“Wow,” said Phyl in astonishment. “I can’t believe some of the names on this list!” She was sitting on the bed in Violet’s room at The Madhouse. It was only a little after 9:00 in the morning, but Rosa had been as good as her word, and the FedEx envelope had arrived nearly an hour ago. Rosa had thoughtfully charged the $30 delivery fee to the Lawrence Livermore account.
“Yeah,” Violet agreed. “It must have been a top-level conference all right. Representatives from the Pentagon, the FBI, all the Bay Area police departments. They don’t pay attention to the normal UFO sightings. This must be really big.”
“I’d give anything for a taped transcript. But don’t get me wrong, Violet, I’m really grateful to you for letting me in on this.”
“What are sisters for? But I knew that with your interest in the occult and your position at the paper, you’d be the perfect person to find out the truth about this. Are there aliens in the Bay Area?” she wondered aloud. “And if there are, you’d think someone would have noticed. This may be a weird place, but it’s not that weird.”
“Well,” said Phyl, looking at the list again. “I’d better start doing some digging, but I don’t have much time. Just today and tomorrow to get this story. Otherwise I have to seduce some guy at PG&E again. I promised Brockman.” She checked out the names on the list. “Hmmm, let’s see, these Federal guys will already have flown back to Washington. The local police are always hopeless. Wait a minute, who’s this Auslander guy? All it says here is that he’s a science-type guy. Chairperson of the Physics Department at UC Berkeley.” She got up and started walking around the room, concentrating intently. “Now what would an academic guy like that be doing at a conference with all these military and law enforcement types? I’ve got it!” She snapped her fingers and turned to face Violet. “He’s a UC employee, the meeting was at Lawrence Livermore which is associated with the university. Therefore, the meeting must have concerned some sort of research project or something he’s been doing. I’ll be he might even have asked for the meeting in the first place. So he’s where I’ll start.”
“Brilliant, Phyl.” Violet was already beginning to think about other, more spiritual matters. “Let me know what happens.”
“Sure will.” She moved toward the door. “Right now, I’m headed for Berkeley.”
She went softly down the stairs and out a side door. Once on the street she quickly hailed a cab and went back to her place where she packed a shoulder bag with the necessary audio and video equipment. Within half an hour she was on a BART train to Berkeley. As it sped east through the TransBay tube, she rehearsed her approach.
Upon arriving in downtown Berkeley, she walked the few hundred yards to the UC campus. After locating the building that housed the Physics Department, she went directly to Dr. Auslander’s office. A gray-haired motherly-looking woman was sitting behind a desk in the reception area slowly keying data into a computer. As Phyl entered the office, the woman looked up with a bored expression and said, “Yes, may I help you?”
“I’m Dr. Smith from the SF State Exo-Biology Department,” Phyl replied smoothly and without hesitation. “I’m here to see Dr. Auslander. He wanted to consult with me relative to Monday’s meeting.”
“Monday’s meeting, you say?” She raised her eyebrows slightly. “Dear me, I wish I’d been here for that one, but unfortunately I’m only part-time. Nothing like that ever happens when I’m here,” she sighed. “You say you’re from SF State?” she frowned. “I didn’t even know they had an Exo-Biology Department.”
“Um, it’s new this year. Is Dr. Auslander in?”
“My goodness no,” exclaimed the receptionist. “This is his teaching day. He’s got classes until four o’clock this afternoon. But if you really need to contact him,” she lowered her voice and leaned over the desk closer to Phyl, “on his teaching days he always eats lunch at the Bear’s Lair,” she looked at her watch, “at about one o’clock. He says he likes to watch the students,” she whispered, “his way of slumming, I guess. Once a week he insists on eating bad food and drinking cheap beer out of a plastic cup.” She straightened up and resumed her data entry, saying philosophically, “Ah, but who can understand the German mind?”
“Thank you, Ms. Burton,” said Phyl, reading her name tag. “You’ve been a great help.” She started towards the door.
“Exo-Biology must be a fascinating profession,” Ms. Burton said, looking off into space for a moment. Then she shook her head and focused on her computer screen. “Ah well, it’s back to data entry for me.” She sighed and continued her typing as Phyl left the office.
Unexpectedly finding that she had at least a couple of hours to kill, she leisurely made her way over to the university library. It was a cold, drizzly, mid-November day, and although it was a Thursday morning with school in full session, she encountered few students on her way. Those that she did passed her by quickly, taking little notice of the tall, red-haired young woman clad in black leather.
At the library she thoroughly researched her subject. Dr. Auslander, it seemed, was something of a mystery man. Although he was nearly sixty-five years old, there was no mention in the university bio of his life before being admitted to the graduate studies program in the early 50s. There he had distinguished himself and advanced quickly, earning his doctorate in 1956. He became a UC professor that same year, filling a vacancy caused by the sudden death of one of the Physics faculty members, and he had taught here ever since, rising to become chairperson of his department by the late 70’s. He had published many scientific papers and won many minor prizes for his research projects. There the official bio ended.
Phyl closed the book and looked at her watch. Nearly 1:00. She hurried over to the Bear’s Lair, a cheap burger-and-beer student hangout near the Sather Gate and Telegraph Avenue. By the time she got there, it was after one and the place was crowded with students, all laughing and talking to each other, munching on sandwiches and guzzling beer even though it was only the middle of the day. She had studied a photo of Auslander in the library and began looking for his bald head, finally spying it at a table in the far corner of the room. It was attached to a rather small body wearing a rumpled white lab coat.
Removing her leather jacket and unbuttoning the top button of her blouse, she advanced toward her prey. “Dr. Auslander,” she called to him in her best awed college-girl voice. “Is this seat taken?” Without waiting for an answer she sat down directly across from him in the only other seat at the small table.
Auslander raised his head from the journal he had been reading and removed his glasses. “Do I know you, my dear?” he asked, steadily regarding her cleavage.
“I doubt it, Professor,” she replied with a winning smile. “I’m Stacey. I’m a junior here and I’m doing a research project on, you know, the possibility of life on other planets. I mean, in a strictly scientific way, you know?”
He looked into her eyes and said, “Tell me about this project of yours, Stacey, and what I can do to help.”
“Gosh,” she pouted prettily. “I guess I’m just having a real problem trying to figure out where to start. And this darn paper’s due in only two weeks. I need, well, some kind of approach that sounds, you know, scientific.” She toyed nervously with her blouse and gave him a big smile. “People say that you’re very kind and helpful to serious students like me. I’d give anything, Professor, if you could help me with my…project.”
Auslander stood up suddenly and looked at his watch. “It’s nearly one-thirty now, and my next class is not until two-thirty. I have an hour to spare, and I would be more than happy to help you with your little…project. So, my dear, why don’t you accompany me back to my private office. There we can talk more comfortably, and I can satisfy your questions on any subject that may arise. I assure you that we won’t be disturbed.”
“This is really so nice of you!” breathed Phyl, taking his arm and giving it a little squeeze. “Like, I’ve got so many questions, you know?”
“Yes, my dear,” said Dr. Auslander, patting her hand as they left the Bear’s Lair. “Believe me, I know!”
* * *
The following Sunday, more than a week after the coming of Al, Wanda was walking up Haight Street toward Golden Gate Park. She knew this six-block stretch of Haight like the back of her hand, from Central on the East to where it ended at Stanyan on the west and became an entrance to the Park. When she had been heavy into drugs, about three years earlier, she had known every shop and store, every bar and restaurant, from hippie to hip. During that time she had lived mostly on the street in the company of many other unfortunates of her age and persuasion. That was before Rick had rescued her from the clutches of the street and crack cocaine. Though she was grateful to him and he had become her best friend, she found she missed the easy camaraderie of the street, her old friends, and the casual sharing of a bottle of wine or a joint.
As she walked up the street on this chilly November Sunday, she thought about the way her life had gone since arriving in San Francisco nearly four years ago. She was now twenty-two. Most of her friends from back home, a small Kansas town, would be graduating from college by now, armed with information and documentation which would ensure their places in consumerist America. And she—she was living in perhaps the City’s last working commune with a gay hippie artist who was already pushing forty.
She did not regret being off the drugs—she found she was thinking more clearly now than at any time since graduating from high school. She did not regret her free-and-easy life as Rick’s platonic “old lady”. He paid the rent on their room at The Madhouse with the infrequent sales of his sculpture and his “unemployment checks” which seemed to come at odd times. (She wondered about the source of these checks, as she hadn’t seen him work a day at a straight job since she had known him.) He usually could even come up with enough pocket money for the occasional burrito and beer. But she was beginning to feel the effects of too much time on her hands, too much drifting through life, her “job” as baker for The Madhouse notwithstanding. She didn’t want a straight job exactly, but she wanted something to do, something out in the world that would make her feel less like a kept woman on the one hand, or a housewife on the other. She knew, however, that with her high-school education and job experience (She had quit after working half a day at a coffee shop on Polk Street two years ago.) that she had few prospects. So it was either college, which daunted her, or the McFood industry, which horrified her.
As she walked along, turning these thoughts idly over in her mind, voices began to call out to her from under old blankets and ponchos, huddled in the doorways of closed shops to fend off the chill and the damp.
“Hey, Wanda,” the sing-song litany greeted her, “how’s it goin’? What’s happenin’? Got any spare change?”
“Hey, Toad,” she replied, giving each voice a name. “Hey, Star! What’s new, Blue? Lookin’ good, Magic Man. Sorry, guys, I’m tapped.”
“No prob,” they chorused. “Have a good one. Stay cool!”
“Catch you all later,” she waved and continued on her way. As she did so, she thought, for perhaps the hundredth time in the past ten days, of Al. “What a guy,” she sighed to herself. “If I could find a guy like that,” she continued dreamily, “who felt the same way about me, I’d move in with him in a minute. Rick’s OK, in his way, but think of it! Wild sex and romance, too! Hell, I might even think about getting married! And if he had a good job,” she went over the qualifications, “and plenty of money, and he wouldn’t mind settling down, and he didn’t do drugs or drink too much, maybe we could even have babies!” She sighed again. “I think I’d like that.”
She finally reached the end of Haight where it was crossed by Stanyan. A huge McDonald’s was on her left and an even huger Cala supermarket was on her right. As always, there was a crowd of people hanging around both places. Wanda joined the Cala crowd who were more her kind of people than the fast-food addicts across the street.
She had been there for only a few minutes when she was approached by a middle-aged man with a full gray beard and short black hair covered by a multi-colored knit Jamaican cap.
“Wanda,” he greeted her in surprise. “How the hell are you? Haven’t seen you on the street in months!”
“Hey, Uncle Joe,” returned Wanda as soon as she recognized him. “It has been a long time. Where you been keepin’ yourself?”
“Oh, here and there. You know how it is,” he replied. He looked at her furtively and glanced to his right and left. “Like, uh, could you do me a favor?” he asked in a low voice.
“Sure, I guess. I’m not doin’ anything at the moment.”
“Just watch my backpack for a few minutes, would you? I’ve got a, uh, kind of a business meeting with somebody across the street.” He jerked his head toward McDonald’s. “You know what I mean.”
“Sure, Uncle Joe, take your time. I’ll be right here.”
He handed her the small backpack. “Great!” he told her. “Be back in a flash!”
She slung his backpack carelessly over her shoulder and sat down against the wall where five or six people were passing around a bottle of cheap wine. One guy lit up a joint and began to pass it around in the same manner. It’s good to be home, thought Wanda, accepting the joint and taking a deep drag.
* * *
“Damn it, Bill, I don’t see why we have to be out here on foot in this weather! Why couldn’t we take the squad car?” Patrolman Jack Milton was trudging up Haight street with his partner, Sergeant Bill Blake. Milton was short and wiry and of a high-strung disposition, given to frequent nervous tics and, in spite of the cold drizzle, was sweating profusely. Blake was a large, beefy black man with a stolid but dour nature. In his hand he held a strange-looking device which looked like a cross between a child’s toy ray gun and a radiation detecting device.
“Now, Milton, you know we’ve got to point this thing at everybody we come into contact with. We can’t do that in a car. I don’t know why the Captain picked us for this stupid assignment, and I don’t like it any better than you do. So just quit your bitchin’. Son of a gun, but my feet hurt!”
Sensing that his partner was perhaps not in the best of moods, Milton wisely shut up. In silence they plodded up Haight toward the Park. As they neared the Cala supermarket, Milton sniffed the air suspiciously. “Hey, do you smell what I smell?”
“Yeah, Milton, I smell it. This being the Haight Ashbury I’d be surprised if I didn’t smell it. Prob’ly just some kids blowin’ a J. Ain’t no federal crime.”
“Come on, Sarge,” Milton pleaded. “Look at those hippies over there. It looks like they’re also drinking in public. That’s two offenses. Come on, let’s go bust their asses!”
“All right,” agreed Blake amiably. “I know you’re bored. We’ll just slowly walk over there in full uniform, point these devices at every one and make sure they’re not aliens.” He suppressed a chuckle. “If any of them are stupid enough to still be hanging around, smoking and drinking, you can bust them. That OK with you?”
“Gee thanks, Sarge,” said Milton, advancing stealthily toward the group.
“Shit, it’s the cops!” exclaimed the guy sitting next to Wanda, handing her the remains of the joint. Before Milton had gotten to within ten feet of them, everyone had split except for Wanda. She hurriedly stubbed out the roach and popped it into her mouth and swallowed quickly.
By this time Milton was swaggering up to Wanda with his right hand on his holstered gun. “What are you doing out here all alone, little girl?” he asked her with a leer.
“Just waiting for a friend, officer,” replied Wanda in a bright and cheerful manner.
Milton sniffed the air again and looked around. Seeing no evidence, he said in a threatening voice, “We have reason to believe that you, or one of your buddies, was just using illegal narcotics, not to mention drinking alcoholic beverages in public.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that officer,” she told him as politely as she could manage.
“We’ll just see about that,” Milton retorted, his fingers beginning to twitch nervously. “Open that backpack!
“Come on, Milton, leave her be!” called out Blake, who had been pointing his device at everybody in the vicinity, much to their amusement.
Wanda shrugged and handed the backpack to Milton who, ignoring his partner, began to rummage quickly through it. “Aha!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “What have we here?” He held up a large plastic baggie full of white powder.
Wanda turned pale. “B-but,” she stammered, “that—that’s not even my pack. I’m just holding it for a friend.”
“Sure you are! And just where is this ‘friend’ of yours?”
Wanda looked desperately across the street toward McDonald’s. Uncle Joe was nowhere to be seen.
Milton opened the baggie and touched some of the powder with his forefinger and then put it to his tongue. “Just as I thought. Tastes like the pure stuff to me.”
“I swear,” cried Wanda in panic, “I don’t know anything about this!”
Blake addressed her sadly, quietly. “I’m afraid my partner’s right.” He took the baggie from Milton and put it carefully into his coat pocket. “We can’t let something like this slide. Milton, cuff her, read her her rights and call for a squad car.”
Milton took great pleasure in following Blake’s order. Within minutes Wanda was bundled into the back seat of the car, handcuffed, and in a state of shock.
Chapter 25 >>
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022