Wolf DeVoon

Dreamland

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I had a little mishap this morning, slipped on loose rock, fell down trying to catch the cat. Perhaps I hit my head harder than I surmised at the time. Been dizzy most of the day and unnaturally fatigued. I recite this episode of stupidity because I can't take anything for granted, and while I intended to upload the manuscript of Eggshell to CreateSpace when I had enough bandwidth at some unspecified time in the future, it now seems like a good idea to park the piece of it that wasn't previously published. Most of my books are anthologies of previously published essays. "Dreamland" is fairly new (2012) and it ties nicely with recent remarks on emotion. What we do and dream are never far apart.

If I wake in the morning, I'll send a donation, Michael. And to all a good night.

DREAMLAND

Long shadows crept across the valley. Big yawn. I flexed a few muscles and carefully arched my back against the trunk. Sitting in a tree sucks, no matter how nicely trimmed and dressed with a machete. Oh well. Another half hour and I can wrestle everything down, walk over to the quad and go home empty-handed again. Danny and I have been doing this every Wednesday, waiting for the beer truck to wallow over Quebrada Bridge. Danny has it worse than me. He was draped in camo under the bridge like a troll. If they came up the dry gulch, which we expected, Danny would be a sitting duck if they saw him and started shooting. I was 30 yards away with a carbine, supposedly backing him up, which was total bullshit and we both knew it. He put me in a safe position. I could sweep the road but couldn't see under the bridge. The gulch was a long black pit.

No use arguing with him. Dan's hard as iron. Ex-cop, ex-MP, cheerfully silent and inscrutable like a brick wall. Volunteered to risk his life for $50 an hour that the Civic Association is reluctantly paying to do something about armed robberies on this stretch of road, mostly commercial trucks who carry cash, but also two carloads of tourists who got held up at gunpoint last month. The cops patrolled this stretch at sundown for a while, then somebody shot one of them dead, picked him off a motorbike. No more patrols.

Another big yawn that rattled my shoulders, trying to stifle it.

I got up early this morning to answer the phone. A girl at the beach called to tell me that Andre was back in town. Made some coffee and drank a cup, dunked a roll in it for breakfast, then strapped on my steel asp and headed for the beach mad as hell. I drove that stupid fucking junkie out of town yesterday, gave him money for a room and something to eat, and told him emphatically to stay put until I got in touch with the consulate to ship him home. Seventeen years old and stoned every day, on the run from a father who beat him and blackened both of his eyes, he was persona non grata in Cristo for breaking into cars, panhandling the tourists and talking shit to the Great and the Good, who long ago formed the mistaken idea that anything to do with crazy Russians was my personal responsibility and I was supposed to fix it, free of charge.

Tabby was waiting for me at Olga's. Very strange chick, maybe 30 years old. I met her for the first time in one of the comfy old suites above the Iguana Restaurant, smoking pot with a vacationing grower from Michigan, a guy we ultimately had to throw out for being such an asshole. Maybe Tab was sleeping with him to get high. Couldn't blame her if she was. He had a big bag of outstanding green buds. I smoked a lot of pot that year. Everybody did. It was one of those golden dry seasons when the beach was dotted with strong bronze surfers, pale stockbrokers and airhead supermodels from New York, trading big smiles in skimpy attire with live music and fresh seafood at the resorts every night, drinking and smoking and laughing and nuzzling til dawn.

Tabitha was a mystery I never bothered to unravel. She spoke with a whistle, like an old guy with false teeth. Not bad looking, buxom, thick brown hair that she kept behind her ears and spilled over soft muscular shoulders. A little plush around the middle. Not my type, but she kept popping up wherever I went, always asking if I knew anyone who could give her a job. She wanted to stay. So I took her to Rick and she handled board rentals and sold trinkets for a while. Then to Olga's for the wet season, serving beer and washing dishes. She was shacked up in one of the squatter ranchos, a dirty palm leaf hut full of mosquitoes. No running water. I didn't like it, but Tabby was stubborn and got her wish to stay more or less permanently. Illegal of course. There were plenty of expat beach bums who came on three-month visas and never went home. When the Immigration Police made a desultory and predictable sweep at the end of the tourist season, they ran for the hills or hid out in somebody's closet, unless the bum in question had worn out his welcome and was dutifully tossed to the Migracion goons.

Like this asshole. Tabby lifted an eyebrow and pointed at him with her nose. He was slumped over a table in the sun with a half dozen empty brown bottles, two of which were horizontal in a puddle of buzzing flies.

I flicked the asp open and strode over to his table. Andre heard me crunching gravel and looked up. "Tex..." he mumbled stupidly, "I couldn't stay there, so I came back."

I ordered him to get up, and when he opened his mouth to spew another paragraph of bullshit excuses I wapped him on the thigh and the top of his head for good measure. We marched over to my car and I shoved him in the back seat. He had enough sense to keep his mouth shut while we drove to the Rural Guard shack in town. "Lock him up and keep him here until the bus comes," I growled at the dope on duty and threw a $20 bill on the desk. The Consul agreed to pick up Poor Little Lost Andre on the other end and fly him home to his mother in Moscow. She was worried he belonged in school. Once in while these stupid soap operas turn out halfway right, but I had more important things to do today, like getting shot at.

Bang - THWAP - a chunk of bark hit my head, another loud bang stung my upper arm and I jumped for the ground, a disorganized, flailing leap of eleven feet with a rifle in my hand that ended in a hard bellyflop that smashed the wind out of me and broke my glasses, which is all I remember.

I woke up with Danny ripping my shirt apart and pulling my pants down. "Are you hurt anywhere?" he asked angrily. I said I was hurt everywhere. He picked me up in a fireman's carry and started running. "Put me down!" I tried to yell, to no effect. He was bouncing my guts, making everything hurt a hell of a lot worse. So I smacked him in the kidneys, to no effect. He kept running.

We got to the hillside where the quads were hidden and he flopped me down on the ground, out of breath and gleaming with sweat like a racehorse. "Can you drive?" he panted. I nodded and pulled myself up fumbling a key in my hand. Danny opened my rifle case and slammed it shut. "Follow me!" he yelled as he gunned his machine, heading straight up a rough jungle path over the hills to the beach. I began to get the idea we were in trouble and had to be elsewhere pronto.

We raced across wet sand with the tide coming in. In an hour our tracks would be gone. At Rock Point, Danny stopped, ran and threw his Sig-Sauer and Steve's .45 in water that was too dangerous to surf or swim. He waved me in the direction of town, like a stern traffic cop at the scene of a car wreck, then spun around and went the other way. That was the last I saw of him. A week later, they called me to pick up his quad, one of four in the company fleet. It was parked upside down in the river near Tres Gauchos, fifty miles away.

I watched Danny disappear into the jungle and sort of melted slowly into a pile of sore bones and trembling flesh across the steering bar of a red hot machine that was starting to sputter. It took a long time to find the reserve tank knob. I burned my hand on the engine with a wrong guess.

In town I decided I needed a drink and pulled into the little lot at the front of Dice Bar. It took a long time to stand up and throw my bad leg over the saddle, switch the motor off. I could barely walk, just limped through the wide front arch. It was Happy Hour, fifteen or sixteen lazy drinkers and loud music. I stumbled against a table and made it to the empty end of the bar near the back wall. Tony grabbed the Dewars and poured a drink for me. I asked for more ice, fished a couple cubes out of the glass with my left hand and pressed it against the rip in my sleeve near the shoulder.

"You okay, Tex? You look like shit," he worried. Unless my eyes were playing tricks on me in the dim light, the bar owner was sweating and shaking. Tony was the one who looked like shit.

"Never mind me. What's up with you?"

His hands twisted a bar rag as he leaned over to talk privately, like it was an emergency. "Jesus, Tex, I gotta have gun. Can you get me one? There was three guys in here a little while ago. Never saw 'em before. They were casing the joint, Tex, and I gotta stay open til 2. It's a game night."

I nodded and unbuckled the fanny pack around my waist, laid it on the bar, fumbled with the zipper, got the cuffs out and stuck them in my back pocket. "It's single action," I explained. "You have to cock it every time. Loaded with magnum. Do yourself a favor and get some .22 shorts. Kicks like hell unless you hold the barrel down with your other hand. Can you remember that?"

Tony nodded. "Yeah. Thank you. How much?"

"Nothing. If anyone asks, I was in here about 4 o'clock and had lunch."

I drove through town in second gear somewhat inaccurately and made it home, got off and started to fumble with the gate latch. My wife came running across the patio in that cute way girls have of tiptoeing at top speed. I got back on the quad and she opened the gate, then latched it again.

"What happened?" she wanted to know. I let her help me inside, into a bedroom, into bed, where she took off my clothes. There was a little cry of anguish when she saw the deep red groove on my upper arm. I vetoed the doctor idea and asked for crema blanca. "Treat it like a burn," I mumbled and then blacked out, safe and snug behind a perimeter wall and security cameras, with a partner who was better and faster with a long .38 than I was.

I think I slept a night and a day and another night before I hobbled around a little and sat on the couch a while to eat soup and a sandwich. The next day I felt good enough to putt putt downtown for a newspaper. The crowd at the grocery store froze and gave me a wide berth at the checkout. The owner asked politely if there was anything Mr. Tex needed. I gave him a buck for the English language paper and opened it.

It was there, page one. Four dead, all of them known to the cops, two out on bond pending trial for robbery. A beer truck driver saw bodies in a field near Quebrada Bridge, called 911 and got detained for questioning because the cops found a 9mm pistol in his cab that "may have been recently fired and reloaded." He was booked for resisting arrest.

And there was another police item, continued on page 8 with a photo of a rental car in a ditch near the new suspension bridge that put the ferries out of business. Friends said that Tabitha Oberlin was on her way to see a baby doctor in the capital. She was five months pregnant. They shot out her tires and stole her belongings, leaving her for dead. But she wasn't dead yet. Broken vertebrae bounced in a Red Cross ambulance eight or nine hours to a government hospital where she died from infection after surgery.

It still makes me sick whenever I think about her.

...

It's been bothering me for weeks, months, maybe years, and I can't seem to unravel the mystery. I wonder about it in quiet times. I think I may have murdered someone. I conscientiously leaf back through the calendar of my recollection, year by year, as much as I can remember from boyhood to adolescence and early adulthood. I don't think I killed anyone in prison, however much I absolutely wanted to.

There was one guy, a despicable bastard who picked me up in a Greyhound terminal and seduced me with porn magazines when I was 15 years old. He tried to keep me from leaving his apartment and I socked him in the jaw, hard, twice. But I don't think I killed him. Maybe I killed myself.

That's not as crazy as it sounds. Whatever it is that's nagging at me from the past, it's deeply repressed. Blanked out. I remember punching a whiny slug of a kid for kicks. Caused him a lot of pain. Is that what's bugging me? Sure, I regret it. Totally unjustified. I remember it clear and sharp, like it happened yesterday. There were a couple of those awful heartaches when I threw my weight around as a kid and knew it was wrong, had to apologize and still feel rotten about it.

Just as many times I had to run, got chased and beat up. There was an AP wirephoto of me being revived and patched up on the streets of Washington after I got gassed and clubbed by the cops during an antiwar protest, press credentials around my neck and camera in my hand. Same thing happened in Milwaukee at the Water Tower riots. I was wearing a Red Cross first aid jacket, bending over a kid covered in blood, then stood up and started yelling angrily at a Tac Squad sergeant. Got clubbed from behind. Learned the hard way to never turn my back on cops.

All this crazy shit from the past was rattling around in my head while I was waiting to see someone in the West Wing. I had forgotten why I was here. There was a group, but I wasn't part of it. I was wearing a dark business suit, standing around for no reason, and then a phalanx of bodyguards and stern looking staff people hustled by with the President. He smiled at me like we were old friends and waved hello, gestured to follow him upstairs. The staff was unhappy about this, but I followed. The President draped an arm over my shoulders and said he wanted to talk to me for a minute.

A wide polished stairway ended in a library with a conference table. Everyone busied themselves with briefing books and papers around the table, preparing for a meeting, but the President took no notice and walked with me casually, talking about his job. He stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned on a windowsill. "Most of this is boring as hell," he shrugged. "I don't pay much attention to them. You ought to spend more time here. Get involved. Let me know what you think."

I was hustled out by Secret Service. "Take care of yourself," the President waved with a smile as he surrendered himself to the business at hand in a relaxed, tolerant sort of way. I ended up on the street. Not exactly thrown out, but near enough. No ex-cons allowed and don't try it twice.

Cold anger, hot rage, blind with it, an inch from destroying myself and everyone else. No wonder I don't trust myself any more. When the bile starts to flow I'm in the grip of a monster. I was walking down a street in Amsterdam in a hurry, suddenly facing a quarter million protesters carrying signs slamming America. I went straight through them like a knife, straight down the center of the street with two clenched fists daring them to move or be mowed down. They parted and dodged out of my way. The crowd was five blocks long with a disorganized, sullen center who couldn't stop an angry American. When I got to the production office I was overheated and totally blind to reason. "STOP WHATEVER YOU'RE DOING!" I bellowed as I stomped in -- then ripped a 25-pair cable out of the wall, terrorizing a secretary who didn't hang up the phone fast enough.

Angry and vain, what a combo -- a powderkeg ten times worse than Bogdanovich, an asshole who no one ever wanted to work for twice. Worse than Hitler if I don't get my way exactly the way I wanted it and RIGHT FUCKING NOW. Impervious to suggestions or help. Razor thin tolerance.

I'm in a bombed out city at night, where they've rebuilt an airstrip that's too short for the jets who are trying to land here. Tall, ugly broken buildings surround it and I'm stumbling through them, then off a precipice into a muddy construction zone. No way out of the dead muck of a broken life.

...

I was tired as usual, still going strong after a full day of setting up, negotiating, troubleshooting, shaking my head and shrugging off incredibly stupid fixes. The A-camera didn't have a platform as promised, so he was on sticks on stage in front of the subwoofer column, God help him. I grimly expected the EMF to erase whatever he put on tape and permanently damage the poor bastard's hearing. I hardly knew the guy, but he came highly recommended.

Michael was handheld backstage and the plan was to walk on with the headliner, cover everything with rock steady close-ups from his shoulder. He was big and stong, but the last time we did this, he forgot to push the record button. I reminded him again to white balance, roll to record and keep rolling, no matter what. He swore he had a fresh fully-charged brick and understood what to do.

I took one last lap through the pit, where the raving animal end of a packed crowd was screaming, stomping, throwing shit, yelling at me and blowing clouds of THC in my face. The warm-up act was a wall of noise. In the glaring sweep of blinders and black shadows I stumbled on something, landed on my feet and finally made it center stage, where the C-camera was hiding. I forgot the operator's name and it was impossible to speak to him over the din. I got him on his feet and pointed to three shots I needed. He nodded, seemed happy that someone came to visit, which meant there was an escape path unless they broke through the fence. I looked through his viewfinder upside down and saw a red blinking light, patted him on the shoulder, and waved my finger in a circle. Keep rolling. He was on AC, no battery to worry about.

Nothing more to be done except retreat backstage. I milked my last few brain cells to remember a few words of French to ask for a cold drink. They handed me a warm bottle of beer and I tossed it in a trash can. The crowd roared as the headliner went on. There was nothing left for me to do.

I shrugged off both walkie-talkies and handed them to the PA, told him to quit fucking around and start packing up. If he needed me I'd be in the bar.

It was nice and quiet in the bar. Four of my pals were on plastic chairs around a table waiting for me to play poker. One-Eyed Josh waved me over. He grinned like he was winning, but Boris had a big pile of chips in front of him, too. The Greek Millionaire was table talking as usual and the Colombian decided to fold as usual. I leaned on a chair long enough to order a drink, threw some money down to buy in, said I'd be right back and walked to the men's room.

I pissed in the urinal and looked at a tired face in the mirror. There was somebody else in the stall, flushing the toilet. It was Larry Scott, dressed to the nines, tucking his shirt in his pants, beaming like a cat who just caught another canary.

"Hee, hee, look who's here!" he laughed, "Johnnie Diamond, shootin' another Home Movie!" He put a bottle of cologne on the shelf and rapidly washed his hands at the sink, primping his curly white afro by patting it gently, admiring himself in the mirror while he mocked me. "You gotta buy some clothes, Johnnie. How many times did I tell you that? Gotta look like money to make money!"

I leaned on the sink. "You're supposed to be dead, Larry," I murmured.

"Dead?" he scoffed. "Who said I was dead?"

"Richard."

"Hah!" he laughed gaily, showing the gold tooth he was so proud of. "I ain't dead. Not yet. I gotta take care of Keith. That boy has talent! I got a starring role for him almost sewed up."

Larry made a show of his snow white cuffs, manicured nails and gold Rolex.

"Please don't bullshit me, Larry. You're dead. Keith is living with a pharmacist in Long Beach, calls himself Flame, looks like shit and hasn't worked in three years. I told him the best shot he had was to play a junkie or second banana gangster in episodic TV, probably a one-off, but at least he'll get a SAG card. Nothing else to be done."

Larry was gone. When you're dead, that's where you belong.


...

I was in a tunnel that someone else started, with a rock fall barring my way. I used my hands. It was very dark, but I could see glints of gray crystal and shiny black flint. Chunks of jagged rock tumbled away and presently there was enough space to crawl through. I kept at it a while longer, and the passage was taller and wider.

It sloped down into a cavern supported by heavy square wooden pillars and beams that were crushed at irregular angles like an ancient workshop. Maybe there was a trickle of water, maybe voices or the low sigh of rock under pressure. I sat squatted on folded legs ready to jump or let myself slide with some control, but nothing happened unless I made a decision to do it.

The air was still, with a gentle flow across my face. A metallic scent mixed with the sweetness of hard rock and broken hearts. Somebody had worked very hard a long time ago to do this, whatever it was. And I had to go on and explore.

Rubble followed me down to the base that might have been polished concrete long ago. The room was still and silent, but I shook myself uncontrollably. You get that feeling all of a sudden that something's not right. Hard to tell the difference between being scared and shivering with cold, so I hunched my shoulders and covered the core with both arms to warm myself as I waited to see something that made sense. There were dark angular machines frozen by age and neglect, crumbled cables, scraps of paper. It was a printing shop.

I felt my way through it, feeling warmer and less frightened. Whatever I was doing was interesting and seemed to trump the problem of escape. I can worry about getting out later. What in hell is this? The floor went farther down to another hall or passage.

It had the ring of great size and length, much darker now. There were voices in the distance, a great many voices quarreling. Small thin old voices of a work party. I followed the sound to see smoky patches of gray light that blew and billowed, as if reflected from shadows long overlapped and cancelled for want of strength in the first place.

My hand touched tiles of a built wall, the kind you see in a train station. Old and cool, with a heat that radiated behind them, a source of power that lived here, persisted and warmed me as I walked forward. The voices were gone. If they lived, they drew life from this warmth. There was an enormous source of power underground and I was near it.

The sound of a great engine, nothing close to where I was standing, but traveling at great speed and tearing in my direction prompted me to climb away on a steel ladder through a square shaft that went straight up. Damp patches felt too slimy to touch, so I stayed on the ladder and climbed it to the top, where there was a shelf and a steel cowl, the rudiments of a hatch. This was not exactly what I wanted. Slivers of dusty light showed me another gap, a mistake of buckled construction.

It opened into more of the same crumbled earthen rock, another tunnel whose purpose was clearly gone and disused. I felt like an intruder again.

I knew I was dreaming and that the end of this dream was near. Not what I wanted.

The work party was hard at it in a great auditorium that reverberated. They were building and digging and hauling more coal and rubber and metal shapes to nowhere and back. No wonder they were quarreling about it. Building in five directions like ants, none of it directed by purpose. I could step forward or step down. I've done it many times. Walk among them and make something of it.

The incandescent, omnipresent energy glowed softly and strongly and warmed me to the task at hand. I didn't shout at them, but stood tall and straight, an itinerant commander of men who had none. They stood to, shocked and fearful, and I told them to clear everything away, and then I emphasized that I wanted it done in an orderly fashion. The floor slowly cleared and I called for the heaviest iron, a great slab shape to give it unmovable strength, whatever we built next.

Whatever we built next. That was the problem.

...

Coming home is always an ordeal. This time it was Jakarta, my least favorite place on the planet, which I was glad to leave, twelve thousand miles, four airports and a six-hour taxi. We flew coach most of the way. I slept about two hours in the last fifty. So I dozed in Francisco's car, the only guy I trusted to get us home safely. Mountain passes, cracked pavement, rutted dirt and bad one-lane bridges. We pulled up at the house around midnight. Our front gate was half open. Shit.

The flower boxes had been wrecked and there was trash on the patio. I opened the back door and hit the light switch. Francisco unloaded the car and started schlepping our luggage. The kitchen was a mess, living room turned around backwards, walls painted in sloppy orange and hot pink. We knew it would be bad, but not this bad. The girls were too tired to do much of anything except put fresh linen on the beds, brush their teeth and crash. I got Francisco settled in the spare room and checked the bodega, apparently unmolested. The wood door was locked, no sign of being pried. I flipped through my ring of house keys and finally got the right one. Didn't bother to open the steel gate. Lights and air conditioner were on, like they should be. Everything was piled where I left it three months ago. I shut the door quietly and staggered through the house turning lights off.

The neighbors were raising hell next morning, revving diesel engines next door. I erected a 10-foot corrugated steel fence sandwiched with styrofoam sheets last year, but the noise still got through and woke everybody at 6 a.m. Took all the fun out of living here. We moped around the kitchen, decided to trash everything except a sealed package of coffee. Francisco volunteered to go to the grocery store, because my Suzuki ATV had a bent fork, smashed cowl, no gas, and three flat tires. I should have chained it up before we left, instead of giving the housesitter a spare key. She was newly arrived from California, 100% respectable and went native. Took up with Rastafarian dope dealers who decided to change a few things. The property manager notified me he that threw them out two weeks ago. He showed up at 7:30, apologizing profusely for the mess. I gave him a list of damage to the house, pool, garden, gate, alarm system, ATV, sinks and sewer clean-outs.

A mulish, overpaid cleaning crew showed up, so we ate breakfast on the patio. When the living room was finished, I unloaded the strongroom and set up the computers. The phone line was dead. Traced the problem to the outdoor block, skinned the wires clean and got it working again.

I was putting the ladder and tools away when Jimmy Vacarro roared to a halt on his padded quad at the front gate, yelling to me loudly in deep baritone that meant more trouble. I walked over.

"Cal Blunt was murdered last night!"

"Where?"

"At the house he was sitting, Corry's place, K-22. Beaten to death. I'm outta here, Tex. I'm goin' to Ecuador, tomorrow. You know Roberto? They came in with masks and guns, held his wife and kids at gunpoint, smacked the shit out of him and made him open the safe. Fuck this, I'm gone."

He gunned the motor and skidded away, kicking up dust.

My wife had interesting news. Danny Paulsen emailed his mom to fly him, his girlfriend, and their Italian bodyguard out of Cristo yesterday. We archive other people's email on occasion. Never mind how. Danny was supposed to be selling our house, biggest realtor in Cristo. And Cal Blunt worked for him.

I walked over to Russo's shop and rented a quad, a big Suzuki 500 with 4WD. In ten minutes I was sliding through the main road toward the upscale beach resorts, where the road curves like a snake. Traffic was slow, so I took a few chances. In K Section, there was a line of parked cars. Rural cops were holding back a small crowd of suntanned gringos, familiar faces. I didn't see any cars from the Judicial Police. It takes them three or four hours to bump down the dirt road to Cristo if they're in a hurry and have nothing else to do in a large, crime-soaked, dirt poor province.

I stopped in the middle of the road. Assholes behind me honked and everyone looked. They knew who I was, why I was here. I spun the back wheels and turned into K-23's driveway next door. It was a steep uphill grade and I punched 4WD before I took out two bushes and careened into the forest. I bumped across to Corry's stone wall and flattened their flowerbeds.

There was a rural guard posted at the front door with his hand on his holster. I handed him $100, opened the door, got one whiff and splashed vomit on the flagstone steps. I wasn't prepared for this. Stupidly put my shirt over my nose and tried again.

Cal was a friend. Nice guy everyone liked. I warned him about getting too chummy with the natives, especially the super sweet Barco clan that I had to reason with a couple years ago with a carload of coked-up Russians in a surprise visit at dawn.

I saw what I wanted to see. He was bound to a chair. This was a hate crime, not a robbery. There was nothing to rob or pretend to rob. Cal's laptop was smashed on the floor, some glassware and books kicked around.

I walked down the asphalt drive, decided to leave Russo's quad in the flower bed, so the cops would see it - or not - depending on who they sent to investigate Cal's murder. There hasn't been a single case of murder, robbery or burglary anywhere in this country that the Judicial Police solved, unless someone was caught in the act and standing over the victim with blood on his hands. Two of our local bigwigs had been kidnapped and driven to ATM machines, then dumped on a back road.

When the hardware store was looted, the cops had to borrow talcum powder and packing tape from the owner to lift prints. They still used manual typewriters at headquarters. That's how I got a permit to carry a gun. Two passport pictures and a letter from a quack psychiatrist who chain-smoked.

The crowd of worried neighbors eyed me as I approached. Rich white Americans that owned fancy houses and kept little obedient house maids and cooks and gardeners who routinely sold them out to the bad guys. Any one of them could be next and they knew it.

I walked down to the beach and had a drink. It was over. I was tired of carrying a gun and waving it at a problem that was getting worse every minute. I used the bar phone and called Francisco. He was halfway back to the city. I told him to turn around.

...

Glass walled elevators are like Cadillacs, heavy as hell, plenty of chrome, with ultraglamorous electrics that look good on engineering vellum and glossy cut sheets but are prone to go up when you want down. The spaciously empty jewel case proudly opened at the top floor and played a congratulatory arpeggio on harp and bassoon before it decided we could shut the door and try for Lobby - Guest Services again.

I hate being tired. Nothing seems to work right. My feet felt like broken concrete. They unhelpfully clumped in the wrong direction and came to a stop in front of a sign that made no sense. Empty tubes of stuffy corridor stretched left and right. It shouldn't be this hard to find the bottom of an open 10-story atrium with twinkly lights in trees and 50 or 60 leather armchairs. I meandered the wrong way to a dead end and turned around. At the side of the elevator there was a narrow gap of light.

I considered all the things that architects manage to get right. Nothing leaked or fell down. Rooms had hot and cold running television, if you like that sort of thing. I leaned on the back of a cracked leather armchair and rested my eyes for a while. A fountain dribbled peacefully. I was pleased to not hear a vacuum cleaner, which most five-star hotels insist upon operating at 4 a.m. Maybe the floor cleaned itself.

The entire lobby was empty. Nobody at the front desk, big enough to park a bus and throw luggage at the concierge, who had an adjoining suite of sparkling granite trimmed in bronze, also empty and softly well-lighted. The sunken patio bar was deserted, twenty little round tables with clean white linen, heavy scarlet cloth napkins, sparkling clean water glasses right side up. A curved stairway opened into the restaurant. Nicely lit and inviting, if you hopped over a fat velvet rope. Breakfast started at 5:30 a.m. Somebody must be awake somewhere in this joint.

The bubbling fountain was getting on my nerves, so I cruised around the Steinway and bumped into a brass railing that could have been elsewhere. It took a minute to get my hip back together. Now I was dead tired and walking crooked, quietly mumbling ow.

We landed at Heathrow and transferred by coach around midnight. I tipped a bellhop too much to guide us and wrestle with a trolley. The room was comped, didn't cost me anything. The girls were too tired to think, just pulled their coverlets down and flopped gratefully on cool white pillows and monogrammed bedlinen. I had a couple of slugs of scotch straight up and then slipped out quietly to bash my hip on a brass railing.

There was a long, wide, sloping underground concourse that connected the hotel to North Terminal. I reached in my vest pocket, fumbled out a Dunhill, and puffed peacefully as I walked downhill. If the smoking Nazis objected, that was okay. The carpeted concourse was empty and silent.

Halfway up the far slope there was a men's washroom. I ditched the butt, peed, and looked at myself in a mirror big enough for 30 of me. Hair seemed straight enough. Two ears, nose, foggy glasses that I polished with a tissue. It took a while to wash carefully. Took off my suit jacket and pulled my tie apart, neatly folded up the shirt sleeves. Swished out my mouth, did the eyes and dried my hands. Tailored jacket felt good on my shoulders again, like a sheath of armor. Jammed the tie in a back pocket. I hate neckties. Not overly fond of wingtips, either.

North Terminal had that quality no one has a right to expect. Huge. Spacious. Logical. Brand new and clean. In a perfect world, all passenger terminals would be like this. I walked a ways through half of it before I saw someone. Looked like a pilot. He was sorting through paperwork and had an open briefcase parked at a comfortable angle on the customer side of a tall desk behind a small rope maze. I sauntered across.

"Can I help you?" he inquired. Nice clear strong voice.

I showed him a pack of blue and gold First Class tickets for Tripoli. He pointed to the other half of the terminal and said it was Counter 48, all the way in back. I thanked him, did a lopsided 180 and plodded along, hayfoot strawfoot a mile or two around the empty hangar, convinced that no one in his right mind does such things at 4 a.m. I ought to be in bed like everyone else.

In gay defiance of logic, there was a bright-eyed, efficient-looking, attractive British Airways ticket agent at Counter 48. She had gleaming white teeth and smooth red lipstick, soft brown hair knitted in a thick braid, and gave me a 50-kilowatt smile of recognition, as if she was waiting for me.

"Good evening," I marvelled.

"Good evening, sir," she answered sweetly, pending further enlightenment. "Are you travelling to Bahrain?"

"No. Tripoli." I handed her the tickets and passports.

She typed a few lines on the computer, cocked her head to the side, puzzled, and tapped another couple of keys. "Well," she began, "It's a good thing you came to visit. You need to purchase a return ticket from Tripoli to somewhere else, prior to boarding. Let's see what I can get you. One way to Malta is fairly cheap on Air Malta." She quoted a price and I wrote a cheque on my London bank. She had to go to a back office to print paper tickets. Would I like to use the VIP lounge?

It sounded like an invitation. There were frosted double doors with a red carpet and traces of gold that opened sesame and save me the trouble of thinking. More babes to care for me, pour a drink in slim square crystal, guide me into a deep quiet corner of a comfortable sofa.

It slid sideways and I didn't care. Everything went sideways and down and heavy cool air caught my arms and torso like a cushion of jittery jello that slipped through my fingers. Black was okay. I like black. Never enough black in the world when you need it.

Then I hit something hard and flat. I didn't care any more. I was tired of living.

...

Another rough night on the couch, but not so bad after I slid the bed roll over the hinge, which turned out to be a brilliant idea. No backache for a change. Occasionally I have good ideas.

It was dark outside. I rolled my head and listened. The radio said it was morning, time to get up. I switched it off. The dog wriggled out from below, jumped up next to me and politely put his head on the crook of my arm. I smiled at him and said "Okay, I'm getting up."

He's a patient little dog. Lays flat, watches me from the doorway of the bathroom while I run hot water, wait for it to heat up, splash handfuls over my face and examine the wreckage. Not one morning do I not look like hell. Cold water to brush my teeth. Cough deep a couple of times to clear my lungs. Wet brush to nail down a cowlick. I still look absurd and beaten and old.

I didn't have to guess. It was cold enough for a heavy ski jacket, zipped up tight to the neck. Pretty soon I'll need a scarf and knit hat. Twice as ugly, but the wind goes right through me these days. It's a bitterly cold knife across the open hillside on mornings like this.

So we pee once and he's ready and eager to come home. Breakfast time. The dog weighs 15 lbs and eats four times a day. Patiently waits for me to upzip my jacket, kick my shoes off.

A little tweet-tweet-tweet wakes the kid enough to wop the switch and shut it off. I'm convinced she does this automatically in her sleep, because she's out cold and snoring when I switch on a shaded lamp and say "It's time to wake up, honey." No response. "I'll get you a warm wash rag."

I tell the dog to jump on her and wake her up while I'm waiting for the water to run hot again. It's like those steaming hot towels you get on a transatlantic flight. "Are you ready? Sit up a little, honey." Unfolded it covers her whole face and she reaches to gently wipe her eyes and cheeks, forehead and chin. A little luxury that costs nothing. I ask her to drape it on the bathtub and don't forget to pee. Time to pour myself a cup of coffee that finished brewing.

The kid ambles into the living room and buries herself in my blankets on the couch. Dog jumps up and lets her cuddle both of them back to sleep. I ask her what she wants for breakfast. She never knows what she wants, so I recite five kinds of cereal or toast or yogurt or waffles or pancakes. No, you can't have ice cream for breakfast. No, I don't have any donuts. Do you want a shirt? It's cold this morning.

Fifteen minutes later she's dressed, shoes on, jacket, backpack with lunch and a drink. The dog is on his leash again and we're on our way to school, all of 200 yards to the main gate. That's why we picked this place. When it snows, I can toss her over the fence from my back yard. I always tell her two things when we part. Remember to eat lunch and blow your nose.

The dog poops like clockwork. We walk a couple blocks to the park and home again. Time to look at the market and feel stupid again. Once in a while I talk to my broker. I clear out the e-mail and turn off the computer. Another morning with little to do. My wife will sleep until noon. It's 9 o'clock. Check what it says on the dry erase board. Soup. Bread. Cigarettes.

I'm confident I can remember three items without writing a list.

Once in a while it rings, so I slip the cellphone in my pocket and go through the whole checklist of keys, wallet, driving glasses, clip-on shades, lip balm, cash, cigarettes and lighter. Finally I think I'm ready and tell the dog to stay here.

It's an okay car for an old piece of junk with 188,000 miles on it. Spent some dough, probably too much, to fix it up. Runs straight and smooth at highway speed, good brakes, new starter, new belts and half a dozen engine parts I never knew existed. This morning I'm headed downtown at 25 mph like a near-sighted granny on her way to church, feeling stupid and sick of myself.

Okay, cheer up. Maybe there's something in the P.O. box. Empty.

I was at the Discount Cigarette store buying a good brand for her and cheap crap for myself when the phone rang in my pocket. I never look at the screen, just say "Hello, it's Johnnie" as clearly as possible.

Static, silence. "Hello, this is John" I repeated, a little less friendly. Three or four times a week, I get calls from collection agencies looking for somebody else who used to have my number.

A voice that I recognized yelled, "Tex - is that you? It's Chickie!"

I had to talk past a hard knot in my throat. "Yeah" was all I could manage to croak.

"I got your number from the web. The cops knew your real name."

Swell. Just fucking swell. Big deep breath. "Okay, Chickie, what's up?"

"I need you here, man! As soon as you can get here!" His voice went hazy with emotion. "They've got Elsie!" He was talking through tears. "Grabbed her from the hotel three days ago! Sent me a fucking ransom thing... Got it today..." More static on the line, broken by sobs.

My shoulders fell. I rubbed my jaw and my neck. "What can I do?" I asked rhetorically. I was four thousand miles from the scene, too old and too stupid to do much of anything.

"The cops are useless, Tex. Please, man, I'll pay you anything you want."

Chick Cohen was worth 20 or 30 million. He chiseled pennies whenever he could get away with it, which was every day of the week in Cristo. His wife was an ecology nut and a first class bitch who everybody hated. She was probably dead and buried somewhere in the jungle, hundreds of miles from Cristo. I didn't like it that Chickie got my name and phone number from the cops. I worked very hard to disappear a long time ago.

"Fifty grand," I barked.

"Oh, shit, okay, man, fifty grand," he moaned.

"Cash up front."

"Okay, but you gotta come right now, Tex, today!"

I told him I would and hung up. We needed the money. I took a big breath and let it go. The Korean guy who sold cheap cartons looked at me like he was worried when I turned to face him and hand him my debit card. I was a regular customer. His hand shook as he swiped the card.

I went home, made coffee for my wife, said I had to go to Houston to interview for a job. She beamed with excitement and happiness for me because she knew how much I wanted it, to be productive again. I lied and said it was IBM. I didn't know exactly when I'd be back. Probably several meetings. Corporate communications project. They liked my ideas.

Bye, dearest. Wish me luck.

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Bleeding on the brain--the older you are the more dangerous--can mimic a stroke and cause permanent brain damage and debilitation.

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Listen to the medic, Wolf, then listen to me: Dreamland is a wonderful and evocative story. It made me want to read the book that ties all the threads and personalities together. From my one-eyed reckoning, if Robert Bidinotto can feed himself with bare-bones self-published pulp thrillers, the story above in a memoirish suspense thriller should be a retirement nest-egg.

I will disagree with you on a thousand other points of contention, but hey.

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I feel okay this morning, vision okay. Lost the power of writing years ago, but I used to be pretty good on occasion.

The world has bigger problems than my little soap opera.

20151019_CL_1.jpg

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Thinking lives matter!

Keep safe Wolf.

A...

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