please don't


Axl Watch

Please Don't's serial-collaborative noir Axl Watch follows Chicago private dicks Gatz and Tunnicliff to Los Angeles on a mysterious case centering around the best lead singer in all of rock and roll. Chapter One can be found here. If you want to write a chapter of "Axl Watch," have a look at our submission guidelines.

Chapter Two
by Pete Coco

That night I dreamed of dolphins. They swam through the air and down Division Street. I waved as they passed me. I hadn't felt it in fourteen years, this wonder. The dolphins crossed Western Ave. I was just beginning to miss them when one of the stragglers made a wide turn and came back for me. He was pink. He communicated to me that his name was Saul and that I could grab onto his fin and ride along if I wanted to. I wanted to.

We loped westward. It was nighttime. The mission RVs were parked on the edge of Humboldt Park, handing out food and giving blood tests. The good people huddled. We passed Cicero. Some train tracks. I held tight and then we were in the chill mountains, and then we were over them. And then we got to the ocean.

The pod circled above the blue expanse like gulls. I could see the white caps below and they were small.

Saul asked: do you trust me, Axl?

I'm Axl? I answered. We circled once more, then we dove like torpedoes.

I was awake before we hit the water. My heart was in my throat. "Fuck," I said, and I sat up. "Fuck."

It took me a minute to remember where I was. We were staying in a motel in Playa Del Ray. The blankets were musty and my neck ached from the old silicone pillow, thin and hard. The sheets smelled clean but I felt granules of sand against my skin. My heart pulsed slower. I listened as a jetliner droned its way into the sky from LAX. I swallowed, and it hurt. Like I'd swallowed a flaming cactus. Like on a bet, maybe. That might have explained the prickly brick in my stomach.

The curtains against the balcony billowed in a light breeze. I got up. On the table was the bottle of whiskey I'd picked up for us earlier. Empty. Next to it was one of the thin plastic tumblers from the bathroom. All the damn liquor left in the room was coloring the ice in Gatz's tumbler as it melted.

I could smell the smoke of his cigarette, so I joined Gatz outside.

He laughed at the sight of me in my boxers, his hand reaching to his breastpocket to get me a smoke. He was still in his shirt and pants, his tie undone but still under the collar.

"Don't fuck with me right now," I croaked. "I had a bad dream."

"Christ," he said. "I get that. Try passionflower extract. I've got some inside. By the sink. Helps with nightmares."

We leaned on the rail with our elbows. We smoked. We were just high up enough to see past blocks of shorter buildings to the shore. The beach was gray in this dark, and beyond it was the hushing ocean. I contemplated. I hadn't had that dream in probably fifteen years. Another jetliner was coming in. For a moment it drowned everything.

"So Gatz," I said when it was quiet again. "If the client is paying us so much, how come we're sharing a room all the way out here?"

"Safer this way," he said. He didn't even look up.

"You want to elaborate on that?" I asked, motioning for another cigarette.

He gave me another cigarette and lit it for me. "Not really," he said.

"That guy who was killed, he was—he was one of my boyhood idols, you know?" It was true. I didn't expect Gatz to care but I wanted him to know. "What I'm saying is that this shit just got heavy. And I'm in it."

Gatz nodded. "Yeah," he said. "That's true. Look—this morning wasn't supposed to happen like that. But nothing's changed."

I waited for him to say more, but he didn't. Safer this way. Delivered flat but full of something. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was resignation. I needed him to say more to know for sure.

"You want me to stay up?" I asked. "Keep watch?"

"Only if you want to, Tunny." He put his arm on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. He meant for us to reach an understanding in this moment. Whatever it was, I missed it.

He turned, went inside. I stayed out there awhile and stared at the ocean. Waves curled over on themselves and then they flattened out. And the palm trees. The thing about the palm trees was how tall they were. Skinny, too. They actually swayed in the wind. I never would have guessed that part. Nothing's changed. Nothing but everything. And the thing was, it was my own fault. When I'd agreed to come out here I had known, technically speaking, that I was signing up for whatever the job threw at us. But then there's the simple fact of what it did throw. This. The memory of everything dimming around that pain in the moment Big Asian squeezed it in to me. This. I couldn't shake knowledge of that moment. Call it my own mortality, as I shuffled it off. And then the absurdity of it. Axl Rose being there, causing it in his way, sponsoring it maybe. Like a commercial break. It'll fuck with your conception of the universe, dying like that.

I went to the bathroom for some of Gatz's passionflower. So Gatz had nightmares too. What were his like? All I knew for sure was that they were nothing like mine. Maybe he dreamed of Sheila, or maybe the guy who roughed him up that day in Chicago. Whoever that was.

On my way to bed my eye caught the leather jacket. Hanging in the closet. Looking at me. Beckoning. So I closed in for a better look. Now I was certain. This was the jacket Axl Rose wore in the Estranged video. I hadn't thought on that video in years. It made me think of a time I don't generally like to think on, my time in the DCFS group home. We'd watch MTV in the common room. Only late at night. It was an arrangement Sarge and I had with the overnight counselor, an old guy named Reggie. Always in these pilly bivouac sweaters, his glasses on a chain around his neck. He'd sit with us and usually doze off. We kept the volume down.

During the day we'd stay away from the common room. Great place for a turf war, all in all. But Reggie liked us enough to break the rules, at least once in awhile. Liked Sarge, really. Sarge was a joker, especially around adults. Made Reggie laugh. He was an easy target for the other kids, but a favorite of many counselors. Two sides of the same coin, really. I called him Sarge because he was always talking about his Dad in the army. Stationed in Berlin and coming for him someday. Sarge seemed to like that.

There were two other white kids in the whole place. That's it. One was a lot younger, scrambled somehow. His face was always dirty. Wasn't much for talking. The other kid was older. He had a fuzzy moustache, a blotchy F.T.W. inked onto his forearm and a clockwork habit of pull ups on the frame of his bunk. A skinhead maybe. I didn't want to be sure about it. Both kept to themselves, but that's not my nature. So I took what I could get. What I could get was Sarge. I don't know if we were friends. It depends on your definitions of the term. Sometimes Sarge got his little ass kicked and I just watched. Sometimes. Lots of times. More than I could count. Nothing to be done about it. They never fucked with me, though. Not because I was so tough or big or anything like that. Because to them I wasn't even there. Casper, the white-ass ghost.

But I remember sitting there with Sarge, watching that video. And yeah, it's the dolphins that stuck with me. Flying out of the cargo jet. Swimming down the streets. Rescuing Axl when he jumps off the ocean liner.

"Dolphins can fly?" I remember asking.

"Sure," Sarge had said. "Dolphins can do anything."

In the morning I woke to find a note taped to the TV.


I was expecting something like this. Anyway, I had plans. I showered and dressed in my other gray checkered suit. I did as the Romans and left the stubble on my face and the tie in my pocket. Outside the sun was bright and warm on my neck. I folded my suit jacket, one shoulder into the other, and drove over to see the tailor who'd made it for me.

I wanted to replace the pocket square I'd draped over Axl's face. Maybe Gatz would notice I had one fewer than I had the day before, maybe he wouldn't. It didn't matter. This is a business of infinite contingency. It's about being prepared for things that don't happen. Because sometimes, things that don't happen? They happen. But I had another reason to see the tailor. I knew the agency's credit limit as well as Gatz did. He didn't pay that bill. And if Gatz didn't pay that bill, maybe our mastermind had a standing account with the tailor. And if he had a standing account with the tailor, the tailor had his name written down somewhere on the premises. A phone number too.

The old Englishman did his business in Beverly Hills. He was upstairs from a jeweler, right on Beverly Drive, fat diamonds in the window and a guard out front. The interior must have come over with him from Saville Rowe. Or so it would seem. A red carpet, shelves built into the burnished walls and brass trusses hanging with hundreds of suits, arranged by color. The windows were shuttered with thick, velvet curtains and the light from the minimal but expensive-looking chandelier was golden.

But the old man wasn't there. In his place was a girl. Maybe twenty years old. A daughter maybe. Granddaughter. But they were related, no question. His white mane might have once looked something like the cornsilk on her head. They shared the same big, red cheeks. She smiled when she saw me, like we shared a joke. Like this was a play in which she was the clerk and I was the customer. She squeezed her hands together at the sight of me. The movement unbalanced her measuring tape and it slid off from her shoulder and to the floor. She ignored this to step out from behind the table. She extended her hand before remembering that this wasn't usually how these things work. Her bright eyes darkened a little in shame or maybe disappointment. For my purposes, she was perfect.

"I'm new," she said, in response to nothing. Her British accent was just like the old man's. Light and musical.

"I bet you can help me anyway," I said. "I'm easy."

"Poppy—pardon, Mr. Cowper, I should say, the tailor, is out for the morning but if you want to pick something out—" she stopped herself and turned around to pick up her measuring tape off the floor. "I can take measurements. I should be able to do that, anyhow. I won't be offended if you want to wait for him," she said. "Don't worry."

"Like I said, I'm easy." She blushed. "I was in here recently and I'm afraid I've already misplaced my pocket square. I was hoping you might have another one. It should match this." I took the tie from my pocket and placed it on the table between us.

She rubbed the silk between her fingers. "I can find you your pocket square." And she was off to the stockroom.

I made to wander casually around the room. Looked all over for a computer, a rolodex, anything that might help me get a name or a number on our mastermind. Nothing. All I could find was a stack of handbills, some sort of celebrity-impersonation revue. It seemed out of place so I took one. What I was looking for had to be in the backroom.

I heard voices. Arguing. From the steps leading up from the street. I recognized at least one of the voices: a gravel pit of syllable grinding against syllable.

Big Asian?

I dashed for the dressing room. Inside was a small ledge for sitting and I pulled my legs up on that. The bells on the door jangled and I could make out the words between them for the first time.

"—'Cause he gave me guff," Big Asian said.


"Attitude. He gave me attitude. Wanted more than we had agreed. Talked like an asshole."

"Well, I can't say he'll be missed. But we didn't get the jacket back and now you've lost a priceless antique to boot." The other voice was English. Mannered. Cowper himself.

"The dagger isn't priceless," Big Asian said. "There was a price. Byron paid 50 grand for it."

"And killed a woman."

"I know. I did that part for him."

"Is life not priceless? Debatable, I suppose."

"Byron paid me for it, didn't he?"

"You miss the point, then."

"If you say so."

I peeked over the door of my dressing room and saw them. Big Asian had his back turned to me. The lump on his head was huge and it looked tender. He blocked my view of Cowper.

After a moment, Cowper said, "What of your attackers?"

"I only saw one of them. Young guy. Pudgy. Well dressed but still looked like a shithead. Almost had that head of his popped off when the other got me from behind. Hit me with a brick or something. Knocked me out. Next thing I know the body's gone, the jacket's gone. Shithead's gone. Took the dagger too."

Shithead? This guy was in the same getup as yesterday—a sleeveless t-shirt and a pair of basketball shorts. I looked like a shithead?

But I had bigger problems. As soon as the girl came out of the backroom and told them about me, the now missing customer, the jig was up. Maybe if I surprised them I could get through to the door. Like a running back.

Cowper continued. "The Publicist's assistant, I'd think. Did you recognize him? Was it another of the Publicist's men? She's got a bunch of men working for her. They all look alike."

"I don't think so. I'm not sure."

"It has to be her."

"Maybe. Or maybe the Thieves Guild."

Cowper chuckled. "Or maybe the tooth fairy. Let's leave mythical organizations and creatures out of this, yes? No, it's Fernanda. And she'll be in touch. She knows as well as we do that we need the items back before Byron's auction. She'll be in touch soon."

"If you say so."

But what if I didn't make it through? Shit, even if I did, the odds of a clean escape weren't good. One man runs from a posh Beverly Hills establishment and another gives chase.

"That only leaves the matter of what she'll want."


"No, she has plenty of that."

"I could just kill her."

"It's an option, I suppose. But there's a risk it would compromise the auction. Reveal something to Byron. We need this quiet."

"If you say so."

"I do hate the way you say that, Duck. If you say so. It's passive aggressive."

"Duck" didn't answer.

"Very well, then. I'll be in touch when I hear from the Publicist."

The door chimed as Duck left.

"Julia?" Cowper called. His voice got louder as he drew closer. He was headed for that back room. "Where are you, darling? I'm back from my lunch."

So the tailor was in it. And Byron. The Publicist, Fernanda. Mental notes. Byron. An auction. The Publicist. I didn't have time for reflection. Had to get out of there. I had a window here. But if I went down the front stairs I still might bump into Duck. He was the type to move slowly.

I stood up on the ledge and reached into my back pocket for the handbill. I twisted it into a cone and lit it with my bic. It only took a second of holding it up to the smoke detector for the thing to go off. Over the top of the dressing room door, I saw Julia and Cowper run out the front door. Hand in hand.

My phone vibrated but I didn't answer it. I dashed out of the dressing room and for the backroom. Looking for that computer. A rolodex. Nothing. My tie wasn't anywhere, either. But there was a fire escape. I climbed out the window, down the ladder and into the alley. Two blocks south I came out on Beverly, where I'd left the Town Car.

I caught my breath and got in the car. Checked my phone. Gatz had called.

I took the long way back to Playa Del Rey. But maybe all ways to anywhere in this town are the long way. I pulled off the 405 somewhere in Culver City and drove around until I found a park. I needed to sit on a bench. It seemed important. I watched a pick up game of basketball and I thought hard. The auction. So who we were working for, then? Byron? The Publicist? Someone else? And who had taken the body? They thought it was us, but they didn't think we were us. They didn't even know who we were. For now. I got back in the car. I called Gatz when I got on the highway.

"Gatz here," he said.

"It's me."

"Where you been?"

"Seeing the sights."

"Yeah? Hey, I got some good news for you. That body? It wasn't your guy. Wasn't your boyhood idol."

"It wasn't Axl?"

"Not unless Axl now goes by Jerry Roblewski."


"Right. An impersonator." He said the name again. "Roblewski. Almost sounds like a Chicago guy. You know any Roblewskis growing up?"

"No Roblewskis round the way, no." This traffic was going to kill me. We weren't moving at all. I asked, "What's an impersonator doing with Axl's jacket?"

Gatz sighed. "Beats me," he answered. Answered my question. First one in weeks. But I barely noticed. Because up ahead on the side of the road two laborers were pasting up a new billboard. An impossible billboard.

I got out of the car and tried to get a better look. Cars around me honked. But I wasn't worried about them. I got a little closer but the billboard still said the same incredible thing it had said on my first take.

CHINESE DEMOCRACY. And a date. A release date for the new album. A date exactly two weeks from that very day.

Pete Coco is one of the editors here.

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