The night was restless. Abby woke several times, and every time she looked Professor James was sitting up in the chair. He had a small light, and she heard the rustle of paper. Was he reading a book at 3:48 in the morning?
The smell of coffee woke her. Abby sat up and rubbed her eyes. The clock said 9:16. There was a tray on the side table with scrambled eggs, bacon, an English muffin. A steaming cup of coffee was nearby with a tiny parade of creamer and sugar, ready for her choosing.
Professor James was still sitting up. He was leaning his chair against the wall and eating breakfast.
“Good morning,” He said. “That tray is for you if you’re hungry.”
Abby was hungry, but she wasn’t sure she could eat. Her stomach clenched and rebelled. She started with the coffee to wake up, leaning back against the headboard. He sat slowly eating, giving her time to adjust.
Abby wondered if she had been kidnapped after all.
“Who are you?”
He let the front feet of the chair come to rest on the ground and hopped up, placing his tray on the entertainment center. “And so the questions begin.”
He sat at the foot of the bed, one leg tucked up underneath him.
She put her coffee down and scrunched her legs up so he wouldn’t be close to her. “Who are you?”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “My name is Alexander James. You can call me Xander if you want.”
He offered a handshake. With his hair sticking up in all directions he looked young. Again Abby got the impression that he was not more than twenty. Then he met her eyes and the impression vanished. She shook his hand.
“Abigail Norris, I’ve been trying to find you. You’re the last one.” he pulled a folded sheet out of his pocket and showed her a list of fifteen or twenty names, ending with her own. The others were crossed out.
“What is this?”
“This is every student who was accepted for a major scholarship this year. They sent your acceptance letter the day before yesterday.”
“Why are their names crossed out?”
“They’ve all gone missing.”
To hear that you’ve been accepted into an important scholarship program is usually good news. Abby took two seconds to celebrate this before moving on to the fact that the others were missing and she was in danger of becoming so. “What happened to them?”
His face fell and for a half second he looked like a sad little boy. The expression flashed from his face like something afraid and he composed himself. “The Tesla Project,” He said. “They take the brightest and the best and they all end up dead. I’ve been trying to stop it for years.” His eyes were clouded and faraway. “For too long.”
“What is happening to them?” Abby asked, trying to steady her voice. “How do they die?”
Alexander James rubbed his ear and looked at the floor. “I- I don’t know what’s happening to them.”
Abby sipped her coffee and studied him thoughtfully. This was the first time in the conversation he had deliberately looked away before telling her something.
“What does this have to do with me?” she asked.
He looked surprised. “You’re the brightest and the best.” He stood and stretched. “I think you will be safe if you wait here. I’ve paid for two weeks. I’ll be back before then.”
“I can’t wait here. What if you die or something and never come back?”
He seemed amused by the idea, a smile hiding in the corner of his mouth and lurking in his eyes. “I’ll be back within twelve days.”
“Professor James. I do not want to wait here alone.”
“I told you to call me Xander, and you’re safe here.”
A sense of danger flooded the room. A hissing. They both looked around. It took Abby a moment to realize she smelled the thick sharpness of gasoline.
“Never mind. You should come with me.” Xander grabbed her hand and dashed to the door.
There are those who claim that the number three has power. This belief may stem from the idea of the trinity, or perhaps from the threesome of sixes that make the sign of the devil. One superstition says the third time’s the charm. Another says that bad things always come in threes.
Three bad things were waiting for Xander and Abby in the lobby. They were muscular and tattooed and ordinary. One of them held a gun, the smooth silver metal shining in the artificial light. They blocked the way to the car.
Xander James walked towards the man with the gun. He looked him directly in the eye for a few moments, and the man took a half step back. Xander pivoted, his leg swinging in a blur. WHACK. The silver gleamed as the gun flew from the man’s hand. He shouted and stumbled, his finger broken. Xander spun and his foot landed in the man’s chest, knocking him to the floor to wheeze and cough.
The other two men advanced, pulling guns from tucked in their belts. Xander took Abby’s hand and stood in front of her. The man closest to them stopped several feet away. “Listen, man, we just wanna take the girl peacefully.”
“Peacefully with guns?” Xander raised his eyebrows and something flashed in his eyes that terrified the man. “Fine. Come and take her.” He squeezed her hand and let go. The man stepped forward, appropriately wary.
WHACK. Xander leapt into the air and switched legs, kicking straight up, the gun flying into the ceiling.
The third man ran out the door. As soon as they could pick themselves up, the other two followed. The woman who had checked them in the night before was cowering behind the front desk. She peeked out as the door slammed.
“You may want to evacuate the building,” Xander said. “There’s a gas leak.”
Death is only a word. A word with five letters. It is a well known fact that words that are indivisible by three are the most dreaded. Loss. Failure. Insensitivity. Antidisestablishmentarianism.
Abby’s phone was still not connecting. She tried calling her sister again in the car and nothing happened. She was in the passenger’s seat, watching the world flow past outside the window and wondering where her comfortable existence had gone. It seemed like only yesterday… because it had been only yesterday. Her phone simply would not connect.
She sighed, and Xander’s attention was caught. He looked alarmed by the cell phone in her hand.
“May I see that?” he asked. She handed it over and he scrutinized it while intermittently glancing back at the road.
He rolled his window down. “I think this cell phone is our problem.” He tossed it, and Abby could hear it crack on the pavement even over the rush of the car.
“Hey!” Abby turned in her seat and watched out the back window as the shards of broken plastic receded towards the horizon. Then she glared at him.
“They had a track on your cell phone. That’s why I don’t carry one.”
“You mean we’re entirely without communication right now? Wait—you don’t carry a cell phone because you think people will track it?”
“A perfectly justifiable fear, given the circumstances. And it’s not my only reason.”
Silent. A word divisible by three. They remained silent for a long time, the morning slipping away and transforming into afternoon.
Abby was silent because she had questions she wasn’t ready to ask. Questions like, “Where are we going?” and “When will I see my family again?” There was a void in her mind where the answers would fit, but she was strangely comfortable in the void. She relaxed, watching the telephone poles fly past without knowing where they were leading.
There is no way to know why Xander was silent.
At 3:18 the small black car pulled into the parking lot of a good old fashioned diner. This particular establishment demonstrated that “good” is a relative term and “old fashioned” sometimes just means old. The smell of stale onions and grease hit them as they walked through the door. The floor was black and white linoleum that had turned black and gray. They slid into a booth across from each other, the cracked vinyl protesting with a piteous squeak.
An impossibly short woman with bags under her eyes walked up to the table. “What can I get for you?” she asked, brushing a stringy brown hair from her face. Standing next to where Xander was sitting, her head was barely higher than his.
Xander smiled at her. “I’ll have a cheeseburger and fries. Abby?”
Abby shook her head. It had been a long day. The thought of food made her nauseous.
The smile disappeared. A worry line appeared on his forehead and he studied her for a moment, his eyes looking into hers and reflecting the exhaustion they found there.
The waitress cleared her throat. “Come on, honey, they ain’t payin’ me to stand here.”
“She wants a bowl of chicken soup if you have it. Also, could you bring us a pot of coffee?”
The waitress nodded and wandered away in the general direction of the kitchen, looking like she could use some coffee herself.
“I really don’t want anything,” Abby said.
“You need to eat. We’ve still got a long drive.” He was analyzing her face again and she looked away. “Are you okay?”
She shot him an incredulous look. “No,” she said. “I’ve been kidnapped, kidnapped again, threatened with a gun and now I’m on a road trip with a stranger going who-knows-where. You could be some kind of serial killer for all I know, and I—I just want to go home.” Tears filled her eyes and she leaned her face on her arm. Xander was silent. She fought a small battle with her emotions and decided against sobbing aloud in public. The fabric of her jacket smelled like gasoline fumes from earlier.
“I’m sorry,” Xander said, his voice cracking.
Abby believed him.
She sat up and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
“Here,” Xander said quickly, “use this.” He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and handed it to her, then had the manners to look at anything but her while she wiped her eyes and nose.
Their food arrived and Abby found that she could eat after all. Despite the atmosphere of the diner, the food was delicious. The salty smell of the soup made Abby think of Saturdays when it rained. Elaine always made chicken soup for lunch.
Abby watched Xander eat his hamburger and tried to guess his age. He looked like any college-aged person when eating. Maybe twenty-one.
Having an outburst like that had made her feel better, but she didn’t mean it as much as she thought she did. She felt safe with this man. She found herself to have an illogical amount of trust for him.
Xander held the last part of his cheeseburger and pushed the basket of fries over to her. The paper liner had the name of the diner printed all over it, grease making opaque blotches which clung to the wicker basket.
She popped a fry in her mouth. “So,” she said, “where are we going?”
He finished chewing the last bite before answering. “It’s, um,” He rubbed his ear. “It’s a military base next to Groom Lake, Nevada.”
There was an awkward pause.
“You mean-- Area 51?”
Fifty-one is only a number. A number that is divisible by three. When you divide fifty-one by three you get seventeen, the age Abby had been when she wrote her first novel-length manuscript. Her writing had improved so much since then. You can change a lot in three years.
“Just to be sure I’m following,” Abby said. “You’re saying that our destination is a secret military base rumored to hold extraterrestrial remains.”
“That’s only a rumor,” he said. “I wish that were all that was down there.” He poured two cups of coffee from the dull metal carafe and handed one to her.
She took the steaming mug and sipped, the warmth and bitterness sliding down her throat and soothing her.
“What is down there?”
“The Tesla Project,” he said. “Nikola Tesla was ignored by the public for most of his life, but the government was very interested in his inventions. The Tesla Project is just the continuation of his research.”
Abby poured cream into her mug and watched the cloud of white swirl through the rich brown coffee. “You said The Tesla Project was using the missing students. What for? What are they doing to them?”
Xander had his fingers interlocked around the warm ceramic mug but he wasn’t drinking. “That school legend got one thing right.” He said, voice taut. “Tesla was fascinated with the human brain in the years before he died. His experiments were… intense.” His grip on the mug tightened, fingers white. “Too intense for the average person. If The Tesla Project is continuing that research, they should be snatching people with genius-level IQs.”
“I’m hardly a genius,” Abby said. “My IQ is just above average.”
“Exactly,” he said. “The Tesla Project is getting desperate.”
When they left the diner, the evening sun slanted golden over the fields of grass. They were leaving the last town for miles, and the small black car was alone on the highway. The only sound was the humming of the car and Abby felt her eyelids closing against her will. She thought it was odd that she was so tired. Her life felt more and more like a movie, and in movies people never slept.
When she woke it was dark. They were still driving. She was curled on the seat, and Xander’s jacket was keeping her warm. He didn’t notice yet that she was awake, and she studied his profile, outlined against the moonlit sky.
She shifted in her seat to glance at the clock. 2:18. “Don’t you ever sleep?” she mumbled, pushing the hair out of her face.
He glanced at her. “We can stop if you would rather sleep in a hotel,” he said.
Abby adjusted her seat and tried to get comfortable again. “I’m fine,” she murmured, and they kept driving.