Fiona Longham. My skin crawls just thinking of touching her too-soft alien skin. Thankfully I’m greeted at the door by someone else. Everything seems a little muted, like I’m coming up for air. I’m having a hard time focusing my eyes. The man says something to me but it’s hard to hear him. Something keeps shifting under his skin and he sounds far away.
Pushing my glasses up I say, “Yes, I met Fiona earlier today and was informed by her she’d like the opportunity to speak to me.”
I offer my hand, hoping whatever he has isn’t contagious. “I’m new in town. Billy.”
His hands are rough, callused and his grip is like a vice on my hand. For a moment I see something roll under his skin as it makes it’s way to me when the vision hits.
For a moment we’re standing at the mouth of a cavernous opening. I think it’s a mine but it wants to eat us and I can feel it’s rotten breath hit me. It reaches out with thick tentacles and grabs at someone else standing at the mouth. The man shaking my hand and I watch as another his doppelganger runs up with a sledgehammer and begins pounding on the tentacle. The maul screams “Fioooonaaaa!!” from somewhere deep within. I can the hear the hunger and pain in it’s cry as more tentacles whip out reaching for me.
I startle for a brief moment when it’s over, look down and see that I’m still holding the man’s hand. Small Velcro-like claws rip away from my palm and he says, “I’m Jimmy, her husband. Come on in.”
I resist the urge to look at my hand so I wipe away the oozing blood on my pants quickly when he turns away to let me in.
She – it – steps out of a doorway wearing a yellow linen dress. I’ll never get used to seeing them wearing clothes like they’re human but she seems to not care I know what she is. Their soft, corpse-like flesh is always hard to get used to but their beady little eyes can hypnotize if you’re not careful.
“Oh good, you came. No one with you?”
“Afraid not. I thought I’d come by on my own while everyone else was preoccupied with their distractions.”
She looks disappointed I think. “Oh – Ummm, maybe just as well. Less people will attract less attention.”
She’s infiltrated well here. The house is simple, yet neat and prettily decorated. I hate working with Women but I’ve done it in the past. There’s little evidence of the huge man now gently cradling his wife. My ears seem to have popped and I can hear clearly again. When she peels away from his body I can hear the soft tearing of her skin from his.
He gestures toward the main room and says, “Nice to meetcha, Billy. Take a seat. Drink?”
“I’m a bourbon man. Or ice tea if you have it.”
I can feel the day wear on me as I settle into the chair but I know I can’t let down my guard. I reach into my coat pocket for my smokes and take off my hat.
“May I smoke?”
I see her walk to an old and obviously locally made cabinet. Her knees bend at wrong angles under her pastel dress. She closes her beady eyes with her arms raised towards the cabinet, then opens it with a smile.
“We appear to have found some Jim Beam. That work?”
Jim laughs deeply and a little menacing. “Smoke all you want, Billy. Mind if i bum one? Fiona doesn’t conjure up smokes – says they’re bad for me.”
I watch the two of them settle into the deep fleshy sofa and pet it softly, to calm it, as it takes her weight strenuously. Don’t let them deceive you, Women are heavier and stronger than they look. She reaches into a hidden pocket at the seem of her dress and pulls out the card she burned into my head earlier in the day. She shows me the badge but catches me looking at her hock and hind cannon under her dress.
I look away, look up at the badge, then to Jim, remembering every detail of the badge from earlier. I shake out a few smokes and hand over one with the lighter after lighting my own.
“Yup, I remember that pretty damn clearly. So who exactly are Department 23?”
I watch her closely for tell-tale signs her kind drop when lying. She settles in the flesh sofa and begins to speak.
“I told you a little earlier, Billy. But here’s the quick version again. I’m an agent for an Outside government agency that deals with supernatural affairs both foreign and domestic. We call it the Black Chamber. It’s part of the NSA nowadays but predates that agency by a goodly deal.
I ended up here by accident, while on a mission. That was in 1992. I told everyone i was an ecologist, but I’m actually a highly trained occult expert. I’ve managed to use a couple of pieces of Agency gear to cover my tracks, and I’ve been very quietly nosing my way into the Town’s inner workings for years.”
I take a slow and loving drag from my smoke. Either I’m starting to come down or this cigarette is stronger than it should be.
“Yes I remember that but I’d like to know who your agency works for and what your goal is- here. Are you – ummm – trapped as well?”
Her maxillary barbells twitch in what I think is frustration.
It sighs at me and says, “Yes, I’m trapped here too. Not that it’s been terrible. I wouldn’t have met Jim otherwise”
She turns her gaze to him and I watch him sink down into it. I can see it in his eyes. He feeds off her like a junky. I should know.
I try to break her gaze from his.
“So you’ve just been trolling information this whole time? No outside contact with your Controller or other Agents?”
She turns to look at me. I can feel the ghostly whisp of her probs on me now. “I’ve had no way to contact anyone. I know a couple of different magics and tried to get messages out, but there’s a ward around this entire valley like a mirror, one that’s way too strong for me. ”
Jimmy seems to recover from it’s gaze, nods, “I’ve been here since ’76, Billy. No one gets messages out that I know of.”
I look at both of them, take a swallow of bourbon. “So why tell me this? What is it you want from me? I appreciate the hospitality but I also know that this wasn’t just a tea and smokes kindda visit.”
I roll the glass in my hand to listen to the calming rattle of ice, trying to find my focus.
It – She – seems to make her mind up on something and begins to talk quickly, as though trying to expunge an infected wound.
“You and your friends are some of the strongest talents to come to the Town in all these years I’ve been here. And I keep my ear to the ground – I know you and your friends have been helping Leroy Ealand in the matter of his daughter, something that’s going to put you in the elite’s bad books. I had to break cover – to warn you, to maybe help you. I’m convinced the power players in Town know why the Town is the way it is, probably made it that way themselves, and could stop it all if they wanted to.
I have my talents too, as i said. You’re all flawed in some way, like everyone else here – but there’s a seed of goodness and duty in each of you.”
She’s trying to get me with her gaze and I can still feel the whisps on my scalp.
I say, “I don’t know about any goodness in anyone but what I do know is this place has called to all of us. Some here have twisted this place into a prison instead of what it could be – what it is.”
She sits up a little, shifting her weight forward toward me. “That’s exactly right. Have you heard about the night of the Change?
“I’ve heard a few things from some of the locals here but I’m always interested in different perspectives”
“My reading, over the years, and my listening, has allowed me to piece together a lot of what happened. You know there was a massive storm, yes? And that the change coincided with the San Fransisco earthquake?”
I nod, taking a long drag on my cigarette while listening.
“Well, you may not have heard that the Judge and all of the Merschmans, as well as the old man Cantrell and a couple of others, were all conspicuous by their absences until it was all over bar the cleaning up. The biggest disaster in Town history, and it was all handled by two men – the original Chilcott and Worlow family heads.
Within weeks, both were dead. Worlow supposedly killed by Chilcott, who was alleged to have been embezzling from the Bank he was chairman of, and Chilcott then hanged for the murder.
Thus neatly taking out the only figureheads worth a damn at the time in opposition to the Merschman’s and Jainlett, as well as the two men most likely to have some idea of what really happened.”
As she talks I watch her intently. My gut says she’s an Agent, like me, but she’s not sure she can trust me yet. She’s been deep in Interzone territory for a long time and that’ll make anyone –or thing- a little paranoid.
She continues to talk when she sees I’m still listening.
“Here’s what I believe happened. You know the Judge is a diabolist magician, yes? Well, the Merschman’s married into certain families from new England that the Black Chamber once ran operations against back in the 40s – families who belonged to a cult devoted to a very nasty God indeed.
I think they teamed up to try a summoning or some other powerful ritual ,and it got away from them. The power of the dead of the earthquake just gave it too much oomph, like kerosene on a fire.
And bing-bang, the entire Town gets slipped sideways in reality as the fallout – here to stay until the ritual is somehow reversed or dispelled.”
She seems very confident and it’s tempting to take it at face value but she’s been here a long time.
I say, “Do you think they may have done it – intentionally? I mean, what better means to capture active and powerful agents then to draw them here? Like bees to sap –”
She shrugs, and Jim gets up to refill glasses. The sound the sofa makes when his skin rips away from it’s soft flesh is almost more than I can stand.
She says to me, “It’s possible, I suppose. I always just assumed they were trying for what all that kind do – immortality and limitless secular power. Well, they got what they wished for, in a very tightly defined little bit of reality.”
I feel the first stab of her micro thin whisps.
“Well, I’m not looking for this reality and I’ll do what it takes to move on. The others I’ve come with seem like a capable group and I think together we can execute our mission.”
I snub out the smoke and decide it’s time for something a little heavier. I pull out my tin and pop one of my special mints. At some point Jim returns with fresh glasses for the both of us.
She watches and says, “You’ve certainly got a better chance than most. You all haven’t been here long enough to pick up any extra taint.”
She looks regretful for a moment.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you discuss this with anyone else except your companions, and must command you to be prepared to use extreme measures to prevent them talking out of hand too.”
I feel her whisps recoil quickly as my dot hits me like a train. She looks determined then holds up her badge. The red writing tries to burn away behind my eyes but I’m ready this time.
“By Michael, Adonai and Metatron, and by the powers of Mathers and the authority of the United States government, herein invested in me, I so abjure thee.”
I feel the words burn into my skull compelling me to her will. Like a sudden migraine I feel the little crawling sensation of the centipedes squirming in my brain, moving towards the invading compulsion, moving to relieve my pain and devour the invader. I thank Annexia for infesting me. It’s like coming up for air under a freezing water.
I carefully place the glass down onto the coffee table. I feel bile rising with my anger.
“Don’t attempt to do that again unless you wish to terminate this relationship. I’m protected by my benefactors and I don’t take to kindly to being handled in such a rough manner.”
Her face and barbells go rigid in surprise. Jim tenses but she pats his knee placatingly.
“Okay, I had to try. But look, these are powerful and evil men – and Leroy Ealand has become a kind of seed of revolt in the community. By taking his side you put yourselves in danger – and me too, now. I’ll have to trust you heed my plea for discretion.”
I can see her pet Jim is still tense and those small hooks covering his skin like seem to have grown thicker and longer.
I watch him closely and say, “And that trust is either real or it isn’t. Attempting to force my compliance is a sure way to set me against you. We both have an enemy in common and I think it best we work together but I will not be forced.”
I take my full glass and gulp it down in a few swallows. I light up another smoke and then offer Jim one with a smile.
“So who’s first? The Judge? Schrull?”
He knows I’m dangerous but he doesn’t know how. I’d like to set him free from this thing but I may have to put him down. He’s deep into her. I pity the poor creature he’s become.
He watches me guardedly, “If Fiona gets hurt”, he growls. Never trust a junky.
Fiona says, “No, he’s right love. Very well, Billy lee – agent of whatever you believe you are. I’ll trust you even more than i have already and pray it isn’t misplaced.
Schrull’s a pawn. The Judge, the Merschman’s, Cantrell – they’re the power players. But each has their own little cabal of acolytes or servants.
The bank is where the real power lies in this Town. The men on its Board are the one’s who will need to be stopped, eventually.”
I remember my vision of the shadowy men in the dark room.
“The Board. Yes.”
I can feel my breath go hot as the poison bubbles up in my throat, ready to vomit in excitement. Small vapors of poison escape from my mouth before I can swallow it back down.
She stands and Jimmy copies her like a puppy. The sofa moans in relief from her weight. The soft ripping sound is masked slightly as she speaks.
“If we can help, we’ll do our best. It’s best you go now. Watch who is in the Board’s orbit and who isn’t.”
I look back and forth from the two of them. Jimmy towers over her by a foot now but he’s still got that look in his eye like I’m about to snatch his smack away.
“I have your support if I were to move against them then?”
Jimmy reaches out his monstrous hand. Thick worms seem to move beneath his skin. I feel my hand being crushed in his hand. Message received. You’re bigger than me but I’m not on the leash.
Fiona looks at me with her beady eyes, pleadingly.
“I hope we’re doing the wise thing. That it’s the right thing I’ve no doubt. Yes, you’ll have our support.”
Jimmy lets my hand go and gives me a shit eating grin. Fiona touches me. It’s like touching the dead flesh of a fish. She leads me to the door.
“Goodnight, Billy Lee, May the good God go with you.”
She crosses herself and for a moment she glows with a sickly halo of light. I fight the compulsion to scrub my hands in the gravel until they bleed.
“May the good gods be with you. I’ll take the vengful ones.”