Thursday, December 6, 2018

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.

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