I don’t know if she ever was apotropaic, but I kept her with me as often as I could. She was a snub nose .38 with a rosary carved into the handle. Her name was Mary. I unstrapped her from my ankle and unceremoniously stuffed her inside the glove box before I stepped out on to the sunny sidewalk.
Now, I know what you’re thinking but I’m not a religious man. I haven’t been to the church in a decade, and I’d seen too much to believe anything but God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. I’m saying this because the desire to take her was almost throbbing in me like an infected wound, but I shook it off as tired nerves. Sill, there was too much that happened and remains a mystery after I walked into that dimly-lit tavern.
Inside, I needed a second to look around and let my eyes adjust. The old wood floor creaked with every step. I remember the hairs on the back of my neck standing up almost immediately. It was that feeling of being watched. I’d gotten used to it in my line of work. My ears perked up and I scanned every corner of the giant room. There was something in the shadows. I was as sure of it as a fly that feels the swatter nearby.
I took this job because of the contact, Professor Van Ginkel. One look at his picture online and I knew he was a mark. I wasn’t likely to need the gun at all. He had that perfect combination of innocence and middle age. He was gangly lean, half bald and wore thick glasses. My first thought was I’ll bet he drives a Volvo and pays extra for the most-extended warranty on every purchase. It was easy money. Most likely, he wanted me to catch his wife with the tennis instructor. The legs get them every time. Either way, I was behind on a couple of bills to pay and lately all the holes around me keep turning up dry.
I first saw Van Ginkel shifting his eyes all around from the farthest corner of the room. I got the contact from a connection. He was an old college buddy of mine who’d gone the straight and narrow path instead. He wasn’t as buttoned up as a preacher on Sunday morning, but he liked a pool hall or two and he would toke out the back of his garage if you brought the stash. He’s a good guy so I’ll keep his name out of this as long as I can. He’s a head honcho at the University now but he spends more time counting beans than searching for anything. We play golf together on Sundays and cards on Wednesdays. That’s where he does his true philosophizing, he says. I was beginning to think Van Ginkel was even greener than I’d imagined. My buddy had done me a favor, lining up easy money.
To a hunter like me, spotting prey is like knowing pornography when I see it. They look all around them for predators who peer straight ahead for something to eat. I was a hunter and that was just the way of things. Of course, I’m not the type of scum to roll someone over in an alley for a wallet. I have a code of ethics. I was counting the numbers and thinking of what kind of expenses I could stack up for this guy.
What I failed to consider properly was the second fact I noticed about Van Ginkel: he was hiding something. The beady brown eyes behind the thick glasses didn’t help him look less like a rodent as he continued to peek around every corner and sink into the shadow of the booth. I dropped onto the bench across the table from him unannounced.
“You’re him,” he asked.
“Of course. You can call me Jim.”
The Professor looked me in the eyes and seemed to relax a little so I smiled. He leaned back in his seat and popped back up almost instantly.
“Would you like a drink?” He asked. “They have a wonderful selection here.”
“Sure,” I answered, willing to accept anything even if it sat there as a prop.
He raised a hand and waved to the bartender. She continued to talk to other patrons as she poured him a pint of ale. Great, I thought as she hustled it over to our table before he spoke. They know him so well.
“Best fish and chips in town and right next to the campus. Imagine my surprise when…”
“Can we get on with the job?” I blurted, cutting him off and glancing at my watch. “My time is expensive.”
He looked away and contorted his brow.
“They were my research partners,” he mumbled.
“The two I want you to find.”
“What did they do? Skip town before the term paper was due?”
He lifted the beer to his lips and spoke into the glass.
“They’re my colleagues and they’re missing.”
“Okay. Did you go to the police? They usually help with these things.”
Van Ginkel shook his head.
“Why didn’t you go to the police?”
I knew the answer before he could say it. Well, I didn’t know exactly what it was but I knew it was juicy.
I couldn’t contain myself at this point. I had to move the pint glass out of the way to lean closer. It felt like I was working with a child who’d never been caught. His hands were covered with crumbs, the jar was busted on the floor and his cohorts ran off with the cookies.
“Whatever they took must have been valuable,” I said. What was it? A particle collider?”
He looked me in the eyes for the first time longer than a millisecond.
“Those are miles long,” he said and shook his head. “Never mind. What they took is much smaller than that but very expensive to replace.”
“Okay. What was it?”
“It was enough equipment to fill a small house, let’s say.”
“Okay. What does it do?”
“It’s difficult to explain. We were experimenting with the basic principles of energy and mass. I wanted to find a better explanation than quantum wave theory has to offer. I assume you’re familiar with particle-wave duality.”
I must have looked as perplexed as a feral monkey in a British tea room because he shook his head and sighed.
“At the subatomic level, how everything behaves depends on what you’re looking for, but that’s the problem of observation! See, anything we measure is altered by the very act of observation. The great mystery has always been what would be if we could see it from the outside. I have developed a technique for canceling out the wave function of matter and energy in a very small area. In effect I can send something outside of this very universe!”
I waved my hands in futility and regretted asking him about it in the first place.
“All of this is over my head Doc.”
He stared at me.
“Why don’t you start with your friends’ names, home addresses and workplace?”
“They weren’t my friends. They were strictly research partners.”
“Must have been a wonderful place to work.”
The professor sunk his head in his hands and didn’t get the joke. I pulled out my notebook, hoping he’d get the hint to start talking instead. He didn’t and rubbed his temples until I cleared my throat. Time didn’t seem to matter too much to the old man, I thought and doodled an old-school hydrogen atom with the orbiting, tiny bead of an electron on the corner of the first open page. Then I shaded it a little like planet Earth. He sputtered out their names mechanically, but they might have been Jack and Jill for our purposes. I never met them properly.
“So, do you have access to their offices?”
“Of course,” he said and sipped twice. “They’re right next to mine.”
“Why do you need to get to them first?”
“To clear my name and continue my research. If the police are involved, the university will shut down my entire program. I’ll be years behind.”
I recall a sigh building up but I stuffed it down. Hiring me didn’t exactly scream innocent if the authorities did find out, but I wasn’t about to say anything.
A nerve twitched in my gut. Now was the time to choose whether to jump ship or to batten down the hatches with the Professor until he got what he wanted and I got my payday. As I sat there undecided, that fiber in my belly was speeding up and I couldn’t wrestle it into submission. I put the pencil down. This type of amateur hour was a cheap ticket to jail time usually. I sat on the fence for several minutes while Van Ginkel sipped his drink. Then I started to count my bills and my pride crept in and couldn’t help but trust my experience. Just a few days prior, I’d considered picking up a bounty like the old days. That brought out a chuckle. Who was I kidding? I had rents to pay, informants to favor and officials to bribe. I’m not writing to justify my actions, but let it be known that I tried to talk myself out of this job. I told myself I could keep this mouse in line. I took a deep breath and reached for the pint of ale that I had pushed away. It fit into the nook of my hand naturally.
“Start over,” I said. “From the beginning.”
Needless to say, Professor Van Ginkel was a horrible storyteller or else he didn’t plan on giving a lecture that day. Even his name clunked off the tongue and roof of your mouth awkwardly as you said it.
It was simple enough as he laid it out for me. They were playing with particles and discovered something. I don’t pretend to know how this stuff worked, but it sounded basically like a quiet room they made by blasting the right frequencies in all directions. I thought if he could move light around like that, 3D movies were going to be amazing, but he wasn’t amused by my interest in holograms. Still, to me, anything else would have been too preternatural for my mind to comprehend. It might as well be ghosts, vampires or leprechauns. I couldn’t even imagine what was coming, and I do have to kick myself for being a man who peers into the shadows for a living. I never knew what lurked inside. At the time, I shrugged off the science as cell phone voodoo. It was magic. I wouldn’t understand but it was worth a ton of money. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.
One day Jack and Jill didn’t show up for work. Then some multi-million dollar equipment was missing. High speed lasers and super-fragile detectors was how he described it. Stuff the feds didn’t want in the average Joe’s hands. Twice the professor pointed out it wasn’t even the radiation they were concerned about, but that seemed unlikely to me. Also he was under some suspicion already after some discrepancy in his books. That wasn’t my problem. Even though I could see from his furtive glances and fidgeting fingers that he wasn’t the innocent victim in all this, I thought it was one of those things. It looked like the uncomfortable twitch of a young kid in a classroom on a fresh spring morning. Ever held a pup that couldn’t sit still? White-collar crimes weren’t as rare as they seemed, but the more strait-laced a fellow was made him lose his mind as he spent more time outside the law. I alluded to this earlier but there are two groups of people: packs and herds. That’s the essence of it. The pack is about competition and challenge while the herd is for followers. I guess you can tell which I prefer but at least I won’t tell you my side is innocent. Either one will break the law, steal, lie or make some other kind of mischief.
Anyway, I digress. He got the end of what he hadn’t prepared to say and gestured in a grandiose manner as if he had presented the greatest truth.
“I don’t expect you to tell me everything,” I said and put my pencil down. “But I’m going to need a lot more to find them.”
“I suppose we could have a look at their offices,” Van Ginkel said as he slumped in his seat and stared into the empty glass. “It’s the perfect time. No one else is there and I have all the keys.”
Perfect, I thought. Why should I have wasted any more time with the mousy professor? I was on my feet and moving toward the door in an instant. We seemed to be in agreement as he tossed a couple bills on the table and ran after me. I smiled out the door two steps ahead of him.
We negotiated a fee for my services, or more accurately I told him what I charged and he waved it off like a buzzing fly. My enthusiasm for the job only intensified as I followed him across the campus. He repeated a nervous glance over each shoulder every few steps, but for all I knew, this was how he always acted.
Only a few students were out and about that evening under the warm glow of the lampposts, with lights floating like orbs in the misty air. I nodded and smiled hello as the professor charged past the unsuspecting kids. Polite people are forgotten easily. We hurried over a concrete courtyard and into the thick shadows. Finally we arrived at a large metal door in the middle of a brick wall with no signs. Van Ginkel swiped a keycard and pulled the door open.
I peered inside and was surprised by the dark hallway of classrooms. I was expecting something more mysterious for all the suspense. Plain old reflective linoleum and snore-inducing beige walls stretched out under the glowing red exit signs. I chuckled and Van Ginkel must have guessed my thoughts.
“Wait until the surprise,” he said.
Our footsteps echoed as we walked down the hallway. Finally I saw another glowing keypad and a large metal door painted like the walls, but when it opened, I was blasted in the face with a rush of cool, dry air. I blinked and the first thing I saw were server towers and computer monitors packed into the opposite wall like meat in a freezer. An ominous blue glow settled over everything, unnaturally cool and unsettlingly ambient. I repressed a shudder and rubbed my hands together.
“You keep it chill here. What are you hiding?
The metal grate for a floor clanked as we walked. I peered into the darkness below but I couldn’t see the bottom.
“The temperature is for the computer not the radioactive materials. There’s plenty of lead separating us.”
“Radioactive stuff? Like plutonium?”
“Well, there is a small amount in the device but insignificant compared to the rest.”
I wasn’t reassured as we walked toward the end of the metal and glass cage packed with technical equipment and hardware. Finally my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I stopped when I realized we were perched above a cavernous concrete salad bowl. But no, it went all around like a sphere. I grabbed the rail and preferred not to look down.
“We’re perfectly safe.”
“Of course,” I mumbled, and for a moment I was unable to reach into my usual grab bag of insults, cynicisms and jokes. “I thought we were talking about playing with light. We’re finally going to get holograms.”
“Holograms?” This time it was a derisive sneer. “That’s so small.”
We stopped at the end.
“Well, that’s where it goes,” he said and pointed toward a metal wire suspended above the abyss. “As you can see it’s missing.”
It looked like a tow truck lost its hook and chains as it fell into a black hole. The connecting links stretched out all the way to the ceiling and walls like some kind of trapeze trick was under way. We stared at the place where it should have been for a couple minutes.
“What are we up to doc?”
“Nothing at the moment because my former associates have stolen the receptacle.”
“The trash can or the shitter?”
The professor didn’t smile.
“Not much for potty humor huh?”
I took note of all the odds and ends in the husband’s desk. There wasn’t much to look at but a giant stack of Japanese comic books and crumpled up chewing gum wrappers, but they wouldn’t clarify where Jack and Jill were. I did see, however, a framed picture of the happy couple holding up kayaks next to a pristine, reflective lake, showing just a few ripples under a clear blue sky. I took it out, saw the date on the back was last summer and slid it into my pocket. I’m not sure the professor noticed, or at least he didn’t care.
He waited for me in the hallway where I followed him to the next room. He harrumphed as we walked into what was a classroom or conference room with a single long table and no chairs. Whiteboards made up the walls and there wasn’t a square inch left to spare. Mathematical equations and some language that looked Greek to me covered everything from corner to corner.
“This is the wife’s office?”
“The colors look like a kindergarten classroom or a kaleidoscope.”
There were several shades of red and pink, a couple of orange and yellow that were difficult to distinguish and enough blues and greens to splatter a French painting in an old, dusty museum somewhere. She loved her colors. It was playful and childish but the complexity of the equations was way beyond anything I’d ever studied.
“Everyone loves the colors, but they serve a practical purpose. They’re for…”
“It’s memorization,” I blurted, cutting him off. “The design is amazing.”
“You see a pattern? Impressive. Most don’t see anything but chaos.”
I suppose this is a good time to confess a secret of mine. I’m very lazy. I always have been. First I learned to speed read before I was ten. Not that I absorbed volumes of books and journals. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I learned very early how to see the picture clearly with only a fraction of it visible. Usually I could pick apart the answer without seeing the entire sum. I’d use deduction, induction, intuition or any other tool in the bag, but if I’m being totally honest, it seemed to come before all that. I’ve never though of it as anything more than a carnival trick, and I’ve used it to my advantage plenty of times. I’ve hunted down ex spouses off a prescription label or a fiber of hair, I’ve found stolen artwork hidden half a world away, and I’ve re-stolen and returned a three-hundred-year-old sailboat. All of this I did the same way I can read half a book and know the ending. I thought I knew everything and had seen everything. But the truth is much more than I can imagine even now, so I’m going to call my gift the dumb-shit lucky guessing analysis.
“Is this everything?” I asked.
“They do some work from home,” he said and scratched his neck. “There is the break room, I suppose.”
I followed him across the hallway and finally saw some stuff I could wrap my head around. I breathed a little easier over dirty dishes, burnt coffee and a fridge sparsely-packed with half-eaten takeout and Tupperware from home. There was something universal about a kitchen. People have to eat no matter where they’re from or what they talk about while they do it. Sure, there are plenty of variations, but the essence is always the same: survival. Everything else is an illusion or just a theory, depending on your point of view.
Just then it passed in front of my view like a blinking red light in a dark room. The link was obvious as soon as I saw it. Another picture was stuck to the freezer door with a bottle-cap magnet. It was the husband smiling by himself this time. He wore black sunglasses, held a banjo and leaned against a round pinewood column. But the only detail that truly mattered was the shining lake behind him. Twice makes it special so I pilfered this one as well.
“Do they have any other properties besides their home?” I asked with as much nonchalance as I could muster. “Like a cabin in the woods, up in the mountains or by a lake? Maybe a beach house? Or a boat? Could be anywhere.”
“Not that I know of.”
“Look, I’m on your side. This goes best for me if the police aren’t involved.”
He nodded agreement. “All I recall was the music festival they talked about every year, but I can’t even remember the name. It’s just a little North from here but I don’t know much more than that. It’s not my hobby.”
That’s all I really needed. I don’t mean to brag. I’m being honest. I knew the chain of snowcapped mountains in the background of the first image, so that narrowed it down a bit. Public records are another thing, especially stuff you can find on an oogly-eyed search engine in particular. They made it too easy really. As brilliant as they may have been, Jack and Jill weren’t my type of masterminds by any means, but every little detail of how I got from one point to another would bore the daylights out of you. I mean I could make a list but I’ve also heard the most objective arrangement of facts isn’t more than a random list. I believe there’s a certain human quality to truth that makes the story inseparable. I do, however, put down plenty of details that don’t mean a damn thing and meander my way back and forth a bit. I’ll do my best to tell the story as I remember it and as it should be told, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
As we left the secret fortress in the middle of the university campus, Professor Van Ginkel and I shook hands in agreement. I promised to contact him the moment I sniffed out a lead on their hiding spot. He was going to pay me whatever I asked, which made me feel a lot better about this job. Maybe I’d been skittish. I didn’t need Mary at all that day.