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.

Advertisements