Gently dragging the pistol from its holster, Lila glided it down Ian’s back and smoothly pulled it up in one motion to aim at Charlie.
“I think we’ll be going now. Not that it hasn’t been tons of fun.” Lila said lightly.
“Wait,” the man said. He put down his weapon and held up his hands as if to show he was harmless. “There is something I must show you before you go.” He gestured to the back of the apartment where the bedrooms lay.
“Oh, no. I’m not falling for the old ‘check out my etchings’ routine. If they were so great you’d have them hanging in the front room.” Lila began edging back toward the front door until she backed into something solid. Looking up, way up, she saw the man pictured on the dosimeter. “Sergey?” She looked accusing at Charlie. “I thought you said he was dead.”
“No, I said he was one of our best employees,” Charlie reminded her.
“Fair enough.” Lila agreed. “Still, that doesn’t explain what he’s doing here. What’s really going on?” She directed the final question to Sergey and passed the pistol to Ian who had moved to her right. He held it loosely in his hand, prepared to use it if necessary.
Sergey moved around her left and sat on the armchair kitty corner to the couch. “Lila, you’ve heard rumors about the experiments at El Segundo. I heard you say that while I was waiting in the kitchen.” He grinned suddenly. “I really was going to bring dessert, by the way.”
Lila looked cautiously toward the kitchen area. “What, bullet surprise, or perhaps brownies a la Chernobyl?”
“Tiramisu, actually.” Sergey motioned. “I can get it if you’d like.”
“Let’s hear what’s really going on,” Ian said. “Then we’ll decide if we’re playing along.”
“You are familiar with the concept of world line?” Sergey looked expectantly at Lila.
She nodded. “Spacetime, which is divided into the future, past, and what we think is now, but can actually be the past. Like if we’re standing there staring at the sun, we’re actually seeing it as it was eight minutes ago because light takes time to travel.”
“Correct.” Sergey nodded. “We think we may have found a point in spacetime where we are able to see images from the future, but they are very,” he paused, “disturbing.”
“Disturbing how?” Lila pushed for details.
“Like Fukushima,” Sergey said, referring to the nuclear reactor disaster that occurred in Japan. “Only 100 times greater.”
“Sweet.” Ian said. He held out his hand for the Slinky-key as Lila had mentally dubbed it.
He examined both parts of the key and snapped off the key part from the bottom half of the Slinky. Inserting it into the entrance lock, Ian opened the door and they began walking up the hallway to the elevator.
After arriving at the third floor with a quiet ding from the elevator, Lila cautiously poked her head out and tugged Ian’s arm to get him to walk with her to the stairwell. “Remind me again why we’re walking up from the third floor instead of taking the elevator.”
She looked at Ian for clarification.
“Because it’s far easier for people to wait outside the elevator doors since they would expect us to come up that way instead of walking.”
“What people?” Lila asked in a frustrated tone of voice. “We still don’t know who’s behind this. If it were in the Soviet days, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see our comrade KGB friends waiting inside the door for us.”
They paused outside Room 432 and Ian once again snapped off a key-containing piece of plastic from the upper part of the Slinky. “Pretty handy, actually.” He murmured. “I’ll have to remember this if I ever have to hide a key in plain sight. Who‘d ‘a’ ‘thunk’ it.” He joked to break the tension.
Ian motioned for Lila to stand on the hinge side of the door and he bent low as he inserted the key into the lock and turned to knob. Pushing the door open slowly, he kept to the side. “Welcome.” They heard the voice and immediately recognized it was the box delivery person from the restaurant.
Lila and Ian looked at each other warily. “To quote you, WTF.” Lila said so only Ian could hear.
“Come inside,” The dark haired man – Charlie, as Lila had nicknamed him – motioned them to have a seat on the plush couch. They eyed him guardedly and took a seat next to each other, but not too close in case they needed to separately dive for the door.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here. By the way, good job on figuring out the key. I’d heard from some friends that you were skilled at your jobs, and now I know they were not lying.” He spoke with a slight Central or Eastern European accent. “You do not need to know who I am, but I certainly know who you are. Your exploits are well known in my field.”
“And that would be?” Ian lifted an eyebrow.
“That is for me to know…” The corner of the man’s mouth turned up in a small smile.
“And us to find out.” Lila finished for him. “You have us at a disadvantage. Perhaps you could fill us in.” She pointedly looked at her watch. “After all, as you say, we are such well known and busy people.”
“All in good time,” the man replied.
Lila barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes. This whole evening was turning into a bad 1960’s spy flick.
“So what’s with the dosimeters,” she said crisply.
“What if I were to tell you that Fukushima is not the only radiation leak going on right now.”
Lila began to look interested. “I would say that I’m not surprised.”
“That is good because it is so.” Charlie paused, “I know Ian has worked with nuclear disarmament, and that you have a stellar record in the science world.” He addressed the last half of the sentence to Lila. She waited for the other shoe to drop.
“And?” She once again prompted him impatiently.
“As you know, the Los Angeles area has become quite a hub for the space industry. While this brings lucrative contracts, it also presents opportunities for those wishing to push the limits of science.”
Lila began to look interested. “Are you referring to El Segundo?”
“You are good,” Charlie praised. “Yes, there’s been quite a lot of research into the space time continuum.”
“You’re talking ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ stuff?” Ian asked mockingly.
Lila gave him a reproving look.
“What? We’ve already got the shirts.” Ian said innocently.
Charlie continued. “There’s been a mishap at one of the research facilities that has led to unintended consequences.”
“People died, you mean.” Ian said tightly.
‘Unfortunately, yes.” The man looked aggrieved. “Sergey and Anna were two of our best employees.”
“I’m really not interested in getting involved with Russian security services,” Ian stated flatly.
“This is a special case,” Charlie spread his hands beseechingly. “Your employers detailed you to us on special assignment.”
Ian looked skeptical. “And why wouldn’t they have communicated that to us directly? Why all the cloak and dagger stuff?”
“It’s a delicate situation, as I’m sure you understand.”
“Screw this.” Ian stood to leave.
The man pulled out a small 9 mm pistol. “Please, stay for dessert.”
“Perhaps we’ll stay a bit longer.” Lila tugged at Ian’s sleeve and pulled him down beside her on the couch. She slid her arm underneath his jacket around his waist and placed her hand over the holster strapped to his back.
“Crap.” Lila said, astonished. She looked from one side of the restaurant to the other, gazing into the distance contemplatively. “Why would he stick a Slinky in a box?”
Ian reached into the box and gingerly took out the plastic spring-shaped object. “I haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid. They used to be made of metal.” He passed the small cardboard box to Lila and drew out the toy for inspection. Engraved into the plastic rings was a series of what appeared to be codes.
“Can I just say, WTF?” Ian pronounced succinctly. “Why would anyone spend all that time to carve a Slinky?”
“Whatever’s carved there will stick around a long time, I mean, what are you gonna do, burn it?” Lila looked thoughtful, as though she would whip out a lighter and torch the Slinky on the table.
Ian contemplated the plastic toy. “Maybe it’s not what’s on the Slinky, but what’s inside it.”
Lila grabbed the Slinky and banged it on the tabletop.
“Whoa,” Ian said. “Hold on. Let’s wait until we know what it’s made of.”
“Plain, ordinary plastic.” Lila said and tossed it toward him, causing it to stretch out in classic Slinky form.
Ian gestured toward the box. “Anything else in there?”
Lila scrabbled around the bottom, pulling out a couple of credit card sized badges labeled in Russian. “Sergey Ivanov and Anna Sokolova,” Lila read the names aloud. She examined the lettering and coding on the cards before suddenly tossing them to the ground in alarm.
Ian looked at her as though she was crazy. “That’s evidence.”
“That’s a dosimeter!” Lila said in an concerned tone. “And according to the markings, Sergey and Anna already absorbed over 100 rads of ionizing radiation. You know, life threatening levels,” she continued pedantically. “And if those cards were exposed to that much radiation, I really don’t want to hold them in my hands.” She grimaced as she took a wad of paper napkins and used it to pick up the dosimeters from the ground, placing them carefully back in the box before closing it.
While she was doing this, Ian had been examining the Slinky close up. “There’s a word here. Looks like ‘trianon.’”
Lila uselessly spritzed a glob of hand sanitizer onto her hands and wiped it off meticulously before indicating for Ian to pass the Slinky to her. “Here. Let me see that.”
She held the Slinky close to the light emitted from her cell phone and made out the word “trianon” enscribed on the second ring from the top. Baffled, she tilted her head to think. “Trianon. Where have I heard that?” Her breath quickened. “The Trianon is an apartment building near Hollywood and Western. The one shaped sort of like a castle.”
Ian nodded his head and stood up. “I know it. Let’s head over there.”
Lila handed Ian the box containing the dosimeters and took the Slinky in her hands. As they walked, she let it cascade from one hand to the other in a soothing back and forth motion.
As they reached the Trianon, the Slinky abruptly seemed to crack apart in the middle, leaving the upper half edge in a jagged pattern lined with an inset that appeared to be metal. Lila ran the blunt edge across her finger consideringly, and held it up for a closer investigation. Once again using her phone light to cast a shadow on the metal tip, she saw the numbers 432 inscribed across the rim.
Raising her eyes to the Trianon, Lila then turned to Ian. “Shall we go in?” She held the Slinky’s metal lined tip toward him and quirked her eyebrows, “I believe we have the keys to the castle.”
Lila took Ian’s arm and began walking with him toward the taco joint. As they entered, she watched the reflection on the glass door as it swung outward. She saw the dark haired man whom she dubbed “Charlie” start walking toward them.
Tightening her lips, she walked to the counter and made her usual order. “One fish, one shrimp taco, and a jamaica to drink.”
“I’d like two fish, one shrimp taco, and a Mountain Dew.” Ian ordered his favorites, and after paying they walked to the corner barstools to wait for their order. Lila leaned into Ian’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Is our friend having tacos too?”
“Looks like it.” Ian commented and patted her on the shoulder. “Order up.” He gestured toward the cooking area where their tacos awaited them. They loaded up on Sessy’s Salsas, Lila’s favorite being the Radish Relish, bright red and yummy, while Ian coated his in mild salsa.
Taking their drinks and food outside to the seating area, they waited to see what their new friend would do. Lila positioned herself facing the entrance, and Ian took the seat beside her. They proceeded to consume their tacos, Ian inhaling his at his normal pace, while Lila picked at hers, eating slowly while keeping an eye on things.
“Charlie” exited the restaurant and came toward them, sitting at a nearby table. He looked over at them and commented, “Great tacos.”
Lila nearly swallowed her tongue. “Yes. Yes they are,” she said in a strangled tone of voice. She glanced at Ian and saw him nodding in agreement.
“You from here?” Ian asked nonchalantly.
“Yep. And you?” the man replied.
“Oh, we’re from here and there.” Lila laughed uncomfortably.
“You know there’s a cool ride I’ve heard about at Griffith Park,” the man paused, “It’s called the Haunted Hayride. Heard of it?”
Ian coughed. “Yeah. You interested in going?”
The man took a bite of his taco and made an appreciative noise. After chewing for a moment and swallowing, he replied. “I was thinking about next Saturday.”
Lila nearly blew a chunk of taco out her nose. Choking, she took a long drink of her hibiscus tea.
“You all okay?” The man asked concernedly. “Seem to be choking on that taco,” he pointed out. “Spicy?”
“No, just super hungry.” Lila managed to say between wheezes.
Charlie continued. “I’m really interested in seeing parts of Griffith Park. I’ve heard it’s haunted.”
Lila joked, “Are you a ghost hunter?”
The man looked over at her seriously. “Actually, that is an interest of mine. I’m a big fan of history, and there’s lots of it there. Death, mayhem, murder.” He finished his taco, and rose to throw away the paper dish. As he passed their table, he pointed underneath it. “Looks like you dropped something.” He strolled around the corner and disappeared from view.
Lila leaned down to check under the table and saw a small package. Her head jerked up in surprise, and she stared at Ian. “I didn’t hear anything. Did you?” she said in an amazed tone of voice. “That wasn’t here when we got sat down. I’m sure of it.”
Ian shrugged in an I-don’t-know manner, and leaned down to pick up the package. Written on the box top were their names in large, black letters. Their eyes met across the table. He slowly pulled the tape from the top and they looked inside.
“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.
midnight hayride 10/12
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: