Dark Ride Deception
A Nostalgia City Mystery #4
Copyright 2021 by Mark S. Bacon
DARK RIDE (noun) /därk rīd/ An indoor amusement ride in which passengers travel in controlled vehicles and are typically entertained with music, vibrations, sounds, animation, and special effects.
The slender woman with the sad, blue-green eyes gasped, gagged, then threw up all over the back seat of Lyle’s taxi. He took his foot off the gas and glanced in the back. All he could see was a mass of red hair as the woman bent down, head between legs. He rolled down his window, but not before the odor hit his nostrils like a sour tsunami. He breathed through his mouth as he hit the brakes at a red light.
Other cab drivers had warned him about nights like this. But he thought operating a taxi in a theme park would be fun, not at all like being the stereotyped big-city hack driver. Visiting Nostalgia City, a full-size re-creation of an entire small town from the 1970s, would put people in a vacation mood. They’d be happy. And the cab was an ideal escape from the grinding stress of his previous occupation.
“You okay?” he asked his passenger automatically, knowing she wasn’t. He grabbed a handful of tissues from a box next to him and handed them back over his shoulder. The young redhead had looked a little unsteady when she got in the cab by herself in front of the Centerville Tavern and asked to be taken to the Desert Sunrise Hotel.
“S-sorry,” she sputtered as she tried to sit up.
“Keep your head down. Breathe deep, slowly.” Not unfamiliar with her condition, Lyle was certainly well beyond such excess now. Certainly.
He breathed through his mouth and wondered if the fragrance reached the tourists in the crosswalk in front of him. They took their time crossing the street, slowing to snap pictures of a Woolworth’s store and a street-corner phone booth, their faces colored by the glow of neon-tube signs. Centerville, the park’s ’70s retro town, made you feel like you traveled back in time.
The stoplight changed and the driver behind Lyle honked. Maybe the park wasn’t so far removed from real city life. The evening had been full of surprises.
Earlier, he’d picked up a middle-aged couple from the Fun Zone, the park’s themed ride area, almost the size of a theme park itself. Both probably had been imbibing but not to the extent of his sick redhead. Lyle opened the trunk and offered to store the man’s case, a cross between a doctor’s bag and an oversized camera case, but he’d insisted he keep it with him. “Way too sensitive—I mean expensive,” the man said. He clutched the case on his lap.
The couple—Lyle couldn’t tell if they were married—had filled the few-minute ride with vituperation worthy of a baseball umpire and an irate manager. They argued about their choice of rides. The man had insisted they go on the Night of the Living Dead Ride, and his companion had been scared to death by the realistic, robotic zombies.
As they neared their hotel, the argument broadened to their decision to come to Nostalgia City in the first place. “Why’d you bring me along, anyway?” the woman shouted. “And why did you bring that with you? You’re nutty, y’know?”
Lyle’s authentic 1973 small-town taxi didn’t wall in passengers behind Plexiglas. The woman’s increasingly jumbled screams vibrated through the car as she waved her arms in the air. He glanced in the mirror and saw the man grab the woman’s wrist and shout for her to quiet down. Her response increased the decibels in the car to a level slightly below a Led Zep concert.
A previous set of passengers had unnerved Lyle for different reasons. Three men got in the cab in the middle of Centerville and asked to be dropped off at the parking lot beyond the park’s main gate. All three squeezed in the back. A beefy guy in a suit and knit shirt sat on the right. The man’s square head rested on his shoulders like a concrete block. Lyle could feel him staring at the back of his head. A bearded man in the center, wearing jeans and a white dress shirt, kept looking from side to side at his companions. Lyle guessed him to be in his early thirties. He couldn’t get a good look at the other man who sat behind the driver’s seat.
“We’re more than fair. You know it,” the heavyset man said to his seatmate when Lyle got underway. “It’ll work out easy.”
“Besides the financial side,” said the man behind Lyle, “there are other incentives. The work must be finished.” Something in the man’s low voice gave Lyle a chill.
The bearded man in the center said something, but Lyle lost the words when his cab’s radio squawked out the voices of two drivers arguing over a fare. Lyle slowed at an intersection and when he had a chance to glance in the mirror, the man in the middle had his head down.
Lyle stopped at the last aisle in a dim corner of the parking lot. The large man who’d been on the right walked around to Lyle’s window and paid him in cash. Lyle turned to get a look at the man who’d been sitting behind him, but all he could see was his back as the man walked away. The heavyset man joined him, swaying side to side on stubby legs. Both men disappeared into the darkness.
The third man had walked a dozen yards behind the cab. Lyle watched him stop, take a few more steps, then stop again as if he were unsure where to go.
Lyle craned his neck and shouted through the open window. “You okay buddy?”
The man waved an arm over his shoulder and continued walking.
Before Lyle could say anything else, the voice of his radio dispatcher told him to pick up a party at a restaurant. A half hour later, he transported another fare before he picked up the intoxicated redhead. She would be his last passenger. The balance of time left on his shift Lyle would spend helping to clean out his cab.
“I’m, I’m just way sorry,” the woman said, slurring her words.
“Just relax. We’re almost there.” Although the Arizona theme park spread out over many square miles of high desert, nothing was too far away. Lyle drove to the park’s cluster of 1970s-style hotels, an eight-minute trip from the center of Centerville.
Drunk, but she must be pretty well off. Lyle knew Nostalgia City’s most expensive accommodations, the Desert Sunrise Hotel, catered to the well-heeled senior. Red was no senior, but her room doubtless contained a duvet-covered memory-foam bed to help her sleep off the alcohol and a lavish whirlpool soaking tub to blunt the morning’s hangover. Room service would be ready with coffee and whatever else she needed to recover.
Lyle pulled up to the hotel and stopped under a bright portico lit with floodlights rivaling the central Arizona sun at noon. He surveyed the backseat landscape and saw it would be better for Red if she got out on the right.
He ran around the rear of the cab to open the door. His passenger put one unsteady foot on the ground, leaned out of the taxi, then almost fell backward. Lyle grabbed her shoulders and pulled. She landed on her feet, clutching Lyle for support. He needed only one arm to steady her. A bellman in an indigo uniform with brass buttons strode over. Before he was six feet away, he halted. His expression said he’d picked up the scent.
“I got it covered,” Lyle said, and the porter gave him a grateful smile.
Lyle steered Red, who still clung to him for support, through a revolving door into the lobby. He imagined he caught a trace of perfume or shampoo when the top of her head brushed his face. He marveled he had any olfactory function left.
“I’m on the tenth floor,” she said. “Eight, nine, ten, bingo.”
Lyle found the elevator bank. As they waited, he noticed a reproving look from another guest. He saluted her by touching the brim of his cabbie hat, then looked down and saw Red was wearing portions of her dinner on one shoe and a pant leg.
“You have your key?” he asked.
She gave him a wobbly nod that she repeated as she stepped into the elevator alone. The other guest decided to catch a different car. Just as the doors were closing, Red put her face close to the opening. “What’s your name?”
“Deming. Lyle Deming,” he said, and the doors closed.
* * *
Lyle talked to himself as he headed to the park’s transport center. The evening’s sideshow of passengers crowded out his brain’s frequent worry cycle. For that he was thankful. After a few minutes, he pulled into the taxicab wash facility.
Tomás, the friendly young guy who washed the cabs, opened the taxi’s back door and looked inside. “One of your fares puke, huh?”
“It’s pretty foul. A woman was sick.” Lyle got out and set his hat on the front seat. He pushed his wavy brown hair off his forehead and grabbed a plastic dustpan from a nearby rack.
He opened the cab’s left rear door. In the enclosed carport, Lyle’s taxi smelled like a frat house bathroom after a freshman party. He scooped at some of the vomit with the dustpan but had to back out as his gag reflex threatened to kick in. Sensitivity had been one of his liabilities in his former profession.
“I’ll clean it out with this,” said the attendant, now wearing a mask and wielding the wand of a wet-dry vac. Standing at the back door, he shoved the nozzle under the front seat and worked toward the rear. The noise of the muck being slurped up sounded little different from when it was deposited.
After a moment, Tomás leaned back out of the car. “I see why this person threw up,” he said. “Look what she ate.”
Lyle glanced inside the car. On the floor, amid a slurry of bile and partially digested food, he saw a human finger.
The Marijuana Murders
A Nostalgia City Mystery #3
Copyright 2019 by Mark S. Bacon
That can’t be blood, there’s too much of it. Kate Sorensen watched the automobile hoist lift the 1975 sedan off the garage floor. As the car rose, inch by inch, she peered under it looking at a damp, red area three feet wide. Seconds later, the lift operator on the other side of the car staggered backward, gagging. Kate moved toward him.
“No,” the mechanic sputtered as he held up a hand. “Esta muerto. Dead.”
Kate still took tentative steps toward the car suspended four feet off the ground. She peered around the left rear fender then took in a breath as if there were no oxygen left in the building. Beneath the car, a leg and arm squashed into pulp, lay on the concrete. Kate looked away before she saw more.
“We’ve got to call for help,” she said. She forced her legs to carry her to a counter where she’d left her purse—and cell phone. Her footfalls echoed through the cavernous auto repair facility, nearly deserted this early in the morning. She dialed 9-1-1.
“There’s been an accident. The Nostalgia City garage. Someone’s dead.” She paused for a moment to breathe and steady herself. “My name is Kate Sorensen. Yes, Nostalgia City, the theme park. I’m in the garage complex. No, it doesn’t have an address that I know of. The thing’s as big as an aircraft hangar. The sheriff knows where it is. They can get access through the park’s emergency entrance.”
When Kate hung up, she knew she should also call security, but there was no time. She looked at her watch. Five fifty-one a.m. The TV crew she arranged would be there any minute. Too late to cancel. They were coming more than 100 miles up from Phoenix. The show must go on. And what would the show broadcast about the park? A bloody corpse, a ghastly accident that crushed an employee?
Kate could do nothing for the victim, but she had to keep the TV cameras out of this area. She knew well the TV news maxim, if it bleeds, it leads. She stared at the wide-open metal roll-up door and the parking lot outside. She could imagine the TV van appearing any second.
The mechanic walked toward her on unsteady legs, his face pale. She thought he’d thrown up. She didn’t have the luxury.
“Can we close this door?” she asked.
The mechanic seemed to have trouble swallowing. He stared without expression.
“I know, horrible. But the sheriff won’t be here for a few minutes and I need help. I’m expecting a TV crew almost any time. Can we close this door and let them in at the other end of the garage? You can come back and open the door for the sheriff.”
The man blinked, trying to regain his composure. He looked up at Kate. Her Nostalgia City name badge identified her as vice president of public relations.
“Si, okay…yeah.” With trembling hands, he pushed a button and the wide metal door clanked as it descended. “This way. Follow me. We open the west entrance.”
The mechanic, dressed in blue work clothes, had the name Luis written on a patch over his breast pocket. At first, Kate followed him, but then her long legs and nervous energy propelled her past him. A head shorter than Kate, he hustled to keep up.
They passed rows of service bays occupied by cars from the ’60s and ’70s, nearly all built before Kate was born. Maintaining a fleet of forty- and fifty-year-old curiosities—most used as rental cars—was a key to the success of Nostalgia City, the elaborate retro theme park. She’d planned to feature the classic cars and the park’s vast automobile restoration facility when she invited Tamara Cox, a host of Rise ’n’ Shine, Phoenix, to broadcast a portion of her morning show from the park.
Prepared for her on-air appearance in an emerald dress with her long blonde hair gathered behind her head, Kate reached the west entrance several steps ahead of Luis. She paced as she watched the mechanical door roll up. She wasn’t being heartless. The man was already dead. She couldn’t help him. She had her job to do.
Kate stood at the end of the restoration garage, hundreds of feet away and around a corner from the accident scene. Luis finished raising the door then turned and headed back.
Kate’s cell phone rang. The camera van was rolling down a back street in Nostalgia City. She managed to direct them to the west end of the garage. As Kate watched a few employees arrive early for work, she saw the red and gold Channel 9 TV truck. She considered it a PR coup, persuading Cox to broadcast part of her show from Nostalgia City. Cox had a solid following in Arizona, and Kate hoped her credibility and charm would rub off on the park, provided no one stumbles over a flattened corpse.
When the truck stopped just outside the garage, Cox got out. She wore a dress and blazer and walked up to Kate extending a hand. “Good to see you, Kate,” she said. “Looking good this morning. You don’t even need much makeup. I’m envious. You look stunning.”
Stunned is more like it.
“May we pull the truck inside?” Cox asked.
“Sure,” Kate said.
She stepped back, and the camera truck rolled forward. Two crew members got out and started setting up a camera and sound equipment. Kate turned around, glancing up and down the service bays searching for an interesting background. Unfortunately, most of the cars at this end of the building were new arrivals, beat-up refugees from who-knows-where. Kate would have to shift gears. She and Tamara would focus on the “before” aspect of the automobile restoring process. Kate told herself to concentrate on just what she had to do, nothing else.
She looked to her left and spotted a bright, two-toned convertible, probably a rental in for a tune-up. The aged vehicle looked brand new.
“You could get lost in here,” Cox said looking around, “and they’d never find you.”
Kate put on a smile she didn’t feel. “Welcome to the center of Nostalgia City’s car culture. We could start the interview in front of that convertible over there.”
Cox nodded and asked her camera person to check out the lighting near the new-looking rag-top sedan.
“Since you opened,” Cox said, “lots of stories have already covered your mid-1970s town, and your Fun Zone with the movie-themed rides. A behind-the-scenes view of the world largest theme park is a good idea. It is the world’s largest, right?”
“In terms of square miles, Disney World is slightly bigger. We like to say it’s the living history theme park and resort. Or just one-of-a-kind.”
“Or the most expensive?”
Kate knew her talking points as well as a seasoned politician. It helped her extoll the virtues of the park, even though her mind kept traveling back to the dried blood and the lifeless limbs. “We’re not inexpensive,” she said, “but we do have special school days and discounts for service members and vets. What I’d like to talk about today is our accuracy and authenticity. Everything here is as close as possible to 1975.”
“And you have authentic examples to show on camera.”
“Right,” Kate said, and she froze.
A siren wailed from a distance then reverberated throughout the building making talking impossible.
“What’s going on?” Cox asked as the siren faded.
“An accident this morning,” Kate said.
“What kind of accident? Anyone hurt? The news director is always pestering me to jump on breaking stories. Can we go see?”
Is that a joint?” Lyle asked.
“Shhh, man. I’m on the air.”
“Not this second.”
“Then give me a hit.”
“Wait a minute,” the other man said. He flipped a switch on the console and spoke into the microphone hanging in front of his face. “This is Big Earl Williams on K-B-O-P, oh-fficial radio station of No-stalgia City. You just heard ‘Black Water,’ the new hit from the Doobie Brothers. I like that name.” Earl winked at Lyle “Next up, somethin’ from the Temptations, right after these messages.”
Earl hit a couple of buttons then turned in his swivel chair and pulled his earphones down around his neck. “Lyle Deming, my man. You can’t have a hit now. Aren’t you supposed to be driving your taxi around the park this a.m.?”
“I was kidding.” Lyle leaned back in his chair, trying to find legroom in the cramped broadcasting booth and wondering why the park didn’t give their star DJ a bigger studio. “I’ve got to drive a four-hour, fill-in shift for someone today. Anyway, it’s kinda early to toke up, don’t you think?”
“I ain’t tokin’ up, as you put it. Just a couple of puffs so Big Earl can mellow out for his morning countdown show. Just two. Late night last night.”
Earl took his second puff and held his breath as he extinguished the tapered cigarette and put it in a small metal box that originally held breath mints.
“Here, hand me that spray,” Earl said pointing to a can of air freshener. He grabbed the can and waved it over his head, spraying imaginary shapes in the air above his radio console. A sweet pine scent replaced the faint smell of marijuana. “Can’t be too careful.”
“The station manager drops in sometimes.” Earl tucked his metal box into a pocket of his battered canvass jacket.
“Didn’t you know, marijuana’s illegal?” Lyle said. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll bust you?”
“Yeah, sure. How long’s it been since you were on the Phoenix PD?”
“Not long enough. But I could have a badge tucked away. Maybe I can still arrest your ass.”
“A badge? You crazy? The way you got booted from the department, I bet they don’t even let you into doughnut shops anymore.”
Lyle was ready with a return insult, but Earl held up a hand, pulled on his earphones, and slid in front of the mike. Every time Lyle had a snappy—or rude—comeback, Earl had to say something on the air. But Lyle always came back for more. Visiting with his old friend from Phoenix was one of the benefits of working at Nostalgia City. They first met at a radio station when Earl was the top-rated oldies DJ in the city and Lyle was a homicide detective who had volunteered to record a public service announcement.
Lyle left the police department when two senior officers conspired to force him out of the department amid allegations of mental illness when he wouldn’t cooperate in manufacturing evidence in a case. He refused to fight his termination because he ached for a stress-free job. Driving a taxi in a theme park seemed the perfect escape from forever worrying about the broken lives of murder victim’s families. Earl left Phoenix shortly after Lyle did when Nostalgia City offered him more money. A lot more money.
“Remember,” Earl intoned into the microphone, “The Xanadu Boutique. Unique gifts, clothing, and other items. If you remember it from the seventies, you’ll find it here in Nostalgia City at the Xanadu Boutique.”
“Xanadu is advertising?” Lyle asked when Earl turned off his mike.
“Concessionaires get a few freebees, but Xanadu bought a whole flight of commercials. They like my program.”
“It’s a popular place. Guests are always asking me to take them to the head shop. Do you play pot songs before their commercials?”
Earl shrugged. He reminded Lyle of Mean Joe Greene and weighed in about the same as the football player did in his prime, although Earl was probably a little past his prime. But then, what was your prime? Being on the other side of fifty, Lyle was still waiting for his.
“I don’t have to pick anything special, y’know,” Earl said. “Plenty o’ pot songs to choose from.”
“Like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’” Lyle said.
“Hey, Peter Yarrow always said that song wasn’t about grass.”
“Yeah, and ‘Along Comes Mary’ was about Mary Poppins.”
“Mary Poppins smoked dope?”
“You’re the dope, Williams. You don’t know ‘Along Comes Mary’?”
“The Association.” Earl said. “Nineteen sixty-six.”
“Yeah, that’s an easy one. I wasn’t trying to stump you.”
“Stump me? You? Never.”
Lyle took off his yellow cabbie hat and ran his fingers through his dark brown hair. He loved their favorite pastime, challenging each other with rock trivia. He rubbed his chin and made a show of thinking. “‘Judy Mae,’” Lyle said.
Earl stared at him.
“How about Rod Stewart?” Lyle asked.
“Are you messin’ with me? Rod Stewart did ‘Maggie May.’”
“Okay, who is it?”
“You hadda look that one up, bro. No one remembers that. But Big Earl knows the business. This sort-of hit was from Boomer Castleman, nineteen hundred and seventy-five.”
“Big Earl, when are you going on Jeopardy?”
Earl smiled and flipped him off.
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Lyle said.
Earl pointed to a notice he’d stuck to the wall with tape. “I don’t know what this means.”
Printed on Nostalgia City letterhead, the notice said, “The Transition is coming. Ask your supervisor.”
“Everybody knows what the transition is,” Lyle said.
“No, they don’t. I hear people talkin’ about it. Maybe no big deal for some. Right? Except for me.”
“So does that mean you’re going to play—”
Earl interrupted with a wave of his hand. “Don’t even start. I gotta feeling—” He paused when a light on his console flashed, telling him he had a phone call. He answered then handed the phone to Lyle. “It’s for you.”
“Yeah, Rey,” Lyle said. “Sure. I know Don Perez. What do you mean, was he a friend of mine?”
Desert Kill Switch
A Nostalgia City Mystery #2
Copyright 2017 by Mark S. Bacon
Lyle Deming braked his Mustang hard and aimed for the sandy shoulder of the desert road. Luckily, his daughter Sam had been looking down and didn’t see the body.
He passed a thicket of creosote and manzanita and pulled onto the dirt as soon as he could.
“Stay in the car,” he told Sam in a tone that precluded discussion.
He trotted 200 feet back on the road, around the brush, to reach the parked vehicle—and the unmoving, bullet-riddled body he’d seen next to it. The young man, clearly dead, was probably in his late twenties or early thirties. Still-damp blood surrounded the bullet hole in his head and speckled his white shirt where other bullets had slammed into him. Instinctively, Lyle scanned the entire scene. Several sets of footprints in the dust circled the vintage Pontiac. Brass shell casings lay in the dirt. With the car’s door wide open, Lyle saw no one inside.
He turned and looked from the ground to the rocky bluffs on the other side of the road. A familiar, anxious feeling started to overtake him, but he shrugged it off and stepped back to the pavement so he wouldn’t disturb the footprints. No use checking for vitals—that was obvious. He wanted to search the man’s pockets to find an ID but knew he should preserve the scene.
Startled by a sharp noise, Lyle spun around. The cactus wren’s rapid chirping stopped then started again. Aside from the birds, and the wind stirring mesquite trees, nothing moved. Lyle’s senses told him to get out of there—get Sam out of there.
Jogging back to his Mustang, he hopped in, slammed the door, and started the engine in one continuous motion.
“What’s going on?” Sam said. She twisted around to look out the rear window.
Lyle crushed the accelerator and the car kicked up dust as it jumped from the shoulder to the pavement. “Something I’m glad you didn’t see,” he said.
Steering down the road, Lyle glanced in his mirror. The road rose and fell as it wound through rolling desert hills punctuated with prickly pear and red-orange cliffs. The sun rode high in the sky.
Sam put a hand on his arm. “What was it? Tell me.” Her voice trembled as she looked up into his dark brown eyes.
The road curved in and out, then hit a straightaway. Lyle headed for a nearby intersection he remembered. He handed Sam his cell phone, then put both hands back on the wheel, giving the mirror another look. “See if you can get any bars on that thing, will you?”
“What was it back there?” she said. “It looked like an old car.” She activated the phone. “We don’t have a signal here.”
“Keep trying,” Lyle said.
He and Sam had been off on an afternoon of exploring northern Arizona back roads and taking pictures for her university summer class. A cab driver in Nostalgia City, the world’s most elaborate theme park and resort, Lyle worked a rotating schedule with varied days off, so he was happy when he could spend one of them with Sam. But he relished his job driving tourists around the park in his 1973 Dodge taxi. He felt at home in the new retro theme park, a meticulous re-creation of a small town from the mid-1970s. He could forget his former ill-fated career that he dumped as it dumped him.
“No signal, still,” Sam said in a wavering voice. “What’s going on?”
“It was a murder. Someone shot, next to that car. A young guy. Not pretty. We need to get through to the sheriff.”
“I dunno. The sheriff’ll have to find out.” He glanced over at Sam.
Actually, Samantha was Lyle’s stepdaughter, but he loved her with an intensity that almost scared him. He’d known her since she was five, before Lyle and her mother got married, and he soon became attached to Sam, supplanting her biological father who rarely saw her. When Sam’s mother divorced Lyle, he remained Sam’s backstop, emotionally and financially, as she worked her way through Arizona State.
Just before they reached the intersection Lyle was looking for, another car passed them going the other way. Lyle wondered if the driver would continue straight ahead, see the body, and call it in. Lyle turned left. “Got a signal yet?”
“This is a bad area. I’ve been here before. Past that hill up ahead, maybe.”
In a few minutes, Sam looked at the phone. “We got a signal. Do I call nine-one-one?”
“No, call the San Navarro County Sheriff. It’s in my contacts.”
When the phone started ringing, Sam handed it to Lyle.
“Let me speak to Rey Martinez. This is an emergency.” Lyle steered with one hand while he talked. He’d only seen the one car since they left the murder scene, not unusual for this open, scrub land.
“Rey, it’s Lyle Deming.”
“Lyle, I know. How many people you figure I know named Lyle?”
“Okay, Rey. I got it. Look, there’s been a murder out on Wagon Trail Road. About two miles east of Broken Bend. Near the top of a hill.”
“A shooting. Looks like an execution. Semi-auto. Shell casings around.”
“Okay Lyle, who was killed? You got bodies?”
“Just one. Young guy, twenties or thirties. Dark hair, light complexion. Shot in the head and chest. Looks recent. Blood was fresh.”
“Is he alone?”
“Yeah, he’s alone. I didn’t see anyone else. And there’s a car, an old one. Nostalgia City vintage. A 1974 or ’75 Pontiac Firebird. Dark blue. Great condition. Looks new. Sorry, I missed the license.”
“Are you there now?”
“No. Heading back to my condo. I got a funny feeling. Like there was someone around. You know I don’t carry a weapon, and I have my daughter Sam with me. I wanted to get her the hell out of there.”
“I’ll dispatch a car right away, and I’ll head over. It’ll take me twenty, twenty-five minutes to reach the spot. You going to be there?”
Kate Sorensen hated grand entrances, and she felt she was making one now. Bathed in sunlight, like theatrical spotlights, streaming through broad windows and skylights, she rode down a long and otherwise unoccupied escalator from the mezzanine of Reno’s Gold Mountain Hotel. She’d planned a grubby work day, so she compromised her business wear with designer jeans, a short-sleeved, casual blouse, and low-heeled boots. Looking down, she saw dozens of people standing around tables set with cups, plates, pots of coffee, and trays of pastries. Above the food hung a sign, Rockin’ Summer Days 20th Anniversary – Welcome Vendors.
The escalator brought her down ceremoniously into the middle of the group. More than a few men looked up and stared. Kate’s height drew attention, but so did her long blonde hair, lithe figure, and other movie-star qualities it had taken her years to recognize and accept. Most people were casually dressed, some wearing red polo shirts with the Rockin’ Summer Days RSD logo and a picture of a hot rod embroidered on the front. Kate started to hurry through the crowd but paused when she saw a familiar face. A man dressed in a shirt, tie, and slightly rumpled sport coat saw her and grinned. He excused himself from a small group of people and walked over.
“Kate, you’re looking wonderful. I haven’t seen you since you left Las Vegas.”
Journalist Gale Forrester wore silver wire-rimmed glasses and his perpetual three-day growth of beard. His hair, thinning prematurely, obviously had only a brief encounter with a comb. Forrester’s syndicated column ran throughout the state and he hosted a news-talk radio program in Las Vegas.
“Gale, good to see you. What are you doing at a car show and street fair? You usually cover politics.”
“There’s politics everywhere my dear,” he said, looking up at her. “You should know that. Rockin’ Summer Days is a big-money event. And the northern Nevada power structure is much in evidence.”
“I’m not in that loop, Gale. I’m just here to promote my employer.”
“Out of the loop? I don’t think so. You were one of the hotshot PR people in the Vegas casino business. And now you’re here for Reno’s RSD event. Has a good deal to do with demographics, right?”
“Good guess, Gale.” Kate didn’t exactly follow Forrester’s train of thought, but demographics was exactly the reason she and an assistant were in Reno for its annual, ten-day celebration of classic cars and rock and roll. Kate had read that the city-wide event attracted more than 6,000 classic and historic vehicles and a half million people, many in their fifties, sixties, and beyond. Sponsoring a booth here offered a perfect opportunity to showcase Nostalgia City—the sprawling new 1960s-1970s retro theme park in Arizona—to people in their target market. It also gave her a chance to see how the Nevada nostalgia event operated, what kind of promotions they did. Everyone in the PR biz borrowed from everyone else, and Reno seemed to have done a good job establishing itself with the same people Kate hoped to attract to Arizona. “I’m just on my way to see about our credentials and our booth,” she said.
“Could be fun, interesting.” Forrester’s almost-smile hinted at something. Some people considered him a gadfly, but Kate knew he had an uncanny ability to break stories ahead of other media.
“Interesting yes,” she said, “but standing eight hours a day in an exhibit booth is not exactly my idea of a good time.”
One of the people Forrester had been talking to, a thin man, almost as tall as Kate, wandered over. “Marshall,” said Forrester, “I’d like you to meet someone. Or do you already know Kate?”
Kate didn’t recognize the man but extended her hand and started to introduce herself.
“Oh, I know who you are,” he said, introducing himself as Marshall Jacques. “You’re Kate Sorensen, head of PR at Nostalgia City. I’m a member of the Rockin’ Summer Days board of directors. We’re glad to have you here.”
Was Kate’s history in Nevada or the uniqueness of Nostalgia City the reason an RSD board member would know her? The name Jacques sounded familiar. “Should be a good event,” she said. “I’m on my way to set up our booth.”
“So, if you need help with anything, let us know. Our offices are close by, and we’ll have a desk staffed all week long in the hotel to assist vendors. Details are in your packet.”
Kate thanked him, told Forrester to stop by their booth, then excused herself and headed down a broad concourse toward a hotel meeting room. An oldies rock song Kate couldn’t quite place spilled out into the hallway. She followed the music into a crowded convention room. Tables lined three of the walls where men and women, mostly in jeans or shorts, queued up in rows to collect registration materials. Signs along the walls, A-D, E-G, H-K, and so on, organized the queues by the names of exhibitors’ organizations.
Kate scanned the room looking for her assistant, Amanda Updike. Kate had inherited Amanda, as she had the rest of her staff, when she took over Nostalgia City’s PR department. Kate chose Amanda, a PR rep and copywriter, to help staff their booth. Attractive and outgoing, she had an easy way with people—when she showed up. Amanda had issues, it seemed, with punctuality.
After a few moments, Kate saw Amanda come bustling in from the hallway juggling a leather case, her purse, an armload of folders, and a cardboard cup of coffee.
“Sorry, I’m late.”
“Did you bring the extra brochures?”
“Yes, the box is in my room. I can go get them.”
“Never mind that now. Why don’t you wait in line over there and pick up our registration packet? See if there’s marketing data included. They were supposed to mail us results of their visitor survey, but it never made it. I’ll go see if our display has arrived and get set-up help. Meet you at our booth space. It’s just down Virginia Street from here. Do you have the map they sent us?”
Amanda looked at her case and purse. “Yes, somewhere in here.”
An hour later, Kate watched workers uncrate the Nostalgia City display panels. They had been assigned a space in a large park-like area downtown—turned into an outdoor exhibit hall. The booth stood in a row in the middle of the lot, but only one booth away from North Virginia Street where classic cars and hot rods would be parked for viewing.
Nostalgia City’s booth included a curved, backlit backdrop, self-standing display boards, racks for literature, plus seats for Kate and Amanda. The backdrop featured a map of the park with panoramic pictures of each area. Centerville, an historically accurate re-creation of an entire small town from the mid-1970s sat, appropriately, in the center of the park. Photos showed shops and restaurants with vintage neon signs, streets lined with ’60s and ’70s cars, plus other details that made visiting Nostalgia City a trip back in time. Surrounding Centerville, connected by roads radiating out, were a golf course, dude ranch, a collection of hotels and restaurants, and the Fun Zone, an amusement park filled with rides, some themed for period movies and TV shows.
Kate started unpacking artwork and signs and attaching them to the display boards. Some showed photos of the classic cars available for rent and the vintage excursion railroad that connected Nostalgia City with a new Indian casino. As she attached photos of slot machines and craps tables to the display board, Kate thought local casino officials might not be happy with Nostalgia City touting its nearby gambling. Indeed, with its meticulously re-created ’70s environment, the park itself could be seen as direct competition for Reno’s Rockin’ Summer Days.
As her booth took shape, Kate watched two people across the aisle setting up a booth that sold what looked to her like tacky mementos and souvenirs: plaques, miniature street signs, plastic statues of Elvis, ashtrays, hats made out of beer cans. Was Reno the right demographic after all? And where was Amanda?
No question Lyle was going back out to the scene.
He dropped Sam off at her car, parked in front of his condo, and saw her safely on her way back to Arizona State. He paused only to consider if he should pick up one of his two handguns. He decided he probably didn’t need a weapon now, so he cranked up his Mustang and pointed it down the main street in Timeless Village, the collection of houses, condos, and apartments—mainly for Nostalgia City employees—that bordered the high-desert theme park. When he reached the county highway, he turned east to retrace his steps. After he had gone several miles, he called Undersheriff Rey Martinez.
“Rey, are you there yet?”
“Not quite, but I got a call from a deputy. He can’t find it.”
“What? Is the body gone?”
“No body. No car. Nuthin’.”
“Is he on Wagon Trail Road?”
“Yeah, east of Broken Bend, like you said.”
Lyle hit the accelerator and his Mustang responded with a growl and more speed. “I’ll be there in ten, fifteen minutes. Meet you at that intersection.”
Death in Nostalgia City
Nostalgia City Mystery #1
Copyright 2014 by Mark S. Bacon
Whose idea was it to replace chrome knobs and push buttons on car radios with touch screens? Lyle had no clue.
He eased off the accelerator of his 1973 Dodge Polara taxicab so his passengers wouldn’t miss anything. The sedan lumbered past an appliance store where a dozen identical images of the Fonz—leather jacket and all—were speaking unheard words from 24-inch, picture-tube TVs in the shop window. Lyle’s passengers gaped. A common reaction. Lyle had been at his new job for six months now, so the time warp didn’t faze him. He liked it. The new job brought him back to happy days.
“Oh, baby, I’m in love,” cried the DJ on the car radio. “That was a new one by Roberta Flack, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ You’re listening to Big Earl Williams on KBOP. Next up, the latest from Three Dog Night, but first—”
Lyle turned the radio down so he could talk to his fares, a wholesome-looking sixtyish couple, probably from the Midwest. “This your first time?”
“Yes,” the husband said. “First time.”
“We’ve heard all about this place,” his wife said, “but we had to see for ourselves. It’s amazing.”
Lyle glanced at the couple in the mirror. “Just your average town.”
“You got good cell phone coverage here?” the husband asked. “I’m having problems with my iPhone.”
“What’s an iPhone?” Lyle said.
“What, are you nuts? A cell phone!”
“Don’t be a cynic, Warren,” his wife said. “It’s part of the experience here.”
“Okay. I get it.” He held up two fingers in an awkward peace sign. “Far out, man. Groovy.”
Lyle smiled. He didn’t mind. He tried not to let little things bother him anymore. If people didn’t want to get in the spirit to relive the good old days, that was their choice. It just puzzled him why anyone would spend the money to visit Nostalgia City, one of the most elaborate theme parks in the world, and not enjoy the masquerade.
Nostalgia City was the brainchild of billionaire developer Archibald “Max” Maxwell. The re-creation of a town from the early 1970s was as complete as billions of dollars and Max’s ceaseless energy could make it. Aimed at baby boomers, or anyone who wanted to go back in time, Nostalgia City was the size of a small town. Rides, shops, restaurants, hotels—everything—was constructed from scratch in northern Arizona near a reclaimed stretch of Route 66. To Lyle, a baby boomer himself, it was part resort, part theme park, and very much an escape. His new job gave him the chance to meet people not because they were robbed or assaulted but because they were on vacation.
Lyle steered the cab into the curb lane to give his passengers a closer look at the storefronts. He loved his big, old ’73 taxi. His parents had driven a Chrysler Cordoba with “soft Corinthian leather.” His Dodge wasn’t as fancy—after all, it was a cab—but it was fully restored. You could almost believe the 7,000 miles on the odometer. Like everything else in Nostalgia City, the cab didn’t look like an artifact. It looked new.
Rolling through the reproduction of a decades-past downtown, Lyle and his passengers came to a stop light. At the corner, Lyle’s guests stared at a Flying A service station with its white-uniformed attendants. Each gas pump was a sculptured red tower with one long hose and side-mounted nozzle, like a fashion model with one hand on her hip. As the tourists gawked, something moving drew Lyle’s gaze up a hill to the left. He saw a white 1970 Ford Torino moving toward the cab, picking up speed. Instantly, Lyle saw something missing—a driver.
In seconds, the Torino would smash into the driver’s side of Lyle’s cab. He stomped on the gas pedal and yelled for his passengers to hang on. The taxi’s rear tires chirped. Then the rubber took hold. The Dodge lunged forward as the Torino rushed toward it. Lyle escaped the runaway car—almost. The Ford scraped along a corner of the taxi’s rear bumper, catching the edge of a metal advertising sign on the back of the cab. It ripped off the sign with quick, metallic popping sounds.
Streaking forward, the driverless car headed for the gas station. It ran up the drive and caromed off a column supporting an awning over a row of pumps. The heavy metal awning trembled, tilted, then crashed to the ground. Slowed but still unchecked, the Torino reeled on. It plowed into a stack of motor oil cans, sending them flying. Finally, the Ford rammed into a gas pump, giving up the last of its momentum in a resounding crunch.
Gasoline gushed from the damaged pump while the motionless Ford straddled the concrete island like a ship stuck on a shoal. The sharp gasoline smell pierced the air. Lyle stopped his cab away from traffic. He bailed out and barked at his passengers to get away from the station. Seeing a customer standing near the flowing gas, he motioned for him to back away from the growing, flammable lake.
Everyone waited for the explosion.
But it didn’t happen.
Lyle dashed up to an attendant who had jumped out of the way of the car and was lying on his back, stunned and trembling. “Shut-off.”
The attendant pointed to the side of the building. Lyle found the emergency shut-off and punched a fist-sized button.
“You all right?” he asked the attendant.
“Think so.” The young man stood and dusted himself off. “We gotta call for help.”
“Already being taken care of.” Lyle saw another uniformed attendant in the service station office with a phone in his hand waving toward them.
The gasoline contained itself in the station’s parking area. An asphalt berm became a dam creating a small gas lagoon a few inches deep. Avoiding the gasoline, Lyle trotted over to the Ford. Its front bumper, grill, and the right side of its body were shredded and crushed, but the driver’s side looked relatively untouched except for long scratch marks from Lyle’s cab. Lyle glanced at the Torino’s driver’s side front door for a second, then pulled it open. He knew the engine wasn’t running, but he wanted to make sure the ignition was off. He stuck his head in, careful not to touch anything he didn’t have to. His right hand rested on the smooth vinyl seat as he leaned in farther. Then he felt someone tapping him on the back.
“Don’t touch anything,” said a deep voice. “Step back, sir.”
That was a little difficult because a large man in a shirt and tie stood right behind Lyle. The man had a badge holder hanging from his pocket and a holstered semi-automatic clipped to his belt.
“Clyde Bates, chief of security,” the walking impediment said. “What happened here?”
“Looks like someone tried to top off his tank.”
Bates scowled. “Okay, comedian, were you driving?”
“Yes—but not this car. No one was driving the Ford. That was the problem.”
Lyle recognized Bates from a staff meeting a couple of months earlier. He noticed the prematurely gray hair trimmed in a crew cut and the expression that said smiling was off limits. The park security chief looked as if he was once in shape but that recently his center of gravity had been moving south.
Lyle stepped away from the Ford and pointed to his Nostalgia City ID badge. “Deming. Lyle Deming. The car’s in neutral. I was just looking to see if—”
“Where’d it come from, that hill?”
“See anyone around?”
“No. Just the car, no driver.”
“You didn’t see anyone on the sidewalk?”
“No. So I looked inside the car to—”
“Okay. We’ll take it from here.”
Since Bates was alone, Lyle wondered who the “we” referred to. Then he heard a siren and knew reinforcements were on the way. A black-and-white early ’70s Plymouth with “Nostalgia City Security” painted on the door rolled up, followed by two fire engines of the same vintage.
Bates started giving orders, and Lyle walked a few steps away to pick up his yellow cabbie hat that had fallen off. He ran his fingers through his dark, wavy hair and set the cap on the back of his head.
“Think it was an accident?” Lyle asked. “Maybe something slipped.”
“An accident?” Bates said, looking away. “Dunno. Make a report. We’ll handle it.”
Lyle didn’t like his attitude. “What makes you think it wasn’t an accident?”
“Could this be related to the ride someone vandalized? Or the bridge—”
“That’s our business. Not your concern.”
Just walk away, Lyle told himself as he touched the rubber band on his wrist. Leave the make-believe policeman alone. He’s right, not my problem.
Lyle inspected his cab. The rear bumper was twisted and scratched. The mangled advertising sign lay on the pavement and the trunk lid now sported several jagged air holes. Lyle was about to round up his passengers when someone yelled at Bates. A firefighter knelt at the edge of the toppled awning. Lyle ran over to see if he could help. Right away, he knew no one could. A middle-aged man had been standing under the awning when it collapsed.
“Dead,” the firefighter said.
Kate Sorensen sat in the twenty-seventh row of an otherwise empty Las Vegas showroom and edited news release drafts on her tablet while occasionally glancing at the rehearsal.
“Two, three, four…” A choreographer in green slacks and baggy T-shirt shouted at the handful of dancers aligned across the stage. “Kristy, you’ve gotta get your sea legs, honey. This stage sloshes around all the time.”
Behind the dancers were huge brass dials, switches, and controls designed to look like the bridge of a Navy ship. The broad, nautically themed stage floated in an enormous Plexiglas water tank spanning the front of the theater. As the dancers marched left, the deck dipped to one side. Waves splashed the stage. Kate could almost feel the rolling of a ship. Couple the undulating movement with flickering lights, ocean sounds, and a fine sea spray and the audience might need Dramamine. Would the dancers?
Obviously more work was necessary before the show would become flagship entertainment for the SS Las Vegas Hotel/Casino. Kate looked down at her work and then wrinkled her nose. Something smelled like rotting seaweed. It certainly wasn’t her perfume. That came from Saks. Did this mean the show was a stinker? When her cell phone whined inside her suit pocket, she reached for it, expecting to hear the voice of her secretary. She brushed her long blond hair away from her ear.
“Max, what a surprise. How are things in Nostalgia City?”
“First, congratulations. Saw all the publicity you got for your hotel’s anniversary. Tie-in to naval history was clever.”
“You have to find a new approach every time, stuff to catch the imagination.”
“You do that pretty well—come up with great ideas.”
“Hope so. In a few days, we’re launching a new extravaganza. Ha, no pun intended. I’m going over the stories my staff has written. So far I don’t see many new ideas.”
“You’ll make it come together. You usually do.”
“Why all the flattery, Max? You must be in a good mood.” The founder and CEO of the giant retro resort was not the kind of person to call for idle chitchat, especially at work. “Everything going well there in Arizona?”
“Doing okay. Attendance is up.”
Kate leaned to one side to get comfortable. Her long legs sometimes made her feel cramped sitting in one-size-fits-all theater seats. “I read that the Indian casino and your excursion train through the reservation are behind schedule.”
“A little. We’ll work it out. So, you still like it there in Vegas?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Would you be interested in joining us here?”
“Go to work for you? You’ve got a public relations VP.”
“As of now.”
“Move to Flagstaff?”
“Why don’t you come out here for a couple of days and we’ll talk.”
Go back to work for Max? Several thoughts fought for attention in Kate’s head. Although it paid well, Kate’s job as communication director for the SS Las Vegas Hotel,“The Cruise Ship of the Strip,” was becoming routine. Bruce, her boyfriend, roommate, and possibly future husband, might throw a tantrum if she asked him to move to Arizona. And Max could be a tyrant to work for. He interfered. On the other hand, the innovative billionaire had enthusiasm and a stomach for risks. Working for him was never dull.
“Come for a visit,” Max said. “I’ll send the corporate jet.”
“I don’t mind flying commercial. Let me think. Call you tomorrow.”
As Kate put away her phone, Mario Danova slipped into the seat next to her. His expensive suit and capped-teeth smile said “show biz.”
“Looks like it’ll be a great show, eh, Kate?”
“Yeah. It really rocks. Hope no one gets seasick.”
“Seasick?” Danova’s nametag read, Executive Vice President – Entertainment. “Oh, you’re kidding, huh. Think you can get us on the Today Show? We really need to rev up our publicity machine.”
“Sure, Mario. The campaign’s on track. We’ll make sure everyone knows about the show.”
“Okay, but we need to get moving. Jack Stegman wants plenty of interviews. He’s the star. You’ll headline him, right?”
“And he wants you to retouch his publicity photos.”
“We did that already.”
“Did you? He said the shots make him look like Wayne Newton. You’ll fix them, right?”
Maybe Max wouldn’t be too difficult to work for at that. Promoting a theme park could be an interesting change after ten years of hyping Las Vegas casinos. But Max always said he would never offer a job to someone who had quit working for him. Why had he changed his mind?
Watching a body being scraped up, dumped on a gurney, and hauled away was not a new sight for Lyle, but that didn’t make it any more appealing. He took deep breaths as he felt the adrenaline wearing off. Firefighters had found the victim’s wallet, so security officers headed out to check the park’s hotels to see if they could locate family. Lyle was glad this was one death he didn’t have to deal with. The people left behind—loved ones—made lasting impressions on him.
Driving home that afternoon in his own car he tried to think of other things. He turned his Mustang down the central street in Timeless Village, a mixture of new houses, single-story condos, and upscale apartments just outside Nostalgia City. The home styles were generic southwestern stucco. Pinon pines and sage figured prominently in the landscaping. Not all the homes were occupied yet, and the village was always quiet.
Lyle thought he was going home, but when he got to his street, he continued straight ahead toward Gilligan’s Island. A half mile later, he was pulling into a small strip shopping center. Sitting between a hair salon and a Chinese restaurant was Gilligan’s Island, a neighborhood bar. It wasn’t Lyle’s normal quitting time, so his dad wouldn’t be expecting him. He’d have a beer and unwind.
He left his hat in the car, pulled off his dark glasses, and wandered inside. Ducking under faux palm fronds, he saw a few patrons at the far end of the bar, talking to the bartender. Lyle took a seat close to the door. Reedy wallpaper covered the walls and tropical fish swam in lighted blue tanks. Somewhere, a bubbling pot of chili sent its aroma into the bar. Lyle loosened his bow tie and let the ends hang down the front of his white shirt.
The bartender looked up. “Lyle, howya doin’? Want a draft?” Lyle nodded. The bartender, also bar owner, had bushy dark hair, a long, thin face, and inquisitive eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a yacht cap and told everyone to call him the skipper, even though he didn’t look any more like Alan Hale, Jr.—the actor who played the role in the TV show—than Raquel Welch looked like Flipper. He handed Lyle a frosty mug. “I heard there was excitement at the park today.”
Lyle put his hand around the beer. “Bad accident. How’d you find out so soon?”
“Somebody who works on Main Street was just in here. Said he saw fire trucks at the Flying A station. You see it?”
“A car smashed into the pumps.” Lyle saw no sense in spreading the sad details. Everyone would hear about it soon enough.
A couple strolled into the bar and the skipper had to walk down to wait on them. Lyle was off the hook. He took a swallow of cold beer then rested both arms on the bar. He could feel tenseness in his shoulders, so he relaxed into a slouch. Before he could take another sip, his cell phone rang.
“Dad, you okay?”
“Lyle, I need my meds.”
Lyle sat up. “Your pills were…on the kitchen counter this morning. Yes, I made sure they were sitting where you could get them.”
“Oh, I have them all right. But I’m going to need a refill soon.”
Lyle let out a breath and leaned against the bar. “Okay, we’ll get one next week.”
“You have to ask the doctor about this. I think that maybe I need a new prescription. Something stronger.”
“Sure, Dad, we’ll talk to him.” Lyle swiveled his stool away from the bar so everyone wouldn’t hear his conversation. “Dad, remember, I had to get special permission to carry a cell phone in the park? You’re only supposed to call me in an emergency.”
Hank was silent.
“You got a reject from that insurance company today. They denied your claim for your stepdaughter’s therapy. Sounds like that insurance you’re paying for is no damn good.”
Son of a bitch, Lyle thought, his mind traveling to the stack of medical bills and insurance forms on his desk at home. His stepdaughter, Samantha, had been in a serious accident three months before, but her recovery was going well, thanks to continued medical care. Although he was divorced from Samantha’s mother, Lyle remained close to his stepdaughter, helping her out financially and emotionally as she worked her way through college.
Samantha’s extensive medical bills might have made Lyle happy that he paid for full coverage. Trouble was, Federal Patrician Insurance Company was full of excuses for delaying or denying payments.
Thanks for the good news Dad, he thought. And thanks for opening my mail.
“Your friend Marko called this morning,” Hank said. “He thinks you can get reinstated if you just see one more counselor.”
“Another shrink, you mean.”
“Okay, Dad. Thanks for the message.”
When he hung up the phone, Lyle sat staring absently across the room. The bow of a wooden boat, made to look as if it had just crashed into the barroom, stuck out from a corner. Painted on the nose was the name, SS Minnow.
“So, how’s your dad?” the skipper asked.
Lyle spun around in his seat. “You don’t miss much, do you?”
The skipper put a hand on the bar. He looked hurt. “I was just—”
“He’s okay,” Lyle said with a wave of his hand. “As good as he gets.”
“You get along?”
“Before his last heart attack he spoke to me maybe once a year or so. Now he lives with me and he calls me all the time.”
“Maybe he’s lonely.”
The skipper was silent a moment then said, “You work tomorrow?”
“You bet. Saturdays are the most fun.” How long had it been since he’d used that word to describe work?
Lyle finished his beer, paid the tab, and walked outside. When he reached for the door handle of his car, he froze. Something he’d seen at the crash site hadn’t registered at the time. Now it appeared in his head like a Polaroid picture developing. Not all the damage on the driver’s side of the runaway Torino had been made by the back end of Lyle’s taxi.
“Wonder how that happened?” he said aloud.