I'd like to say the title of this post refers to some greater truth that Jessica and I have discovered here in the American West, where you can drive for hours without seeing much in the way of human settlement, but I'm afraid it refers to something more - well, not prosaic, but decidedly human. Jessica and I have been going back and forth over whether or not to post about it the past couple of days, figuring it might be wiser just to mail Arthur, Ashlyn, Darren, Jeff, Jaci, and the others privately, but we figure this is better; we know there are other people like us who read this blog and this is worth knowing. The rest of the world should probably know, too, but of course they won't believe it. We barely do.
Dex Langan was part of Arthur and Ashlyn's group. We met the "new" Dex toward the start of our trip, in Washington, and we've been trying to get in contact with the original for a while. We didn't think it would be that difficult; after all, Jessica had found a lead on him/her even before I'd ever gone to that inn.
It took some doing, though. He'd become Kayla Johnson, so we started in her hometown. We found her parents easily enough, but they didn't have much to say. They hadn't heard from their daughter in over a year; it was as if once she'd finished college she decided she didn't have any more use for her family. Jessica asked if she had any friends in town who might still be in contact with her. "Not according to Kayla."
Detective work it was, then. That meant another public library; I joked with Jessica that I was spending more time in these places than I did when I was in my old life, working as a school librarian. She laughed and said it would be a tragedy if these places ever disappeared completely, to be replaced by the internet and e-books and the like. The internet is not very good at being local, for instance, and even the biggest monitor and best user interface can merely approximate how well spreading a bunch of information out in front of oneself can be.
(This, as my old English teacher friends would point out to her students, is what they call foreshadowing.)
We got lucky in that Kayla is a nice photograph and was involved in a bunch of activities in high school. There were plenty of pictures of her in her school's yearbooks, not just "official" club portraits, but candids and collages. Jessica was methodical about seeing who she stood near for both National Honor Society and field hockey, and then flipping through the book to see who she was standing near in the candids.
This was five-year-old information about Kayla, as opposed to Dex, but it gave us some people to talk to. A number had moved away after college, and a couple really weren't that close to her, but we hit the jackpot with her high school boyfriend.
Johnny Farmer had looked nice in his yearbook pictures and had matured into a handsome adult. His family actually did have a farm, and a couple women our apparent age looking for him made him feel good. We decided to go with the reporter story again - only this time, Jessica had printed out some business cards for me. Simple things reading "Marie Desjardins, Freelance Journalist" along with my cell number and email address; Jess said people respect the no-frills approach and being a freelancer means no-one asks why I have a generic Yahoo! address rather than globeandmail.ca or something. He was a little disappointed that our "story" was about Kayla rather than him, but admitted that there was a story there.
According to him, she had come back home to get her things en route to her new job after being in Maine a couple weeks longer than expected, but everyone noticed how erratically she was acting. She stayed in a hotel rather than her parents' house, she didn't drop in to see old friends. He had run into her by chance, in a bar, and been confused by the way she acted - she had almost never been one to drink enough to get hammered, and while they'd talked amicably enough, she had completely freaked when he made some innocent comment that referenced their prior relationship. She made a big enough scene for them both to spend a night in lock-up, and when her parents were brought in...
Dex had told the truth. All of it. And, of course, it just bounced right off people. Johnny said that she made some comment about it not just being Maine, that this was bigger than anyone thought, and a lot of stuff that didn't make any sense.
There'd been brief talk about having her involuntarily committed, but upon hearing that, she'd started acting, if not normal, then less hostile. After a few days, she left town for her posting with the Forest Service. She didn't write, call, have her mail forwarded, or do anything else. She didn't even come home for the holidays, and don't think that wasn't a sore spot with her family. It was no wonder the Johnsons gave us the deep freeze when we came to talk about Kayla.
Johnny gave us the location of her post, and asked us to mention him to her if she decides to talk to us. We do, and head out again.
December is not the greatest time to try and visit a National Park in a cold-climate state, especially if you're driving an old car like Jessica's without four wheel drive. (Actually, December is not the best time to do anything up north. I can't wait until we reach Pasadena!). We tried to get hold of Dex/Kayla by phone, but neither of us could navigate the voice-mail system. So, when we arrived at the rangers' station, we were just hoping "Kayla Johnson" hadn't been fired or transferred.
We got lucky; she was still there. We did the usual little dance: "Do I know you?" "No, but we have some mutual friends - Arthur Milligan, Jake Matthews, Jeff Miller." She was more wary than most of the people we've talked to, but was willing talk with us. Better than going into town and getting hit on by the cowboys.
She (unlike Ashlyn, I never met Dex as a man, so I have a hard time calling her "him") got really nervous when we started asking if she'd had any contact with people who knew who she really was. When Jessica showed her some of the pictures from her phone, the ones she took in Texas, Dex/Kayla took a real long look. She was weighing what we were showing her, and the fact that we just put it in front of her. "Perhaps I should show you the back room."
We followed her to the back of the little cottage, where there was a bulleting board hanging up, with pictures and photocopies of documents and different-colored pushpins and handwritten notes and strings connecting the pushpins. "Damn," I said, "you've got a wall-of-crazy straight out of the movies." And, of course, instantly felt bad about it.
But she laughed. "Don't I just?" She pointed at a couple of documents which matched names from Stephen Jeffries/Jake Matthews's address book. "But maybe it's not so crazy after all."
The three of us stood in front of the wall, just staring, and then Jessica wrote "J & S Motion Graphics" on a blank card and stuck it into the board. Dex/Kayla nodded, and then started stringing lines between it and the places he already knew about. It wasn't connected directly to the question mark at the center of the board, but there was no doubt that whoever the Feds' mystery man was, he was an investor in J & S. Dex/Kayla started adding more, finally putting Ashlyn's name up, as well as Jean-Michel's and then André Trudeau's.
We stand back and stare at the more complicated pattern, not saying anything for a bit. Jessica was the one who broke the silence.
"You weren't in Maine to investigate microbrews marketing to minors, were you?"
"No." She sat down in a chair and stretched her long legs out. "After 9/11, a lot of federal agencies were ordered to share records more closely - you know, Department of Homeland Security. Internal investigations of people in different branches of the government turned up some common leads; once we knew what to look for, we found a few more. The thing that tied them together was vacations at the Trading Post Inn in Old Orchard Beach, Maine."
So, I asked, is that what the Inn's about? Replacing people in the government?
She shook her head. "I don't think so. There's no pattern, and half the people leave their jobs afterward. I think it's more opportunistic - that someone finds people who have changed and gets their claws into them. And even after... There's stuff that looks like corruption, but no bad acts. Just people not very good at their jobs for no apparent reason. The Special Agent In Charge of the investigation thinks that's evidence of sleepers, but now..."
"It's just people in unfamiliar situations unable to tell anybody else why."
Dex/Kayla nodded at Jessica. "Yeah, at one level - but there's an infrastructure here, doing something. But it's been going on for so long - I managed to find stuff in internal investigations from forty years ago before the new me changed my password. And some of the people who left government service wound up doing stuff that just seemed random - and it wasn't just going back to their original lives; they weren't always good at it at first."
Jessica processed that. "So, what do you think is going on, knowing what we know?"
"I think someone is screwing with us. Not all of us, just whoever he takes an interest in, or maybe the ones who can help him with the ones he's interested in. He's been doing this a long time, so maybe he's been to the inn himself once or twice. Maybe he's not a he, or wasn't to begin with. Maybe he's been alive so long his brain's gotten full and he's gone nuts."
This was starting to seem too big for me, so I tried to concentrate one what I could understand and relate to personally. I pointed to one card. "Ashlyn. Why Ashlyn?"
Dex/Kayla laughed. "You've never been a guy, have you? If you had, you wouldn't ask that question."
I blushed, and Jessica laughed. "Yeah, if I were my old self... Maybe it's just a bit of fun."
"And it fits the profile. Like... There's a guy we were suspicious of in the New York INS office. Maybe he threw the monkey wrench into 'Ginessa''s and 'Nicoleta''s visas, just to see what would happen. There's documents that the guys in DC don't understand - can't understand - but make perfect sense to me. He gets off on that - sticking people into difficult situations and seeing not just what they do, but what they become."
We talked all through the night, leaving the next morning. We're not sure posting this is the right thing to do, but anybody who is in our situation reading this needs to know that Ashlyn's secret admirer appears to be into bigger things as well. Besides, now that he's apparently got someone inside the investigation of his network, he might be twice as dangerous. We don't know who he is, but we've got a name for him.
We're calling him Pygmalion.