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December 08, 2004

Chapter Nine

Carl leaned on the railing of the Santa Monica Pier, happily munching on a corn dog. I had a corn dog of my own, but I was somewhat more somber. I was figuring out how I was going to tell my boss that the alien he had entrusted to my care had mysteriously disappeared into the Angeles National Forest.

The good news was that Joshua did take one of the cellular phones with him; it was from that phone that he had called my office and left the message. The bad news was that after leaving the message he wasn't answering the phone. As soon as I got his message, I began calling his phone at five minute intervals until I got home. There was no answer.

When I got home, I changed into sweats, a T-shirt and my long-neglected hiking boots, and hauled my carcass out of the backyard. Between a fifteen-year-old dog and pile of goo, I figured the chances were slim that the two of them had gotten very far. I picked the direction that I figured they might go in and went thataway.

When I was thirteen, I knew every tree, every slope, every large rock in the woods out back of my house. Every once in a while, I'd drop a book, several candy bars and a couple of Cokes in a backpack, leave a note for the parents and head into the hills. I'd come back several hours later in pitch darkness, unconcerned that I might get lost or misdirected. This was Los Angeles, after all; just point yourself in the direction of the lights, and ten minutes later you're on one suburban street or another. More to the point, however, was the fact that I knew my way around -- it was as unthinkable for me to get lost in those woods as it was for me to get lost in my own back yard.

In the fifteen years between my thirteen-year-old self and my current one, someone went into the woods and switched the trees and rocks around. Five minutes in, I was utterly lost.

Three hours later, scratched, bruised, and limping from where I jammed my foot into a rabbit hole, twisting my ankle, I resurfaced from the Angeles National Forest miles from where I had entered. I would have been completely disoriented if I hadn't had the luck to emerge from the brush two hundred yards from my high school; as it was it took me nearly another hour to get home because of my ankle.

Later, as I soaked in the tub, I formulated a plan: when Joshua came home, I would discover if it were possible to strangle protoplasm. It was a good plan, and I congratulated myself for coming up with it on my own.

Joshua, however, stayed one step ahead. He simply didn't reappear.

At 2 am, I gave up and headed to bed. The rational portion of my mind figured that a creature that had crossed trillions of miles of hard vacuum would be able to keep himself alive for a night in the suburban woods above Los Angeles. The crazy little man in my head, however, was convinced that Joshua had already been eaten by the coyotes. I briefly considered trying to get my cellular company to triangulate the phone's position, but I suspected that the phone had to be receiving for that. There was the other small matter of Joshua being an extraterrestrial; it would be hard to explain to search teams what my phone was doing immersed in a puddle of sentient mucus. The best I could do was leave the patio door unlocked and hope Joshua and Ralph made it home.

I got to sleep at six. Neither Joshua or Ralph had made an appearance. When I finally left the house at 11 for my lunch with Carl, the two of them were still missing.

The one space alien on the entire planet, and I had managed to lose him. I was fired for sure.

"God," Carl said, holding his half-eaten corn dog in front of him. "I love corn dogs. Who would have thought that hog snouts could taste so good if you just rolled them into a tube, shot them up with nitrates and breaded them in corn paste? But there it is. How old are you, Tom?"

"I'm 28," I said.

"When I was your age, Tom, I'd come out here with Susan, my first wife, and we'd get a couple of corn dogs and then we'd walk to the end of the pier and watch the sunset. This was in the late 70s, when the smog was so bad breathing the air constituted a health hazard."

"I remember those days," I said. "I got out of a lot of P.E. classes that way. We had to stay inside and watch filmstrips. I learned all about the California missions that way."

"I don't really miss all the smog, mind you," Carl said, staring off. "But they made for some beautiful sunsets. The late 70s were a horrible period in the history of the universe, Tom -- you had stagflation, the American hostages in Iran, and some terrible, terrible apparel. And smog. But the sunsets weren't so bad. It doesn't make up for anything, but it goes to show not everything can be bad all at once."

"I didn't know you had been married more than once," I said. "I had thought Elise was your first wife." Carl's wife Elise was the scariest person you'd ever want to meet -- a terrifyingly intelligent trial lawyer who also had a doctorate in psychology. She was thinking of running for Los Angeles District Attorney. From there it would be a short hop to mayor. Between the two of them, Carl and Elise would be running southern California within the decade.

Carl glanced over. "Elise is my second wife. We were married in '88. Susan died in '81. Car accident; some drunk idiot came up the wrong way on an onramp and plowed right into her car. They both died instantly. Pregnant at the time, you know."

"I'm terribly sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to bring up any painful memories."

Carl waved it off. "No reason you should know. I never talk about it and no one ever talks about it around me. One of the advantages of being the sort of boss that scares the Hell out of the subordinates. Susan was a wonderful woman -- but so is Elise. I've been very lucky."

"Yes, sir." We ate our corn dogs in silence.

"Come on," Carl said, after he had finished his dog. "I haven't walked on the beach for weeks. We can chat while we walk." We walked off the pier, stopped off at Carl's car to drop off our shoes and socks, and then walked into the sand towards the surf.

"So," he said, when we walked to the water. "How is Joshua doing?"

I swallowed and saw my career flash before my eyes. "He's missing at the moment, Carl," I said.

"Missing? Explain."

"He and Ralph -- my neighbor's dog -- went out for a walk in the woods yesterday, while I was off seeing Elliot Young. When I got back into the office, Miranda had a message from him, saying that something had happened, and that he'd be late. That's the last I've heard of him. I went looking for him last night, but I didn't find him. I stayed up until six this morning, and he hadn't returned."

"Where would he go?" Carl said. "He's not exactly inconspicuous."

"The Angeles National Forest starts more or less in my backyard," I said. "They went into the woods."

If I were Carl, this would have been the point where I would have fired me. Instead, Carl changed the subject. "I hear you flattened Ben Fleck's nose yesterday."

"I did," I admitted. "He pinched Elliot Young off of me. He's also the 'Lupo Associates insider' in that damned story in The Biz. Punching him seemed the only alternative to breaking his neck. Although I'm feeling guilty about it now. I think I may have broken his nose."

"It's not broken," Carl said. "We had some x-rays done at Cedars Sinai. It's merely 'severely bruised.'"

"Well, that's good," I said. "I mean, relatively speaking."

"It is," Carl agreed. "Be that as it may, Tom, I would prefer in the future that you find some less dramatic way to resolve your issues with Ben. Ben may have been asking for it, but that sort of thing isn't very good for company morale. Also, all things considered, it's drawing unwanted attention to you at the moment."

Carl was referring to the blurb in the Times' "Company Town" column -- one of the office spectators had leaked to the paper, and the paper did the legwork and found out that Ben had snaked one of my clients. It also mentioned the article in The Biz as a contributing factor, giving the article credence in the process. For even more fun, the Times had called my office this morning as well, looking for a comment on The Biz and its editorial practices. It felt like the media had pried up a floorboard looking for a bug, and that bug was me. I just wanted to fade back into the darkness.

I laughed. Carl look at me oddly. "What's so funny?" he asked.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I was just thinking about it. This week I was ditched by two of my clients, was labeled insane by a magazine, assaulted a colleague and let an alien walk off into the woods, where he's probably been eaten by a coyote. I'm trying to imagine how this week can get any worse. I don't think it can."

"We could have an earthquake," Carl said.

"An earthquake would be wonderful," I said. "It would give everyone else something to think about. A nice big one, 7 or 8 on the Richter scale. Major structural damage. That'd work."

Carl stood there a moment, seemingly preoccupied. I followed his line of sight down to his toes. He was busily squelching sand through them. After a few seconds of this, he stepped out of his footprints and let the tide wash into them, partially erasing them. Then he put his feet back into them.

"Tom," Carl said, "Don't worry too much about Joshua at the moment. He'll be fine. The Yherajk are pretty much indestructible by our standards, and I doubt that the coyotes or whatever are going to get a bite out of him. Joshua can make a skunk seem like a bed of roses. He and ...Ralph?" -- He looked for confirmation; I nodded -- "are probably just roughing it or something. You didn't tell me that he had made friends with a dog."

"They get along great," I said. "They're the solution to each other's boredom. I think Joshua likes Ralph better than he likes me."

"Well, that's good news, at the very least. Anyway, I expect Joshua will be back soon enough. Try to relax a bit."

I snorted just a little. "Now if I could just get The Biz off my back, I'd be set."

"Some of that's been taken care of," Carl said. "The Times is doing a story on The Biz, you know."

"They called me this morning," I admitted. "I've been sort of dreading calling them back."

"I've already talked to them," Carl said. "Gave them a nice long chat about how The Biz took our company's innovative mentoring policy and made it look like you were having a nervous breakdown. I said that if you were having a nervous breakdown, then I and several of the senior agents were also having them, since we've also started mentoring some of our newer agents."

"Thanks," I said. "You didn't have to do that."

"Actually, I did," Carl said. "It keeps the bad press to a minimum. I'm not blaming you about it -- this Van Doren character was already working on something, and you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with him. Anyway, the mentoring idea is not a bad one; we've been a sink-or-swim agency long enough. It might do some good to do things the other way for a while."

"I'm surprised you found out about it," I said.

"I asked Miranda," Carl said. "She seems to think highly of it and you."

"I think highly of her as well," I said. "Actually, I'm hoping to get her a raise."

"Give her a ten percent hike," Carl said, "but tell her to keep quiet about it. We've been cracking down on raises recently. But I figure she deserves it, or will by the time this whole thing is through. Which reminds me, since you thought of the mentoring program, you've won our Annual Innovation in Agenting Award. Congratulations."

"That's great," I said. "I've never heard of this award before."

"It's the first annual," Carl said. "Don't get too excited. I've already told the Times you've donated the cash award to the City of Hope."

"That was very nice of me," I said.

"It was," Carl agreed. "The point of all this is that now, rather than being looked upon as someone who is cracking up, which is interesting and creates press, you look like someone whose eye is on the ball and whose heart is in the right place, which is boring and no one gives a damn about. The Biz, properly, looks like a rag filled with poor reporting. And Ben Fleck looks to have gotten his. Everything works out."

"Wow," I said. "I thought I was fired for sure."

"Well, I'll be honest with you, Tom," Carl said. "It's not exactly the way I wanted it. We've cleared most of these distractions away this time. Now do me the favor of not requiring me to pull another Deus Ex Machina. I don't really like it, and it brings more attention to us than I want. Fair enough?"

I sensed the extreme irritation that lay directly under Carl's placid statement. He may not have been blaming me for anything that had happened, but that didn't mean that it didn't reflect on me. I was now going to have to work twice as hard to keep from pissing him off in the future. I figured, sooner or later, given the way things had gone so far, I was doomed.

"Fair enough," I said.

"Good," Carl said. He clapped his hands together. "You like ice cream? There's this place nearby that has the best soft-serve ice cream in L.A. Let's go get some."

The ice cream was as good as Carl promised; first it spiraled out of an ice cream maker, then it was dipped into chocolate that formed a hard candy shell. We sat outside the shop and watched rollerskaters and gulls go by.

"You know what I'd really like to know," I said.

Carl was wiping off his chin from where some chocolate had smudged it. "I'm sure you'll tell me," he said.

"I will indeed," I said. "I'd like to know how you met up with our smelly little space friends in the first place. And I'd like to know how Joshua got his name."

"Lunchtime is almost over," Carl said. "I don't know that I have time to go into it right now."

"Oh, come on," I said, risking a little familiarity. "You're one of the most powerful men on this half of the continent. If you have a meeting, they'll wait."

Carl bit into his ice cream. "I guess that's true. All right, then. Here it is."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:08 PM