Verse 30: EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE
Bobbie Halliwell sat in her Nissan Pathfinder wishing she had a penis. Then she could pee into a milk bottle; not that she had a milk bottle any more than she had a penis, but surely a penis-bearing man would have had the foresight to bring a milk bottle along on a stake-out. She would have had to make do with a bucket. Not that she had a bucket either. All she had was a half a thermos of Tim Horton's coffee, a bag that no longer contained a low-fat cranberry-orange muffin, and a serious need to relieve herself. Not for the first time, she berated herself for not thinking this whole surveillance idea through. When she arrived at her vantage point shortly before 7:00 am, she had been filled to overflowing with journalistic zeal. Now it was 9:45, and she was merely filled to overflowing.
The front door of the house opened, and the Robinette woman strolled out and got into her car. Bobbie briefly contemplated staying with Subject Alpha, then decided to shadow Beta. Whatever was going on, she rationalized, Gloria was part of it. Besides, maybe she was going somewhere with a public bathroom.
Bobbie's finely honed reporter's instincts did not fail her. Once certain the service had safely begun, she tiptoed in and found the ladies' room. "Oh, blessed relief," she moaned gratefully in her stall, then weighed her options. A: she could wait for Gloria to come out then continue following her, but that seemed pointless; Machallo was the story, not his girlfriend/accomplice. B: she could resume her vigil outside the house, which would be the professional thing to do. The choice was plain as daylight.
She went with plan C or to be more precise CVS, where she bought gum, Pringles, a two-liter of Diet Code Red, a crossword puzzle magazine, a canister of wet wipes, and a large plastic bucket. She drove back to the church, verified that Gloria's car was still there, then headed back to the house by the sea.
At 10:44, a man in a wheelchair and an African-American woman departed in a minivan with handicapped veteran plates. At 11:18, Gloria returned. Five minutes later, the minivan came back. The black woman carried a small suitcase, and she and the man entered the house by the side door. Bobbie logged all these events of her PDA, and waited for further developments. While waiting, she reviewed what she had learned thus far.
Dinner with Billy Thurber had been an eye-opener. She hadn't known anyone could eat that many fried clams (and, more to the point, that much tartar sauce) in one sitting. Billy told her the whole sordid story of Buzz's torrid affair with his insatiable employer, followed by his substance abuse, summary dismissal, and bogus drug bust. Last, Billy recounted the fight in the bar's parking lot on Wednesday night, when Machallo had savagely beaten Buzz, Billy, and two others with what Billy had described as a combination of ninjitsu and acrobatics. Then Billy had ordered two helpings of Boston cream pie.
After dark, Bobbie slipped under the yellow POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS tape and investigated Gilda's remains. In the undamaged office, she found the desecrated portrait of the place's namesake and a residential electric bill with the owner's home address on it. In a filing cabinet she discovered an insurance policy on the bar in the amount of $1,250,000. She also copied the names and numbers of five booking agents from the well-thumbed Rolodex on the desk.
Back in the newsvan, while Jorge and Mitch played cards, Bobbie worked the phone. First, she called Zero, a former college housemate and self-proclaimed superhacker. Next, she left urgent voice mails for four of the agents; the fifth number was no longer in service. Two of the agents called back within twenty minutes. Neither had ever heard of Lex Machallo prior to that morning, but both desperately wanted to and offered her cash under the table if she could put them in touch with the guy who, as far as they could tell, had no representation with any agency anywhere.
Zero had always boasted that he could find out all there was to know about anyone in under thirty minutes. Twenty-seven minutes after she placed her first call, Zero came through.
"The man is a total cipher, Hellhound," he said, sounding equal parts apologetic and excited.
"I thought I told you to stop calling me that," Halliwell snapped.
"You useta like it back at Wichita State," he countered.
"I also liked Jell-O shots. Just tell me what you've got," she demanded.
"Nada. We're talking a tabula so rasa it makes a newborn look like Public Enemy Number One. No Social Security number. No DMV records. Nothing in FBI, IRS, DEA, BATF, INS, or DOD databases. He's not on any Watch List. I also checked Interpol, Mossad, and Russian Intelligence. Still zipola. You say this guy is a singer?"
"Not according the American Guild of Variety Artists or their EU counterparts. Web search came up with no hits on Lex Machallo or Alex, Alexander, Alexis, or Alexei prior to Friday night. After that he generated a ton of chatroom and blog activity, but before that not so much as a whisper. Whoever he is, he's good. He's flown so low under the radar he might as well have dropped out of the sky. I know that's a mixed metaphor, but WTF. Sorry I couldn't be more help."
Bobbie digested that information, then shared it with Jorge and Mitch. They agreed it was all very bizarre but had nothing constructive to add. Finally, she called her boss.
"Nice work on the live remote, Halliwell,” Delahanty said. "Very confrontational without tying yourself down with any facts."
"Never mind the remote, Sam." Bobbie, all business, brushed off the compliment. In short, clipped sentences she recapped her research. "I think we have a real story here, Sam," she finished, slightly out of breath.
"What story?" came the voice from Boston. "You did a good job on the fire and sex angles, but leave us not get carried away here."
"The fire is just the sizzle," she yelled. "The steak is Machallo, whoever he really is!"
"Exactly," Sam replied, infuriatingly calm. "This is Journalism 101. You don't have the who, let alone a where, when, what, how, or why. You want me to give you airtime based on the word of some stoner and a negative Google search to do a big exposé on some singing, kung-fu fighting, voodoo wielding, gypsy with possible drug connections? That's not news. That's a running subplot on a soap!"
"I know it's a little thin–" she began.
"Thin?" he laughed. "It's anorexic!"
"Give me and the crew 48 hours and we'll get you something thicker!" she pleaded. Jorge and Mitch exchanged scowls, but relaxed when they saw her face fall over what she heard next.
"I am not about to authorize overtime for the crew over some wild-eyed hunch, Halliwell," Delahanty barked, "but I'm not totally unreasonable. The crew and van come back tonight. You want to Nancy Drew this? Fine. You have 24 hours to come up with something substantial proving this bozo isn't just some new musical discovery with a stage name you can't trace. Right now this is only a single cycle story that's played out. You want a second cycle, show me some goods."
"I need more time!"
"One day. Want to try for zero?"
Bobbie brooded, blessedly silent, all the way back to the station. Once there, she signed out two pieces of tech: a high-end digital video camera (that she was not sure she knew how to work) and a laptop. She set out before dawn for Mystic; a trip that, so far, showed every indication of being a complete bust. For all that she had gleaned today, she might just as well have slept in.
Things began to look up shortly after noon. Machallo, Robinette, and two adolescents came out of the house, and Bobbie watched as Gloria taught the Minstrel Extraordinaire how to ride a motorcycle. After showing him how everything worked, she detached the sidecar and they got on, Machallo in front, and went up and down the long driveway several times. The kids soon got bored and left. Bobbie knew how they felt. She wished she had a parabolic microphone to pick up what the subjects were saying, but suspected it would be no more interesting than what they were doing.
Unsteady at first, Machallo soon got the hang of it. Robinette got off and let him solo for a while. He headed out towards the main road, but it was clear from Robinette's stance and demeanor that she expected him to return soon. Bobbie's hunch paid off. Machallo came back, smiling goofily, and Robinette clapped and ran over to hug him. Two more, slightly longer trips followed, but Bobbie stayed at the house. All this practice was prologue, she figured. The real show had yet to begin.
When Robinette climbed onto the passenger position again, Bobbie started the Pathfinder. Her gut told her the subjects were going somewhere at last. Somewhere turned out to be the Interstate, and Bobbie's pulse quickened. The pair rode east on as far as Niantic where they exited, Bobbie close but not too close behind; but instead of heading into town, they crossed over the highway and took the onramp. Presently, both vehicles were westbound again. They went almost to the Rhode Island state line before exiting and doubling back.
This time Machallo executed the circuit with more confidence. He weaved through the traffic, changing lanes and passing slower vehicles with ease. It was all Bobbie could do to keep up. She kept checking the radar detector as the SUV's speedometer's needle nudged 80.
On the third go-round, the motorcycle zoomed into a rest area. Horns blared as Bobbie crossed two lanes to follow. Machallo parked and they went inside. Bobbie considered doing the same but decided the place was not crowded enough to let her presence go unnoticed. She watched as the couple took a seat near the window and, occasionally touching hands, talked over their beverages. It was a tender scene that was totally lost on Bobbie. If these two were up to something nefarious, why oh why couldn't they simply get on with it? Plant a bomb, people! Kidnap an heiress! Rob a friggin' convenience store! Bobbie fumed, but all Bonnie & Clyde did was sip their coffees and made googoo eyes at each other.
It just about made Bobbie sick. She took the opportunity to dump the contents of the bucket, which had become quite oppressive in the confined space of the Nissan. A small black boy saw her surreptitious act of illegal dumping and scowled at her. Bobbie scowled back.
Eventually Machallo and Robinette came out and rode home. Bobbie entered the time as 4:06 p.m. Ten minutes later the minivan showed up and disgorged its four occupants. The bags they carried attested to how they'd spent their afternoon. They, too, went inside and Bobbie once more resigned herself to waiting and hoping for the break she was less and less certain would come. For the next several hours, though, all that came was a car delivering pizza, which triggered a Pavlovian response. The Pringles were gone, and Bobbie's belly burbled hungrily. She had to eat something or succumb to hypoglycemic shock. After agonizing for several minutes, she made the call.
Forty-nine minutes later, the same pizza car pulled up alongside the Pathfinder. "Halliwell?" the driver asked.
"Sssshhh!" she handed him a $20 bill.
"Whatcha doin' parked on the road for?" he inquired, handing over a square flat box.
"None of your business!" Bobbie bristled.
"Are you a private eye or somethin'?" the lad persisted.
Bobbie handed him another twenty. "Get lost and forget you saw me."
"Whatever you say, ma'am." With a squeal of tires and faint smell of scorched rubber, the delivery car sped off.
"So now I'm a ma'am," Bobbie grumbled. The appellation made her feel twice her twenty-nine years. She checked her pizza to verify they got the order right: ham, mushrooms, and green peppers. She took a bite and chewed thoughtfully, assessing her life.
Little Roberta Halliwell had wanted to be a television reporter ever since she was eleven and saw her first Barbara Walters special. From that moment, it became her life's ambition to make people cry in prime time, preferably during sweeps. Twelve years later, she graduated from WSU in the top three-quarters of her class, with a major in journalism and a minor in theater. Her first job was fact checker for the Omaha World-Herald, where she labored for a year, sending out hundreds of resumes to television stations. The first bite came from the Fox affiliate in Amarillo, Texas, the sixth largest market in the state, although she soon came to think of it less as a market and more as a party store.
In four years she worked her way from Production Assistant to Assistant Producer, with no appreciable increase in actual responsibility. She might have gone farther, but for her resolve never to sleep her way to the top; although, given some of the losers she had woken up next to, she might as well have. Despairing of ever getting an on-air position, Bobbie sent out another blizzard of resumes. Fittingly, she wound up as morning weathergirl in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the producer thought it the height of broadcasting excellence to have her deliver meteorological updates dressed in a bikini whenever the mercury dipped below freezing, which was often. Tiring of taping her nipples down six months out of twelve, she sent out more tapes, concentrating on the two coasts. It took awhile, but finally she got a nod from In the Know News in Boston. It should have made her happy, only she started seeing 30 looming in the near distance and, like any journalist, she knew that -30- meant The End. Network seemed like an impossible dream now.
Her instincts had told her that Machallo was the story she'd waited for her whole working life, but with every passing minute her hopes dwindled. She checked her watch. Almost 9:30, and she nearly turned the key in the ignition. She took her hand away. Sixty minutes, she vowed. One more hour and if nothing happened, she'd call it quits… not just for the night, but for good. She was still young enough to change careers, she reasoned. Maybe something in personal shopping or data recovery.
Bobbie's gloomy vocational fantasies ceased abruptly at 10:00 sharp, when Machallo and Robinette emerged from the house unexpectedly. He mounted the motorcycle, but the redhead got in the car. Almost before Bobbie could react, both vehicles were gone. She threw the Nissan in gear and followed gleefully, glad of any break in the routine.
"Please, don't let them just be going to a party or on a beer run," she pleaded. "Whatever they're hiding, whatever they're planning, dear God, let this be it!"
This time the couple did not return to the highway; instead they went straight to Gilda's. At that time on a Sunday night, with most businesses closed and the tourist population depleted by the thought of workday weeks beginning on the morrow, West Main and Water Streets were largely devoid of traffic. The motorcycle pulled into the parking lot, the car close behind. Bobbie hurriedly zipped into the Coldwell Banker lot across Water Street and killed the lights and engine. This must be the rendezvous point, she reasoned. A third party would show up – soon, she hoped – and all would be revealed. She verified that the camera was on and fully charged, then pocketed the lens cap.
While she fiddled with the camera, Bobbie almost missed the single headlight bearing down on her position. "Shit!" Bobbie yelped, reflexively ducking behind the steering wheel. It was Machallo! It had to be! Had he spotted her? Was he coming for her? For the first time, Bobbie knew fear. Sources (well, Billy Thurber) had told her this man presented a real threat to those who angered him. Bobbie had a sudden vision of her face appearing on the 10:00 News with her name and two dates underneath it. She knew the picture they'd choose and hated it.
Death passed her by this time. The cycle turned right on Water and sped off. Bobbie swore under her breath. The primary was on the move again, and she had been taken unawares! She reached for the key and was about to turn it when she noticed the motorcycle slowing down. As she watched, Machallo wheeled the bike around and revved the engine. Accelerating as it went, the bike roared up Water and zoomed straight into Gilda's lot, apparently heading for the high brick wall on its western boundary. A crash seemed imminent but at the last second Machallo wrenched the front wheel to the right. The cycle fish-tailed and slammed broadside into the wall then fell over. Robinette, whom Bobbie had momentarily forgotten, rushed over. Together, she and a clearly unhurt Machallo righted the bike. They talked for a minute, the woman pointing and gesticulating, the man nodding in agreement. Then he headed back towards Bobbie, passed her, slowed, wheeled around, turned and gunned the engine once more. Again he accelerated, swerved and spanged himself into the bricks. This time, he managed to keep the cycle upright.
"What in the name of Evel Knieval is going on here?" Bobbie wondered.
Machallo came back out and repeated the process. This time he cut too soon, avoided the wall entirely but almost collided with the burnt out building. He tried again. And again.
By the fifth try, Bobbie thought she knew what the man was doing, but for the life of her could not fathom why. It seemed evident that he was trying to get the motorcycle up to speed, then head it into and through the alley without losing any more momentum than necessary. Bobbie ransacked her brain for a plausible explanation as to why he would want to do such a thing. The best she could come up with was a heist, a getaway, and a dash up a ramp into a waiting cargo trailer. Had she seen that in a movie? She wasn't sure.
But she was sure that whatever was going to happen was going to happen in that alley, which the wrecked tavern shielded from view. She had to get closer, but how? As Machallo approached the high brick wall for the sixth time, Bobbie noticed that at the top of that wall was another parking lot, even with Gilda's rooftop. From there, she would have an excellent view of the scene of the… whatever. Of course, getting there would take a few minutes and she might miss the crucial moment, but at the end of the day, getting the right visual perspective seemed worth the risk. When Machallo sped past her on his seventh dry run, Bobbie nosed quietly into Water Street, made a hard left on West Main, went up the hill and took the first left and found herself at her desired destination. She parked far from the ledge, shut the Nissan down, and – camera in hand – slipped out.
Tiptoeing to the ledge, Bobbie crouched and peered over what was – on her side – a short retaining wall. From her new vantage point two stories up, she could see absolutely everything!
Machallo aimed for her wall, cut smartly and, with minimal loss of velocity, zoomed down the alley. Robinette jumped up and down, clapping her hands. He ran the numbers again, then once more. Each time was letter perfect. Apparently satisfied, he set the cycle on its kickstand and went over to his honey, who embraced him fervently. Whatever else was going on, Bobbie mused, these two were definitely hot for each other. She turned on the camera and focused on them. Their closeness, their connection to each other, made the reporter vaguely envious.
A minute later Robinette checked her watch, gave Machallo a tight hug, then waved him away. He got on the bike and exited the lot towards, where else? Water Street. Bobbie zoomed in on Robinette's face. Was she crying? Her eyes looked watery, and did not match the broad smile on her face. Machallo and the cycle waited on Water Street, but for what? As far as Bobbie could see, they were the only three people around.
The camcorder's screen read 10:43 when there was a sudden crackle in the surrounding air. The wind picked up and what happened next nearly made Roberta Halliwell lose control of her equipment. A large circle of pulsing, swirling light, about 18 feet in diameter, appeared in the alleyway. Colors bled into each other in that coruscating disc, and Bobbie could not take her eyes – or the camera – away. This must be what Machallo had been preparing for! As if in confirmation, Robinette yelled "NOW!" and started waving her arms. Bobbie heard the motorcycle's roar and turned to capture its approach digitally. As before, Machallo swerved, pointed the cycle at the glowing disc and went for it hellbent for leather, straight into the onrushing wind.
Before the cycle could get more than six feet from the circle, however, a knight in shining armor stepped out.
The figure, covered from head to toe in gold and blue metal, gleamed in the available light. A helmet obscured its features, a helmet whose face plate gave it such a look of insectile menace that it was all Bobbie could do not to flee in alarm. She shunted that feeling aside as unprofessional. The knight lifted one gauntleted hand, palm facing Machallo who screeched to a complete stop despite the total lack of braking room. For another minute, both stood there, flies in amber, as the wind whipped savagely around them. Then, with a sound like twelve doors slamming at once, the disc disappeared, leaving the smell of sweet ozone and burnt insulation behind. The knight removed its helmet, revealing a mop of grayish-blonde hair. The stocky woman – for despite the military bearing, her features were unquestionably female – spoke in a calm assured voice and a language Bobbie did not recognize but sounded vaguely Slavic to her ears. Robinette came running up.
"Lex?" she called. "What happened? Who's this woman?"
Machallo took a second before responding. Bobbie knew that whatever he had expected to happen, this turn of events had taken him by surprise as much as it had Robinette or herself.
"Oh. Right." He said at last. "Gloria, this is Captain Polglase of the Imperius Dragoons. Captain, may I present Gloria Robinette, of Mystic, Connecticut and the planet Urth." The metal-encased figure bowed slightly.
"But what did she say?" Robinette demanded
"She said she came here to rescue me," Machallo translated. "She is here to take me home."
Seven minutes later, Bobbie sat in the Pathfinder, reviewing the digital images and trying hard not to scream in joy and triumph. She decided to indulge herself in one loud whoopee! The swirling disc did not come out all that well on the screen, as if the camera wanted to deny its existence, but the people appeared – and sounded – totally clear. Her fingers trembled as she booted the laptop and connected the digi-cam to it. That accomplished, she called Boston."Sam? It's Roberta. Are you sitting down? Well. Get up, go to your computer and sit down again. I've got something to show you that you won't believe."