You Get What You Pay For and More
Brynne Larence turned off the lamp in the living room of her new apartment and walked toward her bedroom. The 27-year-old had moved to Washington, D.C. nearly a week ago to take a new job with an architecture firm. She still had a sizeable number of boxes to unpack, but she'd already been unpacking non-stop for nearly two days. It was 11:00 p.m. now, and she was dead tired.
Brynne's orange cat, Moocher, trotted in front of her into the bedroom. Once they were both inside, Brynne closed the door. She removed the clip that had been holding her long, dark hair and picked up a brush. She began to rake the brush over her hair, but stopped mid-motion and leaned in closer to the mirror. What was that on her neck? She leaned in as closely as she could and studied her reflection. A prominent black spot that she'd never noticed before marred the side of neck. What was that? She reached up and rubbed it with her hand. To her surprise, it smeared. She looked at her finger and found some of the black mess on finger. Was that ink? How did that get there?
Brynne pushed the questions aside. She was too tired to contemplate mysterious ink marks. She looked away from the mirror and turned to her bed. Moocher was lounging innocently on top of the bedspread.
"Come on, Moocher," Brynne said sternly. "Move it." She gently shooed the cat off the bed. It hopped off and landed lightly on the carpet below. Brynne pulled the covers back and fell into bed. She slid under the covers. "Goodnight, Moocher."
Moocher sauntered over to the closet door, which was cracked open a bit, and meowed.
"Come on, Moocher," Brynne pleaded. "It's late. I'm tired."
The cat meowed again, this time louder and longer than before.
Brynne was quickly losing patience with her pet. "Mooch, give it a rest, already."
Moocher gave one more small meow before nudging the closet door open with his head and walking in. A few seconds later, a sea of bright, white light invaded the room.
Brynne opened her eyes, sat up, and squinted at the light emanating from her closet. "Moocher?"
Moocher came bounding out of the closet and hopped onto the bed, into his owner's lap. Brynne looked at the blinding light again. Was this a dream? Had she fallen asleep so quickly without realizing it? Was this a hallucination? She placed Moocher beside her on the bed and pulled the covers away from her body. She brought her bare feet to the floor and stood. Cautiously, she approached the phenomenon in her closet but stopped at the entrance. Staring into the light, she realized that it wasn't as sharp now that she was so close to it. It was like the light that emanates from a television screen in a dark room: not bright but … unique.
Brynne took another step toward the light. It was actually quite beautiful. She boldly brought her hand up to the light. She took one more step and, with her curiosity building, placed her hand into the light. It disappeared.
Lance Roberts took another bite of his candy bar. This would be the last time he had one of those for dinner. He only had one more bite left, and his stomach was still rumbling with hunger. He popped the last piece of the bar into his mouth and dropped the wrapper into the small trashcan beside his desk. He hadn't spent four years at MIT just so he could sit in front of a computer screen and eat candy bars for dinner every night.
He looked at the computer monitor again, looking over the grid that filled the entire screen. Something wasn't right. One of the squares on the grid was flashing excitedly.
"Dr. Duvall," Lance began, "do we have any links active at the moment?"
Payton Duvall, the head of the Central Office of Scientific Intelligence, or COSI, walked over to the small monitoring station and looked over Lance's shoulder at monitor as Lance pointed to the blinking red box on the blue screen. A trouble expression formed on Payton's face.
Brynne quickly removed her hand from the light and examined it. Everything seemed okay. It didn't hurt, and it looked to be the same as it was before. Gaining more confidence, Brynne stuck her hand back into the light, this time pushing it deeper so that more of her arm disappeared. She pulled it back and examined it again. This was absolutely amazing.
Payton's blue eyes studied the screen. "Pull it up," Payton directed Lance. "Which link is that?"
Lance's fingers flew over the keyboard. The image on the monitor changed from boxes on a blue screen to white words on a black screen. "It's the northeast link," he said. "Here in the District."
"The Rockwell apartment complex," Payton said.
"Right," Lance confirmed. "Apartment 5-G."
"We've got guys in that building," Payton said. "Get somebody to that apartment now. Find out what's going on."
Brynne closed the closet door and leaned her back against it. She looked around the room, which was once again dark. Moocher let out a small meow.
"What the hell was that?" Brynne asked. She looked down at her cat. "I think we're in trouble, Mooch." She turned back to the closet door and opened it. To her surprise, the light was completely gone. She stepped inside and looked around. It was a normal closet again. Hangers, clothes, shoes. She began to take another step.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Brynne."
Brynne bolted from the closet and found two men in trench coats standing in her bedroom doorway. "Who are you?" she asked, panicked.
The younger of the two men approached the closet and Brynne backed away, mortified. The man was holding some kind of device that she'd never seen before, and she was afraid that it might be some kind of weapon. But he pointed it at the open closet, not her.
"It's definitely active," the younger man said.
"Who are you?" Brynne asked, some of that boldness from earlier returning. "What are you doing in my apartment?"
The older man took a few steps toward Brynne, but she quickly backed away from him, so he stopped where he stood. "My name is Drew Bell," he said. This is my partner, Ian Packard. We're both special agents."
Brynne looked back and forth between them. "Agents? Are you from the FBI?"
Bell shook his head. "No," he replied. "But we are from a government agency."
"Listen, I just moved into this apartment about a week ago. I just – well, my cat actually. He kind of discovered this … " She gestures to the closet. " … this whatever-it-is tonight," Brynne explained. "I don't know anything about it. I swear."
"No, no, Brynne. You're not in any kind of trouble," Bell insisted.
Though he had used her name before, this was the first time that Brynne picked up on it. "How did you know my name?"
"In good time," Bell assured her. "Right now, we'd like you to come with us back to headquarters so we can explain some things. We know this is probably all a bit confusing and overwhelming to you."
Brynne laughed and shook her head. They had to be kidding. Go back to headquarters with them? "No," she refused. "Huh-uh. No way. I'm not going anywhere with you. I don't even know you. How do I know you're even with a real agency? You could be two sick wierdos for all I know."
"I assure you, we are with a legitimate agency," Bell said. He understood her apprehension. If he were in her position, he'd probably feel the same way.
"Well, do you have a card or something?" Brynne requested. "Some kind of proof?"
Bell reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a business card. He handed it over to Brynne, who promptly examined it.
"COSI … " she read from the card. "Is that your agency?"
Bell nodded. "Yes."
Brynne looked at Bell again. She handed the card back to him. "Anyone can have cards made," she said skeptically.
"I know," Bell said. He looked at the card and then back at Brynne. "Keep it."
Brynne withdrew her hand and the card. "What does it stand for?" she asked.
"Central Office of Scientific Intelligence," Bell answered.
"How come I've never heard of it?" Brynne inquired.
"We're very secretive," Bell replied.
Brynne raised an eyebrow. "So are the FBI and CIA, but I've heard of them."
Bell shifted uncomfortably and looked at Packard before speaking. "COSI is different. We're a scientific agency."
Packard left the closet and stood beside Bell. Brynne looked at them. She was still a little uneasy about this whole situation, but neither of them had said anything that wasn't totally unbelievable. "And you want me to go with you?" she asked.
"We'd like you to, yes," Bell said with a nod.
"Why?" Brynne asked.
"We'd like to question you." Bell said.
"Look, I already told you – I don't know anything about this," Brynne said desperately. "My cat wondered in a—"
"Your cat went into the light?" Packard asked. It was only the second time he'd spoken since he'd walked in. "When?"
"Don't worry, he came back out," Brynne said dismissively.
"He went in?" Bell asked, alarm rising in his voice.
"Yeah," Brynne replied. "What's the big deal?"
"You really need to come with us," Bell urged with renewed fervor.
"I'm not going anywhere," Brynne said with finality. Before, she'd actually considered going with him. Now, they seemed a little too eager, and it didn't sit well with Brynne. "I've already listened, and this is way too weird for me."
"We won't force you to come with us," Bell said.
Brynne rolled her eyes. "Well, that's reassuring."
But Bell wasn't giving up just yet. "Know this, though – if you do come with us, you'll find out what this thing is and what it's for," he said, pointing to her closet. "If you don't come with us, you'll never know."
Brynne and Bell looked at each other. It was a tempting offer, and curiosity is a powerful driving force.
"Alright," Brynne said. "Give me a few minutes."
Bell looked at Packard. Both of the men looked relieved. "Fine," Bell said.
Brynne looked at Bell, then Packard, then Bell again. Were they just planning to stand there and watch while she changed? "Do you mind?" she said, annoyed. "I'm not in the habit of getting dressed in front of total strangers.
Bell and Packard politely left the bedroom, closing the door behind them. Bell's eyes wandered over to a small mountain of boxes in Brynne's living room, and his body followed. He looked down at the top box, which was open. A large book was sitting on top. He reached in and picked it up. It was a thick, coffee table book with the Titanic on the cover.
"How did you know my name?"
Bell placed the book back in the box and turned to the bedroom. Brynne was standing in the doorway, fully dressed, her arms crossed over her chest in a no-nonsense manner.
Bell began to speak, but Brynne talked over him. "And how did you know where I lived?" she asked. "How did you know all this?"
"We know a lot of things," Bell said simply.
"And how did you get in here?" Brynne pressed.
"Did you break in?"
"—Because my door was—"
"—Look, we didn't break in. I told you we were legitimate. We have a key." Bell held up the apartment key for her to see.
Brynne's brown eyes went wide. "How did you get that? The landlord told me no one else had one."
"That's because they don't know about this one," Bell said with a slightly mischievous smile. "Look, there's a lot that needs to be explained, and it will be … if you come with us."