“We have dozens of photographs of things…on Mars that are unquestionably associated in our minds with intelligence.”
Dr. Thomas D. Flowers, renowned astronomer, World Net Daily interview, 09-24-00
Having instructed Garth to find his sisters Allie and Sheri and to assemble them for his arrival, Joe pretended to be biting his nails as he shielded his face from public view. He inserted several coins into Shop Right’s pay phone, then dialed his home number and listened to the machine’s familiar recording.
“You’ve reached the home of Joe Ryback. You know what to do, so do it.”
After waiting for the ensuing beep, he punched the two-digit code that allowed remote playback.
“You have twenty-three new messages,” the digital voice said.
There were calls from his mom and sisters: frantic, heartfelt inquiries concerning his whereabouts; a contact from a credit card company wanting to know why his bill hadn’t been paid; and a different kind of message, one that sounded synthetic. A salivic hiss dominated each slowly enunciated syllable as the unusual voice in the recording said, “Mr. Ryback. My name is Apol Leon. I work for the United States Government. I need to meet with you, to discussss the item in your possession. We are willing to pay a substantial finder’s fee, and I can guarantee your safety. Please return my call as soon as pos-s-s-ible….”
As the man named Apol recited his callback number, Joe slammed the receiver down and looked around.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
Something in that voice had sounded…dead.
He zipped up the coat Buck had loaned him and crossed the road from the country store in a brisk jog. As he moved through the woods toward Portland, he was overcome by an inexplicable urge to whisper repeatedly: “The blood of Jesus is against you.”
Two hours later, wet from running through the tall wild grass, he emerged at the base of Mt. Tabor. Though Garth would be waiting for him with the girls by now, he knew that he couldn’t hurry. To avoid being seen by authorities, he took the long route, following familiar alleyways, running past commercial Dumpsters and delivery vehicles on his way to one of Portland’s oldest neighborhoods, Montavilla.
At Ninetieth street, he paused by a chain-link fence near his destination. Across the road was the rear entrance to the Gray Hideaway—a.k.a. Maxamillion Video—a movie, memorabilia, and arcade store. The proprietor of the deteriorating facility was a friend of his, a colorful personality whose business—a youth dive—was called the Gray Hideaway due to its fading color and mortar façade. What the juveniles and wannabes that hung out there didn’t know was that Maxamillion Video also served as an illegal base for hacking government computers. Joe became aware of the felonious habit after meeting Dave Pitzer, the fifty-year-old owner, at a benefit dinner for veterans. The two struck up a conversation and eventually discovered a mutual distrust of certain U.S. agencies. As subsequent months passed and their friendship strengthened, Dave let Joe in on the high-tech breaking and entering. Joe disapproved, but remained silent. Who knew if the quasi operative’s expertise might come in handy someday?
He studied the busy parking lot to make sure nobody was watching, then crossed the street and knocked on the paint-chipped rear door. The back hall provided the only means of entering “the computer room.” He hesitated, knocked twice more, then repeated the same pattern until finally a crotchety voice blurted over a speaker, “You the pizza delivery man?”
Joe thought the code talk was corny. Although likable, Dave was a slouchy-dressing, Dan Akroyd-type, ill-tempered eccentric, two parts grouch and one part petulant showman who insisted on having things done his way.
“Yeah, I’m from Pizza the Hut, and I’ve got your Grand Master pizza,” he answered appropriately.
As the heavy lever on the right side of the door squealed and turned automatically upward, Joe slipped past the steel panel and waited for the contraption to change motion and close. A moment later, as usual, an electric motor gyrated and the dead bolt reversed through the heavy framing into the concrete wall.
Standing quietly in the dimly lit, musty-smelling chamber, he was aware that nothing much had changed. To his left was a staircase that led upstairs to a vacant office used for storage. On his right was an antique furnace that no longer worked and directly ahead of that, the item he was interested in—an outdated public pay phone once used to promote the television series Get Smart. Years earlier, the unique carnival relic had served as the entrance to the state fair’s most popular funhouse—“Get Smart’s Laboratory!” Dave found it at an auction somewhere and bought it, later installing it as his outlandish computer room door.
Joe flipped the switch beside the rotating gizmo on and stepped into the cubicle. He pulled the door shut and dialed 87-99, the respective numbers of the fictional spies from the television show. As the theme music to the classic program crackled over a fractured speaker, the compartment began slowly turning counterclockwise. Someday, somebody would get stuck in the contraption, Joe thought. That’s when Dave, the eccentric, melodramatic “circus performer” would be in a mess.
For now it appeared to be working. The gadget clanked and the familiar whirling-down of the well-worn motors brought the cab to a stop. He grabbed the handle and slid the accordion door aside. That’s when he saw them, and they saw him, from inside the secret chamber.
Near the bank of the Columbia River, in the only bedroom of his tiny cabin, Buck sat on his cot, rubbing his palms together and studying the fading picture. Ruby was still beautiful to him. She had gone to be with Jesus nearly twenty years ago, and yet he missed her, especially on days like today, their wedding anniversary. He leaned forward and clutched the antique photo. If she were here now, she’d know what to do. She always seemed to know.
“Oh, Ruby…yer still th’ only mortal I can go to,” he said, staring into her soft, understanding eyes. “If yeh could-a seen that boy, all cut up and bruised like a road-killed possum…yeh would’ve insisted I help ’em. But I’m a-feared I brought a dark cloud down on us. Them Trainers are sure t’ come lookin fer that boy. If I go to th’ law, they’ll be against me too…I jest know it…they’ll say I sheltered a criminal…then they’ll lock ol’ Buck up, and God ferbid it, take Tater t’ th’ pound.…”
He laid the photo on the cot and rocked gently back and forth, nervously praying, “Sweet Heaven…save poor ol’ Buck ’n Tater.…”
Momentarily startled by the outlines moving toward him, Joe relaxed when he heard the familiar voice and saw Sheri pushing past the others. She was screaming, “Omigosh! Omigosh! Joe!” He leaped from the cubicle, caught her with both arms, and nearly fell forward with her onto the floor. As she squeezed him with all of her might, Allie, his older sister, wiggled her skinny body through the small group and said, “Joe, thank God you’re safe…we were all so worried.”
Despite the severe reasons that brought him here, and having undergone a renewed sense of purpose, Joe was thrilled to see some of his family. He closed his eyes and embraced the moment. The smell of his sisters—their skin, hair, perfume—it radiated a powerful, kindred balm to his soul. He was surprised at how much their presence meant to him, their close proximity, their aura, as if an energy field existed between him and them that intensified his interest in life. At one time Dad had been the source of that strength—an indestructible, decorated war hero and larger-than-life father whose reputation as a no-nonsense Lieutenant Colonel assured he would always be there. But then he was murdered, and Joe wanted to ask God some questions about the lack of justice, the good dying young and the useless living longer. Yet as time passed he realized no argument would bring his dad back anyway, so he resigned to punish those guilty for his death, contemplating that somewhere, someday, he’d kill the miserable freak that took him away. Until then, he’d watch over Mom and the girls, especially Sheri, the adopted one. It gave him cause to live as well as to hate.
Opening his eyes, he finally whispered, “I’m glad to see the two of you again.”
In the background, his brother-in-law Carl was saying something to Dave Pitzer. Joe didn’t care what it was about, not even when Dave aimed his tough-guy voice at him and demanded to know where he had been. He simply reached around the girls and, even though it hurt his still-tender midsection, pulled them closer, squeezing them so hard that Allie groaned beneath his well-toned biceps and pulled loose. She patted him on the arm and said, “I know…I know…I’ve missed you too.” Probably what she really wanted was an answer to Dave’s question: Where have you been? She knew better than to push.
For Sheri’s part, her runny mascara said it all. She didn’t care about speeches. There would be time for explanations later. She wanted to grab hold and know that God answers prayers. Her brother was home again. He was safe. Physical contact was important to Sheri, and though Joe struggled with expressions of affection, he’d hug Sheri for as long as she needed him to.
“Last chance hotel, buddy boy,” Dave pressed, stepping forward. “Where’ve you been?”
Joe opened his eyes and glared over Sheri’s shoulder. Dave was about as sensitive as a bulldozer, even though it was just an act.
“Well?” Dave pressed.
Joe visually inventoried the others—Garth, Allie, her husband Carl—each was curious all right. It was understandable. He would have been too, if the shoe were on the other foot. He scuffed Sheri’s curly red hair and said, “It’s okay. I’m here,” then ruffled her locks until finally she looked at him with those pale blue eyes and growled, “Qqquuit!”
He smiled. It was good to hear her grumble again.
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“So…where have you been?” she pouted, studying the bruised area over his eyebrows. He probably looked to her as if he had been in a street fight. “I waited for you at Charlie’s for an hour and a half.”
“It’s a long, long story, Sheri.”
Kicking an office chair and sending it rolling across the room toward him, Dave said, “Of course it is! It always is! But let’s start at the beginning anyway, hmm? You’re not in a hurry, are you?”
As usual, Dave missed the point by a mile in Joe’s opinion. Telling his family and friends what had happened might not be smart. He could endanger them. What if they were questioned? Would they be charged with aiding a fugitive? According to marine training protocol, he shouldn’t tell them a thing. Plausible deniability could be their best ally. They weren’t on a “need-to-know.” But then, these weren’t soldiers. They were family, and what they might need most of all was a reason to run away. He had one for them.
“What’s this nonsense Garth’s been blabbin’ about you hiding in the bushes, huh? You got somebody after you? Bad guys? You know what we do around here with bad guys, don’t you…?”
Here it came, the compulsory carnival barker. If Joe were going to control this situation, he would have to interrupt Dave, probably more than once. “Listen, Dave,” he said. “The guys I’m talking about might be too tough…even for you. I’m deep in something I don’t fully understand. I may need to disappear long enough to sort it all out.”
Dave’s pretentiously wise expression widened. “Whaddaya talking about? Too tough for me? Look at this place! Do I look like the kind of guy who don’t know his way around?”
Joe glanced through the room. It was the real deal all right. He had marveled at it before. The computer towers, the monitors, the files and maps stacked here and there. These were the tools of Raiders News Update, the website Dave used for broadcasting information “raided” from government resources. All of it reminded Joe of the serious differences he and his sisters had with this man. Hacking computers was a major offense. Someday, he’d burn for it, not to mention the trouble his conspiratorial ideas about prophecy and the New World Order could lead to. Of course, there was no denying Dave’s affection for Joe and his sisters. He might even die for them if it came right down to it…and it could.
Standing beside Carl, Allie cleared her throat and used her infamous older sister tone: “Now Joe, I insist you tell us where you’ve been. If you’re in some kind of trouble, we have a right to know.”
Joe knew that, unlike Sheri, Allie didn’t care much for his overprotective style. In her opinion, he was always treating them like children, shielding them from the facts of their father’s death, as if they were too immature to handle the truth. He would be working a lead, writing out some small detail, and right away cover his papers or photos if she walked into the room. She didn’t like that, and had told him so on more than one occasion.
Now his conscience was at it again.
I could be a fool to tell this group what has happened. Yet I may be sorry if I don’t.
You know it’s against protocol.
Yeah, but instinct, not protocols, are what I trust. Mine tell me they’re already in danger. They need to move to safety.
Maybe, maybe not. One thing’s for sure, their running will make it look like they have something to hide.
He looked at his sisters. If I don’t talk, and they get hurt, I could never forgive myself.
Is that what this is about? Protecting your feelings?
How stupid. I would die for any of them.
The question is, would you live for them? Would you give up this infernal pursuit and just live your life?
A bit late for that, isn’t it? Or have you forgotten the last two weeks?
Suddenly Sheri’s voice was interrupting the internal debate. She was saying, “Yeah, Joe. I’m with Allie. We have a right to know what’s going on.”
Conspicuously quiet for a moment, arguing internally, he surprised himself after a few seconds by blurting out, “A few weeks ago I received a phone call from Mom. She told me Dad’s old shop was scheduled for demolition. Did you know about that?”
You just couldn’t wait to spill the beans, could you, he thought as he spoke.
“We did. So? She told me she’s going to have a new one built in its place,” Sheri said.
Joe understood he was starting down a road from which he couldn’t turn back, but it felt right to him now. It was as if he were only part of a larger plan somehow, something beyond his control.
“Well, I can tell you something you didn’t know about that building,” he continued.
“Back when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was working on my bike in the front yard one day when two men in dark suits pulled up and went into the house. I didn’t pay much attention to them because we were always getting visitors from the base, you know. Then I heard them arguing with Dad. At one point it got so loud it scared me, so I ran and hid in the tall grass underneath the big swamp cooler. Pretty soon, Dad walked out onto the porch with the men. He was shouting something about his years of service and how they couldn’t talk to him that way.”
Allie cocked her head. “What the heck? Did Mom ever know about this?”
“I don’t think so. You know how Dad was; he didn’t like worrying her.”
“Umm-hmm…that was Dad.”
“Anyway, once the strangers drove off and Dad went back inside, I peeked through the water cooler fibers and spied on him. I saw him pull something out from under the couch. He just kept staring at it. Before long, I felt bad about watching, so I went inside and said, ‘Dad, what’s going on?’ I must’ve really startled him because he jumped up and screamed, ‘Don’t you ever sneak up on me again!’ I’d never seen him act like that, and it frightened me, so I started crying. Of course he felt awful. He hugged me and asked what I’d seen. I told him I couldn’t tell, but I knew he was hiding something. That’s when he showed me the strangest thing—an image, like a small head with a polished stone or crystal sticking out of the back of it. It had unusual markings on it that Dad thought was some sort of writing.”
Sheri raised her palms, as if measuring an invisible item. “You mean like a statue?”
“Just a head. It was made of rock or something similar. For reasons I still don’t understand, he showed it to me…and…”
He paused, his palms sweating. This might be unwise.
“He told me a weird story about where it came from.”
Go ahead! Tell them everything! You can mop up the blood later!
“A story…about a spacecraft…an alien ship.”
The room grew quiet. Joe could read the questions in everybody’s eyes, hear the doubts in their minds.
Finally, breaking the silence, Dave said, “A UFO? You mean…a flying saucer?”
“A flying object…a craft of unknown origin…it crash-landed in the desert, near Sedona, Arizona.”
Dave turned and picked up a notepad, pulled a pencil from behind his ear, and jotted something down. “How do you know it was an unknown craft?”
“According to Dad, it was found intact, even though it apparently hit the ground at a phenomenal rate of speed. There was a military media blackout of the event, with an area several miles wide cordoned off.”
Allie, looking flustered, studied his expression. “Joe,” she said with a tone of suspicion, “this sounds like you’re pulling a joke on us. Like one of those guys who disappears for a while, then reappears claiming alien abduction.”
“I know it’s hard to believe, but would I joke about something related to Dad’s murder?”
Nervously twirling a band of her curly red hair, Sheri said, “This has something to do with that?”
“I’m pretty sure it does. As a Lieutenant Colonel, Dad played a lead role in the crash site field investigation. He discovered the artifact during recovery and cleanup, and decided to keep it.”
“But…why? Why would he do that? Keep this…whatever it is?” Sheri questioned, exchanging troubled looks with Allie.
“He must have had a good reason. Either way, he kept it and hid it in the shop.”
“The building Mom’s going to replace?” Allie asked.
“The very one. Dad wanted to hide it where Mom would never look, so he removed the paneling from behind the shop hot water tank, placed the object inside a leather pouch, and nailed the wood back over it. That’s where it’s been until now. He made me swear to leave it alone.”
“Until Mom decided to bulldoze the building.”
“Exactly. When she called me with her plans, I flew down under the guise of a vacation, and, while she was in town, took a crowbar and removed the paneling. I found the image right where Dad put it.”
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Joe seemed to grope for his next statement. “Together with this,” he said, pulling from his wallet a faded, crumbled paper. The letter had nearly been ruined from being soaked in the Columbia River. “It’s a note from Dad.”
Sheri, letting go of her hair, said weakly, “What does it say?”
“It’s brief. In fact it looks like it was scratched in a hurry.” He straightened the paper and read: “Joe, if you’re reading this letter, I’m probably not around anymore. If that’s the case, please know how proud of you kids I am. You’re such a perfect family….
As he read, Joe glanced up long enough to notice that Sheri looked nauseous, as if she might throw up, probably drifting long enough to miss part of the note. A moment later, he finished, “…If General Nathan Webster asks for the object, give it to him. He can be trusted. But beware the men in black. You’ll know them if you see them, especially their leader. He’s an old snake. Trust God and family, and few others. No matter what, I’ll see you again, either in this life or the next. Dad.”
“That’s all there is,” he said, folding the paper and shrugging his shoulders.
Allie was nervously drumming her fingers against the caps of her knees. “I-I wonder when he put that note in the wall?”
“During my tour of duty, I suppose, just before his murder. He must’ve sensed some kind of danger.”
“What do you think he meant about an old snake, and ‘beware the men in black’?”
“I haven’t got a clue.”
Dave looked as though he did. “Hmm,” he said. “So…you retrieved this object, huh? What then?”
“The first thing I did when I got back to Oregon was to call Uncle Amil. I thought if anybody knew about General Webster, Dad’s brother would.”
“Was he able to help?”
“He was. In fact, Nathan Webster is in a care facility not far from here. Mt. Hermon Convalescent Center in Oregon City.”
“That’s just around the corner from where I work,” Allie said.
“I know…small world, huh?”
Joe drew his hand through his long brown hair and continued. “Anyway, I went to the Mt. Hermon center and asked to see General Webster. After some formality, they took me to his room. He didn’t even know I was there. He has Alzheimer’s or something and was unable to talk with me.”
“So I went back to my apartment, and then it got weird. Immediately after I returned home, a guy named Donald Pritchert of the Montero Research Facility, the military complex above the Columbia River, called me concerning my visit with General Webster.”
“Sounds like you set off red flags,” Dave said nonchalantly.
“You had to sign in to see the General, didn’t you? Did they ask to see your ID?”
For Pete’s sake. Why hadn’t I seen this before now? “Yes,” Joe answered.
“Did you show it to them?”
“Of course.” He knew where Dave was going.
“The care facility is subsidized. They obviously have ties to local government. With somebody like the General, they keep a record of visitors. Anybody whose name doesn’t match a family or doctor’s list is flagged. With the name Ryback, you might as well have sent a singing telegram. If this object your dad had was important enough to, well, die for, they’re probably still looking for it. If they knew about your dad and General Webster’s friendship, and that the two of them shared matters of, let’s say, national security, the Ryback name showing up these many years later would definitely set off fireworks.”
“You’d be right about that,” Joe said bitterly.
“After this Donald guy called you, what then?”
“Donald seemed nice enough, just doing his job. He wanted to know why I had visited General Webster and if there was anything he could do to help me. As we talked, I told him that I had something I wanted to give to the general, and was curious if he had any living relatives I might pass a ‘family heirloom’ along to.”
“Wha’d he say?”
“He said yes, and that I could drop it off at Montero Research, where he’d be happy to take care of it. At that point, my curiosity got the best of me. I wondered why a government contractor would be interested in helping a sick general with personal affairs. Later that evening, I put the image in my fanny pack and drove up there in my Ranger…”
“By the way, where is your pickup?” Garth said.
“As far as I know, it’s still in the parking lot at Montero Research.”
“If you’ll stop talking, I’ll tell you.”
Garth studied him briefly, then said, “Sorry, go on.”
“After I drove to Montero and checked in, I went to the lobby and asked for Donald Pritchert. The lady at the front desk led me to a waiting room, where she offered me coffee or something cold to drink. I told her I was fine. I sat there a few minutes looking at some strange magazines about the Earth being our mother or Gaia or something—the coffee table was covered with them—then this civilian with two Military Police walked into the room. The guy was a real punk. He immediately started questioning whether I was Clarence Ryback’s son, what did I want with General Webster, what did I want to show Donald Pritchert. Finally, his belligerence cheesed me off, so I stood and said I’d made a mistake; that I’d be leaving now. That’s when the MPs clasped their sidearms, and the civilian got in my face. He said something like, ‘Listen up, marine. We believe you may have information of vital interest to national security. There’s been enough dying over this thing. If you know anything about the item your father stole from the corps in Arizona, you’d better hand it over if you know what’s good for you.’”
Sheri’s eyes widened. “He said that about Dad?”
“Yeah, and it made me so mad that I pushed him…hard,” Joe said with a smirk.
“I did. Then I told him he was out of line and that Dad never stole anything from anybody. That’s as far as I made it, though. He ordered the MPs to search me.”
Allie, sounding sympathetic, said, “Oh, Joe.”
“Yeah, well, lucky for me Donald Pritchert opened the door to the room at that very moment. He said ‘Here now! What’s going on in here!?’ I know it was Donald because the civilian said, ‘Mr. Pritchert, please leave. This is a private matter and we have everything under control.’ But I wasn’t waiting around to see who was in control. I saw a large window across the room.…”
“You didn’t!” Sheri cheered again.
“Afraid so. I charged toward the window, covered my head with my arms like this,” he said, holding his hands on top of his head, “and cannonballed right through the plate glass.”
Allie looked disgusted. “Joe Ryback! Have you gone nuts? You could have been killed!”
“I know it was impulsive, but I had the uncanny feeling that something worse than death was about to happen. Luckily, it had been raining all night, and the ground was soft. Muddy, but soft.”
Allie shook her head in dismay. “I can hardly wait to hear what else you did.”
“I headed for my truck, but somebody near the parking lot was yelling for security. So I scaled a fence and started home through the woods above the Columbia.”
“You mean you headed home that night?” Sheri probed.
“Then where’ve you been the last two weeks?”
Joe remembered his promise to Buck, to protect his identity, and deferred the subject. “I’ll explain later…for now, let me show you what all the commotion is about. Maybe you guys can help me determine the significance of this thing.”
He reached into the fanny pack and retrieved the small stony figure. It was blackish gray, polished in parts, with a thin, glasslike nodule sticking out of the back. He held it up in front of them. “What do you think?”
Except for Dave, the gang was nonplussed. As soon as he saw it, Dave’s jaw dropped and he jumped up out of reflex, scooting his chair back in rough squeaks.
Joe was taken aback by the fear on the tough guy’s face.
Dave was whispering, “Sweet Jesus…you’ve got to be kidding….”
Something in the sound of his voice sent a chill crawling through the room.
“What do you have there, my young friend,” he finally said, walking over and grabbing the item, trembling as if holding priceless artwork. “If the government is willing to kill for this thing…then…whew, baby…it may actually be…”
When he hesitated, Sheri demanded, “Be what?”
“Part of the mother…of all conspiracies…”
“W-what?” Sheri repeated. “What is it? What’s it for?”
“I don’t know what it’s for…but I know what it’s modeled after.”
“It’s a model of something?”
“Not a model, per se,” he sidestepped cryptically. “It’s the face, Sheri.”
“The face…from Cydonia…on Mars.”
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