Coastal Los Angeles County
It was mid-afternoon when I found a note that struck a nerve. Michael and Paul had made a print out computer list of my friends. The names were followed by various paragraphs detailing loss of life, moving out of the area or some other tidbit I have been told about by them the night before until I came to one name. Katherine Tomkin, she'd been a secretary for a few years in my main office before she'd quit. We had been fast friends, I'd thought, and exchanged letters over the years after she'd left. When telling Michael and Paul the various "Randolph stories" I had forgotten her presence in my life.
The notes from Paul's computer printout indicated that he'd found her name through my old bookkeeper's tax files. My thoughts had never even included her. She had moved to Oregon to be with her friends and we'd drifted apart. Katherine had decided to live closer to nature and further away from the city on a commune-styled arrangement run by some old sixties hippies and self-proclaimed flower children. Remembering how I'd laughed at her downscaling at the time, now I knew she'd just been ahead of the game. The scrawled notes on the margin of the printed basics indicated that Paul had attempted to contact her via both telegram and a private investigator up in Oregon. He had been unable to find out anything or get any sort of answer if she was even still living there. The private investigator had billed Paul (from his notes) but found no sign she'd been there for a while; for a steep price he offered to dig deeper if desired.
Frustrated, I sat back in the living room trying to ponder what this could mean. Giving up on trying to figure it all out, I began to move around the house. Not wanting to think too much I started to clean the kitchen while using the numbers Paul had listed to try to find Katherine's commune. My cell phone was wedged between my shoulder and ear while I scrubbed off caked-on egg.
After much bureaucratic red tape, I found an Oregon tax collector who seemed to know what I was looking for and actually was helping. An irritating clicking in my ear indicated an incoming call. I looked at the cell screen and saw it was restricted. My heart jumped into my throat as I apologized to the Oregon worker and I hung up disconnecting my call from the city employee with a rapidly pounding pulse.
"Hello, miss me?" The mechanical voice taunted me from my cell. I'd thought I would get a call on the house phone like earlier.
"What do you really want?" I countered slowly.
"Ah, ah, ahaa...that would spoil the surprise. Patience is a virtue they claim. I know you want to be virtuous," a buzzing noise filled the silence. I tired to figure out what the noise was but it probably was interference on the line from a bad cell tower.
I waited silently for more from the haunting voice.
"Now, I'm very happy you didn't go anywhere," I knew someone was watching or my cell had been tagged and the voice knew where I was -- either way I was freaked out as it continued, "you have passed the first test. Michael will be very appreciative of your following orders. I won't punish him too much since you have been so good. Just keep it up."
Michael's voice sounded horrible as I heard him in the background croaking, "Don't listen to h--." A smack cut off the word.
My brain reeled, was Michael saying 'him' or 'her'? There wasn't enough for me to know, I'd thought it might be Rachel on the other end. After our past history, I knew Randolph could manipulate her like a puppet on a string when he was properly motivated. Looking back his motivation had never been love, but always money or control.
The mechanical voice added, "Time to play again! Listen up: you have four hours to solve this little puzzle, 'What was never lost, but missing?' Hint for you, the key is in your past -- tah-tah."
The dial tone followed the disconnection. Stumped, I slouched down the wall and wrapped my arms around my knees. After a moment of silence I shook off my confusion and got up slowly. Pacing back to my notes by the phone, I dialed the Oregon tax collector's office once more.
"Hello, city records, how many I direct your call?"
Reading off my notes, I found the name, "Shirley Taylor, please."
Muzac thumped on while my call was being transferred to the proper extension. The Beatles song "Yesterday" played slower than intended making me feel particularly weepy, the cosmic irony wasn't lost on me.
"This is Shirley Taylor. How may I help you?"
"Yes, this is Alanna Gilliam, we spoke on the phone a few minutes ago," my hands were still shaking from that interruption -- hell my whole body was quivering.
Excitedly she replied, "Oh yes! You're the one looking for Brother Georgie's Flock. I found a phone number. The computer up here got quite a work out, I must say. This rascal sure knows how to hide. But I know a few tricks." With great pride she rattled off a phone number.
Earlier we had determined the commune to where Katherine Tomkin most likely had fled was one of the ones run by George Elliott, a nice non-profit commune that gets to avoid paying much in the way of taxes. Ms. Taylor was appalled by the practices of his followers of begging door-to-door in the nearby towns. She knew a girl who'd become a flock member and was heartsick by the poverty and cult-like atmosphere of the compounds where they lived. She'd taken the initiative from my request and dug up the leader's phone number. After promising her I would call if I didn't reach anyone, I disconnected.
Taking a deep breath, I punched in the digits and waited for an answer. If the truth were told I was expecting an answering machine so I was surprised when the second ring was followed by a masculine greeting, "We love you and shelter all."
Disturbingly strange, I thought, as I gamely tried, "Ah, hello?"
"Yes, chosen child. How may I offer comfort?" The tones rumbled over the lines and I could imagine this many gave all sorts of comfort.
Steadfastly I continued, "Is this Georgie Elliott?"
"That is this temple's current label. Label of your choosing?"
"Alanna Gilliam," I ventured. I didn't know if my name would mean anything but given all the chaos currently surrounding my world it wasn't unlikely.
I wasn't too shocked when he quickly replied, "Yes, Dew-Drop's former employer. Has my child arrived to your dwelling in peace and harmony?"
Shaking my head in bewilderment at his odd style of speech I pieced together what he'd said while marveling at his extremely personal tones. Yeah, I could see why he had followers. I could feel his intense concentration on our words, like they were treasures to him, and I knew in person he was probably just as personable -- if not more so.
"Okay then Dew-Drop is Katherine Tompkin, right?"
"Of course, chosen child. That is who fills the shoes now of your past sister, Dew-Drop. How can I help you embrace the light?" His voice dropped down a bit. He really wanted me comfortable.
"Look, Mr. Elliott--"
"Brother Georgie, please my dear child, I know you from your past sister, Dew-Drop, and I feel like you are one of my own." He was really oozing the charm. I really wanted a shower and a brain swipe to get all the icky images out of my brain. Brother Georgie wasn't exactly reassuring but definitely creepy.
"Whatever, Brother Georgie, there has been a major screw up. So did Katherine fly down or what?" I really tried to be nice.
"Yes, my child, the wings took her late last night after the messenger brought news of your peril. Has she not reached you?" His voice wasn't as cute now. He had picked up my worry. I was mentally wondering what the hell he meant by a messenger bringing news. Maybe the private investigator found them after all.
"What time was her flight due in at LAX?" I questioned, ignoring my own personal concerns.
"Before the dark one's hour of greed." He was still doing that odd style of speak.
Figuring I didn't have much time to solve the other puzzle I pleaded, "What?! Please translate." This guy was giving me a serious headache with his bizarre personal language.
"One man's time of death being the hour of the devil's greed, child. Two am or so," he strangely answered, as if this was commonly held knowledge.
"Brother Georgie, I don't have time for this, please just speak normally!" I exasperatedly added, "I don't know where she is. One friend of mine has been injured and is in the hospital leaving a body behind where he was found and the other one has been kidnapped. I don't know if either or both of them picked her up." I babbled. I hadn't even known she was coming to town but it sure sounded like she'd heard from them and was flying down to help. I sure hoped my cell phone wasn't being tagged and monitored and whoever knew I was still in the house was actually outside. Because what I'd just said to Brother Georgie pretty much sealed Michael's death if they were listening to my cell calls.
I then said what I truly feared, "And the cops haven't identified the body found with Paul and I am really worried it could be Katherine." My mind was fuzzy but catching up fast.
Brother Georgie gasped and started to speak then bit off whatever he'd begun to say. He spoke without thought, "Oh, shit!"
Amazed by the common phrase, I suppressed an involuntary giggle that inappropriately sprung to my lips.
"Ah, fuck, Alanna, you still there? What the hell is going on down there?"
A much younger and far more mainstream verbal -sounding Georgie was speaking; he was dropping all guru pretensions. There must've been no flower children nearby, I figured.
"Long story. Katherine is one of the few people from my past that my friends could find. My ex-husband may have caused the death of some other friends. I was hoping to talk with her. Paul, one of the cops I mentioned who was helping me, was the one found in a local warehouse severely beaten with the body I am worried about. I still don't have any clue if it's Katherine or someone else." Gulping down the unexpected bile, I silently prayed that it wasn't her.
"Give me the number there," Brother Georgie commanded. I guess Georgie's Flock hadn't invested in caller id on their phone.
"I'm not at my place and I don't know how long I will be here. I can call you back later and let you know how it's going." I was reluctant to give this stranger my phone number even if he knew Katherine. I only had his word for that.
"Screw that, I'm hopping on my plane and should be down there before too long. Take down my cell number and call me when you find out anything about Katherine," with that he rattled off a number and said he'd be staying at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown on Figueroa. Thinking of the upscale hotel with the world famous architecture, I concluded that the cult business must pay fairly well. The change in personalities between the beginning of the call and the end somewhat amazed me.
Grimly, I turned my mind to the puzzle at hand. The solution had to be at the Hollyberry estate. There was no other reason I could figure for the delay in time. Praying I was right I grabbed my purse and called a cab. While waiting for the cab I called the closest car rental agency and arranged to pick up a car. I fed the pertinent information to the sales lady to pre-write the rental agreement, and after promising to take all the extra coverage for the rental I was assured I could use a sizeable cash deposit for the car. Normally I'd have used a credit card but I wasn't overly confident in my privacy anymore. Since I used to use the car rental chain when I was in business I was still in the system and had established good credit with them and they understood my wanting to keep things off the books. I might have misled the woman a bit about why I wasn't using my credit card, but enough cash usually made those worries go away.
Once off the phone I slipped into the room and re-packed my new clothes into my new luggage. There was no way to know if I'd be able to get back into the house once I'd locked the door. I didn't have a house key so I made sure to pick up all the notes we'd produced from the computer and stuff them into the front pouch of the suitcase. I debated and then decided to take Paul's laptop. It wasn't password protected so I didn't want any of his findings being found while I was running off chasing demons.