Author : George S. Walker

“The bird couldn’t have just flown away,” said Ms. Donaldson, pointing to the vacated spot in the photos.

The Director nodded. They spoke quietly in his office as rain lashed against the window behind him.

“Maybe the last ones there simply forgot to lock up,” she added.

He didn’t get the joke. “That wouldn’t have made any difference. There were too many approaches. It’s not like the old days, when we didn’t have to worry.”

The Director was old enough to be her father. In his youth, a theft of this magnitude would have been inconceivable. Back then, they’d relied on the difficulty of physical access.

“Has anyone checked for prints?” asked the Director.

“Not yet. Of course, there were lots already there.”

He turned from the photos to look at her. “Each one is unique.”

“I’m not stupid,” she snapped. Instantly she regretted her outburst. He was the Director.

He shook his head. “Of course not. But even a footprint is a clue.”

“You mean, like an inside job.” She’d avoiding mentioning that till now, the elephant in the room.

“No. I’d know if it were our people.”

Would he really? And how much had he known before she’d walked in? What if the Director himself was involved? The power of the institution had been spiraling down for decades. What if the administration’s elite had masterminded the theft as a publicity stunt?

“Then who?” she said, studying his face for some betrayal of expression.

“I can count on one hand the organizations that could pull this off.”

“Where could they sell it? Not to a museum; it’s like the Mona Lisa.” She looked pointedly at the Director’s curio shelf, where a small replica of the original perched, eager to fly, every detail lovingly reproduced. “A ransom demand?”

“They must know we’d never pay. No, I think whoever did this took it just to prove they could,” he said. “You have to respect their gumption.”

Gumption, now there was a word you didn’t hear anymore. “Theft isn’t something I respect. We put our treasure on display for all the world.”

“On a long dark night with no one on guard.”

Lightning flashed outside the window. The weather here was stormier than there, overlooking a tranquil sea.

“We’re spread too thin these days,” he said. “One of the A-men is dead and the other will be soon. They were the best we had, the last ones there.”

Those days, the days of boots on the ground, were gone. Unmanned surveillance was the future, and the Director still had his head in the past.

“Of course, the only thing there was the body,” he said, “the base. We lost the top long ago.”

“Maybe they’re after that, too. Wouldn’t that be something to see? The whole thing put back together?”

“What part of smashed to a million pieces don’t you understand? No, they just went after the easy part.”

“Easy being a relative term.”

“How many people know?” he asked.

“You, me and the one who discovered it missing.” The man with the enhanced telescope was an outsider. That had to hurt the Director’s pride.

“Who has he told?”

“It’s not public. Not yet. I made sure of that.”

The Director looked her in the eye. “Once I tell the President that someone stole the Apollo 11 lander stage from the Sea of Tranquility, heads will roll here at NASA.”

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