I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Rosedale, MD | September, 1998
Cory’s coded message brings me to a cinderblock apartment on the edge of a Baltimore suburb. I dial 011 for the Miller birthday party. Arrows on signs guide me through a pale maze to a long low room where balloons gather in corners and look down on people in various states of milling under lights turned up too high.
A bear-shaped man approaches me, all arms and teeth. Cory. I surrender to an uncomfortably long hug.
“You made it! Out-fucking-standing!”
Cory of the astrophysics conference. Should have been a linebacker Cory. I’ve tried a number of times to imagine the guy squinting at a chemistry textbook but couldn’t.
“Any trouble finding the place?”
He points finger guns at my chest.
“Did you destroy the evidence?”
“The what?” The invitation. “Oh. Yeah. Yes. Completely.”
“Atta boy! C’mon, I want to introduce you around.”
I reluctantly allow myself to be peeled away from the wall. Everything in the room is white.
“So! First big meeting. Are you ready for this? Are you pumped?”
It’s kind of hard to say.
“Yeah, you’re pumped. Don’t worry, though. He doesn’t expect much from newcomers. Just hang back and take it all in. On your second or third meeting he’ll start assigning you work.”
“Listen, I have a question for you. It’s about a friend of mine who I think would make a great addition to… Wait, what work?”
“And sorry about the birthday party ruse. It’s ridiculous, but it’s actually the perfect cover if you think about it. See, no one…” Cory stops walking, suddenly confused. “Whoa, holy shit! I can’t believe I forgot to tell you—Kenneth loved your profile! He absolutely loved it! Said he’s looking forward to talking with you about it at some point.”
“Yeah, man! Isn’t that great? Not tonight, of course.” Cory nods in a way that makes me nod too. No, of course. Not tonight. “But yeah, soon dude! Isn’t that amazing?”
I agree that it is amazing, if articles about aging UFO conspiracy theorists in obscure zines could be considered amazing.
I try to bring the conversation back around to Marcus, who was part of the reason I got that profile published in the first place. Is this the time to ask? Is Cory even the right one to talk to? How exactly do new members get added to… well, to the birthday party?
A guy with a black mohawk overhears our conversation and wants to talk about the zine. Someone else thinks they saw me at the astrophysics conference. A redheaded girl I’ve never seen before tosses a coy smile. Cory, in the middle of all this, is trying to introduce me to someone in charge of new member orientation. Suddenly I’m hot property, a node at the center of several branching conversations, and doing very badly at all of them.
I trail off and watch two beefy thugs in suits and sunglasses move through the party room, closing doors and drawing blinds. People set down their slices of cake as if on cue. They drag folding chairs out of a closet and arrange them in a large circle in the center of the room. I stand frozen as the ritual wheels around me like a strange constellation.
Someone pulls me into a line that’s formed against a nearby wall. At the head of the line a thug frisks guests by hand and by wand, the kind that makes squeaky radio sounds as it goes up and down. Each person flashes a small laminated card and is moved to the center of the room once cleared. (Cory: “Don’t worry, you’re my plus one.”) A basket next to the frisking station gradually fills up with pagers and cell phones. Another one of the suits (the beefier of the three) stands in the center of the room and hands out thin white binders with colored tabs.
“You guys really have this down to a science, don’t you?”
“Can’t be too careful,” the guy with the black mohawk says as he joins the line behind us. “You got a cell phone on you? A pager? Anything like that?” I don’t. “Then you’ll be fine. They mostly look for recording equipment. Bugs, microphones. It’s like ninety-nine percent unnecessary, but all it takes is that one time…”
Everyone continues chatting and laughing as if this isn’t the strangest thing to ever happen at a birthday party. The frisking is over in minutes, and soon everyone has a binder and is seated in the circle of chairs, me sandwiched between Cory and a woman who looks like she trades weed for giant crystals and backrubs.
The volume of the room takes a noticeable downward slant. Cory shoots me a here we go look, an oversized kid on Christmas morning. A security thug rushes past us, the squawk and chirp of a walkie-talkie in his wake. Are they expecting the Queen of fucking England?
It’s time. The suit with the walkie-talkie opens the double doors and nods to someone out of sight. Three people enter the room, two more security details and a taller, older man in a thin grey pantsuit who just absolutely has to be Kenneth Holcomb. They sit in three empty chairs about halfway down the circle to my right, the two suits sitting on either side of the guest of honor. A woman places a glass of water on a small table in front of Holcomb’s chair. He mouths the words “thank you” and carefully removes his enormous sunglasses, revealing a downward gaze through milky eyes. There’s makeup, but not too much—just enough to accentuate the long oval shape of his face. After a pause he fetches himself up, setting aside some distraction for a later time. With a neat clicking sound he folds up his sunglasses and tucks them into his purse, straightens his back, and clears his throat.
His words are carefully measured and soft as flour.
“Good evening. Many thanks to all of you who were able to make it.” He gives a low, sideways glance to the water bringer. “Thank you to Jean for arranging the venue. I hope you all had a nice birthday.” A gentle ripple of laughter works its way around the room. “I understand we have some newcomers. Welcome to you. I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to speak with you individually before the evening is over, time allowing. Although…”
He trails off as a guy who looks maybe fourteen plugs a giant black mechanical spider into a nearby wall. Holcomb leans over in his chair to watch the procedure, then turns to address the room.
“You can save your binders for our next meeting, or perhaps even the one after that. I’ve just learned we have some just terrifically explosive new business that will no doubt consume all of our time tonight, and then some. Tom, how are we coming along over there?”
“Almost got it,” Tom says to the wall. He turns and places the giant spider on the table in front of Holcomb, pushes a few buttons, and for a second the bland grey-white sound of a dial tone fills the air. Holcomb waits, carefully studying Tom’s progress, and speaks again without looking up.
“An old friend of the group will be addressing the room by speaker phone in just a moment. He is in possession of some information that is… titillating, just titillating.” Holcomb’s tone is quick and prim, making the word “titillating” sound deeply sarcastic, at least to me, but no one laughs. A few people whisper.
Teenage Tom wraps up his work with the conference phone and presents it to Holcomb with a flourish. I exchange looks with Cory, who only shrugs. The whispers blossom and threaten to overtake the room. Holcomb gives another clearing of the throat, this one much louder. The room settles down. He hovers a single bejeweled finger over the conference phone panel.
“Quiet please. Here we go.”
He summons an open line and dials a number from memory. I look around as the number rings and try not to ogle a girl seated about halfway down the circle to my left. She smiles and curls her fingers at me, her eyebrows at an angle suggesting she also doesn’t know what the fuck.
The other line picks up.
“Roland? Are you there? You’re on speaker with the group.”
A voice much louder and deeper than I expect booms forth.
“Yes, I’m here. Hello group!”
“Roland, for the benefit of our newer members, is my friend and colleague from Pickering Slate and other past-life adventures. He is our man in the field, and has recently come across some intelligence that will be of interest to you all. It’s quite the thunderclap, so I thought it would be appropriate if you heard it from the horse’s mouth. If you’ll forgive the expression, dear.”
Holcomb throws another glare around the room before continuing.
“As always, we remember that no line is truly secure, and we proceed with the assumption that anyone could be listening at any time. Therefore all conversation is to be kept as general and vague as possible, for the safety and security of all. Nouns are to be avoided like the plague. Agreed?”
The room agrees.
“Roland, the floor is yours.”
“OK, then. Well hello again group, and thank you for letting me interrupt your regularly scheduled program. As our friend mentioned, I have quite the bombshell to drop here. Now I know I’ve only met a few of you in person, but all of you know who I am and what I do. And I understand there are supposed to be a few newcomers with us tonight, so let me just say that my greatest contribution to our friend’s cause here are my connections to, shall we say, certain communities of justice and defense.”
I blink rapidly. Did he mean…
“There was an incident back in ’81—some of you probably already know about this, although of course it’s never been made public—involving a chain of custody problem with what I’m going to call the three toys.”
I try to catch someone’s attention, anyone’s. I nudge Cory, but he doesn’t respond.
“One of them got away during a transfer from one holding location to another. It went AWOL for a good six or seven weeks before someone discovered the damn thing in the former Yugoslavia, dangerously close to the Romanian border. A dozen or so more kilometers and it would have slipped under the Iron goddamn Curtain. We eventually got it back into custody after convincing a very skeptical minister of foreign affairs that it was debris from an errant American aircraft, and was radioactive all to hell. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this was all done through back channels. You don’t want to know what the foreign minister’s U.S. counterpart did to finally buy their silence. Horrifying. Different times.”
“Excuse me,” Holcomb says. “Careful please.”
“Anyway, we got it back. Right, sorry. I guess Yugoslavia is a noun. The point is that within three days the missing toy was returned to its box, and the aforementioned communities haven’t had any problems keeping the box closed. That is of course until last week.”
There’s more gasping and whispering. Holcomb looks around through squinted eyes. He clears his throat again, then claps his hands. He starts yelling with a force I wouldn’t have guessed the old man capable. It comes to me all of a sudden that he must have raised children.
“Excuse me? Excuse me! Stop it right now!”
“Give them a minute, Kenneth.”
Holcomb does give us a minute, but he spends it wearing a scowl. Things settle down and Roland is told to continue, if the crowd is OK with that.
“My sources are reliable. I don’t have the exact date and time of the disappearance, but I do have it that, just like back in ‘81, we only lost one of the toys. No idea if it’s the same one. More on that later, hopefully. It happened while the toy box was being moved from… well, from one southern U.S. state to another, about ten or eleven days ago. Accompanied this time, as I’m sure you can imagine, by a parade of armed escorts. One of them still somehow managed to grow legs, or wings, or whatever the hell it is they grow, and slipped away. There are no leads as of two hours ago. It’s just out there, rolling around somewhere, raising who knows what kinds of hell. And so there’s your thunderclap. Kenneth?”
Holcomb and the group go through another round of murmurs and yelling. Eventually order is restored, and each member of the circle is given the chance to ask one question of either Roland or Holcomb, the former giving much longer and more animated answers than the latter. At several points Holcomb interrupts whoever’s talking to admonish the overuse of nouns, dropping the first and only F-bomb of the evening in the process.
The well-ordered march of questions comes undone after about fifteen minutes. People start talking over each other, which of course leads to more yelling. The room is brought to a horrified silence at the almost perfectly timed knock (really pounding) on the main doors of the party room: a resident of the building, an angry old woman turned around on what day it is, absolutely insists that she be let in to set up for bingo breakfast the following morning. One of the security detail finally pushes her, yelling for someone’s head, back into the hall and re-locks the doors.
The interruption throws the rhythm of the meeting off into chaos, inspiring Holcomb to bring everything to a full stop. Roland bits the room farewell.
A reception line forms at Holcomb’s side. He remains in his chair, fingers pressed to his sternum, eyes down, as one person after another bends and delivers whispered messages of varying intensity. Holcomb’s replies are brief, rare, just as hushed, and accompanied by the slightest of nods. I join the slow moving line as quickly as I can.
An agonizing twenty minutes later my turn comes. Holcomb speaks first. “You’re the one who wrote my profile,” he says with a sideways smile. He offers his hand. I take it, not sure if I should shake it or kiss it. “You picked a hell of a time to join us.”
“Yes, sir. Ma’am? Sir.”
He nods and closed his eyes. “Just call me Your Majesty. Everyone here does. It’s meant as a joke. We’re so informal, you know!”
“Right. Well, it’s an honor to finally meet you.”
Another smile, this one openly playful. I shake his hand, soft and cool and full of rings. I smell a faint mix mint and cherry, and commit to memory tiny cracks in the makeup on his left cheek. For a second I’m lightheaded, and before I can decide what to say next, I’m pulled away by one of his bodyguards and that’s the end of it.