep.
Choosing, that night, not to.
Choosing, instead, to pour another glass of overrated but still quite good Rhone into an admittedly inappropriate jelly jar, and to settle into an overdesigned Swedish sling chair to watch that small, expensive fragment of the city burn.
Herald, I knew, of worse.
TODAY BEENIE SAID something about Hydo knowing 'the guy.' What's encouraging about this is that I didn't ask. Hydo called for a delivery and I went over to the farm to make the drop (100 15-mg Dexedrine spansules). He asked if I wanted a Coke and I hung around long enough to scroll through my texts and map my next couple deliveries. Beenie was there, making a deal to sell some gold he'd farmed, but mostly just hanging out with the guys. Hydo passed around the dex to his guys and they all started speed rapping while they hacked up zombies and stuff. One of them (I think his name is Zhou, but I need to check my notes) started talking about his cousin going sleepless. The other guys all started telling their own sleepless stories. Beenie asked if I knew anyone. I said yes. They all talked some more, and the one guy (Zhou?) said he put an ad on Craigslist to trade a level 100 Necromantic Warlord for Dreamer to give his cousin, but the only response he got was from a scammer. That's when Beenie looked at Hydo and said, 'Hydo, man, what about the guy?' Hydo was in the middle of an exchange in Chasm Tide. His front character was on his monitor in the Purple Grotto, getting ready to pass off the gold to a Darkling Heller as soon as one of the guys confirmed that the PayPal transfer had come through. But everyone stopped talking right after Beenie spoke. Just Hydo talking to the Darkling on his headset, telling him he'd throw in a Mace of Chaos for another twenty euro. He was acting like he hadn't heard what Beenie said. But he gave him a look. And Beenie started shutting down his MacBook and said he had to roll. I pocketed my phone and finished my Coke and said later.
Beenie was my first in with the farms. I met him at a party on Hillhurst. He knows a lot of people. They like him. If he says Hydo knows 'the guy,' it might be true.
In any case, I didn't say anything. I just walked out of the farm behind Beenie. We talked while he was unlocking his Trek and putting on his helmet and elbow and knee pads. He said he was looking for some opium. He has this thing for old Hollywood and read somewhere that Errol Flynn described smoking opium, 'like having your soul massaged with mink gloves.' Now he wants to try it. I told him I'd see what I could do. Then he pedaled north on Aviation, probably headed for Randy's Donuts.
I made a note to ask around about opium. Made another note to look over my list of Hydo's known associates.
A suicide bomber on the way home.
I did what I could. Not much. I think I stopped a boy's bleeding long enough for him to get to the hospital. Who knows what happened to him there. Traffic got messed up for miles. Once the EMTs and paramedics showed up, I spent most of my time passing out water. A lady thanked me when I saw her fainting in her car and got her a bottle. A witness said the bomber was a woman, a New America Jesus insurgent. He said he knew she was a NAJi because she screamed 'something about Satan' before she blew herself up. He also said she was staggering like she was drunk. NAJis don't drink. A Guard told me that looking at the size of the crater she left, she was probably staggering under the weight of the bomb. He said that kind of blast was what they got in Iraq from car bombs. I said something about how at least he wasn't there anymore, and he asked me if I was 'fucking joking.' Almost noon before I got home.
Francine had to leave Rose alone with the baby.
She was in the backyard with her laptop. There was gardening stuff lying around, but she was logged into her Chasm Tide account, playing her elemental mage, Cipher Blue, trying again to get through the Clockwork Labyrinth on her own.
The baby was on a blanket next to her, under an umbrella, crying. As I came up, Blue was being dismembered by a skeleton made of brass gears, wire, and rusting springs. Beenie says no one gets through the Labyrinth on their own. You have to join a campaign, but Rose refuses to try it that way. Which isn't surprising.
She closed the laptop and grabbed a garden trowel and started stabbing the dry earth, digging at the roots of one of the weeds that's taken over the garden. I picked up the baby and asked how she had been and Rose told me she had just started crying again right before I came home. Said she hadn't cried for hours before. But I think she was just saying that. Then she started talking about her grandma's garden, the topiary, vegetables, citrus trees, strawberry patch, and the rosebushes she was named for. She said she wanted the baby to have a garden to grow up in, learn about how seeds turn into plants. She had a packet of marigold seeds she was going to plant. I held the baby while Rose talked, and she stopped crying a little. Rose stopped talking and looked at me and asked what was on my clothes and I had to go in and clean up and when I set the baby down she started crying again.
I called Francine while I was inside and she said she was sorry for leaving, but she needed to get her kids to school. She said Rose didn't sleep at all. She said the baby might have slept, but her eyes never closed. But she was quiet for a couple hours just after midnight. I told her I'd see her tonight and got in the shower. There was stuff under my nails that was hard to get out. Then Rose got into the shower with me and asked me to wash her back and I had to tell her she had her clothes on. She looked at me and looked at her clothes like she didn't get it. Then she got it and started crying and told me she was sorry. I held her. She cried and the baby cried.
I'll go see Hydo tonight.
Maybe he really does know the guy.