Free Fall

It’s not surprising for a fifteen-year-old girl’s life to be set topsy-turvy by the uncontrolled, high-velocity passage of a fifteen-year-old boy through it. This is part of growing up. It’s expected. But the passage of Gordon Mbogwe through my daughter Holly’s life was both more literal and more upsetting than most.

We were at the movies when it happened, thankfully. Thursday nights were movie nights, still; Monday, Wednesday and Friday were practice nights for a play she was in, so odds were against her being in her room at the time, but that particular night we were all out together, so we came home together to find the fire trucks and the ambulances that had been called and there was a cordon around our house, and we stood there in the dark watching our house from a distance as Gordon Mbogwe, or what was left of him, was extracted from it.

He had stowed away in the wheel well of a jetliner flying from Nairobi, Kenya to LAX, and had either been taken by surprise or already dead of some combination of hypoxia and hypothermia when the wheels went down for landing.

Our house isn’t on the flight-path for LAX, so there was some wind involved, or perhaps the wheels came down early, or some other piece of strange fortune had conspired to put a young man from Kenya through the ceiling of my daughter’s room.

We spent the night that night in a hotel, and ended up in an extended-stay place for several weeks while they put the roof to rights and the crime-scene cleanup people went through Holly’s room and cleaned up the bio-hazard.

I specify the bio-hazard because… well, teenagers being teenagers, Gordon was carrying his life in his ratty Tanzanian-army surplus backpack, which had burst open; and when it comes right down to it, teenager stuff is teenager stuff and it’s difficult to tell, for anyone but those involved, which stuff belongs to one teenager and which belongs to another.

So when Holly took possession of her room again, it was full of freshly-cleaned things of hers, leavened with a surprising number of things that weren’t hers; that had belonged to an intrepid east-African boy who had been on an adventure.

She lived among his things for the last several years of high school, the little nick-knacks and the scraps of paper stuffed in a piece of folded cardboard that almost passed for a diary and the clothes — discarded by someone here in the States, judging from the labels, and then shipped to Africa to be handed out to poor people, and then brought back stuffed into a grey-green backpack and finally re-worked by Holly into strangely stylish but mildly disturbing accent pieces for her increasingly arty-weird wardrobe.

It wasn’t a surprise to me when, after she was done with high school, she took a gap year and chose to spend it in Kenya, and it was no surprise at all when she wrote to say that she’d found Gordon’s mother, Gladness, living outside Nairobi, and had made fast friends with the woman.

According to Gordon’s mother, he’d been going to Los Angeles in search of his father, who’d gone to work for a company called ZBI, which had been simply hiring day labor; one day Gordon’s father had said he was going to Los Angeles as part of a job with ZBI and that was the last anyone had heard from him.

ZBI had, at the time, a sprawling research and development department, which included a section that did a lot of work with undiscovered or recently discovered plants, in places like East Africa and South America, so it wasn’t a surprise that they’d have an office in Kenya. It was a little weird to think that they’d be hiring a Kenyan day laborer — Tanzinian, actually, Gordon’s mother was quick to point out; they’d only come to Kenya looking for work — there was no reason I could think of that they’d be bringing Thomas Mbogwe to California.

I could think of all sorts of ways, however, that that impression could be conveyed to Thomas or by him to his wife and son, and I could imagine all sorts of things happening to a Nairobi day laborer which would result in his not making it home in the evening.

Holly made it home and spent four years at UCLA, getting a degree in chemistry, and then — this was a little bit of a surprise, but it made sense, as the landing point at the end of a chain of interest — she went to work for ZBI, in their Los Angeles R&D labs. She talked about going back to Nairobi, as part of ZBI’s R&D department.

Two years later, she vanished, which was a complete surprise.

“Disappeared.” He leaned forward across the desk and steepled his fingers, then set his thumbs against his lower lip and his index fingers across the bridge of his nose. It looked like a thinking pose. He had met my eyes when I sat down, but now, though his eyes were still aimed at mine, I could tell that they were unfocused.

Charlie Keller was the head of ZBI’s Research and Development division. He was a trim, short man in his mid-50s, still sporting the famous salt-and-pepper goatee that had been such a fixture of futurist prognostication when he’d been ZBI’s star senior researcher in the late 90s, gathering media attention at the same time he’d built ZBI’s R&D wing into the bright, shining tech industry star it was today.

For a lot of the 20th century, a lot of corporations had had their own research and development facilities, largely staffed and run by bright minds who were allowed to do what they wanted, with sometimes spectacular and sometimes surprising results. Kodak’s nuclear reactor, stuck in the basement of its Rochester, NY facility, is a good example; Star Systems’s secret human makeup experiments are a darker one.

The eighties put an end to most of that. Any company whose parts were demonstrably worth more than its stock valuation got systematically bought, vivisected, and sold for parts; most of the big R&D houses, which were expensive but didn’t show results directly on the bottom line, didn’t survive.

ZBI’s did, largely because they were a private company, owned by a single, eccentric family who mostly left the running of the business to its officers and employees.

I’d spent a lot of my career working for a smaller, but still large, company which did business with ZBI. This isn’t a huge coincidence, everybody did business with ZBI; but it did mean that I could reach out to the BD guy from my old company who was in charge of relations with ZBI and ask him to set me up with someone over here who could help me.

My contacts had been an older researcher named Tim Burstein, now retired, and a young guy in the R&D division’s IT department — they had their own — who was someone’s niece’s boyfriend, and apparently a friend of Holly’s. They’d both agreed to help, provided that I could get Keller’s permission.

“I got a note…” I pulled out a much-folded over piece of paper, unfolded it. In fact what I’d gotten had been a thumb-drive full of documents, maps, papers, et cetera, concerning an old project of ZBIs which was apparently still taking up space on the 26th floor, though no one was working on it anymore. The folded piece of paper was my notes on the thumb drive, but I was aware that it gave the impression that I had a lot less information that I did, and led Keller to believe that I was maybe a bit of a luddite.

I smoothed the piece of paper out, looked it over top-to-bottom, handed it to him. He glanced it over, saw that it was illegibly handwritten, pretended to read it, handed it back.

“Holly was a valuable asset to our company,” he said, “and we miss her, but I’m not sure what I can do for you…”

“Well,” I said, “I thought… I mean, it’s probably not worth involving the FBI over, right?” I did my best minor befuddlement expression. “It’s the FBI that handles missing persons, right? Anyway, there’s no reason to think… she probably just… slipped out the back door, right? I mean, we can probably just go through the security tapes and find her going out…”

Keller sat back. “You understand,” he said, “that this facility does sensitive work, that anything you might find would be…”

I was already nodding. “Of course,” I said. “If the FBI comes in, they’ll just take everything, then stomp around asking dumb questions, right? There’s no need for that, I can just have a look myself, save everybody a lot of time. She probably left just like every other day, met a guy in a bar, is having some sort of impromptu vacation…”

The IT guy was waiting for me outside the door. “I got an email from Mister Burstein, saying I’m supposed to give you everything you’re asking about…”

“Can I see it?” I just kept walking, down the hallway. The IT guy took his phone out and flipped through it for a second, then handed it to me. The email literally said, “Help Mr. MacMillan with whatever he needs.” I smiled.

“So.” We were sitting in Holly’s cubicle. It seemed to be in a relatively remote corner of a not-very-active floor. “What was she working on?”

“I’m not… I mean, I don’t get directly involved in projects, I just provide…” The kid from IT was obviously uncomfortable telling me things he considered confidential. I was trying to be understanding.

“You provide the information technology devices they’re going to need, you hang around…” You obviously have a crush on my daughter, I thought.

“Yeah, but…” He shrugged.

“Listen,” I said, “Two weeks ago, Holly came to work, and she didn’t come home. I know she was working on something interesting, because she wouldn’t tell me what it was. I’m not trying to steal any corporate secrets, I just want to find my daughter.”

The kid shrugged unhappily, looked away, scratched his head.

“And I’ll make sure that if you get fired for helping me, I’ll get you a new job.”

The kid sighed and said, “Look, she wasn’t working on anything interesting. She was part of R&D, but she was kind of… shut out. They didn’t give her anything good to work on, nobody really trusted her, I’m not sure why.”

Probably, I thought, because she’d said something out loud, on her first day, about Gordon Mbogwe. Holly never had the instinct for keeping her cards hidden; I have been assuming it will develop at some point, like her interest in boys, which suddenly appeared one day about three weeks before her thirteenth birthday.

“Okay,” I said, “So they stuck her with boring stuff and kept her out of the way. Was she good? Did she work on the boring stuff and stay out of the way?”

The kid shrugged. He clearly had the idea that he should have a poker face, unlike Holly, but he didn’t have one.

He didn’t have much in the way of resolve, either, at least not about this. I raised one skeptical eyebrow and he cracked, with a heavy adolescent sigh.

“She was interested in the twenty-sixth floor.” I nodded. That sounded right.

“The twenty-sixth is the one that’s covered up.”

“That’s right.”

The ZBI building, in downtown LA, was about fifty stories high, with smoked glass constituting a large part of its skin, though it was old enough that a lot of it was made up of these dark-blue panels that made the building itself blue: sort of an iconic building. It said “ZBI” in big letters on the top.

The twenty-sixth floor had had its smoked windows covered by more of the blue panels, making a thick blue stripe around the middle of the building. I’d always assumed it was a floor of computer rooms; it made sense, it’d save on cable to have it equidistant to all the other floors of the building.

“I thought it was computer rooms.”

“Some of it is, but the north-west section is… or used to be… labs, the really sensitive stuff.”

“Huh.” I looked around at Holly’s desk. It was neat and tidy, it had a picture of my wife and I in a neat little frame but that was the only personal touch, as though she’d felt compelled to have at least one. There was nothing in the few drawers but office supplies; her file-drawer was half taken up by a gym bag, and the other half was obviously a spot for her purse, which wasn’t there.

“Well,” I said, getting up, “Let’s go.”

“I can’t just…” But I was already walking toward the elevators.

The kid’s badge did, in fact, get us off at the 26th, and out of the elevator lobby through the north doors. The server rooms were dimly lit and very loud, like a large room full of washing machines, and it was cold.

We had to walk down a central aisle, past row upon row of server cabinets, to get to the door to the “secret” facility. The kid’s badge didn’t open the door to the secret room, but that just meant that he had to sit down and fiddle with his laptop for a while, until,

“Ah hah, there’s a weird access code that’s outside the…” and after another 90 seconds of tapping at keys, his badge worked after all.

The door opened, and we stepped inside. Unlike the server room’s charcoal and grey, the inside of the lab was white, stark, blinding white, and it made my eyes hurt when the light went on; but once they came on, I just stood and stared, because it was like something out of the inside of a bond villain’s lair, all space-age curves and finely finished banks of control panels.

Nothing, in short, like any lab I’d ever been in. Labs are messy and full of dangerous stuff; the only time you see one neat was the day before you let scientists into it.

In the middle of the wide-open floor was a thing that looked like a star-portal from a bad TV show, but with the portal turned off. It was white and smoothly curved and had a pair of verticals that looked like they should have a shimmering field of swirly something suspended between them.

I stepped forward, almost as though compelled, and put my hand on a big green button. There was a click, and a hum, and a shimmering field of swirly something appeared between the uprights.

“That’s about enough of that.” I turned around; there was Tim, my contact, sitting in the doorway in his wheelchair. He looked irritated, and he was holding a pistol, which he was pointing at me. “Step away from…” he started, but then seemed to reconsider. “No,” he said, “In fact, why don’t you step into the portal?”

“Oh, come on,” I said.

“No,” said Tim, “I’m perfectly serious, I want you to step into that field there, it’s as easy as pie…”

As pie, I thought. “What the hell is it?” He hadn’t told me to put my hands up or keep them in plain view… “I mean, you said ‘portal,’ but it can’t be an actual teleportation device or I’d have heard of it, yeah? No way you guys’d sit on something like this, it’s just too lucrative…”

Tim sighed. “Just step into it.” He wheeled forward, lurching the chair toward me in a manner that I guess was supposed to have been menacing; it probably would have been, if he’d been standing, but somehow in a wheelchair the gesture was robbed of its power.

He realized it, too, because with a grunt of frustration he jerked his feet out of the rests and began to shove himself to a standing position. It was clear that it wasn’t easy to do, but somehow standing there six-and-a-half feet tall on wobbly legs and looking pained, he was more menacing than sitting down, despite the gun.

“Let me guess,” I said, “Something’s wrong with it, right? It works mostly? Gets people and things to the other end, but somehow not in one piece?”

I was beginning to have a suspicion about what had happened to Holly. No, I take that back; at that point I had a fully-formed hypothesis about what had happened to Holly, and was already making plans for how I was going to figure out where she was once I got out of whatever this was.

Tim took one painful step toward me and then another, looking like he wanted to sublimate whatever pain he was feeling into a nice long strangling and beating session once he got over to where I was standing.

I was disappointed at the total lack of suitable detritus lying around the room. I could really have used a chair or a crowbar or something, but the room was tidily put away.

“I really need you,” said Tim, “To just walk between those posts, right through the field.” He was looming toward me with the gun, sort of shuffling in a threatening way.

I made a face at the IT kid, who was, by this time, behind Tim, standing there with his mouth open like he couldn’t believe what was going on. I sympathized.

If I was an engineer, I guess I would have stepped through the portal, because an engineer would have done the math: That guy has a gun, a gun will kill me, the portal will do something else, better the portal than the gun. I’m a middle manager, though, so I looked at things differently.

I’ve found, over the course of a long career managing engineers, that the huge difference between managers and engineers — even engineering managers, who are often promoted engineers — is that engineers have a much more absolute, and thus unrealistic, view of power; engineers like things to be simple and straightforward, so they want to know who’s in charge — the guy with the gun! — And who’s not — the guy the gun is pointed at.

If a long career has taught me anything, it’s that a threat only works if you intend to use it, and are capable of using it; so I was paying a lot of attention to Tim and what he was thinking about and how steady his hands were.

“So,” I said, working on catching the IT kid’s eyes, “Did Keller send you down here to ice me, or did he just rely on you having as much to lose as he did?”

“I know my job,” said Tim. He sounded bitter. “I didn’t need him to tell me what would happen when you found this room, found your daughter’s footprints in the dust.”

There wasn’t any dust, so I assumed he was being metaphorical. I finally caught the IT kid’s eyes.

“Yeah,” I said, “Okay, but what’s the cover up? Is it just those African men? I mean, who cares about them, right?”

He looked frustrated that I wasn’t getting it and that he was going to have to explain. Engineer.

I made a big, obvious “Get him!” gesture at the IT kid, who looked terrified; but it made Tim turn and point his gun at the IT kid, which gave me time to run up and jump on his back: He couldn’t move fast, because he’d fall down if he did.

He fell down when I jumped on him; in fact, he fell right into the portal, his head and shoulders through the shimmering light and his body still in the room.

I reached over and hit the big red button, next the big green button, and the shimmering light went away, along with the top of Tim: his body now truncated in a smooth line right across the shoulders. I was watching for it, so I saw the sag when all the blood in Tim’s body drained out the open top of him in one big gush.

“Okay,” I said to the terrified IT guy, “I guess that’s all I needed to see, let’s get out of here.”

I found her in Tanzania, which I suppose shouldn’t have been surprising. Or maybe it is. I’m not sure what to be surprised about anymore.

She was in a Catholic-run free hospital, with a memory in shreds and a bunch of serious imbalances. They’d done quite well by her, but they had no idea what they were looking at, so mostly they’d tried to keep her stable, which meant she was basically zombie-like: lying in bed and occasionally getting up and shuffling around, with a lot of help.

According to the hospital, someone had brought her in late at night, saying that they’d found her wandering like this in Nairobi, and for some reason had decided to bring her four hours south to this hospital, just outside Arusha, for treatment.

I could imagine what had happened: Someone had recognized her from her gap-year there, had decided that she needed to be protected from someone who was powerful in Kenya, and decided to take her somewhere else. I looked for Gladness Mbogwe, but I didn’t find her, either in Nairobi or in her home village; the woman had decided not to be found.

I got Holly home through the combined auspices of the US State Department, the Red Cross, and Medicines Sans Frontiers, each of whom turned out to be important for some aspect of Operation Extract Holly.

At UCLA, they managed to put a lot of her back together; she can talk and walk and smile, and there’s some of her sparkle there; she gets better all the time, though it’s sometimes painfully obvious that she’s building herself anew rather than recovering her old self. Something about missing some key elements that make the brain work.

Walking around Skid Row, checking in with the Downtown LA free clinics and missions and whatnot, I found thirteen East African men who had symptoms similar to Holly’s, and who’d been unable to explain how they came to be in Los Angeles for the last ten years. I’m sure there were more, but those thirteen, at least, I managed to provide with some semblance of the care that Holly got, and in the end I got them all back to Nairobi.

I never found Thomas Mbogwe, though he was the one I was looking for, specifically.

If I were a crusader for justice, I suppose I’d have filed lawsuits and had ZBI shut down and all its secrets dragged out into court. I’m not. I’m a middle manager. I made a series of quiet phone calls and stopped off one evening at the Los Angeles Gun Club and had a word with a guy I used to know who shoots there.

ZBI ended up footing the bill for Holly’s treatment, and the treatment and repatriation of the thirteen African men, and they gave Holly an extremely generous severance package, though no one inside the company ever acknowledged that they had anything at all on the twenty-sixth floor of the big blue building on Wilshire.

I drove by there the other day, and the row of blue panels had been taken off the twenty-sixth floor; there were just windows now.

If I were a real hero, I would have stormed the building with guns blazing, I suppose, and shot Charlie Keller down in his chair and arranged for it to fly out the window in some way and fall to the pavement below in a shower of glass and blood. There’d have been an amazing explosion on the twenty-sixth floor that blew those panels off, and one of them would have flown directly into the camera, as a treat for the people watching through the 3d glasses.

I’m not an action hero, I’m a middle manager. And Charlie Keller is inmate number 53623–098 at the federal minimum-security prison in Taft. I’m told it’s kind of a country club. I suppose I’d rather he was serving his sentence in a super-max somewhere, but I take what I can get.

It turns out Charlie Keller hadn’t paid his taxes for two years in the late eighties. Something about a small business he’d founded overseas; it had apparently been unclear to him whether or not he should file those taxes, or how much… in any case, it seemed pretty clear to the IRS auditor who used to work as an intern for me.

It’s not surprising for a well-planned life to be set topsy-turvy by the uncontrolled, high-velocity passage of a random person whose trajectory just happens to shoot them through it. This is part of life. It’s expected. But I hope that Charlie Keller remembers my passage through his life, and I hope it makes him think of Gordon Mbogwe and Holly, and contemplate what he might have done differently.