Augustus St. George is hard to find, and despite my promise I almost missed him. Many thanks to Kanizzle at BMIR for helping me locate him today. Love you, man. Read part 1 of this series here. Here’s what Augustus told me happened next. – Caveat
I didn’t have much hope as I walked up to Nexus’ new location at 10 & GDP. People dancing to house music are unreliable as a Florida jury. But it’s like they say: 90% of life is showing up, and the other 10% hurts like hell.
Instead I got the kind of pleasant surprise that usually only comes with Christmas and adultery: next to the giant geodesic dome was a trailer made of 100 year-old wood, set-up as a New Orleans speakeasy. It looked decked out to play techno, but just at the moment someone had put on a little Louis Armstrong. It helped soothe the savage desert.
I’m not a techno guy: I don’t know a dubstep from a Bassnector. But the Nexus always has a place in my heart.
I first came there by accident, years ago, back when the dust smelled 20,000 people fresher. I’d made the kind of exit from an Irish bar at 8:15 and G where you run hard and don’t look back. I’d been set up by an informant who’d turned shirtcocker on me, went on Duchamp’s payroll, and gifted me several broken ribs and a bloody shin. I’d returned the favor by leaving my water bottle in a bicycle thief’s teeth and my goggles and dust mask resting in pieces on the bar floor.
Running through a dust storm without any survival gear, my attention was pulled like a vegan to a co-op by a massive dome in the distance playing Mahler’s second symphony: “The Resurrection.” It was like birth and death dancing on the wind. I pointed myself towards it and limped hard.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the Nexus.
I hobbled in. The camp staff sat me down. Gave me water, gave me food. Found some bandages to help tape my body back together.
It was paradise, and they invited me back later to hear a gamelan orchestra, and a klezmer band. I hid there a lot, that Burning Man. Probably saved my life.
I’ve stopped dropping by, though. They don’t play Mahler anymore. They don’t have time for symphonies. The DJs who wanted to play their dome got thick as grease on bacon. Eventually Nexus gave the people what they wanted. Now it’s just one more dive on sound camp row with a rotating door for club promoters trying to get ahead by writing their names in the dust.
That’s what I call a parable. Maybe the Org should pay attention, but I’m not going to tell them. We have an arrangement: the Org stays radically self-reliant of me, I stay radically self-reliant of them.
The New Orleans speakeasy, though, did my heart good – and maybe that meant there had been a reliable witness to what went down with Crispy Clown’s bike.
I stood outside the door, lit a cigar, and waited to see who the regulars were.
The city is still only filling itself in, this early in the week: a skeleton of what it will become. Beautiful 20-somethings in still relatively immaculate pirate costumes walked past me, pointing at everything sparkly; they had no idea how much bigger it’s all going to be in a week, or how far they’ll fall from perfectly coiffed to caked in dust and sweat and tears. They’ll still be pretty, though, and sometimes I think that’s all that matters to them. I wouldn’t know: I was never pretty. A truck that looked like a glowing jellyfish rolled up the nearby road, blasting techno, scantily clad dancers writhing back and forth underneath its translucent membrane. A few moments later they were gone, replaced by a gorilla on a bicycle, a sexy witch with a basket of candy, and a white woman dressed up as a Japanese geisha. And all the time people in fuzzy coats and glowing necklaces walked from the camp behind the dome into the New Orleans speakeasy and back again. I kept track of everybody, looking for someone who looked like they were paying attention to more than just the spectacle … and might have been here last night. You can always tell the really observant ones: they look like they’re having less fun.
Eventually I saw a familiar face.
Skippy’s a tall stick figure who’s always got a bowler hat, a tool belt, and a goofy grin that girls can’t get enough of. A kid who doesn’t even need to bring a tent to Burning Man, but can’t be pinned down by sex or romance because wears his heart on his screwdriver, and is always slipping away to go fix something, move something, or do somebody a favor.
“You like the jazz, kid?” I asked. And he turned around and flashed me that happy smile.
“Augustus! Wow! Give me a hug!”
I held my hand out. Made a stop gesture. “You know I don’t hug.”
“It’s Burning Man!”
“Is there anything that’s not an excuse for?”
He had me there. “Want a cigar?”
“Sure!” He walked over and took one of my Dominicans. Had his own lighter. Good kid.
“I didn’t even think you’d be here,” he said, “after what happened with Retro …”
I blew a smoke ring. “Nothing happened with Retro.”
“That’s … not what I heard.”
“Retro and me are fine.”
“That’s not what the Lamplighters say.”
“Just … fine.”
He took an exploratory puff. “Well, it’s good to see you. Where are you camping?”
I shook my head.
“You are so paranoid!” He took another puff. “This is really tasty.”
“I need a favor, Skippy.”
“Sure!” He smiled again. Bigger this time.
“Were you here last night? Around 9?”
He nodded. “Yeah. One of the things had come loose from the other things, and the wiring was kinda skewed, if that makes any sense.”
“You can smell that from a mile away, can’t you. Doesn’t matter. I’m tracking down a bike. Rare. Distinctive. Solid black frame, about this tall, handles curved sharp like this, elegant design, but covered in clown noses and balloon animals.”
“Oh yeah!” he said. “Yeah, I definitely saw that. It was parked right there!” He pointed to the near side of the geodesic dome.
“Right. Now, did you see where it went?”
“No, but, its owner was there the whole time.”
“Yeah. Pretty sure.”
I blew a long cloud of smoke. “Describe him.”
“Tall like me. Mustache like Randall. Thin. Wearing a pretty convincing … I dunno … I think it was like an undertaker’s uniform.”
“Yeah, like a fancy undertaker. Old timey, right? Like the guy who greets the family and drives the hearse 100 years ago. Black coat. Top hat. White gloves. Really good costuming. The hat kept coming off in the wind, though. That was why I saw him the first time, he was chasing his hat, and when he caught it he walked back to that bike.”
I blew a slow ring. “Interesting. Would you say he was dressed for a … New Orleans funeral?”
Skippy snapped his fingers. “Yes. That’s it exactly!”
“Well well well.”
“What does that mean?”
“Then what happened?”
“I didn’t see it. I got passed a bowl. They said it was from Thailand, but, I dunno, it tasted like Northern California to me.”
I gave him a scowl. “I thought you were cutting that stuff out?”
“Let me rephrase. I was passed a bowl by a naked girl in a fur coat.”
I nodded. “Was she from Thailand?”
He shook his head. “Tasted like she was from Northern California to me.”
“So you were passed the bowl, you put in your deposit on a furnished tent …”
“Actually she had an RV with two …”
“What happened to the bike?”
“Next time I looked, the bike and the undertaker were gone. And … he … wasn’t really the owner, was he?”
I considered everything for a moment. “Right over there, you said?”
“Walk with me.”
I stepped over to the dome. He followed me. “Was it locked?”
“Yeah. U-shaped lock, bolted around the frame.”
“I like your eye for detail.”
He beamed. “Thanks! What are you looking for?”
“Two things, one of which isn’t here.”
He looked down. Tying to see. “What’s that?”
“No left-overs from the lock. Which means he was professional enough not to need bolt cutters. If he’d sliced it, there would be traces. Even tiny ones. Steel fibers in the sand. Instead he picked that lock. No great skill needed, but not amateur hour either.”
“Okay. What’s the other thing.”
“The playa’s nice and packed this year, and it’s still too early for a capacity crowd. That means, if I’m lucky …” I pointed down at the ground. “I should be playing poker tonight.”
“I don’t get it.”
I knelt down to make sure I was right. I was. “Tracks.”
He gaped. “No! No WAY! You can NOT track a single bike through the desert 24 hours later!”
“It’s got distinctive tires, and the dust is tightly packed. It helps.”
I turned. Stood up. Gave him a look that says he crossed a line the size of Montanna. “Kid, there’s a reason Burning Man called me. Of all the mercenaries and security experts and ex-soldiers in this broken world, they pulled my name out their jester’s hat and had my number on speed dial. There’s a reason they keep sending me tickets, even though I’m a drunk who leaves his radio off and doesn’t show up to staff meetings. Don’t you forget it!”
He raised up his hands. “Okay, okay,” he said. “That’s pretty awesome, actually. But I bet you lose it out in the open playa.”
“I bet I do too. But it doesn’t really matter. I’ll catch up with it again later.”
He squinted. “You know where it’s going?”
“I’ve got a good idea.”
“You’ve been a big help, Skippy. I hope you find a place to sleep tonight.”
“Yeah, I’ll need one. Her roommates were pissed …”
Behind us the New Orleans bar suddenly switched from jazz to house music, thrusting a fast beat into the night. The trailer’s engine roared and the whole speakeasy began driving down the road in the opposite direction, collecting sparkly dancers like fireflies in the night.
“I gotta catch that,” he said apologetically.
I patted him on the shoulder. He patted me on the back, and then we went our separate ways: him to the party, me hunting my quarry to ground.
Which is like a party, only someone gets hurt.
I’ll try to check in with Augustus tomorrow to see what happens next.