Maybe shoot us a black bear | The Newcomer – Chapter 8

Note: this is Chapter 8 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

Tucker held his bag on his lap and squinted out of the heavily darkened windows of a North Korean limousine. Highway 101 was whipping by. It felt more like driving through a national park than a major city at rush hour.

Vasquez offered him a mini bottle of Hanoi Vodka. Tucker accepted it and cracked it open.

“Something on your mind?” asked Vasquez, breaking the silence that had settled in since leaving Union Station.

“Ain’t it rush hour? Today a holiday or something?”

“Most people in Los Angeles take the metro,” said Vasquez. “We’re considering narrowing this highway, actually, to make room for more green space.”

“Seems like y’all got plenty of that,” said Tucker. “Why ain’t we takin’ the metro?”

“We have a schedule to keep,” said Vasquez.

“Party membership has its privileges,” said a tall lanky man who was sitting next to Vasquez, who’d been completely silent until making this statement.

“I’m still not sure why you’re here with us,” said Vasquez, seeming annoyed as he took a sip from his own vodka bottle.

“I’m not sure why I’m here with us,” said Tucker. “Or who you even are.”

“Aldo Nikosi,” said the lanky man. “I’m a journalist.”

Nikosi was wearing a dove gray suit with a skinny black tie. His eyes were concealed behind sunglasses that were even darker than the limousine’s windows.

“He’s a spy,” said Vasquez. “From Denver.”

“My allegiance is to myself,” said Nikosi, “as you know well.”

“Egoist,” said Vasquez, hooking a thumb towards Nikosi. “These guys always give me the creeps.”

“Egoists,” asked Nikosi, “or journalists?”

“What’s the difference?” asked Vasquez, taking another swig.

“You ain’t writing a story about me, are you, Mr. Nikosi? Because I don’t think I want nobody writin’ no stories about me.”

“I’m doing an article on the film industry here,” said Nikosi. “My card.”

Tucker took the card. “Lucifer?” asked Tucker, glancing up at Nikosi. “You some kinda devil worshipper?”

“It means ‘bearer of light,’” said Nikosi. “One of the older publications in Los Angeles, though the party is doing everything it can to suppress our stories.”

“You’re here, aren’t you?” asked Vasquez. “I think we’ve been more than transparent with you and you and your bourgeois rag, though my personal patience is wearing thin.”

“Ah, there’s that word again. ‘Bourgeois.’ You’ll find, Mr. Tucker, that party members use that label to denigrate anything that challenges their authority.”

“I ain’t interested in none of this,” said Tucker. “I told Mr. Vasquez here I’d go and have dinner, hear what he had to say, then most likely be on my way. But I don’t wanna get involved in no politics. And I don’t want to be in no story you’re writin’, neither.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Tucker,” said Nikosi. “I’ve finished most of my article. I’m only tagging along this evening for the victuals. The Leningrad Theater has the best tri-tip steak in California. Speaking of bourgeois.”

Vasquez said nothing. Tucker turned his attention back to the window.

As they entered Burbank the scenery became more urban. Towering palm trees lined the highway. Tall, stark, windowless buildings were set back behind them, festooned with massive banners advertising the films that would be opening this weekend. Tucker recognized the faces of many celebrities who were famous even back East, but he didn’t know any of their names.

“Grace Lewitt,” said Vasquez, pointing to the two-story tall image of a woman’s face on one of the posters. “She’ll be at the reception tonight.”

“She gonna have that Kalashnikov with her?” asked Tucker. Nikosi smirked.

“Depends on what her publicist suggests, I suppose,” said Vasquez.

“Man, I can already tell you I don’t like this town,” said Tucker.

“You may want to reserve your judgment,” said Nikosi, “until you’ve tasted the tri-tips.”

The Leningrad Theater was an enormous box of a slate gray building with massive square columns. A statue of Lenin stood centrally before it, pointing boldly across the street. Reporters were setting up video cameras along a red carpet that was still in the process of being rolled out by workers in tuxedos, wrapping up the stone stairs and disappearing into the structure’s cavernous interior.

Tucker gripped his bag a bit more tightly in his lap.

“Don’t worry,” said Vasquez. “We’ll be taking the back door. I figured you wouldn’t be a fan of cameras.”

“I am not,” said Tucker.

“You’ll have to get used to them,” said Nikosi, “if you’re going to become a vanguardist.”

“I ain’t fixin’ to be any sorta ‘ist,’” said Tucker. He wrapped his hand around the empty mini bottle in his jacket pocket, silently wishing the alcohol had done more to settle his nerves.

The limousine cornered smoothly and took them down a nondescript side street, rolled through a security check without stopping, then finally came to a smooth rest alongside a canopied back entrance to the theater. An attendant opened the door next to Tucker. As he stepped out he noticed the attendant was wearing the olive drab dress uniform of the People’s Army of Southern California, which was still drilled into his mind as an ‘enemy uniform’ from his time in Iraq.

“Right this way, sir,” said the attendant, offering to take Tucker’s bag.

“I got it myself,” said Tucker, shouldering it. He turned back to face the limousine. Nikosi unfolded himself from the cabin, standing taller than Tucker thought he would. Vasquez followed, straightening his tie and clapping a hand on Tucker’s back.

“We’ll have to get you sized up for a tuxedo,” said Vasquez.

Tucker tugged at his collar constantly throughout the movie, hating the starched stiffness against his neck. He felt very self-conscious, sitting in the dark, in an uncomfortable dinner chair, watching a slick action movie about World War II, with the leading actress just a few seats away, looking absolutely perfect in a pearly evening gown that seemed designed specifically to glow and shimmer in the flickering dim light of the projector.

As the credits rolled, everyone stood up and cheered, and Tucker stood up and clapped feebly as well, to be polite, though he hadn’t been able to pay much attention to the movie.

Everyone around him was clambering to congratulate Grace Lewitt, the woman in the pearl dress, which Tucker saw was more of a lavender as the house lights faded up.

“Now for the main event,” said Nikosi, from behind Tucker. “Hope you’re hungry.”

The tightly packed balcony began to empty out into a vestibule. Lewitt was whisked away by a gaggle of publicists and producers and a few entertainment reporters, who were peppering her with questions and praise from all sides.

“This one’s gonna be a hit back East,” said Vasquez.

“Stunning propaganda,” said Nikosi. “They’re getting much more subtle with it these days. I’m surprised the Party approved a love story between a Russian partisan and a New York reactionary.”

“We can talk all about it over dinner,” said Vasquez. “I’m starving.”
Tucker found that he had no appetite. War films had that effect on him. Even these polished ones that made battles look like dance numbers.

They slowly queued down a flight of carpeted stairs into a reception area that was teaming with people. Everyone wore either tuxedos or elaborate military dress uniforms, except for a handful of young actors who made it a point to look conspicuous in blue jeans that probably cost more than the pickup truck Tucker used to drive back East.

Vasquez lead Tucker deeper into the reception area. They passed a young woman carrying a tray of cocktails, and Tucker plucked one up instinctively. He took a generous sip. Something with a lot of sugar and rum.

“I’ve arranged for us a private table in the Partisans’ Lounge,” said Vasquez. “I figured you’d prefer things a bit more… cozy.”

“You’re right about that,” said Tucker, bristling as a photographer sprung up and snapped a photo of the two together.

“Please, no photos,” said Vasquez, waving the photographer away.

They pushed through the mingling crowd, and Tucker found his cocktail glass was empty before they’d reached the door labeled “Partisan’s Lounge” on a brass plaque.

Once inside, the doors were closed, and Tucker was amazed out how silent it became. A waiter was laying out the last table setting as they entered, and Vasquez took pulled out a seat. Tucker saw his own name on a white card held up by a little wire stand. There were five other name cards at each of the other place settings, each bearing a title or rank of some kind. Vasquez’ name card read: “Seth Vasquez, Undr Scrtry, Bu. Sec. & Def.”

Tucker looked at his own name card, which read: “Marvin Tucker, Cpl, USA (ret.).”

A large man with a bushy red beard walked in through a side door, wearing an olive drab dress uniform festooned with red braiding and various service medals in silver and gold. Right behind him was a woman, similarly uniformed, speaking to someone on a smartphone in Spanish. She had streaks of gray in her glossy black hair and carried herself with the stiff formality of a career military officer.

The bearded man held out his arms and attacked Vasquez with a jovial hug, laughing and pointing to Tucker with an unlit cigar.

“So here’s the guest of honor! Comrade Tucker, I presume?”

Tucker nodded, extending a hand. He flinched, slightly, dreading the possibility that he, too, might be hugged.

Instead, the bearded man chomped the cigar into his teeth and took

Tucker’s hand in a strong, sweaty grip.

“This is Admiral Stewart,” said Vasquez, “Secretary of the Bureau of Security and Defense. My boss.”

The other officer was still speaking into the phone in Spanish. Tucker couldn’t understand a word of it, but it seemed to be a heated discussion.

“Would you put that damned thing away,” said Stewart.

She ended the conversation abruptly and shoved the phone in her pocket.

“That was Fernandez, in Havana,” she said, addressing Vasquez. “We’ll need you to fly there next week.”

“Same issue? With the satellites? That’s still not sorted out?”

“Well, now they’re saying they want us to double our share of the expenditure, and I told them we —”

“Enough talk of business!” said Stewart. “I’m sick and tired of talking about Havana. All we’ve talked about for three days straight are the damned Cubans. Let’s sit down and relax.”

Stewart took the lead by pulling out his own chair at the head of the table and plopping down into it. He reached for a silver table lighter and lit up his cigar.

“I’m Captain Angela Kim,” said the gray haired woman.

“You work with these folks?” asked Mr. Tucker.

“I work for the Bureau, yes, but I’m not here in any official capacity. I’m married to that one, unfortunately,” she said, gesturing to Stewart as she sat beside him.

“Is this muckraker still trailing you around?” asked Stewart.

“This is our last night together, sadly,” said Nikosi. “I’ll be filing my article in the morning then headed off to Oregon.”

“I can’t say I’ll be sorry to see you go,” said Vasquez.

“Feelings very much mutual, Commandant,” said Nikosi, lifting up his empty glass to be filled with wine by a waiter wearing a formal military uniform.

Nikosi sat across from Kim, and Vasquez pulled out Tucker’s chair. He was the last to sit. One seat remained empty, and the name card read “Grace Lewit, CPO, PASC (ret).”

Tucker did a double take.

“That actress from the movie… She was that SEAL lady? From the team that took down Bin Ladin?” he asked, the memory suddenly clicking into place from somewhere deep in the back of his brain.

“She is, indeed,” said Stewart, examining his cigar to make sure it was burning evenly. “America’s sweetheart.”

“A propaganda puppet,” said Nikosi, sipping his wine.

“Careful, Nikosi. You’re not in Oregon, yet. That’s borderline treason, talking about a war hero like that,” said Vasquez, bitterly.

“Relax, comrades. Enough politics. I want to hear more about Mr. Tucker, here. What brought you out West?”

“I just came out to be with my people,” said Tucker. “I’ve got some cousins out here. Ain’t much left for me back East, anyhow.”

“How are you liking it here so far?” asked Kim.

“Haven’t really had time to think about it, much,” said Tucker. “Just been travelin’ through. Folks seem nice enough, I guess. Y’all do things differently out here, I can say that.”

“We do, indeed,” said Stewart. “I think you’ll like Los Angeles. Vasquez tells me you enjoy nature. We have some of the best parkland in the world. Good fishing and hunting. I’ll take you out to my cabin on Lake Arrowhead. Maybe shoot us a black bear”

“How do y’all know all this stuff about me?” asked Tucker, glad that the waiter had made his way over to his side of the table and impatiently holding out his glass for wine.

“They call me a muckraker,” said Nikosi, “but they rake up everything about everyone. They probably have your favorite brand of toothpaste on file.”

“I’m serious,” said Tucker, after a stiff sip of wine. “Y’all are givin’ me the creeps. Why am I even here?”

Suddenly the main entrance doors flung open and Grace Lewit appeared, accompanied by bursts of camera flashes and a raucous of reporters. She blew them a kiss as the doors were closed behind her, then turned towards the table. Her radiant grin suddenly dropped away as soon as the doors clicked closed behind her, pulling down her hair and mussing it up.

“Fuck, I hate these premieres,” she said, hiking up her long dress to stride over to the table and pulling out her own chair. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Drinks are just being served,” said Stewart. “Wonderful performance. This one’s going to be big!”

“It really was a great film,” said Kim.

“Not the worst I’ve seen,” said Nikosi. “As far as populist butcherings of history go.”

“I hated it,” said Lewit. “Seeing myself on that screen, it’s miserable.”

“This is Marvin Tucker,” said Vasquez. “We’re considering him for a role in the Bureau.”

“Comrade Tucker was in Iraq,” said Stewart. “Playing for the other team.”
“Terrible business, that war,” said Lewit. “Guess you could say that about any war.”

“Now just hold on a minute,” said Tucker, standing up abruptly. “Are y’all gonna tell me what I’m doin’ here, or what?”

“Can’t you tell by now?” asked Nikosi, leaning back easily in his chair. “They want you to be a star.”

Continue to Chapter 9 here!

Here’s a link to a dedicated page for the Newcomer on this site.

If you enjoy the series, I hope you will consider sharing the series with your friends, and perhaps even contributing a buck or two on Patreon — thanks for reading!

-Emerican Johnson

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