Tuesday night at The Madhouse, Violet Miller is sitting in her room, her mind delving deep into the mysteries of the Qaballah, when a knock on the door brings her back to reality.
“Phone for you, Violet!” calls a voice.
“Coming,” she replies shortly. She is a tall thin woman of about thirty, with long, straight-hanging black hair. She wears a shapeless black shift and, as she gets up off the bed, she slides her bare feet into a pair of ancient Persian carpet slippers.
She reaches the pay phone at the other end of the hall from her third-floor room and speaks quietly into the receiver. “Yes? Violet here. Who calls?”
“Violet Miller?” inquires a hesitant and slightly-accented woman’s voice. “You probably don’t remember me, but you read my tarot cards at the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair summer before last.”
Violet thinks for a moment. “Hmmm,” she finally says. “There were so many. Please give me a hint.”
“OK,” says the woman, quite willing to play this game. “You advised me to leave my husband of two years, because you knew he would make me stay a simple housewife forever, tied by my apron strings to a bunch of kids, and you sensed that I wanted more than that.”
“The vision is beginning to clear,” Violet intones. “Please, do continue.”
“Well, I did like you said and just walked out of our little apartment in the Mission District. This was at the end of June, a year and a half ago. Oh, you also advised me to take English lessons because I had been in this country only a few months and my accent was so bad.”
“A light begins to dawn.” Violet puts her fingers to her forehead. In a moment she exclaims, “No! It’s not Rosa, is it? Rosa Valdez?”
“Yes, yes, it’s me,” says the voice with delight. “Only I’m Rosa Sanchez now. I took back my birth name when I left my husband. Anyway, I moved to Berkeley a little over a year ago now and took some English lessons, and then about six months ago I got this great job. So I promised myself that if I could ever do anything for you, I would.”
“That’s truly wonderful, Rosa. So what are you doing now?”
“Well,” Rosa’s voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve been working as a secretary-receptionist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. And yesterday they had this top-secret, hush-hush meeting. You wouldn’t believe some of the people who were there. And security was, how do you say, out of the behind. Anyway, we were all sworn to secrecy, had to sign a paper and everything, promising not to tell the subject or who was there. But, you know, who pays any attention to their stupid games?”
“Quite right,” Violet concurs dreamily. “There is no security this side of the grave.” With an effort she rouses herself from her reverie. “But what makes you think I’d be interested in this top-secret meeting?”
“Because,” says Rosa, still whispering, “the subject of the meeting just happened to be aliens—you know, space aliens, that some physics guy thinks could be right here in the Bay Area!”
“That’s astonishing!” Violet pricks up her ears with new interest. “Usually these ivory tower research lab types couldn’t care less about UFO’s, aliens, the spirit world. Hmmm, I wonder if this meeting could have anything to do with that article in the Clarion last week? You know, the one about lights over Golden Gate Park?”
“I know, I know!” says Rosa excitedly. “I saw that, too! And I thought, surely Violet would want to know about a strange meeting like this. Did I do right to tell you?”
“Rosa, thank you for this fascinating news. And I’m very happy to hear that you’re doing so well. But I don’t want you to get into any trouble over this.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that!” Rosa shrugs it off. “If the story gets out, those big shots will be too busy trying to blame each other. They won’t even think about a little nobody like me. But, seriously, what are you going to do with this story, Violet?”
“That’s a very good question,” Violet says, frowning just a bit. “But did you call it a ‘story’, Rosa? You know, that’s exactly what it is and what it should be. I’m going to call a friend of mine. I think this story would be right up her alley. Thanks, Rosa. May the Earth Mother hold you in her bosom forever.”
“Ha, ha,” Rosa giggles. “I love it when you get all spiritual. Maybe I come to the City and see you over the Christmas holidays, OK?”
“You do that, I’d love to see you again,” replies Violet. “Call me and let me know, OK?” As she hangs up the phone, she stands there in the hall for a moment, lost in thought. Then she pads back to her room and looks through her dresser drawer for her phone book and some change.
“Ah!” she finally exclaims. She goes back out to the pay phone. She drops in a quarter and then dials a number. In a moment she hears a voice say, “Bay Weekly, how may I direct your call?”
* * *
Wednesday morning at the office of Assistant FBI Director Jack Tanner, the intercom buzzes sharply.
“Yes?” says Tanner testily.
“Special Agent Kelly is waiting, sir,” says the disembodied voice of his temp secretary, somewhat reprovingly it seems to him.
“Um, just a moment, I’m, uh, clearing away some paperwork,” he says, disconnecting the intercom with one hand and stubbing out the butt of a cigarette with the other. This was a no-smoking building, but Tanner didn’t care. He had been chain smoking for the last twenty-four hours (excluding sleep, which had been fitful) and didn’t seem to be able to stop.
He picks up the ashtray which is overflowing with butts and takes it to the lavatory which is part of his private executive office. He flushes the evidence down the toilet and then goes back in and sprays the entire room with air freshener.
“All right,” he says with as much authority as he can muster, switching on the intercom again. “Send in Agent Kelly immediately.” He manages to seat himself behind his desk before she enters, folds his hands on the desk in front of him and tries to look official.
Special Agent Kelly enters his office in exactly the same way as she did the previous morning and reports to her boss using exactly the same words. When Tanner offers her a seat, she takes the same chair and angles it in the same way she did yesterday.
“Sir,” she says formally. “Permission to speak freely?”
“Of course, Kelly!” he replies with some impatience. “We’re the only ones here. Just say what’s on your mind and get it over with!” He glances around the room nervously as if to verify the fact that they are, indeed, alone.
“Well, sir…” she begins, but stops abruptly, putting her hand to her face. “What’s that smell?” she asks, frowning and wrinkling her nose.
“Oh, er, that’s just my…new cologne,” stammers Tanner. “Bought it yesterday. Do you like it?”
“It seems a bit strong to me, sir,” she replies, waving her hand in front of her face. “Maybe you should cut the dosage.”
“Quite right, Kelly, quite right,” he says, looking distracted. “I’ll take it under advisement—er, I mean, yes, I’ll do it!” He wipes his forehead with his pocket handkerchief and looks at it self-consciously. “Warm in here, don’t you think?”
“Not to me. Look here, sir, are you quite all right?” she asks him. “You don’t really seem yourself this morning.”
“I know, I know!” Tanner begins sobbing and puts his head down on the desk for a moment. Then he quickly raises it again, sniffs once or twice, and applies the pocket handkerchief to his eyes and nose. “It’s just this alien thing,” he says petulantly, but regaining control. “I haven’t been able to think about anything else for the last two days. What time is it?” he suddenly changes the subject and looks at his watch. “Nine-fifteen? Muldoon’s late. He was supposed to be here at nine o’clock sharp.”
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon, sir,” Kelly tries to reassure him.
“I can’t wait to meet him!” Tanner exclaims, brightening a bit. “I wonder if he’s as big as they say he is.”
“I believe he’s even bigger, sir,” she says with a straight face.
“And his gun!” Tanner is enthusiastic now and ignores her satire. “He’s supposed to carry a custom-made, pearl-handled forty-five caliber Colt Magnum. I can’t wait to see that gun!”
“I’m sure he’ll show you his, if you’ll show him yours, sir.” Kelly says in the same way.
“Show him mine? But there’s nothing special about mine.” Tanner frowns suspiciously. “What are you getting at, Kelly?”
“Just an old joke, sir,” she begins, but suddenly a commotion in the outer office interrupts her.
“I tell you, I have an appointment with Tanner!” Kelly and Tanner fall silent as a loud baritone voice penetrates the closed office door.
A fainter female voice answers nervously, “But Agent Muldoon! I’ve checked and rechecked Director Tanner’s schedule for this morning and all it says is, ‘Top-Secret Private Meeting with Kelly and Mulrooney at nine o’clock!”
At that, Tanner bursts out of his office. “It’s quite all right, Ms. Withers,” he tries to smooth it over. “There seems to be a tiny little typo in my schedule. Not that it’s your fault,” he says quickly. “I’m supposed to be meeting with Kelly and Muldoon, not Kelly and Mulrooney.”
“Well, sir,” sniffs Ms. Withers, “how am I supposed to know? It says Mulrooney. He says he’s Muldoon. I mean, how am I supposed to know?” she asks again, beginning to pace back and forth restlessly in front of her desk, her eyes growing wild. “I mean if you’d really wanted to see Mulrooney and I’d sent in Muldoon, well then, it would be all my fault, wouldn’t it?” She begins to pull at her hair in an alarming way.
“There, there, Ms. Withers, it’s not your fault.” Tanner is trying to calm her down as Muldoon takes a seat in the corner, crosses his legs and watches the scene with some interest. Kelly is standing in the open office entrance, her mouth wide in astonishment.
“There, there,” Tanner says again, patting her shoulder in a fatherly way. “I wasn’t blaming you for anything. Please, I can see you’re upset.” She continues to pull at her hair, her eyes wilder than ever. “Here,” he says in desperation, pulling a large wad of cash from his pocket. He peels off $300 and puts it in her hand. “Please take this. Let’s just tell the temp agency you worked the rest of the week, OK?” She closes her hand around the money and begins to calm down somewhat. “Don’t worry about your time sheet. I’ll take care of everything.” He ushers the distraught temp to the hall door and gently closes it behind her.
“Interesting woman,” comments Muldoon cheerfully after Tanner has seated both him and Kelly in front of his office desk. “Is this normal behavior for a San Francisco secretary?”
“Never mind that!” snaps Tanner. “You’re twenty minutes late. What happened?”
“Not too much,” shrugs Muldoon. “I was driving in my rental car on the way to your office when I saw this old man sitting on the steps of a rundown hotel drinking something out of a paper bag. Since I immediately suspected it was an alcoholic beverage—drinking in public is still illegal in this city, isn’t it?—I approached the suspect carefully, hand on my gun, just in case…”
“Your gun, that reminds me,” Tanner interrupts. “They say it’s custom made and the biggest one in the whole district. Can I see it?”
“Sure,” replies Muldoon affably, standing up. “Why not?” He is wearing a nondescript black suit with narrow black tie and white button-down dress shirt. He would look like an ordinary FBI agent but for two things: his size—he stands about six-four and is built like a block of granite; and his face, which seems chiseled out of the same material. His hair is so closely shaved in a buzz cut that its color, whatever that might be, is indistinguishable from that of his scalp. He unbuttons his jacket, snaps open his shoulder holster and displays to an envious Tanner the largest 45-caliber automatic that he’s ever seen in his life.
“Can I—can I touch it” Tanner asks in awe, holding out his hand.
“Sure,” He hands it to Tanner, cautioning him, “but hold it by the pearl handle. I don’t want the chrome plating getting smudged.”
Tanner takes it and holds it in both hands delicately, sighting along the barrel once or twice. Then he reluctantly returns it to Muldoon.
“Want to see what she can do? I call her Bertha, for my mom. You see that picture over there on the back wall?”
“Which one, President Bush?”
“No, the other one, the kid.”
“Oh, you mean Vice President Quayle.”
“Yeah, whatever. Anyway, at this distance I could take out both eyes with one shot.”
“No! You mean it leaves a hole that big?”
Kelly, who is watching this display with increased frustration, finally stands up and says, “Gentlemen, please! There’s enough testosterone in this room already, don’t you think?”
“What’s she talking about, Tanner?” Muldoon gently replaces his gun in his holster and snaps it shut.
“I think she means too much guy stuff,” Tanner confides. “But she’s right. What I’m supposed to do,” he says, sitting back behind his desk and reassuming his official manner, “is brief the both of you on this alien thing.”
At this, Muldoon laughs heartily and slaps his knee.
My God, Tanner thinks, Kelly was right. And his knuckles are hairy.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Muldoon says, still chuckling a bit. “But this is the first time I’ve ever been assigned to track down the figments of somebody’s imagination.”
“Surely even you,” Kelly speaks up defiantly, “can’t deny the possibility that we might not be alone in the universe.”
“No,” agrees Muldoon, “not with all these Chinks running around.” He winks at Tanner who has gone back to burying his face in his hands.
“Sir,” Kelly appeals to Tanner, “make Muldoon retract that blatantly racial remark!”
“So, you’re Special Agent Kelly, huh!” says Muldoon, looking at her appraisingly. “You’re the one they say dances with the fairies.” He stands up and minces around the room in a ludicrous imitation of a ballerina.
Kelly stands up suddenly and leans over Tanner’s desk. “Make him stop, sir! This is the agent I have to work with on this case? I’d sooner slash my wrists!”
Tanner, with his face still buried in his hands, mumbles, “Stop fighting, children, or I’ll have to separate you.”
“He started it!”
“No, she started it!”
Kelly and Muldoon both point their fingers at each other.
Tanner stands up suddenly. “Both of you, stop this at once!” he orders, and begins to pace behind his desk. Then he says decisively, “Muldoon, take Kelly to lunch! Kelly, show Muldoon the sights of San Francisco. That’s an order!” he says, his voice rising as Muldoon begins to open his mouth in protest. “And don’t come back until you can work together as a team! This project is too big, too crucial…” His words trail off and he sits down again, not knowing what to say next.
“All right, sir,” Kelly finally says. She stands up and offers her hand hesitantly to Muldoon. “Partners?”
He ignores her hand. Instead he says suddenly, “Know why they call me ‘Lone Wolf’ Muldoon, Kelly?”
“Because none of my partners have stayed with me for more than a week. Some quit the Bureau, some just asked to be transferred. After a few years, they gave up trying to partner me. And I’ve been working by myself ever since.” He gestures toward the door and bows in a mocking manner. “After you, Special Agent Kelly.” He does another little ballerina twirl and opens the door for her.
She starts toward the door. “I want you both to know,” she says bitterly, “that ‘dancing with the fairies’ story is a complete fabrication. I don’t know where it got started.”
“Cheer up, Kelly,” he remarks as they leave the office. “Maybe I’ll let you shoot my gun.”
Assistant FBI Director Jack Tanner quickly lights another cigarette and puffs on it desperately.
Chapter 22 >>
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022