Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Brain Parasites

Investigating a sleep clinic, Tom Jurgen discovers that parasites from another dimension are infecting patients’ brains—and killing them. What can he do once one of them is inside his own head?

The Brain Parasites, Part One

Coffee could only do so much to keep me awake at 2:30 a.m.
Russell Lenehan—my client’s boyfriend—dropped his bike on the sidewalk. A tall chain fence surrounded the park entrance, but the gate was open.
            Clouds shrouded the sky. It was a warm October night.
            I closed the door of my Honda quietly and followed Russell as he stumbled across the wet grass in bare feet.
A dozen people sat next to a playground swingset. All of them were stark naked—although some wore socks and shoes.
Russell started pulling off his clothes.
I hid behind a tree and shot video with my phone, feeling kind of creepy. Some of the people sat with their legs crossed, their heads drooping between their knees. Others laid flat on the grass, gazing up into the cloudy sky. A man and a woman leaned against each others’ bare shoulders, their eyes closed, breathing slowly together.
One gray-haired woman lay on the grass, her legs twitching.
            I kept shooting until my hand got tired. Waiting for . . . what? I wondered if it would turn into some kind of satanic orgy. Human sacrifice?
But after twenty minutes of silence a tall skinny woman with long black hair just pulled on her sweatpants, struggled with a T-shirt, and staggered toward the gate, her bare heels slipping on the grass.
            The rest of them started moving too. Slowly they pulled their clothes on. Except for the gray-haired woman. She was lying on her shoulder, her body clenched in a fetal position. Her body wasn’t twitching anymore.
            Russell staggered through the gate, along with the rest of the slow-walking pack. It was like the Night of the Living Dead. I kept up the video for a moment, then clicked off.
            Maybe I should have followed Russell, but I figured he and the rest of them were just going home.  So instead I waited until they were gone, and then I made my way toward the swingset.
            The gray-haired woman lay on the ground, her eyes wide open. She was maybe in her sixties. She wasn’t breathing. Her eyes were wide and frozen. Gazing at the grass.
I’ve run into more than my share of dead people. It always creeps me out.
I knew I should call the police.  But I’d have to explain what I was doing here, and I wasn’t sure my client would appreciate that just now.
            I took a picture of her face. Then I went back to my car.

MONDAY, OCT. 15 (One day earlier)

“My boyfriend Russell’s acting weird at night.” Jolene Beckham rubbed her eyes as if she had trouble sleeping too.
            “Weird how?” I sipped my coffee. I don’t have an office or a secretary to meet clients like most TV private eyes. Too expensive. We sat a local diner near her house in Oak Park.
            “Russell sleepwalks.” She shrugged. “At first I thought it was just around the house, eating out of the refrigerator and that kind of stuff. But I set up a, a camera?” She seemed embarrassed. “Like in Paranormal Activity? I didn’t really think anything like that was going on, but I saw him getting up and getting dressed, and then leaving. I tried to follow him once, but I have to get up early. I’m a nurse. It just seems weird. And I looked around and found—your name. So I thought . . .” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
            “Don’t worry.” This wasn’t even the strangest story I’ve heard in two weeks. “I can follow him at night, if that’s what you want. Of course, night surveillance costs a little extra.” I like my sleep too.   
            She wrote me a check without arguing. I thanked her. “Can you send me the videos?”
“Uh, yeah.” She blushed. “Just, uh, is it okay if I edit some parts of them out?”

“So what’s the case?” Rachel was working at her desk. She’s a graphic designer. We share an office. Also, we live together. She’s got short red hair, hazelnut eyes, and slightly psychic powers. She claims I snore, but she hogs the covers.
            “Sleepwalking.” I fired up my computer. “I have to work late tonight. Maybe all night.”
            “Oh, good. I’ve been saving the last season of Orange is the New Black to binge watch.” She swiveled her chair around and stretched her legs. She was in cutoff shorts, which always distracts me. She winked. “Don’t worry, I’ll make a note of all the naked shower scenes.”
            “Fine.” I checked my email. Jolene had sent me files. First I checked out some snapshots. Russell Lenehan had dark hair and a thick chin, and looked as if he didn’t shave that often. Good looking, maybe, in a bland, Abercrombie & Fitch way. Broad shoulders in a muscle shirt, a hard chest on the beach . . . I figured I didn’t need to see much more than that.
So I checked out the videos.
            Jolene lay on sheets in a lacy pink nightgown. Russell emerged from the bathroom in a pair of blue boxers . . .
            Then the picture disappeared in a burst of static. Nuts. I reminded myself to stay professional. She was a client, after all.
            The picture came back a moment later. Both of them were in bed asleep, Jolene in pajamas now. I hit the fast forward a few hours. Eventually Russell rolled his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. He hadn’t put his shorts back on.
            “Nice butt!”
I jumped. Rachel had crept up behind me in bare feet. She leaned over my shoulder. “What did I miss?”
            “My client edited all the good stuff out. Shush.”
            “What are you shushing me for? There’s no sound! Just . . . oh, my.” She pointed at Russell turning around. “Can you print that?”
            “Oh, come on.” Russell pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. “He’s not that . . . handsome.”
            She punched my shoulder. “Get on with it.”
            “Right.” We watched Russell stagger around the bed and then out the door.
            I hit the fast forward again. He came back two hours later, according to the time stamp at the bottom of the screen. Stripped off his clothes, dropped down into the bed next to Jolene, and pulled the covers up to his chest. He wrapped an arm around Jolene’s shoulders and immediately dropped off to sleep.
            I skimmed through another video. This one didn’t have any deleted scenes—just Jolene in pajamas, watching TV until Russell came to bed. Again, about an hour later—“Wait!” Rachel grabbed my arm. “I can see—oh, no, that’s just a shadow. Sorry.”
            “Don’t you have work to do?” I hit the fast forward again.
            “Fine.” She punched my shoulder. “What’s for dinner?” It was my turn to cook again.
            I rubbed my eyes. “I’ll think of something.”

After dinner—cheese and spinach lasagna—I took a nap. At 10:30 I was parked across the street from Jolene and Russell’s Oak Park house. The streetlights were bright, and the street was quiet. I had two big cups of coffee to keep my awake, and a milk jug for—other stuff. This wasn’t my first long-term stakeout.
            At 11:15 my phone buzzed. Rachel. “Any action?”
            I yawned. “Honey, I told you not to call me at work.”
            “I can’t get to sleep. Do you mind if I start Daredevil? There’s a whole new season.”
            “Go ahead. Just don’t tell me anything.”
            The garage door opened. “Do that. Gotta go.”
            I set the phone down. After a moment a shadow glided from the garage. A man on a bicycle.
            A bicycle? This was going to be interesting. And by “interesting,” it was going to be a pain in the butt.
            I started my Honda, kept the lights off, and followed as slowly as I could. I managed a few pictures on my phone through the windshield. Russell wore jeans and a T-shirt, but his feet were bare. He veered around a corner, and I sped up, but found him again half a block later. He seemed steady enough on the street, but stopped once or twice to rest a bare foot on the pavement. He caught his breath and his balance, then headed off again, head down, legs pumping in a slow rhythm even as he swung from left to right.
            Finally he pulled up in front of a house a few blocks away. He let his bike fall down on the front lawn, right next to a sign that read ASHTON REID: SLEEP CLINIC, with a phone number and a website below.
            I snapped a blurry video as Russell stalked up to the door, shivering in his T-shirt. He hit a button, and a moment later the door opened. I couldn’t see whoever was inside. The door closed, and Russell was gone.
            I sighed, snapped a few images of the sign, and gulped some coffee. This could be a long night.


So the next morning I called my client. Okay, it was 11:56, but it was still technically morning. “I followed Russell last night. He rode his bike a few blocks away to the Reid Sleep Clinic. Does that mean anything?”
            “Wow.” She whistled softly. “He went there about a month ago. He was having trouble sleeping, like I said, so he spent a few nights there, and the doctor gave him some kind of sleep mask and a white noise machine. He never wears the mask, but he uses the machine every night.”
            Hmm. “What kind of machine?”
            “It’s called the, the Nyx?” She spelled it. “Nyx-22, I think. Do you think it’s doing something to Russell?”
            “I don’t know yet.” I stifled a yawn. “Let me do some research. I’ll report back.”
            Rachel was out meeting with a client again. So I turned my radio up, opened a Coke, and hit the internet.
            The Ashton Reid Sleep Clinic had a nicely designed website that promised treatments for all kinds of sleep disorders, including insomnia, apnea, and other ailments. It didn’t mention sleepwalking.
            I checked into Reid’s background. He seemed legit, as far as I could tell: M.D. from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Loyola University, residencies at the University of Chicago Medical Center and a small clinic downstate, testimonials from happy patients—“FINALLY a good night’s sleep!”—and the like. He’d opened his own sleep clinic in Oak Park two years ago.
            A photo of Reid showed the face of a man in his 60s with receding hair and a white beard. The clinic had another doctor on staff—Noah Usher, in his 30s, with thick glasses and thin black hair—plus three nurse practitioners and a bunch of administrative assistants.
            I ran basic backgrounds checks on the entire staff. Nothing out of the ordinary, although Usher’s degree came from a medical school in Trinidad—which wasn’t necessarily suspicious, but it stuck out a little.
            The Nyx machine, on the other hand . . .
            It didn’t have a website. I couldn’t tell who manufactured it, or where it came from. I found a few references and images on Twitter: “This helped me sleep again,” from “Agnon,” complete with an image of the device. Other Twitter people echoed the praise, again with pictures.
            In the Twitter image, the Nyx itself was a black cube about the size of a clock radio, with bright buttons on the top: red, orange, green, blue, indigo, violet—the ROYGBIV spectrum. I could see a USB port on the side, presumably for software updates.  One of the tweets linked to a short sound file, and I listened to a few seconds of waves crashing over a shore.
            So where would one buy one of these devices? I hunted a little, and found my answer: the Ashton Reid Sleep Clinic. For as little as $299, or up to $899 for the Nyx-120ZZ, which featured more blinking buttons than the helm of the starship Enterprise.
            I downloaded all the pictures I could, looking for anything that would tell me more about the device. I found a few on Google Images, and one of them showed a partial serial number on the back. The image gave me enough to track down a point of origin: The Nyx was manufactured in Korea, by a company whose name translated as “Reed Electronics.”
            Reed. Reid. Coincidence? Maybe.
            I couldn’t order one online. The only way to put my hands on a Nyx was to go to Reid’s clinic.
            I yawned. I could use a good night’s sleep myself.

I’d agreed with Jolene that I couldn’t do two nights of midnight surveillance in a row. So I spent the rest of the day on other cases—more background checks, mostly—and had leftover lasgana in the microwave when Rachel came home.
            “Smells good again.” She kissed my cheek. “How’d it go last night?”
            “He rode a bike to a sleep clinic. Dinner’s in five minutes, unless I fall asleep right here.”
She laughed. “Let me go change.”
            After dinner, and a few hours of sorting out emails and business issues, we sat down to watch Orange is the New Black. “Oh, here comes the shower scene!” Rachel elbowed my ribs. “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it!”
            “Yeah . . .” I struggled to keep my eyes open. “Just tell me how it goes.”
            “Oh, you’re no fun.” She punched my arm again. “Look! Boobs! Oh, wait, it’s over.”
            After one episode I was asleep.
The next night—Wednesday—I found the dead woman.

The Brain Parasites, Part Two


I was half-asleep on the sofa with SpongeBob SquarePants on the TV when Rachel came out of the bedroom at 8 a.m.
“What the hell? What are you doing out here? Why are you watching this?” She switched the TV off.
            “Uhh . . .” I sat up, hoping I’d only had a bad dream. Then I checked my phone. “Oh, hell.”
            “What?” She punched me.
I showed Rachel the image. “This is what happened last night.”
            “Oh.” She frowned. “Who’s that?”
            “I don’t know.” I stretched, my muscles aching from sleeping on the couch. “I need coffee.” Yesterday it had just been a weird sleepwalking case. Now . . .
            I staggered into the kitchen as Rachel scooped some coffee into the machine. “I want you to meet the boyfriend. Russell. Check him out.” Rachel can sometimes sense when something’s off about a person—in a paranormal way. It’s helpful in my work.
            “Okay.” She folded her arms. “What about you?”
            “Coffee. Cereal. Call my client, eventually. Maybe a nap.”
            “No, you idiot.” She slugged my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
            I shrugged. “I’m just sleep deprived. Bed would be good. I mean—”
Rachel smirked. “Later, Romeo.”
            After breakfast and a shower, I searched the local news. An Oak Park newspaper website had a short item about an old woman found dead in a park by a nanny taking two kids out for an early-morning romp in the local park. No name, which meant probably the family hadn’t been formally notified yet. No clear cause of death. More importantly (to me), nothing about a sleep-deprived private detective wandering through the park and taking pictures.
            At 10 a.m. I called Jolene Beckham. “This is going to sound weird. And disturbing.”
            She took a deep breath. “Is Russell having an affair at that sleep clinic?”
            I almost laughed. “No. I followed Russell to a park near your house, and—”
            “Oh, my God.” She gasped. “Is that the park where that woman was found dead? It was online this morning.”
            “I don’t think Russell had anything to do with it. He was one of about a dozen people, and from what I could see, all they did was sit around silently. Then they all got up and left, except for . . . that one woman.”
            “Oh, my god.” Another deep breath. “What do I do?”
            “I still don’t know exactly what’s going on.” I meant it to be reassuring. It probably wasn’t. “I’d like to bring an associate over to your house to meet him. Her name’s Rachel, she works with me, and she’s . . . somewhat psychic.”
            “Psychic.” She sighed. “Okay. I guess. Tonight? I’ll call you.”
            “Sounds good.” In the meantime, I was going to look into that clinic.
“Reid Sleep Clinic, how may I help you?”
            I gulped some coffee. My sixth cup. “Hi, my name’s Tom Jurgen. I’ve been having some real trouble sleeping. For months. I ran across your website. Can you help me?”
            “Of course we can, Mr. Jurgen. I’m Terri.” Her voice was quiet and soothing. “What’s the problem?”
            “I can’t uh, sleep.” I leaned down, looking at my notes. “It’s been going on for two months. My girlfriend is driving me crazy. I mean, she’s hot and everything—” I looked at the picture of Rachel that I kept on top of my desk. “But I just can’t drop off. I wake up every morning like I’m halfway dead.”
            “Of course.” Terri’s fingers tapped. “Can you come in at 3:30 today?”
            “Uh, sure.”
            So at 3:30 I was filling out forms at the clinic. It was a typical doctor’s office, with outdated magazines on the tables and photos of clouds and mountains on the walls, and a TV tuned to CNN.
I listed my occupation as “consultant,” which is sort of true, but otherwise I completely lied about my insomnia. Months of not being able to sleep more than two or three hours a night, except for the occasional weekend when I slept 15 hours and still woke up feeling like hell. It was interfering with my work (check), my relationships (check) my driving (check), and my sex drive. Okay, I left that one blank.
Then I turned the form over to Terri. “Here.”
“Take a seat.” Terri was a short brunette in her twenties, with a tight sweater. She had a cute smile and silver ring through her nostril. “The doctor will see you shortly.”
I found the only People magazine without one of the Kardashians on the cover and flipped through the pages. The only thing that made sense was the horoscope: “This is your month to shine! Enjoy the light, seek new challenges, and embrace fresh opportunities! Watch out for negative forces, and remember to care for your soul.” Unfortunately, it was three months old. And someone had already filled out most of the crossword puzzle.
            The inner door opened 10 minutes later. “Mr. Jurgen?”
Dr. Ashton Reid looked a little older and heavier than his picture, but he was soft-spoken and professional. He asked lots of questions about my sleeping patterns. I tried to stick close to what I’d written down, and I yawned a lot.
Reid checked my blood pressure, listened to my heart, and shined a small flashlight into my eyes. “Are you under a lot of stress at work?”
“Some.” Vampires, killer sexbots, more vampires . . . but I couldn’t tell him that. “I’m a consultant. It gets . . . weird.”
“Well.” Reid perched on a stool. “Two or three months without sleep isn’t healthy. I’m always reluctant to prescribe sleep medications—they can be addictive, even the new ones lately. What I’d suggest for now is a solid sleep mask for your eyes, noise-canceling headphones, and a strict bedtime routine. Also, a hormone called melatonin. It’s over the counter.” He wrote a note on a prescription pad.
            “My girlfriend thinks I should get one of those white noise machines,” I said. “Are they any good?”
            “They can be effective.” Reid nodded. “I’d want you to do a sleep study before recommending one. You’d spend the night here, and we’d observe your brain activity and sleeping patterns. But I don’t think we need to schedule that right now.”
            He gave me some brochures and a log to fill out for a week—what I ate and drank, what time I went to bed and got up, how I slept in general each night, and other stuff. Then we shook hands. “Call us if this doesn’t help. We all deserve a good night’s sleep.”
Reid led me down the hall on my way back to the waiting room. We passed Noah Usher—I recognized him from the website. “Hey, Ash? Tonight’s patient canceled, so the sleep clinic’s free tonight. In case you’ve got anyone who wants to come in.” Usher glanced at me.
            “I’ve got to get going.” I shook Reid’s hand again. “I’ll see you.”
            I scheduled a follow-up appointment for next week with Terri and checked my messages in the parking lot. Jolene wanted me to come over at 8:30 tomorrow night.


Russell looked at me and then at Rachel. And then at me again. “Who are you guys?”
            We sat on the sofa in their living room. Jolene served us coffee and cookies. Then she played some of the videos. Russell climbing out of bed, putting jeans and a dirty T-shirt, then stumbling out of the room without shoes. Then staggering back hours later, dropping his jeans on the floor, throwing his shirt across the room, and collapsing on the bed next to Jolene.
            “That was the first one.” Jolene paused it. “Two weeks ago.”
            “Why didn’t you—wait, there’s more?” Russell glared at her. At me and Rachel. “What’s going on here?”
            It was time for me to take over. “Russell, I followed you two nights ago. You rode your bike to the Reid Sleep Clinic. Here.” I showed him the pictures and my iPhone video.
            He blinked. “That could be anyone. You can’t see my face.”
            “But that’s your bike.” Jolene pointed. “And that’s the clinic.”
            “Okay, okay.” Russell lifted his hands. “That’s weird, but . . .”  
            “I was worried!” Jolene’s voice cracked. “First you weren’t sleeping, then you started passing out every night, then the sleepwalking . . .”
            “Okay, okay!” He put an arm around her shoulders. “Sorry. I just . . . I’m sleeping better. I’m still tired in the morning, but I figured I was just going down to the kitchen for snacks.”
            “So there’s this.” I played the video I’d taken of him sitting down with the other the naked people in the park. And then the last picture I’d taken of the dead woman.
            Russell blinked. “Who is that? She looks like . . .” He pushed my phone away. “I think I saw her. In the waiting room, once or twice.”
            She’d been identified in the newspapers. “Her name was Dale Kirkpatrick, and she was found dead inside the park near your house last night. Cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. You were there.”
Russell shook his head. “I don’t remember anything like that.”
“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on.” I looked at Rachel. “Your turn.”
She stood up. “Look, Russell, I’m sort of, uh, psychic? I can’t see the future, I can’t move things around, and I can’t read your mind. But I can . . . sense things. I just need to, uh, touch your head. If that’s okay.”
Russell sat up straight, as if he wanted to jump up and run. Then he checked Rachel out. Damn it, did she have to wear those tight jeans?
Russell glanced at Jolene. She nodded. He sat back and smiled. “Okay.”
Rachel grimaced. “Just relax. It’ll only take a moment.”
She bent forward and placed a hand on his forehead. I watched his hands in case he got frisky. What? I’m a guy, and Rachel’s my girlfriend, and Russell had that thick, half-shaven chin thing going for him. Plus, broad, muscular shoulders.
Jolene watched them too, her fingers twitching. Our eyes met. I shrugged.
Then Rachel jumped back as if she’d gotten an electric shock. “Yow.”
“What?” I stood up and grabbed her arm. “Are you okay?”
She pulled free. “I’m fine. It’s just . . .”
Russell rubbed his temples and stared up at Rachel. “What?”
“There’s something—inside. I don’t know what, but it feels . . . alien.” She ran a hand through her red hair. “I don’t mean from another planet, just—not natural.”
“Oh my god.” Jolene put an arm around Russell’s arms.
“Think it would show up on an X-ray?” I asked.
Rachel shrugged. “No idea. Probably wouldn’t hurt.” She sat down, shaking a little.
“Tomorrow morning.” Jolene patted his arm. “We’ll call the hospital.”
“What are we going to tell them?” Russell gazed at Rachel, then wrenched his eyes away to question me. “That some private detective’s psychic girlfriend thinks there’s an alien in my head?”
“Or . . . headaches?” It was just a suggestion.
He glared. Then he actually laughed. “Yeah. Okay. That sounds better.”
“In the meantime, can we borrow your white noise machine?”
“Take the damn thing.” He sat back. “It cost too much anyway.”
“It’ll be all right.” Jolene hugged him. “Somehow.”


The Nyx was a black cube, just like the models I’d found online. Russell had kept the instruction manual, but it didn’t say anything about transmitting subconscious commands to a sleeping subject. Just how to program it for deep sleep and deeper sleep. Darn.
            I unscrewed the rear plate and peered inside, but I might as well have been checking out the guts of Mr. Spock’s science station on Star Trek. Rachel knows a little more about electronics than I do, at least enough to program the DVR, but she’s more on the software side. “Can you take a look at this?”
 It was Saturday morning. We’d slept late, and she was still in a sheer red T-shirt and flip-flops.
            “Huh.” She bent over and poked a finger inside. “I’m pretty sure those are . . .  wires? I think that’s a red one, and that’s a blue one. I’m not a tech goddess.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Are you staring at my butt?”
            “I rely on you for technical advice, psychic powers, and well, you’re my hot girlfriend.” I grinned.  “Do you know anyone who could look at that?”
            “Well, I know a guy named Gary who builds his own computers. We, uh, used to date. Before you. At least before we got serious. Is that going to be a problem?”
            “As long as he keeps his hands to himself.” I squeezed her bottom.
            I expected another punch. Instead Rachel wiggled her butt. “I’ll make the call. Then, maybe . . .”
            My phone buzzed first. It was Jolene Beckham. “We scheduled an X-ray and an MRI for Monday. That’s the earliest they could fit us in. Do you know anything more?”
            “I’ve got someone looking at the sleep machine.” Rachel was already searching her phone for Gary’s number. “I’m going to take a closer look at that sleep clinic.”
“Okay. I’ll keep him in bed. I mean . . .” She giggled. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Say no more.” Please. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Me too.” She hung up.