The morning after the Lawrence Livermore conference, Assistant FBI Director Jack Tanner was sitting behind the large desk in his private office in the Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco. He was not a happy man. Though it still lacked several minutes of 9:00, he had already been at his desk for over an hour, working and puzzling over yesterday’s revelations.
Nor had his mood been improved by the phone call he had received about fifteen minutes earlier from National FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, from a personal aide to the Director himself, no less. Somehow the Director had already received information about the meeting of the previous day. Tanner’s instructions were clear, the aide had told him. He was to solve this “alien” case as quickly and quietly as possible. The Director, it seemed, was worried about this story falling into the hands of the tabloids, and he was determined to hold Tanner personally responsible if it did. Or, as the Director’s aide so succinctly put it, “If this story gets out, the FBI will be the laughingstock of law enforcement agencies everywhere. And if it does, the Director has personally told me to inform you that your future in law enforcement will be as an assistant file clerk in the Anchorage office. Why the hell did you volunteer the bureau to head up this wild goose chase, or should I say, wild ‘alien’ chase in the first place?”
Why indeed? Tanner had only been in charge of the West Coast Region for less than three years. His tenure thus far and been moderately successful, but undistinguished. He supposed he had volunteered the Bureau’s leadership in this matter in a desperate attempt for personal recognition. Now, he had his recognition, all right, but it was definitely giving him feelings of ambivalence. Correctly handled, this case could make his career. But unfortunately, despite his take-charge attitude of the previous day, he didn’t have a clue as to how to proceed in this matter. The whole idea of “Project X” was driving him up the wall. Alien activity in San Francisco? How could anyone tell? And who would notice, for that matter? This city had always had more than its share of loonies and crackpots anyway. He began to realize the futility of his task.
He looked over at the large gold-framed portrait hanging on the wall to the right of his desk. “Well, Edgar,” he mused aloud, “what would you make of all this? How would you proceed?” Probably, he thought to himself, old Hoover would use Project X as an excuse to round up for questioning every suspected Commie and student radical he could get his hands on. Which could turn out to be a sizeable percentage of the City’s population, then and now. In spite of his hopeless state of mind, he smiled and mimed a toast to the memory of the Bureau’s first Director. Somehow he felt better.
A loud buzz from the intercom on his desk interrupted his thoughts.
“Yes?” he said into the speaker.
“Special Agent Kelly has arrived, sir,” was the reply.
“Good, good!” he exclaimed. “Send her in immediately.”
The door opened and Kelly strode in briskly. She was youngish, probably not over thirty, with medium-length sandy-colored hair and large, expressive blue eyes. She was attired in standard FBI office wear for women—white blouse, black knee-length skirt, dark stockings and sensible black pumps.
She stopped in front of Tanner’s desk. “Special Agent Deanna Kelly reporting as ordered, sir!” she said in military fashion.
“Please have a seat, Agent Kelly,” replied Tanner, motioning to a large leather chair on the other side of his desk and to his left.
Kelly angled the chair so that it was directly facing Tanner and then sat, waiting expectantly for him to speak.
After a few seconds he began hesitantly. “You read the memo I sent you yesterday afternoon?”
“Yes, sir, I have, and quite frankly, I don’t know what to think. The possible existence of extraterrestrials in the Bay Area? And in the memo you mentioned something about a device for locating the aliens? Just how would that work?”
“I don’t know much more about this than you do, Kelly,” he sighed heavily. “But I am given to understand that this portable device which is described as being somewhat like a Geiger counter will be made available to us soon, hopefully by the end of the week. I’m told that you point it at the suspected alien,” he said, standing up and aiming his finger like a weapon, “and it’s supposed to click or something. That is, if the person is an alien. Or whatever,” he finished lamely.
He sat down again, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, as if trying to rid himself of the vision of the FBI hunting down aliens with some kind of weird ray gun.
“That’s why I want you to be the field agent in charge of this project, Kelly,” he continued more hopefully. “We need your ‘anything’s possible’ attitude. Your open-minded practicality. And that incredible intuition of yours, which some people here at the Bureau say borders on the psychic.” He leaned toward her and said in a confidential whisper, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but I just received a phone call from the Director himself! My job is definitely on the line here. I’m counting on you to solve this case quickly and with a minimum of publicity.”
Kelly considered what he had said. “Thank you, sir, for your compliments,” she replied after a time. “And I assure you, I’ll do my best. But with all due respect, I do wish you’d give me something to go on. How do I proceed? Do I just wander the streets of San Francisco pointing this device randomly at people? They’ll think I’m deranged! And then, if the device should make a positive identification, what do I do then? Do I arrest the unlucky person and read him his rights? And if he says, ‘What’s the charge?’ do I tell him, ‘Suspicion of being an extraterrestrial’? They’d lock me up and throw away the key!”
Tanner looked as if he’d just eaten something disagreeable. “Look, Kelly,” he pleaded, “it’s not so bad as all that. Every local law enforcement agency in the Bay Area will be working on Project X. They will presumably get tips, leads and other information. They will then evaluate this information and pass on to us only what seems to be worth following up. That’s what you’ll be doing.”
He got up from behind his desk and began pacing back and forth in an agitated manner. He wished he hadn’t given up smoking.
“One other thing,” he continued, pausing in front of Kelly’s chair and looking her full in the face. “Even though this alien thing will most probably turn out to be nothing at all and be completely forgotten in a few weeks, there is just the slightest chance that there may be some danger involved. So I want you to have a partner on this assignment, someone who’s strong as an ox and absolutely fearless. Someone who’s never let any harm come to anyone under his protection. Someone who’s a weapons expert as well!” He realized he was getting carried away, and he paused for a moment to regain control. When he had recovered himself, he told her in a lower voice, “I couldn’t think of anyone suitable in the Bay Area. Everyone here is too soft. So I called the LA office and asked that Special Agent Muldoon be transferred up here for the duration. Good man, maybe you’ve heard of him?” he asked innocently.
Kelly looked at him in astonishment. “Muldoon? Agent Fred Muldoon? Special Agent Fred ‘Lone Wolf’ Muldoon?” She shook her head in disbelief.
“Why, yes.” Tanner was perplexed by her reaction. “I see you’ve heard of him. Just the man for the job, don’t you think?”
“But sir,” said Kelly helplessly, “Muldoon?”
“Now, don’t worry,” Tanner tried to reassure her. “After all, you’ll be in full charge of this project. I just want a reliable man to be with you at all times. In case of danger.”
“But, sir,” Kelly said again. She gave him a look of disappointment. “In case you didn’t know, Muldoon has a reputation for being the most hard-headed, hard-nosed, by-the-book agent on the West Coast. Maybe in the entire Bureau. And his politics—he makes Reagan look like a bleeding-heart liberal. He’s—he’s a neanderthal, sir!”
“Now, Kelly, he may be a little rough around the edges,” he began, clearly surprised by her attitude.
“And he hates women!” she broke in. “And he doesn’t believe in any kind of intuition, male or female!”
Tanner had had enough. “Special Agent Kelly!” he snapped, sitting back down at his desk and looking at her sternly. “I’m surprised at you! Pull yourself together, that’s an order! You have your assignment! You have your partner! Muldoon’s flying up from LA this afternoon. We three will have a meeting here tomorrow morning at nine o’clock to talk about how to proceed.” He leaned forward across the desk and spoke more softly. “And please, Kelly, try to make this work. For your sake. For my sake. Christ, even for Muldoon’s sake. You don’t know how lucky we are to have him with us on the project.”
“Do you know what Muldoon does when he hears the words ‘space alien’?” she replied stiffly. “He laughs. He slaps his knees with those big, hairy-knuckled hands of his and guffaws.” She paused for a moment and then continued, “But don’t worry, sir. I’ll be on my best behavior. If anything goes wrong, it won’t be my fault! Permission to leave, sir?”
Without waiting for a reply, she stood up straight, performed a perfect military about-face, and marched out of the office without another word.
Tanner looked at the ceiling and muttered a few choice curses at Auslander. Then he went out to buy a pack of cigarettes.
The day after the great sculpture scam, Rick woke at about noon, and noticed that Wanda had left a note on her pillow. “Hanging out in the Haight,” it said, “See you around dinner time.” As he yawned and stretched he wondered about the events of last night. Had it all been real, or was it just the result of one too many joints before bedtime? He slowly got out of bed and went to the closet where he remembered stashing his backpack the night before. He opened a zippered pocket on the side and discovered that it was all true—there in the pocket was $1,000 in cash, his cut from Al’s confidence game.
“I’m rich!” he cried out, flinging money into the air. Then the full impact hit him and he came down to earth quickly. Immediately he thought of Marty. When was the last time he had paid any rent? He vaguely remembered having come into some money around Labor Day. Quickly, he dressed and stuffed the money into his jeans. Consulting the astrological calendar on the wall, he frowned. “Labor Day!” he exclaimed. “That was two months ago! I must’ve totally spaced out October!” He thought for a moment. “Good karma means payin’ your dues, dude,” he told himself sternly.
He hurried downstairs and knocked on the door to Marty’s study.
“Door’s open,” came the response.
Rick entered and saw Marty sitting in an armchair, peacefully reading The Plague by Albert Camus. “Don’t you ever go to sleep, man?” Rick asked him, yawning again. “You’re up until five or six in the morning listening to other people’s problems. Now I come down here at noon and you look like you’ve been up for hours.”
Marty grinned. “So who’s got time to sleep? What’s on your mind, Rick?”
“Um, I wanted to talk to you about the rent, Marty. I know I haven’t been exactly regular…”
Marty looked at the ceiling. “Let’s see, you’ve lived here two and a half years, you’ve paid eight months’ rent, the last time being two months ago. But who’s counting?” He gave Rick an approving nod. “You’re a good guy. I like having you around, and we’re making it OK at the moment. So—no problem.” He went back to reading The Plague.
“Uh, no, Marty, you don’t understand,” Rick began again. “I mean, I want to pay you some.”
Marty instantly put down his book and looked at Rick fondly. “Pay me some?” he repeated. He jumped up and ran over to his desk, saying “Hold that thought!” He pulled out a large old-fashioned leather-bound ledger. “Let’s see,” he said, thumbing through it. “Ah, here we are—Hedges. So, are you just throwing me a bone? Or can you spare as much as one hundred?”
“I thought, to be fair,” replied Rick slowly. “I’d just get the last two months out of the way.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wad. As he peeled off the bills, he counted them carefully. “Three-forty, three-sixty, three-eighty, four hundred. There! Are we all squared away?” He offered the money to Marty, who looked at it in open-mouthed amazement.
“Wait a minute!” Marty said suspiciously. “Where did you get all that money? Holding up liquor stores? Dealing drugs? No!” he exclaimed, his face darkening. “You’d better not be dealing! You know the house rules. Personal consumption only. And what about Wanda? You know how she is when it comes to the hard stuff! You don’t want to get her started again, do you? I swear, if I find out you’ve been dealing—”
“Honest to God, Marty!” Rick was shocked by this outburst. Marty was usually the most easygoing dude he knew. “It’s not like that at all. Me and Al cooked up this little sculpture scam last night. We got the rich yuppies to fork over two hundred bucks each for some mediocre plaster busts. By the time the smoke cleared, I was totally able to pay my bar tab. And I still had all this left over.” He patted his pocket.
“Al, huh?” Marty was still suspicious. “You and Al. Unless I miss my guess, Al was the guy that thought it up.” He tapped his temple sagely with a forefinger.
Rick admitted that this was so.
“This guy, Al,” Marty mused, “he really must be something special. Tell me, Rick,” he said more directly. “What’s he like? The girls spent hours talking about him one night last week, but I never got your side of it. What makes this guy tick, anyway?”
Rick thought for a minute. “Well, I don’t really know how to put it in words,” he said finally. “You know I’m gay, and yeah, he’s a real hunk. But with him it’s different somehow. I mean I’m like, attracted to him and all, but it’s not just a physical thing, you know? I’ll tell you one thing. He’s real self-assured, a real take-charge dude. But that’s not really it either.” He paused and put his hand to his forehead. “It’s weird, but I keep thinking I know more about Al than I remember. But how could I have forgotten anything about him? I’ve only known the dude for a little over a week now.” He broke off, puzzled.
Marty considered this. “Well, he’s coming here to dinner, let me see, a week from Monday. As you know, since you were at the meeting, this party is by invitation only. Since this Al guy seems to be such a guru,” he said sarcastically, “I’ve drawn up a guest list of twelve of our best, most intelligent and intuitive house members. Which in most cases,” he admitted, “doesn’t really mean very much. In addition to me, and you, and Simona and Wanda, we’ve got Bear, Violet, Fawn (got to make it up to her for last time) and about five others. Our best and brightest. We’ll feed him, give him lots of wine, get him stoned (if he does that sort of thing) and most important of all, we’ll get him talking about himself. If that doesn’t work, we’ll sic Violet on him and see what she can find out with her tarot cards.” He was getting really worked up, pacing around the room and waving his arms enthusiastically. “We’ll find out what kind of guy this Al really is or die in the attempt!” he concluded dramatically, sitting down in his armchair once again.
Rick listened to this in silence. When Marty was finally through, he said, “Sounds like a plan, man. But right now I’ve got to split. For some reason I’ve got way too many mediocre sculptures to make.” He gave a little groan. “Ah, well, the price of fame, I guess. If anybody wants me, I’ll be down in the basement workshop for, oh, about the next two weeks.”
“Fame, my foot!” replied Marty, giving him a withering look. “Just be here a week from Monday. Eight o’clock sharp! I mean it, put it on your calendar. There’s no way you want to miss this!” He chuckled and picked up The Plague again.
“Don’t worry, Marty, you can count on me.”
“Oh, and thanks for the rent, man. Now I can finally pay PG&E. Wow, gas and lights for the next month, at least!”
“Can it, Marty!” said Rick with a laugh. “You know that we know that you’ll always keep this place going for all of us, no matter what it takes.”
“I try, I try,” he replied seriously. “Now, get the hell out here and get to work! You made your own bed, you know. And be sure to save me a Hedges original. Might be worth big bucks some day, you never know.”
“Peace, man,” said Rick simply, making the V-sign and going out the door.
“Richard Hedges, famous native California sculptor,” Marty said to himself when Rick had left. “It could happen, who can tell? Rick’s always had more talent than initiative. If this gets him off his ass, who knows what could happen?” He resumed reading The Plague, laughing out loud at the funny bits.
Chapter 20 >>
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022