Wednesday, March 25, 2015



                      Officer Lash, Leslie Lash, observed the dry lightning through his windshield. He was off-duty now, and taking his first full sighs of relief along with the week’s haul up to the tower. It had been a long day.
           Before becoming a law enforcement officer, when he was little Leslie, he probably couldn't have understood what it was he was doing now. And there were a lot of people, who, like him when he was a kid, wouldn't understand now how the choicest goodies taken off the streets wound up at the tower. First off, the department got most of its single-source funding from Mr. J. Ronald Nixfeld, although a lot of people didn't know that. Really he was only following orders. It wasn't like he was doing it for free. And after all, at least he was keeping the bad stuff out of the desert.
           Lash had parked a few blocks from the tower; now with duffel bag in hand before going in, he tipped his head straight back and stared, filled with absolute awe. 
                       There was of course gambling available in the lobby of the hotel floors of the tower. Private business suites comprised many of the higher floors, the top seventy-nine of which belonged exclusively to the tower’s chief proprietor, the reclusive Mr. Nixfeld. Most people in fact did not know his name. He saw to that, Officer Lash thought. So what if he liked to party. Hell, the way Leslie Lash figured, Mr. Nixfeld earned it. If he could manage an empire and still find time to party, well, Officer Lash took his hat off to that.
           “Go right on ahead,” said the lovely attendant at the desk when Lash flashed his badge and provided his four-digit pin code for access to the private elevator. One of the few that went all the way up. All the way up to the top.
           The inside of the elevator smelled like a hospital. He was alone, and stood holding the duffel in front of him with both hands on the handles. Examining himself in the darkly mirror-like glass, Lash straightened up, squaring his shoulders and sucking in his gut. No point looking for a camera. Anything he could see would probably just be a decoy.
           Suddenly the mirror of the glass before him brightened and revealed the vast city spread out, widening to a truly breathtaking view as the elevator rose through a long exposed section of the tower. No matter how many times he did it, Lash always felt the rush.
           The elevator doors opened. He passed security and walked down the long hall feeling like an elite legionnaire to some Roman emperor. Lash looked at his wrist watch, realizing he put it on backwards at the security checkpoint when he saw that the digital display of the time appeared at first like a lower case h, capital E, and capital L. It certainly was a hell of a building. He couldn't hear the sounds of the party at all until he was right outside the suite’s double doors, which promptly opened to a scene of Bacchanalian revelry stretching before him. 
                       All the people inside seemed to have lost their clothing. More so than the week before. Some of the faces he recognized—of the ones that he could see—from the streets. Crack whores, mostly. In most of the eyes, half-lidded, unconcerned, sat a sneering board contempt. He once had occasion to personally hand back a satchel of goodies to a guest of Mr. Nixfeld, a satchel he had confiscated at a checkpoint earlier. He even had to apologize, and didn't want to have to do that again. Now Tatu, the little man servant Mr. Nixfeld had to have hired just for the name, led him through a sea of asses and bongs to a door before a room with the hugest hot tub in the world.
            J. Ronald Nixfeld’s immobile head steamed over the bubbles, flanked by two other heads close to his as well. Lash recognized them both: prostitutes in the limo that afternoon. He couldn't help but make the association between Mr. Nixfeld and Mr. Rourke. The result, unintentionally comical—J. Ronald Nixfeld being no Ricardo Montalban—threatened to register on his face.
           “What have you got for me?”
           Lash almost wasn't sure if Mr. Nixfeld had spoken to him.
           “Good stuff. You'll be pleased.”
           Two of the three-headed beast’s six eyes opened.
           “Will I?” The voice in the steam carried an icy undertone.
           Destroying the illusion of the beast, or perhaps contributing further to it, J. Ronald Nixfeld rolled out of the tub, flaccid cheeks of flapping, leaving the sleepy crack whores to fend for themselves to keep from drowning, and donned a robe.
           “Come on,” he said, crooking a finger behind without pausing or looking back as he shuffled off in flip-flops, “over here.” J. Ronald Nixfeld sat down at a table next to a small palm tree. The women bent over the side of the tub, softly talking. Lash went over and opened the bag. From the substantial haul Lash selected a small container of tablets. Of the desert-confiscated drugs, he’d weeded out all but the highest quality of a wide array.
           “Are those what I think they are?”
           Lash smiled, nodding.
           “Only the finest, right?”
           Lash nodded, smiling.
           “Then I want you to take one.”
           The nodding and smiling faded.
           “Make that two, actually. Right now. Go ahead.”
           The women were out of the pool, drawn to the scene like ants to a picnic.
           “I'm sorry. I can't.”
           “Yes you can. Go ahead.”
           “I have to work tomorrow.”
           “No you don't. Go on.”
           “I'm sorry.”
           “No you're not. Not yet. But you will be if you don't get on board and take those. I hardly have to remind you who you’re talking to. I can get you all the paid leave you want with a phone call. So get on board, have some fun. I insist. Because if you don't, I can just as easily make a call to make your life a living hell. Anyway I choose. Anyway it all. You do understand this? “J. Ronald Nixfeld leaned across the table and struck Officer Lash in the face with his open hand. The acoustics of the room gave the smack a sharp echo. “Take the fucking pills.”
           Lash’s hand reached for the bottle, took off the cap, and withdrew two pills, which he popped into his mouth.
           With a wave of J. Ronald Nixfeld’s hand the women appeared on either side of Lash and gently jostled bobbing booty. Large oiled asses bouncing, little titties jiggling. Brazilian wax jobs brazenly displayed.
            After a while Lash shifted in his seat, blinked, and said, “Oh fuck.” The women, he noticed now, were no longer dancing, but stood before him still and staring. Lash realized that bipedal creatures were strange. Abdomen exposed. Soft tissue surrounding bone. What were these things? Teeth were weird. Noses, too. And fingers. It was strange to see all the parts working in one sentient and moving whole.
           “Have you noticed?”
           He responded to the voice by staring with greater significance at the steaming Lake.
           “You're the only one here fully clothed.”
           Well, that was certainly ridiculous. Lash laughed at the thought. Laughed loud and long. Staring at the steaming Lake.
           “All right now. Take them off. Go ahead.”
           Lash laughed and laughed as he found he couldn't even remember how to undo those things at his feet, his shoes, and laughed some more when he saw two strange women undressing him. And then the voice spoke to him again. The fatherly voice. The voice of big authority. The Big Dog. “You are a pig,” the voice of the Big Dog said. “Get down on all fours. Go on.”
           Lash did as he was bid.
           “Snort, pig. Grunt.”
           It was perfectly ridiculous. As was everything else. Naturally. Of course. But, if they could dish it out, he could damn well take it. Hard to keep from laughing, really. His inner pig, let loose, ran free. And as Lash recalled memories from his childhood that had so long gone on accessed—the way the place mats at the dinner table looked and felt—the expressions people's faces took during various moments in his life—part of him was dimly aware in the midst of an unnameable euphoria of his ass being repeatedly kicked, hard, and a dazzling display of color and sound through an open door beckoned beyond, toward which Lash trotted on all euphoric fours squealing and taking his kicks. 
           J. Ronald Nixfeld watched the cop crawl outside where the crowd of waiting revelers welcomingly received, and sent the crack whores to enjoy themselves in the fun as well, out of his presence now. The Raisex finally gave him an erection, but still he couldn't achieve. From the bottle that the cop had used, J. Ronald Nixfeld selected and ingested two tablets.
           Then in the rush of coming on came a succession of soundbites, headlines, images. Interest rates rise stocks fall Dow Jones industrial fell famine plague pestilence rot. It was like turning a hundred thousand channels and radio dials at once. He cranked up tunes by remote and tripped on Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” over and over staring at the steaming tub, seeing himself actually leaving the tower, and going out, outside, into the streets, with an AK-47 in each hand, and this vision had him wide-eyed reeling in a chair, and he saw himself in slo-mo montage blowing everybody away, tearing screaming people to pieces with the touch of a death-releasing trigger. “I have descended among you,” he screamed in his dream over the spray of endless death. “I am the sower, I have the power.”
           He managed to lean over before producing vomit, and managed to keep most of it off of the chair. Then after washing his mouth out with half a bottle of Dom Perignon, J. Ronald Nixfeld slipped back into the world's hugest hot tub and stared intently at a large beach ball, a globe of the earth, as he sank down deep into his most special fantasy, the one where, through the miracle of microchip implants, which most of the blind and brainwashed sheep were stupid enough to get, he could finally really fuck the whole goddam world.

                       Phil reached the outskirts of Las Vegas by seven o’clock and exited the peeling Pinto stiff-legged heading into the office of the Tower View Inn, where Dinah had booked him a reservation. He hit his estimated ETA time on time and arrived two hours early to the time that Dinah had scheduled for Phil to meet the TV people. He had budgeted the two extra hours in case of emergency, and now he looked forward to a dip in the pool and a nice dinner out.
           As Phil registered at the front desk, the clerk commented on his Whale Harbor t-shirt.
           “My parents moved to Whale Harbor a few years ago. I go there a couple times a year. I love SoHum.” By that he meant Southern Humbaba.
           “Oh yeah,” Phil concurred, nodding, “most definitely.” By that Phil meant he realized the guy was a definite toker and probably a major boaster. This wasn't exactly like two citizens of Monaco happening to meet at the South Pole. Still, good to know. 
           Outside the office, assaulted by the sun, the idea of a swim became an imperative. The heat radiated from the fresh-looking parking lot blacktop like a rattlesnake’s warning. One stumble on that stuff, Phil thought, and somebody is coming up with cooked skin.
            Some sunburn did show on his window-side arm, he noticed in the room’s big mirror over the sink. Applying additional sun block, he made a mental note to keep his left arm in the water as much as possible, to avoid glare reflected from the surface. Stripped down to shorts and sandals, shades on, towel and room card key in hand, he headed over to the pool. On this side of the building, the air felt oppressive even in the shade, and Phil felt doubly right in having taken the box of DVDs out of his trusty steed and left them in the air-conditioned room.
           The outdoor pool, Phil found, was gated, and required the swiping of a card key should one wish to enter for a swim. This Phil did, finding himself pleasantly alone with the blue shimmering glare. Off to the side, a hot tub hummed. He was just about to get into some really good thoughts, when suddenly someone interrupted.
           Outside the gate stood a young man and young woman, perhaps Hispanic, both around twenty. The young man said something Phil couldn't quite catch.
           “What's up?” Phil said, approaching the gate.
           “Can you let us in?”
           “Where’s your key? You just swipe it.” Something about the way the young woman stood behind the young man seemed suspiciously off.
           “We left it back in the room.”
           “Well then,” Phil said, turning away, “you'll need to go get another key so you can get in your room, anyway.” He went over to the table where he left his towel and key, took off his sandals and dove in.
           The water felt immediately relieving, but when he came to the surface, wiping his eyes, he saw the young man climb the high gate and hop in, opening the door for the woman who crept suspiciously in with a broad grin.
           This was all right with Phil, as long as he hadn't been the one to let them in. The two of them quickly got in the pool and started splashing and thrashing about. They kept their distance from him, and the young man didn't say anything, but they spoke in Spanish to each other in low, declarative tones followed by laughter, and Phil wondered how a guy could lie to him like that and not only not feel ashamed, but actually take pride in the lie.
           Every one wants to get respect, the thought returned to Phil's mind, but no one wants to give it because: To give some sign of respect first is too risky of getting construed as a sign of weakness rather than strength. What if the one being treated nicely figures, “Hey, here's somebody I intimidate into acting nice to me out of fear. Good. I'll make sure to keep that up. Note to self: Never be the first one to be nice. It sure is a sign of weakness, like I always thought.” That's why.
           Phil swam around awhile in calm, comfortable ease, then got out, relinquishing the pool to the lying young lovers. In the back of his mind, it actually did annoy him. What annoyed him, he realized, was that the guy hadn't given Phil an honest chance to be a nice guy himself. He had taken Phil by surprise and then immediately lied. He had been cheap in his behavior this way, and Phil resented being imposed on and used.
            “Fuck it,” he resolved, after he had showered and dressed. “We'll see what my man at the front desk has to say about this.”
           “Hey, how's it going?” he said heading into the office. There was no one else around. “Whale Harbor, right? Yeah, hey, what's up with the people hopping over the gate to get into the pool? Geez, I thought I was really getting my money's worth at that nice pool until the place got invaded.”
           “Yeah, they do that on the weekends when it's only me here.”
           “Really? Just come and go as they please, huh?”
           “Nothing I can do. It sucks. They come from right across the street.”
           Phil looked where the clerk pointed. A trailer court lay in view.
           “They speak Spanish but they're not Mexican. They’re Gypsies.”
           “No way.”
           “Yes way. I know that they’re Gypsies, I think from France.”
           “Why are there French Gypsies outside Las Vegas? Just out of curiosity.”
           “I'm not really sure. I think they might work for the casinos or something. A bunch of the women work here as maids. As a matter of fact, hold on—yep, there is one of them right now.”
           A young woman, perhaps twenty-five, looking to Phil like a darkly exotic Veronica Lake, strode with resolve and reserve to the front desk. Phil’s body language, as the young when correctly interpreted, indicated she proceed.
           “Thank you,” she said. Phil didn't realize she had thanked him for stepping aside. “Anthony,” she continued, addressing now the clerk, “I want to apologize for their climbing over again.
           “Don't worry. I understand. It's hot. Anyway it's Marko who's responsible for it all the time, not you.”
           “I told them they better not.”
           “This here,” Anthony said, “was the one they tried to get to open the gate.”
           He said they left the key in their room. Phil appreciated Anthony drawing him in, but found himself singularly unimpressed with his own first remark. The dress the woman wore was modest but classy on her. A Gypsy Lauren Bacall. She smiled at him, in fact, almost exactly like Lauren Bacall, as she turned around and left.
           The image seized Phil Stein's mind of himself leaping forward with impossible special effectsness, securely latching with all his limbs onto this living embodiment of his life's fantasies, and absorbing her entirely through himself—like that Groucho Marx line where he tells the woman if he held her any closer, she'd be on the other side.
           Phil turned quickly to the clerk. “Hey, thanks for your help.” The need to conceal the fact that he was intent on her did not, strangely, exist. Phil followed the woman out of the office and didn't give a damn if the clerk noticed or not. What exactly he planned to say after catching her attention he had no idea. But when he reached the double glass doors and the sound of downshifting trucks passing by on the highway came to his ears in the stale early evening heat, he saw no sign of the woman at all. She had disappeared around the corner. This left Phil feeling profoundly dejected, and he very nearly took to hissing to himself like an angry ventriloquist to spout his existential anger at having seen a woman so beautiful, simply to have her snatched away, barely managing to contain his need to expound, prompted by the fear that someone on the hotel grounds, perhaps in a balcony above or through an open sliding glass door would hear him talking to himself. And it was a good thing, too. Because when he neared his room, in the shadow of the building near his trusty steed, he saw her once again, and not missing the opportunity he now called out—careful not to cry out, or yell out, but rather cause his normal suave baritone smoothness to reach this Lady Dulcinea’s incomparably perfect ears in as apparent yet unobtrusive a manner as possible, “I'm the one who should be apologizing.”
           The woman stopped and turned, smiling slightly. Was that a blush of attraction? He didn't wait for her to respond. “I should apologize to you for staring. And for what I'm about to say. So, I'm sorry, but, I think you're—I think you’re the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life, and if I don't at least try to ask you to dinner, or something, anything, I don't think I could live with myself.”
           “You're asking a complete stranger to dinner?”
           “Yes ma'am. I am.”
                       “The restaurant up the street has nice iced tea.”
           “Iced tea is great. I’d love to buy you an iced tea. Can we walk over there right now?”
            “I'll buy my own.”
           It impressed him to see that she stayed cool, yet not unnecessarily trusting. She was clearly no fool. This he could see in her eyes, which shone with an excessive illumination of intelligence. Perhaps she had seen something in his eyes, as well. The sincerity of his feeling, he hoped. 
           “I look at it as just another tool. That's all it is, it's just another tool.”
           More than one conversation between Phil and some pal he didn't see so often anymore had gone more or less this way.
           “Yeah,” would come his reply, “the difference is, if there is a hammer in a room, people don't sit around staring at it. For hours. Every single day of their lives. So who’s the tool here? Why don't the businesses that pollute the world spend billions of dollars on pliers everywhere? Are you telling me you think a pair of needle nose differs not one jot from tube? Is a nuclear warhead just another lighter?” At which point he might innocently ask, “Do you know who invented TV?”
           “No,” would always come the reply.
           “No one,” he would say. “A whole bunch of guys. Over decades, around the world. But there was this one guy in particular—”
           “Hey, look, I gotta get going,” would also always be said.
           “All right, so long, get rid of TV.”
           But now, here was Phil having a real conversation with someone who truly understood. Consuelo. Even her name was lovely.
           “At first,” she said, thanking the waitress for the iced tea, “the effect is temporary. I know this because we never had a TV until two years ago. I mean, I had seen it, of course, but we didn't have one. So to me the effect is very apparent. But I've also noticed that the effects of what people see on TV wear away less and less easily the more that they watch.”
           “It's like a transformation takes place.”
           “Yes, a transformation. Oh my gosh, look at the time.”
           “You have to go somewhere?”
           “We have a solstice celebration every year. You're welcome to come along.”
           “I'd like that. I do have to be somewhere at nine, is all. So I guess I would have to drive myself and take off early, I imagine. Although I suppose I could come back.”
          “I should probably go with you then. It might be easier than trying to explain. But it's only about ten miles away I think. Not far.”
           As they walked back to the hotel, Phil began to feel self-conscious about his Pinto's peeling paint. “It's a 1970 classic original, released on September 11, 1970, as a matter of fact. Bit of a fixer-upper paint-wise, but she's got brand-new tires, and all the original interior.”
           “I understand.”
           “Yes, well then. May I get your door?”
           Phil opened the door and Consuelo slid inside. Gypsy Veronica Lake in a Pinto. 
           Driving to the spot in the desert where the Gypsies held their solstice celebration BBQ, Phil fiddled with the radio dial and left it on Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” while Consuelo painted pictures in his mind of her flamenco guitar-playing father, Ambrogius, who looked like Anthony Quinn and wore a gold ring in one year—of her mother, Zigana, and her knife-throwing cousins Zindel, Milosh, and Pereli, her niece, Lala, and Lala’s boyfriend, Marko, both of whom Phil had seen at the pool. For the Gypsies, the music was their life, and when they came to Las Vegas ten years earlier, they were promised much and given little in return for hard work. A rift, Phil gathered, developed between Ambrogius and the manager of the casino.
           “In the old days my father would not have been bothered at all, and would have simply moved on. But he's changed. His pride keeps us here.”
           Even as Consuelo spoke, a maudlin feeling swept over Phil, rooted in being trapped in time, so that even as he experienced the exhilarating joy of the wind on his face and in her hair, part of him felt deeply uncomfortable being out of his element, and he wanted the responsibility of his mission over and done with, so that the weird unclean feeling of shit hanging over his head would disappear and he could go back to—what? The normal routine? The one that wasn't working? And he saw his childhood, and imagined hers, and encompassing it all the maudlin awareness of impermanence shook him for a moment to the core, but he managed to snap out of it as they came to a Quonset hut surrounded by a dozen dusty pickups.
           It was eight o'clock now, and the whipped wind moaned. Phil followed Consuelo outside along the tall siding feeling more than hearing the beat of the music playing within.
           Inside the Quonset hut could be found assorted migrant laborers and Native American ranch hands, to the ranks of which was added, in the person of Phil S. Stein, one movie reviewer for The Freebie. Consuelo introduced Phil to her mother, Zigana, who was only fifty-five herself, and actually quite hot. She accepted him as though he and Consuelo had been dating for months. It was like waking up to a dream world all-around. After the introduction, as the two made their way past guys tipping beers taking in the live performance of Spanish guitar and dancing, moving toward the grill and buffet table, Consuelo said her mother seemed a little drunk.
           Phil saw someone step out of a doorway to a little room with a sink inside, and realized he had better take advantage of a bathroom while the opportunity presented. He’d had two glasses of tea to Consuelo's unfinished one, and now the need to relieve not just his bladder but even his bowels, as well, pressed urgently upon him.
           Consuelo pulled ahead of him. “Just a moment,” she said, “I'll be right back. I want to introduce you to my father.”
           Phil watched as Consuelo tried to find a tactful way to get her father's attention, but he didn't seem to catch a breath between songs, and his billowy white sleeves hanging out of his tight vest flapped around a mile a minute while he clapped and worked over the guitar. For a long time Phil could not believe his luck with Consuelo. Her being single was incredible enough, and the fact that she would even talk to him was doubly amazing, but having only recently met her, here he was being introduced to the family, sort of. Was this how other people lived? Lucky break after lucky break? Was it all too good to be true, or was life really this possible?
             These were his thoughts. Then she took his hand, on the basis of a small amount of caffeine and maybe half an hour of blabbing, and suggested that she and Phil go outside.
           “Okay,” he yelled into her ear. “Why?” Over at the grill they had some meat on an upright rotisserie turning for hoagies.
           “Fonso’s being a brat.”
           “Fonso? Who's Fonso? What exactly does being a brat entail?”
           “Don't stare, but he’s standing over there, watching. I've already told him I'm not interested. In him.”
           “He seems to have friends.”
           “Yes. He's being a brat.”
           “Let's ditch ‘em.”
           While they had been talking, the figures against the wall, some with beers, others with hoagies, all with hats, watched with cold eyes and coalesced. Any or all could be just stupid enough to do something really stupid. You never knew, Phil well knew. There might be manhood on the line, and that would mean desperation.
           The coalescing beer-drinking hoagie-eaters watched in their hats while Consuelo patted Phil’s shoulders and led him toward the doorway and outside. Then no one could catch them and the two were running in the wind, laughing and laughing, with the wind so loud they could hardly hear each other any better than they could inside. Phil went ahead and took advantage of the opportunity, seeping the remainder of the burrito’s ghost into the wind while they ran.
           Not until they were halfway across the road did they even know where it was, and then to get away from the dusty wind they raced up a barren hill on the other side of the road, up to some boulders high at the top. Hiding among them they look down at the Quonset hut as though peering from a castle turret. A couple of forms silhouetted in the light of the open door, dim through the dust, seemed to look around a bit, then disappeared back inside as the door shut.
           Brushing the dust off themselves and each other they laughed, in every sense winded. “You’re fun,” Consuelo said.
           “Hey, I could hang out with you all the time.”
           No sooner had Phil said this than a bright bolt of lightning flashed. Phil got up to inspect the slope behind them, a shallow cave obscured by boulders. When Consuelo seemed to balk at following him up inside, Phil realized that, without meaning to, he had put her in a compromising situation.
           “It's not that,” she said, dismissing his decency. “If I wasn't comfortable with you, I wouldn't have suggested we be out here. It's snakes I'm worried about.”
           “Well, we don't have to go any farther. This is fine right here.”
           They sat huddled close together looking at the wide desert under a dark cloud sea. Consuelo wished for rain.
           “In Humbaba,” said Phil, “it rains the livelong day. When that's not enough, the redwoods water themselves. Yeah, it's true. Redwood cells hold more water than any other tree. It drinks however many thousands of gallons of water per month with its shallow, widespread roots. When the climate is right, especially in the summer, around 3:30 to 5:00 a.m.-ish, the tree releases a little bit of water from the tips of all its needles, and it will basically start raining. Only for a few seconds. And with this early morning rain, the direct expelling of stored water, which coats the top cover of the soil, the redwoods water themselves.”
           “All of them all at once?”
           “Yeah, pretty much. It lasts for a few seconds, maybe an hour or so before dawn.”
           “The forest wets itself.”
           Phil howled. But after a bit, with brows furrowed and shaking his head in disbelief, the maudlin wave swept through him and he said, “It's so dreamlike here with you. Really magical for me.”
           The roiling clouds shrieked over the wasteland in an awesome display, as though the mouth of the cave were a jumbo screen TV. In Consuelo's eyes as she turned her face to Phil lay an inscrutability he could not perceive. He saw only what he was prepared for. He saw only what he wanted to see.
           They got to talking about their families, with the majority of her own being in a Quonset hut hidden by a boulder, which led to Phil revealing that when he was nine, his twenty-two year-old brother dropped out of college and pretty soon thereafter became a homeless wanderer. At this, a strange expression came over Consuelo's face, and she revealed that she, also, had an older brother who had been living on the streets for years.
            The hard dusty rock made for poor sitting. Phil kept an eye on the time. Outside, off to the east on the right hand side, they could see part of the tower, and they talked about achieving a sense of power versus achieving a sense of understanding.
           “Power,” said Phil, “does not hold understanding, but understanding does hold power. What we get from understanding is real and true, but we can't see it, there's no cash in hand, no tower to point—”
            Phil cut himself off. “What’s—?” he said, cutting himself off again and pointing behind a boulder. “What's that?” He crept down for a closer look.
           “What is it?” said Consuelo.
           “Holy crud, I think it’s some sort of hatch.”
           “A hatch? You mean like to climb down into?”
           “Or up out of—yeah.” Phil lifted three sheets of plywood nailed to a frame which fit snugly over another frame raised a few inches off the hardpack dirt of the hill. Looking down inside, he saw half-inch pipe set in vertical beams forming ladder rungs.
           “There’s a light on inside.”
           Standing next to Phil, Consuelo urged him to be careful. He went carefully in a couple of rungs down, waving his hand below him and calling out, “Hello? May I come in? Hello, is anybody here?” Going down another rung, he hung and stared ahead.
           “Wow,” he said.
           Consuelo climbed down alongside and hopped in. Two long shallow trough-like tables ran left and right the twenty-foot length of the room. Both of the troughs were filled with soil, and in the soil grew rows of little green plants, two rows per trough, twenty plants per row, under lights hanging overhead on a uniformly dim setting.
           “This is somebody's grow-op,” said Phil, noticing the time was 8:30. He was about to add, “We better get going.” But a voice from above cut him off.
           “You're damn right it's somebody's, and that somebody ain’t you...”


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