The Little Black Box
The Little Black Box
After the suspicious suicides of several student test subjects, Paula Crenshaw, research assistant and budding telekinetic in Paranormal Sciences at Blackridge University, suspects they may be connected to a little black box designed to read auras. Professor Jonas Pritchard, the head of the department, doesn't believe his precious experiment could be causing students to drop like flies.
But when her best friend almost dies after her encounter with the black box, Paula is certain there is a connection. She pulls her cute, but sloppy, office buddy, Will Littlejohn, into the mystery, and they get closer to the truth behind who might be financially backing the project and why. Haunted by memories of a childhood accident, which she believes she caused with her untamed psychic abilities, Paula finds herself lured to the black box and its mysteries.
Monday mornings never held any good news. Paula Crenshaw could feel it in her bones the minute she walked into the research building, climbed the stairs and stood outside her shared office, key in hand. Mondays were no good. They should be stricken from the calendar. She wished she were back in bed, deep under her covers, dreaming of something better than what the day held for her.
She switched on the light inside, and the fluorescent bulb flickered and buzzed. The empty office contained two desks, two computers, two chairs, and a stained coffeemaker. Nothing more. Yet she shook off a shiver of dread. The narrow walls closed in on her, as if they knew she wasn�t who she pretended to be. They knew her secret.
She shook off the feeling and stepped through the doorway. Will would be here soon. Work would begin. Her secret would stay safe another day. She�d managed to hide it this long, to think she�d blurt it out or let anyone see what made her so different from them was crazy. Although lately, it had been harder to control herself.
Paula picked up her office phone and dialed her voicemail. She tucked the receiver under her chin and shucked off her sweater.
You have twelve new messages.
Why did she tell Professor Pritchard she wouldn�t mind being the point of contact for this project? A job she thought would give her more visibility in the department had only ended up causing a lot of headaches.
She entered her four-digit password.
Message one. Friday, October 16th. Six-o-seven p.m.
"Hey, uh, this is number twenty-one. If I spilled coffee on my box, do I need a new one?"
Hearing the voice on the phone chased any remaining ghosts away and made the shadows retreat. She could lose herself in the tediousness of her research position. At least that was one good thing about it. Paula sighed, scribbled down the subject�s number, and wrote �tech support� next to it.
Message two. Friday, October 16th. Seven-fifteen p.m.
"This is subject thirty-five. I can�t get the memory stick out of my box. I�m going to miss the drop-off deadline. Is that going to be a problem?"
Paula wrote down his number and then �memory stick issue� next to it. That was a question for tech support, too. She didn�t know much about the actual workings of the black boxes, but she could at least categorize the messages to some degree.
She pressed a button to continue to the next.
Message three. Friday, October 16th. Ten-thirty-seven p.m.
"I want this goddamn box out of here. Got it? I quit. For a lousy five hundred bucks I don�t want you messing with my brain. I didn�t sign up for this."
Paula�s pen paused over her notebook. �Messing with his brain�? Who was this guy? He didn�t mention his subject number. Was sitting in front of a black box for thirty minutes every day really too much to ask? Since the guy didn�t bother leaving his number, there wasn�t much she could do about it.
Besides, her main function as a research assistant in the Paranormal Sciences department was transcribing journal entries, not worrying about the people behind the numbers--that was someone else�s job.
She wrote, �unknown subject wants to pull out,� and then skipped to the next message.
Hoping to combine two jobs at once, she set her office phone to speaker and flipped through the stack of journals on her desk.
Message four. Saturday, October 17th. Two-forty-nine a.m.
"Hey, baby, wanna have a good--"
Paula pressed �delete message.�
She deleted several more, which were unrelated to the Black Box Project, as her fellow researchers called it, and glanced up at her calendar. Five more weeks of this crap. Thanksgiving Break never seemed so far away.
She looked up from the journal she was paging through.
Will Littlejohn, wearing jeans one step away from threadbare and a faded green sweatshirt, lumbered into the tiny office they shared at Blackridge University. He held up a newspaper clipping. "Did you read that news article today about the ghost at the hotel up in the mountains?" He heaved his overloaded backpack onto his desk.
Paula raised a finger to silence him as the phone messages continued. She listened to the last one.
Message twelve. Sunday, October 18th. Two-oh-five p.m.
"Paula? It�s Peter."
Her gut clenched at the sound of her brother�s voice.
"I tried your cell, but I think it must�ve been turned off. Anyway, I was just wondering why you didn�t show for Sunday dinner again. The twins were so disappointed. Carol made your favorite, chicken enchiladas. Call me."
Will lifted his eyebrows, sat down, and busied himself with something on his computer.
Paula leaned back. Guilt washed over her. The fact Will had heard everything made it all the worse.
End of messages. Would you like to change your greeting?
She hung up the phone and stared at the journals in front of her.
Will cleared his throat. "So, did you hear about that ghost sighting--?"
Before he could launch into a detailed retelling of his newest ghost story to break the tension, Paula cut him off. "I don�t really have time to listen today, Will." She opened a word processing file on her computer and started to transcribe the journal entry in front of her.
"Got a lot of work, huh? That�s all right. I just came by to pick up my notes and head to the library. I wasn�t going to hang around or anything." He took a pushpin from the wall and stuck his newest story in an empty spot in his collage of articles and clippings. "You can read if for yourself, if you want." He grabbed a manila folder, shoved it in his backpack, and combed a hand through his shaggy, overgrown hair. "See you in the morning." He gave her a casual wave. "I�ll bring the donuts, you bring the coffee?"
Paula smiled at the reminder of their Tuesday morning ritual. He might be a scruffy, goofy oaf, but Will could be sweet when he wanted to be. "Columbian or French Roast?"
"You choose. I like women with a take-charge attitude." He winked and sailed out of the room, his worn-out sneakers clopping loudly on the tile floor.
When she faced the glowing computer screen, however, her smile faded. Her brother�s message ran through her head. He would never understand why she didn�t come yesterday. When she lost control of her secret, she wasn�t safe to be around.
"Knock, knock." Professor Jonas Pritchard stood in the doorway wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, and a black sports jacket. If it weren�t for the tinge of gray on his sideburns, he could pass for a better-dressed version of the average college student.
Paula�s stomach flip-flopped. Professor Pritchard never came to her office. Never.
"Can I talk to you, Paula?"
He knew her name?
"What�s up, professor?" First-year grad students weren�t usually on a first-name basis with the professors, especially not the head of the department.
"We�ve got a problem, and I was hoping you could investigate before the dean starts breathing down my neck. I�ve been correlating your transcripts with the hard data for one of our subjects, and something isn�t right here."
"What do you mean?" Paula�s role in the study was so limited, she didn�t know much about the output from the black box. In fact, she�d never even seen a machine up close. Her role was to type up the journals every day as they came in and turn it over to the lab assistants in Data Processing. They took the raw data from the little black boxes and compared them to the transcripts using some algorithm or other.
Professor Pritchard leaned against the doorframe. "I need you to go to a subject�s place of residence and question him about some of his journal entries." He leafed through a sheaf of papers in his hands.
"Are we allowed to do that? I thought we were only supposed to identify subjects by their assigned numbers."
He looked up from the papers, his gaze piercing. "Are you questioning my judgment on this?"
"I�m the head of the department. It�s my study. I think I�d know if any ethics were being breached."
Paula stumbled over her words. "I-I just didn�t want to jeopardize the project."
"Let me worry about the details." Pritchard thumbed through the papers once more. "You got this position because I lost a very valued member of our team, and you were really the only one left in the graduate program who hadn�t found a position. But don�t think I couldn�t find someone to replace you, if necessary."
Paula felt her face flame red. "I want to be here. I didn�t mean to question anything. What is it you need me to do?"
"I marked the particular entries that don�t correlate." He handed her a stack of transcribed journal entries flagged with bright pink stickies. "It could be nothing--maybe the subject left on some electronic device -- but I need you to find out for sure. If he hasn�t been living up to his end of the agreement, we need to know about it."
Each subject had to sign a release agreement stating he would be completely honest in his journal entries and would operate the black box only as instructed. Any violation of the agreement, and a subject would be kicked from the program.
"Okay, what do I need to know?"
"All the information you need is right here." He handed her a sticky note with a name, a campus address, and a phone number.
She looked at the paper and read the name scribbled across the top: Craig Peters. "When do you need all this back?"
"This is a priority project." He tucked the manila folder under his arm. "You have until tomorrow after the weekly status meeting to get back to me. I�ll have Minerva set aside some time around one. Don�t disappoint me, Paula. I�d hate to have to replace you in the middle of the study."
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