Peg was waiting at his cube when Graham walked into the Sentinel’s newsroom the following morning, and he immediately felt his temperature rise. She cut a striking figure in her crisp pantsuit, her auburn hair pulled back in a pony tail. He loved pony tails, and she knew it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her with one. She had a manila folder in her hands. She had highlights put in recently. The top button on her blouse was unbuttoned, revealing a hint of her cleavage – less for him than for the jury box she was soon to stand before, no doubt.
“Hi, Peg,” he smiled.
“You look like shit, Ian.” She handed him the manila folder.
“Cut the crap. I’m late for court and you’re dragging your feet. I can’t believe I had to come over here with this. Can we just be done with it?”
“This really isn’t a good time.”
“If you don’t sign them right here, right now, I’ll be forced to –“
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. He dropped the folder down on the desk and opened it, flipped through the papers. “Anything change? Maybe I should read this over. You and Dr. Drillbit aren’t trying to pull a fast one and get all my riches, are you?” That was his nickname for his soon-to- be ex-wife’s lover, a dentist, whom she had taken while they were married. “He still giving you a good cleaning?”
She shifted her weight from foot to the other. “Not even original.”
“No, fucking the dentist isn’t original.” He closed the folder.
“He’s got something you don’t.”
“A bigger drill?”
“You’re such a juvenile.”
Graham didn’t want to go on, but he couldn’t help himself. She did that to him.
“You know,” Graham said, “I’m not even angry with him, because he really doesn’t know what he’s in for. In his shoes, I might have done the same thing. But deep down, you know that he can’t fix you. In a few years, you’ll realize once again that you’ve staked your happiness on somebody else’s ability to placate your neuroses and when he doesn’t – can’t – measure up, you’ll just get frustrated all over again and start blaming him for everything that’s wrong in your life. And you’ll start having affairs again.”
“You’d love for that to be true,” Peg said, “instead of admitting that you’re a ghost in what I will loosely call our marriage.”
“Boo,” he said. He wanted her to lose her cool, blow up, make a show, just so she would have to walk out of the newsroom with all eyes on her.
But she didn’t.
She turned on her heel and walked away.
“You look good,” he said to her back.
She held up her middle finger without turning around, and was gone.
“OASIS is not a NASA project,” Becky said. “It’s a company.”
“A company?” Graham said. They were in an empty conference room, the shades drawn, the door closed. Becky had a stack of print-outs for him, sorted into labeled file folders. She was the best researcher in the Sentinel, in high demand, tons of backlog, but she had a huge crush on Graham and he wasn’t afraid to use that knowledge to get to the front of her queue now and then.
“Osborne AreoSpace Infrastructure Solutions,” she said, handing him the first folder. “Incorporated six years ago. Owner is listed as Peter Osborne. The Peter Osborne.”
“Osborne?” Graham said.
“Christ, Graham, don’t you read the paper?”
“Does anyone read this paper anymore?” Graham quipped.
“He’s one of those internet billionaire types,” she said. “Founded a couple of start-ups, got out before the last crash, made billions. Then went back and made more. No wife. No kids. No address that I can find either. For the last five years, he’s been pretty much off the face of the Earth.”
“How do you know so much about him?” Graham said.
“Because I just spent two hours researching him for you,” she said, and deposited a phone book-sized pile of papers and file folders on Graham’s desk. “OASIS has a post office box in Kona, Hawaii, and an 800 phone number.”
Graham picked up a print out of a Forbes Magazine cover with Osborne’s face on it. The headline read: WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE INTERNET WIZARD?
Graham said, “Another internet billionaire bitten by the space bug?”
“That’s for you to figure out,” Becky said. “Another wacky start-up founded by a wacky rich guy with too much money on his hands, if you ask me.”
But Graham thought it unlikely, for two reasons. First, no start-up would have engineering blueprints of that detail without some serious funding. And without intending to build what they had outlined. Second: men like Peter Osborne didn’t do things with the hope of possibly succeeding; they rarely failed. But when they did fail, they did so spectacularly. Whatever Osborne was doing, he was doing for real.
Becky continued, “It is damn strange, though.”
“They don’t even have a website, as you found, which is odd. Shit, I’ve got three sites just for myself, and that doesn’t include my Instagram. They’re certainly are not promoting themselves. Very strange for a company that was incorporated so many years ago. I thought about calling their 800 number.”
Graham felt a mild sense of alarm. “Did you?”
“No. Figured you’d want to do that.”
Because if this was a real story, he didn’t want Osborne getting wind that he was being investigated. Maybe Osborne had set up a shell company for some reason, to protect certain parts of his financial fortune. That sounded more like the play a corporate CEO would make. But from this first dig, it seemed that Osborne was, in fact, being contracted by NASA to build some kind of lunar or Mars training camp. He didn’t have all the pieces yet, but he knew he was on to something. But the big question remained: so what? If that wast true, why was it so secret and earth-shattering that his informer was fired and insisted on a midnight meeting?
Becky tapped the stack of research material on Osborne. “This is all the biographical information I could find on Osborne in the time had. For one of the world’s richest men there is surprisingly little press out there. Most of this is archival material, common knowledge. The most recent press on him is five years old. After that, nothing. And I do mean nothing.”
“You found all this in an hour?” He was impressed.
She grinned. “Do you want me to do anything else? I need to get back.”
“Thanks, Becky. You did great.”
She smiled. “Buy me dinner some time.”
“I like it,” she said, leaning in a bit, “when you call me ‘good girl.’”
She walked away. Graham turned to the stack of paper in front of him. He ran his hand over the top of the stack. In the age of digital and wireless-everything and self-driving cars, he felt a small comfort that certain things in this world were still tangible. Knowable.
But from the moment Graham started reading, nothing made sense.
His confusion was due mainly to his limited understanding of who Osborne really was, at least publicly. There had never been a biography – official or unofficial of him published. His name was frequently dropped in the same sentences with names like Gates, Diller, Branson, Musk, Bezos, Bigelow and hundreds of other billionaires and world shakers. Yet Graham was surprised by how little he, not just as lay person but also as a reporter, actually knew about Osborne until he started reading in-depth. The story of his rise to prominence – son of a New York City mailman, college drop-out and so on – was fairly well documented. But the personal aspects of his life were all but non-existent. In fact, it seemed as if Peter Osborne had purposely created an aura of misinformation and confusion around himself. Graham found four different references citing his birth date, each of them skewed by a few months.
There were a few photographs, but nothing that wasn’t a corporate mug shot at least a decade old, or far older. The most recent photograph had been reprinted on the Los Angeles Times website from a profile they had done on Osborne twelve years ago; the shot was grainy and a long lens image, shot from a distance. The profile itself was not very long and basically a puff piece that read as if it had been produced by Osborne’s PR department without his participation. None of the articles quoted Osborne directly, always a subordinate – the name Lydecker appeared numerous times – but those frequently were contradictory.
The titles of the articles were themselves revealing:
The most startling thing to Graham was that, as Becky had mentioned, Peter Osborne had simply withdrawn from day-to-day operations until he was pretty much a ghost. Yet there was little to no press about it. But it could be inferred through the clippings. There was one quote – again, the name Lydecker – that spoke of Osborne as “wanting to spend more time with family that he’d lost touch with.”
But Osborne didn’t have any kids. And his wife had died of leukemia.
In any case, he’d made no public appearances and for all intents and purposes simply withdrew into obscurity. But how does a billionaire find obscurity, Graham thought? A man with Osborne’s reach, that ego, wouldn’t simply disappear for no good reason. And men like him didn’t usually consider “spending time with family” to be a good reason. But with billions of dollars at his disposal he could pay for that obscurity pretty easily. And that seemed confirmed when Graham could find no mention in any of the stacks of paper about where Osborne would be spending his leisure time. One article mentioned that Osborne owned several islands, including a few in the Hawaiian island chains and in Oceania. But that was the closest any of them came to pinning him down. His real estate holdings in New York City were mind-boggling.
The last article, from the Washington Post, wasn’t about Osborne directly, but rather recounted a fund-raising dinner for the newly elected President, and mentioned that his name was on the guest list as a donor, and that it was one of his only public appearances since retiring. The article mentioned that the President, who was going to shake a thousand hands at this dinner party, made specific time to meet with Osborne, one of his oldest friends, in private session before resuming his solicitations.
And that was it.
The last anyone had heard or seen of Peter Osborne.
Presumably, Osborne had slid quietly out a side door at that dinner and hadn’t been heard from again.
What did Graham have? He had a billionaire who had dropped off the face of the earth to found a company called OASIS that might be involved in the space industry. He had blueprints to some kind of facility that looked like, he assumed, a remote – possibly polar or desert – training station and which, at this time, could not be authenticated as anything other than conceptual. He had a highly questionable source, a presumed NASA employee who also presumably had been fired for finding out about it, even though NASA was involved, and who thought that he was being followed.
It was a lot of vapor, nothing substantive.
Most importantly, nothing in Osborne’s past hinted at an interest in space.
But if he was in it now, he was in good company. The list of super-rich men funding expensive space toys was extensive and well known: Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airways; Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, founder of Blue Horizon; Robert Bigelow, owner of Budget Suites, who had founded Bigelow Aerospace; Elon Musk, founder of PayPal.com, founder of SpaceX; Henri Dumontel, the French industrialist who had founded FinalFrontiers, and of course Richard Balzer, co-founder of Microsoft, who had bankrolled Burt Rutan’s famous X-Prize flight of SpaceShipOne, the contest founded by yet another of the elite, Peter Diamandis. They were all founders of space start-ups or funding experimental craft, some of which were in operation right now.
Even if this turned out to be nothing more than a waste of time, there was a story in Osborne somewhere.
At the end of the day, though, all Graham had was inference. A few puzzle pieces without any unifying thread, except an informant who was questionable at best. If Graham was honest with himself it was pretty thin.
But there was this: A tingle in his gut.
Every reporter’s trigger was different; Graham’s was a little shot of tension physically located behind the heart in his chest cavity, like someone pressing their thumb into the back side of his heart. Whenever that tingle flared, he knew invariably something big was about to happen.
And he had it here.
Graham looked up from the clipping on Osborne. One of the pretty young assistants stood behind him.
“There are two police officers waiting in the east conference room for you.”
The lead detective introduced himself as Nelson. He was a stockily-built man in a rumpled suit. His partner, Harper, was several years younger, thin and tall, and was vaguely familiar – Graham wondered if he’d played for the UCF Knights basketball team. Nelson pulled out a file folder and slid a photograph across the table. It was a color copy of a Florida driver’s license. The man in the photo was mid-fifties, mustached, heavyset with glasses.
“Do you recognize this man?”
“Nope,” Graham said. And he was being truthful. “Should I?”
“You sure about that?”
“What’d he do?”
“He wound up dead in his garage. Death by car exhaust. Suicide, presumably. His name is Jonathon Warburton. He’s an engineer at NASA. Or he was.”
Graham felt his heart skip a beat. Tycho? “Really?”
“Was he a source for a story, perhaps?”
“No,” Graham said. “I’ve never seen him. Never spoke to him. But I get lots of tips and calls all the time. I rarely meet all my sources.” That wasn’t exactly true, but it sounded good.
“So you’re sure you never met this man?”
“How many ways do you want me to tell you the same thing?” Graham said, a little annoyed. The detective seemed determined that Graham answer him in the affirmative.
The two detectives exchanged a glance, then Nelson said, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Graham. We’ll be in touch.”
They headed for the door.
“How do you know it was suicide?” Graham said.
“What?” Nelson turned back to him.
“I said: How do you know it was a suicide?”
The detective put his hands on hips, perhaps thinking he was being challenged. “Because you can’t accidentally kill yourself that way. You have to tape the tailpipe, run the hose, close the garage doors. It’s the only explanation.”
“Did he leave a note?”
“He did not.”
“So you have no idea why he did it?”
Nelson sighed. “He’d just been laid off from NASA. His wife had cleaned him out in his divorce last year. He was broke. All signs point to being severely depressed, but the autopsy will tell us more. Can I answer any more questions for you, Mr. Graham?”
Graham shook his head. The two detectives walked out, and Graham had the feeling that these men weren’t being honest with him about all they knew. But then neither had he. And then he realized: The cops had never told him how they’d connected him to Warburton.