That had been Wednesday, the thirteenth.  Thursday was, to all intents and purposes, a nothing day... hot and hazy with the morning radio reporting the highest risk of fireS, which had already broken out in several remote mountain canyons, reminding the newscasters of 2020 and ’22.  Though it was far off, to the east, on public land, there was an indifferent wind blowing smoke back from the desert by the approach of Walter's shift... hardly a full-on Santa Ana but, well, troublesome.  A faint aroma of smoke teased his nostrils through the open window of the Town Car as an Action Newsflash reported the death of a television pioneer, the likelihood of fire danger in the mountains enhanced by illegal migrants... possibly terrorists!... the continuing non-availability of flu shots amid a rumoured resurgence of the plague in Africa and the fifty-four year sentence passed down upon the treasurer of the corrupt Falcon Finance Company (Walt briefly remembered them as one of Braxton’s dirtiest competitors), who'd help loot perhaps four billion dollars from shareholders and investors.  "A clear message that, no matter who wins next month, Washington is finally getting serious about white collar crime.  And now," said the local announcer, "back to Tony Sapio."  The talkshow host had then explained, in purplish partisan detail, how a former candidate for President, a liberal Republican, a few years deceased had flown his plane to Hanoi, discarded his rifle and then pretended to be taken prisoner by the Vietcong after shooting himself, the better to sell his captivity to the folks back home.  There, he had entered into a conspiracy to infiltrate the party of good Americans… still actively promoted by his family and protégés years later… all for the nefarious purpose of subverting its platform of lower taxes, First Amendment rights for corporate contributors and secure borders.  A caller asked how he could’ve shot himself after tossing his weapon down; Tony hung up on him, then played a five-second recording of screams and grinding noises that he'd averred... although at an earlier date... represented a body being ground up in a woodchipping machine.  Just like on the movie "Fargo", which Sapio esteemed despite his usual contempt for the output of the Gomorrah to near north.  “Of course,” the pundit noted, “the incumbent is a tool of the Saudis, if not Iran.  Look at Syria!”

          For some reason, the radio screamer just didn't seem quite as sharp after ten in the AM as he did at the beginning of his shift.  Maybe, Walt figured, Tony was getting old, wearing down as the morning progressed until, like the Chargers, of late, there wasn't any gas left in the tank for the fourth quarter.  Or just drunk.  At a long light by the Interstate, he rummaged through the glove compartment for a Johnny Cash tape, dug out a George Jones... “White Lightning” third up, not too shabby... and drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel of the Lincoln which, technically, wasn't his anymore.

          After Wednesday's shift, he'd driven two blocks to the check cashing place most of the boys used, stood in line behind a few defeated elderly women trying to get their utilities turned back on and anxious soldiers, awaiting deployment, then handed over the title to the Town Car for five hundred dollars, cash, and a yellow copy of his signed promise to pay thirteen dollars a week interest... one month minimum... until he’d paid off the principal.  He'd have preferred to just let the food sit in the DP freezer a few more days, in anticipation of Friday's double paycheck, but they'd received their own final notice on utilities, as well as on the quarterly property tax.  These delinquencies were duly printed up in the neighborhood weekly, in the legal section, and would generate more unwelcome publicity... besides, he'd promised Missy that his commissions would start coming in, getting a few of the bills paid off and a working refrigerator might gain him a week or two of domestic tranquility. 

          The cable, though, was already history.  He'd never watched it all that much... in fact, he'd taped over a hundred movies that he thought he'd get around to watching, some day, and, though he didn't really think that Missy could even operate the VCR, drunk and depressed as she usually was, the mathematics of their plight were implacable.  "We can get two of the three local networks, and Fox... sort of... that's Oprah, Dr. Phil, those TV judges you like watching... we can get along without HBO." Scottie had volunteered to look for one of those converter boxes with an old-fashioned antennae that people used to put up on their rooftops, all the time, but Missy had struck back with atypical vehemence... "we are not putting any antenna on the roof, it's as good as standing up there with a bullhorn and shouting out to all the neighbors that we're bankrupt..."

          But the tears she wept on Thursday morning were tears of joy when the truck from Sears backed up and unloaded their new... slightly downsized... fridge, and Walt still had thirty dollars in his pocket, humming along to George Jones, drumming his fingers on the wheel as he turned right on Gerson and into the parking lot.

          Achmed was standing by the dumpsters, ostensibly emptying cans, but gaping, instead at the busyness of the formerly moribund strip mall.  "Check it out!" he pointed.  A steady stream of burly men... mostly wearing light blue coveralls... were conveying boxes from two standing, white trailers into the formerly bankrupt aquarium and nail salon, already joined by a cloth banner across both storefronts proclaiming: "HARVEY'S HALLOWEEN EMPORIUM" and a hand-lettered sign on tan butcher paper in the aquarium window that promised... "MASKS, WIGS, ACCESSORIES - ALL DECORATIONS AT DEEP DISCOUNTS. WE HAVE... PUMPKINS!  COSTUMES FOR SALE OR RENT."

          Walt's favorite parking space had been cordoned off with festive black and orange party streamers.  He pulled the Lincoln into a space nearer the obnoxious health club than he'd have preferred, got out facing the DP.  Place was stinking, worse than ever!

          "They're gonna sell pumpkins in those four spaces," Achmed pointed.  "Real ones, and plastic, too."

          "Figures.  Did you ask if they were hiring..."

          "Nuh-uhh," Achmed scowled, "they got this sort of deal with the County... they're using prisoners from the work-release for set-up, cost 'em two somethin' an hour and all but forty cents goes back into some special crime fund.  Staff probably gonna be students from the high schools and Community onna training wage.  That's one of the managers," he pointed again, "guy inna white shirt.  Same bunch came by over Fourth of July with flags, man, blankets, those no-count legal sparklers... probably stay around wit' Christmas shit.  Even gonna have some of them prisoners inside, selling..."

          "Won't even need costumes," Walter figured.  "Just let 'em hunch round in their blues... getcha in that Christmas spirit..."

          He clocked in, still feeling good about himself away from the smell of burning canyons, rotten chickens or dumpster-debris, good enough, even, to greet Davy as he emptied a ten pound bag of fries into the hot oil left over from breakfast biscuits, a paperback under his elbow...

          "Davy, my man... hey, that one of them so-called graphic novels!  Souljacker?  Superman?"

          "Pig!" the kid spat.  "It’s about Derrida?"


          "Only the late father of deconstructionism, more than you'd know about.  One of the foremost French philosophers..."

          "Well, that explains it," Walt smiled.  "Guess he and Superman and Rodney Dangerfield oughta have somethin' to talk about, waiting on one of those benches for their interview with St. Peter... the Queen of England, too…"

          "Don't tell me that you're one of those religious, homophobic nutcases, too, like Gregor!"  Since the DP's comparison of their day manager to Kafka's man-roach had reached critical mass, Davy had stopped calling Barry "Hitler" behind his back, switching over to "Gregor"...

          "Hey... why should I be afraid of Hell, after I've done my time in the Dog Pound?" Walt said, and went into the gents... the floor and stalls were Joe Sybco's problem, now... washed up and positioned the dumb paper hat with the floppy-eared pooch at a jaunty angle, reporting to the grill where Tex and Ed were going to teach him... him!... how to broil hotdogs.

          Ed was a sort of fussbudget, if a stoical, taciturn one... compromising Walt's good cheer in a manner that Derrida probably would've had a word for... a French word... if he weren't dead.  A man of few words in any tongue, he'd used them all up by noon and, although Barry emerged from his lair periodically to tramp around the DP, casting out derogatory remarks, most of his ire was directed at the new guy – hapless Joe.  Other than a few instances when he'd remind “Mister Failures, snork, snork” that one of the sausages was ready to be rolled from the hot center of the grill to the sidelines, to await sale and consumption, it was the sort of job Walter could've done in his sleep or, as now, in the pleasant, building anticipation of tomorrow, payday, and the weekend.

          When Mister C. wasn't around, Walt tried to extract more information about the rave... the so-called Desert Debauch or, alternately, Madness in Mecca.  Three years earlier, a San Berdoo-based disk-jockey who'd developed a sideline of throwing monthly raves in old warehouses took his sixth fall for maintaining disorderly premises and, as he marinated in prison, the pandemic wiped out all and every public gathering for eighteen months.  As a condition of parole, he’d agreed to cut back his enterprise to three times a year, and move out of San Diego… way, way out into the desert on the Riverside/San Berdoo county line.  The authorities had led him on because, they figured, it’d be easy pickings rounding up the hundred odd drug-taking, dancing degenerates... kids who should be locked up, anyway, for something.  But, when two thousand Seuss-hatted stoners showed up, the forces of law and order were caught off guard and overwhelmed.  Arresting everybody would've been a logical impossibility - there were jurisdictional problems, too (the party, having spilled over onto both California and Federal property, nobody was quite sure whose responsibility Mecca was) and, by the time the New Year rolled around, the disk-jockey had pocketed enough money to afford lawyers.  Five thousand eventually attended, that year, fifty thousand the year after that and, by the time that Tex and Gwan made their pitch to Walter Fales, the damn thing had grown too big to stop, and, deprived of the option of arresting adults on Federal charges for marijuana possession by Californias legalization of the wicked weed, or watching them swallow pills that the Church Police hadn’t gotten round to criminalizing yet, the various cops were reduced to patrolling the fringes of the Debauch for underaged beer swiggers, unintentionally reinforcing the Darwinian theory by picking off those few too-stoned or too-stupid teenage stragglers that, somehow, wandered away from the herd.

          Barry Cullery turned the DP over to Louie at five, Saturday afternoon, but returned from the Halloween Emporium a quarter-hour later with an armful of black and orange boxes.  Inside were four uniquely ugly trolls... vaguely based on those who'd frightened generations of German and Scandinavian children, although, actually, made in China.  Their piggy little eyes concealed motion-detection sensors and, when anything larger than a small poodle crossed a troll's field of vision, the little yard-high monstrosities would snarl "I see you!"

          Mister C. set two of the demented dolls at the entrance to the DP, one in the rock garden adjacent to the windowbox, and the last in front of his office... with a view of the security door.  "Seasonal!... and a security enhancement," Barry rubbed his hands with holiday glee, "anybody trying to sneak out back for a smoke... or anything... you’ll have to answer to me!"

          Of course, when the hearse that Gwan had promised showed up... and at five minutes to seven, fuckin' early!... the boys had to walk back and forth across the security door troll's field of vision so that the poor troll could hardly complete its electronic catechism... "I see... I... you, I... I suh, see you... see you!"

          Louie didn't give a rat's ass about who might be exiting... or entering... the DP.  "Can we bring you anything back from Mecca, man?" Gwan said, as he retrieved his guitar from the cooler.

          "Piece of Arab ass?  In on of those…" and he ran his fingers up and down over his body, “birkers.”

          "You're sick, Louie," said the part-timer with thick glasses, whose name Walter couldn't remember.  "Gross!"

          “Hey,” Louie objected, “they train them to keep a guy happy.  Over there…”

          "Something's gross out here," said the former boy-band singer, crinkling his nose like a rabbit's in the parking lot."

          "Yeah," Tex agreed.  "Dumpster smells worse than usual.  Must've missed a pickup.  And check that out!" he pointed.

          In front of the former Arnie's Aqurium and Soo Kim's Nail Parlour... now renamed Harvey's Halloween Emporium, some high-school kids with an air-pump were blowing up a gigantic balloon which, though still only half-inflated, bore the unmistakable round ears of Mickey Mouse.

          "Cool," said Gwan, bootheels clicking as he walked across the parking lot. 

The kids manning the air-pump were eager to talk - the work was boring, so far, and the manager indifferent.  "Yeah, it's Mickey Mouse but see... he's got this cape, he's, like, a vampire?  Even got little fangs, well, not so little when they're blown up, see?"

Walt circled the slowly-inflating balloon, it sure seemed to be so.  "When I was a kid," he felt obliged to explain, "we were afraid of Dracula, but liked Mickey Mouse.  At least when we were little," he added, so that they wouldn't get the idea that the young Master Fales had been some sort of wuss.

"Times change, Pops," said the kid manning the pump, a pimply specimen you wouldn't take the time to look at on the street.  And Walter realized... somewhat to his surprise... that the punk wasn't afraid of him, he'd been addressed as an equal, maybe as an inferior.

"Things have gone to pieces," he said, eliciting only a shrug and mumbled "Whatever!"


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          Ten minutes before the end of his shift, Louie took Walt aside and out the fire door.  "You're a big guy, you look like you can take care of yourself..."

          "Maybe..." Walt said.

          The night manager pointed out towards a couple of cars parked in front of the closed nail parlour and aquarium, Walt could see a tiny light glowing in one...

          "Like I said, Barry ain't a people person.  We got a little village here, you know, what I like to call our vehicular residents.  Mobiles.  Barry... he's got another name for 'em, but it's not the sort of name I'd use on a human being unless I was more familiar with his circumstances, know what I mean?"

          "They're... they're homeless?" Walt struggled for the politically correct term...

          "They don't think so.  They got a roof over their heads, a tin roof perhaps, aluminum... something but hey... we're not in Minneapolis.  Barry calls the cops, makes a pest of himself, to tell the truth, but we're on my shift now, so I'm tellin' you don't fuck with the people unless they give you a damn good reason to do so.  Mr. Z understands.  Last March, we had these break-ins, and it was one of the VR's who wrote down the license plate numbers, so we got that stopped.  I just wanted to let you know, since you seem like the sort of fellow... pardon my assumptions... that might get bent out of shape about some of these people, if you know what I mean, or if Barry tells you to do something stupid that he’s afraid to do himself?  No offense intended..."

          "None taken," Walt said, poker-faced.

          "Let's walk, then."  So they crossed the asphalt and a short expanse of scrub to a rusting Corolla which Louie rapped with his knuckles, until a Charlie Manson face rose from the place where the back seat would have been, if it wasn't gone. 

          "Dawg, you doin' the watch tonight?"  The apparition grinned and Walt counted teeth: two... three... four.  The window lowered about a quarter, and Louie passed a styrofoam cup of chili over, with a plastic spoon.  "This is Walt, here, he's cool."

          The face bobbled like one of those dashboard dolls.  Louie nodded back towards the DP.

          "Tip of the iceberg," he said, on their way back.  "There's about a dozen VR's behind the mall - it's a sort of camp, run by this guy, the Colonel."

          He pointed towards the DP's dumpsters.

          "I got this pail for the edible leftovers that I leave behind the dumpsters, not in 'em.  And the Colonel keeps his troops from making a mess, and lets me know what goes on after midnight in the lot.  It's an arrangement, you know?"

          "I guess you do what you have to," Walt allowed.

          "I do.  Barry don't like it - sooner or later he's going to try to get you to vamp on the VR's.  And when he does, don't expect any backup... or any reward.  Barry uses people... I mean, we all do, you do, or used to, am I right?  But he's uncool about it.  You have to do what you do... I'm not warning you, I'm just letting you know.  Knowledge is power, right?"

          "So they say," Walt agreed.

          "Hey, I did two years at State, before I did my time for the State, know what I mean?  So I hope I'm not just talkin' through my ass but, you know, it's a different world out here.  I mean, sort of the same as where you were, but different."

          "Pays less," Walter cautioned.

          "I hear that."

          Glancing from side to side, Louie leaned in, cupping his hand over his mouth as if worried that Mister C. or Zweiss might be monitoring them via drones, or something.

          They hear, too...”