It was shortly before 3AM when they reached the interstate exit that would eventually lead them to Las Claritas. The road looked to Bertie about the same as it had on that long ago Friday afternoon when he had driven this way in his cherry red T-bird with Rosie Batista, his secretary du jour, by his side. They had made good time, Noreen setting the Gemstar PowerVan’s cruise control at a smooth 75MPH. The van itself had seemed to like this speed, chewing up the miles like a fat kid voraciously gobbling down his Halloween candy.
Within another fifteen minutes they had entered the main street of Las Claritas, the one called variously El Camino Perdido by the old timers, and Claritas Avenue by the tourists. Of which there must be plenty, Bertie reflected, looking out the window at the number of new motels, restaurants and tourist shops, most with garish electronic signs he had never seen before, not even in Las Vegas. The strip was crowded with them, even more so than he had remembered on his previous trip.
It was shortly after three when they passed the last new hotel at the end of the strip, the huge Hard Rock Café Casino and Hotel that Noreen had previously mentioned. Just beyond it at the far end of the strip was, to Bertie’s relief, the modest rustic outline of the Hotel Remington which, oddly enough, did not seem to have changed hardly at all in the intervening four decades.
It being well after bar closing on a Monday morning, the strip was mainly deserted, except for a few stragglers who were probably making their way back to their various motels, so Noreen had no difficulty finding a parking space right in front of the Remington. Bertie had filled her in on the way up as to where the dark portal, as he put it, was, at least according to the old Gil, supposed to appear and when. Now she checked her watch, turned to Bertie and said, “Well, if your instructions are correct, we’ve got about half an hour to kill. So, what say we go and reconoitter the area?”
Bertie, by this time having made the best possible use of half of the bottle of scotch, replied in a slightly fuzzy manner, “Yeah, I guess that’s a good idea.”
So saying, he opened the door of the van and rather unsteadily stepped down to the surface of the street, nearly going to his knees in the process. Noreen didn’t seem to notice however, as she had exited her side and went around to the rear of the van, opened it, and took out a large metal case with an attached shoulder strap, which she slung over her back like a weapon. Then she went back around, took Bertie by the hand, and led him down the driveway that led both to the entrance of the hotel and then to the parking garage in its rear.
As they reached the garage Bertie suddenly realized that he had a problem. He figured that the portal would appear somewhere in the hotel itself—but how to get there? The place was surely locked up tight for the night by this time, and he was sure that his 1994 key was not going to work in its 2036 lock. He voiced this concern to Noreen, who patted him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way.” Oddly, when she said this she patted the mysterious contraption slung over her back.
It was now getting close to three-thirty. Fortunately the sky was clear and there was just enough light from a waning westering moon and the few lights from the hotel itself that they could find their footing without too much difficulty.
“Aha!” said Noreen suddenly, pointing to something behind the parking garage that Bertie couldn’t quite make out. As he strained his eyes in that direction, he saw that there was a small mountain peak, maybe a hundred yards or less high, and situated, he guessed roughly, maybe half that distance from the hotel itself.
Noreen was all business now and Bertie, looking at her, thought that she would be perfect in a movie about women commandos. Practically dragging him along and still pointing to the hill she said, “That looks like a good vantage point.” She turned and gave him what he took to be a rather pitying smile. “How are you at mountain climbing?” she asked. “You certainly aren’t dressed for it.”
Bertie shrank a little under her uncompromising gaze but shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’ll do my best.”
Within a few minutes Noreen was scrambling up the hill like a mountain goat, impatiently ordering Bertie to “Hurry up. Don’t be such a wuss.”
Bertie for his part was doing his best, but considering his age and his position in the Hollywood community, it had probably been a good three decades or so since he had done anything of an athletic nature. In trying to comply, he unwisely put his foot down hard on some loose rocks and was just barely able to keep from falling, though he found he had severely twisted his ankle in the process. Now, cursing and limping, he managed somehow to at least keep her in sight as he scrambled up the hill some yards behind her.
Eventually they reached the top where, fortunately for Bertie, there was a small level area. Huffing and puffing, he sat down on the bare rock, rubbing his already swelling ankle.
Again Noreen took no notice of him, but merely checked her watch, then remarked, “Not bad, not bad at all. It’s only a little after three-thirty. We’ve probably got about ten or fifteen minutes at least.” Finally she turned to him and said a little more kindly, “How are you making out?”
“Not so good,” he grumbled, pointing to numerous rips and tears in his pants and some deep scars in his oxblood loafers. He said, “My ankle hurts like hell and these clothes will never the same. And they were my favorite shoes, too.”
“Oh hush,” said Noreen a bit peevishly, “you know damn well you can afford a hundred pairs of those shoes. The main thing is to get you back safe and sound.”
He brightened a little at that and said, “Well, you’ve got a point there. And at least my lucky brown corduroy jacket still seems to be okay.”
“See,” she said without too much irony. “Always something to celebrate.” Then she pointed across the space between their hilltop position and the rear of the hotel. Below them was about twenty yards of scrub brush which bordered on the swimming pool and cabana area of the hotel.
Bertie followed her finger with his eyes, then moaned, “A lot of good it does me, getting up here. How the hell am I going to get over there?”
“I’ll tell you,” she said patiently. “But I’ve got an idea. Let’s play a little word game first.”
“What!” said Bertie, jerking his head up at her in total amazement.
“You heard me,” she said. “What’s my name?”
Bertie thought briefly that she was the crazy one but thought it best to play along anyway. “Uh…Noreen,” he said.
She gave him a come-on motion with her hand and said, “Last name?”
This made him scratch his head. “Um, I guess it starts with a W? Woo, war, something like that?”
She shook her head in disgust. “Really Bertie,” she remonstrated, “you are a bit thick, aren’t you?”
He hung his head in shame. “Well, I was never very good with names,” he said in his defense.
“Warner,” she said. “Noreen Warner.” Then she gave him a sweet smile. “Want me to spell it?”
“No, no,” he said hastily. “I get the picture.”
“Okay,” she said, “here’s the game. Take my last name, take the last syllable of my name, and turn it around.”
Bertie looked up at the heavens as if he hoped the answer might be emblazoned there. “Uh… War—ner, war—ren. Got it.”
“Very good,” she said approvingly. “Now my first name. Take the last syllable and delete the e’s.”
She put her hands on her hips and looked at him. “You really are a piece of work,” she said. “Didn’t they teach you anything in that college you went to?”
“I guess not much,” he said, sounding even to himself like a first grader who had been misbehaving in class.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll help you.” So saying, she unslung the device and said, “Look at me.” Bertie did, and was now totally freaked out to see her figure shimmer and dissolve into a three-foot high creature that looked exactly like a Cabbage Patch Doll, complete with miniature overalls, tool belt, and little painter’s paper cap.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Noreen Warner. Warren Norn.” He immediately thought back to the sexual pleasures he had thought he had enjoyed over the past twenty-four hours or so and then shook his head violently. “No…no… It’s not true…” he groaned, putting his hands over his eyes.
“Oh, I forgot,” came the little high-pitched voice. Then in Noreen’s voice it continued, “You probably like me better this way.”
At this he uncovered his eyes and beheld the figure of Noreen just as she had been before the transformation. “Now,” she pointed again at the back of the hotel, where just above its roof a dark rectangular shape had appeared visible only because it blotted out the stars behind its shape. Walking the few steps over to him, she took hold of his hand, pulled him to his feet and said, “Ready to go?”
“You must be kidding,” he said, looking across what to him appeared to be the vast gulf of space between him and the dark portal.
But Noreen was not fazed. Calmly she opened the mysterious case she had been carrying and took out something that appeared to be a large cylindrical tube attached to a harness so that it could be worn on a person’s back. To Bertie it looked something like a miniature jet engine.
“Here,” she said helpfully, handing him the device, “put this on.”
“What the hell is this?” he said. “And how is it going to help me get over there?”
She shook her head again reproachfully and helped him fasten the device around his lucky brown corduroy jacket. When she had finished she said, “I’m surprised at you. You’re going to be one of America’s most famous screenwriters and you don’t even recognize a deus ex machina when you see it.”
Bertie jerked his head around. “A deus ex whatica?”
“In this case,” she continued, “it’s literally correct.” She patted the device on his back. “It machine. I—” she thumped herself on her chest, “deus. Any questions?” She took his silence for a negative response and then said, “Better get going, you’ve only got about ten minutes.” And as she said this, she pressed a button on the tube and it suddenly roared into life, shooting out flames behind it. At the same time Bertie found himself lifted off the ground and heading toward the rear of the hotel in a position much like George Reeves flying through the air in the ancient Superman TV series. The last thing he heard was Noreen yelling at him, “Go! Fly free! Be the best Gil Hall you can be!” Then, God help him, he thought he heard her burst into song. “Bye-bye, birdie,” she warbled and that was the last thing he heard, except for the roar of the rocket engine until he reached the dark portal and crashed through it. Again, he had the unsettling feeling of non-existence. But this time it seemed not to last so long. Either that, he thought, or he was getting used to it. Within what seemed to him a short of length of time he again felt his body, heard no more the roar of the rocket engine, and then thumped face down upon something hard but partially yielding.
It was still completely dark but as he lay there for a moment, stunned by his aeronautical adventure and his face down landing, he thought he heard a kind of petulant moan from somewhere not too far away.
After making several (to him) unintelligible sounds it finally mumbled, “Gil? Is that you?”
As this last was said, he caught out of the corner of his eye a faint illumination as if a small lamp had suddenly been turned on. Looking around him (for now he was beginning to be able to see) he found he was lying face down on a floor covered with a springy carpet of some kind. He felt around to his back and also found that the rocket device had vanished. Rather painfully and hesitantly he got to his feet. Miraculously he noticed that his trousers were in one piece, his shoes were as well polished and unscratched as ever, and his ankle was unswollen and he felt no pain from it.
“Gil?” came the voice agin. “For heaven’s sake, it’s after four in the morning. Are you still up?”
Turning around, he looked toward the source of the light and almost wept with relief when he saw two single beds, the far one occupied by sweet little Rosie, who was now sitting up and rubbing her eyes sleepily.
“Uh, sorry,” he said, “go back to sleep. Guess I drank a little too much and I kinda…uh…uh, must have fallen out of bed.”
“Okay,” she said, “but get some sleep, will you? And let me go to sleep. In case you didn’t get my note, I left a wake-up call for eight-thirty. And it’s after four now.”
“Okay,” he said again. “I’m sorry. I’ll be quiet.”
This seemed to satisfy her, and without saying anything further, she switched off the lamp and snuggled back down into the covers.
Gil was now way past mental overload. So he merely took off his lucky brown corduroy jacket and his shoes, lay down on his twin bed, and was asleep and snoring before his head touched the pillow.