“That’s what I see all those billboards for, right?” Ian pointed outside to Sunset Boulevard.
“Yes,” Lila replied. “I wanted to go last year, but you were out of the country — again.”
Ian flashed her a smile. “Occupational hazard.”
“I know, that’s why I was hoping this year,” she gestured toward the piece of paper, “we would be able to go together.”
“We still don’t know who sent this note, or what they really want.” Ian’s voice trailed off as he took a closer look at one of the photos. “I know this guy.” He pointed to the photo of a red haired man with a big grin. “I’m not sure where, but…” Ian paused. “Wait.”
He stood up and walked over to a box in the corner and began rifling through a bunch of papers. Picking up a dented Altoids box and flipping it open, Ian pulled out a stack of business cards. “I knew it!” he said triumphantly. He showed Lila a card with the man’s photo and company name on it. “We met last year at a disarmament meeting.” Ian looked puzzled. “So what does he want with a hayride?”
“A hayride?” Lila ventured to guess sarcastically.
“Hardey-har.” Ian joked. ”I mean besides that.”
“A visit to purgatory obviously. Here, check out this website.” Lila pulled up the Haunted Hayride website and showed it to Ian.
“Wow, ‘one of the most paranormally active sites in all of California,’” Ian recited from the website. “Sounds like our kind of place.” He gave a quick grin.
“I’ve been wanting to go for ages, but just under different circumstances.” Lila’s mouth twisted.
Pearson jumped onto her lap and settled in for a nap as Lila began sorting the photos and info pages into piles. “Did you see this one?” She showed Ian a picture of blond girl who looked to be about twelve. “Why would they — whoever they are — have photos of kids?”
Ian’s eyebrows rose. “I don’t know, but maybe,” he paused to rearrange the photos, “these go in families.” He nodded. “Yep, check it out. One set of parents per two to three kids.” He looked over at Lila’s laptop and nudged her shoulder. “Let me take a look.”
She picked up Pearson and moved to the chair beside him so she could watch the screen after he seated himself and began typing. “Russian families spying?” Lila read aloud his search query. She looked puzzled and then her face cleared. “Like in that Magnum episode when he meets up with the woman who was a plant. Her family had been stationed undercover in the U.S.”
Ian pointed to the screen. “Or a few years ago, those ten spies that got sent back to Russia. Eight of them had kids. What better cover than being a nice family?” Ian sat back in his chair. “When I saw this guy,” Ian touched the red haired man’s photo, “he looked much older than in this photo.” He turned to Lila. “What’s his name?”
“Sergey Ivanov.” Lila read, and then quickly began sorting the photos by name. “Good idea,” she muttered, “each of these is tied together by last name.” After she finished, they had four families and one individual.
“I’m hungry,” she announced, “and I think better with food.”
“Tacos?” Ian inquired.
“I’ll get ready.” Lila pushed back her chair, set down Pearson, and went to change out of her work clothes into something more casual.
As they left the building and walked up the street toward their favorite taco place, Ian had the feeling that someone was watching him. He took a casual look around as they were crossing the street, and murmured to Lila, “Don’t look now, but we’ve made some new friends.”
Lila’s eyes widened subtly and her breathing sped up. She pulled Ian to a stop in front of several shop windows, using the reflections to spot whoever might be following them. She took a quick breath as she saw a dark haired man who appeared to be studying an apartment building across from them.
Lila shook the packet slightly. Whatever was inside barely moved in the packaging, which felt rough against her fingers. She searched for something sharp to slit open the envelope, and fumbled across a pair of scissors. Holding the blade just inside the corner, she cut open the envelope and peered inside where she saw a thick sheaf of papers.
Shaking out the materials, she saw a series of what appeared to be passport photos attached to information sheets giving height, weight and interests. “Very odd,” she mumbled. Her rudimentary Russian temporarily deserted her and she set aside the materials. “Maybe it’s a practical joke,” she told Pearson, who butted against her hand to be petted.
At that moment, the door opened and Ian pushed his way into the room, looking as tired as she felt. His eyes lit up as he saw the cardboard box on the floor. “Our uniforms!” he crowed gleefully and hurriedly shut the door behind him, just managing to avoid tripping over Pearson who had once again assumed his official greeter position.
Ian practically ran to pick up the box. He grabbed the pair of scissors sitting nearby and used it to tear off tape in long strips. Reverently he lifted a folded blue polyester stretch uniform from the box, holding it up to himself before turning to give Lila the Vulcan salute made famous by Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek. “Live long and prosper,” he intoned, before breaking into a boyish grin.
“Spock?” Lila lifted her eyebrows inquiringly.
Ian nodded enthusiastically and passed Lila a blue polyester mini-dress.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked skeptically.
“Buy go-go boots and be ready for October 31st,” Ian replied. He glanced down at the papers she had spread across the table. “I’m no linguist, but that looks like Russian.”
“You’re right, but I can’t figure out why it was sent to us.” Lila turned over the envelope and showed him the words written on the outside. “This one means danger.”
“Are you sure?” Ian asked.
She gave him a knowing look. “Pretty sure. And this one means watch out.”
As Lila handed the papers to Ian, a square yellow sticky note with large black lettering detached from the pile and tumbled to the table.
Ian looked at Lila questioningly.
“The Haunted Hayride!” she said excitedly. “I’ve been meaning to go there for ages!”
Lila was digging in her embroidered handbag for her keys, when she looked up to see a cardboard box leaning against her front door. Shaking her head, she walked toward it. “More eBay stuff,” she grumbled. Lately Ian had been on a buying spree in a quest for the perfect Halloween outfits for them.
She reached down to pick up the box, and nearly fell over as the weight from her backpack sliding off the one shoulder almost pulled her off balance. Reaching to the ground to steady herself, her hand encountered what felt to be a flat package. She grabbed it and heaved her way up, finally using her keys to unlock the door and stumble inside.
“Oof.” She nearly face planted on the floor as she tried to avoid tripping over their cat Pearson, who sat squarely in the middle of the doorway looking peeved about having been home alone all day. Lila finally came to a halt and managed to close the door without stepping directly on Pearson before throwing herself down in a chair and putting down the assorted packages, purse, and backpack with a series of heavy thuds.
“Sorry, buddy. Got caught at work.” She addressed the cat, who decided that she had gotten the message and came over to jump in her lap and demand the attention that was his rightful due. Lila petted him absentmindedly while turning over the envelope that she’d picked up right before entering. Written in Cyrillic were a couple of words that made her blood run cold: