“...I'm gonna leave you all tonight with a question to be picked up tomorrow: Are we puppets, our strings pulled by cosmic beings? And I'm even going to go ahead and tell you what I think...I think we are. I'm sure those alien bastards—or gods, if you prefer—laugh their asses off making us dance like Elaine...”
Deidre Liegt looked at the small radio on her desk and smiled. Jakob was still being Jakob. With that thought, she was struck by the reality of how little had changed since college. One glance around her showed a one room apartment about the size hers had been at the UNM dorm. Except, of course, that it had been clean and nice and she'd had nice things in it. Deidre tried to think of one nice thing she owned now and her mind was blank.
She drove the same shit car, ate the same shitty noodle packs, and there was still nothing she could do about it. At least, there hadn't been.
A text file sat open on her computer—a twenty year old clunker that made a sound like a small jet engine if she tried to do more than two things at once—and she'd been staring at the final draft for at least the last half hour. Around her left middle finger hung a small metal keychain and she mindlessly twirled it around in the air. It was made up of a disc with raised areas forming the abstract curves and angles of the Sydney Opera House. Over a decade of ownership had smoothed out the edges, but the shape itself remained. It still gave her the comfort it always had and the feeling that her sister was near and not halfway around the world with her own life.
She probably had kids, now, Deidre thought. But they wouldn't know their aunt, if Sandra had a say in it. Deidre's hand stilled and she stared at the slowing pendulum of the keychain. Raised out of the bottom of the disc was the year '1999'--the year that Sandra spent abroad at University. They went to a show when Deidre visited and it was almost an exact year later that their relationship had gone to shit.
Deidre's eyes snapped back to the screen and the words 'Brawn, Alaska—2001' printed at the top of the page. The document contained all of the information she could find on the small town and it made for a very short report.
From the bottom toolbar, she brought up a scan of a Polaroid that was more familiar to Deidre than her own sister's face anymore. She stared at it and, not for the first time, wished that it were fake. A cold chill settled on her back and she shivered, giving the room a quick sweep with her eyes just to make sure there was nothing hiding in the shadows, watching her and waiting for its moment to strike. Another shiver took hold of her shoulders and she minimized the photo again.
Deidre took in a deep breath and reached for the telephone.
Luthor Gustersson, in the far reaches of a deep sleep, did not hear the phone's shrill cry. His wife, on the other hand, did and began jabbing her elbow into his hard chest. It took several tries to get even a grunt from the large man and then several more for actual words to appear.
“Answer it if it bothers you so much,” he grumbled, rolling onto his side so that he faced away from her.
“There's only one person that calls in the ass of the night and she'll want to talk to you. Get up. Now.” Hailey said.
“Baby, the phone's on your side of the bed...” he whined with his face pressed against the pillow.
Hailey raised up her arm and brought the elbow down hard into his side. Luthor's entire body spasmed and he rolled away from her, nearly going off the edge of the bed. When he looked at his wife, she was holding the handset out to him, eyes already closed. Luthor grunted his thanks and pressed the button.
“You better be on fire, Liegt. Know what time it is?” He grunted the words into the receiver, trying to make his voice as gruff as possible, knowing it would have little to no effect on the woman.
“Yes, it's...three in the morning? Shit, Luth, I--” Deidre's voice was drowned out by the sound of sirens and he waited until they dulled to speak.
“My God, you finally did it. You burned down that shitty apartment of yours.” He said.
“No, smartass. I wanted to tell you I'm coming by tomorrow to talk business.”
Luthor rubbed a large hand over his face. “You gotta be fuckin' kidding me. You called at three in the morning just to tell me you're coming by?!”
One of Hailey's eyes cracked open and Luthor shook his head, putting on his best apology face. She nuzzled down into her pillow and he wanted nothing more than to join her in sleep right now, but he couldn't just hang up on his old friend.
Deidre's voice was strained even through the phone and his anger cooled. She got that way sometimes, so wrapped up in something that time didn't matter anymore. “Luth, I'm sorry. I remembered how Hailey likes a little warning in advance of any visits and I just...I'm sorry. This whole thing kinda...sucked me in, you know?”
“It's a good one? No chasing geese?” He asked, letting his head fall back on the bed.
“I promise, Luth. You're going to see it when I get over there.”
“ 'kay. Get some sleep first, though.”
“I will. G'night.”
Luthor hung up the phone and let it fall between their pillows. He rolled his head to the side and Hailey's eye was open again. “She just wanted to let us know she's coming by. Because you don't like surprises.”
“Hm...that's sweet of her.” The eye closed and she was gone.
Luthor stared at her for another minute and shook his head, rolling back onto his side.
The next morning found him hunched over the kitchen table staring into a steaming cup. His reflection rippled in the black liquid and he watched the waves bend the lines of his face. There was a knock at the door and he heard Hailey leave the kitchen. She returned trailing a blond who was already beaming at eight in the morning. How she still did that at thirty-four, Luthor figured he'd never know. He smiled upon seeing her, but apprehension kept it from growing any larger.
Deidre plopped a neat stack of papers in front of him and fixed herself a cup of coffee before taking a seat. Luthor's eyes glanced at the topmost sheet and then up to her. “You gonna explain?”
She smiled and sipped her coffee. “Read.”
It took him about fifteen minutes to go through the material, alternating between eating and reading. When he reached the end, Luthor flipped back to the parts that interested him. Deidre kept her eyes on him the whole time, noting his reactions. When he was finished, Luthor set the papers back down and turned his brown eyes on her.
“Where'd this come from?” He asked.
“A couple of weeks ago, someone called me. I don't know if it was a man or woman and they didn't give me a name.” Deidre thought back and the strangely androgynous voice flowed like liquid through her mind again. You're the one behind Devils in the Desert? Have you heard of Brawn, Alaska?
Deidre told him all about the call and her shock that anyone had heard about the documentary at all. Then how she'd spent all of her spare time since researching a small town in Alaska that for all intents and purposes no longer existed save for some blackened ruins.
Luthor tapped his fingers on the tabletop while she spoke. He glanced back at the papers again and said, “It is a little interesting.”
“A little interesting? Four survivors, Luth, four! Thousands of people lived in Brawn and you think only four getting out is, what, normal? Not to mention, the deeper you go, you find that only one of them actually lived in the town. The other three were all on the flight that 'supposedly' crashed, starting the fire that wiped out the town. It's fishy, Luth.”
“Really? Cause I think it smells a little too much like the desert.”
Deidre rolled her eyes. She'd gotten tired of that particular saying over the last ten years that her friends had coined it, but she got where he was going with it. “There are similarities, I'll admit and that's one of the things that drew me to it. The mystery, Luth. I'm not looking for demons.”
“I don't know...Alaska...”
“Four out of thousands, Luth. Tell me that doesn't interest you. I mean, hell, there were what, fourteen people shot at that military base last month? That's still on the news and I don't know about you, but I never heard anything about a town being wiped out in Alaska.”
“So your game plan,” he flipped through the pages, “is to get the survivors together for a reunion of what may be the worst day of their lives—if they'll agree to it—and find...what?”
“The reunion show will be good on its own. But if there's a side that nobody's told, I wanna get it.”
“And what's that? Evidence that some thing destroyed the town—killed all the people? Alaska's a little far from Arizona.”
Deidre slammed her hand down on the table, startling both of the other people. Her nails scraped against the table as she curled the hand into a fist. “Not everything is about Dios del Gente, Luthor.”
“With you, it is--”
“Do you know what it's like putting the pieces of a puzzle together only to have suited assholes tell you that the puzzle is a lie? That it doesn't exist? To have them essentially rape your masterpiece and bury it under a rug?” Deidre paused and reached out a hand to cover one of his. She gave it a pulsing squeeze and continued, her voice much softer.
“I know this isn't Dios del Gente. I know that, Luthor. But I want to catch them in any lie I can. And I can't do that without you.”
Hailey got up from the table and left, presumably to get ready for work. Luthor waited until a minute after she'd disappeared and then whispered his next words. “That the same argument you used on Billy?”
Deidre pulled her hand back as if he'd burned her. She dropped her head to stare at the table and then back to him. “Billy wanted to come. I didn't tell him to go back to the site after I'd been arrested. I didn't even know he was gone until they let me go and the report came in about the body in the desert. I didn't tell him to go back, Luth. He did it on his own and they...” she wiped a hand over her mouth.
Luthor glanced the way Hailey had gone again. “If I tell you we're leaving, we're leaving, got it? Whole thing over.”
Her eyes lit up. “You have complete control. If things get dodgy, we're gone. So...you're gonna come? It's a go?”
He nodded. “It's a go. Have you talked to any of the survivors, yet?”
“I'm still tracking them down. I wanted to wait and make sure you were on my side, first. I can't do this without you.”
“I'm always on your side, Deidre. God help me, but I'm on your side. Do you have anyone funding this excursion?”
Deidre shifted uncomfortably in her seat and thought about the conversation she'd had just a couple days ago with her landlord about the rent being late, again. “No...but I have enough in savings to cover most of the costs and one of the stations I called said that if they like the finished project, they'll reimburse me with plenty to spare. All depending on how much they like it.”
He nodded and slid his eyes over the stack of papers again. “All right. Come get me when you've talked to the survivors and we'll go from there.”
Deidre put her hand over his again. “Thanks, buddy. I'll owe you one.”
She was on her way out of the apartment when Luthor called out. “You'll owe me more than one if this is half as big as you think it is!”
Deidre waved over her shoulder and was out.