Unknown Armies

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.

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Midgardsormr

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