Let me tell you about my friend Jim. I met him during my first month at college. Jim is probably the cleverest SOB I've ever met in my life.
I wouldn't exactly call Jim smart. A lot of people in STEM careers had a semester that almost broke them-it might be the first semester of physics, or in Calculus where there's a cerebral margin call where you can't progress unless you actually understand the underlying concepts, and not just memorized the "tricks" of arithmetic and algebra. There are some people who sail through these without a problem, usually two or three per class; these people scare me. It's at this point that a lot of people drop out, in my class we lost nearly half of our original number. Jim was almost one of those people. But he made it, and like the rest of us survivors, once he made it past that make-or-break semester, the next three years are a breeze. (Well, except for that networking class that was taught with an Electrical Engineering textbook, in which no EE students were enrolled. That was fun.)
Jim also had a great sense of humor, I remember seeing Starship Troopers with him the day it hit theaters and having a blast. As we were leaving, the rest of the patrons were bitching about the movie, he turned to me, sighed and said: "I think we're the only ones who got the joke."
He was creative as fuck, which I think is what got him into trouble later on. This was before smartphones, back when cell phones themselves were kind of rare, though of course Jim was one of the first people to have one.
Nokia came out with these things which were sort of like a smartphone, but without the actual phone part in it. It was called the 77 or something like that; Jim got one of those and did all sorts of amazing things with it. He had this nasty cable that he kludged together that sometimes shocked him, and the wires had a tendency to come loose; he kept the bundle of wires held together with duct tape; but it allowed him to connect the Nokia to pretty much anything through the use of these adapters he could plug into the far end. He was playing around with GPS before most people even knew it existed.
One time CompUSA (remember them?) was throwing away a bunch of PDAs; Jim dug them out of the trash, shoved some GPS stuff into it, and handed them out to a bunch of guys in our class and used them to play hide-and-seek on campus.
Our school had a lot of tall buildings, and people realized that it was easy to just keep moving from floor to floor to evade the others as they zeroed in on them. Jim lost one too many times, confiscated all the PDAs, and then gave them back a day later with altimeters in them, with the program now modified to provide a z-coordinate as well; suddenly we knew what floor someone was hiding on!
Steph came along when we were juniors, in about October or late September at the very earliest. I remember because she had a Green Bay Packers winter coat (she had a Packers spring jacket too, which should've been a warning sign). She was a beer-guzzler with the most stereotypical Wisconsin accent I'd ever heard.
Jim never told me exactly how they met, but she was a freshman who was actually from the same town up north as Jim. That weird accent I mentioned? It's very similar to how Jim sounds when he gets really drunk; like most of us geeks who spent more time watching movies and TV than talking to people in our formative years, he usually had the accent that Wikipedia refers to as "General American English". (Which does mean that our contention that we don't have an accent is actually true, from a certain point of view.) His drunk accent sounds like the MST3K guys when they're making fun of Minnesota.
Up until about Valentine's day everything was going fine. Steph didn't exactly fit in with us STEM types, but she really livened up our parties, and introduced us to such concepts as flaming shots.
There was this guy who was never any fun who we called Nyder (thankfully he didn't watch Doctor Who, so he didn't get the joke. The fact that he never bothered to ask why we called him that just shows how strange he was) who Steph managed to get drunk. That wasn't an improvement since he started crying and told us about how much he hated school and how he never wanted to stop living with his parents; he also told us that he didn't like any of us, and only hung around with us because he was lonely.
As I said, around Valentine's Day things took a turn for the worst. Suddenly Jim wasn't hanging around with us anymore, I was only in one class with him, and we had very little time to talk since I had a class immediately afterwards.
When we were able to talk, he was reluctant to talk about Steph. But he eventually told me that she didn't like when he hung around with us; apparently she didn't like us at all, and had only been humoring us. He'd also taken to sleeping at her place off-campus, since she said she had trouble sleeping without him, so we barely saw him at all.
I was savvy enough in the ways of love to know there were two possibilities: either he was telling the truth, and Steph had become controlling… or he was lying, and had simply "outgrown" us.
Because he was always so nervous when we talked, I assumed that he was lying, and he had decided we weren't really his friends any longer.
One morning in class he seemed even more nervous than usual. I could tell something was wrong when I cracked one of our old jokes, and rather than just giving his usual grin, he started laughing uncontrollably. Throughout class he kept breaking into giggling fits. (Since then I've discovered this sort of things is called pseudobulbar affect)
When class ended he begged me to come to the dining hall with him, skipping my next class. I had a quiz that day, but the way he was acting freaked me out so much that I went with him.
As we walked to the dining hall, he kept looking behind him, and he would crane his neck to look around the corners of buildings; there's this large staircase that leads up to the dining hall, and from it you can see pretty much the entire quad, he spent about half-a-minute looking around furtively before we went in.
We sat down at a corner table, and Jim spilled his guts. The night before he and Steph had gone to this cappuccino place, and they'd done it at about 8:00 at night. When they got back to Steph's place, he'd been unable to sleep, and had been up until about 2 in the morning playing with his Nokia tablet; and that's when it happened.
Steph began talking in her sleep; in Russian.
It's important to remember when this took place; the rush from the Cold War suddenly ending was finally beginning to wear off, and we were just starting to realize that Russia might not be our friend after all. The idea that Russia was still spying on us was almost more terrifying than the fact that we'd stumbled across a spy.
Now let me back up a bit; we didn't think at first that Steph was a spy; although that was the first thought that occurred to Jim and I, we knew there were much more mundane explanations. In fact the idea that Steph might be a spy was sort of fun. It was only when those mundane explanations started to be ruled out that the terror began to creep into our souls.
The first explanation was that she was taking Russian. We went to the registrar's office and checked the course catalog: Russian wasn't offered at our school. Luckily I remembered that we were allowed to take a certain number of credits at the nearby state school and those would count towards our degree here. However we discovered that foreign language courses were above that limit (if I remember correctly, the limit was 4 per semester, Russian was 5 credits since it included an extra hour of lab work per week).
The second explanation was that she took Russian in high school. There are pockets of Russian immigrants in Wisconsin, so some of the high schools offer it as a second language. Jim remembered that Steph went to a Catholic all-girls school in their hometown (which conveniently explained how they never met each other). We called them from my dorm room, and I asked one of the admissions people if they offered Russian, claiming my sister was thinking of attending there. She informed us that they didn't. I then mentioned that a friend of mine who had gone there for high school told us she took Russian classes there. The woman in the admissions office told us that the school had never offered Russian, and had no plans to do so.
The third explanation is somewhat related to the second; there were Russian immigrants in Wisconsin, so it's possible that she had parents or grandparents who spoke Russian.
However, we found this very unlikely, because she spoke English with a "perfect Wisconsin accent". It's then that we began to realize that it might be a little too perfect.
We always had the option to ask her, but by that point we were both terrified. We had seen L.A. Confidential together while it was in theatres; do you remember that scene where Russel Crowe tells the farmer from Babe that he has uncovered corruption in the precinct, and the farmer caps him because he's the ringleader? If you suspect someone of something, you keep your mouth shut; you sure as hell don't confront them with your suspicions.
And the truth is that even at this point we didn't really think she was a spy; yeah, we were creeped out, but it's that fun kind of fear you get when you're watching a suspense or horror movie. Deep down we knew that she couldn't be a spy, because those sorts of things just didn't happen in real life; well, not to us, anyway.
Jim had been planning to break up with Steph anyway by that point; he really didn't like how possessive she'd gotten. Spring break was coming up, and he planned to break up with her on the way to the airport (remember, he was one of the few people I knew who had a cellphone.)
And so it went, he even lied about where he was going; he said he was going to visit some friends on the East coast, but he really visited some of his friends who were going to school in California.
I don't know how things are now, but back then no professor ever had a class on Friday. I only had one friday class in all 9 semesters I was there; and that was a lab, which I could have replaced with a Wednesday session that conflicted with another of my classes.
Because of this, our "work week" would always end on Thursday, and it was on Thursday night that Jim skipped town and said "Bye, Felicia" to Steph.
So the campus was almost completely empty that following day, I was stuck behind because of my lab class. When I went to lunch, the only other person in the snack bar was Steph. I decided to be polite, and listened to her complaints about Jim.
This is when I did one of the stupidest things of my entire life. I do honestly believe that if I had just kept my mouth shut, none of what I'm about to tell you about would have happened.
I got a course catalog from a stack that was sitting on a nearby table and started to leaf through it. I asked Steph if she'd started to think about what she'd take next semester, since registration opened shortly after spring break ended.
I oh-so-nonchalantly brought up the subject of foreign languages, and how I needed some credits in them towards my degree (I took Spanish in high school, but my grades were so low that they didn't count towards that requirement). Steph said she already had that buttoned-up, since she'd taken three years of Spanish in high school.
I then mentioned a friend I had whose grandmother spoke Polish, and how he was able to test out of Polish because of that. I then asked if she knew any "ancestral languages" like that.
She mentioned that her family was Irish, so the only thing she inherited were some dirty limericks.
I am not exactly a smooth operator, and as sneaky as I think I might be, I'm sure I'm nothing compared to a trained spy. So even though she didn't react strangely to any of my questions doesn't mean that she didn't suspect anything. I have no doubt that my questions are what put things into motion.
Since I had moved to an apartment the previous summer, I wasn't affected by the dorm lockout (yes, the dorms were closed during spring break, it was a small school). I spent the next week playing old DOS games and getting hammered every night with the townies.
And here is where things started to get weird, because during that week, two things happened: Jim's dorm (and specifically his room) was broken into, and Steph vanished off the face of the Earth.
He found out about the former on Sunday, when the RAs reopened the dorm, he found out about the latter when he returned to town on Saturday and checked his messages. He actually bunked with me that day while he was waiting for the dorm to reopen, so I was privy to everything that happened.
Steph lived in a house with three other girls, all of whom had gone to Florida for spring break, and had come back Friday night. They discovered that the garbage hadn't been taken out on Thursday, and several rain-soaked packages were sitting on the front porch, the earliest of which had been delivered on Tuesday.
All of her clothes and belongings were missing from her room, and the dresser (which belonged to the house, since it was a furnished rental) had a streak on it where the varnish had been stripped off.
The police called Jim in for questioning. Later on he told me about it, they asked the usual questions: did they know where she was, had they had a fight before she disappeared, and so on. However they asked him a lot of really basic questions as well: they asked for him to provide a physical description and to work with a sketch artist, and asked for any contact information he had for her family.
He thought at first that they were trying to trick him into contradicting himself or something, but he began to realize that the police had no information about Steph… at all. They didn't have an address for her parents, she'd never gotten any mail at the house she was sharing, and there were no fingerprints at her house, since someone seems to have rubbed everything in her room with bleach (which is how some of the varnish had been stripped off the dresser in her room.)
There weren't any pay stubs since she didn't have a job, she didn't seem to have a bank account, and she always paid her portion of the rent in cash.
Her roommates had only met her back in October, after she'd answered an ad left on a messageboard in one of the commons areas on campus.
None of her roommates had any pictures of her, but that wasn't all that unusual back then. Very few people had cellphones, and even if they did, those old cellphones didn't have cameras.
Steph had been at my birthday party, so I volunteered to provide a picture. When I was looking through my photo album I discovered something very eerie; although she had been at the party, she was in none of the pictures. She somehow always managed to be just of frame, or something like a hand or leg managed to make it into the picture. The only photo I found of her was one where she was far in the background, with her back turned to the camera.
I showed the album to Jim, and he was equally confused. He didn't remember her ducking out of the way of the camera, though he did remember that she always offered to take the group photos, but at the time we had just assumed this was her being nice.
I actually went out of my way and talked to a friend in the registrar's office, asking if they could give a copy of her ID picture to the police. He mentioned that the police had already asked for one, and there were no records of Steph ever being registered at our school.
It got worse, the police were able to find no records of her in Jim's hometown either. The school she claimed to have gone to had no record of her. She claimed to have been a cousin of a big family that lived there, and had the same last name, but the police discovered that was a lie as well.
The weird thing is that everything she mentioned about the town checked out: the school she said she went to, the family she was supposedly part of, the video store and bookstore where she claimed to work while in high school all existed; but no one had ever heard of her.
Now I mention that Jim's dorm room had been broken into. The room had been completely ransacked, but he didn't find anything missing. He had been working on a little project which combined RFID and GPS components and was powered by a MCS-251 microcontroller (which is sort of the grandpappy of the Arduino). He'd actually taken this with him to California, and if I told you the names of some of the friends he showed it to, you wouldn't believe me.
Over the next couple of days the police continued to call Jim in for questioning. As you may have heard, whenever a woman disappears, people always suspect the husband or boyfriend of doing something to her. (This does often seem to be the case, but I don't claim to know the statistics on this.) So naturally the police suspected him, and since he was evasive about their breakup I can't say I blame them. In fact if they'd been able to come across any evidence that Steph actually existed, they probably would have arrested him already.
The third time they brought him in, he decided he'd had enough, and told them everything. He told me about this in his dorm room right after he got home from the police.
He said that right after he told them about their fights, and his feeling that she'd become too controlling, they got really smug-they thought they had him.
That changed their tune once he told them about her talking in her sleep. He said they looked baffled, and insistently questioned him about it: did he remember any specific words, had he recorded it? It quickly became clear that they believed him.
Then it got even stranger, they thanked him for his time and let him go. Every time before he had to insist they let him leave (with that old "charge me with something or let me go" line).
I left Jim's dorm room at about 5:30, and never saw him again.
Jim didn't show up for class the next morning, which didn't seem that unusual. But what did seem unusual was that an e-mail I sent him bounced back, and when I tried to call him (both on his dorm phone and his cellphone) I got messages telling me that the number have been disconnected.
I went to his dorm, but he wouldn't buzz me in. I knew the RA and he let me in, and we both went to his room to see if something was wrong. We knocked about twenty times, both got no answer. The RA had a master key that he wasn't supposed to use, but he said it was an emergency, and he'd use it if I never told anyone.
When we got inside we found… nothing. All of his stuff, his books, computer, gadgets, bits and bob of electronic stuff, his TV, his mini-fridge, his clothes, it was all gone. Not only had his bed been stripped down the mattress, the mattress itself was covered in plastic, just like they are when someone moves in at the beginning of the year. On top of it was a small manila envelope with his key in it.
The RA was even more confused than I was, since he lived right under Jim and would have heard him moving out.
The RA and I went to his room, where he intended to call the Campus Life Office and tell them about what we'd found and, swear to God, the red light on his phone was flashing.
He called his voice mail and stared at me in disbelief as he listened to it; it was a message from the registrar, informing him that Jim had disenrolled (the only time in my life I'd heard that word) and to make sure that he was moved out by the end of the week.
After I got back to my apartment, I tried to call Jim's parents, and was met with the familiar three tones and the voice of an operator, who is probably long dead, informing me that the number was no longer in service.
After a few more calls to the rest of Jim's friends, we got together and talked about what to do about this odd occurrence. (Most of the time was spent trying to convince them that I wasn't making it up).
Two of us went to the police station to file a missing person's report. I decided to drive the 40 miles to Jim's hometown to see his parents.
I could tell something was wrong as soon as I got in sight of his house. Jim had an older brother who was what was known back then as a "boomerang child". He'd graduated from college with a degree in anthropology, but could only get a job at the local A&W stand, and was forced to move back in with his parents.
As far back as I remember his ugly teal Chevy was parked in the driveway. But that day it was gone.
Nobody answered when I rang the bell, I peeked in the living rooms and saw that all of the furniture was gone. I talked to some of the neighbors and they thought that I was crazy, one of them had talked to Jim's dad just the day before.
So we drove back to school in confusion. At this point, it had been less than 24 hours since I had last spoken to Jim.
I'm afraid I don't have any decent conclusion to this story, I have few answers.
A couple of days later we called the police to see what they had found; they informed us that they'd contacted Jim, and that he was fine. However they couldn't give us any more information.
We later found out that Jim's two grown siblings had also disappeared that day. One of whom was living in Eau Claire at the time. I wonder if she disappeared with the preternaul promptness that the rest of her family had.
Some months later I ran into Jim's cousin; he gave me the only straight answer I've ever gotten on the matter: Jim and his family had gone into the witness protection program. His mother would talk to Jim's mom (her sister) on the phone a couple of times a year, but that was the only contact they had.
A few years after I graduated I came back as a company rep to the college's job fair. I struck up a conversation with one of my old professors, and the subject of Jim came up.
The professor told me that a few days after Jim disappeared, a couple of agents from some government agency showed up with a warrant and confiscated all the material from Jim's software engineering project from the year before.
He later found out that the files on his server were already missing (he'd taught the class for twenty years, and left everyone's project on the server so that successive classes could improve on them) But what they wanted was the associated papers, backup media, and even the camcorder tape he'd made of the presentation.
This guy had dealt with the government before, since he was one of the nation's leading experts on cryptography, so he knew there wasn't any point in fighting them.
He said that he thought he'd managed to keep a copy of Jim's project on the monthly magtape backups he made of the server. These were in an unlocked cabinet in the server room, so the feds (as he called them) didn't even know about them… or so he thought.
As he was getting ready to record over one of the tapes, he decided to be a bit of a rebel and copy Jim's project to a Zip disk. However, he discovered that the project was missing from the six magtapes that should have had them on it. You need to understand how insane this is: the feds would have had to restore the tape onto a computer, remove the directory, and then copy it back onto the magtype, and forge the dates on the tarball.
I'd also heard rumors that some of the students who'd seen his presentation were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements.
I guess that means that someone on Our Side got to him first, I suspect that Steph wasn't as lucky. I think she's probably rotting in a shallow grave on on a lakebed somewhere.
Why am I so sure? Well, there were a couple of occasions where I would run into Steph in public, and there would be a middle-aged man with her. She claimed this person was her uncle; Jim had never met this guy, and Steph always seemed annoyed when I ran into them (though this was par for the course at the time, remember: she was trying to alienate all of Jim's friends.) This uncle was the only person any of us had met who had known Steph before she moved here.
I never saw him again after Steph disappeared, but I did seem him during that week of spring break when I practically lived in our town's bars. I think it was on Tuesday night, he was sitting alone at the bar, slamming shot after shot of vodka.
I thought nothing of it at the time, and since he'd been more unfriendly than Steph the few times I'd met him, I wasn't going to go over and talk with him.
Now I've heard that spies never work alone, they usually have someone whose job is to do all the logistical stuff, such as falsifying records and getting money and resources to the spy, as well as getting information back to the mother country.
When I think back to him sitting alone at that bar, slamming vodka in an attempt to get blackout drunk, I can't help but think the worst. Even back in those days between the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin, the Russians had a reputation for being ruthless. If a spy was compromised, I doubt they would've taken the trouble to extract them. It would be much more efficient just to wipe them out. I think that's why "Uncle Steve" was getting wasted in the bar that night: it can't be an easy thing to kill a person.