They rode down out of the desert just at dusk, two approaching dust plumes letting anybody who cared know that they were coming. The town, tucked in its little valley between the mountains and the high desert plateau, seemed indifferent to their arrival: it was preparing for something which seemed to occupy everybody and require that they all be out in the street, wandering around with festive trappings.
The two men piloted their motorcycles slowly down the main street, carefully steering around the crowds of people who seemed to be wandering around in the road. There was plenty of parking; cars, in this town, were apparently a working necessity, not a normal way for people to get around. They pulled the big bikes tail-in in front of a building just at the center of the main drag whose sign said TAVERN in big letters and then Rooms To Let in smaller letters below that.
The bartender pointed them toward a little window at the back of the TAVERN, which looked like a coat check but turned out to be the office of the little Rooms To Let business which shared the premises. The two men laid identification on the counter at the window without a word; the young woman behind the counter, whose body language clearly indicated that she was far too cool to be Letting Rooms, barely looked at them or their IDs before pointing, languidly, at the rate sign, which also carried the message “Cash Only.”
That was fine with the two motorcyclists, who had cash in big leather wallets on the ends of chains. They plunked the asked-for amount for two rooms down on the counter — it was a very reasonable rate — and got keys in exchange.
“Say,” said one of the men, the shorter one whose face didn’t sport quite so many scars, “I can’t help but notice that there’s some sort of festival underway. What’s that all about?”
“Electrification,” said the girl, languidly. Something about the way she pronounced it was off, like it had a different meaning than they were used to. She was dressed all in black, like a caricature of the rebellious teenaged daughter from an old sitcom: black dress, black makeup, spiky-bouffant black hair. Something about her threw the old-fashioned-ness of the rest of the town into sharp relief.
“Electrification,” repeated the shorter biker, smiling encouragingly. “What’s that?”
The girl reached over and pulled a chain, and the single lightbulb illuminating her little behind-the-counter area turned off. Another pull of the chain and it turned back on.
The money they’d laid on the counter managed to disappear, in the brief interlude of darkness.
“Electrification,” she said. “It was a big deal, here. There’s a festival every year. There’s a parade, and then a little play, in the park in front of city hall, at midnight.”
“Midnight.” The shorter biker looked at the taller biker, who looked like he was only listening because he hadn’t figured out how to get them to shut up yet. “How about that. I suppose everything’s open and doing business, until then?”
The girl shrugged, a gesture that eloquently conveyed ignorance and indifference in one economical motion.
“Fuck it,” said the shorter biker, “sounds fun. What do you say,” he glanced at the IDs, still sitting on the counter, “Ozzy, let’s put our stuff away and go see the festival?”
Ozzy didn’t give any indication that he’d heard, but both men collected their IDs and room keys and walked up the narrow stairs beside the little window.
The rooms were spare but clean, each one featuring a small window that looked out on the town’s main street and the people milling around in it, many of them carrying drinks. Several groups of men seemed engaged in hanging lights up from the street posts — which already had lights, but the long string of lights being festooned along them seemed to have special significance.
The two men met back in the hallway and went back downstairs together, seeming to know what they were about without the need for much conversation.
They did stop back at the window, though. Something about the girl’s total indifference seemed to pique the shorter man’s urge to prod.
“Say,” he said again, “Where’d be a good place to get some dinner?”
“There’s fish,” said the girl, pointing out the door and then moving her index finger one way, then the other, indicating either direction out the front door, “In the restaurants.”
The sheer effort put into not engaging finally got a hint of a smile from Ozzy.
“Okay,” said the shorter man, “Thanks for that. While we’re here, though,” he leaned on the little counter, which forced her to step backwards a little in order to maintain her obviously-cherished personal space, “I wonder if you could tell us if there’s anybody else staying here just now?”
She looked at him steadily. “Mister Osbourne,” she said.
The shorter man’s grin increased, and he said, “Axel, please.”
She stopped, looking back and forth between them. “Axel,” she said, meeting his eyes, then shifted them to the other man. “And Ozzy.”
“That’s right.” Another big grin, like they were all now in on the same joke.
“Well,” she said, not quite smiling in just the right way to let him know that she’d gotten the joke with the names, “I’m not allowed to give out any information about any of the other guests. I’m sure that you appreciate that I wouldn’t be able to give them any information about you, to any of them.”
“If there were any.”
Axel used two fingers to tip an imaginary hat at her.
“Thank you,” he said, and turned to go out the door in search of a restaurant; then he turned back suddenly.
“Say,” he said, “Are there any other places to rent a room for the night, in this town?”
Axel almost ran into Ozzy, standing in the street, staring up. The sky was… shimmery, like there was some sort of filmy, ripply layer to the air, between them and the stars.
“Shit,” said Axel, “I never seen anything like that before, you?”
Ozzy didn’t say anything. Eventually they walked on down the main drag, enjoying the sights and sounds of a town preparing itself for what was obviously a major local celebration.
The town itself seemed… well, quaint wasn’t exactly the word for it, but… well, actually, the more Axel thought about it, the more quaint seemed like the right word. Not like Disneyland is quaint, but… quaint the way you imagine the town your grandparents grew up in is quaint, in your imagination. They had a butcher, for God’s sake, right there on the main street.
It wasn’t like there were no fast food places — he saw a McDonald’s sign in the distance — but they obviously hadn’t conquered and pillaged here, the way they had elsewhere. There were three banks on the main street — it was actually called Pembroke, which was, in Axel’s opinion, sort of twee — and none of them was a national brand he recognized.
They all seemed to have the same motto, hand-lettered onto the window or incorporated into the sign: “Somewhere to keep your dreams.” Axel shook his head; he regarded banks as a sort of scam.
There was one big hotel in the middle of town, and they walked in past a teenaged girl in a bellhop’s uniform, who held the door for them and stood to some simulacrum of attention, which made Ozzy look like he wanted to throw her a peanut.
There was a short, bald man in glasses behind the long, marble counter. He looked up from whatever he was writing in and smiled.
“Welcome to the Halcyon, gentlemen, may I help you?”
Axel tool a moment to look around before answering.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re looking to meet up with a friend of ours, and he isn’t answering his cell phone. He didn’t tell us where he was going to be staying, neither, so I wondered if I could sort of leave him a message, if he’s here?”
The little bald man blinked, and then smiled again. “Of course,” he said. “What’s your friend’s name?”
“Well,” said Axel, “I ain’t exactly sure. I mean,” he smiled as the bald man stopped smiling, “I know what his real name is, but that ain’t likely the name he’s traveling under, if you see what I mean. He’s kind of a paranoid type.”
“I see,” said the little man behind the counter, looking grave. “I’m not sure I can help you after all, in that case, Mister…”
“Axel,” said Axel. “Call me Axel. But no, you couldn’t miss this guy, he’s over six foot tall, and he’s got this real curly blonde hair, and he just don’t shut up, not ever.”
The little man brightened, then did his best to look like he hadn’t recognized the description. “I’m afraid…”
“Well,” said Axel, pushing away from the counter, “You see anybody like that, you let him know Axel and Ozzy came by looking for him, all right?”
“I can’t promise…”
Axel just nodded like he could.
“Say,” he said, half turned away. “I seen a bunch of banks in this town.”
“You’ve got to have somewhere to keep your dreams,” said the little man behind the counter, almost like Axel had triggered some kind of automatic response.
“Yeah,” said Axel, slowly. “I was… you guys don’t seem to have one of my bank, the Wells Fargo? And I don’t see no ATMs on the ones here, I wonder if you guys have a Wells Fargo…?”
The man shook his head, looking blank. “I don’t know about Wells Fargo,” he said. “ATMs never really caught on, here.”
“Huh,” said Axel, and turned and walked out of the hotel. He found Ozzy back in the street, staring at the sky. He clapped the bigger man on the shoulder and pointed across the street, where there was a steak house with a big front window.
“Come on,” said Axel, “Let’s get us some dinner and a beer, and I bet if we take long enough about it, ol’ Will will come walking right up to that hotel.”
Ozzy shrugged, and followed along.
The waitress agreed to sit them at the big window, and took their order; the place seemed committed to local micro-brews, but the big glasses the waitress brought out were good, anyway.
“Say,” said Axel, when she brought the second round, “You guys sure seem to have a lot of banks, here.”
“You’ve got to have somewhere to keep your dreams,” she said, in that same sing-song voice.
“Right,” said Axel, and drank his beer.
“I don’t know, man, you try and do what’s right, and you end up doing bad shit, you know what I mean? I mean…” Axel knew he was rambling, but Ozzy was a good listener, so he just let his mouth keep going. It was just after eleven o’clock, and they’d been sitting at the table across from the hotel for a couple of hours and waaaay more than a couple of beers.
Ozzy kept looking up. The night sky was still doing that shimmery thing, and it was freaking him out. The people here didn’t move right, either: Something about the languor with which they moved around, as though there wasn’t a problem in the world… except the coat check girl, they hadn’t run into anybody who seemed anything but weirdly happy.
And Axel kept asking people about banks and then everybody said the same thing about somewhere to keep their dreams. It made Ozzy feel like there was some kind of joke he didn’t get.
The front door of the hotel burst open, and a group of four men forced their way out through the door, three abreast and one following. The awkward way they were walking together was obviously because the man in the middle was being basically dragged along by the two to either side, and the guy following was there to make sure he didn’t escape or something.
Ozzy recognized the guy in the middle. He was why they were here.
He kicked Axel’s foot under the table, then kicked it again when it didn’t immediately get Axel’s attention. Eventually Axel seemed to wake up and stop talking.
“What?” He glared across the table like Ozzy had said something about his mother.
Ozzy jerked his head over at the three men who were coming down the front steps of the hotel.
“Well, shit,” said Axel, and stood up and launched himself across the street at the four men. He wasn’t unsteady on his feet, he was the kind of steady and solid that Ozzy only saw after he’d had a few too many.
With a sigh, Ozzy stood up and followed in Axel’s wake.
“Hey,” Axel was saying, “Hey, we need to have a word with that guy.” He was pointing at the man in the middle, but talking to the man trailing behind, whom Axel had picked out as being in charge.
One of the men flanking the captive — he could only be a captive — let go of the man’s elbow and stepped forward, putting himself between Axel and the other men. He looked like he was ready to have a fight, even though he was standing there in a fancy suit.
“Hey,” said Axel, raising his hands up beside his head, palms out. “We don’t want to trouble you, only we need a word with that guy. There’s money owing,” he said, like that explained everything.
Ozzy was feeling like he couldn’t breathe. Not like he was out of breath, not desperate, just… somehow like he was breathing through cotton.
The man trailing the little group stepped past the man being led and the man leading him to stand beside the man confronting Axel. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Martin, this is Hal, and that’s Ed. You know seem to know Charles, here, already.”
“Yeah,” said Axel, “We know… Charles, was it? We know him all right. He was in Mammoth two weeks ago, and sold my mother a roof. Sold a lot of people a lot of things, actually, and all those people’re interested in seeing… Charles… again.”
“Well,” said Martin, “I’m sure… listen, I didn’t get your name.” He stuck his hand out, and Axel shook it.
“Axel,” he said, then waved behind him. “This is Ozzy.”
“Ozzy,” said Martin, “And Axel.” If he thought it was funny, the names, he didn’t show it.
“That’s right.” Axel stuck his chin out a bit, like he expected Martin to have a problem with it.
Ozzy was looking at “Charles” — AKA Fred, AKA Mister Pearl, AKA that nice man who sold me a roof. He seemed surprisingly happy to see Ozzy and Axel, like they might get him out of something.
Normally, people who found out that Ozzy and Axel were looking for them seemed to feel like they’d gotten into something.
“…As soon as we’re finished,” Martin was saying. “It’s only going to last until midnight, and then after that you may have Charle’s undivided attention for as long as you like.”
Something about the way he said “as long as you like” set Ozzy’s teeth on edge. He was already feeling… somehow like he was drowning, in the situation, in the people, in… this town. He looked up at the sky, feeling superstitious about it.
“Fine,” said Axel. “But we’re going to stick close, all right? Wouldn’t want to miss my chance to have a word with mister… Well, Pearl is the name I have. Hi Fred!” he waved at the man who was still locked in the grip of the townsman, Ed.
And then all of them, townsmen, bikers, and Charles — or Fred — took a walk toward the center of the people milling around in the street.
“There was a town here, once.” The man who’d been leading the little party moving Fred from the hotel to the stage the town had set up in the street was also the narrator of the little play that was going on. Axel found the form of it familiar, like he’d seen something about it in school: Everybody was wearing these outlandish masks, all curly hair and big eyes and mouths, and there was a big choir of townspeople who seemed to sing along with whatever the narrator said.
“There was a town here, once,” The narrator, Martin, said again. It made Axel want to look around at the town that was here now.
“There was a town here, once,” said the chorus, all together.
“But the town had a problem,” said Martin. “The town had love and light, the town had freedom and justice, the town had community and fellowship.”
“Fellowship,” said the chorus.
There were a little crowd of what Axel thought must be Townspeople, at the corner of the stage.
“The town had the dreams of its people, safely stored away in the vaults of its banks,” intoned then narrator.
“Banks,” said the chorus.
“Until the Trickster came, with new dreams for sale.” Four people leapt out onto the stage together, carrying a chair with two poles attached to it, one on either side. Fred, the man they’d been looking for, was tied securely into the chair, and firmly gagged. The four people moved sinuously, lifting and lowering the chair as they went, giving it a liquid look. Axel couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be like the chair was a boat on rough water, or if it was moving like a snake; it could’ve been either.
“The town made the Trickster welcome, the town made the Trickster warm, the town made the Trickster at home; and in return, the Trickster sold the town an Idea.”
A bright, incandescent light bulb had been mounted above Fred’s head, on the high back of the chair he was tied to. It suddenly turned on, bright as day, it seemed. It took Axel all of a second to get the iconography: Fred had an idea. Haw.
“The idea was this: Electrification.”
“Electrification,” said the chorus.
“If the town were electrified, there’d be no more place for darkness,” said Martin. “If the town were electrified, there’d be no room for want.”
“Electrification,” said the chorus.
“And it only required just a little sacrifice,” said Martin, “Just a pinch, just a little blood, and then…” An expansive gesture, seeming to encompass the sky.
“Electrification,” said the chorus.
Ozzy roughly grabbed Axel by the shoulder and gave him a shake. Axel batted at his hand, then looked back, to find Ozzy looking straight up.
Axel followed Ozzy’s eyes. The sky still had that weird shimmery quality. As Axel watched, something passed in front of the moon. It took him a second to realize what he was seeing: It was the bottom of a boat, as though they were at the bottom of a lake, and looking up through the…
“We’re going,” said Ozzy, and grabbed Axel by the shoulder of his leather jacket.
“Yeah,” said Axel, sort of vacantly, and followed Ozzy as the big man shouldered his way out of the crowd.
“The townspeople were powerless to resist,” Martin was saying. “The Trickster had them under his spell, and slowly they opened the banks and all their dreams flowed away, until they had nothing left to resist with.”
Ozzy stopped just at the edge of the crowd, looking left and right. Their motorcycles were a couple of blocks away; somehow that seemed like it would take way too long.
“But,” said Martin, “The townspeople forgave the Trickster, and made a place for him, with them. And so we make a place for this Trickster…”
Charles — or — Fred met Axel’s eyes, silently pleading, but Axel shrugged; getting the Trickster free before midnight didn’t seem plausible.
Ozzy pulled open the door of an old truck that was parked along the timber curb. It wasn’t, he realized, old, it was just… it had clearly been built sometime before World War Two, but it wasn’t old, it was just a truck. He pulled the door open; the key was there, in the ignition. He turned it and the truck started up.
Axel was still standing still in the street; a fishing line, dropped out of the night sky from the boat above, had barely missed him, and the hook was hanging in front of him. He was having a hard time moving quickly; the very air seemed to get in his way.
He seemed to drift, finally, into the cab of the truck, and Ozzy put it in gear and drove towards the edge of town as fast as it would go, which wasn’t very fast.
Martin said something behind them, and the crowd roared in response.
There was a moment where it felt like they’d gone far enough. It felt like they’d emerged from something, the weirdness of the night dripping off them, soaking them, but longer surrounding them, no longer drowning them.
Ozzy could look out the window of the truck and see the sky, and there was no weird shimmer between them and the stars.
There was a new Chevy truck parked beside the road, with a trailer behind it. They pulled up next to the truck; there was nobody in it, but it felt good to be near something that seemed as completely real as that truck did. The two men climbed out of the old truck and looked back the direction they came.
The road ended at the water’s edge; there was a huge, wide lake that covered the little valley, the moonlight reflecting off its surface.
Out on the lake, two men in a little boat were fishing.
They rode in out of the desert just at dawn, a single approaching dust plume letting anybody who cared know that they were coming. The town, however, seemed indifferent to their arrival: it was sleepy and quiet, and everyone was still in bed or else trudging off to some job or other.
They parked the old truck in front of a cafe which was not open yet but showed promising signs of getting ready to open; there were lights on and people inside doing things, though the front door was locked. The two men got out of the truck, one of them pacing around while the other stood still and stared back the way they’d come. They didn’t say anything; there didn’t seem to be anything to say.
When the diner opened, the woman who came out and unlocked the door seemed surprised and suspicious at their presence. She stood aside as they came in, but only barely, forcing the two men to walk by her uncomfortably close. The fry cook looked up at them with a blank stare, then went back to frying potatoes.
The two men exchanged glances; the fry cook was the spitting image of one of the men they’d met earlier — Ed, the one who’d been holding their intended target while Martin and the other one talked to them. They sat down carefully at the counter and looked over the menus; they were sparse, exactly what you’d expect to see without any sort of local flourish or attempt at a specialty.
Even though they were the only ones in the restaurant, it was a while before they got served; the waitress seemed to need to slowly wipe down all the tables first. When she finally came over, it seemed grudging, as though she’d finally decided to get it over with.
“Help you?” She flipped her pad open.
“Eggs,” said the taller one. “Scrambled.” He seemed to be out of words after that; the effort seemed to have deflated him a little. She didn’t ask him about his toast.
“Could you guys do a Denver omelette?” The smaller one was meeting her eyes with an attempt at an engaging smile. “I know it’s not on the menu, but it’s just the bell peppers and onions that separate it from a regular ham and cheese, so I thought…” He smiled at her, hopefully.
She stared for a second, as though she was trying to remember how to shake her head no, but then nodded curtly and wrote it in her notebook.
The door jangled, the bells sounding like an alarm. A man in khaki pants and a khaki shirt which looked like it might’ve been a uniform of sorts came in and sat down at the counter, a couple of spaces down from the two men, He’d brought his own newspaper and performed some sort of flip-motion that took it from neatly folded to fully deployed for reading without any of the intermediate dicking around normally associated with newspapers.
He looked exactly like Martin, the man who’d been leading the little play they’d watched a few hours before, only an older, more run-down Martin, somehow washed out by the desert sun.
The two men exchanged glances, and the shorter one leaned over and said, “Say, mister, are you the law in the town?”
The newspaper receded a bit and the man in khaki eyed them a moment before nodding curtly. “I’m the sheriff,” he said.
The shorter man reached out his hand, and the sheriff eyed it for a moment before shaking it.
“I’m Axel,” said the shorter man, “This is Ozzy.” A vague wave toward his companion. The sheriff nodded, warily.
“Listen,” said Axel, “We just had kind of a weird night, and I wanted to ask you about…” He looked at Ozzy, then back to he sheriff… “Well, what do you know about a town, up the canyon road about an hour and a half?”
After a moment, he realized that all three of them — the waitress, the cook, the sheriff — were staring at him.
“Ain’t no town up there,” said the Sheriff, “Just the lake, now.”
“Used to be a town,” said the waitress, “Before they put the dam in. Just about everybody here in town, used to live up there. It was a big scandal, town not knowing they were going to be flooded out until just before it happened…”
The sheriff nodded. “Something happened with the town’s money, as well, some sort of chicanery to do with the banks, and after they moved it turned out there wasn’t any money anymore. Story goes, all that money’s still in the vaults, got left behind for the water.”
Axel nodded his head. “Where you keep your dreams,” he said, absently.
There was a crash as the waitress dropped the dishes she was carrying. After a moment he realized that they were all staring at him again.