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11. Road Trippin

The Estate’s clandestine power  fell into place around Bruce and Peggy as they rolled in the gates of the campus later that night.  Without discussion or preamble Peggy was asked to pull up and they were all ordered to vacate the car.  Just as quickly it was taken off the Estate grounds by another agent to be disposed off or ‘cleaned’ of any connection to the Estate.  A small contingent of armed agents escorted, Peggy, Bruce with the Cowboy to an interrogation room where they were left to do ‘whatever was required’.  This later fact was made very clear to Bruce. He thought of his brother in the throes of Spiral Dust and the demise of the erstwhile drug dealer Eldritch Chopra and steeled himself for what needed to be done.  He noted the well used telephone book beside the door and felt for the reassuring weight of his crowbar in it’s harness.

“Well LeRoy, nasty number you did on Chopra.”  He began as the audio system ticked down the seconds recording their interview.

“I did nothing.”  LeRoy Cain sat relaxed, handcuffed to the table.  He was an old hand at the rules of police interrogations, but Peggy and Bruce were not the police and there were no rules.

“We have footage showing you did.”  Peggy bluffed trying to intimidate the murderer.

“How would you have footage from his musty old apartment?”

“We’d been watching Eldritch for a while.  You have to admit he was pretty obvious.”

LeRoy gave Peggy a hard look and sat back in his chair not buying her story.

“Really, you snuck a surveillance system into the computer-geeks place?  Pull the other one, it plays Jingle Bells.”

“The thing is, LeRoy, we’re pretty sure you did it and we don’t need to prove anything.  If we want you’ll just disappear, no trial, no lawyers, nothing.”

Bruce, seeing Peggy was getting nowhere stepped in, drawing the comfortable weight of his crowbar off his back.

“Look, he’s seeing through what your doing, Peggy.  What he can’t see through is my crowbar when I pry out his eye.”  Bruce stood to his full 6 foot 6 and flexed the substantial muscle that time and hard work had created. “You did a nasty job on Chopra and I’ll gladly do the same to you for what you did to my brother.”  

“Do be careful with the eye,”  Peggy commented coolly, “I need samples  and they’re so hard to come by.”

Bruce was slow and deliberate as he circled the table to grasp LeRoy by the hair and bring the crowbar hook in contact with the tissue-thin skin around the eye.  It may have been the cold steel, it could have been Bruce firm grasp or his look of determination but the tough guy soon came to the realisation that here, he had no rights.

“What do you want to know?”

He told them that the dust came from Colorado and was shipped to him once a month in the parcel mail.  It was sent from a woman called Lydia Lance who owned a gemstore in Nederland called, “The Dreaming Crystal”.  She had contacted him a few years ago about being a distributor. How she’d got his name he didn’t know, but Bruce go the impression that he’d made a big enough name for himself to be known Interstate.

“I did a few jobs.  I’m always in work.”  He glared menacingly. His attempt was completely lost on Peggy and Bruce had been menaced enough as a union representative to know a bully when he saw one. 

“So why Chopra?”  Bruce wanted to know recalling the scene of devastation that had once been a human body.

“He was cutting into my business, I couldn’t have him reselling.”

“And that’s it?  Business?”

That seemed to be it.

“One more thing. There had been another woman, before Lydia. Strange bird, didn’t see her again.”

Bruce, satisfied they’d got everything they were going to get from LeRoy, reported to his supervisor.

“We’ve got some information out of him, what do we do with him now?”

“Leave that with me, “ She said matter of factly, “You got a lead on a supplier?”

He filled her in on LeRoy’s capture and what he’d told them.

“The police were called to investigate.  Shots were fired and a car turned over.”

“Yes, so I heard.  Nevermind, the Estate is onto it.”  She noted coolly getting back to the topic at hand, “LeRoy’s contact, would you go on a road trip to investigate this?”

“Why wouldn’t we fly? Quicker and cheaper.”
“Two reasons.  Firstly, your group’s recent…activities will need some smoothing over and for that it would be best if you were out of town for at least a few days.  Secondly, you still have a task given by Lisa Banks, Chief of Public Relations. One Gwendoline Wurtz and her ability to charge smart devices with body heat?”

Bruce remembered, it  just didn’t seem a priority, but he nodded his agreement.

“We’ll get right onto that.”

Rain and Algernon still hadn’t reported back when Bruce left Katherine’s office.  He rung Rain’s number, it rung out. He tried Algernon’s number, also no answer. Now getting concerned he sent a text message to both numbers.

Phone in when you’re safe.

    *     * *     * * *     *

Algernon and Rain ran through the dark Seattle streets, Algernon lugging the duffle bag, Rain his head still ringing from the tumble in the pick up. When the alley they were travelling emptied out onto inhabited streets once more the pair slowed down keeping an eye out for cabs and police cars with equal interest.

“So, bro’,” Rain finally said when he’d caught his breath, “What do you say to a night on the town?”

“Night on the town?”  Algernon questioned at the unfamiliar use of language.

“Let’s go to a nightclub.  I know of a place not far from the Estate.  I’m sure we can leave that bag at the cloakroom and there’ll be live music.”

Music was a new experience for Algernon, having only experienced it for the first time while travelling on The Limness in Railsea.  It seemed to him that music had a lot of potential.

“Absolutely!”  He said with enthusiasm until a thought came to him, “But…is it safe? 

Rain walked in silence a dark expression on his face.

“Algernon, I’ve never said and never will say things will be safe.  Safe is a metal box that you lock things away in. Do you want to live in a metaphorical metal box?”

The image was not exactly appealing to Algernon, but if you could guarantee safety would being locked in a metal box be worthwhile?  Algernon’s thought did not get a chance to be aired as Rain did not wait for a reply but continued with his monologue.

“The only person who goes on about making things safe is Bruce and look what happened last time, you nearly got eaten by a molerat.  The assumption should always be that things are not going to be safe, and do what you can to look out for each other.”  Rain now turned to his companion to see if he’d understood. 

“But isn’t safety something we should always strive to be?”

“You know, it’s amazing how often fun and safety are mutually exclusive concepts.”

“So it’s an issue of risk mitigation?”

Rain smiled for the first time that evening, 

“Exactly. Life is about not avoiding risk but mitigating the dangers when you can.  But let’s not talk of dangers for one night. We’ll listen to some music, make some friends that know nothing about us or our insane lives. You’ll get to see the real US outside of your favourite ‘documentaries’.  Have a few drinks without Mr Disapproval looking down his nose. Do a little sleight of hand…hey I’ll teach you some. And then we can toddle home as the sun rises over the gasworks, and beat Bruce to breakfast.”

Now there was a concept that Algernon could get behind, coffee and bacon and night out with Rain.  He nodded and Rain hailed the next free taxi.

“Driver!  To the High Dive, please.”

    *     * *     * * *     *   

Celia Fisher

Celia Fisher was confused at first when her hair salon couldn’t book an appointment with her favourite hairdresser.  It seems she wasn’t sick and hadn’t quit or been given the sack, she just wasn’t there. She became more concerned when she tried getting in touch with Melissa directly and her phone went straight to voicemail.  Melissa’s phone never went straight to voicemail. Melissa Romero, a charming twenty-something hairdresser collected people like some collected bottle caps or shiny pebbles. Celia had been ‘collected’ as they chatted over a salon appointment months previously.  They had exchanged phone numbers and that had been that.  

Celia’s senses tingled as she felt a mystery, and there was nothing that Celia liked better than a mystery to solve.  As a private detective in Seattle she usually had plenty of people that were willing to pay her to solve their mysteries.  Most of those didn’t count as real mysteries, cheating spouses and thieving employees are usually not experienced enough to know how to cover their tracks effectively.  Celia thought that Melissa’s case was different.

She visited Melissa’s home and found her sister Jennifer talking to police.  Having identified herself as a friend of Melissa’s Jennifer admitted that she was gratified that Melissa had so many caring people around her.

“Why do you say that?”  Celia asked.

“I was here trying to get Melissa to answer the door when three other friends turned up.  One said his name was Simun Otiluke. They came in with me and found her place deserted. It just looked like she was….”  At this point, Jennifer started choking up as the emotions got too much for her, “…she was just in another room. Everything was there, her keys, her phone.  Her phone had gone flat so she must have been gone days and days…” She started crying and Celia played her part well, consoling the family member while her mind raced through the possibilities.

“Jennifer listen. I’m not just a friend of Melissa’s but also an investigator.”  At this moment she handed Jennifer her business card. “I want to help you find Melissa.  Tell me, this is not the sort of behaviour you’d expect from her? To just go off without even her phone? Without a word?”

“She could be flighty, but she loved her work and Simun said she hadn’t been there either.  Melissa and I talked every week. If I didn’t ring her she’d be on the phone to me.”

“Okay, good so we can rule out that she’s just dropped out.  Do you mind if I walk through Melissa’s apartment, maybe take a look at her phone.”

Jennifer nodded.

“The police have done all that and said I can lock up, but what if she comes back and can’t get in?”

Celia didn’t answer.  Melissa leaving and not taking her keys was disturbing.  Her turning up to a lock house would be only be inconvenient.
“Was the apartment locked when you got here?”

“Yes,”  Jennifer thought for a moment, “One of them thought she may have been abducted,  or…translated, but Melissa didn’t know any other languages and what would that have to do with her disappearance?”

“Translated?  Are you sure they said, translated?”

“I’m sure. Simun seemed concerned it had been mentioned and suggested we try her bedroom …that’s when I found…”  Jennifer held out her hand to reveal Melissa’s iPhone now with ten percent charge.

“May I?”  Celia eyed the phone. She knew Melissa’s whole world was in that phone, but didn’t want to seem rude.  Jennifer handed it over.

“Did you get a name for the other two friend?”  Celia asked casually as she flipped through the messages and recent calls.

“No …no.  They all seemed to know each other though, maybe you can ask Simun?”  Jennifer wrapped her arms around herself, though the evening was warm. “Do you want to come inside, I don’t feel safe out here.”

Celia agreed and followed Jennifer into the apartment.  She noted the pile of mail inside the door, and the full cup of cold coffee on the kitchen counter.  She noted that the apartment was in good order with only the bedroom looking like it had been ‘lived in’.  As she moved through the apartment she shared Melissa’s contact list with her phone and took photos of all the messages.  When she had finished her investigation of the house she handed back the phone to Jennifer.

“Was there anyone new in Melissa’s life?  A new man or someone she particularly talked about?”  Celia asked on the off chance. She was sure that if Melissa has a boyfriend everyone would have known.

“Funny you should ask that, the big one, one of the friends asked that too?  I didn’t remember anyone at the time but I remembered later she had mentioned a new guy called LeRoy.  I remember because I thought she’d said the drink first, you know LaCroix. I thought it a funny name at the time.”

Celia went through the contacts list and found one for LeRoy Cain with phone number and an address.

“These friends, what did they look like?”

Jennifer described the three as best she could, but she kept coming back to the short one with the unusually coloured eyes.  

“When he looked at me it was like there was no else around.  It was a little creepy…” Jennifer let her words drift, Celia thought Jennifer may like this Simun character a little more than she let on.

“LeRoy, know anymore about him?”

“Last Tuesday I spoke to her, she said that she had to cut our call short because she was going to meet him.”

“LeRoy?”

“Yes, she was being very mysterious about it.  You don’t think he had something to do with her disappearance?”

“I don’t know, but I’d certainly like a chance to talk to this LeRoy character for myself.”

Being  Monday night, Celia went home and started processing the information she had.  She cross referenced all the contacts in Melissa’s phone to Melissa’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.  Out of all the name only two can up blank. LeRoy Cain and Simun Otiluke and his friends. In fact a simple trawl through the social networking sites brought up nothing for either man.  

Next she started ringing Melissa’s friends.  This took a while as each one wanted to know what was going on and all had their opinions on what happened.  She‘d only run six friends but was already seeing a pattern. No one had heard of a Simun Otiluke, not social friends, nor workmates which was odd as he supposedly connected through the salon.  On the other hand, most had heard about Leroy Cain and one admitted to have known him. From their information it was clear that LeRoy was a very shady character, who like dressing as a cowboy and may have sold drugs to the friends.  He was only accessible Tuesday nights from the address in Melissa’s phone.

Celia put down her phone and scanned her notes.  Melissa hadn’t been seen for more than a week, possibly after seeing LeRoy on the Tuesday she spoke to her sister.  Sometime after, she went home and disappeared off the face of the earth. Leroy may not be involved but he seemed at present to be the last person to have seen Melissa alive.  Satisfied she could do no more that night, Celia turned in knowing that whatever happened, tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Celia Fisher rode through the evening streets of Seattle, her black trench coat fluttering behind her as she weaved through the remains of the peak-hour traffic.  She was a local and she knew Seattle’s streets well, but even for her this part of town was not well travelled. She had been out to this neighbourhood precisely once before, checking out a car parts racket.  The owner of the auto-repair shop had been so concerned to find out that his supplier was selling him stolen parts that he pleaded for her to forget his name in her reports to the insurance company. She had, earning her a favour that she was about to cash in.  

The office of the auto-repairs was at the front of the store and overlooked the intersection.  It also had the convenience of a back exit onto an alley where she intended to park her bike. With the lights off she could sit and watch the intersection and when it was time to move she would go out the back and never be seen from the street.  It was this alley she now turned into as the owner and his apprentices were just leaving.

“Are you sure you’re going to be right by yourself here?”  The owner said as they shook hands. She had been a private investigator for a little less than ten years and it still rankled when people underestimated her.

“I don’t intend for anyone to know I’m there.  Don’t worry about me, I do this all the time in places a lot less secure than your office.”  Celia replied confidently and he seemed mollified.

“Well, just remember to pull the door shut when you leave.”  

Promising to make sure the shop was locked up before she left, Celia then made her way through the dark garage.  She didn’t dare even a phone light as she picked her way around tool chests and piles of tyres to reach the office.  As she remembered, the office windows looked out onto the street and showed a view of intersection the other two buildings, and the carpark. 

 From her trench coat she pulled out a thermos and a pile of sandwiches.  From a messenger bag she pulled out a digital SLR camera with a 300mm image stabilizer lens.  It wasn’t the most powerful of her lenses, but the big front element picked up all available light, perfect for late night work like this.  Leaning back in one of the office chairs she scanned the area looking for any signs of life. A few people were still on the street at this hour  the general store was getting its share of customers picking up a few essentials before heading home and the last car drove out of the carpark and sped away for places unknown.  

Celia trained the viewfinder over the abandoned building and picked up the faint blue glow from one of the first floor windows. She looked closer and noticed that the window had been opened, the street lights failing to reflect off the velvet blackness of the building’s interior.  She cursed she hadn’t brought a longer lens as she couldn’t make out any details but she thought there was something propped up on the window sill. Something quite like a rifle.

She lowered her camera and wondered what to do next.  There was no sight of LeRoy Cain, but he could arrive at any moment.  She could report what she’d seen to the police, but what had she seen?  And any police would surely scare Cain off . In the end she stayed where she was and watched as a man in a black coat walked out the front door of the supposedly empty office building and entered the store.  She followed him with her camera as he talked to the shopkeeper and bought a drink, returning to the office block taking in the neighbourhood as he closed the door. Celia pulled out her notes and looked up the description of the three friends Jennifer had given her.  She couldn’t be sure, but she wondered if this was the mysterious Mr Simun Otiluke.

An hour past, night settled onto the city and filled the street with darkness.  The blue glow in the first floor window became more obvious, so too the fact that there was someone behind the possible rifle as she caught the shifting of a shadow in the window.  Car headlights filled the car park opposite as a Dodge Ram turned into the driveway and parked. She knew she had her man as soon as he got out, the big ten gallon hat and cowboy boots advertising the arrival of LeRoy Cain.  

She watched as LeRoy took up position on the street next to the auto-repair shop and waited.  From the front doors of the office building, the one she thought of as Simun flanked by a woman in beige and a big guy  with a crowbar strapped to his back walked out. Now she knew she’d found the three ‘friends’. Simun waved to get LeRoy’s attention as something the size of a bird shot out of the upstairs window and across the road.  The projectile sailed over LeRoy’s head and hit the brickwork down from where Celia was hiding. A beat past as the three ‘friends’ realised something hadn’t gone as planned. They started running, but they were only halfway across the road when LeRoy disappeared.  

Celia checked her lens sure that something had obscured her view.  He hadn’t slipped into a shadow or slunk away down an alley, he just ceased to be.  The friends stopped in their tracks, Simun collapsed to his knees. It was no illusion, they could see it…or not see it…too.  LeRoy had vanished.  

The big guy started towards the Dodge, Simun following after with a defeated air when the Dodge’s door opened and the car started, headlights filling the car park with light once more.  But there was no one there. Even with the poor light Celia could see the carseat and through the truck cab, there was no one there. And yet the Dodge started moving towards the two men.  

The big one pulled a pistol from his belt as Simun produced a small rectangle seemingly from nowhere.  Celia thought it may have been a mace canister or a taser, until he fanned playing cards in the direction of the driver’s seat.  The cards bounced off thin air and the big man aimed his gun at the outlined shape. The bullets missed their mark and now the truck was on them in earnest.  The big guy leaped aside and out of harm’s way. Simun seemed to vault onto the bonnet of the truck, roll up the window and flip around and through the passenger window.  He now wrestled nothing in truck cab as it bumped down the curb and into the street.  

Out of the corner of her vision, Celia saw movement at the first floor window.  She almost missed it, focused as she was on the action on the ground. She almost failed to see as a young man climbed onto the window ledge, leaped out and…floated to the ground.  Camera forgotten she sat stunned as the young man jogged across to another car parked nearby just as easily as he’d jumped 12 metres to the ground. 

Meanwhile, the woman and big guy were shooting the Dodge’s tyres.  Bullets sparked off the asphalt others hit true and the truck went down onto the wheel rims striking up even more sparks.  Inside the cab, Celia could see Simun grab hold of the steering wheel and yanked it down. The sharp wheel rims bit into the road and with a horrible suddenness, the truck flipped.  

Celia stood dumbstruck as she watched the Dodge flip onto its roof, its seeming lone occupant thrown around like a ragdoll.  The big guy yell something that could not be heard over the roar of the now disconnected engine and the screeching groan of the truck as it came to a stop in the middle of the road.  He yanked the driver door open as far as it would go and grabbed…nothing…struggling with Simun. Pulling both out, the big one holding nothing in a headlock and dragging it across the road to the car the young man stood beside.  

Celia hadn’t realised she had been standing and quickly sat back down.  Had she really seen a full grown man disappear and be kidnapped by three…no four…special forces?  And the boy. That wasn’t clever parkour or an abseiling stunt. He had floated to the ground, right in front of her.

Outside, the invisible LeRoy (she had to admit it) was being bundled into the back seat of the sedan as the young man ran across to the truck and grabbed something first from the glove compartment and then the upturned tray.  Simun was inside the front door of the office, calling for the young man to follow him as the sedan sped off, the woman at the wheel. It was then that Celia heard the sirens. The young man made it through the door as the police car turned the corner into the intersection. When they got out, the door was lock and there was no one in sight.

It was time to go.  Talking to the police may have been an option before, but now guns had been fired, a car had overturned and Celia not where she should be.  With practised speed she packed up her stakeout, carefully put away her camera and lens and moved through the garage to the back door. The alley where her bike waited was quiet after the noise and violence of the last few minutes.  Celcia pushed her bike down the alley the 20 or 30 metres and watched as the two young men exited the office block via a back door.  

Keeping to streets that ran parallel to their alley, Celia followed them as they stumbled into more populated districts.  When they called a cab, she turned into traffic behind and followed them north out of the city. Eventually the cab pulled up outside a jazz bar and the two men went in carrying a large duffle bag.  She slowly rode past, parked down the block and made her way back to the bar. 

    *     * *     * * *     *     

Much to Rain’s surprise, the High Dive was a substantial and  thoroughly respectable bar part of a group of stripshops in a recently gentrified suburbs of Seattle.  Being a Tuesday night, they had no problem getting in, storing Algernon’s duffle and finding seats. Rain was just settling in to the ‘vibe’, enjoying the familiar buzz of the crowd as another buzz caught his attention.  Without looking at his phone he knew it would be Bruce wanting to know where they were. The right thing would be to answer it, let him know they were safe and that they would be home about sunrise the next day. Then he looked around the crowd, the band on the stage,  Algernon sitting beside him ‘researching’ the alcohol list. Listening to Bruce and explaining where they were, why and hearing how irresponsible their actions were in light of the capture of the Cowboy seemed like it belonged to another…recursion. With a deep and satisfying breath out, he ignored the phone and called over a waiter.

Algernon nearly jumped out of his seat when his phone rang a few minutes later, Mission Impossible only just identifiable over the sound of the band.  He looked at the phone and his youthful face creased in worry seeing Bruce’s name pop up. Without a word he showed Rain.

“Yeah, he just rang me, but I can’t talk to him tonight.”

Algernon propped the phone up on the small table they shared.  He was frozen with indecision as to answer it or not. How would he respond to Bruce’s probing questions?  What if Bruce got angry? The phone stopped ringing and he gave a sigh of relief only to jump once more when a text message arrived.

Phone in when you’re safe.

“Are we safe?”  Algernon asked as the waiter returned with two drinks both a depressing brown colour.

“You know my response to that question.”  Rain replied, once more scanning the busy scene in front of them, “What do you think?”

“I don’t know!”  

Rain’s phone buzzed again and he pulled it out of his pocket like something rotten. This time Algernon answered it.  Somehow the fact that it was Rain’s phone and not his own made the task easier. He was just doing Rain a favour.

“Hey Rain.” It was Bruce, it was too hard to tell if he was angry from two words.

“Hi Bruce.” Algernon said tentatively.

“Algernon.”  Algernon could almost hear Bruce’s mind whirling through the possibilities as to why he would be answering Rain’s phone.

“We’re fine.  It’s just us…alone…and I’m not drinking alcohol.”

A moment of silence.

“Okay, are you safe?” Bruce asked carefully.  Algernon wasn’t sure that was a good sign.

“Rain says we’re never safe.”

“You  know he’s just riding you.”

“No, he’s right beside me.”

More silence.

“He’s having a little fun.”

“Oh.”

“So…where are you?
“The…jazz…bar” Algernon’s minds stumbled over the lie.  How did Rain make it seem so easy.

“Yes, I know it’s a bar I can hear the music.  That’s not what it’s called, is it?”

“No.”

Another silence, maybe the grinding of teeth.

“Right.  Look, you be careful and look after yourself.  You’re not used to that stuff and who knows how it will affect you.”

“I will, thank you Bruce.”  He hung up and sculled the drink in front of him.  They’d had a few drinks so far, some tasted better than others, this one had a pleasing sort of warmth to it, but none made him ‘feel’ anything that his research had prepared him for.  Mimicking Rain, he called over the waiter again and asked for the next thing on the list.

“Something not brown this time.  Maybe something sweet?”

It had been the good part of Rain’s job in The Last Shot to sometimes act as host.  Welcoming the customers, keeping them happy and buying drinks, watching out for the loners who could cause trouble or just needed a little attention.  It was with this experience he now scanned the bar and saw a woman in a black trench coat sitting alone. She sipped slowly on a nondescript drink and like him, watched the crowd. She didn’t look like she was waiting for someone (she wasn’t interested in new arrivals) nor did she look like she was here for the music.  She looked like a professional just off work, with expertly applied makeup and her long brown hair twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck. She was intriguing, and with all intriguing people, Rain had to know.

“Algernon, there’s a woman over there all alone.  Why don’t we go over and keep her company?” He pointed her out to his companion who had just finished a large apple schnapps.  Algernon smacked his lips appreciating the syrup sweet liquor. Now, if it were just colder and with a fizz. He looked up to the woman at a table alone and was about to ask, was she safe?  Instead he nodded agreement and followed Rain across the bar.

“Good evening, I noticed you were alone and we’re strangers in town, would you mind if we joined you?”  Rain asked falling into the swing and rhythm of his native English accent.

“I’m waiting for friends.” she replied coolly, meant to send them on their way.  Rain gave her one of his knowing smiles and tried again.

“We can leave as soon as they arrive.  We really are strangers in town and you look like someone who knows a little about Seattle and its sights.”

This time there was a grudging acceptance and she waved them to the empty seats at her table.

“My name is Simun and this is Algernon.”  Rain introduced them and winced internally as he realised he’d forgotten the standard US accent he usually used with the Simun persona.  He blamed the slip on his tiredness and sat down.

“Celia Fisher, “ She introduced herself and held out her hand to shake and Rain gladly took it.

They sat and chatted about Seattle for more than an hour. Celia seemed a font of information about Seattle and its history.  Algernon continued to work his way through the top shelf of the bar with no ill effect and Rain was just starting to feel comfortably numb when Celia said something that stopped his heart.

“So, I happened to see you floating out a window.” She said casually, turned to Algernon.

Rain took a sip of his drink stalling, the ice tinkling against the glass.  Algernon clunked his down on the table.

“Rain?”  He looked to Rain for guidance.  Surely this was exactly the sort of situation that constituted them not  being safe.

“Let me introduce ourselves again.  My friends call me Rain and this is Algernon and you are very good.”  He acknowledged that they…he… had allowed them to be followed.  “What were you doing in such a lonely part of Seattle?”

“Out on my bike.”  She replied nonchalantly.  A bike, he hadn’t seen a bike.  She was good.

“You weren’t there by accident were you?”  

“Maybe.” 

“What do you know about the Cowboy?”

“What do you know?”

Rain smiled and admired her focus.  Most people liked to talk about themselves. This one knew how to ask questions and get answers.

“Not much, but I know some who do.”  He relented putting down his drink. He’d had enough.

“Could you introduce me?” Celcia asked now sitting on the edge of her seat.

“I think I have to.”

As the bar closed up for the night, the two men and a woman collected a large duffle bag and walked out into the cold morning air.  Strolling together companionably they retrieved Celia’s motorbike and they continued their walk to the gates of The Estate. Rain, with a friend on security and a bluff as solid as the gates themselves, got Celia through and into the dormitories.

“Introductions are required. Celia, these are my friends Bruce and Peggy,” Rain announced when they arrived at the mess with both already at breakfast, “This is Celia Fisher, she followed us from…the incident last night.”  

“You conned her in through security?”  Bruce asked by way of greeting.
“The bar closed, I live here, I invited her back.”  Rain collapsed dramatically into a chair no longer caring to keep up pretences. “Did you hear me also mention that she knows about last night, all of it including Algernon’s levitation from a first storey window?  She’s on the same case as us and I didn’t feel qualified to fill her in.”

“What I heard is that you picked up some woman at a bar.” Peggy commented hotly, “You should both come by and be checked for communicatible diseases.”

“Peggy!”

“You are a natural liar.” Bruce commented adding more fuel to Peggy’s fire.

” Yes, I can only assume this woman has obviously been brought here under false pretenses. If she feels it necessary I’m sure the medical unit have a rape kit. Or should we just call the police and let them deal with it. “

“Is this because I didn’t ring in…?”

“We’ll need to let Katherine know about Celia, “ Bruce ignored Peggy’s abuse as just deserts. Instead he also turned his attentions on Rain and Algernon.

“As for you,” Before he could start, Rain put up his hands  in surrender.
“I’m tired, I’m sore, I had a very good night and met an amazing new friend.  I can really do without the Bruce treatment this morning.”

Bruce took a moment to take in Rain, he did look worn thin.  Now two nights without sleep, a car accident and something else…

“You’ll keep.”  he warned and instead he started sniffing Algernon.

“You were drinking.”  It wasn’t a question, but Algernon answered it anyway.

“Yes.” 

“You don’t look like you were drinking.”

“Th-thank you?”  Algernon had actually been disappointed at his bodies response to the alcohol he had consumed.  It hadn’t seemed to have any effect on him whatsoever.

“How much did you drink?”

“In amount of beverages or in overall litres?”

Bruce’s mind boggled at what he was hearing

“You should look worse than Rain this morning.  Peggy, you should take him back and….”

“Run young man!”  Rain exclaimed in a overdramatize voice, “ the next word will be EX-PER-I-MENT-ATION!”

Algernon took the hint and ran.

“Why was that young man flying through a window?”  Celia finally saw a gap in the family bickering and took her chance.

Rain, Bruce and Peggy all look to each other.

“I don’t know if that for us to explain.”  Bruce finally said, “I think you should come with me and see a superior.”

“They might ‘Men in Black” her.”  Peggy warned.

“They can’t do that, can they…I don’t remember that…”  Bruce thought for a moment before turning back to Rain. “You stay here.” 

Rain got up and wandered off to have a shower.

They went to see Katherine.

Celia had been just biding her time.  When she was brought in to the office of Katherine Manners Chief of Operations at The Estate, she felt a sudden jolt of knowing that this was where the decisions got made.   Bruce introduced the two and filled Katherine in on what had transpired for Rain and Algernon.

“She’s been following the same trail as us and was there when we took the Cowboy, she deserves some sort of explanation.”

Katherine sat,  her hands steepled and watched Celia intently.  Celia sat equally as still and waited patiently.

“Celia Fisher?”  Katherine leaned back towards her desk and typed something into her computer, “Can I ask your profession?”

“I’m a private investigator on the trail of a LeRoy Cain. I was on stakeout to contact LeRoy when I happened to see a young man fly out a window.”

Katherine nodded and spent a moment reading her screen.

“You seem a level headed woman.  Normally, in these circumstances I’d ask you to leave, but your professionalism is refreshing.  In fact, you could teach some around here about discretion.” 

Somewhere a printer whirled to life and a few minutes later an assistant came in with a stapled document.

“The Estate has been watching you for a while for potential recruitment.  So, if you would like to find out what is going on, please read and sign this NDA.”  Katherine handed over a pen and the document.

“I would have expected nothing less.”  Celia replied and pick up both.

“Rain Bigby, please report to the Office.”  The somewhat mechanical voice came through the public address system throughout The Estate.  Rain who had just stepped into a shower looked at the speaker above his head.

“Well that ‘s not happening.” and continued to scrub away days of grim, exhaustion and worry.  In the office building across campus, Algernon turned up to support his friend.

“I wanted Rain.”  Lawrence Keaton said when he saw Algernon waiting at his door.

“Yes.”  Answered Algernon looking as confused as Keaton felt.

“Do you know where he is?”

“Third cubicle in the men’s bathroom?”  Algernon guessed.

“What?  Nevermind, I don’t want to know.”  

It must be said that the water pressure and temperature at the Estate were excellent.  Rain luxuriated in the hot water and steam until it started lulling him to sleep. Shaking off the exhaustion he stepped out of the shower to grab a towel, only to face Lawrence Keaton.

“What and unexpected surprise.”  Rain beamed as if inviting Keaton into his home, exquisitely dressed in a satin house gown and slippers, not naked and sopping wet, “To what do I owe this housecall?”  He reached for one of the fluffy towels on the rack, only to have Keaton lean on the rack pinning the towels to the wall. 

“Why did you invite a civilian onto campus?”

Rain also tried to lean back, but the divide between the shower cubicles was cold, much colder than his showered skin.  He settled for righteous indignation.

“Celia Fisher not a civilian.  She was tracking down the Cowboy just as we were and she was doing it alone.”

“So you took it upon yourself to recruit her?”

Rain was missing some nuance to this conversation which was unusual for him. Then he realised why, the powerplay and the very public call over the P.A.

“Is this a supervisor thing?”

“Yes, it is.” came the simple reply

“Never have worked out why I needed one.”

“I know, this would be an excellent example.”

“She’s good. She was there when we took him down. She then tracked Algernon and I across Seattle.  We chatted for an hour before she let us know.”

“You got lucky.  We were already thinking of recruiting her.”  Keaton retorted

“You say luck, I say skill at reading a person’s soul.”

“I do say luck.”

“Not in my experience.”  Rain grew dark. Regardless of the hot steam, the temperature of the room became decidedly colder.

Keaton stood up and threw Rain a towel before turning to leave.

“Don’t let it happen again.”

After the debrief with Katherine Manners, Bruce gave Celia a tour of the Estate Campus and facilities. He showed her the public side, the training centre, computer lab and library and then he showed her the private face, the gun range, the gate house and the labs.  At the same time he filled her in on their family of misfits.

“Yeah, Rain’s good hearted, even if he doesn’t know it.  Algernon is…naive even for his years but the things that kids can do.  Then there’s Peggy,” He lead her down a set of stairs leading to the basement of the labs, “Eighteen dimension of science she understands, but not one of humanity.”

At the bottom the stairs a reinforced metal door stood closed with an ominous sign reading DANGER NO UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL ALLOWED.  Bruce rapped on the metal as if it were a teenager’s bedroom.

“Peggy, I have our new team member. Can I bring her in to show her around?”

“No we don’t, she’s here under false pretenses.”  Came Peggy’s voice from behind the door. “I’ll not have Rain’s….friend playing around with sensitive experiments.”

“Not false, true pretenses.  Seems like she was going to be pulled in by the Estate.”

“What? Oh very well.” Replied Peggy with a heavy sigh and the heavier slam of a metal door. “Let me put away the isotropic material.”  A few minutes later the door clicked as a magnetic bolt was released.

”Yes, yes don’t touch anything and don’t step over the yellow lines.”

Bruce pushed open the door to reveal a large fluro lit space  filled with lab benches, fume hoods surrounding a ugly collection of equipment of various ages and heritages.  The mentioned yellow lines scribed a large circle around the pile of ‘junk’. 

“I’m in the middle of experiments to determine if  Spiral Dust can conduct the Strange.” Peggy explained, motioning to equipment within the yellow lines. 

“Is that likely?”  Bruce asked

“The Spiral Dust definitely has a connection to the Strange and more interestingly, an entity in the Strange.”

“An entity?  Like the thonics.”  This got Bruce’s attention.  Their one interaction with thonics, the energy creatures  of the strange, nearly cost him his life. He didn’t want to imagine that there were other beasts that made the Strange home.

“Native to the Strange, yes.  As to the nature of this entity, that is not my concern.  I’m interested in manipulating that connection.”

“Well you’ll get to put all that aside for a week or so, we’re off to Colorado.”

“A week or so? I assume this has to do with LeRoy?  I can spare a few days, surely that’s enough for a flight to and from….”

“We’re not flying, Peggy.  Katherine’s ordered that we get out of the Estate for a while, do another job on the way back.  We’ll be drivingall the way.”

“They want us to continue to do field work after the shit-show last night?”  Now Bruce had Peggy’s attention, “Well, I’m honoured but I have too many things that need monitoring.”  She turned back to her machines as data scroll across numerous screens.

“I don’t think you have a choice, Peggy.” 

Peggy grumbled something about them needing her more than she needed them but in the end relented enough to go with them to pick out the car for the trip.

The Estate’s carpool was not flush with vehicles big enough to take all five and their luggage.  There were in fact two vehicle, chosen because of their ability to blend into everyday society.

“Wait, what?!”  Peggy exclaimed as she was shown what was on offer.  One was a delivery van setup with surveillance equipment, but not a lot of room for personnel, the other was a relic from another time, a combi van equipped with regulation flower power foliage.  It had the required seating but Peggy quickly found some black paint and tried obliterating the symbols of peace and love. Celia went and collected a few things from home required for the trip and Bruce rounded up the boys.  On the way back he stopped off at his supervisor’s office.

“One question, how do you we bring back the dealer from Colorado?”

“I suggest you don’t.”  Katherine replied with Estate efficiency, “Find out what you can and come back.  Learning and disrupting are more important.”

“But what do we do with the prisoner?”  

“Do what you think is best.”

For a short while there was talk of heading out early the next morning, necessitating Celia staying overnight.

“I will not share!” Peggy roared in protest when it clear that Celia was expected to bunk in the women’s dorms with her.

Instead, van hit the road early that afternoon with a new coat of black matt and two motorbikes strapped to the back.  Heading to the heart of the country the group had a lot of free time to exchanged phone numbers and share what they knew .  

“I’ll drive!” Algernon called driver’s seat and was quickly directed to a seat in the back by Bruce.

“Yes, you will, but you need muscle memory and coordination.”

“But Bruce, I’m already fully co-ordinated.”  Algernon replied. Eventually he settled in and listened to the audiofile of the interrogation with the LeRoy Cain.

Rain was happy to be out on the road again, untied from rules and restrictions.  He kept himself awake by singing road tunes and at one stage reading through Sharon Cooper-Smith article on  her experience under the influence of Spiral Dust. He was once again disappointed to find no correlation between his vision and hers except the floating nothingness.  It was then that Bruce remembered he wanted a word with Rain.

“Rain, you took Algernon to a nightclub without telling anyone, for the purpose of getting him drunk.”

“Not just,”  Rain argued, annoyed that his conversation had come up again, “To hear some music, to meet people, to NOT HAVE TO DEAL WITH THIS.”  They both looked at Algernon, but he seemed absorbed in listening to the Interview. “Can’t we just have a night out without the twenty questions, dad?”

“As much as he might look it, he’s not human, we don’t know how his system deals with alcohol.”

“He had some in Railsea and then again after his near electrocution.  He was fine.” Rain ticked the examples off on his fingers remembering too late that Bruce probably didn’t know about the last.

“What if he had a bad reaction to mixing the different alcohols, what if he had a heart attack and died.”

  Bruce knew this was a good way to break through Rain’s seeming casual indifference.  Rain looked at Bruce horrified that he would even contemplate such an outcome. He crumpled under the image of Algernon dying in a pool of his own vomit. Shutting his eyes and covering his face, nothing removed the image.  Once realised it could never be removed from Rain’s mind.

“No, Bruce, don’t do that!”  

“Yes Rain, because you just don’t think. You don’t consider what could happen and when horrible things happen you feel bad, but it’s too late.”

“Stop it!  We can’t live for ‘what ifs’!  You’ll drown us in ‘what ifs’!”

“Listen…guys…Rain, Bruce…listen.”  Algernon had taken off his headphones and had his head turned as if listening to something.

“What is it?”  Rain asked all thoughts of  Bruce and dead Algernon forgotten for the live one in front of him.

“I don’t know …a sort of…buzzing.”

At this the whole van listened to the engine puttering along, the road noise and the whistle of the air whipping through open windows, but no buzzing of any sort.

“He’s young, they say they can hear better than adults.” Bruce suggested, Rain shook his head thinking back on all his reading into the gifts of the Strange. He knew that both Algernon and Peggy were of a group most susceptible to the Strange, most touched and most gifted.  They’re subclass developed the most gifts and of the most dramatic sort. Algernon’s levitation and Peggy’s psychic scream were examples of how the power manifested and it seemed to him that he may have just discovered another.

“You can hear something that they rest of us can’t?”

Algernon nodded, shaking his head in an attempt to clear what was causing the sound.

Rain focused on Algernon and with as sharp and clear a thought as possible he projected one short phrase.
“DON’T BE STUPID, ALGERNON!”

Straight away, as if he’d spoken the phrase out loud, Algernon replied.

“I’m not being stupid, I can really hear it.”

Rain clapped his hands over his mouth.  Celia and Bruce looked back and forward between the two boys in confusion.  

“What?”  Bruce had to nudge Rain to explain.

“In my mind, I told him not to be stupid.”  Rain replied numbly.

“Really, you can read minds?”

“I don’t know…maybe.”

“Try me.”

The group projected images, phrases, songs at Algernon, and all but one time he was able to respond back with a description of what he saw.  One time Bruce purposely projected an image of pink elephants while Algernon was looking away, the image was not received, but one of Big Ben (a giant time device) and the tune to the Rain’s Railsea shanty (Algernon hummed along with the tune) were.  It seemed he could gain an impression of a person’s surface thoughts only when he was looking at them. Eventually Algernon complained of headaches and the game lost its appeal. 

Rain seethed with bitter self recrimination and envy silently in the backseat.  He wanted to be happy for his friend, this was a miracle beyond the comprehension of most people.  A gift so rare it only appeared in stories and was never taken seriously in the real world. But he couldn’t, no matter how he tried to centre himself to gain control.  The thought that Algernon had simply ‘found’ telepathy, whereas he had search is whole life and found nothing made frustrated tears well in his eyes. Horrified, he realised that Algernon could probably pick every negative thought. 

He wanted to run, to get far away from Algernon taking his evil bitter thoughts with him, but he couldn’t, he was stuck in the back of a Kombi van for another three days with his best friend able to see every putrid, spiteful thought.  Too tired, too confused and just too far gone to care, Rain curled up on the back seat and wept.

“I don’t think you realise what you do, Rain.” It was Bruce again, this time in a quieter more conciliatory voice. “You do something that makes things easier.”

This again. 

“Have you felt it too, Algernon?”

“Yeah, an energy.  It makes things happen.”  Algernon replied with enthusiasm.

The sweetness of their gesture only made his feel more wretched. It was just words.  Words to build up, to encourage and inspire. He’d known the power of words from a very young age, to make someone less than human, to label and eventually make those labels stick with soldiers and bullets. 

“It’s…just….words.”  He finally got out, “Illusions…nothing.”

“No, “ Bruce was adamant, “It’s something…subtle.”

Yeah, so bloody subtle as to be undetectable. The dark thoughts said, the ones that threatened to consume him when the panic attacks hit.  

But, …subtle also meant, delicate, precise, difficult to pin down, crafty …cunning.  Said the other voice, the one that was resilient and resourceful.

The word took root and around it Rain built an image of himself that wasn’t a failure or broken.  It was a fragile construct, a simple dismissal would have destroyed it, but it existed.

“Subtle…I like subtle.” He whispered. Exhausted and hopeful, Rain for the first time in three days forgot about the velvet darkness and fell asleep to the rocking of the van.

It was midday on the third day of travel.  A black matt Kombi rolled passed a sign saying NEDERLAND – LIFE IS BETTER UP HERE!  A dusty Highway 72 lead straight down to the wateredge of Barker Meadow Reservoir through the heart of the idyllic mountain township, home to almost 1,500  residents. Raw wood sided buildings and tree clad mountains were a constant reminder that the city of Seattle had been left a long way behind.

Inside the Kombi, electronic devices guided the way to The Dreaming Crystal gemstore.  Algernon was making himself acquainted with the stores merchandise and came across a word he didn’t recognise.

“Rain, what is libido and why does it need restoring?”  he asked 

“Libido is your ability to….”

“And desire…” Bruce added.

“…and desire to …procreate.”

“And it needs restoring?”

“For some, possibly. What have you found that’s got you all worked up?

Algernon turned his laptop around to show the website for the Dreaming Crystal.  Beside a wide selection of geological samples from fossils to geodes the website also catered for the New Age desire to solve life’s problems with with anything other than common sense.  

Minutes later (the township of Nederland not being all that large) Peggy pulled up outside The Dreaming Crystal guided by Celia in the passenger seat.

After three days stuck together, Celia has proven herself to Peggy, if not completely trustworthy, at least useful. She decided to check out the shop with Celia first, leaving the men in the car.

“Can’t I go, the thorn between two roses?”  Rain scrambled to crouch between the two front seat illustrating his point.

“No.”  Was Peggy’s simple reply.  Celia’s no nonsense attitude seemed more appropriate for a shopping trip than Rain’s theatrics.

“But who will talk if not for Rain?” Algernon spoke up for his brother.

“Celcia will.”  Peggy replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“What! Now I’m being replaced because I’m a magical cripple?”

“Your words, not mine.”  Peggy turned away from the only half joking Rain and stepped out of the van.

Inside the store, sunlight and display lighting  twinkled from every surface as crystals of all shapes, sizes and colours.  Fossils lay in box frames or purpose built display cases looking old and important beside shelves of books ranging from fossil and mineral fossicking to crystal auras and their properties.  At the counter, an elderly man smiled genially as the two ladies entered. Celia slipped in amongst the displays looking like a browsing tourist leaving Peggy to deal with the sales assistant.

“Good day, can I help you with anything?”  He said, his hands folded neatly in front of him.  

“Yes, I want high quality trilobites fossils, from the Ohio beds, specifically.”  She marched up to the counter, creating a very physical and psychological distraction for Celia.

“Oh my, yes…well, let me see what we have.”  The old man dithered under Peggy’s intense scrutiny and started checking boxes under the counter. 

This was the opportunity Celia was waiting for as she slipped undetected past the sales assistant and through a doorway to the staff areas beyond.

“No, no, no these don’t have the definition I required, please look again.”  Celia could hear Peggy bark as she made her way down a hallway lined by four doors.

“May I ask what the fossils are for, maybe I could narrow down my search?”

“To prove a point.”

“Which is?”

“None of your business.”

Celia was just about to try the first door when a heavily tattooed woman smelling of smoke stepped out of another and gave her a searching look.

“This part of the store is restricted. Is there something I can help you with?”  The woman asked making a show of closing the door behind her.

“Oh, yes thank,” Celia bluffed , “I was just wondering where the Bathroom is.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, but she voiced no complaint at the intruder’s presence.

“We don’t have one in the store, but there is a public facility in the park.”  She pointed out the store and down the street to the reservoir. 

“My mistake, thanks for the information.”  Celia waved as she was guided back to the shop front.  She made a show of leaving, but went around the corner to hide until the woman left.  While there, she found a door to the rear of the shop and started towards that instead.

Meanwhile, Peggy was actively looking for CCTV cameras while she waited at the counter.  When the tattooed woman followed Celia into the store she noticed Peggy and her investigations.

“Is there something specific you’re looking for?”  She asked in a tone of deep suspicion which was completely lost on Peggy.
“Trilobite fossils.”  Peggy replied simply 

“Well you won’t find them in the corners of the shop.” Replied the woman now openly hostile.  The old man stopped searching boxes and watched the two sparing women with round eyes.

“I’m checking your security.  But as I’ve seen the quality of your stock I’m not surprised you don’t bother with any.”

“Get out.”

“No.  I’m being served.”  Peggy gestured to the man who instinctively ducked back under the counter.

“I’m afraid we don’t have what you’re looking for.”  He replied meekly, peaking back over the counter at the fuming face of Peggy.

Peggy was willing to argue the point but as Celia had left she didn’t see the need to continue the farce and finally left.

Outside, Rain was bored. He stepped out of the van with the idea to chat to the store owners either side of The Dreaming Crystal when he saw Celia working at a door in a small alleyway.  Silently, he follows as she expertly picked the door open and disappeared inside.

Peggy stormed out to the van.

“Two people one heavily tattooed with a bad attitude the other a spineless male.”

“Our target is a woman, where is she?.”  Algernon commented, Peggy qualified her statement explaining the tattooed one was a woman.

“I hate to say it, “  Bruce added once Peggy and briefed them on her experience in the store, “But we may need an Algernon solution.”

Algernon responded by clicking his new crossbow together and engaging a new net canister.

“Let’s just see what the other two are up to.”  Bruce pulled out his phone and texted Rain.

What have you found out?

Rain had caught up with Celia in a basement storeroom when his phone buzzed silently in his pocket.  Seeing Bruce’s message he replied simply, Let you know. Before checking the boxes for the grey rock they had come to know as unprocessed Spiral Dust.  They found nothing but fossils and store supplies. 

Two locked doors remained, Celia crept up to pick the lock.

“If you hold your hand like this you’ll pick up the barrels cleaner.”  He whispered and Celia felt the frisson of energy. She picked the lock like she’d used the key and they were soon travelling down a flight of wooden steps to another door.  Beside the door a box of flashlights sat ready. Both Celia and Rain had their phone lights on and left the flashlights undisturbed as Celia opened the door. A cool wave of decay and rotten flesh swept up the stairs towards them and Rain stepped back instinctively.  Celia swept the blackened room with her light, picking up a number of buckets full of stagnant water, full of squirming mosquito larvae. Above, large wrapped bundles the size of people hung suspended on thin threads of silk. Then her light picked up something distinctly not mosquito. Eight eyes perched on a head holding salivating mandibles entered the beam, eight legs, each taller than Celia and Rain stepped out of the shadows. From another corner, the creak of chintin drew Celia’s light to a second giant spider.

No stopping to discuss her discovery with Rain, she stepped back and shut the door, the pounding of heavy bodies rattling the door on its hinges.

Spider, found spiders. Rain texted to the party before Celia qualified the statement.

Horse-sized spiders.

Shall I come in and bust heads?  Was Bruce’s reply

No. One more door and we’ll be out. Rain answered as he and Celia snuck back up the stairs.

In the hallway the woman walked past rolling ‘tobacco’ between paper as She walked along the hallway from the shopfront to the back door.  Celia let her past before she and Rain stepped out and stood outside the last door. She looked to him before putting her lockpicks to the lock.

He smiled gratified and whispered, “You’ve got this.”

The lock opened smoothly under her hands and they quickly stepped into the room and close the door

This room was an office, with a desk and computer, phone,  floor safe and corkboard. Beside the computer a scrap of paper held the WIFI password and on the corkboard a map of the world highlighted locations, one being Seattle.  Celia moved to the safe and tried the door. Again Rain gave encouragement, but her skills did not extend to picking safes and it remained firmly locked. Rain sat at the desk and turned on the computer.  Breaking in was simple and he was soon downloading files to his phone labelled with Spirals, Cryptocurrency and a crow symbol. Rain linked the computer to Algernon’s via the WIFI and set up a small program to ping whenever the computer was turned on.  

Celia kept busy placing a bug in the phone and checking out the filing cabinet.  She found personnel files for two staff: Delsey Robinson and Everett Rand. She took photos of these files as well as the corkboard and each of the locations marked with a pin.

“This is my good side.”  Rain turned in the office chair as Celia snapped a shot of him working at the computer.  When everything they could get access to was recorded and the computer once more shutdown, they left the room and the store via the back door.  Minutes later they were back in the van sharing the information they had discovered.

As Peggy drove away from the store to find accommodation for the night, the group poured over the information.

“I guess those bundles you found with the spiders were people who didn’t leave the shop.”  Bruce joked darkly.  

“It also seems those two in the shop were only employees, “  Peggy added, “So where is Lydia?”

Rain opened the files  on his phone, quickly sharing it with the others once he realised what he’d discovered.  The first, labelled Spirals contained 20 subfolders all with a person’s name and location.  

LeRoy Cain, Seattle

Obol Demer, Bangkok

Jack Chen, Beijing

Joaquin Lopez, Buenos Aires

Nader Boutros, Cairo

Sania Beit, Delphi

Elia Yilmaz, Istanbul…

They all seemed to detail transactions, goods and money moving in and out.

Algernon poured over the photographs of the map and noticed the pins followed a pattern. The pin locations were specifically chosen to be equidistance from each other and formed a lattice of triangles across the globe. Celia matched each of the folders to a pin on the board except for one pin in the middle of the Atlantic.  It was a map of the entire Spiral Dust Empire.

“This thing is International.”

The second folder contained a ewallet for cryptocurrency transactions.  Currently, it held 321 bitcoins, approximately $US 20,000.

The third, the one marked only with a crow symbol was the most interesting of all.  It seemed to be a diary, of sorts, complete with an image of a woman with dark hair and eyes and a long hooked nose.  In it Lydia described Dona Ilsa and her fear of her. She spoke of the spiders as ‘the things in the basement’ and she was sure they would eat her or Dona Ilsa would kill her if she didn’t move the dust’.  She described the way the dust was delivered to the prep room without hindrance from the store’s security. She felt that the simple way she bypassed all locks showed the power of Dona Ilsa and was meant as a reminder to Lydia just what Dona Ilsa could do.

When all the information was laid out, Bruce sent it to Katherine asking what she knew of a Dona Ilsa and the locations on the map, especially the one in the middle of the ocean.   It made sense that Dona Ilsa and Don Whitecliff were leaders of possibly rival Crows Hollow families and that the group may have stumbled into the middle of a crime syndicate turf war for Spiral Dust distribution stretching across the world and into other recursions.

Katherine’s reply was prompt and short.

“The pattern was well spotted. Sent to Hertzfeld to make sense out of it. I’ll be in touch when I have more.”

In the light of Lydia’s fear of Dona Ilsa and the Spiral Dust, Peggy was reminded by her own discoveries. She told the group that spiral dust was not just connected to the Strange but also to a living entity within the Strange. 

Algernon, whose research in the Strange was better than anyone’s present, grew worried, but before he got even a chance to share, Rain informed him of Celia’s phone tap and the moment was gone.

That night the group turned in determined to find out where Lydia Lance was and to shut down this end of the Spiral Dust distribution.

Published by Miztres

I'd just like to say a few words... nee phtang! fribble

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