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Chapter One Gasoline Prices
Expected to Climb Higher
Washington--There's pump shock at every corner gas station, with prices well over $7 a gallon--and the government says you'd better get used to it.
The Energy Department projects high gasoline prices at least through next year as producers struggle to keep up with demand, which has not slackened appreciably despite rising prices.
Crude oil prices climbed to an all-time high of $112 per barrel yesterday, triggering a 634-point drop in the Dow-Jones Industrial average on the New York Stock Exchange.
"We can expect to see gasoline prices soar as high as nine or ten dollars a gallon this summer," said James Dykes, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. "Gas prices have nowhere to go but up."
Energy Department officials blamed the climbing oil prices on the growing demand for petroleum by China and India, two of the fastest-growing economies in the world, coupled with the fact that global oil production has peaked and is unlikely to increase.
"There hasn't been a major new oil field discovered in well over a decade," said Roberta Groves, head of Gould Energy Corporation's explorations division. "With global oil production flat and global demand increasing steadily, oil prices will continue to climb for the foreseeable future."
The Mirror Lab
Paul Cochrane dreaded leaving the Mirror Lab. Set beneath the massive slanting concrete of the University of Arizona's football stadium, the lab was only a three-minute walk from Cochrane's office, but it was three minutes in the blazing wrath of Tucson's afternoon sun. It was only the first week of May, yet Cochrane--who had come from Massachusetts less than a year ago--had learned to fear the merciless heat outside.
As he limped down the steel stairway toward the lab's lobby, he mentally plotted his course back to his office at the Steward Observatory building, planning a route that kept him in the shade as much as possible.
He was a slim, quiet man in his mid-thirties, wearing rimless glasses that made him look bookish. Dressed in the requisite denim jeans and short-sleeved shirt of Arizona academia, he still wore his Massachusetts running shoes rather than cowboy boots. And still walked with a slight limp from the auto crash that had utterly devastated his life. His hair was sandy brown, cut short, his face lean and almost always gravely serious, his body trim from weekly workouts with the local fencing group. Although his Ph.D. was in thermodynamics, he had accepted a junior position with the Arizona astronomy department, as far from Massachusetts and his earlier life as he could get.
He reached the lobby, nodded to the undergrads working the reception desk, and took a breath before plunging into the desert heat outside the glass double doors. He saw that even though the window blinds behind the students had been pulled shut, the hot sunlight outside glowed like molten metal.
His cell phone started playing the opening bars of Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro.
Grateful for an excuse to stay inside the air-conditioned lobby for a moment longer, Cochrane pulled the phone from his shirt pocket and flipped it open.
His brother's round, freckled, red-haired face filled the phone's tiny screen.
Surprised that his brother was calling, Cochrane plopped onto the faux leather couch next to the lobby doors. "Hello, Mike," he said softly as he put the phone to his ear. "It's been a helluva long time."
"Hi, there, little brother. How's your suntan?"
Michael Cochrane was a microbiologist working for a private biotech company in the Bay Area of California.
"I don't tan, you know that."
Mike laughed. "Yeah. I remember when we'd go out to Lynn Beach. You'd get red as a lobster, and the next day you were white as Wonder Bread again."
Cochrane grimaced, remembering how painful sunburn was. And other hurts. His marriage. The auto wreck. Jennifer's funeral. Jen's mother screaming at him for letting her drive after drinking. He hadn't even been out of the wheelchair yet. Everybody in the church had stared at him. Just the sound of Mike's voice, still twanging with the old Massachusetts inflection, brought it all back in a sickening rush.
"I try to stay out of the sun," he said tightly.
"So you switched to Arizona," said Michael. "Smart move."
Keeping his voice steady, Cochrane asked, "How long has it been, Mike? Six months?" He knew it had been longer than that. Mike hadn't called since Cochrane had asked his brother to repay the thirty thousand dollars he'd loaned him.
"Don't be an asshole, Paulie."
"Come on, Mike. What's going on? The only time you call is when you want--"
"Stuff it," Michael snapped. "I've got news for you. Big news. I'm gonna pay you back every penny I owe. With interest."
"Sure you will." Cochrane couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"I damned well will, wise-ass. In another few days. Your big brother's going to be a rich man, Paulie. I've come up with something that's gonna make me a multimillionaire."
Cochrane raised his eyes heavenward. Ever since they'd been teenagers Mike had touted one get-rich-quick scheme after another. His bright, flip-talking big brother. Quick with ideas but slow to do the work that might make the ideas succeed. The latest one had cost Cochrane a chunk of his insurance settlement from the accident.
"Mikey, if you want to get rich you shouldn't have gone into research," he said into the phone.
"Like hell," his brother replied tartly. "What I've come up with is worth millions."
"You bet your ass, little brother. Hundreds of millions."
Cochrane started to say Really? again, but caught himself. Mike had a short fuse.
"Well, that's great," he said instead. "Just what is it?"
"Come on over here and see for yourself."
"To San Francisco?"
"Near the big NASA facility."
"That's in Mountain View," Michael corrected.
"So when are you coming? This weekend?"
"Why can't you just tell me about it? What's so--"
"Too big to talk on the phone about it, Paulie. C'mon, I know you. You've got nothing cooking for the weekend, you dumb hermit."
Cochrane thought about it bleakly. Mike was right. His social life was practically nonexistent. He wouldn't have a class to teach until Tuesday morning. And there were all those frequent flier miles he'd piled up in the past eighteen months attending astronomy conferences.
"Okay," he heard himself say halfheartedly. "This weekend." He never could oppose Mike for very long.
"Good! E-mail me your flight number and arrival time and I'll meet you at the airport. See ya, squirt."
Calvin Research Center
Mike wasn't at the airport to meet him.
Cochrane's Southwest Airlines flight from Tucson arrived at San Francisco International twelve minutes early, but the plane had to wait out on the concrete taxiway for twenty minutes before a terminal gate was freed up. Once inside the terminal Cochrane searched for his brother at the gate, then walked down the long corridor pulling his wheeled travel bag after him. Mike wasn't at the security checkpoint, either.
"Just like him," Cochrane muttered to himself. He went down to the baggage claim area even though he only had the one piece of luggage, on the off chance that Mike might be waiting for him there.
Nettled, Cochrane yanked out his cell phone and called his brother. The answering message replied brightly, "Hey, I can't take your call right now. Leave your name and number and I'll get back to you pronto."
Anger seething inside him, Cochrane took the bus to the Budget car rental site, phoned Mike again while he stood in line, and again got the cheerful recorded message. He started to call Mike's home number, but by then he was at the counter, where a tired-looking overweight Asian-American woman asked for his driver's license and credit card.
It was late afternoon, with the sun still a good distance above the low hills that ran along the coast. Speeding down U.S. 101, Cochrane decided to pass his hotel and go straight to Mike's office. He's probably working in his lab, Cochrane told himself. He never did have any sense of time.
The Calvin Research Center was nothing more than a single windowless boxlike building off the highway in Palo Alto. Not even much of a sign on it: merely a polished copper plaque by the front entrance. Cochrane parked his rented Corolla in a visitor's slot and walked through the pleasant late-afternoon breeze to the smoked-glass double doors. The young woman behind the receptionist's desk smiled up at him.
"Michael Cochrane, please. He's expecting me."
"And you are?" she asked. She was a pert redhead, her hair full of curls, her smile seemingly genuine.
"Paul Cochrane. His brother."
Her brows arched. "You don't look like brothers."
"I know," he said, almost ruefully. All his life he'd heard that.
She turned slightly to tap at her keyboard and Cochrane saw that she had a miniaturized microphone next to her lips on that side of her face. A wire-thin arm extended up into her bountiful curls, which hid her earplug.
She frowned slightly. "He's not answering, Mr. Cochrane."
"He's probably busy. Maybe I could go back and knock on his door?"
"I'm afraid that's not possible," she said, shaking her head. "Security, you know. He has to come out here and escort you in."
"But he asked me to come out here and see him," Cochrane insisted. "He's expecting me."
She shook her head. "You're not on the expected list, Mr. Cochrane. I'm afraid there's nothing--Oh! That's funny."
"His voice mail just went into its 'out of office' message. He's left the building."
"What? Just now?"
"I guess. Maybe you can catch him in the parking lot."
"What's he drive?"
The receptionist grinned knowingly. "A Fiat Spider convertible. Fire-engine red. Great car." Tapping at her computer keyboard, she added, "Slot number fourteen. That's around back."
Cochrane hurried out of the lobby and sprinted around the square building, limping slightly on his bad leg. Mike probably just remembered he's supposed to pick me up at the airport, he grumbled to himself. Several cars were leaving the parking area, but he didn't see a red convertible among them and slot fourteen was empty. No Fiat Spider in sight.
"Sonofabitch," Cochrane muttered. "He's gone to the frigging airport. Or he forgot all about my coming here today and went home."
Walking slowly back to his rental car, Cochrane phoned his brother's home number. This time the answering machine's message was in Mike's wife's voice. Nobody was home, Irene pronounced slowly and distinctly, like the kindergarten teacher that she was. Please leave your name and number. Christ, Cochrane said to himself, I hope they haven't taken off for the weekend. That'd be just like him, the irresponsible pain in the ass.
With the GPS tracker mounted on the rental car's dashboard, Cochrane left the highway and headed for Mike's house, maneuvering through residential streets until he found the place. It was an unpretentious clapboard two-story house, painted white with Kelly-green trim and a neat little lawn in front bordered by pretty flowers. A hefty silver SUV sat in the driveway: a Chrysler gas-guzzler, Cochrane saw. No Fiat Spider, though.
Cochrane pulled up on the driveway beside the SUV and got out of his Corolla. He rang the doorbell once, twice. No answer. He tried the doorknob; locked. Feeling angrier by the microsecond, he went to the garage and stood on tiptoe to peer through the dusty windows of the garage door. It was empty.
Shit! He's at the goddamned airport looking for me and getting mad, Cochrane said to himself. I was an idiot to come out here. Maybe this is Mike's idea of a practical joke, get me out here on the promise of paying what he owes me and then leaving me hanging here like a stupid fool. My big brother, the wise-ass. He's got the laugh on me on this one, all right.
He thought about leaving a blistering message on Mike's cell phone but decided against it. Not with Mike's unforgiving temper. Never say something you'll regret later, he told himself. Dad's wisdom. All those years of letting Mom nag and complain without ever yelling back at her. People thought Dad was pussywhipped. Cochrane knew better. He just didn't care what Mom said. It wasn't important to him.
Instead, Cochrane told his brother's cell phone which hotel he'd be at, waiting for him. It was hard to keep the irritation out of his voice.
The university travel office had reserved a room for him at the Days Inn in Redwood City, the lowest hotel rate they could find in the Palo Alto area. Friday going-home traffic was jamming the highway now and as Cochrane inched along, fuming over his brother's thoughtlessness, he decided he'd check out the next morning and get the hell home and let his brother laugh at him all he wanted to.
Damn! He asked me to come out here. And then he just leaves me here stuck in traffic like a goddamned idiot. No wonder he and Irene never had kids. Mike'd forget where the hell he left them. He's so goddamned completely self-centered.
Cochrane was feeling sweaty and thoroughly aggravated by the time the little map on the GPS dashboard display told him to take the next off-ramp. It took nearly ten minutes to inch through the crawling traffic and finally get off the highway. He passed a sign warning that minimum speed was forty. He'd been unable to get up to fifteen for the past half hour.
At the hotel's front desk he informed the room clerk that he'd be checking out in the morning instead of staying the weekend. The clerk didn't bat an eye. He rolled his travel bag to his room and didn't bother to unpack it; he merely pulled his laptop computer and toiletries kit from the bag and went into the bathroom for a long, steamy shower. Mike didn't call.
After a mediocre, solitary dinner, Cochrane went to his room and tried the home phone again. Again Irene's voice-mail message. Fuming, he watched television for a while, then turned in. He tossed uncomfortably on the hotel bed: the pillows were too thin, the air conditioner too loud. The room smelled funny, like disinfectant. At last he fell asleep and dreamed of being a little boy lost in an airport.
A pounding on the door awakened him. Startled, he sat up in the bed, blinking sleep from his eyes. Squinting, he saw that the digital clock on the bed table's green glowing display read 1:38 a.m.
The door thundered again. "Police! Open up!"
Cochrane hadn't packed a robe. Still slightly fuddled with sleep, he clicked on the bedside lamp, then grabbed for his jeans, thrown over the room's only chair.
"What do you want?" he called as he pulled the jeans on.
"We want to talk to Paul Cochrane."
Cochrane pulled on his glasses, then grabbed his shirt and wormed his arms into it. Without bothering to button it, he went to the door and peered through the peephole. Two men in dark suits stood out in the hall: one white, one black. They sure looked like cops, he thought.
"Can I see some identification?"
The black man pulled a slim wallet from his back pocket and let it fall open in front of the peephole. Cochrane saw a silver badge.
He unlatched the security chain and opened the door. The two police detectives pushed in, forcing Cochrane backward toward the bed.
"What's this about?" he asked, trying to sound resolute.
The detectives' eyes shifted, taking in the whole room, the meager furnishings, Cochrane's opened bag on the stand next to the television.
"You're Paul Cochrane," the black man said, more of a statement than a question.
"You have a brother, Michael?" asked the white detective. He was burly, sour-faced, his eyes sagging, his mouth curved downward.
"Yeah. What's happened?"
"Sorry to break the news, sir," said the black man. "I'm afraid your brother is dead."
"Dead?" Cochrane's knees went wobbly.
"Murdered," said the white cop.
Cochrane sank down onto the rumpled bed.
Murdered?" Cochrane heard his voice squeak.
A blow to the head with a blunt object," said the sad-eyed white detective. "In his office at the . . ." He hesitated a moment.
"The Calvin Research Center," the black detective finished for him.
"Mike? Murdered?" Cochrane couldn't get his mind around the idea. "Are you certain it's him?"
The white cop pulled a three-by-five oblong of photographic paper from his inside jacket pocket. "This your brother?"
Cochrane took the photo in a trembling hand. And almost retched. Mike's face was distorted, his mouth twisted, his eyes open and staring blankly, his hair matted with blood that pooled beneath his battered head.
Fighting back the bile burning up his throat, Cochrane handed the photo back to the detective. "That . . . that's my brother," he managed to say.
"Several people at the research lab identified the body," said the black man.
Cochrane sat on the bed, breathing hard, staring at the floor. He realized that he was barefoot; it made him feel stupid, exposed.
"I'm Sergeant McLain," the white cop said. "He's Sergeant Purvis. We need to ask you a few questions."
"Yeah, sure," Cochrane murmured, barely hearing him. "Go right ahead."
McLain pulled a slim notepad from his jacket pocket and flicked it open. The only light in the room was from the bedside lamp. He squinted and read, "You arrived at San Francisco International at three-eighteen this afternoon, right?"
Cochrane nodded as Purvis pulled the chair from the corner, turned it around, and sat on it backward, facing Cochrane, his arms folded on the chair's back.
Still standing, McLain said, "You drove past this motel and went straight to the Calvin lab, didn't you? The receptionist remembers you coming in around four, four-fifteen."
"That's right. My brother wasn't there."
"Yes, he was," said Purvis softly.
Before Cochrane could react to that, McLain said, "You had time to meet your brother out back in the parking lot first. He'd bring you into the building through the rear entrance. You could have doubled back to the parking lot and then come in the front way, so the receptionist would see you."
Realizing what the detective was saying, Cochrane protested, "That's not true! I didn't--"
McLain went on, "Then you drove here to the motel, checked in, and made sure plenty of people saw you having dinner in the restaurant. And you told the room clerk you were checking out tomorrow instead of staying the whole weekend."
"I didn't kill my brother!"
McLain's hard expression didn't alter by a millimeter. "I didn't say you did. I'm just talking theoretical."
"I didn't kill Mike. I didn't even see him."
Purvis said, "He was murdered just about the time you were at the lab."
"I didn't do it," Cochrane repeated.
"You were at his house, too," McLain added. "Fingerprints on the front door, the garage door. What were you looking for?"
For a long moment McLain stood in sour-faced silence in the middle of the motel room, his shadow against the wall huge and menacing in the light from the bedside lamp. Purvis sat straddling the chair, his eyes boring into Cochrane.
Cochrane remembered, "Wait a minute. At first the receptionist said his phone didn't answer. Then it went into the voice-mail mode. While I was there in the lobby! You can ask her."
Purvis looked up at his partner. "That means that his brother was murdered while he was in the lobby."
"If he's telling the truth," McLain said, as if Cochrane weren't there.
"It's the truth!" Cochrane insisted.
"We can check it out easy enough," said Purvis.
McLain seemed to think it over, his baggy eyes studying Cochrane all the while. At last he nodded to Purvis. "Okay, that's it. For now. Let's go, Ty."
Purvis got to his feet, then fetched a card from his shirt pocket. "You think of anything, anything at all, give me a call."
Struggling to his feet, Cochrane accepted the card, his hand still trembling. "I've got to get back to Tucson. My job. . . ."
"We can't keep you here," McLain said, sounding disappointed about it. "Just don't try to leave the country."
Cochrane shook his head. The two policemen left, closing the door softly behind them. Cochrane went back to the bed and sat on it. He sank his head in his hands.
Mike's dead. Murdered. Somebody killed him while I was in the fucking lobby of the building asking for him. Who in the name of Jesus H. Christ would kill Mike? Why?
He fell back on the bed, his unbuttoned shirt crumpled against his back.
Irene! he thought. Mike's wife. Where is she? Where was she when Mike was killed?
Sitting up again, he reached for the phone on the bed table, then realized he hadn't memorized Mike's number. He opened the drawer and fumbled for his cell phone, pressed buttons until his brother's home number came up in the tiny screen.
Irene's patient schoolteacher's voice said mechanically, "We're not home at the moment. Please--"
Cochrane snapped his cell phone shut.
Mike. Cochrane saw in his mind the redheaded kid he'd played baseball with. The older brother who'd lorded it over him all his life. The grown man with the wise-guy grin and the endless enthusiasm for everything he did. And the hair-trigger temper. He's dead. Somebody bashed his skull in while I was standing a couple of hundred feet away like a stupid idiot.
On an impulse he tried Mike's cell number again. He can't be dead. This is all some kind of mistake. He'll answer the phone and--
"Hey, I can't take your call right now. Leave your name and number and I'll get back to you pronto."
Cochrane shook his head. No, Mikey, you won't get back to me. Not ever.
He clicked the phone shut and wondered why he couldn't cry. He wanted to. But the tears would not come.
Copyright © 2006 by Ben Bova. All rights reserved.