The office building was nondescript, with little to differentiate it from any other corporate headquarters Deb had seen since coming to LA. She suspected they had left the city proper, however, as the neighborhood Howitz drove them to seemed more suburban than anything else.
The—investigator? Government agent? Deb wasn’t sure who she worked for—had been tight-lipped beyond the single question she had asked when they entered her car. She had refused to tell them what she knew about Luke or if he was connected to the dream as she had implied. Izzy had asked questions incessantly during the drive, to no result. Howitz remained a portrait of stoicism as she drove until they arrived at their destination well after dark.
The lights were still on in the two-story building, and Howitz gestured for them to follow from the small lot she had parked in.
“Pretty small building for a headquarters,” Izzy said in a low voice as they walked toward the entrance. Deb didn’t respond. She hadn’t forgotten the college girl’s insults.
A security guard sat behind a desk reading a newspaper inside the foyer. He nodded toward Howitz and waved Deb and Izzy through with barely a glance. Deb saw something about dreaming on the headline of his paper. At the rear of the foyer, Howitz stepped inside an elevator, holding the door open for the other two. Once they were inside, she waved a keycard in front of the call buttons and pressed the floor buttons in what looked like a random sequence. Deb frowned at the display, but instead of rising toward the second floor, the elevator dropped. Izzy looked startled.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Operational security,” came the reply.
The elevator shuddered to a stop and a bell sounded their arrival. When the doors opened, both Deb and Izzy let out a gasp. The subterranean facility they’d been taken to extended far past the boundaries of the building above. It resembled an enormous warehouse more than a basement, all metal surfaces and fluorescent lights. Huge glass spheres sat on iron pedestals arranged in rows all the way down the room, iridescent colors flashing inside at random intervals. The ceiling rose far above their heads, supported by massive columns spaced between the spheres. Each wall had a number of closed doors, suggesting that whatever this place was, it was even bigger than what they could see.
Howitz stepped briskly out of the elevator, ignoring their reaction. “Right this way, please.”
“We can’t have been in there long enough to get this far down,” Izzy said, staring up at the tall ceiling.
The detective offered a small grin. “Our elevator is deceptively fast. Follow me, please.”
She walked toward one of the doors to the side, her footsteps echoing in the vast, empty space. After a moment of hesitation, Izzy followed and Deb fell in behind her.
“What is this place?” Deb asked. “It’s like something out of a movie.”
“Our department has…adequate funding,” Howitz said, opening a door and gesturing for them to enter. “Please have a seat. I will be back shortly.”
The cramped space inside resembled the interview room from every cop show Deb had ever seen, right down to the incongruously large mirror that she presumed was a window on the other side. Howitz closed the door behind Izzy, leaving the pair alone together in the cramped room. Deb pulled out one of the metal chairs and sat down, looking up toward the ceiling away from Izzy.
“What do you think they do here?” the college girl asked. “I thought they were with the FBI or something, but this place is more like a superhero’s hideout.”
“I don’t care,” Deb lied. “I’m more interested in what you meant back at your apartment when you said Luke used to live there.”
The girl sighed and sat down in the other chair, a metal table between them. “It’s what I was gonna tell you when you came over. Luke doesn’t live with us anymore, hasn’t for about a year.”
“What? He never told me that!”
“Yeah, well, I’d guess there are a lot of things he didn’t tell you. How often do you two talk again?”
“Don’t speak to me like that! I called him on the first of every month, and he never failed to pick up the phone until now. Why wouldn’t he tell me?”
“Not my business. Although…” Izzy hesitated for a moment. Deb guessed that there wasn’t a lot she didn’t think was her business.
“Yes?” she prompted.
“It had to do with a break up. Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to go into it with you.”
“A break-up? But he’s—oh.”
Izzy rolled her eyes. “Gay, yeah. No wonder he didn’t keep you in the loop.”
Deb pushed on, ignoring the twist of guilt in her chest. “Do you think that could have something to do with why these people are interested in him?”
The college girl thought for a moment before shaking her head. “It was a pretty typical break up, as far as I know. I can’t think of a reason why the Feds or whoever these people are would care about it. And it sure as hell didn’t have anything to do with the dream.”
“Right.” The dream. Howitz had mentioned it during the drive over. How her son was connected to a vision shared by most of the planet was a complete mystery to Deb. She worried in silence until the door opened once more and a small man entered.
He was average in height, but wiry. Dark circles ringed his eyes and he hadn’t shaved for some time, giving him a tired, unkempt appearance. In contrast to Howitz’s suit, he wore a casual t-shirt and jeans. As he entered he glared toward the mirror. Deb cocked her head, confused at the difference in presentation from the woman who had first contacted them.
“All right, let’s get this over with. Your names?” He slammed a small black device onto the table and pushed a button on top. “We’re recording.”
“Who are you?” Deb asked. “We came with-”
“Just answer the questions so we can get this over with, please,” the man said briskly. “Someone elected to bring two randoms in right at the end of the day, so now I get to play interviewer.” He looked meaningfully toward the glass once more.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” Izzy said. “Detective Howitz said that she was going to come back and-”
The short man snorted and chuckled. “Detective Howitz? Jesus, Maria, you’ve really gone off the deep end. Can you two just answer the questions so we can all get out of here?”
The door burst open and Howitz stepped in, glaring at the odd man.
“Arthur, may I speak with you outside for a moment?”
The short man rolled his eyes. “Oh now we’re concerned with privacy after bringing people down into the base without approval. Sure, Maria, let’s talk it out.”
Howitz glanced toward the two bemused women. “I apologize. This will only take a moment.”
They left the room, leaving Deb and Izzy to exchange confused looks.
“What the fuck was that?” Izzy asked.
Deb shook her head. Faint voices were audible outside of the room, and Izzy shamelessly put her ear up against the door to listen. After a moment, Deb joined her.
“-bring them here without telling anyone? The boss won’t care, but I do. That shit can’t fly anymore, we have to-” Arthur’s heated voice was cut off by Howitz’s quieter tones. Deb strained to listen, but she couldn’t make out the woman’s words.
“You don’t even know what to ask. I’ll get what we need and get them out of here,” Arthur said after a moment. “The last thing we need is-”
“Why are you two so loud?” a third voice became audible, male but higher-toned than Arthur. The other two lowered their volume, and Deb heard nothing else for several minutes.
She looked at Izzy, whose eyes widened as she kept her head by the door. She gestured hurriedly and moved back to the chair. Deb followed and sat down just as the door opened once more and another new arrival entered. He looked in his late twenties, tall and skinny, wearing casual clothes similar to Arthur’s. His sandy blond hair was unkempt, and he looked like he’d missed his last few meals. He peered at the two women through round glasses, studying them with interest.
“Uh, hello?” Izzy said after a few moments of silence.
“Welcome, welcome,” he said suddenly. “This might be a bit sudden, but before we start asking you questions, what about a tour?”
“A…tour?” Deb asked slowly. She wondered if they were being pranked, somehow.
“Of course!,” the man said enthusiastically. “You shouldn’t be here at all, really, but now that you are I can at least show you what we do here. Two broken eggs make an omelette just as well as one, as they say! And who knows, maybe it will lead you to tell us something we don’t know.”
“Do they say that?” Izzy muttered. Deb pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Listen, I think there might have been a misunderstanding. We’re here to help find my son, Luke. He’s missing, and—”
“I know that!” A flash of annoyance crossed the man’s face, disappearing as quickly as it came. “He’s one of the candidates. But how can you help find your son if you don’t know why he disappeared in the first place? Come on, follow me.”
“Candidates?” Deb asked, but the man had already turned away back into the main hallway. She caught a glimpse of Howitz sighing heavily.
WIthout any other choice, Deb and Izzy fell in behind the strange man. He walked deeper into the facility, trailed by Arthur and Howitz. They seemed to defer to the man who had pulled them out of the interview room, so Deb walked by his side.
“So do you have any idea where Luke is?”
“Patience,” he replied cheerfully. “All will be revealed in time.” He went on after a moment. “But, ah, to be honest, no. No idea.”
Deb closed her eyes in frustration. She’d been beyond excited when Howitz had appeared at Izzy’s apartment, but the feeling was fading rapidly.
“What’re those for?” Izzy asked, pointing at the glass spheres. Different colors flashed within every few seconds, throwing prismatic shadows across the room.
A voice spoke up from behind them. “They’re a giant money pit. Each one’s—”
Their host cut in. “No need to get into every detail Arthur. Their purpose is very technical, not something we need to go over right now.” Deb’s opinion of whatever operation she’d fallen into plummeted even further.
“This is our data center,” the young man said, opening a door to reveal a room full of computers. No one was using any of them, and none of them appeared to be powered on. He gave them a moment to look inside before shutting the door and walking further down the large hallway.
“This is our communications hub,” he went on, opening another door. The room within was much more cramped than the previous one, with only a single table and a few chairs as furniture. A young woman was sitting by herself with her feet propped on the table, and glared toward them as the door opened.
“What are you doing, Louis? Who are they?”
“We’ll speak later Amelia,” the man said quickly, closing the door. He looked pointedly at Arthur. “I thought she’d left already.” He shrugged, and Louis started to walk briskly on.
“Wait a second,” Deb said. The young man turned and raised an eyebrow.
“What the fuck is happening? You’re not explaining anything, you’re just pointing out rooms in your super secret base or whatever. I’m trying to find my son, should we just go? Because none of this seems remotely helpful for trying to find Luke.”
“I wanted to give you an idea of the facilities before explaining their purpose,” the man said, looking annoyed once again. “But fine, you want to skip to the end, we’ll do that.” He stood straight in what Deb suspected was an effort to make himself seem impressive. All it really did was draw attention to his gaunt frame.
“All of this,” he said, throwing his hands wide, encompassing the room, “was built for a single purpose. To study the boundaries of human consciousness, and to grasp the potential that has—until now—remained locked within the human psyche.”
Deb and Izzy exchanged a glance, nonplussed.
“So, psychic powers?” Izzy asked. Howitz and Arthur winced.
“NO!” Their host shouted, stamping his foot down. The sound echoed around the room. “We do not study clairvoyant bullshit! This is about the energy inherent in human consciousness and perception. No one has ever studied the topics we’re looking at before. No one even knew it existed until now.”
“Ok,” Deb said, unimpressed. “What does that have to do with us? What does that have to do with Luke?”
His eyes narrowed for a moment, then the man spun on his heel and stalked off further down the hall. “Follow me.”
Her patience dwindling, Deb nearly called out, but Howitz put a hand on her shoulder first. The woman shook her head. “Give him a chance. Louis…has a flair for drama , but he knows what he’s doing.”
“Does he? Do any of you?” Deb replied. “None of this has been remotely connected to Luke at all. Who the hell are you people?”
She sighed. “If you keep an open mind, it will all be explained, I promise.”
“Fine.” It wasn’t as if she had a lot of other options at the moment.
The group followed the strange man to yet another door, this one close to the back of the massive hallway. He opened the door to reveal a room similar to the one where they were interviewed, but here the walls were covered in maps. One side consisted only of an enormous world map, ringed by a red circle that encompassed more than half the planet. A smaller red circle surrounded the southwest quarter of the US. The next wall held a few smaller maps, individual depictions of the states in that area—Deb recognized California, Arizona, Nevada, and a few others. Red circles again enveloped parts of the map, along with X marks that formed no pattern she could make out. She turned toward the third wall to see maps of individual cities that she was unable to identify. These maps were scribbled on more than the others, full of post-it notes and markings that made it hard to see what was underneath.
“All of this could be done digitally, of course, but there’s something about seeing things physically that just makes everything a little clearer.” The man—Louis—stepped in the room, looking at each wall in turn with a gleam of pride in his eye. Deb and Izzy followed him in, revealing the fourth wall that had been hidden by the door.
Rather than a collection of maps, the final wall held a collage of newspaper clippings, pictures of people, and cutouts of other writing that Deb didn’t recognize. She quickly turned back to Louis, who was still gazing around the room.
“So are you going to explain any of this?” Before he could offer a response, Izzy gasped behind her. Deb turned in annoyance to see her pointing at one of the pictures on the last wall, her eyes wide.
It was a picture of Luke.
A small cutout of some kind of report was next to it. Deb stepped up close to scan the writing. Her own name leaped out at her, and she realized what she was seeing. It was a copy of the police report filed when she had called him in as missing. There was no indication of which department had written the report, but her blood boiled to see that her worries were written off, in so many words, as the ravings of an overbearing mother. She turned to see Louis and the other two looking at them.
“We’ve been interested in Luke for the last few days now,” Louis said before she could ask anything. “He was right near the epicenter, and after we became aware of your report, we leveraged outside sources to confirm that he hasn’t been in contact with anyone in his social network for quite some time.”
“The epicenter of what?”
“The mass dream,” Louis replied, as if it should be obvious. “San Diego was the origin point, and wouldn’t you know it, the last time we can place anyone talking to him was the night before the dream. He’s not the only potential mark we identified, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the most promising right now.”
“For what?” Deb asked, exasperated. “Jesus Christ, how many times can I ask the same question? What happened to my son?”
Louis glanced over at Arthur and Howitz, losing some of his bravado. “That…is one of our current points of research. The use for the energy concentrated by the dream is unknown at the moment.”
“You don’t even have any theories?”
The man spread his arms wide. “I have nothing but theories. Intuition would suggest the form taken by the dream has some connection with the function, but what that connection might be is elusive. The energy produced by several billion humans is not insignificant. Was it used to make a reproduction of the vision the sleepers saw? Create a facsimile of the creatures seen using a human base? Or was his own dream amplified for widespread use? There’s just not enough data to say.”
“You make it sound like someone did this on purpose.”
“Oh, most certainly,” Louis nodded. “There’s absolutely no chance this was a natural occurrence. Even if a freak set of circumstances did allow for a phenomenon like the dreams to happen naturally, we would have been able to detect the energy given off. No, that energy was harvested and used by someone for a specific purpose.”
“Uh, Boss?” Arthur piped up, “that seems like something that should be…classified, maybe?”
“Right!” Louis lifted his finger sternly toward Deb and Izzy. “Under absolutely no circumstances are you permitted to share what I have just told you with anyone! Understand?”
“Uh-huh.” Deb pushed her palm into her forehead. “Don’t worry about that. I think that’s probably everything I need to see.”
She turned toward the door, making Louis frown. “But we haven’t even done the interview yet. Anything you can tell us about your son could help us find out what happened to him.”
“I doubt that.” She turned to meet the ringleader’s gaze. “Every single thing you’ve said sounds like complete nonsense. I couldn’t care less about whatever fantasy you’re playing out down here, but you had to drag my son into it. You found a report of a mother looking for her missing son and incorporated it into the bullshit you’re spewing in every direction. I’m not wasting any more of Luke’s time with this absurdity. Don’t contact me again.”
She stalked out of the map room back into the huge hallway and started back toward the elevator.
“Arthur,” she heard behind her. Louis’s voice was more subdued than it had been before. “Can you go with her to open the elevator?”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
He hurried to catch up to Deb. She didn’t deign to look at him, and a few moments later they were joined by Izzy. The echo of their footsteps was the only sound as they walked, and though colors of all different hues were thrown across their faces by the ever-changing spheres, Deb’s thoughts boiled red.
She would have to go to the police. Louis and his people didn’t strike her as dangerous, but who knew what they were getting up to down in their underground base? It would be best for everyone if they were shut down. She should probably contact the media too. They had a weird enough operation going on that someone was bound to cover the spectacle, and it would give her a platform to talk about how Luke was missing. Perhaps some good would come out of the debacle this had turned out to be.
Halfway down the hallway, Izzy’s voice startled her back into awareness of her surroundings.
“How do you guys afford all of this?” She was still looking around the space, particularly fascinated by the scintillating spheres. Deb supposed they were impressive if you didn’t have larger worries occupying your mind.
“Louis’s last name is Brodeur,” Arthur replied. His earlier anger had dissipated, replaced by a weariness. He seemed to expect some kind of response, but Izzy just shrugged.
“His family are some of the richest people in France. Louis came to the US to get further away from them, but he’s never been hesitant about spending their money.”
“Oh. So they just give him whatever he wants? Wish I had a family like that.”
Arthur snorted. “Hardly. But as long as he gets results, he stays funded.” He looked over at Deb. “Trust me, you’re not the first one to say that kind of thing to Louis. But he wouldn’t still be here—and I sure as hell wouldn’t be—unless he showed proof that the stuff he’s talking about isn’t a sign of his own insanity.”
“Whatever,” Deb said. “I still don’t believe that anything here could possibly relate to my son.”
“Maybe not. But even if he’s wrong—which is less often than you’d think, believe me—we still have resources to help find him if his disappearance was more mundane.”
“Right. I bet you have the FBI on speed dial.”
“Well that just sounds ridiculous, but…yeah, more or less. A lot of people have set up contact with us since the dream. Turns out when you have an explanation for the unexplainable, people want to be your friend.”
Deb stopped in her tracks. “What? Really?”
Arthur nodded, looking a bit smug.
After a brief pause, Deb kept walking toward the elevator. “No. There’s no way. If that’s true, why do you even need me? You could get any information on Luke that you wanted. I’m not falling for this bullshit.”
“I asked the same goddamn question,” Arthur said, anger returning to his voice. “There was absolutely no reason to bring an entitled soccer mom down here. But Howitz pulled you in anyway, and for some fucking reason, the Boss wanted your help. I guess it all worked out though, because you’re incapable of facing the idea that there might be something out there that you don’t know about. It’s fucking incredible that you’ve learned everything about the universe from your two-story cookie-cutter home in the suburbs, but there it is. We should pack this whole place up and bow down before your knowledge.”
They reached the elevators, and Arthur turned to the call mechanism before she could respond. He inserted a key and the light went on at the top.
“It’ll take you up now. Have a nice life.”
He turned and started the long walk back without waiting for a response. Deb watched him go until the bell rang out and the elevator doors opened. Izzy spoke up once they were safely inside.
“That was pretty weird. You should’ve at least given them a chance to prove what they’re talking about, though.”
“Then stay.” Deb snapped. “No one’s forcing you to leave yet.”
The girl shrugged. “I don’t have a ride back. I figured you would call an Uber.”
Deb rubbed her eyes in frustration. She had wasted half a day with nothing to show for it. Luke was still gone, and she had no leads and no one to help her except a girl too broke to get a ride back home.
It was night by the time they left the building. The security guard was gone, leaving the lobby and parking lot deserted. Deb ordered the ride on her phone and sat down in a chair to wait. Only a few minutes later a car—a black sedan with dark windows—pulled up in front of the building. Deb frowned, looking at her phone. The Uber was still on its way, and she didn’t get the feeling a lot of other people came to this office, especially at night. Her bemusement intensified when she saw the man who got out of the car. He wore a black duster on a night far too warm for it, matching black gloves, and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. He looked like the villain of an old western. Not a particularly good one, either.
“Great, another weirdo,” Izzy said quietly as he approached the building.
The man tipped his hat at them as he entered, grinning toward them. An impression flashed across Deb’s mind that the expression was hollow, meaningless. She shook off the abstract thought distractedly.
“Evening ladies. Could you direct me to the, ah, elevator?”
“Right back that way,” Izzy said.
“Appreciate it. You two involved with the man downstairs?”
Deb frowned, answering before Izzy could. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hm. Interesting. Never mind me, then.”
He walked over to the elevator for a few moments, then returned to the lobby and sat in a chair across from Deb and Izzy. Deb suppressed a shiver. His gaze passed over both of them, but he didn’t seem to look at them so much as through them. Again, a sense of discomfort rose within her. Some primal part of her mind called out in warning.
“Seems I’ll have to wait for one of them to come up. So what’re you doing all the way out here, then?”
Izzy glanced out the door. Developed offices and residential streets could be seen past the parking lot. “What do you mean? All the way out where?”
“Oh, a bit of a…metaphysical comment, I guess. But what brings you to this office if it ain’t the more…eccentric tenants?”
Deb narrowed her eyes. “I don’t think we got your name. What was it?” The fear was growing stronger, and though she could articulate no basis for the feeling, she couldn’t let it go.
He grinned toothily, meeting her suspicious gaze. Deb did shudder now, unable to hold it back. Though there was no perceptible change in his face, she felt as if the grin grew wider. It occurred to Deb that she couldn’t tell how old the man was. His face had no wrinkles, but he didn’t look like a young man either.
“I’ve had a lot of names. But here and now, you can call me Smokey.”
The twin glow of a set of headlights flashed through the window of the building, releasing the tension and sending a flood of relief through Deb.
“Looks like your ride’s here, Miss Deb, Miss Izzy. You take care now.”
The two women quickly left the building and got into the car. It wasn’t until they were in the car and safely on the freeway that it occurred to Deb that they had never offered their own names to the man.