3820 words (15 minute read)

Seven

Willie, Kris, Waylon, and Johnny were concluding their tale about the highwayman, the sailor, the dam builder and the starship captain. A single soul drifting through eternity. Johnny considered his destination on the other side of the universe and wondered if he’d be a highwayman again or just a drop of rain. Darren thought he knew the feeling.

They dumped Darren’s car up in Acton, a dusty bump in the road south of Palmdale. They left it on a dirt service road near the freeway, next to an abandoned material yard for what must have been some line company, judging from the twelve-inch scraps of copper cable laying about and the electrical pylons stretching overhead and going up up up and away into the mountains. When the company left, the tweakers must have had a field day. Once the car was wiped down, Darren removed his Browning Hi-Power from under the seat and tucked it into his belt at the small of his back. He took one look back at the green Civic before climbing into the Range Rover. He had a slight pang of guilt for abandoning the thing that had facilitated his escape, but the feeling passed and he jumped into the passenger seat of the Range Rover. Hack brought them back to the pavement and south on the 14. Back to the city.

Hack and Darren rode in silence for the most part. There’d be time to figure out their first move later. Once he and Stitch had parted ways in New Mexico, Darren had taken the Civic and went east on the 10 all the way here, a non-stop one-way trip into whatever awaited. He kept his pills in the cupholder and stuck to his schedule. Once he saw signs for Los Angeles, a nauseous, creeping feeling wormed its way through his guts, and Darren knew he was home.

The 14 reached the junction with the 210 and Hack took the Range Rover east, back towards Tavish, and all the hellish memories that rested there. The feeling in Darren’s gut intensified as they approached the city and didn’t abate until they headed south towards Toluca Lake. The time was approaching fast when Darren would have to face up to his nightmares.

But that wasn’t now.

They were on the 134 headed west past Griffith Park when Hack spoke for the first time since Acton. Marty Robbins was singing his ballad about the ranger who came to town looking for the outlaw named Texas Red.

"You alright?"

Darren glanced over at Hack, then looked down at his own fist, which he had clenched tightly and pressed to his lips. He relaxed his hand and sat back in the seat, brushing his hood back off of his head.

"Yeah. Place looks pretty much the same."

Hack nodded as he neared the exit for Toluca Lake, shifting to the right lane.

"So, the lack of economic progress has got you wound up. Makes sense. Won’t somebody think of the children?"

"Don’t be an asshole. You know I didn’t want to come."

Hack chuckled.

"That I do. But you need to tell me right now If you’re not up for this. I don’t blame you if you’re not. Hell, I’ll even find you a ticket to someplace nice. But if we’re gonna do this, I need to know you’re not going to lose your shit."

"You said some freaks sent me a message. Whatever this is, I want it done with."

Hack was turning off of Riverside to Mariota.

"Still seeing shit? Having nightmares?"

Darren was silent a moment, staring out at the typical weekday morning activity in Toluca Lake. It was still full dark when he had first got back to town. A grey morning had settled around them as they dumped the car, and now the sun was breaking through the seemingly impenetrable barrier of clouds.

"Still. I’m keeping it under control."

"With booze and pills."

"Fuck you, Mom."

Hack snorted.

"I’m just saying. Once we get business settled, I can have a doctor come take a look at you. For real. What good is any of this if you drop dead of liver failure or fuck knows what."

Darren rubbed his eyes.

"Yeah, maybe."

"Here we are," said Hack as he pulled into the small driveway of his house on Toluca Lake Avenue.

"Not bad."

"Ah-yep," said Hack as he put the Range Rover in park." It ain’t much, but its home."

"Better than a studio over a liquor store," said Darren as he exited the passenger side.

Hack unlocked and opened the front door. The two men were hit with a heavy, rapid-fire drum beat. Some English punk rock song blaring over Hack’s state-of-the-art speakers. Darren couldn’t make out most of the lyrics but the chorus consisted of the singer shouting the words "big hands" over and over again.

"Jesus. Hang on!" shouted Hack. He strode through the living room and disappeared into what appeared to be the kitchen. Darren stood alone in the neat, orderly living room. Behind the couch, on the back was a mantle containing several oddities. Above this mantle, mounted on the wall were two Colt Dragoon revolvers and a vicious-looking light cavalry sword. Darren wandered over to get a closer look at the pistols. An old photograph on the mantle caught his eye. It was of a man, stern-faced, dressed in a military uniform. A small gold plate at the bottom of the frame read "J. Glanton 1819-1850". Next to this was an antique mirror. Darren looked at his own face with a sense of unease and slight disgust. He badly needed a haircut and a shave. He still qualified as a young man, but there was a prominent streak of grey running through his beard.

The music had finally cut off and Hack called to Darren, who rounded the corner and entered the kitchen. This was the nicest part of the house. Hack had clearly spared no expense here. It may have been the way the morning light shown through the windows, but there was something strangely cozy about it. Hack was standing next to a large wooden dining table, frowning at his phone. There was a large marble-top counter bisecting the room, dividing the dining area from the kitchen itself. At this counter was a pretty blonde woman. She was young, but her green eyes suggested a lack of naivete. She was hunched over a laptop. One of her tanned legs was tucked underneath her, the other dangling down towards the floor, toes lightly touching the base of the counter, where she was pushing herself this way and that, rotating the swiveling barstool idly from side to side. A moment after Darren entered, they locked eyes for the first time.

"Darren, Lindsay. Lindsay, Darren. Hang on a minute, I gotta take this." said Hack, putting the phone to his ear and exiting the sliding glass door that led into the backyard. As he spoke, Darren could see him pacing back and forth along the edge of the pool.

Darren idly looked around at the kitchen, locked in one of those awkward situations where one has been trapped in a room alone with a new acquaintance, a fierce standoff where each side waits for the other to be the first to speak.

"I heard about you," said Lindsay, ending the stalemate.

Darren’s eyes drifted back to her.

"Yeah?"

Lindsay looked up from her computer and turned to him. She was scratching her bicep underneath the sleeve of her Pixies t-shirt, where a tattoo was wrapped around her arm, a strange band of markings which may have been some language that Darren couldn’t place.

"You’re that cop. I remember. It was all over the news."

Darren sighed. He walked over to the dining table, pulling out a chair and sitting down.

"You don’t waste time," he said.

Lindsay shrugged and went back to typing.

"We’re all in the same boat right now. If you want, we can talk about the weather or some shit."

Darren smirked.

"Go ahead and ask, then."

Lindsay met his eyes again, sliding her laptop out of the way and folding her arms on the counter.

"They said you shot Grey with that narc. And then you beat him to death."

"It wasn’t voluntary. He stuck me with a needle. And I didn’t know he was DEA."

"First they said you were dirty. You and the fed must have been partners. Deal went bad and you killed those tweakers. Then the cop, when he showed up."

"His name," said Darren, "was Hawkins. And he was dead when I got there. Those two fucks cut him up."

"He was your friend?"

"Close enough to one."

"Coffee?"

"Please."

Lindsay got up from her seat and retrieved a mug from one of the cabinets. She stood at the coffee maker and filled the cup, one hand tucked into the pocket of her denim shorts. Darren made a point of not looking at her ass, faking a deep interest in the chandelier over the table. Lindsay came over with the steaming mug, handing it to Darren and then pulled out a chair for herself.

"So what was it like?" she asked, sitting down.

"What was what like?"

Lindsay rested her chin in her hand, crossing one leg over the other. Darren noticed two small cuts on that leg, fresh. Recent shaving accident.

"The grey shit," she said.

Darren looked away from her. He drank from the cup, no regard for the searing heat of the liquid inside. His tongue was scorched, but he counted on that. The burn might take the edge off of the memory.

Lindsay was just starting to think she had crossed a line when Darren finally answered.

"Like a bullet to the head."

Darren met her gaze again. She was leaning forward over the table, eyes locked on him.

"It feels like...you’re dying. Your brain shuts down little by little. Things start to run together. Your senses, I mean. Your thoughts. It all just races, and you’re panicking and then..."

Darren thought carefully about what to tell her next.

"You get trapped in a nightmare. The worst you ever had."

Lindsay nodded. She was about to speak when the glass door slid open again and Hack walked through it.

"So, everybody acquainted now?"

Lindsay turned to Hack.

"It was about to be my turn. Go back outside."

"Pay rent," said Hack as he sat down on one of the kitchen stools at the counter, setting his phone on the marble.

"Alright," said Darren, "we’re here. What happens now?"

"That" Hack sighed, a new habit that he was quickly growing accustomed to, "I haven’t quite worked out yet, not all the way."

"I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that phone call had something to do with this," said Lindsay.

"It did."

"And?"

"We’re all gonna head out in a bit", Hack looked at Darren, "If we’re all up for this. First, I think we should get on the same page. Catch up to speed."

Darren took another sip of the bitter fire in his mug, a light Seroquel haze scrambling those faint hisses at the back of his brain.

"Hack, I respect you. But fuck that ’concerned dad’ shit. If I wasn’t up for this, I’d be in Canada. I’m here. Let’s get down to it."

Hack scratched his face, nodding.

"Fair enough."

Hack shifted in his seat, clearing his throat.

"So, it seems shit hit the fan for me, Darren, and the city of Tavish all on the same night. While you, Darren, were dealing with your cartel problem, one of my girls was attacked at her apartment. Had the living shit beaten out of her."

"And the building caught it on camera?" asked Lindsay.

"Correct", said Hack, "Two women. Looked like drifters, but I think we all know better. The footage wasn’t great, but they were covered in that bodypaint."

"The psychos up north" nodded Darren.

Lindsay turned to Darren.

"Did the other ones wear bodypaint?"

Darren looked at her.

"The ones you ran into, way back?"

Darren shook his head, not particularly comfortable reliving the memory this much in such a short amount of time.

Smoke. Scorched flesh. The monster with no tongue.

Darren shook his head again.

"No. No paint. There was a lot of blood, but I got up close with one of them. I don’t think the markings, or the tattoos I guess, was a thing yet with these freaks. I doubt they even knew what they were doing at the time."

Lindsay and Hack nodded. Hack started again.

"So, my girl gets jumped. They drop Darren’s name. Meanwhile, the news-worthy stuff happens."

Darren heard all about it on the radio driving out here.

"Six of them, right? Chopped up and stacked like cordwood."

"First they said five" Lindsay chimed in, "took them a while to sort it out."

"Right" Hack nodded, "first and foremost, they nabbed one of Tavish’s city councilmen. I knew the guy. Nasty fucker. Did everything he could to get Cassilda shut down. Guy deserved a bad case of herpes and maybe a tabloid photo of him at a glory hole, but I couldn’t say he deserved what he got the other night."

Lindsay and Darren wordlessly agreed.

"Then", Hack continued, "There was that big shot photographer. They got him and a student from the Art Center at his house. Nobody knows if they were after her, or if she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Not to speak ill of the dead, but considering the sleazeball was married, I’d guess the poor thing was ’wrong place, wrong time’ on some level," said Lindsay.

Hack continued.

"Next, there was the woman from the news. Hard way to find out why one of your employees didn’t show up for work. Then there was that other guy. Family man. Coached little league and shit."

"Those pictures of him with his kids," said Lindsay, "those got to me."

Hack nodded.

"That leaves the sixth one."

Darren took a sip of his coffee. It didn’t burn quite so much now.

"The limbs were painted up," Darren said without looking at them, "he was one of their own."

The room was silent for a few moments. Darren could see a bird in the feeder outside in the backyard. It was viciously defending the tiny square filled with seed from birds twice its own size. He’d just met her, but the bird made him think of Lindsay for some reason.

"So what do we think?" asked Lindsay, "clearly the guy fucked something up."

"Likely", said Hack. "There was a dead cop near one of the houses."

"I hadn’t heard that," said Lindsay

"Media ain’t exactly saying its connected, but I’d say its obvious. That house, by the way, was the one where they grabbed the reporter. About a mile from here."

"Fuck," said Lindsay.

"Yeah. And when I was headed to work that night, I’m pretty sure I saw the guy who did it."

Lindsay’s eyes widened.

"Double fuck."

"How’d that happen?" asked Darren.

"I was getting on 134. Couple cops shot past me to a gas station near the on-ramp. One of those nutbags was there. This guy was covered in blood. And his markings were tattooed. "

"So, one of the cool kids then," said Lindsay.

"Obviously the cop was a mistake" Hack continued, "It took some doing, but they bagged the big hoss at the gas station. Their boy that they chopped up must have been a loose end on that front. Cops haven’t I.D’d the guy yet, or they’re not saying, anyway. Same goes for a Temple member being in police custody."

"Speaking of, what kind of name is that anyway?" asked Lindsay, "Seriously, ’Abaddon’ Temple? If you’re some kind of freaky doomsday cult, isn’t that a little on the nose?"

Lindsay looked back and forth between them, shrugging.

"I’m just saying, Jim Jones made his shit-circus sound like rainbows and kittens."

Darren smirked a little bit.

"What we’re dealing with is worse than that" Hack said, standing up and walking to the coffee maker.

"Do tell" inquired Lindsay.

"Jones had his people kill themselves. Hundreds of them, yes..."

"Nine hundred something" added Lindsay.

"Yeah. And as bad as that is, this looks like its shaping up to be something more Manson-like. Already has. And this is gonna get a hell of a lot worse before it even has a dream of getting better."

"Is it, though?" asked Lindsay. "I mean, you’ve got a member of the club dead at the scene, like the others. You got another one for killing a cop, alive we guess, and in custody. Both high on the grey shit, like they always are. And the icing on the cake is, they know where they fucking live. What makes you think the cops or the FBI or the DEA or whoever aren’t about to roll up on their commune right now to kick down the doors?"

Hack brought his coffee back to the counter and sat down.

"Because we’ve been through this shit already."

"Back in 2012," said Darren.

"There was that," said Hack, "then a couple years later, someone gets hacked up and dumped in Veteran’s Park. A couple more years later, those fucks shoot up Fourth Street. Not to mention an epidemic of random assaults, stabbings. Weird graffiti everywhere, some kind of made-up language. And who knows how many people are officially missing in LA right now?"

Darren and Lindsay were silent.

"You guys haven’t been here in the thick of it" Hack continued, "People are scared. Cops for whatever reason aren’t doing anything about it. Nothing permanent, anyway."

"No offense," said Lindsay, " but the great ganglord Hack Glanton and us, his merry band of assholes, are gonna go out and rescue LA from evil?"

Hack smiled.

"You both know me. I mind my own fucking business. The world ain’t done shit for me, and I return the favor. But for whatever reason, they got a hard-on for Darren because of that shit back in 2012. I’d say it was revenge for those dickheads you deep-sixed, but you’ve seen how they treat their own people when they make mistakes. Furthermore, they fucked with my business to get to him. Somebody got hurt who didn’t need to be. That’s not going unanswered."

Hack pointed at Darren.

"Most of all, they want you, and they fucked with me to make sure you got the message."

"And here I am," said Darren, finishing his coffee.

"And here you are," said Hack.

Another brief silence.

"Shit," said Lindsay, "Nice speech. I think I just popped some kind of girl-boner."

"So, what’s our next move?" asked Darren.

"Next", said Hack, downing the remainder of his coffee in one gulp, "we’re going up to Tavish. We’re going to visit the girl, Lilly. She’s been laid up since the night of. I wanna see if she remembers anything else. Then we’re headed to Cassilda. I’m gonna have my guys out in the neighborhood tonight. We’re gonna grab one of those freaks, ask some questions. Ask hard. Then, we go from there."

"How very gangster of us," said Lindsay, tugging what looked like motorcycle boots onto her feet and zipping them up.

"Speaking of," said Hack, reaching under his jacket and removing his Smith and Wesson 629. Swinging open the cylinder, his eyes were greeted with the sight of six brass .44 magnum hollowpoints. Hack snapped the cylinder closed and holstered the weapon.

"Is everybody armed?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Darren, as he removed the Browning Hi-Power from his belt, popped the mag, reinserted it, brass-checked the chamber and lowered the hammer.

Lindsay reached behind the kitchen counter and retrieved a nylon, drawstring backpack. Reaching inside, she removed her Beretta PX4 Storm, inserting a mag and racking the slide, checking the safety.

"Boom," she said as she returned the weapon to the backpack and put it on.

"Good," said Hack, "Let’s get going."

"Aye, captain," she said as she started towards the door. Darren and Hack followed.

It was mid-morning, and the dull, grey overcast skies had burned away. The sun was bright and the spring air was fresh and chilly, turning warmer ever so slowly. Hack thumbed the lock button on his key fob as they reached the Range Rover.

"Just so you know, said Lindsay to Hack, "after we see Lilly, we’re taking Darren for second breakfast."

"Please cool it on the Lord of the Rings references"

Lindsay whirled around.

"I will NEVER. And just for that, you’ve lost your music privileges" she said as she opened the door and climbed in the back.

Hack sighed.

"We’re gonna go deaf by the time we get there."

Lindsay poked her head out between the front seats and yelled out through Darren’s open door.

"Get in losers, we’re gonna go save Los Angeles."

"Maybe that’s for the best," said Darren.

Hack smirked as he got in the driver’s seat. Darren climbed in and closed his door. Hack fired up the Range Rover and backed out onto Toluca Lake Avenue. An aux cord snaked its way into the backseat where Lindsay was rapidly thumbing through her phone. Shortly after, The Smashing Pumpkins crashed forth from the speakers at a level far too dangerous for human eardrums.

"Emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness, and cleanliness is godliness, and God is empty just like me" Lindsay screeched in her best Billy Corgan voice as Hack gunned it towards Highway 134.

Once on the highway, his old friend Hack white-knuckling it towards Tavish with his usual suicidal driving habits, and this blonde tornado headbanging in the backseat, Darren realized that nauseous feeling was gone.

Next Chapter: Eight