Chapter Eight: Area 50 Fun
Trying to figure out who was going to murder you in two week’s time was kind of uncharted territory. Probably for everyone on the planet, ever. I mean, sure, people on occasion might suspect another person wants them dead and do anything it takes to stop that person, but I doubted anyone had ever seen their own dead body, appearing from the future as a glitch, lying down dead on a beach in pink blood.
Then again, nothing in Traralgon would surprise me anymore.
Sorry, Tree Valley. We’re not supposed to call it Traralgon. I keep forgetting that.
You might say, “But Lana, you must succeed and stop yourself from becoming dead. If that was really you laying face down on the sand surrounded in a pool of your own pink blood, how could you be writing this book?”
You don’t think ghosts can write books? Think again.
Anyway. Back to the story. When I’d decided I was going to start solving mysteries, I’d assumed I’d start with something a little more straightforward.
And with a little more at stake than my own life.
And with a better partner than Taj Robinson by my side.
“What have you come as?” Taj had asked when I’d turned up in my interview suit.
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t ask. I didn’t have time to change.”
“You look about twenty years older.”
“Where do we start, then?” I asked Taj as we walked along the so-called toxic lake of the Railway Reserve, which actually didn’t look so toxic at that moment, though maybe it still had super aging powers if Taj was right about my appearance. The water almost looked...blue. Well, not blue. Grey. But closer to blue than I would have thought. You could almost imagine what it would feel like to swim in it...if the water didn’t burn through flesh. That was actually a sensation I had difficulty imagining -- I’d never had my flesh melted away before.
I wondered what would happen if I fell into the lake. Maybe it would be the preferred option.
What would happen to me if I died before I was supposed to? Could I cheat my fate by dying early?
I mean, it wasn’t an ideal solution to the problem, sure, but I’d rather take my death into my own hands rather than let one of my enemies do it for me.
Speaking of enemies.
“Is there anyone who would want to kill you?” Taj asked, kicking a stone. He was squinting in the setting sun, still in his trademark khakis, but wearing only a black tee which showed off his surprisingly muscular arms. Was there a gym round here in the mud pit?
“Yeah, I can think of a few...” I said wryly. “The government, for one.”
Taj stopped walking. “Seriously?”
“Yeah...well, no. I mean, there are people I don’t get along with. I don’t think any of them would actually murder me, though,” I said. “Even the government.” I think. Okay, I wasn’t entirely sure.
“Well one of them does,” Taj replied. “So you’d better start thinking like the detective you claim to be.”
“Have you ever been swimming in that lake?” I asked him.
“Of course not.” Taj shook his head. “Are you insane?”
“Just wondering.” We wandered around the perimeter of the lake in silence for a little while, as I ran through the list of people I knew -- not that many -- and which of them might want me dead.
But it wasn’t just which of them might want me dead. Which of them was actually capable of killing? An innocent person, at that.
Was I innocent?
A plopping sound came from the lake, startling me. Once upon a time the lake had been heavy with ducks and swans but there was no living life there anymore. So what had made that noise?
“What, are there eels living under the water there or something?” I stopped, staring into the water that suddenly looked more grey than blue.
“Remember when Tree Valley was called Traralgon and this was the most beautiful place in town?” I asked Taj, shaking my head. “Now that’s insane...”
“I do remember, very well.” There was a note of sadness in his voice. “Why do you think I chose this as my home?”
“Because this used to be my favourite place,” he said heavily. “And it still is, I suppose.”
“It’s the only place that’ll have me. That makes it my favorite by default.”
Taj walked quietly for a minute while I walked a meter away from the lake, keeping half an eye out for nuclear-fuelled eels that might fly out the water and grab me. Or worse. After the remnants of the power plant had been dumped in the railroad reserve, there were rumors that under the water there were monsters.
I noticed Taj had stopped squinting and that the sun had started to drop like a bomb into the lake, setting off waves of pink and gold over the still -- for now -- surface.
“It actually looks really pretty here when the sun sets,” I murmured. “Even the fumes look pretty in the pink light.” Almost like smoke machines at a night club. Taj came and stood beside me at the edge of the lake and our hands almost touched. I pulled mine away and crossed my arms.
Tree Valley hadn’t always been a near-utopia, of course.
It used to be full of power plants and paper mills -- supplying half the state’s electricity and 90% of Traralgon’s smog and pollution.
You couldn’t get me to go back in time ten years ago to the old Traralgon, no way. Not when the air was so thick with pollution that people were actually dying. Just falling dead. But it wasn’t like the near-utopia status came with no strings attached either.
For one thing, we were almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Melbourne (a Complete Utopia) was only two hours away, and still the capital of the state, but people rarely traveled there anymore. They rarely left Tree Valley at all, it was like there was a giant invisible force field around it. But that’s what life in near-future Australia was like, after the Upgrade. Towns became islands, self-sufficient and isolated from each other.
But sometimes we had to wonder -- were we cut off from the rest of the country by our own choice? Or was that choice made for us?
It wasn’t easy to leave or travel, that was for sure. Towns and regions were now like countries, requiring passes to leave or enter. Not that anyone ever tried to stop people from leaving.
Unless you were on the watch list.
Which is exactly what I didn’t want to end up on. It was all fun and almost-utopias until you ended up on the watch list.
It was almost dark by the time Taj patted my shoulder and told me I should either get going or come back to his shack. “It’s not safe out here after dark.”
I nodded. I didn’t feel like another slide down the mud. “I’ll go home,” I said and noticed that Taj looked disappointed. Not the option he’d wanted me to pick, then.
“Don’t we still have a few things to talk about?” he asked me as he walked me back to the barbed wire entrance of the reserve.
“We do,” I said. “But you haven’t been much help to me so far. I’m starting to think that I should just solve my own murder on my own. Hey, if you want your own murder solved right, you’ve gotta do it yourself.”
We’d almost reached the exit. “You going to be okay getting back down into the clay pit in the dark?” I asked Taj, only half-sarcastically. I was actually worried about him.
He nodded and patted one of the thirty pockets on his khaki pants. “Got a torch here.”
I nodded. “Don’t let the monsters get you,” I whispered, turning to go.
Taj grabbed my arm and pulled me back and for a second I thought he was going to kiss me.
“You’re taking this seriously, aren’t you, Lana?” He had both of my arms gripped, almost lifting me off the ground with the force. “Because you have a tendency to make light of things.”
I shook myself free and dropped down to the ground.
“I’m taking it as seriously as I can Taj,” I said, taking more offence than I’d thought I would. “It’s a little hard to believe you, though, after everything...”
Taj shook his head. “After everything I said five years ago?” His thick-lashed eyes were heavy. “I paid the price for that, Lana. You don’t have to keep punishing me as well.”
I let out a loud laugh that echoed throughout the empty reserve and caused Taj to jump.
“It’s not what you said five years ago, Taj. It’s the fact that you’ve taken it all back now. That doesn’t show much integrity, does it?”
Taj’s face showed the strain of trying to keep a stony expression. “I can’t talk about it, Lana...”
I turned to leave. “Then I don’t need your help.”
“Lana, please. I’m worried that without my help...that two weeks from now, you’ll be laying face down in the sand. Again.”
I sighed and turned back to him.
“Why don’t you start by telling me what happened five years ago?” I asked Taj. “I mean, really tell me.”
He nodded. “Okay, but I got to get some stuff sorted first. I’ll meet you tomorrow night in the airport bunker. We’ll be safe there”
I’d had to borrow Grace’s car to get to the abandoned airport after dark. It was on the opposite side of town to the railway reserve, in the least polluted part of old Traralgon, but it was still a place I wouldn’t want to travel to via foot after dark. Especially not if the military were still conducting top secret missions there.
I parked the car and stepped out, jumping at all the shadows that bounced over the forty feet of concrete that was the old airport car park. It’s just the trees, I told myself. But they seemed to dart around like they were animated.
It was so black, white and grey that I felt like I was in a film noir.
Where was the bunker?
Cool crept up onto me like it was a layer of clothing even though it was a mild night for almost-winter. Winters weren’t as cold as they once used to be, anyway. The Tree Valley government had seen to that. Even with the power plants gone, the town was artificially warm.
But the airport was outside the warm embrace of the town’s boundaries and I felt as though I was in another country as I tripped over the concrete, turning my torch to the ground to try and find the entrance to the bunker.
I heard footsteps and suddenly I felt warmth flood through me at the thought of Taj being there. Being near me. At last.
But the figure before me wasn’t shaped like Taj. It was taller and thinner. And it had way shorter hair.
Way more thinning-hair.
“Louis?” I asked, looking around at the shadows. Where was Taj?
I didn’t dare to ask that question right then. As far as Louis Fletcher knew, Taj Robinson was dead. I couldn’t speak his name and bring him back to life in front of the man who wanted, more than anyone else, to keep him dead.
“I thought I might find you here, Lana.” He took a step closer to me. I hadn’t seen any other cars in the car park. How had he gotten here? Had he just sprung up from the concrete?
“Did you just?” I took a step backwards but it was dark and I was aware of the cracks in the ground in the concrete. Some of them were thick and would easily catch the heel of a boot.
Should I run?
I would never want to give Louis the satisfaction of running. I didn’t even want to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. The last time I had shown real emotion in front of him was when I’d thrown the engagement ring back into his face and told him I’d regretted every second I’d ever spent in love with him.
I regretted every single second I’d ever spent in love with anyone.
I should have kept the engagement ring. The money I would have got from selling it would really come in handy now. And I’d pretty much passed the point of dignity as far as earning money went. Hell, I was about to take the job at May’s company, or, at least, I would if she would return my phone calls. There’d been radio silence from her end all day.
“What are you doing here, Lana?” Louis asked.
I took another step back. “You said you were expecting me. So why don’t you tell me?”
Did he even care if I was dead?
A chill ran over me. Does he know that I’m already dead?
This can’t get out.
You can’t be here, Lana.
Those were the things that he’d said to me on the day it had happened. On the day that my body had been found laying face down on the beach. In eleven days time.
“Not a very smart idea to be out here all alone, Lana, is it?”
Well, I didn’t always do very smart things. Louis should have known that better than anyone. Was it smart to put fish paste into his birthday cake instead of vanilla essence the one time I had tried to bake for him? Not very, though it was a little funny when he almost choked on the fish flavoured frosting. Was it smart to quit my law degree to try another shot at becoming a jazz singer, only to see that plan crap out like a giant cow dump? No...it wasn’t particularly smart. If I’d stuck with the degree I could be in a courtroom right now, trying to get the criminals off...
I actually laughed out loud there in the cold, thinking that at one stage I had planned on becoming a defence lawyer. Hey, I believe that everyone deserves the right to a defence, even the worst of us. Yet here I was, trying to bring justice for a dead girl (who just happened to be me).
Would I want my own murderer to get a good defence?
Out of principle...I’d have to say yes. Wouldn’t I?
Louis was staring at me -- was he actually expecting an answer?
Was it smart to call off a wedding three days before the ceremony, just because I’d found out that Louis wasn’t the man I’d thought he was? Because I’d discovered that he was less of a human, more of a devil wearing a human suit?
Actually, yes, it probably was. Maybe the ‘going into hiding’ afterward part wasn’t that smart, considering the whole endeavour, my time in the literal wilderness had almost killed me. Still, it had been preferable to marrying him. And I was back in the warm embrace of Tree Valley now, wasn’t I? Pressed against its bosom.
Being with him was the dumbest thing I’d ever done, even if he didn’t see it that way. So yeah, I was kind of prone to doing dumb things.
He inched towards me and suddenly being there without any protection didn’t just seem a little dumb, it seemed astronomically stupid. You don’t meet a human shaped demon in the middle of an abandoned airport without a gun, do you?
“Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing here Lana?” Another step closer. “Who were you meeting?”
I gulped. So he did know, then.
I should have known he’d do whatever it took to keep the Big Secret from coming out. I shook my head, I’m not sure if it was even in disbelief, or if it was because I’d done another stupid thing.
I hadn’t believed Taj all those years ago. And he’d been right.
There really was a top secret UFO base in Traralgon.
And Louis was going to do whatever it took to cover it up. He was going to do whatever it took to cover up my death as well -- even if it meant killing me.
It was strange, because although I should have felt invincible -- if only temporarily -- because I knew when my death was actually occurring, and it wasn’t right here right now, I didn’t. I felt as though all possibilities were there, floating in the ether around me, spinning invisibly, and that any one of them could swoop down and inhabit my body. You die now. That possibility could enter me at any second.
They floated around me even as Louis grabbed my wrists, held them behind my back, and pushed me towards his waiting BMW which had been there all along after all, just encased in shadows.
“Where are you taking me?” I snarled, struggling to set myself free. His hands wrapped around me caused a constant shudder of revulsion to rock my body even as I tried to wriggled them free.
“Away from here. This is the last place you should be, Lana.”
And I realized, Taj hadn’t asked me to meet him at the airport because it was more private here -- he’d asked me to meet him here because this was where the base was. And he was going to show me. Tree Valley’s very own Area 51. I was standing right on top of it. Or at least, I would be until I was shoved inside the BMW and driven to wherever knows where.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Lana,” Louis said in a voice that sounded very far away like it came from one of the shadows and not from a living, breathing person who was standing behind me. “I love you.”
Excuse me? Had he really just said that?
Louis had stopped in his tracks. I slid my hands from out of his grip, which had gone limp and turned slowly to look at him. It was like he wasn’t fully there, breathing heavily despite the fact it had taken little exertion to push me forty feet across the concrete.
I had to do it, I had to speak his name.
“What have you done with Taj?” I asked. “Where is he?”
Louis slowly came back to earth, his eyes focusing on me in a reptilian gaze. He shook his head, a maniacal look taking over his face. “Don’t worry about that right now. Just get in the car and come with me.”