Elle’s GPS map told her that she was not driving on a road. In fairness to the technology, the lane beneath her wheels had ceased to be asphalt several miles back and didn’t appear on most paper maps either. The satellite images of her location on her cell phone weren’t much more helpful. It was hard to pick out roadways beneath the foliage in the forested Bitterroot Mountains. The images did show a cluster of buildings nearby. She assumed this was the Braxton country house. A driveway better maintained than the “road” appeared ahead on the right. Elle turned onto it.
Twists in the driveway took her out of sight of the road, not that she had encountered any traffic on it anyway. After another bend she faced closed security gates. She pulled up to a small speaker on a post at window height. Before she could push the button on the box a voice from it demanded, “State your name and business.”
“Hello. My name is Elle Brinke. I believe Mr. Axwood met my sister Emma. She’s a journalist. I’m sorry to intrude but I want to ask him some questions.”
“You should have checked with my representatives instead of showing up at my vacation home. My office isn’t hard to find.”
From “my,” Elle knew she was speaking to Brent Axwood himself, a very rich and somewhat eccentric software entrepreneur. She had known little about him before looking him up on Wikipedia. She learned that for several years after making his fortune he had taken up a peculiar hobby: he showed a Houdini-like delight in debunking spiritualism, alien abductions, Bigfoot sightings, and claims of the paranormal in general. Then he suddenly seemed to lose interest in such matters. While not a recluse, he became much less available to the media. He was single. Whatever romantic liaisons might be, he was discreet about them.
“I tried,” said Elle. “I don’t think anyone passed along my request to see you.”
“Then they did their jobs.”
“I know you met with sister.”
“I remember. She showed up unannounced, too. It’s a family trait apparently.”
“You do know she is missing. Her car was found somewhere nearby.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I’ve already spoken to the state police about it.”
“They haven’t told me anything. Please, I’d really like to talk to you.”
“We are talking.”
Elle didn’t respond but didn’t leave either. After a few moments motors hummed and the gates swung open.
“Very well. Come on up,” he said.
The driveway snaked for half a mile before the main house came into view. A neo-prairie house style ranch, it was dwarfed by several warehouse structures arranged in an unaesthetic pattern. Open bays on one of the warehouses revealed a helicopter and a Jeep. Axwood stood outside the front door of his house. She recognized him from his online photos. He was shorter than she had imagined and more grey-haired than his pictures. Nonetheless he still retained some boyish features. He wore blue jeans and a denim shirt. Elle stopped next the front walk. Axwood walked up to the driver side window. She slid it open.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Axwood.”
“Yes, well we’ll see how long that continues. Call me Brent. Come inside, but leave your cell phone in your car.”
“I don’t want you recording anything unless and until I choose to allow it. You can leave the cell phone or drive away.”
Elle let her phone remain in its dashboard holder. She tried to hide her unease with a joke. “I feel like I’m in one of those cheap horror movies in which the college kids get picked off one by one at an isolated estate. They never have cell service.”
“One always survives to tell the tale,” he answered, “so you should be golden.”
Axwood stepped back to let her open the car door and then led the way into the house.
The aroma of frequently used wood-burning fireplace was strong even though it was early summer. The most recent fire likely was at least a month earlier. The interior of the home was woodsy with rough-sawn paneling and cedar ceilings. She followed Brent into the living room. The white leather furniture clashed with the rustic architecture. He sat on one leg of a sofa’s ell and gestured to her to sit on the other.
“So tell me why you want to talk to me,” he said. “I’ve already spoken to the police. I don’t see how I can help. Your sister came here, asked a lot questions of the sort I would expect from a tabloid journalist, and left. There’s really nothing more to say.”
“I’m following up leads on my own because I don’t think the police are taking this case seriously.”
“Search teams scoured the woods for days around where her car was found. They looked pretty serious to me.”
“And then they just gave up.”
“I’m sure they haven’t. Has it occurred to you that your sister might have staged her evanishment as part of some publicity stunt for a story? You do know she was investigating alien sightings.”
“I know she was coming here to see you. She texted me excitedly about it. And the GPS records on her phone shows that this was the last place she stopped before she drove up into the woods.”
“So the police have spoken with you after all.”
“Not enough. Could you please indulge me? What did Emma speak to you about?”
“Very well. Emma told me she was a reporter for The Plutonian Guardian. That was a lie.”
“No it wasn’t. She told me she was writing a story for them, too.”
“Not exactly. She didn’t work for them – or for anyone else. I knew that before her car reached the house. The cameras at the gate read her license plate and my security software did a background check. All of us have a big digital footprint nowadays. I know, for example that you are 31, divorced, and an accountant with a credit score of 725. I knew that before the gates opened. She was writing freelance, as she later admitted when I confronted her. Given her subject matter she had hopes that tabloid would print it. She might have been right about that.”
“Yet you talked to Emma anyway,” said Elle.
“Yes. Actually, if she had been a paid reporter I’d have refused. She piqued my curiosity.”
“You say she wanted to talk to you about aliens? I thought she was investigating an old crime or something.”
“She tied them together. An anniversary of an event that is fairly well-known locally is coming up and she thought she could milk the story for more. It involved a missing person case and a supposed alien abduction. Emma developed this theory that the crime was related to aliens – to Bigfoot and cattle mutilations, too.”
“Of course it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I doubt she believed any of it, but she was hoping to get published anyway.”
“What was this local case about?”
“In 1988 a teenage girl named Janice Ann Morely went camping with her boyfriend named Tom Braxton. It was close to where your sister’s car was found. Janice came back alone. She said she’d been assaulted by aliens and knocked unconscious but that they had left her behind. She didn’t know what happened to her boyfriend but thought that maybe he had gone with them. Police, needless to say, were skeptical. No body ever was found so no charges were brought against Janice. A decade ago when I still bothered debunking stories like this, I came here because of this same local legend. I stayed because I like the countryside. It was the first time I’d been in these mountains. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Was your earlier investigation why Emma wanted to talk to you?”
“Yes. Back then I spoke to Janice Morely who by then was a stout woman in a flowered muumuu and brassy dyed blonde pixie cut. She lived in a small decrepit house outside Boise. I Listened to her nonsense and then came up here to see the scene itself, but while I was interviewing the locals it dawned on me that what I was doing was pointless. People will believe what they want to believe, sense and evidence be damned. It’s when I dropped debunking paranormal claims and cryptozoology and all that.”
“You decided people are too stupid to bother with?”
“Just the opposite. Truly stupid people couldn’t reason so convolutedly or amass quasi-evidence to argue their case. People are too smart for their own good. They are able to convince themselves of anything.”
“Did you tell this to Emma?” asked Elle.
“Yes, but she wanted my quotes anyway. She said they would make her story ‘balanced.’ Emma had spoken to Janice Morely also. The woman told her about me, which is why she looked me up. Then Emma told me her truly outlandish hypothesis. She speculated that homo floriensis is still alive and is hiding in forests and isolated areas around the world – that they’ve learned to avoid modern humans for their own safety but that sometimes they get curious.”
“It’s a dwarf homo erectus that coexisted with modern humans. Fossils have been found on a small island in the East Indies. She proposed that early peoples took them along on their journeys – including to the Americas – as pets, talismans, mascots or something. She proposed that they are still here and that Bigfoot is really Smallfoot – a three foot tall creature who only seems big when so far away that there isn’t a good way to judge proper proportion. She also said they account for tales of trolls, leprechauns, and aliens. Even though their heads are small, she suggested the heads would look big if you woke up in a tent to see one staring in your face from a few inches away. She said cattle mutilations could be explained by their stone tools, which are very harps and well made.”
“No, and I don’t doubt her story would have been printed. It has all the right elements. I wish she were right, to tell you the truth. Modern people can’t be trusted with guardianship of the earth. We need to return to the primitive,” he said.
“Isn’t that a rather odd view for the owner of a tech company – someone with a personal helicopter in his garage?”
“Precisely. None of us can be trusted. Not even those of us with the best of intentions,” said Axwood. “Not even me.”
“OK, I think we are getting off topic. So, what do you think happened to Emma?”
“I don’t know. But the woods are full of wild animals: bears, coyotes, cougars, and wolves. They do sometimes attack people.”
“I wish to put this delicately,” said Elle. “Did the police search your property?”
“Indeed they did. I’m sure there are police reports on file to confirm that.”
“Good point. Do you know where the car was found?”
“Yes, roughly. Go out of my driveway and turn right. The road gets rough but it should be passable. About 8 miles ahead turn left onto a narrow wood road. Emma’s car was found there. It’s where Janice and Tom camped too.”
“Thank you for your help. Just one more thing. Do you stay up here alone?”
“Often. But sometimes there are mechanics and groundskeepers. Sometimes I have guests.”
“Was anyone else besides you here the day Emma talked to you?”
“You want to know if someone from here might have followed her. No guests or employees were here on my estate that day. The police asked that question too. I suggest you get a copy of the report.”
“OK. Thanks again.”
Brent walked Elle back to her car. He could see the relief on her face when she started the engine. She really had been spooked by the situation.
As Elle drove away Brent returned to his living room. Two unclothed hairless creatures entered. They knew not to show themselves when visitors were present. Neither was more than a meter in height. The body shapes below the neck were fully human though the heads seemed too small for the bodies. The male held a stone chopper in each hand. He clicked the choppers together as though asking a question about Elle.
“No. You can let that one go. I had to tell her the truth in case Emma had done so already, but she doesn’t believe Emma’s theory and won’t be writing any articles about it.” This was too complex for the creatures, so Brent shook his head and repeated, “No, Hamlet.” It amused him to give them Shakespearean names.
The male looked disappointed but nodded and left. Brent waved to the female. “Here Portia.”
She approached and sat down beside him. Brent envied her naturalness. He long ago had ceased feeling guilty about their relationship. She didn’t seem to mind it.
It was amazing what modern people would do for money, and what was coming out of the biolabs he financed would return the earth to its rightful owners soon. The florienses were naturally immune, while the vaccinations co-developed along with the pathogens would keep him safe; the lab technicians probably thought it was some scheme of his to sell vaccinations, but he had no intention of doing that. He had plans for eliminating the technicians, too. Brent scratched Portia behind the ear. With his leadership, Brent would make sure that humanity would get back to nature.