Sitting in an FBI interrogation room is the kind of experience that makes a man really re-evaluate his life. Clearly, things had spiraled out of control at some point, and Mark is still spiraling, still spinning. He feels like he’s spinning, like he can’t get his bearings and the world keeps tilting dizzily. He’s felt that way since the moment Lia went into that restaurant with Lenore Dougal.
Why the fuck had he let her go alone? Why the fuck had he even let her stay on the Limetown story after some guy beat himself bloody against her hotel room door? Of course, he knows why. The story had seemed worth it. Mark is no stranger to dangerous stories, had even dropped a couple or handed them off to colleagues who had the resources to handle them. It’s what he should have done with Limetown. But no one else had the personal connection to Limetown that Lia had, a connection that had opened doors at every step of the investigation, and Lia….Christ, Lia. Was she even still alive?
He should have stopped her. But who the hell could stop Lia, really. All you could do was hustle to keep up with her. Mark, obviously, hadn’t fucking managed to.
The thing was, when Lia had first pitched the idea of doing a series on Limetown, it hadn’t seemed dangerous. The story was creepy as hell, sure, and conspiracy theories abounded about what had really happened in Limetown. But both Lia and Mark had initially conceived of the podcast as more of a human interest series than an investigation, with a focus on a handful of the more interesting missing citizens of Limetown. They’d do some background on Limetown and its mysteries, interview some friends and family of the missing, possibly including Lia’s own family, and wrap it up with some of the more promising theories about what had happened in Limetown. Easy. The kind of story that practically wrote itself when you let the sources do the talking. Mark had figured that at worst, they’d get some doors slammed in their faces when they tracked down grieving family members, and maybe some crazy and creepy emails from conspiracy theorists.
By the time Lia went to Limetown itself, they had their seven-episode podcast planned, researched, and half the episodes written. The plan had gone out the goddamn window with that call from Terry Hilkens. Lia had skyped him to talk about it as soon as she got back to her hotel, looking equal parts spooked and thrilled.
“Seriously Lia, a survivor? It has to be some crank.” Mark listened to the audio Lia had recorded again. Hilkens sounded…odd.
“Maybe. I won’t be able to tell until I hear more from this supposed survivor. But I think we should follow the lead anyway. I mean, it would be a good story either way, right?”
She was right. If it really was a survivor, then APR would have the scoop of the decade. No one had managed to find an actual Limetown survivor in the past decade, and one genuine survivor could be the eyewitness to finally solve the mystery of Limetown once and for all. If it was just some crank, well, that could be good radio too. Dig into why someone would lie about something like that, cover all the conspiracy theories….yeah, there was a good story there.
“Yeah. Yeah, it would be. Okay, run with this lead. Let me know what you need from me and the rest of the team.”
Lia absolutely lit up, and Mark couldn’t help but reflect some of her sudden enthusiasm and intensity back at her. This, he had thought, was going to be a hell of a story.
At first, the whole business with Winona had Mark figuring she was just some poor nut job convinced she had been in Limetown. Sad and disquieting, but not particularly unusual or dangerous. Lia had texted him right after the interview: weird interview. Not sure if we can fact check any of it, but I think I’m on to something, and it might be big . Will let you know more when I get back to my hotel . Once he listened to the interview, he understood what Lia had meant about the fact checking.
“Well, what do you think?” asked Lia when she called him.
“I think Winona sounds like a very disturbed woman,” said Mark, and was met with a chilly silence from Lia.
“I believe her.”
“Why? For god’s sake Lia, she sounded like she was ripped straight out of an episode of The X-Files.”
“Call it intuition. Anyway, I got her fingerprints, I’ll email them to you in a bit. We can check them against the Limetown Commission’s manifest.”
Mark sighed. “Alright. If she’s on the manifest, we’ll figure out where to go from there. If she’s not…”
“Well, it’s a story either way, right?”
And then the attack happened. With the horrible clarity of hindsight, Mark knew this was when he should have told Lia to drop the investigation. They’d had enough material, they didn’t need to investigate. They should have gone with their original plan for Part 2. But his first thought after Lia had told him about the attack had been, “Shit, we really are on to something.” And then Winona’s fingerprints were actually a match for a Limetown citizen from the manifest, and suddenly things got very interesting indeed.
Still, he was obligated to be the voice of reason.
When Lia called him the morning after the attack, he told her, “Lia, this sounds like it’s getting really dangerous. Maybe we should step back, figure out what’s going on before we go any further.”
“No way. We should air the interview. Hell, we should air the attack. I won’t be intimidated, and there is no way in hell I’m dropping this investigation now that so many possible leads have opened up. Now we know there really are Limetown survivors: someone needs to be their voice, someone needs to tell their story. That’s always been the whole point of this series, hasn’t it?”
Mark eyed all the emails flagged HIGH IMPORTANCE in his inbox, with variations on ‘Limetown investigation’ and ‘FBI requesting meeting’ in the subject lines. Legal was going to throw a fit. If he weighed that against ten years of silence and hundreds of missing people though….
“Okay, you’re right. And I have to admit, I want to see how this pans out. But I want you checking in way more often. And please, at least pretend to listen to Legal and Gina.”
“You got it.”
Lia checking in more frequently didn’t save Warren Chambers. The interview with him had sent them even deeper down the Limetown rabbit hole, and Mark didn’t know what to think. Mind reading? Brain implants? It really was starting to feel like he was in an episode of The X-Files. As if the whole crazy interview with Chambers wasn’t enough, three days after Lia interviewed him, Warren Chambers was dead.
“The police say it was an accident,” said Lia after relaying the news. Her voice was flat.
“Really. It’s just a coincidence he had a fatal accident three days after talking to you about what was really going on in Limetown.”
“Apparently. The suspect is in custody, and it’s an open and shut case.”
“Yeah, I’m not buying that.”
According to everything Mark and his production assistants could dig up though, it really was a tragic drunk driving accident, and it really was an open and shut case. If it had been any other story, Mark would have accepted it as a tragic coincidence. But it was Limetown. And Mark had to admit he was scared. He told Lia as much.
“Lia…this investigation officially has a body count. And we’re basically out of leads. Maybe we should drop it for now, hand everything over to the FBI.”
“No, absolutely not. There was a body count before we ever started this investigation. That’s why we can’t drop this! We need to find the truth, and we need to make sure everyone knows it. We hand this off to the FBI, and it will get hushed up and hidden, and no one will ever know what really happened.”
“I just can’t help but think this is getting too personal for you, Lia.”
“It was already personal,” said Lia in the chilliest voice Mark had ever heard from her. She thawed after a moment, and continued, “Listen, let me go back, check up on old leads, talk to some people again. If I don’t turn up anything new, we can drop it and pass it off to the FBI.”
Of course, things only got more personal and dangerous from there. The phone call Lia got from inside her parents’ house terrified Mark down to the bone. Lia, though, was only more infuriated by it, and instead of pulling back from the investigation, she leaned further in. And she started keeping secrets. The rest of the Limetown team could only scramble to keep up.
“Guess who the latest Limetown survivor to contact me was.”
Lia was finally back in the APR offices after her assorted trips to research and interview for the Limetown story. Her family, she had assured everyone, were safe in an undisclosed location, and she refused to say anything else about that terrifying phone call. They had aired it though, in the hopes that it would discourage further threats and give Lia and the story a high enough profile that they couldn’t be disappeared. Gina had still yelled at him a lot for it.
Mark suspected the yelling was at least 60% for show though; the Limetown podcast had rocketed up to the top of the Podcast chart on iTunes, and their downloads were well into the millions. Limetown was APR’s most successful podcast of the year, and Gina knew it. Mortal danger was a real draw, it turned out.
“At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Oscar Totem himself,” said Mark.
“No, not Oscar Totem. Next best thing though.”
She couldn’t mean…. “Are you—Dr. Max Finlayson?”
“Yup.” Lia set her phone down on Mark’s desk and played the recorded conversation.
It was definitely Max Finlayson. Mark felt a surge of totally inappropriate glee, and pushed it down. Focus, Mark , he told himself. You’re a Serious Journalist . Never mind that Max Finlayson was his particular Limetown obsession. He could be objective and serious. He couldn’t hide though that for the first time in a while, he was genuinely excited about the Limetown investigation, instead of just anxious and overwhelmed. Surely they’d get real answers from Finlayson.
He badgered Lia into watching the so-bad-it’s-good Signals movie with him, and it was the most fun they’d had in what felt like months. The real Limetown story might be totally crazy, but hey, at least there was no hint of aliens yet, so they could laugh and mock the movie without the intrusion of uncomfortable reality. After watching the movie, Mark convinced Lia to record a segment on it and Finlayson with him, and then Lia was off to meet Finlayson for the interview.
She dutifully checked in every hour or two, switching between burner phones, and Mark relaxed a little and thought, maybe nothing horrifying will happen . Ha. Something horrifying definitely did happen. Mark pinned the moment the investigation started going irretrievably wrong on the 911 call Lia made after Max had called her. By then, it was clear they were all just running ahead of the avalanche they had set off with Lia’s visit to Limetown.
The 911 call being leaked didn’t help matters any, and as good as the media shitstorm was for their download numbers, it wasn't worth the torrent of angry and terrified phone calls, emails, and tweets. The only up side to the whole mess was that Lia was finally having doubts about continuing, and was close to pulling the plug on the investigation. So Mark threw himself into damage control and preparing for how to wrap up the show with such an abrupt end to the investigation. The ravening hordes on the internet would probably savage them for it, but an unresolved and abrupt ending to a podcast was better than an unresolved and abrupt ending to their, or anyone else’s, lives. At least they could still salvage something decent out of the podcast, even if they did have the dubious honor of being the only podcast with a literal body count.
Mark was emailing the APR legal team who were shrieking about liability and the angry lawyer letters they were getting from Limetown citizens’ family members, when Lia barged into his office, brandishing her phone.
“Did you put her up to this?” she demanded, and played a voicemail from Gina. Mark listened to it with relief. Oh good, Gina had pulled the plug on any more in-person interviews.
“No, but it seems like a damned good idea given that every single one of your in-person interviews has ended with someone dead, missing, or threatened.”
Mark thought that was the end of it, that Lia had finally seen reason and was pulling back, but of course that would have been too easy. Because Lia sent him a text, following a lead, be back in a couple days, and proceeded to fall off the grid. Just when Mark was worried enough to call the FBI and report her as missing, she came back looking jet lagged and wild-eyed, with a recording of an interview with Max Finlayson’s wife, Deirdre Wells.
“Are you shitting me, Lia? People are fucking disappearing and dying left and right, and you leave the country for yet another Limetown interview, against the express orders of our boss? Do you have a death wish? What is wrong with—”
Lia pressed play on her phone, and played Mark the part of Deirdre’s interview that described just what had happened in Limetown in those final hours. It brought Mark to a screeching halt, and he made her play the whole thing.
When it was over, Lia lifted her chin and said, “Tell me it wasn’t worth it, I dare you.”
He couldn’t. An eyewitness account of just what had happened that night on February 8, 2004 that incited the panic and the death of Oscar Totem? Yeah, that was worth Lia pulling some underhanded spy shenanigans. Mark knew too that the interview was too good, too crucial, not to air. Gina would lose her shit of course, but fuck it.
“It was worth it. We’ll have to go behind Gina’s back to get it on air though.”
“You’ll help with that?”
“Yeah. But Lia….the stuff about your uncle. You sure you want to include that? Is there something going on there that I need to know about?”
“I think we should include it. It’s too important not to. And...I don’t really know any more than you do about my uncle. Obviously he’s deeply mixed up in all this, and obviously that’s been playing a role in how this investigation has worked out. That’s all I know, really.”
Mark studied Lia closely, looking for any tell. Her eyes were clear though, and he couldn’t read anything but worry and uncertainty in the lines of her face.
“Alright. Let’s get to work, then.”
Broadcasting Lia’s next interview live had seemed like a good idea, or at least, everyone at APR had managed to justify to themselves why it was a good idea, and were too caught up in the thrill of the journalistic chase to put a stop to the interview. Mark, for his part, knew that Lia would do the interview no matter what, so they might as well air it live in the hopes that it would guarantee her safety.
It had not guaranteed her safety.
Mark started calling every law enforcement agency he could think of the moment he understood just what it was Lenore Dougal was admitting to on live public radio. Because she was admitting to the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of people, in the most chillingly banal terms possible. Spreadsheets , for fucks’ sake, like it mattered that she was good at her job when her job was literal murder .
Maybe she’s just confessing before she kills herself , thought Mark. That was a thing murderers did, right ? It would be awful, but Lia would be safe. Mark had to make sure Lia was safe. Thanks to the conditions of the interview, they didn’t know exactly where Lia was, but they knew the general area, so Mark had some information to give the FBI and police. Surely, he thought, they’d have enough time to get to her. Twelve minutes. What was Lenore going to do in twelve minutes?
When Lia started screaming for him, Mark knew they were going to be too late.
Which is why, two days after Lia was kidnapped, Mark is now sitting in an FBI interrogation room, ready to confess every single one of his shitty decisions that had gotten them to this point.
Lenore had sent him the records, as promised, and Mark created a backup of them immediately, two backups even. If he was living in The X-Files now, he would damn well learn to be genre savvy, even if it was too little too late. He knows there has to be something in those records that will give him a lead on finding Lia. And he’s going to find Lia. He won’t leave it to the FBI, he can’t. Lia wouldn’t have.
Mark is going to find her, and he’s going to find the truth. There isn’t any other option.