Morning traffic was notoriously frustrating in Chicago. Fortunately Payton’s apartment and CUFOS headquarters were both near Western Avenue, allowing him to avoid the crowded highways and drive his Jeep Wrangler to work without too much of a hassle. Payton took a peek in the rearview mirror. He hadn’t had time to do much more than shower and throw on his clothes. His short dark hair looked disheveled and his naturally thin and angular face made the bags under his eyes look like moon craters. He used to be more active, playing volleyball at his health club, jogging after work. Lately he’d been spending more time in his apartment, trying out pricey bottles of Irish whiskey.
It wasn’t that he was depressed, and he didn’t think he was an alcoholic. But when you’re an investigator at the Center for UFO Studies, there were few people who could help from laughing at your vocation, and in modern times, your job was who you were. That made him a kook. His niece might enjoy telling people that he chased little green men, but Jennifer’s glee was everyone else’s disdain. Parents, former friends, old professors, all of them had expressed surprise when he’d left the corporate world for CUFOS.
He’d worked in human resources after graduating from Illinois Chicago. He had a BA in Psychology with a minor in Business. To make his job prospects worse, he had also chosen to pursue a focus on ancient languages, largely due to his interest in religion. His grades had been good enough that some of Chicago’s largest companies had come calling, including Leo Burnett, where he’d ended up as a recruiting executive. That had lasted a little over a year. Somewhere between growing up in a rigid Catholic family and a near obsession with his studies of human behavior, Payton had picked up a rather impressive ability to determine when people were lying. He’d long since shed his parent’s religion, but his hatred for liars had remained. That made the business world difficult to navigate, since everyone lied, particularly during the interview process. He found he had trouble recommending anyone he interviewed for hire, since he always detected a lie at some point in their interview.
He’d left Leo Burnett before they could fire him. He had briefly tried again at Prudential, but before long he gave that job up as well. He had considered going back to school, maybe getting his advanced degree and applying for a teaching job. Then he’d gotten a call from a Professor Hiroshi Mikora asking him if he believed in UFOs. He’d said no. Then the Professor had invited him to lunch.
Mikora was the director of CUFOS, a group comprised mostly of Astronomy and Physics professors from Northwestern. He said that he was friends with one of the Psych professors at UIC and that he’d heard of that special talent he had, the one that made it impossible for him to work in a corporate environment. Mikora told him that this same trait would take him far at CUFOS. Payton had argued at first, mainly because he didn’t believe in UFOs.
“That’s good,” Mikora had told him. “Most of the reports we get are fakes. You’re going to help us figure out which ones to study and which to throw away.” He’d also mentioned that the Center had moved beyond exclusively dealing with UFO reports. Now days they investigated all types of paranormal reports.
The pay wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. And the work had turned out to be interesting, though perhaps more monotonous than many would expect. Most days he spent behind a desk, armed with only a computer and a telephone. There were times when he was out in the field, and the travel was fun. But the truth was he preferred the work behind the desk. That was where most of the puzzles were, and he loved solving puzzles.
In return for solving those puzzles, he had access to virtually every level of the Center. There were a few other investigators, all of them older than Payton, but none of them was given the same amount of freedom. Records, physics, forensics: he had the run of them all.
He knew that his title of Investigator sounded more impressive than it was. It had the ring of law enforcement, with none of the authority. The few times that he’d gone in the field and been confronted by local detectives or the feds, they had snickered while treating him like a mentally disabled cousin. But CUFOS had its own following. It had been mentioned on television shows. Ufologists treated the Center with a mixture of reverence and wariness. The Center was one of the institutions that gave credence to the paranormal, though the inherent skepticism that investigators like Payton brought to the job caused flying saucer chasers to shy away from their final reports. They just couldn’t understand why he didn’t believe, and couldn’t seem to make them understand that he never believed anything.
He was still on Western, halfway to work, when Jennifer’s voice began ringing in his ears. Never keep a lady waiting.
He yanked his cell phone from the charger and dialed the main number at the Center. It rang once and Carla picked up on the other end. Carla had been the Center’s secretary since its inception. Rumor had it that she was ex-CIA. Payton doubted she’d ever been a spy, but no one knew more about the inner workings of CUFOS.
“Center for UFO Studies.” She sounded bored. She always sounded bored.
“You better get your ass in here, Doc,” Carla said.
“What’s going on?”
“Schuda is going crazy,” she said. “No one else seems to know anything. Rumor is it’s something big, though. Did I mention Schuda is going crazy?”
Professor Michael Schuda was the head of research. He was also a notorious occultist, even by CUFOS standards. Like all the other department heads he was a professor at a local university; Columbia, in this case. Unlike the others, he taught classes in the liberal arts, specifically American History. His most popular class was called Who Killed Kennedy.
“Are you there?” Carla asked.
“What are you going to do about your new partner?”
“I wasn’t aware I needed to do anything,” he said.
“The Director wants you to pick her up and bring her in for the meeting this morning. Didn’t you get the email?”
“Uh, no.” Actually, he’d forgotten to check his laptop before leaving. It was something all investigators were supposed to do each morning, although there was rarely anything in his inbox at seven in the morning. It was just one of those bureaucratic rules that permeated all institutions, even weird ones like CUFOS. “Where does she live?”
“You have to be kidding.” The Center was on Peterson. He’d been heading north on Western for the last twenty minutes. “How far south?”
“Near Midway Airport.”
“That’s forty-five minutes away. We’ll never make it on time.”
“Good thing I sent her an email asking her to meet you at your coffee place down the street.”
She was laughing, toying with him. He got coffee at the same shop every morning to supplement whatever he had managed to make for himself at home.
“She should be there in the next ten minutes.”
He sighed. “Have you met her?”
“When she interviewed.”
“How bad is she?”
Christ, he thought. “UFO nut?”
“At least this one’s pretty.”
He asked her to tell Schuda that they were on their way just as he was turning into the parking lot of the coffee shop.
Craig’s Coffee was one of those special places that only remained in big cities like Chicago. It hadn’t yet been tainted by big company politics. They served strong coffee, plain bagels, and coffee cake. The kids behind the counter tended to have dark, spiky hair, regardless of their gender, and they all seemed to know his name.
Payton placed his order with a pouting teenage girl: one black coffee and one plain bagel. He paid and took his tray to the nearest window. He’d taken a brief look around the shop upon entering, looking for anyone who might be his new partner. Carla’s description didn’t give him much to work with, particularly with what appeared to be several good-looking women in the shop. Most of them looked high school or college aged, however, so he had a seat and pulled his new partner’s file from his briefcase while he waited.
At least Chanel Falasco had an impressive history jacket. She had graduated from Western Illinois with degrees in both Criminology and Forensic Science. According to the interview notes, she’d had the opportunity to do some photo modeling work, but she came from a long line of Chicago cops, and she joined up immediately after she graduated. There she progressed through the ranks with surprising quickness, particularly for a woman. She’d gone from patrol to narcotics in less than two years and had earned her detective’s badge shortly after. Then CUFOS had come calling.
When the interviewer had asked why she wanted to leave behind a successful career in law enforcement to join the Center, Chanel had revealed that she’d had an uncle growing up that used to tell her stories about his work looking for aliens for the government. He’d been part of the SETI program, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life, something of a running joke amongst the scientific community. It was a joke amongst the rest of her family too, apparently, since her father had all but barred her uncle from the family home.
“Excuse me?” came a voice from behind.
Payton turned to see a woman in suit pants and a garish button down striped shirt. It was the kind that college graduates were wearing, with vibrant colors and a wide, thick collar. Business casual clubbing gear, as he usually referred to it. She was a bit tall, and her hair was that distracting kind of dark brown that seemed to reflect every photon of light. He recalled from her file that she had gotten some modeling offers in college and he decided that she could have made a career of it if not for a slightly largish nose. Please don’t let this be her, he thought.
“You aren’t Payton Conner by chance, are you?”
So much for wishful thinking. He stood up and offered his hand, doing his best to put a smile on his face. “Call me Doc. Everyone else does.”
“Chanel,” she smiled and took his hand. “Pronounced like the perfume.”
“We don’t have long, Ms. Falasco, so have a seat.”
She pulled up a chair, looking comfortable and at ease. Payton remembered his first day at CUFOS. He had met the then ranking investigator in this very coffee shop. And he had been nervous as hell. Either this woman, this girl with the perfume name was extremely confident in herself or she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
“Everyone I’ve talked to has told me about you,” she said. He noticed that she had a stylish mug in front of her instead of a paper cup like the one in his hand. Brown foam was nearly spilling over the top, one of those expensive drinks that were in vogue.
“How can you drink that swill?”
She smiled. “I’m looking forward to getting in the field with you.”
The field? “The Center’s brochure gives an inflated impression of our job, I can assure you. If you are expecting excitement at CUFOS you are going to be disappointed, even on the rare occasion that we are in the field,” he said.
“Rare? I thought you were the lead field operative for the organization.”
“I am, and even for me, field work is rare. We go out four or five times a year, on average.”
“What do we do the rest of the time,” she asked. She looked uneasy.
“Research more than anything else. Chances are you will spend the overwhelming majority of your career at a desk behind a computer.”
He sighed. “What is it exactly you think we do at CUFOS?”
“We investigate reports of unidentified flying objects, unless I have the acronym wrong.” She was pouting
“The acronym is right, just outdated. CUFOS was started years ago by a college professor, a man who was skeptical of reported UFO sightings and abductions. Obviously he managed to keep an open mind about the subject, but his roots in the sciences remained. Today, the Center studies a variety of unexplained phenomena, any that we deem worthy of investigation. That boils down to about five or six cases per investigator per year.”
“Yes, I was briefed, you know.”
“Then you know that nine out of ten reports we get are deemed not credible enough to investigate. The majority are hoaxes so fake that we dismiss them without going out into the field.”
She seemed to consider for a moment. “For a group created to study the occult, it seems like you are being very judgmental about what is legitimate and what isn’t.”
Payton sighed. He hadn’t meant to broach the subject this soon, but what the hell. “You’re a believer, I gather.”
She gave him a dazzling smile. “In UFO’s? Absolutely.”
He shook his head.
“Is that a problem?”
He paused a moment. “There are two types of Investigators at the Center. There are people like you, who believe in UFO’s and aliens and every other crazy little story they hear. The other type of investigator is like me.”
“Annoying?” she asked, this time her smile was wicked in a way he wouldn’t have thought possible.
“Competent,” Payton replied. He would not have his emotions played upon, certainly not by a rookie. “I don’t believe in anything when it comes to this job. There are things I can prove and there are things that I suspect. You say you believe in UFOs, but all it means is that you don’t have any proof. You just want it to be true. Which, of course, means your judgment is affected? That’s very dangerous in this line of work.”
“And if you don’t accept anything except what you can prove, then you have closed yourself off to any possibilities that might be un-provable.”
He leaned across the table to look her more closely in the eye. “My way works.”
She smiled, but did not reply.
He glanced at his watch and then quickly drained the rest of his coffee. “Let’s get moving. I’ll meet you in the lobby.” He almost left, but then turned back to where she sat. “And from now on, you dress like me. White button down or blouse, everything else in dark colors.”
She looked at him sharply. “What, like a man in black?”
Payton grinned. “Hey, you’re the believer. Get moving.”