Monday, September 5, 2016

The Abducted, Part One

Melissa Ames poured me a cup of coffee in her kitchen. Her daughter Lynne was in the living room, doing homework on a laptop computer. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Jurgen.”
            I sat down and opened my notebook. A real notebook, not an electronic device, because I’ve gotten used to scribbling on paper since I was a reporter, before tablets and smartphones. Before I was a private detective. “What can I do for you, Ms. Ames? And you can call me Tom if you like.”
            “Then just call me Melissa.” She had long brown hair, a blunt nose, and blue eyes that looked tired. “Lynne’s doctor said you have an open mind about, well, strange things. Diane Atkinson? She’s a child psychologist.”
            I nodded. I’d gotten referrals from Atkinson and a few other psychs who had open minds about, well, strange things. “Go ahead.”
            Melissa glanced at her daughter. “Lynne is 10. When she was six, we were . . .” She sighed. “Abducted.”
            She looked away, embarrassed. “Aliens.”
            Okay. I’ve encountered more than my share of supernatural creatures for some reason—vampires, ghosts, zombies, and demons. Aliens were new.
            But my job is to listen. “Tell me about it.”
            She closed and rubbed her eyes. “I was driving her back from my ex-husband’s house. Somehow I just—lost time. Two hours. One minute I was driving, the next I was pulled over on the shoulder and a cop was asking if I was all right. Lynne was asleep in the back seat. I thought I’d just fallen asleep too.”
            She swallowed some coffee. “Then a few days later she started drawing pictures. All the time. These strange creatures. I asked her what they were, and she said she saw them when we were sleeping in the car.”
            Now she sighed again. “I thought it was just a dream. She was already seeing Dr. Atkinson to help her deal with the divorce. My ex-husband was—well, he was working all the time, and we were fighting all the time he wasn’t working, and . . .”
            But she shook her head, forcing herself away from that tangent. “Anyway, I told the psych about it, and she asked her. That’s when Lynne told her about the car stopping, and a big white light in the sky, and then she was in a room with those—creatures, and they were talking to her inside her head. I know, I know . . .” Melissa groaned. “It’s right out of The X-Files. But it’s not like Lynne watched that, or much TV at all. Just Disney movies and Pixar.”
            She shoved her chair back. “And then after that I started having dreams about the same thing. Strange creatures in a bright room, asking me questions I couldn’t really hear. I thought I was going crazy.”
            Melissa Ames didn’t seem crazy. But this did sound like the standard alien abduction story, and most of them are either hoaxes or hallucinations. Still, I tried to keep an open mind. I’ve encountered supernatural beings—demons, vampires, and the like—but aliens are a little outside my usual territory. “So what happened next?”
            “Nothing. She shook her head with a smile. “Lynne stopped drawing aliens after a few days, and I stopped having the dreams. I forgot about it. Until last week.”
            “What happened last week?”
            “She started drawing them again.”

Melissa showed me the drawings. I’m no art critic, but they looked pretty good to me. Better, they didn’t look like the usual “alien” pictures—no slender gray bodies, big eyes, and bulbous heads. These aliens were thick, almost lizardlike, with four arms—although one had only three, as if its fourth arm had been amputated. They had purple eyes on long stalks, and thin, lipless mouths.
            “It was the morning right after she came home from a week with her father.” She put them back in a folder. “I think it happened again when she was with him.”
            “Did you ask her?”
            “I can’t.” Melissa’s shoulders went stiff. “It’s . . . complicated. I know, I know, I sound like a complete wimp, but she’s doing great and I don’t want to push her too hard. I just want to know if something happened when she was with Craig.”
            “So have you talked to him?”
            “I never told him about—what happened.” She rubbed her forehead. “I don’t know if she did. But if he thought I was crazy, he’d try to take her way from me. But I don’t want her going there again if this is going to happen.”
            I took a long sip of coffee, mostly to give myself time to think of the right way to ask my next question. “So what exactly do you want me to do?”
             Melissa looked at her daughter in the other room. “I want something about Craig that I can use so I can get sole custody.” She kept her voice low.
            Custody cases can get ugly, and the kid is always in the middle. Still, I had a credit card bill to pay. And at least she didn’t expect me to hunt for aliens.
            I set my cup on the table. “I’ll need some information on where he lives and where he works—friends, girlfriends, that sort of stuff. Will you want surveillance?”
            “I don’t know.” Melissa grabbed a recipe pad from the counter and a pen from her pocket. “Craig gets Lynne every other weekend, and then every other week during the summer. I don’t think he has a girlfriend. Honestly, I don’t really have a problem with him, and I think he treats Lynne fine. She’s never complained, except about little things—not letting her have ice cream, stuff like that.”
            She shoved the pad across the table. “This is where he lives. He teaches engineering at Bracken Tech out in Naperville.” She threw the pen on the tile floor. “God. I sort of hate to do this, but I can’t let this keep happening to her. Ever since I saw her pictures? The dreams keep coming back.” She shuddered.
            “I’ll do what I can.” I finished my coffee. “But I should tell you that two things from my experience that might happen: I’ll find something disturbing, like hookers or drugs—”
            Melissa’s eyes went wide. “I can’t believe that.”
            They usually say that. I try not to be cynical about it. “The more likely thing is that I might not find anything at all you can use. So you need to be ready for either one. Or anything in between.”
            Melissa stood up. “I’ll bring you a check.”
            I put my cup in the sink and walked into the living room. “Lynne? I have to go now. It was nice meeting you.”
            Lynne had her mother’s long hair and flat nose, and she wore a red and blue string bracelet on one wrist. She saved whatever she was working on and looked up at me. “Mom showed you my pictures, didn’t she?”
            “Yeah. They’re very nice. You have a great imagination.”
            “I didn’t make them up!” She looked up at me with clear eyes. “I saw them on the spaceship.”
            “Okay, okay.” I crouched down next to her. “So when did you see them?”
            She curled her legs up. “I don’t know. Last week. And maybe the time before that. Mom showed me the other pictures, but I don’t really remember it.” She turned back to her laptop.
            Then Melissa was behind me with her check. “Lynne? Did you just say—” She glared at me. “Say good-bye to Mr. Jurgen. Finish your homework, and then you can watch TV.”
            “Yeah.” Lynne went back to her laptop. “Good-bye, Mr. Jurgen.” She looked up at me. “They’re real, you know.”
            “I believe you.”
            She went back to her laptop. Melissa walked me to the door.           
            I took the check. “I apologize. It’s just that in my line of work I need to talk to the people closest to the problem.
            She sighed. “I guess it’s important that someone listens to her. Thank you for coming.”
            We shook hands. “I’ll be in touch.”

I opened my laptop on my dining room table when I got back home. Bracken Tech, founded in 1952 and named for a German refugee from the 1930s named Emil Brack, was a technical university in Naperville, a western suburb. Its website listed noted alumni who’d gone on to work at Microsoft, Google, Pixar, and the government.
            Melissa’s ex-husband Craig Winters taught a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses in electrical engineering, telecommunications, and other areas I didn’t really recognize. He’d gotten his Ph.D. in computer engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana 17 years ago. His profile page listed some articles he’d published, but they might as well have been in Klingon for all the sense I could get from them the titles.
            His credit history was fine, he’d never been arrested or sued, and he wasn’t on Tindr or Grindr as far as I could tell. He was on social media, though, so I check out his profile.
            Craig’s Facebook page was sparse and mostly private. Where he worked, all the schools he’d gone to, current city—Naperville, again—and just over 100 friends. His favorite sports teams and music gave me nothing to work with unless a judge would see preference for country/western music as reason to deny him custody. No obvious links to S&M sites or UFO groups.
            I did a deeper dive using some P.I. resources, but didn’t find much more. Just for the sake of completeness, I went back to his Facebook page and started scrolling down his list of friends, looking for anyone who might give me a lead.
            My door opened. “You got anything to eat? I’m starving.”
            Rachel’s my upstairs neighbor. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes, and she’s kind of my girlfriend. She’s also kind of psychic, which helps me with some of my cases when she’s not doing her own graphic design work.
            I tapped my keyboard and looked at the time—3:52 p.m. “Help yourself. We could go out to dinner later if you want.”
            “Cool.” She disappeared into my kitchen and emerged with a bag of pretzels and two beers. “Okay, what’s the case?”
            “Custody case. With a twist: Alien abduction.”
            “Okay.” She twisted her bottle open. “Wait, the alien isn’t your client, is it?”
            She’s been suspicious of my clients ever since I’d taken a case for a vampire. “I don’t have to actually find the aliens. Just dig up some dirt on an ex-husband. This guy.”             I turned the screen to her Craig’s profile picture.
            “Ooh, he’s kind of cute.” She sat down. “I like older balding men.”
            “I have all my hair. Even though it’s going gray.”
            She punched my shoulder. “You are so oversensitive.”
            I sipped my beer and ran down the columns of photos, names, and jobs. Teacher, programmer, programmer, artist, self-employed, professor . . . I hesitated over one marked “Activist.”
            Activist for what? Animal rights? Black Lives Matter? Occupy Wall Street? Or something else? I clicked the link.
            Lena Stone’s page came up with a cover image of a meteor streaking across a dark sky. She smiled in her profile picture, an African-American woman in her fifties. Her top post showed her holding two smiling grandchildren on her lap.
            I went to her “About Me ” page. Most of the lines were blank, but down below the few albums and pictures I found an interesting link: “The Abducted Network.”
            So I clicked it.
            HAVE YOU BEEN ABDUCTED? The website opened up with a video of flying saucers hovering over a mountain, then faded to a grainy photo of a wide-eyed alien lying on a cot.
            “What is this?” Rachel scooted her chair next to me. “That’s a fake Roswell photo, you know. I watched a whole movie about this.”
            “I know.” I waited for the website to come up.
            HAVE YOU BEEN ABDUCTED? OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW? The words glowed in red. Beneath them lay a line of links:

            About Our Network
            Our Stories
            Tell Us Your Story
            Contact Us
So Craig had at least one link to an alien abduction conspiracy theorist. But that could be only because his daughter had told him a story. Still, it counted as a lead.
            I started clicking links. “This could take a while.”
            “Fine. I’ll just watch TV.” She grabbed her beer and headed to the sofa.
I read the “Tell Us Your Story” posts first:

Everything stopped, and there was this big white light. And there was this big white room, and these guys with big black eyes . . .

I wasn’t afraid. They were nice. This one thing held onto my shoulder. I couldn’t understand what he said, but I could hear his words in my head . . .

It hurt. They shoved things inside me. I screamed. But then they stopped. They told me they only wanted to understand me. But we couldn’t talk. They held me down. They had three or four arms, and these big things sticking out of their heads . . .

They were long and thin, with gray arms and big black eyes—is that right? Isn’t that what everyone says?

“Tell Us Your Story” had 29 posts. I couldn’t sort out the hallucinations from the outright lies, but a few of them seemed to match up to Melissa’s story and Lynne’s drawings.  The “Our Stories” link had only three posts, the first from Lena Stone. She claimed to have been abducted 15 years ago from a house in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Her story featured bright lights, big-eyed aliens, and sharp probes. But the second story came from her daughter, 12 years later.

“Driving out next to the big lake. My mom pulls over because she’s sleepy, but then there’s this big round light over the car. And I’m gone. Next thing I know, I’m standing in a big white room, and they’re trying to talk to me, but I don’t know what they’re saying. Then I’m back in the car, and Mama’s waking up. She just looks at me and then drives away.”

I skimmed the rest of them. They told similar stories with different details. Some seemed copied and pasted from X-Files fanfic; others had lots of details that didn’t necessarily match other accounts. I had no real way to evaluate them, and I didn’t need to. I was satisfied that I had a possible connection between Craig and the abduction.
            What to do with it was another question. I closed the laptop. “So you want to go play college students tomorrow?”
            Rachel’s head popped up from the sofa. “What?”
            “I want to check out my client’s ex-husband. He’s a prof. I might look less suspicious if I have a cute chick with me.”
            She groaned. “I don’t have to pretend to be your daughter, do I? Because that would be gross.”
            I stretched. “I’ll tell you all about it at dinner.”

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