Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Echelon: Chapter 3

“Uncle Doc, are you going to hunt aliens today?”

Payton Connor was standing in the kitchen of his apartment on the northwest side of Chicago. He hadn’t yet made it into his suit and coat, instead concentrating on the perfect over-easy flip of his niece’s eggs, getting his caffeine intake from his coffee, and watching the television on the counter. Payton was just shy of thirty, an investigator at the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. His niece, who was ten and enthusiastically told her friends that her uncle chased little green men, was waiting at the table for her breakfast.

She was staying with him for the week while his sister was away on business. He had a sneaking suspicion there was a lot less work going on than she had let on, but he liked Jennifer’s company and she seemed to enjoy her time at the small two-bedroom apartment. She was partially disabled, having had a small stroke when she was an infant. It had happened slowly, starting in her left leg before presenting in the other. Then it took the knees, the thighs, and pelvic area. The doctors never did figure out what had caused the stroke. His sister had cried in his arms when the doctors confronted her with the paralysis, but eventually she’d reverted to cold anger when she overheard one of the interns saying that all patients were puzzles to be solved. Why had they given up on her daughter’s puzzle? For whatever reason, the idea of life’s problems as a puzzle had stuck with Payton, persisting in his personal and professional life.

“Well, are you?” Jennifer asked from her wheelchair at the table. “Are you going to find flying saucers and kill the aliens?”

“You know that’s not what I do, Jenny.”

“I know. You tell people they’re crazy liars.”

Payton laughed. “Close enough.” Actually, as a senior investigator at CUFOS, his job was to respond to sightings of UFOs and other paranormal phenomena, determine the validity of the report, and catalog it. It was true that most of the time the reports were cranks and lies. Payton himself had gotten a reputation for dissecting stories like a surgeon. In fact, that was how he had earned the nickname Doc. Now everyone used it, so much so that somewhere along the line even Jennifer had picked it up.

He dropped two eggs onto her plate and pulled up a chair.

“You look tense,” Jennifer said. Despite her condition, she appeared to enjoy mothering him. This was her concerned tone. “Do you need a cigarette?”

“And what does a little girl like you know about cigarettes?”

“I know that they kill people,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I know you smoke one whenever you’re not happy.”

Such a wonderfully observant child, Payton thought. “Just finish eating so we can get you ready for sports camp. Mrs. Sloan should be here to pick you up soon.”

“Uncle,” she said severely. “I’m your niece. I have a right to know. Are you having trouble with a girl?”

Unfortunately. “Eat,” he said again, taking a seat. “You’re not going to make me late again.”

She stuck out her lip. “I hate camp. All the kids are in wheelchairs.”

Payton chuckled. “So are you.”

“I want to play with the normal kids.”

She got like this from time to time, when she would suddenly become intensely aware of her disability and want to break free from it. It was admirable, and it was sad. He was going to try and reassure her, but the reporter on the news caught his attention. Apparently there had been a crash out east. The terror alert had been issued, some kind of chemical weapons threat. The reporter breezed through the facts so fast it was hard to follow. Then the camera cut away to some FAA representative named Baez. He was explaining crash procedure, but the reporter didn’t seem interested. She kept trying to bring the conversation back to casualty numbers and the monetary value of the damage. Payton was about to give up on the report when that Baez guy mentioned something about the government napalming a beach.

“Christ,” he muttered.

“Language,” Jennifer clucked at him. “What’s the girl’s name?”

Payton thoughts returned to his niece and his coming day. “Chanel, honey.”

“Like the perfume?” Jennifer loved perfume.

“Yes, like the perfume.”

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“No, she’s my new partner,” Payton said, making an effort not to grimace at the word. He’d had partners in the past. It had never worked out. “And if you don’t eat your breakfast, I’m going to be late for her first day. That wouldn’t be too good, would it?”

“No,” she shook her head. “Never keep a lady waiting.” Then she broke out laughing.

Payton laughed with her. “Where do you learn this stuff?”

“Television, Uncle Doc.”

They ate in silence for a while. The anchorman back in the studio was onto a story about some kind of charitable donation to a scholarship group from Jonathan Dowd, a well-known businessman in the energy industry. Then there was the local sports scores. The Cubs had lost again, no surprise. He swore inwardly, watching the highlights as he cleared the table. He was just finishing when he heard a honk out front.

Jennifer pushed away from the table and started rolling towards the front door. “Bye Uncle Doc.”

“How about your jacket, sweetheart,” Payton called after her.

“I’ll be fine. It’s not even cold out.”

“Take it anyway.”

“But Uncle…”

“Don’t but Uncle me,” Payton said, trying to bury a laugh. Even the frustrating times with her made him smile. “Get your jacket, missy.”

He made sure that she retrieved her jacket from the front closet before she made her way out the door. Payton followed her onto the front stoop of the two flat. He shared the porch with two other apartments. He waved once at Jennifer as she was being lifted into the van. She lifted he hand briefly, but it was a halfhearted gesture. She had already switched personas to her social setting. Now she was cool, indifferent Jennifer. She had once told him that the other kids looked up to her, that she was a “queen on wheels”.

As he watched the van make for the end of the block, he saw a dark sedan sitting at the corner. It was parked on the other side of the road and he noticed that there were several cigarette butts outside the driver’s side door. This part of Wicker Park wasn’t the best neighborhood in the city, but most of the crime problems arose from nearby gang territory. For all of their menacing and posturing, gang-bangers didn’t roll around in black sedans. He thought about calling the police, or walking down the street and investigating himself. Before he could decide what to do, however, he heard the text message alert on his phone going off. He went inside and flipped the phone open.


“Damn,” he muttered. Something must be up. It was from the director, telling him to get to the CUFOS building in a hurry. It was still almost two hours before he would normally be due at his desk. The last abbreviations told him why. He would be leaving on an IFI later. That was an in-the-field investigation.

Somebody somewhere had called in a report.

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