Unknown Armies

Introduction
The Railbird Cafe

The path that led you here was a strange one. At times you swore you were mad, and at others it seemed certain that it was the rest of the world that was off its rocker. You have followed rumors, and rumors of rumors, to finally arrive at a place where, you hope, all questions will be answered.

The Railbird Cafe isn’t the sort of place you expected to find yourself, but every lead pointed you in this direction. Now you’re sitting at the lunch counter surrounded by people who have that same haunted look in their eyes that you see in the mirror.

And they begin to tell their stories…

Rules
You are a normal person entering an abnormal world. You understand that there are strange things out there, and great secrets to explore, but you know little more about those hidden lands than any ordinary person on the street. You do have one advantage over another ordinary person: You’ve experienced a trigger event.
This is something in your life that has opened your eyes to the existence of the occult underground. You have been touched by the unnatural.
To prepare for the campaign, come up with your trigger event. You don’t have to know anything else about yourself at this point. Just make up a strange experience and go from there. The GM can help you with this by asking questions to help flesh the event out. The other players can do this as well.
Please use the Forum thread Trigger Events to develop your trigger event, and when you’re satisfied with it, post it as a comment on this article. When the trigger events are all in we’ll move on to the next step of character development.

View
1. Bill in Three Persons
The Prime Directive forbids us to intercede

Martin is driving through Yosemite National Park in the dead of night, looking for a camping spot. At the same time, Walter is driving a lonely highway near Butte, Montana. Each of them approaches an intersection, where a horrible auto accident has taken place. Each is flagged down by a local sheriff, who asks for assistance. Each of them steps out of their car and suddenly becomes aware of the other. Even though they should be hundreds of miles apart, they are inexplicably in the same place.

The Sheriff is injured and recruits the two to be his hands to remove the drivers of the smashed vehicles. The victims are horribly injured, and both men have mild panic reactions to making things worse with their inexperienced handling. Eventually, all three drivers are laid out side-by-side on the pavement. Looking from one to the next, Martin and Walter realize that there aren’t three drivers, but one driver three times. The sheriff shakes his head grimly and says, “I just knew it; it’s that damn Bill Toge again.” At that moment, one of the cars ignites a spreading puddle of gasoline. The violent explosion provides the energy necessary to draw Martin and Walter into some kind of swirling probabilistic event, sending them back in time to another place entirely.

They find themselves crouched in the pet food aisle of a supermarket. It is day-time, and it appears that the store is being robbed. Four men who have obviously seen Point Break too many times have donned Presidential masks and are holding the entire store at gunpoint. Just as Martin and Walter appear, there is a brief gunfight between the man with the Reagan mask and a cop. The cop is shot, and the tension level of the situation goes way up. Martin and Walter are unarmed and unwilling to put their own lives on the line to intervene. A quick look around shows them a fire door, and they start to move toward it and away from the gunmen.

The man in the Nixon mask sees them moving and shoots at them, screaming at them to get down on the ground. Walter does as the man says, but Martin makes a break for it. He gets shot for his trouble, but it’s just a minor wound to the shoulder. He makes it into cover and continues heading for the fire door.

The thieves wrap up their heist, keep the incoming police at bay with a few more shots, murder a shopper who tries to escape, and make their getaway out through the stockroom.

As he reaches the fire door, Martin looks back over his shoulder and sees a copy of himself, wearing a malevolent grin. The doppelganger gives him a mocking salute, then vanishes into the frozen foods aisle. The scene shifts again; Martin and Walter are again at the crossroads. All three drivers are still lying on the asphalt. Although they seem to have returned to the moment right before the explosion, Martin’s shoulder is still injured. The sheriff shakes his head grimly and says, “I knew it; it’s that damn Bill Toge again.” The cars explode, and the scene changes again.

It is once more 12 hours earlier and a different place entirely. Martin and Walter are standing in the hallway of an apartment building, right outside room 101. The door is ajar, and they can hear someone grunting, as though trying to shout through a gag. Walter grabs a nearby fire extinguisher from the wall and nudges the door open to see inside. The driver of the cars, Bill Toge, is there. He has another man duct-taped to a metal folding chair. There are bloody paper towels all around. Bill is holding a Bowie knife, and he has several knife wounds. His captive’s nose and mouth have been sealed with flesh, as though his face melted.

Walter steps into the room, brandishing the fire extinguisher and demanding to know what’s going on. Bill looks at him contemptuously and says, “Who the hell are you?” He takes a step forward, extending the knife toward the man in the chair. Walter tries to distract him by spraying the fire extinguisher, which really does nothing but cover everyone with a fine white powder. Bill ignores the powder and thrusts the knife into the other man’s face, cutting open a hole where his mouth should be and allowing him to breath.

Walter tries to hit Bill with the fire extinguisher, but just barely misses. Bill slashes himself across the arm, and slaps the back of Walter’s head as he goes by. Massive pain erupts in Walter’s genitals, and he goes down for the count. Bill gives himself another cut, puts his hand over the captives face, and when he withdraws it, the man has a normal nose and mouth again.

“Mr. Spending the Rest of His Short Miserable Life In Agonizing Pain” here is Don Lewis. He’s a child molester, and he has my little girl! Bill screams the last part of that sentence as he looms over Don, who is crying and, from the smell of it, has urinated on himself. “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know! Yeah, I have her! I love her, and she loves me! We’re gonna be together forever!”

“Where is she, dead man!?” Bill shouts at him.

“At my house! At my house! There’s a room in the basement! I’ll show you!”

Bill cuts him free, grabs him by the scruff of the neck and shoves him out the door, where Martin’s still cowering. Martin and Walter follow Bill out to his car, a big Cadillac. Bill looks at them suspiciously. “You comin’? Fine by me. I could use some witnesses.” Martin and Walter agree, if only to see where things go.

They arrive at Don’s house, which is a real crap-hole. Literally. Three little pomeranians have left their scat everywhere in the house, and the flies are having a good old time. Don leads Bill, Martin, and Walter into the basement and rolls aside a tool rack, revealing a little room with a sink, a toilet, and a bed with manacles. Chained to the bed is a naked four-year-old girl with a gag in her mouth. The child is dead, apparently having choked on her own vomit while Don was away.

Furious, Bill stabs himself deeply in the leg, grabs Don by the face, and does something to him. Don start bleeding from his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. He vomits up portions of his own esophagus and intestines, and collapses into a mess on the floor, melting from the inside out. It looks like an instant and horrible case of ebola. While Don is twitching in his death throes on the floor, Bill finds the key to the manacles hung from a peg outside the hidden room. He unlocks his little girl, and picks her up, cradling her gently, but he still has the knife clutched in one hand. Walter is starting to get an idea of what’s going on. He finds a sharp object and gives himself a small cut on the arm to test a hypothesis.

Bill turns toward the stairs. Martin and Walter very wisely get out of his way. Martin follows him up while Walter takes a few pictures with his cell phone. Bill starts toward the door just as someone knocks on it. He pauses for a moment, staring at it with dead eyes. Martin and Walter just watch to see what he will do. Bill answers the door; there are two cops on the porch. As soon as they see the dead child in Bill’s arms, they assume the worst and draw their guns. “Hands in the air!” Martin and Walter obey. Martin steps around a corner to get out of the line of fire.

Bill lets go of the child with one hand, the one with the knife, and stabs himself in the eye. He charges the cops, who are so stunned by his action that they fail to shoot. Bill steps forward and touches each of the cops. They simply explode in a fountain of blood and gore.

Bill walks slowly through the remains of of the cops to his car. He reverently opens the door and places the girl in the passenger seat. Martin and Walter look on. A car drives by, identical to Walter’s. The driver is, in fact Walter. Just like Martin’s look-a-like, he gives them a mocking salute and an evil smile as he drives calmly by, turns a corner, and vanishes.

The scene once again shifts, and they find themselves back at the crossroads. All three Bill Toges are still there. Martin is still wounded, and Walter still has the cut on his arm. The sheriff shakes his head grimly and says, “I just knew it; it’s that damn Bill Toge again.” The cars explode, and the scene shifts once more.

This time the pair is somewhere in the American Southwest. They are in what appears to be an abandoned trailer park. A couple dozen small mobile homes are present, but there are no power lines or other hookups. There is a low mumur of engines somewhere nearby but out of sight. Rounding the corner of the trailer they appeared next to, they see a shabby, fake UFO with a big sign that says “WELCOME!!! JESUS!!! AND THE ESSENALUMBANS!!!” Near the entrance of the trailer park is the corpse of a young black woman. It appears that she’s been shot, and there is a revolver near her hand.

Walter decides that having a gun would be a good idea, and he starts moving toward the woman. As he comes fully out from behind the trailers, though, he sees the source of the engine noise: A large number of police vehicles and news vans has blocked the only exit out of the small canyon. As soon as they see Walter, there is a big stir. The police take cover behind their vehicles and point their weapons toward him. Walter backpedals back toward the trailers. There is the crack of a rifle, and a bullet whizzes past his head. He rounds the corner, rejoining Martin in cover. The door to the trailer opens, and there is Bill Toge, wearing a big dopey smile. “Kindred! Come inside, the time is at hand!”

Martin and Walter scramble inside before the police can take any more shots at them. In the trailer are four people: Bill Toge, a crazed-looking man named Satchel, a thirty-year-old woman named Nicky, and a 15-year-old hispanic kid called Sal. There is also the corpse of a Sheriff’s deputy who has been shot and laid across a card table in the middle of the trailer. He’s been disemboweled, and there seems to be a significant portion of his innards missing.

The cultists talk a lot about Bills vision of Jesus and the people of the planet Essenalumba coming to rescue the faithful and destroy the rest of the world. Now that Walter and Martin are here, they, too, can be taken onto the spaceship and saved from the destruction of the Earth. Walter and Martin do a lot of smiling and nodding, just trying to keep from setting any of these loons off.

Eventually, the police launch their raid, starting it with tear gas. A few of the cultists are armed and put up a pathetic fight, but the police know exactly what they’re doing. Martin and Walter exit the trailer, rolling on the ground in pain from the tear gas and are quickly subdued and arrested along with the rest of the cultists. Bill takes a minor head wound during the scuffle but is largely unharmed. As soon as all of the cultists are arrested, bright lights presage the arrival of an ambulance. Emblazoned across the front, as usual, is “ECNALUBMA.” The hispanic EMT who hops out of the back with a gurney has a name tag that reads, “Jesus.” Apparently Bill’s vision of “Jesus” and the “Essanalumba” coming to rescue him was true, though garbled. The wounded cultists, and Martin, who still has his gunshot wound from the supermarket, are loaded into ambulances and taken away. The unwounded cultists and Walter are put into a paddy wagon, which follows the ambulances out.

In the ambulance, Bill Toge discovers that someone has accidentally dropped a handcuff key in his gurney. He unlocks his cuffs and asks Martin if he wants to escape, too. Martin agrees, so Bill unlocks him. Bill opens the back of the ambulance and jumps out… at 50 miles per hour. Martin, not being real bright, figures it must be a good idea, and he also jumps out. Martin lacks whatever weird luck graces Bill’s life, though, and he gets a concussion for his trouble. The paddy wagon screeches to a halt to avoid running Martin over. The police dismount to pursue Bill while one of them chucks Martin into the back of the paddy wagon with everyone else. Walter continues to not get involved, and Bill somehow manages to escape, against all odds. The scene shifts again.

The sheriff shakes his head grimly, “I just knew it; it’s that damn Bill Toge again.” This time, when the cars explode, the fireball passes over Martin, Walter, and the three Bills. When it fades, the sheriff and his cruiser are gone. From behind the flames, Martin’s and Walter’s sinister doubles emerge, driving duplicates of the two men’s cars. They peel off into the night and disappear.

A few minutes later, an ambulance—not driven by Jesus—arrives to take the Bills away.


A couple hours later, Walter and Martin pull into the first sign of civilization they run across: a 24-hour diner called The Railbird Cafe. They’re both weary, injured, and hungry, so they belly up to the counter and discuss what’s happened to them. The cook listens with a curious ear…

View
2. Shadow of the Mothman
Yes, I shamelessly ripped off that Richard Gere movie.

After the events of the previous night, Martin and Walter sit at the lunch counter in the Railbird Cafe waiting on their breakfast and discussing what happened as the sun rises. The cook and proprietor, Dave Elmore, listens to their conversation, and as he delivers their food, he says, “You know, there have been a lot of people telling a lot of strange stories in here lately. In fact, I’ve got one of my own, if you’re interested.”

“It was the Friday night before last. I was taking a walk around the Greyhound Park across the highway, keeping it clear of vandals and vagrants. Trying to keep the property value up so maybe it can get sold…”

Walter interrupts, “You own the Greyhound Park, too?”

“No, but ever since it closed, business has been way down. I was doing really well before then, and had I known what was coming, I’d have put a little more money away. But if someone buys the place and reopens it, I’ll be okay, so I try to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate too much. I take a walk through a couple times a day. Anyway, I came around the back side of the kennels, and there’s a yellow Mustang, recent model, parked there. The kids sometimes park there to watch the sunset and neck. The sun had gone down already, so they were probably well into groping each other. I was going to go knock on their window, tell ‘em to move along, but I saw a figure crouched at the back of the car, looking through the rear driver’s side window. Well, some creepy pervert’s much worse than some kids having fun, so I thought I’d drive that guy off first. I started to raise my flashlight when he turned around, and I realized it wasn’t a guy at all. To be honest, I don’t know that I saw much of him, except for these two big, red, glowing eyes. I just froze in a panic there for a few seconds while it stared at me. I’m not too proud to say that I pissed myself a little, I was so scared. Then it just jumps straight up in the air and vanishes. I don’t know if it actually disappeared, or if it could fly, or what, but it was gone. Few seconds later, the Mustang starts up, and those kids tear out of there. Now, I was all ready to chalk it up to a hallucination or something, or maybe I’d dreamed it, but that Sunday, Diane Keeling over at the Register prints a story about how people all around town have been having the same hallucination, or maybe sighting. Lots of people have seen this thing, I guess, so I’m pretty sure I didn’t imagine it.”

Walter and Martin, their interest piqued, decide to investigate the Greyhound Park on foot, leaving their cars at the Railbird. They find a large, sooty, ash mark on the metal siding of the kennel, but no evidence that there was any fire to put it there. The windows are all covered in dust and grime; they can’t see in. Walter jimmies the door open with a bit of metal they find lying around, and they enter. Just inside, they find a large pile of scrap fabric that looks as though something large has been nesting in it. A few minutes of investigation turns up little of interest, but they are momentarily startled by a raccoon that had hidden in one of the cabinets. They’re approaching a door that leads deeper into the building when they hear a car drive up across the gravel outside. Walter carefully and quietly cleans a little of the dirt off the corner of a window and looks out. A cop has arrived and is getting out of his car. The entry door is still standing open to let in the light, so they’re pretty certain that the cop will know someone’s been here, but they try to go quietly through the interior door in the hopes that he’ll just close things up and leave. Unfortunately, Martin lets go of the knob a little too early, and the latch clicks.

The cop calls out from just beyond the exterior door. “Archer PD here. Is someone in there? I need you to come on out.” Martin and Walter find themselves in a bare room. There is a table and a desk pushed into the corner, and some heavier doors that probably lead into the stadium. They move the table across the door they came in through, hoping that if the cop tries it and it doesn’t move that he’ll assume it’s bolted.

Walter goes through the desk drawers but finds little of interest: just an old allen wrench, some paperclips, and a couple of small keys. While the cop carefully moves past the raccoon, talking to it and apparently closing it into the cabinet, Walter tries to use a paperclip to pick the lock into the stadium, but without the proper tools, the lock is just too tough. Instead, he pulls a drawer out of the desk and prepares to use it as a weapon if needs be.

The cop tries the door and finds it blocked, but apparently he knows it doesn’t have a bolt, so he puts his shoulder into it and shoves the table back far enough that he can stick his head into the room, “What are you fellas doing in here? I expected to find some kids.”

Walter, thinking quickly but apparently not deeply, says, “We’re doing a science experiment.”

“Science experiment? Come on out here, please.” Walter and Martin comply. They precede the officer, who unlatches the cabinet with the raccoon in it as he passes, then locks up the exterior door. Once everyone is in the sunlight, he says, “I’m Officer Dusty Lane. I got a call about trespassers over here. Neighbor thinks there are drug dealers or something. He’s a little excitable. But I came by to check it out, anyway. So who are you and what are you doing here?”

Walter takes the lead, giving a fake name, Harry Truman, but his real job. The cop mentions having had a dream the previous night about the kennels and thought it was weird that he’d end up here the very next day. He also mentions a trespassing call he’d gotten from a high school drama teacher, Karen Webb, last night; he’d arrested a man who had broken into the school. Walter and Martin decide they should talk to this guy and ask if they can speak with him. Officer Lane says it won’t be a problem, so they get Martin’s car and head for the police station.

Since Lane didn’t have to walk back to the Railbird, he is waiting for them at the station. “Ah, Mister President! Follow me on back. I’ve got a few minutes left on his paperwork, but you can talk to him ’til then.”

Lane escorts them to the holding cells, where a short, wiry man with tribal tattoos on his arms is lying on a cot. Officer Lane introduces him, “Diulio! Got a couple of guests for you here. Enjoy.”

Walter introduces himself and explains that they’re hunting some kind of creature with glowing red eyes. Diulio seems skeptical at first, but when Walter says he’s an expert in metaphysics, Diulio goes on a rant about a being that stands outside of our universe and can see things that are hidden, even predict the future. He claims that he’s in town to find it and ask it a question.

Officer Lane returns and frees Diulio, telling him that no charges were going to be filed. Walter gives the man his phone number, although Diulio doesn’t seem to want it. Walter and Martin decide to try to tail him and see if they can learn anything else. They follow him back to a motel at the edge of town, where he knocks on a door, but they realize they weren’t very good at being covert when Diulio turns to look at them before going in. They approach the door and listen in on the conversation between Diulio and a woman. She says she wishes he hadn’t led them to her, but he counters that they’re not important enough to worry about—they don’t know anything. She says she wants him to talk to . The woman seems to know that Walter and Martin are listening in, and she opens the door.

Walter and Martin introduce themselves and explain what they’re doing. The woman tells them that her name is Aurora Popadopoulos, and the young man is Simon Diulio, her assistant. Walter manages to persuade Aurora to compare notes, so she tells him the story of the Mothman’s visit to Point Pleasant, including a warning that if the Mothman is in Archer, a disaster is bound to occur. There will be visions and omens, and the Mothman will prove its foresight by predicting disasters elsewhere in the world prior to giving warnings about what is about to happen locally. She then kicks them out of her motel room.

They next go to visit Karen Webb, the teacher who reported a visitation. She seems less credulous than some of the other people Martin and Walter have talked to so far, insisting that what she saw must have been a person, regardless of how it seemed to move. In fact, she sardonically suggests that they might also be interested in the crop circles out in the county. Walter shows interest in that topic, but then seems to realize that she was, perhaps, joking. She says she’s going over to the high school in the afternoon to finish the set painting and costumes for next week’s performance of “The Crucible.” They’re welcome to come with her to examine the damage for themselves if they’re so interested. They say they’ll meet her there and that she should expect to eventually be visited by a guy named Simon who will probably ask many of the same questions.

The duo hastens to the high school ahead of Karen to see if they can learn anything in advance of their “official” visit. The school is a fairly typical example of turn-of-the-millenium educational architecture, which is to say that it looks a bit like a penitentiary. Martin climbs to the roof and drops into the cafeteria through a skylight while Walter keeps a lookout. A yellow Mustang pulls up, driven by an adolescent girl. Walter watches her act like a typical teenager: She spends the next few minutes alternately talking on and texting with her phone.

Inside the school, Martin has located the auditorium and started exploring it. He finds the damaged set piece and takes a picture with his phone, but he doesn’t notice anything else untoward. Meanwhile, a few more students and Karen Webb have arrived in the parking lot. Walter stays out of sight until they have all gone inside, then he goes to the Mustang and, finding it unlocked, searches it. The only thing that stands out is a backpack that doesn’t seem girly enough to belong to her. A quick search of the bag turns up a love letter, apparently from the girl to someone named Jacob, who is presumably the owner of the backpack.

While Walter examines the car, Martin hears Karen and the students coming, finds a side door and exits the building. He rejoins Walter, and both of them enter through the same door that Karen has now unlocked.

Inside, Walter examines the ash markings, taking another picture of it. Karen shows him the catwalks and points out where the intruder must have gone after getting to it. She still insists it was a person, although now that she’s actually looking at the catwalk and ladder, she seems less certain about her story that the guy climbed up to it instead of jumping or flying.

The girl from the Mustang is in what appears to a slightly uncomfortable, although not entirely unwelcome conversation with a jock whose letterman’s jacket
identifies him “Standiford.” Walter and Martin approach and introduce themselves. This time Walter gives his real name. Standiford ducks the conversation, and the girl appears suspicious of the duo’s intentions. Her name is Hannah Kennedy, and she tells them about her encounter with the creature. She was making out with Jake Standiford (even though she’s actually dating someone else, and could they keep all this quiet, please), when Dave’s flashlight caught her attention. She looked in that direction and saw something with huge red eyes staring in through the back window. As soon as it saw her look at it, it spread its wings and leaped into the air. She didn’t see much detail, but it definitely had human-like legs. Jake didn’t see it; by the time he turned around, it was gone.

Since the creature seems to have some kind of interest in Hannah, having been seen in two places associated with her, Walter and Martin decide to surveil her. They tail her back to her home, a recent suburban subdivision, where they stick out like a sore thumb. A nosy neighbor challenges them, but they manage to smokescreen him by claiming they’re house hunting. The cover story gives them the idea to break into a nearby house for sale and watch the Kennedy residence from there.

They order a pizza and settle in for the stakeout. As the night drags on, Walter decides to get a nap in so he can take the late watch. Nothing happens at the Kennedys’ while he sleeps, but a couple of hours in, he awakens with a feeling of dread. Some kind of invisible force assaults him, leaving long claw marks on his arms. Since he thinks he’ll be unable to get any more sleep after that experience, he relieves Martin, who finds a different bedroom to sleep in.

Around 1 a.m., an old Impala pulls up in front of the Kennedy house, and a black-clad figure skulks around to a side window. Walter slips out of the house and approaches the car, taking care not to be seen. A quick search of the (again) unlocked vehicle turns up a hockey bag containing a Renaissance Faire costume, complete with a real, though unsharpened, broadsword. Walter nicks the sword, then quietly approaches the corner of the house, where he can spy on the driver. It turns out to be a gothy teenager named Matt, apparently Hannah’s real boyfriend, and he’s trying to get her to come down to talk to him.

Eventually she tells him to go and she’ll talk to him tomorrow. He walks right by Walter, who presses back into the shadows and is not spotted. Matt drives away, none the wiser, and Walter returns to the stakeout.

In the morning, the Kennedys all leave in one car for church. Martin follows them, leaving Walter to break into the house and search it for clues. During the drive, Martin has an experience that might have been an encounter, or a vision, or a hallucination. Something flies at his windshield, and in his panic, he rear-ends the Kennedys. Not wanting to tip off the girl that he’s been following her, he drives off before he can be identified.

Meanwhile, Walter breaks into the Kennedy house and hunts for any indication of weirdness. He doesn’t find any Satanic altars or stolen mothman eggs, but he does pilfer and electric knife sharpener to use on the sword. Every indication is that Hannah Kennedy is just a normal teenager.

Martin returns to pick Walter up, and they go back to the Railbird Cafe to trade Martin’s damaged car for Walter’s. Dave Elmore comes out to talk to them, reporting that he’s had another weird experience: A disembodied voice told him “A new god rides to Heaven on 333.”

They stash Martin’s car behind a stand of trees on a nearby farm, hoping it will escape notice until they’re done with their investigation, and return to town. They get to the church in time to reacquire the Kennedys and follow them to their after church lunch. Martin keeps an eye on the family at lunch while Walter makes for the office of the Mullen County Register to talk to the journalist who wrote last week’s article on the sightings. They agree to rendezvous back at the empty house before making their next move.

Diane Keeling is a middle-aged, friendly woman who is only too happy to talk about the story, but when Walter asks her if they can talk to one of her sources, she refuses. He eventually cajoles her into setting up a meeting with a woman whose 10-year-old saw the creature, but she insists that the meeting be in public and that she be present. She suggests they meet that afternoon at a farmer’s market, art show, and opening celebration for the town’s annual spring festival.

Martin observes that Matt is present at lunch, having traded his goth look for more typical Midwesterner church-kid attire. The relationship between Matt and Hannah seems strained. When the Kennedys leave the restaurant, Hannah agrees to meet Matt at the farmer’s market, where he apparently has a booth for the art show. They leave in separate cars. Martin gets an Uber back to the house.

On his way to meet Martin, Walter is nearly accosted by Jake Standiford and two truckloads of his football buddies. Walter doesn’t take any chances and jumps a curb with his car to evade them.

Back at the house, Martin has discovered that there is an open house today. He and Walter pretend to be prospective homebuyers and use the open house as an excuse to cover their tracks, ask some more questions about the strange events around town, and kill time until their meeting at the farmer’s market. While they are doing so, Walter gets a call on his cell phone. A weirdly distorted voice says, “Only one can be saved. The others are lost.” The voice is drowned out by a loud squealing sound that persists until Walter hangs up.

Eventually, the time comes, and they make their way downtown to the festival. The venue is the expansive parking lot of an office building, and it is packed—several hundred people have showed up, including almost everyone that they’ve talked to so far. Dave Elmore is browsing for produce; Officer Lane is working crowd control; Diane Keeling is taking photos for the Register, her young daughter in tow; and Karen Webb is perusing the art show. Hannah and Matt are at Matt’s booth, where he’s selling cheesy fantasy prints; they’re not bad technically, but they show little imagination. They’re arguing about something, and nearby, Jake is smirking at them. The only people who aren’t present are Aurora and Simon.

Diane introduces Walter to a young mother and her daughter. The child doesn’t really know anything they haven’t learned already, so the interview is short. As Walter wraps things up, there is a loud THUMP, and all the windows on the lower two floors of the office building blow out, showering the crowd with glass. Ominous creaks and cracking sounds are accompanied by cracks spider-webbing up the side of the building and across the parking lot.

Time seems to stop. There is no time to discuss the matter, but in an instant the two of them perceive everything that is happening around them: Diane takes a series of rapid-fire photos of the collapsing building, backing away as she does so. There is another loud CRACK, and the parking lot gives way, dropping her into a sinkhole as her daughter watches and cries nearby. A passing person grabs the girl and hauls her toward safety.

Hannah has turned her back on Matt angrily. The explosion knocks her off of her feet, right into the middle of an otherwise open avenue to safety. The crowd surges forward, trampling her.

A piece of rebar skewers Matt through the abdomen.

Jake grabs an old woman, slinging her over his shoulder and starts running for safety.

A large piece of concrete breaks away from the building, falling majestically toward Dave Elmore.

Dusty Lane pushes some kids out of the way of a collapsing wall and gets pinned under it for his trouble, breaking both his legs.

A secondary explosion launches a burning fax machine out of a third-story window. It’s trajectory will pass right through Karen Webb’s head.

Only one can be saved. The others are lost.

Walter dashes for Hannah, trying to get her out from under the stampeding crowd. Martin goes for Officer Lane, lending his prodigious strength to shifting the rubble. Fortune favors Martin’s efforts, and he manages to get Dusty out of the way before the rest of the building comes down. Walter isn’t so lucky. By the time he gets to Hannah, someone has stepped on her throat. She breathes her last just as he gets her clear of the danger. Moments after the two of them get to safety, the building comes crashing down.

38 people are killed by the falling building, and two dozen others are injured. Some of those others might have died if not for Officer Lane’s presence. In spite of his own injuries, he quickly organizes able-bodied survivors into rescue teams and coordinates triage until the ambulances start arriving.

While helping to organize the disaster’s aftermath, Walter happens across Matt’s Impala. He helps himself to several pieces of artwork that had been left in the trunk (hoping that the association with the tragedy will make them valuable) and makes a more thorough search of the hockey bag now that he can see it in daylight. In a side pocket, he finds a battered, leather-bound book filled with symbols that he recognizes as occultic. The book’s in medieval German, though, so he’ll need some help to translate it.

While Walter is searching Matt’s car, Officer Lane tells Martin that it’s probably just as well Jake died acting like a hero. A few hours earlier, he and his buddies apparently delivered a brutal beating to Simon Diulio. Apparently Jake thought Simon was threatening Hannah Kennedy, and he decided to do something about it. If he hadn’t died here today, Lane is pretty sure Diulio was planning to murder him. As tragic as his death was, better that he should go out this way.

Eventually, the two return to their regular lives. Martin is happy to have made a friend in law enforcement, even if he is only a local cop in a nothing town like Archer, and Walter is satisfied that he has at least a little tangible proof of something otherworldly, although his smart phone’s camera is woefully inadequate as a sensing device. He resolves to acquire something a little more flexible for future outings.

View
3. The Waters of Life

After the mess in Archer, Walter and Martin return to their mundane lives. A few weeks go by uneventfully, and the school term is wrapping up. During one of Walter’s lectures, he notices a young man he’s never seen before sitting in the front row, scribbling notes madly. His hair is greasy, his glasses have literally been taped together, and he’s wearing a Star Fleet tunic. He asks some odd questions about the nature of Jung’s collective unconscious and whether it reflects the world as it is, or whether perhaps reality itself is molded by our conception of it.

After the lecture is over, the young man rushes up to ask some more questions, this time about the apparent links between legends of the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, and the Philosopher’s Stone. He asserts that all of these legends refer to a single phenomenon, and that the way the miracle expresses itself changes through the ages in response to humanity’s changing ideas about the world: In the Church-dominated Middle Ages, a holy relic contains God’s healing power. In the Age of Enlightenment, it is thought that immortality could be gained through the application of human Reason. During the Age of Sail, explorers were certain that life everlasting was just over the horizon, in a land yet to be discovered. So what would the Elixir Vitae look like in a post-modern world of merchandising and cynicism?

The diatribe is interrupted by Dr David Brumfeld, the philosophy department’s chair, who talks Walter into agreeing to oversee a committee to award the Teagarten Award to local author Marcus Longman, a black sci-fi novelist who wrote some groundbreaking stories a couple of decades ago that sensitively explored America’s racial issues. Walter accepts the job, with the caveat that he had been planning to travel during the summer break. Brumfeld emphasizes that chairing this committee is important to Walter’s career, and that the department’s been disappointed that he hasn’t published anything lately.

Once Brumfeld has left, the young man finally gets to the point: He has a lead about someone who allegedly has some kind of miracle cure, and he wants Walter and Martin to look into it with him. Walter is surprised that the kid knows about his association with Martin; he’s a little evasive about how he heard, but he implies that word gets around. Walter agrees to meet him at a business called Fitzhugh’s Dreamshop later that afternoon. Vince hops on a bicycle and pedals away.

Martin’s day begins with his usual commute to the high school where he teaches. On his way there, he drives through the outskirts of what is arguably the city’s worst neighborhood: Garden View. He pauses at a stop sign there, and his attention is drawn by a young black woman wailing in grief and clutching a tiny infant. The child is evidently dead, and although there are a few people on the sidewalk looking her way, nobody seems inclined to comfort her. That disturbing image accompanies him through his day, until Walter calls to tell him about the upcoming meeting at the Dreamshop.

Fitzhugh’s Dreamshop

Walter and Martin arrive at close to the same time and enter Fitzhugh’s Dreamshop together. The business is in a short strip mall with a gravel parking lot. Inside, it reveals itself to be a new age curiosity shop and bookstore. The shelves are filled with crystals, dream catchers, pewter figurines of wizards, and thinly-veiled drug paraphernalia. The proprietor, Mike Fitzhugh, is a large, laid-back man with a friendly demeanor. Walter and Martin browse for a bit, and Walter eventually buys a bong and some “medicinal herbs” to go with it. While he’s paying for his purchase, the kid from the lecture sticks his head through a bead curtain in the back and greets Walter.

Mike invites Walter and Martin to the back of the store, where they find a lounge that looks like it was imported from an English pulp novel—lamps with stained-glass shades, large, overstuffed wing-back chairs, a natural history cabinet with assorted cultural artifacts and animal skulls, and that sort of thing. The young man finally introduces himself as Vince Jenkins. He wrinkles his nose in disgust as Mike and Walter start to enjoy their herbal remedies.

Vince expands a little on what he’d said earlier, saying that he believes that a legendary ritual called The Resurrection Body has been rediscovered or reinvented. He’s been following omens and rumors about it for years, and he thinks he’s getting close to it. Mike says several of the rumors involve a healer in Chicago who has apparently cured several people of dire illness. He doesn’t know much, but he has managed to find out how to make contact with this supposed miracle worker: You go to a bar in Joliet called the Crushed Trepan, complain about your problems to the bartender, and tip him with two dollar bills.

Vince and Mike are willing to pay the expenses for the trip in exchange for whatever they can learn about the miracle cure. Ideally, they’ll bring back a sample if it’s something physical.

To Chicago!

Vince apparently has a phobia about automobiles, and he insists on riding the train to Joliet. It takes a little longer, but since he’s paying for the tickets, Martin and Walter roll with it. They arrive in the evening, check into the absolute cheapest motel Vince could find (and he’s apparently really good at finding things on the Internet. The rooms are only $25 / night), and head to the bar. Martin and Walter take an Uber, but Vince insists on cycling—he brought his bike with him on the train.

The Crushed Trepan is a yuppie bar: a slightly up-scale wine bar in a neighborhood that’s in the midst of gentrification. Walter and Martin, as educated middle-class professionals, fit right in there, but Vince is clearly out of place. The nerd grabs a table in the corner where he can watch what’s happening and asks Walter to order a Coke for him. Walter gets a drink for himself and a rum and Coke for Vince, just to mess with him, while Martin sits at the bar to deliver a sad story about cancer to the bartender.

While Martin talks to the bartender, Vince takes a sip of the rum and Coke, spits it out, and delivers a lecture about how alcohol, drugs, and red meat are poisons and will shorten your life. Walter rolls his eyes at him but doesn’t push the issue. Martin rejoins them in the booth, having left his tip in two dollar bills. They finish their drinks and start to head back to the motel. When they offer to let Vince share the cab ride back, he tells them that Henry Ford was a bigger mass murderer than Stalin; he’ll take his bike. He tells them to go ahead. He’ll take care of things here. When Walter asks what that means, he just says, “Don’t worry about it; I’ve got it under control.”

As they’re leaving the bar, a young woman stops Martin and asks if he wants a date. He turns her down, and she gets a little touchy-feely with him, asking if he’s sure. He says no again, and she lets him by.

Later that evening, he finds a small stone in his pocket with a glyph of some kind etched in it. He shows it to Vince, who doesn’t recognize the symbol. In the morning, a manila envelope has been slipped under Martin’s door. Inside is a note. The handwriting looks masculine:
“I have received your inquiry and will grant a consultation in exchange for two favors: Obtain a vial of blood from Nathan Scott, SSN 384-37-2194. Retrieve a wooden crate from 8413 N. Arneson Ave; it was stolen in transit. Bring these items to 1584 S. Mill.
—G.”

Nathan Scott

A look through the phone book reveals that there are quite a few Nathan Scotts, plus some N. Scotts, and some listings for simply Scott. Walter calls Mike to ask if he has the ability to do a background check. Mike says he could, but it would probably take at least a few days. They don’t have that kind of time, so Martin devises a plan to impersonate a credit card company investigating possible fraud. He calls several of the Nathan Scotts on the list and asks them for the last four digits of their SSN to confirm their identity. He eventually finds the right one, and he and Walter leave to find him. Vince, of course, still refuses to ride in a car, so he gets left behind.

After a stop at a CVS to get a syringe, a rag, and some ether (I don’t think you can actually buy ether or chloroform at a pharmacy), they proceed to Nathan Scott’s house: a tiny little shack on a lot that looks like it was probably a leftover parcel after a bad survey. They knock on the door, pretending to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. As soon as Scott opens it, Walter gives him a face full of the ether. Nathan’s son is there and starts screaming as soon as his dad goes to the floor, so Walter doses him with the ether as well. Unfortunately, with such a low body mass, the child stops breathing. Walter freaks out a bit over having maybe killed the kid while Martin starts rescue breathing. After a minute or two, the kid starts breathing on his own again, and Walter composes himself. They draw the vial of blood and get out.

The Crate

Their driver is surprisingly disinterested in what was going on and drives them on to the next place. They arrive just as the owner of the residence is leaving. He is wearing a police uniform and says something to someone in the house as he leaves. Figuring that this next task might take a little more time, Walter pays the driver and sends him on his way. They again circle the house, looking in the windows to see who might still be there. They don’t see anyone, so they decide to break in through a window in the back.

Inside, they find a huge mess in the kitchen. Martin’s cleanliness tic prompts him to do the dishes while Walter looks around. Walter heads immediately to the garage. He takes one step in and just barely notices the guy waiting in ambush. He throws himself forward and narrowly misses getting a crowbar across the head. He grabs the nearest thing he can find for an improvised weapon: A Weed Whacker. Walter starts the Whacker up and starts swinging. His opponent is a young black kid, maybe 17 or 18 years old, wearing gang colors. They take a few more swings at one another, then Martin joins the fray. Martin closes the door so the kid can’t escape into the house, but that cuts off the light. The scuffle lasts a little longer, with Walter trying to talk the kid down. Finally, after a particularly nasty slice by the Weed Whacker, the kid throws down the crowbar and gives up. Martin finds some zip ties and binds the kid, who starts talking big as soon as he’s sure they’re not going to kill him, taunting them with the trouble that’s going to come down on their heads when his friend gets back.

The crate is too large to fit in most cars, so they call for a rental van to be delivered to the house, load up the crate, and head back to Joliet, where they get ready to go to the meeting with “G.” While they’re making their plans, Walter’s phone rings. The person on the other end of the line has a distinctive raspy voice and demands their business with Nathan Scott. Walter is evasive. The caller demands the return of Scott’s blood, and when Walter won’t comply, he is warned that he doesn’t want to make an enemy. Then the caller hangs up on him.

Down, Down to Undertown

Vince won’t ride in the van, so they give him a head start riding his bike. While they’re waiting, they open the crate and find that it’s full of assault rifles, accessories, and ammunition.

Eventually, they go to their meeting, where they meet Del and Aleen. Aleen is the supposed prostitute who propositioned Martin earlier and likely planted the stone on him, which Vince concludes must have been some kind of magickal tracking device. They take a freight elevator down into an underground passageway that joins up with the subway tunnels and a sort of miniature local Pedway similar to the one in downtown Chicago but far less travelled. In fact, it’s mostly the abode of a community of homeless people. Del warns Martin and Walter not to get too close, as some of the residents can be aggressive toward outsiders.

Just as their arms are about to give out from carrying the heavy crate, they reach an unfinished subway station where the mysterious “G” is waiting for them. Tom Garabedian looks to be in his 50’s, fairly fit, and he’s given up pretending his isn’t bald by simply shaving his head. He thanks the duo for bringing the items he requested, and he starts interviewing Martin about his problem.

Tom explains that Nathan Scott asked for much the same thing: A cure for a terminal cancer, but the price was a little too steep: In order for him to live, either someone else would have to voluntarily trade for the cancer, or he would have to find someone willing to trade years of their life for something of his. While his great strength and endurance are valuable, Tom doesn’t think he could buy more than five or six years with it.

The Freak

As they near the end of the negotiation (and Martin belatedly remembers that he isn’t actually sick), they start to hear screams from the tunnel where they came in. Several of the hobos are seen running down the subway tunnel. Del and Aleen return to say that there’s someone coming, killing everyone in the way. As the screams grown louder, Tom orders the crate opened and everyone to arm themselves.

Walter and Martin waste no time grabbing the guns. Martin shows Walter how to operate the weapon, and they all get out into the open, where they can catch whoever is coming in a crossfire. Vince refuses a gun, pulling out a little taser instead.

A few moments after they get set, a woman strides out into the station. Her arms are covered in blood up to the elbow, and she glares at the waiting group fiercely. “Give me the blood,” she demands. Everyone opens fire, and she takes a couple of dozen rounds to the torso. Although the gunfire drives her back several steps and splatters her blood all over the wall behind her, she doesn’t go down. As she starts striding forward, Tom throws the vial to the floor and yells at everyone to run.

Vince shows that all that time he spends bicycling pays off. He’s obnoxious, he’s unpleasant, and he’s no good in a fight, but the little guy can run. He quickly outdistances everyone else. Tom, on the other hand, apparently doesn’t get enough exercise. At a fork in the tunnels, Del, Aleen, and most of the hobos veer left, staying in the lit area. Vince heads to the right, into an unlit section. Walter, Martin and Tom follow Vince, who turns a corner into pitch darkness and gets everyone to hide.

The strange woman walks right by the group, walking carefully and listening for them. Walter has a hard time controlling his panicked breathing, and she pauses, listening for him. The ground starts to tremble as she stands there, only a few feet away. Finally, she turns and continues up the tunnel. Just as it’s beginning to look as though they’ve given her the slip, light starts to come up. A train is approaching from behind the group, and it throws their shadows out in front of the woman. She sees it and turns. This close, they can see that her blouse has been shredded by the gunfire, revealing several strange piercings. She grips a loop of wire with one finger and rips a two-foot long, gore-covered chain out of her torso.

The roar of the train crescendoes as it bears down on the group. Everyone turns and runs back the way they came. The woman narrowly misses getting hit, and she lunges forward, grabbing Tom by the top of the head. Walter and Martin run for their lives, Tom’s screams chasing them down the tunnel.

In the confusion, they’ve lost track of Vince, Del and Aleen, so they return to the Crushed Trepan to see if anyone’s come back there. The bartender doesn’t seem particularly interested, but he says that neither Del nor Aleen have been back that day. Walter and Martin return to the motel to find a shell-shocked Vince waiting for them. They check out and head back home.

Return to Normalcy, or a Reasonable Facsimile Thereof

The group returns to the Dreamshop to report the results of their investigation to Mike. Vince describes the horror in the tunnels at the end, describing how the strange woman took Tom Garabedian apart a piece at a time, and how he’s pretty sure the poor guy was alive through the whole thing. He insist the woman was something called the Freak. Mike seems doubtful, saying the Freak is just a legend. He explains that it’s supposedly a very powerful fleshworker. Among other “freaky” abilities, it’s said to be able to completely alter its appearance, even its gender, at will. No one even knows if it began life as a man or a woman. These days, it’s both and neither.

Vince reveals that he managed to swipe a couple of small bottles of something-or-other from Garabedian while everyone else was grabbing guns. He’s keeping one for Mike to examine, but he gives the other to Walter. He doesn’t know what it is. Walter takes a little to be analyzed at the University, but as far as the mass spectrometer can tell, it’s just tap water.

And so Walter and Martin return again to their regularly scheduled lives. Martin still needs to calibrate that big garden sundial, and Walter has to start thinking about what sort of award to give to Marcus Longman.

Never use ATMs. They record the serial number on the bills they give you and send it to the government. Then they wait until a store deposits that bill and they know where you shop.

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.