RANSCRIPT ACNW032063 PRIVATE HEARING
Subject: Botanist Mendoza. March 20, 1863. Five kilograms Theobromos administered. Auditors magisterial: Labienus, Aethelstan, Gamaliel.
ou want the truth from me? It's a subjective thing, Truth, you know, and you could just as easily get damning evidence from the datafeed transcripts. Oh, but you wouldn't get my motive, would you? I see the point.
Will it help if I freely confess? I killed six - no, seven - mortal men, though I must say it was under provocation. I acted in direct violation of all the laws that govern us, of the principles instilled in me when I was at school. I betrayed those principles by becoming involved in a mortal quarrel, supporting a cause I knew must fail in the end. Worst of all, I stole Company property - myself, when I deserted the post to which I had been assigned. I don't expect mercy, senors.
But it might help to know that what I did, I did for love.
I had an unfortunate experience when I was a young operative, you see; I was baptized in the blood of a martyr. No, really. Did you know those things work, baptisms? I didn't. I was given the same education we all get, sanity and science and reasonable explanations for everything that happens in the world. Faith and its attendant rituals sound like a good deal, the whole eternal salvation thing, but inevitably they lead to fear, oppression, the rack and flames. I knew that much was true firsthand.
I was blindsided, as I'm sure you would have been, by the discovery that the experience had actually left some kind of psychic mark on me. The mortal man smeared his blood and shouted his incantation, and there I stood like an animal that's been collared and let go, to wander bewildered among my own kind wondering what had happened. I was never right again after that. For a long time I thought I had shaken off his spell, I was almost happy there in the mountains all alone. But you wouldn't let well enough alone. You sent me back into mortal places and he found me again, tracked me by the mark he'd put on me for that purpose.
He will never let me rest.
Thank you, I certainly will have some more Theobromos. This is excellent stuff, by the way. Keep it coming and no doubt you'll find out all you want to know, with me a weepy mess at the end of it.
Okay, senors, are those tapes rolling?
ny of you gentlemen ever served in Los Angeles? No? Rough place. Murders and fighting all the time since the Yankees came. No good reason to put a city there in the first place, on that clay bluff above the river; but then Spain was so certain the Russians were going to invade Alta California they had to go stick little pretend towns here and there along its coast, like pins on a map. That way they could claim white settlement, because of course the Mission Indians didn't count.
White! That was a laugh. What happened, Senors, was that Felipe De Neve sent his goons riding up from Sinaloa with anybody he could bribe, threaten or deceive into coming along as prospective settlers. There were maybe one or two Spaniards in that bunch but the rest were mestizo and mulatto ex-soldiers, the mingled blood of New Spain and Africa, with their wives and little childen. De Neve's men dragged them up through the desert and over the mountains and set them down by that dry wash of a river, with its big sycamore trees. And after a mass was duly celebrated, they left them there, rode away and left them staring out into that night, and what an empty, empty night it must have been. No neighbors but the local Indians, and nothing to shelter them from the bears but brush huts. The settlers huddled together, listening to the coyotes howling, and must have wondered what on God's earth they'd gotten into.
But they made the best of things, built a little adobe village and got some Indians to be their slaves and in a generation or two they were gentlemen rancheros, with thousands of head of cattle on estates the size of small kingdoms, estates that would have made the threadbare gentry of the Old World sick with envy.
Of course, if one wanted a chamberpot or a carving knife or a bolt of cotton cloth, one had to wait for the duly authorized supply ship from Mexico, which put in an appearance every five years or so. This situation did not improve after the Revolution, either; a free and democratic bureaucracy moves even more slowly than a viceregal one! So in came the Yankee traders, smuggling consumer goods in their trading brigs, and the Californio rancheros were only too glad to do business with them. You know where that led. Richard Henry Dana wrote home about the fortunes waiting to be made by anybody with the ambition to build mills and factories here. Emigrants from the United States came struggling over the Rockies to see if it was true, some lady found a gold nugget in a sluice, and in no time at all we were all Americans, thanks to a little strongarm work by John C. Fremont.
Not a bad thing, entirely, at first. It was the making of San Francisco. Los Angeles, though, sort of festered. It filled up with drunks and outlaws, white trash from the States who'd failed at gold prospecting, men on the run from civilization generally. There was nothing down there, you see, except dry brown hills and cattle, plenty of space to get lost in. Soon there were lots of saloons to get lost in too, and drunken shootouts in the streets. So many murders people started calling Los Angeles the City of Devils, rather than the City of Angels. Los Diablos. The old ranchero families huddled in their fine haciendas, listened to the gunfire and must have wondered what in hell had happened to their town.
So you can see, senors, why I wasn't exactly thrilled to be posted down there. Monterey, green and gracious, that was where I preferred to be when I had to work near mortals; better still the wild coastal mountains, the Ventana and Big Sur.
When you're coming down from the north, Los Angeles looks horrible at first: all brown rolling monotony. Hasn't got the redwoods, hasn't got the green mountains or the air like wine. It's a sad trampled place. But let me put it on the record that my distaste at my assignment played no part in what happened. I went where I was told and did my job. I always have. We all do.
Weren't you briefed on this part? All right, I was sent to the HQ in the Cahuenga Pass, close by La Nopalera. The cover is that it's a stagecoach stop. It's far enough out from Los Angeles to give us privacy, but being on the stage line it's convenient for getting agents in and out. Agents and other things.
But that's all beside the point. Give me more of that - it's Guatemalan, isn't it? - and I'll try to stick to the story. You know, it's amazing, senors, but you bear a striking resemblence to certain Inquisitors I knew in Old Spain? All of you. It's your eyes, I think. They're too patient.
PART ONE - ESTABLISHING SHOT, CAHUENGA PASS, 1862
arrived there during a miserable winter. It had rained most amazingly; the locals had never seen such rain. The canyons flooded. The new sewers down at the pueblo were a total loss. Roads washed out and the stages were late, or never arrived at all. There was, I understand, a little mining town up in the San Gabriels that was washed away completely - whole thing wound up down on the plain in scattered soggy bits. Only the rancheros were happy, because of the good grazing there was going to be from the rain. They thought. Little did they know that was the last rain they were going to see for years. Before it rained again, Senor Drought and Senorita Smallpox and a few shrewd Yankee moneylenders would have pretty well end end the day of the gentes de razon. Ah, Los Angeles. One disaster after another, always has been.
Those particular disasters were still somewhat in the future on the day I finally walked into HQ. I'd followed the coast down as far as Buenaventura, and then swung inland to follow El Camino Real through the hills and along the valley floor, traveling mostly at night to avoid the mortal population. The rain never let up the whole way, and I was soaked through. I crossed innumerable creeks swollen with white anger, roaring their way out to sea and taking willow snags with them. I saw smooth green hillsides so saturated their grassy turf slid, like a half-taken scalp or a toupee, and left bare holes that the rain widened.
So much for Sunny California. All I saw of it that dark morning was water, brown water and creamy mud, and black twigs bobbing along in the hope of someday washing up on a white beach. You can imagine how grateful I was to see a plume of smoke going up between one foothill and the next. I checked my coordinates. Cahuenga Pass HQ? I broadcast tentatively.
Receiving, someone responded.
Botanist Mendoza reporting in.
Okay. You see the smoke? Follow it in.
And in another minute I'd come around the edge of a rockslide and there it was, back under some oak trees, a long low adobe building and stable thatched with tules. A couple of cowhides had been stitched end to end and strung up in the tree like a tarpaulin, and under this nominal shelter an immortal crouched, attempting to build up a small fire with what looked like fairly damp wood. Arranged on the ground beside him were a blue graniteware coffeepot and a couple of skillets. The idea of grilled beef and frijoles drew me like a magnet.
"Hola." I jumped the last brown torrent and made my way up the sandy bank to the inn.
"Morning." The immortal looked up from under the brim of his dripping hat. "Welcome to the Hollywood Canteen."
"This is where Hollywood's going to be, isn't it?" I dropped my bag and help my hands down to the little fire. "Funny thought."
My informant stretched out an arm to point, trailing the fringe of his serape through dead leaves. "Chinese Theatre and Hollywood Bowl right down there. Paramount Studios out in that direction. If you've got eighty years to hang around we can go for breakfast at the Warner Brothers' commissary."
"I'll settle for what you've got." I eyed the skillets; last night's leftovers, cold and congealed. I looked around for something dry to add to the fire.
"So you're Mendoza?" inquired my host. He was lean and dark, with a thin black moustache and a sad villainous face, villainously scarred. The scars were all appliance makeup, of course, but they gave him the look that sends liquor store owners diving behind counters for their shotguns. I nodded in reply.
"Porfirio." He reached across the fire and shook hands with me. "I'm your case officer, sub-facilitator and security tech. Nice to meet you."
"Thanks. Is it dangerous here?"
"Oh, yeah," he said. He took up an oak log and tried stripping the wet cork layer off. "We don't get much trouble over this way, but you want to be careful when you ride out." He broke the log between his hands and fed it carefully into the coals. "Especially where you'll be working. Your temperate belt passes through some nasty bandits' nests." He was referring to the climactic anomaly that was my present assignment, a long terrace roughly following the future route of Sunset Boulevard, where an unusual weather pattern had evolved some plants unique to the area, several of which had potentially remarkable commercial properties. Unfortunately they were all scheduled to go extinct in the next big drought, grazed out of existance by starving cattle.
"Bandits?" I was profoundly annoyed. "They told me I was going to be working in Beverly Hills!"
He was really amused by that. "Oh, you will be! It just isn't there yet. What, were you planning on having a cocktail in the Polo Lounge? You've got a while to wait if you want to see the mansions and the swimming pools." The fire blazed up at last and he edged the skillets in toward its heart. "Come on, little fire, come on, we want some breakfast. Where's your horse, by the way?" He looked up in surprise as it occurred to him I'd walked in.
"I don't have one."
"You're kidding me! Nobody walks down here. We've got a good stable you can choose from," he said firmly.
"That's okay. I don't care for horses, actually."
"I don't myself, but I ride them here. Trust me. You may need to get out of certain situations in a hurry. This is Los Diablos, after all." He put up a hand to stop my objections. "And don't think you can deal with the situation by just winking out at a speed mortals can't see. That may have been all right in the old days, but there are a lot of people out here now. It's too conspicuous. You'll need a horse. Everyone rides them. You'll need a gun too."
"A gun?" I sat back on my heels. "I've never carried a gun! You mean you've actually had to shoot people?"
He nodded somberly.
"But we were always trained -"
"I know." He pushed the coffeepot over the wavering flames. "The rules are different down here. You'll see."
"Who are you talking to?" Another operative emerged from the adobe, stooping below the wooden lintel of the door. He stood, sleepily scratching himself through a suit of long underwear worn under blue jeans. He gave a yawn that turned into a shiver.
"The botanist's here." Porfirio gestured at the skillet. "Mendoza, this is Einar. Einar, this is Mendoza."
"Zoologist Grade Five." He came forward and shook my hand, then crouched down beside us. "Fire's not doing so good, is it?"
It wasn't. It had sunk away from the coffeepot and was smoking out.
"Wood's wet," he said.
"No kidding," we told him. He was tall for one of us, with white-blond hair and eyes like ice caves. Spectral coloring aside, he was a nice-enough looking fellow.
"I was just giving her the safety lecture," Porfirio explained, handing him an oak log to break.
"Uhhuh." Einar snapped it into fragments. "Hey, Chief, did you tell her about where we are? The movie studios and everything?"
"Yes. I thought you could issue her one of the Navy pistols and give her a short training session with it." Porfirio took the kindling from him and fed it into the coals, where it caught.
"No problem." Einar poked up the fire and coaxed a few tongues of flame to rise. "Come on, I need some coffee! There. Yeah, and I can show you where all the neat stuff will be. A lot of early cinema is shot in these very canyons. De Mille, D.W. Griffith, Hal Roach. Tinseltown!"
"But there's nothing there to actually see yet, is there?" I said.
"Well, no. Except the familiar landscapes, you know. I just enjoy the atmosphere of it all." Einar waved another oak branch in the air. "I mean, here we are in the mundane West, as far west as you can go if you think about it, and everywhere all around us the West of the cinema - the true West, if you will - is just sort of immanent. Hovering in these canyons like a spirit, waiting to be born. Ghosts of the Future. All this greatness just about to happen, but not yet. We are the actors on the stage whose curtain hasn't even risen." His eyes were alight with enthusiasm.
"We're behind the scenes, you mean." Porfirio watched the fire doubtfully. A little thread of steam was rising from the mouth of the coffeepot, but the grease on the beefsteaks was still cold and waxy.
"Good morning, gentlemen," said yet another of my kind, stepping out into the courtyard. This one looked like a little Yankee lawyer or congressman, in a black suit of clothes and polished boots, with a cosmetically-induced receding hairline that featured a sharp widow's peak. His eyes bulged slightly when he saw me. "And lady. Why, you must be our new botanist. Pleased to meet you, Ma'am, I'm sure. Mendoza, wasn't it? Yes. Oscar, Grade 2 anthropologist, at your service."
I nodded at him. He put his hands in his pockets and came over to stand looking down at the fire. "Say, you know -"
"The wood's wet," Porfirio said.
"It is, isn't it? No, I was just thinking, wouldn't some of my cornbread go good with those steaks and beans? I'll just go fetch it out." He ran back indoors and Porfirio and Einar exchanged a disgruntled look.
"What?" I said.
"He tried making cornbread out of masa," Porfirio said. "He's very proud of it."
There was a gloomy silence. The trees dripped. There was a distinct rumble of thunder; from the sound of it, the storm front was approaching the site of the future Whiskey a'GoGo.
"This is Raymond Chandler country too, isn't it?" I said.
"Yeah." Einar brightened. "Laurel Canyon, Hollywood Boulevard. I could show you - "
"Here it is." Oscar came bustling out with a pan. He dropped it beside the guttering fire - there was an audible thud - hitched up his trousers, and crouched down to cut slices. "Miss?" He offered me a slab of solid grey cake.
"My, isn't this substantial," was all I could think to say.
He beamed. "Real stick-to-your-ribs food for a chilly morning, yes indeed." He stood again with his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth in his shiny shoes. So, Miss. You're in botanicals? What are you going out for, if I may presume to ask?"
"Um - rarities. I was told there's a lot of good specimens of Striata Pulchra I need to collect, as well as some mutations of common plants. Snowberry, Artemesias, that kind of thing. Creosote bush," I said. My job always sounds unbelievably boring to anyone but another botanist, so I didn't take offense when he blinked and forged on:
"You don't say? I'm in notions, myself. Of course that's just my cover, ha! ha! Actually I'm here to report on the impact of Yankee settlement on the local inhabitants - the decent ones, I mean - and document early Anglo-Californian culture."
"I've got the sweetest little cart you ever saw back there." He nodded in the direction of the stables. "Just a wonder of clever design. Only requires the work of one mule - seats two - sides unfold for the display of anything the locals could want to buy, from threepenny nails to dancing pumps - plus a complete photographer's apparatus - plus I can sleep in it, if I'm benighted somewhere and the weather's foul. I have but to fold down the seats and slide out the patented Collapsi-Cot!"
"Gosh, how clever."
"And, you know something? It's not Company issue! Not at all! The whole thing was made by a firm in Boston, Massachusetts!"
"Speaking of cots," said Einar, grinning. A female operative appeared in the door of the house and yawned expansively, stretching up her arms like a dancer. All I could see was a flowing wave of white ruffles on a fancy nightdress, of the kind I hadn't owned in years. When she brought her arms down in a slow dramatic gesture, I saw that the bosom was cut low enough to make her look like the heroine of a romantic novel. She gave a little toss of her head - lots of dark-ringleted hair whooshed from side to side - and raised startling green eyes to regard us.
"Imarte." I placed her.
"Would that be Mendoza?" She paced forward, pretending to peer at me through the gloom. "It is the botanist Mendoza, isn't it? I believe we worked together on the Humashup mission?"
"Yeah," I said.
"You were a friend of, ah, Joseph's." The corners of her lovely mouth turned down.
"That's right." I grinned with all my teeth. "And you're an anthropologist." She hadn't got on very well with my old pal and erstwhile mentor, as I recalled. In fact, there'd been a truly nasty incident, hadn't there? Well, this was going to be a fun posting.
"An insertion anthropologist," she corrected me, and Einar fell over in helpless giggles. Even Porfirio smiled under his moustache. Oscar turned red and looked at his shiny shoes. "I'm stationed in this culture on a semi-permanent basis, interacting with the mortal element in Los Angeles in order to observe them more closely, as opposed to an anthropologist like Oscar, who merely interviews," she said primly.
"She, uh, her cover identity is as a sort of a -" began Einar, but Imarte finished:
"A whore. And there's really no need to make a dirty joke out of it, you know. I've been a temple prostitute on numerous occasions during my career. Men speak the truth in bed, as the proverb goes, and what better place to gain valuable insights into the real life of a culture? And this is an astonishingly rich era for study. In one night I might have a conversation with a Yankee from New York who came west to pan for gold, followed by a Mexican outlaw whose family were massacred by Indians, followed by an Australian ex-convict who failed at piracy, followed by - well, followed by anybody." She tossed her head. "Why, during this period in history the whole world is passing through the Golden Gate!"
I don't think she was talking about the one in San Francisco. I blinked.
"You actually go to bed with all these people?" I said.
She lifted her chin at me. "What, should I feel degraded? Should we not consider it, rather, as a way for me to experience their lives more fully, more meaningfully? Particularly in view of the fascinating material I'm compiling on mid-19th-century mores and sexuality in California."
"Besides, any good stagecoach inn has at least one hooker," said Porfirio. "Makes our cover more authentic and contributes to our operating budget, too."
This was more than I cared to imagine. I looked at Porfirio. "So, okay ... I'd like to see my quarters after breakfast, if I could. I'm pretty tired."
"I'll bet you are, after walking all that way," said Porfirio.
"She walked here?" Oscar stared. Imarte looked appalled.
Then there was another person standing beside our almost-fire, so silent in his approach he seemed to have materialized there. He too was an immortal, but a young one; if you knew where to look you could still see the scars of his augmentations. Remarkably enough, he had been made from an Indian. I hadn't seen many of these. My guess was he had been born among the few survivors of the Channel Island tribes, because he had their silver hair. It used to be a fairly common color amongst Native American, but smallpox was swiftly winnowing it out of their gene pool, the way the Black Death had rendered extinct similar exotic strains among Europeans.
"Hi," he said.
"Where've you been this morning? You were out early," said Porfirio.
"I heard him crying," the boy said, and held up in his cupped hands a tiny writhing monster from outer space. "See? It's a baby condor. Gymnogyps Californianus. The mother hadn't come back to the nest in a while. I guess somebody shot her. I had to climb way, way back up the canyon to find him. Are you the new botanist?" He looked at me.
I nodded. "Mendoza. And you're - ?"
"Juan Bautista." He came closer to the fire and peered down at it. "We need some dry wood or something, huh?"
"Wait, I have an idea," said Einar, and jumped up and ran inside. A moment later he emerged with a case-bottle of clear liquid. "Homebrewed aguardiente." He strode toward us, uncorking it. "We tried it on a plum pudding and the damned thing burned for two hours. This'll do the job."
"Careful how you - " said Porfirio.
I threw myself flat and rolled. I heard Imarte scream. The fireball took out the cowhide tarp, but when I looked around cautiously there certainly was a merry blaze going, all right, flames five feet high. And breakfast was cooking at last: in fact the frijoles were on fire.
"SORRY ABOUT THAT," said Einar, from where he had retreated about thirty yards up the hillside.
"Couldn't you have been more careful?" complained Oscar, squelching up from the mouth of the canyon. "Now my shoes are wet."