Riinnnng! The doorbell was ringing! Or was had I imagined it?
I swung my legs over the side of the mattress, and a wave of pain stabbed my head.
What a hangover, I thought. What stupidity…. I'm never going back to Vic's again. $1000! I can pay that off, but if there's a next time, I know the debt won't stop there…
Shut up! I almost yelled at the doorbell. What could be so urgent at 5:30 a.m.? Then it hit me. Maybe it's Lyn. Maybe something happened to the kids!
I shuffled through the kitchen and opened the front door. The early morning light struck my eyes, blinding me. Then, a man appeared against the sunrise. He was of medium height, with auburn hair. He wore an immaculate black suit, and his shoes were polished to a glossy shine.
"Good morning," said the man. "Are you Allen McConnell?"
"Hm-hm," was all I could get out.
"I'm Special Agent Jacob Reilly of the FBI. I'd like to ask you some questions, if I may."
"Well, I have to get to work, but if it's quick-"
"It appears that you will have to come downtown with us."
"There is a problem at the bank."
"Yes. We can't talk about it here. I have informed your boss that you will be a little late this morning."
"Well…I need to get dressed first."
"By all means." The man smiled. I shut the door on him. Maybe if I go back to sleep, I'll wake up for real and then I can take something for this hangover so I can survive work today. I guess I'll just go along with this dream for now.
I tugged on my clothes: a blue plaid shirt and jeans. If I wasn't going to work right away I could dress a little more casual.
Out front, I walked behind Reilly to a long black Cadillac. Reilly opened the door, and then climbed into the passenger side; another man was sitting in the driver's seat, hands gripping the wheel.
"This is Winston, my partner," said Reilly. Winston nodded in greeting. His head almost touched the roof of the car, and he had dark, almost black, hair.
"Let's go, Winston," said Reilly, and we rode downtown. My head punished me with every bump in the pavement.
We entered a cream-colored brick building with a pretty receptionist and an ornate marble lobby. The FBI has some nice quarters, I thought. I didn't have much time to admire it, though, before they led me to the elevator and ascended to the fifth floor. Then they brought me down the hallway to a room that was little more than a closet. At the door, Reilly said, "We'll be back in just a minute. We just have to check something." And they left. I sat down in the overstuffed green chair that looked like a remnant from the seventies. And waited. I was used to waiting; I'd done a lot of that in hospitals after Luke had been recovering from his heart surgery.
But here, there weren't even any magazines to look at, just the stuffing coming out of the green chair. I fought the urge to pull it out; instead, I stuffed it back in but it just clouded out again.
The vent beside the chair sputtered and died. The heat crept up on me, so that I hardly noticed its presence until I was practically gasping for breath.
What did these agents want? I wondered.
Hours later, it seemed, the door creaked open. Reilly sat down in the other chair, almost identical except it was orange. The other man, who hadn't spoken a word to me since they'd picked me up at home, stood by the dilapidated green lamp and flipped through some papers in a manila folder.
Reilly leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair. He smiled and said, "Okay, Allen. This'll be a pretty informal interview. It's important to know that you aren't being charged with anything. We just want to ask you a few questions."
So that's why you left me in this room for hours, I thought. My mouth so dry my voice was barely above a whisper, I said, "What kind of questions?"
"Oh, like whether you've seen anything at the bank lately you might call…out of the ordinary. Anything you can think of that would be helpful."
I didn't quite know what he was getting at, but I fumbled through my mind for anything I might've seen at work. Nothing but the same old office, the same old routine and the same old boss who liked to mess with me just for the fun of it.
"I can't really think of anything right now."
"We can come back to that later. So what have you been up to lately?"
"Not much. Just work, you know. Seeing my kids." My throat caught.
"You went through a divorce recently, correct?"
"What does that have to do with this?"
"Oh, it might have some bearing on the case."
"What do you mean?"
Instead of answering, he said, "You went to work yesterday morning, correct?"
"Where did you go after work?"
Reilly glanced at the tall agent, who scribbled something on his clipboard.
"Okay, Allen. Let me tell you something. Over the past two years, a little bit here, a little bit there, has gone missing from the bank. No one noticed at first. Then, six months ago, the bank manager contacted us. We looked for patterns in the behavior of the employees, those who could have accessed the funds in question. After a few weeks of observation, we zeroed in on one man in particular. Why? Because of two things: As senior accountant, he has had the means and the opportunity. He has also had the motive: a serious gambling addiction."
Reilly leaned forward. "You have been spending quite a lot of time at Vic's, haven't you?"
"The only time I've ever been there was last night."
"We have it on good authority-Vic himself in fact-that you have been there on much more than just one occasion."
"Why would he lie?"
Dizziness clutched me, as if a rollercoaster I was riding had just careened off the tracks. I grasped for reality. "Where's the money then? It's not in my account."
"You have quite the gambling addiction, Allen. That's why not even your embezzlement scheme can cover all your debt. Unless you have other accounts somewhere, of course.
"It's amazing Lyn stayed with you so long, considering what she had to put up with."
My stomach turned over at the mention of her name. But everything he said was wrong. I gave gambling up after Renata was born. Except for last night, a stupid, foolish reversion, I've lived with few regrets. Except Lyn…
I straightened on the chair, whose springs squeaked in protest. "You must know you have the wrong man!"
"Man!" Reilly laughed, genial wrinkles spreading around his eyes, and looked at the tall agent, whose jaw twitched infinitesimally. "So you're saying the gambling was because of the divorce, not the divorce because of the gambling?"
"That might make sense, if we didn't know better. We have been watching you, Allen McConnell, and we know a lot about you. You'd better watch what you say from now on."
"Are you arresting me?"
Instead of answering, Reilly stood up, grabbed the papers from the other agent, and said, "Let's go, Winston."
Winston left in Reilly's wake, and I sat alone in that sweltering room for at least another hour. Then a policewoman came with handcuffs, and motioned for me to hold out my arms. Icy bands slid around my wrists and tightened with a click.
Not long later I found myself down in the Milwaukee jail sitting in a little cell on a bunk and wondering what was going to happen.
I woke up the next morning and a policewoman came in. She told me I was being transferred. I asked her where, and about a court date, but she didn't know anything. Reilly took me to a car outside. The other agent was driving again. "You haven't even charged me with a crime!" I told them. "And what about my house, my dog, everything!" I'm not the kind of guy that gets angry very easily, but this was too much.
"Your house will be taken care of," said Reilly. "Don't worry. And—Winston, you tell him."
The tall, thin agent turned around, looked into my eyes. "You haven't been charged with a crime, Allen, because you haven't committed a crime."
"What do you mean? And—what is going on?"
"You have been chosen."
But he turned around started the car and drove off, without another word.
"Winston, Reilly, what do you mean?"
"I suggest you take a nap," said Reilly. "It's a long drive." And he leaned his chair back, his feet up on the dashboard. Winston turned the radio on, to some strange station with some wild, Eastern sounding music.
I decided it wouldn't do any good to ask any more questions, so I laid back and was surprised to find a headrest. Nice. It was comfortable, but I knew I wouldn't be able to go to sleep, not yet. It still hadn't quite sunk in that I was out of prison, and that the agents were taking me somewhere.
I wondered, what did these people want? Did they have good intentions? Why would they accuse me of something, throw me in jail, then say it was all for show? Did they have more sinister motives—or did they have more noble ones? Most of all, who were they? What did they want from me? I was just an accountant, a middle class divorcee at the threshold of forty who had never done anything especially interesting or exciting.
What would anyone like this want with someone like me? They probably had been watching me, so maybe they found out about my accounting skills, and needed them for something. But I was no prodigy or anything. There were many other people they could have chosen. Why me? And who were they? The possibility that it could be a dream came to my mind, but it was the most ridiculous possibility of all. This was too real. Other possibilities touched my mind, but I didn't explore them—I didn't want my imagination to run wild. I'm usually a very realistic person, despite my interest in science fiction. It's a hobby that gives me diversion and balance to my otherwise work-filled life. Science fiction was never any more than a hobby—I might think about UFOs landing in my yard but I'm the last person that would believe there was one unless I was absolutely sure. That was why I couldn't believe this was a dream—it was just as real as my everyday life. But it wasn't my everyday life—it was some great adventure that seemed a lot like my fantasies.
Still, this was not really very similar to a fantasy. Real life wasn't—that's why I suspected it wasn't a dream. In a fantasy, you can often predict what happens, you can stop it if you don't like it, there is no real danger. In reality, anything can happen, but you can't stop whatever happens just by thinking differently.
So, though I felt tired, I had no desire to go to sleep. I wanted to see what happened, and be ready for it.
In any case, it wasn't a bad situation right now and it was certainly better than being in jail, or moping around about all the money I had lost. And it would probably be more exciting than anything else I'd do today.
Well, I couldn't do anything about it. I just hoped Rogue would be all right by himself. And I wondered if they'd told everyone I was in jail. If so, my reputation was shot. Not that I hadn't been entirely willing to let it go down the drain the other night…
I looked at the agents. Reilly was in the same position, completely relaxed. He was snoring. Winston was calmly driving, and humming along to the radio, so softly I hardly noticed it. He took out a long thin cigar and a lighter. He tipped his head slightly. "Do you mind?" I took it that it was me he was talking to.
"No," I said. I didn't particularly like cigars. But I didn't have any real reason for telling him I did mind. He lit up; the car was filled with the intoxicating bitter herby smell. It was too late to say I minded. So I sat back and tried to open a window (which was black). It wouldn't open. Great. Could I endure this the whole time?
I thought about starting a conversation, I doubted much would wake Reilly up—but Winston seemed perfectly happy the way he was. So I contented myself with looking out the front window, trying to guess where I was, and trying not to breathe, too much.
I couldn't tell much by the road. By the flatness, it looked like Illinois. A little while later, I saw a sign for Chicago. This was when Reilly stirred and slid his seat to an upright position. He took his feet from the dashboard and crossed one leg over the other. A little later Winston took an exit and stopped at a gas station.
Winston got out. Reilly looked at me. "I want you to stay in here; we shouldn't be long." He slipped out the door, and then stuck his head back in. "Don't try anything." He shut the door.
I did consider climbing into the front, unlocking the door, making a dash for it, but I knew that would be futile. Even if I did escape them, I'd probably get arrested later. Attempting to get away would only make things worse. Besides, since everything seemed to be going decent, why spoil it? I wanted to see what happened.
Winston came back first, and sat down in the passenger's side. He had a plastic bag. He set it down and handed me a drink. It was a large bottle of Coke.
"Hey, did you get this on purpose?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's my favorite kind."
"We don't want you to feel alienated. You are our guest."
"I feel more like a hostage."
Maybe I shouldn't have said that- I don't even really know if I meant it.
"As I said, we don't want you to feel that way. If there is anything we can do to make you feel more comfortable, we will accommodate you. Within the realm of reason."
"Will you answer some questions?"
He looked at me expectantly.
"Can you—tell me what you want me for?"
"Where are we going?
"You will see."
"Who are you?"
"You mean, I suppose, who we work for? I can't tell you that, not until we are out of this area. I can tell you, however, that we are genuine FBI agents."
"So does everyone back at home still think I'm a criminal?"
"Yes, they do. It was the best cover for this operation."
Just then, Reilly came back. He sat in the driver's seat and plunked down a bag in the middle seat. Then he took out a can of pop, setting it in the cup holder, and a large peanut butter cup. Winston took out a banana.
"Do you want anything, Allen?"
He handed me a drumstick cone—the kind I crave but never can bring myself to buy.
I unwrapped it and took a bite. The cold hurt my teeth, but it was good, especially because I was starving.
Reilly started the car, and ate his peanut butter cup on the road I ate the rest of my cone, fast so it wouldn't drip. Winston ate his banana. I got done before either of them—though I guess Winston didn't count because he saved half of his.
It actually filled me up pretty good. And I felt more comfortable with the situation too. After all, if people give you food, they have to have good intentions…
I opened my bottle of pop, and it nearly exploded all over the car. a little dribbling into my lap. I took a drink, and asked them just how much it was they knew about me.
Reilly chuckled a little. "I don't think you really want to know that."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I wasn't comfortable with the possibility that someone knew more about me than I wanted them to.
"Just what I said."
"What my partner means," said Winston, "is that there are a lot of things you are better off not knowing until later."
"So, is there anything I can know? I know you guys seem to have good intentions, but after all that's happened, I feel a little like a hostage. I'm not accusing you or anything, but can you really blame me? It was you who took me away from my house, accused me of stealing, threw me in jail and then spirited me off to some unknown location without telling me why or where or how long or anything. As you probably know I'm not used to this sort of thing. Couldn't you at least give me a hint about what your intentions are?"
Reilly shook his head and took a drink
"I am sorry," said Winston. "I know you must feel lost, rather uprooted. You just have to trust us—we only have your best interests in mind.
"One thing I can tell you, Allen—the reason we can't tell you anything just yet is because we must take every precaution. There is always the possibility of a car accident, both of us getting injured or killed, and you escaping to give people information about us."
"How do you know I'd tell?" I took another drink.
"We don't know. But even if we only gave you the tiniest bit of information before, say, this hypothetical car crash, the possibility of giving it would be more than we could ever allow."
I took a drink from my coke. "That's how secret your organization is?"
"Yes. It is, perhaps, the most secret organization on Earth."
Winston took out his cigar and leaned back. That smell permeated the car again. "I suggest you take some rest, Allen."
"Log drive, hm? How far is it that we're going?"
Reilly chuckled again. "A bit like having a kid in the car isn't it, Winston?"
"Well, I wouldn't be the one to ask."
"Don't worry, you'll get a chance one of these days. Julia's been showing signs she wants you back."
"Julia? I- don't think so, Reilly."
"She does. But you don't seem to notice it. You're too much the gentleman. You don't want to step back into her life unless you're sure she wants you back. I'd take her in a minute myself, but then again, I'm content the way things are, too, working with you, and driving about the countryside like this." He laughed. I leaned back. I was feeling very tired. Probably all the excitement…but I'd thought the caffeine would have jump-started my brain….
I drifted off then caught a piece of their conversation, something about Area 51. I normally would have started awake at that, but by then I was too far gone…