An Unexpected Visitor

Let’s assume that Alice was shocked by Gary’s silence, wondering if it was some cheap form of tit for tat. We already know that after the first evening she had come around to the logical, diffident point of view that their initial trepidation and excitement had been unwarranted by the facts. An unexplained phenomenon is a long way from an inexplicable one. And life goes on. Andrew hadn’t forgotten about his monitor, but they went to get another one, and the sales clerk ventured to say that a burned out resistor could cause the electron gun to do all sorts of scary things. “No,” he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised by that at all.” Gary had a story that he wanted to tell her, but then he disappeared with the evidence, and frankly, he wasn’t all that reliable a witness. And if he was playing this…

Maybe it’s best that Gary disappeared for a couple days. Sometimes space and time are the only means of regaining a mental equilibrium, of recovering from an oscillation whose two extremes you might reject at a calmer moment. Alice did not leave another message, but she was thinking about Gary — I’m sure of it — when an unexpected knock came directly on her door. She had never liked it when Gary did that, let alone Sean before him, but now Reggie seemed to have an even greater propensity to want to surprise her. She opened the door quickly and expected to express some of the irritation she felt.

Much to her surprise, it was neither Gary nor Reggie, but a compact, dapperly dressed man with wavy reddish hair, freckles, attractive in his own way, but a bit too compactly fashionable, a bit too informally and yet crisply dressed in small shiny shoes, dress shirt, tweed jacket and impeccably creased Dockers. He had an instant smile on his face. “Miz Alice Philips?” he asked, raising his eyebrows in anticipation of an answer.

She knew him not to be a neighbor — she made a habit of noticing them — but it wasn’t impossible that he was new. Still, she shot a glance to either side of him to see what she could. Down the hall, to the right of her door, there was someone with what looked like a hand-sized satellite antenna connected to a box hanging from his shoulder, and he was using the antenna to measure something on the outside of her wall.

The man let her look to either side — smiling in that grimly friendly way — and then followed her wide eyes to the technician to his side. “Ma’am, I’m with the Federal Communications Commission.” He produced an identification card that was stamped, laminated and even hologrammed, in a convincing federal style. She looked back up at him with an exasperated and incredulous expression that came from imagining a faceless bureaucratic agency employing foot soldiers with toy antennae.

The man seemed unfazed. “The FCC is investigating a broad-based interruption of television service in this area.” He smiled for an instant even more broadly to give her a chance to process that and its unlikelihood. “We believe, ma’am, that there was an, uh, alien signal emanating from this area that interrupted service.” He stopped for the “you don’t say” that his speech pattern seemed to anticipate. He was also peering into her eyes for something. She still did not speak, which seemed to surprise, even rattle him. “No,” he said as if prompted, “we don’t normally investigate service interruptions, but this was so unusual and egregious that we felt we had to come down ourselves.”

She looked him back, and said, “I haven’t noticed anything.” That seemed to end things for her, and she was leaning against the door as if to close it, when he put a hand up.

“Ma’am,” he said with a long-arm-of-the-law timbre to his voice. “We’ve done a fair amount of testing, and we believe the disturbance came from somewhere in this building. In fact,” he said in a more confidential tone, “we have reason to believe it may have started right here.”

She was instantly suspicious and if his next words had been about coming in, she would have slammed door and run to the phone.

“Now I know you haven’t been running an illicit broadcast station here, but I just want to get to the bottom of this matter. It’s very important for our records.” As if he knew that she would be familiar and sympathetic with the importance of records being in order. That triggered finally the realization somewhere deep within her that this was not a chance encounter, that this was about the monitor and something more.

The man noticed some level of recognition in her eyes, and risked a glance to his still busy technician, who nodded ever so slightly. He dropped his smile and his face became even somber, indicative of some deep flight of thought. He touched his chin and said, “Maybe there has been something that you didn’t think much about. Could I ask you to think about it for just a moment.”

“Well,” Alice said finally. “There was my son’s computer. The monitor burned out, the screen was ruined. That was a couple days ago.”

“Oh,” said the man with a suppressed interest. “Perhaps we could see that monitor?”

“I’m afraid we got rid of it.”

“Oh,” said the man, nodding. “I see. Did you perhaps throw it in the garbage?”

She didn’t know why, but this strange inquiry was trigger enough for her to say, “No, I don’t think so. I called a friend and he said he’d drop it off somewhere. Charity or something.”

“Of course,” he said with a half smile. “Perhaps we could speak with your friend about it?”

“I don’t want to get him in trouble,” she said with her own weak smile.

“Oh no,” he said with mock shock. “Miz Philips, I want to assure you that no one will get into trouble. Far from it. We know that this incident is something that just happened. We’d like to find out all we can about it, and learn from the experience. That’s all. You shouldn’t worry any more about it.”

She reflected for a moment. I’m sure she weighed — perhaps consciously, perhaps not — whether that mundane explanation was plausible enough to turn Gary over to them. She would have to think about the risks of putting herself in the middle — the accessory, if not instigator — and exposing Andrew to unthinkable risks, should her behavior be somehow illegal. But something interceded, some part of her life that made cooperation as impossible as a reconciliation with Gary.

She may have thought: phone records can’t be covered over. But time can be bought. “It was a friend from my church. I already feel bad about having taken his time. It was quite a shock for Andrew and me. It just seemed to blow up.”

“I’m sure that was distressing. What was his name again?”

“I didn’t say,” she said with a half-pleased smile that indicated she understood the game and wasn’t giving an inch. “If you’d like, I can let him know you’d like to see the monitor. Maybe he still has it.”

The dapper visitor thought for a moment, with an utter stillness that could have bespoke lives in the balance, then he said, “Sure. Why not. Here’s my card. Please do have him contact me.”

The card read: Richard C. Walton, Special Projects — Interference, Federal Communications Commission, Washington DC.

“I will let him know,” she said, a phrasing he made note of.

“Miz Philips, before we let you go, did you notice anything special about that monitor? Anything unusual? It could be significant for our report.”

She looked at the finger he put pensively to his lips. “Well,” she said, “it did seem to glow a bit after it blew, but I guess that was just the electrons escaping.”

“The electrons escaping,” he repeated with another glance at his man, this time accompanied by a genuine half smile, a smirk. “I’m sure that’s what it was. Thank you so much Miz Philips.”

She did not hesitate to close the door, but she also noticed that the technician signaled to the dapper man, and that they turned their attention down the hall, to the emergency exit.