FBI agent Shawn Backman sat in front of his computer and thumped his fingers on his desk. He’d seen the video thirty or forty times already and still hadn’t come up with a good explanation for what he saw. The office door opened and Agent Ron Turkle came in with a cardboard carry-tray with two coffees. He pulled one out, handed it to Backman and sat down on the edge of Backman’s desk.
Turkle worked the lid off his own coffee and took a sip. “Well?”
Backman swiveled his monitor toward Turkle and clicked a button to replay. The screen showed a group of dark clouds at dusk.
“What are we looking at here?” Turkle asked.
“Just keep watching.”
From the left of the screen came a bright fireball streaking through the sky. It was obscured by the cloud cover, but it didn’t diminish its brilliance. A second fireball was further behind the clouds and set off a series of aerial explosions that lit up the clouds like a Fourth of July display.
“Keep watching,” Backman said.
They saw the clouds light up one after another, a new fireball repeating the previous one’s flight.
“It’s almost like it’s—”
“Synchronized,” Backman finished for him.
They watched in silence for a minute, then Turkle said, “It’s got to be a meteor shower.”
“That would work,” Backman said, “if there were any meteors around. Scientists already shot that theory down.”
“Where is this?”
“Just got this from the Gila County Sheriff’s Department,” Backman said. “It’s somewhere over the Grand Canyon.”
Turkle glanced outside as if looking for something.
“What’s the matter?” Backman asked.
Turkle’s expression changed. He sipped some coffee and shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Nothing? You looked like you knew something. Come out with it.”
The agent leered down at Backman with disdain in his eyes. There was something nefarious about the way he leaned over the desk and lowered his voice. “When I say nothing, I mean nothing.”
Shawn Backman was a twelve-year veteran of the FBI. He’d been attacked, threatened, accused and maligned by the most dangerous criminals Arizona had to offer. But none had startled him as much as his partner just did from a simple question.
“You okay?” Backman asked.
Turkle’s demeanor seemed to change again. He was back to his affable expression as quickly as if he’d swiped a hand in front of his face.
“Sure,” he said, pointing out the window at the cloudy sky. “The storm is down to a drizzle.” He gave Backman a toothy smile. “What could possibly be wrong?”
They’d been partners for five years, but ever since Turkle’s heart attack, he’d changed somehow. He was grumpier and showed wild mood swings. At first Backman assumed it was the medication he was taking, but it couldn’t explain everything. He’d been an investigator for too long.
“Everything okay at home?” Backman asked with innocence.
Turkle’s face softened even further. He gave Backman a playful punch. “Hey, it’s fine. The wife gets under my skin sometimes, but that’s typical, right?”
Backman nodded. It was hard to argue much about that point, he thought. In his peripheral vision he caught the muted TV monitor hanging from the wall at the back of their office. He grabbed the remote and raised the volume. A CNN reporter stood in front of a mass of people standing behind a strip of yellow police tape in downtown Phoenix. Signs could be seen in the background, bobbing up and down: ‘Alien Go Home.’ ‘Save our Children.’
“The protest was started by a local college student who claimed to have dated Margo Sutter briefly in high school,” the reporter said. “The boy says he knew her when she was normal. Back when she was human.”
Backman pushed the mute button. “What the heck’s going on out there?” he asked.
“It’s the girl,” Turkle said, staring at the silent screen as if searching for someone. “She’s responsible for this.”
Backman pinched the bridge of his nose with his index fingers. “Ron, are we going to have this conversation again?”
Turkle picked up his coffee, walked over to his desk and sat down with heavy legs. Their office was barely big enough to support the two of them. One more desk and they would have to walk sideways to get in and out.
“I’m just saying,” Turkle said. “She seems to be in the middle of everything.”
Backman pushed the power button to turn off the TV, then dropped the remote on his desk. He scooted his chair back and leaned forward.
“You didn’t actually speak with her did you?” Backman asked.
Backman breathed out a sigh. “Thank goodness.”
“I did speak with the doctor, though.”
Backman covered his eyes with his hand. “You did what?”
“He came up to my car. What was I supposed to do, shoo him away like a dog?”
“Listen,” Backman took a long breath, “I’m supposed to keep an eye on you. Make sure you don’t go off on a tangent again.” He looked up to see the surprised expression on his partner’s face.
“Vince?” Turkle asked.
Turkle’s eyes wandered around the room, then returned to Backman. “Vince is doing this to me?”
Backman raised a hand. “Wait a minute, Ron. Don’t go down that road. You’ve been acting very peculiar ever since this girl returned home. You’re not going to admit it, but you’re obsessing.”
“Obsessing? She’s on the damn cover of Time Magazine claiming to be speaking with invisible aliens.”
Backman got up and looked out his office window into the bullpen where a huddle of cubicles clung together like a beehive. The hum of computer terminals and the chirp of cell phones crept through the closed door. A couple dozen operation people were glued to their computer monitors, their waistlines growing wider with each minute that passed.
Backman sighed while examining the bleak view. “You see that?”
“What,” Turkle asked.
“That crowd of keyboard pounders and Visine users.”
Turkle didn’t respond.
Backman bit the inside of his cheek and turned to his partner. “Listen, Kevin’s going to Dartmouth this year and Lindsay is two years away. There’s another round of cuts coming next quarter and I can’t afford to risk their education for some fascination you have with a teenage girl who may or may not be mentally unstable.”
Backman waited for a reaction, but Turkle seemed to be struggling to understand. Backman pulled up an armless chair and sat next to Turkle, looking him square in the eye.
“I can’t lie to Vince,” Backman said. “I won’t end up out on the street, or worse,” he pointed out the office window at the pathetic congregation of carpal tunnel candidates. “I won’t be a data personnel executive, or whatever they’re calling them these days. I’ve been an investigator too long. I can’t sit behind a desk all day. It’ll kill me.”
Turkle seemed to put it together. He nodded. “I see.”
Turkle picked up his coffee, walked around Backman and opened the door. He turned back for a moment and said, “Excuse me. I have official FBI business to take care of.”
Backman watched his partner head for the elevators. Turkle had gotten the message. He would no longer include Backman in any of his surveillance activities involving Margo Sutter. Backman went back to his desk and turned on the TV. Something was going on out there, but he wasn’t going to be the one to suggest anything as mercurial as aliens from another planet. He had tuition to think about.