Whispher, USA Part 1: Qaf Mountain

IF YOU GOT out your binoculars in the late fall, you could always make out the trash in the gaps between the rusty trees over there on Qaf Mountain: a plum-crazy Dodge Challenger gone a chalky lavender beside an old Chevy on blocks, and the same rusted-out milk delivery box on the porch bearing a long-defunct company’s name in faded olive print. The Victorian manor at the peak was set in a flat knoll just near the summit, each fall revealing itself and each spring taken back behind the oaks and ash. Come waning November, with your binoculars you could once again see the warped porch boarding, the film-darkened windows showing sills lined with long-necked greenglass cola bottles and drawn tanned curtains. Every year the further colonization of nature was apparent: enormous robins’ nests and leaves and twigs dripping from the eaves. Each fall revealed the same decay but for a few minor departures from the human world, a drift to soil and gravity. One side of the house began to sag. An eave crumbled, as did the ridge courses on the saddle. A window went spider-webbed on the upper floor.

But a rusted watering can has changed its position on the porch. And overnight you discern circular wreaths hanging from the porch eaves that weren’t there before, in chromatic continuity with the autumn palette. Day after day (or as often as you pick up the binoculars to look) you think they are the same objects, but notice that sometimes they seem to get larger, or at least have changed their disposition on the eaves….

 

THIS HAPPENS EVERY autumn. When you see the three strange umbrellas or parasols appear in the tall paling grass before the porch, you know that the time has come for the arrival of the guests when, some night soon, a lightless caravan of six to eight cars enters the valley and crackles up the steep shattered asphalt up to the mansion and parks near the unlit house. With the binoculars—if the wind is right and you’re lucky enough to hear their ascent and grab the binoculars—you can see the drivers, shadows, really, quickly enter the house, one after the other.

You could stay up and wait for the dawn to break and give you some more details of what’s going on over there, but you’re never able to; you have a working life, a job, and by morning the vehicles have gone, and so have the parasols.

 

YOU’VE ASKED YOUR neighbors about this midnight caravan. They claim it doesn’t happen anymore. They tell you that on a November night back in the early 1980s a few teenagers, after seeing the train of cars wend its way into the valley, ventured to climb the mountain to spy. Returning, they’d reported nothing but silence around the manor, and not even a single candle’s light within. They said that some of the visitors’ cars, which had no license plates, had been unlocked but in the moonlight pouring down it was plain to see there was nothing to steal on their gnarled vinyl upholstery. They did note that none of the cars had been manufactured later than 1965 and all in appalling condition like the dead Challenger and Chevy that sat forever on the property—as if each vehicle had come here from equally forlorn estates across the country.

 

SO PEOPLE LIVE there, although you have never actually seen them, nor has anyone else in the area around Cough Mountain. It is an unnerving thought.

It went without saying that no one knew their phone numbers; everyone doubted they ever had one.

But there are stories. You have never seen the old man and his daughter who came here from some country in the Middle East. It was said the girl, who was small, had suffered from a rare disease that necessitated her wearing several layers of clothing at all times, covering every inch of her body, that she wore gloves and her kept her head swaddled and wearing sunglasses.

No—she was just a Muslim, in one of those burqa things…

No, she had been burned in a fire when a child…

No, wait…

What is affirmed is that this girl had never appeared outside the house but for a few weeks to attend elementary school in the early 1970s then abruptly disappeared…A neighbor recalled another resident (who’d long since moved) who had supposedly attended a wild party there in the late 1970s, a singular blowout whose legend in Whisper County died with the transplantation of new people into the area. There was talk of the use of mind-bending drugs at the bash, and that the aging Muslim man had shown his collection of the rarest stamps in the world, and that he was making some kind of machine—and that they saw the girl again that night, swaddled in her robes and scarf.

They said she was tiny. She had not grown at all, the size of a five-year-old, and you hear stories thrice removed that someone had thrown acid in her face in some distant barbaric Muslim country, and had been cowed for all these years by her strict father.

Not true, counters another resident. The father is a reclusive writer. He had driven around in the ’56 Chevy collecting books, visiting libraries and filling it until the tires were half-flat from all the weight and he’d wanted to start his own library out of his car.

No, that wasn’t right, says a third: he is a doctor of some kind. A physician.

No, the guy’s just an old acidhead hippie who foundered on the property, owned by his family for generations.

You hear of the Halloweens in those early years, when groups of children with their parents braved the 20-minute hike up the cracked asphalt to the manor and knocked to no answer in the weakened light of the single fly-dirt covered bare bulb on the long porch. That last time, 1977, when the autumn came, even the porch light had gone dark and only the occasional light of a candle could be seen up in the cupola…A neighbor asked the local meter reader if the electricity on Qaf Mountain was active anymore, and he replied with a firm no—it had been cut off in the late summer with no protest (not that the bills could even be delivered any more, seeing as the mailbox had disappeared and no known PO box in town was being used by the residents). This in turn evinced a trip to examine the county plat books, which revealed ownership of the estate by a company called Jabulqa and Jabulsa, based in Switzerland. A sally to the county courthouse yielded more facts: during the first decades the property tax had been paid promptly every year by a disheveled man in a black suit with bills from the 1930s, cash he claimed had once been gold but since the recent abandoning of the gold standard would one day become near worthless. Then the black-garbed man’s visits had ceased, replaced by mailed checks from a bank account owned by that Swiss law firm.

 

YOU LEARN THAT neighbors in parties of two or three would hike up there every few years when the motivation of another fall-winter overcame them. Simple curiosity. They had to see, up close, the house that loomed up there above their valley. Knocking on the door yielded nothing. No sound stirred within the house, but a buzzing from time to time. Instead, they took photos and called the county health people, who never seemed to show up. A few considered making a 911 fire call, just to have the experience of rushing up there with the firemen, to see them kick in that peeled green white red purple door (which looks like a tiny wafer through your binoculars) and find the inhabitant engaged in some depravity with that sickly Muslim girl, or she long-dead, an embalmed corpse. In the early 1980s, when the interest in the spooky place was at its peak, the neighbors had nightmares occasionally of entering to find some primitive crime beyond the pale of humanity. They came to expect that one day they would read an item in the local paper detailing the arrest of the inhabitants, for something that would shamefully put their venerable county into the history books.

Year after year these expectations were defeated. The decrepit mansion where the girl and her father lived has languished on the mountaintop for some 40 years without the glow of electric light in any window—always the pinpoint flicker of orange candlelight high in the structure at times, near the cupola.

 

UPON A BLANK slate such as this only bad things could be written. Yes, people lived in that house. They not just kept to themselves and bothered no one, but further they never left the place, not even for groceries, that you’ve ever seen. Such a-sociality always has a price. Thus stories circulated over the years, overelaborated to the point of absurdity and overtaken by alternative explanations no less fantastic. Some involved strange lights and unbelievably fragrant smells. Some involved sounds that came from the mansion, sounds approaching that of music but never quite breaching meter and melody. That the residents were to blame for unusual fluctuations in the neighborhood’s power grid over the years, and the sometime routine freezing of the cable transmissions. Sometimes when the wind was right a strong smell of burnt ozone down came off the mountain, on clear days without a cloud in the sky. Dogs would bark in neighborhood all at once in synchronization with the orb-light up there, at other times all running up to the mansion as if to be fed.

Just to see the inside of it, for God’s sake. Just to cast your eyes upon its residents, the house with no mailbox and no address but Qaf Mountain…Your neighbors have been watching a personal failure take place over there, for decades, and thank God it’s up isolated upon the mountaintop, far away enough and covered with greenery eight months out of the year. Thank God they’re not your next door neighbors, or live down here, on these streets, depressing the home values because of some foreign system of ethics or the isolation or a quirk in genetics which came to fruition in that old man (to think that something which happened in a mother’s womb long ago could ripen to take thousands of dollars off home values!).

You’d normally conjecture that someone had died, or become debilitated over a long period if it weren’t for the candlelight and winter hearth and eave decorations and parasols and perennial visitors in the leafy autumn.

You get the feeling they’re people whispered of for a generation, terrible things will explode on the 6 o’clock news. They kept to themselves.

Why didn’t anyone do something about them?

 

NOW RECENTLY, DURING a certain period, the neighbors living closest to the old house developed odd beliefs regarding their mailboxes—people on opposite sides of the mountain who had not spoken to each other in years.

One resident, then two, painted their box posts some bright color, polishing or even replacing the box itself, then elaborating the red flag.

But one man had been particularly touched.

The images came to him at night, at the edge of sleep. They were more than the passing neuronal murals and fragmented memories that accompany one’s descent to slumber. They lingered so realistically behind his eyelids that it compelled a throwing-off the covers and a groggy pencil sketch that gradually grew in detail as the night gave way to dawn. What he’d drawn was like a birdhouse, but not exactly—no, it was a mailbox? But why would a mailbox need eleven slots within slots, and at these odd angles? Why would the tripod posts holding it up resemble odd, twisting representations of a flaming column?

The touched man quietly feared for his sanity and didn’t tell his wife but nonetheless knew that if he didn’t buy the five kinds of recommended wood and begin work on it, then he would need to go see someone about his mental state. So he retired to his woodshop amongst nasal saws and their dust and angles and lathes, turning the drawing piece-by-piece and slot-by-slot into a three-dimensional reality.

When finished, it had 27 chambers. As he stared at it, unpainted but finished, he thought: looks like something he’d seen before.

He chuckled to himself, then was filled with alarm.

Without regard to any function it might have as a mailbox or birdhouse or whatever he would christen it with, it had to be a part of his landscape, on his property, it had to have the sunlight on its surface—that was unquestionably necessary, and the final touch: sunlight.

A birdhouse it would be.

He raised it. And as they used it, he became obsessed with the idea that the birds were actually spies in service to a supernatural race of beings who lived invisibly upon this planet—like they were a physical emanation of these beings’ minds, and that in building this house he had somehow appeased them. He had been chosen…Other times he was convinced that many people surely knew that this ancient wise race and their pact with the avian species existed, but had wisely held their tongues about it.

He had simply intuited the truth by building his birdhouse. The dream had done it.

These strange disobedient thoughts were especially difficult for him during the winter months of shortened light and his moods naturally shrank to a numb murmuring presence in his heart. But he did believe them. He stared at the enormous birdhouse in his backyard he’d fashioned from non-existence to reality with his own hands through the spring as the intended creatures found use for it and he thought maybe it would better have—or had meant to all along—be a mailbox after all. And maybe he’d been wrong: maybe mail deliverers were the physical agents of that superhuman yet Terran intelligence invisible somewhere within the fold of the earth’s magnetosphere…

 

AS THE POOR confused man suffered, three miles to the northwest of Qaf Mountain, a mother of four dreamt of a mailbox for birds or a birdhouse for letters and woke up confused from her nap and began to draw—just as a child to the southwest of the mountain doodled with a ruler and crayons something which astounded his parents and made them demand he reveal who had actually drawn it, for it couldn’t possibly have been the imaginary friend named Why or Yoni who had pushed his ruler at precise angles and guided his Crayolas into this finely stippled…thing which would capture birdsong and translate it if built, and be the method of envois between the people who lived below the earth and the people above, the messengers as he, or she, this imaginary friend Why, had said, and further that a war had been going on between these two races for centuries, unseen and unknown to people, and that the Moon was a spaceship, or more properly a device which had been made to keep human beings from seeing another earth altogether everything that had ever existed in the Universe, not least being the truth that they had been made in the Image of God….

 

THEN COMES THE night of the three lights.

There is not a cloud in the sky as the area lights up like mid-day, the illuminations hanging for a full double-second each time.

Like God was finishing up a roll of film.

The next morning you hear a commotion going on down there on Flanders Street—screaming and wails. The voice cracks several times, and is repeating the same phrase: “She’s gone. She’s gone.”

You pick up the phone and call the police station.

 

THE PEACE OFFICERS trudge the shattered driveway to investigate the disturbance. The final stretch of slope that rises to the mansion is difficult, as if the eons of earth, wind and rain pushing one another had leant a maliciousness in sculpting the final passage upward, giving adventurers one last argument to abort their attempt. One of the officers falls behind, gasping with the difficulty of his surplus poundage. He stops, panting. The path levels off into an inclining steppe. The huge decrepit Victorian manor comes into view—and there’s still a wild football field’s length of lawn to go.

Beyond the cars, three strange patio umbrellas have been erected that lean a few yards apart from each other. Their canopies are milky translucence, and their ribbing triply jointed in exquisitely curved white and silver material. The canopy material seems to fade as the officers pass. This draws their attention. They trudge closer, and the dissolve continues. But for a slight distortion to the tree trunks fifty yards away through them, the material with which their canopies are made has gone entirely invisible. One of the officers, then the other, reach out to touch what they know is substantial. Their fingers hope to make it real. What their fingers touch is like a ghostly excrescence of the air itself, taut, air, less than cellophane. They can see a shimmer as their fingers disturb it, like it is refracting the light.

They pace backwards. The canopies gain opacity with each retreating step, like a series of spider webs superimposing upon one another. Three times they repeat the experiment. This is something an expert should take a look at because damned if it isn’t one of the neatest things they’ve ever seen—especially the pearly iridescence of the pole and the runner that rings it where the ribbing and cleats are connected when you’re up close, all of which are rigid to the touch but too warm for the surrounding mountain air—as if they are generating power of some kind.

“The hell?”

The officers drift back from the objects and regain their purpose. Their boots send the porch creaking, glancing back at the umbrellas that now stir like sheets of milk in the wind. They pound upon the door. Its steel-reinforced frame presents a line of deadbolt locks. The windows, boarded over from within, show cracked prisms hanging from sun-dyed blinds.

A milk delivery box lays there against the house’s warped boarding. It is decades old and says GREEN SPRING DAIRY. Officer John Adams V had grown up three miles from here and suddenly recalls that his family had an identical box when he was a toddler. He hasn’t thought about milk delivery—the very idea of it—in four decades. Another sensation overtakes the reverie. “Smell that?” he says. “Easter lilies or somethin.”

They continue pounding upon the door. The tall officer Adams puts his hand flat against the firearm at his hip and tells his corpulent partner Benjamin Franklin V he’s going around the back.

An emerald wave of ivy has crashed upon the side of the house and adhered its pattern there. The waist-high grass offers resistance and he resorts to a sort of treading motion with the lower half of his body. The old house is enormous and its surface dappled and spotted, the sun and rain having beaten at least a dozen successive layers of paint off in haphazard descent to its original oak and pine surface, wood whose provenance was in the trees cleared upon from this very slope over a century ago. The ivy that has wended its way up the boards is unlike any he’s ever seen: there’s a purple translucence to it. The effect against the exposed paint-hues beneath is something he might describe as a modern art masterpiece. He makes his way through the green ocean to the rear. Two more rusting hulks come into view, one of them a Model T or A. There are a few outbuildings: a shed near the forest line fifty yards away where Qaf Mountain comes to its peak, and some wrecked trellises and arbor, an attempted pergola around the property’s edge.

The wind tousles the grass.

Most prominent is an enormous, smoke-blackened pagoda. Adams comes closer and sees that it has been constructed around what looks like a pile of dirt or ash, shiny as coal. He raises his sunglasses. Its texture is powdery, and he receives the unsettling impression of looking into something.

He wades back to the house. The rear porch screens have been devastated by an air force of birds. Here has come to rest a cherrywood television seven decades old. Its screen is gone and inside it roosts a smaller TV in identical condition. There is a radio, and an old Victrola.

He folds back the screen and knocks upon the back door. More deadbolts and a steel frame. The windows are as sealed as the front’s and look as brittle as spun sugar.

He loops around the house and retakes the long wraparound porch and again stares at the three bizarre umbrellas. Officer Benjamin Franklin V is examining what could charitably be called ‘wreaths’ that hang from the eaves at yard intervals, great whirling shapes composed of long twigs and dried grass artfully intertwined, with seeming microscopic precision, into circularity. Some are made of intricately looped thread-bows that compose larger looped bows that finally enter the form of the wreath itself—a looped bow. It is similar to itself at any level of inspection. And some of them are not circular in form—some are ovals and ellipses, tapered bottom and top. They rotate in the breeze. The weavings, knitted in uniform inward-spiraling flows, are identical whether you look at them from the front or back. Each individual twig is itself curved and precise duplicated, as if the person who’d made it had spent days—hell, weeks—gathering twigs and separating them into individual gradations of arc and texture, thickness and length, amassing thousands in each the right element before fitting them together to achieve such a blossoming effect.

These latter look vaguely labial, and Officer Franklin is disturbed at the association in his mind: they look for all the world like disembodied vulvas. As his eyes locked upon it he finds blood flowing purposefully into his loins. The longer he stares, the harder he gets. He averts his gaze in confused embarrassment when a voice sounds behind them.

An old man stands on the porch— a man with a hanging tired face and long white beard to his sternum. Officer Adams squints at the door. The old man closes it with his gnarled left fist, and Adams notes a greenish glow that seems to undulate in the final peek of interior as wood meets wood.

“Sir, good morning,” Franklin says, and introduces them. “And your name is?”

The old man tells them, his violet eyes shining beneath tufted brows. Adams says: “First thing.” He points at the umbrellas. “Where did you get those things?”

He curses and lunges unsteadily but Adams halts him with a gentle palm. The man is dressed in beaten dungarees and shoes that are negligible shards of rubber and blackened canvas that once, perhaps, were sneakers. The smell of sweat risen and dried countless times meets their nostrils. A rich, human smell.

“Later,” Adams says, “you can move them later, sir.”

His age-spotted hands spasm upon the frozen waterfall of grey whiskers and pulls on them in agitation. “Yessiqqah, my daughter, made em.”

Franklin asks, “She made the frames, too?”

“They’re paralunas—for stoppin the goddam moon transmissions.”

Franklin and Adams look at each other and let the comment pass. “What kind of fabric is that they’re made of?” Franklin asks.

“Agartthan silk.”

A filthy green flannel shirt hangs opened to the sternum, the threadbare tee-shirt beneath it showing silver chest hairs and time-bled tattoos gone to shapeless bruises. Franklin replies, “She must be talented, to make something like that…Well, that’s why we’re here. Your daughter. A neighbor spotted a girl wrapped in sheets walking up Flanders Street down here early yesterday morning.”

“Mm-hm.” He whimpers.

“Was that her?

“Mm-hm.”

Adams confesses: “Never been up here before. I don’t know anyone who has, ever…Why you got the place boarded up? It’s been like this a long time, hasn’t it.”

“Man’s got his ways. Keeps to hisself.”

Franklin’s right arm crooks upward to the transceiver clipped to his shoulder and reduces the static’s volume. “Neighbors, the Colberts down there, reported seeing you down on Flanders this morning. Heard you yelling about ‘she’s gone.’”

His eyes lower regretfully but is silent.

Franklin adjusts his mirrored aviators. “Sir, we’ll ask you to be straight with us. If you insist on messin around, we can continue this discussion elsewhere. That was you, was it not?”

Distantly: “Yeahp.”

Adams’s handset too crackles with distortion. It seems to have lost its connection.

“Colberts reported lights flashing up here in the middle of the night, too.”

He waves dismissively.

“How old’s your daughter?”

He jams a cheroot into his moustache and strikes a blue-tip against the wall and lights it and begins to speak rapidly in a voice keyed high: “She’s my Midon, she’s my heart. She prays for us all…Taught me that the dusk is the blessed time. Taught me there’r moments of the day, in the gloamin, mostly, where the door to the Other Side swings wide. We’ll never come back to them moments again, an that’s why we celebrate em…”

He sniffles and shuffles and crosses his arms and clutches at his sides and is sweating in the cool mountain breeze.

Franklin hooks a thumb on his belt. “Let’s talk about it inside your house.”

He shakes his head, his white hair winging outward. “I guess she’s gone in search of him,” he mutters.

Franklin, sharply: “What was that?”

Near-whisper: “She might’ve gone off searchin’ for him. This pen pal of hers.” He chuckles. “She drew her own stamps onna env’lopes, fooled ever’one.”

Adams and Franklin exchange looks. Franklin gets out his pad and pen.

“Who’s this pen pal?”

“Think’s name’s John Priester.”

Franklin writes. Adams asks, “Do you know where does this Priester live?”

Old man shrugs, arms out wide. “California, I think.”

Franklin repeats, “John Priester, you say. Spelled like it sounds?”

“Yeahp.”

“Do you have envelopes or letters she received from him?”

“No, she got em,” he replies, seeming to draw satisfaction from this. “She took em with her. Took the maps he drew, too. Every letter, an every projection.”

“So this Priester drew maps for her?”

“Yeahp. She took em letters, and her holy book.”

“Holy book?”

“Her Korun-Bible-Dharma-dust. Her holy book. Those tablets we was decipherin—”

Franklin points with his pen. “Wait, sir, just a second. Concentrate. Her pen pal, this John Priester, he drew maps for her? For how to get to his house?”

“Not ‘zactly. S’a map of the Other Place. And how to get there. Through the moments I’s tellin you bout—through the dusk, to the Other World.”

Franklin’s patience is running out. He turns away and paces along the porch with his face down, careful to keep his eyes from those bizarre wreaths, examining the nailed-in windows and lifting old oil cans and foggy beer bottles and shapeless pieces of metal with his boot, going unchallenged. It is a part of his job that he fully inhabits. Franklin has two daughters, and this decrepit house is the kind of squalor and insanity he would give his life protecting his two young angels against—with the help of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He hears Adams say, “Now, if she’s missing and you don’t report it formally to us, there are things we have to do. Understand? You describe her to us.”

“She’s the most beautiful girl in the world.”

Adams chuckles. “Not helpful…What’s her height? Let’s start with that.”

He thrusts out an arm at chest level, turning his palm upward in deprecation. Franklin writes an arbitrary figure of 4’6” down in his notebook.

“Eye color?”

“Blue? Blue takes over, when she’s happy.”

Franklin sighs.

“Hair color and type?”

“Hair took a long time.”

“Sorry?”

“Took her a long time. To grow it. When it come out it was white, silver, fine, fine white hair.”

“She has white hair?” Franklin pops a piece of gum in his mouth. “Distinguishing marks?”

He brightens at this. “She wadn’t in reg’lar school but a month. But she did good.”

Franklin chuckles, wags his head. “I mean ‘marks’ as in ‘marks on her body,’ sir.”

Franklin gently taps his baton against the window as if testing it for the necessary force.

Could be a harmless old fool.

But then again, maybe not. No-one in the entire county knew these two people or had ever even seen them. The more Officer John Adams thinks about it, the more miraculous this seems, what is happening—that this old inhabitant was here talking to them in the flesh. The bizarre things he’d heard, long ago, about this mansion up here. It suddenly feels as if he and Franklin are privileged—like an edict has been lifted to allow them to meet the inhabitant. “Does she have any distinguishing birthmarks or moles or scars or any unusual features?”

“No. Got a kinda big head, though. Bigger’n usual.” The old man squints. His forehead gathers its wrinkles and tears squeeze from his eyes.

Franklin can’t discern what’s depicted on the ancient iron-on decal on the man’s tee shirt and it is beginning to irk him—that and the smell of the lilies, and the stench of sweat radiating the old man’s clothes. He is nearing the end of his tolerance. “What exactly is wrong with your daughter?”

The old man glares at Adams’s nose, then Franklin’s eyebrow. He does not reply but seems to lapse into a trance, wavering on some inner wind, rocking on the balls of his feet.

“Talking to you, sir. Does she need help to dress and feed herself?”

“No, no,” he scowls, eyes shut. “She’d manage…She’s fast. Faster than a bird. It’s the rest of the world’s gotta worry. Mark it. Things could become more different than they’ll ever’ve been. I gotta get her tiara to her.” He pulls a flask from his back pocket and takes a long draught of whiskey.

“What’s her tiara got to do with it?”

“She made it for her weddin day.”

Franklin, disgusted, waves his partner off the porch into the long grass. “You stay right there sir, and don’t go back inside. You understand me?”

The old man remains motionless. They retreat from his earshot into the grass beside the chalky plum Challenger. Adams shakes his head in pity. “Have you ever in your life.”

“Be sad if it weren’t so off—the whole thing’s off.”

“Should we run him in?”

Franklin, adamant: “If he doesn’t file the report then we’ll do it.”

“Did you see inside the house?”

“No.”

“Looks like he’s got electricity. I saw lights in there.”

They return to the porch and Adams asks brightly, “You got a generator, sir?”

“Hail no. Those things ‘splode.”

“Neighbors, the Colberts, seen lights up here last night, s’why I ask. And you have no electricity, that right?”

He shakes his white head. “No good for her mind or body, that ‘lectromagnetic pollutin. No good for any our minds.”

Adams can smell the cloud of whiskey surrounding him, and with it a sudden memory. He quells it with a quick serenity prayer.

Franklin goes all business again. “What is your exact name? Your name and sosal security number.”

He frowns viciously. “I don’t pick up that Roosevelt thing.”

Franklin snorts. “Every citizen’s got a sosal security number. Hell, even illegals got ‘em now…That’s okay, we can find you in the database. Right. The plat books say —” he consulted his note pad “—a law company named Jabulqa and Jabulsa own this property?”

The old man shrugs.

“So what’s your relation to them?”

Again he tightens his shoulders upward.

“That would make you squatters, wouldn’t it, if you had no relation to them.”

“I ain’t a squatter. The rest of you are. We humans are the latecomers. Yessiqqah’ll show you that.”

Franklin tightens his face. “How long have you lived up here?”

His brow is furrowed as if he is counting.  Then again for a third time he ends it with a shrug. Adams is spinning one of the circular sculptures. The old man rises to his feet and points angrily. “Don’t touch that! S’one of her shields.”

The wind picks up for a moment and rushes the mountaintop, scattering the smoke needling from the old man’s dying cheroot. He smiles at them and both cops register mild surprise at the perfectly white, straight set of teeth, or more likely dentures, which present themselves between his whiskers, but for which Adams notices (for Smiler Marno would not smile at them again) a front incisor that glitters with gauzy orange and blue and green, like an opal. Adams says, “How do you live up here, sir? How do you all eat? You’ve got well water. I saw a pump in the back.”

The old man takes another draw at his flask. “Got rivers of water in this mountain—the finest, purest in the world. Unmucked about with fluoride and other contaminitzes. Agartthan water. Pure, non-lunar water.”

Again Adams smells the homemade liquor and it is like a physical blow to him. He clears his throat. He hasn’t smelled whiskey in almost two years and he’s amazed at the warm comfort, the instant familiar blush of memory the scent brings. Evil, to him—pure evil.

The sunlight throws a strange blue iridescence across the grass.

Adams: “What’d you do for a living?”

He lights the dead cheroot again with a trembling hand, the smoking object agitating upon his lips. He replies: “I was a surfer. Then I’s a cartog’pher. Yessiqqah helped me make maps of invisible places we can’t see yet. She can see em, but none of us’ve earned the right to see em yet. The Other World. So she made maps of it for me.”

Again the old man lifts the flask.

“Slow down with that stuff,” Franklin counsels evenly, “or you might end up telling us the truth.”

He puffs, takes another tight swig, wipes at his mouth.  “Yessiqqah looked in all the old writin of her peoples, an the typewriters told me stories of those dead places an their postal systems an the stamps an all their sussequent collectors…So my brother out there,” he gestured a hand, “an his family gets the stamps an bring em to me. An I give em the Agartthan water in return for their help.”

At this incoherent outburst Adams recalls something. A legend. A story. “Would this family of yours—would they be the people who come up here to your house in the fall? Like at night?”

He leans back against the wall and the bench squeaks harshly and he makes a perfunctory zippering motion across his lips, then mutters, “They collectin star locations for me, too. I’m astronomerizin. Astrologizin, too. Got a telescope up in the cupola.” He points skyward, a flowing motion of the arms.

Adams chokes down a laugh. Franklin too cannot contain a chuckle and says, “That’s the third time you’ve changed your occupation.”

The whiskers twist into a scowl somewhere beneath. “’Occupation,’” he spits. “Sound like somethin we do to while away the time. Man’s gotta have more’n one occupation to find the truth about the life he livin.” The expression in his eyes takes no part in what he is saying, as if the uncontrollable momentum of the outburst had thrown his mind into a further level of disorientation. He seems confused now. “I…I been takin dictation from her on how to live an how to build this thing to allay the Moonery an get the goods on the future.”

Franklin asks, “Read the future, you mean?”

“No, the typewriters I got do. Comes out in code—from the Moon. Yessiqqah’s got the decipherin key.”

Moon. Lunacy. A lunatic is about right, Franklin thinks—the guy needs subtitles. Franklin’s viscera has edged into nausea at the disintegration of the world that occurred on this hilltop, the normal measures of consciousness and civilization and purpose gone meaningless. He looks with disgust at the old man’s weathered hands, the long grey pitted fingernails and stained with a blue cast and suddenly he remembers that this place was the sort of decayed old houses of which he was mortally afraid as a child, the isolated and desolate islands untouched by society, so terrifying him with their voided windows and peeled exteriors. He feels a tingling across his scalp and at the back of his neck—an old reflex, the prelude to violence which has gotten him in trouble once before—and he knows what it means and needs to control it, because he’s seeing himself cuff the old man to the buckled porch railing and just searching kicking in that door  and searching the place straight up.

And  pulling down the hideous twig hangings behind him.

Yet he also senses, with even more certainty, that he not only would not enter the manor, but could not enter it. Even with his scattergun, he would not be able surmount that warped doorstep—for there were truths and horrible things behind the grimy windows to which he never wanted to subject his memory.

The things we have to put up with, the nonsense in this job.

Lord Jesus, help me.

His gloved hand finds his hat and lifts it and replaces it. The thought chills him that this seemingly abandoned house has been inhabited all this time by two people on the edge of humanity. He jerks his head and says, “H-hey, John, let’s go…Y-you gotta declare her missing, sir, if your daughter hasn’t returned in forty-eight hours. We’re letting you know that if you do not declare her missing, there are things w-we have to do.”

Adams senses his partner’s impatience and asks him to spell his daughter’s name. The man complies admirably then says, “I don’t know her other name. Her secret name, that one her people gave her.”

Franklin has gingerly taken a few paces back towards the slanting porch steps.

“Tell me something and we’ll go,” Adams asks, “do you know who the current President of the United States is?”

“Don’t care who Pres’dent is. He ain’t my Pres’dent, whoever hell he is.”

Adams is glad to escape the old man’s whiskeyfied orbit. He tries for a paternal note. “Okay, then, that’s fair enough. Can you tell me what year it is, then.”

“You want local, or galactic reckonin?”

Adams chuckles and tightens his mouth. “Oh, give us—local time.”

Franklin is thinking, in spite of himself: Probable cause. Anything. Just to look around you. Probable cause.

The whole house gives probable cause.

“Last galactic moonami was bout twenty-six million years ago.” The old man blows a raspberry and makes an elaborate dismissive wave and says, “Astromauts said the moon reverberatated like a gong when they landed that tin can upon it. You two know that? It went on vibratin for hours. Did you know that? Like a gong. Strue. Goddamn infernal thing’s hollow, ‘s’all. It’s a machine. It’s our prison warder.”

Franklin puts his hand on his Glock and the feel of its plastic comforts him. “That is some weird, wild stuff!” he replies, mocking. “I did not know that!”

Smiler Marno puffs philosophically. “Fillin a tin can up with fuel an sendin men up there’s nothin. Nothin! A real man who conquers one twist in his psyche is ten times a thing to marvel o’er than launchin men up to that goddamn sent’nel up there…The Moon takes our soul energy when we die, an you better believe it! People think they go to heaven when they pass on. Well they don’t. They spirit get taken right up there to it. Without some spir’tual work of yisself down here, while you livin, you done for. Food for it. Tell you nother thing: Nicky Copernicus was a flea who never saw nothin in his life. Hubble, too. An that Sagan son of a bitch might’ve come from star-stuff, but not me. Not me.”

The two officers chuckle. His voice cracks, tears balanced there on the rims, creeping down the crevices of his face. “Oh, she’s gone…I will die.”

“No,” Adams comments, “that smoke and booze’ll kill you, that’s what’ll kill you. Last thing: How old are you, sir?”

He drags elaborately on the cheroot and tilts the last of the flask and pulls another one from his ragged jeans’ back pocket, one that looks made of brass and plain, a hundred years old. He doesn’t answer and Adams refrains from asking again. The two officers step off the porch onto the earth and begin the long slog down. Adams has an idea and turns and shouts, “Hey, mister—any interest in getting those cars off the property?”

“What?”

“You want to get those cars off the property, sell them?”

“Hail no. Made a baby in that Chevy. And another in the Dodge.”

Adams chuckles and nods at the Challenger. “Boy, that’d be a beaut, fixed up. Tires still look full, too.”

“John—” Franklin breathes. “Look.”

John Adams turns and looks. He is mildly perplexed at what he sees there plainly before him, but not so Officer Ben Franklin, who stills the sudden quivering in his hands by jamming them down into his trouser pockets—the sight of birds upon the porch roof, the birds in the sills, the eaves, hundreds of them. They are silent and motionless, sitting as if at attention, as the old man places his hand on the door handle and shouts in a cracking voice, “Now git the hell off our property, you Ahrimen!” and is gone.

 

SMILER MARNO’S RUSE has worked.

Later, towards the dusk, he shambles to the front of his house, where the blue shadows have deepened. He pulls each paraluna from the ground, carefully folding them, and returns inside, descending to the sub-basement. The paralunas have been fully charged by the sun the past weeks and gently glow. He ascends, hobbles outside to pray. He prostrates himself before the spectrum-banded horizon, thanking the sun for its latest resurrections in the earth. When he finishes he stands before the pagoda and the black ash pile behind the manor, a cinder hill of burned pages and the aborted coke from a thousand experiments, now gone to Black Earth, that he long ago positioned at the apex of the energy field within the mountain.

He lights a match and tosses it at his feet. In seconds a glow works through the black mound’s edge. Steam rises. Soon the tumulus billows fragrant smoke which will fill the county. Winds will spiral outward from the mountain, alerting dim memories of purpose in his compatriots scattered throughout the land—and triggering in other people of Whisper, he hopes, visions of a future not yet their own. But soon.

In three days, the Moon’s energy will peak. In six, a vortex will appear.

The King was returning from his exile in the Other World—and Yessiqqah is to join with him….She has her duties as the Ambassador, after all, of the Good People.

He reenters the house and unhooks his old three-piece suit from the closet. The cellophane has gone insubstantial. He cradles it upstairs and undresses and puts it on and there’s ample waistband and shoulder room, his mineral body having shrunk somewhat over the past four decades. Its polyester weave wheezes and crackles as he climbs to his cupola observatory and fixes his gaze on the ancient machine that hangs in the dusk sky.

He smiles, his incisor catching a glint off its reflected sunlight.

He says, Challenge accepted.

 

TWO POLICEMEN NAMED Franklin and Adams—just as she’d prophesied. And he had told them the truth about the Moon, as she’d instructed him to do. It had the intended effect. The big, heavy one, Franklin—oh, he’s the conduit; it’s from him that the future troubles will all come…Franklin been chosen, and he didn’t even know it. What the officers thought was booze he’d been guzzling had been made with Agartthan water, and from its unveiling powers he had been able to visibly discern Franklin’s astral body there trailing just beside him, desiring its freedom from his mineral corpse and limited imagination, straining upon its silver cord, and how the poor man’s thought-forms had constrained the ghost.

A dim memory come to confluence.

“Awf, God!” he cries, pawing at the polyester lapels, diving hands into the suit pockets. The support cabal—it was his duty to roust them. He’d made a promise decades ago. He had written their names and addresses upon a piece of paper or some kind, a receipt or something, and stuck it in this suit?

The wrinkled bit of paper meets his dulled fingertips in his left breast pocket and after ten tries he pulled out a yellowed triple-folded strip of cash register roll, his faded writing in ballpoint chunky upon it and sectioning it off into names and addresses.

                                                                                  RED STAR BOOKS

                                                                        Theophilus Smith, proprietor

                                                                  Bleecker Street, New York, New York

 

Theophilus Smith! Now there was a name he hadn’t thought about in decades—nearly gone neurologically inert. A near-victim of Hoover’s FBI, wasn’t he?

He had to physically visit Smith. It would have to be a mineral-body trip to New York to tell Theophilus—to physically drive himself there. Having lived without any public record of his existence all these decades, he would have a head start on the Moonie Bastards. The Tribe that Marno’s twin had spent decades gathering would hopefully get word through Theophilus that the final time is here—the King is finally returning from the Other World, and Yessiqqah has begun her pilgrimage, her haj, to a marriage prophesied.

After abandoning the house, Yessiqqah had said, Qaf Mountain would disappear and a fountain would take its place. Members of the Tribe had come here once a year, in the fall, to drink from the temple’s subterranean Agartthan river and bring some for the rest of them. They came here to Qaf Mountain to receive their orders but, now that he was leaving, they would no longer have access to the water. Its properties would dissipate in their mineral bodies in thirteen lunar cycles, and once again they would fall prey to the veil of transmissions, regressing to the delusions the human race—with exceptions—had suffered for the past 20,000 years, causing such strife as fear, hatred, and unnecessary death.

 

HE METICULOUSLY FOLDS Yessiqqah’s tiara and gathers his flasks of water and places them in his burlap gunnysack, then retrieves the Agartthan paraluna she had specially made for him. Lastly, the diamonds and gold he’d spent thirty-three years making: forty-seven pounds of the stuff.

He secures the eleven locks on the front door and totters out with his to the Dodge Challenger. When he’d last driven it, he can’t remember. He forces its door open and places the sack inside, then eases onto the sun-wrinkled vinyl seat. He sits quite a while gathering energy, then sings aloud the vowels she’d taught him.

Frequencies harmonize. He inserts the key and turns.

The engine starts.

He guns it and skids off with a pebble explosion in his wake, navigating with heaves the cracked and overgrown driveway to the smooth paved surface of Flanders Street and is gone.

 

—————————

MIDNIGHT HAS FALLEN over Lafayette Square Park before the White House. It is empty now but for a few benched homeless people and the Secret Service agents, sitting alert in their vehicles and deployed on foot about the area…And here at the edge of the Pennsylvania Avenue asphalt sits Concepcion Picciotto, the lone stalwart protester, lounging in her anti-nuclear peace shrine that faces the ever-lit White House.

Three times Concepcion has seen something—a blur, or a wiping of the light in her line of sight.

It passes with the swiftness of a bird. But it is a small, human shape.

She even felt a breeze as it passed her the last time.

The Secret Service seems to have noticed it, too—and this spooks her. They have gone on a higher alert than usual.

 

ON A WORN BENCH not far away, a homeless man named Joseph Hubbins stirs uneasily. A hypnagogic fit has locked itself in his limbs. He cannot move; his head feels like a block of lead. It now weighs more than the earth itself.

He strains to lift his neck and gurgles, gasping.

Within his chest, a thick nodule of congealed blood half the size of a pea has finally peeled itself from the aorta in his heart. A cold sensation shocks his torso. Then a sharp pain. His eyelids flutter but he cannot move.

There is a presence whistling over him. A tiny frail being who places a warm hand upon his chest. It brings its long fingers together into a tent shape. It pulls upward and a column of light from its fingertips has extracted something from his chest. The being has taken a little something from his and dissolved it upon the air and he comes sputtering awake as a high voice sounds in his head:

Open your heart wider than your mouth, be quiet, and listen to her

Then it vanishes. He sleeps.

 

“WHAT THE HELL is that?”

The two Secret Service operatives keep seeing the signature warmth there on the screens, of a human figure, once here in the park’s southern end, then in seconds at the northern end, then a third time in the center. It winks in and out on the monitor.

The scanners are working properly. They call the foot patrol for a visual confirmation and agents are sent out into the Park.

A technician in a nearby van mutters, “There’s something going on…Two of us have seen it. Looks like a child, a little kid.”

They sample footage of the past minutes from the live streaming video and see a blur that winks in and out.

Then something like a flock of birds has arced over the fence and the motion detectors go crazy.

 

FIVE HOURS LATER, Joseph Hubbins rouses himself from his bench and casts off the tattered blankets that have kept him warm these weeks. He blinks sluggishly in the silver morning light that edges into the leaves and grass and considers the strange dream that had awoken him last night.

Open that heart of yours wider than your mouth, fool, shut the hell up, and listen to her.

The phrase seems to have been lodged in his mind since the dream. He feels something in his chest and the sensation is one that flows through his blood to his head. It is a wonderful feeling. It is old, it is archaeological, almost—if that’s the right word for it. Something had been exhumed from inside him, his past. He hasn’t felt this sensation in years.

He has no home, yes, but this is a circumstance to which he has become accustomed.

Tears well in his brown eyes.

Tabitha.

It was no way for a father to have acted.

He wipes at his bloodshot eyes and picks at the crust upon his eyelids. It seems she had come to him last night, his daughter’s spirit, and touched him somehow. The feeling is not unmixed with fear that something has happened to her. Poor girl. His chest aches with trepidation: that perhaps she has just died.

To do what he has done: An exile from her life. Exiled his dumbass loser life from his own flesh and blood, from his loins.

He moves around slowly in his blankets. Another damn day on a bench, like the preceding hundreds. The urine soaked into his trousers waft up meet his nostrils. A half-dozen other smells. His smells. In a few hours the soup truck would groan into McPherson Square. This bench is practically his, and the Secret Service do not bother him. He sighs and thinks of his daughter Tabitha. He hasn’t spoken with her in six years. She has given up on him. Or he her. He can’t even now rightly recall the terrible chain of events, what exactly happened when. Maybe his mind is confused by this aching hunger in his stomach.

He pulls the blanket tight and something falls to the ground and his eyes follow it. It looks like a purple seed, half the size of a pea. It transfixes him for no reason with its odd shape. He slowly reaches for it, his back straining, and picks it up and squeezes it and some thickened red juice pops from it and stains his fingers like blood.

He can’t shake the thought that it is somehow connected to him.

He has some quarters. The payphone at the McPherson Square subway station, grimy as it is, still works. Today is the day, and a hope arises in his heart.

 

LATER, HE WOBBLES before the telephone with its gnarled bitten handset and sooty metal cable. He experimentally inserts the edge of the first quarter to see if some idiot hasn’t blocked it with gum or a slug. But it’s clear. Then he waits. He loiters as commuters pour from the escalators before him, on to jobs keeping the machine going for another day.

He waits. Just hearing Tabitha’s voice might be enough for him to just hang up. His hand might do it on its own, just close the connection. And he would be out three precious quarters then.

He cannot do it.

There is the soup truck in the distance.

Maybe tomorrow.

 

————————

THE DAY AFTER their encounter on Qaf Mountain, the two police officers alerted Sheriff Thomas Jefferson V and the county judge that, in all likelihood, the senile old man would not report his daughter’s disappearance.

Franklin, thinking back on the exchange, has difficulty believing she even exists. It wouldn’t be impossible, he said, that she’d died long ago and the old man, in his advanced state of mental senescence, had only imagined her living there ever since. Right?

Adams countered that this would require asking himself why old man imagined her gone now, and so thoroughly believed her gone…And two witnesses had reported the veiled figure walking along Route 7.

“The old coot coulda done it,” Franklin tried.

Unlikely, given his permanent state of disorientation. The reports were of a small figure. Tiny. It would be too much of a coincidence.

Franklin could not stop talking about their hour up there; it had thoroughly rattled him, especially the birds roosting on the roof. He’d looked up Jabulqa & Jabulsa on the Internet. The law firm that supposedly owned the property was located in Switzerland, but he found nothing more about them. He’d spoken with Pat Henry over at the county records and Matheson at the comptroller’s and confirmed that they received tax payments every year from Jabulqa & Jabulsa; he’d asked what the checks looked like, but Matheson said he’d get back to him.

Adams then found Franklin at his desk studying satellite pictures on the Net of the area around Qaf Mountain—but the mountain itself was a glitchy, grey blur. He’d seemed particularly spooked by those twig sculptures hanging on the porch, cursing their almost inhuman craftsmanship and supernatural insinuation, and marveled with loathing at the birds as they’d departed in a single sighing surge just as he and Adams made the halfway point down the mountain’s vestigial driveway.

Franklin almost didn’t care if this “Yessica’s” disappearance was reported or not. So what, he’d complained. He muttered about just wanting the old man gone off the property. He couldn’t believe an abomination such as that house was allowed to happen, not in his world, certainly not in Whisper County.

 

THE NEXT DAY, Cpl. Alexander Hamilton V recalled taking a disjointed call several weeks ago from an employee at Whisper’s Verizon hub station. The rep had gone up with a colleague to Qaf Mountain.

For ten minutes the official had ranted incoherently about encountering a “rogue wind” up there.

Franklin was all over it, and convinced Adams to immediately accompany him to the Verizon office. Adams sighed and went along to humor his partner.

The rep stammered, his eyes widening. “Oh, that…place. We, uh, tried talking to the tenant and, uh…that was that.”

“No go, I take it?”

“No, no go.” The mountain was a sweet spot for a tower, and Verizon had been chosen to take the lead for all the big four cellular carriers and interview the tenants for a generous contract to build on the property, which would have stretched the hexagonal cell a bit but have given sterling reception to all of the northwest section of Whisper County.

“And you talked to the old guy who lived there?”

Ross made an ambiguous motion with his head that could have been a nod.

“Well?” Franklin snapped. “What happened?”

“It was—I gotta say, you know…Jeez.”

Franklin’s gaze bounced between the two employees. “You were there too, right? What happened?”

“It’s…You gotta understand…I’ll be honest. It was the strangest thing’s ever happened to me—personally, you know.”

Adams watched Franklin regain some patience as he waited for the two employees to stop exchanging stricken looks.

“The old guy answers the door. And then—”

Franklin listening in amazement as Ross claimed there had been an interval that would have confounded a hopeless drunk’s most delirious day—a period of missing time, or scrambled experience, or muddled memory.

In seconds, while talking to the old man, in mid-sentence, he was somehow back down on Flanders Street standing next to the company SUV.

“I can’t remember anything either,” the other rep said. “Suddenly I was sitting in the truck and starting the engine.”

Ross’s brows scrunched. “All I remember’s the wind.”

“S’right.”

“It felt like a hurricane.” He slapped the desk before him. “Just like that. Heard it in the trees. Across my face. My skin? Then it felt like it was inside me…Wind picked up for about ten seconds, and I’m asking him a question and then I’m down at the bottom of the valley getting in the car.”

“I remember the damn geezer was spinning these like wreaths that were on the porch?”

Franklin’s bulbous blue eyes widened and he shook his head with disgust at Adams.

Ross said, “There had been others before us. A team from AT&T who…Well…That house’d been on their canvassing route that day, certainly…”

 

FRANKLIN MUTTERED TO himself all the way back to the station, agitated, straightening himself every few seconds and checking his Glock and patting down his shirt. Adams thought he’d heard him murmur as they pulled into the station:

Blow that place up.

 

THE OLD MAN failed to appear at the police station, nor did he call the station to report his daughter missing. This negligence made Officer John Adams very angry. The missing person report and search warrants weren’t long in being issued. Adams had already been imagining what the big key would feel like in his hands as it cracked that peeled calico door, weakening it with each blow until splinters went flying and he’d perhaps, in venerable law enforcement style, finish their entry with a boot heel.

 

AND IT HAPPENS just like that a few hours later, after knocks and shouts of warrant and imminent breach at the front door, and no answer this time. Adams and Sheriff Jefferson give it three blows with the ram, the frame giving way.

First they hear the air—then they see it.

They retreat from the porch with thoughts of biohazard. They return to their SUV and retrieve cheap filtration masks. Jefferson calls the hazardous materials unit and they stand on the grass before the porch looking at what’s behind that doorway.

It is insectoid in there.

“Shit,” Adams gasps, “s’what I was talking about, Ben—the light I saw in there the other day? That’s it.”

The four men stand on the threshold debating about how accumulated static electricity might produce such a startling effect, the glowing motes they’re looking at that might have led a rational mind to believe the old man had spent 40 years breeding a hundred million fireflies within his house…Yellow-green galaxies upon galaxies fade before their astonished eyes as the overwhelming smell of lilies pours out as to oversaturate the oxygen.

The interior begins to retake the mundaneness of planking and balusters and woodwork.

“Something’s ripe in there,” Sheriff Jefferson says.

They step forward. First they notice the doorframe: around the cloudy steel reinforcing they see how the veining of the wood has a fine geometrical precision about its graining. Looking closer they see that it has been carved with a stylus or exacto knife into arabesques and paisley shapes. Their flashlights follow it down to the parquetry of the floor and the planking of the wainscot and walls, everywhere this intricate tiny tracery has been carved into everything their four diamond coronas of light fall upon, bringing astonishment—that, and the cabling, the filaments of all sizes, from rubber tubing to string, that run along the ceiling and through holes bashed in the walls, past the two cobwebbed chandeliers—in this, only the foyer.

They call out to the old man. Jefferson commands the party to stay still. “Feel that?” he says.

The place is vibrating. Whether through something in the earth beneath or something inside the house, its frame is quivering in high-oscillation waves. They hear no hum, nothing but occasional tinkling notes off a distant chandelier but can sense it through their legs.

“What are you waitin for, Ben?”

Franklin has taken a step backwards and is shifting his weight from foot to foot like a kid needing a trip to the bathroom as he stands on the threshold.

“Just, just felt woozy a second,” he breathes.

The house seems smaller inside than its exterior would lead one to believe and the buckling of its weakened wood has taken its toll: the right angles and joints are skewed, the dark walls leaning, and there is a sense that the first floor has been compressed by forces both above and below. They look at it and debate their safety. Then they shout again for the old man.

Parlor to passage to kitchen: carvings in the wood on an almost microscopic scale and finely painted, traceried like illuminations from a medieval book.

The kitchen—my God, food is the last thing you’d consider: From ceiling to floor a vast Manhattan of racked crystal beakers and Pyrex-ware and rusty stands from one end to the other. It has murky skyscrapers and dull glassy neighborhoods. They have to limbo sideways and duck and weave to avoid disturbing it for it looks like a single bump could send the whole thing crashing. They are grateful for their masks as they note viscous substances within the cloudy Pyrexware, in a rainbow of hues.

Sheriff Jefferson and Franklin and Cpl. Davis find a path to a basement door on the far side of the glass city, just across from the house’s boarded-up back entrance. The basement passage is steel-reinforced. Davis with a gloved hand tries it and it is locked.

Jefferson says, “This’ll take hazmat a week, easy.”

“Let’s go upstairs.”

They shimmy their way back and creak up the wide staircase. Despite the bizarre carved traceries, there’s no dust collected on any of the surfaces but the carpeting, and no spider webs.

But the bedrooms are for Ripley’s, for the Inquirer: They step from room to room counting and when they’re finished they’ve summed 108 typewriters and adding machines, ancient models on shelves with their casings removed and works exposed, all linked with cabling and wires which come together into bundles the size of an elephant’s trunk in the three rooms’ centers and pass through roughly-cut apertures in the unplastered ceilings. The thinner of the roped bundles pass through holes from one room to the next and into two closets in which they find rusted oil drums—and all the cables connected to a 19th Century velocipede. The antique bike is bolted to the floor and there is a small stool to mount it.

The rusted drums contain a dull greenish substance. It glows, and it is the color of the mist they’d earlier witnessed.

The pages stuck in each typewriter are fresh onionskin.

The vibration is almost undetectable up here.

Here’s a lily growing out of a hole in the wall. Adams digs at the exposed wood around it, careful not to tear his surgical glove. A layer of soil lies jammed behind the walls—and a layer of wood, and metal, alternating. He looks closer at the holes through which the primitive cabling flows and sees the same components: wood, metal, earth, metal, wood.

The old man has spent years placing dirt into the spaces behind the walls. Adams feels an overwhelming pity for him—and how he must have mentally suffered in here.

A bare bedroom contains a creaking spiral staircase that leads to the cupola. They discover three convex dishes of smooth aluminum and a telescope aimed directly at the milky gibbous moon that hangs in the eastern sky over the County. It is attached by way of a jungle of levers and pulleys and springs to a camera that would have been obsolete a century ago. Pictures of the moon are everywhere: Tables and charts showing its phases and moonrise and blown-up pictures four feet wide of the lunar surface and dissections of it with scrawled notes.

The old man’s notes lay in rough stacks and push-pinned to the walls.

He has found and marked cities upon the moon’s surface, devices, transmitters. Weapons.

“Remember how he said the moon was hollow?” Adams says to Franklin.

Franklin grunts. He has been silent, pale the entire time, not a single word, and his hands are unsteady.

They descend the staircase and Adams sees that velocipede again and without a word gets on the old stationery bicycle. He mounts it carefully. The crude speedometer attached to its small handlebars has a tiny deliberate silver nick at its 35mph mark. He pedals and the metal frame creaks beneath him; he weighs a lot more than the frail old man. He compensates. He switches gear up and transitions effortlessly and the old plutonium tip of the needle surges past the silver dot.

A sudden awful clatter and groan sounds throughout the house.

The typewriters are chattering, the adding machines clicking. A surge of energy is passing through the machines by his kinetic energy and amplified somehow from the beaten aluminum dishes, through the cabling to the adding machines and then finally the typewriters.

The sound becomes deafening. He’s hit 41 on the dial and the rattling continues. Jefferson has plugged his ears and is grimacing with a look of wonder. Franklin’s got his ears cupped as he comes charging into the room. He’s yelling and waving. They gesture at him to stop, it’s too much, but Adams wants the thing to finish its cycle—he has leaned back enough to see into the adjoining rooms and can see the near-translucent pages in the typewriters flutter and return very quickly, the pages advancing as he keeps pumping. He locks his fingers together at the back of his head and whistles casually. The two cops look like they’re in pain but the factory-floor racket isn’t bothering him that much when with a great whomp it ceases and sends a shudder through the house. Adams applies the brakes and dismounts.

They walk through the rooms. Each page has been printed with ten single-spaced lines of symbols, like fragments of cuneiform characters. Adams gets out his penlight and pulls forward one of the typebars in a machine, then another, and can see each one had been sawed off and soldered back with one bearing a symbol-stroke, tiny wires lead from each bar and bundle together, twist-tied, to rope off into an adding machine.

“Guy remade each one of these keys…Look at that!”

“Gibberish,” Franklin attests.

Adams rips each out and pages them in the order of the numbers the old man had carved into each machine. There are 95 pages.

 

AN HOUR LATER, after the team from hazardous materials have arrived, the police officers had still discovered no documentation that anyone has lived here: No bills, deeds, wills—nothing.

And there is no food. No televisions. No amenities.

Nothing.

And now the basement door in the kitchen. A propane torch is brought in to melt the locks and melt the frames and they bash out the back door and there’s enough room to use the battering ram upon it. They lurch down steep creaking steps to where the walls become cement blocks and mortar but are gouged and carved nevertheless in that endless repeated paisley pattern which little varies, the wood rafters embroidered as well. Their gauzy flashlight coronas show that the floor down here is a scatter of worn Persian carpets laid across each other, dozens of them, the sweet smell almost unbearable and requiring a retreat, their eyes watering—it is the smell of death, no doubt. The strange vibration is noticeably more intense. Their lights flit across the space. The chamber has been recently inhabited, as there is another room full of the twig sculptures like those bedecking the eaves outside, these showing countless permutations on a bivalent fork motif, like the letter Y, tied together with string and twine and grass shoots still green.

Jefferson and Adams engage their lithium lamps. Here’s a bed covered with a Mickey Mouse sleeping bag, and a hammock tied between two carved wooden posts about six feet tall. The hammock is intricately woven from stalks, of grass and twigs, like the porch sculptures. One of the pillars depicts flames and scowling faces with distended tongues and violence, the other resplendent with beautiful faces and angelic figures. Adams’s light lingers on the left-sided post. Those flames remind him of something his brother made a few months back—some frippery Mayor Adams spent literally days without sleep making in his woodshop. He cannot bring himself to vocalize the feeling of astonishment that overtakes him. The correspondence is too close. He pulls out his cell phone and tries to switch it over to its photo function but its screen is clouded with distorting rainbows like oily water and its home-screen even looks scrambled. He asks Jefferson and Franklin if their cellphones are working and each note the same interference.

“Shoot. Ben—you remember that birdhouse I told you Mayor made?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Franklin murmurs.

“That column there? Looks just like it. I mean, exactly…Ben, it has the same…You know…He was having dreams…Remember I was telling you—”

“I—I don’t want to hear it,” Franklin snaps. “Okay? Can you do that? Just stop it.”

Adams, taken aback. “Sure, Ben, whatever.”

He looks over at his partner and Franklin is squeezing the silver cross that hangs around his neck and praying.

An open door yawns on the room’s far side, and the wall over there seems provisional. They step into a musty room that stretches off fifteen yards. In the middle of the room sits a large, wide tapering cone, made of what looks like dirtied marble. They circle it in bafflement. Its tip comes to within a few inches of the ceiling rafters. Then Adams notices that its perimeter has been excavated down a yard. Paralleling the ground is a deep straight groove on its surface—as if it is a capstone. Adams steps into this shallow trench and pushes some clay and loose dirt.

It could be the tip of a buried object.

Jefferson’s light rakes the room. Planking, an old pile carpet with a circle worn into it. Paintings depicting impossible geometries, a table full of stamps and what look like coupons, all drawn by hand, a few chairs arranged in a circle, two old guitars, a hammer dulcimer, a pedal harmonium, a pump-organ, a piano that after plucking Cs is found to be in perfect tune. Paintings everywhere, canvasses of equal 10×12 size all showing the same subject: a being whose enormous eyes take up nearly half the upper portion of her face, a chin coming to a point above a rosebud mouth and small nose—profiles, three-quarter depictions all, over a hundred of them, easily.

Jefferson comments, “Looks like that painter—you used to see the paintings in dentists’ offices—Keane, I think it was?”

Franklin’s cottony voice breaks. “Is that—is that her? The daughter?”

A single pile of mildewed newspapers dated 1973.

Adams can sense Franklin’s unease, his reaction to the idealized expression depicted on the faces, representations of the girl’s self-image, denied by the squalor of her actual “life” with the insane old man—for a girl could actually look that way, right?

Against the far wall is yet another carved wood door. Adams opens it and cold air rushes him. It is another, and very steep, staircase. The walls encasing it are rough skeletal frame showing stone in the gaps. Without a word he descends three landings until the staircase becomes a trivial gesture at stability but the stone surroundings are taking over, like it was built over a natural spiral that preceded it. The woodwork around him even more elaborately carved, fractals of paisley on any scale of examination. The sub-basement should be appearing but doesn’t. He stops. The temperature is ten degrees cooler and the air is pushing across his face from below. The lily-like effluvium is stronger. He retreats back up the stairs and stares through the dimness at the dirty cream cone barely visible in the room.

“Hey, something’s up with this,” he says. The two men come close.

“Basement?”

“Sub-basement…Look at this.”

“Goes down?” Jefferson says, incredulous. “That makes no sense.”

Franklin now has a look of hatred and disgust on his face as he calls out to old man Marno. His voice echoes far down there.

They descend three, four, five landings and the angle of the whole structure becomes apparent—it is built within a sloping shaft that steadily drifts to one side. It’s getting colder, the carvings upon the curved wall grow thicker in stroke and at once the crude woodwork of stairs ends on bare stone steps which continue down with no break in continuity to the carvings, the markings advance onward in chisel rather than knife. A breeze is palpable and continuous. The mineral scent overtakes the sweet upper air but still no-one considers removing their filters.

Impossible, that sound.

It’s not dripping, nor a trickle. It’s the roar of a waterfall—or a river, down here, inside the mountain. Their three beams swing across walls that are widening out. The air buzzes. Two passages branch off the chamber. The sound of water is crashing from both. A distinct humming sound, which they all at once became aware of. And its source, before them….

Adams had once seen a fantastic movie about the ancient subterranean chambers of Chauvet. He’d marveled over the fact that a bear’s skull could have rested on an altar in a cave for 18,000 years…The spelunker who’d seen it for the first time must have fallen to their knees, overcome with the oceanic feeling, the timeless. The Cosmic. Like meeting an extraterrestrial, or an angel—an effortless dissolving of the membrane of time and self.

Adams feels it now, as it dawns upon him that the humming is emerging from what resembles a glassy bird nest two yards across, a saucer made of spun filament, within which a dull whitish egg rests, cracked into two halves and coated with an iridescent dust.

It is covered with a film of mineral deposits and looks like it is a million years old.

Three sconce-like cones in the wall are emitting a dull greenish light, like that of fireflies.

Jefferson is whispering a continuous stream of epithets and the beam of Franklin’s flashlight bounces as he trembles. Adams steps toward a sconce, and it too is fashioned of the same spun glass and filled with a green brackish liquid that glows.

“That pyramid up there must be the capstone,” Jefferson keeps saying. “I think we’re inside a goddamn pyramid. Mountain’s a goddamn buried pyramid, John.”

Adams pictures the three rivers in Whisper and Chanson counties. None of them could possibly be connected to this wonder.

“Where’s Ben?”

He’s over here—in this passageway, where he has wandered in a daze. He is compelled to lean a hand on the cool mineral wall to keep his balance but recoils at the inhuman furrows etched there. His skin feels like a detached organ, receiving pure galvanization. The flashlight gives him glimpses of the tunnel ahead—but it seems it is almost raping the darkness not meant for him. He fumbles to turn it off. He feels like an invader. He grasps for the switch. He doesn’t belong here. Then what the light falls upon at that last second has no comfortable mundane dimensions to it; it is a thing that human eyes should never alight upon. The object rushes him and his light beam is visible with mist—but something more than the mist is animating the light beam and this is enough—those great black eyes, and the thinness of the thing’s limbs as it flashes into the dark passage….

 

ADAMS HAS NEVER heard mangled braying and gasping sounds like this issue from anyone, much less his partner, as Franklin runs up the stone passageway. Adams and Jefferson shout after him. He is gone and they must follow. Franklin’s boots pound up the fragile staircase ahead. They wait for him to clear the old wood planking before following him up—too much force and the whole structure will surely come down.

When they regain the basement proper they find Franklin leaning his ample weight into one of the hammock posts, trying to topple it. He is babbling incoherently. Then he drops to the ground. They are upon him and after a half-minute the man seems to come around. They hustle him up the stairs from the basement and he becomes agitated and picks up speed. They warn him of the kitchen’s crystalline metropolis, but Foster and Shoemaker have thankfully already opened the rear porch door with ram and crowbar. Franklin breaks into a run as they top the stairs. He dashes across the porch into the sunshine and grass. Adams is back to shouting his name as his partner stumbles around the side of the manor. He sees Franklin make the front lawn and start down the shattered driveway and then trips and goes down hard on both knees in a way Adams can feel.

He overtakes his partner and finds him weeping and moaning, his eyelids pinched and strobing as sweat crawls down his brow.

 

Whispher, USA 2: Haoma, Milk, and Honey

IT is a genuine mystery. The town of Tremona (Pop. 8,157) is a relatively isolated enclave amongst redwoods and sequoia in Siskiyou County in Northern California. About a year ago, the Tremona Gazette (circulation 7,100) began to receive handwritten letters by an individual called “John Priester” discussing the state of the world and requesting space in the newsletter as an advice columnist to be paid in part by “him.”

“We didn’t know what to make of it,” said Gazette managing editor Paul Leary. “The author was a good writer and we would have dismissed it, but when someone offers you a year’s advertising revenue in exchange for eight inches of column space it’s an offer you have to take seriously.”

That was then. The Gazette’s size is about to double thanks to “John Priester,” and interest in the column has grown intensely across the nation over the past seven weeks, all due to Priester’s predictions.

Because every one of them has come eerily—some would say, scarily—true.

“He’s 33 for 33, batting .400,” says Trevona resident Eric Boucher. “JP called the midterm elections and the CIA scandal (the “Muslim Luther” controversy) and the big cyber attack which originated in China. But the biggest one is the earthquakes in China and Turkey. How could someone know that ahead of time?”

There are five blogs, two fan clubs, and legends aplenty as to “his” identity and whereabouts. Many believe we are witnessing the creation of a folk hero. Some speculate that the author is actually a computer, or the product of the “Singularity,” a phenomenon long predicted to give birth to Artificial Intelligence, that is, a newly conscious Internet which can make predictions based upon a continuous input of scientific data and world events. Others say the author is a group of psychics making their best guesses having an extraordinary winning streak, or extraterrestrials making their presence finally know—through a gossip/advice column!

There is no end to the speculation. John, or JP, has confessed to sending dozens of letters to corporations as well. He claims to have contacted companies as diverse as ADM, Northrup-Grummann, Disney, the makers of computer games and children’s toys. In each he claims to have blasted the managers, practices and policies. As of yet there have been no confirming press releases from these companies verifying the claim.

“You wonder if he’s giving them buying tips, or what,” Leary says. “If he’s this accurate in this other stuff, he could make a killing on the stock market.”

His letters are apocalyptic in tone but non-denominational in outlook. He claims to possess the vision of the mystic and is a self-named “syncretist”—which means bringer-together of traditions—but the flavor of his texts are definitely that of the street preacher.

It all started with local residents writing in pseudonymously on love and life advice. The predictions began as casual asides that, residents noticed, were coming true within three weeks of each pronouncement.

Then he began to conclude his columns with quatrains, like Nostradamus.

The original letters, written in ink on handmade paper, have been framed. Copies of the first twelve Gazettes are now collectors’ items.

Sgt. Victoria Valdez of the 18th Precinct Main Station minimizes the article on the screen and picks up the bleating phone. It is Captain Drake calling her to his office. She wends her way through the sausage fest known as the Organized Crime Control Bureau, Narcotics Task Force, and ascends the scuffed staircase to Drake’s office, a sub-fiefdom of Narcotics concerned with the drug traffic in nightclubs. She vaguely knows what this is about—that new pill rumored to have appeared a few weeks ago at the Utopianist’s Complaint and a couple of other clubs. Their “canaries” had been unable to obtain any of the new substance, but continue to hear about a single dealer who hit the venues, giving it out for free.

She enters Drake’s office and is startled to find Ken Dennison there leaning upon the desk. Starck and Dorney are here, the latter a sergeant on loan from the 19th Precinct, chosen for occasional undercover work due to his Lower East Side biker-rocker look.

Drake produces a tiny plastic bag from which tumble three tiny discs. “We’ve got some. ‘Haoma,’ it’s called. Comes in purple.” She steadies her hand. The pills’ groove is yellow; a tiny number 801 is etched on the top section, an L in the lower.

“We had the Utopianist’s Complaint covered,” Drake continues, “but the dealer booged. You know how complicated that place is. We got a description of him, though. Ken here saw him. Tried to get a facial mapping but the eye malfunctioned.”

“Guy’s a Muslim,” Dorney says. “He was wearing a skullcap. Got a death-to-America beard, too.”

Victoria, irritated, snaps, “Ever heard of a disguise?”

“Well, lemme finish. Guy’s got an accent, too. Middle-Eastern.”

Victoria rolls her eyes.

Starck says, “He gave out a dozen doses for free. Randomly.  Ken just happened to be there to meet the canary. Canary ran into this Muslim as he turned the room into a dispensary.”

Drake’s voice has that autopsic tone reserved for loved ones after the worst had happened. “The drug’s been appearing only on weekends. The reports are confusing. Takers experience euphoria, time dilation, mild hallucinations and enhancement of color. Kinda like Ecstasy or diluted ketamine. Heart rate goes up slightly. Dilated pupils. Oh, and get this—they say verbal skills seem to increase. Speech gets poetic, I guess the word’d be…Tangled. And people tell you straight up if they’ve taken it. Afterwards, they can’t describe it at all.”

Dorney puts in, “It lasts about three hours total and there is no crash afterward. They say they feel calm and that everything is different.”

“All hearsay, of course,” Drake continues. “They’ve painted it in the best light. Haven’t heard of any bad trips—yet. We will. It’s statistically inevitable.” He gestures at the bag. “We’re gonna send this to the lab. We need someone new there at the UC.  Since it’s Saturday, we want you there tonight, Veev. See if we can catch this fuck in the act.”

There went her plans; she’s supposed to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden tonight. But that’s okay. She’ll call the babysitter and makes sure she’ll be available to watch her daughter Carmen.

She departs the office, relieved. Her fear did not play out on walking into that room-the fear that her colleagues would discover her relationship with Sgt. Ken Dennison.

 

THE UTOPIANIST’S COMPLAINT was the world’s largest nightclub, occupying an entire half block in Midtown Manhattan. Fourteen stories tall, its “Pandora” half housed 26 bars, 37 lounges, eleven full-sized dance floors and was always full due to its dive prices and the wide variety of bands, comedians and parties it nightly hosted. Its “Agora” side, entered on Eighth Avenue, was a cultural center offering classes in esoteric subjects, as well as yoga and meditation, painting, sculpting, music. The Pandora nightclub half of the venue had a spotless vice record, without a single violation, all tightly managed and owned by a company called Quincunx Productions. The manager, Aurelio Dias, had been reluctant to allow the Vice Squad to run any kind of operation on the premises. Possessing impeccable connections and the full trust of his employees, Dias was unaware of any drug distribution activity on the premises—not that it couldn’t happen, he admitted….

Vice and Narcotics ran surveillance there nevertheless, and had trouble with the place. One could easily get lost, in every sense possible, amongst its abstract lounges, the crush of hip and latecomers and gate crashers, the homeless who were allowed to freely mingle and even sleep in designated areas and get medical and psychological care there in two small clinics. The building’s bible-sized book of city permits and operating licenses caused endless questions of currency and legitimacy yet somehow investigations never rose to the level of Official Outrage or municipal pressure; the place seemed to be protected from on high by forces unwilling to publicly identify themselves. The nightclub was a major penumbra in the city’s fabric, and another set of rules seemed to operate there.

And, thinking back on it later, Victoria should have seen it as the key.

 

LATER THAT NIGHT Victoria Valdez is sitting in a Lincoln on 56th Street with three informants. These Task Force “canaries”—first-time offenders busted for felony possession that have agreed to do “community service” as undercover buyers in the club scene—had been unable to obtain any of the new substance, but continued to hear about a single dealer who hit the venues, giving it out for free. The orders are explicit: get on top of this new drug before it even has a chance to work its way into any further bloodstreams—more realistically, into the general consciousness of the nightcrawler population.

Ha, Victoria thought: fat chance of that.

“People use flash messaging when it arrives,” she says. “So if you’re lucky enough, you’ll see a bunch of people checking their phones and then getting up and all moving in one direction. It never arrives later than eleven o’clock. So go around and ask about it, if you can.” Victoria is dressed like she doesn’t care and somehow it has still come out right, in a low-cut black blouse and black skirt and pumps, her hair French-twisted. The three “canaries,” all men, give her still-grudging, half-grateful eye contact and it amuses her.

She sends them off on their furtive mission. A few minutes later Sgt. Colm Dorney shows up and they go inside.

She marvels at the size and ambitions of the nightclub. They sit at a bar called the Pharmacy ordering cokes and orange juice and eyeing the crowds. Their talk revolved around department shakeups, then grows even smaller than usual. She kids Dorney about his awful tattoos and he lectures her about the momentum of ink, the no-going-back. She sets up base camp on the alabaster bar as he moves throughout the Spectra Room’s auroras and supernatural mists, dozens of occupied couches and chairs going dim in the distance. The drug-takers apparently enjoy the visual spectacle of this particular room and another chamber, the Fishtank, as it is known.

Her cellphone buzzes. Two of the “canaries” have noted a swell of activity in a lounge on the next floor. The drug has apparently arrived. She pursues one of the informants, a thirtyish former stockbroker nailed last year on cocaine possession. She meets him in a corridor that simulates a forlorn alley with a bare lamppost and caged bulb and 1970s Bell telephone booths covered in faux graffiti.

“Yeah, he was here about an hour ago,” he says. “I looked for you guys.”

“Didn’t look very hard. Same guy?”

“Yeah, the Mullah, they called him.” He sniffs. “He was giving it out by the handful. Just handing it off to everyone. Not much you can do about that, heh.”

She and Dorney split up and begin targeting regular nightcrawlers with appeals for the drug, but no luck, it is apparently already coursing through the patrons’ veins. They return to the Spectra Room and find seats at the long sparkling bar. “We’ll sit right here and enjoy the show.”

Victoria says, “You hear about that thing going on in California? The guy writing letters?”

Dorney smirks. “World gets stranger every damn day, don’t it.”

“What if he’s a real prophet like Nostradamus?”

He gives her an incredulous smirk. “Nostradamus wasn’t a prophet. I could write some vague, spooky-sounding shit on this napkin right here and gimme three hundred years, you could twist it around to say that it’s come true in some way, right?”

Victoria considers this. “I saw something on the History Channel once…”

He laughs. “Oh, yeah—the channel formerly known as the ‘History Channel.’”

She looks out into the auroral mists across the ceiling. “This professor said we look at history like a single line, you know? We think things happen once, like a timeline, but see, Nostradamus thought it was circular.”

He looks grimly into his Coke. “Circular, well, shit, I know how that feels.”

“So this John Priester guy…”

Dorney raps on the bar with his thick tattooed knuckles. “Gotta be a gimmick. Publicity stunt, yeah? You know…A promo for a movie they’re making or some shit. You know—a virus campaign.”

She sips her orange juice. “Dorney, this guy predicted the location of two earthquakes. That’s no gimmick.”

He throws his hands out and that ends it. “So how’s your Bonham doing?”

“Bonner,” she corrects but is surprised he remembers even an approximation of her mentor’s name. And slightly gratified. “He’s in hospice now.”

“I’m sorry, Veev. He did you right. And did his job.”

She looks at her watch. An hour has passed since the dealer had shown up. They sit back and watch as whole areas of the Spectra Room go silent and the volume of conversation falls by half. The drug’s peak purportedly causes an overwhelming flood on the brain in which speech was impossible. Already a word to describe it had been coined: the Window.

“Fucked up,” Dorney says.

 

THEY GO OUTSIDE into the summer night and call Lt. Haverty at the Painted Word, in TriBeCa. “The Muslim showed up three hours ago. Got video of him going out the front door, but that’s it.”

 

THE NEXT NIGHT a camera records the “Mullah” at the same venue, the Painted Word, in a back room near the club’s business office. Victoria and the Task Forcers study the security footage. With the bright skullcap, long beard and what looked like a tweed longcoat, how could all the informants miss spotting this freak? Three patrons approach him, separately, one after the other and he reaches into both pockets and passes handfuls of the stuff to his beseechers. Some of the pills spill to the floor, which the last patron hastily stoops to retrieve.

Those lucky individuals’ further activities distributing the pills to the club goes uncaught on the other camera recordings.

The Task Forcers confer and conclude that access must have been granted to him by some intermediary within the Painted Word. The exchanges look too neat—scripted even.

 

VICTORIA CALLS THE four canaries she’s handling and gives them their venues and the times she’s to meet them. Then she calls the assisted living home in the Bronx where her mentor Bonner is in hospice care. Ten years into his retirement, he was diagnosed with emphysema, then confined to his apartment, then his bed, now hospice and oxygen in a home.

The nurse picks up and answers her in a thick Haitian accent and hands over the phone. His words come out singular wheezes. She thanks him once again, the last amongst thousands, perhaps the very last.

Victoria still shudders at how many ways she could have died if not for his intervention. Bonner had been a juvenile counselor and probation officer and he had gone the distance for her. All it had taken was the basics—food, water, shelter—but most of all, and something he wouldn’t even credit for himself, his presence and listening to her tales of the belt and her drunk stepfather’s overpowerings. Bonner had turned over the file to NYPD and wouldn’t stop until the man was prosecuted.

The monster had ran, and Bonner spent a month tracking him down upstate with a detective hired from his own meager savings. He had him arrested and sent him up to Attica.

But that had just been nothing more than justice.

Bonner continued to check in on her, helped her through her schooling at PS 153. She’d been in and out of juvenile justice for three years. Every winter she and her Bronx sisterhood competed with each to determine how many layers of clothes they could wear out of the K-Mart and make the sprint down the block to the older brothers’ waiting car. She’d gotten caught twice and gone to court.

Bonner came around to their apartment twice a week. Years later, he confessed to having had a series of dreams about her back then—nothing untoward—but simply visions of her living a happy and secure life decades hence. Something had singled her out amongst his filing cabinet of lost causes. There were no other Victorias in his life, he said—no other successes, he claimed.

She still did not know how to feel about this.

But you must pay it forward, as they say.

She has the third of her tri-weekly visits today. His 73rd birthday is just four days away, and she and Carmen are to bake him a cake and bring it. She takes the subway up to the Holly Grove nursing home in Morningside Heights. She kisses him on the forehead and holds his hand. He begs her for a cigarette and she vacillates until a final refusal, an old perverse game they play. She settles in the room’s only chair as his dinner is brought in, bad hospital food that he refuses. She chides him and begins to feed him.

He has lost more weight this week, she can see, from his obstinacy. His will is going.

One of his ex-wives comes by several times a week and there are get well cards and flowers from the other two. His sons have visited him twice apiece since his admittance here four months ago.

He asks, as always, about her daughter Carmen. She sits with him as he pokes through the cable stations on the remote, his eyes oblivious to the crap passing by on the screen, the compulsiveness has more than simple irritation behind it; it has necessity, a speeding up of events, a trying to catch up with something as the oxygen hisses and she can see his chest heaving unnaturally with every breath.

“Let’s go back,” he says.

It is a CNN segment on the “John Priester” phenomena. If he’s really interested his face doesn’t show it. His hand is across his chest and she watches the Knights of Columbus ring on his pinky wedged into a ridge by his swollen fingers rise and fall as he attempts to breathe.

“Crazy,” he puffs finally at the end of the report. “Maybe there’s something…”

 

THE NEXT NIGHT they have arrested the “Mullah.”

Captain Drake says, “We caught him on the second floor of the UC.”

The bearded man has been hauled into the department booking room, then to an interrogation cell. He hadn’t said a word, nor resisted arrest. He smelled, they said, like lilies, then every occasionally an overwhelming whiff of putrefaction. No drugs or identification have been found. He was dressed in ragged jeans and frock beneath the longcoat, without shoes, his bare feet calloused. He looked to all opinions some homeless tramp and remained totally silent.

They discover sand in his pockets, and that’s all.

Victoria Valdes stands before the one-way mirror watching the tramp. She holds the jacket at arm’s length then brings it towards her nose with gloved hand to catch the scent of lilies that surrounds the piece of clothing. The jacket feels strange in her hand, heavier than it should, too warm, as if a person’s body was still within it. There is something unnatural about it, an energetic buzz. She lays it across the examination table and probes the lining. Here is a manufacturers’ label:

Freres De Molay

1244 Montsegur, FR.

She slips on her bifocals. The fabric resembles some variant of tweed, with iridescence at the fibers’ edges. Its inner lining shimmers like polished gold. She reaches into the pocket and encounters crumbly sand grains. She reaches in deeper and pinches a fingerful—there’s more than she thought—and deposits it on the sheet of plastic. Three times she does this and the pocket is clear of the substance. She repeats the process with the other pocket when something appears within the chunks of sand, a few dark nodules that she crumbles between thumb and forefinger. She is stunned.

“Vic, what are you doing? We cleaned that shit up.”

“Oh yeah? Look. Here’s one.”

Dorney frowns. For several disturbing minutes they comb through the viscous sand, finding the pills in odd places within clumps and at angles to the grains. The sweet smell is overpowering. Through the process she begins to feel woozy. She pauses to retrieve a mask. When they finish, somehow, most of the sand is gone and eleven Haoma pills lay there, perfectly clean, on the tabletop.

Starck is in the room asking questions but the bearded fellow is just staring into the two-way mirror—or rather, right into Victoria’s eyes. She moves from one side of the room to the other and his eyes follow her.

“I think he likes you,” Dorney comments.

“How’s he doing that?”

Dorney makes a dismissive sound. “Mirror’s not that big. Seen ‘em do that before. Come on.”

Victoria knows better. The tramp smiles faintly, a stare that is both peaceful and millennial. Then he raises a hand and unmistakably gestures for her to join him.

“Ever seen that before?” she says.

“I guess that’s your cue.”

She enters the interrogation room, passing Starck at the door and sits down. The man is smiling, showing filmy brown teeth. She folds her hands and says hello. “What’s your name?”

He raises a bushy eyebrow. “Understand only this…My parents died before my birth, but that didn’t stop them.”

Okay, this is easy: Call Bellvue.

Up close she notices he has peculiar violet eyes, almost out-and-out purple, the type indigenous to the ‘Stans and Near Asia. His beard extends to his lap and has its own topographies and ideas of gravity.

“Are you a cleric or a mullah?”

“Heavens, no.” He clasps his hands together and gestures upward. “I have not yet won my degree in hypocrisy, praise Allah.”

“That’s what people call you, the Mullah.”

“People? How would they know that it’s me to call me that if they’ve never met me?” He seems pleased with this answer.

“Look. Where did you get these pills?” She points to the three discs.

He looks shocked.

“What is this sand?”

He says something rapidly in Arabic and is growing excited. “Once upon a time it was a mountaintop. The stones of a great city. It was a temple. The temple of she who is coming.”

“Who?”

“She. The Queen.”

Victoria gives up and he chirps goodbye effusively, happy.

“Nutjob,” she opines.

Captain Drake says, “We also picked up a guy, too, a musician, who works there. Had two doses on him. And some shake. You got him in room three, Veev.”

The musician is thirtyish, with dreadlocks, tattoos, urban gear. He’d moped through Dorney’s preliminary interview saying he’d taken the substance only once.

“Alright,” Victoria says, “you’ve no priors except that possession charge three years ago down in Maryland. This will be strike two and there’s a possibility it will be more than a suspension this time, you know it.”

She can see the fear in his eyes. He wets his lips. “So…”

“We’ve already spoken with a judge who will sign off on another suspension, with community service.”

He huffs resentfully. “You’re gonna ask me to set someone up, right? And I told you I have no idea who that guy with the stuff was or where he got it. And I don’t know the guy who sold me the shake, either. I don’t know any dealers. That was a one-shot deal. I swear. A-an opportunity came up, and, and I took it.”

He is sweating.

“We’re not asking you to set anyone up. I’m just here to tell you. We have people feeling out the clubs. And you play music in the clubs. We try to get on top of these new drugs and we’re basically in the information business. Just to keep an eye and ear out. Now, how did you hear about Haoma?”

“Derek at Aurora told me ‘bout it.”

“Aurora?”

“Aurora Records. In Williamsburg. S’where I work. Guitarist and bass. Session. Gig.”

“Derek’s last name?”

“I don’t know. He’s just a guy who hangs out there.”

She scribbles. “This Derek ever take it, or know where to get it?”

He shrugs, holds the shrug, then looks at his massive hands. “New molecules, right? No laws against it yet, right? This is a violation here, your bringing me in. Let me see a lawyer or let me go.”

“You know we can’t do that.”

“I didn’t have enough shake on me for anything but a fine.”

“One thing. This tramp, the ‘Mullah.’ You seen him before?”

“No, it’s dark in there. Someone just handed it to me.”

“What does this Haoma drug do?”

He seems to go wistful. “It’s like a time machine. Way back to the beginning.”

She twirls the pencil in her fingers. “You know all this stuff on the Internet about it. Things that say it causes a personality change.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Is there something to that?”

He nods at her. “No, do you believe all that? I mean, have you seen anyone complain about what it does, or have changed?”

She studies the tiny grains of sand beneath her fingernails. “James, answer my question, please. Did it change you in any way?”

“So what—if I say yes, you’ll think my word is shit, ‘cause I’ve been compromised by a drug? My testimony will be worthless, is that it?”

“No, that’s not—”

“Or is it Haoma that’s causing me to be truthful? Like I couldn’t tell the truth on my own? That’s what they say, right? That it makes people speak what they think, and what they think is the truth?” He folds his massive arms and leans back into the chair and slouches a bit. “That didn’t happen to me.”

Victoria stares unblinking at him. “Look. Just tell me. What. It. Did. To. You.”

“Read my blog. You’ll find some stuff there.”

She’s surprised. “You have a…”

“Everyone and their granny’s got a blog.” He nods down at himself. “I was an English major. Sure.” He looks up at the ceiling and shrugs again. He is a shrugging machine. “It’s a draft of things that happened. I just posted a big entry the other day. Huge. Just a draft, though.”

“What’s the address?”

He sighs. “Type in, ‘Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication.’”

“Don’t smartass me. You expect me—spell it, James.”

“Just type in ‘supergroova’. Browser will do the rest.”

“Your blog’s that popular?”

“No. Browsers’ are getting smarter, ’s’all. You’re not on the net a lot.”

“And there’s only one website called supergroova, yaddayadda.”

“I would think so, Mrs. Valdez.”

“Ms.”

“Oh, I see.”

She leaves the interrogation and finds the exam room crowded. Here is Dickerson and Levine from Forensics, gazing down at Dorney and Parks as they lean over the jacket, their gloved hands sifting through sand. The pile of pills has doubled in number.

Dorney looks at her, ashen. “The sand keeps appearing in the pockets,” he says.

 

THEY RELEASE THE homeless man without his strange longcoat, replacing it with a long-unclaimed windbreaker with a GPS dot sewn into it. The jacket is sent to the lab for analysis. Having nothing to charge the musician with but simple possession of the cannabis, he makes bail, posted by someone at his record label, and they let him go.

Victoria checks his website. It is graphically overloaded and done up in fat floppy 1970s typefaces. His last blog posting is indeed huge, 174 kilobytes, and she begins to read it but it’s heavy with musical jargon and lingo, a code almost, and she quickly tires of it. She can always print it out later, if it turns out to have relevance.

 

LATER, KEN DENNISON leans into her desk, throws down a sheaf of paper. “Toxicology got the report back on the Haoma. It’s powdered honey. It’s a sugar mixed with elements of synthesized flowers, mostly a kind of lily. No better than a placebo, a damn sugar pill.”

“How do you think he switched it?”

“He didn’t,” he replies. “They tested all the samples, Vicky, the three from the UC and one from the Painted Word and what we found coming outta that Mullah dickhead’s jacket. It’s all the same.”

“So what are we saying? All these people are just imagining they’re having a trip? What?”

He smiles sloppily and leans in, his eyes mock-wild, and whispers, “It’s the CIA, obviously.”

She closes her eyes. “Don’t start.”

“A social experiment is what I mean,” he rasps. “A test, to see if mass hypnosis is possible? Mass suggestion. How many of these clubbers are having real trips? We don’t know. Then again, maybe we got a bum batch of the stuff. You told me that musician said he didn’t have the same experience as everyone else is reporting. But I don’t think it does anything. I think it probably gives a mild high, and suggestion is doing the rest. Like self-hypnosis. Anticipation, right? I think people are faking a good time to go along with the others.”

He’d always had this streak of loopy ideas. And she can smell the booze on him now, sees its effects in his watery eyes.

It’s one in the afternoon.

“We’ve had four samples from three venues from different times and all that sand looked like brown sugar. No-one tasted it, right?”

Victoria replies, “Giotto hasn’t tried it, or any of the canaries as far as we know. We can’t ask them to take some, you know.”

Dennison lumbers away and she shudders. She’s glad it’s over between them. It had begun as a squad-room trio going out for drinks. The trio became a duo later that night. Dennison was working on his fifth Heineken and third shot when the drunk next to them slammed into Victoria without apology and Dennison heaved him backwards in the next breath and the drunk bounced off the bar and took a swing that Ken anticipated. He grabbed the incoming fist and tugged the drunk’s arm down. The guy fell, hard, and he let the bouncers do the rest. There had been no bravado about it, and that was the problem. That’s what had been so charming. Like brushing away a fly.

Their second time out he drank less and was twice as animated, telling her stories about collars in the Lower East Side “Quality of Life” beat, which he’d worked for five years. They were leaning in close at the bar and he’d gently pinched her pinky in emphasis of some point. He was a bear of a man. The way he pinched her pinky that first time, and held on to it the second time. He leaned closer.

He was solid, despite the ex-wife and two teenage boys, but he seemed more solid than most of the others in similar situations.

They took a Saturday off and went to the Metropolitan—their first time ever visiting the famous museum, ever, in their mutual New York-born lives—and it inaugurated the weekly trysts at his Chinatown apartment. It had gone on for half a year already, but he always seemed to keep it at arm’s length, though, with the tense fixed firmly in the present. But that was the right speed for the both of them.

It was possible that she could fall in love with him, and that was as close as she could allow herself. It had nearly been ten years since her divorce. She knew she was attractive at 41, had long ago burned off the extra weight from motherhood and spent months at the gym, watched her diet.

And with the level of ball-breaking at a constant high in the squad-room, even a hint of their relationship was unthinkable.

 

THEY SPEAK TO all six of their community servicers and the lot of them swear to never have taken the drug, despite its at-present legal limbo.

 

VICTORIA AND CARMEN make Bonner a modest German chocolate birthday cake. After some deliberation Victoria decides to ask.

“Carmen, have you ever heard of something called Haoma?”

“Yes.” Instantly her hands come together, her left hand strangling her right thumb, her familiar sign of anxiety. Of guilt.

“Have you ever taken it?”

“No, I swear.”

“Have your friends?”

“You in cop mode? Which?”

“Doesn’t matter. Okay, mother mode, motherrr…”

“Albertina took it,” she says defensively. “That girl who wigged out I told you about.”

“Did she tell you what it was like?”

“She got all weird. She stopped using her cellphone and dropped her Facebook and got all wiggy.”

“Did she tell you what it was like? I mean how it affected her?”

“She couldn’t say. She just went all smiley. She wants to drop out. Of school.”

“So you’ll never take it.”

“Oh, hail no. I like school.”

 

VICTORIA’S GRATITUDE PLAYED itself out every time they visited Bonner together, as if Carmen was the living embodiment of his work 20 years ago in the Bronx projects.

That it was not in vain.

Carmen is mature for her age and seemingly nonplussed by the reality of aging and the grim institutional place, but Victoria could detect her disgust and occasionally, the fear, but is nevertheless impressed by her continuing wish to visit the mentor from her teenage years every week. She couldn’t determine whether it was out of some unconscious respect to the old man for making possible her very existence—something Victoria had never explicitly laid out—or simply to impress her mother.

“Thanks for coming along.”

“You say that every time.”

“Well, it means something.”

“You really love him, don’t you?”

“He’s been steady. He’s always been here.”

“I’m sorry he’s sick.”

“It’s what happens.”

“He’s thinner.”

“I try to get him to eat.”

Sometimes she worries about Carmen’s apparent asociality and the obsession with these devices by which she and her friends erect barriers around one another. In a sense it qualifies as addiction, just like any to substances, with quantifiable social costs. But Carmen also enjoyed things like Victoria’s own musical tastes, old movies and styles of dress, as if it was more than just affectation, or trying to be cool by being different. She actually did enjoy them.

 

THE NEXT WEEK there is no sign of the Mullah, yet the community servicers confirm that another few hundred Haoma pills had somehow worked their way onto the dance floors of the Utopianist’s Complaint, along with a new form of the drug: tiny paper squares. The informants try backtracking, to no result.

Then, in a bar within the Utopianist’s Complaint called the Mithraeum, the ex-stockbroker notices frenetic activity near the arched barrel vault support column and drifts over to it. The contact has shown up. He’s a series of angularities with long blue-black hair and dressed in vintage velvet. The stockbroker recognizes him as a Mithraeum regular, and notifies Victoria that a dealer is on the premises.

But an arrest wasn’t to happen that night.

Another fruitless weekend passes. By this time, news of the drug has seeped via the Internet into the Meridian Broadcast Corporation news division and the Metro desk of the New York Times—but until the kids start flying or dying, Captain Drake warns, all official NYPD stories will be embargoed. This, despite the fact that ingesters are now writing about their experiences on the Web, on blogs and message boards and the social networking sites. Nomenclatures and codewords are developing. The Times and Post and Daily News are quickly catching on. People who have taken Haoma are confessing things about themselves; they are ending relationships and quitting jobs, both summarily and with notice. There are rumors of “profound personality changes” whose actual quantification goes unanalyzed but for vague avowals. Those previously condemned as “depressives” are impressing loved ones and friends with mirth and changes in appearance and hygiene and demeanor.

Digital pictures of the pills turn up online. Artists are painting and sculpting it. Poems with elaborate, tortured syntax bearing obsolete words heavy with desuetude appear on the Net, as group projects. The sudden synergy of a micro-culture appears. All this, a mere three months from its first appearance.

“Goddamned Web amplification,” Drake says. His tone seems to mean: We will hold back the deluge with our paper cups and thimbles.

 

“WE GOT HIM, ViVi,” the captain says.

There in the room is a thirtyish bearded man in curled sidelocks and dressed in a white shirt and natty black suspenders and coal fedora. He is rocking in concentrating over a presumably invisible Talmud. Victoria chuckles to herself.

“Speaks Hebrew exclusively,” the captain says. “No ID.”

“Where’s his jacket?”

“We recovered about fifteen paper tabs this time.”

She puts on the gloves over manicured fingers and folds over the jacket.

“It’s the same,” Starck says. “Mont Segger. De Moliere Brothers.”

“De Molay,” she corrects, probing into a pocket. “Is there sand?”

“Let’s call it confetti.”

She gathers a few tiny pieces and scatters them on the table.

“There’s writing on them. Not Hebrew, English and some other hieroglyphic-type thing.”

“We’ll send it to the lab.” She shakes her head at the wonder of it all.

“Lovestone should be down here.”

 

LT. SIDNEY LOVESTONE speaks fluent Hebrew. The young Hasid requests a paper pad presumably on which a confession will be written. He is more forthcoming than the Mullah—in sheer verbiage, at least. He doesn’t know the Mullah except by reputation and anecdote. His left hand doodles upon a legal pad absently as he rocks and rants about a hidden Jerusalem occupying the same physical space as Manhattan but existing at a higher energetic plane—and that he is its current ambassador in New York. His alter-self in that city was the “writer” of the paper pharmacopeia in his pockets. He had simply been instructed to “hand out the everlasting Ain Soph, and Shekinah will do the rest…”

After the interview Lovestone confiscates the young man’s doodling. They depicted a series of hexagons laid out like a city grid, perfectly proportioned and seemingly draw as if with an engineer’s compass.

They keep his greatcoat. Both jackets are examined by the forensics lab and found to be composed of fabrics woven together at a microscale, a degree of complexity impossible to understand.

 

THE SOLE FRENCH speaker in the 18th Precinct calls Europol and the French Police Generale in Paris. They have heard nothing of Haoma in the Parisian clubs, but report that a new chemical is making its way through Rome and Berlin and Amsterdam. It is called Ludibria, and its reported effects are similar. It is described as yellow pill with a purple band, the numeral 108, and a small M…Further, after consulting a national business database, a gendarme official tells the Francophone that De Molay Brothers, the only clothier based in the village of Montsegur on the French-Spanish border, has been in business for nearly two hundred years. It has no telephone listing, much less a web presence. Orders are made exclusively through correspondence, as they have been for the past century.

 

THE FOLLOWING WEEK Haoma appears in the clubs in pill, paper and yet a third form, a liquid administered by atomizer.

The third dealer they pick up wears a Catholic priest’s frock-coat and collar, and is nabbed just as he steps from Alumbrados in TriBeCa. The lone pocket within the folds of his garment are perpetually damp, but unproductive of pills or confetti.

They turn over the frock to read the inevitable place of manufacture and curse that they did not get hair or saliva samples from the Mullah and the Hasid. DNA tests would give them something tangible, if nothing else the reassuring axiom that these three magician-perpetrators were at least fellow members of the human race. The “priest” has heard of the Mullah and the Hasid but claimed not to know them personally. “We are forerunning her.”

“Who?” Dorney asks.

“I make way for the Queen.”

“The Queen?”

“We are her forerunners.”

“You mean you and the Mullah and the Jew are forerunners?” Victoria asks.

He shrugs. “The Age is about to turn. We are sent out to gather the splinters. The Fish has been spilled onto sand…Only the waterbearer’s urn can revive it. But it doesn’t need reviving, try as you all might. And that is all I will say.”

And with that he falls silent, remaining so even through another fruitless three hours of interrogation and the outtake and biometric identification procedures, which he submits to without incident, then his release. Dorney discretely follows him down to the Battery in the July heat but the man seems oblivious. The “priest” stands staring at the Hudson for two hours, then Mitchell takes over the surveillance as the man drifts to a bench, where he tries to take a nap until rousted by a Port Authority officer.

Finally the Captain calls off the tail.

 

VICTORIA VALDEZ STEPS into the maze and leans above Ken Dennison’s desk. “The Jew’s confetti?”

Ken Dennison is as close to excited as she has ever seen. “The lab says it’s bits of handmade paper, an Asian kind of cedar. Look at this, Vicky.”

He holds up a blown-up JPG file, blurry, a page of text. “It’s a poem. Written in micro-millimeters. This writing was on a single piece. Each piece has a different poem written on it. Some of them are paintings. Can you believe this? Paintings—like those paintings in books from the Middle Ages?”

For the first time Victoria feels a cold stirring in her stomach. She thinks God might know what’s going on here: The NYPD, not so much.

Dennison reads her troubled expression and she intuits his need to give her some comfort here—physical comfort. Immediately she straightens. He continues: “Forensics says the only thing which would make writing and pictures this small is what they call a ‘quantum tunneler.’ It works in nano-meters, they said. You know how small a nano-meter is?”

She sighs and deadpans, “I’ll bet it is very, very small.”

“Supposedly this kind of technology doesn’t officially exist yet except at MIT or something. Hear what I’m saying?”

She hears but ignores. “What about chemically?”

“Same deal as the pills. The paper’s infused with some kind of sugar, from a kind of honey, that’s all.” His voice lowers and leans closer. “Hey, Vicky, is Carmen out tonight? What do you say we—”

“Sorry, I can’t. Not tonight.”

 

LATER, VICTORIA MAKES her way to the physical evidence pen and opens the large locker and frowns. An old grey and brown tee-shirt sliced neatly down its front hangs there beneath the cellophane and evidence tags. She checks the logs. She was the last to open the locker, two weeks ago. Someone is having fun with her.

She storms into the room, holds up the joke. “Anyone like to tell me what the fuck happened to the fucking Mullah jacket in the fucking lock-up? Who’s got it?”

Shaking heads, mild protests. “Whoa, we haven’t touched it, miss potty-mouth. Take it easy.”

“Valdez, watch your language.”

“Ha.” Then on closer inspection she notices the faint remnants of the DeMolay tag. Its lettering has faded to illegibility, the cloth square nearly dissolved. She recognizes the dim paisley swirls in the loose network of fiber. It is as if someone had washed the jacket a thousand consecutive times, or spent days methodically extracting key strands from the jacket, reducing it in size and bulk. Her anger doubles. “Lemme get this,” she shouts. “No-one here has touched this thing in the past three weeks? Look at it. Look at this thing.” She rattles it on its hanger high above her head. “Tell me no-one’s touched it.”

The Captain tries to calm her.

She skulks back to her desk and calls around to Organized Crime and Quality of Life asking if anyone had shown interest in the case and who would have taken or borrowed the piece of clothing. The replies are negative.

She gives up and returns to her desk. The Captain calls her. “Ken’s sample and the confetti came back from DEA. The sand isn’t exactly sugar but a kind of dried honey. You ever heard of a government agency called DARPA?”

She hasn’t.

“Well. Listen to this: The Feds had next dibs on our samples, right? They were sent to the Hoover Building. Then this outfit called DARPA came right the hell in and confiscated them. DARPA’s an R and D think-tank sorta thing with the Pentagon…The samples have been classified now, those little-bitty pieces of paper. We’re not to talk about it at all. We, uh—there’s a gag order’s been issued.”

“Why?”

He sighs. “National security. Maybe some cat got out of the bag. And about that, we’ve a reporter from the goddamn Daily News coming down. The time’s come for some word from us to the public.”

Victoria winces. “Seriously?”

“You’ll talk to her. Her name’s Erica Kane and she covers the metro beat, the nightclubs and all. We don’t have the press asking for a conference yet, but we hope to buy some more time.”

The reporter shows her press credentials to Victoria and sits down at the desk. Late 20s, dressed in a blue skirt and tights and she looks like a college student. “So how is your day going, Sergeant Valdez?”

“Can’t complain. How’s yours?”

“I hear you have a mystery on your hands. At the Utopianist’s Complaint and the Painted Word and other places?”

“We’ve gotta be careful.”

Erica Kane rattles off all she’s been told and outlines the angle she will take on the matter in her article, the named sources, the not-for-attribution sentences. The Daily News’ “Trends” was grateful for the Department’s willingness to cooperate and let them be the gateway for what was sure to be an amazing story. She speaks in that compulsive up-talk of the twentyish that annoys the hell out of Victoria; she actively weaned the habit out of Carmen early.

“Do you know about Quincunx Productions?” Rapidly Erica shuffles her fingertips across the stack of papers in her lap.

Victoria squints. “They own the UC. Right?”

“Not exactly. They designed the place and continue to lease it to this day. The actual owners of the building are a company called Alethea Holdings? This Alethea also owns the Painted Word, Alumbrados in the Village, and Syzygus in Union Square, Seven Pillars and the Chen Chang chain?”

Victoria is impressed. Maybe this liaison will actually lead somewhere.

“Now when I found this out, in the light of where this Haoma was showing up? I tried looking up Alethea on the web but there was nothing. They’re not even listed in the Yellow Pages. They have a PO box, that’s all. So I tried to get their charter from the SEC? I went to a contact of mine and he was surprised to find the relevant documents are under a form of classification he hasn’t seen before. They’re restricted, in other words. As in a national security classification?”

“So you’re saying the owner of these clubs is really, uh, someone in the Federal government?”

“Looks that way. The joint ownership of private companies can be classified, you know, things like that old Blackwater company and military contractors and such? The but the gist is that Alethea Holdings is some part of the government, yes.”

Oh God. Could Ken have been right? she thinks

“My friend did find something, though. There was an SEC file there for Alethea which had a series of letters in it.” She hands over a photocopy of a document. It bears an elegant letterhead with a small red mandala at the top, within which lays a three-humped smudge, like a mountain range, and script rendered illegible in the poor multiple-generation copying. The typewritten text is fat, fuzzy, but readable.

JABULQA & JABULSA

FOR ALL DEBTS ON THE LAND KNOWN AS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 

“J and J is an international law firm? It has ‘representative embassies,’ they call them. They had one of these ‘embassies’ here in New York but the headquarters is in Switzerland and a second big office in Southern France.”

“Wait, whoa—wouldn’t be Montsegur, would it?”

Erica’s face brightens. “Very close but not quite. A town called Foix. I checked the pedigree of the last J & J office space here on Manhattan? It was in Midtown. Before J & J, it was last used by PKE. In fact, PKE owns the building.”

“What’s PKE?”

There’s a momentary condescending stare, quickly extinguished by her rapid banter. “PKE is the company which owns the Eudamonia Channel. You know. The Treasure Hunt?”

“Okay, yeah.” Although she has heard of it, Victoria was never one to watch reality television, even if it was a live contest for $100 million, involved thousands of participants, and took months. She opens the Haoma file before her. “Let me show you something, Erica. This is the big secret here. Look at this.” Victoria hands her the photos of the clothier labels and tells her the non-coincidence of apparel between the three dealers and the strange appearance of the jackets’ cargo.

Erica squints and frowns. “It just showed up in the pockets?”

“Yeah. Like this sandy goo started making the pills when it hit the air.”

Her lip curls. “Yick.”

“The sand looked like brown sugar and it just dissolved. The pills, or rather the sand or resin or whatever it was, came from some kind of honey. Then the second guy, the Jewish guy, had these tiny pieces of paper which had writing on them. Tiny writing. You need a special microscope to even see the writing. And pictures. The third guy, we didn’t find anything, but witnesses saw him giving it out in an atomizer, like a breath freshener type-thing?”

Erica studies Victoria. “Okay. Well, I have the clearance and purse to go to France? To visit the law office in Foix. I want to see these clothesmakers now too. Wouldn’t you like to see these clothesmakers up close and personal?”

The idea rapidly gains momentum in Victoria. It would be just what she needed now. On Official Business. Undercover. “How long do you think it would take?”

“No more than a few days? Fly out of LaGuardia. But Southern France is dangerous for someone like me,” Erica chuckles, “could get lost and end up at some spa for a week.”

“You speak French?”

“Yeah, pretty well. But they speak a dialect in the South? It’s called Occitan?”

“Yeah. I want to go with you.”

Erica suddenly shifts in her seat, looking crestfallen, but only for an instant. “I’ll be flying out tomorrow,” she replies.

“I’ll talk it over with the captain,” she says, masking her indignation at Erica’s initial reaction. “That’s short notice, but we’ll have to have someone check it out.”

 

After a conference with the Captain and the Task Force, the trip is approved and she is authorized to bring the remains of the two jackets.

Having never been overseas, she tries to contain her growing excitement as she tells Carmen.

“It’s three days, max. You’ll stay with Juanita and you’re gonna go to school.”

“It’s Friday.”

“Monday, you’ll go to school.”

But she wonders about “for all debts on the land known as the USA.” And those two words, Jabulqa and Jabulsa. A familiarity troubles her over them. It seems like something from her childhood, deep in those teenage days of fear and That Which Was Done To Counteract The Fear, events barely plumbed in the therapy sessions Bonner had paid for her.

 

THE PLANE TOUCHES down at Charles de Gaulle Airport and they connect to a flight to Toulouse-Blagnac in the Middle Pyrenees, where a rented Citroen awaits them. A few hours south down the A66 and they have left behind the silver aerospace boxes of Toulouse for vineyards and emerald hills and windy van Gogh skies. Cypresses seem to lunge at the car.

The landscape reminds Victoria of the California she’d known from a trip last decade.

Erica guides the tiny vehicle through the gentle hills south past a few wind farms and fields patrolled by enormous agribusiness machines. Then the landscape retreats to earlier periods of architecture: They wind pass villages tightly clustered around steeples, clouds just a few frequencies lighter than the background sky, brilliant greens. Mountains glimpsed, reed-veined, rusty on the horizon. Erica is on her cellphone half the time, which is fine with Victoria, losing herself in some Marvin Gaye and Teddy CDs she’s brought along.

They stop for gas and already Erica is troubled by the accent and the dialect and asking the locals to repeat themselves.

In an hour they are ascending hills that show ruins on each distant crown, castles and walls and buttresses. Victoria is amazed. People live here amongst it all. The road snakes into a more natural economy with the landscape. Their cellphone coverage fails. A dull anticipation stirs in Victoria, in synchronization with a wonder that appears at this exotic land—farmers in beaten clothes and caps herding cows to stone granaries. Erica taps her wrist and brings her out from her reverie. The GPS voice announces their destination. In the distance, the higher Pyrenees loom snow-capped, and Spain beyond.

The village of Montsegur is nestled beneath a high peak on which a castle fortress reposes, and it is no more than a collection of a few long avenues of continuous buildings, vivid red roofs with winding side streets that abruptly terminate.

“What’s the number?”

“1244.”

They come upon Freres De Molay in no time, between a boulangerie and a bicycle shop. Erica is photographing everything with her phone, a running video. Victoria starts her hand audio recorder. The windows of the clothiers are stained glass and seem to glow with something more than the late afternoon light is capable of. The door is of carved teak and vaguely Himalayan in motifs, with elaborate flames and stylized eyes. Victoria’s ears pop in the elevation as she pulls the shop’s bell cord. The sound of feet creaking on wood, whispers behind the door. A peephole gate ascends and clicks shut. Three locks are unclasped.

The man’s face wouldn’t be out of place as suave Eurotrash in some Hollywood thriller—lantern jaw, ample cheekbones, thick lashes ringing eyes of a violet color she’d never before considered as belonging on a human face, his skin a shade of dark olive, one of those faces kept genetically within strict regional parameters for many generations. Victoria recalls the color of the Mullah’s eyes.

“Que?” he says.

They exchange words and his face goes suspicious and haughty replies.

Erica says, “I told him we’ll definitely want to buy something.”

They enter the shop. It is dark inside, teak and pine following the motifs of the door, with a low ceiling hung with colorful prayer flags. Deep shelves line one wall. They bump past two small chandeliers hanging from the roof beams ringed with dead candles. Old lit hurricane lamps cast their shadows on all four walls. The proprietor’s sunken cheeks are sharp in the orange light. He hovers behind the counter.

Victoria regards the largest stained glass window and the hexagonal device amidst its traceries, repeated throughout its triadic design. Here and there are caricatures of bees. The place smells of candlewax and incense sunk deep into the skin of the enclosing wood. She gazes into a green area of the glass depicting some Buddhist saint and the light seems to contract and expand the figure and its surrounding flames. It pulls at her. The glass seems…alive somehow.

She shudders and turns to the proprietor. She holds out the remaining rags, now separated further into three pieces, even less substantial than their departure from Toulouse. She fingers the label. “You made this jacket…” Erica translates.

He recognizes the shape of the label and perhaps the jacket itself and is stricken and grabs for the tweed strips, yanking them from her hands. He is on the edge of tears. He goes yelling through a door into the back and another voice raises in consternation. Victoria giggles at the pitched hysteria in the two voices as they argue.

Erica translates their exchange: “‘I told you…the dirty air in that Sodom and Gomorrah place’… I guess he means New York…And he’s saying… ‘Who are they…How did they get here…We don’t have much time…The city is due…I saw it in the bowl? She has departed on her mission…Marno’s ready.'”

Victoria is confused. The voices fall beneath audibility for a moment, then he returns but in a glance they notice that it is not the man, but his brother. He is dressed in breeches and a white ruffled shirt and suspenders, looking like an extra from some Louis 15th docudrama—and is an identical twin. The face seconds his brother’s anguish and scrunches in confusion. They bark, almost in unison. Erica translates: “Moths? Insects?”

Shoddy manufacture, Victoria wants to reply. “No, not at all. Just air.”

Erica converses with the man a few moments and Victoria drifts along the wall. The woodworking of the shelves is strange—ornamentation that grows more intricate as she studies it, its graining deepening into landscapes, its rough surfaces carved with tableau on scales which change depending upon her eyes’ focus. It looks Paisley, and carved on a minute scale—a nanoscale, one might say? She pulls away, spooked. Dark green crystalline amulets and rings lay in tiny, neat levels on the fragrant shelves at outrageous prices. Here’s a chart of sartorial styles done in typeface and woodcut from the turn of the 19th century but for the contemporary prices and sizes, and they are cheap by American standards. In spite of herself, she thinks Ken might like the tweed jacket and she briefly considers buying one. Maybe she will—and its pockets would produce a nice amnesiac potion for the both of them.

Then she freezes in shock. There on the shelf, a stack of CDs:

AURORA RECORDS 2019 SAMPLER.

She points at the CD and snaps, “Where did you get this?”

The man shrugs, a full-torso motion.

“Do you know these people who run this record label?”

Erica translates. “No,” she replies, “they were sent here promotionally.”

Promotionally. Here. A business in a tiny French town with no internet presence. She will buy one. She wanders over to the shelves. Amidst the bobby pins and threads here was a row of small abstract-shaped jars, capped with bluish crystal stoppers. She squints:

 

PRODUIT Du Nord de L’ouest du Sud de L’Est

IOHANNIS PRESBYTER

The substance inside, possibly a perfume or hand lotion, is pearly and viscous. She holds up one of the vials and asks how much.

“Four hundred francs,” comes a raspy reply.

She whistles. “Perfume?”

“Honey.”

Erica lowers her voice as Victoria approaches the counter. “He says he has no idea how the jacket ended up where it ended up. They ship only once a year to the US to private customers and the list is closed. He won’t let us in the back, but says the jackets are made from local sheep and sheep in Provence.”

“I’d like to buy a tweed coat.” She points to the blazer on the poster. “This one.”

“Une?” comes the raspy voice.

“He knows English?”

“Barely. Knows ‘would like to buy.’”

“Une, one.”

“Size?”

They custom fit each jacket. She tells him it doesn’t matter but he scoffs at the notion. “They are made here, on the premises?”

“Oui, yes.”

She places the CD on the counter and counts out twenty Euros.

“I’d also like some honey.”

He studies her with a stricken look for a moment, sizing her up and being amused and offended at the result. “Je regrette, mais non,” then rattles off a fast speech.

“He says I think, he says they’ve all sold out.”

“But why cant I buy, oh, this bottle here?” Victoria says, holding it up and tapping it.

He waves a hand dismissively. “Il a dépassé sa date d’expiration. Il n’est pas comestible.”

Erica: “It’s expired.” She asks him a barrage of questions to which he grows increasingly brusque.

“We’d have to go to the apiary to get some…You know, maybe we should.”

THE BED AND breakfast they’ve taken a room in is tiny. Victoria wraps the CD in a forensic evidence plastic sheath and seals it. She will wait until back at the 18th Precinct to open it.

“I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt,” Victoria says later, “you know, that maybe some joker had sewn the De Molay labels into some other jacket. But then, the honey, right there. And this CD. We busted a guy with Haoma who works for this record label. It’s in Williamsburg. We should go to the beekeeping place and buy some and we could have it tested.”

“Beziers is about a hundred miles away. There could be a problem with our just showing up. I’ll call them.” Within a few minutes she’d obtained the number for Iohannis Presbyter Apiary and had the call put through. “We’re good for Thursday. They want journalists on their side.”

Erica calls her editor and clears the extra day.

 

SHE’D ALREADY SCOPED out the general layout of the streets. When night falls she leaves the hotel and makes her way through the village. The skies glow with a Milky Way unlike she has ever seen, like a visible backbone to the night. The high wind sounds through the buildings. The moonlight is clear. She walks down a bluish path that threatens to descend into the valley but then rights itself upward. She counts three buildings and climbs the scrubby hill, passing through firs. It levels off and she can see the stained glass window of De Molay Freres is open a few inches—or, she supposed centimeters. The sweet lily scent washes over her. No lights burn in that second story. Perhaps the brothers didn’t live here after all. Two, three shoves and the window is up all the way. She grabs the sill and pulls herself up, elbowing the sash. Into the darkness and enveloped by that peculiar smell.

She turns on the flashlight and finds herself in their business office. She steps lightly. The flashlight picks out calendars and a huge bone red Chinese herb chest, an old roll-top desk whose lid she engages. In the side slots and drawers she finds nothing. She opens a few of the herb chest’s drawers and discovers species of grass and dirt and sand, and strange luminiferous crystals.

She steps towards the far desk when the floorboards groan with a chink of metal on metal. It is an old iron ring.

A trapdoor lay below her feet.

She continues to the desk. Here are stacked letters from clientele the world over. Bingo. She thrusts the flashlight in the crook of her arm and cycles through the envelopes. All but one contain return addresses. She opens it to find a typed list whose writing has been effaced with whiteout and replaced with a series of hieroglyphs. There is a signature at the bottom: S. Marrano. One of the De Molay brothers had written 5 veste 9 pot du miel with a date of nine months ago. She examines the envelope closer but there is no indication of an address. Perhaps it is on a Rolodex or its equivalent somewhere here, or this Marrano could have been a regular customer, or maybe it has gone missing.

Again she checks both desks, then eases open the office door. The room they’d been in earlier is purple with strong moonlight sifting through the stained glass. She catches a sudden whiff of decay that she recognizes—the smell of the longcoat worn by that Mullah nutjob. She extinguishes the desire to steal that vial of honey, if she could find it. Here are their daily ledgers—and ah, addresses, postal rates, weights, the merchandise sent. She runs a fingertip down the list.

S. Marrano, 80 Ridge Street, New York, USA 10002–5 veste, 9 pot du miel

Five. So there might be two more jackets out there…and nine jars of that honey had been sent.

Marno…Marrano.

She returns to the office. The trapdoor. She pulls it open and her flashlight finds stone stairs. A humming sound emerges, almost imperceptible, a high singing chord, pleasant. She descends a spiral staircase of stone and a large chamber comes into view, rough grey slabs of wall as tall as she, medieval in age, perhaps hewn even earlier. The light picks out a forest of high wooden machines that in a few seconds she gathers are looms, pyramidal in shape and tall enough to stretch to the high ceiling where cobwebs nest, dozens of racks going off into the distance.

Something glows in the bins and she feels a sudden influx of adrenaline. What is nestled within resembles capellini—thousands of translucent strands emitting a greenish light she has difficulty adjusting her eyes to. Her breathing grows fast. The color is a glowing variant of the stained glass saints she’d seen above, this afternoon. And the rings on the shelves.

Radioactive? Sheep genetically spliced with what—firefly genes?

She tries the camera but something is interfering with its circuitry, the image clouded and freezing with fat pixels.

She retreats to the stairs and pads circling upward, leaving below what would have counted as some nightmare place and whose reality in her memory seems to diminish with each step. She slows, unable to get over the impression that this manufacturing has gone on here far longer than the two centuries she’d been told, no, it had gone on from antiquity, and the clothes made here had been spun and woven on looms from Elsewhere, like they had been designed for some other purpose.

She quickly exits, climbing back through the window into the chilling night and practically runs to the bed and breakfast. The whole operation has taken less than forty minutes. She tells Erica how the camera didn’t work and the strange subterranean workshop.

“That’s Europe for you,” is all she says.

“The fabric was glowing, Erica. It wasn’t normal…They sent jackets and honey to an address in the Lower East Side. Wouldn’t be surprised if that address is the lab where the stuff’s being made.”

“What stuff? The sand or resin?” she yawns.

 

Victoria doesn’t sleep for three hours. She goes downstairs to the desk and calls Carmen, then leaves a long message on the Captain’s voicemail box with the Lower East Side address and telling him vaguely of the De Molay strangeness.

 

At late dawn they check out and begin the drive 200 km north to Beziers. By the time they approach Narbonne and spy the blue Mediterranean, Erica Kane—despite her verbal handicap—has told Victoria her life story and become a confidant. After getting her journalism degree, she blogged for four years, living in her parents’ Carroll Gardens brownstone. Newsday hired her to cover the enormous new “budget social scene” that had evolved since the 2017 crash. She tells Victoria how she’s grateful for her new job working the club beat at the Daily News, not the gig she ever expected, but to complain about any job nowadays would be a form of treason, wouldn’t it? She is 31, unmarried, and ideally suited for the job, having the freedom and familiarity with the clubs and the subcultures sprouting up every few months, negotiating their increasing insularity and limited scope, like a second, deeper level of the turning inward and “bubbliciousness” of the American counter-world.

Victoria, long an expert at building bridges to the Lost Worlds of the possible lives she’d never lived, grunts with each new fact the younger woman throws at her as she learns of the microcultures of “one-minute cameraphone operas”, a recent “lunch-hour spooning party-orgy” fad, the Eudamonia Treasure Hunt,

 

After a while they come to a gate. The sign reads

IOHANNIS PRESBYTER

…with a compass-rose whose hub encircles a stylized honeybee. The ends of its four directions curve out at their points, giving the design the look of a mock-sun. An iron weathervane with the same design towers above the gatepost—and on its opposing post, a vane just like the ones they’d seen in Montsegur.

A stone villa. It looks like a castle. Twelve cars sit idle beneath an enormous carport, a few Citroens and hybrids.

Jean Paradis is a bear of a man in a banker’s suit, bearded and with a shaggy graying mane, bright olive eyes and a booming voice, what appears to be a miniature lily in a buttonhole to which he dips his nose every few minutes as if taking a private sacrament as they talk. Erica asks if she can record the conversation and gets out her tablet.

“Here’s to the new day.” He is filling three snifters with cognac. “A day without madmen ruining our world with war. Gratitude for a basic prosperity of the distant past and the strength and virtue for its continuance…And the gift of the Apiary.”

Glasses tink. The cognac is good. Erica converses with him a moment in French and they switch to English.

“Do you do business with De Molay Brothers in Montsegur?”

“In the Village, oui,” he replies without a beat, nor a reaction. “They are distant nephews on my great grandmother’s side. One of them, I believe Jacques, came by here, it must have been a year ago. He purchased the Orchidee Noire apiage…

“Apiage…You mean…”

“The seasonal vintage, so to speak. Jacques bought me out entirely. That is a potent mix. It is blue-dominant and renders visible the Cherubim, not too psychically resonant for type O and carriers of a point mutation along the X chromosome.”

Oh, I see, Victoria thinks: Another madman. “Makes people psychic?”

“Well, non—it simply cleanses the lens.”

Victoria tries to recall the name for the French equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration. A sweet wind pours through the opened window, ruffling the papers and colorful prayers flags. Paradis’s wife is now outside with a two year-old in a crooked arm and leading another toddler out towards the weather vane. The children are clothed identically, in loose toga-like garments of blue. The arms of the vane spin, the crystal weights aligning and falling askance of one another, the sunlight glittering. She appears to be explaining its principles to the kids, pointing, their bonnets fluttering.

AFSSA: Agence Francaise de Securite Sanitaire des Aliment.

“So your honey has, uh, psychoactive properties?” Erica asks. “Is it regulated then?”

“Oui, of course,” he harrumphs. “The effects are minimal. Negligible. We are fully licensed and scientifically sound. Psychoactive is much too strong and crude a description. It works with the subtle energies of the mineral body. We also makes rings, rather old school, from the beeswax. And other elements.”

“We saw some at the brothers’ shop.

“Powerful rings. You won’t find that element they’re made from on earth.”

“What, like Moldavite?” Erica says.

“No,” he harrumphs. “Not exactly…”

Victoria asks, “Do you have here on your premises any scientific reports by Agence Francaise? Reports about the biochemistry of your honey?”

“Non, but the ADAPI have them. That would be the charge of the Apiculture Provencale.”

The two women look at each other.

Paradis rises from his seat and pinches his lapel to bring the tiny lily to his nostrils. “Someday conscience shall be a collective property of humans, independent of what we have called ‘virtue.’ But until then we may sometimes be shocked awake into a state of being where the power of greater forces actually function in us and bring us together. When this happens we see the Chain of Causes under which we suffered until that moment.” He smiles. Paradis then tells them the flowers and bees have been imported from a remote monastery in Bhutan: “The monks have kept these bees for millennia. They also claim to have access to a mineral lode within a cave in their valley that is extraterrestrial in origin and has affected all forms of life in the valley, the grass and deer and trees and insects and lilies—and their bees…And they speak of maintaining contact with an ancient race of beings who have lived beneath the earth for a hundred thousand years. This subterranean civilization will soon be sending a representative up here, they believe, to teach humanity some great truths.”

Victoria tries not to keep from giggling at the combination of animated demeanor and casual gravity with which he’s pronouncing these absurdities. “What great truths?”

Without a beat Paradis replies, “That the earth belongs to them and that the moon is not a natural satellite at all. Their prophecy tells that their ambassador was once a king and too hid from humanity…And the world as we know it will end. They are only the forerunners for the return of the Savior…”

Forerunner: Victoria licks her lips and snorts to herself.

“The monks believe the world order which has developed over the past six thousand years is a machine that simply reinforces illusions and creates human egoism and human dependency upon itself. They believe this corporation is meant to destroy the planet and kill as many humans as possible…They believe the ideas for the creation of this machine were implanted long ago in human minds, but by another, evil race of hidden beings who are controlling man’s destiny for its own purposes, for they need the biological spiritual energy of human souls to survive and build their own machine to travel back to their homeland…

Erica Kane is staring blankly into space, stunned by the random swerve into sheer insanity the whole enterprise has taken. Victoria is amused. “What does your company name mean?”

“Oh, it is a reference to a medieval legend. Of a king from the East whose apiaries were the source of Manna…”

No ego here—no.

“Where is a place north of west of south of east?”

“Depends on where you start,” Erica replies. “I think.”

“No—try again.”

“Nowhere, really,” Victoria says.

“Exactement,” Paradis booms. “And what does the word utopia translate into English?”

“Nowhere,” Erica says.

“The same. The honey is a product of no place, in reality.”

“So could we buy some of your famous honey?”

His eyes widened. “To transport back to America? I am afraid there are some restrictions on it.”

“Why is that?”

“You must take that up with the Agence Francais. And your Food Administration. All the apiaries of the south have complained en masse to your authorities on opening the American markets to our product. I’m afraid you would be violating the law in attempting to bring it through, and Customs would confiscate it.”

Somehow she didn’t believe it. “Well, then, I’d like to buy a jar of your latest…apiage.”

His expression went crestfallen. “This is unfortunate, for we have entirely sold out—just yesterday.”

“The De Molay brothers’ shop had a few jars left but they wouldn’t sell to us either. That’s just too bad…Well, where are your vendors around Foix? You must have sold them to supermarkets here.”

“The European market has been saturated and our stocks sold out within Provence.”

He was being evasive. Anyone could see that. “Not an ounce? Even a sample left here, Monsieur Paradis? That’s hard to believe. Imagine a winery without a tasting room…”

“I am afraid that this is the case of affairs.”

 

VICTORIA TRIES TO listen to the audio recording from the De Molay shop and finds it muffled shards of words with bursts of white noise. Likewise the video of the village street and the shop façade—rainbows, then a blank grey frozen slate screen. The recorder is a cheap Chinese knockoff, sure, but this seems more than a manufacturing glitch.

“Did you believe him about being sold out?”

“Yeah—that seemed off.”

“I don’t believe it.”

They drive to two small Beziers groceries and find nothing. At the third the proprietor tells them he has heard of the apiary and fielded requests before, but was told to refer all requests to a metaphysical bookstore in Toulouse—Le Tetractys.

They call the store from the car and are told the bookstore has nothing to do with selling honey and further to stop calling them about it.

“I don’t believe it,” Victoria says. “We’ll swing by before we go to the airport.”

 

VICTORIA DRIVES AS Erica retrieves the ADAPI phone numbers for both Toulouse and the national office in Paris. She leaves a detailed message at the Toulouse office and then briefly speaks with an official at the Paris headquarters.

“All the documents are publicly available on-line,” she says.

Using the GPS they are directed to Le Tetractys bookstore and café. The same Himalayan motifs adorn its door. The bookstore is a modest addendum to a sprawling café bustling with University of Toulouse students.

Victoria’s cellphone rings. It is Carmen.

“Hi Mom. It’s Bonner…”

She closes her eyes and gathers a breath.

“The nurse called me here on the landline and told me they’ve taken him to the hospital. He’s had a stroke, they think? He’s in that intensive care?”

Victoria has passed outside into the brilliant late afternoon sunshine. “Carmen, you stayed home from school.”

“I feel sick, mom—troof!”

She feels into the light out there for a path, any path, to Bonner, and her anger and surprise and worry and sudden nausea are a tangled mass here—no, it couldn’t happen this way, it shouldn’t, it can’t, that she wouldn’t be the person there holding his hand right now, the one goddamned time they might really need each other. She is away on duty 2,500 miles with a body of water between them staring at the European half-sized dinky cars lining the streets, everything around her unfamiliar. “Who should I call?”

“The nurse, the one at the home.” Carmen sniffles and adds a quick cough. Victoria takes a breath. The fury could come later, possibly. “We will talk about this later, young lady.”

She says goodbye and calls the nurse, who tells her he began having a thickened tongue and difficulty speaking and then went inert and they called the ambulance. Tests were being analyzed.

Goddamn medical “profession.”

He has a DNR order.

She leans looking into the bookstore and sees Erica talking to the couple behind the counter.

They will know more tomorrow, the nurse says. Then she calls her neighbor and tells her to go knock on their door and tell Carmen that she will go to school tomorrow.

She steels herself and reenters Le Tetractys and stands beside the counter.

“What’s wrong?” Erica asks.

“Nothing,” she shakes her head once. Then she notices Erica placing a small gold vial and receipt into a tiny paper bag.

“You got it?”

“Let’s go.”

Victoria tells Erica what has happened and offers her condolences. “Well, I’m glad we’re flying out first thing tomorrow.”

The vial is about the size of a lip-balm dispenser and contains a clear crystal gem as a stopper. “Fifty Euros,” Erica comments.

“How did you get it?”

“I have my ways.”

Victoria uncaps it and inhales and exclaims, “Whoosh!” It smells like a hundred concentrated lilies and in seconds Erica rolls down the window at the slight headrush coming over her from even a yard away. “You sure this is honey, or perfume?”

They stop at a pharmacy, where Erica buys a roll of gauze and cotton and bandage tape, unrolls the gauze and wraps the vial, places cotton balls on either end and tapes the whole thing together, tightly sealed.

“I guess it’s our only shot,” she says.

“I’m not gonna get caught attempting to smuggle anything, so…You got immunity from the NYPD as far as I’m concerned. Let’s do it.”

They go to a post office and send the package to Victoria’s ATTN at the 18th Precinct.

She calls the neighbor, then Carmen.

“Ken’s been trying to get aholda you. Came by here, too.”

——-

“SO THIS HONEY man told us the bees he uses are native to Bhutan. He’d dealt with De Molay Brothers. They’re related.”

“We just got reports from the French FDA and beekeepers society and everything’s kosher with them, they don’t say it has any kind of drug properties. Nothing weird about the honey.”

“Not a single photo of the place?” Dorney complains. “How did you manage that?”

“Take it up with Tech,” Victoria snaps back. “My phone didn’t work in that place. Worked fine at the beekeeper’s. The tape recorder Tech gave me didn’t work at Montsegur. The brothers said they had no idea how the jackets had gotten here to Manhattan but like I said I sleuthed it and I saw that name Marrano in their business ledger—and it was a real ledger, like a hundred years old or more.”

“There’s no Marrano at that address. It’s a Senior Citizen center.”

“Who owns it?”

“Title on the property’s with some company in Zurich.”

“They Molay brothers were selling promotional CDs for the record label that musician we picked up works for—Aurora records, out in Weeburg.”

“So?”

She rolls her eyes. “Of all the record labels in the world. Aurora. Where this bass player James we popped first heard about Haoma? Do I have to spell it out?”

“Okay, Valdez, cool it—you can do the digging, then.”

 

Iohannis Presbyter.

Johann the Presbyter.

John the Presbyter.

John the Priest.

John Priester.

——–

LATER HER CELL phone buzzes on her hip and sees that it’s Carmen and silences it as she comes into the office warren. Drake isn’t at his desk; he’s standing at the conference room door waving to her. She greets a few officers and endures the feigned amazement at her appearance up here when she walks through the door. Two men stand there. One of them is Doherty, of Internal Affairs. The last time she’d seen him here had been last year, when two brethren officers had been put on administrative leave, then canned for unexplained reasons. The third man, sitting unkempt at the table, is Ken.

“He’s been asking for you,” the Captain says. “He’s had a long few days. Just go in and talk to him.”

“What’s going on?”

“He’s had quite an experience.”

She could see it. He hadn’t shaved, dark bags beneath the clear blue eyes that now look stricken and almost distastefully at her. “Can I speak with you alone?” he says, ignoring the others.

The men leave the room and shut the door.

“Ken, what happened?”

He smiles and stares down into the sinusoidal graining of the desk. “Veev, you know, some things in life are worth resisting. Others you think at the time they’re worth doing. Others still you just don’t know. So you don’t do them…Well, for a man, doing’s always better than not. But it was wrong.”

She’s aghast, unable to intuit the referent to his words. She stares. “What?”

“Us. You and me. It was wrong.”

She wonders if the room’s microphones are engaged. She notices the absence of his normal tics—the tapping boot, the restless shifting in his chair. He is sitting straight, his posture good, both arms extended on the table open fists palm down on the table top. Then she seems to see his face for the first time here. He’s not drunk. She isolates the components of his face to find out what’s wrong with it, why he looks…different. Like some kind of twin brother has been placed here, one whose eyes showed a surrogacy of all the available grace originally intended for Ken Dennison.

“Some mistakes are big, you know,” he says. “We measure our future behavior by ‘em. Or we’re supposed to.”

“Why is Doherty here?”

He purses his lips and exhales. “Well, he would be, wouldn’t he.”

“Why, Ken?”

“I had a good run of it. I think I understand now. No. I do understand. All of it. And you know what? It’s fucking obvious. They should give out prizes for the most obvious things and the idiots who discover them…They do, come to think of it. That’s what the Nobel is for.”

At these words Victoria is alarmed, but it’s their delivery: A voice full and strong unlike she’d heard before, full of calm conviction. His eyes are clear and bird-like.

“Yeah, it’s true,” he continues, “a person can go so far away from home that they’re actually on the way back and don’t even recognize their own door until they stumble over it.”

“Ken, why was Doherty here, talking to you?”

“It’s about the money I stole, Vicky.”

“Money?”

“Forty K. It was right there, on the body. Burcky and me both. Took half and half. Eighty Gs, split down the middle.”

“You stole money?”

“Yes, I did.”

“When was this?” Her stomach turns to ice. She breathes deeply. She doesn’t know what to say but cop mode kicks in, an instantaneous defense, and it throws some words into her mouth. “Did Burcky tell IA about this, or did—”

“I told them.”

She can feel her lip quivering. “You didn’t tell me.”

“Why should I? I’m not stupid.”

“That was nine years ago, you worked with him.”

He smiled nonchalantly. “I made sergeant.”

She works hard to quell the nausea. She sits half a minute trying to understand first of all what she herself is exactly feeling and find nothing there—oh, there is numbness, her eternal companion from long ago, making one of its ghost entrances. But she knows how to deal here. She is older, wiser. Bonner had taught her long ago the basics: breathe, wait, breathe, wait. Any situation “beyond your control” is not yours to own or give power to, there is no doer but what is done. And then comes the original serenity prayer:

Fuck it.

 

“HE TOOK THE new stuff,” Captain Drake explains. “Three nights ago. Wanted to test it out for us all. Unfuckingbelievable.”

Dorney’s jaw works a piece of gum. “So he comes in this morning and just lays it all the fuck out, a full confession.”

“Did, did the drug do it? Made him confess?”

“Hell n—maybe.” Captain shrugs. “Who knows. He’s more sober than I’ve ever seen him. Doc checked him out and he’s fine but for the liver. But look at him. He looks different, doesn’t he?”

She nods. It was uncanny. “Did he explain why he took it?”

“Research, he says. To help us out. To find out if it was a placebo or no.”

Dorney scowls. “That’s a joke.”

Victoria is puzzled. “Why’s it a joke?”

“Fucking cokehead.”

“What?”

“You know,” Dorney barks, “he’s worked the clubs for what, the past six years. He’d been around party people a lot. Got involved deep into something, you know. He’d heard enough about this stuff, straight from the horse’s mouth. He thought, what’s the harm.”

The Captain booms, “Ken says it is no sugar pill. He saved us another dose to test again from the same batch. He got it at Alumbrados. Did he tell you about he and Burcky?”

She nods.

“Nothing about the coke?”

“What?”

They look at each other. “Oh, yeah. He admitted he’d taken an eightball off a dead clocker in 2015. He’s been using the stuff off and on for the past four years.”

Victoria walks away, propelling herself into the bathroom. Dennison had once confessed to her that he had experimented with pot while he was young, and further in a more intoxicated state one night admitted that he’d even tried cocaine and LSD when at Rutgers.

But this. He was 47 years old.

We know how this’ll end up.

—–

SHE SEES BONNER. He is nestled within a matrix of machines. He’d always professed hatred of hospital machinery and she asks them to reduce the devices’ volume as far as possible. She will buy earplugs for him.

We start out lives in the warm uterine bath and end them, if we’re unlucky, in another kind of cold, sterile womb. She’s grateful he isn’t fully conscious to experience this. The hard time these nurses would be getting!

There are flowers and a card. She asks if he’s had other visitors and told a fiftyish woman has come by once and his son has called twice.

 

ERICA, SITTING BESIDE Victoria’s desk, is writing rapidly on her tablet and says absent-mindedly, “I heard one of the detectives here took this drug, Haoma.”

Victoria smiles pleasantly. “Where did you hear that, Erica?”

“My editor. It won’t go in the article, of course.”

“Better not, because it’s not true,” Victoria snapped.

“No?” She studies Victoria.

“That’s bullshit. I don’t know where your editor gets these things, but that better not be in any article or our…professional relationship will be terminated. That’s the way it goes.”

“Gotcha. Capisce.”

“No, really, where’d your editor hear that? Do you know?”

Erica’s gaze bounces around her tablet, to the floor, the desk. “I honestly don’t know, Victoria. He hears all kinds of things from everywhere.”

 

“DID YOU TALK to someone at the Daily News?”

“Yes,” Dennison smiles.

“Why?”

“I want the truth about Haoma to be out. In public.”

“When’d you do this?”

“I did it before I turned myself in. Called the Times and the Post and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times too.”

“You’re a real piece of work.”

“I haven’t had a drink in ten days and I feel great.”

Victoria sneers.

“Media loves to twist things all to shit. I want people to know about this thing. It’s a gift, Vicky, it’s a gift from elsewhere. It’s not from this world. And we’re meant to use it to heal ourselves.”

Tears are welling in Victoria’s eyes.

“You know how I was talking shit about the CIA or the DARPA creating it and putting it out as an experiment? I was wrong. I was very wrong. It’s the opposite. It’s the opposite. It’s come from somewhere else and they know it and that’s why they confiscated those samples. They know it’s not from here, it’s not from this planet and—”

Victoria, grinding her teeth, shouts, “It comes from honey in France. From bees that were imported to France from Asia. The shit’s got psychoactive properties and Drake’s told you all this. I went over there and I met the beekeeper and he was a fucking lunatic. It’s caused by whatever flowers those bees use in Bhutan to make the honey.”

“Bhutan.” He giggles.

Victoria wipes away a tear.

Dennison is laughing. “How does a piece of clothing make dried honey that makes pills? You wanna answer that?”

“I don’t know.” She thinks of those awesome looms in the brackish glow of that dungeon, the smell, the brilliant strands glowing in those vats.

It is nothing that Ken Dennison should know right now. Possibly ever.

 

WHEN SHE IS composed enough to return to her desk she learns that they have taken Ken Dennison to the hospital for another full physical and his lawyer and two Internal Affairs counselors had shown up to arrange depositions. Dennison’s old partner Burcky had retired three years ago and moved to West Palm Beach. He would most likely be questioned by an NYPD rep down there and possibly arrested.

Doherty asks her into his office with the Captain they begin the inevitable questioning about the relationship. By this time her ambivalence towards Ken Dennison has become naked rancor and any amount of ball-breaking she will face in her future, from this position, will be easily undergone. “No rules against seeing someone,” she says. “It happens but it was over before this little show happened.”

“That’s not what he said.”

“Well, he didn’t know it was over.”

Doherty chuckles. “He checked out fine on his psych eval yesterday. We think the drug is indeed what compelled that gut-check. This stuff is dangerous, Sergeant.”

The Captain said, “We’ve told the Police Generale about it over in France and they say they’re sending investigators to that jacket-makers, but we doubt they’ll turn up some cooking shop or anything like that. The word is spreading further every day about Haoma.”

Doherty says, “You know there’s nothing we can do about your relationship with him. It’s past. If Ken confesses again while sworn and if we get records on the money he claims to have stolen with Burcky he will be in a world of shit. Now, I will ask you once. Did he ever—”

“No. Hear me. He never mentioned that he stole that money and coke, ever, not once to me. Nor any other criminal activity of any kind.”

The Captain has obviously gone over things with Doherty. The thing is over quicker than she thought. “Okay. I guess it’ll end there for now. You feel comfortable staying on this case?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“We’ll keep you on,” the captain says.

She moves evenly to the bathroom and cries.

 

“WE HAVE THE Ridge Street address under surveillance,” Victoria says. “Starck went in with questions about grandpa and got a tour. It’s legit of course, all the Foundation Senior housing is.”

Dorney says, “Someone’s using the address. A relative of a tenant.”

Drake answers, “Yeah, in all probability.”

“Or someone living in the apartments next door. Or an employee.”

“Okay, alright already, Colm. We’ll ask them for the tenant list and employees.”

Sergeant Starck says, “The eye team’s got some freaks coming and going out the front service door of that joint and using a basement stair in the rear of the building. There’re two sorta false fronts on Pitt that both go into the garden behind the building and they just keep going. The door on Pitt’s padlocked and they have keys. These people’ve been coming and going and coming and going. All hours.”

Drake sighs in irritation. “When you say freaks…”

He hands Drake a photograph. “I mean hipster fuckers. And street surfers. Trust fund slummers, punks tattooed up. You know what I mean.”

“Yeah. I suppose I know. Like Colm.” The picture shows a bald, bearded man in a leather jacket and a young near-Goth woman in heavy black makeup and mismatched tights and a black dress; both have large duffel bags sling over their shoulders.

“Okay then. Next time one of them comes out with luggage like that I want a trail on em.”

“You got it.”

 

CLOSE TO NOON the next day, the same woman in black from the photo unlocks and enters the wood door on Pitt Street. Again a duffel bag hangs from her shoulder. She exits 20 minutes later. The task force uses a tag-team to follow her from Pitt Street to the Essex Street subway station. She takes the J line to Hewes Street in Brooklyn then walks to the Broadway G station and travels north, exiting at Nassau Avenue and walks to a brownstone in Greenpoint.

 

DORNEY POINTS TO the property owner’s name on the screen and looks expectantly at Victoria. “Jerrold Jardiniere. He’s a music composer associated with a record label in Williamsburg.”

“Aurora Records?” Victoria yelps.

Dorney strokes his long goatee. “You interviewed the music man we busted six weeks ago at the UC. Did he mention this guy Jardiniere?”

Victoria is flushed but she doesn’t know why. “No, but the owner of the label bailed him out, I remember. I’ll look up the name.”

 

JERROLD JARDINIERE HARDLY has a web presence besides that on the Aurora site: his own site looks a decade old and only contains MP3s of compositions. He is listed as composer for the Aurora band Borges Chinese Encyclopedia.

Her Bluetooth rings and she answers. “Starck. We’re relaying on another duo, first white male, early twenties, orange hoodie, black jeans, beard, long hair. Number two…African-American woman long straight hair, she’s wearing quite a get-up. Wouldn’t know how to describe it. A gypsy or some shit.”

“Roma, they’re called, Starck.”

“Yeah,” the sergeant continues, “they biked all the way from Pitt and entered a market at Mott Street ’tween Hester and Grand. Been in there about ten minutes. Just left their bikes against a pole. Didn’t even lock ’em down. That’s something—”

“Well, have you gone in there, yo?” Victoria beats the hell out of the law pad before her with a pen and throws it down.

“Conner’s in there looking for ’em.”

“For how long, he’s looking for them?”

“Three, four minutes.”

“Get back to us when they’re on the move.” She disconnects.

Dorney shouts across the room. “Vicky come look at this…”

She rises and wends through the cubicles and desks to the overhanging DV screen, tuned to a cable news outlet.

“Look at this. A sinkhole has collapsed a fucking mountain.”

A dread overtakes her at the sight: it is a wide helicopter shot looking down on a forest landscape. A hole a half-mile across in which clear water is unnaturally rotating and sparkling in a perfect whirlpool.

“Look at that!” Dorney shakes his head. “You’ll love this…The reporter just said that John Priester guy in California predicted a mountain would go down, two days ago. Maybe you’re right. Guy’s Nostradamus.”

Prismatic lens-flares flash on the screen. The water is undulating, and appears to have two sub-currents weaving through each other like mating snakes. Dorney murmurs in awe, then something about fracking.

Images appear unbidden in her mind. The vats in that dungeon: something more had happened there. The way the camera has zoomed in and is focused on that whirlpool. She saw a similar whirlpool in that subterranean space. She had been there longer than a few minutes. She smells lilies and sees minty green glowworms.

With difficulty she pulls her gaze from the screen and turns and takes a step away and stops. Someone is asking her if she’s okay. Tinny and distant. Her ears feel as if a warm and viscous liquid has pouring into every crevice. And the din of the precinct room is muffling further. Slow. It is too slow.

“Don’t look at it, Colm,” her lips move and she can feel the vibration of her vocal cords and throat as she says it. But she can’t hear it, a dull thrum. The room blurs to incoherence. She tries to dig at her ears and rapidly stretch her mouth to break the pressure. A hand’s warmth upon her forearm.

 

VICTORIA IS STILL watching the cable news coverage of the collapsed mountain when her inbox bleeps. It is from an unknown sender. Her phone rings; it’s Drake.

“Vivi, you’re about to get an email from an Army representative. This is about your trip to cheeseland. A government rep wants to talk to you. Okay? You’re to follow the instructions in the email. The thing’s encrypted.”

“Okaaaay…is that all?”

Drake hangs up. She opens the email to find word that a courier is to deliver a phone to her within the hour and she is to use the safe room in the 18th Precinct’s basement. There is no sender listed on the envois. Just as she rises from her desk to visit Drake’s office she sees the captain walking towards her with his shuffling gait with a shrink-wrapped white plastic bag that holds a small box within it.

“You’re cleared for time in the Oven.”

“Oh, am I? For what?”

Without a word he hands it to her.

“Captain!” But Drake waddles away. She spends five minutes with an exacto knife opening the package and the package within that. It is a satellite phone. Excitement stirs in her. She turns on the device and shoves it in her pocket and makes her way down to the first floor, through the first security checkpoint, the second, then the third, just before the old elevator. She’s indeed cleared to use the shielded, soundproofed chamber below. The guard gives her the day’s passcard for entry and exit to the “Oven” as they call it and she descends. She becomes almost nauseated with an odd anticipation. All these strange things occurring so rapidly, atop one another….

She presses the key to the scanner and the door hisses open in decompression and enters the large chamber. Lights flick on. She passes the key on the second sensor and hits the close button and seats herself at the large metal table. Disinfectant wracks a sneeze from her. She turns on the satellite phone. Within seconds it purrs with a pure muted tone, its square face lighting.

“Hello, Sergeant Valdez. I’m Lieutenant Farber with the Army’s Office of Internal Investigation.” He clears his throat. “Now I understand the NYPD your division the vice division has been investigating a new substance that has appeared in the bars and nightclubs in your jurisdiction. And you’ve been the lead detective in this investigation.”

“I wouldn’t say that. We’ve a team of four working the case.”

There is something about his voice, a subtle electronic tone to it. Other than that, the man could be a radio announcer or book-on-tape reader. It is a fluid voice, even and patrician, with an upper Midwestern twang. “You’ve managed operations to catch distributers of this substance, correct?”

Give back what you get. “I’m not at liberty to discuss any operations. Unfortunately.”

“Fair enough. Well I’ve been authorized to release to you, Sergeant Valdez, and you only, information pertaining to this substance. I’ll have you know this has been a decision by my superiors who have been following the evolution of this substance for quite some time. Now that it has become public knowledge that it exists and your unit has been in the vanguard exposing it, the tip of the spear so to speak, we at the office would be very interested in briefing you and you alone on the matter of this substance. This would be in a formal setting. That is to say, we could fly you to a location down here in D.C. for the briefing.”

Victoria is several beats behind; he did say “evolution” of this substance, didn’t he? Before she can consider the offer she says, “Yes, I’ll do it. And the ride, that’d be appreciated.”

“Very good. I’ve spoken with Captain Drake and he has cleared you for this briefing. I must emphasize that no one but he, Captain Drake, and you are to know about this briefing.”

Her eyes pivot about the room. “Sounds like a matter of national security or some such.”

There’s a pause. “Let us say that is a statement of conditional fact. You will be sworn for the purposes of this briefing and gain a higher-level GS clearance. There will be non-disclosure stipulations and you would have to swear an affidavit. As I understand it you are already at equivalent to GS-10 in the NYPD program.”

Victoria’s stomach goes ice. “I got no comment on any such program.”

She can hear a slight chuckle. “That’s fine. Now the timeline. What is the earliest you could be ready to board a plane at La Guardia? This would be a private jet.”

The voice is smooth, creamy. It is an advertisement from the 1950s. “And how long would these briefings take?”

“Hard to say. Anywhere from three to seven hours, let’s say.”

She stares at the school-cafeteria style clock on the wall. “I will have to make a few calls. I would be back at La Guardia by when, tonight some time?”

“Correct. The plane is ready for you. Right now, if you’d like. And Drake has authorized for you a PD chopper trip to the airport as well. At our request.”

“Well, whoa.” Now that was some serious shit. If it means answers to this mystery, does she have a choice? And they won’t speak to anyone but her? Drake must know a lot more about this than he let on. But since they chose her, probably because of the scouting mission, it explained why the Captain seemed so rankled. “Okay. I could be ready for the chopper in about a half-hour.”

“Very good. Very, very good. Keep the phone close to you, and please don’t let anyone handle it, Sergeant. We will be using it for further communication. You’ll surrender it when you arrive at the destination.”

She sighs. Too many things, too little space and time.

Whispher, USA 3: The Return of Smuyler Marrano

With care Professor Snorri Erickson places his briefcase on the oak table and settles in his seat as Senator Lieber introduces him: “Doctor Erickson has received the highest accolades for his Paleo-American studies. He is recipient of a National Geographic award and author of three books and dozens of articles on the ‘Vinland’ and ‘Green Scepter’ documents and their relation to flag-emblemata…He has been the primary grant recipient from the Garden of Light Foundation for some twelve years. Before we ask for his views on the Garden of Light Foundation and its grant system, we will now invite him to make an opening statement.”

Erickson locks his fingers and disdainfully regards the fake Doric columns that buttress the Senate subcommittee chamber’s walls. “For the past thirty years I have managed to collect eleven maps from the years 1000 to 1450—as the dominant calendar reckons—which show that a civilization, in the true sense of the word, existed on these shores that preceded European exploration. Now, you’ve called me here to discuss my writings and their relation to foundation funding. But I will not discuss it. Why? Because over the past ten years I have uncovered irrefutable evidence of the origin of this previous civilization.”

IN THE TREASURY Department building, Secret Service division, a mapping program set to identify the faces of every person present within Congressional hearings hiccups a match and sends a signal to the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building three blocks away. There, Special Agent Colin Latheran races for a television monitor and dials his boss. “Burke, turn on C-SPAN Two right now,” he brays. “This thing’s been scanning all TV broadcasts for the past six months…What? No, definitely. Bureau’s already caught sixteen fugitives with it. It’s gotta be him. The son of a bitch’s in the Capitol grounds right now. The Hart building. Turn on your television!”

 

“DURING THE MIDDLE Ages,” Erickson is saying, “Europe was under the sway of a legend concerning a certain Christian priest-king who lived in an Eastern paradise. This man was supposedly a descendent of the Magi order and lorded over a utopian civilization that possessed advanced technology. They dubbed him ‘Prester John’ or ‘Holy John the Priest’. On two occasions, the Crusaders beseeched him through letters to help them fight against the Saracens in the Holy Lands. The Church, in desperation, sent their envois to Russia, to Cathay, to the Hindus, and to Ethiopia, but it was all for naught…So why did the papal letters never reach his throne? Conventional scholarly opinion says that it is because he simply didn’t exist.

“The true answer is that the searchers and letter-carriers did not travel East enough. They could not. For what happens when one pushes ever towards sunrise, over the Eurasian landmass and then across the seas, east of the so-called East?” He pauses for effect, then, “You reach these shores, gentlemen…Yes, Prester John existed, and his kingdom had been established here on the North American continent. He and his retinue of thousands had migrated here during the 55th millennium before Christ, at the time of one of our periodic glacial recessions.He is a high member of a tribe whose brain mutations caused them diverge from Homo sapiens 170,000 years ago and remain segregated until this day from the beasts that became humanity. Within 30,000 years of this change, this gentle people had such advanced technology they achieved space flight. They built cities all around this planet, beneath its surface and beneath its seas and even upon the Moon. Approximately 75,000 years ago the Priest chose to become ambassador of sorts to both study the rest of Homo sapiens and assist them at times…They settled in three places: the area we now call northernmost California, near Mount Shasta, in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado, and Northern Arizona. All the subsequent people upon the Western half of this continent were thus related to these original immigrants. He lived there for the following five hundred fifty-seven centuries. Priest-King John is immortal.”

The subcommittee audience is chuckling and snorting. Erickson continues: “Now, you might ask why an Asian king is named ‘John.’ Well, John is a medieval interpretation of his name, grafted from legends surrounding John the Presbyter of Syria being author of the Johannine epistles. Prester John’s true name is unknown. Those I’ve seen on these treaties cannot be spoken aloud for they are sigils in a script I have cracked but have no phonetic key. The language is in all likelihood tens of thousands of years old and bears marked resemblance to the Enochian angelic language scryed by Doctor John Dee and Edward Kelley in Elizabethan times. This would be in keeping with the King’s intercourse with his kin in the Otherworld to which he and his people retreated…

“Last year I found documents that clinched his empire here and his retreat as historical fact. Prior to the Crusades, the legend of his ancient migration had been confined to folktales in the Himalayas and the Altai and Tian Shan mountains of Western Mongolia where he was born and ruled fifty seven thousand years ago. Apparently, several tenth-century Chinese scholars, some medieval counterparts of mine, whoever the hell they were, discovered written accounts of the oral tradition of John’s immigration tale and the existence of the Horizontal Paradise we now know as America…In addition to discovering these accounts, I have come into possession of three codices that discuss treaties made by Priest-King John with the Xia Chinese emperor Li Liangzuo in the 12th Century and the sachem of the Cherokee and the Sioux and a half-dozen of his extended families who populated the Eastern seaboard of this continent. Indeed he made dozens of treaties with dozens of peoples across the globe. In ancient times he made them with the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, the Anglos, the Egyptians, the Tuareg, the Hmong. And the trade between these peoples and his kingdom here flourished. The history of seafaring is the most myopic of disciplines. Heyerdahl proved it and now I am here to put flesh on the bare thesis: this continent was for millennia filled with cities and cultures of which historians have no shred of knowledge. The true history shall be known—and sooner than you can imagine…In making these contracts during the medieval period, it is apparent that Priest-King John was expecting trouble from the mass migration of Europeans; he was anticipating ‘discovery’ of these shores to come within the approaching centuries, the avaricious stance and evil technologies the Europeans possessed, and—”

Senator Lieber interrupts. “What is the import of all this, Doctor?”

Indignation twists Erickson’s smooth face. His blue eyes burn as leans into the microphone and blows a loud, thick raspberry. He jerks back and claps his hands. “Splendid, then, I shall cut to the chase.” He rolls the documents in his hand and points it at the Senate panel. “The short of it is that Colomb and Hudson and Raleigh and de Gama and that illustrious roster discovered jack, if you happen to be a proponent of history that houses Jerusalem at its center…This land was a true utopia,” he shouts, vigorously batting the tabletop, “leased by Priest-King John to his descendants in those medieval treaties for a twelve-hundred year dispensation. Thus the British, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, and the Portuguese were all latecomers and trespassers on a primordial contract whose continuing violation you are the latest criminals to inherit.”

 

THE TWO FBI Agents sit aghast in their respective locations watching the old criminal pontificate. Agent Colin Latheran has alerted the Capitol police that his interdiction squad would soon arrive to arrest the man giving testimony in chamber 2A of Hart building but now holsters his Glock. “Burke, we have no time,” he yells into the phone. “I’m going down there right now. Forget the special team. I’ll shoot him myself if I have to.”

He hangs up and sprints from the room.

 

TWO MILES SOUTHWEST of the FBI building, two Defense Intelligence Agency officials listen intently over two bugs as FBI Agent Colin Latheran ends his conversation with Burke Duster. “It’s about time,” General Richard Whisk complains. “I reckoned that flatfoot son of a bitch’d never get off his ass.”

“Your tax dollars at work,” Major Biff “Beer” Batter replies, picking up a crimson-hued phone. “Make no mistake: mistakes will be made.”

“Should we activate the team to stop the jerk?”

“No. Let Latheran go after him. I don’t think he’ll catch him. And he won’t kill him. It isn’t in him. We’ll interdict later.”

 

“SO WHAT ARE we to do?” Senator Lieber croaks. “Give up the United States to its rightful owners?”

Laughter fills the chamber as another volley of high-intensity capacitor light flashes punishes Dr. Snorri Erickson’s face. Unphotographed for the entire 35 years of his academic career, he did not expect this photonic assault. He sniffs at the cameras, waving the documents like a truncheon. “That would be a start. You have always been squatters and here only at Priest-King John’s indulgence. This accursed dumbshow called the United States of America needs to atone for its sins.”

Senator Garner gazes in bemusement at his fellows, flexes his eyebrows, ashes an imaginary cigar and Groucho Marxses, “We’ll, uh, have to consoilt da books for da transfoyr procedure.”

The devolution to theater is complete. Erickson continues his harangue and the audience reacts in embarrassed silence, laughter, and catcalls; a sort of instant consensus has sprung into existence that the Garden of Light Foundation’s $3 million in grants has been wasted on a charlatan. Lieber bellows, “My American history may be spotty, but Lewis and Clark and every Western explorer since has never mentioned this King’s civilization. I take it you are the sole possessor of this evidence?”

Erickson rises from the seat, eyeing carefully the briefcase before him. He shuffles around the table to address his audience directly. “The native peoples here, his children, honored their part of the treaty, which was to keep it a secret. They had absolute honor, ladies and gentlemen—silence in the face of European perfidy.”

Garner, trying to recapture some seriousness, says, “So what happened to the, uh, infrastructure this king laid out? The highways? The markets? Why didn’t the early pioneers see any ruins?”

Erickson, still facing the Senate audience, waves the scrolls like a wand and steps back from the table. “Have you ever heard of the Hopi Pueblo? Or the Adena or Hopewell cultures? Probably only in passing—and without curiosity, no doubt. Anyway, his civilization long preceded them, and they had no need for permanent buildings such as we know it, with bastard metronomic time-clocks ruling their work. The materials for most of their settlements came raw from the earth and returned to the earth in brief cycles of two dozen years, for each new generation, that kept a balance with the land’s energy-forces…A type of surfing of the creative and destructive forces with which nature eternally functions. A more pure example of rationality in practice cannot be found, you cretins.”

“Mr. Erickson, that is enough,” Garner shouts.

He raises the roll and swings at the air. “Any sane and fully conscious human can see that our poor excuse for civilization exists upon infinite attempts to cheat entropy and in the process is racking up cosmic debits for its continued existence at an astronomically accelerating pace. The King and his inner subjects saw this approaching hell and migrated from this place to elsewhere, despite the fact that he could have dispatched the encroachers like batting a fly…And, I’m afraid, it looks likely that your perverted institutions of physical science will soon discover where and how he has, ahem, sequestered himself in the intervening centuries…In any case, the Priest-King’s earthly regent, and his holy Queen, have emerged recently on our side, at last, and soon the bill will come for rents due.”

Erickson has noticed a stern figure in a black suit muscling his way into the photographers’ pen, who stares at him with malice and muttering with a Bluetooth in his ear—the unmistakable bearing of a Federal Agent.

 

LATHERAN WHISPERS, “You see me, Burke?”

“I do,” Duster replies in his ear. “Now for God’s sake, don’t let him get away. Stay right with him.”

 

SENATOR GARNER CHUCKLES. “Hmm…Rent on the United States to its landlord? Oh—that’s rich.”

Even Lieber snickers. “How’s the interest scheduled? Is it compound?”

“Gentlemen,” Erickson booms, “it is not money Priest-King John is interested in. It is to reclaim the human souls of those stolen by the Ahrimanic forces that have ascended on your watch, as bastard stewards to this wonderful land. To avenge the hundreds of thousands of his children murdered. To this end, his cunning weapons were sent into your midst, destructive devices of a timely nature.”

The chattering of camera shutters dwindles as all mirth leaves the room. Lieber leans forward to the microphone and takes the gravest tone he can muster. “Doctor, to say something like that in our current national climate, is, uh, irresponsible, at best.”

The stern law enforcement presence continues to edge past the photographers and reaches into his jacket. He extracts in a flash a heavy black object that is certainly a gun. Erickson maintains his cool, shrugs and steps backwards, reaching into his tweed pockets where his fingers meet three golfball-like objects. “It’s mere fact,” he shouts. “Not that you could ever, even with all your precious billions spent on pre-emptive security, detect or interdict the Priest-King’s kind of weapons. The weapons have become the warp and woof of your very lives by this point—in the way you have chosen to live in this lunatic asylum called America!

Erickson drifts across the room towards the chamber’s marbled walls and speeds his delivery, words rehearsed for this moment, his voice pitching higher. “Occasionally Priest-King John has sent his agents out into the world to violate the boundaries of his invisible kingdom and intervene here, using ghostly vessels that bear his messengers. And also sent what seem men dressed in black who are estranged from time, and who possess the power to poison or hypnotize we humans merely by their voices. It is impossible for his agents to fail on their missions, because they are not of your fallen world, you see. His agents have appeared throughout history—even to this day, when they take the form of unnatural species of mafiosi at times…”

He lets these words sink in. And they have the intended effect: Lieber and Garner pass a troubled glance between them: They have heard the stories about the other congressmen and generals who have had recent strange encounters here in Washington. “The crimes perpetrated by your forbears are well-documented. There was fraud between representatives of the royal crown, and then the colonies, and then US Federal government, against the families of Caretakers who lived on these lands for millennia. Their blood was your forebears’ and is your own amnesiac…These documents that I have discovered will forever end the dispensation of 1776, when the two crowns tricked the colonists into thinking they were free in the first place. You have failed the test, gentlemen. You have been given more than ample time to redeem yourselves, and you have failed.”

Erickson squints sideways at the stern Federal presence, whose features now resolve into familiarity. The Professor edges back towards the old elevator’s doors. The man is pacing him like a hunter through the crowd, and makes a quick sweeping motion with his hand.

Three Capitol police officers are advancing, in a pincer movement through the crowd.

Erickson fingers find the nubs on the globular capsules in his pocket and presses them down.

Lieber barks, “Mr. Erickson, sit down. I think we have heard enough of this nonsense—”

The Professor reaches the maple bar, the video cameras dutifully pivoting after him. “You are all no more than Pavlovian dogs and easy sport for forces beyond your reckoning. You are all pawns, owned outright.”

Erickson feels the round objects grow warm just as he fully recognizes the stalker. Time has done wonders to the man’s face:

It is indeed FBI Special Agent Colin Latheran.

The elevator doors spring open behind him and he tosses the capsules. “Agent Latheran, old boy,” he shouts, leaping backwards, “my God, you’ve aged terribly!”

The FBI officer fires blindly—bullets sparking into the elevator walls, one after the other, a full clip unloaded. Screams pierce the Senate chamber. The doors shut as the gas capsules detonate—followed by the other twenty in the briefcase upon the tabletop, the cheap leather case that blows apart like a Fourth of July belt of penny packs, the force causing two bolo-slings of grenades to whip up into the chamber heights and explode.

As adrenaline surges in the spectators’ bloodstreams, the capsules’ aerosol within seconds sends every one of them into the deepest sleep they have ever experienced.

The scholar descends into the underground parking lot, where he and his cohort dive into a waiting limousine.

—————

TWELVE MILES AWAY, in Potomac, Maryland, a billionaire listens by remote transmitter to DIA agents Richard Whisk and Biff Batter in the Pentagon shouting about the chaos that has erupted live on C-SPAN 2. The billionaire chuckles bitterly and pours himself another snifter of Gran Marnier. Then he shuts off the monitor and gazes once again the letter on the desk before him. He had received it two days ago, here at his mansion. It was typed upon a rough paper, on an old-school typewriter. He reads:

Dear sirs/madams,

Please accept the accompanying box of Wheaties and my receipt for purchase. The retching lasted six hours and was accompanied by cramps I wouldn’t have wished on Osama bin Laden (if he’d ever existed).

Tell me, what is monochloride disulphate? And the purpose of the warning on the box: “May contain peanuts and/or peanut products?” Friends, this product should bear the warning, “MAY CONTAIN YOUR OWN PRIVATE FUKUSHIMA.” That is what you are pushing on the public—a chemical broth of only nominal connection to the universe of nutritional existents.

Ten years ago, your uber-cartel General Foods purchased the agribusiness conglomerate AG-Werkesfunkenschiesse-AK, who also happen to own Kaminer Wood Processing and the plastic bag manufacturer MegaDethe, both packaging “products” within which you deliver this deadly Wheaties slop. Nice vertical integration! The maleficent preservative monochloride disulphate was found by AG’s research study #34-90-7183 to cause neurological damage in exposures administered thrice weekly for seven months as little as 12 parts per million. The food dye KLHG091289#712B, developed by your biotech subsidiary Lemniscutt, also contains hazardous levels of this substance.

It’s all well and good, isn’t it, to reduce Wheaties’ production costs by cutting its nutritional value by a whopping 60%! And cause brain damage to boot! Well done, sirs!

Your fine company General Foods also recently purchased Alp-Glace, INC., who bottle “White Water”—only the “purest Alpine glacier” product, right? Then imagine my surprise when on taking my first sip of White Water a burning sensation—slight, but of a noticeably alarming tangent from the flavorless quenching fresh water would have provided—ripped through my palate. This caused me to expel the virgin mouthful of purported H20 onto a fellow malcontent. With ten seconds I determined that it was less the water per se that gave offense than the surrounding 1 oz. of blown polyethylene terephthalate in which the water sat and whose maleficent molecules had leached into it.

Imagine doubly my shock when I examined the bottle label not to find a wholly expected “Made in China” or Malaysia but MADE IN THE USA in proud capital letters beside a tiny representation of Old Glory. I recovered from a brief spasm of patriotic fervor to see below it, Made in Chortle, Nebraska, to be precise.

Now, one thing you must know about me is that I am personally acquainted with “folks” of every profession and station in life that you could imagine. I thus gave the offending bottle to a toxicologist friend of mine to analyze the “water” and the composition of the entirely false container. For good measure we bought five more bottles of this pernicious swill to test. Science, you know.

So—monochloride disulphate again? The toxicologist told me that it’s a metal akin to aluminum and lithium. It leaches into the ‘pure glorious White Water’ at high levels, in storage conditions from 35 degrees Fahrenheit upward. Indeed, most of the lifetime of a bottle of this raw sewage will be spent at temperatures exceeding this limit, of course. At aforementioned levels in the human bloodstream (a mere four bottles a week) monochloride disulphate is a hormone disrupter, which induces any body consuming it produce 4x the amount of estrogen that would normally flow through human veins.

If I drink enough of this stuff I should expect to end up with the sperm count of a eunuch, cancer, and neurological problems, and probably, if I’m lucky, wearing a 34C cup. Good job!

I also happened to look into the bottling operations of the other three major “water manufacturers” on this planet.

They all, conveniently enough, use the MegaDethe chemical company to bottle their H2O as well.

So…this is the best Mr. White can do in his coordinated efforts with CEOs Mssrs. Duncan, Feinberg, and Schilling to decrease the birth rate in the industrialized world? I would expect more creativity from such twisted minds. I guess the steady maintenance of dual careers in public philanthropy and private murderous psychopathology can wear anyone down. Oh, this wacky modern world.

So General Foods’ public relations wing and FDA liaisons had great success squelching the US government’s past four attempts at testing this Love Canal of packaging you’ve concocted. In fact, your former employees Mr. Haynes and Ms. Hepworth are now high-level officials at the FDA! Bravo! And the independent studies that were done by Schachtman Bio have been successfully embargoed by “legal” until 2023! Huzzah! Long enough, I’m sure, for White Water to double South American imports and maintain its top-seller status in the US of A.

Get this, bigshot: I know that you and AG’s premiere criminal, Mr. Deutsch, recently enjoyed fabulous company at his Swiss villa, viz, the heads of White Water and Silver Showers and Vonver Breads. I wonder what malignant time-bomb of love was hatched at that meeting? Monochloride disulphate in all of AG’s plastic packaging, perhaps? Radon-exposed paper cartons? (incidentally, I am convinced that giants in the corporate world such as yourself long ago sat down with your beloved scions and gently admonished them to avoid consuming any of the products from which the family fortune sprang, and seriously doubt any of their—or your own—grandchildren’s orifices come within ten miles of your own products. Am I right?)

Well…

I happen to know EXACTLY what occurred at your Swiss villa conclave: Generals William Howe and John Parker of the American Defense Advance Research Project Agency were present. Also General Richard Whisk of DIA. They are proprietary owners, through Pentagon subcontract, of WaveForm, the company that cornered the North and South American, European, African, and Australasian markets on cellphone tower installation a decade and a half ago.

This silent monopoly allowed them to install DARPA’s special “free energy” units on every single cellular tower they erected.

You and your little gang were discussing the possibilities of a lethal “Tesla moire” interaction with the dreaded monochloride disulphate which has accumulated in the human bloodstream of millions of American citizens. Ho-ho! Bravo on their completion of the science experiment!

And after crossing the NATO skies for 22 years with their aberrant contrails, under cover of super-secret “weather geoengineering” experiment, they’ve finally been able to conduct the infernal Tesla beams the length and breadth of the country’s ether—and built up enough aluminum and barium and monochloride disulphate in human bloodstreams to make the conduction and interference patterns to disrupt the healthiest of nervous systems a viable possibility.

“Well done,” I’d normally say—but “well-done” is the level of cookedness you wish upon what you perceive as the great unwashed masses who are using up vital resources, necessitating their wholesale slaughter in the name of America and the world’s future security.

I know all about you goddamned bastards and your plans.

Please tell Generals Howe, Parker and Whisk and your whole infernal gang hello for me. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed, for I am the King’s regent; I have always been the King’s regent, and this is not the last you will hear from me. Far from it. This is only the beginning. His shades have already walked up from the dusk to confront a few of you bastards. I’m sure you know what I am talking about.

Your time molesting the human race and his beloved children is up. His army are going to (as a walking corpse such as yourself might say) “fuck you up bigtime.”

Mortem ad luna cultores!

Ego mos interfíciat omnes spineta lacertos!

Sincerely mine,

The Green Man

The billionaire blinks profusely at the letter and mops his brow with a broadcloth sleeve. We were the only ones present. Sound-proof chamber. The chateau’d been bug-swept a dozen times. How could this unknown person, this freak, this maniac possibly have known?

He picks up the phone and calls General Howe’s satellite line. “You hear about what just happened at the Capitol?”

“No,” the general replies.

The billionaire explained. “This Erickson guy used the same language as in the letter. Talking about a priest-king named John. The letter you received says ‘John Priester’, right?”

Howe grunts in affirmation.

“This isn’t a coincidence.”

“What did Whisk and Batter do?”

“They went ape. It’s more confirmation of the legend, and now they’re probably gonna buy it. They’ll use their moles in his organization now. They know they’re onto the heart of the matter and know a lot more than they bargained for.”

“Deutsch’s villa must have been live with wires.”

The billionaire’s stomach went ice. “I’m not sure. What if we’re dealing with something beyond that.”

Howe chuckles. “Don’t tell me you’re even giving an inch in that direction, Bill.”

“Anything’s possible now in this crazy goddamn world.”

SIXTEEN HOURS LATER, Special Agent in Charge August Storm isn’t going to let the Counter-Terror Division get anywhere near the Erickson case. His squad has done all the work; his team was there in the aftermath at the Capitol as the bulletins went out for Erickson’s town car and the DHS fusion center cameras spotted it speeding north on 295 over 100 miles per hour. DC police had given chase, only to lose two cruisers in a pileup: One officer dead, one in critical condition. Whoever was driving Erickson’s speeding Lincoln had severely damaged the car’s axles in admittedly brilliant shoulder and median work; Prince Georges County police resumed the chase on Route 50, but the cruisers had their tires blown out with spike strips in Seat Pleasant.

Storm’s assistant Agent Eric Druthers yawns and watches his boss pace and mop his brow. “That elevator in the Senate room hadn’t been used in a decade,” he barks at Druthers for the third time, “but it was still working.”

“Mm,” Druthers sighs.

“Accomps were waiting in the basement parking lot. They’d disarmed the cameras and sedated six Capitol cops. How the fuck do you do something like that? They disarmed the tire shredders and opened two gates! Two guards on Constitution got the alert and knew that Lincoln wasn’t gonna stop and one of them put three rounds into it and Erickson got out of there lickety-split. Blew through three red lights and got on 395, then hit 295. They’re still in the area somewhere…I’ll go out there myself and get them. This is horseshit.”

Druthers tries to tune out Storm’s rehashing the thing over and over. “Oh, I agree,” he murmurs.

Storm sits down and phones the Charlottesville field office, then Louisville, then Cleveland. He slams down the phone and gazes with sudden contempt at Druthers’s thickened frame. “How’d you do on your last physical, D?”

“I did fine.”

“Putting on some poundage there, Druthers. Could be a borderline case. If we get in the clinch out there,” he says, jabbing a finger, “I don’t want you huffing and puffing behind me, is all.”

“Duly noted. And Storm? Go fuck yourself.”

Storm sneers. “Mahogany Row’s holding back stuff. You get that feeling? We’re not being told the whole story about this Erickson prick? Or that Agent who shot up the elevator?”

“Yeah, I get the feeling.”

When suddenly two men appear at the door. One of them is far too old to be an Agent. The elder man gazes at the room with scorn. “You there—are you Storm?”

“Yes?”

The old man smirks at Druthers. “This your illustrious crew? This guy?”

The younger Agent, thick, in his early 50s, steps forward and holds up his FBI face and said, “This is Burke Duster. Division SM.”

Storm frowns. “SM?”

The older man brutally closes the door behind him as Storm examines the credentials. Burke Duster is listed as the retired Director of the Smuyler Marrano Task Force. “This Erickson event is a Restricted Handling matter,” Duster says in a sandpaper voice. “You guys may think you know what you’re dealing with, but we assure you, you don’t. How many agents on your squad?”

“Druthers here,” Storm indignantly snaps, “sixteen others. I’m SAIC.”

Duster waves. “Get rid of them. We want the two of you only. And you must not mention this case to anyone, ever again. The media’s about to get a cover story, straight from the top, from Director Tyler. As of now, your mandate tracking ‘Snorri Erickson’ has been superseded.”

Storm’s face goes chalk. “On whose orders?”

Duster waves a document at him and hands it over. “What did I just say? On order of Director Tyler, bucko. You only think you’re tracking a man named Snorri Erickson.”

Storm squints at the fiftyish Agent’s face-card. “Colin Latheran? You’re the guy who—”

“Yes, yes—that was me at the Capitol, genius. I’ve never drawn my gun in the field in my life. I was knocked out for twelve hours by whatever the hell was in those grenades. I got outta the hospital just two hours ago. Forensics said it is some kind of sedative that amplifies in the presence of adrenaline…I’ve been tracking your ‘Snorri Erickson’ for fifteen years, champ. Burke here, for forty years. So shut the hell up and listen to us.”

Storm is confused. He points at the plasma screen. “Erickson’s Lincoln met up with a caravan of vehicles at a junkyard in Tuxedo—”

Latheran snarls, “Think we don’t know that, bucko?”

Their hostility amazes Druthers but he’s enjoying the abuse his boss is taking. Storm sets his jaw and says, “Listen. They’ve got eight vehicles, including an old aluminum RV. It’s a huge vehicle, unmistakable. But we’ve gotten no further reports anyone’s seen it. So they must still be in the area. We’re getting clearance to put two UAVs in the air, if we can—.”

Latheran laughs at his older partner. “That’s very good police work, Agent. Drones, Burke—drones!”

The old man’s snort becomes a laugh that becomes a hacking cough. Latheran scowls. “And the recreational vehicle, who is it registered to?”

“Man named Samuel Marino, in New York City.”

They exchange glances. “His name’s actually Smuyler Marrano. We’re talking about the most dangerous man in America, hands down. He’s actually your ‘Snorri Erickson.’”

“Is this a joke?” Storm yells.

“I assure you, we are not joking.”

“‘Most dangerous man’? Give us a break.” Druthers chuckles. “Why haven’t we heard of him?”

“How old are you?”

Druthers replies warily, “Twenty-nine.”

“There you go,” Latheran says cheerily. “Different generation.”

Storm pops his gum and snaps his fingers in irritation. “Answers. Now.”

Duster slowly taps awake the laptop with enfeebled fingers. “The Restricted Handling is for your own good. We don’t want you cubs tripping over Marrano in the dark and hurting yourselves on him.”

Storm sneers. “Like you did the other day? That was quite a collar at the Capitol, Agent. Eleven missed shots? And whose own good?”

Latheran grimaces at this insult. Duster closes his eyes and growls, “The rest of the Bureau’s own good. Our name. Our face. You’ll learn why.”

The old Agent gently touches Storm’s arm and eases him back from Colin Latheran’s immediate orbit. “Burke here’s on special extension,” Latheran growls. “He won’t give up the chase. He’s sixty-seven years old and started the Marrano unit forty years ago. Been getting his pension for the past eight. But most of all he wants to see Marrano and his people stopped, dead or alive.”

The old agent says, “So do a lot of other people up on Mahogany Row.”

Colin Latheran pulls a fat folder of reports from his attache. He goes pensive. “We hear about ‘wiseguys’ or ‘Islamists’ and our knees jerk. Marrano’s a criminal of a different sort. He’s an anarchist and he’s crafty. Patience and genius together. Swhy we haven’t caught him—yet.”

Duster slams the folder onto the table. Together Druthers and Storm open the file and read:

Smuyler Marrano, Also Known As

S.D. Butler / Jack Flora / Indrid Cold / Jacques Fournier / Carl Allen / Carlos Allende / Paul Buttadeus / Gerald de Selby / The Grand Chingon / Dr. 43 / Charles L. Dalrymple / Ricardo M. Nickson / Mr. Kalki Kalapa / Barna Szamit a Tulcsordulo Arnyekszek (the Brown Count of the Overflowing Toilet), / Tatal Timp (Father Time) / Brother Chouchani, / Dr. Croatoan / Dr. Crackpot / el Crackpotto / the Postmaster / the Garbagehead / the Golden Surfer / the Archangel / the Green Man / the White Brother / Blackhead / Old Smoky / the Mayor of Agarttha / AA 801 / Samuel Marino /

“And now confirmed, Dr. Snorri Erickson,” Latheran declares. “Each of those aliases is a different identity, and under each Marrano has headed a separate criminal enterprise. We thought ‘Erickson’ might have been Marrano, based on the pseudohistory crap this ‘Erickson’ crackpot was writing about. Matched Marrano’s views pretty closely.”

“We fed every old picture of Marrano we had into a face recognition program six months ago just for the hell of it and got a hit out of the blue on C-SPAN. We had no idea ‘Erickson’ was giving Congressional testimony, for fuck’s sake. Guy’s got balls the size of Saturn to just show up in public like that after forty-five years.” Duster sighs noisily. “And like all psychos, a part of him wants to get caught.”

Storm and Druthers gape at the list of associated criminals. It is three hundred sixty-four entries long and stretches back into the late 1960s.

Duster wearily pushes himself up from the table. “You’re going to have to come with us, the two of you. We want to show you something.”

THE DISTRICT SUMMER air outside has gone soupy. The SM Task Force Agents have beautifully double-parked on 10th Street and garnered a ticket which Latheran balls and tosses to the curb. They get in the car and Duster takes out the Christmas light and affixes it to the roof and Latheran kicks on the siren. Cars drift out of their path and they accelerate north. For a while Storm and Druthers remain silent. Then Duster says, “Ladies, the most pressing business. Somewhere out there in the West, Marrano has buried at least ten billion dollars in legit gold.”

Storm’s eyes go wide. “How do you—?”

Latheran shouts, “Both the Russian and Italian syndicates have been trying to find this stash for the past seven years. About a decade ago, Marrano had his cut-outs convert his entire fortune into gold certificates, then redeemed the shiny stuff itself and buried it somewhere here. But there was a traitor in his crew, and then two more, who blabbed about it to some connected guys in Vegas. The wiseguys kidnapped a couple of Marrano’s lower gofers and tried to get the location out of them. One of them escaped and made a report to Vegas police and then disappeared. The other ended up breathing dirt about thirty miles from Sin City.” Latheran concentrates on swerving past the left-turning fools ahead on 14th Street. “The gold’s buried somewhere in the Southwest, probably on Indian lands, some reservation. Like Erickson hinted, the San Luis Valley is a probable location. Marrano wants to give it to the tribes but’s been waiting for the right moment, when precious metals have gone through the roof. They have, and since he’s surfaced he or a part of his gang is going to go and dig it up and turn it over to the tribes as reparation.

“Hence our unit all these years. And hence your presence. Marrano has surfaced. We must get him dead or alive before he reaches the gold and the West Coast. Then he could easily lam it on the sea from there into international waters….Not that that means anything anymore.”

Storm balls his fists. “Don’t think he’ll just fly out there?”

Duster replies, “Marrano doesn’t believe humans are meant to fly. Never been on an airplane in his life. He’ll be on the highways.”

Storm is rubbing a hole into his pant knees with his fists. He sees things, career-making possibilities here. He licks his thin lips. “You got the serials and certificate numbers for the gold? Anything like that?”

Duster leans over the crisp leather seat and almost whispers. “Actually, there’s a possibility it will be even more. We also have some fin-int on another seventeen billion Euros that was made on a derivatives market…Someone at a law firm in Switzerland set up derivatives on the short derivatives which were originally set up betting on their own failure…Don’t ask. In other words, seventeen billion which offset the derivatives short-losses and which theoretically could have saved itself, but instead was converted into gold and silver, which went through the roof.”

“Fucking world economy,” Latheran huffs. “Heh. Could be Marrano’s doing, we’re not sure. The guy hates money. Hates it because it’s so easy for him to steal it. They say he once burned a million in Ben Franklins, just to see how it smelled.”

Burke Duster shakes his head, chuckling. “That’s hearsay, Colin, and you know it…Anyway, the gold certificates from the derivatives contracts are held by a law firm called Jabulsa & Jabulqa in Switzerland. Even with Swiss cooperation, we can’t touch the goddamn records or any of the certificates. We’ll get to Marrano’s connection to J & J later.”

They pull onto the tree-shaded lanes of Beach Drive. Latheran silences the siren and they wind into the woods of Rock Creek Park, where they take an abrupt turn up a gated driveway and park beside a house. Entering, Storm and Druthers are impressed: the place is a fusion center with the works: a twenty-foot plasma screen with a dozen browser windows open, a dozen Bluetoothed agents at consoles. Already the junior agents can see that the SM Unit had mapped out the possible routes for ‘Erickson’s’ crew on the screens. Latheran sweeps his arm. “We have to keep them under surveillance—when we find their asses—but Marrano will assume anyway we’re tracking him and take counter-measures. At no time must they be certain of our surveillance. Thus, helicopters and marked highway vehicles are out of the question. Come with us for a briefing.”

Druthers asks, “How long’s this place been here?”

“A decade,” Duster snaps. “Bureau bought the property and converted it. The staff rotates sleeping on-premises.”

Latheran looks disdainfully at his underlings and says, “I called ’em that night but they made it to the Capitol just as Marrano set off those fucking sleeper grenades.”

They lead the two flummoxed Agents to a room with a plasma screen flanked by standards bearing the American flag and the FBI seal. Latheran gestures them to sit and taps on a laptop on the desk. “Let us show you the Big Board.”

The plasma screen lights up. A flowchart of immense complexity comes into view. It is a timeline descending from the 1960s to the present, with adjoining clauses and sub-clauses of crimes.

“Let’s start at the beginning. Smuyler Marrano was a bigtime surfer around Malibu and Hawaii in the early 1960s. Big womanizer, too. Guy had six children between the ages of 16 and 23, when he started roping others into his criminal activities. We’ve managed to find and interview five of these kids, and none of them have seen him since the early 1970s. Or so they say…A real deadbeat. Now supposedly while surfing one day on the Pacific coast in 1965 the tide takes him out and puts him right up to the coastal cliffs, where he discovers a cave. Inside he finds a jar with some scrolls in it. This find leads him to Taos, New Mexico, then Utah, then the San Luis Valley to another cache of parchments. After this he becomes obsessed with the Middle Ages and the malarkey about this Prester John character he was blabbing on about to the Senate panel. Associates told us he’d found an actual relic of this Prester John and vowed he would return it to him someday.”

Druthers says, “So he really believes some king from the Middle Ages is still alive?”

“Maybe not physically, but the king’s descendant or spiritual inheritor.” Latheran scrolls the chart to focus on its upper portion. “Those scroll-writings must have done something mental to him. Now, the first detectable crime he commits is altering deposit slips. His bank accounts fill up quick then he empties them into cash. Then he starts passing forged checks. He gets a pilots license and buys a boat. He poses as a lawyer, then a doctor, a geologist, a pharmacist—”

“A physicist,” Duster continues, “a minister, an oilman…He did these as practice, just to keep himself psychologically sharp for his ‘mission’. In 1967 he and his crew move to rotating sites in Vegas, made millions from the casinos by counting cards and using disguises. Marrano pushed them hard, but then slightly came to his senses and packed in. Through this Swiss firm J & J he put millions into the blue chips and gold and just let it sit for the past four and a half decades. That portfolio, before he cashed it out and we found out was worth two billion on its own by this point.”

Latheran says, “But we at the Bureau first learned of him in ’67. The Coast Guard picked up a boat bringing in a half-ton of weed into LA. The crew clammed up mostly. A few claimed Marrano was head of a ring dealing LSD and pot with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Hells Angels. They supposedly moved tons of dope and coke across the border. So late in ’68 the heat gets too much for him and he leaves the country for Europe, taking about half his gang with him, which was several dozen people. Around ‘68 they hit the Mediterranean casinos and make fortunes all over again. He again banks this money through J & J, and has been using them ever since. In 1968-69, he moves to Ibiza and starts hanging around a bunch of art counterfeiters. He forms a forgery ring that soon expands into currency and gold counterfeiting. Something to do with what he called the ‘ontology of simulation’ he thinks the world’s trapped in…He thinks everything in the world is now fake, or a substitute, and it’s thus everything is fair game to forge. See, we got a copy of a short manifesto he wrote about it…His ring forged hundreds of paintings by modern artists, Picassos and the Impressionists, then moved on to the abstract expressionists, who were even easier to copy—Rothko and Pollock and de Kooning, those guys. They forged Japanese and Chinese works as well. Sold these things discreetly over the next two decades to collectors all over the US. Made millions. They also distributed them across the US and Europe over the Seventies and Eighties.”

Duster is regretfully shaking his head. “Some of them for certain have worked their ways into major museums. Public was never told, and we still can’t have this near the media. Our experts said it could collapse the world art markets.”

“Jay-zus,” Storm growls.

“To him it was all for sport. By 1971 when he returned we found links between his crew and the John Birch Society and the Black Panthers, the KKK and the Red Brigade, the Weathermen and American Nazi Party—just about every radical group active back then.”

Storm looks confused. “The hell are his politics?”

Duster chuckles at this. “Know your enemies and keep them close, right?”

“Yeah, but which side’s his enemy?”

“All of them!” Duster cries. “He’s an anarchist, idiot. You’ve got to get that through your skull.”

Latheran waves a conciliatory hand at his old partner. “From 1971 on, his camp splits into several areas of activity. By ‘72 we begin to have several ‘Smuyler Marranos’ popping up here in the States and in Britain and the Soviet satellite countries, so he must have counterfeited his ID and had his crew use them. They boosted jewels and in one case, even a Faberge egg. He made contact with the Roma in France and Hungary and Romania, and lived with them a year.”

Duster leans forward. “Back here in the States, ’round about 1973, he started his masterpiece: a chain-letter scam. We heard rumors about it for decades but found real evidence for it five years ago. Some early participant in the scheme had died and her daughter found copies of all the letters and gave them to a field office and they got turned over to us. This dead woman had been involved with it from the beginning. Marrano wanted to create his own sympathetic army of sorts, a Fifth Column, so back in ‘73 he started sending out letters with certificates redeemable for twelve thousand dollars in gold that promised even more in exchange for cooperation. If you cashed it out and forwarded the letters to two more people along with five thousand in cash apiece, you were promised ten to twenty thousand in return.”

Storm balks.

“His crew apparently surveilled the second level of recipients closely and made certain that the first recipients who complied soon after discovered upwards of twenty-thousand more dollars, accidentally,” he hooks some sloppy air-quotes, “in paper bags on the street. Then they watched the third level, paying off the second with further found cash, et cetera.”

Duster continues: “The subsequent letters began to talk of being in ‘the Lady’s favor’. This was a reference to Prester Jean’s long-lost Queen, who they worship, their savior, from the Native American civilization he was talking about…Marrano had the first four layers of participants hooked completely, like he was a prophet, like he knew their futures. The letters stressed not telling anyone about their windfall or reporting it as income to IRS on penalty of a promise that the money would stop. People being perennial suckers, they believed him, and ninety percent of them did his bidding.”

“Suckers?” Druthers said. “Who wouldn’t do it for that kind of scratch? Did anyone not forward the letters?”

“Of course, bucko. And nothing further happened to them. Not following the directive was its own punishment, you see, genius—to get one of those letters was like winning a lottery, but if you trusted these anonymous givers by following the order you won a bigger prize, and doing the subsequent chore in the third letter, yet still bigger. Three times, bam-bam-bam, and they were hooked. So the ones who never complied never knew, and would never know, that they’d skipped over an easy fifty thousand dollars—as long as you did what you were asked in the subsequent letters, and kept your mouth shut about it…Anyway, over the next five years Marrano dumped about seventy million into this scheme, paying off these people and expanding the pyramid. Hundreds of people complied and got the dessert. He sent the letters out four times a year. Round about 1977, after four years, the letters stopped demanding further chaining. It had gone exponential by then. I suppose it had finally reached its peak, about four thousand people in all of the lower 48. They’d all been roped in to the tune of one hundred-eight million spent, all told.”

Storm is leaning forward, his head down, his hands locked and tightening, knuckles white. His jaw appears to be trying to crush a small animal.

“Marrano’s people also planted their fake paintings around these ‘chosen people.’ You know those stories where you hear of some bank-worthy painting turning up in someone’s attic or a garage sale? If that painting is by a well-known modern painter, it’s most likely one of Smuyler’s Ibiza people who painted it back in ’68.”

“But it’s not really a pyramid scheme, is it?” Druthers asks. “Guy was just giving away money, right?”

Duster’s watery eyes gaze skeptically. “He’s been paying them salaries, essentially. He asks them to do favors for his crew. A sort of underground railroad to harbor and help them. An average of twelve thousand a year per person, just to keep open the lines for safe passage. It offers total plausible deniability by these people, that they are a part of a criminal enterprise—beyond not declaring it as income. We have no idea how he keeps track of their, uh, fidelity. We’re talking thousands of people. Seems impossible, right? Last year we discovered he had some of these suckers plant fake infrastructure. They dug and capped wells, they built fake hollow light poles and fake electrical junction boxes. Even fake mailboxes. Hundreds of them across the country. Only Marrano knows the location of them all. Kind of an early form of geocaching…His crew then stocked them with C-4 and weaponry to be used someday. We’ve only found three of them over the past five years, but there are many more. We discovered a mailbox on a road in Montana that was packed with C-4. So, whaddya think of that?”

Storm’s jaw is still grinding away and he does not answer. Druthers pouts, overwhelmed.

Latheran brightens. “Oh, yes, and his crew likes to deface US currency, put curses on all the dead white guys, especially singling out Andrew Jackson on the 20 and Hamilton on the 50. They fill in the portrait oval with black ink.”

Storm’s head snaps up. “The blacked-out bills?” he howls, full of indignity. “They’re the people behind that too?”

Druthers seconds his recognition. “Treasury thought it was just underground anarchists…”

“Well, it is. Marrano’s crew will deface any large American bills they come across but especially Hamilton and Jackson. They also use big denom bills as toilet paper, then recirculate them at banks, with the—”

Druthers cringes. Storm groans, “Please.”

Duster closes his eyes and steels himself. “That’s right, hotshot. They wipe their asses with the big denomination bills. We’ve tested them for E coli and bacteria. We’ve found thousands in Ben Franklins and even McKinleys and Clevelands from the Sixties defaced this way. They call it the ‘brown blessing.’”

The two Agents are too stunned to reply.

The old man continues. “Back in the early Eighties, we got together with Treasury and put out special serials in the lower 48, to see where they’d get marked up so we could find out which states his crew might be operating in. That was one of the only times we solicited the public’s help.”

Latheran says, “Every batch got marked up within five weeks.”

“My God,” Storm murmurs. “He must have people everywhere.”

“You’ve never enlisted the public to help out,” Storm suddenly complains. “Hell is up with that?”

The Task Forcers pass a grave look between them. “Agent Storm, if Marrano knew we were actively pursuing him, in a dragnet operation on the TMW, the consequences would be dire. He’s got a legend going that when he finally surfaces it means his Queen has returned and it’ll be time for the ‘Cosmic Boomerang’ as he calls it. Payback time for what he sees as America’s crimes. We think he’s planning big terror ops. It’s almost as if he’s spent forty years wiring up America for a controlled demolition.”

Duster flicks his toothpick onto the table. “He hinted as much in that little Senate performance. But he could have called for the Boomerang at any time if he knew the apparatus was on his heels.”

Druthers asks, “This guy ever kill anyone?”

Duster and Latheran again regard each other as if deciding who’s to speak. Duster rubs his eyes. “Marrano, well, he’s got his beliefs. Believes ‘no-one should die by an earthly hand.’ That’s a direct quote, a slogan of his. He’s a pacifist, as far as we can tell. We think his crew is entirely non-violent.”

Storm smiles in contentment. Something twitches inside him. “So if we were to corner this guy and his crew…”

Duster folds his arms. “I know what you’re thinking, Agent, but we want him and the crew alive. Agent Latheran’s thankfully botched effort notwithstanding.”

“I’m not going to exactly say I was wrong to take those shots, but there was the danger of killing him with a pingback. I was, for the record, and you can read the report on this or watch the video again, Agent Storm, aiming for his lower legs.” Latheran puts his feet up on the desk. “In any case, they’ve never killed anyone, even during a few bank robberies we think he’s connected to, in the early 70s. As far as we know.”

“We don’t know how many of his suckers are out there. We believe it’s in the tens of thousands, still. But the game is long past the point of monetary gain. He could have people helping him from every walk of life—from street people to housewives to CEOs. Even in the government. Even here at the Bureau, maybe.”

“I don’t believe any of this,” Storm says. “I’d like to make that clear.”

“I am having a hard time with it myself,” Druthers concurs.

Latheran ignores their complaints. “About six years ago, chief, the chain letters began again. This time he used homing pigeons. They talked of a coming collapse of America, and that these chain-mailers would be the chosen ones if they adopted his new currency system. They would be ‘ahead of the curve,’ you know, and ahead of the collapse…His apocalyptic talk has accelerated over the past year—as has the amount of payroll money he’s putting out, which kicked in again. Hell, after the collapse in ‘08, we thought he might have somehow been behind the whole thing, with his being involved in the derivatives market, you know.”

Storm says, “So he’s only using these people to spread information about the new currency?”

“Yes. That will replace the dollar when it all falls down. He enjoined these people from ever discussing it and they’ve remained silent about it…”

“What’s the currency?”

“They claim Marrano’s perfected a way of creating gold from scratch. A kind of new white gold…Which is also an energy source.”

“We’ll get to that later.”

Druthers asks, “How has your unit accumulated so much paper on him, if he’s been underground for so long?”

Duster holds up a hand to silence Latheran’s imminent reply. The old man coughs and growls, “Oh, we’ve rolled up dozens of members of his crew over the years, minor people, hangers-on…One of them was shot in a bank robbery in ’71. Spilled about the casinos and forgery scams. They get arrested sometimes…S’how we found out about the currency defacings…This one guy got arrested in Tulsa, had seven thousand on him in blacked-out Franklins and Jacksons. But as to his inner circle, we’ve never nailed any of them. He compartmentalizes his operations well. The wannabes spill because they haven’t been initiated. The ordination takes years.”

“Ordination?” Storm grunts.

“Well, that might be the strangest part of this,” Latheran says. “He’s a cult leader. Some of these wannabes said this ‘King John’ is his epithet for Satan or Lucifer. We’ve also heard he worships a three-headed deity, or a brazen head with three parts, called the ‘Black Earth.’ Others told us—get this—that he knows bird languages, that he can communicate with tweeters…Still others said he’s just an atheist or a nihilist. That he believes nothing at all but his own munificence, or some crap.”

Druthers asks, “What of his upbringing?”

“We know scratch,” Duster replies. “DOB and social security number. He grew up in Whittier, California. Parents disappeared. And that’s it.”

“Guy’s still kicking strong. You saw Erickson, and you’d think he was fifty, max? He’s seventy-seven. It’s spooky. Marrano’s always been in excellent shape. We always suspected he’s never had work done on his face, and now it’s confirmed. Our face-mapping program identified him at the Capitol. This was an unbelievable stroke of luck for us.”

Latheran cracks his knuckles when the intercom buzzes, then a frantic voice. “Mr. Latheran something’s going on out here.”

They rise from the table and enter the situation room to find a dozen Army soldiers in fatigues arguing and yelling and unplugging devices.

“What in hell is this?” Latheran thunders.

Two men in suits turn to him. “You’re Colin Latheran?” He holds up an identification wallet. “I’m General Richard Whisk. This Marrano unit of yours has been superceded by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Here’s the order we just sent to Director Tyler. We’re moving our people in here.”

“There m-must be some mistake,” Latheran tries. “This unit has b-been in operation since 1973.”

A huge smile. “Until today, sir—this moment. You’ll have to take it up with the wind.” Then General Whisk’s manner seemed to lighten just a bit. “Look, you might think you know what you’re dealing with here with Marrano, but we assure you, you don’t.”

Druthers sniggers.

Duster’s harsh voice spits, “Care to enlighten us then?”

“It’s TS-CI/L4 classified. As will be the existence of your former task force. ”

“You lie!” Duster cries.

“What a clusterfuck,” Storm murmurs to Druthers.

Whisk says, “Now you can all gather your personal belongings. You’re done. We want you out within the hour.”

“But we’re close!” Latheran yells hysterically. “The guy just surfaced after forty goddamn years! Do you know what this means?”

Whisk cleans his spectacles evenly, replaces them. “Orders from on high.”

Colin Latheran’s eyes are tearing. Duster wears a numb expression, his lower lip trembling, then explodes. After some shouting General Whisk directly dials FBI Director Tyler in his Hoover Building office, connecting by video conferencing, then calls the Deputy Directors of the CIA, then DIA at the Pentagon.

It is as if each official has anticipated Duster and Latheran’s resistance and is waiting to authorize the termination.

With the string of confirmations the Smuyler Marrano Unit is legally over. Another team of soldiers with drawn pistols and even Mac 9/11s are taking up a cordon within the fusion center’s room.

“Bummer,” Druthers says.

“Well, folks,” Latheran gasps, teary-eyed, rising onto a well-padded chair to address his stunned agents, “It looks like this is it. We’ve had a good ride, and—”

But Storm isn’t so sure. Hadn’t he and Druthers just absorbed two hours of information on an apparent criminal genius? People could be impersonated, video feeds faked. And the SM task force is just taking this intercession, with no web of corroboration on who these interlopers are. Storm pulls out his wallet.

“Excuse me,” he says, tapping Whisk’s shoulder. “Break a hundred for me?”

“What?” the General snaps.

“I’m gonna take a cab back downtown. Can you break a Ben Franklin?”

His slate grey eyes are expressionless and his voice drops. “No, we will be shuttling you back to the Hoover building.”

“Okay, then, I’ll just ask you this. May I please examine any of the bills in your wallet?”

“Why?”

Storm looks over at Latheran and Duster, who seem to catch on. Latheran comes down from his chair and his hand hovers over his shoulder holster. “Yes, uh, that’s right. We will fully cooperate with you if you do one simple thing. Just produce a few bills from your wallets.”

Whisk smiles placidly. “Okay. Sure. If it’ll get your asses out of here quicker. Sure.”

Wallets are produced, currency extracted.

There is not a single blacked-out portrait amongst the assorted bills.

“Uh,” Latheran says, disappointed. “Okay.”

Whisk gestures at a group of men opening attaches cases on a desktop. “Of course our legal team here will be handling your releases and all non-disclosure documentation which you will sign on the way out.”

Latheran has climbed back up on the chair. “Look, Agents, my friends…” But is pulled down by Major Batter. The staff are pulling Blueteeth from their ears, gathering personal effects, moping out towards the desk on which the lawyers have quickly set up a station for triplicate form signing. Batter takes a step towards Latheran and says, “We want to tell you we admire that crack job you did apprehending your quarry the other day at the Capitol.”

“Go to hell, you son of a bitch.” There are glints of liquid in his eyes.

Druthers finds a hand clamping his arm from behind. It is Whisk. “Except you, sir. Eric Alan Druthers, right? You and August Storm. You’re staying.”

“Why, why do they get to stay?” Latheran, outraged.

“It’s classified.”

Whisk jerks a thumb at Duster and Latheran and near-whispers, “We’ve been keeping close tabs on these two FBI clowns and their Marrano unit since the beginning, back in ‘73. We figured why waste our own efforts trying to catch Smuyler Marrano if the FBI can do all the work for us?”

Storm, bewildered, hoarsely, “You know something they don’t?”

“Indeed. It’s much bigger than any of these jokers think. Come with us.”

 

Outside, five SUVs have boxed in the house. The SM task force staff one by one is being led into the SUVs. Whisk leads Storm and Druthers into a white stepvan made to look like any of the hundreds that trawl the region, company stenciling, ladders on top. The driver is tanned and looks surly in his wife-beater and white cap.

They swerve through Rock Creek Park onto Military Road, then Nebraska Avenue, then north up Connecticut for the Beltway. Whisk and Batter ask them what the two FBI agents revealed. Whisk says, “So they believe the gold certificates are buried somewhere out West. Hm. Well, as far as we know that is true. In fact, we know that it’s in California and the figure is close to one hundred billion dollars.” He turns a spectacled eye upon Druthers. “Do you believe in time travel, Mr. Druthers? Or clairvoyance? Or remote viewing?”

Druthers, taken aback, frowns. “I believe in none of those things.”

“You, Agent Storm?”

“Phshit,” he waves dismissively. “Please…”

Major Batter runs a thick hand through his flat-top. “We tried a team of remote viewers to find Marrano back in ’99. Don’t laugh. CIA’s results with psychics had just been made public a few years earlier? Either of you two Agents remember that program being made public?”

“Yes, I remember,” Druthers concurs. “Psychic spying on the Russians.”

Batter says, “We thought what the hell. Wasn’t like we were getting anywhere sitting on our asses studying the SM task force’s files.” He goes silent, smirking, and jams a toothpick in his mouth. The van rocks and rattles on the shattered DC streets. “The viewers saw a lot, but nothing useful. They put Marrano in the general location of New York City. Given his medieval philosophy and disdain for the modern world, we thought that unlikely. Then again, it might offer anonymity and opportunities to recruit people. We should have heeded what they saw. They were right, as you know—that silver RV those witnesses saw in Tuxedo and Landover?”

Major Batter folds his arms. “We had one remote viewer in particular who was very talented. She saw a building in southern Manhattan. Located him in its basement, or boiler room or some sub-room off a boiler room. And a rooftop complex with shacks, with an apartment below it. She drew the skyline around this building. Somewhere down on the Lower East Side, probably. That was all. We learned all this from one woman. She’d done work with the CIA viewing the Russians. After that particular session, she disappeared.”

Whisk says, “See, it apparently isn’t a one-way street, this remote viewing. Marrano was onto the, uh, eavesdropping she was doing.”

Storm snorts disingenuously. “Bunk.”

Druthers throws up his hands. “There are a dozen alternative explanations.”

Batter and Whisk exchange skeptical looks. Whisk picks up a sheaf of transcripts and rattles through them. “She also saw what she took to be a silver boat. She called it a big silverfish. Described it in detail.” He consults a page and reads. “Listen to this: ‘It is not yet time for its rebirth…But when that time comes, America will begin its fade and the silverfish will be the vessel of redemption…’ And she gave us the figure, ‘twelve years hence.’ We never knew what the hell she was talking about, until now.”

“How do you like them apples?” Batter says. “A ‘silverfish.’ Pretty well matches your reports of the vehicle that was seen in Virginia. Then you fellows discover that it’s a registered historic automobile owned by Samuel Marino. Heh.”

Storm pouts. “Someone saw the RV in Virginia too?”

“Yes, these Marrano task forcers have really been on the ball. Didn’t even know they were on the move.”

Whisk hands over some yellowed papers to Storm. “These are just my notes from back then. All those files were destroyed. When Rumsfeld found out that we’d hired a team of psychics, he went nuclear.”

“I would too,” Storm retorts, giving them a glance. He impatiently hands them back. “Look, why is the Army involved in this?”

“We at DIA have had two people inside Marrano’s group for years. Decades.”

“From 1946 to 1958 the Pentagon and US Geological Survey collaborated on creating an underground Lamson tube system. Pneumatic messaging, from one coast to the other. In the event of an all-out nuke exchange the electromagnetic pulses would knock out most phone communication, so they needed a…backup system. The brass hoped that at least some of a Lamson system would work in the event of a Soviet fish-fry. In ’53 the AEC and — invented a nuclear-powered drill about the size of a –and used it to construct 6,000 miles of underground tubes. It was a network. Each node is about fifteen miles from the next. They filled them with the tubing, then reinforced concrete.

“This project was so secret that all the accounting and log records including the locations of the main hubs were centralized into only twenty-two filing cabinets, all in a guarded room at the Pentagon…Guess who stole every one of the files back in the early 1970s?”

“Our new old frienemy,” Druthers says.

“Marrano knows the locations of every continuity of government site in the country. All the underground bases we’ve developed over the past sixty years. He also…Knows what’s been going on in the newer ones.”

“And what would that be?”

“We’ve, uh, disturbed something down there. Something…well, unexpected. Something that might give your Snorri Erickson’s rantings a second thought. But we can get to that later.”

Storm says, “Can he put pressure on the President to call out the National Guard, if we need them? You know, get cordons and roadblocks going?”

“It is not as easy as that,” Whisk replies in a rebuking tone. “That would be a waste of resources, Mr. Storm. I wouldn’t mention such a thing again.”

“Seems to me we need an old-fashioned dragnet. Put out all-points bulletins and roll em up. That silver boat should make it easy.”

Whisk snorted. “By now they’ve ditched them for certain and stolen or bought others.”

“So we’ve got the Motor Vehicle Database, then.”

“Be my guest. Try it. I think you’ll be wasting your time. Look, we have an idea. We’re going to try the remote viewers again. Give us everything you’ve got.”

“There are seven vehicles in the caravan. An old vintage Challenger. Then there’s the black van, and an old bus. A pickup truck, two station wagons from the 1970s. And the, uh, the silverfish.”

“I’d suggest getting photographs of similar vehicles. The viewer works off visual images. She’ll use such images in conjunction with names.”

“You’re serious about this?” Storm says.

“Yes, we are. You will not mention it to anyone. Capisce?”

“We’ve already contacted two views and we begin working with them tomorrow. One of them’s the best around. Worked with other parts of the Bureau on kidnappings and a bank robbery.”

Druthers has a massive headache and his eyes hurt. He feels like the Technicolor Dorothy, the newly red-pilled Thomas Anderson. He might vomit. He’s most amazed that such a person could ever have been kept under wraps by the Bureau, at the center of so many schemes yet redacted from the official stories…And that the public have never heard of the man’s near-superhuman exploits. A folk-hero, at least, to some subculture types…Perhaps he was known to certain segments of society, as myth, as symbol, a graffiti tag, all of the knowing prelates keeping silent and a nodding smile is all you get over mention of their Pope…But he also feels like one of the elect, investigating for once something real, and which will make a difference.

——————–

LATER THAT DAY, five miles to the west of Rock Creek Park, the Asia Division Chief Dave Galloway passes his eyes across the scanner and steers his lanky frame down the corridor leading to CIA Director Philip Vinnistraro’s office. He presses the red-striped folder close to his hip and dabs his forehead with a handkerchief. The Director welcomes him into the room and dismisses his two aides. Galloway hands over the folder and takes a seat. The Director’s flat Tuscan face smirks. “Should we call the Fortean Times people yet?”

“It’s way past that point, Phil.”

Vinnistraro flips the red-stripe’s cover and reads the cables. “So the drone went down?”

Galloway throws his hands open. “It disappeared. Ulan Bator sent a retrieval team, but the helicopter couldn’t get close. Their gyroscopes were shot to hell. The radios jammed.”

“Eyewitnesses?”

“A few locals saw the thing, yes.”

On the desk before Vinnistraro are reports from the National Reconnaissance Office describing the object that had been captured on satellite photos:

Vinnistraro engages his electronic cigarette and pulls on his mug of coffee. Galloway continues. “There was no seismic activity. That would suggest an atmospheric disturbance, or a hologram. But to project a hologram that size you’d need amplifiers. The atmosphere would play havoc with a holographic image that big. The tallest of the structures the witnesses saw were a half-mile in height and there was no distortion.”

Vinnistraro rises and studies the e-cigarette in his hand. “The ground team are on site right now. They should be sending us reports this afternoon…And the Siberian flash?”

“The Russians have nothing. The Tunguska area’s always been sparsely inhabited, ever since the first, uh, event, back in 1908. This new flash was seen four hundred miles in all directions. They heard the concussion in Moscow and in Pyon Yang and even in Barrow. Physics thinks it was plasma—a plasma column.”

“Not methane-related.”

“Definitely not.”

“Like a reversal of the 1908 event?”

Galloway shrugs. “Ulan Bator reported seeing silent flashes in the sky a few weeks before the appearance, in the Taklamakan and near the Altai mountain range.”

Vinnistraro looks out his windows at the skies over the Potomac. “Russians can’t blame this on some missile test, can they.”

“But they’ll try.”

 

WITHIN HOURS PHILIP Vinnistraro and the NASA Director have briefed the Secretary of Defense William Marpleson and call a meeting with President Robert Hogan in the Situation Room. The primary photo interpreter from the National Reconnaissance Office and his CIA counterpart take the floor as four NASA scientists pour over the incoming photographs and documents.

“The outer edge of the ‘hexagonal city,’ we’ll call it, has ninety-six structures encircling it and this number reduces in concentric figures towards the center of the complex. There is self-similarity or what’s called fractal symmetry between the large-scale layout and the buildings’ designs.”

Vinnistraro stands and announces, “We have a team encamped at the edge of the area with full rad-decon facility. They’re completing their examination as we speak.”

The NASA official shouts, “It’s as if the object was physically present and yet not there at the same time. There’s a simultaneity about it…”

“Yes?” Vinnistraro replies, annoyed.

“I mean, as if it was a part of a different earth—occupying the same space, but in two different universes.”

President Robert Hogan sneers. “That the best you’ve got? Parallel universes?”

The physicist shrugs. “Sir, the idea can’t be dismissed out of hand. The latest experiments in quantum fields favor an interpretation that sub-atomic entities are dependent upon their vibration in multiple dimensions, or universes, rather. Dark matter, as you might have heard about. Another way to put it is that they require far more energy than our universe is capable of generating—that there’s interchange between our cosmos and many, many others, er, exchanging power…The point is we may have just caught a glimpse through a temporary portal into an alternative cosmos, another version of our planet.”

SecDef Marpleson gulps a glass of water and wipes the sweat from his forehead. All afternoon he has been having difficulty speaking, his hands trembling, his voice halting. “Wouldn’t such a thing…have then caused s-some kind of, I don’t know, sonic boom when it appeared?”

“Maybe it did,” the physicist replies. “The flashes and plasma discharge.”

“But—”

“—they preceded the physical appearance of the portal.”

One of the physicists says, “Maybe it’s a vehicle of some kind.”

“But the thing was anchored to the desert.”

“I’m saying it entered from an alternative version of the planet.”

Parallel earths, Mark?”

Vinnistraro says, “Siberia and the regions between the Taklamakan desert and Altai range have a history of events like this, in their folklore. That’s what Galloway told me. The Tunguska blast is the least of it…It’s as if the area has a history of portals.”

President Hogan runs his fingers through his coiffed mane. “So what should we do, consult some folklorists? Or how about a psychic?”

Vinnistraro smirks. “Folklorists wouldn’t be a bad idea. This sort of thing has been talked about in their local mythologies.”

“Well, that’s comforting.”

The CIA Director says, “Russia Today’s done stories on the plasma flashes and you can be assured the Chinese and RAS both have this object on their own satellite pictures. They’re sending teams in the past hours, but we’ve gotten there first. They’ll be just as confounded as we are, but they might go public with it. Their astronauts could have seen it from Mir.” He rises and begins to pace. “We have to tell Olander over at DARPA next.”

Hogan sighs. “We’ll have to get Putin and Jinmao and all the others together on this. It could be a signal, Phil—from an extraterrestrial civilization.”

Vinnistraro’s eyes widen. “That’s the last angle we should take, sir.” His pager beeps. “Dave Galloway’s here with the reports from the ground team.”

Within a minute the Asia Division chief and an assistant unpack a large suitcase. The scientists huddle around the two laptops, reading aloud passages from the raw reports on soil and sand samples and begin to play the video recordings the CIA team made.

“Two square miles of dunes have been baked into a very thin sheet of green-colored glass, a green crystal. Similar to tritium, the product of the Trinity test before Hiroshima. They’re collecting the stuff now, and assistance from the Mongolian Army is occurring. They observed visual distortions similar to heat mirage and reported a sweet smell in the area. Smelled like, well—they say lilies would be the closest comparison…They, uh, also observed shoots growing in a few places.”

“Shoots?”

“Plants,” Galloway clarifies. “They talked to the park official who saw the structures. And a camper, a Belgian. The guy was upset and hardly made any sense, but he saw it at night…So far we have twelve eyewitnesses. This area’s practically uninhabited so I doubt more of them will turn up.”

One of the NASA physicists shouts, “All electronic devices fried within seven miles of the event, so there was an EMP. It was accompanied by plasma discharges four miles up.”

 

A DIRECT CONFERENCE line is set up with the Mongolian President. Documents related to the affair are to have the highest classification level. A press blackout on the phenomena is ordered at NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and every armed forces agency with satellite photo capability. Key contact officers to deal with any international reports are chosen for each agency, and a task force is inaugurated to develop the disinformation campaign.

As they file out, Defense Secretary Marpleson lingers before the door, catching Vinnistraro’s arm. “Phil, could I ask you to stay a moment? I need to talk to you and Bob about something.”

“You’ll have to make it short,” Vinnistraro complains. “I’ve got fourteen meetings today.”

Vinnistraro crosses the room to tell the President. They wait until the scientists depart. Marpleson closes the door with unusual effort. He wets his lips several times and blinks rapidly and breathes with labor.

“Ah, forgive me,” he pauses.

Robert Hogan leans forward. The man has gone pale and sweating and seems to be suffering an anxiety attack. “Is it Mary? How is she?”

“She’s fine, sir, thank you. Thanks for asking,” he replies, bringing out a damp handkerchief. “There hasn’t been a recurrence.”

“Would you like a glass of water? Phil, would you—”

“No, I’m okay,” Marpleson declares. He leans on one of the high-backed chairs surrounding the table, his fists contracting on the vinyl. He hangs his head and speaks in a low tone. “The other day—last week, Thursday, the sixth, it was…I was outside my house in McCarren Park, at dusk, doing yard work. These three men,” he seems to gag on the words, “came up out of the woods…My god.” The recollection seems to damage him further. “They were dressed in suits. Sunglasses, they wore. Just appeared there, coming up my hill. I’m looking at them, watching them walk up the hill, all stiff, like they kept their arms straight against their sides…but walking smooth, like the hill was too easy for them…Like robots or something like that. Gliding, almost. Their suits were old. Double-breasted. Dark. I had my alarm in my pocket. Tried for it and I felt something in the back of my head, like a coldness…I couldn’t move…Totally paralyzed…They came up within ten feet of me and I’m readying the panic button. Then they stopped at the same time. Stood there, staring at me. Felt like forever. Felt like hell. Then the guy in the middle, he pulls out a-a knife. Spins it in, in his hand, fast. Then, then he, he put the tip up against his n-neck, right up on his carotid, and pulled, like this—” he pantomimes. “I felt sick but I couldn’t move. Blood all down his suit. Pumping out, one beat after another. Guy staggered a step, like he was dizzy. He was losing a lot of blood, you know? Then he pulls this object out from his pocket and runs it across the wound. He’s fast with it, fast.” Again Marpleson mimics the gesture. “He passed it across the wound and the bleeding just stopped. Like that. He swallows a few times…All the time this happened the other two were just standing there like dummies…The cut guy’s swallowing and touching the wound to make sure it was okay. Saw his hand. Long fingers. Too long. Got blood on them from touching his neck. He was, was trying to breathe regularly. He still had the knife in his other hand. Big bloodstain on it. Then, then they all took a step closer to me. Comes up close. He whispers, ‘Battlefields.’ Guy could have killed me right there, on the spot, with that knife. Blood’s still dripping on his neck. This coldness has got me. I’m standing there and I don’t believe this is happening. I think I’ve lost it. I’m t-terrified. Wondering where the hell’s my detail. I didn’t want it to be real. It shouldn’t be. Things like that shouldn’t h-happen, right? I wanted to call my detail. My hand was frozen like a claw. Then they turned together sorta pivoted and walked back down the hill and I couldn’t hear any footsteps they were fading down the hill and I’m still feeling this coldness in my head. I can’t even move but I’m shaking like a leaf. I come out of it and I can’t talk. I just fell. I collapsed. Then I hit the panic button. The detail came over to me. I picked up the leaves and twigs. Got the guy’s blood on them. Something happened here.”

Phillip Vinnistraro shakes his head in amazement and says, “And he only said, ‘Battlefields’? That was all?”

Marpleson nods. “That thing in his hand closed up that wound in a split-second. Perfectly.” The Defense Secretary begins pacing before the two men. “He, he, it, whatever the hell he was, slit his carotid artery lengthwise, about three inches. It opened up wide…There was blood everywhere on his neck, but it sealed up the cut. Like it wasn’t there. It was just a line on his neck. And the line went away in seconds, as I was looking at it. Entirely reversed the wound. It wasn’t some illusion. The object he used looked like a small egg. It was dark green. Had gold lines on it. I, I think that’s what he meant when he said it, that’s what the whole thing was about. To show it to me. To demonstrate it. That it was some kind of technology they have.”

Hogan says, “’They’?”

Marpleson looks up at the ceiling. “They were from that thing, I’m sure of it. In Mongolia. I think we’re up against…I don’t even want to think about it.”

The CIA director adopts a paternal tone. “I think it’s too early to say we’re ‘up against’ anyone, Bill.”

Marpleson looks into Vinnistraro’s eyes. “Y-you don’t know what it’s like. To meet them. I’m sure, sure what I saw, men, men in suits—that wasn’t how they look. It was a mirage. A projection. This was a message to me—to us—because of what we do. What we, what we a-are.”

Hogan and Vinnistraro pass a worried glance. “You didn’t tell your detail, did you?”

“No, I couldn’t Bob,” he near-whispers. “Told them I had a fainting spell…Couldn’t fucking talk. I couldn’t talk for about a half-hour. They helped get me into the house. I told them not to tell anyone I’d fainted.” Marpleson seems to recover and ceases pacing.

“Surveillance video?”

He smiles weakly. “We got ’em all over the grounds and in the house, yeah. I, I asked Deakins about it. I told him I wanted to see myself fall down. Asked him if I could look at it by myself. We went into the security room. He said, the cameras all over the house had gone down…At first, it was as if their influence was still working on me, in that I couldn’t tell anyone about it. But I’m resigned that it’s okay…I went back outside a few hours later, out where it happened. On the ground, staring at the leaves. There were leaves, with his blood on them. Picked them up. I still have the leaves and twigs. Maybe you think I should have them tested.”

Vinnistraro practically shouts, “Of course you should get them tested. ASAP. Where are they?”

“T-they’re at home, in my safe.”

“Bill, send them to one of our labs, for chrissake. You should—”

Hogan places a hand on the CIA Director’s shoulder and eases his impatience. “No-one else saw these men?”

Marpleson’s anxiety seems to be easing. “Mary was asleep. Long and Kennedy and Schott were in the den and Deakins was in the carport. They didn’t see the men.”

Vinnistraro looks at his watch. “I have to get going, sir. We have that Arctic fleet briefing.”

“Of course.”

Marpleson mopes out the door. The CIA director asks, “What do you think?”

Hogan shrugs.

“You believe it happened?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Don’t you think he needs help?”

“No. Not at all.”

Vinnistraro tries to maintain an even note. “Certain things have to be ruled out. The organic.”

“He had a physical just last month. We all did.”

“I won’t believe it until mental aberrations are off the table.”

“They already are off the table.”

“Why is that?”

Hogan levels a hard gaze at his CIA director. “Because my detail head told me that Senator Quint Davis met those same three men, on last Thursday. August sixth. Quint’s been in the hospital since.”

—————–

AGENT ERIC DRUTHERS spreads the seven pictures of Smuyler Marrano before him. Four of them were blurred and the image cleanup hadn’t helped much. The last one, from the Senate hearing, only added to his doubts. Many subtle, small changes to a person’s appearance could add up to significant overall difference—it was rule number one, he knew—but were they kidding? Three of them emphatically depicted entirely different people. “Nicky Bourbon”, the photo taken at the Alexandria US Patent Office, was a slight person of mixed ethnic heritage. The obvious misidentification reminded him of the two photos of a stout, baby-faced man the Warren Commission had deemed were Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City, which anyone could see were not the spindly assassin.

The other three photos were ambiguous at best. The jawlines and eye-to-nose-to-mouth ratios were radically different between the bank job and passport photo and DMV portrait and movie stills from Orson Welles’s F for Fake.

The two DIA men had taken he and Storm to a secure facility in Bowie, Maryland, 20 miles from the District, an area that looked to be a semi-sprawling apparent office and industrial park of low buildings with too much gated security called Melford. The stepvan had driven into the fenced parking lot of a storage facility then through a garage door and down a spiraling ramp into a complex that Druthers suspected was a continuity-of-government site. They were led through a fusion center and carpet-glue smelling office corridors into a soundproofed chamber and given documents.

“Think Marrano knows about this place?” he asked Batter.

“Not at all,” the Major had replied. “We’ve been busy updating our spider-holes for decades now.”

Druthers squinted again at the pictures. “Nuts,” he said.

Whisk and Batter appear. “Now we have someone here to talk to us from NYPD about this. I want you to say nothing about Marrano beyond the fact that that silver RV’s registered in the name of Samuel Marino.”

Storm and Druthers both shrug in agreement as the woman enters the room. She is in her late-thirties, her black tresses pulled into a ponytail, dressed in a white blouse and black skirt and leather boots.

“This is Sergeant Valdez of NYPD,” Major Batter says. “She’s worked the vice nightclub beat the past year in Manhattan. She has quite a story to tell.”

The woman sits down at the table and inserts a memory stick into the laptop and types. With haughty asides she tells them about a new psychedelic drug that appeared in the New York nightclubs over the past months and three strange purveyors of the pills they’d arrested, each bearing clothes that had been made at a clothier based in Southern France; they had been dressed as an imam, an Orthodox Rabbi, and a Catholic priest. Storm appears moved in some less-than-wholesome way by her tough front and Bronx twang, a strong woman in uniform, and Druthers notices him studying her mouth and full figure and can see her shift uncomfortably a few times under his gaze. “The tox report on the pills showed they were some kind of honey derivative.” She shrugs. “It was just a sugar pill. But that’s not at all what people experience. We’ve managed to get six doses of the stuff, and the tox labs did some tests with a few volunteer subjects.”

Batter massages his aching back. “We understand one of your officers took some of this Haoma to test it.”

She blinks rapidly and tugs an earlobe. She shrugs. “I can’t comment on it. But I’m going to show you video of our interview with the psychologist who examined persons who’d taken it. Watch this.”

She hits play and the screen shows a disheveled and bespectacled man in a bow tie, arms folded, at a table. He says, “Based on our MRI and CAT scans we determined that the brain’s deeply affected by this drug. We just don’t know how. Nothing at all turns up toxicological samples of the blood. We would like to try a second-by-second MRI after someone ingests it but we need more samples of the stuff.”

A male voice cuts in: “We’re working on that.”

“It affects the spinal cord and then the central nervous system, in particular the parietal cortex. That’s the area that regulates the sense of physical integrity, tells us at any given time what the body is experiencing. Sort of the interface between our bodies and the external world. You’ve heard of phantom limb syndrome after amputation? It’s where such phenomena originate. Normally this is an autonomic processing center, entirely unconscious and flowing. We think this Haoma substance amps up this area of the brain to a thousand degrees and in some way makes the body and brain…Permeable, I suppose, would be a way to describe it. Receptive…It significantly amps up the level of sensory integration. Anyway, this has a profound effect on the personality as it occurs. Elation, joy, a sense of expansiveness. So-called telepathic experiences were reported. Strange thing is, they were confirmed by the techs.”

Someone says, “Hookaaay…”

“I am serious, Sergeant. It occurred many times over a ten minute period. You can watch the footage of it if you want. It’s extraordinary.”

“Yes, I’ll have to see it, Doc,” Sergeant Valdez’s voice chimes in on the video. “I don’t believe it.”

The psychologist continues. “Subjectively they undergo feelings of oneness with everything, the classic sense of the mystical and the interconnectedness of everything. There are slight visual hallucinations involving halos about objects and a synesthetic component to the experience. Also extreme suggestibility. Subjects spontaneously confessed secrets and desires. Some of it was pretty wild.”

Something in Special Agent August Storm twitches as he watches.

“…in this state, subjects believe there are no reasons to, uh, hold anything back. All three of them divulged thefts, even going back to childhood, which they’d not consciously recalled in decades. Also infidelities. Sexual indiscretions and fetishes. Also what they perceived to be moral failings or habitual character defects…Post-intoxication, they reported complete retainment of the insights and complete integration into the personalities, unlike other psychedelics.”

Valdez’s voice says, “So it’s like LSD.”

“Not really. You see, LSD and the others are so overwhelming that subjects later have only the barest memories of what they think are tremendous epiphanies during the acute intoxication phase. This one, they are preserved.”

Storm rubbed his wide jaw and says to Victoria Valdez, “Hm. Is he saying this stuff could be a truth serum?”

She stops the video. “We’re not saying anything. It’s too early to tell. We’ve had only three test subjects reporting these similar experiences. Keep watching.” She restarts it.

“The public’s all reported these effects as well,” the male voice adds.

The psychologist clasps his fingers across a kneecap. “Ideally, we should garner a random population sample, give them MRI and CAT scans to establish a baseline for their CNS and brain activities, dose them, and follow up regularly. That’s the only way we will know with certainty what we have here.”

Sergeant Valdez stops the video. “So that’s what’s been going on up in the city. Now let me tell you what I found that connects up with what General Whisk’s filled me in on.”

A truth serum. Storm feels a warmth stir deep inside his gut and he knows it is certain. He sees them all—the Arabs tied to chairs and spilling the whereabouts of whole networks, child molesters giving up every evil deed. Such a drug was almost an affront to the order of things, to God’s very laws. A monstrous thing.

It could even threaten their jobs, taken to its extreme.

Victoria Valdez tells them of her recent intel-gathering trip to the drug dealers’ clothier in the Pyrenees of Southern France. “I saw their inventory manifests and address book.” She shows them the digital photos she’d taken. “‘S. Marrano,’ see? Last week we cased the return address on the Lower East Side and when we got the warrant and went in it turned out the occupant Samuel Marino—close enough—had been evicted four days before this thing happened at the Capitol two days ago. He was described as an old guy with very long hair and Santa Claus beard. He’d been squatting illegally in the basement rooms for years. He thought he was paying rent but the super who was covering for him was pocketing it. The absentee landlord finds out, gives the old guy the boot last week. He also lived in a rooftop apartment sometimes, too, which was behind on its rent as well. At least, that’s what we were told, ya know.”

“Marino shaved it all off,” Batter says.

Druthers is amazed. “So the psychic was right about Lower Manhattan.”

“Psychic?” Valdez squints.

Even Storm is grinding his jaw in perplexity and waves away the mention. “Go on.”

Victoria Valdez sighs heavily. “The basement he lived in looked like it deserved a whole season on one of those hoarder shows, ya know? Health department’s never seen anything like it. Took them a week just to get it manageable.”

Whisk snaps, “You have a forensics team going through it?”

“For what it’s worth, we had two photographers who got as much as they could on film and two who tried to pick through the stuff. They lasted about three days. I mean, it was junk. Old socks. Clothes. Boots. Pill bottles. Receipts, plastic bags full of stuff, notebooks, paintings—”

“Notebooks!” Whisk huffs. “Where was that stuff dumped?”

“Probably Staten Island. We kept the notebooks, Major.”

“We’ll have to see those. ASAP.”

Victoria Valdez half-rolls her eyes. “But in the middle of it all, a few days ago, they found some kind of machine encased in two frickin’ tons of candlewax. They estimated it must’ve taken a decade to cover it with that much wax…Unless he had a lot of help.”

An image of people in a circle holding candles in both hands, chanting, some kind of ritual, enters Druthers’s mind.

Storm asks, “They evacuate the place?”

“Yeah, bomb squad x-rayed it,” she replies. “Not a weapon. Don’t know what it is. It’ll take three weeks to melt all the wax off it properly, cleanly.”

Batter rises and folds his arms. “Sergeant, how many officers in NYPD know about this Marino matter, total? Specifically, that that name is connected with the drug and that address and the contents of the place?”

“Nine. Guys in my unit, ’s’about it…Sanitation department, you’re talking maybe three dozen. Probably more.”

Batter curses. “I’m afraid we’re going to need their names and have them sworn. This is a national security matter.”

Valdez blinked and smirked and sighed. “So your team’s tracking Samuel Marino? Where did you find out about him?”

“You know the silver RV registered in his name,” Whisk quickly replies. “It’s been stolen. Or rather, disappeared.”

“Huh,” she says. “Where was it when it was stolen?”

“We don’t know,” Whisk says. “But it’s definitely on the roads right now.”

Storm huffs. “We need the goods on these three clowns you caught. The three clerics or whatever the hell they were dealing that drug.”

“You already have everything,” Valdez replies coldly.

“The clothes of those dealers you confiscated…” Batter says.

“They’ve disintegrated?” She shrugs. “Completely disintegrated. All that’s left is a label. We have no fucking—excuse me—no idea how it happened. Look…I hate to be a pain in the ass but I still wonder why you’re interested in this. I signed three confidentiality forms and was sworn twice. It’s not the drugs, is it. It’s not over the RV, is it.”

Whisk ignored her questions and pushes up his spectacles. “The RV is a registered historical object. We think Marino stole it back in the 1960s from its inventor, Richard Buckminster Fuller…It’s a one-of-a-kind historical object. We had a sighting of the thing in Virginia and we are currently pursuing it, and, uh, I’m sorry but that’s the end of the story. It’s a national security matter. Thanks for your time and assistance. We’ll be in contact with you for certain, miss Valdez.”

“That is Sergeant Valdez.”

“Excuse me. Sergeant.”

Abruptly the woman rises and departs the room with the slightest of goodbyes.

“Quite a Jenny from the block,” Storm says, making a sucking sound. “Gotta say. That was some hot—”

“You can shut that shit down right now, gumshoe,” Batter near-shouts.

Storm shrugs. “There are drugs on that RV.”

“Probably,” Druthers complies.

“This drug she was talking about, and probably lotsa others. There’s how many cars traveling with him?”

“Seven, in all,” Whisk says.

“I’m sure if we contacted State boys they’d be gratified to have something real to do. Pull over the lot of them and search every fucking inch of every car. They wouldn’t suspect it’s anything but a normal kind of harassment. Interstate trafficking,” Storm continues, punching Druthers lightly on the arm. “Mm. Lots of possession charges, at the least.”

“There’ll be time enough for small change like that later,” Batter says. “Unless you’ve been blackout drunk the past hours, or just neuro-deficit, you know there’re more pressing matters here than just the drugs, Agent. We’ve told you repeatedly they cannot suspect they are under any kind of surveillance…The rest of this caravan likes to stop together and set up camp. This is according to our contact. Reports have come in. Vermont State Police ticketed them for speeding last month. They stay on the move.”

Storm rises to his feet and pulls up his belt, hooks thumbs there. “So they were out there roaming the country while Marrano was just rotting away dripping wax on some contraption in New York for years?”

“Believe this guy?” Batter chuckles at Whisk, jerking a thumb at Storm. “I’ll say it again: you just don’t know what the hell you’re dealing with here.”

“Ever heard of the men in black?” Whisk asks Storm suddenly.

“Will Smith? That thing?”

Batter chuckles again. “No. Not that thing.”

“I’ve heard about it,” Druthers admits.

“So tell us what you know.”

“They threaten people. UFO witnesses. People who haven’t even reported their sightings to the Air Force or whoever. They drive old Cadillacs, dress like the 1940s with black fedoras. They always claim some government affiliation that turns out to be bogus…uh, and people say they don’t act like they’re human. Sometimes there’s telepathy or hypnotism. They look weird, weird eyes and can’t speak properly. Act weird.”

“Gold star for Agent Druthers,” Batter says, staring hard at Storm.

“Just like in the movie,” Storm barks.

“Again, not even close,” Batter sneers. “Take a seat please, Agent.”

Storm slams himself down into the chair.

Druthers explains, “I read a few books about UFOs when I was in high school. Weird stuff like that, you remember. The movie came out just before I read about them, and it got a lot of the stuff right. Except for them being aliens themselves. And those flashing memory things.”

“Do you believe they’re real?” Whisk asks Druthers.

Druthers makes a noise. “I don’t believe in UFOs. The distances are too great.”

“Well, bravo,” Storm snorts.

Batter snaps, “Who says they have to be extraterrestrial, Agent Druthers?”

Druthers frowns. “You saying they’re government?”

“Far from it. Are you versed at all in sociology or anthropology?”

“101 in school and the usual deviance courses at Quantico.”

Whisk says, “Sometimes what you learn in your regular courses at Quantico are a form of deviance—from reality, broadly speaking.”

“Cute,” Storm snorts.

Both of the DIA men laugh. General Whisk asks, “I wouldn’t expect you guys to have heard about recent encounters with just such types of men, right here in DC.”

“No.”

“I don’t suppose,” he continues, “in all the excitement of the past days you guys gave much thought to what quote-unquote Erickson meant by ‘an unnatural species of mafiosi’ in his committee speech.”

“I don’t remember him saying that,” Storm admits.

“I recall it,” Druthers says. “Damned if I know what it means.”

“Well, we were just now talking about it.”

“The men in black?” Druthers says.

“In the past months three career military officers, two Senators, four Pentagon scientists and one of Hogan’s cabinet member have been approached by men fitting the classic description. Five of these events in just the past week, at exactly the same moment, eight-fifteen PM. Men dressed in black 1940s double-breasted suits with sunglasses and black fedoras and black ties. They came in trios. Threes. Each witness reported a sort of silence bubble enveloping the environment just before the men appeared. And vertigo and headache. These visits occurred at their residences. One of them occurred in the middle of Dupont Circle, near the fountain. There was telepathic communication, and some of them saw visions of, well—we’ll call it another place.”

August Storm now has a look of perplexity on his face.

Batter adds, “In three of the cases these men just appeared to vanish into thin air before the witnesses’ eyes. In the others, the witnesses were in a state of paralysis and the men walked away in synchronization, as if it were triple-images. Or they were synchronized cyborgs, if you prefer them to be physical beings.”

“Did they,” Druthers stammers, “did they, well, what was communicated?”

“That’s gonna be classified, I’m afraid. I mean, it is classified right now. There are other things surrounding these events. And Smuyler Marrano knows all about it. It all ties together. The, uh, Mafiosi, the Lamson tube system, the buried gold, his sudden appearance and his gang going on the move.”

Druthers’s head jerks. “That’s right—he called them the ‘King’s agents.’ Didn’t he?”

Whisk slowly claps, smirking. “The agents of Presbyter Ioannis, Prester Jean, the lost King. Who, and I quote, Marrano said, ‘has sequestered himself’ since before Columbus and the rest of the Europeans landed on America in the sixteenth century.”

“‘Landed on’ is right.”

Storm’s face is now a rictus of confusion. “Ever consider this? Son of a bitch is using hypnotism or some kind of psychotronic weaponry on those generals and congressmen. I was in the Army five years. One tour. We talked about that kind of weaponry, low-frequency sonic cannon stuff that can make the enemy see all kinds of—”

Major Batter holds up both hands. “Let’s stop with the tech talk here. We’re talking black magic, Agent Storm. The occult. Ceremonial magic. There are preconceptions we’re asking you to abandon. That kind of hard materialism is one of them, if you don’t mind the advice. Call it a warning.”

Storm hangs his head, teeth grinding. “That trick the Russians pulled on the Cuban embassy staff. Is that the kind of ‘black magic’ you’re talking about?”

The DIA officers ignore Agent Storm. “How’s your guys’ Bible? Book of the Apocalypse, specifically?”

“Just the basics,” Druthers replies. “Seven trumpets calls and the four horsemen. A Lake of fire? I haven’t read the Bible in years.”

“I know it,” Storm nods. “My wife and I attend Bible study every Thursday for the past four years.”

Batter and Whisk exchange glances. “How’s your Hindu or Buddhist or Hopi-Navajo eschatology?”

Storm shakes his head.

“I got nothing,” Druthers shrugs.

“I’ll just put it this way,” Batter says. “If a scholar of eschatology had seen the list of Marrano’s aliases, they would have recognized some things there. The ‘White Brother’ and ‘Kalki Kalapa,’ for starters. The first’s Hopi, the second Hindu. The Hindu is related to the legend of Shambhala, the hidden paradise or Hindu-Buddhist conception of heaven. Kalapa is its capital city, so I suppose Marrano meant ‘Kalki from Kalapa.’ During the end times, the tenth avatar of Vishnu named Kalki will ride a white steed out of Shambhala to purify the earth of its evils…Now, the Hopi Great White Brother is the savior who will return with ‘new people’ from the east. He will unite the people with a religion that will unite the world. Much like John’s Apocalypse’s AntiChrist will be said to do…Third is ‘Tatal Timp,’ which means ‘Father time’ in Romanian. Marrano lived with the Roma in Europe in the early Seventies, and learned their myths and technologies, you might say. Scholars have only a smidgen of the true beliefs of the Roma. Everything they do is shrouded in code.”

Whisk takes out a pipe and pouch of tobacco. “Our point is that these legends about purifying forces that arrive here from elsewhere, not of this planet, not of the cosmos—they’re universal ideas. Nearly every culture’s got a form of it. We think all these aliases are meant to signal not that Marrano himself is any of these, but that they’re symbolic of the King’s return—a kind of John the Baptist function. Marrano would have us believe that with his discovery of this ‘Green Sceptre’ that he wants to return to the King signals that the end is here—for America, that is. And his followers certainly believe that. Add to that these quote agents bearing messages to our government and the existence of his, well, we’ll have to call it a Fifth Column of sympathetic citizens…We’ve got a situation here.”

Storm’s hands go pale as he tightens them on the armrests. “But what kind of situation?”

“Call it an existential crisis, with a dose of metaphysical horror.”

A gentle purr sounds in the room. Whisk puts down his pipe and pulls out a satellite phone and answers. Grunts. Murmurs. “I see…by 1800 tomorrow? Depart Y?…Yes…Thanks.”

Just as he hangs up, Batter’s satellite phone bleats. “I see…So a clean wipe? Yes…No, this line couldn’t be cleaner. So it’s done?…Yep. Yep, I got it. Done.” He stares at Whisk, then at August Storm. “Mr. Storm, could you leave us to speak with Agent Druthers here, please.”

“Why? What’s the secret?”

“No secret,” Whisk simpers. “We have something to tell him. So please. Just a moment.”

“You keep me in the loop, Eric,” Storm says, rising and patting his tie and buttoning his suit. He leaves the room.

Batter opens a briefcase and extracts a thick manila folder and opens it. He nods. “We just got word from the Bureau’s forensics lab from our liaison on Marrano’s biometric traces at the Hart building scene.”

Whisk says, “DNA results, second time ever, on Marrano. They match the first, which were obtained back in the mid-1990s…Anyway. Tell us what’s your relationship with Agent Storm’s like. Be as free as you like.”

“This is confidential?”

“Absolutely,” Whisk replies, relighting his pipe.

“Stormy,” Druthers chuckles. “In all candor, I’ve recently questioned whether it warrants complaint. He certainly hasn’t heeded any of my requests to just lay the fuck off the, ah, personal comments.”

“About what does he comment?”

“My weight, for one. I don’t like it. I don’t like both of it. That I’m a bit overweight and he keeps bringing it up.”

“Anything else?”

“He’s a cowboy, but you’ve already seen that. I’d say his ambition’s overweening. He petitioned Deputy Director Cole to let him handpick the Erickson task force members and to keep the counter-terror dep and even their liaisons away from the case for a seventy-two hour period. He thought he could bust Erickson within three days. Convinced Cole of this, somehow. But our other requests kept getting stifled by someone above Director Cole. Things like UAV surveillance and the chain of documentation on how Erickson, or rather Marrano, had been invited to talk to the Senate panel in the first place. Also that Garden of Light Foundation that funded Marrano’s work. Our requests on the Foundation’s numbers and history were blocked on NS grounds. It had no web presence.”

“It’s a front foundation set up by Marrano back in the early Nineties. Just so you know.”

Druthers sniggers. “Shit, August would just love that.”

“Why would he like it?”

“His political views. They skew, let’s say, right of center? He thinks the whole think-tank and paper mill in DC is a big scam. It’d be just another bit of ammo for him.”

“Well, maybe it is,” Batter replies. “What was your upbringing like, Agent Druthers?”

“Fine. It was fine. Is that my file?”

“Yes, it is. We’ve got some personal questions here for you. If you don’t mind?”

Druthers shrugs, apprehensive.

“Your parents divorced in 2002 and your mother, she, well, had a breakdown and was remanded into a Virginia mental health hospital.”

Druthers fold his arms and tightens them. “That’s right. She’s got out in 2008 and is doing well, a lot better. She’s been living and working in Winchester. She’s doing much better. That’s all in there, I take it.”

“Yes,” Whisk replies. “She came from a wealthy family. New England Brahmin, as they say.”

Batter studies the document before him. “Lineage traced back to the Plymouth colony. Her surname is Mather. Your great-grandfather seven generations back helped found Harvard College.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Whisk clears his throat and knits his fingers. “And…I intend no disrespect. Would it be fair to say your father made out very well financially from the divorce?”

“Does it say we’re not on speaking terms? I guess it wouldn’t.”

“He instigated the divorce.”

“Yes.”

“Within six months he was engaged to the woman who would become your stepmother. A woman just out of grad school, ten years his junior. Just short of twice your age at the time. You were fourteen.”

Druthers grinds his teeth. “Yes. Why are you asking me about this?”

Whisk goes paternal. “We have made you privy to a lot of top-level compartmented information today, Agent Druthers. Things even the Bureau’s Marrano Division don’t—or rather didn’t—know.”

“And you did the same with Sergeant Valdez?”

“Yes, she’s been pre-cleared. She doesn’t know the entire story, of course. NYPD is for intents a wing of the Bureau and CIA at this point, as you probably painfully aware of. Anyway, we need to assess the, let’s say, psychology of the individuals with whom we are working closely. The dynamics of their personal histories. Someone like Agent Storm, well, you know you suspect you won’t get a rather brutally honest answer that contains, let’s say, a surfeit of introspection from him. Quite the opposite. You’ll get rationalizations and deflection and projection. We think you’re different.”

“That makes me feel so much better.”

“We apologize if the question has touched a sore spot. Now, you say you haven’t spoken to your father. In how many years?”

“Let’s say a decade. I was in college.”

Batter says, “Your trust fund had been set up for university and any subsequent education. You decided to study criminology. You set your sights on the FBI. You didn’t want any more money from your father.”

“That’s about the way it was.”

“Your mother and father both were 23 when you were born. And 37 when they divorced.”

Druthers nods.

“What did your grand-folks think of all this drama?”

“Mother’s parents tried suing. I’m sure that’s in there too, right? They sincerely believed Hank had been gaslighting mother. And perhaps fed her a psychedelic of some kind several times during the divorce. Nothing could be proved. Her breakdown happened fast, within weeks of his asking for the divorce. It went on for three years. Nothing.”

“And your father’s parents?”

“Only my grandmother. My grandfather on that side died before I was born. Gram didn’t like it at all either. She knew something was up with Hank.”

Whisk and Batter regard each other gravely. “Something may very well have been up with Hank. Your father was born in 1965. Did you know your grandmother well? Were you close?”

“Somewhat.”

Whisk massages his jaw and evenly places his pipe in his mouth and puffs. “Did she ever talk about him?”

A strange floating sensation drifts into Agent Druthers. A touch of vertigo. “Hardly ever. My father didn’t either, just to say that was a terrible way to go in a plane crash. Fire.”

“Your grandfather was according to your grandmother a traveling salesman. The crash occurred in Encino, California, in 1966.”

“Yeah,” Druther breathes.

“Mister Druthers, I’m going to tell you something you may not believe, but there are no records of such a crash.”

“No records.” Druthers floats.

“It didn’t happen.”

“Didn’t happen.”

Major Batter leans in and clears his throat. “Since you guys at the Bureau have made DNA banking mandatory, we’ve been able to do some research.”

A cold wave floods Druthers’s solar plexus, spreading outward, spikes and swells of adrenaline. The floating sensation evaporates in a single adamantine sword of light. “There’s just no way…If you’re saying…what…”

“Could be worse. Could be, I dunno, the Donald?”

Druthers swallows back bile. “That’s, that’s one way of looking at it…”

——————-

PRESIDENT ROBERT HOGAN’S Chief of Staff says, “Chairman Harris wants to see you ASAP. He’s scheduled a meeting with you and Phil V. and Ben Lumbergh on a Pentagon matter. DARPA’s Department Y requests that no other White House staff be present than the three of you. Harris also requests that we strike the meeting from all records.”

Hogan suspects it’s related to the Mongolian apparition. “Strike it, then. These meetings are the only thing I look forward to lately.”

Tilden lowers his voice. “It’s being held across the river. But they want you to take a Pentagon chopper from Bolling. So we’ve got the Whale waiting, and that’s what the press will be told, nothing more…But you are to get on the chopper.”

They are readying Air Force One to fly as a decoy? “What’s this? Why can’t we just do it like the Sitch Room last time?”

“It’s a special briefing and needs on-site presentation. Otherwise the meeting’s off.” Tilden notes the mild apprehension on his boss’ face. “I was told that if you were reluctant, to give you this. General Harris gave it to me.”

He brings out a small leather portfolio, which he unzips and extracts an envelope on White House stationery, its surface yellowed with age and font decades obsolete. Typed on its face:

                                                               To the President of the United States of America.

On its reverse are three dime-sized sealing wax stamps bearing the Oval Office seal. Carefully Hogan breaks them and pulls out a handwritten note.

21-1-63

Dear Mr. President,

If you have received this letter, a certain course of events has occurred involving a special research unit within the Defense Department set up a decade and a half prior to my tenure in this office.

The head of this special unit has been empowered by me to hand down this order to his successors.

That you are reading my words bodes well for the future not only of our great country, but for all of humanity.

Please accede to the wishes of the present authorities in Department Y at the Defense Department.

John F. Kennedy

The edges of the document quiver in his fingers. “You bet. I’m there.”

 

IN AN HOUR the special Pentagon helicopter sits idling on the Bolling Air Force base tarmac and Hogan boards with National Security Adviser Benjamin Lumbergh and Philip Vinnistraro. Several scientists are already on board, to whom Hogan is introduced: a NASA astrophysicist, an NSA computer physicist, and a CIA historian who specializes in Asian religions. President Hogan speaks with the CIA Director over a helmet microphone. “Does Tyler know what the hell that was at the Hart building yet?”

“Yeah. They’ve had a special unit tracking that scholar Erickson for decades. He’s had several careers in different criminal organizations. Believe that?”

“All the people who were there are okay and out of the hospital?”

“Yeah. Bureau gave us a sample of that anesthetic. It’s identical to one DIA’s unit at Detrick have developed. It’s considered the holy grail for ground action. Knocks out friendly civs and combatants alike in a theater. The thinking’s a few vaccinated platoons could clear five city blocks, you know, round up the obvious bad guys and demo their munitions, collect intel, whatever.”

“So…the vaccine rather is the juice in the grail. Same goddamn race. Someone gets the vaccine—on to the next toy race.”

Vinnistraro shrugs. “It’s TS/CI. I think the Joint Chiefs want to use it in one special circumstance. Like a bin Laden Special Forces scenario. You’d have heard of it eventually, Bob.”

“And how the hell did Erickson get a hold of so much of it?”

“Tyler’s got no answers. Their task force has shit.”

“What kind of criminal careers did he engage in?”

“Counterfeiting. Drug dealing. Bank robbery. Back in the 1970s. He disappeared in 1976 but the task force had been getting intel on him ever since, that he was some kind of puppet master.”

“And he was a recognized scholar on Pre-Columbian America?”

“Apparently he was also nut bags.”

 

AFTER A SHORT flight and entering the Pentagon they are led into a small auditorium with a plasma screen. A dozen scientists sit in the first rows. One by one each person rises and introduces themselves to the White House team. More scientists from the NSA and NASA and sub-fiefdoms of the Department of Energy, and Hogan wonders why the secrecy.

The officials are taken into a large room three stories beneath the building. Two rows of chair are set up facing a large screen. They take their seats. Two women are waiting for them. They are introduced as Drs. Kay Ghelichkhani and Ellie Pavlova of the Defense Advance Research Project Agency’s Department Y. The Bulgarian woman wears a blouse of frilly white lace and straight white skirt, while the Iranian scientist is tall and mantis-thin in a black blazer and heels, her long jet hair pulled into a bun. The thick lenses of her round glasses magnify her eyes to brown pools. She is unleashing a yoyo at regular intervals and watching its retraction. The Iranian woman regard the President and said, “As you know, in the past week three Generals, two Senators, four scientists and Secretary Marpleson were each approached by a trio of individuals at approximately the same time, 8:15 PM, on August 8th. From the descriptions they would seem to have been the same men. Everyone with whom they contacted experienced a sort of paralysis at the beginning of the encounter. No photographs were taken of them, in fact, phones and electronic equipment within their vicinity experienced disruption.”

“Marpleson told me of his encounter,” Hogan says. “It spooked him very badly.”

The Bulgarian scientist stops twirling the yoyo. “Yes, each one of the individuals has experienced significant trauma as a result of their encounters. We’ve conducted psych evaluations with each person who was contacted, except Mr. Marpleson.”

“How did you know about it, to interview them?”

The scientists glance at each other. Dr. Ghelichkhani replies, “We are here to tell you, sir, that this is not the first time this has happened. Two years ago, on August 8th, three men of identical description approached three of our scientists in Department Y at their homes.”

The CIA Director interrupts. “Excuse me, before you go on—so you say you’ve interviewed all the people contacted last week. What did the beings, what message did they communicate to the congresspeople and the generals?”

“We have transcripts of those encounters. Let’s get to this other matter first. You’ll find it interesting.”

Vinnistraro blows a low raspberry and shrugs at Robert Hogan. “Scientists.”

“The encounters two years ago took place simultaneously, at 8:15PM. Each of our people reported a knock at the door and answered. Each felt a sort of shock and paralysis at the entities’ appearance. The conversations only lasted a few minutes…Like the experiences of the past week, only one of the three entities spoke, in a halting voice with an indefinable accent. Unlike these recent, rather malevolent encounters, the being spoke to them about quantum experiments and seemed to know much about the classified projects they were working on.

“Each of the contacted individuals was given fragments of a green crystal substance, and each was given a business card covered with symbols.” The tall Iranian woman dims the lights and turns on a plasma screen. “Unfortunately, these business cards deteriorated within a week’s time. But we examined them at length in that period, and what we found is simply groundbreaking.”

The screen shows a black card with a goldish paisley fleur-de-lis in its center.

“Now we ask you to hold your questions until we’ve finished our presentation, please. Agreed?”

Shrugs, disgruntled affirmations.

Dr. Pavlova is trying a walk-the-dog with her yoyo. She says, “We examined the detailed work within this herald. It is, or was, four centimeters across. It exhibited advanced holography. We examined it first with a microscope, then an electron-scanning microscope. You will find it impossible to believe what we discovered contained within it. Next.”

The men grunt in amazement. On the screen is a three-dimensional verdant landscape with an enormous blue planet looming in the sky. A smaller grey planet hovers in orbit in front of it. A city of tall buildings, shining with green iridescence.

“Looks like we’ve seen this movie before,” Vinnistraro murmurs.

Dr. Ghelichkhani picks up the lecture. “This image could be zoomed into at any scale. It is astounding. We at first believed the screen on the card’s surface had been created with something akin to a molecular assembler, but within minutes we were disabused of this idea. Nothing remotely exists at the present time that could create and sustain such a precise type of photographic verity. For that’s what it is: a video. Next….

“This is another herald we discovered above the city. This is the main symbol—this triple circle or cloverleaf symbol. It resembles a triple Venn diagram. Each of the three parts has within it further embedded symbols rendered in three-dimensional holography. Each globe contains as its outermost ‘shell’ the geographical topology of a planet. The lowest shell is our earth, and the representation of it was so remarkably consistent with the present time that we were able to zoom in on the Japanese coast and noted the coastlines altered by the tsunami and earthquake that had occurred only a week before the contact. Cloud movement was visible. We zoomed in at ever-increasing levels of magnification, and on a lark focused upon the Pentagon, then our facility, this building which we are now inside. We could clearly see the individual cars in the lot. We brought the STEM a-raster level down to twenty-five hundred picometers and we could see personnel leaving the building. As a test, one of our scientists went outside and waved a jacket. We could see it occur live, with no apparent delayed lapse whatsoever.”

Murmurs of amazement fill the room.

“The upper two globes are very similar to the topography of the earth. It is as if the artists made two possible earths out of the planet’s lithospheric configuration. The upper left depiction has much more exposed landmasses, as if the oceans had retreated or dried up. The exposed portions roughly correspond to our mapped ocean beds…The upper right globe contains less exposed land mass, but showed a series of 96 humongous cities on its continents based upon some type of hexagonal architecture.”

Hogan and Vinnistraro look at each other.

“Now, these three geographical representations are just the outermost screen or scrim to the configuration beneath them. Within each sphere was a dictionary or encyclopedia of symbols and what appeared to be equations. The globe on the upper right contained mostly symbols related to angel iconologies and script associated with the Hindu legend of the Holy Mountain Meru and a rather obscure set of accounts of an underground kingdom which has been called Agarttha in common New Age parlance.

“This symbol for Agarttha is a hybrid and contains five distinct orders of representation, all of which are mythological references to the World Axis and the concept of Paradise. It spins depending upon the angle of the eye with reference to the light source.

“At the center is a dual-faced figure we’d normally associate with the Roman Janus, but here, the Janian key and scepter have been replaced by an icon representing what appears to be the hexagonal icon associated with the beehive. There is also a figure like a compass rose on the other side of the globe which contains a bee symbol in its center.

“The equations can be translated into ancient Sanskrit. They tell a story, a pilgrim’s tale through a series of challenges on the way to Paradise and salvation. It is 2,968,000 characters long and exhibits self-similarity at many scales as well. If the symbol could be summed up it might be said to reference a new celestial or heavenly city, a New Jerusalem or Shambhala…

“The globe on the upper left is populated with chimera or monsters. It seems to imply that the moon is an artificial satellite built by these creatures on this alternative version of earth. It implies that the moon is a mechanical device that draws energy from something within the earth.”

A NASA scientist cannot contain himself and blurts out, “Do you have any idea how was all this done?”

Dr. Pavlova is obliging. “At first we thought the material with which the card was made was running a program. But even that conjecture proved incorrect. The card itself and the herald image, or rather hologram, rendered the photonic quarks of ambient light that fell upon it into a multivariant superposition. Put plainly, it was running on and interacting with the light in the room. As Kay said, we used electron microscopy to examine these things. An ETM is tricky—its own parts interfere with what’s being examined. That didn’t happen in this case. It somehow interacted with the electrons in the microscope to produce further images, on ever smaller scales…For something so exquisitely constructed at a scale of picometers, this device which created these cards had to surmount the Heisenberg barrier, that is, its assembler would have to had been able to both fix the speed and position of each of its constituent subatomic particles at the same time, freely, from a free energy source, that is, from the so-called quantum foam, adding or congealing them into its three-dimensional form. The thing is fixed in many more dimensions.”

Dr. Ghelichkhani adds, “This led us into the conjecture that subatomic particles themselves are actually holographic in nature, and idea very much like Leibniz’s conception of monads, that each monad contains reflection of all the others.”

Dr. Pavlova’s yoyo is wildly arcing through the space before her. “Now, the matter of the crystal our witnesses were given…It is actually an element and contains enormous power. It’s a form of highly concentrated energy, congealed you might say, a form of super-condensed light. It is no exaggeration to say that one gram of this stuff if chain reacted, could destroy the entire solar system.”

Dr. Ghelichkhani seems to anticipate the audience’s alarmed reaction. “We here at Department Y are not about repeating the Cold War into a deadly farce. The element’s also the most wondrous substance you could imagine. Just as a prism refracts light into a spectrum, this element refracts dimensions. By experimenting with this, we’ve discovered evidence supporting the notion that our supposedly three-dimensional universe is simply one side of an almost infinitely-faceted geometrical figure, like a Moebius strip, which is wound together with others.”

She stops and dips her head and looks over at the yoyo-wrangling physicist and nods. “We will now take questions. Mr. President?”

“This is quite off-topic. It’s ancillary, but I’m sure in the backs of all our minds here and I’d like to clear it up. I, and the rest of us, have learned of your department’s existence just today. Earlier today I read a secret letter President John Kennedy wrote in 1963 authorizing me to come here. Could you please give us a short background on Department Y’s history?”

There are a few groans of impatience around Hogan. Dr. Pavlova replies, “Our unit has been in existence since 1947, in one form or another, since the signing of the National Security Act. Department Y was founded by Drs. Edward Teller and Vannevar Bush to explore the non-military ramifications of atomic physics. We were absorbed into ARPA in 1966. We have no written charter. We have been attached nominally to the Pentagon for almost fifty years, but this is only convenience. We were designed to be a free-standing department. Our structure is a network distributed between contract employees of DARPA, NASA, DOE, NSA.”

“What’s your annual budget?”

“I’m no accountant and even if I were I still would not be allowed to reveal it. As you said, you are the first President since Mr. Kennedy to know of Dep Y’s existence.”

“I asked you a direct question, Doctor.” Hogan says, his voice rising. “As your President, I’d like for you to give me a rough figure. How much?”

“Currently, around six billion dollars annually, give or take. But I’ve heard only rumors.”

“Rumors?” Vinnistraro cackles. “So you’ve got a fiscal magic wand. Anything you request, you get? The blackest budget of all.”

“That would be a pretty accurate assessment.”

“How much total would you estimate, from the beginning?”

Dr. Ghelichkhani sighs. “Could be a trillion and a half dollars, all told, over sixty-eight years.”

Dr. Pavlova quickly adds, “Could be more.”

Two slack jaws. “Who approved of this? How could it have evaded the oversight of both branches?”

The Bulgarian scientist is now tossing the inert yoyo between her two hands. “As I said, President Kennedy was the last to formally approve our budget under the revised NSA charter of 1947. President Eisenhower seconded Teller’s charter after being told of the need for black-budget research. Kennedy also signed off on the last and most classified charter, which specified that only a special set of circumstances would warrant disclosure to the Executive branch. Most of our money was funneled through the five black Air Force research facilities for the CBO and Pentagon IG, as well as about a hundred other revolving projects with need-to-know.”

Hogan massages his face with the palms of his hands and has his eyes closed.

“Our boss Dr. X and the Council are the ones who determine if the special set of circumstances have occurred. They obviously have.”

“Doctor X? Excuse me?” Hogan laughs, and it is infectious.

“There are things even we don’t know, sir. This department concerns matters of national security—esoteric seeming as they are—as you must certainly understand at this point.”

“Okay,” Hogan chuckles.

“I’ll get the info,” Vinnistraro whispers.

The questioning session lasts ten minutes and the two scientists are curt—brusque, even, with their answers. Dr. Pavlova says, “Now we’re going to tell you what we’ve developed the past four years out of the contact with our ‘men in black’ and the element sample they gave us. I take it you’re all familiar with the double-slit experiments wherein light exhibits both wave and particle characteristics. And you also know of CERN’s determination a few years ago that the Higgs field is a primordial-energy field by which light particles can be characterized as standing waves between multiple dimensions?”

“Uh,” Hogan starts, rubbing at his temples.

“A year ago, we began a project called Splinter. Now, the background for this technology comes out of the work of that prodigy William Stoned and his equations for the symmetry between all neutrino streams and quantum enfolding. His equations linking spin states to the informational encoding of photons and human neurology, the ones he won the Nobel for, were helpful as well…The short of it is that we succeeded in creating what’s akin to an photographic plate in using the crystal the entities gave us. We’ve breached the membrane between our quantum flux field, the so-called explicate order, and another, of scales -0 to 198,774. We managed to materialize a virtual camera lens in a single random alternate universe, out of a field of 10 to the octillion projected possible cosmoses.”

A NASA man says, “You took a picture of another universe?”

Dr. Ghelichkhani gestures emphatically. “A scene on another earth, sir. The plate was in the same approximate local position on the alternate earth. There are always variables and ‘noise’ in the calibrating process. Universes closer to ours along our path, you might say, in all possible were the first to be accessed.”

Pavlova’s arms level forward at the elbows; she trapezes and flips the yoyo into a double-or-nothing and effortlessly segues into a Matrix trick, the yoyo smoothly circling and reversing course and shooting from the right to left sides and back. “We were able to stabilize the ‘window’ for periods of up to 90 seconds local time, which allowed reproduction of the image on holographic video. After that it was easy. We were able to extend the window to five minutes, and extend out from our local ‘world-line’ to earths which had taken significantly different paths a million years ago, that is, world-lines which long ago had undergone minute physical, electromagnetic, geological, or solar perturbations that amplified themselves over time, a sort of chaos effect, into dramatic differences between our world and theirs. From these divergent worlds, one in four billion images showed something clear enough to make it out. For instance, the camera showed a blurred ocean seen from high in the stratosphere…And one came back showing faint stars, apparently from outside the atmosphere, in space, which suggests the earth had drifted away from the coordination point between our physical camera in this world-line and that in the alternate world.”

The same NASA scientist pipes up: “Doesn’t that imply a fixed grid between all the possible universes?”

“You’re right, Dr. Chick, it does.”

He grinned. “So what would that background grid be made of?”

She sighs. The yoyo continues its dance. “As you probably know, void needn’t necessarily be unstructured beyond the neutrino stream…The truth is we don’t know. Of course, the camera coordinates could have randomly leapt elsewhere due to a hiccup of some kind. The fact that the virtual lens retained form and viability in space is in itself remarkable.”

An Energy physicist asks, “How the hell does it work, to create a virtual camera?”

Ghelichkhani answers, “Essentially it works by producing a double of its form out of the quantum flux of what Bohm called the implicate order, a ghost, you might say, in the other universe. This ghost has the same physical structure, but is made of interference patterns between the two explicate fields via the implicate underfield. The crystal is bombarded with a photon stream that, in its spin states, has encoded the structure of the entire camera. The crystal refracts this image somehow, and what emerges from its other sides is more photonic streams that we decrypt. Each particle of light retains information but sub-atomically spins in different ways, producing and retaining information in both universes.”

Heads shake in disbelief.

“Here’s a real mind-blower.” She clasps her hands before her. “During the second phase of Splinter, we thought if we could produce a virtual camera lens in another cosmos, why not the form of a person, like a digital avatar? We would be projecting this rudimentary shape into this other universe, and it doesn’t require that much energy to do it. Theoretically, the neutrino stream is everywhere, and in every universe the same. We use the free zero-point energy from the other cosmos to create the form of our choosing.”

Dr. Chick says, “And I’d think the reverse could occur. What we think of as ghosts or UFOs could be cross-cosmic images?”

Ghelichkhani points at the NASA scientist. “Spot on. That is exactly our thinking. The properties of the Emerald Tablet as we call it have yet to be fully deciphered, but whoever possesses this substance and the requisite photonic equipment could if they scanned and encoded DNA and proteins, say, of primitive life forms could transport them from one cosmos to another no problem. The scaling is the real brick wall…We need lots of it. So the goal now is to physically transport a person entirely—not a representation—into this other world. Much more would be needed. Since the Tablet possesses multiple responses in light, and has orders of energy if we fashioned a transporter lens made of the material, we could in theory transport a human being.”

President Hogan rises to his feet and clears his throat. “Doctors, we have something to tell you about which has occurred in the past week, which is related to these weird beings and your research.”

Pavlova’s yoyo stops and she pockets it. “The machine that appeared in the Mongolian desert—we know about it.”

Hogan is both unsurprised and irritated. “May I ask how? Wait, let me take a stab at how—you’ve harnessed this viewing tech, like on that card?”

“No. Colleagues in the Russian Academy alerted us.”

Vinnistraro yelps. Expected gasps meet the two scientists’ ears.

“Let me continue. They also told us that your CIA and an Army contingent confiscated many tons of the material left over, which matches the Emerald’s description. Correct?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hogan says.

“Has the desert there began greening yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Growing. Grass. Trees.”

Chick says, “Yes, we have reports that foliage is sprouting at the site…How do you know about it?”

“The plants in the laboratory tripled their growth within days of the Tablet’s presence. We tested it on just random soil and sand and grass appeared within twenty-four hours. We—”

Vinnistraro stands, his face nearly the color of a fire truck with anger. “How long have you been in contact with the RAS?”

Dr. Pavlova starts at the outburst and begins to pace the stage. “I’m not expert in the minutiae of Y or DARPA’s history, but I think since the dissolution of the USSR. So that’d be 1993. Possibly earlier.”

“Can we forgive the perceptions for the moment, gentlemen?” Dr. Ghelichkhani pleads. “I’m sure you already know that the RAS and the CAS are with your scientists on the site right now. You happened to get there first, and I hope you now realize how fortunate we all are that you did. The reason for Department Y’s total secrecy since 1963 was for this very type of situation. I told you about the destructive potential of this material. Now imagine North Korea possessing it.”

The CIA Director shouts, “I’m—we—are worried about China and Russia, and any number of nut jobs getting a hold of this thing!”

Ghelichkhani folds her arms. “You retrieved every single bead of the material, I hope. Down to the size of, say, a mustard seed?”

Vinnistraro is silent.

“We think we did,” Hogan replies. “Seventeen Chinooks were used to transport it from the desert to Ulan Bator and it’s being loaded onto four C-130s there right now. Mongolia isn’t exactly surrounded by free airspace. We’re waiting for confirmation to fly them to Seoul.”

“How certain are you, with all truth, that you retrieved all of it?”

Vinnistraro says, “The Army Corps used seismic tomography and UV laser ablation on the surface that—”

“Laser ablation?” Ghelichkhani cries, slapping her forehead. “Do you know what exciting this material with a laser could do? It would cause a—”

Pavlova cuts in: “Kay, I think it’s fine.”

Dr. Ghelichkhani is breathing heavily, hangs her shaking head, her eyes shut.

Vinnistraro shouts, “We had no goddamn idea what this mineral was—is—and the team on site certainly didn’t. As soon as our vanguard knew how much was there we brought in everything we could from Ulan Bator. The Mongolian Army’s helping us big time. We’re gonna owe them one after this. But I can tell you we got every particle that would count. The team busted their asses getting it. We gathered everything the size of your mustard seed, within thirteen hours. That’s a guarantee. The laser was used to find anything smaller than that, doctor…And it was just about the time we were mopping up when your friends at the RAS showed up.”

“And now you say it’s sitting at an airport in transport planes. How much?”

Dr. Chick answer, “About two hundred forty tons.”

Dr. Pavlova grabs at her blouse collar. Dr. Ghelichkhani gasps. “That’s close.”

Pavlova pivots to face the screen. “No, it’s actually over by two point three.”

Hogan barks, “What are you speaking about, doctors?”

Pavlova, still facing the huge LCD screen, replies, “That figure is very close to what we’ve tabulated would take to construct the portal lens with the refractive depth to transport a person.”

Ghelichkhani adds, “This can’t be a coincidence.”

Hogan says, “You’re saying the material left behind by the event is an invitation to construct this portal device from it.”

Vinnistraro mops his forehead with a handkerchief. “That implies that they know how far your experiments have progressed.”

“It does,” Ghelichkhani chirps. “We still don’t know what we’re dealing with here. They could be watching us right now. In fact, they probably are.”

Hogan’s eyes widen. “Jesus.”

Without a beat she replies, “Yes, perhaps He was from there. Angels, certainly! This could quite literally prove their existence, sir, wouldn’t you say?”

“Sitting over our shoulders? So who’s the angel, and who’s the devil?”