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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.

14. Betrayals and balls-ups

After wonderful successes with Lydia Lance and Gwendolyn Wurt, the group headed back to Nederland to await the arrival of Dona Ilsa in the basement of the Dreaming Crystal,  but not before buying Algernon a new weapon.

         *   *   *  *  * *   *  *   *  * *       

“Are you sure you’re twenty-one?”  The shop assistant in the camping and hunting store turned Algernon’s Seattle identification edge on to witness the iridescent Washington hologram appear briefly.

“He has a pituitary issue.”  Rain commented casually.

“He certainly doesn’t look his age.” Added Bruce uncomfortable with the fake ID.

Algernon said nothing, just a letting the administration do its thing while he admired his latest purchase, a state of the art rifle-style hunting crossbow.

In the end the shop assistant had no reason to deny the ID and rang through the $600.00 purchase.

As Rain and Algernon left the store, Bruce wandering behind for one last look at what was on offer, Rain quietly spoke to Algernon, 

“Now you have your crossbow, please don’t kill things with brains.”  

“If I shoot them in the head they won’t have any brains.” Algernon quipped back making Rain laugh nervously.

“Everyone you don’t kill is a potential friend.”

“Everyone he doesn’t kill is a potential threat.”  Peggy added. She’d been waiting outside and heard the conversation as they passed.

“See, she gets me.”  Algernon acknowledged the doctor’s contribution as they all climbed back into the van for the long ride back to Nederland.

Though only a day had passed, Nederland had undergone a transformation.  Blue and white decorations festooned the public spaces, small tents and massive marquees filled the town.  Posters with the illustration of a blue old man were everywhere proclaiming that Frozen Dead Guy Days had arrived.   Once back at the hotel, Rain made his mission to find a program for this unusual festival and tried to get everyone involved.

“How is this relevant to our mission here in Nederland?” Peggy asked when he showed her the poster.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with our mission, that’s the beauty of it.”  He replied holding out the list of events on offer over the weekend.

“Pancake breakfast, I can get into that.” Her eye alighted on the first event the next day.

“Pancakes, put me down for that.” Bruce sat down in one of the chairs in the hotel’s lounge with a wistful look on his face.

“Pancakes…are they good with bacon?” Algernon asked.  Most foods he rated in relation to bacon so this question came as no surprise.

“Yes,” Rain replied with enthusiasm, “and even better with maple syrup.”

“Ooh live vulture and other scavenger demonstrations.”  Peggy cooed over the program that she had now taken from Rain, “this may not be a complete waste of time.”

“See, something for everyone!”

“My mom made  the most excellent Saturday morning stacks.”  Bruce reminisce almost to himself in his chair, his thoughts miles and years away.

“Oh, I heard of that on the Internet.  Your mother had an excellent stack?” Algernon asked still cradling his purchase like his first born.

“She made excellent pancakes.”  The comment pulling Bruce from his revelries, “Always very round and fluffy, with little brown centres where the batter’d hit the skillet first…”

“Yes well, better than sausage and egg.”  Peggy said handing the program to Bruce.

With a horrified expression, Rain turned Peggy as if she had berated a sacred thing.

“Nothing is better than a full English Breakfast fry up.”

“So, what’s the plan for dealing with the crow woman?”  Bruce tried dragging the conversation back to the problem at hand.  This was more difficult than he would have thought as no one had any decent ideas.

“We need to catch Dona Ilsa, stop her from translating back.”  Rain said adamantly, but then lost momentum when it came down to how to achieve that end.

Peggy had picked up the program again and saw the first event of the festival was the Blue Ball.

“I guess it would be interesting to view the culture and social rituals around this festival.  Right here in front of us is the birth of a new fertility god. Anthropologically speaking this is a great opportunity.”
“Fertility god?”  Rain asked now distracted by Peggy, “Old dead Bredo Morstoel?”

“Sure.  The festival is set at the end of  winter, the rites of spring, even the giddy silliness of the activities are  classic pagan symbolism.”

“Back on topic.” Bruce cleared his throat and this time Algernon had a suggestion.

“I was going to use my net to entangle her and Peggy  could strip search her.” 

“So you’re leaving me alone with the crow lady?”  Peggy queried, an eyebrow raised.

“Well, they won’t let me do it.”  Rain smirked.

“Fair point.”

“You and Celia, obviously, when she’s up to it.  “ Bruce added, giving Rain a glare for almost derailing the conversation once again. “We also need something to distract her to hinder a natural translation.  Maybe we can have something trigger a recording of Rick Astley?”

“Regardless, I think we have to clean up the spider.” Peggy proposed, “Good fun in the moment, but a hindrance to our abilities to catch her.”

“Yes,” Rain agreed, giving Algernon a look of  apology, “Sorry to destroy your fun Algernon but it’s just in the way.”

“I don’t want to clean it up, I went to a lot of trouble smashing up spiders and I don’t think it should be touched.”  Algernon suddenly stood up, his crossbow forgotten. The action and attitude struck Rain as odd. Algernon was hiding something, but he kept silent wondering what thoughts his friend was concealing.

“We need to catch her.”

“Sulfuric acid?” Algernon suggested

“Urgh, you don’t want to clean up after that.” Rain shivered.

“Nitrous Oxide?”

“Laughing gas?  Safer. Can we get enough of the stuff?”

“Carbon monoxide is easier to make.”  Algernon piped up picking up his crossbow and walking around the group.

“Are we overthinking this? Are we forgetting something simple?” Peggy asked tiredly wiping her face, it had been a long day.

“We can just bash her over the head.” 

The conversation kept moving in circles around what was possible, all the time getting nowhere.  Suddenly an alarm on Bruce’s phone went off and he quickly brought up a camera image of the basement to see nothing unusual in the room.

“False alarm?”  He suggested, looking around for confirmation from Algernon.  He wasn’t with them, he couldn’t be seen anywhere.

“Where’s Algernon?” Peggy asked as Bruce called Algernon’s phone.

“Algernon. Just got the alarm.”

“I know, I’m going over there now.” Algernon’s voice could be heard replying through the phone.

“Right, we’ll meet you there.”  Bruce hung up and was about to put away his phone when Rain stretched out his hand for it.

“Can I just have a look at that footage?”  He asked. Bruce handed over the phone and Rain searched the video feed for signs of illusions. It was then he noticed that things weren’t quite as the group had left them. “Someone’s been in there, look the buckets have moved.”
“I think Algernon’s been there a few times.”  Bruce commented off handedly as they all left the hotel for the store.  

“Ah,” Rain’s demeanor sunk as realisation dawned on him,”That would make sense.”  He said almost sorrowfully.

The camera feed to the basement suddenly flickered off and Rain quickened his pace.

Camera down, what’s going on?  He texted from Bruce’s phone and quickly received a reply back.


The camera feed flicked back to life with the bucket gone.  Rain handed back the phone and started running.

We’re going to have a talk, young man. Bruce texted which caught Peggy’s attention.

“So you really have adopted him?” She said with all seriousness.

“So, have you….step mum.” Rain replied automatically as he also sent a text.

And then we’ll chat.

When the group arrived at the store the back door was open.  Rain quickly checked the front door was closed before following the others downstairs to where Algernon stood.

“All by myself.”
“We know.” Bruce was already in the door, arms crossed like a father confronting his wayward teen.

“So we’ve gathered.” Rain walked in and knew at a glance at Algernon that all his suspicions were confirmed.

“Nothing happening here, false alarm I guess.”  Algernon tried to brush off the affair, but his bravado petered out when he noticed Rain looking at the pieces of spider on the floor inside the translation square.

“So, what would happen if I do this…”  Rain said quiet as he started walking over to the pile of spider goo and body parts.  His moves were deliberate and inevitable, he was not stopping at the pile but intending to walk through it.

Faster than words, Algernon brought up his net crossbow and shot it at Rain.  Rain stopped instinctually at the sound of the net and it sailed in front of him to hit the back wall. Rain looked up at Algernon, his friend and closest companion for almost a year and then turned away.

 A horrible silence filled the room.

“I wouldn’t do that, Rain.”  Algernon’s voice was small and cracked, but it broke the silence giving everyone a start.

“And why is that Algernon?”  Rain responded quietly, still turned away still not having moved, “What would happen?  What would happen if that stuff covered a small person or someone with a compromised immunity.  What would happen, Algenon?”

“It’s a biotoxin.”  He said in a rush, “It will make someone sick. If they’re already ill, it will kill them over a number of weeks.”  

“Why, Algernon?” Bruce asked now stepping between the two men.

“She’s a threat.  She could kill Rain, or you Bruce or Peggy.”

“We’re not dealing with just one person, “ Rain rasped out his voice thick with emotion, ”We have a nation thinking they can use the human race for their own ends.  But they don’t know humans, they don’t know the levels of hate, the gen-gen-” He stumbled over the word like a physical barrier, “-genocidal levels humans will go to destroy what they perceive as a threat.  You don’t know!” He pointed at Algernon targeting him among the four of them who was not of Earth. His voice may have started quiet, but the last phrase was said with such force it was like a slap that was heard by everyone in the room.

“Rain!”  Peggy shocked by the violence in Rain’s words.

“That’s enough, Rain. Just calm down.”  Bruce turned to Rain and the smaller man held his tongue and quietly seethed.

“In a team, we don’t always get to do exactly our own thing…”. Bruce said returning to look Algernon squarely in the face.  “Sometimes we don’t agree and that means somebody isn’t going to have it exactly their own way. Being in a team means you’ve got each other, that you watch each other’s backs. “

“If you ignore what the team wants, you lose that and then you won’t have anyone helping and watching out for you to help keep you safe.”

“ Had to do it this way, “ Algernon pleaded over Bruce’s shoulder to where Rain still stood, “I had to try and protect you, but if I’d told you then Rain would have been disappointed.”

“Yes, and now he’s disappointed twice, “ Bruce acknowledged the young man’s reasoning in a gentle tone, “Once that you did it, but even more you did it without talking to us  If you really want to look after the team you need to be part of it.”

“Team?”  Algernon asked in a small voice.

“Family…” Rain said from his corner, “It was us against the world, now it’s just you.”

“And you, “ Bruce turned on Rain, “As brilliant as Algernon is, he really still a child and needs to be shown how to live, not told.  You have to model the behaviours you expect from him, by God, didn’t you have siblings?”

At this Rain turns as if slapped.  The anger was gone replaced by confusion and fear.  It was such an odd response that Bruce was taken aback.

“No.  No family.”  Rain said barely above a whisper, wrapping his arms around himself though the basement was close and warm with everyone in it.

“How about a rabbit trap.”  Peggy suggested breaking the tension of the scene and returning everyone to the problem at hand. “I could probably rig up a physical trap with what we have here.”

“It still doesn’t stop translation,” Rain croaked wearily from his corner, “Isn’t there something that blocks translations?”

“Radiation?” Bruce replied stating a fact, “The radiation of the desert recursion blocked McCain.”

“That was an event unique to that translation.”  Peggy shook her head, “McCain’s assumption about the radiation was false, but understandable in the circumstances.  How about paralysis?”
“Digitalis?  It’s a poison.”  Rain shook his head, “No, I could keep her here.”

“What are you going to persuade her to stick around?” Bruce asked seriously.  He’s seen some pretty amazing things from this group and he’d never believed in Rain’s claims to not have powers of his own.

“No, I did it before on Peggy, after Celia touched her and they became mind linked.”  He started moving towards Peggy, “I was trying to calm her down and she…froze.”

“Often the things you say leave me cold, but I remember…” Peggy started saying as Rain stepped in close and started talking quietly to her.  It wasn’t what he was saying, as much as how he said it. An intensity, an intimacy that was akin to when he encouraged them at tasks. Peggy stopped what she was saying mid sentence, she stopped everything even blinking and her breathing was slow and shallow like that of sleep.  Rain kept talking for a few more moments and then stopped, turning to the others, careful not to attract Algernon’s eye.

“…very clearly that I was having a panic attack….why are you looking at me like that?”  Peggy continued where she had left off until she noticed the other two staring at her.

“You stopped Peggy talking!” Algernon exclaimed forgetting the distance between him and Rain at that moment, even though they were less than a metre apart.

“I’m still not talking to you….but yes it is.” Rain tugged the cuff of his sport’s coat as an excuse not to look up.

“How?” Bruce asked and Rain shook his head.

“It’s subtle.  You said it yourself. I can’t scream and hurt people’s minds or make them levitate, but I can do this.  As long as I can talk, I can keep Dona Ilsa here.”  

“It would mean Rain staying down here twenty-four-seven.” Bruce looked to the rest.

“That’s why I hadn’t suggested it.”  Rain agreed reluctantly, “I’m going to miss the festival.”

Peggy sighed in frustration, they were going around in circles again, getting caught on trivialities that got them nowhere.  She was sick of the basement, sick of the smell from the translation square and thoroughly sick of this subject.

“Well, are we cleaning this up?” She asked and Rain nodded his agreement.

“I wouldn’t recommend it.” Algernon repeated. “It’s far too toxic.”

Peggy grabbed a broom.  She’s spent a lifetime handling the toxic, the caustic and the vile.  This was no different.

“You’ll only spread it everywhere with that.” Algernon protested stepping up to take the broom from Peggy and coming up against her obdurance.  He backed off.

“Don’t you think I know safe chemical handling protocols?” 

“It’s not that..”

“Well then tell us how to clean it up then.”

Algernon sighed and shook his head.  He had tried to save his creation against Rain’s fears, Bruce’s practical reasoning only to be defeated by the stubbornness of the Peggy.

“At least neutralise it with a strong alkaline.”  He gave in, withdrawing back into himself sullenly.  His net still lay against the wall where it had fallen. Without looking at anyone else he went over to it and started packing it back in its canister.

“Well that shouldn’t be too difficult.  Gentlemen, get looking while I work on some protection.”

 So while Peggy scavenged around the storeroom making a splash suit to deal with whatever chemical concoction Algernon’s fertile mind had created, Bruce and Rain found anything that could be used to neutralise it.  Washing soda, bicarbonate of soda, cleaning ammonia and several packets of antacids, even a few nice limestone pieces from the shop were crushed and thrown into the collection.  

Anticipating the fumes, Algernon tried retreating from the basement only to be pulled back by a plastic and rubber clad Peggy.  

“Oh no.  Your mess, you get to help clean it up.”  She expertly grabbed his ear and pulled him back.  The process was messy, smelly and thoroughly stomach churning.  They all took turns in adding the cleaning agents to the pile where Peggy mixed it with the spider parts with the broom.  

“It will need to settle, we have to leave at least overnight.” Algernon finally instructed and they all stepped away from the bubbling, fuming pile. 

“Right, trapmaking.”  Peggy now turned her attention to the task even though it was already late and neutralising the toxin had not been an easy task. Doggedly she went back to the stores, even pulling apart shelving for materials, to make a noose trap set at the door.  Her first attempt fell apart under the tension required for to spring a human body into the air. She carefully gathered the parts once more reinforced the locking pin that held the tension in balance and reset it. This time the trap held, a simple construction very much like a rabbit trap with the noose whipping the legs out from under the hopefully unsuspecting Dona Ilsa or associate.

“And now I’m going to the ball because I need a drink.”  Peggy announced to the dispirited group in front of her. Bruce wasn’t keen but at the same time would not see her go alone and nodded a tired agreement.  Algernon said nothing, but neither did he disagree. Only Rain looked like he’d refuse.

“You were pretty distressed back there, I’m sorry for that and I get if you don’t feel like socialising now.” Bruce said quietly to Rain who straightened visibly and gave Bruce a laconic smile that Bruce knew instantly was a facade.

“Why, that’s my life Bruce.”  He turned to Peggy, “Drink! Yes, many.  Let’s go!” And he left without a backward glance to make sure Algernon was following.

On getting back to the hotel and checking the time and location of the Blue Ball the group found it was a masquerade.  Peggy still had her chemical cleanup suit so she added a few pieces from her personal supply and turned herself into a steampunk mad scientist.  Rain raided Celia’s makeup and turned himself into a dead Frank Sinatra without even changing his clothes. Algernon stayed in his school uniform look while Bruce just cleaned up a little. Dressing up wasn’t his thing.

In a huge marquee tent the Blue Ball was in full swing.  Rain leaped straight into the thick of the activity as if nothing unusual had occurred only an hour before. Bruce, always watchful, noticed that he was never without a drink, an image he found disturbing. 

Peggy sat at the bar, a spider in her web. When people came by to ask her about her costume or just chat her up, she interrogated them about local social customs and their views on the new fertility god. Algernon just stood by the tent wall and watched the spectacle, detached from it all and very alone in the crowd.

An already inebriated Rain tripped out of the dancing crowd to the bar and held his glass up for another. 

“Dude!  Where did you get those trippy contacts?” A voice said clearly beside him and Rain turned to see two men chatting, one clearly displaying the spiraled iris of a dust user.  

“I have my sources.” He said looking smugly at his companion.

“Don’t leave me hanging.” Said his friend, “I’ve seen a few people wearing them tonight.  What’s the big deal?”

As Rain’s drink arrived at his elbow, he smoothly passed it forward to the man with the spiral eyes.

“Give your friend a break, it sounds like it might be a good story.” He said making eye contact with the user.  The man said nothing, just stared through Rain, twitched once, then again and then pulled back his fist. Rain ducked as the man made to King hit his head off.  Not taking his eyes off the guy he noticed his expression never changed, it was blank and emotionless, a puppet going through the motions set by its unseen master.

Bruce tackled the guy but couldn’t hold him, the man seemed unnaturally strong.  Rain, seeing Bruce pointed to the man’s eyes and Bruce nodded. This wasn’t just one insane guy, this was a Spiral dust user.  From her side of the bar Peggy grabbed a heavy looking ale flagon from a party goer and threw it at the spiral-eyed.  His expression never changed as the heavy glass made solid contact with his face. Bruce tried to grab him again as Rain stepped in.

“Hey, hey listen.  We don’t have to be enemies.” He said as his hand slipped into the man pockets and very quickly returned full. The wallet and other bits and pieces disappeared and Rain stepped back again. 

Peggy was enjoying her view of the fight when something hard and brittle cracked across her head, turning she saw another man with spiral eyes staring blankly back.  Behind him two women and another man were moving through the crowd, all sharing the same empty look. Algernon listened to the thoughts of the one who was nearest him without making his presence known to the Spiral-eyed.

Get the interloper for Nakarand.”

Watching the two at the bar tussling with his friends, Rain noticed their action seemed to be coordinated, synchronised as if controlled by one mind.

“Something is controlling these guys, they’re not in their right minds.” He said as he hopped out of the way by leaping on the bar.

Peggy’s screamed flavoured with Greek obscenities, but it did nothing to her attacker.

“Can  you make this look like a gang attack?” Bruce yelled from the floor, gaining for himself an odd look from Rain.

“What, like this?”  He started dancing across the bar clicking his fingers as if from West Side Story.  Bruce could only shake his head and move to protect Peggy’s back. He bopped an assailant on the head. The spiral-eyed attacker swayed on their feet, stunned and unable to move.

All as one the spiral-eyed moved in, now their eyes glowing in the low light of the ball.  There was no question that these people were being controlled by a force outside of human knowledge.  The one grappled by Bruce tried to break free, but Bruce’s arms held him in place. The bottle breaking guy made another swipe at Peggy, but she moved down and out of his way, tripping him up as she passed.  A third made a swipe with finger grown unnaturally long but again Peggy was faster and the nailed hand sailed passed her face. 

“This is something new.” Rain commented drunkenly from on top of the bar, “Celia really should be here.”

Two attacked Bruce but he used the grappled one as a defensive shield and neither could land a hit.

It was then that Algernon and Bruce’s phones buzzed an alarm. 

Algernon pulled out his phone and clearly saw a black haired woman in the neutralised spider parts beside a large pile of grey rocks.  In her hand she held a mug sized device from which she now removed something and put in her pocket. They had to get out of this fight.  Algernon looked around the ring of spectators that the fight was making and saw two muscular guys. Running forward, he tried pretending to trip, succeeded in actually tripping and fell in front of one of the Spiral-eyed.  The intended push just signalled his presence in the battle and the Spiral-eyed turned to look down on the prone young man. Algernon smiled sweetly, just a stupid kid.

The eyes glowed.

“Glowing eyes? Controlled spiral dust users? What does all this mean?”  Peggy asked The Strange.

Something is aware of our meddling, was the reply.

Bruce was weighing up his grappled aversary.  

How big is this projectile?  Average hipster? Is it a heavy bashing weapon? Sure, why not. Should be okay.  

Swinging from the hips like an olympic athlete, Bruce threw the Spiral-eyed into the other two ganging up on him.   One collapsed unconscious from the force of a full grown man propelled into their face, the other one faired only slightly better and stayed on their feet.

“Murder!  Murder! Bloody murder!” Rain cried from on top of the bar, so that many at the ball thought this was all part of the show.  Seeing the black uniforms of security guards he jumped down off the bar and faced one of the Spiral-eyed in front of Peggy.

The Spiral-eyed gang swung wide in a coordinated attack, telegraphing their moves and making it easy for Bruce, Peggy and Rain to dodge.  Algernon scrambled to his feet and cried in his wavering tenor,

“Help, help!  Junkies are attacking!” and blended back into the crowd away from fight.

Peggy’s scream roared out again straight into the face of the guy with the broken bottle.  Something behind his eyes recoiled at her attack and the Spiral-eyed physically did the same.  Now free of his encumbrance, Bruce found a barstool and made good use of it as an improvised weapon.  He swung it around him and landed a heavy blow on one of the women attacking. She crumpled to the ground unconscious and instantly Bruce felt guilty.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” He said but had little time to contemplate his actions as another attack swung through.

“We don’t have to fight, you have something controlling you right now.”  Rain used enthrall on the other Spiral-eyed woman. She stopped in her tracks.  Frozen, not like Peggy had, but as if two wills battled for control for her body.  Another swiped at Peggy who dodged and pushed them across a table behind her. The landed heavily on their heads and moved no more .  That left only one now on Bruce.

Algernon looked down at his phone again seeing Dona Ilsa study her surroundings.  She was alone. The group had to go.

“Will Robinson!” He shouted to be heard above the crowd, the brawl and the music before starting to slip away undetected by the security and out the door himself.  Instantly the group responded. Peggy ran, bashing past a bouncer trying to apprehend her and was only moments behind Algernon into the night.  

“I’m sorry, I have another appointment.” Rain finished his enthral and quickly looked to Bruce, “You got this?”

“Yes, the rest of you have to go, hurry!” Bruce responded pinned down as the bouncers encircled him. With a drop and roll, Rain scooted under the marque wall and was away. 

Now Bruce was left behind restrained by bouncers who mobbed him and the last Spiral-eyed. As soon as he realised the bouncers had arrived, Bruce gave up the fight.

“I am so happy you guys turned up, I don’t know what they’re problem is, but they just started attacking me and my friends.”  He said to the two bouncers restraining him.

“Yeah, okay we’ll take you outside first. Clear out before we turn the others loose.”  The bouncer replied as they frog-marched Bruce out of the tent. He didn’t need telling twice as he could just see the others run across town to the gem store.

As they ran Algernon watched the video feed.  He saw Dona Ilsa walk to the door and hit the trap.  It worked perfectly and Dona Ilsa was whipped up into the air by her ankles.  As she swung back and forward in front of the door she dropped the mug sized device and it hit the ground.  A flash of bright light blew out the cameras for a moment, and when they returned the noose hung empty.

Seconds later the group were through the door, the rope still swung, taunting them.  Rain fell to the ground in front of the trap defeated. They all stood around looking at the empty room.  She had come early, knew that they had destroyed that side of her spiral dust empire and had escaped. It was the worst possible conclusion to all their planning. 

“I’ll report this in.”  Bruce finally said and pulled out his phone. “Did you say something about one mind controlling those guys?”

Rain nodded, an image of total defeat, “Yeah, there was one mind controlling their movements.”

“Nakarand was controlling them.” Algernon added getting everyone’s attention.

“Well at least Dona Ilsa didn’t seem to be in control.”  Rain gestured to the space she had only just moments before occupied.  

Silently they stood numb and bruised as Bruce let Katherine know all that was going on.

“No, we don’t know anything about a Nakarand.” She said to Bruce’s question about the entity behind the fight. “Look, you guys have been running for weeks now, an upset like this was bound to occur sooner or later.  Tidy up things there, have a few days rest and we’ll see you back here in a week, okay.”

“Yeah, “ Answered Bruce wearily, “The Spiral-eyed attack really sorted us out. Okay, I’ll let them know,”

When Bruce hung up Algernon was circling the pile of blue-grey rocks. A circular chunk was cleanly taken out of the side nearest the trap and door.  Rain was on the ground making small piles out of a set of car keys and the contents of an unknown wallet.

“What are you two doing?”  Bruce asked the boys. Algernon showed him a set of calculations in his notebook, Rain held up a driver’s license.  

“Just trying to work out how many doses  this amount of rock would provide. If they’re getting it weekly which now seems to be the case, then there could only be dozens in each city addicted to the stuff.”

“Hardly a take over, so what’s the point?.”  Bruce took the license from Rain to see it was from Washington state one, for an address in Seattle.

“That is the licence of the guy that first attacked me, “  Rain pointed out, “I took the opportunity to relieve him of it during the fight.”

“Do you think Dona Ilsa is controlled like one of these guys?” Peggy asked taking the licence from Bruce and studying it for a moment before handing it back to Rain.

“If this was a regular drug syndicate you would suggest no, but she’d make sure that people like Lydia were, to keep them loyal. Lydia didn’t have the Spiral eyes.”

Peggy reached out for The Strange allowing the evidence to go out and return with possible solution.  Is there a grand design to all this? All she got back was a headache. It was very late now, they had had a very long and disappointing day and she needed her bed.

Though Peggy was ready to crash both Algernon and Rain were still scratching for clues.  Algernon was examining pieces of rock, to determine its origins. He could not detect if the rock was organic in make up there in the basement but the shape, cylindrical with a pinched of tapered end,  suggested that it had been extruded showing it had gone through some processing. What? He couldn’t say. 

Rain was also scratching around on the ground busy with something, but when he stood, all he had in his hands were the wallet and keys from Seattle.  

Bruce rubbed his eyes and muscles in his arms and back protested the action.

“Okay, back to the hotel for a rest and we’ll talk all this out in the morning.”

13. Of Spiders and Androids

The group chased down the source of Spiral Dust to the mountain township of Nederland, Colorado.  There they used all their skills to discover the world-wide network being managed from an unassuming gemstone store.  Confronting the owner, they convinced her to close up her side of the trade and start the task of cleaning house.

  * * * * * * *    

Two days in Nederland and  Bruce was in his element. Lydia Lance rang the two store assistants, Delsey and Everett, and gave them a two week holiday.  Her explanation was that extensive building works needed to occur to fix the electrical fault. She also gave the group her set of keys to the shop.  As soon as they saw Lydia off on a flight to Seattle, Bruce drove everyone down to Home Depot and spent the afternoon perusing the options.

“How about frag grenades on a trolley, “ Algernon was also shopping, but not having a lot of success, “Tie a group to the trolley set one off, push it down the stairs into the room and close the door. Or maybe a stack of pesticide cans strapped to a trolley with a frag grenade in the middle. ”

“Frag grenades are not available to civilians, and we don’t want to do structural damage if we can help it.”  Bruce pulled a fisheye door viewer off the blister pack display and dropped it into his trolley.  

“They live in the dark, maybe the don’t like light.”  Rain found an LED torch with a high lumens rating. Bruce plucked it from his hand, adding it and the required batteries into the trolley.

“We steal a pest extermination truck and…” 

“No… but the pesticide is a good idea.” Bruce quickened his pace.

“…just for the night and then drown them in pesticide.  Or even better find a pesticide we can set alight!” Algernon’s fertile brain was buzzing with the many possibilities for the spider’s demise.

“…we are not breaking the law if I can help it.”  Bruce replied, squashing the ideas machine flat. He found the power tools and dropped a sturdy looking cordless drill and a set of large drill bits into his trolley.

“Could we not just blast them away with some heavy guage rifles or shotgun?” Celia chipped in a suggestion, “Wouldn’t a quick kill be better?”

“We’ve been asked to conduct a little experiment in regards to the effectiveness of readily available pesticides on these things, but firearms are an option if things go poorly.”

Rain winced at even the mention of the guns and sulked at the back of the group.

“We could buy pesticide and distill it down….”  Algernon suggested again, this time with a little less enthuiasm.

“The distilling is probably more dangerous than the end product.”  Bruce found the gardening section with an array of pump action, pressurised vessels for watering, fertilizing or poisoning.  His eyes alighted on a 30 litre backpack style container with a long thin spraying wand. Conveniently, insecticide were displayed the next shelves over.

“I have an idea.”  Bruce turned to the group who were following with varying degrees of interest.

“Can we still steal a truck?”  The ever hopeful Algernon asked encouraged by Rain.

“No, we don’t need to.”  Peggy added

“But…”  Algernon tried for a cute look, making himself seem smaller and more fragile.  It was probably something he’d seen some female character do on one of his television shows.  On a gangly 15 year old boy frame it had the effect of making him look constipated.

“That only works when you have boobs.”  Peggy added matter of factly before turning back to Bruce.

Bruce’s plan was a good one.  Mostly because it was simple, and only required him to be in any potential danger.  That night the group let themselves into the shop via the back door and down the stairs leading to the basement.  Bruce drilled a large hole, large enough to fit the door viewer, fisheye lens and all. A hairy clawed foot reached up and poked the fisheye back through the door.  Bruce quickly gave the offending spider a squirt of pressurised insecticide through the hole and the spiderfoot disappeared with a skitter.

He drilled a second hole, this time big enough to poke through the torch. The narrow beam of the torch filled the basement and through the spyhole the two spiders were visible high up in opposite corners.  As the third hole was being drilled for the insecticide wand, the spyhole was poked out a second time. Bruce set a jet of insecticide into the creature’s face this time and it skittered haphazardly back to it’s corner showing signs that the poison was taking effect.

“If the crow lady is connected to these things, will she come through if we kill them?”  Algernon asked from up the stairs, at the back of the group.

“We can only hope.”  Bruce replied gleefully as he lined up the spray wand, ”Let’s try and see.”

The liquid filled the whole space with a hissing jet hitting both spiders.  They jiggered and thrashed violently unable to escape the poison.  

One spider launched its huge body from the  wall to the door, the whole stairwell echoing with the force of its blow against wood frame and steel hinged.  The whole door shuddered and groaned, its hinged stretched. Peggy, Celia and Algernon all brought their handguns up, Algernon added the cold ammunition to his weapon.   Bruce leaned against the door as support.  

“Keep pumping!” He yelled at Rain and he doubled his efforts to keep the pressure up on the canister.

The door slowly cracked and splintered under the spider’s increasingly frantic attacks.  Pieces of frame were now flying off over the group as Bruce dropped the spray gun and braced the door with his crowbar as well.

“Rain, get the gun!”  He yelled gesturing to the spray gun on the ground.

Rain did as he was told, leaving the canister and crouching beside Bruce.  He swiveled the spray gun around at the spider through the door and poured the drench wherever he could reach.

More of the frame tore away from the brick work and now there was only the wood of the door between Bruce and the spider.

“Get ready, they’re coming through!”  Bruce retrieved his crowbar and dove free of the door.  Peggy threw down a glass bottle of glue, a cipher of extreme adhesion.  The glue splashed the spider who seemed to use their last burst of effort to knock through the door.  It crashed bodily into the stairwell, the last of its strength spent as glue afixed it to the door. Now the other spider started crawling over its defeated comrad to attack the party.

“Shoot straight Celia!”  Called Rain huddled down against the broken door frame still clutching the spray gun.  She did, as did Peggy. Algernon’s icy shot went wide and hit the brickwork above Rain’s head.  Rain squeeeled and ducked down further wedging himself between the dead spider and the wall.

Celia shot again, this time shooting the spider through one of its primary eyes.  It reared back and turned to face it’s tormentor, mouth parts distending. It launched itself at Celia as she turned to defend herself.  The spider bit deep into her raised arm, pushing her back onto the stairs.

“Hulk Smash!”  Bruce roared swinging his sledgehammer off his back.  He stepped between the party and confronted the beast, but found Rain cowered and in his way.  Adjusting his stance, he swung his hammer side on and brought it down squarely on the spider’s head.  The spider twitched once and the legs gave way, and its huge body collapsed on its partner in the doorway.  A black swarm of spiderlings crawled out of the second spider. The spiderlings did not do anywhere near as well in the split insecticide as their parents, but some did reach the party.  Peggy and Algernon couldn’t get out of the way in time and received bites on the legs before the spiderlings collapsed and died.

“Team Work!”  Roared Bruce brandishing his Sledgehammer at the dead spiders, “Spiders!  Time you split.”

A cracking sound from above and a fine showering of dust caught everyone’s attention.  Rain, having successfully wall-run out of the way of the spiderling swarm was now clinging to a hanging light fixture.  It couldn’t support his weight for long. Bruce dodged, deflecting much of the debris off his shoulder as Rain, light fixture and much of the ceiling fell to the floor right in front of the head of the second spider.

“Rain drops and falls on Bruce’s head.”  Sung Algernon as his companion’s groans of pain turned to yelps at the sight of the dead spiders beside him.

“Get  them off! Get them off!  Get them off!” Rain cried scrambling ineffectually to get free as the hooked feet of the spiders clung to his coat.

“Stop squirming…look your getting all tangled…here let me do it.”  Bruce bent down the pushed the remains of the door into the spider room, the bodies of the two spiders with it. 

Celia pulled out her own torch and filled the space with light once more.  The buckets remained where they’d been last visit, but fortunately the insecticide had taken out the mosquitoes as well as the spiders that had fed on them.  Spiderweb hung from the walls coating them in a now damp whispy softness. That was, except for the far wall where another door stood clear of web. The torch light also fell onto a number of white wrapped cocoons, six in total.

“Didn’t Lydia say she’d brought only a couple of hobos down here?”  Celia said.

Peggy was already taking extensive samples of tissue from the spiders, impressed at their toughness and ability to grow so large outside of their magically imbue world.  At Celia’s words she took her scappel and cut into the nearest of the cocoons. Inside, a desiccated body lolled out, dressed in the trendiest of hipster fashion. It was hard to tell, but the body did not look to belong to someone who had ‘lived hard’.  Peggy checked the body and discovered a wallet that she handed to Celia. Inside she found a student ID for the name George Parks.

“This guy was no hobo.  But how did he end up down here?”

The group went to work examining the other five bodies. Four were definitely individuals who had seen hardship, worn clothing in multiple miss matched layers, unkempt and with no identification.  The group went silent as the last was revealed to be a young woman, also with a wallet and student ID for the same university as George Parks. Her name was Mayer Haskins. Bruce made a note to mention this to Katherine next time he checked in.

The door was all that remained to investigate.  From what they knew from Lydia, beyond was the preparation room and where the blue rock was translated to process for shipment out to dealers like Caine.  Celia checked for traps as Peggy checked for presence of The Strange. Neither found anything of note.

“I think I should go in first.”  Bruce stated to the group getting no argue from Algernon.  Celia just watched as Peggy picked up her things and walked through the door.  

The room was much like the rest of the storage areas, full of shelving and crates, the only exception being that this room also contained a large taped in space with a sign saying “Stand Clear”.  To one side a bench stood with equipment meant for processing the grey blue rocks into Spiral Dust. Everywhere the group looked, a fine layer of dust covered everything. This was definitely the place.  Without a word, Peggy got to work taking samples and recording the space for future study.

Once it was established that there was no obvious clues to be had, Algernon kept himself amused filling the taped off area with pieces of spider.  Visuals of Dona Ilsa or one of her cronies translating into the decomposing innards of the Night Spiders seemed to fill everyone in the room with a type of dark glee and even Bruce joined in.  As they worked, Algernon, Bruce and Peggy contemplated ideas on how to trap the room for the next delivery.

“Could we lay the trap in the translation space, maybe a poison?” Algernon started dragging a spider leg trailing eviscera into the pile.

“This room is underground.  It wouldn’t take much to make it  airtights.” Bruce mused out loud.

“We could fill it with nitrogen and suffocate anyone who translates in.” Algernon added.

“Or we could fill the place with the insecticide…or some sort of contact poison on the spider guts.  Yeah, that way they take it back with them…” Algernon added warming to the subject.

“Mercury would be nasty, or maybe Phosphorus.  Yes…they’d try to wash it off and it would burn.”  Peggy joined in with her suggestions taking equal delight in the idea.

“I think I could probably make a contact poison from what we can gather here and at Home Depot. Not too strong that I would hurt myself making it, but strong enough to make anyone who translated in ill.”

“At least they’ll find themselves deep in spider if nothing else.”  Bruce grinned looking to share the joke with Rain, not finding the little man in the room.  Putting aside the spider part stacking for the moment he walked back through the basement and found Rain sitting on the stairs.  

Bruce nearly walked into Rain he was so still on the near darkness of the stairwell. The shaking mess that was usually Rain after a physical encounter was absent. Missing too was the black puzzle box.  Instead Rain just sat staring down the stairs, his fists balled in front of his expressionless face.

“What’s up?”  Bruce asked almost eye to eye with Rain.

Rain sat silently for a moment.  Eventually the violet eyes turned to Bruce and he was surprised to see anger there.

“I’m sitting here listening to my friends.  They’re so excited about poisoning some woman they’ve never met.  They’re making jokes and fooling around about mercury and phosphorus.  They’re excited about making new poisons that work through contact.” The eyes slipped from Bruce’s as the anger went internal, “She’s horrible.  I know and…I don’t have an alternative… so I said nothing. But… I don’t want to be that person, Bruce.”

“She’s not actually a human.”  Bruce defended, unsure with this new dynamic between the two of them, “I’m just trying to find a way to defend us against …”

“But it’s like the Spanish deliberately poisoning the Indians with smallpox.  Greed, fear and genocide over and over again.”  

“What if it was the other way around?”  Bruce retorted surer of his moral footing, “What if the Indians were defending themselves by poisoning the invading Spanish?”

Rain shook his head in sadly.

“It doesn’t matter who does it. Don’t you get it?  It’s the thinking that they are less, that they deserve extermination like…insects.”

“Hmm. Yeah.”  The realisation of Rain’s words hit home.  Bruce had been thinking of ways of hitting back at the Beak Mafia who were attacking his world with Spiral Dust  The desire to defend at all cost had blinded him to a whole nation of intelligent beings, not just a blind force for evil.  

“Dona Ilsa and her people are intelligent.  We can talk, reason, bully, threaten even…”

“You’re right.”  Bruce admitted, “I see what you mean. … Actually, … now I’m ashamed.  I’m ashamed. So what should we do? What do you suggest?”

Rain shook his head, now frustrated that he couldn’t see a path forward.

“I really don’t know. I don’t have any alternatives. I’m sitting here racking my mind…all I know is I don’t want to lose what little…humanity I have.”

“Ok.  Look, we won’t do the poison.  We’ll hold off, and phone it in and get instructions.”

Rain winced.  Asking for advice to him was like admitting defeat.  It said something about how strongly he felt about his that he finally nodded his head in agreement.

“But don’t tell Algernon.  He’s so excited about his poison idea, and I don’t want to let him down.”

“I’ll settle it with him, I’ll be gentle. It’ll be alright.”  Bruce assured the smaller man, now sitting on the stairs with his arms wrapped around his legs.” … Are you coming down?”

He shook his head again and looked away like a wounded child.

“I don’t think there’s anything down there for me.”

Down in the preparation room, Algernon was busy adding a motion sensitive camera that he could monitor via WIFI. He added a silent alarm to the setup so if anyone translated in unexpectedly, he’d know about it.  Bruce walked back to the group looking serious and headed over to Algernon.

“Listen guys. Rain’s made a valid point about us dealing with Crows Hollow people.  I’m going to ring in and get some advice on what to do, but Algernon, we’re going to hold off on your poison idea for the time being, okay?”

“Sure.”  Said Algernon, now concerned where his friend was.  It was one thing for Rain to be upset by the bodies and mess they’d made of the spider, that was just Rain.  But, Algernon was now worried he’d alienated Rain with his throw away suggestion. “Well, if Rain thinks it’s a bad idea then I’ll forget it.”

“Good lad.  Well, first things let’s see if we can fix this place up a little.”  Bruce pressed Algernon into helping him fix the door to the spider room.  Though the door was relatively intact (held together as it was by glued spider parts), the frame was shattered, the hinged torn apart and all of it was smeared with insecticide and spider goo.  Try as they might they could not make the door stand in the opening and eventually resorted to just taping it in place with the red and white striped keep clear tape from the preparation room. As the last of the tape was applied, a noise from up in the shop disturbed Rain.

“…Hello?”  Came a woman’s voice, a query not a demand for attention.  Rain climbed the stairs and from the hallway saw Delsey Robinson standing in the shop.

“Hi!” He replied cherrily stepping out of the hallway so she could see him.

“What’s going on here,” She asked a worried expression  creasing her face, she pointed at the front door. “I walked past and saw the door was open.”

Rain looked to the door standing ajar knowing that they’d entered via the back door.  It had been more direct and less obvious than the front.

“Sorry, about that.  We’ve been contracted to deal with the basement issues, by…Miss Lydia.”  He replied in the slow drawling local accent, “Rising damp has done the two-step on the electricals for this place.”

“Oh,” Delsey physically relaxed when her bosses name was mentioned, “She did mention something about that. I work here.”

Oh hearing the conversation, Algernon crept up the stairs behind Rain and out the back door to catch a glimpse of Delsey through the shop front windows. Once he could see her he tapped into her surface thoughts and saw that though she had been a little worried about the door being open, she was assured by Rain’s words.  She was not the one who had opened the door. He made a gesture to Rain behind Delsey’s back that she was “all good” with two raised thumbs and snuck back. Rain nodded.

“Is that right. Miss Lydia must be proud to have such diligent staff as you watching out for her store like this.”

“I was just walking home from the pub, “ She accepted the compliment honestly.

“The pub!  Hah, well I hope you had one for me and the crew as we’re going to be pulling an all nighter on this one.”  Rain started walking Desley to the door.
“Better you than me.”  Desley joked as she walked out and locked the door behind her.

At the same time, Peggy was having a surprise of her own.  Still on the stairs waiting for the all clear she was thinking about Dona Ilsa and how she related to everything.  Her open mind touched The Strange and it replied.

“Cornaro.” She said out loud, “Cornaro?  What’s a Cornaro?” Bruce glanced up at Peggy perplexed but filed away the little snippet of information.

“Where did you get that from?” Celia asked quietly as they heard the front door close and lock.  She touched her hand to Peggy’s arm to get her attention, but something else quite unexpected happened instead.

I don’t know, it just seemed to pop into my head. Peggy thought and Celia heard it inside her own mind. Cornaro, Cornaro family.

Did she say that or just think …?

No need to shout at me!

You heard that!

She’s in my mind.   At the sudden realisation that they were now linked telepathically, Peggy panicked and tried to run up the stairs.

“Slow down, what’s going on?” Bruce asked catching up with the distraught Peggy.

“She’s in my mind! GET OUT! GET OUT!”  Peggy wheeled on Celia the later groggily walked up the last of the stairs shaking her head to try to clear the link.

“Ah, we’ve seen this before,”  Bruce reminded them of the first time Algernon realised he could read minds.” Just try breaking the link.”

Peggy squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath but nothing.

“She’s still in my head!” She panted as she started to hyperventilate.

“Right…Rain.” Bruce called as Peggy came out in a cold sweat.  “You take Peggy and I’ll take Celia and we’ll see if a little distance can break this connection.”

Bruce took Celia out the back door, all the time coaching her on what to think to provide a little interference.  Rain lead Peggy through the shop and out the front door all the time Peggy’s making comments on what she was experiencing.

“Oh… I don’t like this …penguins?  Why are you thinking of penguins? Get out of my head…that is a highly inappropriate thought about Rain…”

“What…?”  Rain had been paying attention to where they were going, turned when he heard his name. They had walked down most of the main street and were out of sight of Celia and Bruce.  This was not the same as Algernon. Time to try something else. He grabbed both Peggy’s arms and made her face him.

“Peggy.  Listen to me.”  Though his grip was strong, he his voice was low and gentle, “What is your safe place?”

“My…my garage at…at home.” 

“Picture your garage.  What’s the first thing you see….”

As Celia focused on nonsense songs and popular movies, Peggy reconstructed her garage and equipment piece by piece. Her breathing slowed and stabilized as she could hear nothing but Rain’s slow, steady instruction.  As time past Celia realised she could no longer hear the thoughts from Peggy and the group reunited.

Still shellshocked from their experience, Peggy and Celia were in no fit state to drive the group back to their hotel.  Bruce took charge and herded everyone back to the van. Rain looked silently from Celia to Peggy trying to make sense of this new ability. Not just the ability to read another’s mind but full mental telepathy, where no secrets could be hidden from the other.  He shivered.

That night Rain did not sleep.

The next morning the incident of the mind link was no more than a vivid nightmare. Over breakfast Bruce called in reporting the death of the spiders.

“Didn’t give you any trouble them?” Katherine asked over the phone.

“ It took ninety seconds of spraying to take down one of the brutes, the babies were not a problem.  All up we used 30 litres of insecticide and broke a door. Celia was bitten by one of the adults, nasty but doesn’t seem to be poisoned.  Peggy and Algernon took bites from the spiderlings you warned about, but also seem fine this morning.” He looked to the group who winced at their wounds but all gave a thumbs up.

“There’s something else, Lydia had admitted to sending a couple of homeless people to be spider food.  We found six bodies, including two college kids.” He gave her their names and student ID numbers, “Either Lydia was lying or someone else also knows about the spiders.”
“And the door was open, “ Rain added, “That what had drawn Delsey to the store last night.  Algernon checked her thoughts, she was telling the truth.”

“I’ll send the clean up crew to take away the bodies and fix the door.  So, what are your plans now?” Katherine asked 

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.  There was a plan to add a contact poison to the space set aside for translation by Dona Ilsa.”

“The Estate would always prize information over extermination.  If you can, capture her and find out what she knows.”

“These crow people have been…difficult customers in the past.  Do you think we can handle them?”

“It’s up to you.  McCain and his team are available, I can always send them up to take over if you don’t feel up to it.”

Bruce looked around the group in front of him.

“What do you guys say?  Do we let McCain and his team take over?”

“Sooner we leave here, sooner I’m back in my lab.” Peggy pounced on the chance to get back.

“I think capturing her is a good idea. I’d like to see this through to the end.  I’d like us to try.” Rain disagreed as did Algernon and Celia.

“We can do it, Peggy.”  Rain said to Peggy hoping that he could encourage her to join the others.

“It’s not a matter of being capable.  Many are capable. I want to get back to my lab and my work.  All this is merely a distraction.” She waved her hand at the room and by extension the town outside and the current mission.

“Could Peggy fly back to Seattle, set up a few experiments and then join us in time for the next delivery?”  Bruce suggested to Katherine over the phone.

“Tell Doctor Martin there will be plenty of lab time on her return, “Katherine replied pragmatically, “I will not approve the expense of a return flight for her.”

Much to Peggy’s protests, the group were to stay in Colorado for the next scheduled delivery of Spiral dust.  It meant they had time to kill and Bruce thought he knew how to spend it.

“That other job, the Morrison fellowship award winner, has that been given away?”

“No, I haven’t put another team on it as yet.  Are you thinking of picking it up again?”

“We have a week, Boulder’s not that far away.”

“Good thinking.” Katherine approved, “Well get driving.  I’ll have the Chief of Public Relations get in touch.”

“Cheer up Peggy,” Rain said as Bruce hung up with Katherine and let the group know her decision, “Think on the bright side.  This teen prodigy may be the real thing. Imagine what we can learn from her. Might be useful for your battery project.”

“Yes, I wonder how she’s doing it.”  Peggy wondered out loud and kept herself amused trying to work out how the young girl was powering electrical devices with only her body’s bioelectricity, “The numbers just don’t make sense.”

The trip between Nederland and Boulder should have taken the group little more than half an hour on the highway.  With Bruce driving and the van’s own idea of what speed was appropriate, the trip was closer to half a day. Rain dosed in the back seat lulled by the movement of the van as the others sporadically talked about low wattage bulbs and the human body’s ability to generate electricity.

Waiting for them in Boulder was Eliza Banks, Chief of Public Relations of The Estate.

“I’m so pleased your group has made time to help the The Morrison Fellowship vet their latest candidate, Gwendolyn Wurtz.”  She welcomed the group as they stepped out of the van not far from Gwendolyn’s house. For the presentation they had been asked to wear neat business attire.  Bruce and Algernon had suits and collared shirts, Celia and Peggy were pencil skirts and pumps. Rain had raided the Nederland Good Will, called “The Shop”, and was dressed head to toe in vintage 1950s clothing.  A short brimmed fedora that he wore pushed back, a crisp white linen shirt, yellow checkered vest, a plaid sports coat and wide legged slacks. Algernon was in the process of swapping out his suit new suit jacket for his red motorcycle jacket when Bruce caught him.

“You can’t wear that, you’re representing the public face of The Estate.”  Bruce argued holding out the discarded black suit jacket.

“I wear this when I represent the Estate all the time.” Algernon complained pulling on his jacket with pride.

“This is not the jacket of a respectable person.  In this jacket, you are making a threat.” Bruce tried reasoning, “Don’t you want to be safe?”

“But Rain gave me this jacket.” 

“We need to blend in.”  Bruce insisted not unkindly,  and eventually Algernon took off his beloved motorcycle jacket a put on the black. 

“Right, now that that’s sorted, “Eliza continued in a crisp presenters voice,”As you’re probably aware, the Morrison Fellowship Prize is a prestigious award given to individuals who are  working in… the more fringe fields of study. In reality the Prize is a chance for us to covertly check up on unusual activity that may be linked to The Strange. When Gwendolyn’s science fair project came to our attention it became a candidate for the prize and your…unique skills.”

“So will you be joining us?”  Asked Bruce

“Oh no.” Her red lips smiled, but her eyes didn’t mirror the expression. “I’ll leave all that tedious and potentially dangerous legwork to you.  You’ll report to me when you have your findings.”

It wasn’t clear how speaking to a 15 year old girl about her science fair project was going to be dangerous.  Compared to horse-sized spiders, a walk down a suburban street in daylight sounded a good change of pace.

“Right -o and off you go!” She cheered and set the group down the street.

The house was not that different from any of the others in the neighbourhood. The only glaring difference was that every light seemed to be on in the house in the middle of the day.  When Rain knocked on the door it was answered promptly by a woman who epitomizes the American housewife. Immaculately dressed and styled she wore a frilled apron over the top of a dress which looked like it had never seen a days work.  Rain never got a chance to start his spiel as she flung open the door and smile broadly, 

“And you must be from the Morrison Fellowship.”

“Yes we are, we’ve come to interview Gwendolyn, is she available?”

“Yes.  Please come in.”  She gestured and the party stepped into the pristine home.  It was like a house from a magazine, nothing was out of place, everything was spotless. 

“Gwendolyn they’ve arrived.”  Called the woman they could only assume was the girl’s mother.  A few moments later, an average looking teenage girl carrying a homemade looking flashlight joined them in the lounge.

Silently all the skills and talents of the group went into effect.  Algernon focused on the girl, listening in on her surface thoughts, Peggy concentrated on The Strange, Bruce kept an eye of everything and Rain turned to face the girl with a smile.

“Gwendolyn, we’ve been so looking forward to meeting you and seeing your amazing discovery at work.”

“Yeah…um, here it is.”  She said holding the metal body of the device to her bare hand and the bulb suddenly lit up.  It was a bright as a regular flashlight, much brighter than other contemporary experiments and much too bright for the standard amount of energy created by the human body.

“Outstanding. How did you come up with such an amazing idea?”  Rain prompted and Algernon heard, 

I really hope they like it. In reply, though, she said,

“I’d heard about bioenergy at school and I just started tinkering around.”

“Could I try it?”  Asked Bruce and she handed the device over.  When Bruce held the body as she had the bulb lit up, working at least as well as it had for her.

Algernon could hear Gwendolyn searching for words and concepts seemingly at random, like she was making up her explanation as she went along.

Peggy, having no luck detecting anything of The Strange and started asking technical questions of the device.

“The hardest part was finding the right metal.”  Gwendolyn said, but her thoughts were racing as she tried to keep up with Peggy’s more insightful questioning.  

When Gwendolyn started to struggle to answer the questions, Peggy stepped back and concentrated on the girl herself, who she was and where she had been in life.  She got a feeling that the girl was quickened like they were, and was no stranger to other worlds. 

She’s controlling the mother, not the other way around. She said to herself not sure where the impression had come from.  

 Bruce looked at the immaculate mother and was about to say something to her when his eyes caught something out of place.  He kept watching her, trying to work out what was wrong when the woman turned and he noticed that she didn’t just have a healthy glow about her, her eyes were faintly glowing.

Bruce reached out and touched Peggy’s arm and she flinched as the telepathic link was once again made.

You’re in my head!  Breathe…breathe… 

Focusing his thought to one clear statement, Bruce replied,

Quiet.  What’s going on with her mother’s eyes?

I should tell you, I know the mother is not in charge here, the girl is.  She replied as she turned to watch the mother.  

Now it had been drawn to her attention it was obvious, why hadn’t they seen it before.  The mother was obviously an android. Peggy stepped up to get a closer look fascinated by the detail.  So close in fact, Bruce had to pull her back.

You’ll get a close look later, but we need to report back what we’ve found.

But do you see, the blink rate, the movement as if breathing, even the dilation of the iris is so natural… and general movement and responses…  Peggy bubbled excitedly in a very unPeggy way.

“So these clever metals of yours.  Do you pick them up from Walmart? Home depot?”  Rain was still asking questions of the girl as Algernon listened silently to her thoughts.  She showed images of other places…other worlds where materials and knowledge were far advanced.  It was nowhere that Algernon recognised and he was unsure how to get the information to the others.  

Celia had been quietly listening to everything that happened.  She too slipped into a type of trance, listening to the girl as she spouted technobabble at Rain.  Suddenly, as the girl tried to describe where she got her supplies from, a thought entered Celia’s mind.  Graveyard of the Machine God. Started out of her trance she was just in time to hear Bruce whisper to Rain, 

“The mothers an android.  Wrap this up.” 

Rain nodded and smiled as if to a private joke and then turned to the mother, 

“And your mother here, she is a remarkable invention.”

Many things happened at once.  Algernon heard from Gwendolyn, But how do they know!

Sensing the growing tension behind him, Rain stepped aside to let Peggy move forward once more, now fidgeting with excitement.

“Oh thank god, I thought I was going to burst!  This android is astounding in its sophistication.  I can’t tell you how impressed I am…”

“Don’t make Mommy mad!” Finally Gwendolyn said terrified as the faint glow that Bruce had first spotted turned red and intensified.

Mommy is built very protective.

“We’ve triggered a safety feature.”  Bruce said just as Mummy’s hand came down on Rain’s shoulder, pinning him in place.  

“Gwendolyn, we can find you a perfectly safe place to work and study.”

“See Mommy, they don’t want to hurt me but keep me safe.”  Gwendolyn almost begged the android. Thankfully Mommy listened who let go of the squirming Rain.  Rain couldn’t move back fast enough from the machine’s grasp.

“Wonderful invention.  I’d truly love to look at this in more detail…”  Peggy cooed as Mommy’s eyes faded back to something like a semblance of normal.

“I’m sorry, mother guardian is programmed to protect.”  Gwendolyn looked distressed.

Peggy, leave that for somewhere safer.  Bruce again pulled Peggy back.  He said out loud to Gwendolyn, “We need to deliberate, but I can assure you that there is a place for you with our scientists.  Do you think you could walk us to the gate?”
“Yeah, sure.” She said leading the group out the front door with Mommy walking along behind.

“Fill Eliza in?”  Bruce whispered to the group as soon as he considered them out of earshot.

“Not yet.”  Rain scowled, rubbing away the bruise the android had inflicted, “I want to know what happened to her real mother.”

“Yeah, we’ll find that out.”  Bruce agreed nodded seriously.

Algernon, who had not stopped listening to Gwendolyn’s thoughts, walked just behind the girl as they all left the house.  As she contemplated a life outside the family home her thoughts drifted to her mother.

I haven’t fed her today.  She’ll be all right in the basement for a little while longer.  Again, the threat of violence from the android kept him mute and it wasn’t until the group were well away from the house that he was able to express his distress.

“Rain, from previous experience we’ve concerned ourselves when people were held against their will.”  He said as Bruce reported their findings to Eliza.

“Yes.” Replied Rain simply suspecting where this conversation was going.

“Her mother is being held in the basement.”

“Well that little detail is resolved.” He nodded and Bruce let Eliza know they needed to get back into the house.

“She’s also been to other recursions.  That’s where she gets the materials and the tech from.”
“What, the torch or Mommy?” asked Peggy.


“I think I got a name for that place,” Celia added, “When you were talking about materials it just came to me, Graveyard of the Machine god.  Mean anything?”  

Everyone shook their heads except Rain.

“And that just came to you?” He asked probing further into the experience and not the information, “Amazing, you’re all amazing!”

“I know I’m amazing, no need to trumpet it.”  She replied feeling self conscious at the hunch she couldn’t explain.
Rain shook his head astounded,

“What do you mean?  That’s the only worthwhile thing to do!”

When Bruce got off the phone he informed the group that Eliza herself would come by in an hour and pick up Gwendolyn and her ‘mother’ and take them to Seattle.  Not knowing what “Mommy” was made of could make her tricky to get through airport security so the drive was recommended.  

“Once they’ve left we can go in and look for the real mother.” Bruce explained and the group settled in for the wait. 

“How’s the mind link thing, Peggy?” Rain asked in a quiet moment.

“Okay.”  She thought as if trying to find the right words, “Slightly alien…very strange.”

“Everyone’s showing such amazing powers, even Celia.  I wonder what it means?”

“Should it mean anything?”  Peggy asked as Bruce’s phone rang.  It was time to go back in.

It wasn’t hard to find Gwendolyn’s real mother.  The group took it carefully,not knowing what they would find protecting Gwendolyn’s secrets.  In the end they found her mother strapped into a chair delirious. Without moving her at first, Bruce provided first aid and asked for a good cup of tea to be made.  She looked unkempt, had sores where her bindings had cut into the back of her hands and had lost weight to judge how her clothes fit. On the whole, she was not in great shape.

“Mrs Wurtz you’re safe.  Gwendolyn is safe.” Bruce told her as he assessed her injuries.  Algernon who was linked with the woman felt her relief at Bruce’s words, though she was unable to respond coherently. 

“Do you know how long you’ve been down here?”

Confusion from Mrs Wurtz and then a clear thought, 

I remember the Science Fair and then…  She had been down there a few weeks, it was lucky the group had come when they had, she may not have lasted much longer.

Slowly, with a little water and alot of gentle coaxing, she came round and was able to talk to the group.

“Gwendolyn has always been very sciency, very smart.  Unfortunately, my husband died two months ago and I admit I was struggling.”

“Have you seen the new protector?”  Bruce asked.

“Oh yes.  I met the new me.  One day Gwendolyn said I’d been…I’d been a bad mother and she made a better one.”  She said without anger, only a deep sadness which seemed worse to everyone listening.

“Yes, she is better.”  Algernon agreed with her and Mrs Wurtz started to cry.

“But it’s not her mother, you are.”  Rain added adamantly, focusing all his thoughts on Mrs Wurtz. “ As kids we don’t know how much we need our mother until their gone.”  

Bruce raised an eyebrow at this statement, but said nothing.

“This time of separation could be good for you and her.  Gwendolyn is safe with The Estate now and you can relax, heal and find yourself again.”  

Mrs Wurtz nodded her head and wiped her tears with the back of her bandaged hand. Slowly, she braced her arms against the chair she was still sitting in and stood up on shaking legs.  Bruce was there to help, but as soon as she left the seat, all the lights went out in the basement. In fact, all the lights went out in the house.

“Oh, she had her mother wired into the light circuit.”  Peggy commented without surprise or shock.

Without saying a word, Algernon took Mrs Wurtz’s place in the chair.  The lights went back on, so everyone could see Algernon pale and drawn.

“Algernon?!”  Rain went to step forward but was held back by Bruce.

“Get out of the chair, Algernon.” He said without offering a hand to help. With effort, Algernon pulled himself away from the chair and under the light of Celia’s flashlight Peggy investigated the chair.

“There’s an artefact of Strange origins built into the chair.”  She recognised the tingle in her back teeth. She found a set of pliers and pulled a rod from the chair back. “It looks like it drains people of energy. Could be useful against Dona Ilsa?”  Wrapping it carefully in insulation she placed the rod in her bag and started searching the basement for other items of The Strange. On a counter she found a powered wing for personal flight, a device that made an individual harder to see and a battery like device that worked as an uninterruptible power supply.

As an ambulance was called for Mrs Wurtz, Bruce called in and reported to Katherine and Algernon pulled Rain aside.

“Rain.  The woman Lydia killed people and we wanted to punish her, but the girl will get off?”  He asked watching Mrs Wurtz being wrapped in a blanket by Celia.

“It doesn’t seem fair, but we’re more lenient with the young as they haven’t fully learnt how to behave.  We have to remember she also didn’t kill her mother, there’s a chance she can make up for her mistakes.”

“It’s also proven that people her age have difficulty making good decisions.”  Peggy added overhearing the conversation, “Teenagers have the emotional intelligence of five year olds.”

“People my age…?”  Algernon replied and Rain could only smirk at his naive scarily intelligent friend.

“No ones like your age.” 

12. A well oiled machine

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.”

Rain sighed.

“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.

Gone fishin’

By a shady, wady pool

I’m wishin’

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.”

“How often?”
“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.”

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.”


“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.”


“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?”


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?”  


“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.”


“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.


“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.

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.