A Chapter from Undercover Alien:
The fifty-something man who answered the door had bitten his nails to the quick. “Yes?”
“I’m Hannah Morgan, from IREAL.”
He stared over her shoulder at her van, as if to reassure himself it bore no telltale sign of her profession. Then he gave her the same perusal, only shorter.
She stood patiently, ignoring the trickle of sweat making its way down her spine. She knew what he would see. She had selected her khakis, tucked camp shirt, and scuffed briefcase to arouse little curiosity, and she didn’t wear makeup. It was a waste of time to enhance features with nothing interesting to highlight. With her brown eyes and hair, the latter pulled ruthlessly back in a plain clip, she looked absolutely uninteresting. Any nosy neighbors would think she was soliciting donations or converts and hide behind their curtains.
Apparently satisfied, Mr. Smith ushered her inside, leading the way down a short hall. An air-conditioner already hard at work for the day drowned out the muffled thud of sneakers on carpet. The hallway ended in a tiny office where she had to pick her way through stacks of papers and books.
Her host waved toward a wooden chair wearing a film of dust and Hannah sat. After several hours of driving through the desert with the windows rolled down in her un-air-conditioned van, she was probably a little dusty, too.
For himself, he selected a worn leather chair positioned in front of an overflowing roll-top desk and fidgeted for a moment before giving her an apologetic look. “My name isn’t really Smith.”
“That’s all right. I get a lot of ‘Smiths’ in my profession.” She smiled to soften the comment. “It’s ‘Doctor’ Smith anyway, isn’t it?”
He flushed, something she suspected he did about as often as he fidgeted. “Um, yes. I’m a professor at a university in New Mexico. This is my brother’s house. He’s a bachelor. Teaches math at one of the high schools here in El Paso. How did you know? About me, I mean?”
“I didn’t. I was guessing.” He’d now told her more about his brother than he had about himself, but over the past four years, she had learned to read between the lines. Not that it took a genius to figure out he was terrified one of his colleagues might discover he’d met with a member of IREAL.
“Do I have to tell you my real name?”
“Not if you don’t want to. The information you give me today will be entered into a research database under an assumed name. Your real name will never be used.”
“But wasn’t there something in one of those supermarket tabloids a couple of years ago? Didn’t somebody’s name get out?”
“That was a mistake in procedure which has since been corrected.” A muscle spasmed in her neck, a familiar pain, and she willed her shoulders to relax. Better than anyone, she knew the article to which he was referring. “Only pseudonyms are used and it’s been IREAL’s policy since that incident to decline interviews with the news media unless the journalist is verifiably credible.” And my personal policy to avoid any kind of reporters, credible or otherwise.
The last one had nearly ruined her career and had threatened the person in her life who mattered the most. She would never, ever allow herself to be fooled again by a man who wasn’t what he seemed.
The professor must have found something in their conversation reassuring because he leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “All right. How do we do this?”
She took out her recorder and set it on the only clear spot on the desk. “I ask you questions and you respond. That’s about all there is to it. Do I have your permission to record?”
He nodded and she turned on the recorder, briefly entering the day, time, and her own identification, as well as his agreement.
Before the end of the interview, she’d know his name. She usually did.
For the present she would go with the obvious. “This is the interview of subject John Smith, not his real name. Tell me, Mr. Smith. When did you first suspect you had been abducted by aliens?”
Three hours later, the interview was complete. The sun had dropped behind the Franklin Mountains and the desert was rapidly cooling into evening. Hannah was sixty miles down the road toward her next appointment.
It had gone well. Despite being visibly rattled, the professor had provided several useful observations to add to the database. She told as much to the recorder she’d left on the seat at her side.
She liked to get her impressions down while they were still fresh. It also helped to pass the time, which she would have a lot of tonight. There were four hundred miles of sparsely populated desert and plains between El Paso and Amarillo, the location of her next appointment.
After the interview tomorrow, she’d finish up a few reports and spend a second night in Amarillo. Then it was on to Houston and the conference she’d been looking forward to for months. From there, home for the weekend. It had been a while since she’d checked on her father.
Hannah was rubbing at a persistent muscle ache in one shoulder when her cell phone rang. She glanced at the caller ID. “Hi, Sid.”
“Am I interrupting?”
“No, it’s done.” She filled him in on the interview. Sid Eisler was her boss, the founder of IREAL, the Institute for Research into Encounters with Alien Life, and one of the few people she considered a friend. “How are things in California?”
There was a pause from the other end of the line. “Which do you want first, good news or bad?”
She tried rolling her shoulder and winced. “Good.”
“Stuart called again today.”
The van picked up speed and she lifted her foot, easing back on the gas. “I thought you were giving me the good news.”
“It is good news. He complimented you on the articles you’ve written lately and asked where you were. I told him to go butt a stump. Enjoyed it, too.”
Her lying ex-fiancé and the tabloid newspaper he wrote for had almost taken down IREAL. Only Sid was able to joke about it. “Is that all?”
“Well, he didn’t offer cash this time, or I might have been tempted. Seriously, stop worrying. It was a fishing expedition.”
Donations had not been the same since Stuart’s damaging article in The Undercover Reporter. It was tough enough for a non-profit to make it at all when it straddled the line where science met speculation. One whiff of a scandal and donors could disappear for years. “How low are we?”
“So low I’m still working on where to get the payroll after next month. That’s the bad news. We don’t have the money to reimburse you for your conference fee.”
Grimacing, she mentally reviewed her checking account balance. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll pay for it myself.” She might not eat much while she was there, but she would get to attend. She always enjoyed the SETI conference and she needed the break, no matter what it did to her meager emergency fund.
“Thanks, Hannah. You guys work for next to nothing already. I feel like a heel when we can’t at least pay for a few perks.”
“It’s okay.” The bigger worry was what they were going to do in a few weeks.
“Don’t give up on the future just yet. I’m trying to wheedle extra funds from the usual sources. You’re taking some time off to visit your father over the weekend, right? How’s he doing?”
Keeping an eye on the empty road, she rolled her head from side to side. It seemed to help. “He’s fine.” If fine means maybe his mind isn’t slipping further away. Sid didn’t know because she’d always kept her private life private.
At the height of her idiocy, she’d come dangerously close to introducing Stuart to her father. What a catastrophe that would have been.
To forestall further questions, she asked about a potential subject who had contacted IREAL the previous week. “She’s not thirty minutes down the road from Dad’s place. Do you want me to see her while I’m there?”
“She’s still not sure about talking to us. I told her to call when she’s ready.” He fell silent, probably thinking the same thing she was, that the woman might not have an IREAL to listen to her story if she didn’t decide to share it soon.
It would be hard to leave IREAL. Hannah could find other work; she had a degree in psychology and another in sociology. She was unlikely to ever be rich, but that didn’t bother her. For her father’s sake, she couldn’t help but feel like she needed to stay right where she was.
After Sid filled her in on the status of some of their other projects and ended the call, Hannah took off the earpiece. Night had fallen.
She turned on the headlights as she climbed the five thousand feet toward Guadalupe Pass. The section of road directly ahead was always tricky. Wind racing through the pass had a habit of catching the side of her top-heavy vehicle and urging it toward the edge.
As she entered the pass, she was concentrating on the curve of the road ahead when a flash of light nearly blinded her.
What the…? The van gave a sickening swerve as she overcompensated. Going too fast. Swerving again, she pulled headfirst into the emergency lane and braked hard.
The tires skidded to a stop as the van’s engine died. In the sudden silence, her heart beat loudly in her ears. “Idiot”, she muttered out loud.
Inches beyond her hood, the rocky mountainside dropped sharply to the desert below. Faint lights glowed in the distance from the few buildings huddled along the interstate. The only other light came from the windows of a lone ranger station a half mile off the road.
From this height in the desert mountains, she could see for miles. It must have been a vehicle that had blinded her, and it had to have been traveling well in excess of the speed limit to vanish so fast. From her perspective, it had seemed like the speed of light.
She automatically looked up, then shook her head at her own foolishness. Good thing I’m a scientist. Someone else might have thought it was a UFO.