The House Of Sleep (Excerpt)
A Stephan Raszer Investigation
In the pre-millennial L.A. winter of 1999, my last year of solvency before 2006, I decided—against all good sense—to write a novel. I created a private investigator named Stephan Raszer (like Raz-or), his name an anagram and a distant homage to Somerset Maugham, who tracked down and extricated cult victims and was equal parts shaman and sleuth. In a bolt of beginner’s luck, the novel, eventually called Enoch’s Portal, was optioned in manuscript by Paramount for its Alphaville shingle and director Alex Proyas. The movie never happened, but I wrote two more Raszer books, The Last Days of Madame Rey and Nowhere-Land, both of which were published but fell prey to the same jinx that had put Portal into turnaround. Now there is a fourth in the series, and as I wait patiently for some brave publisher to pick it up, I’ve decided to serialize it here on Substack.
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PREFACE: O, MAGNUM MYSTERIUM
You’ve probably heard the story. It exists in all tongues, and on every tongue, it’s a seduction. It takes many forms, but the gist of it is this:
There is a secret known only to an illuminated few—an elite, a priesthood, cabal, coven, or fraternity. It may be a secret of eternal youth, attainment of wisdom, riches, power, or sexual prowess--or for those with the most rarified tastes, the secret of the knowledge of the true nature of God. The hero knows that if he could possess this secret, he would rule the world, or at least, be raised from his prosaic circumstances to a greater and more authentic level of being.
Most importantly, the hero knows that knowing the secret would erase any doubt that his life was worth living. Over the course of history, some have learned the secret, and they have been satisfied.
Our hero is not satisfied.
And so, he sets off for the high castle in the distant, mist-encircled mountains, where behind the thrice-locked door in the vaulted chamber the secret keepers wait for the one who knows to ask the right question.
In many versions of the story, there is a woman at the center of the mystery, in whose heart—and other parts—lies the key to the thrice-locked chamber. The hero must win her in order to be admitted. You may say that she is merely a symbol of what the hero hungers for—after all, women keep secrets. Or, after some thought, you may conclude that she is herself the secret.
If you hear the story when you are old, you may sigh and say, “Ah, well, that explains why things didn’t go quite as I’d hoped. I never knew the secret.” If you hear it when you are young, your life may be consumed by it.
The hero of the present story is of the second sort. His name is Stephen Raszer.
Raszer appears to be in a fix. He is bound and trussed and suspended by his feet over a well that has existed for millennia, the depth of which has never been measured. A knife is at his throat, held by the woman in whose embrace he’d rested only the night before. A trickle of blood runs over the hump of his chin and drips into the bottomless dark.
The Chorus asks: how will he get out of this fix? The Goddess, descending on strings, answers: maybe the same way he got into it.
It began, as it always had, with a phone call. The ring—more like an elongated burp—came from off in the rocks where he’d positioned a portable radio telescope, a considerably downsized version, built from a kit, of those enormous dishes astronomers use to pick up signals from quasars. The rocks, primordial granite, stood like battlements on the edge of an enormous plateau in the White Mountain range, extending like a finger of bleached bone for a hundred miles along the California-Nevada border. He’d been asked to come here to await a message, and Raszer, even against narrow-eyed skepticism and the accumulated bruises of experience, still rarely refused such invitations. What would the point of his life have been if, after all of it, he’d stopped allowing for the marvelous? The dish, aimed sixty degrees into the blue, was there to pick up the transmission—should it come— but also, as it happened, served as a relay station from Verizon to his cell phone.
“Mr. Razzer? Stef-on Razzer?” the caller asked in a muffled tone.
“Stephan. Ev-en. Raszer. Like bla-zer,” Raszer replied. “Yeah, that happens to be me.” “Do you still find lost souls?”
“I’m semi-retired,” he replied. “From that line of work.”
This was not untrue. Raszer had decided seven years earlier, some weeks after the conclusion of his last assignment, that he was not as ready to die as he’d once thought. Sometimes, he’d reasoned, you have to lose a piece of yourself before the value of the rest comes into focus. He’d lost his right eye to the beak of a carrion buzzard on the other side of the planet, the empty side, the side that was fast going to desert. What had taken the eye’s place, aside from the fine piece of glass, kaleidoscopic at its center, crafted for him by an old Hassidic Jew in the L.A. diamond district, was an awareness of death-in-life that slaked his thirst for the real thing. In the same way that making love to a beautiful and formerly unattainable woman relieves the awful yearning that gnaws at the soul: renders her human, even ordinary, Raszer’s virtual death on the edge of the world (in a game that was more real than life) had broken his addiction. Seven years since his last missing persons case, and he didn’t see them as lost years. He’d become a better rock climber, a better father, and better at reading the ciphers written on the skin of the world. They were everywhere, encouraging a man to skirt the line between second-sight and madness, and he suspected that beneath the surface, the entire universe was in some manner encoded with them. Improbably, Stephan Raszer was practicing oracular art in the second decade of the 21st century, though not with runes and vapors. This was what had brought him to the White Mountains to await the message. But as prophecy did not pay the rent, he still earned a retainer as an advisor to the LAPD’s Missing Persons Unit on cases involving all varieties of cultic abduction and crime. He was known to the detectives in Luis Borges’s division as ‘the medicine man,’ but that was only because someone in the division knew that medicine men, among the Chumash and other Indians of the Southwest, had also been shamans.
He had a book contract. Not a tell-all about the celebrity children he’d pulled out of cults. That book would never be. But a book about the world-altering experiences along the way. The title chosen by the publisher was Excursions to the Hidden World, but Raszer found that a bit much and wanted to drop all but Excursions.
“Are you there?” the voice on the satellite phone asked. “Did I lose you?”
The caller’s voice was not known to him, though some crude attempt was being made to disguise it—a sock, or a slit paper cup, maybe just a hand over the receiver.
“Have you lost someone?” Raszer asked. This, rather than “Is somebody missing?” or the more procedural “Do you want to report a missing person?” was the way Raszer generally asked the question, since his prospective clients almost always felt a great hole in their lives. “I did see a piece about a woman gone missing in Bel-Air,” he added.
“She’s not the only one,” the caller said, and for a moment seemed to fumble the receiver. It wasn’t a hands-free call.
“What can you tell me about your stray?” Raszer asked, using his own term of art.
“Someone very dear to me,” the caller replied.
“A child?” Raszer asked. No response.
“Can you tell me her name?”
“No. I’m a married man. A public man.”
“Okay,” said Raszer quietly. “How long has she been gone?”
“This time...two days.”
“That’s not a long time. You mentioned that you have...another life. Is it possible that maybe she did, too? Or that she just needed time to think?”
“No. She’s, as you say, gone. Off the map.”
“Have the police been called?”
“The police look for bodies. I know perfectly well where her body is. It’s with me.”
At this point, Raszer found that his breath caught. The ever-present possibility of California psycho arose, the sort of crime you only found elsewhere triggered by Jerusalem Syndrome, alien abduction scenarios, or severe opioid addiction, and the balance of trust shifted momentarily. Even if there’d been no foul play, he knew, based on an intuition that registered as certainty, that there was a forty-nine percent chance his chain was being pulled. The one-percent advantage to authenticity came from the grief in the caller’s voice.
If neither mayhem nor flimflam were involved, still there was good cause for his breath to catch, for then it would be clear why of all semi-retired former private investigators in the state of California, he had received the call.
“Tell me what you’re looking for. Tell me why you’ve called me.” Raszer waited for one of innumerable variations.
“You’re a cult expert, right? You know what some healer woman running a reiki booth at a conference in Vegas told me? She said, ‘Steffan Razzer’—that’s the way she pronounced it—‘tracks the footprints of the errant soul.’”
“Nice tag,” he said. “I’ll keep it in mind if I ever happen to hang out my shingle again. But it does usually begin with real footprints. Say, size six. Pumps. Or occasionally, size ten Oxfords.” He paused. “Is she...breathing?”
“Yes,” said the caller. “But that’s all. The rest is somewhere else.”
“And where are you now?” he asked.
“In my home. Sitting on the edge of my king-sized bed in my silk pajamas, sipping a Bloody Mary, since you ask.”
“And your—are you sure we can’t give her a name?”
“Let’s call her Rose for now.”
“Good choice. And Rose...is with you, on the bed?”
“On her left side, as always, with her knees pulled up to her chest.”
“When’s the last time she was seen by a doctor, Mr.--”
“Lou, just Lou. Three days ago, at Cedars. I’ll tell you what they said when I can look you in the eye, Mr. Raszer.”
“If it comes to that, okay. Will you allow me to see her?”
“You think I’d ask you to take on something like this with reservations?” He paused, and Raszer thought he heard a muted sob. “God, she’s beautiful.”
A little shiver ran down Raszer’s back along with a bead of desert sweat.
“Okay. And so we’re clear, I’m not ‘taking on’ anything. I never refuse advice to someone in your situation, but I’m off the beat. I’m not for hire.”
“I understand,” said Lou. “Good advice is a big step ahead of where I am now.”
“I’d like to ask you one more question, and then I’ll get your information.”
“All right. What is it?”
“In the days before she ‘left,’ as you described it, did she happen to say where she might be going?”
“Yes,” Lou said. “She did. But it won’t make much sense.”
“Try me,” said Raszer. “I’ve been a lot of strange places.”
“She told me she was going to the ‘way station.’ Something she picked up from this meshuggah health group she’s been into lately. The Plan is what she called it. What can I say? I’m a non-observant Jew who fell for a crystal-gazing shiksa. I suppose I asked for trouble. But I don’t want to lose her. She’s, well...I don’t want to lose her.”
On the tablet computer that sat on a campstool on Raszer’s right, plugged into an extension cord that led to a generator, the screen woke up. The display was a series of virtual gauges indicating signal and “packet” strength, and the gauges were suddenly in frantic motion.
“I’m getting another call,” said Raszer. “One I have to take. You’ve got my cell number. I’ll ask you how you got it later. Will you text me your address and your availability for tomorrow afternoon?”
“Can I count on you not to call the police, Mr. Raszer? At least until you’ve seen what I see?”
“You have my word on that,” he said.
He was in what the Ranger District described as a primitive campground. No running water, no toilets, carry in-carry out. High and crackling dry above the northeastern lip of the Owens Valley. Directly across the stark valley floor, the Sierra Nevada rose to alpine heights, but the White Mountains were older and seemed to belong to an entirely different time domain, one whose arrow began in primordial fire and had never reached the present, somehow arrested eternally in the late Pleistocene. Not far from Raszer’s campsite, the ridge was guarded by a stand of Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, and among them, the oldest living tree in the world. Five thousand sixty-three years of sentinel duty on this barren, wind-raked plateau. As old as Mesopotamia. If the tree, with its gnarled, homo agonistes form, was a priest, it was a penitent priest, ministering to a congregation of flagellants, but so calloused by cruel desert that pain was more routine than regimen. Sometimes, Raszer felt like such a priest. There were days when he felt that his very existence offended God, and other days when he felt God’s own blood coursing through his veins. Famine or feast.
The Plan, he thought to himself, and gave a soft laugh. Always an innocuous name.
Maybe it was his ‘religious’ nature that had drawn him to this place. The few people who did come here—a rarefied species of tourist—came to see the trees and came in spite of the searing heat, the dessicating wind, and the keen sense of exile from the human race that you felt when traversing the last thirty miles of single lane road to the campground. It was a deep loneliness, the kind that made you want to cry mama. Raszer wasn’t fully inured to that sort of loneliness, but he also wasn’t repelled by it. It was some kind of holy.
And the barrel vault of the stars over the Owens Valley at night: the Almighty and Peter Pan. It was, for all these reasons, a perfect place for Raszer to have come to await his message, and now—just now--it was coming in.
The software he’d installed on his tablet was preset to download the transmission in any file form it could approximate itself to, and there were eighty-six options. It came downstream with remarkable speed, but in an exotic form of encrypted file known as an egret, or .egrt. It would take resources beyond what Raszer had carted up the mountain to decrypt it, so its meaning—which he hoped might be some form of invitation, wouldn’t be clear until he got back to Whitley Terrace and was able to parse it a dozen different ways. But there was a second incoming stream, a kind of sideband, that read as an audio signal. Monaural, highly compressed, very poor quality, and recognizable as music only from its transients. He put on his headphones and heard only what must have been the narrowest slice of the audio spectrum. Something made him immediately associate the strongest peaks with kick drum and guitar. Nothing else, save possibly for gunfire, had such attack and such regularity, and gunfire didn’t swing.
dah Du-du-du-dup da-Du-du-du-dup da-Du-du-du-dup-dah Dup!
He listened again and again to just that phrase. Totally musical, but something quirky about the meter. 3 + 3 + 4, with a pickup note at the front and a hard, short downbeat at the back. He listened once more to the intro.
dah Du-du-du-dup da-Du-du-du-dup da-Du-du-du-dup-dah Dup! And then, following the Dup!, the lyric entered his skull:
When you were a young boy, did you have a puppy?
That always followed you around? Well, I’m gonna be as faithful as that puppy No, I’ll never let you down
Before packing up, he hooked up remotely to his office computer in Hollywood, moved the .egrt file onto the desktop, and put the decryption software to work. If it was any kind of standard cipher, there might be something when he got home.
All the way home, down the 395 to Hwy. 14 and onto the Golden State, he had the song in his head. And in his head, that feeble, vitiated signal grew until it became Tina Turner backed by Phil Spector’s mighty Wall of Sound on River Deep, Mountain High. Phil Spector, the manic genius who was now serving 19-to-life for asking Lana Clarkson to fellate the barrel of his .38-caliber Colt Cobra and then—in a state of coke-fueled frenzy, pulling the trigger. That image of blood, skull fragments and broken teeth, and the man in his pajamas and silk smoking jacket—not unlike the way Lou had described himself--staggering out to the portico of his Alhambra palace with the gun hanging limply from his fingers, now gave the song the epic tragedy of Euripides, and maybe this was fitting, because an epic it was intended to be.
But why this song, and how had it found its way into the transmission?
There was every possibility it was a stray signal, even though the whole rig—from dish to circuitry to software—was designed to filter those out. The high desert allowed free rein to all sorts of ionospheric phenomena. Pedal-to-the-metal truckers heading north on the 395 picked up radio stations from New York, and occasionally—if accounts could be believed—radio broadcasts from what seemed to be other eras. No serious researcher has ventured a theory, mostly because long-distance truckers were known to be about as hopped up as Spector had been, only with a very large vehicle and a very dark road to keep them on the right side of the yellow lines.
He passed Lone Pine on the right and thought, however it came to me, it’s a perfect anthem. Right from the watchtower. It got my attention, and now I have to find out what it’s calling my attention to. That would be, presumably, whatever was in the encrypted file. Then there was the self-identified Lou and his empty shell of a girlfriend, comatose or somehow making her exit to another place. How had his call come through? Raszer’s mobile number, changed every three months, was known to only three people, and none would’ve given it out without notifying him.
Red Rock Canyon on the right, and soon the Air Force proving grounds and Edwards AFB, the same turf where a jiggered-up yahoo named Chuck Yeager had first challenged the sound barrier in his rocket plane. Barriers. They fell and frayed out here like paper curtains. The desert allowed no limit. Not even—maybe especially not even—the limit of sanity.
Raszer was ready to be home. To revisit the bottle of Brunello he’d picked up at auction. To be in his own hermitage, to sit at his bar, reading. To take a bath and fall asleep with a candle flickering and the glass in his hand. Only then, after hot water, wine, and some sustenance, would he settle down and see if he could figure out what his friends on the far side were trying to tell him.
As for Lou and his Rose, he knew before he’d left the 395 that he’d have to see them. Curiosity, the best and most deadly human attribute, drew him. The bait was often some obscure phrase, a word from a dream, a something that connected to a something else, or the sound of a woman’s voice whispering like the wind crying Mary in the Hendrix song. In this case, it was two words: way station. A way station on the way to what?
Lou had described The Plan as a “health group,” and in Southern California, that might cover a very wide range, from colonics to cryonics and beyond. No devotee ever referred to herself as being in a ‘cult.’ As it was his trade—or, once his trade, now his vocation—to know about the more questionable of such groups, and occasionally to penetrate them, it might be one he’d had some traffic with. Or not. He never kidded himself that the many branches of Southern California’s theosophical vine could ever be counted.
He was well-acquainted with the darker corners of the 21st century spiritual search, particularly those you couldn’t back out of. But he’d long since learned that in order to beat the darkness, you had first to find the light it had stolen. All the best spiritual con artistry was bastard mimicry, a hodge-podge stewed from more genuine traditions. For that reason, it caused double-takes, like a parlor trick well-done. That must have been the case for people who’d bought into Paul Twitchell’s Eckanar, or even Werner Erhard’s EST. Because sometimes, it was real, at least in terms of the results it produced. Your focus improved, things went your way for a while, maybe a relationship got better. Even a fake could conceal a sliver of the genuine, like the sun’s corona seen behind the covering moon of an eclipse.
This was Raszer’s credo about so-called new religions, with a nod to the 19th century psychologist, William James: if it worked, it was worth looking into. As long as it took nothing away from the believer’s essential self, helped him handle his pain, and left his or her bank account and moral integrity intact, it passed the smell test.
The desperate wives and daughters, sons and lovers of his erstswhile clients had asked: how do we live authentically? More urgently, how do we stop feeling bad? All, to one degree or another, were in states of spiritual despair that in other times might have led them to a convent, a madhouse, the edge of a cliff. Nowadays, they crept shyly into Conference Room C at the Sofitel, sat in the back row (on the aisle for easy escape) and heard the pitch. Take Control of Your Life. Or almost as often these days, How To Let Go. Maybe the gathering was more clandestine: a candlelit coach house in Mandeville Canyon or the chapel at the Annie Besant Lodge. Gathered with friends and people of influence who’d received the wisdom and wanted to pass it on. Ecstasy loves company almost as much as misery does, and there is no belief system so absurd that a roomful of cognoscenti cannot validate it.
Most of the time, swallowing the pitch was as harmless as taking an aspirin. Some enterprising go-getter with a flash of cheap inspiration had simply packaged stuff we knew intuitively but never got around to practicing. So we paid our workshop fee, bought the book, maybe even got it signed, and in small ways, our hurt got a little easier to bear and our lives a little less bleak.
But in the cases that had made Raszer’s reputation between the turn of the Millennium and his come to Jesus moment in Iraq eight years before, more sinister forces had been at work, and the mark, the target, the acolyte, whomever she might be, had opened herself (or himself) to a kind of soul rape. Somebody—and if you believed in the existence of evil, which Raszer did—somebody possibly abetted by darkness itself, was after money, power, and the kind of control you can only have when people call you ‘Master.’ These seekers or suckers, popularly referred to as ‘cult victims,’ had been Raszer’s quarry. He’d followed them—and their seducers--over mountains, through jungles, and across deserts. He’d taken bullets, lost an eye for them. He’d played roles to win their trust, sometimes to the very limits of his sense of self, and then, once the “extraction” was successful, had had to prove to them that he himself was not a fraud. With a few of them, unprofessionally, he’d fallen in love, which was both a variation on the famous psychoanalytical “transference” and a consequence of the trench warfare they sometimes endured: the searing heat of the crucible they’d found themselves emotionally fused in.
Lou’s ‘Rose’ had probably met someone possessing great magnetism and spiritual mojo. Maybe through a friend. There was, of course, no way for Raszer to know at this stage whether or not this sadhu was the real deal. In the time of Jesus, there’d been dozens, maybe hundreds of self-proclaimed prophets in the streets of Jerusalem, all preaching from Jeremiah, and Isaiah, and Ezekial. But only one had left a two-thousand year wake behind. Who was to say that one of the ragged men crying lightning on Hollywood Boulevard was not in his lineage? Who was to say that Rose’s guru was not her soul’s consigliere?
The death-sleep that her worried boyfriend had described did not suggest a beneficent nap. There was something decidedly wrong about the image of a beautiful woman curled fetally in a Dolce & Gabbana dress on the silk duvet of her rich, older lover. On the other hand, a catatonic devotee couldn’t do much evangelizing, or serve as a poster girl for the movement, so whatever the Rose had gotten herself into wasn’t any ordinary self-help regimen. At the least, it did not evidence a guide who was much concerned with his followers’ progress in this world. But what did Raszer know at this point? Nothing.
Except for this: if he got sucked into it, there would be a price. A fundamental equation of shamanism is that what is restored to the sufferer is taken from the shaman, at least until his healing and recovery can take place. In his time, Raszer had had much taken from him, and always with his own assent. But little by little, like a marathoner who through the years begins to realize that muscles do indeed break down, the price had gotten prohibitively high. And now, he’d begun to enjoy life, and the pursuit of knowledge and gnosis in quietude as opposed to at the outermost limits of a spiritual centrifuge.
He put the song on again as he left the flat, straight desert highway for the curvier Hwy. 14. He lit a cigarette: his first since he’d embarked on the trip. Hadn’t even thought about it beforehand. Completely instinctive. The excitement, and attendant fear, had entered his belly, moved up to his chest, and he’d lit a cigarette.
Screw the Brunello. It would be there whenever he got home. He had received a text with the address: 636 Shady Brook Drive, Beverly Hills. Off Benedict Cañon Drive, in the hills, but not at the very top. Close enough, though, to be very expensive.
He was going to see Sleeping Beauty, and she might just live in a castle.
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