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15. At loose ends

After distractions, exposures and disillusionment, the group tried to relax at the Blue Ball, the first official night of the Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland.  Unfortunately, the powers that be, contrived to use Spiral dust zombies to keep the group from capturing Dona Ilsa as she slipped into the basement early.  

Now the group are without a key suspect, without leads and right at this moment, without hope.


It was only a few hours before dawn and the streets of Nederland were deserted except for four demoralised individuals making their way back to their hotel.   They could have been any party goers, in fact they had been to the Blue Ball only that evening, but bar fight regrets were far from all of these four individual’s minds.

Peggy gingerly pulled off the headpiece of her makeshift chemsuit – come – fancy dress outfit as shards of glass tinkled onto the bitumen road.  It had saved her a worse injury. Still, shards of glass still littered her hair and scalp which made her fume and swear in equal measure. 

Algernon skulked behind the group feeling darkly smug.  He’d been the only one to have a working plan operational, the only one with the skill and knowledge to put it together alone.  If only they hadn’t destroyed his poison trap, then she would have had what was coming.

“Shame there wasn’t something toxic waiting for her.” He said then leaped aside dodging another attack from Rain that never came.  

Rain hunched further into his coat refusing to be goaded. He was the image of complete failure.  No longer giddily tipsy, he was hungover, broken-hearted and adrift, unsure of anything.

“Well, how are we going to get her now?”  Bruce, equally dispirited, pulled himself out of his own dark thoughts to address the group. “ How long do we give her?”

“We have to go after her.”  Algernon said. Rain rolled his eyes.

“Fine, “ He said bitterly, his cockney breaking through his usually standard English accent,  “know how to get there, do ya?”

“Did you notice how clean the rope was in the range of that teleport device of Dona Ilsa’s?  God and all his blasted saints that hurts!” Peggy interrupted with her usual non sequiturs as she pulled out the last piece of glass and flung it onto the road.

“Peggy, you should let me look at that,” Bruce watched the blood stained shard of glass fly off into the dark, “I can patch you up back at the hotel.”

“And have your clumsy fingers fiddling with my hair, no thanks.” She shook out her hair one last time, “But really, did you see?  Everything organic in that cypher’s area of effect was stripped away.”

“Even the Spiral Dust rocks.”  Algernon commented thinking back to the scooped out section of rock that had been teleported back with Dona Ilsa, “That means the rock is organic in origin.”

“Does that help? Could we use the rock as a focus to get us to Crows Hollow?”  Bruce asked hopefully.

“No.  It has to be intrinsic to the recursion we want to go to.  If we had a feather from Dona Ilsa’s head that could be useful.  The rock is from a creature linked to The Strange, it must be only passing through Crows Hollow.”

“How about that bum from Railsea, didn’t he have an item.”

“No, he lost the thing that transported him,” Rain replied.  He understood Bruce’s drive to follow after Dona Ilsa, but they simply had no way to get to Crows Hollow.  

“Okay,” Algernon piped up offering his suggestion, “Tomorrow evening we blow up the shop.”

  Bruce directed Algernon back to their room and Peggy went to her own.  Rain stepped quietly into the room he shared with Cecilia and started stripping the sheet of his bed.

“Good party?”  Cecilia called from her bed.

“You need your rest.  We’ll catch you up in the morning.” Rain rolled the bedsheet up tight and grabbed his backpack.

“That good, huh?”  She said sleepily and rolled back over.

Taking the sheet and his only possessions in the world, Rain exited the room and left the hotel.  

The group met up next morning to share breakfast, update a recovering Cecilia and talk about their plans for the day.  Bruce was already on the phone to Seattle having to hear the disappointment in Katherine’s voice.

“Losing Dona Ilsa was a heavy blow to your investigation, I can’t pretend that I’m not disappointed.  At the moment that leaves us with no way to Crow’s Hollow.” She said and Bruce slumped a little further in his seat. “Still, the spiral dust zombies are a new concerning twist.  This means there’s another player other than the Droods and the Cornaros.”

“Yes, Algernon was able to extract a name from one of the zombies. Nakarand?”  He physically straightened again as he had something positive to offer his superior.

“Hmmm….no record of that name.  Okay, I’ll look into that. l Does this mean you’ll be returning to Seattle?”

“Looks like it, we’re about to discuss loose ends.  I’ll let you know when we head out.”

“Do that.”  She finished and hung up the phone.  

“So, where are we off to today?” A recovering Cecilia sipped black tea as the others ate the basic toast and cold cereal.

“Back to Seattle, unless we have any other jobs to do here.”

“I don’t. The sooner we leave this place the better.”  Peggy replied gingerly, drying her hair after washing the last of the beer and blood out. “Besides, Hertzfeld has the three keys we found in Railsea.  If we’re to find a way to Crow’s Hollow what better way than out in the other recursions.”

“I do.”  Algernon raised his hand looking all the school student he wasn’t, “I want to go to the hardware store.”

“And I was thinking of checking with the Sheriff to see if your zombies are in their drunk tank.”  Cecilia suggested and Bruce nodded.

“Good idea, anything else?”

It was then that Rain stumbled into the room, a crumpled bed sheet and the wallet he’d lifted the night before in his hand.  He purposefully didn’t make eye contact with Algernon as he spread the sheet out on the nearest bed. It was a mindmap of all the group knew about Spiral dust and the active participants.

“I’m hoping this will help open up new leads.” He said wearily, obvious that he’d pulled another all-nighter.

“Good work,” Burce looked over the map which was a clear visual representation of all they’d discovered and then turned his attention to Rain himself. “But you really need to sleep, you’re going to burn out if you keep going without.”

“Are you kidding, after last night?”  Rain replied, his puzzle box appearing in his hand.  It hadn’t been seen in a while, but now Rain flipped it open and closed as he spoke. “Anyway, that’s what road trips are for.  When are you planning to leave?”

“There’s a few jobs to do, any loose ends you want to follow up?”

Rain nodded and gestured to the wallet he’d laid out on the sheet.

“I rang around the local hotels this morning. I  know where Theodore Baxter is staying. I also think I have a few leads on where the other four were staying as well.  I want to follow up Theodore at the very least.”

“Okay, you should take someone with you. Algernon?”  Bruce suggested looking to where the younger man was pulling apart his new crossbow.

“No.” Both Algernon and Rain said in unison. 

“Oh…kaaay…”  Bruce looked between the two young men.  Until yesterday they had been almost inseparable, working away on one scheme or another.  This was an unexpected and disturbing turn of events.

After breakfast the group split up to their specific tasks. Firstly, Cecilia phoned the Sheriff’s office.

“Hi, I’m looking for my friends. They went to the Blue Ball last night and didn’t come back to the hotel.  I was wondering if they were with you, they all have unusual spiral contacts lens on.” Cecilia said, sounding like the worried, but not too concerned friend left behind.

“Yes, could you come down and  see us?” The officer on the end of the line asked, not providing any information.

“Oh no, they’re not in any trouble are they?  I heard there was a fight.”

“If we could discuss it with you in person we’d certainly appreciate it.”

“Okay, we’ll be right down.”  Cecilia hung up the phone and was given an appreciative look from Rain.

“I’ll go with you, “ Bruce said, “I should give a statement anyway.  Peggy?”

“Oh no, I’ve had enough excitement. I’m sensitive about damage to my cranium.”  She replied patting her head gently, “I’ll drive you down there, but that’s as far as I’ll go.”

So, leaving Peggy in the car Cecilia and Bruce walked into the sheriff’s station, Cecilia taking the lead.  As soon as she explained the reason for their visit, a constable ushered them into an interview room and the Sheriff himself was called.

“I’m afraid your friends got into some trouble last night.  When was the last time you saw them?” The Sheriff asked Cecilia who was the image of a concerned friend.  

“Yesterday afternoon.  I came down with something and stayed at the hotel and they went off to the Blue Ball and they didn’t come back.”

The Sheriff watched her for a moment before writing down what she’d said.

“And you sir, your role in this?”  He now turned his interest to Bruce who had so far been silent.

“I was the trouble they got into.”  Bruce confessed instantly getting the Sheriff’s attention. 

“Oh? Your involvement?”

“They tried to beat the crap out of us, me and my friends that is.  It wasn’t until this morning that I met up with Cecilia here, and let her know what happened.”  Bruce put on his thickest good ol’boy southern accent looking all the dumb ox people took him for.

The sheriff held Bruce’s gaze for a long time,but as Bruce didn’t volunteer anymore he continued with a sigh.

“Look, I’ll come clean with you guys.  We were called to break up a fight at the Blue Ball last night.  When we arrived the first group had disappeared, I guess that as you and your friends?”  He gestured to Bruce who nodded.

“It was made clear to us that we should get out of the way.”  

“The second group of five, were all convulsing.”

“Oh no, are they alright?” Cecilia interjected with just the right amount of distress.

“They…were taken to hospital…”

“Do you know where?  I’ve got to go see them, they’re families will want to know.”

“You couldn’t tell me what they’d taken, could you?”  The Sheriff’s gaze fell on Cecilia once more as he tried to discern truth from lies. 

“I couldn’t tell you.” She said truthfully enough, he would have never heard of Spiral Dust and certainly wouldn’t believe where it came from.  In the end he nodded and consulted his notes.

“Yeah, Level 3 Ward 5.”

“Thank you.  Is there any more you need from us?”

“A eyewitness statement from the big guy.”  The Sheriff nodded towards him and got stuck into the meat of the interview process.  

Meanwhile Algernon went shopping on his motorcycle.  First he went to the hardware store and bought a number of brightly coloured electrical tapes, making sure one of them was a bright orange.  He then visited the local toy store and bought a set of foam bullets meant for toy guns. Puttering back to his hotel he decorated the body of his crossbow with bright stripes and lightning bolts.  He carefully wrapped the point with orange, marking it as a toy replica. The foam bullets were stuck onto the ends of the bolts so to look, at least at first glance, like the kid friendly version of what they really were.  It was as he was finishing off his “camouflage” that he received a call.

“Hey kid.”


“Can you come down to the hospital?”

“Sure.” He hung up.  He didn’t know why he was being summoned to the hospital, such places not being his favourite, but he didn’t much mind now. Swinging his decorated crossbow on his back he would be able to go out in public armed and ready for at least low to moderate ATRs.

All around there was a sense of excitement as people gathered for the Frozen Dead Guy events in town.  Somewhere, marching bands were playing as a street parade was just starting and the smell of cooking pancakes, maple syrup and bacon lay thick in the air. Rain knew nothing of these as he trudged sullenly along the road towards the Travel Lodge where Theodore (Theo to his friends, Rain was sure) Baxter had a room.  People walking the other way towards the festivities subconsciously gave him a wide berth. He was surrounded by exciting chatter and laughter and was completely isolated from it all.

It had been a revelation at first. The travel to fantastical worlds.  Working together to solve the mysteries. Hunting the clues and following the trails.  He’d never found his talent for reading people as useful as it had been while with the Estate. 

And then the cracks started showing.  They always did before, why would have this time been different?

 He should have known, did know, how Algernon thought about the poison idea.  Hadn’t he mentioned it to Bruce? And really, that wasn’t the real problem was it?  When it came to it, the real deep down problem was with himself. He still heard the click-whomp of the crossbow as it released the canister net meant for him, and flinched.  After that everything became of blur or images past and present. He wasn’t sure what he’d said in the heat of the moment but the look on everyone’s face, especially Algernon’s was proof it had not been good.

And now he was going to see if a violent spiral dust user, alone.  He never did so well alone and was surprised to see his puzzle box already in his hand.  He put it away, admonishing himself at the same time for still needing the thing. He didn’t when he was with the others, when things were going well and they were working together.  It stayed firmly in his pocket then.

The Travel Lodge came into sight and outside Room 6 he found a car with Washington State license plates.  Trying the remote on the keyring, the car’s indicator’s flashed and an audible click sounded as the door unlocked.  With no one to share the victory it felt pretty hollow. Instead he just opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat.  The car was a mess. Theodore Baxter’s extire takeaway history could be determined by the layers of detritus filling the footwell of the passenger and back seats.  Rain spotted a familiar name and pulled out a coffee cup from the bodega across from Leroy Cain’s favourite selling spot. A link, nice but not new information. 

“Excuse me, can I help you?”  Came a woman’s insistent voice.  Rain turned to see a travel lodge staff member looking at him through the car windscreen.  She looked a little worried, obviously she didn’t recognise him as the owner of the car.

“Oh hi, have you seen Theo?  I lost track of him last night and we’re meant to go for pancakes this morning.”  He said as if it was the literal truth. Most of it was,he had no idea what happened to the Spiral Dust crazy guy after they ran from the Blue Ball.

“No, and even though that car is a mess I don’t think he’s hiding in there, honey.”  She replied feeling on a little firmer ground. Kids! 

Having checked all the obvious places  for clues, Rain got out of the car and made a show of locking it again with the remote.

“Well, he can’t have gone far right? I’ve got his keys.” He smiled, giving them a shake before putting them in his pocket.

The motel staff member seemed satisfied and smiled back.

“I bet he’s already eating pancakes and you’re missing out.”  She replied and continued on her way sure she’d done her duty to her guest. 

Silently Rain’s phone jittered in his pocket and he pulled it out to see it was a call from Bruce.

“Yes, Bruce?”

“Can you make your way over to the hospital?”  Rain could hear Peggy and Cecilia having a heated conversation with a third voice in the background.

“Not right now, no.” 

“Why, what are you doing?

“Do you really want to know?  I went to Baxter’s hotel.”

“Ah, no I’d rather not.  On that score though, Baxter is here with his four friends.  They won’t be attacking anyone for a while.”

“I can confirm he probably bought Spiral dust from Leroy Caine which means we still only have two supply chains.”

“Good. Well, if you don’t make it to the hospital we’ll see you back at the hotel then.”

“I’d glad you’re sure of that.” Rain replied noncommittally.


“Goodbye, Bruce.”  He hung up.

 With one movement his phone was gone and a slim-lined wallet of lockpicking tools were in his hands. Now the woman from the motel was long gone, Rain walked casually across to the door of Room 6 and with no more time than it would take to open the door with a key, he slipped inside.

The Community Hospital was a long sprawling building of warm coloured brick and stone surrounding a small manicured garden.  Bruce, Peggy and Cecilia left the van in the public car park and entered at Reception. Level 3 Ward 5 was their destination and between the three of them they made it there without help or incident.  Five of the six beds were occupied with the Spiral eyed individuals from the night before. Peggy, having spotted the one that had started the fight and walked straight up to him starting a full examination.

“Excuse me, these are my patients.”  Said a doctor who had been overseeing one of the other four in the room.  She quickly put herself between her patient and the interlopers.

“Doctor Peggy Martin.  We’re part of a taskforce following up leads on a new substance being sold on the streets.  These individuals have been under surveillance by us for a number of weeks.” She said, passing the doctor one of her business cards.  It was clear that she was not stopping her examination to deal with the doctor who was now starting to turn red.

“Right, so where is your ID?”  The doctor looked at the business card and dismissed it, putting it in her pocket. “Are you F.B.I. or something?”

“No, I am not with law enforcement.”  She said dismissively as Cecilia and Bruce gave each other silent looks.    

“Get out, get out before I call security.” The doctor had just finished saying as Cecilia stepped in and took the doctor aside.

“We really are from a taskforce of international importance.  Unfortunately, I can’t disclose our department name, you do not have clearance.”  She gestured to Bruce at the door standing at his full height glowering at the doctor.  Silent and in his khaki body armour he gave the impression of lethal military protection.

“Ah, right…my apologies.”  The doctor looked around the three very confident individuals and relented. “What can I help you with?”

“What’s been their condition?”  Peggy asked, checking the patient’s chart.

“Unresponsive since they came in.  I understand that when the paramedics arrived all five were convulsing.  We have them on a general sedative, “ She gestured to the drips fed into each patient’s arm, “And we’re recording their EEGs. They’ve been concerning.”  She turned to the patient she had been working on when the group arrived. Through electrodes dotted over the patients head a machine recorded electrical activity from the brain.  Even Cecilia and Bruce could tell the lines were flat.

“There just doesn’t seem to be any brain activity at all.  You say these people were known to take some sort of new drug?”

“Yes,” Peggy replied and quickly changed the subject, “And IDs?”

“Er…yes, all but one. The one you were first examining was missing his wallet.”  She gestured to Baxter, “Two from San Antonia, one from Seattle and one from Florida.”

Peggy kepted the doctor busy with insightful questions about the patient’s condition and possible treatments as Bruce called Algernon and Rain to help.  Having a thought, he pretended to receive a call and interrupted the conversation.

“Excuse me doctor, headquarters would like to speak with you privately.”  

Cecilia excused both of them as Peggy followed Bruce out into the hallway.

“Look, I know you don’t like it, but do you think you could do that mind thing on one of these guys?

“The mind link?  Yes, I guess it would be the obvious suggestion.”  Peggy said not relishing the intimate feeling, mind to mind.  She marched back into the room, a woman on a mission, and placed her hand on the head of the man who had hit her with the bottle.  As soon as her skin touched his head though Bruce and Cecilia jumped with alarm as she slumped unconscious to the floor. All three, the doctor included, rushed to Peggy’s side.

“I’m sure she’s just fainted.  Overworked. She would be better with a little fresh air outside.”  Cecilia said as the doctor checked Peggy’s automatic responses and frowned with concern.

Peggy sensed herself surrounded by a warm, slimy darkness that moved in undulating waves like a huge slow heartbeat. Bo-boom, bo-boom, bo-boom.  

One part of her was comfortable in this new world of sensation, it felt right, somewhat like returning to the womb.  Another part, her conscious adult mind screamed in horror willing itself to be let out.  

Peggy opened her eyes still screaming, now into the doctor’s face.

“You were completely unresponsive.”  The doctor sat back staring down at Peggy lying between them all.

“Can you speak? What happened?”  Cecilia asked as Bruce helped Peggy groggily back to her feet.

“That was not pleasant.”  She shook her head and turned to Cecilia and Bruce, “I need to call my supervisor.”

“I need to check you out before you leave this room.”  The doctor, now clear who was in charge, pulled over a blood pressure cuff hanging beside the bed.

“No really, I’m fine but we need to be going.” 

Algernon, his Yamaha puttering along the mountain roads turned into the driveway of the hospital with an audible screech.  It roared around the round-about of garden beds to come to a screeching halt in an ambulance car park. Anyone watching would recognise that the young man was making all the bike sounds himself as his bike came to a gentle stop, kickstand extended.  Leaving his bike behind with the protests from emergency staff, Algernon ran into the hospital blindly. He raced past Cecilia, Peggy and Bruce as they reached the door.

“Hey kid! Kid!” Bruce shouted gaining for himself disapproving looks from hospital staff.  Algernon slid along the polished lino of the hospital hallway doing what his bike was unable.  He followed them back out to the van where both Peggy and Cecilia used Premonition to ask the Strange a question about what they had just seen.  Cecilia asked about the Spiral-eyed and what had made them that way. Peggy focused on her vision and what it meant.

Cecilia received the idea that the comatosed were all heavy users of Spiral Dust. Peggy received a very personal response.

Very much alive and some day you will meet it. Came back a voice not quite her own.  It reminded her of the claustrophobic moistness making her shivered violently.  

They shared what they had discovered leaving everyone in the van wiser but no further along than before.

“Lots of data and no information.” Bruce complained.

“Well, we have five active agents in this town.” Algernon said as a way of suggesting their next plan of action. 

“They’re not going to hurt anyone at the moment.  We’ll let The Estate know to watch them.” Bruce started the van and Algernon went back to claim his motorbike from angry emergency workers.

“Are you feeling better, Peggy?” Cecilia turned to the doctor who was feverishly working out plans on scrap paper for a mind-washing process, “You really blanked out on us for a second there, like one of those zombies.”

“I’d like a plutonium bath.  Something to burn through my mind.” She replied after a while, showing her working out.

The empty hotel room held little that showed Theodore Baxter was staying there.  A sports bag, open on the dresser, a coat hanging over a chair. He went over to the bag and searched it thoroughly finding what he’d only hoped for. For a moment the blue-grey dust in a small vial was in his hand, the next it disappeared into his coat with an exhalation something like relief.  The thrill of owning the drug again was almost as powerful as the thought of using it. Besides the Spiral Dust, the room held nothing of interest. He gave it one more passing look checking for hiding places and finding none before walking out and locking the door behind him.

Now what?

The investigation was stalled, worse their prime suspect knew they were onto her and then there was his relationship with the group.  It was time to break free and go. This time he wouldn’t need to ride the Greyhounds, he had Baxter’s car and with a little work, his licence. It was like the fates had decreed it. 

Without thought, Rain’s walked to the roadside, the highway out of town.  He faced North following the road and thought of all the places that road would take him. A weight settled over him as he realised he’d be going back to a life on the run, never belonging, always searching for the next place to rest before moving on again. At least with the group, there was a place to be even if it couldn’t be the same as it had.  And then there was The Strange, the powerful unknowable. Could he really leave that behind like he had everything else?  

He stood and watched and thought as the traffic rolled passed and let the cold mountain wind chill him to the core.

Now with his bike secured in the car park behind some bushes, Algernon entered the hospital, this time through reception.  In his school uniform and ‘toy’ crossbow strapped across his back he looked like one of many family members coming to the hospital to see a patient.

“Hi, I’m looking for my uncle.  He and his friends were hurt last night.  They all wear these weird contact lenses..”  Algernon inquired at Reception.

“Sure love, does he have a name?” She asked turning to her computer in preparation for his response.


“Could I have it?”  She looked at him to see if he were joking with her.  

“Sure.”  He tried looking over her shoulder to see a name he recognised, but the screen was blank, awaiting input. He thought, did they have name?  He remembered the driver’s license that….had been taken from the first Spiral-eyed to attack. What was that name, it started with a T.”

“Uncle Toby.  I call him Uncle Toby.”

“Right…” She knew he wasn’t joking now,  “Does he have a last name?”

“Pretty sure he does…” Algernon stalled as he tried to recall more from the flash he’d seen the night before when everything had been so horribly wrong.

“He’s not an O’Brien because that’s my dad’s name.”

“So he’s your mother’s, brother?”

“Yeah.  Look I’ll know him when I see him.  As I said, he was brought in with his friends.”

“Where are your parents?”  Now made aware of such beings, the Receptionist wanted the responsible adults. At least they’d know their own names. 

“They dropped me off before going to the pub.” Algernon replied innocently.  This lying stuff wasn’t too hard. Just as…as he’d been told, it needed grounding in the truth.

“Pub?  It’s not even lunchtime.” Now the Receptionist was seeing this well-dressed but confused kid in a new light.  Maybe she should ring child protection. 

It was then that Algernon remembered the name on the licence.  Baxter, Theodore Baxter.

“Uncle Toby Baxter, that’s his full name.”

“Right.”  Now with the correct information she searched for Baxter in the database.

“Yes he and his friend are here, but none are conscious at the moment, are you sure you want to go see him?”

“Oh yes, he’s my favourite Uncle, I just want to let him know I’m there.”

“Okay then.” She placed a coded call for Reception over the PA, “A nurse will be coming to show you the way.  I’ll look after your toy while you’re up there.” She held out her hand for the crossbow.

Algernon balked for a moment.  This was his protection against the Spiral-eyed.  Then again, they were unconscious, virtually brain dead to go by what the other’s had said.

“Yeah, okay.” He shrugged it off his shoulders, “Careful not to shoot anyone.  It’s not a toy.”

The nurse took the crossbow with a smile until she felt it’s full weight.  She carefully put it down behind the Reception desk not taking her eyes off the odd boy.  A ward nurse came by Reception to take Algernon up. He waved and smiled at the Receptionist as he passed.  She did not reciprocate.

“Hey! Where’s the kid gone?”  Bruce looked behind, as they travelled back to town.  He was sure that Algernon had been behind them on his bike, now nothing.

Peggy reached out her mind to the Strange and asked, 

What is Algernon doing?

Up to no good. Came a reply thankfully back in her own voice.

“Bruce, ring Algernon.”  She said with such concern that Bruce didn’t question, just did as he was told.

“Yes, Bruce.  I haven’t finished my shopping, I’ll see you back at the hotel.” Was all Algernon said before he hung up.  

“I’d say he was up to something with Rain but…”  He looked at the other two and shrugged. They couldn’t offer any suggestion as to where Algernon had gone and so in the end Bruce turned the van back out onto the road and continued their trip to town.

Algernon followed the nurse to Level 3, Ward 6 where the five Spiral-eyed were, as reported, lying unconscious in beds.  Another nurse was recording vitals on paper charts and checking on her patient’s wellbeing.

“This young man is here to see Theodore Baxter.” The nurse that brought him up from Reception informed the ward nurse as Algernon went to the bedside of Baxter. It was him alright, he still wore the blank expression that had been a signature of the attackers.  Now at least he looked like he was sleeping and not about to lash out with a King hit. Algernon took Baxter’s hand, he was sure that was expected of him, he’d seen it in all his documentaries, and gently brushed Baxter’s surface thoughts.

Instantly he felt like his skin was covered in slime.  He felt the muscular waves, the long slow heartbeat. To him it was a familiar sensation. He let it slide from him as he let go Baxter’s thoughts.  He shook Baxter’s shoulder.

“When will he wake up?” he asked the nurses as they watched him tenderly stand beside his uncle.

“We don’t know, sweetie.” Replied the ward nurse, “Sometimes the brain just needs time to heal.”

He nodded  and looked around the room.  Drip-lines, yes they all were attached to bags of sedative via IV lines. Syringes?  None in sight. He looked at the loose weave hospital blanket and thought. 

The nurses were talking with each other, not really watching him, but he needed them out of the way.  He needed a distraction. He looked back to the nurse who had shown him the way to the ward.

“Thanks for showing me the room, I’ll go now.”

“You need help finding your way back?” She asked, she was seriously moved by this young boy’s devotion. 

“No, I should be alright.” He replied walking back out of the room, his eyes searching for distractions. He found one, a small red box with a white lever.

FIRE ALARM.  Pull down.

He passed near the alarm pull as an orderly was walking the other way leading a trolley.  As the trolley came up alongside him, he yelped as if his foot had been run over by the trolley.  He reached out his hand to steady himself and pulled the alarm.

“I am so sorry.” Said the man as the hallway they stood in was filled with warning recordings and sirens. 

“I’ll be fine.”  Algernon tried to brush the orderly’s concerns aside, “I can walk it off.”

Around them staff were going into emergency mode, locking down fire doors to protect their wing of the hospital and reporting that they had no smoke or fire. 

“Look man, we better go down to security and sort this out.”  The orderly pointed to the alarm they had set off and Algernon could do nothing but agree.

“Lead the way.” He said amicable as the orderly pointed to emergency stairs not far away.  As soon as there was a fire door between himself and the orderly he ducked into an empty room and waited.  The bustle continued as the source of the alarm evaded staff. When the hallway seemed empty, he slipped out of his room and across to the ward where the five lay.  There in the nurses station was a sharps bin filled with used syringes. They would work just as well as a fresh one for the purpose he had in mind.

Coming up alongside Baxter, he filled the syringe with air and when the hallway was free he plunged it into  the cannula leading directly into Baxter vein. When the plunger was fully pressed he left Baxter and started for the next bed when the machine pumping the sedative to Baxter started beeping.  From down the hall footsteps could be heard. 

There was no time.

Throwing the syringe into the sharps bin he quickly ducked in behind the door to the ward as the nurse stepped in to investigate the issue.  Fire alarm still blazing, the nurse distracted by the Infusion pump, Algernon slipped around the door and out back down the hallway.  

In Reception he picked up his crossbow.  For a moment it looked like she wasn’t going to hand back the weapon.

“Are you sure your parents…”

“It’s not dangerous, “ He replied sweetly, “As long as you don’t aim for the eyes.”  Algernon took the crossbow from her yielding hands, “Bye.”

Once out of the hospital Algernon rode around town not wanting to go back to the hotel straight away.  At least he dealt with the threat called Baxter, he wouldn’t be trying to hurt anyone in the future.  

As he turned a corner onto the highway that ran through the heart of Nederland he spotted Rain staring up the road out of town.  In his hand the puzzle box spun and flipped, open and closed. Algernon did not stop or even show that he’d seen Rain, just continued past and back to the hotel.  The silence grew with the distance between them. 

“Where is that kid?”  Bruce paced as the other sat  in a booth at the bar they had made their own during their stay in Nederland, “I’m going out to find him, let me know when he gets in.” 

Bruce started for the door as it swung open and in walked Algernon, his crossbow decorated in day-glow colours. Was that what had taken most of the day to do?  Bruce let go of a breath he didn’t realise he was holding and forgot about the crossbow. Now they were altogether. Weren’t they?

“Where’s Rain?” he said out loud and Algernon walked by.  He said nothing, just shrugged and sat with the others. “Okay, I’ll go out looking for him, let me know if he arrives back.”  

Once more he went for the door and the door swung open ahead of him and Rain walked in pale and serious.  He nodded a greeting at Bruce before heading straight to Algernon.

“Mate, I owe you an apology.  I was out of line last night. I’m sorry.”  He said simply before walking away and sitting at another table, his cards already in his hands.

“Right!”  Bruce turned to see the whole group now assembled if only just. ”Now if all your shopping and extra-activities are done we’ll be on our way.”  

No one contradicted him.

“Good.  This has been a difficult assignment and not everything went as we’d like.  That being said, we’ve closed down a huge international drug syndicate and discovered a new player, this Nakarand.  The Estate didn’t do this, we did, us five. Now we’re heading back to Seattle and we’ll find a way to Crows Hollow just as we’ve done with every other obstacle.  One thing is for sure, we will get nowhere if we don’t work together. Now, get your stuff, we’ll be heading out in half an hour.

Days of laborious travel filled only with silence, and the black ribbon of road.  Algernon spent most of his time with his VR set on disconnected from the rest of the group in a world of his own making.  Similarly, as promised, Rain curled up in the back seat and fell asleep, the movement of the van a lullaby. The others tried to act like normal, but even the usually oblivious Peggy was  subdued by her experiences in Nederland

As  the VW van puttered over the mountain road the occupants were treated with the sight of all Seattle stretched out before them.  Within an hour they were in the thick of city traffic making it across town and finally the rusty red of the gasworks on the shoreline signalled they were home.

There was no welcome home or time to rest, the group were ushered straight into Katherine’s office.  Waiting for them, Katherine gestured them into seats.

“We had an incident on the Estate not too many days ago.”  She said pulling up security footage of the front gates, “A tour bus pulled up outside the gates and an entire bus of tourists attacked security, just as you described, co-ordinated attacks as if controlled by the same puppet master.” She gestured to the footage showing 50 middle class tourists pour out of a coach and bodily attack the gates.  Some had the elongated fingernails of the Spiral-eyed at Nederland.

“He …they know where we live.” Rain whispered more to himself than anyone . “But how?”

“Did you capture any of them?” Bruce asked pointing to several that the security were able to subdue in the footage.

“Some, but as soon as they were caught they went into convulsions and have been unresponsive ever since.  We handed them onto the local hospital.”

“If they are the same as the ones we left in Nederland,” Peggy said to Katherine, “They’re not likely to regain consciousness, they were all but brain dead.”

“What about the ones in Nederland, “ Algernon asked, “Any of them recovered?”

“I’m afraid one, the one you identified as Theodore Baxter died of complications the first night.”  Katherine replied, “We’re not sure if it’s related, the other four are stable but unchanged. We’ll be watching their condition.”

After the debrief the group went their separate ways.  Peggy went straight to Hertzfeld and reclaimed the recursion keys she had found in Railsea.  The bucket, the ring and the first aid box. Hertzfeld wisely did not encourage a ‘mind wash’ to Peggy though he could think of several ways.  When she described the vision she had experienced he helped in the old fashioned way of listing and suggested she absorb herself in work, at least temporarily.  She did, breaking down an old ultrasound machine for parts to make a sonic brainwash.

Bruce sought permission and received a requisition for high powered handguns.  Down in the firing range he practised out to 100m honing his eagle eye ready for when combat came.  He asked if there was possible heavier armour than what he currently wore. Without making a spectacle of himself, no. His favoured khaki body armour probably raised enough eyebrows, anything else would be out of place in everyday society.  Katherine sympathised and suggested that she would look into armour on a case by case basis.  

Rain grabbed the keys to Leroy Caine’s apartment and would have gone alone until reminded that Cecilia was free.

“Cecilia, I have the key to Leroy Caine’s apartment, would you like to come?”

“I’d like that, yes.”  

Through the streets of her hometown Cecilia  wove her cafe racer with Rain riding pillion.  It was a breath of fresh city air to ride again in the familiar streets and Cecilia revelled in it.  Even in the dank and dirty side of her city she couldn’t help smiling at the feeling of being right where she needed to be.  Apartment 27b was a squalid corner in an equally rundown block. As they climbed the stairs to they could see the door was open.  Cecilia instantly went into a crouch and quietly moved into the room. Rain walked in as if he belonged there.

“Hello?  Anyone home?”

It was a small studio apartment with a kitchen and living area that ran straight into the only bedroom.  The room had a dank, musty smell of a place ill-used and unkempt. The only two items that seemed out of place was a small parcel taped to the wall and a painting above the broken down bed.  The painting was a landscape of a beach at night, the sky full of fractal shapes and swirls. At the far end of the beach a cave was clearly visible, mist rolling through from the entrance.

Rain, entranced by the painting walked up to it as Cecilia reached for the package taped to the wall.

An explosion deafen and a blue light blinded as both Cecilia  and Rain were thrown off their feet. When their vision and hearing cleared they were lying on a beach at night. The beach in the painting.  Rain looked transfixed at the night sky.

“What is this place?” Cecilia asked and when Rain didn’t respond straight away she gave him a shake.

“Uh…um, we’re either in the painting or in the place depicted by the painting.”  He replied not turning from the sky.

“In the painting?”  She said, his words not making any sense.  She asked the same question of the Strange with her premonition.

Ocean Mist, came her reply as if she’d known it all along.

“Mean anything to you?”

“No.  I think it’s a recursion.  Congratulations, on your first.”  He got up brushing sand from his suit.

Cecilia sighed.  Now what? She looked around her.  The sea was black past the waves that lapped the shore, their white caps catching the starlight.  As the waves receded she spotted something glinting in the wet sand and stepped onto the wash to get a better look.  In the sand she found a glass sphere connected to a handle and a hat with a long silvery mesh. Instantly she knew these were connected to the Strange and divined their purpose after a fashion. 

“Here, “ she said offering the hat to Rain, “It can make you…disappear for a time, I think.”

“Remarkable, you’re really coming along with your gifts.”  He replied, taking the hat, “What’s the other one?”

“A surveillance set, you keep a piece and leave the other in the place you wish to watch.” 

Cecilia looked around again, this time the cave with its heavy mist caught her attention.

“Got any plans to get us out of here?” 

“I don’t know, I sort of like it.” Rain was looking up at the stars again.  She shook him again, “Sorry, I have an idea, but I’ve never led a translation before, it could take a while.”

“Well, how about having a little look around first.  Why don’t we go check out the cave?” Cecilia suggested 

“If the lady insists.” He said as he dragged his eyes from the stars and followed Cecilia to the cave mouth. 

Inside was darker even than the sea outside and Cecilia searched her pockets and found her flashlight.  In its artificial glow, regular impressions the size of human footprints made a path going into the cave.

“Caine had camping gear.  He never lived in that apartment, only used it to store this place.” Rain murmured low as they followed the footprints. Soon the sand gave way to rock and the footprints were lost, but now another sounds could be heard, a regular slow rhythm, even slower than the moment of the waves on the shore.  It was the sound of heavy breathing.

Cecilia dimed the torch and together they silently moved forward through the fog that filled the cave.  The further they went the louder the sound became sonorous and the fog around them warm and fetid. A turn in the cave revealed a larger cavern filled with the warm and very much alive sleeping form of a green dragon.  For a beat they both stared in awe at the 9 metre long creature straight out of story. Then, without a word or gesture, they both started back the way they had come as silently as they could.

“This is no place to explore alone.”  Rain said as they left the cave and walked purposefully across the beach.

“So this translation back to our world, how long did you say it will take?”

“I don’t know, but no time like the present.”  

Rain sat down on the sand, well above the high tide line and gestured that Cecilia do the same.  Sitting face to face, hand clasped, Rain started trying to forge a link from their current location back to the Caine’s apartment.  As he did, both of them could feel and see a thread of energy linking the two points and they felt the dizzy feeling of motion. They were moving fast along the thread, speeding past the swirling stars that made up the Strange.  They were moving too fast, Rain was sure they would crash until something pulled him back. Cecilia had taken control and was easing their translation back to Earth. With a sudden rush, a feeling of nausea and dizziness Cecilia and Rain fell onto the fetid floor coverings of Caine’s apartment.  

The light had gone out of the day and evening was taking hold of the city outside. 

“What a rush!  I can see why you don’t do that more often.” Cecilia  joked pulling herself off the sticky floor. “Are we finished here?”

Rain took one last look around the apartment.  He’d hoped to find Caine’s Internet link, something he would have used to route his VOIP link through.  Nothing but the picture was left to show Caine had ever used these rooms. Grabbing the picture off the wall, Rain followed Cecilia out the door and back out onto the street and her motorbike.

Published by Miztres

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

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