A Clarke Lantham Mystery
by J. Daniel Sawyer
3:00 AM, Sunday
At this time of night, nothing very human moved in the California Academy of Sciences—unless you count security guards, though that depends on how strictly you define “human.” Human or not, though, they did move: one guard whose turn it was to patrol, and a further trio stationed in the security office. Aside from that, though, nothing even remotely human moved.
But plenty else did. The members of one of the world's most impressive collections of rare and endangered species—and the thousands of insects and rodents slated as their food—crept and crawled and did everything they could to stay busy and stave off boredom.
Of all the imprisoned critters, the security guards fared the worst. Even with the special traveling exhibits, there wasn't a lot of action in a place as geeky and well-secured as the museum-cum-laboratory complex nestled in the heart of Golden Gate Park. The best they could manage was time spent surfing the Internet, and doing regular rounds, and making sure that the only people in and out of the building were the scientists monitoring experiments, and the keepers making the feeding schedule of the nocturnal animals.
They'd long since gone, though. The bars were closed for caged animals of all kinds, including higher primates.
Left to its own devices long enough, a mammal with opportunity will copulate or masturbate to relieve boredom. The security guards, not having a mutual reciprocal homosexual favors fraternity, were forced to content themselves with mental masturbation. The two in the security office played black jack while the other two made the rounds.
Victor Saldinger pulled roof duty—coveted on cool clear summer nights, in the winter it meant that he generally just poked his head out of the elevator and looked around to make sure no neighborhood stoners had parachuted in to smoke joints and have sex on the state-of-the-art eco-friendly verdant whatchamathingy—the buzzwords weren't something Victor hadn't been able to commit to memory, but the idea of a rooftop garden was pleasant enough. Still, on a night like this it amounted to a long trek out of the way for nothing in particular—when he poked his head out he could barely see the planetarium dome off to the left through the bucketing rain. Nothing unexpected.
Descended the elevator to the third floor, Victor walked it one end to the other, then took the stairs down to the second and did the same.
Coming down to the first floor, he walked northeast to the African Hall, strode zombified through the dioramas, clunking slowly toward the penguins at the far end.
The job of a security guard was to diminish the insecurity of the people who employed them, and his boss did for insecurity what Dali had done for melting clocks. When word had reached him two years ago that guards were listening to their iPods while on duty, he'd asked (loudly enough to wake the albino alligator) what would happen if someone broke in and sneaked up behind Victor's censorably-incestuous racially-invective ass.
From that day forward, the security guards were condemned to boredom as profound as high schoolers reading Socrates. A man so powerfully bored is capable of becoming completely absorbed in the smallest details, such as noticing that the pelt on the stuffed antelope has a new moth-eaten patch, or spending twenty minutes wondering why, exactly, African penguins look like refugees from a marble factory.
Such thoughts were the reason why Victor did not initially notice the strange sounds coming from near the Islands of Evolution exhibit behind the planetarium. They were why, when he rounded the corner and saw the strange figures bearing stranger-looking machines, he didn't immediately shout and draw. He merely stood there, cocking his head as if in dialog with a cocker spaniel, until some part of his brain was satisfied that he wasn't actually dreaming. When he finally reached for his gun and shouted, it was too late. The unbearable brightness that appeared before his eyes blinded him, followed by crippling tingles that sent him into paroxysms of nausea, and eventually he forgot about the whole pesky business of being alive, at least for a little while.
I hate lawsuits. Makes me sound just like every other idiot on the planet, right? Well, fear not. Your favorite deranged detective hasn't gone all normal on you. You see, I actually like lawyers. There's no profession in the world more dependable—bricklayers might smoke pot on the job, delivery drivers might drink, politicians are too worried about currying favor to do anything useful. But lawyers? Well, you give a lawyer so much as a stick of gum and he's legally bound to treat you according to a code of ethics. Lawyers are decent people in one important sense: they are reliable hit men. Come to think of it, hit men are the only other group of people I've ever met that's as reliable as lawyers—two sides of the same anthill?
I can tell you that if I'm considered half as reliable as a lawyer when I die, I'll be happy no matter which corner of hell they reserve for ornery wackos like me.
Now that you know how I feel about lawyers, you might appreciate my opinion on lawsuits:
If the only way to prevent lawsuits was a government-sponsored program to sterilize and lobotomize every disgruntled soccer mom and two-bit lawyer on the planet—regardless of guilt—I'd be okay with that. I might even vote for it.
Trouble is, if it was a government-sponsored program, they'd wind up accidentally lobotomizing and sterilizing squirrels—a bonus for picnickers everywhere, but it wouldn't go a long way toward helping me out of my current predicament.
Besides, a thorough cleansing of my sources of irritation would also involve a kind of teenage genocide—at least for the teenager camping out on the cot in my file room—and I can't get behind that. I went through too much grief to save her life last summer, and you haven't met a life worth saving if you haven't met Nya Thales.
But understanding that doesn't help when she doesn't know how to turn off the seduction. She's got enough going for her in the perception and personality departments—besides a body that would make a blind man fall off the sidewalk—that I've spent the month since I got back from Seattle staying in hotels or crashing on my assistant Rachael's couch. Expensive.
Annoying too—there's something about hotel air that leaves you feeling like a dehydrated allergy-prone hypochondriac in the middle of a bukkake party for all the trees and grasses in the world.
Of course, I could take Rachael's advice and just surrender to the inevitable—or as she puts it “Boink her and get it over with.” President of the Future Diplomats of the Apocalypse, that woman—and it's not that the thought hasn't crossed my mind. But it's Nya. Sixteen years younger than me and the reason for my current legal troubles—the fact that she's living in my office will look just peachy in court, if the plaintiff's lawyers ever find out. Emotionally whip-smart and intellectually slowish like all the other members of her birth family, according to the books I've read. Amazing the kind of things you can learn when your sanity depends on it. I haven't quite decided yet whether it would constitute taboo-breaking or whether I'd just be taking advantage, but it just don't feel right.
At least she kicked the smack habit before she showed up on my doorstep. Small favors, right?
So instead of a good nights sleep, I get an empty bank account, swamp nose, and an assistant that thinks—regularly and at volumes high enough for people across the bay to hear—that I've “slid off my fucking cracker.”
They have a word for people like me: whiners. It's the reason I've never been able to hold down a steady job—or relationship. When I'm bored, I get surly, and I don't give a damn who notices. What I needed was a case that didn't bore me to tears, then I could look at myself in the mirror again without wondering how I got to be a broken-down detective cliché.
Need like that drives a man to doing some pretty stupid things—like leaving your ringer on at night.
My phone found me laying on Rachael's couch on one of the merciful weekend nights when she was at her boyfriend Donald's place in the city. About the only time I get a good night's sleep these days.
Once I woke up enough to realize that its dulcet electronic screeching wasn't actually the voice of the sea gull trying to peck out my eyes while I ran through quicksand away from the feeding frenzy on the beach...never mind. The less you nice folks know about my dreams, the better for everyone.
Anyway, once I figured out it actually was a phone I batted my hand around with my eyes closed, found it and hauled it up to my ear.
“This is Clarke Lantham. If you want to sell me business insurance, you should know I've got a gun and I'm not afraid to use it. If you want a snoop, call back after the sun's woken up.”
“Lantham, this is Dusty. Shut the fuck up and get over to the CAS ASAP and fix this SNAFU or we're FUBAR.”
I immediately sprang awake. Dusty Youngman was an old—well, “friend” is stretching it. It's hard to stay friendly with a guy who mixes up his gun with his penis, but he's one of the few cops I knew back on the force that'll actually give me the time of day. Runs a private security firm now, posh and well-monied from what I saw when I chased down his network gremlins last year. If he was calling me up at this time of the morning, there were at least four zeros involved. But I kept my voice groggy.
“You can't keep calling me for every possum that sets up a nest in your server room...”
“Oh, we're way beyond that. You'll like this one—I've got an alien abduction live and on camera behind the planetarium. Nobody here has a fucking clue. You always liked the weird shit—I got ten k plus expenses for you if you can do a skip trace on the victim, and tell me how the aliens got in.”
“Oh.” I did a bit of quick mental math on travel times. “I can be there in an hour.”
“Make it half an hour and I'll pay the speeding ticket. Hell's gonna open up and swallow us all whole when the press gets wind of this.”
Aliens. Politically incorrect as he was, something told me that Dusty wasn't complaining about a group of migrant workers who broke in looking for a dry spot to sleep. If that happened, someone like him would just turn them back out onto the street with a bit of pepper spray thrown in for their troubles, at least if he hadn't changed since we'd been on the force. Thing that got me, though, was that this was the second time in two days I'd had someone throw aliens at me.
My head tends to skip around a lot when I'm taking a shower, let me back up.
I got into work bright and surly yesterday morning. Planted my ass down on my desk even before Nya woke up, and did half the paperwork mountain that Rachael keeps nagging me about. By the time Rachael got in I was feeling pretty pleased with being me, which is a nice break from my usual emotional diet of guilt and frustration from that Nya's mother Dora delivers to me every few days, courtesy her lawyer—but the less said about her the better, at least for now. I was even getting to feel like I might get through a full day without taking a beating, or talking to anyone who ever set foot in a law school, or running into a single psychopath, moron, or nutjob. Everything I had on my plate was desk work, and the only people I had for company were Nya—when she woke up—and Rachael, and they both knew to leave me alone when I was working.
Being crowded to death by estrogen isn't exactly pleasant, but when the sources of said hormonal irritation are both decent people who give a shit about which side of the office mixes their metaphors, they can learn to behave themselves even when they're too young to legally drink.
One trouble-free morning. Fantasy is a beautiful thing. I was four pages into a stack of nonsense from my lawyer when that fantasy got the baseball-bat treatment.
Nya ran panting out of her room, by which I mean my room which she is currently borrowing. The fact that she was half-dressed—the left half, due to being halfway into a robe with no underwear underneath—when she ran through the communicating door between my office and the reception area didn't register with me until the screaming started. Two female voices, one male voice. Words like “naked” and “rat” and “robe” and “client” got tossed around like popcorn on a campfire.
I didn't know who the male voice was. I didn't give a good goddamn either. What I did care about was that when the screaming started I'd just picked up my third cup of coffee and started slurping. When Rachael started yelling, I wound up getting a face full of second-degree burns with a side of caffeine.
My .45 and I were not amused. We jumped up in a vain attempt to save our testicles from the coffee, then tramped out through the office door and into the reception area looking like we'd just been on the wrong end of a diarrhetic cow.
I say “we” because there are some days when your .45 is your only friend in the world. The last two minutes had just made it abundantly clear to me that this was one of those days. The next two minutes confirmed that suspicion.
When I appeared in the doorway with the gun tapping against my right thigh at the end of my arm and drenched with the ruins of my pleasurable morning, my jaw set off-center like I was trying to decide which of them to cannibalize first, it seemed to mollify them just a tad.
“If you three don't shut up,” I tapped the muzzle against the keys in my pocket so it made more noise, “I'm going to introduce you to my favorite emergency room.” I looked at Nya, who had located the left half of her clothing since I last saw her. Her eyes tried to pop out of her head and run away under the sofa—she had never seen me really pissed before, not even in the middle of a gun fight. “What started this?”
She mumbled something.
“I couldn't hear you.”
“I said...Clarke, there's a rat...”
“Fine. I'll take care of it. Go take a shower.” I dismissed her with the hand that wasn't currently threatening people. “You,” I looked to the man in the office—a handsome if somewhat haggard older man in a tweed overcoat, silver hair, and a bearing that said I watch a lot of BBC costume dramas. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”
“I, uh...” He looked down at the gun and decided that it was probably better not to know English right now.
“Okay, fine. You,” I looked over at Rachael, “You yelled first. If you ever scare me like that again and there isn't someone going postal in here, you're fired.” I turned around and slammed the door behind me.
So now Nya had turned my little sanctuary into a rat's nest, and in more than a cosmetic sense. This had to be penance—God getting even with me for not going to mass in six years. I went into the file room and hooked a right to the closet where, buried beneath a forest of girl-clothes, I found an extra change of everything. My last one too. Time for the dry cleaner's and the laundry.
When I got back into the main room, I found five foot five of purple-haired ubergoth crossing her arms at me.
“Okay, Lantham, this is the place where you and me need to have a serious conversation.”
“Don't tell me you're going to sue me too.”
“I am if you keep this up.”
“Fine. Take a number.” I found my chair, discovered that it and half the stuff on my desk was still enjoying my morning coffee, and made for the kitchenette where the hand towels live. “What do you need?”
“I'm stuck in an ethical dilemma. On the one hand, after the way you talked to me out there I ought to let this client walk out the door. On the other hand, you pay me to be here so I shouldn't sabotage you like that. On the third hand, this bastard's bug-nutty and no one with even an ounce of humanity would ever dream of taking his money. On the fourth hand...”
“You need a buddy with a machete, get him to knock off some of those extra hands.”
“That's your job, boss. Look, on the fourth hand, he's fucking loaded, and he insists you're the only man that can help him—or he did, once I convinced him that you weren't going to shoot us all. Told him your mom just died last week and you've been real irritable cause you're setting up the wedding stuff.”
“You mean funeral.”
“Eh, either way somebody's getting buried.”
“Cute. So, what's his deal?”
“Lantham, you and God and the whole Spanish Inquisition couldn't figure out this guy's deal.”
“So you're not going to tell me.”
“You won't believe it unless you hear it from him.”
“Fine. Send him in...wait. First stick your head in the bathroom and tell Nya to read a book or something until I get the client out of here. I'm not running a peepshow for limeys.”
I patted dry the desk and chair, shuffled my papers into something approximating a professional stack and covered the top with a few that hadn't gotten baptized. Nya's towel—propelled by Nya, presumably, but she was moving too fast to tell for sure—blew through from the bathroom to her squatting space, closed the door. Rachael came out from behind the rice paper screen a few seconds later with a fresh cup of coffee which she set on my desk along with a dirty look, then moved to the interoffice door. She opened it, stepped through, and said “Mister Lantham will see you now.”
And I did. He looked like the kind of man who used to be an athlete and still kept it up, but not regularly. Now that I wasn't hopping mad, there was something familiar about him—I knew I'd seen him before, but I couldn't place where. I took a sip of my refreshed coffee and tried to pretend I was competent.
“Mister Lantham?” He extended his hand. I stood up and shook it, kicking myself mentally for not standing as soon as he came into the room. “Jonathan Sykes.”
Sykes. Now I recognized him—would have even if he hadn't been all over the news this week.
I managed to keep a straight face. “Mr. Sykes, sorry about that earlier.”
He inclined his head, “Your secretary told me about your mother. I'm very sorry.”
“Don't worry about it. Life goes on, right?”
“If we're lucky.”
I raised an eyebrow at him, gestured to the chair. “Say again?”
“Life goes on if we're lucky. I have good reason to believe it won't, unless we act quickly.”
Phone out of the drawer, set it on the desk. “You don't mind if I record this? Helps me get my notes straight later.”
“No, I don't mind at all.”
I started the recorder. “Initial meeting with client Jonathan Sykes, ten-thirty AM on February tenth. So, Mr. Sykes, how can I help you?”
“Well, I don't know if you watch the news...”
“So you've seen what's going on?”
“I see a lot of things in this line of work. Why don't you tell me what particularly you've got in mind?”
Jonathan Sykes was an international celebrity in some circle jerks—he'd been knocking around conspiracy-theory-land over the last twenty years telling people that the Antichrist was really an alien race of blood-drinking reptilian pedophiles who masqueraded as important political and media power brokers. Back when I was in high school he'd gotten a revelation from God that he was the reincarnation of Jesus sent to earth to fight the evil aliens, and he'd spent the last two-plus decades accumulating, and spending, a massive fortune to further his cause.
He'd been in town the last couple weeks, camped out on the steps of the Cal Academy protesting the Chinese traveling exhibit on the grounds that it represented a propaganda attempt by the reptilians to make westerners think that the human rights violations of the Chinese Central Committee were just peachy, so we'd eventually accept a police state and allow our alien overlords to unmask themselves and rule us openly.
Bug-nutty, like Rachael said. On the other hand, he was a nut with integrity and a large checkbook, so there might be some common ground here.
He recapped all of this stuff for me—I declined to tell him I'd first read about him in one of those encyclopedias of popular crackpots. When he hit the end of the background he said, “We've known for a long time that the new campaign would start in San Francisco, and we suspect the Bohemian Club is behind it.” He stopped and looked at me. His eyes were the kind of vivid electric blue that held your attention even though you knew he was full of shit, and the rest of his face was hopeless, like he was used to no one taking him seriously even though he was utterly convinced the fate of the world rested on his shoulders. “You don't believe me.”
I shook my head. “Not for a minute. Great scifi though.”
He smiled a kind of pathetic smile. “It's all right. Nobody does.”
“Call me Jonathan, please.”
“Okay, Jonathan, look, you take this stuff seriously, it obviously matters to you. What I need to know is why is this important enough to drag you away from the protest?”
“Because if we can prove that it's a hoax, we can discredit them. You must understand, these people, these things, they'll stop at nothing, but they can't gain complete control without our consent. The consent of the governed, you know. We just have to get people to wake up...”
“Stop. Stop. I don't need the stump speech, I don't want to know why, at least not yet. It's my job to find things or deliver things—that's what I do. Right now, I just want to know what you want me to do. I don't care about why yet.”
“Oh. Of course. Look, someone's threatening my people...”
“Isn't that normal? I mean, I saw the documentary...”
“Well, yeah, we get threats, you know. These ADL groups. People who say I'm an anti-Semite. Blind as friggin' cave worms, all of them. The don't know who they're working for. These threats are real, they're from people who know, as it were. They know everything, so we know they're not fooling around. Trouble is, I don't know who they are, so I don't know how serious they are.”
“What are the threats, exactly?”
Sykes pulled a scrap of paper out of his sportcoat and set it on the desk in front of me. “This. I found it taped to my tent yesterday.”
I didn't touch it. “Have you dusted it for prints yet?”
He shook his head.
“Has anyone else touched it besides you?”
“Dozens of people.”
“And you don't know who all of them were?”
I shrugged. “Okay, what the hell.” I picked the paper up and unfolded it. Color sheet, laser printed. A gray alien head underneath the text, like a big old guitar pick with eyes. It said:
“They are coming. Everything will be revealed.”
“I don't get it,” I said, “If they're going to reveal everything, that proves you're right. How is that a threat? I mean...full exposure—isn't that what you want?”
“No, you don't get it, mate. Look, these guys,” he stabbed the paper with his finger, “they're the bad guys. These bastards are the ones fighting the reptilians. If they expose everything, the human race will embrace them as saviors, and the reptilians will retaliate. All of us that know the truth? We'll be sent to slave labor camps or killed as collaborators. Everyone else will be caught in the middle of an open war between both sides. It can't happen this way.”
“So, you want me to figure out who sent this?”
“No—look, Mr. Lantham, I know your record. I have friends in Cambridge who know about the Sternwood experiments. I know how you handled that—protecting that innocent girl, keeping it out of the headlines. You care about people, I need someone who cares about people.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to stop them. We can expose the Chinese exhibit for what it is, we just need time. But regular people like to be asleep, they won't believe me about aliens unless I've got a microscope looking at their friggin' DNA and pictures to prove it. But Central Committee psi ops, that they'll believe. We expose that, it'll keep people from buying into the con. But we can't do that if the friggin' grays get there first. I need you to find them and stop them.”
I looked at the paper. Trouble was, I probably could find out who sent the “threat.” Then again, as paranoid as Sykes was, he should have known how to trace it. I found myself quoting Rachael. “You've stuck me on the horns of an ethical dilemma here, Jonathan. I could take your money, I might even be able to find who sent this,” I tapped the paper, “my trouble is, I don't believe any of it. I know you've got a lot of money, I know you can afford me. God knows I could use it. But if I took your money to uncover this gray conspiracy, I'd be stealing from you, cause I'd bet my socks that there isn't anything here to find except someone playing a prank on you.”
“You should take it.”
I pushed the paper back to him. “Sorry, man. Mrs. Lantham didn't raise a thief. Thanks for coming by though.” I stood up. “If you ever need anything more concrete, you let me know. I'll be happy to help.”
He shook his head, the kind of disappointment you see in men who are used to the world thinking they're crazy. I ignored it best I could—I didn't like how familiar it looked—and extended my hand. He stood and took it, then walked back to the door, shoulders slumped like a dog just waiting for the next kick.
“Keep it. You'll find out I'm right.”
Mornings. I figured this is what I got for working Saturdays.
I knocked on the file room door. “Nya, it's all clear. You can come out now.” I stopped, feeling like a heel for yelling at her earlier. “Sorry for shouting earlier.”
The door opened and she slipped into my arms before I had a chance to react. “It's okay. I'm sorry for screaming.”
I patted her copper top and made conciliatory noises and extracted myself. She let me go, and I walked out of the Nya pan and into the Rachael.
“You were right. Bug-nutty.”
“Hm. Now what?”
“Now nothing. I got three skyscrapers full of discovery papers to review and sign or make notes on. This shit's gonna eat my life.”
She closed her laptop and headed for the door, beckoned me to follow with a jerk of her head. When we got out to the hall I asked:
“Your dander. When was the last time you had a break?”
“Seattle—the conference. Well, and New Year's Day.”
“That's not a break. Okay, okay, look, Lantham, I've been playing the good assistant, but I've about had it.”
I shrugged. “You want to quit, I'll give you a good letter.”
“No, goddammit, I don't want to quit.”
“Well what do you want?”
“When you hired me, you promised to bring me in and train me.”
“Paperwork, databases, stakeouts. Not exactly infiltration and espionage, is it?”
“What have you got in mind?”
“Renegotiation.” She reached into her back pocket and tossed me an envelope.
“Birthday present—for me. I need you to give me the rundown for my concealed carry exam.”
“Your birthday isn't for three weeks.”
“So I better have all my paperwork in order, huh?”
“After you get this discovery paperwork done? You take a break. Two weeks, real vacation.”
“We can't afford...”
“We can. I've been hiding cash on the books to make sure. We'll be fine. You get some space, pull your head out.”
This is the trouble with working around people. They think micromanaging your workaholism is a friendly thing to do—they think they're protecting their job. I gotta admit, the notion of having nothing to do scared the shit out of me—but I couldn't explain that to Rachael. She didn't have the context. “Fine. I guess I'd better get back to the pile...”
“I'm not finished yet.”
“Rachael, what the fuck? What do you want next, my car? My soul? What the hell do you want?”
She smiled and shook her head. “Way better.” She raised an eyebrow at me.
“Paperwork Monday. Targetmasters today.”
And you know, it wasn't a half-bad idea. We headed out and made an afternoon of it—sushi at the hole-in-the-wall at McCarthy Ranch, four hours of drilling at the range in Milpitas. And Rachel let me have her house for the rest of the weekend—I cheated, though, brought the paperwork back with me after she skedaddled to her boyfriend's place.
Maybe she was right, maybe I did need a vacation—just needed to make sure it was something interesting. Disneyland, maybe. Or a photo safari up and down the coast. Something that involved doing something that didn't involve lawyers. Or gangsters. Or old girlfriends. Or shootouts.
That's a hell of a requirements list for a guy like me.
But it's gonna have to wait. Less than nineteen hours after I toss the alien hunter out of my office, I get a call from Dusty Youngman calling me into conspiracy nut central with talk of aliens. Aliens, in the California Academy of Sciences. I'll believe that when I see it.
Like any metro area, the Bay Area has its share of traffic troubles. Unlike most other metro areas, though, it's rare, even during rush hours, for them all to get jammed at once for very long, so you can almost always find a way around. And if you're not working an 8-5, you can usually avoid bad traffic altogether if you follow one simple rule:
If there's a traffic snarl, don't be there.
Getting from Castro Valley to San Francisco at 5AM on a Sunday is about as difficult as finding a drunk sorority chick at a frat party. This morning, though, KCBS was reporting a maiming and dismemberment accident at the Maze due to the pouring rain. Fun fun fun. So I ducked down onto the Oakland city streets and popped back on right at the toll plaza—cost me all of eight minutes. Including shaving and showering, I made the Academy parking garage in forty-five minutes without attracting the attention from the brotherhood of flashing blue lights. I called Rachael on the way—I promised I'd show her the ropes, and everything where Dusty was involved got ropey sooner or later—and by the time I pulled up in the garage she was already leaning with her back against her fifteen-year-old Kawasaki, purple hair and motorcycle leathers and raised eyebrow all pointed at me as if to say “Is that the fastest that piece of shit Honda can actually move?”
I rolled my eyes and nodded toward the staircase. As we mounted them together she said “So, what's all this?”
“Old friend, big job, protecting people's reps. Same old same old.”
“You've really gotta learn to turn your ringer off at night.”
“Which would work right up until you wanted to get ahold of me.”
“Fair. So what do we do?”
“Hang back and shut up. Whatever you do, don't talk about baseball.”
“Trust me. I'll explain later. But don't do it.”
“And keep your ears peeled. Dusty doesn't spook easy—he called me on this kind of notice, than whatever this is, it's big.”
“Lantham, the first thing anyone's going to learn working for you is that big cases are like unicorns.”
“Oh, they exist...”
“Not that part. They're hard to find, and when you do, they shaft you.”
“Mister Lantham!” British accent, shouting, behind me. I turned to see Mr. Alien Hunter Sykes pushing hard up against the police cordon. “I told you they were coming. Sure you don't want my case?”
I waved and gave him a false smile, then turned around and rolled my eyes at Rachael.
“You know what you get when you pack three hundred conspiracy nuts into Golden Gate Park when it's below freezing?” She asked.
“Yeah. Frosted flakes.”
“You keep showing off your brains like that, Lantham, and they're gonna arrest you for making the rest of us look bad.”
“Rachael, you couldn't look bad if you crawled naked through a sewer.”
“Keep talkin' dirty to me, boss. I got a great lawyer.”
I was still chuckling when we ducked through the glass doors and found Dusty's current domain of irritation. The California Academy of Sciences is normally host to a bevy of rare and endangered species. Entering into it you don't expect to find an infestation of subhuman species that are best reserved for circus side shows and movies of the week, such as, for example, the knot of FBI agents and SFPD officers clustered around their bosses who were arguing over jurisdiction.
What is it they say in all those nature specials?
When encountering injured and agitated predators in the wild, the most sensible course is to steer a wide path around them and avoid attracting attention.
If it was good enough for David Attenborough, it's good enough for me. We steered around to find Dusty on the far side. He nodded and held up a clip badge that would clear me for the scene.
“Big party,” I clipped the badge to my trench lapel. Rachael fell in behind me so it wouldn't be obvious that she wasn't wearing one.
“I didn't ask you to bring your girlfriend.”
“Her? She wouldn't piss on me if I was drowning in a toilet. Rachael Oldman, meet Dusty Youngman. You two will have a great time trading last names. Rachael's my junior partner. Dusty hates women, but don't hold it against him. He hates men too. Equal-opportunity misanthrope.”
Dusty grumbled. “Fuck you.”
At least the guy hadn't changed. Some things in life are dependable. “Buy me dinner first.”
“Can't. This whole thing's gone political faster than a Berkeley book club.” He started walking toward the northeast end of the building. We followed.
I asked “Why political?”
“That's why.” He pointed to a big-deal display with fancy signs pointing the way to Chinese exhibition that Sykes had talked about—the cultural artifacts were at the Legion of Honor, the natural wonders were camped out here. Some kind of big-deal space rock touring the US as a good will thingamagig. “The Chinese announced a couple years back that they'd found a meteorite with Martian bacteria in it. Ever since the rest of the world's been itching to get a look. This is the first stop on a tour of science facilities—it goes on display for three weeks, then the researchers get to play with it for two weeks before it moves on to its next stop. Well, tonight someone snatched it. The State Department's screaming, the FBI is on the case, and I can't get a word in edgewise.”
Real aliens? Lovely. “How long's it been here?”
“The exhibit opens tomorrow. But that's not the best part.” Dusty slammed his shoulder against an otherwise unmarked door that led into a “Employees Only” hallway. We followed.
“I've got three security guards swearing up and down their buddy got abducted by aliens.”
“Please tell me you mean a crowd of Mexicans broke in here looking to ransom a rent-a-cop.”
“No. Aliens. Outer space. Flying saucers. Close encounters with tribbles and shit.”
I should have taken the Sykes case. I like things that dovetail. Makes the paperwork easier when they stick you in the padded room with Napoleon and Jesus Christ. “Oh, boy, you're gonna be a hit in the Chron tomorrow.”
“No, because they're not going to hear about it,” he growled.
“Right,” Rachael said, “Cause information control works real well for the White House.”
“Lantham, do me a favor,” Dusty said as he pushed the door in on the security office, “Tell her what happened to Ludmilla.” He redirected his attention to the guy in front of us. “Jones!” A uniform—SFPD, not rent-a-cop—sat at the video console scrolling through footage on a bank of twelve monitors. He jumped. “Show our friends here the little green men.”
The Sergent obliged. A video loop from one of the smaller screens appeared on the large monitor. It showed the area on the far side of the Planetarium from the main entrance, just off the African Hall. High angle, relatively wide lens.
Not a lot was happening.
“Remarkable aliens you got here,” I said.
“Shut up and watch.”
I shrugged and leaned back against the wall. The video continued in much the same vein for another five seconds—time I could have spent doing something useful, like taking a shotgun back into dreamland and getting rid of those sea gulls. Rachael leaned up against my shoulder and whispered:
“What happened to Ludmilla?”
“She's the reason he hates baseball.”
I shrugged. “She tried to shoot him. He knocked her off a balcony with a bat.”
“Holy shit. Why'd she try to shoot him?”
“Wouldn't you if you married him?” Something in the video changed. I couldn't tell exactly what, but it got me standing upright again. “Is there audio with this?”
“They don't have mics?”
“Insurance reasons. Wiretap laws. Watch this.”
At the bottom left of frame, the shape of a cautious security guard peeked in. Just the hat at first, then the rest of him, walking toward the empty exhibits as if he was trying to figure out what he was looking at. So, weird thing number one: he'd have seen those exhibits so many times he wouldn't even notice them anymore, even if he'd only worked here a week. And he kept walking like that—like he was creeping up on a panther.
Weird thing number two: whatever he thought he saw must have been damn weird for him not to immediately draw his gun and pull his flashlight like Dusty trained his guys to do.
Weird thing number three: Dusty's basically a little Hitler where his employees are concerned, and none of them got out of training without being able to take down an intruder in ways likely to provoke a lawsuit. “Restraint” was one of the words—like “integrity” and “decency”—that he didn't learn when he was on the force, which is why he didn't last there, and he trained his people to the same brutal standard. But this guy on the screen was acting like he was either high or really damn dumb.
Which brings us to weird thing number four: Behind the visiting exhibit, a shape grew out of the floor, then split like a bacterial culture. And fuck me if it didn't look like a group of gray aliens genuflecting to the meteorite. Like it was the egg of one of their gods or something.
Pious little aliens. I felt a bit sorry for them—these kinds of production values, they should have made it on to Star Trek.
Lantham, this kind of shit is gonna get you straitjacketed someday.
If I had taken the Sykes job, I'd be earning double-pay right about now.
The guard was fully in frame now, and finally showing some brains at facing down the aliens. He reached for his gun, pulled it, and stepped forward...
As he did, the screen flashed white for maybe two frames. He shimmered, and disappeared. Like he'd walked through a curtain made of wiggling magician's mirrors. After the flash, I couldn't see the aliens either.
The uniform whistled. “Some shit, eh?”
“Yeah, some shit,” I said. Dusty looked at me like I was his personal swami. I pointed my eyeballs at the cop and then and the door.
“Jones,” he said, “take five.”
“Sorry, sir, the Lieutenant said...”
“Tell him if he has a problem he can talk to me. Now get the fuck out.”
Officer Jones lifted his palms like Dusty was sticking him up. “Fine, fine.” Once his back was turned to Dusty, he rolled his eyes out the door ahead of himself.
I leaned back against the wall and folded my arms again. When the door closed behind Jones I said: “Glad to see you've been working on your people-skills.”
“Shut up, will you?” He was rubbing his temples, looking down at the ground. He sat down in the chair, “Look, Clarke, seriously, no bullshit. My ass is on the line here. If we don't find this fucking guy soon...”
“The guard, you mean,” Rachael said.
Dusty nodded. “Yeah. Victor. Victor Saldinger. The Feds say we've got two choices: either this is an inside job and he's run for the hills—in which case I can kiss this contract goodbye and I'm looking at a negligent hiring lawsuit—or someone else did this and they nabbed him. Maybe killed him. I need to find him before they do, or I'm hanging by my balls from the flagpole. You've played racquetball with these assholes before. You know how they are.”
Know how they are? Yeah, I knew how they were. Not that any of them don't particularly like me—hell, that one from New Year's was hinting that he wanted my résumé. Before that, I ran into a crowd of them from the San Francisco office on a skip trace back when I was first on my own. They're good, as long as they're doing what they're good at. They're also not terribly creative, and they don't like sharing, and they usually don't care who they hurt along the way so long as they get their abductee back intact and identify their abductor.
But he was still talking. “I've got three men swearing up and down there was an alien abduction, and I've got one guy missing, and I've got this for video evidence, which is about as helpful as having a goldfish for my goddamned chauffeur. You know what the Feds'll do to my guys? And when the board gets their shit together later this morning...”
“Dusty, slow down...”
He took a deep breath. “Look buddy, both my kids are hitting college in the next two years. This is my biggest contract—this is the one that pays the fucking bills. This goes ass-up and I go back to eating Ramen and peanut butter and calling it 'fancy dining.' Special-Agent-in-Charge Fuckwit out there is saying the Chinese are sending their own people to find it.”
Rachael whistled. “Oh, boy.”
“You're in trouble.”
Dusty nodded. “Lloyd's was insuring the exhibit for—get this—five hundred million.”
“Oh, great, so I'm gonna be going up against an insurance snoop. It's gonna be crowded as a bead shop at Mardi Gras...”
“No, he's looking for the rock. I want the man.”
“Oh, okay, just the Feds then—tell me again why I want this gig?”
“Call it a favor to an old friend.” Friend? That's a good one. “I need Victor back. I don't care what it takes.”
“Fine, fine.” I looked at Rachael and resisted twirling my finger around over my temple, mostly because I wasn't sure which one of us was the real bozo in the room. “Let's do this by the numbers. Dusty. First, how long between this footage and the alarm?”
He grimaced. “Eight, maybe ten minutes. The guy in here was napping, other guys were in the break room playing cards. Nobody noticed until the alarm sounded.”
“The pressure alarm under the meteorite.”
“So they zap your guy Victor, and then don't steal the rock till eight minutes later?”
“Okay. We'll need to talk to the guards. SFPD or FBI have them yet?”
Dusty shook his head. “They're hanging in the cafeteria waiting for the interrogation squad.”
“Arrested? Material witnesses?”
He shook his head. “Not unless it happened since we walked in here.”
I nodded to Rachael. “Give her a copy of the footage, then take her to the picnic tables and let her talk to them. I'll be along in a bit.”
Smart cookie, Rachael—she didn't screw up the rhythm by asking me what I was going to do to earn my keep.
I wandered out to the scene of the crime and started nosing around. SF is usually the worst-of-both-worlds when it comes to police culture: The attitude of a suburban beat cop with something to prove and boredom to stave off, and the culture and incentive scheme and stress of a big department with the usual amount of corruption. Some nights, though, you draw the good apples. These uniforms were generally accommodating. No “big-fish-small-pond” bullshit, they were too busy playing sandbox games with the Feds. Suits me—kept them out of my way enough that I could get the basic lay of the scene.
The scene, they said, was clean like a surgeon's table. No stray prints, no stray hairs, A couple fresh scuff marks on the concrete that could have been from the missing guard's shoes, right next to a small smear of blood that showed up under the luminol—but as the head SOC officer said: “All that tells us is where he planted his nose.” Which at least meant he wasn't beamed up. Shame he never actually fell down in the video. But at any rate, there wasn't enough blood for it to be anything but a bump on the noggin. No other tell-tales that he might have been shot or beaten or killed, no trail of sweat drips or soggy footprints leading into or out of the room.
As far as modern science could tell, Victor Saldinger really had vanished, beam-out or no. One guard, just gone. I hate it when people are “just gone.” Major lack of consideration for those of us who have to clean up the mess.
I found a bored-looking uniform who ran me through the story, as far as he knew. Call it thoroughness. Turns out Victor had lost a short-straw draw, earned a lap walking the circuit. Start at the top, work his way down, get to the ground, work his way around. Sounded sensible enough to me.
I found Dusty in the cafeteria standing watching over his watchmen, as if they might say something to Rachael that would turn her into a bloodthirsty cannibal in a moment's notice. Perceptive guy. I only hired her on in July, and I'm already dreading the day when she gets her degree and her own license. She's good—another couple years and she'll start making me look bad. Hard to resent looking bad next to that kind of no-bullshit competence, but I'm the kind of guy that'll give it that old college try.
I caught his eye and used my superpower tractor beam vision to drag him from the room (hey, there were aliens pulling heists in a science museum. Don't hassle me). As we started walking, we passed Rachael. She'd opened the top of her motorcycle leathers low enough that her bustier was peeking out underneath.
Okay, maybe he wasn't protecting his guys against her. Maybe he was on the menu. Couldn't blame him—Rachael knew how to bait a hook.
The two of us walked through Victor's rounds. I kept my hat on when we went outside. Judging by the lack of damp footprints in the elevator I figured Victor hadn't actually stepped outside, but I like being thorough. Dusty groused while I made him walk the whole concrete pad with me. The observation deck takes up about an eighth of the building's roof. Clean space for stargazing when there are stars out—which there weren't on account of all the water hunting for a place to land—and for looking at the greenery that covers the rest of the garden-roof.
I was going on faith that Dusty's appraisal of his own guys was genuine. They had the footage backing them up, only reason they'd lie is if they were in on the sneak. If they thought they could fool someone with this story, the game was already over anyway. But if someone had fooled them with that story, then things could get more interesting. Their IQ scores, for example, might throw off the low end of the world statistical curve.
Someone might have hidden out somewhere on the premises during business hours or snuck into the museum after closing to pull the heist. Obviously found a way to hack the cameras—how they made the aliens appear, and how said aliens interacted with the guard in real-time, I couldn't figure yet, so I tabled it—and for my money, the roof was the best place to hide if you wanted to walk in legitimately and then wait until after closing to sneak in. Maybe another employee. Maybe a regular visitor.
I didn't find much in the rain. A couple bent plants that showed someone had been walking in the foliage, probably a parent going in after a kid's toy. I took some shots with my pocket camera just in case. In the same neighborhood there was a little bit of frayed string that I photo'd—someone's shoelace, probably, or a bit off a kid's raincoat drawstring. I told Dusty to send the Tyvek bootie boys up here to bag the sample.
“Clarke, come on, man,” I turned around to see Dusty holding his not-at-all-waterproof windbreaker over his head in the arctic rain. Poor guy hadn't thought to bring a raincoat, while I was in my trench and fedora on the grounds that I didn't want to get any more soaked than necessary. He was already soaked to the skin—I resisted the urge to call him 'Muddy,' on the grounds that insulting the client doesn't enhance one's ability to collect a paycheck.
“Eh, I've got everything I can get here anyway. Let's go back down.”
We sheltered in the elevator, I pulled out my phone. On the way down I typed in a few notes about possible rooftop hiding places. Important to catch thoughts like that before they notice the sorry housekeeping in my brain and stage a mass exodus. You never know when you might need one of them later.
Truth to tell, though, the thought of anyone anyone hiding up there in that Alaskan downpour didn't hold...well...water. Not unless they were wearing wet-suits—and then, if they were, how did they get up there in the first place? It's not like they wouldn't be noticed, waddling around like penguins.
Strike hypothesis numero uno.
Dusty seemed unimpressed with my choice of note-taking gadgetry. “A phone, Clarke?”
“Have you actually got a phone that can do more than dial your mom?”
“I'll take that as a 'no.'” The elevator doors slid open.
Dusty led me on a quick tour. I watched the ground along the way, looking for anything strange. The trouble is, when you go looking for “anything strange” the chances of finding a useful example of it are damn slim. Especially when you're in San Francisco.
Finally back down on the first level, Dusty led me into a large gallery on the front edge of the building.
“This is the African hall. Dioramas, stuffed critters...”
“Some live ones too.” It was hard to miss the big penguin enclosure at the far end. The birds were dipping and waddling around like badly-behaved popcorn.
You develop these habits when you're a cop—they come in handy as a PI. Most people tend to look more or less straight ahead when they walk, mentally claiming the lane. People that look every-which-way seem lost, and the ones that do it calmly look vaguely creepy. I'm mister creepy, though I've learned to do it without turning my head until I absolutely need to, so as not to upset the natives.
The fine art of looking around was not one Dusty had mastered—or, if he had, he had long since classified his client's building as familiar and boring, and wasn't looking around now.
When I first set eyes on it, I thought I was looking at the result of a college prank. The old academy—the one I grew up with, the one they knocked down to build this new and far more self-conscious architectural abomination—that academy would never outfit a diorama like that.
The scuff-scuff of schoolmarmish high heels on the thin carpet jumped my train of thought off the tracks. The voice that battered down the air ahead of them almost worked like dynamite at the wreck site, to keep the train from getting set back on. “Mister Youngman! What the high holy hacking hell is going on here?”
Dusty grumbled “Shit,” then turned to face the woman with a smile. “Ms. Fisher, I'm glad they finally got ahold of you...”
“And who the hell,” she'd evidently used up her lexicon of profanity before she got to the end of that first rant, “is this Sam Spade lookalike?”
“Clarke Lantham.” I didn't attempt to shake hands with her—she was the sort who sharpened her claws in her spare time.
“And that's supposed to tell me what?”
Dusty cut in front of me—physically—before I had a chance to hand over my card and tell her I was a snoop. “He's one of my staff consultants.”
“Uh huh. I'll look him up next time I need a consult on smuggling bird figurines. Now, what the hell...”
“There's been a break-in,” Dusty said. “They abducted one of the guards and...stole the meteorite.”
“WHAT? Who? So help me, Mr. Youngman, I'll have you before the board for...”
“Excuse me, Ms. Fisher. Am I to understand you're the museum's representative?”
“Representative? I'm the...”
“In that case,” I said loud enough that it blew her hair back, then continued in a normal voice, “if you'd be so kind, I must ask: What kind of bozo do you have for an art director?”
“Do you normally feature penises in your dioramas?”
“I can't...I mean...what the hell are you talking about?”
I pointed to my right, at the diorama behind the big tree hanging over the hall. The savanna scene behind, in addition to the expected stuffed creatures, featured a slightly overweight African native slumped naked against one of the skeletal bushes with his eyes closed. “Aren't loincloths and spears customary?”
“Holy...” Dusty ran to the diorama, leapt the low glass barrier. He rushed straight for the man and tried to move him—the man flopped to the floor like a rag doll. “Victor! Shit. Get some paramedics in here!”
Victor was in a bad way. Unconscious like he was attempting the world record for naked endurance comas. He'd had a hell of a crack on the head. Even after they figured out that he hadn't sustained any neck damage and let him off the strap-board, he wasn't exactly coherent. Couldn't get three words out in a row that made any sense, and most of the time couldn't even make the words. The meds said it was aphasia from a brain injury, maybe a concussion, maybe a bleed, rushed him to the hospital over everyone else's objections.
Rachael joined me as I was walking a dozen yards behind the crowd trundling Victor away.
“You missed the gratuitous nudity,” I said.
I gestured ahead the now blanket-clad man being gurneyed out.
“Shame. He's hot.”
“If you say so. Dude took a nasty crack on the head. Did you get anything from the others?”
“Not a lot. The little one is a big conspiracy nut, he's convinced the others it was really aliens.”
“Inside job? He behind the thing?”
“Hmph. Him? Not unless they started granting low-IQ scholarships to the evil genius club. You find anything?”
I nodded again at the retreating triage case. “Naked man playing with the antelope.”
“You get all the fun stuff.”
“And playing cleavage games with the security guards?”
She blew me off. “Lantham, people build entire fortunes off the fact that tits aren't allowed in public. It's not exactly a challenge.”
“All hail the commercial power of sexism and repression.”
“Shush, you're gonna fuck up my retirement plans.”
I led her into the piazza, a large cubicle glass room in the middle of the museum that had the virtue of being unoccupied and double-glazed. Time to put her through the paces—my end of the deal.
“Okay, where do we stand?”
She opened her mouth like she was about to remind me that this was my goat fuck, then she closed it again when she recognized that my tone of voice said “quiz time.”
“Well, that depends. Did he hire us to find the missing guard, or the missing rock, or the aliens? Sounds to me like he hired us to save his ass, but his boss already knows, so that one's out the window. He's fucked no matter what we do.”
“So we give him an out?”
“Hell no. We clear his people, if we can. Whoever came in here had hella time to set this up—no obvious point of entry, no presence on the security vids. This is a professional job. Or aliens trying to get their egg back.”
“Do I pass?”
“Yeah, you pass. We can assume we won't be able to get anything out of the cops, but it's a safe bet there aren't any tell-tales. How long between the time stamp on that footage and the time the other guys noticed Victor was missing?”
“Plenty of time to stow the body, clear up, and bug out. Not likely they'd fuck up and leave something behind in a rush, but we might get lucky. What would you do next?” And why the hell did they strip the guard? What does that get them?
She crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged. “We need to figure out how they doctored that video. And how they got in.”
“Angle one. What's angle two?”
“Bribe a cop to keep us in the loop in case they find anything.”
“Yeah, well, don't get caught. That's a felony.”
“Dare I ask?”
“Remember what I said about tits?”
I held up my hand. “Forget it. I don't want to know. So what's angle three?”
“Well...dammit, I don't know. It's not like they can sell that thing.”
“Oh, there are markets for it. We'll need to stake them out.” I chewed the whole situation over in my head for a moment. There were three or four good paths of inquiry, but some of them would be expensive. Much as I trusted Dusty—it's easy to trust someone who knows you can blackmail them—only an idiot runs an expense account without paper authorizing it. “Head on back to the office, wake Nya up. Maybe we can get her to earn her keep a bit. Train her up on the contracts, get me one for Dusty—standard contract, leave the fee spaces blank, make sure to include the unlimited expense clause. This one's gonna get spendy.”
“Will do. What are you going to do?”
“I'll meet you back there in a couple hours. I have a few other things to do here first.”
A few other things, yeah, like eliminating the usual suspects before I conned my client.
Whenever you've got a rare and priceless artifact, there's always a handful of threats that surface. If it's a Treasures of Tibet exhibit, you've got the Free Tibet crowd threatening to steal the exhibit for the sake of dispossessed feudal potentates in the name of civil rights. If it's an exhibit on fetal development, you've got the chance that radical pro-lifers stole the preserved fetuses to give them a proper burial. In this land of extremes, we've got the right-wingers and the left-wingers sharing the road flapping at each other, which is why everyone's always flying so high.
Well, that and the drugs.
Then there was Sykes. He'd left that warning note at my office, and that gave me thread. Grab it, yank on it, and see who winds up naked...okay, fine, who else winds up naked.
Chance was good, though, that for every Jonathan Sykes & Co. there were at least half-a-dozen groups yammering on the Internet or calling local political offices with threats and plans to steal the meteorite to get the Bilderberg Group into hot water from our alien overlords, or to make sure that the Bohemian Club didn't use it in its new child sacrifice ritual at their summer camp this year.
Besides that, and the black-market collector value, I could think of another reason off the top of my head that someone might want to steal this thing, one that struck me as a lot more plausible. Some private research group might want direct access to the alleged Martian microbes—biotech is fast replacing Silicon Valley as the official hot shit around the Bay, and I've had some close-up encounters with the complicated mix of greed and high-minded idealism in that industry.
All this was assuming Dusty still wanted me on board—I had, after all, found his missing guard—but I had an angle on that one too. He wasn't going to like it, but he just might go for it.
A guy's gotta make rent, right?
End of sample. ©2012 J. Daniel Sawyer, All Rights Reserved
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