The next morning we drove out to Bracken Tech. I wanted to get a feel for the campus, check out Craig’s department, and then take a look at his house. And I wanted Rachel there to sense anything I couldn’t pick up with my own eyes and ears.
She wore tight jeans, a white blouse, and black boots. I had trouble keeping my eyes on the road as I drove. “Am I Scully or Mulder here?” She sipped her coffee. “I just want to be in character. Do I argue with you, or do you argue with me?”
“Just ask lots of questions. And follow my lead.” I pulled into the parking lot. “If you can.”
She snorted. “Yeah, right.”
I parked near the administrative building. We located Craig’s office on an electronic directory in the lobby, and I downloaded their app to help us find our way around.
We passed students headed to and from class, a wide mix of races and ages. They drank coffee and chatted in a small cafeteria as well as a student lounge. Outside the courtyard sidewalks were lined with trees, closely mowed grass, and beds of bright flowers.
“Nice,” Rachel murmured. “Maybe I should go back to college. Oops, no. I hated it there.”
“No, you didn’t.” She’d told me some of her life story. “You said—”
“I got out of my life. It was good. That doesn’t mean I want to remember all of it.” She took my hand. “This is better.”
Craig’s office was on the third floor of a tall building across the courtyard. We stepped out the elevator and tried to look harmless and a little bit lost. I checked the door numbers as we wandered down the hall.
Craig’s door was open. I glanced inside. He was meeting with a female African-American student, nodding as she asked questions.
Rachel shook her head. “Nothing.” She whispered as he walked past. “I mean, he’s bored, she’s bored, they’re all bored. And somewhere somebody’s panicking about a late assignment. It’s college.”
We went back outside. The app told me that Craig also ran a student lab in a separate building, so we headed across the courtyard.
The building was long and low, only two stories. Craig’s lab was closed and locked. The door had a list of hours it was open. Other labs were open. I peeked in at students working with various types of electronic equipment. They all seemed relaxed and engaged, except for one kid having a meltdown because his experiment apparently falling apart.
“You have any idea what they’re working on?” I need Rachel to program my DVR.
She shrugged. “Basic stuff. Circuit boards and other components. I did this once.”
We reached the end of the hall. A sheet of paper taped to the door read AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY in large block letters meant to intimidate. The door didn’t have a handle, just a key card swipe and a code lock.
Rachel stared at the door. “There’s something here.” She ran her hand up and down the wall. “Not to mix up our TV shows and go all Counselor Troi on you, but I’m sensing—fear.” She pulled her hand away. “This is weird.”
I held her shoulder. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” She punched my arm. “Automatic reflex. Sorry.”
She hardly ever apologized for slugging me. I rubbed my arm. “I’m used to it.”
“It’s just—I can usually hear voices and feelings, but this is different. It’s like noises in the dark. They don’t make sense. But something’s there.” She backed away. “Inside.”
“Let’s go.” We couldn’t get into the lab, and I didn’t want any wandering security guards to start asking us questions.
Rachel turned. “Uh-oh.”
Craig Winters was walking straight toward us.
I don’t think he recognized me from our stroll past his door, but he definitely noticed Rachel in her black boots. He slowed and smiled. “Hi. Help you find anything?”
“We’re a little bit lost.” My cover story clicked into gear. “Just wandering. My son is interested in coming here. My girlfriend and I are just getting a look at things. Are you a professor here?”
“Craig Winters.” He checked Rachel out while shaking my hand. “I, uh, teach engineering here.”
“What kind of engineering?” Rachel smiled. “I don’t know much about science and stuff. I’m just here with my boyfriend.” She nudged my arm with her elbow. “We’re getting lunch, right?”
I shrugged. “Whatever you want.”
Craig looked around. “It’s a good place. Smart students. We do good research. You know, you can schedule a tour over in the admin building.” He pointed toward the elevators. “Just across the courtyard.”
“Research, huh?” Rachel grabbed my hand. “Homer loves playing with circuits and boards and stuff. What kind of stuff do you work on?”
Craig chuckled. “Well, my work is mostly related to communications. Building networks, transmitting high-speed data, that sort of stuff. I did some work for NASA on communicating with deep space probes, but I teach at all levels.”
“NASA?” I took a shot. “Hey, you find any UFOs out there?”
Craig blinked. Then laughed. “No. I wish. It’s a good school, though. Best of luck to your son.” He clearly wanted to go.
“Thanks.” We shook hands again.
“Nice meeting you.” He winked at Rachel.
I watched him unlock his lab with a key card.
In the elevator Rachel grabbed my wrist. “First, I want lunch soon. I’m starving. Second, when you said UFOs? He was all lit up. He tried to hide it, but I felt it like a shock from a socket.”
I nodded. “I got it too.” I’m no human lie detector, but after years as a reporter and a P.I., I can read people reasonably well. My crack about UFOs had caught him off guard. “By the way—Homer?”
She kissed my cheek. “I was watching The Simpsons last night. It was the first name I could come up with for our first child.”
We ate lunch at a pseudo-Mexican place close to the campus, crowded with students getting way from the cafeteria, and then I drove past Craig’s house a few miles away.
Rachel didn’t sense anything from the house. So I drove back toward the city, along the route Melissa Ames had taken when she and Lynne were supposedly abducted. The road had some empty stretches that would have been dark and lonely at night. I slowed down in a few stretches.
“Maybe here,” Rachel murmured. “But I don’t know. This is a whole different thing.”
We were used to supernatural problems—spirits and monsters. Aliens and UFOs were outside of our usual experience.
I hit the gas. “Let’s just go home.”
Rachel went upstairs. After a morning and part of an afternoon helping me, she had work of her own to do. I opened my laptop. I had at least two options: Start a long and expensive surveillance on Craig and hope I caught him buying drugs, running around with hookers, or strangling cats.
Or I could follow my instincts and try to find out if he had a genuine interest in aliens and abductions.
So I found a phone number for Lena Stone.
I called my client first to get her okay for the approach. I promised I’d try to keep her name out of it. I also warned that I might not be able to. In the end, Melissa agreed. “I had the dreams last night,” she whispered from her phone at work. “I need to know.”
So I made the call. I tried not to lie: I told Lena Stone I was a former reporter (true) doing research on alien abduction stories (mostly true) and not trying to debunk them (also true, considering all the weird stuff I’d seen in both my careers). She agreed to meet me at a coffee shop near her apartment on the north side.
I was waiting when she got there. Lena Stone was a middle-aged African-American woman with a little more gray hair than me. She bought herself a cup of tea and sat down across from me, resting her elbows on the table. “Okay, I’ve been called a kook and a liar too many times. What do you want and what’s going on?”
I decided to tell it straight—up to a point. “I’m interested in a man named Craig Winters. You’re internet friends with him.”
“So?” She swirled her teabag around. “I’m friends with my 9th-grade locker partner, and I haven’t seen her in 30 years.”
“He has a daughter who was abducted. Maybe twice. Does that ring any bells?”
“Maybe.” She blew on her drink. “What are you interested in him for?”
I hesitated. “I can’t tell you now. But there’s concern about his daughter.”
Lena Stone sighed. “All right. He contacted me a few months ago.”
“He wanted to contact other kids who had been abducted. He said he had a psychological research project he was working on. He’s a professor, right?”
Craig taught engineering, not psychology. “Did you help him?”
She stared at her tea. “No. But I’m pretty sure he used my site to try and get in touch with them anyway. At least some of them. It wouldn’t be too hard.”
“Have any of them contacted you?”
“I’m not going to tell you any names. Hell, I should have deleted him a long time ago. But one mom . . .” She sipped her tea. “She let him do the test. Whatever it was. And it was worse than before.”
She looked like she wanted to throw hot tea in my face. “Seizures. You ever see a little boy rolling around on the floor? That’s what happened afterward. Whatever test he’s doing, it brought it all back. These things, these aliens . . .” She paused for breath. “Nobody knows what they want. But it’s not good. And whatever Craig’s doing, it’s not good either.”
I thought about Lynne, working calmly on her homework. And Melissa Ames, trembling at the sight of her drawings of aliens. Maybe Lena Stone was delusional. Some people who see ghosts and monsters just need medication and treatment. I’d been fooled before.
But I never could take that chance. And yeah, that’s caused me lots of trouble.
“Thank you, Ms. Stone.” I finished my coffee. “You've been a big help.”
Lena Stone peered at me. “So that’s it?” For a moment I thought she was going to throw lukewarm tea in my face. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
She’d come willing to talk. I had to do something, so I gave her my card, hoping I wasn’t signing up for a string of paranoid emails about aliens, the government, and the Illuminati. “There’s my number and my email address. And a website my girlfriend made. I don’t know much about alien abductions. And I can’t really tell you what’s going on. But . . .” Would I regret this? Probably. “You can call me.”
She picked up the card. “Tom Jurgen? I thought I knew that name.” She nodded. “I’ve heard about you.”
I sighed. My clients come from all over. It’s good for business, but not great for my blood pressure. “Yeah. I have kind of a reputation for weird things.”
Lena Stone stood up, smiling for the first time. “I won’t call you unless I need to.”
We shook hands. “Help them.” She leaned on her chair. “Just help them.”
I looked at my empty cup. “I’ll try.”
My cell phone buzzed as I was driving home. Melissa. “I think—I think we were abducted again.” She sounded like she couldn’t breathe.
I pulled over to the curb. “What happened? Are you all right?”
“It was last night.” She blew her nose. “I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t realize it until an hour ago. We were watching TV, and all of a sudden it was one in the morning. We both just sort of went to bed without saying anything, and I overslept this morning, and so did Lynne, so she didn’t go to school.” She sounded tired. “We didn’t get up until after 12:30. We had breakfast—lunch, I guess—and then she went into the living room. I went in a few minutes later and she was drawing pictures again.”
I heard her swallow. “She doesn’t want to talk about it. I don’t remember any dreams. But it just feels like—like the last time.”
This was far out of my experience. Monsters and vampires I can handle, if only by running away.“Can I try talking to her?” It was all I could think of.
“I guess.” Her voice dropped to a whisper.
A car honked behind me. I pulled forward, looking for a parking space. I told Melissa what I’d learned so far. Which wasn’t much. “I’m not sure how this ties together. I just want to ask Lynne if her father ever tested her.”
“All—all right, I guess.” She yawned. “God, I’m tired.”
“I’ll be there soon.”
Rachel met me outside their apartment building. “Why am I here again?”
“I have to talk to a little girl.” The doorman buzzed us up. “I just thought it would be better to have another sympathetic female around. Also, you’re psychic.”
She pressed the elevator button. “Yeah, but I don’t know if it works with aliens.”
I looked around. Fortunately the lobby was empty. “It works with kids.”
“Sometimes.” We got on the elevator.
Melissa Ames opened the door. Her eyes were red, and she rubbed her hands together nervously. “She’s still drawing. Come in, uhh . . .” She looked at Rachel.
“This is Rachel. She’s my—associate.” Sort-of girlfriend and psychic never sounds very professional.
They shook hands. “There’s coffee. It’s not helping me . . .” She rubbed her eyes. “But it’s there if you want it.”
In the living room Lynne was still in blue pajamas. She had a stack of drawings on a table in front of her and a big sketchbook in her lap. She didn’t looked up as we entered.
“Lynne, honey?” Melissa spoke softly. “Mr. Jurgen and his friend are here. They’d like to talk to you.”
She raised her head after a moment. “Hi.” Her voice was quiet and shy.
“You remember me, don’t you?” I knelt down in front of her. “Tom. This is my friend Rachel.”
She peered at Rachel’s hazelnut eyes. “Are you his girlfriend?”
“Sometimes.” Rachel shrugged. “Sometimes I just work with him.”
We sat. Lynne kept her sketchbook open but put her colored pencil down.
“I want to ask you about your father.” I tried to sound as friendly as possible. “I’m not looking for anything bad about him. Is that okay?”
“Fine.” She shrugged.
I tried to think of non-leading questions. “When you visit your dad, does he ever take you to his work?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“What do you do there?”
Lynne wiped a stray hair from her forehead. “I’m in his office sometimes. I do homework, or I read books. Sometimes he lets me play on his computer.”
“The labs. They’re fun.” She yawned. “Sometimes he lets me do stuff with the equipment, but mostly I can’t touch anything or bother the students.”
I nodded. “Does he ever give you tests?”
She shook her head. “You mean like multiple choice? No.”
“Or on the computer.”
Another shake. “No.” She was getting confused.
Rachel spoke. “Do you ever go into that locked room? At the end of the hall where the labs are?”
Lynne stiffened. “I’m—not supposed to talk about that.”
“Why not?” Rachel asked.
“He’ll get into trouble. I’m not supposed to say anything.”
“We don’t want to get him into trouble.” Rachel smiled. “He seems like a nice man. And a good teacher.”
“We’re really just curious about the aliens.” I pointed to her drawings. “When did you see them last?”
Melissa flinched, but said nothing. She nodded to her daughter as if afraid to speak.
“Last night.” Lynne sat back, tapping a foot on her chair. Nervous. “We were watching TV.”
“What about before that? Have you seen them other times?”
She looked at her mother. Melissa nodded. Then Lynne nodded silently, her eyes trembling.
I kept my voice low. “Did you tell your father?”
Lynne opened her mouth. Her arms were shaking. “Yeah. I was—he was—”
Then her whole body was shaking. Twitching. Her legs shot forward and her arms flailed. The sketchbook fell from her lap.
She threw her head back, twisting and moaning, her head face red. Melissa screamed.
“It’s a seizure.” I jumped forward and grabbed her arms. “Rachel, help me hold her. Melissa, call 911.”
“Oh, my god!” Melissa ran toward the phone near the TV, close to panic. Her hand shook so badly she could barely punch the digits. “Hello? Yes, my daughter is having a seizure. She’s never had them before . . .”
Rachel held Lynne’s legs down, trying to avoid a kick in the face. “You think aliens are doing this?”
“I think my client’s not going to be happy with me.” I had both hands on Lynne’s arms. “And I still want to know more about what’s in that lab.”
The seizure lasted less than two minutes. By the time the paramedics arrived, Lynne was sitting up on the chair, calm, sleepy, and irritable. “Mom? What happened?”
“You’re okay, honey.” A female paramedic checked her pulse.
Melissa stroked her daughter’s arm. She forced a reassuring smile. “They’re just going to take you to the hospital. You’ll be fine.” She glared at me. “Just me. No one else.”
Lynne looked up at the ceiling. “Will they turn on the siren?”
“We’ll see.” A female paramedic pointed a small flashlight at her eyes. “Follow the light . . .”
“Wait a minute.” Lynne sat up. “Mr. Jurgen?”
Oh god. I leaned down in front of the chair. “I’m so sorry, Lynne. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
The paramedics lifted her easily onto the cart. “Can I ride with her?” Melissa asked. Demanded, really.
“Wait!” Lynne sat up.
Melissa put a hand on her shoulder. “Lynne, it’s all right. You don’t have to talk to him again. Let’s just go to the hospital.”
“No.” Lynne grabbed my hand. “I have to. Just . . .”
She pulled me close. Her voice was a whisper in my ear. “Nine, two-two, one, six. That’s . . . the number to get in.”
For a moment I thought she was just talking gibberish, random words. “Okay, it’s fine, just—” Then I realized what she meant.
Get in. I nodded. “Okay. Thank you.”
“Wait!” Lynne clutched my arm. Her fingers were small and weak, but I wasn’t going to pull away. “In my room. The top drawer. The card. And 92210.”
“Let’s go, honey.” The female paramedic snapped a belt around her waist. “Do you need to get anything, ma’am?”
“What?” Melissa looked up. “Oh—my purse, maybe. The insurance cards . . .” She ran to her bedroom.
“Are you a family friend?” the other paramedic asked.
“Sort of.” Probably not for much longer, though. “We . . .”
I looked around. Where was Rachel?
Melissa came back, a big purse over one shoulder. “Okay, I’m ready.” She took one last look at me. “I’ll call you.”
“I’m sorry.” I patted Lynne’s hand. “Feel better, okay?”
Rachel came down the hall. “Had to wash my hands.” She winked at me.
The paramedics wheeled Lynne out into the hall. Melissa locked the door and walked away without looking back at me.
Rachel and I took a separate elevator.
“So do you have the card?”
Rachel smiled and dropped it on my kitchen table. A keycard with the Bracken Tech logo. “I’m good. Admit it.”
“Yeah, you’re the best.” The sun was going down outside my kitchen window. Rachel was drinking a beer. I was making sandwiches by the sink.
“And you have the number.” Rachel sipped her beer. “So we’re going in?”
Damn it. I sliced tomatoes and lettuce and Swiss cheese. Rachel’s a vegetarian. “I really should go alone.” I opened the refrigerator. “So do you want Dijon or—”
“Horseradish! You know that.” She pulled the card back and stuck it into her jeans. “So you’re playing the Lone Ranger again? Even he had Tonto.”
“I might need you to bail me out of jail. Or worse.” I closed the door.
Rachel crossed her arms. “Hey, I saw Lynne have that seizure too. I felt it. And her mother was panicked—and pissed off. And now I’m pissed off too.”
“I just want you to be safe.” I slapped some roast beef on my sandwich. “Is that a problem?”
“You think I feel safe sitting at home wondering if you’re going to call me from the police station? Or the hospital?” Rachel shook her head. “Uh-uh. That doesn’t make me feel ‘safe’.” She wiggled her fingers. “Yeah, I’m using air quotes. Deal with it.”
I knew she was serious when she used air quotes. I planted our sandwiches on the table and sat down, suddenly starving.
Rachel and I have a complicated relationship. But so far I’d always been able to depend on her. And Rachel could take care of herself. She’d never backed down from an asshole—especially if I was the asshole. I liked that about her. Even when she punched me.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
“Okay.” I nodded. “So maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I’m—wait. What?” Rachel leaned back in her chair. “What did you just say?”
“I may need your help while we’re there.” I stood up. “Need a beer?”
“Bring it.” Rachel’s bottle was almost empty.
“All right.” I opened my beer and looked over my shoulder at the clock over the sink. 8:30. “Let’s leave at ten tomorrow. If we’re lucky, we’ll get there while everybody’s going to lunch. Either it’ll be so busy that no one notices us, or the place will be empty because they’re all getting something to eat.”
“Sounds like a plan.” She bit into her sandwich. “Mmm, horseradish.”
I sipped my beer. “I’ll wear a suit and try to look like a prof. You wear something that looks like a grad student. Try not to talk too much. And for Christ’s sake, don’t punch me in the side when people are looking at us. It’ll blow our cover.” I munched my sandwich. “Plus, it hurts.”
“Wow.” Rachel smiled. “You can really plan strategy when you want, can’t you?”
I shrugged. “It’s not exactly one of my superpowers, but I can come up with a cover story or two when I have to.”
She put a hand on my arm. “It’s kind of sexy.”
I grinned. “Maybe I should have been a spy?”
“Okay, now you’re just being stupid.” But she giggled. “So what does a grad student wear these days?”