Nederlands, Colorado. A little mountain town frozen in its mining boom past. The dusty, unguttered highway through the middle of town, usually just took travellers through never suspecting what hid under the town’s sleepy surface. On the main shopping strip a geological and minerals store called Dreaming Crystal has been providing advice, equipment, trinkets and services for generations. It was an institution. It was also the centre of a Spiral Dust drug trade that spans the entire globe.
The evening of the groups reconnoitre of the Dreaming Crystal found them at a less than prestigious motel on the highway out of town. The Estate and their travel expenses do not stretch far and so Celia, Rain, Algernon and Bruce sorted out sleeping arrangements, Peggy refusing to share.
“I don’t mind sharing a room with you.” Rain offered to Celia who gave him a very calculated look and smiled knowingly.
“Sure. Be warned, I sleep with my dillinger under my pillow.”
“Duly noted.” Rain stepped back in surrender only taking the time to dump his overnight bag before moving himself to a seedy pub next door.
It wasn’t long before he was joined by Algernon and they talked long into the early morning about everything and nothing. Now they had his keys and address they discussed LeRoy Cain’s apartment and The Plan. It was the last piece in their plans to infiltrate the NSA, a physical place to launch their attacks. They also talked about Peggy and her revelations in regards the Spiral Dust and its link to a creature in The Strange itself.
“You were studying the creatures of The Strange after we encounter the thonic, “ Rain reminded Algernon over computers in a corner booth, “If Peggy is to continue her investigations, should we find a way to communicate with the intelligent beings who make the Strange home?”
Algernon thought for a moment, his eyes becoming distant as he scanned his memory for information.
“Intelligence in The Strange is…strange. There are creatures out there, but they are so alien…so beyond our understanding that working out if they are intelligent is virtually impossible. As to communication…” He shrugged, his own communication failing at that point.
“I’d hate for our first contact to be, ‘Oh sorry, we didn’t realise that was your bum we were probing.’ It seems to be a problem in the anecdotal accounts.”
“There are creatures. There are inklings, a swarming creature. I think, there’s type of creature that has a…a leader, a queen?” Algernon offered his fractured suggestions.
Rain watched his friend grow silent and return to his own personal musings. Algernon’s constant asking as to the safety of an event or situation struck a chord with Rain who was interested in understanding its foundations.
“I never get to ask you, but how are you? You’re always so concerned about how safe a situation is, I was just wondering what you’re feeling now?”
Algernon thought again, taking in the near empty bar they found themselves in the wee hours of the morning.
“Pretty good. I think about a Level 2 ATR.”
Rain nodded his understanding. Level 2 on the Algernon Threat Rating was dangers unknown but well within their ability to deal with. Pretty relaxed as far as Algernon went. It wasn’t a psychological thesis into the working of Algernon’s mind, but it did suggest that times of peace were achievable.
“Yeah, we can handle it.”
The next morning the group were awoken at 6am by the breakfast orders. Cold eggs, runny beans and toast, no bacon but plenty of watery coffee, the group sat around and discussed their plan for the day.
“We don’t know where Lydia Lance is or how to contact her,” Rain lamented over his soggy toast, “LeRoy’s number for her was the shop and I don’t fancy asking the two from yesterday where she lives.”
“They would have a way to contact her in an emergency, “ Bruce mentioned which set the party thinking up ways of making that occur.
“Set up a break in or theft.” Peggy suggested
“Crash a car into the shop.” Algernon added
“We need our van.” Rain said, not shooting down the idea entirely.
“It doesn’t have to be our car.”
“Good point, I can do that.” Rain smiled until he saw Bruce’s stormy countenance across the circle.
“No, absolutely not.” He said, squashing the idea, “How about a medical emergency for one of the staff?”
“You’d rather someone be hospitalised than commit car theft and property damage?” Rain replied.
“Well, no. Maybe they could be tranquilised?”
“I know, we’ll let the spiders out.” Algernon suggested. Again, Rain was all for it, as long as he didn’t have to do it. This too was squashed, the threat of horse-sized spiders getting out and threatening the community finished that idea.
“How about a power outage?” Celia suggested which prompted a few refinements from several quarters.
“We could hack the grid and lock the store out.” Algernon looked to Rain who nodded agreement.
“Or one of us can go in and short circuit their fuse box,” Bruce countered, “We already know where it is and how to get to it.”
“Either way, I want to be in the shop when the lights go out.” Algernon said adamantly. Rain looked at him quizzically, It wasn’t like Algernon to throw himself into the front lines.
“I can read their mind and find out what they’re thinking.” He answered and the unspoken question and Rain nodded, embarrassed that he should forget the latest in Algernon’s astounding powers.
The plan, in the end, was Rain and Algernon would be shoppers and keep the staff busy and probe for information. Celia would lockpick the back door for Bruce who had a working knowledge of fuse boxes from his years in construction. He had already planned to strip the electrical line into the store, creating a short so it would look like faulty workmanship, not tampering. Peggy, well known in the shop after her altercation of the day before, stayed in the car and kept an eye out.
Things initially went as planned. Celia picked the lock and let Bruce in before heading back out onto the main street. Bruce snuck in without a sound and found the Utilities room just as described by Celia. Rain was a having a fascinating conversation with Everett Rand, the elderly gentleman, on the geology of the mountains of area. Delsy Robinson boredly watched Algernon go back and forward to the shelves and displays, pick up an item and drop it into a pile on the counter for purchase.
“It’s amazing the beautiful specimen’s one can find just walking about in these mountains, and of course for a amaetuer lapidrist as yourself we can supply you with all the polishes to bring out their best.” The old man chortled happily, encouraged by Rain’s attention.
“Well I think you’re lucky to own such a beautiful shop in such a wonderful location.” Rain added, preparing the ground for Algernon to read the shop assistance thoughts.
“Oh, I just work here.” The old man replied sheepishly, just as all the lights in the shop went out.
Outside, Celia and Peggy were watching the road when a green Bronco four wheel drive pulled up beside the store. When a woman in a smart business dress suit got out they became interested. When she headed for the blind alley leading to the back door of the shop, they became concerned, Bruce was still in there. Celia could only watch her go by, but Peggy, thinking fast, reversed the van across the road and into the Bronco.
The screech and thud of metal and plastic combined drew everyone’s attention. Seeing Peggy, Rain quickly went into distraction mode not wanting the two staff members from the day earlier to recognise the customer from the. day before. Fortunately, they were more than busy dealing with the blackout and two big spending customers to pay that much attention to their boss as she walked up to the driver of the black combie.
“I do hope you have insurance.” Lydia Lance said as she walked up to Peggy’s door. Peggy herself was inventing new swear words for the van, complaining about lousy turning circle and bad view.
“Stupid piece of shit….I am sorry about this. Insurance? I sure, do.” Peggy rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a fake driver’s license (a present from Rain) and insurance details. She went through the process of a contrite driver, took photos of the damage, exchanged details (making sure the address was clearly legible) before making sure Lydia was satisfied with the exchange of information.
An unusual scent drifted over to Peggy from Lydia. Chemical but also herbal, more reminiscent of her days on the swamp than high in the Rocky Mountains. Peggy realised what she smelt was personal insect repellent. An unusual scent for a business woman, unless her business involved giant spiders. But why deal with the spiders?
Peggy drove off but not before casually sending the driver’s license information to everyone. During the distraction, Bruce had casually wandered out from behind a dumpster and walked out into the main street.
Good work Peggy! He texted back, We’ll make a field agent out of you yet.
Bite your tongue. She replied through the group text, Serious, bite it off.
Inside the store, the boys were looking for an out. Algernon had created a sizable pile of ‘stuff’ and while Everett Rand checked the fuse box, Desley Robinson was tallying up the damage.
“I wanted to pay with this, is that going to be a problem?” Algernon pulled out his Fred Weasley debit card. Desley still looked hopeful.
“It’s the wiring to the fusebox, “ Everett Rand returned shaking his head confused, “ I swear we just had all that updated months ago, shoddy workmanship. I’ll let Miss Lydia know.” And he went out the front door just as Lydia Lance was watching the Kombi drive away.
“The EFTPOS is out,” Desley admitted to Algernon, “but I think we have an old click-clack in the office, if you’ll just wait here.” Desley stepped back into the staff area. Without a word spoken, Rain turned and walked out the door Algernon following his lead. Desley returned back to find a pile of merchandise to reshelve and no customers.
Through texts they rendez-voused a few blocks from the store, their next destination, Lydia’s home. Sitting on a large block of land, her house was a few miles out of town, well away from passing traffic or neighbours.
This time Rain was made to stay in the van, though he kept himself busy by hacking into a faint WIFI signal Algernon had picked up. Through it he gained access to the security feeds. There were multiple cameras around the house, but only one inside looking down a hallway. While the group walked the distance from the van to the house he made a loop of the footage and fed it back into the feed so everything, as far as the cameras were concerned, was as usual. With one last refinement he linked the camera feed to the hardline Internet so he could watch the house anywhere, even back in town. His job done, he adjusted the driver’s seat to suit himself and waited.
Celia searched the house and grounds for other security and besides the cameras noted the ‘BEWARE: Dangerous Dog’, sign on a fence leading to the back of the house.
“Anyone good with dogs?” Celia asked the others.
Algernon mimed holding a large gun and racking back the pump action, as if loading another cartridge into a shotgun.
“No! We don’t need to shoot the dogs!” Bruce exclaimed when he noticed the net casting crossbow on his back. “Oh, right.”
As their feet echoed down the boards of the front door, a shuffling and pounding of heavy feet could be heard from behind the house, followed by the barking of two dogs. An instant later the two large hounds raced around the side of the house towards them. Algernon was ready with his crossbow and just when the two dogs were in range he let fly. The net wrapped around the nearest dog, the weighted ends continuing around the next dog, making a two dog burrito of dog limbs, net and yelping.
Walking up to the wrything mess, Algernon pulled out his pistol and trained it on the first dog.
“No.” Bruce said, Algernon did not move.
“They’re a threat.” He said, keeping his eyes fixed on the first dog.
“They’re not a threat.”
“They might get out.”
“They won’t. Look I’ll deal with the dogs.” Bruce pulled out of his back pocket a half eaten packet of jerky and slowing started getting each dog’s attention.
“But what if they tell?” Algernon put away his pistol as he saw the dog’s calm down under Bruce’s slow soothing words and treats, still deeply distrustful of the beasts.
Meanwhile, Celia was trying to pick the lock on the front door, but the mechanism was more complicated than she expected and she failed to turn all the tumblers.
“Maybe there’s a spare?” Peggy looked around, on the door frame, under the mat and by the porch stairs but nothing. ”Maybe the backdoor?”
Together they walked around the back of the house and found what looked to be a door to the laundry. This lock was simpler and Celia picked it open and they were inside in minutes. Celia, Peggy and Bruce fanned out through the house, checking each room. They found a, lounge, home office, a spare bedroom and finally a master bedroom. Rain noted as each party member came into view on the hallway camera, but Algernon did not appear.
Where are you, Bro. Haven’t seen you on hallway camera. Rain sent to Algernon.
Ever since entering the laundry Algernon had been transfixed by two small machines just inside the door. Both seemed to have permanent portals built into them, both were certainly not large enough for a human. Maybe they were for the dogs?
Then he remembered the washing machines in the dormitories. Though smaller and made of plastics, these were obvious the domestic cousins to those machines. He was about to walk away never to think about the machines again when he spotted something between the machines. Two men’s shoes, different styles, both worn and smelling of…bodily fluids.
His phone called for Charge! and he saw Rain’s message. Stepping out into the hallway he waved the shoes as the camera.
Is that something for the dogs to chew? Rain texted back noting the old odd shoes Algernon had found.
Celia and Peggy were in the Master bedroom looking at the only family picture in the house. It was a portrait of a younger Lydia with an older couple, presumably her parents. It was pretty obvious that Lydia Lance lived alone. Celia checked behind the portrait and found two safes, and started cracking. Peggy checked for The Strange but found nothing. It seemed The Strange never touched this part of Lydia’s life. Celia unlocked the larger of the two safes and found an unloaded rifle. Using the same combination the second safe opened revealing its ammunition.
Algernon threw the shoes back into the laundry and found the others in the hallway.
“Have you found shoes?” He asked Bruce who pointed to the Master bedroom.”There’s a cupboard full of clothes in there.”
Algernon stalked away without a word on his own mission, with Bruce in tow. Celcia was relocking the safes as he examined the shoes.
“Why shoes?” Bruce and Celia asked at the same time.
Rain texted through to Bruce, Has Algernon asked you about his shoes?
Not getting any sense out of Algernon, Bruce backtracked to the laundry and found the discarded men’s shoes. Just as curious about the men’s shoes in a single woman’s house, he brought them back for Celia to look at. She noted their smell and their poor condition. She figured their last owners were two different men who had both been living rough.
“Could have belonged to some of those wrapped up in the spider room?” Bruce mused returning the shoes to the laundry.
There wasn’t much left to explore, Algernon noted streaming subscriptions while others noted the lack of fossils or mineral samples. Algernon went through Lydia’s underwear drawer, Bruce went outside and checked the garden shed. It is left to Peggy to drag Algernon out of the house by his ear, still clutching a silky piece of lingerie.
You have good taste, bro. Rain texted as they passed through the hallway and out of the house..
“Drop it!” Peggy barked, intimidating
“What this?” Waiving the panties in the air as Peggy dragged his ear further down. “Doctor Peggy please give me back my ear.”
“Drop it and yes you can have back your ear.”
The hostages were exchanged and Peggy returned the underwear to where it came from. Now outside, Algernon returned circulation to his extremity, his eyes lighted on the bound dogs still sitting in the middle of the front yard. Beyond that the van sitting by the side of the road. Algernon looked around suddenly aware of how exposed the party were.
Move the van away from house. Make sure no van in video feed. He texted Rain as he walked over to the dogs. With a gesture he levitated the two dogs and pushed them ahead of him into the backyard. Once past the gate he took off the net and was preparing to let them drop.
“Algernon, put them down gently.” Bruce called from the shed having found nothing but garden tool and equipment.
The group discussed waiting at the house for Lydia’s return, a suggestion that appealed to the more theatric in the party. In the end, stomach overruled heads and they all got back in the van and headed back to town for lunch at a diner. Once settled, Celia broached the subject of powers and The Strange.
“I’ve seen you float, but making the dogs levitate like that, is it another ability of the Strange?” She asked Algernon over greasy burgers and pie.
“The same ability, see.” Algernon replied with a mouthful of food as he focused on Bruce and made him levitate a few inches above his seat then set him back down again.
“You couldn’t do that do the spiders in the store basement?”
Algernon shook his head,
“Too big, at least something much bigger than me is too big at the moment. It hurts if I push too hard.” He tapped his head in illustration.
“And the rest of you?” Celia looked to Bruce, Peggy and Rain.
“Algernon is the real superstar amongst us,” Rain swallowed hard and tried to look encouraging, “Though Peggy has a scream effect that will stun an enemy in their tracks. Not that we need a demonstration.” He added as Peggy went to do just that.
“See, what they fail to mention, “ Bruce now added his thoughts on the subject, “Is that it’s not some mystical force that allows them to do these things. They’ve practiced, trained their minds, like I train my body. That’s how I was able to heal myself in Railsea, just by thinking about it.”
“And you Rain, what do you do?” Celia asked and suddenly Rain didn’t feel like the homemade apple pie in front of him.
“He…sort of makes us lucky…” Bruce said, fielding the subject, “…he will say something or get beside you and you feel like you’re just that little bit smarter, little bit stronger…I can’t explain it.”
“You know some of these skills Celia. Getting people to open up to you, making them comfortable with you, think well of you. That’s what I do. I calm and persuade, charm and encourage. I’d even like to think inspire. But it’s all just words Celia, appropriate words linked to a real desire to understand how others work.”
What Celia thought, she kept to herself as she finished her meal. Soon Algernon started stuffing the net he’d used back into the canister, and Bruce stretched out in the corner of the booth and started singing to himself.
By a shady, wady pool
I could be that kind of fool
I’d say ‘mo more work for mine’
On my door, I’d hang a sign, ‘gone fishin’
Instead of just wishin’
It was a quiet moment, congenial and relaxed, with none of the usual family bickering or bad feeling. Rain smiled to himself and went back to his pie.
When the house camera feed showed Lydia had returned home, they paid for lunch and headed back out of town. There beside the house the battered green Bronco was parked. It was time to confront her and find out what she knew.
They walked up to the house together no longer hiding their movements. When the dogs ran around from the back again, Algernon was ready and turned to face them, focusing if to levitate them once more. The dogs slowed, intimidated by the young man who had dealt with them so easily before. They kept back and let the rest walk up to the door where Rain knocked.
“Yes, who is it?” Came Lydia’s voice from inside.
“Ms Lydia Lance, my name is Vincent Rary,” Rain introduced himself, once more finding a new name as easily as speaking the truth is for others, “We’d like to talk to you about LeRoy Caine.”
“What about LeRoy?” Lydia’s voice came back defensive and the door was still not open. Rain thought for a moment about what they knew about Lydia, her lonely life and her fears expressed in the diary entry.
“He’s safe, Lydia.” He assured her in a calm gentle tone that only highlighted what he said next, “And if you want to be safe, you’ll let us in.”
“You can keep me safe?” She said at first, a real plea in her voice. It was quickly replaced with the hard edge business woman. “Keep me safe from what?”
“Donna Ilsa.” Rain replied simply and he thought he could hear an audible gasp from the other side of the door. “Lydia, we know. We know people…of her breed and what they are capable of. Lydia, you don’t have to face this alone.”
The door opened and Lydia stood, much as they’d seen her that morning, a middle aged woman in business dress. She didn’t look as assured as she had that morning, dealing with a reckless driver or talking to her staff. She looked smaller and older than her years. She stepped back and ushered them into the living room.
“What do you want from me?” She asked now all business again.
“We know of the extensive network of Spiral Dust dealers, it needs to be shut down. We also need to understand the other side of the business. When you receive the product? How? What can you tell us of Dona Ilsa and her associates?”
“I received a shipment this morning.” She stood, her arms crossed in front of her not liking what was happening but with no real way of stopping it. “It just arrives, I don’t know how. I process the rock and ship it out in the next post with all the other orders for the store.”
“Once every couple of weeks.” The disappointment was visible amongst the group. The last order was out in the mail and there wouldn’t be another for two weeks.
“Where did the spiders come from?” Celia asked and Lydia’s head whipped around, now completely disconcerted that her nasty little secret was out.
“Dona Ilsa brought them with her. She had ways of controlling them. She said they were to protect her investment.” She replied miserably.
“And the bodies?” Celia probed and Lydia’s business woman facade fell away.
“You have to understand. I tried keeping them alive on mosquitoes, but that wasn’t enough, they needed more…protein. If I didn’t keep them healthy, Dona Ilsa would be angry.”
“So, the victims, who were they?”
“I don’t know, “ She wailed, “Some homeless looking for work. I said I had some cleaning in the basement…” She didn’t continue the thought and the group changed the subject.
“Whose idea was the store? Forgive me, but you don’t seem that keen on rocks and fossils yourself.” Bruce commented gesturing around the spartan room.
“It…it was my uncles. I inherited it.”
“And when did you meet Dona Ilsa?”
“She approached me, soon after.”
The group looked at each other,
“Soon after your uncle died? Would his death be considered unusual or unexpected?”
“Not unexpected. He died of cancer.”
“How do you keep in touch with Dona Ilsa?”
“I don’t. She just appears in my shop, usually only when she’s angry. That’s how I know she’ll kill me if I don’t do as she wants.”
“Does she come with other? Do you have any names?”
“Sometimes she brings others, but I never hear any names.”
I was clear there wasn’t much more to get out of her, she just didn’t know a lot to begin with. The group started talking about how they were going to move Lydia to Seattle and keep her safe and close down the syndicate from this end. Rain had one last question.
“Do you know of an individual called Eldin Lightfeather?” He watched her carefully for signs of deceit, but there seemed to be none, the fight had gone out of Lydia Lance.
She shook her head slowly,
“No, never heard that name.”
“No. It seems no one ever has.” He replied morosely and let the talk of arrangements and future plans be made around him.
Negotiating with The Estate, Lydia was given two days to organise her life before the group would escorted her to the nearest airport and on a flight to Seattle. Arrangements were made though Katherine who would have agents standing by to pick her up. Bruce also let Katherine know about Lydia’s part of the Spiral Dust distribution and she gave the group leave to stay and shut down the Colorado side of the syndicate, including dealing with the spiders.
“Don’t worry about your other tasks, this takes precedence. Do whatever you can to make sure that the Spiral Dust pipeline is shut down.” Katherine confirmed.
“I also want to remind you, she did send a number of homeless men to their deaths.” Added Bruce out of earshot of Lydia and the rest of the group.
“Oh, I shan’t forget.” Katherine replied simply.
Katherine was also able to provide information about Dona Ilsa and the spiders, helped by Celia’s description.
“Dona Ilsa is a known operative of the Beak Mafia, but her position in the organisation is unknown. As we have no information on Lightfeather other than your group has provided we can not say if she’s affiliated with him either.
“The spiders on the other hand are a known quantity. By those markings they’re likely to be Night Spiders, natives of Ardeyn. They’re hardy, doing well outside their home recursion. They can be trained to follow an individual, but aren’t particularly intelligent. Spiderlings are known to swarm out of a damaged adult so be aware of that. Certainly a difficult enemy, but nothing you can’t handle.”
As the group left Lydia to her empty house and packing, Peggy fell to talking about Lydia and her foolishness at getting mixed up with Dona Ilsa.
“What a piece of work. I don’t know why we’re going to all the trouble to protect her.” She said climbing back into the van for the drive back to town.
“ It was rock dust, what did she know. She was alone and scared for her life. She did things she’d probably not normally do.” Rain looked back at the house, wondering.
“Like feeding homeless guys to her pet spiders?”
“Sometimes, there are no good choices.”