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Mendoza in Hollywood
A Novel of the Company
By Kage Baker
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2000 Kage Baker
All rights reserved.
CAHUENGA PASS, 1862
* * *
I arrived 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 that was the last rain they were going to see for years. Before it rained again, Señor Drought and Señorita Smallpox and a few shrewd Yankee moneylenders would pretty well end the days of the gentes de razón. 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 by 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 trees 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 asked. I dropped my bag and held 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 Theater 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 mustache 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, subfacilitator, 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 bandit nests." He was referring to the climate 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 existence 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 that 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 said, sitting 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 said as he pushed the coffeepot over 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 with the skillet. "Mendoza, this is Einar. Einar, this is Mendoza."
"Zoologist grade 5." 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.
"Uh-huh." 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. DeMille, 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 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 a stage where the curtain hasn't 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 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, isn'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," said Porfirio.
"It is, isn't it? No, I was just thinking, wouldn't some of my corn bread 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 corn bread out of masa," Porfirio said. "He's very proud of it."
There was a gloomy silence. The trees dripped. There was a distant rumble of thunder; from the sound of it, the storm front was approaching the future site of the 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 the bread 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 gray 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 so? 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 back there you ever saw." 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 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-ringlet 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 mustache. Oscar turned red and looked at his shiny shoes. "I'm stationed in this culture on a semipermanent 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. 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 meant the one in San Francisco. I blinked.
"You actually go to bed with all these people?" I asked.
She lifted her chin at me. "What, I should 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-nineteenth-century mores and sexuality in California."
"Besides, any good stagecoach inn has at least one hooker," argued Porfirio. "It makes our cover more authentic, and contributes to our operating budget too."
This was more than I cared think about. I turned to 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," Porfirio said.
"She walked here?" Oscar asked, staring. 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'd been among the few survivors of the Channel Island tribes, because he had their silver hair. It used to be a fairly common color for Native Americans, but smallpox was swiftly winnowing it out of their gene pool, the way the Black Death had rendered extinct similar exotic strains in 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. "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 a clear liquid. "Home-brewed 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 was certainly 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," called 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."
Later Porfirio showed me to my quarters. I had a cot all to myself in a board-and-batten lean-to next to the adobe stable. It smelled of horses, it had a dirt floor, and water was seeping up the wooden legs of my cot; but the stretched cow skin over the frame was dry, and so was the woolen blanket, and there was a dry ledge on which to put my bag. As field accommodations went, not too bad. I sat down and pulled off my wet boots.
Now, señors, I think some of the reason for my subsequent lamentable behavior is evident right here in the next scene. I hung up my oilskins and shrugged into dry clothes, meditating smugly to myself that it didn't take much to make me happy nowadays. I was an old hand now, wasn't I? A couple of tamales and a dry place to put up my feet and read a novel were enough. I could make my own space anywhere they posted me, as a good operative should. Wisdom at last. Perhaps I'd attained enlightenment after tramping through that beautiful desolation all these years collecting specimens alone. Certainly I had equilibrium.
Well. Where pride flaunts such scarlet banners, blares such brazen trumpets, you know what follows.
I had turned in early, after walking up on the ridge above the house to get a feel for the land, making friends with the oak trees, exploring the rooms of the coaching inn, chatting a little more with my fellow operatives (the male ones anyway) most amiably and normally. I had endured a few hands of gin rummy with Juan Bautista and an hour or so of anecdotes from Oscar about his mortal customers before I excused myself on the grounds that I'd been conscious for forty-eight hours and needed some alpha waves badly. And so I retired to my spartan room, pleased with myself. I'd done well for my first day back among people, I thought. I ought to be able to handle this posting just fine.
Maybe it was having an actual bed to lie down in that did it. See, I'd got out of the habit of sleeping like mortals, all those years in the mountains. I know, we're not supposed to do it — but it's so convenient just to lean into a tree limb or an angle of rock and fugue out for a couple of days, especially when you're on your own schedule. You have no idea how restful it can be. You just sort of tune in to the patterns moving in the tree or the rock, and you forget you even exist.
Excerpted from Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker. Copyright © 2000 Kage Baker. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART ONE Establishing Shot,
PART TWO Babylon Is Fallen,
PART THREE The Island Out There,