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Not the End of the Worldby Christopher Brookmyre
`Don't sweat it, Larry, it's a walk in the park.'
Oh, gee, thanks, Larry thought. He was sure it had the potential to be a walk in the park and a precedent for being a walk in the park, but now that Bannon had gone and said that, he figured he'd better be on the lookout for gang wars, serial killers, King Kong and Godzilla.
Not that Larry wasn't on the lookout for all of the above anyway, these days, although not for the same reasons as everybody else in this screwed-up town.
`Just as long as I ain't goin' down there to hear any Chamber of Commerce requests to lay off bustin' the delegates for coke on account of the valuable trade they're bringin' into Santa M.'
Bannon laughed, shaking his head. Larry figured if the captain had known him a bit longer he'd have placed a daddy-knows-best hand on his shoulder, too.
`Larry, for the most part, this is the shitcan end of the movie business. European art-faggots, Taiwanese kung-fu merchants and LA independents workin' out of fortieth-floor broom closets in mid-Wilshire. Unless they clean up at the Pacific Vista these two weeks, they can't afford any coke. Goin' by the budgets of their movies, you're more likely gonna be bustin' them for solvent abuse. There won't be any trouble, I guarantee it.'
`The movie market moved down here to the coast from the Beverly Center about seven years back, and there's never been a hint of a problem in all that time.'
Yeah, keep it coming,Larrythought. You've just about got it thoroughly hexed for me now.
`These guys, they come here from all over the US and all around the world,' Bannon explained. `They show each other their shitty movies, they press flesh, they schmooze, and if they're lucky, they do some deals. Close of business they hit the seafood restaurants, throw ass-kissing parties to impress each other, try and get laid, then it's back to their hotels and up at eight to start over. I did your job the first three years. No trick to it. It's a figurehead deal. In their minds you're kind of the LAPD's corporate representative, someone who'll show his face every so often, smile a lot, and tell them nothing of any substance if they ask questions.
`All the organisers need to hear is that we're maintaining a high profile, so the visitors ain't too scared of bein' mugged, shot, gang-raped or ritually cannibalised to walk around town. That means more uniformed beat officers in the pedestrian areas, plenty of patrol cars on Ocean Boulevard and along the beach, all that shit. Ironic, really. Our purpose is to reassure them that none of their movies will come true ? well, not to them at least.'
Bannon sat back on the edge of his desk. `Think you can handle that, big guy?' he asked.
`You don't look so sure. Would you rather be out with Zabriski today, maybe? Let's see ...' He thumbed through some notes on his desk. `Railway worker, laid off last Friday, walks into the AmTrak offices on Third at eight thirty this morning and deposits a black polythene sack in the lobby. It's one of these atrium deals, you know, with like three or four floors looking down on to the concourse. Telephones bomb warning eight thirty-five, detonates at eight forty-two. Sack contained a small but significant amount of explosive, probably basic demolition stuff. Not enough to cause any fatalities, but enough to distribute the contents of the sack approximately sixty feet in every direction, including up. Guy was, how'd they put it? a "sanitation engineer". Some of that stuff must have come all the way from Frisco before he syphoned it out the train. Four floors, Larry.'
`I'll just be getting down to the Pacific Vista, Captain. Got someone to talk to about this American Feature Film Market thing.'
It wasn't paranoia, Larry knew. It was plain old insecurity. He'd have been suspicious of being given this AFFM `liaison' gig anyway, simply because he was still very much the new guy, and it might well be the sort of shit detail everyone else knew to steer clear of. He knew the scene, could see the station house, smell the coffee:
`So who's gonna handle the annual fiasco at the Pacific Vista this year, then? Zabriski? Rankin? Torres? What's that? You already volunteered to escort a Klan rally through Watts? Shit. Oh, wait a minute. The new guy'll have started by then. Let's give it to him.'
Nah. Maybe not. He believed Bannon. It was just that everything new made him nervous these days, like he was a damn rookie again. Loss of confidence, loss of self-esteem. He could imagine the phrases on a report somewhere, sympathetic but scrutinising. `Let's see if he can get it back together, but we better get a desk job lined up somewhere just in case. Poor bastard. Helluva cop once ...'
He knew he'd be okay at the Pacific Vista. All Larry's shakes were on the inside. The AFFM guy would look him up and down and see a physically imposing and relaxedly confident police officer, rather than the learner driver Larry felt was behind the wheel. He'd handle everything calmly and professionally, and the market would go off without a hitch. Bannon would be correct. It would be a walk in the park.
He knew what was wrong. He'd lost the reassuring illusion of control. These days he was approaching everything with unaccustomed trepidation; not a fear that anyone was out to get him, but that he wouldn't see danger until it was already upon him. He kept experiencing déjà vu, recurring waves of it that would freeze him for a moment, deer in the headlamps. It was unsettling, but at least he could recognise it as a symptom, and from there make the diagnosis:
Fear of the future.
Larry knew déjà vu wasn't any mystic or psychic phenomenon, just crossed wires in his head. Signals went from the senses to their regular destination in the brain, except that they took an accidental detour via the memory synapses. What you got through your eyes and ears you thought you were getting from deep inside your mind. It happened to everyone now and again, but to Larry it happened a lot when he was under a certain, specific kind of stress: the stress of not knowing what happens next. Not ordinary worries about dreaded or hoped-for possibilities, like before starting a new job or moving to a different city, but the vertiginous, isolated blankness of facing a future you couldn't even speculate upon. A confused helplessness of not even knowing what to dread or to hope for, because you just can't envisage what's ahead in any way, good, bad or indifferent.
The part of his mind that normally occupied itself with constructing models of possible futures ? next year or even just next week ? was left grinding gears, and the déjà vu was probably a resultant malfunction.
Sophie had gone for more tests last Thursday. She was the pregnant one, but it was Larry who felt he was going to be sick all the way to the clinic.
Why did he have to feel surprised that everything was fine? Or feel that the doctors were lying to them, maybe until they felt they were strong enough to hear the tragic truth? Why, when he looked at the ultrasound scan, could he not believe he would ever see the child depicted in its hazy image?
Maybe the future was blank because he was scared to let himself hope. He already knew how scared he was to let himself dread.
Larry had worked hard at resisting the `impending fatherhood' variant of cop psychosis. He had seen it around him on the job and its self-corrosive ugliness provided a vividly appalling warning. Decent cops, guys you thought you knew, underwent a shocking transformation, as the man you used to work with barricaded himself in behind barbed wire, broken glass and howling dogs. It was as if they suddenly saw every crime, every murder or rape or mutilation, as a personal affront, fucking up the perfect world they had planned to bring their new child into. Every lowlife they dealt with on the street was no longer just some scumbag, but a direct potential threat to their delicate offspring. They couldn't see a victim any more without seeing their kid. They got hardened. And then they got brutal.
He had worried he might succumb this time, let the poisonous fears and insecurities transmute within him and secrete themselves as armour and weaponry on the outside. Instead he just felt kind of helpless. As if the future was rushing towards him faster than he had anticipated, and all he could do was watch; watch events develop, even watch himself take a role and play his part. It felt like the old-time raceway down at Disneyland. It might look like you were steering the car, and you could even pretend to yourself that you were, but if you let go of the wheel it would follow the track around anyway.
He and Sophie hadn't been trying for a baby. He didn't think they were even at the stage yet where they could have that conversation. Guess it just happened. One or other of those tearful clinches where they just held on to each other in the darkness, pressing their bodies always tighter, where neither of them noticed the moment when holding became caressing, pressing became grinding, and the emotional need for closeness became an animal need for penetration.
So maybe it was partly that he didn't feel ready, but Jesus, when were either of them ever going to be ready? What was ready anyway? Was it when you stopped crying yourself to sleep sitting on the floor in David's room? When you stopped waking up in the night because you saw him dying once more in your dream? When you stopped hearing his voice among the laughter every time you passed a schoolyard?
When you stopped feeling?
Larry had to jump on the brakes as he turned his car into the horseshoe driveway in front of the Pacific Vista. The hotel was split into two seven-storey wings either side of an elongated hexagonal lobby. The first floors of the wings extended inwards to create a wide gallery overlooking the central concourse, but the remaining storeys were glass-walled about ten yards back on either side. This was to accommodate the towering centrepiece, a steeply sloping canopy of glass, rising high above the lobby on four sides to a flattened summit, into which, in an unsurpassed feat of architectural piss-taking, there was sunk a rooftop swimming-pool. The bottom of this was, of course, also glass, allowing the sunlight to continue down through the chlorinated water and dance shimmeringly around the lobby. Up top, the effect was supposed to be of the pool having vast and glistening depth, which was probably true. However, the anticipated further spectacle of bethonged babes floating above the desks, shops, cafes and restaurants had legendarily failed to materialise, as visions of plunging through water, glass and then a hundred feet of nothing at all proved sufficiently discouraging to most guests, however many safety assurances were advertised.
The other architectural oversight was that at certain (i.e. most) times of day, due to the angle of the sun, the whole thing turned into some kind of giant refractor lens, blazing white light out at the front or back like a laser blast. This made the horseshoe avenue a popular hang-out for personal-injury lawyers, as suddenly blinded drivers rear-ended each other, shunted bell-hop carts (and bell-hops) and occasionally ran over guests handing their car keys to the blue-uniformed valets. If you came in on foot, you felt like a bug under a cruel kid's magnifying glass.
Larry had been there once before, investigating a bombscare. He'd turned on to Pacific Drive from Santa Monica Boulevard and thought the thing must have gone off, because the bomb-squad truck and two black-and-whites were zig-zagged wildly across the blacktop, which was littered with debris from smashed headlamps and tail-lights. Turned out they had all rushed to the scene in the usual blue-light scramble, then concertinae'd each other when the big beam hit. Damascus Drive, folks called it now.
Larry remembered just in time. He brought the car to an abrupt stop, pulled down the shade-panels and slipped on his sunglasses. Now, through the windshield, he could make out a host of silhouettes against the fierce glow, like the last scene in Close Encounters. He edged forward slowly, glancing nervously into the rear-view mirror for advance notice of the architect's next unsuspecting victim. A blue courier truck came rapidly into view, but a paint-scored dent in its fender assured Larry it wasn't the driver's first visit. The truck slowed to a crawl and limped tentatively towards the main entrance behind Larry's four-door.
Larry climbed out and slung his jacket over his shoulder, the concentrated blast of sunlight having briefly turned the inside of his car into a microwave. The hotel had a `greeter' on duty, standing on the blue carpet in front of the sliding doors, a white-bread blonde in a short skirt and a jacket, her smile almost as fake as her surgically sculpted nose. She was the covert first line of defence, ostensibly welcoming visitors to the premises but actually delaying them a moment while the security desk checked them out via the camera eight feet behind her head. She had an earpiece and a wire-thin mike following the line of her jaw. The say-cheese face and the confidence wavered momentarily as Larry climbed the few steps towards her. The reaction was almost tediously familiar, but some days he still enjoyed the look of helpless discomfiture. This was one of them, and he'd even switched the jacket to his right shoulder so that his holster was visible.
`Giant bald black guy carrying a gun at twelve o'clock. Mayday. Mayday. No information on this. Repeat, no information on this.'
The greeter had clocked the valet accepting Larry's keys, which somehow validated him for Official Greetee status. She took a quick breath and went into action. `Good afternoon, sir, and welcome to the Pacific Vista hotel. How are you today?'
Larry smiled. Angst-ridden, bereaved, paranoid, nervous, strung out and suffering mild symptoms of fin-de-siècle cataclysmic psychosis. Also known as ...
`And what is your business at the Pacific Vista today, sir?'
He pulled his badge out of his shirt pocket and pointed it beyond the greeter to the video camera. `I'm Sergeant Larry Freeman of the LAPD, Santa Monica first precinct. I'm here to see Paul Silver of the American Feature Film Marketing Board.'
Larry watched her eyes stray from him for a second as she listened to a message through her earpiece.
`He'll be right down, Sergeant Freeman.' She smiled, suddenly back on-line. `Would you like to come inside and take a cold drink while you wait?'
`No thank you,' he said, turning back to face the horseshoe. `I'd prefer to stay here just for the moment, if that's okay with you guys.'
`Of course, sir. Would you like a cold drink brought out to you here?'
`Why, that would be most civilised.'
A waiter appeared, in an unfeasibly short few moments, carrying a tray bearing a pitcher of fruit punch and a tall glass with ice in it. He poured the drink and handed it to Larry.
`Thank you,' Larry told him, then held up the glass to the security camera. `Cheers,' he mouthed.
The fruit punch was pink in a way that no fruit had ever been (not that kind-of fruit, anyway), and Larry noticed with a grin that it perfectly matched the pink beams that highlighted the hotel's exterior décor. Glass, glass and more glass, with all opaque materials either a soft aqua or this peachy-pink. He figured there must have been a serious paint production surplus in these colours back in about '92, because every new building in the city had sported them since. Sophie's alternative theory was that some real camp guy got elected the city's construction-materials regulator, and you just couldn't get anything else past his Garish-Guard chromatoscope. `Green? Green? By the ocean? Are you kidding me? Pleeeease!'
Larry sipped the punch and looked back down the drive, where trucks were being unloaded of chipboard partitions, cable drums and aluminum stanchions by squinting young men in white T-shirts, all bearing the AFFM's logo. Tempers were beginning to get frayed by the frequent incidence of light-dazzled collision. After a while they sussed a system of using the boards as sunshields, with the guys carrying the other equipment falling in behind.
More vans were pulling up all the time and stopping suddenly, either in quick reaction to the glare or because they had encountered a stationary object up-front. Their drivers handed boxes, packages and cardboard tubes to T-shirted workers or occasionally to stiffly coiffured women in sharp suits. Clipboards were signed. Receipts were dispatched. Everybody had a laminate. Everybody had a mobile.
Across Pacific Drive there was more scurrying busyness going on, with temporary construction under way on the expansive concrete of the parking lot that used to be the Ocean Breeze Retirement Home, before it became the Ocean Breeze Hotel, before it became the Ocean Breeze whorehouse, before it became the Ocean Breeze insurance fire. Zabriski had worked the case, saying it set a new textbook exemplar in obvious torch-jobs. There was a light scaffold being erected, creating what looked like a platform, even a stage, plus more chipboards, perhaps for concession stands. White sheets were being draped around the wire fence that separated the place from the messy back lots of First Avenue, and horizontal banners were being laid out on the ground in preparation for being hung up someplace. He couldn't make out what they said.
More legibly, vertical banners bearing the AFFM legend and this year's dates flapped gently from flagpoles along the horseshoe driveway, as they did from streetlights all around Santa M. This event was a big deal. Larry thought again about Bannon's assurances, weighing them up in the context of the growing ferment around him. He estimated that the trouble factor was indeed low, but the embarrassment and repercussion factors were in the ionosphere, given the high profile any fuck-ups would certainly receive. He figured that if shit met fan ? or demolition charge ? he should remember to be a politician before he was a cop.
He turned around to find a short white guy with a real bad perm, big and shaggy yet somehow rigidly neat, like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be in Motley Crue or the Osmonds. When he smiled, he definitely had Osmonds teeth.
`I'm Paul Silver,' he said, extending a demonstratively confident hand. He was faking it. The little guy was shitting himself, and unusually it was nothing to do with Larry's presence, size or colour.
`Larry Freeman. You the man in charge of this show?'
`Yes sir, that I am. I'm Chief Co-ordinator of Logistical Onsite Market Activities for the American Feature Film Market nineteen ninety-nine.' Larry could hear the capital letters.
`First time in charge?'
`That too. How did you know?'
`Because you're shitting in your shorts.'
The smile switched off. Pauly clearly feared We were about to have a Problem.
Larry grinned to defuse the situation. `Don't worry, me too,' he said, gripping the now less certainly offered hand.
`First time, or, er ...'
`Shitting in my shorts, yeah. But hey, everybody assures me there's never been a problem before.'
The little guy rolled his eyes. `They keep telling me that too.'
Silver led Larry inside, through the vast lobby with its diamondoid canopy. The orchestral music being pumped through the place was fighting to be heard amid the clamour of hammers, power-screwdrivers, staple-guns, raised voices and the chiming of mobile phones. Stalls and stands were being erected, or finished off with promotional material, posters and cardboard cut-outs advertising company names and movies. Many of the flicks looked like the kind of stuff that always filled the lower shelves at the video store, past the New Releases and All-time Classics: Titles for the Undiscerning Viewer. Musclebound White Guy with a Big Gun II: Hank Steroid's Revenge. Kickboxing Vigilante with Serious Unresolved Personal Conflicts IV: Showdown in a Burbank Parking Lot.
The shimmering light of the sun through the rooftop pool painted its own changing shades on every surface. Even the widespread tackiness of the market's paraphernalia couldn't detract from the elegance of the effect. Larry had to hand the architect that one. Still nobody swimming in the damn thing, though.
Larry followed Silver through the doors at the far end, out on to a wide terrace that overlooked the beach and the ocean at the rear (or did that make it the front?) of the hotel. Silver pulled up a chair for him and sat down opposite. A waitress arrived with a pitcher and two glasses. This time the fruit punch was aqua blue. Larry laughed, declining his drink, but took up the little guy's offer of a club sandwich and a Seven-Up.
Silver listened to Larry's assurances about police visibility, more officers on the beat and other half-inspired bullshit with sage nodding. He clearly didn't care. He was too wired about the market itself being a success to have any head-time left for worrying about what was happening to the delegates when they weren't engaged in On-Site Market Participatory Activities.
`Well, I guess it ain't me who should be doing the worrying,' Larry said, popping a stray piece of cooked chicken back between two levels of his impressively towering sandwich. `Looks like you got a bigger operation running across Santa M than we do.'
Silver smiled, but there was an Oh-Christ-don't-remind-me wince in the middle of it. `Biggest one for years,' he said. `These events kind of shrank after the video boom of the eighties died off, but with new end-users taking up the slack ? satellites, digital delivery, fibre-optics ? the worldwide appetite for product is growing year-on-year. AFFM ninety-nine will have more accredited participants than any of its predecessors since the event moved to Santa Monica.'
Larry tucked heartily into his sandwich. He'd correctly anticipated that the right stimulus remark would precipitate little Pauly's prepared PR response, thus buying him time to eat.
`Almost every room in the Pacific Vista will function as an office for one of our participant companies, while all of the cinemas in downtown Santa Monica are screening scheduled programmes of market product, from eight in the morning through to six at night. That's a total of almost fifty screens, showing an average of five feature titles per day. Plus, as a new development this year, two of the hotel's function suites have been designated Video Galleries, with a total of thirty-eight booths where delegates can view tapes of non-premiering product ? that's titles already screened at previous markets but with certain rights still available ? on widescreen format monitors with digital-quality sound channelled through headphones. We've also installed a product-and-rights database with access terminals on every corridor so that delegates can find out what territories and formats are still available on a particular ...'
It was a mighty sandwich, but Larry still managed to finish before Silver did. He took a big gulp of Seven-Up and wiped his mouth with a napkin. `Plus you got all that stuff across the street in the parking lot, too,' he said. `What's that about? Promotional events? Stunts? Star appearances?'
Silver's brow furrowed and his head shook. It was weird watching all that hair move as one. This guy didn't have a stylist, he had a topiarist.
`Oh, that's nothing to do with us, Sergeant Freeman,' he said. `It's a real headache, actually. We normally annex that lot exclusively for participants' parking, and this year we've had to rent a place half a mile down the beach and organise a free-and-frequent shuttle-bus service. The lot changed hands recently and the new proprietor said he already had the whole place rented out for the market's dates.'
`So what have they got planned there?'
`We didn't ask. But unless it's the world's first outdoor film market it's unlikely to give us much concern.'
`Guess not,' Larry said, thinking he'd better check it out when he was through here.
It was much the same deal as across at the Pacific Vista. Guys in matching T-shirts, chipboard screens, electrical cables, laminates, mobiles. Except these T-shirts said, `Festival of Light ? Santa Monica 1999', and it wasn't just the material that was uniformly white. The focus of the lot's layout was a stage at one end, facing north. Workers were assembling an elevated aluminum structure around it, a construction Larry wasn't too old to recognise as a frame for a lighting rig. There was a big truck backed up to one side of the stage, and through its open rear doors he could make out some black boxes that he figured for a PA system.
Larry walked through the gap in the low fence where cars usually went in and out, ducking under the ticket-activated barrier. He made it half a dozen yards into the lot before two T-shirts made their hasty way from the stage to challenge him.
`Excuse me, sir, but I don't believe you have a personnel pass.'
Neither of them looked more than twenty. It was the smaller one who spoke, shiny straight white teeth probably enjoying their freedom after years behind bars. He didn't look like he'd be getting his hands dirty on any of the heavy lifting work. That ? and associated tasks ? seemed the remit of his high-school linebacker buddy.
Odd thing to say, even as polite intimidation. Not `Can I see your personnel pass?' or `Do you have a personnel pass?', but `I don't believe you have a personnel pass'. Pretty confident about who does, then. Either there weren't too many of them or there was something about Larry's appearance that made it unlikely he'd be carrying one. What could that be, now?
`It's okay, kids, I got access all areas,' he said, producing his badge.
`I don't understand, has there been some kind of complaint?'
`No, I'm just takin' a look around. Wonderin' what you've got in mind with all this stuff.'
`What do you mean? We've already cleared everything with the police and the mayor's office,' the kid said, folding his arms. `We've got the fire department coming down tomorrow for safety checks, and we've got an official police liaison officer dropping by to?'
The kid was cut off by a hand on his arm. An older man, maybe mid-thirties, had appeared behind them from a partially constructed stall nearby. He was dressed identically to his junior companions ? sneakers, jeans, T-shirt, teeth ? but his laminate was a loudly important red.
`Who's our guest, Bradley?' he asked, smiling widely at Larry in practised PR mode as he spoke.
`Sergeant Larry Freeman,' Larry said, showing him his ID. `I'd just like a quick look around.'
`Well, we weren't expecting the police department until tomorrow afternoon, Sergeant, and yours wasn't the name we were given, but long as you're here, why don't I give you the tour? I'm Gary Crane. Festival construction supervisor.'
He put a hand on Larry's back and began walking him away towards the stage. The welcoming committee retreated, shrugging.
`What's the party for?'
`Party? Oh I see. Well, I guess you could call it that. I'm right in assuming you're not involved with the Festival liaison?'
`I'm involved with a different liaison, `cross the street. Just want to see what the other star attractions are in the neighbourhood this week.'
`Certainly nothing as big and impressive as the AFFM, Sergeant.'
`So what is this ...' Larry indicated the man's T-shirt, `... Festival of Light, Mr Crane?'
`It's a celebration. A youth and family event. We're having music, singing, speakers ? hence the stage. There's going to be bleachers that end. We're putting them in that big space behind the sound desk, which will be in that booth there. There'll be cooking, concession stands, face-painting,' he continued, indicating the stalls taking shape around the lot.
Smily Gary was being persistently vague around the point of interest. Larry listened to him describe a few more things his eyes had done a pretty good job of noticing for themselves, then interrupted. `Yeah, but what are we celebrating?'
Crane stopped, looking Larry pityingly in the eye, as if he couldn't believe he didn't understand, then smiled again. `The light of Christ. What other light is there?'
He felt relief flow through him like a flushed cistern. Terrifying visions of biker conventions and Klan rallies dispersed from his thoughts, washed away in that glib piety emanating from Crane.
Larry looked back at the lot from the sidewalk on Pacific Drive as he waited for the WALK sign on his way to retrieving his car. One of the horizontal banners that had been laid out face down in the lot was being raised towards supports above the stage; there were similar brackets all around the concourse. The banner, folded lengthways, was being hauled up by some of the T-shirts and secured in place at either end. Then it dropped open to reveal its slogan.
`Festival of Light ? Santa Monica '99.'
Larry had a little smile to himself. In an ideal world this would still be the AFFM's parking lot, but Happy Clappies he could live with.
He was about to look away again when he noticed another fold of the banner doubled up behind what already faced out, with T-shirts untying the strings that would let the last section drop down. It unfurled with a slap against the frame.
`American Legion of Decency'.
This wasn't a movement or an organisation Larry had specifically heard of, but he suddenly didn't feel quite so comfortable any more.
Something about that last word had always scared the shit out of him.
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