STEELE IN BLACK
First printed: More Red Holt Steele #11
Summary: While checking up on a girl who joined a cult, Remington and Laura encounter some “spacy” things.
Disclaimer: This “Remington Steele” story is not-for-profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author and this site do not own the characters and are in no way affiliated with “Remington Steele,” the actors, their agents, the producers, MTM Productions, the NBC Television Network or any station or network carrying the show in syndication, or anyone in the industry.
Los Angeles, Laura Steele reflected, had more than its share of eccentrics. Cults sprouted up as readily as the fairy rings of mushrooms on suburban lawns. People believed in spirits, conspiracies, and UFOs they had never seen, as easily as they ignored the earthquakes that rattled their china. While such irrational behavior was annoying to a former math major like Laura, it brought in interesting and occasionally lucrative cases. She hoped this would be true of her next appointment with the Kaznowskis.
She joined Remington in his office, where Mildred was directing a fortyish couple to their seats.
“Thank you so much for seeing us,” said Mr. Kaznowski, a sturdy graying man. “The police haven’t done a thing, since Francie seems to have joined this cult voluntarily, and she’s 22. When she became a vegetarian, we just thought it was a phase--we’re the Kaznowskis who have the sausage business, you know, and she’s always been a bit of a rebel. She got into gardening--wholesome enough, but more and more, Francie’s been under the spell of an Indian mystic woman, who calls herself Speaks to Flowers. Now she’s moved into this woman’s commune. What if she decides to sign her trust fund over to her? Francie’s an adult, and it is her life, but I worked very hard to build my business, and I hate to see my daughter being conned out of her share of it.
“We hope you can help us, as a start, by finding the commune’s location. They’re so secretive. Then if you could talk some sense into her as a neutral third party--you mentioned that you had experience with scam artists.”
“Rest assured, Mr. Kaznowski, no detective agency in Los Angeles has more experience with confidence games than Remington Steele,” Remington said, with his best ‘trust me’ smile. “You’ve brought her letters, sent to you from the commune? Good. Postmarked Pumpkin Center, on handmade paper, I believe.”
Laura brought up an electronic map on the computer, keyed in the town name, and a detailed map of rural California, near Bakersfield, appeared on the screen. “Pumpkin Center’s population is 700. The commune members will need some store-bought items. The storekeepers will probably notice new faces. Let’s take a trip to the countryside, dear.”
Laura called their sturdy British nanny, Mrs. D., to let her know that she and Remington would be out of town for the day, and likely overnight. They discussed what the children would be allowed to get away with. Then she and her husband got their packed overnight bags from the office closet, along with surveillance equipment, and drove to the fruitful Bakersfield area, a hundred miles to the north.
The little town of Pumpkin Center was not far off the main highway. As the Steeles pulled into the main shopping area, they saw that the town was unexpectedly busy. There were plenty of casually dressed people carrying cameras, both still and video. In addition, there were a cluster of men in white lab coats.
“Interesting crowd,” said Remington. “Let’s mingle.”
The small grocery store seemed to have its whole stock of soda and beer on ice, plus snacks, out in front of the building at rather stiff prices. Laura went up to the plump, balding proprietor and showed him Francie’s picture.
“Have you seen this woman, Francie Kaznowski? I’m trying to locate her on behalf of her parents. We’ve heard she’s joined a commune run by an Indian woman.”
“Oh, the hippies,” said the storekeeper. “Yes, I have seen the girl, she was here lecturing my clerk on the evils of the pork industry a week or two back. The commune’s next door to MacGregor’s farm with the crop circle. Just follow the crowd.”
“Crop circle?” Laura asked.
“A strange design appeared in his alfalfa field last night, and every kook for a hundred miles has come out to see it. A lot of the guys with cameras are from the tabloids. The hippies might have something to do with it, although they’ve been pretty quiet up til now. Good customers, too--they’re supposed to be grow-their-own organic vegetarians, but some of them sneak over for candy bars and other ‘forbidden fruit.’”
Laura asked, “When you saw Francie, was she alone? Did you notice whether she had a car? Could she have gone back to her parents if she wanted to?”
“Yes to everything, I think. Some of the young people quit the commune after a week or two, but your girl’s been there over a month, and still is, I guess.”
The storekeeper sold her a hand drawn, photocopied map to the farm, with the odd field prominently sketched, and a photo.
Laura joined Remington, who was chatting up the boffins.
“Ah, Laura, these fellows in the lab coats are from Yoyodyne. They’d prefer not to use last names, but here’s John, John, John, and John. They’re here to demonstrate that the circle is caused by either a natural phenomenon, or a hoax.”
“Ball lightning,” said John.
“A small tornado,” said John.
“A circular growth of fungus,” said John.
“Some guy with a plank, a rope, and too much spare time,” said John.
“Or, just possibly, a spacecraft,” chimed in a British voice. The Yoyodyne men directed scornful looks at the newcomer. He was a tall, slim, dark-haired man in tweed, smoking a pipe. “Pardon me for interrupting. I’m Professor Donald Kessler. These crop circles have been seen all over the world, but particularly in England. I’m delighted to find one here, amongst your amber waves of grain. I’m in California touring NASA facilities; I’m being considered for a post as a science advisor to your President,” he said proudly. “If you see a fellow dressed like a funeral director following me about, don’t worry. I think it has to do with my background check.
“Lady and gentlemen, I take these circles seriously. I think it is possible that they are an attempt at communication by another civilization. Among the billions of stars, creatures capable of space travel could have developed somewhere else, but might be too cautious to contact us directly. If I could find proof that there is intelligent life on another world, I would die a happy man,” he said, with a distant look in his eyes.
Laura said, “We’re just here to try to contact one intelligent woman, and explain to her that she might someday regret giving her worldly possessions to a cult leader. I have a map. We’d better go, dear,” she said, gently tugging Remington’s arm.
After a drive of three miles on country roads, the Steeles saw a few dozen cars parked by the roadside. A farmer, casually holding a shotgun, glared at the crowd by his fence. Across the road, a fruit stand was doing lively business, presided over by a tall black-haired woman whose rich coloring and high cheekbones suggested Native American ancestry. Beside her was a blonde young woman, Francie Kaznowski.
The Steeles approached her. Laura said, “ I’m Laura Steele, and this is my husband Remington. May we speak with you privately, Ms. Kaznowski?”
“I’m kind of busy right now, keeping up with the lemonade customers. We’re also watching to be sure these reporters don’t sneak into the orchard and climb our trees for a better view. What’s this about?”
“We have a message from your parents, and this farm doesn’t have a listed phone number.”
“Go ahead, Francie,” said the Indian woman. “Ask Ben and Jerry to come up to the stand for a while. You’re due for a break.”
“Thanks, Speaks,” said Francie, and she led the Steeles to a farm house, surrounded by waist-high wildflowers. A couple of young fellows were slicing fruit in the large kitchen; she directed them to go to the stand and take lemonade supplies with them. Francie fixed iced tea for the Steeles and all they settled around the table.
“Mom and Dad want me to come home, right?” Francie asked.
Laura said, “They’re concerned that if you turn your trust fund over to this commune, you’ll cut yourself off from opportunities that you haven’t even thought about yet. Someday you might want your own house, you might want your own business, the way I did--we did,” she added with a nod to Remington. “I thought I’d found the perfect job right after college, but I was sick of it three years later.”
“I didn’t find the perfect job after college,” Francie said dryly. “I majored in Film Studies--four years, a small fortune my family’s money, and I learned how to watch movies. And theoretically, how to make them, but entry level jobs are scarce, especially if I wanted to avoid the sleazy places. Dad offered to find a spot for me in the sausage business, but I wasn’t that desperate. Job hunting gave me time to get into hobbies, and to decide what I would cheerfully get up every morning to do, even if I wasn’t getting a paycheck.
“Gardening is good for me. It’s fresh air and exercise that I don’t have to pay for, and I’ve never been healthier than when I live on what we grow. I’m realistic. There are days when I’m pitching manure in the hot sun, that I think, ‘What am I doing here? I’m a college graduate, not some poor illiterate migrant.’
“I may eventually go back to school for some classes in horticulture or business, and get a job in the garden or organic food industry. That’s why I haven’t given a substantial amount of money to Speaks. I enjoy what I’m doing now, but I don’t plan to do it my whole life. This place gives me time to think more about what I want to do, and the trust fund gives me the freedom to rejoin the establishment if I decide to. I have housemates, and we work on a farm, but that doesn’t mean I’m brainwashed.”
Francie continued, “Some of the members just come out here on weekends, and have regular jobs. One of the guys is a scientist. Andy Sullivan works for the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. It’s been fun to watch him come out of his shell. He was an ultra-nerd--he says he hardly looked up from his computer between the ages of 13 and 28. His boss made him take some vacation time, so he came up here looking for college buddies from his Bakersfield undergrad days. He got lost and asked directions from Speaks and me at the fruit stand. He was bowled over by her. She can charm the birds out of the trees. He and she have been an item for a month now, and he comes up every chance he gets. He’s coming up today to look at the crop circle.”
“Do you have any theories about the circle?” asked Remington.
“Speaks to Flowers says it means the land itself is trying to tell us something. She wants to buy that land from MacGregor, but he won’t sell. It’s been in his family for generations. Speaks is related to the previous owners, Indians. She’s been hinting that my family’s cash could change his mind.”
“Do you think she created the circle?” Laura asked.
Francie answered, “She swears she hasn’t set foot in it, and MacGregor says he hasn’t seen footprints of people, or equipment tracks in the area--nothing but prints of birds and mice. He’s been warning off trespassers all morning, but a cropduster got some pictures. A couple of our guys noticed it first, while they were up in trees picking almonds on that little hill,” she said, pointing at the window.
“Do the commune members get along well with MacGregor?” Laura asked.
“Sure. He has a dairy farm, a small flock of chickens, and grows his own feed crops. We have a contract with him to buy milk and eggs, and we haul away manure for our fields. We’d prefer he used more organic methods, and he thinks we’re a little odd, but I don’t know of any serious problems.”
“May we have a tour of the farm?” asked Remington.
Francie was happy to help. She let them climb the almond trees to get a good look at the crop circle. It was breathtaking, shaped like a huge shallow bowl with handles. The picture had not revealed its scale.
“A close encounter, wouldn’t you say, Laura?” asked Remington.
“Bizarre,” she said softly. “Francie sounds rational, but someone’s trying to mess with the minds of MacGregor, and this whole town. Let’s get out of this tree, and have a talk with Ms. Flowers.”
Speaks to Flowers was still on duty at the fruit stand, but she agreed to answer questions. She let her assistants mind the little store.
“May we have the interview in our sweat lodge? I find it refreshing, and we have a tradition of speaking very frankly there,” said the Indian woman.
The Steeles agreed, and she led them into a shed a few yards behind the house. Speaks to Flowers puttered around, started a fire in a little vented fireplace, heated stones, then used tongs to drop the hot stones into a bucket of water. The Steeles removed as much clothing as they cared to, in front of a stranger. Speaks was less inhibited. Laura saw that her husband had difficulty finding a safe place to look.
Speaks to Flowers responded to their questions, “It took years of working two jobs, begging and borrowing get together money to buy this small farm five years ago. I was raised on a nearby reservation, and it hurt me to see how dependent my people were. If Indians could buy back their land, one farm at a time, they’d no longer have to scrape by on welfare and minimum wage. This farm is prosperous for its size. The labor is practically unpaid, just room and board. I am being a little exploitive of my housemates, but they are mostly educated people who have other opportunities. I give them a sense of belonging and purpose. If it isn’t what they want, they walk away. Other farms in the area pay very poor wages to people who have no alternatives--like some from my tribe. I don’t think of myself as a cult leader, but I do lead prayers in my tribe’s tradition for those who were interested.
“The crop circle is a minor miracle. I don’t understand what made it.”
“Could someone be trying to scare MacGregor off his land?” asked Remington.
Speaks responded, “What’s so scary about it? An earth spirit had a roll in the field. One of the tabloid reporters asked MacGregor if any of his cattle had been mutilated. That made him nervous I’m sure, but the reporter’s scaring him, not me.”
“’Endangered Species,’ 1982,” murmured Remington. “But you, and not the reporter, want MacGregor’s land.”
“I want the land, but I’m not going to steal to get it--unlike MacGregor’s ancestors. There are other farms in the area that go for sale now and then. I can afford to wait.”
Remington said, “You’ve been trying to persuade Francie to help you buy land, haven’t you?”
“There’s no law against asking. Farmland in this county is an excellent investment. If we do make a business arrangement, I’d ask her dad’s lawyer to look at it first. I have no desire to be dragged into court by the Sausage King."
Speaks continued, “I should check the fruit stand, and make sure those reporters aren’t trampling the front yard. Relax in the steam as long as you like.” She dressed quickly and left.
“Wasn’t she just a little evasive, with that ‘earth spirit’ line?” asked Laura.
“I suppose. But she didn’t sound like a fanatic, and it’s unlikely that she’d stay in one place for years at a time if she had a habit of fleecing her housemates. Con artists have to change addresses frequently,” said Remington, with the voice of experience.
“I want to find out more about that minor miracle. Let’s see if MacGregor will talk,” said Laura, rounding up her clothes. “I hope he has air conditioning and some cold drinks. I’m roasting.” They dressed and Laura pulled at the door. Nothing happened.
“She locked us in,” Laura said, exasperated.
“It’s just a shed,” Remington said confidently,” poking at the frame. “Only a handle on this side, the latch is easy to slip--but that isn’t what’s holding it shut. Damn, there was a pair of loops on the outside that would hold a padlock, but there wasn’t a lock on it when we came in. She must’ve slipped it on. No windows... the door swings in, let’s have a look at those hinges.”
Fortunately Remington was able to undo the rusty hinges after another twenty minutes or so of sweaty work. They pried the door open at an odd angle. The door had been held shut by a tough stick through the loops, rather than a lock. They slipped around the house to the stand, where Francie and Speaks were selling juice and wholesome snacks to reporters.
Speaks did not seem surprised to see them. They motioned Francie aside. She brought a couple of extra large lemonades for them, seeing their bedraggled state.
Laura drank gratefully, and whispered, “She locked us in the shed--bolted the door with a stick. We had to take the door off the hinges to get out, or we might have died of heat exhaustion.”
Francie stared at her in surprise. “I can’t believe Speaks would try to kill anyone. I suppose someone else could have put a stick in the door, maybe as a prank. Those reporters have been getting on our nerves, with their trespassing. Couldn’t you just have yelled for help? Voices carry well out here.”
“We had to assume that the guilty person would make sure any innocent ones were out of earshot. About those trespassers--can you describe them?”
“They pester us with questions, and make excuses to come over here. A lot of them are still out front... I guess the lab guys left,” she said, scanning the crowd.
“Lab guys? Four men in white coats who all call themselves John?”
“Yeah, I sent Ben and Jerry to tell them to get out of the back yard, about when Speaks came back, around half an hour ago.”
“So they were in the area of the shed at the time we were locked in.”
Francie said, “I guess so. I think the boys would’ve mentioned it if they’d actually seen them doing it. Oh, here’s Andy driving up.”
Andy Sullivan was a gawky young fellow with large glasses, and brown hair that was already beginning to thin. He grinned at the sight of Speaks, and she hugged him until he flushed. Speaks led him to the almond grove to look at the strange field. Francie took over the fruit stand duties, and Laura paid her for the drinks.
Laura asked, “Do you mind if we freshen up in your house? We have bags in the car.”
“Go ahead. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. Usually, we don’t have any problems here.”
The Steeles got their bags and also their equipment case from the car. Laura said quietly, “I’m going to plant a bug or two. We could have legal consequences for it, but something strange is happening here. We need to know what they talk about when they don’t have company.”
The house was unoccupied at the moment, which made it easier to plant microphones. The Steeles made themselves presentable, and watched for other commune members to question. They looked out the front window and saw that Ben, Jerry, Speaks, and Andy had joined the group of reporters.
Remington asked, “What are those reporters doing? I thought they’d take a couple of pictures and leave, but they’re excited about somebody in their midst.”
The Steeles left the house and crossed the road. The reporters were snapping pictures of a man who chatted with MacGregor, now without his shotgun. Speaks was offering the newcomer a drink. Her peasant blouse had slipped well off her shoulders, Laura noticed. The man noticed too. Laura spotted a familiar face in the crowd. “Dr. Kessler, what’s going on?” she asked.
“MacGregor wouldn’t talk to me, with my string of degrees, but he’s happy to talk to that actor, who’s probably just here hunting for publicity.”
“Actor?” asked Remington. “He’s a bit familiar, but I can’t place him.”
Laura stood on tiptoes to get a better view, and gasped. “It’s Dirk Barrow! He was the dashing cardiologist on ‘L.A. M.D.’ ten years or so back. It was said he could restart a woman’s heart just by making eye contact.”
“Oh. Television,” said Remington dryly. “I suppose if the farmer saw that actor in his living room every week, he should treat him like an old friend. Kessler, let’s see if we can get close enough to hear what they’re saying.”
“An actor...That could open doors for us,” mused the professor.
The Steeles and Kessler eased through the crowd. The farmer was just agreeing to take Barrow, a strikingly attractive man, into his alfalfa field.
Kessler approached him, and quietly said, “Mr. Barrow, I’m Dr. Donald Kessler, from Cambridge. If you can get me, and these other two experts into that field, I can get you a contract to host a BBC nature documentary.”
“That’s the best offer I’ve had this month. Here’s my agent’s card. Come on, folks, I’ll tell the farmer you’re with me.”
Laura grabbed cameras from their car and followed them.
They walked to the field, some distance from the road. At length, they found an area where the green alfalfa was bent down. The stems did not seem to be broken, and they turned inward in a great curve. Laura compared it to her photo, then stooped to examine the ground. No human footprints, nor machine-made marks were visible. They walked around it gently, trying not to disturb the great strange mat of vegetation. Kessler pulled a pair of stiff wires from his pocket and held them in front of him horizontally. The wire ends pulled sharply downward as he passed them over the edge of the circle.
“You’re a dowser, eh?” the farmer asked. “You could make a good living here in California. We’re always fighting over water.”
“Classic crop circle manifestation,” Kessler said softly. He pulled a little box from his pocket. It made a soft crackling sound. “Another sign of a true circle,” he continued, “is a slightly elevated radiation count.”
Everyone stepped back, except Kessler. “Not dangerously high, just slightly above normal background.”
Laura snapped pictures, hoping fogged film or worse problems wouldn’t occur.
“Looks like a large bird, maybe a pheasant, walked around the circle,” she said.
Kessler nodded. “The disturbance to the vegetation probably dislodged some insects or seeds for it to eat.”
After over an hour of examining the phenomenon, they were sure it was not caused by weather, fungus, or a human prankster, but they still had no explanation for it. They accepted the farmer’s barbecue invitation. He had literally prepared a fatted calf for them, male calves being largely superfluous on a dairy farm. Barrow’s million-dollar smile dazzled the farmer’s wife and daughters so that the family had no reservations about letting Kessler and the Steeles watch their fields that night for another manifestation.
Laura checked in with Mildred. Mildred reported that, after some net surfing, she had found Bakersfield students who had lived on Flowers' farm previously and had no complaints. It was a fair deal for them: free room and board near campus, for those who didn't mind hard work and a limited menu. When they left, after varying lengths of time, to live elsewhere, there were no unpleasant consequences. Most of them had discovered the farm through notes on the bulletin boards of health food stores. Speaks to Flowers (born Sally Flores) had not been in trouble with the law, and had bought the farm five years ago.
As evening approached, the tabloid reporters left to look for the next scandal. The Steeles and Kessler slipped into basic black, for night camouflage, and discussed their careers. The MacGregors and Barrow would guard the cattle against possible mutilation. Kessler made rounds of the fields with his Geiger counter and a cell phone. The Steeles set up the eavesdropping equipment they had brought, to hear anyone sneaking into MacGregor’s fields.
It also picked up conversations from the commune farmhouse. Speaks to Flowers was having a stern talk with her followers. Francie had told her that someone had locked the Steeles in the hot shed. Speaks said she hoped that it was outsiders who did it. Attempting murder while a crowd of reporters was on the doorstep was both vicious and stupid.
At full dark, the Steeles were rewarded with the sound of stealthy rustlings in the alfalfa field. They softly alerted Kessler to join them, and climbed a little rise above the field. A long, thin man-shaped shadow, barely visible by starlight, was creeping in the direction of the crop circle. The head was oddly shaped, and Laura felt a little chill about who or what they would find. They tried to move quietly, but soon the figure froze, then stood up, pointing a shadowy arm at them.
“That’s far enough. I can see better than you, with these goggles, and I’m a fine marksman in any light,” said a stern British voice.
“I’m Remington Steele, this is my wife Laura, and Dr. Donald Kessler. There are also two gentlemen with shotguns within shouting distance. We have permission to be here, to study this circle. Who are you?”
The stranger lowered his gun, marginally. “For the purpose of this assignment, I am using the code name Chips,” he said.
“Do you have a first code name?” Laura asked.
“Fission Chips,” the stranger responded dryly. “Someone in Documents is overdue for holiday. I’m on Her Majesty’s Secret Service," he said, displaying identification by a light from his watch. "I have been assigned to investigate this crop circle. Dr. Kessler, I am familiar with your work. You have the trust of the British government, and are being considered for a sensitive position in the United States. Can you trust your companions with a matter of national security?”
“Yes. The Steeles are respected private detectives who treat their cases as completely confidential.”
“Very well,” Chips continued. “There is no sense in us trying to investigate it separately, and not sharing information. Would you mind going first?”
The Steeles and Kessler related their findings.
Chips said, “Allow me to show you the satellite pictures.” Using a pen light, he displayed time-stamped, blurry photos. The first showed the alfalfa field unmarked and unoccupied. The next two showed the circle being formed by the pressure of something that looked like a plank, which would support the hoax theory, except for the fact that the plank seemed to be unattended. No human form was visible. The next picture showed the completed circle, but no plank.
Chips said, “The satellite took pictures every two hours, so this sequence took six hours. If a human were ever in the field, the camera didn’t catch it. Infrared traces suggested that nothing in the field was bigger than a small dog.”
“These are from a defense satellite, aren’t they?” Laura asked. “Aren’t you going to a lot of trouble to figure out a phenomenon that seems harmless?”
“It’s harmless in a cow pasture, but it’s a national emergency when it’s on the lawn of Buckingham Palace. Due to fog that night, a month ago, we didn’t get usable satellite pictures of that event, and security saw nothing. We’ve run out of rational explanations, so we are literally grasping at straws here,” he said, taking a sample of the bent alfalfa and gently slipping it into an evidence bag. “If we can explain this, we might explain the Palace circle.”
Chips passed around another photo. “Fortunately, it’s on the less public side of the Palace, and it’s less conspicuous in trimmed lawn than in a pasture, but it was obvious with the morning sun and dew on it. There was a trace of radioactivity, so all the turf and half a meter of soil was removed for testing. The Queen announced that some new flower beds were being put in, as a cover story.”
He continued, “Dr. Kessler, you’re one of the few scientists who have studied the phenomenon in a manner that would stand up to scientific review. Any theories?”
Kessler examined the “plank” pictures again. “I hope this is a form of communication from a species that we don’t understand. However, if this is a crime, we must look for means, opportunity, and motive. What do you make of these pictures as a crime scene, Steele?”
Remington said, “The means is some sort of machinery with a radioactive component, that can programmed to move in a very precise way, perhaps like those ‘smart bombs’ used in the Gulf war. It might be a remote controlled device designed to slip through security systems. Opportunity calls for darkness, preferably with fog. The motive? Perhaps a desire to cause fear and confusion in England and the United States. What we’ve seen so far may be early tests of the device. The finished product might leave craters, rather than circles.”
Rustling occurred again, from the direction of the commune. The Steeles and their companions dropped into hiding in the waist-high forage.
At length, a small form approached the alfalfa field, and hunted around with a flashlight. It was Francie.
“Francie,” whispered Laura, “Go home.” Laura showed herself to the startled young woman, trying not to dazzle them all with her flashlight.
“Was it a flying saucer?” Francie asked.
“No, Miss,” said Chips firmly, standing up. “Nothing to see here. We have just confirmed that it was a perfectly normal phenomenon. A weather balloon ran low on gas, bounced a few times, which made the circular impressions, then blew away.”
“Oh, come on!” Francie said, pointing the flashlight at him. He ducked, and took off the night vision goggles as she aimed the light at his face. “Wow, you’re a Man in Black,” she gasped. “You’re from the Air Force, to try to explain this.”
“Miss, there could be coyotes here after dark. You should get home,” he continued, approaching Francie. Remington and Kessler stood up, concerned that there might be an altercation. Francie shone her light on them, and backed away. “Oh, no. Clones in Black,” she said, after scanning Chips, Remington, and Kessler. She turned and ran.
Remington protested softly, “I just happen to look good in this color.”
From the commune microphone, they heard Francie excitedly explain what she had seen. Speaks and Andy warned her not to get involved.
The Steeles settled down to wait again.
A tiny light appeared on the controls of the Steeles’ eavesdropping equipment. “Bogie in the far northwest corner of the farm, a hay field,” whispered Laura. She turned up the volume. In addition to rustling grass, they heard a high, eerie hum.
They grabbed their gear and ran to the site. The fields in between were lush with chest-high grain. They couldn’t avoid making noise, and very visible trails; they sometimes stumbled over the uneven and invisible furrows. Laura was running out of breath from crashing through the vegetation, when she heard a low, urgent command, “Stop, Laura, stop!”
Chips motioned for them to kneel in the grain, then he crept forward. Peering through the stalks, Laura could see a small hill, the left side dotted with round bales of hay, the right uncut, but oddly marked. A great crescent-moon shape had been pressed into the long hay. The crescent broadened as she watched. With binoculars, Laura saw a glimmer of starlight reflected from a long dark object at the cusp of the moon shape.
Depressions in the grain around her showed where her companions crouched. Trying not to rustle, she edged up to Remington.
“Shouldn’t we try to catch whatever it is?” she whispered.
“Remember what I said about craters? Chips wants to examine it with goggles and the Geiger counter first.”
When Chips reached the object, the Steeles saw a great flash of red light, and had to look away for a moment. At length, they smelled a whiff of odd smoke. Fearfully, Laura looked for Chips with binoculars, and saw a burned spot, surrounded by shreds of white cloth. She remembered the men in white she had seen today. She saw white objects moving rapidly; two of the men from the lab had apparently survived. One was carrying something, and glancing behind him, at a figure in black chasing them. Chips was all right.
The Steeles and Kessler tried to intercept the men in white on their sprint back to the road, but the strangers raced and dodged with superhuman speed. They reached their car first.
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” one called, and the other sneered, “Monkeyboy!”
The lab men’s car roared off, shooting flames--clearly not a standard model. Chips leapt into his car and pulled out quickly to follow them, knocking over the fruit stand in the pursuit. The road became an obstacle course of mashed melons.
“Unfortunate, but inevitable,” murmured Remington. “Every fruit stand in California gets smashed in a car chase--I suppose it’s in the Highway Code.”
The Steeles and Kessler followed in their car, and saw the two vehicles ahead swerve behind a hill. There was another great flash of red light, then an explosion that left them dazzled and deaf for a few moments, but still they followed. Behind the hill, Chips’ car was parked, intact, next to the wreckage of the car of the lab men. Laura looked in the windows, and saw that the strangers in white were not alive, and no longer looked human--her eyes refused to focus on them further. Chips reached into the wrecked car and pulled out an object around a foot long.
“Recognize this, Dr. Kessler?” Chips asked.
“Laura, the flashlight...a tiny vehicle...it looks like the NASA Mars Rover, that rolled around and took all those pictures! But wait, the top of it has a platform...I believe this is solar panel material, and it seems to be a retractable system.”
The device suddenly sprouted huge rectangular wings--plank-shaped, and Kessler nearly dropped it. Laura examined it.
She said, “With the solar panels folded, it was less than a foot wide. It could have slipped between the rows of alfalfa, but we didn’t see wheel tracks--Oh! There are stiff wires attached to the wheels, shaped like bird feet. Remember, we saw bird tracks around the circle. With the panels extended, it would have flattened the standing hay.”
“So the circle was made by a spacecraft,” Kessler said thoughtfully. “The radiation came from its instruments, and the odd hum from its motor. But we have a bigger mystery now. How did it get here? And who are those...people in the car?”
Chips said cautiously, “I couldn't tell you the whole story before. I can't tell it all now. But the probe was brought here by Andrew Sullivan, an NASA employee. He is a member of the development team for the second-generation Mars Rover. We helped Sullivan to get lost in this area and meet Speaks to Flowers. She talked him into creating the crop circle to attract new members to her commune... preferably ones who are well-off and more willing to invest in land than her current followers. How did she get the idea? It’s easy to influence a woman who expects to hear spirit voices in her steam bath.”
Laura asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier to create the circle yourself? Why did you need it?”
“We wanted it to be an explainable, local hoax. We needed it because we suspected these... people in the car were in this area, hiding out after their experiment at Buckingham Palace. We hoped that they would come out to see the circle--along with half of Hollywood, but that just lowered the credibility of all the witnesses.”
Chips continued, “I’ll explain who they were in a moment. Would the three of you stand together? They like me to have a picture of witnesses for the case file.” He took out a camera. Laura blinked, her eyes overstrained by the earlier explosions and smoke, so she only saw a faint red flash through her eyelids.
“As I was saying, you’d better go home,” Chips continued. “I’ve already called the sheriff, and the occupants are beyond medical help. Drive carefully. These country roads can be dangerous, as you see from the accident these poor travelers had.”
“But who, or what were they?” Laura asked.
“Now, Laura, we’ll let the sheriff worry about that,” said Remington. The Steeles and Kessler settled in for the drive to the commune.
“But the local sheriff can’t handle aliens,” she protested.
“I’m sure he handles them all the time, Laura, and not gently,” Remington said. “Half of the farm workers within a mile of here are probably illegal aliens. It isn’t a matter for us.” Remington and Kessler laughed off her insistence that the occupants of the other car were not human.
“He did something to you, to make you forget what you saw,” Laura said.
Kessler looked thoughtful. “I have the feeling that I’ve forgotten something about that accident... I suppose I’m getting to be an absent-minded professor. We still have the Mars probe, don’t we? Good! I’d forget my head if it weren’t on so tight.”
They all camped out with the MacGregors for what little remained of the night. In the morning, the Steeles, Chips, and Kessler returned the Mars probe to the red-faced Andy Sullivan in the commune’s living room. Speaks to Flowers was also mortified, and went to cry on the extremely well-built shoulders of Dirk Barrow. The couple sought privacy in her room.
A car with NASA insignia drove up.
“Oh, God, it’s my boss,” groaned Andy.
A graying, casually dressed man entered.
“The rover, let me see it,” the older NASA scientist snapped. “It seems to be intact--Andy, why did you take a multi-million dollar piece of equipment out into a pasture where any cow could dump on it? Have you lost your mind? What are these wires on the wheels for? Oh, well, you’ll have hours to explain that, during the investigation.” The older man noticed that he and Andy were not alone, and he hustled his employee into the commune’s parlor. Chips followed them.
“I think I can shed some light on the situation,” he said to the NASA men as he closed the door. Standing in the living room, Laura noticed a flash of red light appear suddenly under the parlor door. Chips’ voice continued softly for a while.
Speaks to Flowers and Dirk emerged from her bedroom.
She said, “I need to get away from all of this for a while, and Dirk has invited me to visit his private island in the Pacific. Ben and Jerry, you have the most experience;. You can run things for me while I’m away.” The couple left the house and went to Dirk Barrow’s red convertible.
More cars arrived. The tabloid crew had returned, and at least one government vehicle was among them.
The two NASA scientists emerged from the parlor, looking a bit dazed. Chips followed, looking smug.
“I’ll make an announcement on the porch momentarily,” said Andy’s boss. They all went outside, where reporters, farmers and other curious bystanders had assembled. Andy watched regretfully as Speaks to Flowers and Dirk drove away.
The older scientist announced, “The unusual patterns on your neighbor’s land were produced by a field test of our latest Mars rover. Andy Sullivan here has just been promoted for designing this rigorous and imaginative exercise, which has he remote-controlled both from Pasadena, and from his laptop at this house. NASA will be happy to compensate the landowner for any minor property damage that may have occurred. We thank you for your patience and understanding. Now we need to get back to the lab and prepare for next spring’s launch.”
In the crowd, Laura overheard a snatch of conversation from a young man and woman who looked like Federal employees: “Okay, okay, this one’s a hoax,” said the man. “But it wasn’t a wasted trip. We did catch that vegetarian vampire in Malibu.”
Laura returned her attention to the porch. Andy looked both relieved and devastated, as his career was saved but his love was lost. Francie went to his side, also disillusioned about her leader. “All she cared about was finding someone to buy property for her,” Andy said sadly. “To her, land is the only thing that matters.”
“Gone with the Wind,” said film student Francie, and the Steeles, simultaneously.
A few months later, Laura was flipping channels on the television at home. Dirk Barrow was gamely trying to make fungus sound interesting on PBS: “Even the well-kept lawn at Buckingham Palace occasionally experiences fairy rings,” he said, showing a circle of mushrooms as his paramour Speaks to Flowers flirted with the camera.
The Business Channel reported that a new company, “Beth and Jenny’s All-Natural Ice Cream,” was entering the market. Beth and Jenny were the MacGregor daughters, who had recently become engaged to the organic farmers Ben and Jerry next door. Their advertising manager, Francie Kaznowski, denied that the new company would be a division of Kaznowski Foods.
The MacGregor farm was also in the local news owning to the appearance of one more crop circle, a simple ring with a small diamond shape extending from it. NASA scientist Andy Sullivan explained that this one was not his doing. He was too busy with his new responsibilities, and his upcoming wedding to Francie Kaznowski.
Remington, on the couch beside her, suggested that it was time for bed, and Laura agreed.
STEELE IN BLACK “CRIB SHEET”
Donald Kessler is from “Mars Attacks!”
The Yoyodyne men are from “Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.” Fission Chips is a Bond-spoof character from the “Illuminati” trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
Assorted special effects are from “Men in Black.”