Updated: May 7, 2019
There were three bullets. 9mm. They lay at the bottom of a stainless-steel soup ladle. It was lowered into a large, black cauldron containing what appeared to be too little water for such an ample container. But it was enough liquid to submerge the ammo. His hand left the ladle, and a mumbled prayer escaped his taut lips.
The benediction, and rite, of a novice.
A Catholic, a Jew, a Hindu, and an atheist walked into a bar.
Not at the exact same time, but in they walked as they had every Thursday evening for nearly four years. They had been coming since the night of the four visions, or dreams. Call them what you like.
On each of the fifth sunsets, be gathered within the out door, apart the cashless society, where the silver becomes the gold.
Curtis Massey, the Catholic, was the first to arrive this evening. He entered to the stink of smoke, but it wasn’t the usual cigarette choke. A white man in a whiter hat sat at the bar burning a piece of notebook paper.
Bartender Grant accepted payment from a rosy-cheeked regular with a thick leather wallet as he spotted Massey heading for his usual table. It was round, wooden, and aged. It wasn’t far from the old jukebox—a machine filled not with computer files or even compact discs but 45-rpm vinyl records. A prostitute leaned against it and dropped in some change. A portly old black fellow known as Knuckles halted the ragtime tune he’d been pounding out on the dusty upright piano. He played when the jukebox wasn’t. He’d then resume his job of tidying up the bar. But he never dusted that piano. It was a lot like Knuckles: slightly out of tune but loaded with character. He nodded at Massey as he picked up a chair, toppled by a drunk who’d been cut off and shown the door. Knuckles never showed much affection, but he had a bond with Massey because they were frequently the only African Americans in the place.
There were two other ladies present, seated at opposite ends of the bar. One was a call girl, from the same stable as the woman at the jukebox. The other had been twice mistaken for a hooker today. Quite irksome. She had come alone after a dispute with her boyfriend and was drowning her troubles. Not much different from the fellow burning the note, but nobody had offered him money for sex.
“A change is gonna come.”
That’s what Sam Cooke assured from the jukebox speakers. The hookers hated that there was no current music on there, but they’d grown fond of Cooke’s soothing voice. They found it sexy, and they were sure he was delivering a positive message.
The sun was almost gone, and it was time for Knuckles to plug in the longstanding neon sign atop the establishment, which stood alone by a stretch of road just off Interstate 15. Surrounded by desert and mountains, this was a place that was mainly supported by locals but also welcomed the many driving between California and Las Vegas. It was just minutes from the border, on the Golden State side. The sign hummed as it flickered to life: The Out Door Inn.
When each of them awoke, their first thoughts were that they’d had a dream. The most lucid and comprehensible dream imaginable, but just a dream. They had been spoken to and given detailed instructions by something that appeared to be the sun.
Befriend the law. Though not rife with belief, rife with purity of heart.
That was part of it, along with the stuff about the cashless society and the fifth sunset. It was very real yet still confusing. But then, very quickly, things became quite clear. The four men who had had this vision did not know each other and were miles apart when it came over them.
Each of them awoke with a blistering rash that had overtaken them as they slept, even Massey, whose ebony shell had never been torched this way. Each of them got into their respective vehicles and drove instinctively, without map or GPS, toward the desert. They arrived within minutes of each other, standing in the shade of a mountain, dust at their feet. That was the day they first met. Brought together that morning in the middle of nowhere by something they could not understand. They talked about their visions. Each one identical. They learned about each other. None of them shared the same religious beliefs. Each lived alone. All in their mid-thirties. To the east stood a lone structure, small, ringed by cactus, brushed by tumbleweed, and touched by the shadow of a Yucca palm, or, as many say, a Joshua tree.
The Out Door Inn.
They knew that was where it was to be. Whatever and whenever it was. They reasoned that “where the silver becomes the gold” must refer to the nearby border between the Silver and Golden states. They discussed more of this riddle—this mission, perhaps—for which they had been chosen. The four men got in their cars and drove to the inn. Naturally, it was closed this early in the day. A lizard scattered as Massey read a sign in the window. Cash Only.
That took care of the “apart the cashless society” puzzle. In time they determined the “fifth sunsets” to mean Thursday nights. Simple math.
They bitched to each other about why this divine vision couldn’t just cut the crap and be straightforward. Why the theatrical conundrum?
Then they stopped laughing, got in their cars, and drove to a CVS for some skin cream.
Curtis Massey hadn’t waited more than a few minutes before the rest of them arrived. First came Stephen, the Jewish businessman who owned three inexpensive but successful shops in the lower- end casinos in Vegas. Right behind him was Vir, an Indian doctor with Hindu beliefs. The last to enter the bar was McKenna, a small-town deputy from thirty miles deeper into California. He was still in uniform, as always, with a Stetson atop his curly blond mat. He wore a vintage California Angels baseball jacket over his police duds. Deputy McKenna didn’t believe in God.
Here they were again on another Thursday evening at the Out Door Inn. It was the 204th consecutive Thursday. Even Thanksgivings were spent at the bar. Despite the fierce protestations of the others, McKenna had missed three of the gatherings, but the others had been to every one, through weather, sickness, or family tragedy. They couldn’t tell you why, but they knew they had to be there. The time and the reason would come.
...and that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast...
There had been a number of times when doubt would arise in one or another of them.
“Why do we keep coming here when nothing ever happens?”
One time McKenna drank too much and was puking in the men’s room. Massy spent those same moments in the face of a doubtful Stephen, telling him in no uncertain terms that it was all a test. If they could come every week for years on end with nothing to show for it, they’d prove themselves worthy. Another time it was Stephen who had to bring Massey to his senses. It was one of the nights without McKenna. He’d been stuck on a police matter. Massey was sure that “mark of the beast” referred to a tattoo that a group of rowdy bikers had on their foreheads. They came roaring into the bar, loud and strong, taking command of the jukebox and dartboard. Some took to the men’s room with prostitutes. Massey tried to convince his friends that the time was at hand. He was sure this was the night of their calling, and McKenna wasn’t even there. Stephen literally had to smack his bigger, stronger friend across the face while Vir got between them. It was all captured on Bartender Grant’s rudimentary security camera, which was hooked into a rather primitive backroom VCR. He had viewed the tape and reminded them the following week that he wouldn’t stand for violent behavior.
“When it is our time, we will all know!” Stephen shouted at Massey during the incident.
Massey came to his senses when he saw one of the bikers helping Knuckles repair a faulty piano key, right about the same time the leader of the gang bought drinks for everyone to apologize for their commotion. He personally carried a pitcher of beer to their table and asked them to tell him if they had any complaints about any member of his crew. Massey and Stephen had some of the beer, and Vir had a few sips. None of them drank much. Never had.
This night was no different. They’d ordered a pitcher; they had to or else risk blowing their cover. They’d mix in a few colas as well. Besides not wanting to cloud their minds, they just weren’t drinkers. It was one of the traits that seemed to bind them. None of them had ever been married or had children. They were all far away from any real family. While McKenna had long thought nothing of religion, the others believed in a higher power but had never been extremely religious. In fact, they had each been almost shunned by their families for not practicing their religions with vigor.
But they were all good people.
Massey knew men who would never miss church on Sunday, only to beat their wives later that evening. Though he wasn’t at the altar every weekend, Curtis Massey dedicated his time—both at work as a high school physical-education instructor and in his spare time working with orphaned children—to getting this generation off the computer and onto the playground. It saddened him to see today’s children sitting on couches with French fries on their laps and greasy game controllers in their hands.
Stephen bucked the trend of tourist gouging, choosing to sell reasonably priced goods, and he shared his modest profits with numerous charities. Nearly half of Vir’s patients paid what they could or were seen for free.
McKenna drank more than the others and had no fear of God, but he treated everyone with dignity—even those he arrested. It said something for Deputy McKenna that he led a genuine life while believing that death held the same in store for both Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler.
He considered his behavior a tribute to his late mother.
Thank God for Thursday Night Football. Massey, McKenna, and Stephen loved the games, and Vir had become a fan of late. They’d happily watch any contest on that small television that hung over the bar. The sound was always muted in deference to the jukebox or piano, but that was fine. A game would usually help the night pass quickly. They’d always leave at midnight, figuring that was the appropriate time to go as Thursday—or the fifth sunset— was officially over. They’d been given no specific instruction on when to leave.
The game would be a refreshing diversion from what had blanketed the airwaves of late. The presidential election was a week away, and between the ads, debates, and general mudslinging, most Americans were ready to just get it over with. The pregame show was just wrapping up with the logos of the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints carved into glowing pumpkins, because tonight was also Halloween.
“Come on!” grunted McKenna.
The network temporarily cut away from football coverage to present a talking head musing on the results of an election poll. Dead heat. The sound was down, but the graphic showed it all. Too close to call.
“Not interested in the election, Deputy?” said Stephen, smiling.
“Pick your poison,” said McKenna as he removed the gun that had been strapped to his side all day. He discreetly ejected the magazine and the chambered bullet, then placed the empty weapon on the table in front of him and covered it with his Stetson. Same as he had each Thursday for the past two years. It took him the first couple of years to get comfortable enough with Massey, Stephen, and Vir to do so. By now he trusted them. He didn’t like drinking with a loaded weapon strapped to his side. He tucked the ammo into the pocket of his Angels jacket.
The two presidential candidates were shown—split screen— on the TV. She had a pretty smile but a wild look in her eyes. Detractors said she’d have us in another war within her first year— if it took that long. He was relaxed but seemed to talk in riddles. He was motivational but not presidential. He had some extreme economic ideas that critics said would flush our economy and seal the toilet lid behind it.
It looked like a choice between World War III and Great Depression II.
Too close to call. Independent voters waited for a tipping point.
“The Lions got this one,” said McKenna. “My money’s on the Saints,” replied Massey.
Over at the bar, the man in the white hat put a match to another note from his former love and let it burn in the ashtray.
In came a noisy group of college kids. This happened many a night, but it always seemed to be a different bunch of students. As they jostled up next to the note burner, Bartender Grant spoke.
“Gonna need IDs.”
Each and every student produced a device, slightly larger than a standard cell phone. They hit their touch screens, and their photos and pertinent info appeared along with a bar code.
“Give us a scan, bartender,” said the smiling leader from under his knit cap.
“No billows. Regular picture IDs.”
There was a shared whine as the students put down their billows and fumbled for traditional forms of identification.
“Old school,” muttered one.
Saturday Night At The Movies. That’s what the Drifters were singing about through the old jukebox speakers.
The billow was an incredible creation. The “b” was never capitalized.
Curtis Massey tapped his fingers to the music as he eyed the college kids. He took careful note of everyone who entered the Out Door, as did Stephen and Vir. You’d think McKenna would as
well, but after being on duty all day, this was his time to unwind and forgo his cop persona.
Satisfied with the IDs, Bartender Grant brought the drinks. “I’ve got this round,” offered one fresh-faced calculus major as he held out his billow for a payment scan. This would electronically transfer money from his bank account or lender of choice directly into the merchant’s cyber coffer, which was off site and immune to the common stick-up artist.
Grant looked down at the sleek, glowing device. Each billow sported what had become the most famous logo on Earth: a fluffy cloud with the tip of the sun rising just behind it. This is where the merchant would produce his business billow and wave it over the customer’s for a hassle-free scanned payment.
“Cash only,” said Grant.
“Sign’s on the front door.”
The student turned to his friends and asked, “Anyone have money?”
Over at their table, McKenna felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Knuckles. “Darts?” he asked.
Knuckles never said much, but he sure had a liking for McKenna, Massey, and the boys. Most Thursdays he’d be sure to fit in a dart game with McKenna. Bartender Grant was his boss, but he wasn’t overly demanding, and he appreciated how Knuckles donated much of his time to his Baptist church. Whether he was passing the collection plate or doing handy work, they could always count on Knuckles. He was a good man, and Grant knew it.
“Sure, Knuckles. I owe you for what you did to me last week,” smiled McKenna. Then he turned to his friends. “You know,” he said, winking.
Translation: “Keep an eye on that gun under my hat. Someone stay at the table at all times.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Massey.
The scorned woman who’d been sitting at the end of the bar in the aftermath of the boyfriend blowout stood and sauntered over toward the man in the white hat. She’d noticed some college boys ogling her and wanted no part of that. At least this guy was interesting. The final flame to consume his ashen note danced in the sooty tin receptacle.
“I’m Dorothy,” she said.
As McKenna and Knuckles commenced their dartboard battle, Stephen produced his portable, magnetic chess set. He and Vir would often engage in a game. Massey never involved himself in any of that. He would watch some of whatever game was on TV, but mostly he’d just stare intently at the various patrons.
Especially first timers.
This would occasionally lead to conflict, but he could handle himself if apology failed. This was all much more important than a bloody nose.
“How was work this week?” Stephen asked Vir.
“The same. Not encouraging. Too many young people contracting diseases of the old.”
“Sweet!” interrupted one of the college boys as he passed their table. “I’m a chess freak, dude. You guys really have one with the actual pieces? Ever try it on a billow? It’s über cool. You can make the chessmen fight to the death.”
“We have not,” said Vir, smiling. “In 3D.”
The football game was finally starting. The election coverage ended with an image of Las Vegas on the screen. With the sound down and the digital grandmaster partially blocking his view of the television, Massey didn’t get the connection.
“Did you see that?” Massey asked of his friends as the student moved on.
“The election thing finished with a picture of Vegas. What’s that all about?”
“Maybe a final campaign stop?” offered Vir while moving a pawn.
“Who knows what their think tanks have come up with,” added Stephen. “Such a close race, and Nevada is up for grabs.”
Massey excused himself from his chess-playing comrades and headed to the bar for a bag of peanuts. He did this every week because, though he wasn’t really hungry, it gave him some sense of normalcy—almost tricking him into thinking he was there for pleasure.
“Good evening,” said a smiling, attractive Asian woman who had arrived with the students.
“Hello,” replied Massey, sensing more friendliness than flirtatiousness.
The woman’s billow sat on a napkin atop the bar in front of her. Its screen was filled with small print that Massey couldn’t read without his glasses.
“Doing some reading?” he asked. “Midterms.”
“This is no place to study.” “Not studying. Grading.” “Very sorry. You’re a teacher?”
“College professor,” she said. “So is he.” She pointed at a colleague who was in conversation with students at the other end of the bar.
“Mixing with students at a bar?”
“Well, it’s not their papers I’m grading.” Massey paid Grant for the nuts.
“Papers?” he said as he opened his snack bag. “I don’t see any paper.”
“Not a fan of technology, I’m guessing.”
“Peanuts?” he offered
“Technology is fine. I like it. Advances in medicine, solar power, and such.”
“But?” she asked.
“I enjoy things like books, records, CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays. Things we can touch. There’s a lot of character in physical media.”
She took a sip of her cocktail. “All those things you mentioned: they eventually wind up in a landfill.”
Massey shook a few nuts around in his fist.
“They only go to the landfill after somebody buys one of those,” he answered, pointing a finger at her billow.
“Dang it!” shouted McKenna as Knuckles defeated him at darts.
“Another game?” asked Knuckles. McKenna agreed. The jukebox needle landed on a scratchy single, and Linda Ronstadt sang to a lover that they merely marched to the beat of a different drum.
“I believe in saving trees,” said the professor. “Your physical books, though romanticized, devour forests. Not to mention that your leather-bound classics probably use calf skin.”
Massey grinned as he shuffled more nuts around his palm.
“So are you picturing me as some pipe-toting, nineteenth century bibliophile? That’s the right word, isn’t it?”
She laughed as Massey went on. “You’re envisioning me in my vast library with forty-foot-high shelving and a rolling ladder. Actually, when I do get the time to read, it’s most likely a used paperback that I donate to the public library when I’m done. Not much falling timber there.”
“Other than the initial printing,” she replied.
“That billow thing you have, you ever read it at the lake, or by the pool?”
“Isn’t that a waste of energy? You could be reading a book in that midday sun, but you’re burning up a battery. Also, I’m guessing they use copper, gold, lead, zinc, crude oil, natural gas and who knows what else in manufacturing those things. Ever hear of the term ‘persistent toxins’? If my book winds up in a landfill, it rots away. Those things last forever—and they go to the dump whenever version ‘New.0’ comes out.”
“Well, you’ll have to send an email—or write out a scroll in your case—to Joel Amator in protest. Maybe I will have some peanuts.”
“An Amator fan, eh?”
“Who isn’t?” she said as she popped a nut. “Probably the greatest genius the world has ever known. I don’t think it would be overstating it to say that man is almost single-handedly saving our planet.”
“Because he invented the billow?”
“That’s part of it. But he has brought the world together. Changed the way people think. As soon as he announces his presidential endorsement, that candidate is guaranteed victory next Tuesday.”
The tipping point.
As Massey downed his final peanut, every billow in the place began to vibrate and glow. Even the man in the white hat pulled his match away from another ill-fated love note so that he might read his billow.
“A mass email!” yelled one student.
“From Joel Amator to every billow user in the world!” howled another.
The female professor beside Massey clicked on her email, and it filled the screen.
“You can read mine,” she said, tilting it toward him. He took his reading glasses from his pocket and leaned over.
Hello billowers! Joel here. Wanted 2 confirm 2 U all that the rumors R true. Excited 2 say I will be offering my support 2 a candidate 2morrow! Sry 2 keep U guessing, but watch my press conference @ Bellagio fountains Vegas 2morrow! On my way up 2 Vegas rite now!
“That’s exciting,” said the professor, looking at her screen. “By the way, my name’s Hanna.”
She glanced over at Curtis Massey, but he was gone.
Then, in an oddity for the Mojave Desert this time of year, it began to rain. Heavily.
An intense thunder clap opened the skies above the Out Door Inn.
Vir moved his bishop to g5.
“Stephen,” said Massey as he rushed back to the table, “remember when we were talking about Amator’s election endorsement?”
“Yes,” he replied as he pondered his defense. “What did you say he’d get out of it?”
“Said he’d be named to the Federal Reserve Board by the next president.”
Lions 6, Saints 0.
Knuckles landed another dart in the bull’s-eye.
Two dapper gentlemen scurried in from the rain. They went to the bar, were refused scan payment, had no cash, and quickly left with the two hookers who had been there all evening. The whores accepted billow.
Bartender Grant watched one of the students stick a pair of buds in his ears and scroll through the music on his billow. There was a song playing on the jukebox, but it wasn’t to his liking. Fair enough. It sounded a little scratchy from years of play, but it was the entire song. What the student didn’t know—or didn’t care to know—was that the songs on his billow were compressed and clipped, shrunk into a tiny file that would allow for greater storage capacity. Portions of the recordings were discarded, and the dynamic range was squeezed together so that there was little difference between the loudest and quietest sections. Some cared about such things, but most did not. All in the name of storage.
The billow users had all their music, along with their movies, books, documents, email, and just about everything else, stored on a cloud. They called it NINe. It’s nice to picture the world’s information lazily floating along the atmosphere in a fluffy cocoon, but this cloud was actually an army of gigantic computer servers that ran hot in any number of industrial areas throughout the world. Cloud enthusiasts were thrilled that they no longer had to care about physically storing items such as albums, books, and movies. Good riddance to those dust-collecting space fillers. Now they could just access these items through billow, and thanks to monthly subscription services, they needn’t “own” any of them. They could watch, listen, and read on demand—all from NINe. Plus, there were multiple backups of their documents there. No worries about burglary or fire. It was all so safe.
McKenna had lost at darts again. The cop returned to the table to find Massey seated with his back to the television. Vir was packing up the chess game, and Stephen had gone to the men’s room.
“Not watching the game?” asked McKenna.
Lions 6, Saints 3.
“Guess I found chess more exciting,” replied Massey. “Who won?”
“Nobody,” said Vir. “We stopped.”
McKenna sat and poured a glass from the warming beer pitcher. As was his habit, he picked up the edge of his Stetson just to be sure that his empty gun was still beneath it.
It was an involuntary reflex by now: lift hat, see gun, lower hat. McKenna almost did just that, but for the first time out of hundreds of inspections, things were different.
His gun was gone.
“Tell me someone is being funny,” he pleaded. He lifted the hat to show Massey and Vir. Stephen opened the door from the bathroom and held it for the man with the white hat, who emerged behind him and returned to his seat at the bar. As Stephen reached their table, McKenna was bordering on panic.
“I have to search every asshole in this bar,” he said, voice rising.
“What happened?” asked Stephen.
“Somebody’s got my gun.”
“Of course, goddammit.”
“Did you look under the table? Maybe it fell?”
“Yes. It didn’t. I have to make sure nobody leaves the bar, and I’ll have to call the station house to get some backup down here.”
“Easy,” said Vir. “Before you do all that and get yourself in trouble for losing a gun with a beer in your hand, let’s put our heads together.”
“Who came by this table?” asked McKenna. “Some students? I knew I should’ve kept it in the car. Some guys lock it under the seat, cuffing it to the frame.”
“And then when the car is stolen?” asked Vir. “You did it right. Unloaded and nearby. I would never leave my medical bag in the car.”
McKenna looked down at the leather bag by Vir’s feet. Then he looked into his friend’s eyes. Vir knew what was coming, so he offered: “You want to search my bag for your gun?”
McKenna rubbed his hand across his forehead, “Im sorry, Vir.”
The doctor placed his bag on the table and took a key from his pocket. He unlocked the brass clasp and slid the bag over to the cop.
McKenna opened the bag. He tried to be gentle, but his mind was racing. He saw a stethoscope, then some syringes, tongue depressors, a blood-pressure cuff. There was a multitude of items in that bag, but no gun.
Massey stood up and said, “Well, you can now pat us all down or just go by the front door and check strangers as they leave.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right. I should concentrate on strangers. But you guys were supposed to watch it for me.” McKenna headed for the door.
“We were watching,” said Vir.
Just as McKenna reached the door, thunder rattled the windows, and the billows lit up. Every one of them.
“No freaking way,” gasped one female student as she read her glowing notification.
Then the door opened. The wind howled as it blew a spray of rain into the Out Door Inn.
“A night not fit for man nor beast,” a man said upon entering. “The roads are completely flooded. If not for these fellas, I’d be swimming toward Vegas!”
It was Joel Amator. Right there in the flesh.
He entered with two other men. Large ones. McKenna was momentarily star struck. He hadn’t come across many famous people. He once got an autograph from Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, and he and his late father had seen Joey Bishop in a restaurant decades before. But even they weren’t this famous.
Hey, billowers! Joel here. I’m coming in! Get me a towel!
That’s how his email read. Through his billow-track app, which only he had, Amator was able to connect with only those billowers in the Out Door. It was like a GPS that could identify nearby devices.