Temperature Falling

         Max Gunn taps on the control panel over his right wrist. He is attempting to manipulate the air pressure and the moisture in his helmet, because his visor has been fogged for the past several minutes. 

         Goddamn sensor should have picked up the change in visibility, and then recalibrated the air on its own, Max thinks. Would have worked, if they’d given us a computer pack manufactured in Dallas. But, no, we have to be goddamned ‘beta testers’ for tech toys from Brunei. Wonder if secession had been worth it.

         Still fucking with that thing? Drake inquires through his earphone. 

         Watch your language, Sir Francis, Max remarks irritably, while tapping a button that does not seem to be doing anything at all.

         No worries, bro, Drake says with a laugh. While I still can’t turn off that voice recorder, I figured out how to lower the volume on their end to zero. All I need to do is to turn it back up now and then, so that the patrol integrity nerds don’t get suspicious about the fact that they haven’t heard anything from us in a long time. Now, if I can just figure out how to switch off the GPS Locator, we can roam totally free and undetected.

         How exciting, Max says sarcastically. Free to roam a dead city…

         We can check out some of the other colonies, Drake remarks with some bravado. I hear the bitches over at the Beverly Wilshire are complete porn sluts for any guy in a uniform.

         I don’t know that the one-piece condoms we wear from our necks to our shoes qualify, Max says. 

         The previous climate-controlled suits had looked like something from the 1960s Apollo missions. The air, nutrition, and computer packs indeed had been bulky. The oversized boots had slowed down patrols considerably, not that they needed to move fast for any particular reason. When there is nothing going on, there is no reason to get there fast. Still, the patrol officers had complained to the desk sergeants, and they in turn had passed on their sniffles to the lawyers and the ass kissers in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy. 

         The solution had been these condom suits. All those bulky tanks are gone for now at least. Everything has been embedded into the inner lining, so that a careful observer will see countless capillaries just beneath the clear latex that generate and deliver air into the helmet, liquid nutrition into a feeding tube by the mouth, and water into an intravenous line. In essence, the nerds have built a synthetic human body that we can wear over our own. Mobility is faster; and, assuming the computer (subatomic sized transistors molded around each of the many synthetic capillaries) actually works, recalibration of life support systems happens on its own every few seconds in response to changes in body stats and external environmental conditions. On paper, this is a leap forward; and indeed in practice, there is something to be said about faster and easier mobility; but no one can get over the fact that they look like body condoms. It is bad enough that there is nothing to do on a patrol. Do they have to look ridiculous doing it?

         Still, Drake has a point. Max has heard the same rumors. Apparently, the Beverly Wilshire is full of ‘beautiful people,’ who had been evacuated out from their plush estates in Beverly Hills and Bel Air that night. The husbands did not have enough time to gather together their toupees, and the wives could not get a forwarding address over to their favorite pool boys. No doubt, for all of those ‘beautiful people,’ it must have been as excruciating then as the Trail of Tears.

         Since then, those ‘beautiful people’ have had to make do at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Beverly Wilshire, Bel Air Hotel, Brunei Bel Air, and Sultan’s Beverly Suites colonies without any entertainment, except for what they show over the televisions and an occasional visit from L.A. P.S.A. or Climate Control. Suicides account for the vast majority of deaths among the ‘guests’ in those colonies. At this rate, the colonies in that area will be empty in about two and a half years.

         Max wonders if Caroline had been among the evacuees. Less than half of the ‘beautiful people’ had been on the list of designated evacuees. No one will say how and why such a list had been compiled and what had been the criteria for inclusion. Those excluded had been shot summarily as curfew violators even if discovered in their own homes. The official report is that they had been shot ‘for their own safety.’ There is no legal definition of ‘safety’ for such purposes.

         Max is not allowed to see the list of designated evacuees, because he is not in colonial management, and those particular colonies are not in his patrol, anyway. He might have had a legal justification, if he had been married still to Caroline; but of course an ex-spouse is treated the same as a ‘never had been.’

         Frankly, even if he had had a legal basis to demand a look-see, Max most likely would not have filed an application with the municipal historical records bureau, anyway. He knows that his superiors are watching him closely to see if he retains undue interest in the whereabouts or wellbeing of his ex-wife or son.

         If the powers that be had had no suspicions about his loyalty, then would they have put him out on the street, instead of utilizing his training as a lawyer higher up the chain? Sure, they undoubtedly want to take advantage of his skill and experience as a professional killer; and so it makes sense logically that the brass would put him in law enforcement. Still, a dead city is hardly a war zone; and so Max suspects that he is out here in his body condom suit because a man with a mahogany, sky view office somewhere doubts his personal commitment to the principles of their ‘new world.’ Stated simply, Max has been blackballed.

         I’ve put in a request for target practice next month, Drake remarks after a while. You should put your name in the hat, too. We could hike up to Mount Lee together.

         The mountainous parkland that includes that famous Hollywood Sign has been an L.A. P.S.A. training reserve for years. Ever since that night, they have installed a new and improved obstacle course to train their patrolmen in faster maneuverability in their climate-controlled suits. There are also more shooting targets, a C-4 demolition town, a hand-to-hand combat ring (two grown men in body condom suits grappling with one another looks like something straight out of the old ‘Gay Games’), and a hermetically sealed lodge where patrolmen are able finally to unwind, as they watch back to back Fast and Furious sequels and munch on Wavy Gravy’s Special Brownies. Law enforcement has its perks, okay?

         I’m not hiking up there with you; Max is able to say playfully now that he has managed finally to clear up his visor. Do you want everyone to think we’re a couple of queers? 

         Hey, there is nothing wrong with that, Drake says in jest. ‘I’m gay, too.’ Remember, now, that’s one of the Ten Commandments passed down from the front office. Maybe, if we hold hands on our way up there, we can earn several religious integrity points. A hundred points in six months, and Chaplain Domina pulls down your trousers, and smacks your ass with a paddle. Good times by all.

         Now that his visor is clear, Max can look into his partner’s face. Drake is a handsome, strong, African American man just shy of thirty. Max is old enough to be his white father; and yet the two of them walk and talk together like old buddies from the same generation. Drake almost always has a jovial look in his eyes that compensates for Max’s general air of gloominess. Drake is much more tech savvy (hence, figuring out how not to be heard by the eavesdroppers back at headquarters), but Max is much more battle hardened. So long as the city is dead, Drake’s skill in computer hacking will be more important than Max’s skill in killing Hajis. But who knows? Maybe, someday, Max’s talent will be necessary out here beneath this fierce and unrelenting sun. 

         Especially if there is any truth to the latest rumor making the rounds…

         Anyway, why do you need target practice? Max asks, as the two partners continue to walk around MacArthur Park Lake in search of nothing in particular. After all, you are the second best shot in the whole P.S.A., or so I’ve been told.

         Max has been consistently the best shot since putting on the uniform. His military training came back a lot faster than he had anticipated. Now, it is true that Max does not hold the all-time shooting accuracy record; but Max believes that that all-time record, and the legendary Officer Wolfgang Schmidt, who has that record supposedly, had been dreamt up by the morale folks long ago so as to give the officers and the grunts alike the clear, but in practice unattainable, goal of matching or surpassing that all-time record. Give a man something very tangible for which he can strive, and throw in action flicks and Budweiser, now and then, and he will be one, happy dude for as long as you keep him occupied.

         Fuck you, Drake laughs. I’ll catch up to you someday, old man. Anyway, I am focused now on honing my skills, so I can terminate a runner several blocks away with just one shot. 

         You don’t actually believe that shit, do you? Max asks. 

         I don’t know, Drake answers. All I know is that a lot of folks are talking…

         Max grabs a hold of Drake’s right arm. They stop walking beside two, tall flagpoles. The U.N. flag hangs from one; the Rainbow flag from the other; but, of course, the flags themselves hang limply, because there has not been a gust of wind since God knows when.

         Don’t say that, Max scolds him. Not even in jest. A runner is a scientific impossibility. Even if someone manages to escape his colony, he will be dead in seconds in the heat wave. I’ve seen an actual execution. I know this to be true.

         Actually, Max has had his doubts about the heat wave. Now and then, he entertains the thought that, perhaps, Lars Tubbs’ head had been detonated by something put inside his skull. He wants to believe the official account of what happened that night. He wants to believe that the climate catastrophe is real. Frankly, it is a lot easier to believe that there are kernels of truth in the great and sordid lies peddled daily by the propagandists than to believe that there is not one ounce of truth in the whole dog and pony show. Still, he simply cannot shake out the suspicions in the darker corners of his mind; and he fears that, as Heinrich had seen through his poker face, his present day superiors may feel he is not totally on board with the official history. 

         Therefore, Max makes a point of denouncing the rumor, just in case the patrol integrity nerds are actually listening in on their chat. Max really does not want to believe that Drake is lying when he says that their conversation cannot be heard, but of course there is always the possibility that Drake is mistaken. It is not that difficult to imagine the higher ups planting false information on how to turn down the volume of a voice recorder. Drake thinks he has found a bit of information on the sly that in fact had been put there for him to find. He hacks the computer without realizing that the new code does not do what it purports to do. He and his buddy speak indiscriminately, while the nerds listen to them; and when one of the speakers crosses a line, he is later ‘let go’ from the force.

         Of course, Max cannot say anything of the sort to Drake without possibly communicating his suspicions about the integrity nerds to the integrity nerds. It is downright awful to feel both paranoid and helpless, and so Max wants to turn the conversation toward a benign topic as fast, but also as naturally, as he can.

         What the hell, old man? Drake laughs. Did you forget your Metamucil this morning? Look, I can still get a hard on without the little blue pill; but I was not born yesterday. I know that a runner is as real as Caspar the Fucking Ghost…

         And that we’re not Ghostbusters, Max interrupts.

         Do I look like Ernie Hudson? Drake says playfully.

         Of course, Max says with a grin. All you blacks look alike.

         Score for the white team, Drake remarks, as he pats Max’s back, and so urges his partner to continue walking with him around the lake. Of course, you know I’m going to win in the end. I’ll be banging your chick, when you’re stuck in your wheelchair and forced fed back to back episodes of Murder, She Wrote.

         You know classic television, Max smiles. I admire you.

         I know what they show old, white people in hospitals, Drake remarks. In the old world, I had been an orderly over at Good Sam, believe it or not. When for profit hospitals went the way of the fucking Dodo, I signed up for the P.S.A. At first, the higher ups didn’t know what to do with me. There are not a whole lot of brothers in the ranks, after all; and I think that some of my superiors had suspicions that I’d actually join sides with the street niggers the next time they started up one of their stupid ass ‘brush fires’ in Watts or Inglewood.

         So they are suspicious of Drake because he is black, Max thinks. And they are suspicious of me because they think I am too much of a ‘family man.’ Well, they are right about Drake. He is black. But as for me, I’m not so sure I am the devoted ex-husband and father that they fear. Yes, I think about Caroline every now and then. I think about Adam a lot more than that. Nevertheless, I’ve been careful to check my time clock regularly, to say and to do whatever they want, to hold the right opinions, and to denounce the wrong ones. I’ve got to believe that at some point they will get tired of me. Maybe, find some other decorated killer with P.T.S.D. stamped all over his file and harass him for a while. I can’t be unique. There has got to be plenty of other screwups stuck inside their web.

         Probably none with the kind of kill record I’ve got, though, Max goes on to think. My guess is that they don’t know what to do with me. Some of them, no doubt, want to throw my ass into the heat wave. Others think they can use me to their own advantage. Because they are divided, they do what every large bureaucracy does when it cannot make a final decision. They table that issue, keep it in a holding pattern, give it just enough of a budget allocation for it to survive in its present, inconclusive state, and then scratch their heads later and wonder why its been neither a rip roaring success nor a dismal failure. Frankly, I won’t be surprised at all, if they keep me a mid-level patrolman, allowing my contemporaries to bypass me on the career ladder, keeping my duties out here small and easily managed, until one day they just decide to retire me to one of their colonies with a pension and a group photo. Not heroic, but then again I’ve had more than my share of heroism in the name of somebody else’s crusade. In a way, the small life they’ve given me may turn out to be my greatest blessing.

         All fine and good, except this is bullshit, Max thinks further. Mine is not a life that can be stuffed for very long into a nice, little package. If I’d been an unremarkable ‘twenty year and pension’ man, then they’d never have sent me into the desert to do what I did. Moreover, there just may be some truth to the runner rumor, just like there may not be a climate catastrophe. And then there is Adam. Even if I concede that he is dead (though frankly there are times I am sure Heinrich dummied up that video footage just to break me), I still owe it to him to return someday. So I may not want to be a hero, but deep down I cannot see myself staying on the sidelines forever. 

         We have walked the lake thirty-two times already this afternoon; Drake says when they reach the starting point beside the General MacArthur statue. I think the thirty-third time will be the charm. We may see a slight breeze blow a leaf onto the lake. That’s all we shall need to justify filing an incident report.

         When’s the last time we filed one of those? Max asks. 

         Ah, let me see here, Drake pretends to count the number of times. The correct answer is never, nope, nada, zilch, a big, fat goose egg, the number of times you will bone your chick after she’s had a taste of me. Sound about right?

         Yes, that sounds about right, Max smiles. Come on. Just eight more laps to go, then we can walk down Alvarado and see nothing down that way as well.

         Nothing, but ghosts, Drake says. Too bad we aren’t Ghostbusters.

         Fuck you, Ernie Hudson, Max says. Now, keep up with the old man.

         Max speeds up, and Drake follows suit. Outwardly, Max is having fun; but inwardly, he is a bit frightened and pissed by Drake’s ghost reference. Clearly, the young man is thinking about runners. Drake is wondering if perhaps, a long shot, true, but just perhaps, it is possible for a man to survive more than a few awful seconds in this heat wave. Drake is wondering if perhaps there is not any heat wave at all. Max can read the young man’s mind. He just hopes that Drake figures soon enough what the higher ups will do to a man they think is a denier.

*   *   *

         Max watches a garbage truck rumbling backwards down the long pier. He thinks this is the twelfth or thirteenth such truck over the last few hours; but if pressed, then he would have to admit that he really does not know. He allowed his thoughts to drift sometime ago. He feels that any other P.S.A. officer would have done the same; since there is not another living soul within miles of here, except for the truck drivers, the barge skipper, and the Civil Corps. boys trying still to repair the incinerator on board the old, rusted, unglamorous cargo ship. 

         Admittedly, he cannot be absolutely sure that there is no other person in the area. There is a sensor embedded in his climate-controlled suit that should detect the heartbeat and the body temperature of any unauthorized individuals within a mile radius of his post, but it has been inoperable for several days. He can observe pretty well through his night vision goggles, but the standard issue for a P.S.A. officer is an even older model than what he used in Haji Land more than a decade ago. An unauthorized individual wearing a night camouflage suit and staying low to the ground might not be seen until it is too late. 

         Still, Max has not seen any unauthorized individual anywhere, since that night. Yes, his fellow officers keep whispering about ‘runners,’ especially after lights out in the old barracks they share in Griffin Park; but most pass them off as urban legends. They joke about how a guy spending too much time within his toilet stall has ‘a case of the runners.’ They make fun of the new recruits (men who volunteer for the P.S.A., probably just to get the hell out of those damned ‘safety colonies’ to which they had been assigned that night, and who start off as message couriers) by calling them ‘runners.’ Only Drake seems ballsy enough to take them seriously; or maybe Drake just has a death wish, since of course it is impossible to accept the possibility of ‘runners’ without logically questioning the climate catastrophe story. For everyone else, there is no disputing the first article of faith that says that the climate, indeed, is so hot and poisonous as to make it impossible for a ‘runner’ to survive outside more than a minute or two.

         Thus, while Max cannot be absolutely sure that there is no other person in the area, he can prove his fidelity to the climate catastrophe story by having faith that there is no other person in the area. He remembers the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker is about to launch a torpedo into the Death Star. If he misses, then the Death Star will be able to destroy the moon upon which the Rebel Alliance has its not-so-secret base. If he hits the bull’s eye, then he gets a medal from Princess Leia and a sequel. Luke turns off his targeting computer. He will have faith in the Force. He will believe everything that Obi Wan Kenobi has taught him already about how to feel the Force flowing through him. Maybe the powers that be want Max to have faith that there is no living soul out there apart from those authorized persons wearing body condom suits. That must be the case. How else can he make sense of the fact that they keep outfitting him with faulty sensors and inadequate night vision goggles?

         Or maybe they keep giving him shitty equipment, since they are not able to do any better. Another rumor making the rounds is that the good old U.S. of A has imposed a blockade around Greater Los Angeles. Do the Americans really think a blockade can confine our climate problem to within our own borders, or do they object to the police state tactics that we have had to undertake? Since when have Americans worried all that much about genocide in another country? Or maybe the Americans resent our secession so much they want to see our fine experiment in self-governance fail miserably? Regardless, the rumor making the rounds is that Uncle Sam is stopping new technology from entering into Greater Los Angeles, thus forcing the P.S.A. to rely on the substandard shit our friends in Brunei sold us before that night. If that is the case, then isolation may kill us off before the sun manages to do so. No one wants to accept this possibility, as we have figured out a way to survive in this heat wave (assuming the heat wave is for real, which Max still questions in his own mind from time to time), but we are not likely to figure out a way to survive international isolation. 

         Something down at the pier catches Max’s attention. He zeroes in on the back of the garbage truck. It is idling at the end of the pier; but unlike before, the skipper and his three Civil Corps. assistants are not immediately opening up the back door and pulling out the crates. Instead, the skipper seems now to be involved in a heated conversation with a group of Civil Corps. engineers still on the barge. The truck driver is tired of waiting. He gets out of the truck, though without turning off the engine, and walks back to see what the hell is going on back there. Max surmises that the incinerator is so fucked up they cannot even roll those crates to the temporary holding facility on board the barge, let alone feed the contents into the ovens. 

         Max wants to find what it is precisely that has caught his attention. He is pretty sure it is something more extraordinary that a bunch of guys talking with one another on a barge. He again zeroes in on the back of the garbage truck. It is coughing out exhaust. Nothing strange there, he decides. Then, he focuses in on the top of the garbage truck; and sees what had struck him as odd a minute ago. It had not really registered back then. Now, it does; and so his jaw drops…

         The tarp above the crates flaps up and down repeatedly. Now, once in a while, a strong gust will blow through the heat wave; and he remembers seeing his billboard advertisement across from the CAB flapping every now and then as if caught in a wind tunnel. But the wind is so rare as to be an attention grabber whenever it breaks into an otherwise lifeless environment. Moreover, this wind is not letting up after a few seconds. It keeps flapping that heavy, blue tarp up and down. Max counts thirty seconds, then a minute, then two minutes; and so far as he can tell through his night vision goggles, there seems to be even then no let up in the intensity of the wind blowing in from a turbulent Alamitos Bay.

         What in the hell is going on here? Max thinks with some trepidation.

         Max is careful not to say anything. Drake has not shown him how to drop the voice recorder volume down to zero, and so he knows that anything he may mutter to himself can and will be transcribed.

         Max refocuses on the men. The truck driver is pissed off. Very likely, the truck driver is already behind schedule with his delivery, since that incinerator problem slowed down the previous deliveries. Now, he cannot even unload; and that is going to make him later still. The skipper holds up his hands. He is trying to calm him down, but he is not doing a very good job of it. The engineers look on with disinterest. Human passion one way or another means little to them. It is pretty clear that, if the skipper gave them the green light to do so, then they would leave the truck driver and the skipper at once to return to that far more captivating drama back inside the steamy hot bowels of that barge incinerator. All of this transpires as expected. It is a predictable soap opera; and yet Max is glued to the drama, nevertheless.

         Perhaps, Max intuits that something out of the ordinary is going to occur before the men return to their posts. The very fact that there is an unrelenting wind down there is so strange as to suggest that other strange happenings must be just around the corner. After all, where there is smoke there must be a fire.

         Or a weapon…

         Sure enough, the truck driver pulls out a revolver. The skipper raises his hands even higher, and steps back. The engineers scatter, like children running out from a schoolyard before the grownups show up to end a fight. The less the engineers see, the less the engineers know, and that appears to suit them best.

         Max should radio this incident to the front office; and he is just about to do so, when he holds himself back. He is not sure why. He knows damn well he will be in trouble if he fails to follow proper procedure, especially if the drawn revolver transitions quickly into a homicide. 

         Nevertheless, he learned in the desert long ago that in every crisis there is an opportunity. Most men fail to take advantage, because they are not really enterprising enough to deviate from the rules of engagement. The risk takers in such crises may end up dead, or they may end up heroes, but in neither case do they end up irrelevant. The ‘new world’ is built on the premise that most men, no matter their background, education, or wealth, will give up relevance gladly in return for survival. There is no ‘I’ in TEAM. There are no ‘individuals’ within a unit. The person is no more than a cell in an organism far beyond his capacity to understand. And yet, notwithstanding his outward acceptance of the role his superiors have handed to him since leaving the CAB behind, Max seemingly still has it in him to kick at the pricks. He just cannot let a good crisis go to waste, even when he knows damn well that his superiors later will call him to the mat.

         Max steps away from his post overlooking the pier. He runs down a windy staircase to the deserted shoreline road. The retail shops and restaurants along the way remain in as much disrepair as when the maniacs with rusted pipes had busted in windows and tossed in Molotov cocktails. He pays no attention to the broken doors swinging in the unrelenting wind. He flings aside the glass shards, which the same unrelenting wind sweeps up from the road. He feels that same wind battering into his own flesh. That should excite him, since he has not felt anything similar since that night; but he disregards that sensation as well. Max will not let anything get in the way of his total focus on the irate man with the revolver. He must be aware of whatever happens as it is happening. That is the lesson he learned the hard way back in Haji Land, and he will not forget it now.

         The truck driver forces the skipper back onto the pier. Both men tremble from the sheer adrenaline rush of this situation. The tarp flaps up and down no more than a few feet away, but neither man seems aware of this extraordinary phenomenon. Indeed, the whole truck could flip over, and just then neither the would be killer nor the would be victim would notice that anything strange has occurred. For them the whole of the universe has been reduced to their drama.

         Max is about to step onto the pier, when the truck driver fires his S & W 38 Special. The old timer produces a simple ‘pop’ sound. Then, there is a loud, ugly clunk sound as a bloodied corpse falls to the rusted metal floor of the pier.

         Max does not hesitate. He draws his own weapon, but otherwise he runs down the pier with the same intensity as before. He hopes the murderer cannot hear his feet clanging down the metal surface. He guesses that he does not, for the adrenaline rush of having killed a man is probably so great right now he has little capacity to hear or to see much of anything. Of course, this presumes the truck driver has never killed a man before, because if he has then his recovery from that initial adrenaline rush will occur much faster and more completely. If that is the case, then Max may discover the truck driver calmly waiting for him.

         There is another ‘pop’ sound, followed by the clunk of a corpse striking a metal surface. Apparently, the irate truck driver committed suicide. Whether he had intended to do so all along, or did so because he heard someone coming down the pier, it is impossible to tell.

         Max slows down his pace. There is no reason to rush anymore. He strolls down the driver’s side of the garbage truck. Notwithstanding his slow steps, he can hear his fast heartbeat and excited breaths inside his helmet. It is a surreal sensation, almost like he is walking on the floor of a dark and murky ocean. For a moment, he fears that his visor will fog up, but fortunately that sensor inside his climate-controlled suit works this time. The air is recalibrated, and he then is able to see through his night vision goggles as clearly as before.

         Of course, those patrol integrity nerds are going to record his heightened heartbeat and breaths, no? Who knows? Max is simply not tech savvy enough to know which of the sensors embedded in his suit work, and which do not, which is why he has to presume that all of the monitors back at the front office are as live as intended. Regardless, now is not the time to be preoccupied about what a bunch of lawyers inside the higher echelons of the P.S.A. may think about his private investigation of a double homicide. He can deal with the bastards later.

         Max stops at the back corner of the garbage truck. He stands in the hot, putrid fumes from the exhaust pipe. He first looks at the skipper. He had been shot in the heart. As a result of the gunshot, his bodysuit had shriveled, and his breathable air is still wheezing out from the hole in the latex like it would from a punctured balloon. The skipper intuitively had clutched his heart at the end. He looks like he is saying the Pledge of Allegiance, while staring up at the dark.

         His murderer had slid up his visor, so as to eat the hot and greasy muzzle of his S & W. The bullet lodged somewhere inside his brain. The S & W is not so powerful as to push the bullet through the brain matter and out the other end. That is a real shame for the truck driver, because while he paralyzed himself in his moment of suicidal release, he is still alive. 

         Max bends down to take a closer look at his exposed face. The murderer is looking every which way at once, like his deranged pupils are spinning on the open end of a wobbly top. His nose flares, because his lungs are trying with sad desperation to take in just enough air to survive in this paralyzed and deranged manner as long as possible. In the end, the body is not concerned with ‘quality of life,’ let alone with ‘lifestyle.’ It is a machine that just wants to live, even if that means that the poor bastard stuck in that machine has to endure a terrible and prolonged pain. It is moreover a machine that will keep on living,when the poor bastard finally has released his tired ghost, though its new objective is not to sustain the flesh of human life, but to eat at itself until there is nothing left, but bones rattling back into dust in a crosswind somewhere. Max senses that in fact the machine below him has started its new objective already, even though the man has yet to breathe his last. The man no doubt feels his own weak flesh gnawing itself, like an emaciated cannibal too exhausted to move, and yet still ravenous for whatever bits of meat it can chew off of its own ribs. He can hear the hungry rat squeal in his head as he scavenges himself back into his rat hole.

         Max sees the man’s lips move. He looks like he may be mouthing words; and just as Max had been determined to hear Lars’s last testimonial, so does he want to hear what this stranger says. Max pushes a button on his wrist panel. It is supposed to increase his short-range hearing. Like the rest of his equipment, it may or it may not work, sort of like trying to start up the engine of a beaten down lemon that has been the junkyard eyesore since about the time President Truman fired General MacArthur.

         It takes a while, but the gears finally kick in, and Max is able to hear the man’s whispered voice. The man sounds like a ghost wailing inside of a tunnel, and Max realizes he has to remove the sound of the ocean wind outside so as to hear intelligible words. He frantically presses on his wrist panel, since of course the man is not going to be able to speak much longer.

         Finally, the short-range hearing device blocks out the wind. Max realizes that the patrol integrity nerds may be hearing the same thing right now, but he decides not to give a damn. Max had decided in a split second of time to turn a crisis into an opportunity, though he cannot say for certain yet that hearing the last words of a dying man is really an opportunity. No matter. He had made his decision just then, so now he is going to press onward without second thoughts.

         Max braces himself for whatever the man may say. He remembers one of the Haji heads he had buried in the sand. The silver moon rises in the black sky from behind Max’s shoulders to the crown of Max’s head. It illuminates Max in a wave of sad, grainy, defeated light; and for a moment Max senses that he is not kneeling before a hole in the sand, but praying before an altar in a sepia toned, dusty, dead cold hell. Indeed, the desert is viciously cold after sunset; but that coldness digs into his bones in a way he had never experienced before. Max can do no more than to drop the severed, mustached head into the hole, and to say a little prayer on his chapped lips to a God who will not listen. 

         But, in fact, God does listen; or rather, something listens; and whatever it is that hears him proceeds to respond to his mad prayer through the swollen, snarling lips of that bloodless head.

         It responds to Max with the same words that Max now hears from the lips of the dying man below him. Max alternates between that moment long ago on the desert sand and the moment now on the pier. For him, the moments are in substance one and the same.

         Horror show, the dying man/severed head says. The last horror show…

         Max slides sand over the decapitated head. Max lowers the visor over the dead face. He stands upright. He notices that he is trembling, and so he leans a moment against the back of the idling garbage truck. The putrid exhaust fumes somehow penetrate his helmet and singe the hairs in his nostrils, but he frankly does not care. He just wants to restrain his tears and return to his opportunity.

         Max switches off his short-range hearing device. He glances again at the two corpses. They are side-by-side in an eternity of their own making; one, still clutching his pistol; the other, still reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; both now and forever staring into a starless, moonless expanse that lifts their souls out of the heat wave and into a reality as cold as the untold sufferings of the damned.

         Max tires of the exhaust fumes. He strolls back to the driver’s side door, climbs into the cabin, and turns off the ignition. 

         With the diesel engine turned off, there is no sound to distract him from the howl of the ocean wind, except for the repeated slam of the loosened tarp. The wind is a bitter ghost swooshing over a dead shoreline only to dissipate into feckless breezes further inland. The breezes flow down alleyways or slither into sewage vents. They die out before they can strike the enormous lobby windows of the nearest ‘safety colony;’ and so the rest of the survivors, locked inside of their apartments, clutching at the food ration tickets that they will use an hour or so after sunrise, have no idea that there is so much wind on the shoreline. Is this a new development, or has the wind been this strong out here all along? No way to tell, and really the answer is irrelevant at this point. What matters now is that everyone else remains ignorant of an important fact about their climate.

         What else do we not know? Max thinks. What else frankly has eluded our observation, because we have been caged animals, rather than free, inquisitive people? Perhaps, my opportunity is to learn some truth about how things really work in our ‘new world.’ Perhaps, those truths have been in front of my eyes a lot longer than I would want to admit, and I merely need to pull aside the veil…

         Or, in this case, the tarp flapping noisily in the ocean wind…

         Max stares at the tarp. The crates beneath supposedly contain the bones of people who had been charred by the heat wave or beaten to death by one of the iron pipe-wielding maniacs that night. It is almost a year since the world as we knew it came to a sudden, violent end; and even now, the cleanup crews in various parts of Greater Los Angeles still find the corpses of those unfortunates who never made it into a colony, or who had never been on the list of evacuees for one reason or another. The streets had been cleared long ago, but there are still plenty of corpses inside of commercial buildings and homes alike. They are no more substantial than thin skeletons clothed in moth eaten shirts or dresses.

         But what if I pull this veil aside, and I discover something unanticipated?

         Something that is not supposed to be there…

         Like a severed head just buried in the sand…

         Horror show, the dying man/severed head says. The last horror show…

         Max climbs up the side of the bus, but it feels to him like somebody else is doing it. He does not want to know about this ‘horror show.’ He just wants to keep it hidden beneath that rippling sand dune (flapping tarp) on an altogether childish premise that says that what he does not know for sure cannot hurt him or the boy he loves. At the same time, he feels a compulsive necessity to go up there, even as the wind batters against his bodysuit, and the incessant screams swooshing in from the sea beyond break through his helmet and rattle his ears. He keeps climbing, even though he is sure that patrol integrity nerds can sense the same ocean wind blowing through their recorders. He keeps climbing, even though he is sure that he will not be able to deny what he really finds up there.

         While still hanging over the side of the garbage truck, Max snaps off the rest of the tarp. The wind carries away the tarp at once. He sees it fluttering in his night vision goggles like a magic carpet flying back to Araby…

         James Joyce’s Araby, Max thinks. Going all the way out just to go home…

         Horror show, the dying man/severed head says. The last horror show…

         Max shakes his head, until the inchoate thoughts blow away with the old and grease stained tarp to God knows where. When he stops shaking, and opens his eyes, he also feels like he is back in his own body. There is still a dreamlike quality to his surroundings, but he senses that he is really there. 

         He heaves himself over the side of the garbage truck. There are two big crates back there. The space between the crates can fit a thin man. 

         Looking through his night vision goggles into this space, Max can observe a crowbar leaning against one of the crates. He slides into the space, retrieves the crowbar, and climbs back to the top of that crate nearer the garbage truck cabin. He sits on the cabin with the crowbar in hand, while catching his breath.

         I’m about to add ‘grave robber’ to my long list of indiscretions out in the field, Max thinks. Oh, sure, I mutilated corpses; but they were never buried yet when I stumbled upon them. As for this business, well, let’s just say I am about to cross a line; and I may never be able to go back. Do I want to do this? Really, do I want to see what the dead see? The lies hidden beneath the desert sand? Is that my opportunity, or is that knowledge just another ball and chain, wrapped about my neck, and pulling me inch-by-inch back into the hole I dug for myself?

         The wind blows harder. It slaps against his visor, like the hand of a hard, remorseless disciplinarian. 

         And it manages to break through his helmet just enough to massage both his earlobes. It is a seductress, as much as a disciplinarian, and it whispers now in words as clear as a memory not yet beaten down by time and circumstances. It is the past, but it is the past as alive in the present as it had been then. This adds to the dreamlike quality of his surroundings, and yet Max still feels like he is in his own body and in control of his own mind. He will own what he is about to see. He will own it as much as he does his guilt over abandoning his only son.

         Horror show, the wind whispers inside his helmet. The last horror show…

         Max stands up. The wind pushes him back, but he holds his place on top of the crate with every last bit of his strength and will. His bodysuit flutters, as if a taut sail in a headwind. His visor sounds like glass crackling under pressure, and so Max faces downward, so that the top of his helmet takes the brunt of all that ocean wind swooshing over the clanking pier.

         The wind depletes just enough, so that he can slam the end of his rusted crowbar repeatedly against the lock at the top of the crate. The lock breaks on the third hit, and he kicks it away.

         There are two swivel doors on the top of the crate. Max stands upon one while bending down and pushing up the other. 

         He sees a layer of skulls and bones, but the remains are in no particular order, like someone had gathered up a pile of bones and tossed them onto the top of the crate indiscriminately. That may not mean anything at all, of course. Skeletal remains can start to fall apart the moment they are moved; and inside a rumbling garbage truck, we may presume that skulls will roll away from their spines, or ribs will loosen and fall off, like the keys on an old piano. Still, given how tightly packed the bodies must be, Max is surprised to see that there is not one skeletal frame even partially intact, not one skull attached to a spine, not one leg attached to a pelvis. 

         Max steps onto the bones. He senses the remains snapping and crackling beneath his weight. He is sinking into a pile of twigs. He is about to grab at the side of the crate, so as to pull himself back up, when he lands on a chest or an ass that still feels fleshy. 

         Max pushes up the other swivel door. He wades knee deep through bones and skulls. The bones break apart, like twigs in the wind, but the flesh beneath continues to hold him up. 

         What is especially strange is that the flesh feels squishy…

         Like rigor mortis has not set in, Max thinks. 

         Max bends down. He starts to toss the loose bones off to the side. At the same time, he is sliding the sand aside. He wants to recover a head that he had buried. He never actually did that when mutilating and burying body parts way out there in Haji Land; but, now, he has crossed that line. The last vestige of a moral restraint has broken apart, like the twigs through which he wades within the garbage truck, or sand dune, or wherever the hell he may be this late hour.

         Max gasps. He views a bruised, startled, bluish purple, young girl’s face. Her long blond hair almost looks white from prolonged stress. She must be less than ten-years-old, though her face looks as if it had been creased by advanced age in the months before a P.S.A. grunt finally put a bullet into her heart. Max can tell how young she is, because he can recognize the ornament still dangling from her neck. It is a character from My Little Pony. Adam had had an interest in My Little Pony before he had realized that girls and girly things have cooties.

         Max tosses aside more bones to reveal other bodies. So far as he can tell just then, rigor mortis has not set into any of them. 

         But none of this is possible, Max thinks. No one could have survived that night unless they were housed within a hermetically sealed, climate controlled ‘safety colony.’ They must have died almost a year ago, unless the heat wave is spreading just now to new areas…

         Or unless the heat wave is not real…

         Haven’t you questioned its existence? Max asks himself. Haven’t you now and then indulged the fantasies of a climate catastrophe denier? Deep down, is this not what you have been hoping, indeed anticipating, to find under the veil?

         The wind howls like a rabid dog. It slings up ocean water, which splashes into the open crate and onto Max’s crackling visor. It picks up several of the old bones and flings them onto the pier. Max hears the bones clunking on the metal and rolling over the side.

         Max slides the rest of the bones over the corpses. He climbs out from the crate, and slams both swivel doors shut. He inserts the crowbar in place of that lock that he had smashed, so that the swivel doors do not flap in the wind. But for the tarp flying away, there is no indication that anyone had broken into the crate. Max figures that once the Civil Corps. engineers return, and fix the barge incinerator, they will burn this huge crate before realizing that the rusted lock on top had been replaced with a crowbar. At least, he hopes that is what later happens as the last thing he wants is to revisit this discovery with his superiors.

         And yet as Max walks away from the garbage truck, and resumes his post overlooking the pier, he cannot shake the fear that he has crossed the line. He will need to contend with what he has found. There is not sand enough in all of the deserts of the world in which to hide his eyes from the truth staring at him.

*   *   *

         Come on, old man. Keep up with me, Drake urges with his typical charm.

         Max responds with the bird. 

         Drake laughs, turns on his heels, and continues up the windy path that is going to take the two of them eventually to the top of Mount Lee. Drake is very excited this morning. He received permission to drill today with a new, state of the art, laser guided rifle. Officially it is known as the Laser 4 (lightweight and short muzzle variation on a classic Laser 16), but the P.S.A. grunts and officers alike refer to it as the ‘Runner Stopper.’ The laser guided computer aiming will guarantee a ‘perfect’ head shot from two miles away in just about any weather condition (not that there has been any noticeable variation in the weather this far inland). Rumor has it that that Laser 4 knocks the head from the spine each and every time. The grunts and the officers trade such capability rumors in the whispered tones of boys exchanging illegal baseball cards, because of course in the official historical accounts there never has been a ‘terminated runner.’ The ‘terminated runner’ after all would presuppose a runner in the first place, and a runner in turn would presuppose that the heat wave has dissipated enough so that a man then could survive more than a minute or two outside of his colony. That assertion, of course, is heresy. The speaker can be branded a ‘denier’ and punished accordingly. Therefore, yes, the boys love their ‘Runner Stopper;’ but with the exception of Drake, and maybe one or two others, they are careful to restrain their enthusiasm behind a public mask of unemotional professionalism.

         Normally, Max would be hiking beside his partner easily enough, but that damned air pressure regulator has been acting up again. He tires, whenever he tries to pick up his pace, like he is trying to hike tens of thousands of feet high; and so he is forced to stagger up the mountain like an old man with a huge load in his bodysuit. He cannot recall the prior time he felt so old and out of breath.

         Max looks upward. The Hollywood Sign looms over him. The tall, painted letters cast shadows that extend midway down the side of the mountain. Inside those shadows, the world seems permanently overcast. It is as if a sluggish and heavy sadness has descended from on high to weigh him down, though Max can sense readily enough that his gloom has arisen as much from inside his mind, as fallen upon him from the clouds. 

         Surprisingly, no one from Patrol Integrity has asked him to explain under oath his heightened heartbeat and breathing, while guarding the incinerator off the Long Beach Pier a week prior. So far as he has noticed, none of his superior officers seem to be paying any more attention to him than the others. Perhaps, the monitors had been down, and the incident had not been recorded. All those tech problems of late have been a running joke, after all. Publicly, most people put the blame on the embargo; but thinly veiled beneath the locker room jokes is a disdain for how the totalitarian bureaucracy saps incentive. There is also a vague, unspoken fear that perhaps, somehow, the heat wave is pressing the life out of everything and everyone bit by bit, notwithstanding the many protective measures undertaken since that night.

         Of course, it is very possible that they have not approached him because they are watching him closely. Surveillance personnel are trained in how not to tip their hand; and though the professionalism of this outfit does not match his experience in the military, he presumes that the spies among them realize that much at least. So, yes, they may have pieced together what he saw a week ago and are watching him now to see what else he does or if he cracks under all the pressure of knowing what he should not know. 

         Max cannot know what they know, and so he tries not to think about his superiors. Rather than try to second-guess them, he will wait to see what these bastards dish out; and then he will respond accordingly. In the meantime, what really haunts him is his uncertainty about what in fact he observed in the back of that garbage truck. How can he be sure he saw the bodies of people who had been dead no more than a few hours? Or that he felt beneath his shoes the cold squishiness of bodies not yet given over to rigor mortis? He still thinks about his son off and on. He tries to tell himself that his son is dead, but a nagging voice in the darkest corner of his mind insists that Adam is very much alive and, even now, waiting for him back at the CAB. That same voice tells him that that heat wave is a hoax; that people have been surviving outside of the so-called ‘safety colonies’ all along; and that if these other people have been surviving, then so has his son. Life is contagious. Find a bit of it over here, and there is hope that indeed it prevails over there as well. It is something to hold onto anyway, when the very sameness of the daily patrols and the monthly drills otherwise suggests that bare existence is an altogether bleak and hopeless effort. 

         And that is the rub of the problem, is it not? The official story is that life is finished; and yet people need to believe that there is life somewhere to have any kind of morale. And so they dabble in a black market of bartered rumors or jokes, my ‘runner’ tale in exchange for your rumor about how the temperature outside is actually falling, my ‘runner’ pun in exchange for your grainy photo of a windblown tree in the middle of the city. Outwardly, everyone takes the puns and the rumors with a grain of salt, like most individuals before that night may have regarded a UFO or a haunted house story. They bottle up their enthusiasm about such stories so as to toe the party line, but what happens when a bottled up hope is given freedom to expand in the imagination of a man who otherwise has too little stimuli day after day? What if that hope is the only thing living in a man who has been otherwise reduced to a drone? Could he hallucinate recent death, so as to give himself a reason to believe that human life can survive well enough outside of the colonies? Could he hallucinate intact, clammy corpses, so as to give himself a reason to doubt the heat wave? If so, then is it possible for this bottled up hope to wipe away forever the line between reality and fantasy?

         Hope is different from faith. If Max had faith that men indeed can live in this heat wave, or that this heat wave is a hoax, then he very likely would have jettisoned his climate-controlled bodysuit long ago and gone AWOL. He believes that Drake is closer to having faith than he is. So far as Max knows, Drake never has removed his bodysuit while outside the barracks. Nevertheless, the overall ease and outspokenness with which Drake addresses the issue of ‘runners’ must indicate a hope verging on faith that indeed ‘runners’ actually exist somewhere out there. What is sad is that Drake does not want to find a ‘runner’ so that he can figure out how to help the rest of us get out of our bodysuits and return to a semblance anyway of our lives before that night. Rather, he wants to bag one of those ‘runners.’ It is like discovering a woolly mammoth still alive only to kill it with a laser guided rife and then to hang its severed head on a trophy wall. It is faith in survivability and redemption put to the service of our baser instincts.

         Who am I to judge? Max thinks, while he continues to stagger up the side of the mountain toward the P.S.A. Training Reserve. I used to slide through the desert sand in search of the perfect spot to bury a severed human head. I went about my business by the silvery light of a sterile moon. I looked into the fierce desert wind and smiled, while dark sand pebbles flew up my nose and down my throat. In those moments, I was nothing but a baser instinct. I had no soul, but what God had imparted once upon a time into the flesh of a rabid dog or a wily snake. I had forsaken love for the late night gratification of desert sand lust far from home. I had forsaken my fellow killers, so as to indulge my temptations on the sly. So, then, who am I to judge Sir Francis? Who am I to disdain his passion for a trophy? Who am I to stand in his way when he pursues his elusive ‘runner’?

         Max continues to play out these questions in his mind, while he fires one round after another at the targets. He uses his standard issue rifle, while Drake fires alongside him with his coveted Laser 4. Notwithstanding his older weapon, and those nagging voices in his tired head, Max still obtains a better score than his partner when the afternoon is finished. 

         Drake returns the Laser 4 to the armory. He mingles a few minutes with some of the other P.S.A. officers, who had been given the green light to try out the Laser 4. He then leaves them behind to search for his friend and partner in the crowd of target shooters and obstacle runners milling around the Hollywood Sign. He finds Max leaning upon the letter ‘H.’ Max is alone and lost in thought.

         I can’t believe you beat me, Drake says, while playfully punching Max in his left shoulder. I’ve got a state of the art computer aiming for me, and you’re still able to beat me with your Kentucky windage. 

         That’s because it’s close range fire, Max says, while he continues to look away from his friend and toward those abandoned Hollywood Hills homes below him. Move the target far enough away, and your computer program will be able to account for all the variables between you and your target a whole lot better than I can with my windage. You’re the wave of the future, you damn shithead.

         Drake laughs. Max hesitates a moment longer, and then he chuckles also.

         Drake leans upon the ‘H,’ so that he too stares down at Hollywood Hills. Drake does not have the same sense of loss as Max apparently feels. He looks at the abandoned homes below and imagines what they would look like if torched. He thinks that it would be an improvement frankly to let wildlife replace those faded, chipped, mid-century modern homes, if only to give young men like him a bucolic reserve for hunting down ‘runners.’

         Ever feel like you’re not challenged enough out here? Drake asks.

         Not really, Max mutters. I’ve seen enough action for one lifetime.

         Oh, that’s right, you’re like Rambo or something, Drake says.

         Or something, Max remarks cryptically. Want to head down the hill?

         I’m staying up here tonight, Drake responds. I cashed in some of my R&R credits to get a room at the lodge. Jake and Storm are doing the same. We are going to cook a frozen pizza, pass around the booze bottle, and watch Fast and Furious back to back until we are fucking sick. Why don’t you join us? 

         Oh, I don’t know, Max mutters.

         Come on, old man, Drake urges. Cash in some of your credits. What are you saving them for anyway? A honeymoon suite on The Love Boat with Gopher?

         You sure know your classic television, Max responds with a grin.

*   *   *

         Max sips his Heineken, while he stares blankly at the trophy wall. 

         He is in the foyer of a large, woodsy lodge on the top of Mount Lee. The lodge replaced a cell phone tower several years ago, when satellite technology turned those skeletal beasts of steel and wire into quaint artifacts of twentieth century communications. By then, the P.S.A. had seized Mount Lee and turned it into a training reserve. The higher ups had wanted a kind of Soviet era dacha for officers to enjoy unsupervised time with their ‘mistresses’ (more often than not their gay lovers from the salons and cafes in West Hollywood); but when an architect presented a late nineteenth century moose lodge design, the decision makers gave the thumbs up without question. Teddy Roosevelt stands very tall in the collective consciousness of the P.S.A. They all like to think of themselves as modern day ‘Rough Riders,’ as in ‘riding rough’ over the backs of those silly peons who for one reason or another just will not get with the program. Before sending their grunts and junior officers into the field, the superior officer urges them then ‘to take San Juan Hill and to win one for the Gipper.’ Some officers have modified their rifles, so that they generate the distinct crackle and pop of one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Winchesters when fired. So far as anyone can tell, no victim ever has made the connection with the Spanish American War before his head turns into pumpkin splatter. That is the great sadness of war really. Those in the best position to appreciate the artistry of combat are either too dead or too insane with adrenaline to sense the finer touches.

         Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait looms large and masculine on the dark brown wall opposite the trophy wall. He is in his coonskin cap and hunting jacket, and he is posing with his Winchester like a boy proud to show off the BB gun that he got for Christmas. It is an historic image, except that the higher ups modified it to include the U.N. and the Rainbow flags pinned to his chest. 

         The trophy wall consists of framed photographs of important kills within the illustrious history of the P.S.A. There is an officer posing with his laser rifle by his side and his boot on the headless corpse beneath him. Officially, his had been the first ‘clean decapitation shot,’ meaning no skull fragments clinging to the neck or the spine or found within a yard of the fallen body. Another officer poses beside a corpse cut in two at the waist. Body shots now and then manage to snap the spine and to eviscerate enough organs that the victim breaks in two before hitting the bloody ground. What makes this body shot noteworthy is that the two halves of the body are exactly the same length. No one in the field yet has been able to replicate the ‘half and half,’ and so the officer remains among the few and the proud on the trophy wall. Another officer poses with a severed head in one hand and a rifle in the other. The caption explains that the severed head flew further from the fallen body than in any other recorded decapitation shot. The gunman nicknamed it the ‘rocket head;’ and he hoped that, because of his fine feat, young boys would be inspired to learn the scientific connection between marksmanship and rocket propulsion. We are not just putting out silly ‘brush fires’ in ghettos, when we decapitate rioters with our adroit headshots. We are developing the skills and the killer instinct to send fine men first to the outer reaches of the Solar System and then to the stars beyond.

         Above these framed photographs is the severed head of the first African American ‘put down’ in a ‘brush fire’ by the P.S.A. Of course, if nature had had its way, his big eyes and screaming mouth should have disintegrated into a skull by now; but the taxidermists have done an admirable job in keeping together his terrified face. No one knows his real name. His nickname is Cain; and unless and until the ‘new world’ falls, like all the regimes that have come and gone in the annals of history, Cain will be up there on that wall, screaming out in silent fear, and staring all bug eyed and stupid into his dark and unforgiving eternity. There is no greater symbol of man’s future in the ‘new world,’ and the officer who admires this trophy should be careful not to think that he has escaped that fate simply because he is standing in his polished boots with a beer in his hand.

         Man cannot escape his fate, Max thinks sullenly, as he takes another sip. He can be the worst of outlaws, far out in the desert where the law can never reach him, hidden in the darkness of night, when he indulges his perverted lust for dismembered corpses and buried heads; but for all his effort, he breaks out from one cell just to find that he has been imprisoned in another. And why? Not hard to answer, really. It is because he cannot ever figure out where the dream stops and the reality begins; while they, whoever the hell they are at any given time, remain one or two steps ahead of him. He imagines himself a hunter, but in fact he is as much a severed head on a stick as everybody else. Indeed, even the man at the very top of the pyramid (presumably a man, but perhaps a god, or a hiccup in an alternative universe, or a computer program gone mad) is just another dumb rabbit in the marsh. The truth is that we are all hunted, brought down by our fears and weaknesses, buried by our mortality, lost in our sorrows.

         So then why the fuck do I care? Max almost says audibly, when he sips his Heineken again, and moves away from the trophy wall.

         What makes you think you care? Max asks himself in his mind.

         Well, Max thinks, I care enough to think about my life. I care enough to try to get drunk (not an easy feat with a watered down Heineken), so that I can look like I am actually enjoying my time in the lodge with the other three boys. It is all a lie, of course. I would much rather be back in my cot in the barracks, masturbating under my blanket, and listening to the others moan and groan the night away about how the technology does not work well enough or the pay has not been deposited yet into their accounts. But I am here in this lodge instead; and I am doing my best to look shitfaced and clueless; because I care enough to try to fit in with the others. And why should I want to fit in with them? Because they may be acting like a bunch of frat boys now; but my antenna tells me that they have a scheme up their sleeves, and they hope to bring me into their little conspiracy. And, truth be told, I desire to be persuaded to do something illicit, even something against my self-interests and better judgment. The alternative is more of the same: patrolling dead streets, seeing what I am not supposed to see, wondering if I saw what I saw, and just waiting for the day they escort me into a back office and put a bullet into my brain for just caring too damn much.

         Moreover, if I do not dip my foot into the pool, then I shall never be sure just what they know, Max thinks. Do they know what I saw (think I saw) in that garbage truck? Are they suspicious enough to try to test my fidelity to the ‘new world’ truths, namely that the heat wave exists and that it is impossible to live in it for very long without wearing one of their climate-controlled bodysuits? If I can figure out their game, then can I also figure out how to turn the tables on them? Do I even desire to turn the tables on them, if given the chance to do so?

         Yes, Max answers himself, as he finishes his Heineken, and returns to the lounge. Because somewhere beneath all the bullshit and the second-guessing, I love my son; and if there is even a remote chance of breaking free long enough to return to him, then I must try to do so. Sure, I’ll concede that for all his law breaking the outlaw only manages to move from one prison cell to another; but if in so doing he is able to create enough chaos that he can slip away a moment to retrieve what he desires most dear, then has not his rebellion been worth it?

         So where have you been, old man? Drake calls back to Max from the sofa across the lounge. Your pizza is getting cold.

         There’s got to be something stronger than Heineken in the frig, Max says to no one in particular. 

         Amen, Storm belches, while he stretches his long, toned legs on the fine marble coffee table (not in keeping with that rustic moose lodge architecture), and squeezes his butt boyfriend Jake closer to his chest. 

         Jake moans. Apparently, he is drunk already; but of course his soft, thin, twink body does not need much alcohol to be down for the count. 

         Max walks through the lounge and into the kitchen. The freezer is full of pizza. The refrigerator is full of Heinekens. Clearly, this place is meant to be a frat boys’ paradise. Nevertheless, call it old age, or call it the burden weighing down his shoulders, but Max is in the mood for something more sophisticated to dim the lights a bit in his mind. 

         He rummages through the pantry. There are boxes of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat from back when the U.S.A. military housed soldiers up here), buckets of C-4 explosives, a neatly stacked pile of National Geographic magazines, and by the back wall a stash of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. Some asshole opened a bottle and spilled about half the contents on the floor, so the smell of whiskey is almost overpowering. Still, there are a half dozen bottles unopened, and Max is happy enough to endure that stomach-churning odor to pick up four of them.

         Max cradles the bottles by his chest, as he returns to the lounge. For the first time that night, he actually feels a bit like a college boy. He is not relaxed enough to be giddy, but he can fake a pretty good smile, as he tosses one Jack Daniel’s bottle to each of the men. Drake and Storm grab theirs in midair. Jake groans in his sleep, and snuggles closer to Storm, as his bottle lands on his little crotch and then proceeds to roll across the sofa to the other end. 

         Damn straight, Storm slurs with a wily grin, as he twists open his bottle. Knew there had to be something better than Kraut piss.

         Leave it up to the old man, Drake says with some pride. I told you he is a party animal. Puts the young bucks out there to shame. The old man can kill it.

         A goddamn killer, Storm says without dropping his wily grin. 

         You bet your white ass, Drake says. This old man is for real.

         Sounds like you’re buttering me up for the oven, Max states, as he twists open his bottle and takes a seat opposite Storm and Jake. 

         Drake and Storm glance at one another. Max notices, but keeps his cool, while he gulps a mouthful of the old firewater.

         Goddamn smart, too, Storm says.

         Storm takes a long swig from his bottle. He then drops his polished boots onto the hardwood floor, nudges Jake off his side, and bends forward to put his bottle on the marble coffee table beside a half eaten peperoni pizza. He slaps his right thigh, like he is trying to get rid of a kink. There is a squeaky sound on account of how tight he is wearing his dark, leather pants on his toned muscles.

         You want us to cut to the chase; Storm burps. Is that the truth, old man?

         Well, man, let’s just say my bullshit bag doesn’t haul as much as it used to, Max says after taking another swig. Maybe that’s just part of getting older…

         And wiser, Storm interrupts Max. 

         Oh, I don’t know about that, Max says. If I’m so wise, then what the hell am I doing here?

         Finding out what’s possible, Storm answers. 

         Ah, curiosity, Max says. Ever go to a military hospital before we seceded from our good, old Uncle Sam?

         You mean check out those boots who came back in pieces from Pakistan? Storm asks with a distant grin.

         What about you? Max asks Drake without bothering to answer Storm. You were an orderly. Ever change a soldier’s stained sheets? Maybe let the poor boy cop a feel when no one’s looking?

         Shit, old man, Drake says with feigned indignation. You think I’m a queer like these two fudge packers?

         Ask a boy who lost his arm because he was too curious about an I.E.D. on the side of the road what he thinks about curiosity, Max continues. In the field, the wise man keeps his head hung low, and does not ask unnecessary questions.

         How do you define unnecessary? Storm asks.

         Whatever pisses off the man who cuts your check every two weeks, Max says after taking another swig. 

         But what if this man is lying to you? Storm asks. 

         Everybody’s got a line, Max counters.

         Storm laughs. Jake almost awakens from his stupor, but then slides back into his darkness. Drake casually walks to the back of the sofa and stays there, so that he too stares at Max as the conversation continues. 

         How cynical; Storm comments after his laughter subsides. If only you had believed in something, then maybe those assholes would not have found a good reason to stamp P.T.S.D. all over your discharge papers.

         I respect you for doing your homework, Max says.

         It’s true, isn’t it? Storm says. If you had been able to tell yourself you’d killed all those sand niggers for God and Country, then perhaps you would have been able to hold it together. 

         Max shrugs. He takes another swig of his whiskey.

         A man’s got to believe in something, Storm continues. Even if it puts him at odds with the man who cuts his check, he’s still got to believe. Otherwise, it is just a matter of time before he is fucking interns half his age and padding his expense sheets. Small time corruption; but that’s the point, isn’t it? It is all so fucking small. Everything about that man is small. Sure, he keeps his paychecks and his pension plan; but what’s all that going to mean to him when he puts his pistol in his mouth one night? 

         Every ‘God and County’ man in the field went home on a stretcher or in a body bag, Max reflects. The survivors are always the cynics, the assholes, the fudge packers who’d sell their grandmas to an Arab pimp for a single night with a boy. The sickos alone make it in this world, and the sickos do not believe in a goddamn thing but the time and the place of their next fix. Everything else is a colossal waste of time or a possible hazard better left to the next man to solve.

         So then why are you here? Storm asks. 

         Max takes another swig. He is finally feeling a buzz. 

         Hard to say, Max mutters…

         No, it isn’t, Drake speaks up from behind the sofa. 

         Drake takes a swig from his bottle. Drake grins, but Max can see through the mask. Drake needs that bolt of courage that the whiskey provides, because he is about to show his cards. He twists the cap back onto his bottle, and sets it upon a table behind the sofa.

         Storm leans back on the sofa. He is content to let Drake speak for now.

         For his part, Max is glad to see that they are finally getting to the point.

         Drake picks up a briefcase that had been hidden behind the sofa before the conversation. He walks over to Max, bends down before him, and opens the briefcase. He does all this without once looking away from his old man partner.

         There are hundreds of pages of intelligence and medical files in there, a smorgasbord of information that had been classified when Uncle Sam had been in charge, but that is now apparently able to be photocopied by junior officers and company clerks in the P.S.A. Everyone laments the repeated tech problems (even here in the lodge the DVD had not worked, which is why the four of them had to eat pizza and to drink beer without the stereo sound accompaniment of Fast and Furious on the big screen), but the real sign of a government’s decline is its inability to keep its secrets. Too many people with too much information, and as such it is only a matter of time before the whole house of cards topples.

         This concerns Max, not because he has any love for the ‘new world,’ but because he realizes that he has little time to get back to his son. When the end comes it will not be pretty, and the most vulnerable among us will suffer most. Even if Max accepts that his son is dead, he still does not want his son to sufferall the pain and the sorrow that will accompany the end. If Max really loves his son, then at the very least he will do what he must to prevent that occurrence.

         Drake feels through the briefcase without removing his eyes from Max’s. He finally finds the one photograph inside there. He hands it to his partner and steps back to study carefully Max’s first reaction. 

         It is a happy family portrait taken on the occasion of Adam’s first Winter Solstice. Max, Caroline, and Baby Adam are sitting together on a make believe white snow mound. In front of them is their pet Shih Tzu, Shansi. It is a pretty, blond, longhaired show dog with an elfin hat on its head. It stares straight into the camera and opens its mouth, like it is trying to talk as the picture is taken. The caption reads in candy cane colors: Santa’s Little Helpers.

         Max remembers the photograph. He had never liked it. He thought it was too frivolous; but Caroline had insisted that it be put on the mantle a couple of weeks before every Winter Solstice. Moreover, Adam liked it; and Max thought more than once that that suggested a certain lightness in his son’s loafers. That fear would not start to subside until Adam demonstrated a fondness for pistols. Of course, pistols also can be patently homosexual what with the fairly obvious phallic undertones; but in this case, Max preferred to think otherwise.

         This is your life, Max mutters, before he hands back the photograph that presumably had been snatched from among Caroline’s private items that night.

         Drake smiles. Being a classic television aficionado, Drake recognizes the reference of course. He nearly breaks into his Groucho Mark impersonation, but then holds himself back from doing anything that might interfere with the utter solemnity of this moment. He needs to break through Max’s shell, and he thinks that this old photo of a happier time and place may be his one chance to do so.

         Indeed, the old photo is working better than Max would have anticipated beforehand. He still does not care for the ‘frivolous’ smiles and ‘faked’ comity. Already, by then, there had been a deep fissure in his marital relationship with Caroline that could not be healed by all the fake smiles in the world. He would see one of his interns later that same night; and Caroline would slap him on the face the next morning. Happy Times, when the Winter Solstice Jingles ring late into the night; and yet for all that he responds to this old photo with the pangs of guilt and sorrow he had thought long since buried. He retains his poker face, or so he imagines, but his heart feels like a sand dune cracked down the middle to reveal a gruesome skull that had been hidden years earlier from the light of the moon. The skull is gruesome, not so much in its unremarkable features, but because it had been buried and was not ever again supposed to be observed. If this skull can be revealed, then there are no secrets; and if that is true, then it is impossible to remain open to love without also being reminded now and then of the times in which we have failed to love enough. Love reminds us of our old and shameful failures. Far from meaning that we never have to say that we are sorry, for Max at least love means we must forever seek forgiveness from those persons who are no longer in a position to forgive us. For Max, and perhaps for all men, the end of love is despair, a resigned tear shed in the depths of a hell of his own making. And why? Because the winds blows the sand to reveal skulls.

         You can save your family, Drake says. 

         Can I? Max thinks. Maybe; maybe not; depends upon whether I really saw those fresh corpses in the back of that garbage truck. If I did, then people truly can survive in this heat wave; and if there is hope still in that hell outside, then there is hope for the family I had lost even before we posed for that picture so many years ago. If I did not see those fresh corpses, but only imagined them for one reason or another, then I am too far gone in my madness to embrace hope, even if indeed there is chance of going back home. That would be the worst of hell, would it not? For the climate outside to be fine, but for me to burn into a charcoal crisp on account of all that lighter fuel I carry around in my soul. Still, if I love my son, then I am going to kick at the pricks to the bitter end. Love is despair, after all. Love is the resigned sigh, before the one-man suicidal march into the bayonets. Love is the lonely desert campaign when the war is finished.

         Max does not respond, but he breaks his poker face anyway by looking at his shoes with the kind of pained expression on his face that suggests a boy just readying himself for the snap of the ruler against his wrist.

         Storm leans forward. He sees the crack in the shell and decides to go for the kill. It is now or never to persuade Max to join their conspiracy.

         There are runners out there, Storm whispers. 

         Oh, really? Max asks irritably. Have you seen them?

         Storm considers the question a moment. He grins smugly. 

         No, Storm responds. But I think you have…

         So they finally have come around to testing my loyalty, Max thinks. I am not sure that Drake is scheming with them against me. He may be, but I cannot say for sure just yet. But as for the two faggots, oh, yes, they are testing me at this moment. Storm is doing all the talking. His protégé, Jake, appears to be in La-La Land; but for all I know, he is pretending to sleep, while in actuality he is recording my words even now. After all, the ‘passed out spy’ is an old routine…

         I am not sure what I saw, Max says. 

         Has it come to this? Storm asks. Are we no longer able to trust our ‘lying eyes’ anymore? Oh, sure, our eyes may tell us tall tales, now and then; but the half-truths, even the outright lies, reveal more than they obscure over time. If you doubt me, then ask yourself why the cops spend hours interrogating a man that they know is lying to them. It is because they know that they will observe the truth in all those lies. Maybe not at first, but eventually, like an image that emerges out from a mess of colors in a kaleidoscope. But, of course, you do not doubt me. You did your share of interrogations way out there beyond the reach of the law. People will lie to stop the waterboarding, and you know that that is true; but put them under the faucet enough times, and you will get some truth out from all those lies. It is just a matter of beating a man down enough times; and you have beaten yourself down, lied to yourself, smiled falsely at yourself in your dresser mirror, so that you cannot but see the truth in all your silly lies.

         You think I believe in runners? Max asks.

         No, Storm answers. You know there are runners. You know that there is no climate catastrophe. You know that if you walked out of this lodge just now without putting on your bodysuit you’d be as fine as before the shit hit the fan. Why do you think the men behind the curtains took such an interest in you back when you were residing at the CAB? Oh, sure, they wanted to recruit into their ranks a bona fide killer. They wanted to break you and to remake you for sport, keep you on a leash, like a trained pit bull, maybe unleash you if and when the caged animals began to rattle their bars too aggressively. But let’s face it: The main reason they took such an interest in you back then is that they figured out that indeed you knew. You kept your poker face, but your mind just would not stop spinning. Behind those blank eyes of yours, you questioned, you assembled puzzle pieces, you started to see the image that had been shattered by all that mayhem and loss that night. They are afraid of you. That is why they keep you ever so close…

         As close as you are to me right now, Max says.

         Yes, Storm smiles. Except that I am not one of them.

         No, of course not, Max snarls. Everyone else has a line. But not good old Storm. You are the only man in this fine outfit, who is totally on the up and up.

         Storm leans back on the sofa. He studies Max intently.

         I admit it, Storm says after a while. I am playing my game. 

         But your game has nothing to do with testing my loyalty, Max says. 

         My game has everything to do with tearing down the house of cards that had been erected on the ashes of a catastrophe and that is now breaking down each and every one of us, Storm says with a bit too much passion in his voice to be completely sincere. My game is to reveal the truth buried beneath their lies.

         You did not deny what I said, Max remarks.

         I do not care about your loyalty to them, Storm responds.

         I said nothing about caring, Max explains. I spoke of testing. Dr. Mengele tested his subjects without caring about them or the results. He simply filed his reports up the chain and collected his salary on time. ‘Very clinical,’ one would say, much like the ideal future man envisioned by our invisible puppet masters.

         Storm continues to smile, but he is notably agitated. For all his training, he is not as schooled as Max in maintaining his ‘poker face’ in the conversation. The fact that he is even trying to do so, though, suggests that indeed he is not being totally honest with Max. He may desire to bring down the house of cards, as he insists; but he also has some other motive that he desires to keep hidden. Perhaps, he is testing Max’s loyalty. Perhaps, it is something else altogether. It is dark, though, whatever it is; and so he tries to mask it behind his fake smile.

         There are runners out there, Storm says after a while.

         And I’m going to bag one of those motherfuckers, Drake interrupts.

         Storm stands up at once. He puts his arm around Drake’s shoulders.

         Yes, Storm agrees. Bag him, haul him back here, and impale what is left of his carcass up on our illustrious trophy wall. Drake will be a hero for bagging a traitor. As for the rest of us, we shall have the satisfaction of doing our parts to bring down this infernal regime.

         You’re nuts, Max snarls. Even if everything happens as you plan, nothing will come of your stunt. Theywill put a bullet in your head, remove your prized carcass, incinerate it, and go about business as usual. 

         You are presuming no one else will learn of our escapade, Storm remarks with a smooth confidence bordering on snide cockiness.

         Max does not respond. He takes another swig of whiskey.

         Storm steps back. He sways his right arm over his snoring butt boyfriend.

         Behold the man, Storm proclaims theatrically. Admittedly, Jake does not seem to be much right now. Just another P.S.A. killer on R&R, but what you do not know is that this twink asshole drunk also moonlights as a videographer for the propagandists who run the big board. He has access to the control room. He can get our footage on the big board and keep it there a good half hour, before the boys can figure out how to take it down. By then, of course, the proverbial horse will have left the barn; and the barn itself will be up in flames. You know history. You know how easily the giants tumble, when there is the subtlest push against their arthritic knees. 

         I don’t know, Max mutters. My guess is that most of the colonials are too brain dead even to understand what they are seeing on the board, let alone to rise up against their zoo keepers.

         Storm chuckles. He steps away from the sofa. He squats in front of Max. He takes Max’s hands into his own. There is laughter in his blue eyes bordering on madness, although Max suspects that this crazy shit may be put on for show.

         Now, old man, you know your history, Storm chides Max. Since when has a popular uprising ever amounted to anything? The average, nondescript man is a pawn. Get enough of them together, inflame their passions, and, yes, they’re going to shed blood and to tear down walls. But can they actually take down an entrenched regime? I would submit to you that that has never happened in the history of mankind. The people may clamor; but the ‘insiders’ purporting to act ‘for the people,’ the midlevel apparatchiks observing in the street agitation an advancement opportunity for themselves, these folks are the ones who actually replace the entrenched regime with themselves. The people celebrate victory, and then they go back to being the pawns they always have been. So, you see, I don’t care what the colonials do. What matters is that others in the P.S.A. will see that their bosses have lost control. What else really can they conclude from the fact that we have bagged a runner, put him up on the trophy wall, and put our shenanigans on the big board? Listen to them whisper at night. They realize already that the regime is slipping. The tech is broken half the time. The pay is sporadic at best. It will take only a little shove to knock our puppet masters off of the rafters. What happens next will be anyone’s guess, but I am confident in the end we shall stand much taller than we do right now…

         Robespierre suffered the guillotine, Max snaps back.

         The art is in knowing when to push and when to step back, Storm states.

         And this is an art with which you are intimately familiar? Max scoffs.

         Storm flinches. He keeps his smile, but his eyes show his distress. He has not been able to close the deal with Max; and for the first time, he is beginning to doubt his ability to do so. 

         Storm stands up. He turns away from Max a moment. Presumably, he has to consider his next move and does not want Max to see the concern on his face just then. He walks over to the back of the sofa, where Drake had been earlier, and then stares at Max as a contemptuous teacher might stare at an unruly boy in the back of his classroom. He no longer even tries to retain that phony smile.

         We are going AWOL tomorrow morning, Storm says. Drake is going to bag a runner, and then the shit is going to hit the fan. 

         And so what does that have to do with me? Max asks.

         Nothing, Storm replies. But we cannot guarantee what will happen then.

         Max glances at the photograph in Drake’s hand. Whether or not his son is dead, he is going to suffer, if he is not there for him when the regime starts to crumble. Max recalls how he had killed that Aryan boy back at the CAB because he had sensed that his son would suffer, if he did not step into the fight. This is the same scenario, not because Storm necessarily is going to do anything to his boy, but because there is no telling what will happen when the unstable house of cards we call the ‘new world’ comes crashing down.

         And then, of course, there is that part of Max’s psyche that really wants to be pulled into a conspiracy. He had entertained that thought back inside the foyer. He wants to kick at the pricks, because the alternative is a slow, greying suicide in a world of beaten men and uneventful patrols. Of course, the earnest troublemaker is the man whose son is taken away from him. He truly could lose Adam forever, if his rebellion does not go right. He is thus torn by the desire to save his son and the desire to save himself. He tries to tell himself that the one motivation can be in the service of the other motivation, but he is not so sure. Moreover, it is so easy for a man to lie to himself in a world where dreams and realities, truths and lies, blend so seamlessly; and so Max really cannot know if he is being honest with himself about his own motivations. Perhaps, he actually does not give a damn about his son or himself. Perhaps, he is just hell bent on one more wild ride, before he is forced to cash in his chips when someone puts a bullet through the back of his head. 

         Okay, Max thinks. I am going to go with them. Still, I am not going to let on that I have had my doubts about the heat wave, no matter if the faggots are on to me. So long as I remain suited, I cannot fail the loyalty test, if indeed this Storm fellow is testing my loyalty on behalf of his own bosses. I am going to slip away at some point to save my son, but until then I do not need to tip my hand to the people who may be listening in to this conversation just now.

         Let me be clear, Max states. I do not believe that there are runners. I do not believe that the climate out there is anything like what it had been before that night. Frankly, the idea that any regime could perpetuate a hoax as grand and as long as the heat wave is ridiculous. Nevertheless, I shall accompany you, not because I can or should try to save my son from the remote possibility of an uprising, but because I am Drake’s friend and partner. Drake is delusional, if he thinks he can bag and impale on the wall something that does not exist. I want to be by his side, so that I can bring him back to his senses.

         Old Man, you’re just afraid that I’m going to get all the glory for myself, Drake says with a hearty laugh. 

         But tell me, Max says to Storm without acknowledging Drake’s comment. Why is it so important to you that I join your little adventure?

         I know that everything you said right now was for the record, Storm says after a moment of silent consideration. You are smart to think that you may be recorded. Nevertheless, I know that you know. It really does not matter to me, if you tell me otherwise. Other P.S.A. officers have varying degrees of suspicion about the heat wave, so far as I can tell; but only we four men in this room for certain know that the runners are for real and that the heat wave is a hoax. So if there is going to be a conspiracy, then it should include everyone who knows.

         And then you can keep tabs on me; Max interrupts.

         Just as you can keep tabs on the rest of us, Storm continues. If we stand together, then there is no chance that one or two of us could put into effect an alternative conspiracy. We all shall have the same blood on our hands. As such, when the shit hits the fan, we all shall have the same mind in terms of the new regime to be established. We do not have to worry about the Kool-Aid drinkers setting up an alternative conspiracy. Fear of the heat wave has kept them all in line thus far. I have no reason to doubt that same fear will keep them all in line over the next twenty-four hours, while we commit our noble crimes.

         Well, it seems you have it all figured out, Max says. As for me, I am now officially buzzed and desirous to call it a night. I presume you have figured out when we should leave.

         The lodge sergeant arrives at 0700, Storm says. We should be gone when he gets here. He will presume that we have headed back to the barracks to get our orders for the day. 

         He will call the barracks at 0900 to make sure we have checked back in, Max remarks. When they have no record of our return, they will set the general alarm then. There will be a two-man patrol in every neighborhood searching for us by 1000. If they do not kill us within the hour, then they will green light the helicopters by 1100. We should be dead by noon…

         Ah, Storm interrupts. You presume that they can trace us. Of course, we shall not be wearing out bodysuits…

         No, Max corrects him. You shall not be wearing your bodysuits. I believe in the heat wave, remember? I am not going out there without protection. 

         Actually, truth be told, we presumed as such, Storm smiles. Feel free to wear your suit, as Jake has figured out a way to prevent them from finding out that we are AWOL until it is much too late for them.

         Oh? Max asks, while raising his eyebrow. Care to explain?

         Tomorrow, Storm states. Better to let Jake explain what he’s cooked up.

         Okay, gentlemen, tomorrow it is, Max says, while he stands up. I shall be down here and ready to go by 0600. I presume that this is early enough for you.

         Of course, it is, Storm says with a big smile. Welcome to our conspiracy…

         Feels more like a pact among devils; Max interrupts. 

         Max steps out of the lounge, before Storm has a chance to respond. He is upstairs and in his bedroom within minutes. He really is buzzed. He also desires to slide under his bed sheets and to think about what chess move to make next.

         He is in bed and about to turn off the lamp, when Drake steps in without warning. Max observes his partner, and offers him an affable and sincere smile.

         I won’t stay long, Drake says apologetically. 

         It’s okay, Max says. What is on your mind?

         I just want you to know that I’ve got your back, Drake says. You help me bag a runner. I’ll help you find and save your family. 

         Drake pauses. Max does not say anything.

         Also, let me be clear, Drake says after clearing his throat. The four of us are going out, but only the two of us are a team. 

         I never doubted that, Max says. 

         Though, in fact, Max has his doubts about every aspect of this mission. In his heart, he really wants to trust his friend; but he knows from his experience under the desert sun that even the closest of battle buddies will abandon him if it comes down to one life or the other. The survival instinct trumps loyalty, and so in the end the last survivor strolls among the gravestones alone and damned.

*   *   *

         It is still dark outside when Max returns to the lounge. He is wearing his bodysuit and helmet already. He is pushing angrily the button on his wrist panel that controls his air pressure, because even now his visor has fogged up to such an extent that everything seems cast in silvery shadows. It is as if he is walking through a marsh, while the fog lifts from the algae and smothers his tired eyes with clammy goo. It is dead frost arising from clumpy, gurgling stew to whisper confused fears into the back of his mind. Any man forced to look upon his world through this visor could not but turn mad within hours; and Max suspects that if he does not defrost his visor soon, he will crack altogether well before then. He is flirting with madness just by agreeing to go along with this scheme, after all.

         The others are waiting there for him. Jake and Storm resemble futuristic SS goons in their crisp, leather, P.S.A. uniforms. Of course, the look would have been commonplace before that night; but since the higher ups ordered all men to wear bodysuits outside, the old uniforms have been relegated to the formal, boring, officers’ dinner and ball that happens bi-annually. Only two such events

have been put on since that night, but already the dark outfit has taken on the connotation of preening, career butt kissers trying to say just the right thing to a superior officer near the punch bowl. The dark outfit used to inspire fear and trepidation, even among the other P.S.A. officers who presumably did not have to worry about receiving a bullet to the back of their head. Now the dark outfit is just silly, more akin to the ridiculous, showy costumes worn at a fetish party.

         What surprises Max is that Drake is also dressed in his bodysuit. If indeed he is so convinced that there are runners out there to be bagged, then why not manifest the faith of his convictions by leaving his bodysuit behind? Or is Drake showing solidarity with his partner by remaining in his bodysuit? Max cannot tell one way or another just now, but he thinks regardless that this is a smart move on Drake’s part. So long as he wears his bodysuit, he is showing outward loyalty to the regime, which insists that the heat wave is real and that no man can live in the heat wave longer than a few minutes. Even if Jake and Storm live longer than a few minutes out there without their bodysuits, thus making it clear that the heat wave has been a hoax all along, or has moved on since that night to a new locale, Drake will be toeing the line with the man who cuts his check. It is not courageous to say that 2+2=5, but it is the only sure way to survive.

         The other surprise is that Drake has a Laser 4 by his side. The Laser 4 has not yet been issued officially. Either Drake stole it from the armory, or he has a friend on the inside helping him to bag a runner. So it seems the regime is able to control its firearms as well as it can keep its secrets. Not a good sign for any man who values law and order over anything else; and though Max does not see himself as such a man, he senses with some fear that the house of cards indeed is starting to topple even before Jake and Storm put their conspiracy in motion.

         All that firepower to chase down a phantom, Max jokes. Are you certain you’re not a Ghostbuster?

         Old Man, you think every brother looks like Ernie Hudson, Drakes replies.

         Of course, not, Max says with a feigned smile, while still tapping angrily on his wrist. There is not a bigoted bone in my body. Isn’t that right, butt boys?

         Enjoy your put downs while you can, Storm says with a wide smile that is so insincere as to be downright threatening. In the new regime, we’ll set up an incinerator just for crackers and homophobes like you. 

         Max does not respond. He smiles and then focuses his attention upon the squirrely twink standing beside Storm. Jake is an unattractive, antisocial queer with disquieting hate in his eyes. To the extent that Jake can love anything, he focuses that emotion towards whatever gadget he happens to be handling then. Right now, it is a briefcase with an antenna poking out from a hole next to the handle. Whatever is inside that briefcase must be clunky and outdated, like the kind of oversized computer phone we might observe in a James Bond flick that stars Roger Moore. So much for smuggling twenty-first century tech passed that blockade that Uncle Sam has imposed on the ‘new world.’ It begs the question: If indeed the heat wave is real, then how is it that we have been able to secure ourselves from its debilitating effect with the old technology at our disposal? Is this not like going to the Moon with a hot air balloon from the Crimean War? No doubt, Jake is squirrely enough that, if cornered on this point, he would have a good explanation as to how our technology manages to work its wonders; but in the back of his mind, Max doubts that Jake’s explanation would hold up to any impartial scrutiny if indeed push came to shove. Call Max a ‘denier,’ if you will, but Max figures that no matter his small and geeky persona, Jake is stacked full of shit much higher than his short and thin frame indicates.

         So are we off to see the Wizard? Max jokes.

         Storm ignores the comment. Instead, he whispers something to Jake and then indicates with a subtle lift of his chin that it is now time for the four men, two suited for the heat wave, two exposed to the heat wave, all four preparing themselves mentally to go AWOL, to unseal the front door and to step into the darkness outside. For Storm, this is a solemn moment; and though he tries then to remain expressionless, he does not appreciate Max’s wry comments. 

         Jake does the honors at the front door. Only the lodge sergeant officially has the electronic key that, when inserted into the doorknob, unseals the door. Guests are not supposed to be able to go in or out, unless the lodge sergeant is there with his special key. God forbid that lodge should catch fire, when guests are spending the night and the sergeant has returned to the NCO barracks over at Griffith Park. Technically, even if a hypothetical fire were to burn open that door, the guests are supposed to remain indoors, until the sergeant arrives with his special key in hand. Escaping the burning lodge would be regarded as going AWOL and punished accordingly. 

         Somehow, Jake has obtained an unlicensed copy of that key. It is not so surprising, really. The propagandists are perhaps the most prized of the cogs in the bureaucracy, since everything about the ‘new world’ seems focused on how people develop their opinions about the ‘new world’ and what those opinions in fact are. Ultimately, political control is mental; and the propagandists play the mind like an angel the strings of a harp. The images they broadcast may be big and colorful, like buckets of paint tossed on a blank canvas and called ‘modern art;’ but the dumbing down, the change in focus, the whispered opinions to be treated in the mind as undeniable facts, in other words the long term effects of those big and colorful images play in the mind as subtly as a plucked string high up in the clouds. When the propagandist is good at what he does, can we be at all surprised that outright lies should be believed as if ‘revealed truths’ uttered first by the gods on high? Jake may be a stinky, ugly troll; but he is given much latitude within the bureaucracy for the simple reason that people like him give us all the license to pretend that our collective opinions really are heaven sent.

         Jake inserts his key without hesitation. He is confident that it will work.

         If it does not work, then an alarm will be sounded back at the barracks. The P.S.A. goons will be sent out ‘to investigate,’ which is a euphemism among the licensed thugs meaning ‘to kill without detaining or questioning.’ There is a detailed investigation after the kills, though, as the P.S.A. goons on the ground set out to piece together the events that led up to their militant response. The detailed investigation ends up in a file cabinet somewhere, and constitutes the ‘constitutional due process’ afforded the victims of the trigger-happy cowboys.

         Several excruciating seconds pass, as the computer inside that doorknob determines whether or not this is the correct key. Storm stares at the door as if he can see through it already to the destiny awaiting him outside. Perhaps, the big, burly, blond Aryan in the leather uniform is trying to persuade himself that the success of this mission indeed is inevitable. Perhaps, he has no doubt at all. Regardless, he keeps that cocky smirk on his face, while the seconds tick away.

         Max and Drake exchange worried glances. While the partners try to hide their fears behind jocular grins, their eyes give them away. Even an adroit and seasoned poker face like Max cannot mask successfully the dread now slithering up from his bowels and oozing through the tear ducts and the pores in his face. They are crossing a line, whether or not the key works, and will not be able to return to the lives that they had known before this moment.

         A pulsing green light on the doorknob indicates that the key has worked. 

         Jake steps aside without fuss to give Storm the honors. Storm straightens himself in front of the door, glances back at Max and Drake to make certain the two men are focusing in on him, and opens the door. Jake records this moment with a microscopic video camera embedded in the collar of his leather uniform. It is peculiar that he should have such advanced technology embedded into his clothing, but then a mid-twentieth century clunker locked inside his briefcase. The dichotomy adds a surreal undertone to the scene. It is hard to imagine that anything about this moment is real; and Max in particular imagines that he will awaken at any moment to find himself in a hole in the desert, clutching his old M-16 by his side, and inhaling the dried and lifeless sand whipped by the winds.

         The door opens into the foyer with a loud creak. 

         The world outside is dark and still. It is an alien landscape of dead, black shadows. The first impression is that it is a huge painting that stretches from as high to as low as the mind can conceive; but then the rational mind intercedes to remind the observer that even the most amateurish of paintings seem to live on the canvas, especially when viewed without distraction for some time. Brush strokes seem to move still with the imagination that first had placed them upon that blank surface. Mixed colors seem to breathe with the creative flames that first had conceived that this color should be blended with that color on this bit of the canvas. There is nothing captured in a painting. There is an image living in the moment in which it is observed, and then an image moving on the canvas and inside the observer’s escaped imagination into some other, fuller, perhaps more beautiful, perhaps more horrendous expression of reality. Lots of silly art criticism buffoonery here, but the rational mind often intercedes by pushing in or propping up academic nonsense masquerading as ‘insights.’ What matters is that the rational mind reminds that observer that a painting should seem alive, while the image beyond this front door appears to be anything but. The second impression then sets in: This is not a huge painting indeed, so much as a cheap, cartoonish backdrop hobbled together by a dumb work crew exhibiting way too little creative spark even to be thought of as amateur artists. There is no pulse in the world outside. There is nothing in the world outside that distinguishes it from whatever nightmares the observer may carry with him, so that a sojourner wandering through its shadows cannot sense if he is outside or in his own mind.

         Max winces. Perhaps, the world outside is so dead, because in fact there is a heat wave. He had kept on his bodysuit because he had wanted the puppet master up in the rafters to see that he is abiding outwardly at any rate by what the ‘new world’ teaches to be true. Now, he wonders if indeed he had kept on his bodysuit because he had feared deep down that the heat wave is real. He is a skeptic by nature; but even he has had a hard time believing that any regime, no matter how manipulative of public opinion, could perpetrate a hoax as huge and as long lasting as the heat wave. He imagines Jake and Storm stepping into a cauldron, grabbing at their swollen throats, and exploding into blood geysers.

         Storm steps outside. He walks several feet away from the lodge, and he turns around to face the others. Because there is no light outside, Storm is just a black shadow among many; but the others can see that he stands upright and breathes the cool air as effortlessly as if nothing ever had happened that night.

         Jake is much less theatrical, when he walks over to his boyfriend. Max is sure that this is old hat for Jake. If so, then this is old hat for Storm as well, for Max cannot conceive that Jake would have any insights about the outside world not also shared with his much more domineering boyfriend. 

         They are testing me, Max thinks. Maybe, they are testing Drake as well; but if so, then he is of secondary interest. I am the real object of all this. They want to see if I shall remain loyal to the official line about the heat wave, even as they flout its existence. They want to see if I shall remain a dutiful company man, even as we pursue a runner, who officially anyway cannot possibly exist. I can toe the line. I can deny what is patently in front of my face. I can discard a fact, or a philosophical postulate, or even a well-defined truth, when such gets in the way of my mission. If I could not do so, then the Pentagon assholes never would have provided me a license to kill Hajis, and the State Bar assholes never would have provided me a license to practice law. The bigger question is: Will I toe the line, when I see the opportunity to save my son? Presumably, sometime later today, they are going to make sure that I have such an opportunity. There is no greater test of loyalty, after all. So will I stay the course? Or will I permit my love for my son to overcome my better judgment, therefore acting out in a way that puts my son and myself in greater danger than if I kept my head down and let my survival instinct outpace my courage? What choice will I make then?

*   *   *

         There is little conversation as the four men descend into West Hollywood and turn left on Melrose. The sun breaks over the horizon, when they pass what used to be the ‘Blue Whale,’ a monstrous, odd shaped, blue glass building that had housed the Pacific Design Center once upon a time. Quite a few of the blue windows had been shattered that night, and a Molotov cocktail tossed through one of the windows had ignited a fire that gutted the interiors. It stands now as an empty shell. Loose shards still fall to the ground, now and then; but for the most part, it is as silent and still as a dead monument unceremoniously deeded back to the elements. 

         Max finally manages to fix his air pressure. He studies the ‘Blue Whale’ a while through a visor that no longer disorients his vision. There is not one glass window that is not at least partially shattered or cracked. He thinks of broken, soiled teeth in the mouth of a decomposed skull. The teeth will rattle the next time there is a strong wind. The teeth will fall away completely the next time there is an outright storm. When that happens, the shell of charred beams and partially burnt fabrics that remains will not longer reflect the light of the rising sun, much like a skull buried far beneath the reach of the heavens. 

         In a way, the ‘Blue Whale’ will experience a second death, when finally that happens, Max thinks. It will transition from dead to invisible, a monument incapable of being excavated, and then remembered, by a later generation. So much commerce and creativity lost to the slow and plodding steps of time. Will it has mattered then? Will any of the fears and the sorrows register in the mind of those alien visitors, who walk down Melrose long after the ‘Blue Whale,’ and everything else, have been reclaimed by the sun and the soot? Or will even the ghosts of what had been here be lost in the howling, furnace winds of that day?

         The four men continue to walk down Melrose. The boutique shops are all charred shells, though along the sidewalks on either side there remain the well endowed, toned and chiseled mannequins that had sported the tight jeans and loose cut offs of summers past. 

         Surprisingly, not all the skeletons have been removed. There is the shell of a bar named ‘Queer Beer.’ The sandwich board out front advertises ‘Stick It Up Happy Hour.’ Two charred skeletons are leaning over the rail that separates the outdoor seating from the sidewalk. Their bony butts face the sky, and Max imagines that with the slightest gust those butts will roll up and down upon the rail as if rammed by a pair of invisible lovers. 

         Another skeleton is lying face up on the sidewalk. A fallen Rainbow flag drapes most of its bones. Max is surprised that the clean up crew has not taken away the flag. It is after all one of the two flags of the ‘new world’ and as such not supposed to be left on the ground. But then it occurs to Max that the actual powers that be regard the flags, the slogans, and the creed of their own regime with as much contempt as they do the bureaucrats and the colonials. Nothing is sacred to them, but their own raw power. Nothing matters to them finally, but the twisted morality and delusions of grandeur with which they occupy what is left of their minds. Max imagines that the powers that be, whomever they may be in fact, have become so caught up with their self-aggrandizement since that night that they are now blithering mad fools. Perhaps, these Caligula wannabes are cannibalizing one another in a pool of milk and blood somewhere. Perhaps, these heroine addicted Hitlers have been put into straitjackets already, only to be rolled out to rubberstamp the decisions of their war council. Who knows for sure, and for that matter who cares? What is clear is that they care so little for the signs of their own regime that they do not make certain that the flags that fell that night have been retrieved and destroyed properly. This could be a sign of recent institutional decay, like the broken down equipment, but Max senses that this callous indifference by the powers that be to the outward expressions of the regime has been there from the start. After all, it is logical that the men who do not give a damn for anything, but themselves, moreover will not give a damn for the political platform that sustains them in power, even if in the end it is suicidal for them to be indifferent to such matters. 

         The four men turn right on Fairfax. There is a faded banner hanging over the intersection that announces the Melrose-Fairfax Farmers’ Market. A rusted, overturned, vegetable truck blocks their path. Presumably, the truck had been hauling away what had not been sold at the farmers’ market, when the shit hit the fan late that afternoon. The fallen vegetables have long since deteriorated. Only the crates remain. They are scattered all over the road, like the remnants of a long forgotten war.

         Rather than go back to Melrose, the four men help one another to climb over the overturned truck. There really is no reason not to go back to Melrose, but climbing over the truck gives the men something to do. It is a momentary, strenuous diversion from the slow and quiet stroll down these dead boulevards; and for a few seconds at least, Max feels a certain exhilaration standing on top of that rusted truck and staring down the blocks of sunburnt debris before him.

         Max stops a moment, when they are passing the sprawling CBS television building on the left hand side. The building is a wrecked shell, but it is not like the others that they have seen further back.

         Wait a minute, Max says to the others. Something is not right here.

         He walks over to what had been the parking lot. There is rubble piled in various places along the pockmarked lot. It is like the remnants of a demolition set aside to be hauled to the dumps. 

         He quickens his pace, as he crosses the former parking lot and enters the shell of the building. The wall facing Fairfax had been blasted away, but it had been brought down in a manner much too meticulous to be the result of one or two Molotov cocktails tossed during a riot. He searches the other walls and sure enough finds new detonation devices inserted and ready to go on each of them.

         Max returns to the others. He has his suspicion about what is happening, but decides to stay silent until he gets further proof. The others do not ask him anything, and so the four men continue towards Wilshire without further delay.

         As they approach Wilshire, they no longer see the charred and shattered shells of old buildings. Instead, they walk in between piles of rubble stacked as high as thirty feet and surrounded with chicken wire. 

         The overhead sign for Wilshire remains. Otherwise, there is no landmark to distinguish this road from the others. The buildings alongside Wilshire are all gone. They have been replaced by piles of bricks, plywood walls, steel beams, and miscellaneous fixtures, scattered here and there as far as the eye can see from the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax. There is a thick sheet of red dust over all this debris. When walking through this dust, the sun above appears red and swollen, like an ugly blister radiating sickly puss over a dead planet. 

         Max sees that Jake and Storm are holding handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. The heat wave cannot beat them down, but the red dust sure can.

         There is a parked bulldozer up ahead. Max stops to check out the words painted in black letters on the side: Negara Brunei Darussalam. There is a royal crest painted in crimson red above the words.

         Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace, Max says. 

         What is going on? Drake asks. 

         Max turns away from the bulldozer. He walks up to Storm and stares into his face. He is pissed, though as an attorney he should not be all that surprised.

         Eminent Domain, Max states with utter contempt. The riots, the curfew, the lock down, the heat wave, it’s all just one, big property grab, isn’t it? Just get the folks off their lands, murder them or cage them in colonies, and let our foreign benefactor redevelop the dead city. I suppose our illustrious leaders are in partnership with the Sultan. Throw just enough money around to placate the local politicians and union leaders; kill off those roughnecks who just refuse to get with the program; and, voila, in a decade or so, our catastrophic heat wave suddenly and miraculously vanishes to reveal a brand new Haji Land.

         A great plan on paper, Storm says. And as you can see, part of it already has gone into effect. The problem is that this is an eminently complex plan. So many pieces have to fit just right for it to work. Moreover, we could not kill off everyone. Otherwise, there would be no minions to populate the New Brunei of the Pacific. No peons to gamble in our casinos, to buy tickets for our peace and love concerts, to pay more than three-quarters of their welfare checks as ‘love tributes’ to the Sultan each year. If we had no colonials, then we could correct the various snafus in our plan without worrying what outsiders might think. But we do not have that luxury, because we have colonials; and as much as we are trying to dumb them down, we cannot stop all of them from speculating about the heat wave, or wondering about the equipment failures, or questioning even the disruptions in our propaganda broadcasts. Our superiors have failed us. Too many colonials have broken out of their cages. Too much equipment has failed. Too many employees have not been paid. The piles of rubble you see here had been scheduled for pickup two weeks ago, but the garbage crew refuses to act, until they are paid more than a month’s worth of wages owed to them. There is a desperate need for new leadership, but the P.S.A. will not rise up against the old guard until enough officers are convinced that the elaborate house of cards indeed is falling to the ground.

         And you think that the officers will get off their asses and do something, when they see on the big board that you have bagged a real life runner and put his carcass on the trophy wall, Max says. 

         It is one thing to suspect, Storm reasons. It is quite another to know. The officers will not be able to deny that runners exist, when they know for certain that runners exist. 

         Oh, I don’t know about that, Max says. Drake and I know for certain that you two can survive in the heat wave without your bodysuits, and yet we insist on wearing ours. We toe the line, regardless of what we see with our own eyes, or reason in our own minds. 

         Storm considers what Max has said. A devilish thought occurs to him, and so he smiles like the mischievous Cheshire cat. 

         Yes, you toe the line, Storm remarks. But, let’s face it; that is because I have not motivated you enough to do otherwise. It is simple, really. I only need to convince you that open rebellion is more conducive to your personal survival than toeing the line. 

         Storm turns away from Max. Storm walks over to Jake, who has remained the whole time three paces behind his boyfriend.

         It’s about time, isn’t it? Storm says.

         Jake nods. He bends to one knee and opens his briefcase. 

         As anticipated, there is a control panel inside the briefcase that includes a 1970s era telephone. Jake twists a dial beside the phone. There are waves of static coming out from a speaker, while Jake searches for a specific frequency.

         The lodge sergeant will be calling the barracks in a few minutes to make sure we arrived, Storm explains. Jake will redirect the signal from the lodge to his telephone and simultaneously send back a fake signal, so that the telephone back at the lodge indicates that indeed he is speaking to the dispatch person at the barracks. Jake confirms our arrival. Jake then places a call to the barracks, again using a fake signal to suggest that the call is coming from the lodge. Jake informs the dispatch person at the barracks that we have been granted another day of R&R. No one is wise to the other, and we can go our merry way…

         Except that you will not give Jake the signal to answer that call from the lodge sergeant, Max interrupts.

         Storm smiles. He approaches Max.

         Always one or two steps ahead, aren’t you? Storm says. That’s why they decided to keep you alive. They would rather try to control your superior mind, rather than just see it splatter against a wall. 

         Lucky me, Max says with dripping sarcasm.

         I am the spark in a rebellion that will lead to the downfall of the regime, Storm says. I cannot succeed, unless I know that every person on my team is as much an outlaw as I am right now. Moreover, one of us has to be the runner for my plan to work. 

         So Drake and I need to get out of our bodysuits, Max says.

         Either that, or Jake allows the lodge sergeant to complete his telephone call to the barracks, Storm concludes. We can listen in as the dispatch grunt on the other end informs the lodge sergeant that we have not yet arrived. We four vagabonds are then officially AWOL. How long will it take the P.S.A. command to send out the patrol teams and to scramble their choppers? Fifteen minutes, perhaps twenty, if the radios are touch and go. They will be zeroing in on us by noon and coming back with our headless corpses by sunset. All in a day’s work…

         Bullshit, Drake cuts in. You would be committing suicide. 

         No, he wouldn’t, Max says. They will not fire at the two of them, only at the two of us, because you see Jake and Storm here are not actually instigating a rebellion…

         Oh, really? Storm asks with a devilish grin. 

         No, Max says, turning back towards Storm. You two bozos are not rebels. You are Integrity Cops. You’ve already assembled enough video footage now to prosecute Drake for acknowledging the existence of runners and for conspiring to pursue runners. Okay for a couple of junior leaguers; but you want the kind of prosecution that is going to take your desk away from the water cooler. Give your boss a reason to approve a two-man office with a sky view. Perhaps, add a week to your vacation allotment. And to do that you have to prosecute an old, pre-secession, war hero for taking off his bodysuit and giving the whole system the bird. You want me on film insisting that 2+2=4, no matter what they teach.

         I don’t admit anything of the sort, Storm says. But I can promise you that if you are an outlaw, not just in your thoughts, but also in your words and your deeds, your son will be safe in the new regime. There is no other way that you can save him. Deep down, you know damn well that I am telling you the truth. You either give up your respected place in society, the pension you are building each year, the vacation time you are hoarding like nuts in a tree, or your son is dead in a hole somewhere.

         Jake captures the frequency. The waves of static subside. There is total silence, followed seconds later by the distinct ring-ring-ring of a telephone. So the lodge sergeant has placed his call to the barracks. 

         So what’s it going to be? Storm asks. AWOL or Outlaw?

         The phone rings once, twice, three times. Jake watches for Storm’s sign. Storm stares at Max to see if the old man is going to fold. Storm keeps a sly grin on his face, since whatever Max does Storm is in command here; and in the end the raw feeling of power over another man is about as near as Storm can get to an orgasm. Whatever happens later, Storm feels that this will be his high point.

         The phone rings a fourth time. Max exchanges glances with Drake. Now, did his partner just wink at him? No way to tell for sure, so Max has to rely only on instinct. The good news for Max is that his instinct has served him well in his prior scrapes with death, so it should serve him well right now.

         The phone rings a fifth time. The dispatch person will need to answer by the sixth ring. Otherwise, that call will be lost; and the dispatch person in turn will need to account for that loss with his superiors, when the official log shows later on the lost call. The dispatch person may be a total fuck nut, but there is no doubt in Max’s mind that he will answer that incoming call by the sixth ring. Even the dumbest grunt will do just enough to keep his own head above water, and in this case that means answering the call and informing the lodge sergeant that Drake and Max indeed have gone AWOL. 

         That phone is about to ring the sixth time, when Max removes his helmet and takes in a deep breath of the dusty air. Even though Jake and Storm seem to be doing just fine in the heat wave (though they hold a handkerchief against their faces on this stretch of road, when not speaking or otherwise engaging in an activity that would prevent them from holding up a handkerchief), Max feels a pang of fear in his heart when opening his nostrils to the outside world. They never had convinced totally his rational mind, but theyhad conditioned his low consciousness and his instinctual responses better than he had realized. He has the sensation of standing on Mars and breathing in the noxious atmosphere. The initial wave of dizziness and nausea is palpable, and he has to spend every last bit of his strength just then to keep himself from falling to the dusty, sunbaked pavement beneath his shoes.

         While Max inhales his first bit of unfiltered, outside air since that night, Storm gestures for Jake to answer the telephone. Jake does so no more than a second before the dispatch person. 

         Jake informs the lodge sergeant that the four men have arrived. There is no banter after providing that bit of news. Then, Jake calls the dispatch person at informs him that the four men will stay at the lodge for another day. 

         In the meantime, Max removes his bodysuit. It is actually a relief finally to be freed from that hot and sweltering latex. 

         Won’t they notice that the recording devices upon my bodysuit suddenly have gone dead? Max asks. 

         Perhaps, Storm says. More likely, they will attribute it to the equipment failures that seem to happen all the time. 

         Fair enough, Max says. But Jake just told them that I am back at the old lodge, while the video and audio feeds from my suit will tell them that we have been on a hike far from the training reserve. 

         Come now, do you think that they correlate their intelligence reports in real time? Storm asks with a laugh. You know damn well how the bureaucracies work. They never let the right hand know what the left hand is doing, and vice versa. By the time they figure it out, you will be impaled on the trophy wall for all to admire over the generations. ‘Admired,’ not because your carcass ended up on the wall, but because you survived as a runner in a hostile, alien world a long time, before Sir Francis Drake finally brought you down with his Laser 4. It is perhaps not the fate you had envisioned, but it is better than boilerplate in a short obituary notice somewhere.

         Storm faces Drake. Storm points back toward Max in a manner that calls to mind Pontius Pilate bringing the Man of Sorrows before the restless crowd. It is all so theatrical that Max and Drake both wonder if Storm really has lost what scant grasp of sanity he may have had beforehand. Even if Storm indeed is just a run of the mill Integrity Cop, rather than a rebel caught up with his delusions of grandeur, he acts too much like a quirky circus barker to be altogether sane.

         Behold your runner! Storm exclaims. Man on the loose! Open thinker! All too willing to entertain his own ideas! 

         Max stares into Drake’s face. It is hard to make out his expression, since Drake wears still his tinted visor. Nevertheless, Max is pretty sure he snatches a ravenous look in his partner’s big eyes, a look that says that this is my time and that that old man in front of me is my ticket into a world of gentleman hunters and esteemed superior officers. There is a primordial competitiveness in those dark and penetrating eyes, an aboriginal hunger that desires every last building to be demolished, so that there is no civilization that can get in the way of the hunter and his prey. Max knows that hunger all too well. He had tasted it under the desert sand so many years ago; and he had caught whiffs of it here or there when practicing law, or bedding an intern, or patrolling on foot the dead roads and alleyways. Until this moment, though, he had never experienced what it is like to be on the prey specifically in this great hunting game that we call ‘life.’

         Dead man running, Drake says in a dreamy voice. 

         Max turns on his heels, and runs away as fast as he can.

         Max hears Drake bolting his rifle. It is the stark and deliberate series of sounds that calls to mind soldiers responding reflexively to the barked orders of a drill sergeant. The crispness of the sounds seems to puncture through the air.

         Max hears Storm scream: Get the runner! Get him on your first shot! For the sake of justice, let that runner know that the taste of treason is that bullet that enters into the back of his head and then leaves through his trembling lips.

         Max feels the momentary burn of what could be a laser against the back of his head. Then again, that split second of intense sensation could have burst out from his imagination. Either way, he feels his brain sizzling inside his head, except instead of burning down to a clumpy piece of charcoal his brain feels as if it is expanding like a hot air balloon through his skin and into the air outside.

         Max hears the crack and the boom of a high-powered rifle fired in calm, steady viciousness. It is the killer instinct expressed in the finesse of a weapon.

         The bullet whizzes passed his left ear. It is near enough one microsecond to singe his earlobe, and then it is gone. Max thinks it lodges into a pile of worn plywood on his left hand side. Max bolts to the right, and hides behind another pile of something or other only long enough to catch his wits before continuing.

         The computer targeting system should have worked. Max had run about an eighth of a mile, when Drake had fired his first bullet; and yet the computer is supposed to be perfect for moving targets up to two miles away. Either that computer failed, like so many other pieces of equipment in recent times, or his partner deliberately moved his muzzle at the last moment to miss his target. It is hard for Max to conceive that that man with that hungry look in his eyes had enough empathy to miss on purpose, but he wants to think that this is the case.

         Regardless, Max is alive; and so he focuses on controlling his adrenaline, putting one foot in front of the other, and weaving in and out of the seemingly endless piles of debris. His throat burns since he is inhaling one deep gulp after another of dirty, sunbaked air. Otherwise, he is in remarkably good shape; and, as the seconds creep into minutes, he senses that he is actually getting further away from his pursuers, though not so far that he can let up his guard anytime.

         Once or twice Max senses a bullet whizzing passed his left ear. He is not sure if these phantom bullets are entirely in his head. He does know that if the bullets are for real, then almost certainly Drake is missing on purpose, because frankly it is not conceivable that a man who misses by accident will miss every time along the same pathway (an inch or so beside Max’s left ears, near enough to singe his earlobe, but not so near as to cause any real damage). But the man who misses on purpose will tilt his muzzle the same way each and every time in the hope and the expectation that he will get the same result as before. 

         After a while, even the phantom bullets cease. Max does not think he is so far away that Storm has ordered Drake to ceasefire. Much more likely, Storm orders Drake to pursue in silence, until Drake finally can get a better shot in his crosshairs. So instead of ‘ceasefire,’ the order is ‘fire when targeted,’ which of course means that Drake does not need to wait for a green light if and when he comes across his partner in the vast maze of debris piles along Wilshire Avenue.

         Then again, perhaps Drake had been missing on purpose. If so, then once Storm recognized his insubordination, he would have put a bullet into the back of Drake’s head and called for reinforcements to capture Max. 

         So either Drake is pursuing him now, or reinforcements will be pursuing him in short order. Regardless, there is no choice for Max but to kick up his legs as he sprints from one pile to another in search of a hideout. No matter his fine athleticism, he will need to rest at some point; and he would rather do so in an old abandoned site that has yet to be demolished than out here in the open air.

         Max passes under the ‘La Brea’ intersection sign. There is a broken shell of a building still advertising ‘car title loans.’ The poster screams ‘no credit, no problem.’ There is a sports car in the showroom, presumably an example of the kind of big ticket collateral against which they will give out a ‘gargantuan’ loan ‘any time, any place, any reason.’ 

         Max almost seeks refuge inside the showroom. Then, on closer inspection of the sports car, he sees a skeleton sitting behind the wheel. There is a hole in the left side of its skull and a revolver upon its pelvis. The man could not have picked a better coffin, Max thinks. 

         Max decides to leave. The showroom is not a large enough ruin. Storm or Drake will find him easily enough, if he tries to hide inside the dead sports car or behind the counter. Besides, the place gives him the creeps in a way that all those debris piles outside fail to do. The hundred dollar bills on the dusty floor, the garish posters (red boldface script on yellow background), even the suicide with the mouth contorted eternally into a loony grin, all these surreal ghosts of the world before that night call to mind all he has lost. This showroom had had its share of hustlers, most down on their luck, some too big for their britches, a scheming cesspool of hard luck stories and cheap cash; and with only the barest change in his circumstances before that night, Max too could have been one of those lost souls hoping to finance a dream on a pink slip. So much riding on the scribble on a thin sheet of paper, it is a wonder the world of finance back then did not turn every one of us into self-delusional loons. 

         Max continues down Wilshire. There are more broken buildings, here and there, as he approaches Korea Town. None of them thus far have been large or intact enough to provide much of a hiding place, and so he continues to kick up his knees with the endurance of a long distance runner half his age. He is quite strong, to be sure; but even he is amazed at his current ability to stay ahead of pursuers. He just figures that he will pay for this long distance run when finally he has a chance to rest somewhere safe.

         Then, just as he is starting to feel comfortable, there is a gunshot out of nowhere that slices the dusty air just inches above his head. For a microsecond it feels as if his hair in on fire. Max wants to slap the top of his head, like he is putting out a fire; but his reason kicks in just in time to remind him that a hand on the top of his head simply provides his shooter a larger target against which to fire. He will be better off to dart behind the next debris pile before the man with the rifle behind him can get a head shot in his crosshairs (assuming that in this case the man with the rifle, Drake, Storm, or perhaps someone else, is not missing on purpose). If his head is on fire, then he can deal with that fact later.

         Max jumps to the ground behind the next debris pile. He hears a gunshot scream overhead, then, a third one smash into a pile of plywood ten feet away.

         He doubts that Drake is the gunner. Drake is an excellent shot. He would not miss so widely by accident; and he is smart enough not to miss so widely on purpose. Perhaps, Storm did away with Drake for insubordination and is taking up the hunt himself. Perhaps, Storm called for immediate reinforcements from the P.S.A. Goon Squad; and someone else is trying to bag him for the mahogany trophy wall back at the lodge. 

         Regardless, Max is in no position to find the ideal hiding place. He needs to slip into the next building he sees, even if it is no more than a shattered and torched storefront. 

         Max continues to run down Wilshire. He takes the time to zigzag behind debris piles, even though he knows that that defensive maneuver will slow him down considerably. His pursuers will be able to cut the distance between them, but on the plus side he will give the gunner much less of a target. 

         There is a Bank of Brunei branch office up ahead. Interestingly, it seems not to have sustained any damage at all. It looks the same as it did before that night. There is even the poster promising a toaster for any person who opens a checking account before the next Winter Solstice. The Bank of Brunei cares all about fair customer service and community outreach, ‘because you deserve it.’

         Max runs up to the glass front door. Surprisingly, it is unlocked; and thus he lets himself into the carpeted showroom without a moment of hesitation. At first glance, there is no indication inside that the shit has hit the fan; but then, on the other side of the cashier counter, he sees a couple of skeletons huddled together by the water cooler. 

         The grimacing skeletons look as if they had been shot execution style in the back of their heads. Long strands of dried hair had fallen out of their skulls and onto the carpeted floor beside their butts sometime ago, but even now the gals are wearing torn skirts about their thin pelvises. They are a couple of bald chicks, to be sure; but at least they have not given up completely their fashion sense and propriety. 

         Max wants to protect the two bank employees, but he knows that he can do only so much. Whatever bleak life he has in him he must dedicate to his son.

         Max walks further into the building. The vault is locked, but he does not want to hide in there anyway. Once found in a vault, he would be a sitting duck for whoever discovered him inside the dark mausoleum of safety deposit boxes.

         He walks down a dark hallway of executive offices. All the doorknobs are locked, except for the door leading into the branch manager’s office at the end of the hall. He slips into the branch manager’s office. He shuts the creaky door behind him, and he waits a moment for his eyes to adjust to the total darkness.

         Max eventually sees that he is inside a small room with an oversized desk and an official portrait of the Sultan of Brunei. The Sultan is in his firm military regalia, of course, but the austere look in his eyes calls to mind the portraits of A.P. Giannini in old Bank of America branch offices more so than a potentate of a desert sheikdom. His eyes do not say, ‘I am going to kill you,’ but rather ‘you can trust me with your deposits.’ There is an understanding, almost charitable, kindness behind his firm demeanor. No doubt, the photograph had had to pore over thousands of snapshots to find the exact look they wanted to convey in his eyes. Spend enough on fine tuned marketing, and a man can convey any reality he wants at any time. And if this does not work, he can resort to raw violence…

         Sure enough, there is a skeleton sitting face down at the big desk. He is the branch manager, presumably. Max had heard rumors before that night that the corporate bigwigs wanted to recall this branch manager. They recalled him when the shit hit the fan. Better than paying the bastard a severance package…

         The rumors may have been scintillating before that night. Indeed, Max is pretty sure he lured more than a few interns into his bed by whispering to them over sweet cocktails (so ‘La-La Land,’ since in New York or Washington he more likely would have been seducing them with strong and bitter Manhattans) some legal or corporate secret he had had a fiduciary duty not to disclose. He cannot remember now exactly what angles he had pursued to win them over, but he is pretty sure whispered secrets had something to do with it. 

         Regardless, that is all in the past now. He does not give a rat’s diseased fecal matter why they put an end to this man’s branch management duties. He just really hopes that they did not remember to remove that branch manager’s Glock 42 .380. Every Bank of Brunei executive officer receives one, before he is sent into the field. Really, it is meant to be a symbol of the Sultan’s protective oversight of their banking operations, since in practice the small firearm is not much defense against the high-powered weapons bank robbers and terrorists all too often have at their disposal. Still, they are rumored to be loaded; and bank executive officers are assigned basic firearms instruction at the P.S.A. Training Reserve every other year, so Max can hope that there is a loaded pistol in here.

         Max tries not to disturb the branch manager’s skeleton, as he searches in the desk drawers on either side of his chair. He feels a certain level of respect for this corpse that he cannot recall ever feeling for another one. Maybe, he is getting soft in his old age; or maybe, he recognizes a shared fate with this poor branch manager. Both men had been cogs in a vast bureaucracy. Max had been a killer. This man had been a lender. Max had foreclosed on sand nigger Hajis. This man had foreclosed on financially underwater tract homes. Max had been stamped P.T.S.D. This man had been stamped, period. 

         There is no pistol in the desk drawers. Max is about to leave, when that portrait of the Sultan of Brunei strikes him as an ideal place to hide the firearm issued by the same Sultan. He walks back to the portrait. He lowers it from the wall, and discovers a safe. 

         Fortunately, Max had learned a little something about picking safes way out there in the desert sand where the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not hold much water. He is rusty, and so it takes him several minutes to do something that once upon a time he could have accomplished in thirty seconds flat. The fact that the safe is locked is a good sign. It means that the assassin had neither the time nor the inclination to search through it before leaving the corpse behind, and so Max is not really shocked to find the unused, loaded Glock 42 .380 beside several gold bars and counterfeit British passports.

         Max leaves the branch manager’s office. He strolls back to the two bank employees back at the water cooler. He squats beside them. There is a grimace on both of their skull faces, most likely caused by the excruciating pains from a close range gunshot before everything goes black, but there is a beauty on both of their skull faces, too. These chicks must have been beautiful back in the day as evidenced by their bone structures. Perhaps, Max is just horny. A peak in the ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline rush can resemble sexual lust at times; and Max has known fellow killers who returned from mad firefights mentally half-baked, but horny as hell for whatever penis or butt they could get their hands on. War can turn a good man queer; and while Max does not think he would pounce a hairy ass right now if given the opportunity, he finds himself more interested than he should be in these two skeleton chicks by the water cooler. 

         Max decides he is not going to run until it is dark outside. While his new, polished Glock 42 .380 is something; it is no match for the Laser 4, let alone for a gunman on the side of a chopper. He has not heard any helicopters yet, but it is only a matter of time before Storm calls in the heavy hitters. Out in the sun, Max is too easy a target. In the dark, especially if the night vision goggles turn out to be as fucked up as the rest of the equipment, he has a decent chance to make it back to the CAB. 

         And, indeed, the CAB is his destination. He had not really thought about it, when he first ran away from his partner. Consciously, he has been occupied only with saving his skin from a man with a hungry look in his eyes; but further down in his psyche, he must have sensed all along that he was going to go back to his son before the house of cards topples. Whether or not Storm is initiating a rebellion, the house of cards is ready to go down; and when that happens, his son will be lost for sure, unless he is able to stand by his side against their foes.

         So Max is going to stay right here, until it is dark outside. Maybe, he will fondle a while with the skull and bones of these dead chicks by his side. Tickle their ribs. Lick their finger bones. True, they are in no condition just now to be giving him their consent to his amorous advances. On the other hand, let’s face it, they are in no condition to say no, either. As such, the whole ‘legal consent’ rigmarole can be regarded in this instance as an ambiguous grey matter. Likely prosecuted by one of those lesbian bitch prosecutors, who claim ad nauseam to be so damned principled about cunt rights, but just as likely not prosecuted by the good ol’ boy prosecutors. Max figures he will take his chances, especially as these two bitches anyway will not be testifying if indeed there is an evidentiary hearing sometime down the road. He has got nothing to lose, except maybe for his humanity, though deep down he senses he lost that about the time he first buried a severed head in the sand. Yes, he is pretty sure his humanity is about as dead as these two bitches. He can love his son still, which is why he intends to return to the CAB no matter the very real threat to his own wellbeing; but in his black heart he knows he cannot love himself any more, if ever he really did.

*   *   *

         Max feels a hard and jagged object in his mouth. He rolls it around upon his tongue, like it is a tasteless jawbreaker candy. Except this thing is not much like the jawbreaker candies on which he had sucked for hours as a child. Those had been smooth, round balls, the kind that can be easily lodged in a windpipe and force a parent or a schoolyard monitor to use the Heimlich Maneuver on an anxious, bug eyed, blue skinned boy. This thing is shaped more like a worm or a cigar that had been sunbaked into a hard rock facsimile of its prior self. It is an unbearably dead thing, whatever the hell it is; and where it is now it can serve no other purposes than to scrape up his tongue, puncture the inner lining of his mouth, and give him the creeps…

         Max opens his eyes. He is in a dark place. He does not remember where he is; and, frankly, at this moment, he does not care. He just wants to spit out of his mouth that dried up dead thing that feels like it may be tickling the back of his throat and crawling down his windpipe at any moment. 

         He does not spit, so much as he heaves out bile that had been gurgling in the back of his throat for God knows how long. He feels the bile flowing around the dead thing, but he does not feel the dead thingexiting his mouth with that bile. It seems intent on staying in there, like it has a mind of its own. He knows all too well that the dead see. Those severed heads he had buried in the desert saw horrors and wonders down there at which he only can hint in his dreams. It is now apparent that the dead think, too. They can figure out the best way in a given situation to creep you out, and they can be obstinate when you try to get the better of them. For sure, this dead thing in his mouth knows just what it is doing, as it scrapes his tongue and teeth, and punctures blood out from what at the time anyway feels like his tonsils or his larynx (though logically he realizes, even then, that that cannot possibly be the case). He needs to get that damned thing out of there, regardless, and hurling up vomit is not going to do the trick.

         He decides to reach into his mouth, even though he hates even the idea of touching that dead thingwith his fingers. Strange that this should matter, as it is already inside his mouth; but then he remembers how he would be so very careful about touching his severed heads with his fingers. He would hold them in his hands as little as possible, basically enough to get them into his bag, then from the bag into the hole he had dug in the sand; and when he did hold them, he would do so with his fingertips, rather than he fingers and palms. Yes, dead things are sacred; but they also are contagious. After all, there is a reason only Christ Jesus touched the dead boy, who is being carried upon a platform to the grave; and Max suspects even Christ Jesus did so with only his barest fingertips.

         He discovers that the dead thing in his mouth is actually connected to a much larger thing beside him. It seems to be an appendage of some sort. It is a thing that reaches in and tickles, as if the dead truly can poke fun at the living.

         Then, Max knows what it is; and he screams. He yanks the skeletal finger out of his mouth full of bile, and shoves the skeletal woman away from his side and into the water cooler. The back of her skull cracks against the water cooler with a crisp sound that calls to mind two bones snapping at a joint.

         He stops screaming. He focuses on controlling his erratic breaths. He had come so close to hyperventilating, and he knows that if he had done so he very well might have passed out and then died beside these two skeletons here. The garbage crew later would have wondered why a middle-aged guy had died next to the two chicks; and, no doubt, like all men their minds would have sunk into the gutter and down the drain in order to devise an explanation.

         He leans against the water cooler to get control over his fears. He hears him heartbeat rattling in his ears. It is slowing down, thank God, but it still has the sound and the feel of a loosened snake trying somehow to escape out from beneath his skin. In contrast to the violence in his head, the dark world outside of his skin is especially silent and still. He imagines his screaming a second ago must have been heard miles away. He fears that the walking dead (who else, in fact, but the walking dead could roam such a silent and still darkness?) are now changing course to stagger over to his little corner of hell. It is like a nightmare image from a George A. Romero movie, the kind that the local affiliate stations would have shown after The Late Show and before The Star Spangled Banner to scare the hell out of little boys who should have been back in bed and out cold.

         Max feels something hard and cold in his lap. For a moment, he senses it is another dead thing; and he very nearly screams out once more. In fact, it is a small revolver. He has a vague memory of finding a Glock 42 .380 in the dead office of the dead branch manager. The Glock is the only living thing he found in there. In comparison to the dried up skeleton faced down upon the desk, the Glock had been practically breathing in his hand when he slipped out the room.

         Max picks up the weapon. He inserts the muzzle in his mouth, and slides it in and out like it is a polished, frozen, black cock. He is no queer, but he has to admit that the feel of the smooth metal upon his lips and tongue relaxes him considerably. All he has to do is to squeeze on the trigger, and he can remain a fully rested and relaxed man from here to eternity…

         Except that death is no simpler than life. The severed heads in the sand certainly know that. What they see down there is anything but simple. Yes, the view down there may be more straightforward, in a way, because there are no longer the distractions that divert the attention of living eyes. But the hell fire, the desert winds etching fate into the earth, the seductress moon whispering a bit of mischief into the landscape, the plodding steps of time crunching an old, tired earth back into the primordial stew, all these and more are seen by those severed heads as anything but simple. And so if death is its own feast of worms in a dark hall somewhere, then the suicide is a fool to dream that by squeezing the trigger he can escape from torment into peace. 

         No rest for the wicked, Max mutters, while staggering back onto his feet.

         He feels his way through the darkness. He recalls that he is inside a bank alongside Wilshire. He imagines that he would be in heaven, if he had the mind of a bank robber and if the dollar bills inside the drawers of the cashier counter could purchase anything out there in that mad ass world of caged colonials and demolished buildings. Still, just to do something while formulating a plan in the back of his mind, Max opens one of the cashier drawers, and removes a handful of Benjamin Franklins. Greater Los Angeles had yet to print its own currency, in part because the good, old-fashioned Federal Reserve Notes were popular with the American soldiers who needed to be bribed to look the other way when the Los Angeleans were smuggling goods passed the blockade; and so as Max smells all that cash in his hands, he recalls bits and pieces of his life before secession, before divorce, even before his first drill in the ROTC. It is all so long ago. It is all so irrevocably lost. Sure, this ‘new world’ likely will be gone soon enough, if not because of whatever Storm has up his sleeve (if indeed he is endeavoring to ignite a revolt), but because of its own intrinsic weaknesses. Sure, once all this is over, the U.S.A. will reabsorb Greater Los Angeles, much as the U.S.A. years ago had reabsorbed the Confederate States. Nevertheless, the past is gone; and like the heads buried in the sand, that past will disintegrate back into the dust from which it came, even as the Los Angeleans go back to regarding themselves as ‘Americans,’ filing IRS tax returns, and electing Commie Democrat loons into the House of Representatives like clockwork. Because reunited lovers may take up an old and comfortable dance once more, but they can never again feel that soft and effortless intimacy that they had discarded way out there in the desert one horrid night. There is no going back, when you have left your home behind.

         So then why am I returning to my son? Max thinks.

         Because Adam is not the past, Max mutters aloud.

         There is a sound outside. It is a boot stepping on sheet metal. In another context, it would be an unremarkable sound; except everything is so silent it is practically an exploding bomb in comparison. Moreover, it is the step of a man heading towards this bank. There can be no other logical conclusion. Everything out there is conspiring against Max, or so he tells himself when putting the cash back into the drawer, and taking up once more his weapon. Let’s face it, it has been always Max on one side and the world on the other; and so it must be now that the shroud has fallen over the earth, and the devils have come out to play.

         Max squats low. He skulks toward the front door. He tries to hide himself behind furniture the whole time. It is dark out there; but if that man is wearing night vision goggles, and if the goggles are working, then it will be easy enough for that man to see him through the floor to ceiling windows, if Max is not very careful. Max could end up impaled on that trophy wall before the night is done.

         Max hides behind an oversized poster that promises fair customer service and community outreach, ‘because you deserve it.’ Intermittently, he pokes his head around the back of the poster, so that he can look out the window to see if indeed any one is approaching the front of the bank. It is virtually impossible to make out anything, but dark debris piles that look like teepees. That is good for Max, though, because it means that the slightest movement out there most likely will be the man stepping out from the shadows. He will see the man from afar since there is virtually nothing else to see otherwise in that alien darkness.

         There is another footstep. This one is more muddled, but it is definitely closer. Perhaps, the man realizes that he is making too much noise, because all of a sudden there is no sound whatsoever out there. It is actually too quiet, all at once the heavy silence of a thinking, calculating mind trying to determine in its own sweat soaked head what it should do next. Max practically can hear the gears turning inside that hesitant brain. Max can sense its utter inexperience in real world combat, because of course an experienced killer is never so quiet as to call attention to the silence, and never hesitates when closing in on his prey.

         Still, the man out there has a more powerful firearm at his side than this Glock 42 .380. That does not quite balance the match up, but it adds enough of a risk factor that Max needs to be careful with what he does next. 

         There is another footstep. Then, there is the sound of a bottle kicked off to the side. No doubt, the man did not want to smash the front of his boot into that bottle. He must know that the sound of a rolling bottle is going to awaken the dead on this block and that, therefore, his target will be on to him by now.

         There is the sound of running footsteps. The man is astute enough to see that the element of surprise is gone. His only hope is that he can shoot his prey in the head, before his prey can exit out a back door or find a pistol of his own.

         But what if the prey already has a pistol? What if even now he is skulking in the shadows ahead? It is impossible to tell for sure, as his night vision goggles are all but useless tonight. For all he knows, the prey could be squatting behind that poster beside the front door. The man may be running into a trap, but that is a risk he is willing to take. If he gets this close to the prey, and later returns to the barracks empty handed, then God knows what his superiors may do. The shit is hitting the fan. Just about everybody in the P.S.A. knows that much, and when the end is near the blood will be shed like a river bursting through a dam.

         Max practically can hear the man’s thoughts, as those footsteps get a lot closer in a short amount of time. Max senses the man’s youth and inexperience. Max does not imagine that he is principled, so much as afraid. He has observed so many frightened boys fall in combat. He thinks that those boys are relieved, in a way, when a bullet or a shell brings them down, since then they are totally and forever freed from the hyperventilating fear that had pushed them into the barrage of fire and soot. The dead do not fear battle. The dead have nothing to fear from their superiors back at the base. The dead may be sickened by all the flies and maggots that swarm their bodies, but that is mild compared to all that fear and trembling that had taken a hold of their flesh before the last moment.

         Max steps out the front door. He goes down to one knee. He hears those footsteps well enough now to know from which direction that man is attacking. He only has to wait until that man materializes suddenly out from the darkness.

         What if the attacker is Drake? Max thinks. He is young and inexperienced just like that man up ahead. He is not an unprincipled man, in his own way, but like all newbies he is pushed forward this moment by his fears more so than his principles. Yes, he may have missed me on purpose earlier; but he must realize that he cannot get away with that now. He must know that they will be putting his head up on the trophy wall, if he does not return with my carcass in his bag.

         Maybe, I should miss him, like he missed me, Max thinks. Give him a shot to fade into the darkness, just like he gave me a shot to escape. Maybe, when I see him come out of the shadows, I can hit the ground in front of his feet, near enough to send my irrefutable message, but not so near that he will be injured.

         The man runs out from the darkness. He is a tall, strong, athletic man. It is impossible to tell his race or ethnicity on account of the helmet and bodysuit combination, but he appears to move with that same blend of grace and bullish resolve that Max had encountered in his partner. Right now, that man is simply a frightened kid; but Max can imagine that kid not too long ago dreaming of the hunt wherein he bags his ‘runner’ and earns his place of glory in a pantheon of real and legendary killers. 

         Max braces himself. He squeezes lightly on the trigger. Surely, that man must see him; and yet that man does not alter his course one bit. He is literally running into his gunshot. It would seem suicidal, except that Max knows that in the clutches of absolute terror a man will rush straight into his own, premature grave without once thinking of suicide. He will do what he does simply because he is incapable of doing otherwise. The logic of war is that most fighters will do what they do at the time because they cannot do anything else. If indeed they really had a choice at the time, then the battles would be soon over, as men on both sides dropped their muskets to escape for the hills just ahead of the wind.

         Max does not have to kill this poor boy. Then again, Max did not need to kill the Aryan boy back in the CAB, either. Notwithstanding the orders from on high, the shadowy referees keeping score in their clipboards, the self-righteous assholes showing their contempt with an upturned nose or a downcast eye, Max in truth never has had to do anything at all. After all, what can they do to him? Blast his head off? Bury it in the sand? Force his dead eyes to watch how all the sand about him recedes back into a butt crack in hell somewhere? And so what if they do that? Would they not be balancing the scales, given how many heads he tore off of corpses and buried into sand holes? Is there not justice in all this?

         So what does all that make me? Max thinks.

         Simple, Max answers himself. If you never had to kill another living soul, then you murdered each and every one of them. This may be a mad world, but the logic of what you have done and who you are is irrefutable. So just accept the fact that you are a beast, unfit for civilization, welcomed only in the desert where the wind snaps sand into bloodshot eyes, and the sun torches dead flesh.

         Max stares into the tinted visor of the man running straight towards him. The poor man is too frightened even to raise his firearm from his side. Is that a Laser 4 in his right hand? It could be. If it is, then almost certainly that is Drake coming in for the kill. Max almost hopes it is Drake, because if he is responsible for the death of his partner, when he could have scared him away with no more than a warning shot, then he really is the beast he imagines himself to be. Max is damned; and if this is so, then he may as well be the damned of the damned.

         Max can smell the man’s sweat. It is fear bleeding through his pores. For that poor man, the fear is palpable, like another life form breaking through his skin and bones and, alternately, pushing his legs up and forward. For Max, that same fear is common. He has smelled it on so many other soldiers just seconds before they are torn in half by hell fire and left for the vultures circling the hot sun above them. That smell is everything for the poor man, who senses it right then coming out from his own soul. It is nothing for Max, but a mild irritant just before he gives that poor man over to the fates and moves on to someone else.

         Max pulls the trigger. He shoots the man in the chest. He avoids the face on purpose, not because he is showing mercy on him, but because he thinks the visor might get in the way of the shot. If Max does not get that man down in his first shot, then the gunshot may accomplish little more than to knock that man out of his momentary madness and to give him the wherewithal to fire back. In a firefight, like in a duel, the man who survives a shot is likely to kill the damn bastard who failed to put him down. 

         But that will not be the case here. The man goes down. Max can hear air seeping out of his bodysuit, as he coughs up blood. He will be dead in minutes, if there is a God in the heavens willing to show any mercy to the plight of men. If there is no such God, then he will die slowly, but sometime before the dawn.

         Max almost walks up to the dying man to see if it is his partner. He has more than a minor curiosity, even though he realizes that a beast should not be all that interested in distinguishing one dead prey from another. Perhaps, he is not the beast he thinks he is. Perhaps, there is some ounce of humanity deep in his soul. If so, then he is in trouble, because he cannot imagine surviving what is in store for him (let alone protecting his son), if he is not callous to the core. In the end, only the callous survive, when sick devils roam free about the night.

         Max decides not to approach the dying man. He can hear how the man is struggling to breathe. He can smell the warm blood gurgling out from his single gunshot wound. But he will not be close enough to determine for sure just who is dying inside that leaking bodysuit. 

         Max stuffs his Glock 42 .380 into his waist. He runs down Wilshire with a tenacity and a fearlessness that he had not felt earlier. He does not know what time it is, but he knows damn well that he needs to get to his son before dawn.

         The temperature is falling with every passing minute. By dawn, it will be stone cold death everywhere; and it will be too late for his boy. There is simply no time to waste then, no matter the horror ready to pounce from everywhere.

*   *   *

         Time passes, but in his delirium Max cannot tell if it is fifteen minutes or several hours. Part of the reason for this confusion rests in the fact that, apart from an occasional shell of a building yet to be brought down into the dust, one block after another repeats the pattern of two plywood piles for every brick or sheet metal pile. The air does not change. It is the same red dust mites dancing in moonlight. No matter how long he runs, Max senses vaguely that he is simply making a loop on the floor of a sea of soot. His lungs ache from the polluted air gulping up and down his windpipe, but even more so his soul shakes in fear that indeed there may be no respite from the shattered lives all about him. 

         ‘Lives’ is the operative word, even though Max does not discern a single, complete skeleton anywhere in the rubble this close to downtown. No doubt, in the past months, the garbage crew had managed anyway to remove all of those grinning skulls and rattling bones that had populated this stretch of Wilshire. It is impossible, nevertheless, to remove the ghosts that hover over the old debris piles. They howl nonsense in a night wind that, surprisingly, picks up and twirls the rubble, now and then. Their words may be unknowable, but their feeling is clear enough: They had invested their hopes, their talents, their funds, all that they had to offer into an oftentimes cruel and hostile world; and they intend to haunt whatever may be built on the ashes of their demolished dreams. It really does not matter if the Sultan of Brunei builds his Ishtar Disneyland on the ruins, because they will be here still, howling invective in the filthy air, and creeping up on the gamblers and the sex perverts, who buy the tickets for the glittering amusements yet to be constructed along this path. They will insist that they be heard, for they are the damned around here; and no matter the moral restraint that they may have exhibited when alive, the damned will not exit quietly from the long and tortured night. 

         Max can do nothing for the ghosts, and so he focuses in on the night wind that seems to be snapping up from the ground. Apart from his night on the Long Beach pier, he has experienced no more than a brief and listless breeze once in a blue moon, while a P.S.A. officer on patrol. Even when he had questioned the existence of the heat wave, he had had to acknowledge that something indeed had happened with the climate, given how little the air moved inland over such a long period of time. Thus, he cannot but be fixated on how the night wind all of a sudden twirls dust mites and rubble in his path; and like an early cave man first experiencing fire in a forest that he and his brethren had known always to be unmoved by time or chance, he senses vaguely that this startling break from the norm must have something to do with him. If indeed man is the imago dei, then the surest sign of his fall from grace is that he is a narcissist, confusing his image with the real thing, and sensing in nature about him the high melodrama of his inner life. Oh, how nature trembles before me, man thinks. Oh, how that wind cries, and that moonlight haunts, because of the sins that I have wrought.

         Max is in Korea Town. He can tell, since billboards written in the Korean language are scattered about the dust-covered street. Moreover, he smells very clearly the distinctive odor of gun smoke. Could it be possible that Koreans still come out of the rubble now and then to fight for their neighborhood? Max has a vivid memory of the Rodney King riots in 1991. When the L.A.P.D. simply could not respond to the looting in Korea Town, on account of the mayhem elsewhere that mad night, the Korean merchants had taken to the roofs of their own little storefronts in Korea Town to fire pistols at the marauding hoodlums. Koreans in this town anyway are about as far removed from the ‘beautiful people’ over in Beverly Hills as Max can conceive. They will continue fighting for what is theirs, while the ‘beautiful people’ hand over their Gucci purses without even a slight struggle and stroll with their tired eyes cast downward into the burning fires. If there is any ongoing resistance to the ‘new world,’ then it resides in the sewers and the half demolished buildings of Korea Town. Surely, the gun smoke sifting in the air suggests that something happened recently in this portion of the city.

         Max looks up. There is an electronic billboard hanging still from the side of a building. Most of the lights burnt out long ago, so Max cannot read the text of the advertisement. The only part of the advertisement that remains now is a flickering image of Kim Jong Un, North Korean’s dictator. His cherubic face still smiles down at the wreckage. His eyes glitter as red firecrackers, like they are about to explode out from his pudgy face. It is noteworthy that the powers that be continue to provide juice to this billboard, when the rest of Korea Town lies shattered in total darkness. Perhaps, Kim Jong Un had been the light source for the night shift garbage crew, before they went on strike; but Max senses there is more at play here than providing light for the night shift. Max thinks that Kim is a monument of sorts to the ‘new world,’ a kind of icon to the possibility of a world of glitz and glamour built on a sprawling graveyard. There is no death, no cold and clammy corpse in soggy earth, because death is paved over before it is able to register in the minds of those who remain; and if it is forgotten, then it is as if it never had been. This then is the ‘new world,’ not as it is dying, but as it is in its height: Life without death; life without consequence; life without all that somber reflection and moral restraint that might come from realizing that, indeed, as a man lives so does he have the rights and the duties of an owner of his own life. Without the existential finality of death, there is just the slow and imperceptible slide into madness, where men exert raw power over other men for no other reason than that they can do so, and where the devil laughter fills the air with the sound and the fury of a riot in an insane asylum. Tonight, then, is not the ‘new world’ coming apart at the seams, but the ‘new world’ reaching the very height of its expression and the irrefutable conclusion of its own logic.

         At the same time, it is also the house of cards topping to the floor. It is a supernova that reaches its greatest moment of glory only to fall in on itself and to become in a matter of hours or minutes a cold, dead thing. Kim Jong Un may be smiling from the height of the ‘new world,’ but the temperature is falling. It is impossible, frankly, not to feel the chill in the night wind snapping against all those flicking lights up on that billboard. 

         Max continues to run through the wasteland. He does not stop a moment until he sees concert lights over MacArthur Park. The buzzing lights remind him of the carnage of that night, when the P.S.A. officers had corralled the ruffians onto the grounds only to put a bullet into every head. Max has not been here at night since that night, and so he does not know if the park has been a macabre staging area every night since then, or if the powers that be have renewed the bloodshed only recently. What matters is that, incongruently, the ‘new world’ is willing to commit genocide in order to build an Ishtar Disneyland that denies death. The irrationality at the very heart of that policy cannot but turn a good, principled man into a loon. No wonder the devils laugh, as the night grows long in the tooth, and as Max slithers up to the concert lights with his Glock in hand.

         Max moves very carefully, but he is totally lost in his own thoughts, until he hears the growl of a mangy dog up ahead. 

         He stops before reaching the concert lights. He cannot see yet what they are staging in MacArthur Park, because of the intense glare from those buzzing, monstrous lamps. Nevertheless, he can smell the awful scent of decomposition; and he can hear the flies swarming over what he deduces is a pile of carcasses.

         Strange that Max should think of them as ‘carcasses,’ and yet dead men and women take on the appearance of common road kill when lumped together indiscriminately. Take away the distinctions of class, wealth, and education, as the nobles and the commoners alike stare blankly into the same glaring concert lights, until their dead eyes roll out from their sockets. Soon enough, they will wear upon their still faces the disarming look of defeated prey beasts. As if the dead men and women are no better than those hunted rabbits whose mildewed fur and guts have been strewn every which way by wind or scavengers, they are soon gutted corpses with unknowing eyes. There is no sense that God had given these humans His Spirit and had ordained them to walk separately from beasts. On the contrary, they are indiscriminate human beast corpses sinking into dust, and nothing more, no matter if they had ruled the earth once as the imago dei.

         And where there are corpses, so will there be starving dogs crawling out from the alleyways and the sewers to chew on whatever remains edible. If mad devils are roaming the night, then presumably they are bringing with them that infernal wildness that has been always bubbling just beneath the veil of human civilization. Hell’s Eden is a cauldron of rabid dogs growling noxious drool onto their own paws, blood-smeared cats leaping out from dark shadows, monstrous perversions of nature clawing out from man’s primordial nightmares only to run back into their hiding places when sensed in the peripheral vision. Really, when all is said and done, Hell’s Eden is about restoring the chaos that had prevailed before the spirit swept across the face of the deep. It is an act of rebellion, an eschatological middle finger against the very idea of order and reason, the very incarnation of madness let loose on a troubled earth. Everything that breathes, skulks, pounces, devours, what we would once have regarded as the very signs of the survival instinct here serve no other purpose than collective suicide. The madness let loose literally is cannibalizing on itself. It will not stop, until there is nothing left, but a barren, charred, cracked earth reflecting the frail light of a dead moon. It is as if nature herself has been caught up in the madness of the ‘new world’ and, like the governing laws and the infrastructure of the Greater Los Angeles area, has experienced a kind of supernova burst, and is now in the process of slithering down a cosmic drain to where everything is cold and dead.

         Sure enough, Max hears several more mangy dogs growling somewhere in the glare of the concert lights. He cannot see anything yet, but he figures there is a standoff up ahead between two or more packs of dogs. The winners will get the carcasses. The losers will be left to pant haggardly on their sides, until they lose just enough blood to give up their canine ghosts. The dead humans will be torn to bits; and by sunrise, when the concert lights either are switched off, or burn out, there will be shattered bones, shredded organs, torn off faces, loose, bloodied eyeballs spread out over almost every inch of the park. Some of those body parts will have been trampled into the earth by the ravenous dogs, before they scurried back into their dark caves, but most will be visible under the sun.

         So where is the sentry? Max thinks, while gripping his Glock more tightly.

         Assuming there is a pile of carcasses up ahead, a P.S.A. sentry should be on hand to keep away the scavengers. Certainly the infrastructure cannot be so far gone that a helmeted centurion retreats before a pack of dogs…

         Then again, why should Max presume even an ounce of courage in a man when literally his world is falling apart? Perhaps the rabbit analogy is truer than first appreciated. Perhaps, when robbed of his civilization, man is as weak and as scared as an emaciated hare scampering about an overgrown marsh by itself.

         The growling dogs start to tear into one another. There is a mad orgy of barks and yelps up ahead. There is the smell of warm blood splattered in every direction. It is pungent enough to stand apart from the decomposition stink. In Max’s mind anyway the warm blood splatter is like rapid-fire jabs into his face, while the decomposition stink is a slow, oozing sickness sliming into his bowels. He winces from the one, but feels sick in his stomach from the other, while the canine bloodbath hidden in the glare of the concert lights rises very soon into a discordant crescendo of brutality and helplessness. 

         Max senses that each dog inside that unseen melee is simultaneously the predator and the prey of every other dog. This is the very heart of war. This is the madness, when a man sees that his survival and suicidal instincts finally are one and the same. This is the despair, when a man realizes that he must rip out the carotid artery, or sever the dead head, or bed the blond intern, or sign the alimony check, so as to scavenge that dead body and blood consecrated in Hell and piled indiscriminately for him alone beneath the glare of big concert lights.

         Max bends low, so that he practically crawls over to the concert lights at the edge of the park. Consciously, he does so, because he figures that a smaller man will be less likely to grab the attention of one of those crazy dogs. So long as they are focused on one another, he should be fine. Deep down, he bends so low, because he is feeling like a beast himself the closer he gets to the intense sea of concert lights. He is a man monster lurching out from the shadows to do a bit of scavenging himself, before the wind and the dogs sweep away anything that is even remotely edible. He can feel thick drool slithering off his lower lip.

         He leans against the concert lights, until his eyes adjust to them. He had been running through the shadows so long his eyes almost lost their capacity to see through the electrical glare of large, overhead lamps. He easily could have spent the rest of his time roaming the darkness on instinct, like a finely wound, bloodthirsty bat. He almost wishes he had bypassed MacArthur Park in favor of the unlit, gutted, rat infested storefronts still in existence down the side roads.

         But he is here, and soon he sees what he had anticipated, though in fact the pile of carcasses is much higher than imagined. There must be thousands of bodies stacked a few stories high. The ones near the bottom are almost totally skeletonized, the ones near the top dead only hours or days, all of them facing upward. Many of the corpses are headless. The gunshots likely had been so near as to blow off their heads altogether. Some continue to have faces, except that the faces on the bodies that have been decomposing longer look a lot more like melted butter sliding down a wall. Maybe, the accumulated weight of all those newer bodies above presses down on the older bodies below, such that the grey faces further down the line are like pumpkins smooched in between a couple of steel beams. Maybe, the dead faces are melting, because they too are reacting to the intense stench. Regardless, the scene is macabre, though mercifully it is veiled to some degree by the sheer number of flies swarming about the corpses in search of holes in the flesh in which to lay their eggs. Together, the flies are a kind of burial shroud, a living, buzzing veil wrapped tightly over this stink pile offering to the night gods. 

         As for the dogs, there are a couple dozen of them. Max cannot make out which are in which pack, but this is clearly a battle over territory. Max catches a glimpse of a deranged, canine eye here, or a blood-soaked muzzle there, but for the most part he sees nothing more specific than a bubbling cauldron full of mangy fur and dismembered paws. He cannot imagine that any of the dogs will be intact, let alone long for this earth, when finally a victor emerges out of the carnage. Perhaps, when ravenous enough, the survival and the suicidal instincts are the same not just for men but for beasts as well. Perhaps, we creatures are all much the same, when the temperature falls ever so close to the final death gasp of the cosmos. Perhaps, at the very end, man and beast alike will have no more mind than to snatch at the carotid artery of the next creature in its path.

         What most interests Max is the remains of the P.S.A. sentry, who in fact had been assigned to watch over this stink pile. His bloated corpse looks around a week or two old, which means that no one back at the barracks had bothered to relieve his duty all that time. Now, it is one thing for welfare recipients in a civilized society to fall through the cracks; but when active duty soldiers within a military organization also fall through the cracks, then you realize that it is a matter of hours or days before the Goths push through the city walls. A military organization may have shoddy equipment. It may have incompetent assholes up the chain. It may have lost morale long ago. But, at the very least, it should be able to keep track of where its sentries are at any given time.

         So the shit has hit the fan. Anyway, as for this sentry, a dog tore into his corpse sometime ago. His body parts had been tossed every which way within a twenty-foot radius of where he had died. 

         Max crawls up to the decapitated head. The sentry apparently had taken off his helmet and put a bullet into the side of his brain. He had committed the one moral act allowed in the ‘new world.’ He had relieved himself of his duties while no doubt the flies swarmed the carcasses piled before his bloodshot eyes.

         Max crawls about the lawn, until he finds a severed hand. Luckily, all the fingers remain, though the dog had chewed a while on the palm before leaving it behind for something meatier elsewhere. 

         Max grabs the hand and stuffs it in his waist. He still holds his Glock, just in case one of those mangy mutts decides to go for him instead. He has nothing about which to worry, though, as the dogs are much more focused in combating one another over territorial rights to this death field.

         He returns to Wilshire and heads up to Alvarado. Sure enough, parked on that intersection is the 2010 red and grey MV Agusta F4 that had been assigned to the sentry. It rests beneath the flickering stoplight, like it is merchandise for sale against a backdrop of debris piles and gutted buildings. In comparison then to everything else, it is indeed the most beautiful thing that Max ever has seen.

         Still, for all its beauty, Max does not stop to behold it. There is no time, because the world as he has know it since that night really is coming to an end.

         And so he stuffs his Glock into the back of his waist, presses the severed hand onto the handlebars, starts up the engine, and climbs on board. He senses that he will be a much easier target now that he is on the motorcycle, but that is the price that he is willing to pay to return to his son before they snatch him.

*   *   *

         There are no more debris piles or gutted buildings, when he roars by the Good Samaritan Hospital on his left side. Apparently, this is as far downtown as the demolition crew has travelled thus far. No doubt, they will destroy the rest of downtown, if the ‘new world’ lasts long enough for them to do so. There will be no traces of the former city, if and when Ishtar Disneyland is unveiled to all the assembled. A few may shed tears, but most will be happy to get their dirty fingers on the discounted tickets offered the night of that grand opening event.

         Max hears helicopters overhead. This had been fairly routine before that night, as L.A.P.D. or L.A. P.S.A. choppers swooshed over and between the tall, dark, menacing downtown skyscrapers in pursuit of the latest carjacker or drug dealer. Since that night there had been nothing of the sort, as two-man P.S.A. patrols wandered dead streets and pulled their firearms at the rare shuffle of a slight breeze through street litter. Certainly, this must come as a surprise to all those colonials caged still in their apartment buildings, though maybe they are so far gone mentally that they cannot hear the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh or note the searchlights flickering down from the heavens. Whatever impact this has on them, it unnerves Max more than he would have guessed, so that three times in the past few minutes he nearly swerves his F4 into the dark lobby of a building.

         Max hears strafing fire no more than a few blocks away. At first, he just presumes that it is directed towards him. After all, is this not all about him in a deeper sense? Is not the world an expression of one man’s spiritual turmoil? If a man finally ends his life, then does he not learn that the world commits suicide alongside him? Max is sure that this is the truth of the matter. There is no real world out there. There is just Max and Adam, maybe Caroline, too, if she wises up to her predicament and pleads for his return. Yes, if she caves, then the two of them could be the three of them again; and there may be real peace at last.

         Then again, maybe not, since deep down Max cannot conceive of a real, lasting peace. Much more likely some other war would emerge from over there, and Max would be compelled to return to the desert sand, or the courtroom, or the arms of an intern, or God knows what. 

         And then the heads would start to roll. And one or two would be buried…

         A helicopter swoops low overhead. Max ducks instinctively. Nonetheless, on this occasion, he manages to keep his F4 from swerving off to the side. As it turns out, this helicopter is not interested in him anyway, though Max presumes that the men on board noticed him. Instead, the helicopter banks sharp right at Figueroa, and delivers poison gas against a target several blocks down the road.

         Maybe, there are actual ‘runners’ out on the streets, Max thinks. Surely, if the colonials catch wind of them, the heat wave hoax will be finished; hence the P.S.A. going all out to hunt them down. Another possibility is that Storm in fact initiated a rebellion. If that is the case, then it will be impossible to know on whose side are the helicopters. Not that it matters, though, since a bullet in my head, or a mortar shell up my ass, will deliver me straight back to Haji Land regardless of who finally delivers it. The dying man may know his killer, but the dead man does not. For the dead man, there is just his charred corpse in a pile somewhere, and his ghost howling insane fury at ticket-clutching morons going into a show or saddling up to the bar. 

         Max turns right on Figueroa. He is going the wrong way. It is strange that he even should think about the old traffic laws, but his mind latches onto many arcane memories just then to keep itself from sliding completely into madness. Entertaining those thoughts is better than driving deliberately through a lobby window and bleeding to death hours later on a blood smeared, rat-infested rug.

         Max smells the poison gas. The howling winds carry the fumes down the dark roads and alleyways. Though not potent enough to kill him where he is, it is a foul tasting gas nevertheless that makes him sick to his stomach. Max wants to get off his F4 and to vomit his guts onto the sidewalk, but with the CAB just a few blocks away he decides to tough it out. 

         He almost makes it on his motorcycle, but then he sees up ahead an old, National Guard Army tank idling in the intersection of 9th and Figueroa. It is too dark for Max to make out the specific model, but the wheezing engine suggests it is a fossil that should have been tossed to the junkyard years ago. Still, when the ‘enemy’ consists of unarmed ‘runners,’ it is as deadly as most anything else that the P.S.A. can put out on the streets. Moreover, the nineteen-year-old kid inside the tank is probably just inching for an opportunity to unload hell on any man within target range. What else will a boy soldier do, when the devils roam?

         Max silences his motorcycle. He walks it over to the sidewalk on his right and stares awhile at the idling tank. There is no indication that a trigger-happy boy inside has seen him, even though he and his F4 are only a half a block away from him. Perhaps, the sensors are not working on the old lady. Still, Max stays low to the ground as he pushes his F4 into the landmark bistro two doors down.

         The Old Timers Café is a quaint Victorian in between two imposing bank skyscrapers on Figueroa. It is a throwback to a simpler time; a time capsule so out of sync with the stark, glass monoliths, rising out from the concrete like an endless expanse of postmodern tombstones, that it is almost jarring when first noticed on the west side of the downtown street. Before that night, the locals, mostly bankers and lawyers, but also the blue-collar construction workers, who are forever occupied with a public works project somewhere nearby (‘your tax dollars at work’), would line up before sunrise to feast on the steak and eggs or the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ omelets. They would return for lunch for a chili cheeseburger; and if they were real gluttons, they would sneak in about midnight or so for a ‘pork chop party.’ The food had been too greasy and out of step with those health conscious, tofu and beets, L.A. soft shoes (transplanted New Yorkers felt much more at home); but it had been a fixture downtown for so long (‘open nonstop, twenty-four hours a day, for 125 years, and counting…’ the banner above the lazy, whitewashed porch proclaimed) the people kept on coming. Even Max had indulged, though the lard smothered on his belly meant an extra half hour on the treadmill the following day. 

         Anyway, the Old Timers Café officially remains open. Of course, no one has been inside to dine since that night. Moreover, there is no electrical power any longer. Nevertheless, for all their redevelopment plans, the powers that be apparently have decided to keep the old lady around, even as her presence will be a reminder of the former Los Angeles. Even the coldest tyrants can shed one sentimental tear, now and then, and this seems to be the case in their decision to retain this café in the ‘new world’ still to be built upon the ashes of the old.

         The rumor is that the front door remains unlocked, and a solitary staffer remains on hand, so that the powers that be can claim later on that indeed the Old Timers Café had remained open, even when everything else downtown had been as dead as a doornail. Max confirms this to be true, when he pushes his F4 up the wheelchair ramp (the one concession to modern life, before the old ADA Law went kaput with the secession of Greater Los Angeles from the rest of the Forty-Eight) and sneaks his wheels into the dark and cold foyer.

         The hardwood creaks beneath his feet. Irrationally, he imagines that the tank driver can hear him; and after a few seconds of stunned silence, he has to remind himself to exhale. He pushes his F4 over to the cash register. It will stay hidden there, so long as no one else decides to check out the Old Timers Café, before this mad bitch of a night has given up her ghost. 

         Max stares a moment at the lunch counter. There is plenty of light inside the café because of the IMAX screen further down Figueroa. Those garish colors flicker through the window blinds, such that everything inside the café appears as if a slow moving, Technicolor, movie reel. The Mamie Eisenhower pinks, the beach bikini yellows, the avocado greens, all those colors flashing upon the old fashioned lunch counter and stools suggest a scene from a silly Rock Hudson or Doris Day flick at the Cinerama. 

         Max has heard a certain rumor about the ‘solitary staffer’ kept on site. It is a macabre rumor, and surely Max has seen enough of the macabre to last one lifetime; but he walks behind the lunch counter to take a look anyway. 

         What first catches his eyes back there is the blackboard menu hanging as always on the wall behind the grill. It has not changed since that night. Indeed, even their prices remain the same: $10.95 for the Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich and Onions; $16.95 for the Prime Rib and Slaw (Best Value in L.A.). Max cannot say why, but this brings a tear to his eye.

         He searches on for the ‘solitary staffer.’ He finds him in the pantry. It is a skeletonized corpse bent face down in a tub of lard. He is wearing his greasy, white apron; but otherwise he had been stripped naked. The back of his pelvis is mooning whoever happens to wander into this cramped room. There is a flag poking through that backside where his anus had been once upon a time. There is a message written on that flag, which Max barely can read in the garish lights flickering across the lunch counter and into this space: Place Your Orders Here!

         Max tries to remove the flag, but it is stuck in the lard. He manages only to snap the flag off of the stick. He folds it neatly, and puts it in his pocket. He thinks somehow that this honors the corpse, though frankly he has no idea why this should matter to him right now. Everything is so far from the possibility of redemption, after all; and yet he buries the flag in his pocket, like it is actually possible to wipe that obscene message out of the mind of God. 

         The last horror show, Max mutters without understanding his own words.

         Max leaves the Old Timers Café. Immediately, the noxious gas slaps him across the face. It seems even more pungent than before, if that is possible. At this time, it is not strong enough to knock him out completely, let alone to kill him; but Max senses that he had better get indoors sooner rather than later. He needs to get to his son before too long anyway, since the end is much too near.

         He turns toward the idling tank. He moves stealthily toward the back of the tank, so that the driver inside does not notice him. He actually has nothing about which to worry, because the driver is dead already from a self-inflicted, messy gunshot wound to his head. Like any nineteen-year-old kid in a war zone, the driver indeed had been inching for a target to shoot; but with the old night devils laughing like hyenas in his earphones, he had decided about an hour ago that his own head would be the ideal target. His tank will idle until it runs out of fuel just after sunrise, and then it will gather up dust until God knows when.

         Max runs around the back of the tank. He looks up. He sees his billboard on the side of the run down, art deco building across from the CAB. Because of the flickering lights from the IMAX screen on the Brunei Hotel up ahead, he just makes out the faded words on his tattered billboard: 

When you’ve got to go to court,

don’t forget to bring your GUNN

Max Gunn, Attorney at Law

213 555 GUNN

         ‘Max Gunn, Attorney at Law’ seems like some other man. That billboard looks like something that should be buried in the sand far from here. It is a big, brown, mustached, dead Haji face, the kind that truly needs to be snapped off of its dead Haji spine and carried away. No one should see its quick burial, but the whisperer moon, if she should happen to grace the heavens that dark night.

         Max glances at the IMAX screen. He stops dead in his tracks. Until then, he had been so caught up in his thoughts as not to notice the loud stereo sound projected out from unseen speakers toward the CAB. Clearly, the propagandists want to make sure that the colonials hear their message, if they are not staring out their apartment windows at the adolescent, valley girl words and the photo shopped film clip. The Goebbels wannabes who determine what goes up on the big screen apparently have decided that they cannot leave anything to chance, They are striking their captive audience over the head with their dire message, and for Max anyway this is yet another indication that the world is falling away.

         On the screen, there is a cartoonish image of a vulture squatting up and down on its little bird legs. Instead of the vulture’s face, there is the face of an inebriated, smarmy Max Gunn. The Max Gunn Vulture continues to squat up and down, until finally it releases a clumpy shit. There are severed heads and limbs inside the dung pile. The connotation is that the Max Gunn Vulture has been on the prowl feasting on human beings. These are the human remains he could not quite digest, because of course he is so gluttonous he is eating up dead humans way beyond his capacity. As if the point is not clear enough, that nasally valley girl just screams out the gooey pink words: Like, Oh my God, What a Turd Bird!

         This is followed by a photo shopped film clip. The accompanying music is The Ventures’ Wipe Out. A naked, coked up, smart-ass Max Gunn saunters over to the corpse of a naked, blond whore lying face down on a bed. He slithers his hard cock into the whore’s ass. He pumps his manhood in and out of her bluish, crackling asshole with the robotic vigor of the Energizer Bunny on a coke binge. As if that is not gruesome enough, Max Gunn picks up a handsaw from the side of the bed. While still pumping the asshole, he bends forward and starts to saw the back of the whore’s neck. The skin and the muscles peel away easily, since she has been dead sometime already. No sweat for Max Gunn, who manages to keep an insanely large smile on his lips the whole time. He does need to put in some elbow grease when sawing through her upper spine, but that finally snaps in two. The contented look on Max Gunn’s face suggests that he ejaculates just as the severed head rolls off the side of the bed. The nasally valley girl finishes off this morbid scene with these gooey pink words: Like, Get Out! What a Perv!

         Max Gunn Vulture returns to the screen. Max turns away from the movie.

         So they are warning my former neighbors about me, Max thinks. I am the Saboteur opening doors in the night. I am the Vulture feeding on the dead. I am the Pervert burying my seed in a dead earth. But what can they do, except put silly pictures up on the screen? What can they do, except scare them with their cartoon porn? The dead have broken out of their cages tonight. Poison gas from helicopters, machine gun fire from rooftops, none of that mayhem can stop the dead, not tonight anyway, perhaps never again. And they know it. Oh, God, do they know it. The devils laugh in the wind, and they hear it. The murderers cut through the sealed glass, and sneak into their homes; and they sense them now coming up the stairs for their throats. This is the end, the madness in the eyes of a desert crawler, the killer instinct let loose to roam the sand dunes forever in search of what? Heads? Dead Haji heads? Sure, but while I am at it, then why not an All American, pampered, well fed, much loved, pure as the driven snow head? After all, are we not all damned when the temperature falls low enough? Do we not all view that same endless night, when our bodies are cold and blue? Devils and Saints alike, staring into holes in the sand, choking on iced cold dirt, until the sun sets for the last time, and the defeated earth sinks into its grave…

         Max snaps out from that stream of consciousness. He has crossed over to the CAB and is now standing beside one of the side door entrances. He holds his Glock in his right hand. He is getting ready to break the side door window with it, no matter the Screaming Mimi alarm that then may be set off as a result. He will just have to deal with consequences as they happen, because in the end he is not going to permit any obstacle to stop him from reaching the boy he loves.

         Max then discovers he does not need to break the window. The side door entrance is unlocked. It appears never to have been sealed. No surprise there…

*   *   *

         Max keeps a steady, two-handed grip on his Glock, while he methodically walks up a short staircase from the side door entrance to the front lobby. Every one of his steps creates a loud clang on the metal surface that he imagines can be heard as far away as the Hugh Hefner Suite. Nevertheless, he does not seem to have set off an alarm; and the building as a whole feels to him like a frozen tomb at the center of a pyramid that stretches from one end of the Greater Los Angeles area to the other. He is in such a large building, and yet he feels quite claustrophobic, like he is burrowing into a sand dune to discover corpses inside.

         The lobby is a hall of shadows. The silence inside the lobby is deafening, even foreboding, not a rest for the dead, so much as a trap for the damned. All that gloomy silence seems to be ushering in the damned soul, and pointing him toward a ghostly light fluttering in the CAB Lounge. 

         In fact, there is no light inside the lounge. It is as dark in there as in that lobby, but there is a light beaming out from the other side of a closed side door to the right. It is so quiet the light seems to be generating a sound of its own in Max’s head, a voice really, a whispering whore’s voice that says: ‘Come hither, soldier boy. Come out of the dark and into the light, where I can warm you up.’

         Max takes the bait. What else can he do? Wander about the hall of long-faced, ghoulish shadows for a spell of madness? And, anyway, what he needs to know is inside that room. If he must contend with someone to retrieve it, then so be it. He has murdered in cold blood before. He can do so again this moment as needed, and indeed a dark voice in his head reminds him he desires to do so.

         Max opens the side door. The light comes from a desk lamp beside an old computer. The screensaver is an image of two gay boys kissing on the Pont des Arts. The lip locked lovers are gripping each other’s ass, like those butt cheeks are life vests bobbing on the foam of a turbulent sea. Apart from those leather twinks embracing one another over the River Seine, there is nothing, but an old desk, a trio of dusty file cabinets, a framed photograph of the Hollywood Sign…

         And a naked corpse faced down on the desk. The desk is not long enough for the adolescent boy with a knife handle sticking out of his asshole. Thus, his feet dangle over one side and his face over the other. He looks like a cold, blue turkey that is too large for the platter. The slightest touch could knock the boy over the side. Given how bloated he looks right now, Max imagines that the boy would pop like a pricked balloon, if as a result of that fall the curved knife just happened to be pushed further inside his rectum. He would pop. He would leak gas out from his bloated bowels, explosively quick at first, but then in the slow and steady manner of a long fart coming out of an old fogey ass. With the dead as with the living what starts as a bang ends as a whimper, no matter the pride or the shame of birth.

         Max approaches the corpse. He keeps his two-handed grip on his Glock in case something happens. He is not sure what that something may be. He knows only that while this naked, bluish, cracking flesh seems dead, in fact it is living just beneath the surface of its own death. If he looks closely enough, then he is certain that he can see the twitching breaths of the living dead, hear the rattle of air flowing through decomposing nostrils, feel the shroud of death falling off to the side to reveal a hideous ghoul.

         Who is that boy? Max thinks. Oh, yes, it is the water boy, the kind, little, twink butt boy, who had delivered my drinkable water back when I too had had the esteemed privilege of being a ‘guest’ in this building. He had given me and my son double water rations; and though I had disdained his tight leather pants and queer demeanor, I had had to acknowledge even then that he was perhaps the only kind staffer at the CAB. He never pried into my business. He never put up his nose, like he smelled something bad in my apartment. So, yes, this is the water boy what’s his name. I can tell from the back of his head. Poor butt boys are always identified from the back, it seems. 

         All fine and good, albeit a bit unfortunate for the water boy, Max further thinks after a brief pause in his own stream of consciousness. But, of course, as soon as this corpse throws back its own death, and lifts its face, and stares into my eyes, I shall come face to face with something much more hideous than the death mask of an adolescent faggot. I actually know what I shall see. Goddamn it, I know; but even now, while I am sinking down the drain inside my own soul, I pretend that I do not know what that certain something will turn out to be. It is amazing, actually, how even at the end we can lie to ourselves, claim we are unsure when indeed we are sure, insist on our own agnosticism even when face to face with God. Mental mind fuck, all of it, drooling madness fit for the beast on the way to its own slaughter. And so, maybe, that is why we lie to ourselves at the end. Our heads hang low, our shoulders stoop forward, our knuckles drag on the cold and lifeless sand; and so beasts that we are we lie to ourselves as a final, insipid, insignificant act of rebellion against that God, who finally refused to give Job a straight answer. It is all quite funny, this final act of rebellion; no doubt so preposterous as to inspire a mad chuckle, before the twist of the knife and the rupture of the spleen.

         Max chuckles. He removes his left hand from the handle of his Glock and uses it to pull back the hair of the corpse. No doubt, back in the queer old days of endless nights in West Hollywood nightclubs and seedy back rooms, this hair had been perfumed and greasy, like a drink served by a cute chica beneath the palapas palms in Cancun. Now, it is all spindly and dry, like straw sticking every which way out of the head of an old, discarded doll. It is timeless, eternal hair, this spindly straw, the only thing that still grows a while longer inside a closed, dark coffin. Exhume a coffin; and you will see for yourself, if you doubt me, all the spindly straw hair flowing from the grinning skull down the skeleton spine…

         Max screams. He makes out the face in the dim ghost light. It is what he had denied, what he had doubted, that something that he had known, but with one final effort had tried to stuff back into the sand hole just around the bend and off to the left somewhere. It is the face he had prayed never to view in his nightmares, never to glimpse in his soul, even as he had known all along that in the finale, the God who had toyed with Job would have no more mercy for him.

         Dad, I’m hungry, Adam whispers.

         Yes, that is my boy’s face, Max thinks. And he is hungry. Starving for my flesh, because what else can a father give his only son but his flesh? A reversing of the Good Friday Story: the father on the wood cross, the son looking up from the crowd with starvation in his eyes, and the wind sweeping sand into the eyes of everyone there. Yes, the father on the cross, removed from his son, unable, no, unwilling, to step down from that wood cross and to open a solitary vein, so as to quench the hunger and the thirst of his only begotten. Oh, the selfishness of the father, writhing in his madness, while his son begs only to be fed by him.

         Max screams again. This time, he loses his grip on the spindly straw hair. He also drops his Glock. He vaguely hears the pistol fall onto the carpeted floor in front of the desk; but deep down, he knows that that is the sound of his own tenuous sanity dying just a few inches away from the tips of his polished shoes. Not much of a graveyard for what had been left of his sanity, but this carpeted, side office presumably is as good as a cold, dark mausoleum or a wet cemetery.

         Max stumbles backward. He catches a splash of thick, dripping color out of the corner of his left eye. It is a red ketchup smear on a mad Jackson Pollard canvas, a chunky, macabre stew wafting in and out of the shadows, a scare not yet apprehended rationally, but already stiffening his neck and closing in on his windpipe. He drops his lower lip. It is a stupid expression, but it allows a bit of air to fall into his gut; and that is enough for him to shake free from his intense paralysis. He still cannot make sense of what he sees, even though he has seen a similar scene hundreds of times before; but at least he is no longer posing an intellectual barrier to whatever messages this macabre something or other may have for him. Indeed, he is no longer putting up any barriers at all. He is a raw, open slate; and so those sick devils are free to paint their graffiti upon his soul.

         Actually, in this instance there is only one devil graffiti artist. In form, it is the bloodied, smoldering remains of Serge Santos. Apparently, Serge Santos’s head had exploded. Judging by the hot smoke still sifting away from that dark, macabre corner, the head must have exploded only minutes ago; maybe just as Max had been opening the side door entrance to the CAB; maybe even when he had been walking up that short staircase to the lobby. Strange that Max did not hear anything; but then again, it is strange that he did not pick up the scent of death in this room. Regardless, there must have been a powerful boom, as that dark-haired head suddenly blew brain bits and skull fragments outward, and as the rest of that flesh just collapsed into a corner. Now, there is a severed spine where his chin had been and a gunky blood splash dripping down the two walls that meet at that corner. As for his tight bubble butt, it slid forward on all that blood. One more ride for that butt, before the headless corpse settled in place.

         The last horror show, Max mutters without understanding his own words.

         The devil graffiti artist had assumed a grisly form, just before Max came in with his Glock raised and ready to fire. But after Max speaks, this devil takes on a voice as well. It is a dark, menacing, conniving voice, frightening as heard by the conscious mind, but also strangely persuasive, even compelling, as heard by the subconscious mind. Because this voice plays upon the two minds so very differently, the listener cannot but be disoriented, even pained, as he receives the message intended for him. Omens are painful in hell. They impart a kind of perverse wisdom, but they also grind yellowed teeth and sag chins into throats.

         Like my work? The devil graffiti artist asks in a voice that seems to come out from Max’s sick imagination as much as from that severed spine in the dark shadows. I admit that I do not have your artistic flair. No corkscrew twist of the knife at the end, like you did to that prick Aryan boy. Not nearly as much blood either, which indeed may be cleaner on my part, but which nonetheless cannot excite the senses as much as what came out of that Aryan boy’s asshole. So you are the artist, and I am the bureaucrat. You bring flair to your work. I bring my CYA memos, my politically correct, corporate jargon, and most importantly my indifference. You felt something after you stuck that pig. I felt nothing at all as I stabbed the boy I had recruited into the CAB. You are mad, crazy as a solitary loon lost somehow in the desert. As for me, I am dead; but if my head had not exploded, then I would be sitting beside that corpse, playing Solitaire upon the computer, and waiting patiently for the next directive from the front office. So you see, even now, I fit into this ‘new world,’ while you continue to kick at the pricks. True, the ‘new world’ may not survive this night. After all, if they blew me up, then I may presume that they are blowing up all the other apparatchiks and groupies as we speak. Scrubbing away the evidence, before the C.S.I. team shows up. Still, when all this is over, I shall have been counted among the small elite who had belonged. As for you, well, once an outlaw, always an outlaw. Oh sure, the Son of Cain carries a certain mystique. People may wear your face on their T-shirts, like once they had Che Guevara. Girls may think about you when pretending to orgasm for their boyfriends. But for all that, you will be alone at the end, trying to keep your heads buried, while the wind kicks up the sand to reveal the holes beneath the dunes. Lonely, isolated, futile work; that, indeed, is your curse, since you have chosen that path reserved for the freethinking and discerning individual. I do not wish any mercy upon your soul, because mercy is not mine to give. I only urge you to finish soon what you have started. I put out a distress signal as soon as I saw you in the security camera entering in through the side door. The P.S.A. will be here soon; and I may assure you that this time they will not keep you alive to see what makes a man like you tick. So if you’re going to have a last hurrah, a final flurry of artistry before they shut down your gallery, then I urge you to do what you have to do right now. Just remember to put some good, old-fashioned CAB Pride into your effort. In that way, when the bullet blows your head off, or the torch burns up your intestines, you will know that nothing, not even our precious CAB Pride, could have saved you from your fate. Nothing stays buried into eternity. Nothing stays dead, surely not fate. So do what you have to do and know that there is no shirking the cost to be borne.

         Max glances at the computer. He has forgotten why he is in this office in the first place, but he knows that it has something to do with information to be found on that machine. Without remembering what, he can only stare at those lip locked screensaver men and wonder vaguely just how long a couple of queer boys can keep chewing on each other’s tongue. As long as it will take the water boy in the foreground to decompose back into the dust from which he came, so long as the powers that be continue to provide electricity to this office, that is.

         You want the apartment number for the man, who called himself Doctor Michael Sharon, remember? Well, there is no need to search. Management gave him permission to move into your old place, after you left to join the P.S.A. He had made a commitment to stay close to your boy, after all. No doubt, you can remember your old apartment number, even if you are a bit under the weather this evening. Go, then. Do what you must. There is little time left for you here.

         On that note, the devil graffiti artist departs. In its place, there is just a headless corpse. Serge Santos has seen better days. Nevertheless, when the old and grizzled rats are done with him, he will not see any days at all. Therefore, he should count his blessings. It is hard to imagine a headless corpse having any blessings to count. Still, he should do what he must do (however possible when he is no more than a headless lump in a puddle of blood), while Max climbs the staircase to do what he must do. Lonely, isolated, futile work for both of them. What else is there when the end is fated to come in minutes, not hours or days?

*   *   *

         Max did not even attempt to use the elevator, when he wandered out to the lobby. Perhaps, in the back of his mind, he had presumed that the elevator would not be working. When a building is falling apart, the elevator very often is the first thing to go. Perhaps, he had been so spacey he just forgot about the elevator. This likely had been closer to the truth, given his frame of mind then.

         So Max plods up the long and windy staircase. Every clang from his heavy foot reverberates against the dark walls. The accumulation of echoes inside the staircase makes it seem as if he is plodding into a cold and formless mausoleum full of screaming ghosts. They are yelling invective at him, like he had been the man who put them there in the first place. Perhaps, he had been that man. He has killed untold numbers of men. Until recently he never had committed what the law would call ‘murder;’ but he is starting to wonder if perhaps he had had a murderous heart beating in his chest when he pulled the trigger or thrust the knife all those previous times. The fog of war can mask intentions, maybe even better than actions. From a certain point of view, is not every flag unfurled the war banner of drooling, deranged Goths intent on rape and pillage? Sounds like the inane logic of a pacifist fool, but is not the fool more often than we would want to admit the bearer of wisdom? Saint Paul called himself a fool for Christ, while the jesters bring down kings and nations with the funny, little songs they sing before the throne. Perhaps, the heart is always the same shade of black as a man tears into another man to send his ghost into the dark and remote grave.

         Max is not sure. He only knows that the air is so formidably cold inside of this death chamber that his chest hurts when he breathes, his face feels like a mask about to crackle into a million pieces, and his legs feel like heavy ice logs that he needs to hoist up the staircase one slow step at a time. He has a vague sense that this intense coldness has much more to do with what is happening in his own soul than with the temperature outside. Yes, the temperature is falling out there; but, surely, Greater Los Angeles has not been overtaken by the kind of blizzard we would expect to read about in the Book of Exodus. Or has it? The ‘new world’ is winding down. Anything can happen, just before the dirty, blood stained water gurgles into the drain and out of sight. 

         About midway up the staircase, Max starts to hear the distinctive whoop-whoop-whoop of a helicopter just beyond the wall to his right. It appears to be hovering in place, perhaps providing light to the patrolmen gathering on foot or in trucks at the intersection of 9th and Figueroa. He imagines that indeed there is a small, but deadly, army mobilizing outside for an assault. Way more people and firepower than is needed to take him down, notwithstanding his reputation as a one-man ‘killing machine’ earned out there in Haji Land. Why the canon to take down a mosquito? Because killing Max Gunn is just a pretext for destroying the CAB. The Colonial Affairs Office is shutting down, and no doubt the skeletal staff on hand has been given the green light to shred and to burn whatever files on which they can get their hands. The CAB is like one, huge, iron and concrete file that needs to be put through a shredding machine before the night is done.

         Max does not hurry his steps, even when he smells smoke wafting up the staircase from the lobby. He hears glass breaking at various places. He surmises that they are launching firebombs into apartment units. The lucky colonials are going to burn in their beds before they realize what has hit them in the dead of night. The unlucky colonials (and there will be many more unlucky colonials, as it is Max’s experience anyway that God is especially cruel and remote when the shit hits the fan finally) are going to stumble about like horses in a burning barn before succumbing to the smoke or, in a few instances, jumping out a window. There will be so much weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then there will be a final, everlasting darkness. So much exerted for so little reward. That is a cruel irony in a godless world, a demonic chuckle heard from the heavenly throne on high, a hymn of praise shown to be the discordant clang of iron spears in a war.

         Max imagines that the CAB is heating up, as arson fire spreads down long and narrow halls and leaps up staircases. He remains cold, though, like he is in a latex bodysuit that had been dipped in liquid nitrogen. The fire panic screams he hears echoing up and down the staircase; the smoke he inhales into his cold, exhausted lungs; the flames he feels nipping at his heels; all this hell on display seems to him as if special effects on a movie screen. It is like war, in a way, all too real one moment, eerily unreal the next. The killer feels the warmth of the blood he has shed. He feels it burning into his own skin, when it splatters upon his flesh. Then, the next moment, he steps away like a man in a spacesuit now looking for something else to do on an alien landscape that he can never inhale into his lungs or feel on his skin. The contrast is maddening, if he tries to think rationally about it; and so he learns how to turn off that part of his mind, until the moment he needs to be fully and consciously there to kill the next sad sack who happens to stumble upon his path. Max is that killer right now. Perhaps, he always has been that killer, at least since his uncle first taught him how to fire a pistol. Perhaps, the past is not prelude, so much as the end playing itself out in reverse, so that memories are stained from the start by what is still to come.

         How hopeless, Max thinks. How sad that in every memory I treasure I see the man I shall become. I see how Adam had seen the man I shall become. I see how Caroline had seen the man I shall become. They saw the dirty blood on my hands, the murder in my heart, and finally the darkness in my soul. They loved me; but when they looked upon me they still saw the desert wasteland I kept in my mind somewhere, like an old trinket from a past road trip stored in a locked box. They saw what I had tried in vain to hide; and notwithstanding their great, sincere love for me, they hated and ultimately feared what they learned about me. I simply cannot deny it. Even love cannot hide the devil lurking in the dark, no matter the glib smiles, the expensive gifts, the treasured times. The devil is there. For the longest time, he may be a chuckling, leering fool in the shadows, inconvenient, perhaps, but surely not dangerous; but then that opportune time comes, that clear moment of decision, and the devil steps out to play his hand.

         Better for my son if he had never seen me, Max mutters.

         Max pushes open the door. He steps into the eleventh floor hallway. It is a dark space, but for the EXIT sign flickering over the elevator door. It does not flicker in regular intervals, but rather erratically, like a neon sign gasping for a last bit of juice before going dark for the last time. Strange how even machines seem to sense their own death. In the end, even the dumbest scrap of iron has enough of a consciousness to know that it is dying. That awareness really is the one common denominator, as machines strain to take in a bit more juice, or as beasts struggle to inhale just one more time, or as humans focus their dimming eyes to see if perhaps, just perhaps, there is a twinkling light at the end of the tunnel into which they are about to travel. The last moment may look peaceful to the observer, especially if the dying person has been drugged sufficiently, or given the psychological aid of Last Rites; but for the man on the bed, that final breath is a desperate, ultimately disappointing, struggle to hold onto some real hope, while everything else is fading black. 

         Better for my son if he had never seen anything, Max mutters with more certainty than before. 

         Max feels his way down the hallway. He tries to count the number of hot doorknobs he feels along the way. For Max, the heat feels instead like subzero ice tingling through his latex hand and stabbing at his heart. Max realizes in his conscious mind that this queer sensation is fire heat; but much further down in his psyche, he senses that this is death coldness, beating out of the dark walls, caving in on him. The last moment indeed is dark blue ice crackling in on itself.

         He thinks that he has reached his apartment door. 

         Is that the sound of a door creaking open behind him?

         Max turns on his heels. He sees in the flickering light of that EXIT sign on the ceiling that the door is shut. Or did it just shut? Is there a person looking at him through a peephole in that door? Staring at him with crazed, accusing eyes?

         How could you stand the smell all those days? A sick, witchy voice snarls.

         The voice sounds like it came out from a distant memory, like something slimy gurgling up from beneath the fog; but at the same time, it seems to be in fact coming from behind that door. There is a woman on the other side. Likely, a bitch born and bred for no other reason than to raise the hairs on the back of my neck at this moment, Max thinks. Maybe, it is another Caroline. It is fucking amazing how even when the world is sinking down the drain those cunts indeed find a rationale and an opportunity to thrust the dagger one more time. Devils, you are well advised to let God have the women, because they will take over in hell in no time if given free reign over their own snarky tongues. 

         Max feels better after entertaining that bit of misogyny in his dark mind, but not enough to shake him free completely from that sense of doom that has been weighing him down since he left the office downstairs. The bloodied devil down there urged him along; told him he still had a bit of time left; but he just cannot shake the sense that the moment has passed already and that right now he is struggling in a place laid ruin long before he came to the scene. A barren, endless desert dead long before he and his fellow killers arrived en masse with their fire and brimstone. That cold, forbidding desert cast in silver moon glow…

         Max is about to reach for his doorknob, when he hears static coming over a hidden speaker in the hallway. He looks up as if he can find the source of the sudden, and frankly undesired, intrusion into his black stream of consciousness.

         Attention! Attention! An effeminate, male voice says over that invisible, warbling speaker overhead. This is a safety alert from the P.S.A. The Saboteur is in your building. Repeat. The Saboteur is in your building. He may be outside your door. For this reason we urge you to remain in your unit for the duration…

         There is a wave of static that drowns out the message a while.

         Has compromised the environmental protection barrier, the queer voice goes on. Repeat. We have reason to believe that the Saboteur has compromised the environmental protection barrier. As a result of the heat wave, many small fires have broken out around the building. We are working to put them out. For now, and until instructed otherwise, remain in your unit. For your safety, if you run out of the building, and into the heat wave, our men shall shoot you dead…

         There is another wave of static. This time the message does not manage to break through the noise. No matter, since the point has been conveyed clear enough. Max imagines even the dumbest colonial will remain in his unit, like an old and beaten down rabbit sitting in a pot and waiting without fuss for the gas flame beneath its paws to be turned on high. They will sit on their beds and die without struggle, assuming that they are not dead already. Max suspects that a lot of the colonials have been snuffed out already in this ‘Night of Long Knives.’

         Max turns the doorknob. He does not have a key, but not too surprisingly the door is unlocked. After all, he is meant to be right where he is; and it is not likely that while pretty much everything else falls apart, the locks will continue to work as intended. Burglars and looters score very well, when regimes gurgle down the drain. What is more surprising is that Max feels like a burglar himself, even though he is stepping into his apartment to retrieve what belongs to him. Everything about this place is wrong. Everything about him being here is wrong, too. There is a very strong, incomprehensible guilt underlying his feelings; and for a brief moment there is a clarity of mind that has been eluding him for God knows how long. Guilt is weak, but is also focuses ones resolve in a way frankly few other emotions can match. As such, Max has a keen sense of his incapacity, even while he discerns better than ever what he must do now that he is back in his home and near to his son. He cannot succeed, but neither can he step back.

         Max steps into his living room. Light flashes into the living room from the IMAX screen. The propagandist is no longer playing the video loop that features him. Instead, the ‘new world’ mantra flashes, like the words are trying one last time to burrow themselves subliminally into whomever may be paying attention to the big screen. It is hard to conceive of anyone paying attention to that over and above the developing fire; but the simple mantra is hypnotic, nevertheless.

         Max mouths the words himself: Be afraid, Obey, Survive.

         A helicopter sweeps in front of his window. He is blinded momentarily by a searchlight. Surely, they must have seen him standing only a few yards away; and yet the P.S.A. helicopter continues to encircle the CAB apparently without any regard for one window over another. And why should it? Everything is about to tumble to the ground with a calamitous roar that will suggest the end of the world indeed to anyone within several miles of this downtown, sky rise inferno.

         As Max regains his eyesight, he realizes that there is another reason the men on that helicopter would not have detected him. There is a blood splatter sliding down the inside window. It looks like the long, drooping face of a ghoul; a menacing frown on a skull face, to be more precise; a look that says to Max in no uncertain terms: Get Out! This is your last chance. For your own good, leave this place, and never return. But if you stay, know that there is no mercy from this line onward; and you will behold my face in your nightmares into eternity…

         From this line onward, Max repeats. A line in the sand. Cross that line by the light of the silver moon; and there is no way to leave the old desert behind.

         Max looks down from the blood splatter. Leaning against his window is a blood drenched, headless corpse. The explosion must have blasted out the back of his skull, because his face remains more or less intact beside his left shoe. It is a bloodied, smoldering face mask now, held together by the front half of the skull, and staring up at him with eyes that are still burning into their sockets. It will take only a few minutes more for those eyes to be burnt away completely; and then, the face mask will be as blind as a bat. What will not change, until a few weeks of decomposition have torn away the last remnants of the dead skin on the face mask, is the pained, but also vaguely pompous, expression on those lips. Whatever his real name he had remained a self-centered ass unto the end.

         Max bends to one knee, so that he can look upon that face more closely. The light from the IMAX screen flashes continually off the face. The changes in color render it even more surreal. 

         I told you that you’d figure out how to save your son, if you retreated to the Hugh Hefner Suite a while, the face mask remarks to him in a guttural devil voice not at all like Doctor Michael Sharon. Go along with the program, and you will determine what you must do soon enough. Keep kicking at the pricks; and, well, I don’t need to tell you how rebels fare out in the field. Courage, strident resolve, individualism, all that gets you is a bullet in a firefight, if not from the enemy, then in the form of ‘friendly fire’ from a God fearing patriot sick in the head with envy. The dead envy the living, a fact of life with which you are way too familiar to pretend otherwise.

         Max buries his face in his heads. The face mask continues unimpeded.

         Surely, you recall that cook, who came through ‘Sand Nigger Dunes,’ the face mask chuckles. What was he then? A buck private? A farm boy with bucked teeth and big, rolling eyes, that is what he was. The killers were not altogether fond of his cooking; and the boy certainly had no gift of gab; but stand him in a light just so, and he could pass as a smooth, moist cunt. Or at least that’s what the killers said to themselves, then and years later, because indeed there truly is a love that dares not speak its name. You never indulged, but you watched in the wee hours. You judged; and one night, before the grunt could leave for his next assignment, you executed. Much simpler than you had imagined, really, a crack, and then a chop-chop-chop. You drained it, and you buried it. Eyes wide open in the sand hole, so that the boy could watch how the desert recedes into the earth from which it came. Murder, but not most foul; after all, had not the boy broken at least half of the Military Code of Conduct? Then, in time, and in your conscious mind at any rate, not even a murder, but rather an unfortunate accident. His farm boy head just happened to get in the way of your hands at a totally inopportune moment. Anyway, the brass stamped him M.I.A., the killers found something else to occupy their long hours, and you roamed the desert all alone and after dark. And you are still roaming. Courtrooms, hotel rooms, roads off the beaten track, the venue does not matter, because no matter where you are physically, mentally you are still out there on that endless stretch of desert sand. Digging up holes, and burying heads. Going back, and reburying old heads when the wind sweeps too much of the sand away. 

         Max breaks into inconsolable tears. He feels the tears freeze on his face, like together they are forming a mask of deranged sadness over his old face. In all that sorrow, he is a petrified soul encased in a block of ice. He can hear the face mask still, but it sounds as if a voice diminished by a wall of dark blue ice. Indeed, everything outside of himself feels as remote as a western horizon star from an eastern horizon star. This is where the coldness of death stops time for a second, or an eternity, it is impossible to tell for sure. What matters is that a line has been crossed, and the beast can do no more than to grovel in his pains.

         The edifice breaks down, the face mask continues. The equipment grows old and dilapidated. The environmental barriers snap, and the pollution sweeps in from near and afar to do what pollution does. What choice do you have then, for you, and for your son? Go, then. Enter into your bedroom, and do what you must. Do not look back, because there is nothing but total darkness behind you now. No memories that can be interpreted this way or that. No different paths that could have been pursued instead of the one that brought you here. There is no past. There is only the future determined before time. 

         The face mask no longer speaks. Perhaps, it never had. It is just a bloody object besides smoldering brain parts and skull shards. If the CAB still exists in the morning, then someone will sweep it away along with the rest of the blood gore scattered about the dark and smoke filled rooms. If the CAB tumbles down to the dead earth, then someone will discover it in the charred wreckage later. Either way, the face mask will be unremarkable, except for its rather pompous mouth. It will not speak. It will not pry into a man’s life, and turn up his grave.

         Max stands up. He has a vague sense that the helicopter passes again by his window. He views a cloud of smoke sweeping in from under his closed door. The IMAX screen lights blend with the smoke to create a brownish, desert sands look. Max is no longer in his apartment. He is standing on that endless expanse of desert, the sand sifting through the cold, night winds on all sides, the moon as impassive and cruel as ever, and nothing to view, but an open door off to his right side. He has to walk through that door. He needs to stand where it is dark and silent, while his fingers open and shut by his sides, and his eyes squint with equal measures of ecstasy and pain. 

         Actually, it is not entirely dark in that bedroom. Some of the lights from that IMAX screen manage to slither onto the made bed. It is not much, and thus Max cannot make out the details; but his son is dead all right. He is a skeleton, dead more than a year, still wearing the cute little boy outfit he had worn that night. Even his cracked, frail, bone feet continue to rest inside his laced shoes.

         The IMAX screen light flickers off, probably for the last time, and Max no longer beholds the remains of his son. No matter, though, since he is able then to reach down and to feel for his son’s upper spine. He slides his fingers up that spine to the chin, closes his hands about that spine, and snaps the bone in two.

         Max cradles the severed skull in his arms, like it is a newborn. In a way, it is, because it has a long life ahead of it; an eternity to stare into the ground, where there is no judgment, no condemnation, just the sluggish and inexorable flow of time from one wind swept dune to the next, and lastly out to the night.

*   *   *

         Max is not sure what he smells. He knows that it is hot, like a poisonous claw scratching at the back of his throat and tearing out the small blood vessels there. He knows that it is pungent, dangerous, an attacker surging up from the floor and wrapping itself around his face. There are alarm bells sounding inside his mind, but they are too distant to prod his consciousness toward any specific action. All he can do is to feel vaguely agitated, like a man awakened much too early from his sleep.

         Then, a flame singes his left calf. He leaps forward, and nearly stumbles to his knees. He tries to scream out, but the sound is stuck somewhere deep in his throat. At most, he sounds like he is choking on a piece of meat. No matter, though, because while his voice is not yet up to the task, his mind awakens just then with a jolt. He is awake now, snapped out from the hypnotic spell, and all too aware that he needs to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

         Still, he is careful to cradle his son’s severed skull. Wherever he may go, Adam will go with him, at least for now. He and his son are going to part ways, somewhere in the desert, sometime later, but for the rest of this night anyway they will be inseparable. They are the ‘two amigos’ standing against the world.

         Max glances down and back. There are small fires scattered everywhere in his apartment. In seconds, they will coalesce into a screaming hell wall; and he and his son will be trapped between this inferno and their bedroom window.

         He runs over to his pantry. He is totally frantic, but he can think enough to recall the backpack he had kept behind his contraband liquor. It is one of his old, green, military issued bags that he had failed to return to the armory when checking out for the last time. Just as every ex-con carries tattooed reminders of his time in the pokey, so does every ex soldier, sailor, or airman clutter up a closet with his old uniforms or duffel bags. In this case, it is a simple backpack, much like what a boy would carry on his back when walking to school, except it is camouflage green and stenciled with his surname. His faded, blood smeared dog tags still dangle from the handle. There is nothing inside but an empty Jack Daniels, which Max throws into the fire breathing, smoke drenched living room.

         Max opens the bag by his feet, bends down, and lowers the severed skull into the bag. Notwithstanding the fires nipping at his heels, he moves solemnly, even devoutly, since of course this backpack is his son’s first coffin. He mutters a prayer, though the crackling flames so remind him of devils chuckling that he gives up midsentence. It is bad enough what he must do. He does not need now to give the devils on high an opportunity to laugh merrily at his situation.

         He shoulders the backpack, and leaves his apartment without even once looking back. There is nothing for him here now. This whole building can crash and burn for all he cares, so long as he is able to escape in time. 

         The hall is a stew of hot smoke and enflamed carpet shreds. The carpet shreds swirl up from the floor as if caught in a hissing tornado. The only item in the hall not flying through the air is that EXIT sign, which remarkably continues to flicker erratically on and off. It provides just enough light for Max to stagger into the stew and towards the door to the staircase. It dies before Max reaches the doorknob, but by then he is close enough that he need not try to make out what burning obstacle happens to be in front of him.

         Max uses his left shoulder to push open the door. Only then is he totally aware of the intense, paralyzing heat. Moreover, he feels the smoke swooshing out from the staircase and into his windpipe. It seems intended for him. This is not a rational thought, of course, but reason is beside the point when a person feels like he has to use the Heimlich maneuver on himself just to exhale all the smoke lodged in his throat.

         Max does not have time to wait for the terror to pass. He must continue.

         Max steps onto the staircase. The door slams shut behind him. He is on a metal platform overlooking an endless abyss of hellish screams and thunderous smoke clouds. It is as if he is Dante about to walk down a windy staircase to the deepest point in hell. Virgil is the severed skull in his backpack whispering a bit of courage into his right ear. 

         He hears what may be bursting pipes or gunfire. Normally, his adept ear would decipher easily enough which of the two options; but in this mayhem, he is grateful just to realize that something has happened and that his well honed, ‘fight or flight’ instinct has been given the shove it needs to push his exhausted feet forward. Fear is his closest friend in such moments. Fear opens his eyes to the fire devils snapping out from the black smoke, shuts his ears to most of the paralyzing screams, and burrows his chin into his chest. He is a beast broken by madness; but, at least, he is stumbling down the steps with his son on his back.

         Several persons may have passed him along the way. He is not certain on account of the fact that he is staring the whole time at the red, hot, iron steps beneath his shoes. He does not want to fall, because the steps will burn him to a crisp. They already are burrowing into the soles of his leather shoes; and if he remains too long on this staircase, his shoes will catch fire. Thus, no matter the plight of others, he keeps his head down and carefully takes one step at a time.

         Just before he reaches the bottom, the staircase sways from side to side like a ship in a storm. Its hinges scream holy hell. Red, hot beams tumble down from the walls. Pipes burst overhead. Torched gas sprinkles down like confetti. The gas ignites puddles of oil scattered about the staircase; and as that occurs, the puddles explode upward as iron and soot geysers singeing the crying ghosts above them. The ghosts rattle the pipes in response, and more torched gas falls from the rafters. It is like a rainstorm cycle inside of a hellish, hot boiler room, a cauldron of senseless fears and combustive violence, the sentient mind inside of a nuclear device just before it explodes out from its concrete skull.

         The stairs collapse. Max falls into the abyss. He has a vague sense of the ear splitting roar around him. He hears a woman’s impassioned scream way out in the distance somewhere. He is about to turn his head in the direction of that scream, when his forehead smashes into a hard object, iron beams bang against his lower back, and his world fades into a nightmare that seems to have started before he lost consciousness. It is a dark and brooding nightmare, a time and a place buried in sand, a blackness broken only by a pair of red, hot, pulsing eyes coming up from deeper in the earth. The eyes do not seem to be part of a face; but they are eyes nonetheless, searching, penetrating, chiseling away his hard, mud-baked heart. The eyes demand to see what is hidden in there. The eyes do not intend to leave him alone, until every last bit of his past has been exposed.

*   *   *

         The eyes coalesce into a single, omniscient eye, the glowering mind of a Cyclops god; and then Max opens his eyes to see that that eye in fact is a beam of morning sunlight breaking through a crack in the debris above his head. He is able to squirm out from the beams that had landed upon his back. He is bruised considerably down there, but nothing seems to be fractured, which in itself is a miracle. Apparently, he had not been fated to give up his ghost in that fire last night, though he is sure that just about everyone else had. He has no idea as to why he knows this to be the case, except that the smoldering rubble about him vaguely resembles broken and discarded tombstones.

         He digs through the debris above his head. He does not even think about the possibility that a P.S.A. officer may be waiting for him on the other side. In his heart, he feels that there is no one out there, or at least no one desiring to put a bullet into his head and to grab his son away from his headless corpse. All that drama is over. The ‘new world’ may not even exist any more. It may have folded completely before the sun broke the western sky. Or it may exist still on paper; but even if it does, its law enforcement personnel are in no condition to hunt him down any more. As the vessel goes down, the rats scram for the deck.

         Sure enough, Max emerges from beneath the rubble to behold a still and silent wasteland. The CAB continues to stand behind him. Only the lower floors had collapsed in the course of the fire. Nevertheless, his billboard had gone up in flames sometime during the night; and the IMAX screen had fallen off of the front side of the Brunei Hotel. As for the hotel itself, it is a hollowed out shell, no doubt fit for the wrecking ball. The Staples Center nearby is totally gone. In its place is a plume of smoke bubbling into the sky and darkening the dawn sun.

         Max removes his backpack. He unzips it by his feet. Adam appears okay, though a few bone chips may have fallen from the bottom of his skull. Given all those beams that had banged into Max’s lower back, it is a miracle that his son had not been smashed into bone pieces and dust. He had been a weak boy once upon a time, maybe even a bit queer; but he had started to man up just before that night. Max had helped him along by opening his eyes to the real power and grace of firearms, but the boy had embraced his emerging masculinity primarily on his own. Now, the boy’s skull is strong and good to go. Max has never felt as much pride for his son as he does at this time. He does not want the moment to pass, but a voice in the back of his head urges him to continue with his mission.

         Max returns Adam to his backpack. He shoulders his backpack, takes one or two more minutes to scan the urban wreckage all about him, and then starts off towards his motorcycle in the Old Timers Café down the street. The several bruises on his lower back hurt like hell now, but he is able nonetheless to walk in a steady and brisk manner. If anyone saw him, then they would imagine that he is a middle-aged man in dust-covered clothes going out for his morning hike.

         But no one sees him. This part of downtown anyway is deserted. The old tank on the intersection of 9th and Figueroa is no longer idling. It is just a scrap heap waiting to be discarded with the rest of the junk scattered about a dead, smoldering city. God only knows how long it will be before someone removes it from this spot, restores the intersection lights, and urges the few survivors out from their hiding places and back into their automobiles. No doubt, that day is going to come; but until then time will stand still on the ruins of man’s dreams.

         Max rolls his motorcycle out of the café. Remarkably, that severed hand he had stuffed into his waistband is still there. He uses it to turn on the engine.

         Max mounts his new girl. He thinks he can reach the Las Vegas desert by sunset. His son will be back home, as the silver moon touches the midnight sky.  

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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