Who: Rhiannon, NPC Augustus/Whistler When: 9:48pm Where: Sunset Road, between Paradise and Eastern Warnings: Language
In most cities, there were unofficial places where locals gathered to watch planes takeoff from the major airports. Sometimes they were weed-choked lots on the edge of access roads. Others, they were unused parking spaces at hotels that served flight crews and people with long layovers. Las Vegas had elevated the experience by paving a narrow strip where plane-spotters could legally squat and watch the big jets at McCarran for free, just as long as they cleared out between 11PM and 5AM.
The strip ran parallel to the biggest runways, less than a few hundred feet from where the planes took off and landed. The air was acrid with rubber and exhaust. A radio tuned to FM 101.1 might pick up conversations between air traffic control and the pilots. An avid spotter would swear that every once in a while, an unmarked Boeing 737-600 or 737-200 would take off from the infamous, not-officially-on-the-books JANET Airlines. Urban legend had it that the Air Force and AECOM used it to transport high-ranking officials to and from Area 51. JANET stood for ‘Just Another NonExistent Terminal.’
Vegas loved its mysteries as much as its magic.
On one such night, a charcoal-gray Dodge Challenger was parked on the end. Its driver stood at the chainlink fence and watched as a commercial flight from Atlanta made its descent, thirty minutes past schedule thanks to a weather delay on the east coast. She thought about the smell aboard the plane, the ache of cramped limbs, and the strange quality of people’s voices after a long, quiet flight and a couple of ear pops. Rhiannon didn’t care for those parts of flying but she liked the idea of going places.
A few parking spaces away, air traffic control drifted from an open window. ‘... Hold position, after departure climb to altitude…’
A black Impala ghosted to a stop just about 10 feet from the Challenger.
The driver’s door opened, and a pair of legs, draped in black pants, swung out and onto the gravel. It’s occupant slowly climbed out of the driver’s seat, paused, leaned back in. Retrieved a fedora that had seen better days. Affixed on his head, he retraced his movements and extricated himself from the vehicle.
A pack of Lucky’s were fished from his breast pocket, a single cigarette shaken free. He brought the end to his lips before replacing the soft pack in its resting place. He dug into his jacket and produced a silver-plated zippo. Fire danced with the striking of flint and smoke billowed from the corners of his mouth as he exhaled.
“Had a dream once,” the voice had a New York accent, muddied by years of travel. “Somebody blew up this entire airport. And that was just the opening salvo. I remember concentration camps, laboring in mines and… underpants?”
Rhiannon watched him. One foot had crossed over the other, her boots creaking pleasantly in the thick night air as she listened to the man talk. A dark eyebrow arched. “That’s dismal.” The hunter considered whether to tell him to take a hike or entertain this conversation.
She liked his hat.
After going around the fender and leaning into the open window of her car, she emerged with a pack and thumbed up the lid. “Can I borrow that? I’m out of lighter fluid.” Rhiannon put a cigarette between her lips as she approached. “I know. I’m a terrible smoker.”
An even worse nonsmoker.
“The underpants were kinda tattered,” the man joked. “Still did it’s job. Dunno why I even mentioned it. I guess you seemed the sort who’d seen weird shit. Whatcha call it? Oh yeah. Relatable.”
He tossed her the zippo.
“So you’re not a professional smoker, then?” And he wondered, what does a professional smoker look like? Do they wear red velvet evening jackets with patched elbows, a coiffed moustache (or if you were a girl, a bleached one) and carry special soap to scrub out the stains on your fingers? Do they own mouth guards that keep their teeth white? He shook his head. Tangents. Always going off on tangents. The idea was to clear his head while watching huge iron birds take off and land, not internally debate smoking etiquette.
Whistler held the cigarette to his lips and inhaled again, wishing he’d owned that special soap.
Rhiannon caught the lighter. She ignited her cigarette and took a breath. As smoke drifted from her open mouth and nose, tinting the air a silvery-white, the brunette studied the well-kept object in her hand. Such things had a memory. Like her cigarette case with its filigree and engraving. Her own lighter had seen many miles, but not as many as the old-fashioned, rectangular case, or this one in her left hand. “I only play one on TV. Speaking of relatable.” Rhiannon passed it back to him as she walked to his car. “I like old cars. Especially yours.”
With her hand propped on the roof, she was able to look inside without too much secondhand smoke going in to spoil the upholstery. What she saw made her laugh. Rhiannon leaned back to look at him. “Is that a dashboard pinup girl?”
He popped the lighter back into his jacket and followed the brunette to the Impala. “Her name’s Doreen. Spin her upside down, and her top comes off.” Somehow, he thought she wouldn’t be too offended. “This baby’s taken me to Hell and back. Appreciate your ride, too. Ya can tell she’s loved. Uh, assuming she’s a she.” It was the twenty-first century; cars could be transgender now. “Crap. That was offensive,” he quickly recovered. “Didn’t mean to misgender yer car.”
Whistler took a slow drag of the cigarette, wishing the smoke could hide his embarrassment.
Rhiannon leaned back and watched him struggle. “Wow. You are awkward.” She turned around to face him. “Your ears are turning red.” Her hand came up to deliver the Lucky to her mouth, nicotine to lungs, as she took in the details of a man who was about an inch shorter than her. A quick intake of air and she said, “It’s a car. Just a car. No offense taken.”
There was a burst of air traffic control chatter. An airplane taxied down the runway and took off, its noise making an unnatural break in the conversation.
She switched hands and held the right one out for him to shake. “Rhiannon. She/her.”
His eyes trailed from the departing plane back to Rhiannon. He took her hand and shook it firmly. “Whistler. He/him/awkward.”
Whistler shifted ever so slightly, transferring the weight from his left foot to his right. The soles of his shoes were worn to the point he could feel every pebble on the road beneath him. Which he preferred. It let him know precisely where he was.
“You wanna slide behind the wheel for a feel?”
“Of your car or Doreen?”
Rhiannon dropped her cigarette on the pavement and stamped out the embers. Before making a decision, she peered into the back. “Making sure there’s no man with a rusty hook.” The hunter opened the door and let the heaviness and sound of it transport her back in time to her mother’s car, which sat empty in their single-car garage all her youth until it no longer worked. She dropped behind the large steering wheel and ran her fingers over it and the gear shift. She reached across and gave voluptuous Doreen a gentle nudge.
“It’s in great shape for a car that’s been to Hell. Did you buy it new?” she asked Whistler. While there, Rhiannon looked around for obvious clues of who he was and where he’d been: things like inspection stickers, trash, an ice scraper, a sunshade, maps, a weapon, or a pair of fuzzy dice.
An eyebrow quirked as he caught the brunette’s inflection on Hell. She was intuitive. And curious, given how she scanned the Impala for clues to its owner. While Rhiannon was studying him, Whistler considered her. Rhiannon was well toned; even seated behind the wheel of his car, she seemed ready to pivot and react at a moment’s notice. He wondered if she’d been an athlete in school.
“I keep the weapons in the trunk,” he snorted. It was hard to tell if he was serious.
“Me, too.” She tipped her head. “All except one.” The brunette felt along the underside of the seat and the bottom of the door, looking for a panel, or even a strap, to conceal one trusted friend that couldn’t be relegated to the trunk or left someplace so obvious as a glove compartment, where a cop might find it.
“Yer lookin’ in the wrong place. Roll down the window.”
Rhiannon eyed him. She took hold of the window crank. “I swear to God, if you’re about to unleash a pun on me…” She worked it in a counterclockwise direction and waited to see what would happen.
As the window disappeared into the door frame, a barely audible clack could be heard. A compartment overhead just akin to the windshield slanted open. “No puns.”
Rhiannon’s smile was a slow, beautiful thing. Instincts still intact. She reached up and ran her finger carefully along the hidden shelf. “Tell the truth. How many times have you popped this open when all you wanted was some fresh air?” She stopped short of reaching inside for a weapon, as he might perceive it as an offensive move, and also touching another person’s weapon was just plain rude.
The hunter directed her attention to him instead, smoking in his old-fashioned hat. She kept one foot on the solid ground.
“It was a learning curve. But you didn’t suspect it, and somethin’ tells me you have your own tricks up your sleeve.” Whistler took another drag of the cigarette before he dropped it to the asphalt and stubbed it out with the heel of his boot. “And yeah, had it custom built when I bought it brand new off the lot.”
The idea that the brunette had her own cache of weapons in the trunk intrigued him. “You mind me askin’, you’re a hunter, yeah?”
“Hm.” She studied the expression on his face. “This seems like a conversation I should have standing up.” Rhiannon climbed back out of the Chevrolet and closed the door. Another plane made its way onto the tarmac from an unknown destination, this one smaller. The strangeness of this moment — maybe strange wasn’t the right word, but this was not an ordinary way to meet a new person — made Rhiannon wonder how random it was.
“Yeah. I’m a hunter. Who’s asking?” She scrutinized him under the shadowed brim of the hat.
“Someone who’s been in the fight a lot longer than you and your family.” No reason to omit facts. If Rhiannon was going to trust him, Whistler needed to be as transparent as glass. “I’m a messenger o’ sorts. Kinda. I work with… who am I kiddin’, I work for beings who are interested in keepin’ the balance between man and monster. Makin’ sure the scales don’t tip too far in any one direction.”
Rhiannon laughed softly. “Fancy. You could’ve omitted that first part. Hunters sacrifice enough to not have time thrown in our faces. What is it with immortal beings and pissing contests over time? What is it with immortal beings and me? I must have a big, blinking light over my head that says talk to me.”
She went to sit on the warm hood of her car. High in the sky, Rhiannon could see aircraft amongst the gauzy clouds and the light pollution that cloaked the stars.
“Because you’re important.” Whistler took out another Lucky and lit it with his zippo. “Why else would the dark one seek you out?”
Rhiannon put a finger to her lips. “Shh. If you’re about to get started on her, you should know I’m not taking any more feedback from external forces. I’m carving my own path.” She waited for a crescendo of jet noise, then continued in a louder voice as it dwindled away. “If, on the other hand, you want to watch planes and hang out?” She patted the spot beside her. “You’re interesting enough and I find you weirdly compelling.”
The hatted man shuffled over and eased himself up onto the hood of the Challenger next to the hunter. He inhaled deeply from the cigarette and blew out the smoke. Weirdly compelling. “I’ve been called worse,” he mused. “You ever wonder if vampires take planes? I mean, getting above the clouds and all, some serious sunburn if their window’s open. Granted, the newer models have black-out windows so that’s somethin’.”
He took another drag. “I’m not here on some mission, Rhiannon. But I did get told about you. Guess I wanted to see what the hype was about.”
She stared at this profile. He could have opened with that.
“No pressure.” Rhiannon pulled her heels up onto the bumper to get comfortable. “Vampires do take planes. Red-eyes. They can take the day flights but they get kinda twigged about being rendered weak and powerless. Imagine that.”
He was killing her with that second cigarette but she didn’t go for round two. Instead she twirled a ring around her thumb. “Were you always like this or is there a prior version of you somewhere in the timeline? Some kid with a normal name that isn’t Whistler?”
He noted the hunter play with her ring and decided not to offer a cigarette, as he’d recognized the sign of distraction. Whistler tried to quit smoking once. But then a world war broke out and no one needed that kind of pressure. “Augustus.” He winced at the name. Not just because it was embarrassing, but it also dated him. The man’s timeline stretched further than the airfield in front of them.
Voices squawked through the radio as another airplane taxied down the runway, a tiny jet carrying a lone passenger. “What brought you out here tonight?”
“Thinking.” Rhiannon considered the best way to explain it. “Before I came here, I used to climb on top of buildings and watch all the traffic. Here they're all two-stories or skyscrapers with nothing in between. If I’m not in the city, sometimes I’ll park beside the highway and watch people go by. It’s like I’m still around people, but there’s distance. I see them, but no one really sees me. I like it like that. Hell is other people, right?”
“Hell is a lot of things,” he responded, matter-of-factly. “Including family.” Like mine.
Whistler took a long drag of the cigarette, wisps of smoke blown out his nose and mouth. The warmth from the hood made him wish he had seat warmers in the Impala. “What’s got you thinkin’ then?”
Rhiannon watched the swirl of smoke. “A job,” she said. “One that could change life as we know it if I fail. Suck all the meaning out of it. I got a taste of what that would be like?” She looked at her companion. “Wasn’t great. I thought I knew numbness. I do not.”
She took a knife out of its hidden place on her belt and showed him a thin, clean line on the outside of her forearm. “I’m not into self-harm that doesn’t come in a cigarette or a bottle, but I cut myself afterwards just to make sure everything still worked. It stung like a motherfucker.”
“If you fail?” His eyes trailed the cut made by the knife. “How bad are we talkin’?”
Rhiannon said, “I’ve never fought anything like it and I can’t let it get its hands on me. But if I fail, if everyone fails, we won’t care for very long. We won’t be able to. We’ll all be automatons. Houseplants.” She put the knife away. “But that’s not why I’m here. I started thinking about being human — or anything like it — and how it’s this collection of experiences, emotions, connections, daydreams. When I felt it pull away from me, I grieved for the strangest things. Unexpected things.”
“New apocalypse, who dis?” Whistler tried to lighten the mood.
And based on the hunter’s expression, failed horribly.
His face drained of its color. “I should’ve known. Jesus fuck.” For someone used to pulling strings to maintain the balance, Whistler didn’t enjoy being on the receiving end. He slipped off the hood of the Challenger, feet landing hard on the concrete. The hatted man flicked his cigarette into the air. The wind caught it mid-flight and sent it flying back at him. Hands fanned his torso, trying to keep the burning end at bay.
“Thank God that’s not polyester,” she mused. The cigarette bounced off her boot and rolled towards the chain link fence, where it burnt a single weed to a crisp. He was kind of a mess, she thought, a mishmash of mysterious stranger, the Blues Brothers, and the Three Stooges, with a great accent. Nothing about him lent itself to a name like Augustus. Maybe that was the appeal of him. He wasn’t arrogant.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let the world end.” Rhiannon propelled herself off the hood with a squeak of fiberglass. “I’ve got Heaven and Hell on my side for this one and I like exceeding expectations.”
“So... yer covered then.” That swung his theory one hundred and eighty degrees. Whistler wasn’t there to back up the hunter like he supposed.
Rhiannon’s eyes searched left and right. “Yeeaah?” The silence between them stretched into eternity. Then a dawning of understanding. “Oh. Are you usually the Obi-Wan to Leia? The only hope? And you don’t know what else to do if it’s not that?” The hunter pressed her lips together in an effort not to smile, but her eyebrows were telling the story. “Aren’t you supposed to be a messenger?” If his higher beings or whatever had sent him out to meet a hunter at an airfield with no physical description and no actual message, she had an idea why he looked so disheveled.
“Don’t mock the Star Wars. I worked damned hard to make that happen. Except Jar-Jar. I had no hand in that.” Well, this was awkward. He could tell the hunter was stifling a laugh. And why wouldn’t she? They sent him to find Rhiannon without explicit instructions as to why. He’d assumed to back up whatever play she was about to make. But it became crystal clear that the brunette had already covered her bases and didn’t require a pinch runner on second base.
There was a reason for all of this. Whistler just didn’t know what it was. And for a half-demon/half-human meant to keep the balance, he didn’t like it when he fell off the beam.
Rhiannon crooked a finger at him. Her mouth angled toward his closest ear. “Maybe I’m the messenger.” Anyone who thought he was the reason the Star Wars franchise existed could clearly use some assistance. “Let’s examine the evidence. I’m assuming they told you to park your car by an airfield and look for a hunter. I don’t see anyone else fitting the bill. Only I'm not desperate for anything. I've already had my late-night visitor de la semaine. So why are you here? How have you been lately?”
“Wasting both our time, apparently.” Whistler pivoted on one foot, facing the hunter. Brim of hat to her nose. “I’m not some lap dog who rolls over when told. Generally, I go where I’m needed to give a push to people who need it. Usually they don’t shove back.”
Whistler turned away. “Clearly you’ve got everything in hand and don’t need my help. Sorry to bother ya.” He walked toward his car.
“Holy shit.” Rhiannon watched him retreat. “I didn’t shove. I just didn’t need anything. If that has you feeling some kind of way, that’s for you to figure out when you’re staring at the hotel ceiling at night.”
Now she did get up and dig into her car for that pack of cigarettes, momentarily forgetting about the empty Zippo. Rhiannon sat down and cranked the engine. She scoured her middle console for the old car lighter, blew dust out of the coils, and jammed it into the port. The time it took to heat up and pop out seemed like an eternity.
The hunter cupped her hand around it and lit up. The situation was ludicrous. It was like a UPS driver showing up on her doorstep with empty hands and no clue why he had her address. A song by the Kills picked up where it left off. Rhiannon leaned against the headrest and let her arm hang out the open window.
The situation was ludicrous. Why send him to her without a plan? Why insert himself into her narrative, however briefly, just to be (rightly) rebuffed because he had nothing to offer?
Whistler climbed back into his Impala and drummed his hands against the steering wheel. It’s not like he was gonna see the hunter again. He could count on one hand the number of people he’d interacted with more than once since he began working for those Above and Below.
He turned the key in the ignition.
Rhiannon turned the radio down. She flicked her ashes and looked across at him. “Hey… Hey.” Their cars idled, two low noises in the parking lot. “Why’d you drive to Hell?”
The car rumbled in place. “To save my best friend.” He paused. “I failed.”
Rhiannon processed that. “I’ve never had one,” she said a moment later. “A friend I'd call ‘best.’ My friends are either arm’s length people, or they kill people.” She reconsidered whether there were actually two columns. “Usually both. That Venn diagram is heavy with overlap.” She passed her hands over one another. “But I’d go to Hell for someone I loved. I’m sorry it didn’t work.”
Whistler pulled out a cigarette, and rolled it between index finger and thumb.
“It’s what keeps me on this path, prevents me from callin’ it quits” he offered. “Givin’ others the chance to work it out.” The hatted man couldn’t bring himself to light it. “I hope you find that someone, Rhiannon. It makes the fight worthwhile.”
“I’m not alone. I have a boyfriend.” Rhiannon turned off the car. “But I do choose my friends too carefully,” she admitted. “I look for people like me. Closer to the middle. It doesn’t always matter which side they’re on. It does help if they don’t bullshit but I guess that’s not fertile BFF ground.”
Whistler stalled his engine.
Now he pulled out his zippo and lit the cigarette, taking a deep drag of the tobacco. “When you find it,” he waved the cigarette into the air, “it’ll click into place. Like an anchor keeping you from being dragged out with the undertow. And you’ll call each other out on their bullshit. Hell, you could end up fightin’ ‘em with fists one day and still be able to forgive ‘em the next.”
“But what the fuck do I know? I dunno why I’m even here.” Whistler smiled. It was a sad smile, one of a man who was missing his anchor.
Rhiannon stared at him. “Someone hit you with a closed fist?” There wasn’t any sympathy, only growing amusement. “I’m trying to picture it. Did you get blood on your shirt? Maybe a little dribble… right here?” She pointed to the center of her chest, where someone might drop their ketchup.
The cigarette glowed brighter near her face.
Whistler chuckled softly. “I ain’t fallin’ for the ‘made ya look’ bit.” Curiosity, however, was getting to him. He’d had a cheeseburger an hour earlier. With ketchup. So, it was feasible.
You could cut the tension with a butter knife.
The hatted man dug through his glove compartment. Road maps were tossed onto the passenger seat as he retrieved an In ‘N Out napkin. “I’ll have ya know, I can give as good as I get.” It probably would’ve been more believable if he weren’t furiously trying to get ketchup off his shirt.
Rhiannon didn’t argue the point. A 5’7” woman didn’t look capable of all she could do. Instead, she stubbed her cigarette in an empty cup. “It’s the hat. You look straight out of the Prohibition era. I didn’t notice, are you wearing suspenders?” She leaned up to squint across the distance. As someone habitually in jeans, Rhiannon was loath to admit it that she did admire the old-fashioned, Sunday best aesthetic, at least on men.
“Do sock suspenders count?” he asked.
“Jesus.” Rhiannon ran a knuckle across her eyebrow. He had taken the look to cosplay levels. She imagined what would happen if she was fooling around with a man and he took off his pants and had to unclip his socks. Maybe this was why there were so many jokes about men leaving their socks on during sex.
“How old are you supposed to be? I don’t mean in actual years. I mean this.” Rhiannon pointed at him and made a circular gesture.
“I find somethin’ comfortable, I stick with it. Don’t panic yerself, I’m wearin’ proper underwear.” Whistler took a long drag of the cigarette, letting the smoke billow out the window. “Ya think I’m named Augustus as a lark?”
He realized he hadn’t answered the hunter’s question. “I’m partial to the forties and fifties.”
“Fascinating.” Rhiannon looked out her windshield as a plane landed and its wheels bounced on the runway, giving everyone aboard a rough jostle. Being partial to a decade meant he might have the option to choose, rather than having been stuck at whatever age he was when the job came calling. “I would’ve guessed… a thirty-one-year-old dressed like a sixty-year-old. For a smoker, you don’t wrinkle.”
Her attention wandered to the air traffic control tower, alive with activity and blinking lights; pilots were given instructions, guided home or aloft, their courses altered, disasters averted... A system built on trusting what they couldn't see, but someone else could. “I think this is the part where you give me a piece of advice that will only make sense in the heat of battle. I'll pretend I’m on the fence about believing it, but when it works and I win, you’ll be in the distance tipping your hat.”
Whistler gave it some thought. “Go for the balls.”
Rhiannon’s forehead hit her steering wheel. “It doesn’t have balls,” she moaned. Sighing, she took a pen and paper out of her glove box and wrote on it. Then she got out of the Challenger and walked it to Whistler’s open car window. “When the lightning bolt comes, text me.”
“You were gonna say, ‘and don’t tell me you don’t have a cell phone’. Admit it.” Whistler reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced the latest iPhone. He took the paper and typed in Rhiannon’s number into his contact list. There were five names, total. “Lightning bolt.” The hunter’s phone pinged. “Now you know it’s me.”
Rhiannon ignored it. “Get out of my head.” She reached into the car and flicked the brim of his hat, knocking it askew. “See you around, Whistler.” The walk back to her car was brief but it was enough time for a happiness to show up on the hunter’s face.