Coming Attractions: Past Prologue

Dust and darkness was his world as Mabry felt the truck rumble under his seat. They had been moving him around from camp to camp due to drone attacks for so long that time no longer had meaning. The mission was supposed to be a simple in and out, gathering intelligence on a terrorist cell operating in the Malfour Province of Eastern Calonistan, a small country bordering Afganistan and Iran. Most people traveling through it barely paid it a second thought. Another line on a map, the mission controller told him, how hard could it be?

He was to meet his contact in the village called M’Leod while acting as a helper for the relief mission stationed at the primitive hospital the settlement hosted. His cover held up for about two weeks before he was grabbed outside the local bazaar while shopping for supplies. One minute he was haggling with a round shopkeeper and his portly wife and the next a hood was thrown over his head and he was shuffled off to a vehicle.

He coughed under the rough burlap hood that the militants has placed over his head that blocked his vision but not the dust that seeped through the fabric’s pores and into his throat. He worked at the rope that bound his wrists together and silently thanked his luck that they hadn’t picked up on using the new nylon wrist ties that were becoming more and more popular. Still, the ligatures bit into his skin as he wiggled his hands and he stopped as he felt the truck stop and hands force him by his elbows to his feet.

He felt the oppressive heat ease as he felt himself being led indoors and shoved into a chair and the hood removed. His blue eyes hurt as they adjusted to a set of bright spotlights that shone down from atop a light bar fixed to an expensive video camera that appeared out of place in the hovel. Behind him, a large blue and white flag was tacked to the rear wall. Mabry recognized the banner symbol for the Cloud Brigade and realized the purpose of the set. His cover story as a Canadian independent journalist covering relief efforts had held up for the most part but the whispers from across the room told him that his cover had been blown. But by whom?

His captors wore black hoods with holes cut out for eyes and mouths. He blew strands of brown hair out of his eyes and made a random mental note to get a haircut once he was free. A small battered coffee table was brought in and set in front of him. His chair was pulled up to it as a sheet of paper was slapped down on the table top. Mabry looked up at the figure and studied the brown eyes behind the hood. “I’m not your enemy.” He said in Arabic.

The figure tapped the paper before leaning close to his ear. “I speak for the Cloud. You’re worse than our enemy. You’re a spy for the American Government here to destroy our lives. We will use you to send a message to your handlers that we are not to be trifled with.”

“Ending a sentence with a preposition?” Mabry replied, hearing chuckles from behind him before the Speaker backhanded him with a slender gloved hand, snapping his head back. He caught a glimpse of tinted eye liner around the eyes as the stars cleared. Eye Liner? “Struck a nerve, did I?”

The Speaker raised a hand and then moved it to adjust it around something at her throat. Mabry recognized the distinctive oval shape of a portable voice changer as his ropes were cut under the watchful glare of automatic rifles. She tapped the paper again. “You will read this statement or you will die. This is not a negotiation.”

Mabry picked up the paper and read it, listening to the click of a cigarette lighter as the leader put a filtered cigarette to their lips. The statement was crudely written in English and he fought off the urge to suggest corrections to spelling and grammar. “If I read this, I’m fairly certain that you will kill me anyway once I’ve served your purpose.” He shook his head as he put the paper down and pushed it away. “I’m no spy and I’m not worth a ransom. You’d be better off just killing me now.”

He felt the heat of the cigarette as the tip was brought close to his right cheek. “There are many ways to die. Our only choice is how and when.”

He twitched, his skin coming into contact with the burning coal. He jerked his face away as the Speaker dropped the cigarette and cursed as a stray ember landed on her dark Battle Dress uniform. She brushed the offending spark away and pulled a pistol from a holster on her belt. She made a show of slapping him across the face with the butt end before replacing it. She waved her comrades from the room and leaned in close to his ear. “I know who you are, Mr. Mabry.” She whispered in perfect English. “Consider your options carefully.” She turned smartly on one heel and walked away, the only sound behind her was the sound of the hovel’s door creaking shut.

Mabry groaned silently as he rubbed his jaw. Whoever was speaking for the Cloud Brigade here was smarter than what he had come up against so far and that scared him more than the prospect of death. Still, there was a way out of any trap and he had to find it. Consider your options carefully, she had told him. In English? It became obvious to him that she was dropping him a clue but what? As she was whispering in his ear, her compatriots were oblivious to the language change so what she was saying had to have been meant for him alone. Was she on his side? Lack of proper nutrition and sleep for weeks had dulled his reflexes but he sensed an opportunity. A twinge in his back reminded him to conserve his strength and wait for the right moment. He sighed and continued to scan his surroundings.

The video camera caught his eye. Rising slowly out of the chair, he studied the Panasonic AG-AC90 in detail as it rested on its custom mounted tripod. Though a few years old, the black camera with the wide hood surrounding the lens was still regarded as state of the art and obviously set the Cloud back at least a couple of grand. He overheard voices outside and for the briefest of moments, wondered why they had left him alone in the room. He traced the audio/video patch cable to a small recorder and let out a frustrated sigh as he noticed another thinner cable that snaked its way behind the unit and up the wall. He traced the cable with his eyes until it ended at a small web cam that had been crudely mounted in the ceiling. He shook his head and trudged back to the chair. A section of the worn flooring creaked under his feet. He pressed down and felt the wood give under the pressure. He heard movement outside and took his place back in the chair as the door flung open and his captors reentered the room.

Mabry felt his options slip away as the statement was slapped back down in front of him. He watched as one of the terrorists took their place behind the camera and switched on the recording lamp. “Well, here we are again.” He said as he picked up the paper. “You do realize that no one watching your video will believe that I wasn’t coerced into this?”
The camera operator nodded and made a gesture to the two standing behind Mabry. Battered but deadly AK-47 automatic rifles appeared, their muzzles trained at the back of Mabry’s head. “Mr. Mabry, Minion of the Great Satan, You will now read the statement in front of you.” He recognized the pistol that appeared as a Glock 17, an efficient and deadly nine millimeter weapon. It had been custom fitted with a noise suppressor and as she raised it level with his forehead. “Have you considered your options?”

Mabry nodded and raised the paper. As he read the prepared statement, he noticed the camera’s recording lamp blink several times in a familiar pattern. He didn’t catch it at first but as he read, his mind analyzed the flashes. Two long flashes followed by one quick, another quick flash, and one long flash. He kept on reading aloud while his mind processed what he was seeing. Get? Get what? When the lamp flashed out the letter D, he realized the message and dropped to the floor. The Glock made a sound like a large dictionary being slammed on a table top and the two terrorists fell to the floor. Another shot disabled the web cam in the ceiling and the video recorder. The remaining terrorist put her pistol away and held up her hands. “We don’t have much time. If you want to get out of here alive, you need to follow my instructions.”

“Why should I believe you?” Mabry looked down at the bodies. “If you were so willing to kill your own people, how do I know that you won’t just shoot me once my back is turned?”

“If I wanted you dead, you’d already be in the ground.” She walked over and rummaged through the dead men’s pockets. She retrieved a set of car keys and tossed them at Mabry. “Moustafa’s car is parked around back. Take it and go. There is a landing strip about four kilometers from the highway. There will be a plane waiting. Get on it and leave.”

Mabry eyed the keys. “Why are you helping me?”

“We don’t have time for this.” She stalked over and with the edge of a combat knife, cut off one of the spare buttons sewed to the inside tail of his shirt. She held the button up to him before slipping it into a pocket. “This is a GPS targeting coordinator. You were planted with it before you were inserted in-country. You needed to be a prisoner in order to throw off suspicion and get this device to me. Now that I have it, your part is done and I can pick up where you left off.”

“I was set up.”

“Grow up, Mr. Mabry. You were utilized as any other intelligence asset. Central Command needed the locations of those camps.” She looked around the room. “Now we need to get you out of here. You can’t leave through the door because the Cloud has snipers stationed at several points overlooking the street.” She tapped her hooded chin. “How can we get you out of here?”

Mabry gestured toward the floor. “What about through the floor? The boards seem loose enough to remove. If there is a crawl space, I might be able to fit through it.”

“You have no idea what’s down there, do you?” She reached down and pulled the loose section of flooring away. Underneath, in a slit trench, a thin stream of human waste flowed under the house.

Mabry watched the stream of waste flow by and shuddered. “I really don’t want to jump down there. There has to be another way.” He pointed. “It’s shit.”

Even through the disguise, he could see her nose wrinkle from the stench that made its way out of the hole. “This is the only way out and we’re running short on time. Get in.” She put a hand on his arm. “There’s one last thing I need you to do to make this believable.”

“What?”

“I need you to knock me out.”

“That’s crazy.” He said. I’m not hitting a woman though after that pistol slap you gave me earlier, I’m sorely tempted.”

“If you don’t, you’ll blow your cover and neither of us will get out of here alive.” The door began to shake and angry voices thundered outside. “There’s no time for arguing.”

“I hate this job.” Mabry said, swinging his fist into the side of her face. The pistol fell from her hand as she crumpled to the floor. He scooped up the pistol and dropped into the trench. He barely had time to pull the wood flooring over him and crawl away when he heard the door smash open and angry footsteps stomped around above. Holding his breath, the best he could, he began combat crawling along the trench until he reached the open air. The battered light blue Mercedes was right where he was told and after dispatching an unfortunate stranger who happened around the corner, he got in and drove out of the town as alarms began to ring out. The countryside was devoid of large vegetation along the deserted highway as he sped to the rendezvous point. Ditching the car near the roadway, he hiked up a gravel road until he reached the landing strip. After that, it was a small matter of getting airborne and exiting Calonistan airspace.

The DeHavilland Twin-Otter didn’t have much in the way of amenities but there was a bathroom and he found wet wipes in the first aid kit. He cleaned up the best he could but the smell of human waste was one that he felt he could never completely scrub away. He returned to his threadbare seat and fought to push out the sound of the turboprops as they chewed through the air at five hundred eighty pounds of fuel per hour. At that rate, they would land in Bahrain in just under four hours barring any interference from Iran during the overflight. The Twin-Otter had the range to make the distance but with little margin for error and if a mistake was made, that’s all she wrong. He mentally calculated the range in his head and the result did little to ease his apprehension as he watched the desert sands of southern Iran fill the horizons. A few fighters from the Iranian Air Force flew alongside for several miles to get a look at the plane but they lost interest and flew off after jotting down the tail numbers. If they only knew, he thought as he pulled down the window shade and reclined his chair back. Four hours under threat of fighter and SAMs would be an eternity. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind.

When he woke again, the Iranian coastline was receding behind him in favor as the blue waters of the Persian Gulf as radio chatter from Bahrain filtered out from the open cockpit door. Mabry took a moment to exhale as the pilot turned around and flashed him a toothy smile. No doubt, Langley would have notified the Bahrainians to wave him to land and he longed for a shower and a hot meal. It didn’t take long for the airport at Galali to give them landing clearance. Once the plane had come to a stop and the doors opened, he stepped out into the cool evening air and used the pilot’s cell phone to make a call. Within minutes, an unmarked van from the Embassy in Al Manamah came to pick him up and although he had to deal with the disgusted looks on the driver and escort’s faces, they were courteous enough to take him to see the Ambassador.

Mark Carter had been the Ambassador to Bahrain for eight years and the former Georgia Governor had not lost a bit of his Macon accent. He shook his graying head as he handed Mabry a double scotch and bade him sit on the standard issue couch in his office. Unlike his predecessor, Carter wasn’t influenced by largess and insisted on replacing all the ‘gifts’ that the host government had seen to bestow on them with the original furniture that had sat in storage. Everything was cleaned, refinished and polished to a bright sheen before set up and organized according to Carter’s wife, who was well known, and very vocal, about her dislike for the posting. Carter wore his dark suit like armor and reminded Mabry of a relic of older and more genteel times. “Jesus, Tom, you look like Hell.”

Mabry took a quick gulp from his glass. “Thank you, Sir, it’s been an adventure.”

“I know you’ve been through the mill but Langley wants you checked out by the medical staff here before we send you back to the States. In the meantime, I made all the usual calls and got you a place to stay overnight. Come back at Nine in the Morning to pick up your plane tickets home.” Carter reached into a drawer and pulled out a small leather wallet that he tossed to Mabry. “That was Express Mailed to us this morning. I figured you’d want that to pick up some new clothes.” He took a few steps toward Mabry and stopped. “Tom, I’d burn that outfit. The address to the hotel is in your wallet.”

Mabry forced a grin as he shook Carter’s hand. “Thanks, Mark, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The Ambassador watched Mabry leave the office before he picked up his desk phone and dialed. “He’s on his way.”

Mabry felt insecure as he trudged across the polished lobby and checked in at the Bahrain Carlton. Checking into a high end hotel looking like a beggar from the bad part of town with no luggage and a slight odor emanating from his dirty clothes earned him more than his share of disdaining looks as he signed the register and presented his ID to the desk clerk. The clerk, an officious older man, clucked his tongue as he pulled the reservation up on his computer and handed over the room key. Mabry gave him a quick smile and bid a hasty withdrawal across the black and white star burst pattern on the lobby floor and into the nearest elevator. He got off on the seventh floor and made his way to Room 706 where he opened the door and took a moment to collapse onto the bed. He was so tired that he didn’t notice the figure sitting in one of the cream colored chairs with the back facing the balcony.

He lifted his head from the soft comforter. “Seriously? You couldn’t give me a moment’s peace?”

Colonel Miles Dawson smiled as he lit a cigarette, the gold Zippo lighter glinting in the dim lighting. “Thomas, you should know by now that The Company prefers to be expeditious when it comes to debriefing an agent coming from a prisoner situation.” He waved a hand across his thin nose before switching on a nearby lamp. “Of course, waiting until you’ve had a chance to shower and change into clean clothes might have helped.”

Mabry rolled off the bed and glared at Dawson, his fists balling up and his anger replenishing his strength. “I should punch you in the face for setting me up, Dawson. You should have told me that I was your drone beacon for hunting down those Cloud Brigade camps. There was no contact to meet.”

Dawson shook his head. “Ah, but you did meet your contact. That young lady with the left hook was your contact. It just took a while to get you into the position we needed you to be in order to make the meeting.” His smile was as practiced as any Mabry had ever seen. “All in all, I think you did quite well. We had to make your capture seem as real as possible so we couldn’t tell you everything. Thanks to your efforts, the Cloud Brigade’s presence in Calonistan is finished. They can’t go west because the Revolutionary Guards in Iran will have them for lunch and our forces are waiting for them east in Afghanistan. Either way, you’ve effectively destroyed a very dangerous terrorist organization.”

“Thanks to me.” Mabry echoed. He stepped up and pulled Dawson to his feet while removing the officer’s pistol from the inside of his gray pinstriped suit. He brought the pistol’s muzzle under his chin. “I’ve given fifteen years of service to The Company and the US. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t empty this magazine into your skull right now.”

“We’re one block away from Bahrainian CID Headquarters.” Dawson’s voice wavered, his brown eyes pierced Mabry’s soul. “One sound of gunfire and this place will be crawling with Internal Security and they won’t think twice about killing a violent infidel like yourself who has no diplomatic standing whatsoever.” He pushed Mabry away and smoothed out the wrinkles in his jacket. “If you would please return my sidearm, I’ll finish what I came here to say.”

Mabry pulled his trigger finger out of the gun before handing it over. “Fine, speak your piece.”

Dawson replaced the weapon inside his jacket and picked up the cigarette that had fallen to the carpet. He took a quick drag on it before stubbing it out in an ashtray. “The Director’s very pleased with your work, Thomas. So pleased in fact that he wants to promote you to the Domestic Desk. Once you’re back in the States, you are to assume your new post in Washington DC, after taking two weeks of mandatory leave.” He clapped Mabry on the back. “You have a bright future ahead of you.”

Mabry wasted no time thinking. He shook his head. “No way, I’m done. I quit.”

“You know as well as anyone that no one ever leaves The Company.” Dawson said. “Think very carefully about your next words.”

Mabry paused before bending his head back to laugh. “You don’t think I’ve thought about this before you stuck me in that shit hole country for two months of bad food, eating with my fingers, and slit trenches for toilets?” He said, the pent up rage thundering out through his voice. “As much as you want to believe otherwise, this is still just a job and I am just an employee who has had it.” He grabbed Dawson by the lapels and swung hard, catching the older man in the jaw with a fierce upper cut. “Consider this my resignation. I’ll find my own way back home and if you think about coming after me, I have copies of every classified operation that I’ve been involved with over the past fifteen years and it’s all set to be released to a select group of reporters and politicians would like nothing more than to crawl up your ass with a microscope over the next hundred years.” He shoved Dawson back. “Now get out. I still have the room until the Morning.”

Dawson adjusted his tie but his expression never changed as he stared at Mabry. “I can see that you need time to relax. I’m going to pretend that this is all the result of PTSD and simply advise you to return home as scheduled. Once we all sit down, cooler heads will prevail.”

“In a pig’s eye.”

Dawson smiled. “Perhaps. Good Night, Thomas. I look forward to your return.”

Mabry woke with a start and fumbled around in the dark until his fingers found themselves wrapped around a familiar smooth surface. He twisted the cap off the scotch bottle and poured a little of the burning liquid down his throat. The whiskey did little more than to act like a snooze button for his memory. The early morning sunrise peeked through the shades and annoyed him with unbridled optimism. He took the bottle with him onto the balcony.

“Here’s to your health, World,” he raised the bottle. “Four years later.”

Coming Attractions: Falling Stars

Note: It’s interesting what you find buried in old story files…

If maps had no lines between the states, it would be difficult to tell where southern Nevada ended and northern Arizona began. The scraggly sagebrush-covered terrain was virtually identical and as Thomas Mabry stared through a set of infrared binoculars from atop a hillside at a sprawling facility ten miles away, he could understand why the powers that be picked such a location. He stopped to turn the faded red Iowa State baseball cap around on his head before attaching an adapter for his camera. “Are you sure this is the place, Mark” He asked his guide, a stocky

He asked his guide, a stocky middle-aged man with long sideburns who looked more at home driving a semi back in the 70s than holding vigil in the desert.

Mark Johnson nodded as he aimed a listening device out into the distance. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Mabry. That’s Area 15 all right.”

Mabry snapped some pictures with his camera. He’s been chasing stories that the Government had a place out here near Hualapai Peak but the stories conflicted. Some say that the facility was Government, others say that it was private but run by the Government. Either way, the base wasn’t listed on maps or in Department of Defense listings and that made it perfect to check out. Secret facilities weren’t really his thing though; secret facilities that were being used to stockpile and dump toxic waste products definitely blipped on his radar. He took a moment to study the base. The base itself was ringed with tall chain link fences topped with spirals of concertina wire and dotted with large red signs proclaiming the base’s status as restricted and the use of deadly force toward those foolish enough to get too close.

“They sure picked a hell of a place to put it,” Mabry remarked as he slipped a lens cover over his camera and hung it around his neck. “I didn’t see anything that identified it as US Government other than the standard signage. It could be just be a fenced-in industrial park for all I could see.”

The two men cocked their heads in the direction of the base as a faint but recognizable sound was carried by the breeze toward them. Mabry had heard many types of alarms in his career as an investigative reporter but to hear it at this distance made his shiver. He bent down to the binoculars. “Something’s going on.”

“Relax, Mabry, they can’t know we’re up here. Their motion sensor network only extends to about five miles. A jackrabbit probably set off their alarms.”

Mabry twitched as he noticed white security trucks exiting Area 15’s two security gates and heat blobs began to grow at the helicopter pads. “No, they’re definitely mobilizing for something. Mark, I think we need to get out of here.” He spotted a familiar shape lift off from the base. “Grab your shit.”

Johnson started to protest when the ground began to shake under their feet and a helicopter flew low and fast over their head, its nose mounted chain gun swiveling in their direction.

Mabry dived behind Johnson’s yellow Range Rover as a spray of bullets from the passing helicopter tore up the ground beneath his feet. The well-worn red ISU baseball cap on his head was blown off and sent tumbling over the cliff’s edge by the rotor wash, followed shortly thereafter by the high powered infrared binoculars and the tripod they rested upon. The dark gray helicopter was Government, definitely military, but the aircraft bore no identifying numbers or insignia. “You didn’t say anything about being shot at, Mark.” He shouted to his guide.

Mark Johnson had kept a vigil at this particular spot for the better part of ten years and was honestly surprised as he fumbled through the pockets of his faded camouflage pants for the Rover’s keys.

“How was I supposed to know?” He shouted back as he unlocked the doors and pulled his pudgy frame inside. He fired up the Rover’s engine as Mabry leaped inside the passenger side. One of the helicopter’s rounds struck the car’s hood, leaving a noticeable hole in the clear coat. “They never shot at me before.”

Mabry fumbled with the seat belt before clicking it into place. “What do you mean ‘before?’” He opened his brown windbreaker and checked his blue tee shirt and blue jeans for conspicuous holes. He caught his reflection in the visor mirror and noticed that his tanned face was a few shades paler than when he started. “The Feds knew who you are?”

The helicopter turned back toward the military base as Johnson made the turn onto Highway 153 heading back toward Mojave Valley. “We’ve crossed paths before. They consider me a nuisance more than anything else, but they never bothered wasting ammo on me. We must have gotten too close or disturbed something important.”

“You think?” Mabry said. “You were supposed to show me evidence that the Government was using this area to stockpile hazardous materials. Instead, I find myself being chased out of the area by unmarked helicopters ten minutes after showing up.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a small disposable lighter. “This is like the stories that I used to read about that place in Nevada. The one that’s not supposed to exist.” He checked the camera hanging around his neck to find the lens cracked. “Not even a picture of the place to put on the book cover. What a bust.”

Johnson pursed his fat lips and nodded. “You didn’t think that the Government only had one super-secret base floating around in the desert, did you?” He checked the rear view mirror. “Besides, it’s only a matter of time before they have to admit that it’s there. There’s a rumor going around that the Russians have satellite pictures of the place already.”

Mabry stabbed the air with the cigarette. “Just don’t start telling me about crashed alien spaceships and alien bodies. After what happened to me in Roswell last year, I don’t think I could deal with that stuff again. I came out here for evidence of Government waste, not hunting for ET.”

Johnson raised a hand. “All right, so I fibbed a little to get you out here. Look, it’s not easy for a guy like me to get someone like you to take me seriously. Besides, we both know that the Feds don’t keep that much security around simply to keep a pile of toxic waste off the Public’s radar. Trust me, there’s something happening at that base.”

“I don’t have time to chase down alien conspiracies, Mark,” Mabry said. “I’m on a deadline and I can’t afford to keep paying you for information that I can’t use. Take me back to my hotel. I need to get back home and try to salvage what I can of my book.”

“Give me another chance, Mabry,” Johnson pleaded. “I know they usually move stuff out at night toward the end of the week. Another couple of days and we can get what you need. Deal?”

Mabry shook his head while finishing his cigarette. He rolled down the window and tossed out the butt. “Not this time. My publisher is expecting a completed manuscript and I’m missing the last chapter.”

The rest of the drive was quiet. As they pulled into the parking lot, Mabry noticed a cloud of white smoke rising from the back of the three story building. Several fire trucks from the local firehouse blocked the rear exits as firefighters doused the remnants of the south wing with torrents of water. Mabry sat up in his seat. “What the hell?”

The hotel manager, a short skeleton of a man with skin the color of coffee, ran over to the car. His broken English and wide eyes left no doubt that something was wrong. “Mr. Mabry! Mr. Mabry! Thank the Gods that you weren’t in your room?”

Mabry rolled down the window. “Ramesh, what’s going on?”

The hotel manager huffed and puffed for several seconds before composing himself. “The maids had just finished cleaning your floor when there was an explosion. By the time the fire department arrived, a fire had broken out.” He rubbed his short black hair. “I’m just glad no one got hurt.”

“Me too,” The reality of the situation sunk in and Mabry frowned. “Oh no. All my notes, my laptop, my clothes! Gone!” He turned on Johnson. “More of your friends’ doing?”
Johnson squirmed for several seconds before nodded. “I wouldn’t put it past them. Come on, Mabry, be a sport. One more shot at it, right?”

“Call me in about six months,” Mabry opened up his wallet and pulled out five one hundred dollar bills and stuck them in Johnson’s shirt pocket. “I’m deducting half for the camera and the binoculars. Consider yourself lucky you’re getting that.” He opened the door and stepped out onto the ground.

Johnson’s frown as he pulled out of the parking lot spoke volumes as Mabry followed Ramesh into the hotel lobby. “Ramesh, a pleasure as always.”

The Indian’s automatic smile dimmed. “I’ve had better days, Sir. Good travels.”

Mabry didn’t waste any time leaving the lobby and heading over to the green Jetta he had rented during his stay. Other than a few leaves congregating on the windshield and a thin layer of soot, the rental car was in relatively pristine condition as it sat parked under a tree in the front lot. His mood brightened when he noticed a familiar black computer bag resting on the passenger seat. He turned the case around and opened it, finding his laptop computer and backup disks nestled securely inside and in perfect working order. He took the camera from his neck and set it next to the case. Perhaps the trip wasn’t a total loss after all. He started the VW’s engine and after a quick car wash, he returned the rental and headed for the airport.

His cell phone chirped. Peter Wentworth, his agent, was calling for the umpteenth time to get an update on the book and when he would be back in town. He flipped open the phone.

“Tom? How goes the project?”

“Lousy,” Mabry replied, steering the car into an open car wash stall. “The local contact lied about what was going on out in the desert and between the explosion and the fire at the hotel, I lost just about everything I brought with me.”

“Are you okay?”

“Irritated but in one piece,” Mabry said. “It’s not the being shot at part that bugs me the most. It’s not finding that last clue to tie everything together.”

“I can imagine. Where are you now?”

Mabry put some money into the car washer and waited as the machine did its job. “Washing the soot from the fire off the car. Pete, I’m not sure that I have enough closing material to finish the Area 15 book. I couldn’t even get a decent photo of the facility for the cover.”

“As long as the memory card’s not messed up, we should be able to recover something to use for the cover,” Wentworth replied. “As for the rest of it, I’m sure we can cobble together a decent ending. Do you really think that someone blew up your hotel room?”

“Maybe and maybe not.” Mabry said. “It sure looked that way but I’m not sticking around to find out. I’m thinking that it’s time to take a vacation from controversy for a while.”

“Good idea,” Wentworth agreed. “Take Sheila and go away for a few weeks. My wife’s been after me to do the same thing for days now. Hey, how about we all book a little trip to Cabo?”

Mabry watched the water sheet off the windshield. “I’ll bring it up when I get back to the City. I’ll give you a shout when I’m home.”

“Looking forward to it,” Wentworth said. “Email what you can and have a safe trip back. Bye.”

Mabry hung up the cell phone and pulled out of the car wash. His plane tickets were in the glove box where he left them so one anxiety was off the list. He turned the car onto the main street and headed in the direction of the local airport. Catching a flight in First Class wearing a tee shirt and jeans wasn’t his first choice, but as long as he got home, he didn’t care.

He dropped off the rental at the car lot and collected his things before walking over to the airport terminal. The airport was at Threat Level Orange so the lines at the detectors were full of frustrated and vocal travelers. Security hand-checked his laptop computer and data disks before passing him through to his gate.

The flight boarded quickly and he was able to plug in his computer and check the hard drive. He breathed a sigh of relief when he found the Area 15 files intact. His relief turned to joy as he checked his camera’s memory card to find several images that were at least usable though slightly blurry. He used the plane’s wi-fi to email the photos and the hastily typed ending to the book before one of the attractive flight attendants reminded him to turn off his computer and cell phone before takeoff. He put away the computer and tucked the case under his seat before buckling his safety belt and closing his eyes. The plane’s rumbling lulled him into a quick and dreamless sleep.

The skies over JFK International were stormy as Mabry’s flight touched down on the runway. He tried to call his girlfriend, Sheila, at the condo but no answer. Calls to her cell phone were going straight to voice mail so he simply left a message that he was back.
She’s mad at me again, he thought as he collected his things and left the plane. Flashes of lightning lit up the gray terminal windows as he walked toward Long Term Parking.

The leaden skies chose that moment to dump its load of rain as he emerged from overhang and ran to his car. The electric blue Solstice convertible appeared none the worse for wear as he fished for his keys. By the time he got into the car and stowed the computer case on the back seat, he was soaked to the bone. The 2.4 Ecotec engine growled its welcome as he put the car in gear and pulled out of the airport. Despite the storm and traffic, he made it to Manhattan and pulled in to park at the high-rise condo building’s underground parking garage. He picked up his computer case and after locking the car, headed for the elevator.

A large Out-of-Order sign blocked off the elevator and Wet Paint signs festooned the nearby stairwell. “Damn, it’s always something.” He muttered, turning toward the storm raging just outside the entrance ramp. He kicked at a small pebble on the ground before trudging up the entrance ramp. Clutching the computer case close to his body, he dashed out into the rain and around the corner to the front of the building where the Concierge let him in. He lingered for a moment in the marble floored lobby and took some time to admire the expensive cloth furniture and broad wooden desk that contained security displays and a sophisticated control system that monitored fire alarms and security points throughout all twenty-eight floors.

Jeff Cochrane, a tall smiling black security officer with sideburns that bordered on mutton chops was manning the desk tonight. Jeff was a popular fixture at the Montclair with his friendly disposition, the ability to make others feel safe around him and a killer after-hours jump shot that made most opponents wonder why he wasn’t playing professionally. Jeff was also the one to talk to about all sorts of gossip that frequently floated around the building.

Mabry accepted a hand towel and wiped his face. “Thanks, Jeff. Hey, you haven’t seen Sheila lately, have you?”

Cochrane’s smile dimmed as he handed Mabry a small note. “She left out of here about two hours ago with some movers. She looked upset, Tom.”

Mabry unfolded the note. His frown deepened and his jaw clenched and released for several seconds. He stuffed the note in a jeans pocket. “Thanks, Jeff. Please notify the building manager to revoke Ms. Madsen’s key fob. She’s moved out and won’t be coming back. I’ll sign whatever paperwork Dave needs.”

“Are you okay, Tom?” Cochrane reached under the desk and pulled out a large padded envelope. “UPS dropped this off for you earlier today.”

Mabry forced a smile and nodded. “That’s odd. I wasn’t expecting anything but thanks. Yeah, Jeff, breakups aren’t easy but I’ll manage.” He handed the towel back and picked up his computer case. “Good Night.”

“Good Night, Tom.”

Mabry walked to the elevator doors and waited until after stepping inside and the doors to close behind him before slapping the wooden walls panels. “Why didn’t I see this coming?” He pressed the button for his floor. “All that effort trying to make the world a better place and I couldn’t fix the one thing that needed fixing the most.”

He got off on the Twenty-Second Floor and walked down a long yellow hallway, his wet sneakers squishing on the brown carpeting as he walked to his door. He paused in the doorway, keys in hand and looked around at the artwork that decorated the hallway, the yellow painted walls, and the chocolate carpeting. Living here was a far cry from his days down in the Village in that one room flat with the rusty pipes and the noisy radiator that kept him up at all hours. “Alone again.” He muttered as he opened his door. “Naturally.”

Thankfully, Sheila hadn’t completely cleaned him out when she left. The ugly wicker chair in the corner near the balcony was missing as was the nicked and scratched wooden end tables that she had promised to have refinished ages ago. Otherwise, the post-modern décor he preferred was as it should be. Two leather recliners, a large leather sofa, and the metal and glass coffee table were all the furniture he needed anyway. He closed the front door and hung his keys up on a set of hooks on the left of the door frame. He noticed a small dirt ring next to the double door silver refrigerator and shook his head. “Damn, she took the dog too.” He opened the liquor cabinet over the fridge and took out a bottle of scotch and a tumbler. He poured himself a drink and tossed it back quickly, enjoying the burn as it slid down his throat. He put the bottle and glass away. “Good. I hated that damn dog.”

Tossing the package onto the coffee table, he grabbed a beer from the fridge and walked down a short hallway that led to the back bedroom with the attached bathroom and laundry. Sure enough, one of the two walk-in closets that bordered the door to his office was empty of everything but a long row of empty hangers. At least she hadn’t stripped the linen from the bed before she left. He uncapped the beer and took a long swig before setting the bottle on the left night stand. He unpacked his laptop onto the computer desk before flipping on the plasma screen television that hung on the wall opposite the king sized bed. The set’s duplicate hung in the living room, but he always felt more comfortable watching the evening parade of television nonsense in the bedroom. If you’re going to get screwed by the cable company, it’s best to have it done in the bedroom, he mused as he switched over to the Ten o’clock evening news while changing out of his wet clothes.

“Investigators are still combing over the destruction at the construction site of the new space elevator project being built on Niihau Island. The island, the seventh largest of the Hawaiian Islands, was selected as the site of the project through a joint ownership agreement between the US Government, private owners and the Fuller Foundation. Witnesses reported that a fuel storage area exploded shortly after 3 am local time and that the area within the area within the blast zone resembled a sea of melted glass. No injuries have been reported but Fuller Foundation CEO John Fuller issued a statement that all efforts were being expended in finding out the cause of the explosion. In entertainment news, Film Star Studios has announced that they are preparing a film retrospective on the life and career of Anne Pierce who was tragically murdered in 1981 after a brief but distinguished career. To this day, her case remains unsolved.”

Mabry took a sip from his beer. “Damn.” He picked up the remote and flipped lazily through the channels before clicking off the television. Throwing his wet clothes into the laundry hamper, he went into the bathroom.

As he showered off the frustrations of the past week, he made mental notes to have the door locks changed. Sheila was notorious for moving out and then changing her mind. Not this time, he thought. Three years of temper tantrums was quite enough for his patience. As he turned off the water, he found himself yawning as the accumulated stress over the past day caught up with him. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he strolled back to the living room.

After opening the balcony door to let a cool evening breeze rustle the vertical blinds, he sat down on the nearest recliner. He looked over at the white padded envelope resting on the coffee table several times before picking it up. No return address but then again, no wires sticking out or unusual smells or spots that might identify it as a bomb. Satisfied that the package was safe and no one was lurking outside, he opened it.

Neatly packed inside the envelope were several color photographs and a large file folder. Setting the folder aside, he looked over the photographs. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he was looking at crime scene photos mixed in with what looked like publicity stills that could have come from any movie studio. The crime scene shots were pretty standard dead body stuff taken as the corpse laid there on a bathroom floor. The publicity stills showed a much happier time: a petite woman with pale white skin and long black hair sitting on an old white sofa. He could see two bookcases behind her, each carrying several framed pictures on stands. Where did these come from? Why would someone send him old crime scene photographs? He paged through the folder to find some autopsy reports and a well-researched summary biography for Anne Pierce. Someone went to a lot of trouble to put this information together. To what end? He thought.

His analysis was interrupted by his home telephone. He scooped up the cordless handset and raised it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Welcome home, Mr. Mabry. I trust that you’ve got the package I sent?”

Mabry adjusted his towel and tried to look less than the awkward he felt as he checked the phone’s Caller ID. The incoming call was blocked and the voice had a tinny quality as if it were being filtered through a synthesizer. All of this added up to trouble. “Sending me an information packet on a murder victim is more than a little creepy. Who is this?”

“I used to work for the Clarridge Police Department, Mr. Mabry. We were running the original homicide investigation but The Feds came in and took over. I fixed em though. I have some evidence that didn’t make it into their files. I’m prepared to give it to you on one condition.”

“I’m not a policeman.” Mabry said. “I’m a reporter. I write books on Government waste and social injustices. The NYPD has over fifty thousand detectives and Clarridge has at least seven hundred and fifty total on their payrolls. Try one of those.”

“You don’t understand, Pal. You have a reputation of being able to see past the surface of things and spot what most people might miss. That girl’s killer needs to be brought to justice. Are you going to help or not?”

“What can I do that the police can’t?” Mabry said, reaching for his cell phone to call the police. “It’s a thirty-five year old cold case.”

“Like I said, you have ways of finding things that others cannot.”

Mabry dropped the cell phone. “Thanks for the compliment but stroking my ego isn’t going to convince me of anything. What’s this really all about?”

“Look, I can’t force you to do this but do me a favor? Read the contents of the package thoroughly and make up your mind. I’ll call you later to tell you where to meet me for the evidence I mentioned.”

“I’m not promising anything except that I’ll look into the story and see what’s there.” Mabry said. “If it’s worth my time, I’ll do what I can. That’s all.”

“Watch out for The Feds, Mr. Mabry. Trust no one.” The phone clicked.

Mabry flung the cordless phone down onto the sofa. The black box he kept next to the phone to safeguard his privacy displayed the same blocked number message. It was one thing to block Caller ID but another to block a call record. Anyone able to do that was a heavy hitter. He flashed back to the Area 15 situation. Did he see something out there in the desert to make someone nervous enough to come after him here? He knew from experience that the Feds had access to all kinds of toys designed to cover up a trail but to follow him from Arizona seemed excessive even for a government determined to hide its secrets. The fact remained however that someone had managed to invade his privacy, his home, without leaving a single piece of evidence behind. He rubbed his short brown hair for several seconds trying to work out some of his anger.

“Damn them, whoever they are.” He fumed, picking up the folder and reading its contents. The folder contained detailed reports on autopsy, police investigation, and a summarized biography of the woman in the photographs. He paged through the biography first. “Anne Pierce.” He murmured as he reached over and picked up one of the photos.

“Forty years old, former stage and film actress. Born 1940, Emigrated from Manchester, UK to the US in 1963 and worked in Hollywood until 1968. Went back to the UK for four years and then came back in 1972. Married Husband, Philip Steiner in January 1972. Husband killed in car crash in December 1980. Murdered June 15, 1981.” He stopped reading and stared at the sad eyes in the picture. “You had a tough time of it, didn’t you, Anne?” He set the photo aside and resumed reading to himself. “Numerous Academy award nominations from 1973 to 1980 but no awards despite being very active in her career.” He skipped to the last page. “Found in her downstairs bathroom dead from barbiturate overdose shortly after her fortieth birthday.” He closed the folder. “Jesus.”

He slipped the photographs and the folder back into the envelope and carried them back to his computer desk. He tossed the package onto the desktop and shook his head as he undressed for bed. Sliding under the covers, he closed his eyes and fought to put the phone call out of his mind but his curiosity chose that moment to assert itself, nagging him to use his time off to look into the case.

He fought with himself until sleep took over.