The silver threaded dawn crawled ever so slowly over the San Gorgonio mountains that had stood as sentinels to the east of Never Land long before anyone had dreamed of it. That place where dreams fade as fast as a Sunday paper left too long in the hot morning sun. Forlorn memories simply left to rot out the rest of their lives in a place said to be, Lotus Land. The Spanish called it, The Land of Fire. Hot, even in December. No weather El Nino to rescue the Christ child this year from the hot dry east winds. Santa Anas. They come blowing out of the canyon gouged out by the river of the same name centuries ago. Huge ripping sand filled winds blasting out to where the river meets the sea and where the river meets it’s death. Just another death in the city of Lost Angels. No one bothers anymore with the deaths other than the cops, TV news people, a few relatives, and John Zen, PI. PI to the futilely hopeless faded phantoms of the past and future. Sucked dry by the devil winds.
With the advent of morning light the dust became visible as the sand filled air stretched for miles across the valley floor. The place the Indians called, the Valley of Smoke, long before the white man came and made it forever, the Valley of Smog. A dry skin itch crept up and over John Zen’s back up onto his head and over into his eyes as he tried to remember that kind of December when the rains and snow came and you could see for miles and miles. Clear, cold, white capped vistas where ever you looked. That crystal clear never ending vision of life and love. He pulled the last Pall Mall from the pack and threw the crumpled wrapper to the car floor. The sulfur from the kitchen match bit at his lungs and the grit from the wind made his eyes water as he lit the smoke. His watery eyes left tiny clots of sand in the corner of each eye. It was early in the day and he was already on a course to being miserable.
That split second when one realizes that things are not what they should be shook, John Zen, from his waking sleep of dreams and jolted him wide awake. Amos Fly, was not following his usual morning routine. Shit, Zen thought as he started the coupe then wheeled it past the sparse oncoming traffic with their horns blaring to wake the rest of the sleeping citizens. Double crap, he thought, but Amos Fly was oblivious to the horns and screeching tires. Or so it seemed. A man on a mission, thought, Zen. But what mission? The Fly man drove by his usual morning haunt, Dee’s Diner, and turned north towards the purple San Gabriels. The devil winds howling mad as a dog from hell rocked the sedan and coupe on their lonely journey. To where? Where is he going? Wondered, the PI. When the cars made it to the foothills, Amos Fly turned left onto San Gabriel Canyon Road. John Zen backed off as he knew Fly would spot him this time of day on that lonely stretch of road. He also knew that for the next 20 miles there was no where for the Fly to fly, not until the road met Azusa Canyon Road. With the wind rocking and pushing the car to and fro, John Zen, settled back and cursed the fact he was out of smokes. A gigantic hurricane force blast of dust and leaves almost pushed the car into the ravine on the right side of the road. The winding snake like road was deadly even in the best of weather. He slowed down even further.
Zen grabbed the wheel with one hand and almost broke it in half. With his other hand he rummaged through the glove box looking for another pack of smokes. His hand found what he was looking for, a fresh pack of Pall Mall reds. Vivian, my light and hope, he thought, always there to take care of me. He managed to get the pack open without driving off the road. He lit a smoke and sucked it deeply into his nicotine starved lungs. Exhaling and filling the car with it’s sweet smoke the coupe found an open straight stretch of road…and no Amos Fly.
Jolted again to the point of almost losing control of the coupe Zen slammed on the breaks and put the car sideways on the white center line. Recovering he pulled over to the right side of the road where there was a small turn out stopped and got out. To be sure Amos Fly had flown, he thought, but where? There were no other roads for miles. Getting back in the car he turned it around and drove slowly back retracing his drive. With the morning light getting brighter by the moment the bottom of the ravine was no longer in shadows but clearly visible. Zen was able to see if Fly had gone over the edge into the long fall to his death and the other side into darkness. Almost back to the point where the road began it became clear that Fly was probably alive and that he must be some sort of magician. Turning around once again he stopped the car and lit another smoke. Where could he have flown? John, wondered.
Then like the blast of a short round it hit him. Electrifying his body with a charge that lifted him off the front seat of the coupe. Amos Fly, wasn’t a magician after all. He must have one of those funny little keys for the locks Southern California Edison used on the fire roads. Not really roads but fire breaks in the mountains and canyons that were carved out in the rocks and scrub to slow the wild fires on their drive to the valley floor and humanity.
Crap, Zen, thought, as he put the car in gear and drove slowly west again. This time looking at the hillside instead of down into the ravine. Looking towards the hillside for the fire roads. A bit later he saw it. Almost covered by the limbs of a large ancient oak tree it sat hidden as it veered to the right. Zen pulled in and stopped. Yes, he thought, even with the winds howling he could tell someone had stopped there. John saw the tire tracks left in the sand. Tire tracks not yet blown away by the wind. Sure enough, one of the locks on the iron pole gate was an Edison lock. He slid his own Edison key into the lock and it opened. Shit, that’s how he did it. While re-locking the gate he spotted where the car had made it’s u turn and then waited for his car to pass. I’ll never find him now, he thought. Amos Fly was gone like the leaves of the liquid amber tree in the fall. Blown to God knows where.
By the time John Zen got over feeling sorry for himself and the lose of Amos Fly, he realized he was hungry. Slipping the coupe back into gear he drove east and back the way he had come. The wind still rocking the car but not as badly as before. The bright sun had that effect on the winds. Sometimes lulling you into a false sense of, ah, it’s over. Only to come back with a vengeance as the sun faded into the west. A vengeance only the dogs of hell could muster or the devil Santa Anas. Almost back to civilization John left the lonely twisting road. It would stay lonely until the weekend when college and high school kids drunk on booze and life would, if they were lucky, manage to kill only a few of themselves on it’s winding path.
Turning right he made that long straight downhill ride to Route 66. He lit another smoke and pondered his next move. After another right onto Route 66 itself. Forty or fifty yards later he pulled into the parking lot of Dee’s Diner. While shutting off the engine he looked over the other cars in the lot and didn’t spot Fly’s sedan. Getting out Zen stretched then walked to the front door of the diner. He was thinking this is a strange joint. Just an old railroad dining car turned into a restaurant, painted red, white, and blue, sitting out here in the vineyards. Opening the door the smell of good food over took his thoughts. A voice came out of the steam of the grill. It came from a portly Italian man wearing a white apron over a white tee shirt.
“Hey, pal, whadda ya have?”
“We got the best chili and French dip this side of Philippe’s.”
“Gimme both. I missed breakfast.”
“Coming right up.”
When the food appeared John asked the man about Amos Fly.
“Yeah, I know the guy. He doesn’t say much and he’s always using the phone. Tips good though.”
The food was delicious, and John Zen said so. He left a hefty tip and went out to his car. Back out in the parking lot the air was almost still with only short heaving gusts of wind leaving the air hot in that strange winter time hot of the valleys. He got into his car and lit a smoke.