At the far end of the dark passage a temporary door fashioned out of plywood had been installed to separate the uncompleted wing from the main building. A band of loosely draped construction zone tape barred the way. Gabe ducked under the tape and found the partition unlocked.
“We’re in luck.” He eased the plywood door open and stood aside to allow Lillian to enter. “Ready to boldly go where no Harte or Madison has gone before?”
She moved into the unpainted hall and stopped.
“Shouldn’t you start taking pictures?” she said in a low voice.
He walked to the nearest door and opened it. There was enough light filtering through the window from the parking lot lamps to reveal the bones of an empty room that was clearly intended to serve as an office.
“No frozen aliens in here,” he announced.
“Big surprise.” She leaned around the edge of the door. “Hurry up and take a picture. We’ve got a whole bunch of rooms to cover.”
He raised the heavy VPX 4000 and snapped off a shot. The flash flared, brilliantly illuminating the small space for an instant. Darkness closed in again almost immediately.
“Great,” Lillian said. “Now I can’t see a thing.”
“This thing really puts out some wattage, doesn’t it?” He blinked a few times to get rid of the dark spots.
“Next time close your eyes when I take the picture.”
He went to the door across the hall, opened it, and took another picture of an empty, partially painted interior. When he finished, he moved to the next door and repeated the procedure.
After a while, it became routine. Open a door, take a photo of a bare office, close the door. Go to the next room.
“I don’t think A.Z. is going to be real thrilled with these pictures,” Lillian said halfway down the hall.
“She has her heart set on finding proof that the government has secretly moved frozen extraterrestrials here to Eclipse Bay.”
“Don’t worry about A.Z. She’s a professional conspiracy buff, remember? A pro can always find a way to spin the facts into a new theory.”
He opened the next door in line, raised the VPX 4000 and fired off a shot.
A woman yelled at the same instant the flash exploded. Not Lillian, he realized. Someone else. This room was inhabited. Not frozen aliens. Warm bodies.
Two figures were illuminated in the intense light. A man with a serious erection dressed in a pair of red bikini briefs and a woman in a black leather bustier and high-heeled black boots.
J. Anderson Flint and Marilyn Thornley.
“Holy cow,” Gabe said. “A.Z. was right. But it’s worse than she thought. Wait’ll she hears that they’ve thawed out two of the frozen alien life-forms.”
For two or three seconds everyone stared at everyone else. Marilyn, demonstrating the well-honed instincts of a natural-born politician, recovered first.
“Give me that camera,” she shouted.
“Sorry, it’s not mine to give away.” Gabe took a quick step back toward the door. “Private property, you know. A bulwark of our constitutional republic. Wouldn’t be right.”
“I said give me that damned camera.” Marilyn lunged toward him.
“Give her the stupid camera, for heaven’s sake,” Lillian said.
She grabbed the heavy VPX 4000 out of his hand and hurled it toward Marilyn the way you’d hurl garlic and a silver cross at a vampire.
“Let’s get out of here.” She seized his arm and hauled him out of the doorway. “Right now.”
She broke into a run. Gabe had to stretch a little to keep up with her. He admired her form as they went down the corridor.
“I didn’t know a woman could move that fast in high heels,” he said.
By the time they reached the main building he was laughing so hard he accidentally went through the construction zone tape, severing it. The ends fluttered to the floor.
“A.Z. was right,” he managed to get out between howls. “Strange things going on in the new wing.”
Lillian stopped and turned to look at him. She was breathing hard from her recent exertion. She watched him for a long moment, a strange expression on her face. You’d think she’d never seen a man doubled up with laughter, he thought.
“I’d give anything for a picture of you right now.” She stepped forward and brushed her mouth lightly against his. “And to think that I once thought you were a walking case of burnout.”
The following morning Lillian was still trying to figure out how to deliver the bad news to Arizona. She stood at the kitchen counter in Gabe’s house watching him slather peanut butter onto two slices of toasted Incandescent Body sourdough bread, and went through the possibilities.
“We could say we lost her VPX 4000,” she said. “Or maybe imply that it was stolen out of the car.”
Gabe did not look up from his task. “Could tell her the truth.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. No one, not even A.Z., would believe it.”
“You’ve got a point.” Gabe put the peanut butter toast on a plate. “Some things defy description.”
“Some things are also actionable. The last thing we need is a lawsuit from Marilyn’s campaign.” Lillian poured coffee. “We have to come up with a reasonable story or A.Z. will invent another new conspiracy theory to explain a second missing camera.”
Gabe picked up a slice of peanut butter toast and took a bite. “You have to admit that it’s pushing coincidence a bit.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Think about it. Two missing spy cameras. One stolen by force. One confiscated by a politician in a black leather bustier. Both cameras belong to a woman dedicated to uncovering the truth about a clandestine government project housed at the Eclipse Bay Policy Studies Institute. I mean, what are the odds?”
“You find this all very entertaining, don’t you?”
He grinned and took a swallow of coffee. “Most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
“Great. Wonderful. I’m glad you’re amused. But what the heck are we going to tell A.Z.?”
“Leave it to me. I’ll handle it. I think I’ll go with the truth. By the time A.Z. gets through twisting it, no one will recognize it, anyway.”
Lillian took a bite of toast. She chewed on it for a while and then swallowed.
“Something I’ve been meaning to ask,” she said.
“Did Marilyn wear black leather bustiers a lot when the two of you were an item?”