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Friday, April 12, 2013



I was sprawled before the stereo, waiting for my turn at the bong, while humming along to “Suicide Is Painless,” the theme from the recently released “M.A.S.H.” album. No, I don’t mean the TV series, which was pretty good, but the Robert Altman movie starring Donald Sutherland and Eliot Gould which was just plain pure-dee genius.

As a member in good standing of various professional writer’s organizations, I should point out that the screenplay was by the legendary Ring Lardner, Junior, from a marvelous novel by Richard Hornberger.

But, back to the bong, which was heading my way via Stoner Tom. He’d constructed it from medical equipment scrounged from the hospital and as an experiment he had filled the bong with medicinal alcohol. In other words the spirits –  alcohol in its purest 200 proof distilled form – was a coolant for the narcotic smoke.

Now, there are those who would say that marijuana smoke is not a narcotic whatsoever, but only a soothing, harmless and entirely natural antidote to life’s many troubles.

To them I say, “Bravo,” as I  flash back on those hazy, lazy days in Venice. However, I will add this: Imbibing smoke, marijuana or otherwise, through the bubbling fumes of totally pure alcohol is an interesting, but not necessarily harmless experience.

Especially when you consider Stoner Tom’s proposed experiment. His idea was to draw as much cannabis as possible through the dope pipe for a few weeks, then drink the alcohol – noting the effects on our systems and our psyches. Stoner Tom wondered if the effects would be totally alcoholic, or totally marijuana-ish, or a combination of the two.

The booze was just starting to turn the color of scotch whiskey and I was wondering whether we ought to drink it straight over ice, or with a splash of soda, when a warning growl from Tasha indicated that someone was approaching the front door.

I wasn't expecting anyone - Carol and little Jason were visiting her parents in San Diego and my brother Charles was away at a two-day actors' camp. In short, it was that rare thing in my life: a bachelor's weekend, with nothing to do but hang out with friends, smoke a little dope and discuss heavy subjects like the "Paul is dead" rumor currently sweeping the country.

Tasha made another noise, then went to the door, tail wagging. Okay, so at least I knew that the visitor had passed the Tasha test and was unlikely to spoil my peaceful time. 

Stoner Tom glanced out the window. “It’s Roger,” he said in that strange croak pot heads use when they’re trying not to exhale smoke.

I let Roger in, allowing him take my turn at the bong so he could catch up. He took a couple of hits, then held the bong out, examining the tubes that snaked out of the various holes in the laboratory glass.

“Looks like the machine they hooked my aunt up to when she was kicking,” he said. Then he laughed. “I used to tie knots in the tubes to piss the bitch off.”

As you might have noticed, Roger had no love for his aunt, which for some reason he pronounced “awnt.” His aunt and uncle raised him after his mother died – I never did learn what happened to his father. And they were apparently like one of those monstrous couples who took in kids in various Charles Dickens novels. Roger split when he was 14 and bummed around the country, working at odd jobs and sleeping in even odder place and – when he got older – monitoring classes at various colleges.

I said, “Be careful with your comparisons. The plan is to eventually drink that shit.”

Roger passed the bong to me. “Just dropped by to tell you about the Mad Bomber’s wife,” he said.

“What about her?”

“They just took her away.”

I sat up. “Who? The police or an ambulance?”

“The pigs,” Roger said. “I guess she tried to kill the Mad Bomber. She was all methed up and went after him with a knife and he had to hide in the bathroom until the Upstairs Junkie’s squeeze called the cops.”

“How did the junkie’s girlfriend get in on the act?” I wondered, although the moment I asked the answer became apparent.

“Mrs. Mad Bomber came home from Shanahan’s (the local grocery store) and caught them at it.” He started to laugh. “You should have heard the screaming,” he said. “Got me a whole new list of curse words to add to my vocabulary.”

“I have an observation,” Stoner Tom said.

We both looked at him. “And that is?”

“I observe that it is my turn on the bong.”

*     *     *

With Mrs. Mad Bomber in jail for thirty days or so, the Upstairs Junkie’s girlfriend took it upon herself to console the Mad Bomber in his loneliness and she did such a good job of it for a time we were rarely disturbed by odd explosions in the alley, and then only very small ones.

Roger reported that the Upstairs Junkie and the Downstairs Junkie had become boon companions during this period. It seems that our Remittance Man had fallen in love with the Upstairs Junkie and was consoling him over the absence of his girlfriend, who was, in turn, consoling – well, you get the idea. It was sort of a dope addicts’ soap opera.

The main thing is, that as Spring crept into summer, Pepperland was really starting to prove itself both as a profitable investment for Mr. Cohen and as a haven for people of my generation – all stuttering aside. My only complaint at this point was the presence of the two junkies and the unknown amount of explosives and caustic liquids in the Mad Bomber’s possession.

But for the time being I was content to rest on my laurels and see if things would work their way out, without any pressure from me. 

I remember thinking that even my surroundings had become more pleasant. The exterior of the three buildings had been newly painted and I’d found a nice old gardener who had replanted the grounds and borders with flowers and spices whose scent mixed with the afternoon sea breezes to greet me when I returned home from work.

Lately, I particularly enjoyed walking past the Mexican couple’s apartment on my way to Shanahan’s. It was the corner unit, just before the oversize lot where the Right Wing Bikers held forth, and every time I went by the scent of delicious food perfumed the air. It seemed that the Senora – a lovely woman in her 40’s – always had something cooking.

I knew from my time as a young chef with an old Mexican tall hat for a teacher that the best sauces and stews had to be gently simmered hour after hour to create the perfect community of vegetables, meats, broth and spices.

After awhile, however, I started noticing that no matter what time of day I went past their apartment the air was filled with marvelous cooking smells. The Senor and Senora only had two children and although everyone seemed quite healthy and content, no one seemed so well fed as to be described as obese. Actually, they made quite a good-looking family.

One very early morning my car decided to take the day off and I hoofed it for the bus stop at 5:30 a.m. – I had an early shift at the paper – and saw the lights on in their kitchen and the delicious scent of simmering enchilada sauce.

How strange.

Later, I started noticing that there always seemed to be people going in and out of the apartment and even sitting outside on the stoop, drinking sodas and beer. Everyone was very pleasant, so there was no reason to complain about a disturbance. You could usually hear Mexican music playing, but they certainly didn’t play it as loud as most of us played our Rock N’ Roll.

Then late one afternoon as I strolled toward Shanahan’s, I saw the Senor opening the screen door for a well dressed Mexican couple. The Senor wore a black vest, string tie, dark pants and shoes and he had a crisp white serving napkin draped over his wrist.

Finally, it hit me.

Holy shit.

Dummy, dummy, dummy!

I strode up the steps, pushing past the couple and the startled Senor. Inside, the regular living room furniture had been cleared out, to be replaced with small tables with colorful tablecloths and wooden chairs. Each table had a red candle-lamp sitting on it, as well as crisp linens and sparkling glasses and tableware. Large travel posters with Mexican scenes decorated the walls and gentle Mexican folk music played in the background. Most of the tables were occupied by couples of various ages and backgrounds and everyone was dressed in evening wear.

A large banner was draped over the kitchen’s entrance. It read “Grande Abertura” – Spanish for “Grand Opening.”

As I looked at the sign, one of the boys exited the kitchen through swinging doors. Like his father, he was dressed in waiter’s get up and carrying a tray heaped with steaming plates of food. The Senor was coming up behind me, trying to say something, but I ignored him and pushed through the kitchen door.

There I found the Senora holding forth in a professional kitchen, complete with restaurant range, refrigerator, stainless steel sink, steam table, enormous pots and pans. In other words, as they saying goes, it was the whole damned enchilada: an actual restaurant, lacking nothing that I could see, except the legal right to operate a restaurant in an apartment building.

I had no doubt that the food was good – hadn’t I been tantalized by the odors as I walked by each day? Or that the place was clean – the Senora was a scrupulously clean woman, and even now her daughter was scrubbing out the sinks with cleanser.

The Senor had caught up to me by now and was saying, “Mr. Allan. Mr. Allan. Por favor. I can explain.”

But I just looked at him and he dropped his eyes, then I looked at the Senora and she gave me a little smile and a shrug.

I pointed at the range, where delicious things were sizzling on top and other delicious things were baking inside. “Shut it off, please,” I said.

At first, the Senor pretended not to understand. But his wife indicated the dining room and asked in Spanish if she could at least finish serving their waiting customers.

As much as I would have liked to grant that courtesy, I knew that I didn’t dare waver. Restaurants are dangerous places. There are very good reasons that certain commercial zones are required, as well as inspections both for health and fire. Now that I’d discovered their secret, I knew damned well that if anything happened from that moment on, Mr. Cohen would be liable.

I shook my head. “Everyone out,” I said. “Right now.”

Then I stood in the former living room, arms folded, while the family escorted the people out and shut and locked the door.

When they were gone, I said, “I’m sorry, but you have to move.” I got blank looks. “You can’t live here anymore,” I said.

They understood and by the weekend the two-bedroom apartment was empty and I was getting it ready to rent again. They left the place spotless - to the point that they’d patched and spackled and painted over the places where restaurant equipment had been installed.

I asked Roger and the other tenants if they knew what had been going on.

Nobody admitted knowledge, although a few – Roger among them – smacked their lips while claiming ignorance.

*     *     *

Comes the Day Of Reckoning. Mrs. Mad Bomber was released from The Sybil Brand Institute, which was the newly opened LA County prison for women. Prior to that, women were crammed into floor-space-only cells in the all-male LA County Jail. Whether or not Sybil Brand was a better slam than the previous, I cannot say.

Later, Mrs. Mad Bomber told Carol, “It was cool after I smacked a couple of those bitches.” A 5-Star recommendation if I ever heard one.

By all accounts, Mrs. Mad Bomber had dried out enough so that she had all her faculties. Meaning, the drugs were out of her system and for the first time since her last incarceration, some three years before, she was straight. Not a poisonous substance in her system, unless you count the jailhouse coffee she drank and the sugar doughnut she ate before exiting the prison.

She had the expectation of being met at the prison gates, and escorted from same, by the person she’d entered into a legal and loving contract with as husband and wife. But Mr. Mad Bomber was nowhere to be seen when she exited the prison, with only a few bucks and a tattered paper bag to hold her meager belongings.

Mrs. Mad Bomber waited and waited until she realized that no one was coming for her. Eventually, she hailed a cab and gave the cabbie a blow job sufficient to get her to Venice.

She arrived in time to see the upstairs junkie’s girlfriend exiting Mrs. Mad Bomber’s hearth and home with a happy smile on the slut’s face and a pair of panties dangling from a finger. Witnesses later told me about the dangling panties, so don’t doubt the added detail.

Now, the newly straight and sober wife -  recently of Sybil Brand and hot off the gear shift of a foreign-born cabbie, in service, so to speak, of her man  – rushed into the house. Mr. Mad Bomber reacted in great surprise, meaning he was so blasted that he couldn’t deny the tryst and simply pulled the covers over his head.

As you might imagine, his wife was furious. But her fury was not directed at the Mad Bomber.

Witnesses later reported that she used phrases, like: “That slut; that cock sucking husband stealer; that ass licking whore; I’ll show you how to keep a man; you, you, you…”

Okay, you get the idea: that when the newly sober Mrs. Mad Bomber arrived home and found her stoned husband in the sack with her nemesis – the Upstairs Junkie’s Girlfriend – she flipped out.

Blew her cool.

Became… unreasonably unreasonable.

In short, she went and got her gun.

I’m talking about a big fucking gun from the Mad Bomber’s big fucking gun collection. An old revolver with a barrel as big as a cannon and with six hand-loaded shells nestled in their nicely oiled chambers. The trigger action just a speck off hair.

Mrs. Mad Bomber went screaming out the door, shouting profanities and heading for the Upstairs Junkie’s domain. When she got there, the Upstairs Junkie’s girlfriend – for no reason reasonable thinkers could determine – was making her way back down the stairs.

Anyone would have thought that with Mrs. Mad Bomber waving a big-ass gun and shouting “You cocksucking, motherfucking, husband-stealing whore,” that she perhaps had the Upstairs Junkie’s girlfriend in mind and that even if the slut were not guilty as charged, it’d be wise to hide in a closet or under a bed until the danger passed and someone – such as Mrs. Mad Bomber’s husband, caught up to his wife and re-introduced her to the peaceful joys of narcotic addiction.

But, no. The Upstairs Junkie’s girlfriend kept coming. She even made so bold as to give Mrs. Mad Bomber the finger and boast that the whole time MMB had been incarcerated in Sybil Brand, that she – the Upstairs Junkie’s girlfriend – had been riding the Mad Bomber like the monorail at Mr. Walt Disney’s newly opened Tomorrow Land. She was a real woman, who knew how to treat a man, unlike the passionless cold bitch, who was Mrs. Mad Bomber.

Well, Mrs. Mad Bomber had taken all she could -  she could take no more.

She opened fire on the Upstairs Junkie’s girlfriend.

Bam. Bam.


Bullets were blasting this way and that. The Upstairs Junkie’s Girlfriend shrieked and raced back up the stairs.

The recoil, meanwhile, threw Mrs. Mad Bomber onto her back.

Unperturbed, she steadied the big revolver between her knees and kept firing.

Bam. Bam.


More bullets were exiting that big damned gun, going this way and that, every which way but at that slut, the Upstairs Junkie’s Girlfriend.

The UJG, meanwhile, had fallen across the wooden stairs, her round behind a perfect target for Mrs. Mad Bomber, who was busily reloading, spilling bullets across her bosom.

She aimed, steadying the pistol until the sights were straight on the UJG’s butt. Pulled the trigger. The bullet slammed into the railing, hit a nail, and shrieked off God only knew where.

There was a scream of pain and Mrs. Mad Bomber froze, thinking she had at last succeeded – and not too sure that it was necessarily a good thing.

What if she’d shot the bitch dead? Mrs. Mad Bomber did not want to return to Sybil Brand, especially not for an extended period of time.

There was another wail and Mrs. Mad Bomber looked up to see the UJG scrambling up the stairs on bleeding hands, ducking through the open doorway.

A moment later a bloody figure staggered into view. But it was not Mrs. Mad Bomber’s enemy. It was the Downstairs Junkie, gripping his throat, blood streaming between his fingers. And the poor guy was screaming in agony. Somehow one of the bullets had smashed through the upstairs window and hit him while he was trying to comfort the Upstairs Junkie, whose girlfriend had become such a neighborhood scandal.

He was shrieking, “Oh, oh, oh.” Which was similar to the sound the police cars were making as they advanced on Pepperland.

I arrived home in time to see an ambulance carrying the Downstairs Junkie away, while a sobbing Mad Bomber blubbered over his wife who was being handcuffed and stuffed into a police car. He was swearing his undying love and saying that he’d never cheat on her again. So, in an odd way, Mrs. Mad Bomber had managed a major victory with her bad aim.

This became especially clear a few weeks later when the two junkies – Upstairs and Downstairs – moved out and found a place of their own down on Speedway. The Upstairs Junkie’s former girlfriend lingered a day or so, but I soon scared her out with stories about Mrs. Mad Bomber beating the rap and returning to exact revenge.

Actually, Mrs. Mad Bomber only did six months in jail – mostly awaiting disposition of her case. The Downstairs Junkie was too strung out on reds to press charges against anybody and the only issues left involved misdemeanors, like discharging weapons in a public place and so forth. California was - and is - very much a Western state and unless somebody was actually killed, gunplay tended to be ignored.

Besides, the DA's office no doubt reasoned that although Mrs. Mad Bomber hadn’t exactly been Annie Oakley, the fact of the matter was that she was reacting like many a red-blooded American woman might have reacted when she chased down that slut who was interfering with her man, to whom she was lawfully wed.

You get the drift.

There was, however, fallout from the incident that would resound through the Pepperland Ages and write a new chapter in our brief history.

A few weeks later Roger arrived at my door, his looks grim, his manner defensive. I was shocked when he waved away the beer I offered him.

“We gotta talk, Allan,” he said, very serious. Quite unlike Roger..

“So, talk,” I said.

“You know, I’ve got serious responsibilities now, what with Nancy and the rug rat,” he said.

“Okay?” I said, getting worried.

“I can’t live around people who don’t know how to shoot straight,” he said.

My first thought was an uncharitable, Oh, shit, if Roger moves, there’s no way I can continue to improve Mr. Cohen’s property. Not for anything affordable, that is.

“Don’t be too hasty,” I said. “Maybe we can work something out.”

“No fucking way are you going to move the Mad Bomber,” Roger said. “He’s not like the Blue Meanie. You could shovel Irish bullshit until you turn green in the face, but he won’t buy it. And he won’t move.”

I sighed. “I realize that,” I said. “But, I’m sure you realize that you have a really good deal here, Roger. Sure, you work cheap, but you don’t pay rent, you are squirreling money away like mad, plus you are getting really prestigious jobs because of your work for Mr. Cohen.”

An aside seems necessary right about now. By squirreling away money, I was not referring to a bank account. Roger distrusted banks as much as they distrusted him. His habit was to put any and all excess money into American Express traveler’s checks. These he kept stashed in a lock box that also contained a 1916 9-millimeter Polish cavalry pistol that was so accurate, that Roger liked to say: “You could shoot the nuts off a fly with it.” I later traded my old Rambler station wagon for the gun, plus a stereo tape deck, and although I can’t swear I emasculated that fly, I sure as hell squashed the son of a bitch.

The other thing I should expand upon is the prestigious jobs remark. Yuppie-dom was just rearing its head – although I don’t believe the term had been invented yet. However, there were a number of upwardly mobile young women and men who were opening up vegetarian joints, boutiques, and so on. Apartment buildings, as Mr. Cohen discovered, were cheap in Venice. So several had been bought out along Washington Boulevard and Roger was now being kept busy by people who appreciated a Jack Of All Trades builder who spoke and acted as if he might have attended college.

And here was this macho little guy, with a good build, a smooth artsy-fartsy line and a dazzling smile for the ladies – unless he forgot to put his false front teeth in. He’d been converting so much cash into traveler’s checks lately, that they were starting to squeeze out the Polish Cavalry pistol.

The point being, erratic gunfire or not, Roger had a strong motivation to squat on his power base.

“The junkies are gone,” I pointed out. “I’ll find somebody nice for the upstairs apartment and we have this pretty little blonde taking over the downstairs junkie’s place.”

The blond cutie was just out of high school. Her father had come down and personally inspected the apartment – which was gleaming from Roger’s recently administered magic. He’d then written a large check for first and last and a full month’s security deposit. The girl was a butter-wouldn’t-melt American dream. She worked at the new Van DeKamp’s bakery that had spread its windmill arms over Lincoln Boulevard and she was carrying a full boat of units at Santa Monica College. Her father said she was a psych major.

Roger grinned when I mentioned the blonde. “She’s a piece of work,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind hanging around just to see what she does.”

I was aghast. “Jesus Christ, Roger,” I said. “She’s not going to do a damn thing. I doubt if she’s ever even seen a gun, except on a TV show. So, you’re safe there. Anyway, how about it? You staying or leaving?”

Roger gave me a long, measuring look, then said, “I’ll let you know in a couple of days. I got some ideas.”

Alarmed, I said, “What ideas?”

“You’ll see,” Roger said.

A few days later a smiling Roger escorted me to his apartment unit. Nancy and little Brendon - the aforementioned "rug rat" - were waiting outside. Nancy greeted me, but wouldn’t meet my eyes. Not a good sign.

“Take a look at this, Al,” Roger said, throwing open the door.

Worried, I peered in. The place was sparsely furnished, but every piece had been hand-built by Roger. Their bed was about five feet off the ground and mounted into the wall, which gave them even more room. There were huge pillows on a rug in the space below for music listening and TV watching. I think I mentioned in an earlier episode that the single unit had a huge kitchen and super large closet. The closet served as Chris’ bedroom and Roger had built a wardrobe for their clothes. The piece was beautifully finished and gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the door.

“Looks the same to me, Rog,” I said. “What’d you do?”

Chuckling, Roger pushed by me and strode to the middle of the room. He kicked the rug aside, revealing an iron ring bolted to the floor.

“Watch this,” Roger said, pulling on the ring. To my amazement a section of the floor lifted away on sturdy hinges. “See, we got our very own personal bomb shelter,” Roger said, flipping a switch.

Light bloomed beneath me and I gaped in amazement at Roger’s handiwork. He’d dug out the sand under his unit to create a cellar, with sandbagged sides, stores of food and water and even a porta-potty for the kid.

“If the shooting starts, we’ll just all get in there until it’s over,” Roger said.

“It’s really pretty comfortable,” Nancy said shyly as she walked into the room. “It’s like a having a cellar we can convert into a family room.”

“You plan on expanding?” I asked Roger, so stunned that I didn’t know how to react.

“Sure, why not?” Roger said. “Look, I even planned for it in advance.”

And he showed me that he’d made a cut into the floor all the way around the room – starting about six inches from the wall.

“The whole floor comes up,” Roger said. “Later, I can hook up a winch and crank the whole thing up to the ceiling. Then we’ll have sort of a step-down living room, like the rich farts in Beverly Hills.”

“Aw, shit, Roger,” I said.

“What?” He threw up his arms, all innocence.

“You cut out the fucking floor,” I said.

“And I had very good reason to, Allan,” he replied. “In case you hadn’t notice, people who don’t know how to shoot sometimes fire their guns around this place.”

“It only happened once,” I said.

“Can you guarantee it won’t happen again?”

I started to really give him a piece of my mind, but I stopped. What was the point? The deed was done.

“So, you’re staying,” I said.

“Damn straight,” Roger said. “After all that fucking work I’d be a fool to leave now.”


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During the Vietnam war, GIs who managed to survive their tour of duty were flown home in chartered airliners, which they called “Freedom Birds.” This is the story of three young men – from  wildly different backgrounds – who meet on such a plane and make a pact to spend three days together in San Francisco. Their goal: to spend every cent of  their mustering out money in a party of  a lifetime. And they’ll get more than they bargained for: because when they land, it is July 1967 – in a time that would come to be known as “The Summer Of Love.” A place and time where each young man will have to confront the ghosts who followed them home from the jungles of Vietnam and contemplate a future none of them had imagined. 


The entire 8-novel landmark science fiction series is now being presented in three three giant omnibus editions from Orbit Books.  The First - BATTLECRY - features the first three books in the series: Sten #1; Sten #2 -The Wolf Worlds; and Sten #3, The Court Of A Thousand Suns. Next: JUGGERNAUT, which features Sten #4, Fleet Of The Damned; Sten #5, Revenge Of The Damned; and Sten #6, The Return Of The Emperor. Finally, there's DEATHMATCH, which contains Sten #6, Vortex; and Sten #7, End Of Empire. Click on the highlighted titles to buy the books. Plus, if you are a resident of The United Kingdom, you can download Kindle versions of the Omnibus editions. Which is one clot of a deal!

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Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.  




Venice Boardwalk Circa 1969
In the depths of the Sixties and The Days Of Rage, a young newsman, accompanied by his pregnant wife and orphaned teenage brother, creates a Paradise of sorts in a sprawling Venice Beach community of apartments, populated by students, artists, budding scientists and engineers lifeguards, poets, bikers with  a few junkies thrown in for good measure. The inhabitants come to call the place “Pepperland,” after the Beatles movie, “Yellow Submarine.” Threatening this paradise is  "The Blue Meanie,"  a crazy giant of a man so frightening that he eventually even scares himself. Here's where to buy the book. 


Diaspar Magazine - the best SF magazine in South America - is publishing the first novel in the Sten series in four 
episodes. Part One and Part Two appeared in back-to-back issues. And now Part Three has hit the virtual book stands.  Stay tuned, for the grand conclusion. Meanwhile, here are the links to the first three parts. Remember, it's free!

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