By David Farnell, (c) 2000
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ Gods,
They kill us for their sport.”
–Shakespeare, King Lear
Agent Laura buried her face in her hands. Tired, so tired. She’d received the email while flying in from Hawaii–Luke told her that Linus had been attacked in the course of his investigation, that he was in critical condition. She never could sleep on a plane, and this had killed any chance of doing so. Not that she slept much these says, anyway.
Luke hadn’t known how bad it was. When Laura had arrived, the doctor told her that Linus’ abdomen had been slashed open with a serrated blade, and his intestines taken out and purposefully twisted together. But that was only the worst of it. Linus had been found by a couple of Friendlies who had gone to check on him when he didn’t answer their calls. They had found him crucified to the wall in his little Motel 6 room, shards of porcelain from the shattered toilet through his wrists, his intestines hanging down and knotted, and his eyes bugging out of his pain-wracked face. His eyelids, upper and lower, had been carefully sliced off. He was moaning incoherently; they later found his tongue had been used as a placeholder for the book Linus had been reading before the attack. The eyelids had not turned up.
The Friendlies were there with her. Ahmed Shah, a security guard at the University of Texas, and Derek Williams, a UT anthropology student, were comforting a librarian, Ruth Eisenstein, who seemed to have developed some kind of romantic attraction to Linus in the days she’d been hunting up other leads. As usual, Linus had struck it rich–the man seemed to have a magic touch for recruiting local assistance.
Derek approached her, took her aside. “Listen, Agent Verde,” he said, his voice low, “I didn’t want to talk about it before, with Ruth listening, but, uh, whatever did this to him, I think maybe it was giving us a message.” He hesitated. They were having trouble adjusting to suddenly having her, someone Linus had mentioned but who they’d never met before now, in charge.
“What message, Derek? And call me Dolores, okay? We’re all in this together now.”
He nodded, scoped out her eyes, checking to see if she meant it. He was obviously worried about her reaction. “Well, see, my main area is South American tribes. And, uh, last year, I took a class on pre-Columbian writing. There was a tribe, the Quechua, and they had a unique system of recording numbers and such, using knotted ropes. Some people even think the knot-records were more complex than that, and were a sort of writing, complex enough to record short passages, geneologies, even poetry. Well, the knots in Alan, uh, Agent Smalls’ intestines…they looked just like those Quechua knots.”
Laura looked down, and rubbed her eyes slowly. Oh god, she thought. Like the rest wasn’t enough. “So, do you know what the message is?” she said.
“No, not really. I mean, nobody can read that knot-language, except for numbers. Anyway, hardly anybody thinks they record anything other than numbers. Only crackpots think they actually recorded words–“
“Numbers are important, too, Derek. Coordinates, code words–could be a lot of things.”
“So,” he said, looking a bit less apprehensive, “you don’t think I’m nuts.”
She sighed. “No, I don’t think you’re nuts. I’ve seen a lot of weird shit, and your idea might be near the top of the list, but it’s not beyond believability. Now, if the police took some good pictures–“
“Actually, I took some.” He pulled out a digital camera, a compact Olympus. “After we got him down, while we were waiting for the ambulance. I thought it might be important.”
“Good man. You wouldn’t happen to have the cable so I can transfer the pictures to my notebook, would you?”
He handed her the camera. “In my car. The software’s at home, though–think it’ll be OK?”
She shrugged. “Should be no problem. I’ll email upstairs, let some forensics experts take a look at it. Why don’t you make up a bibliography of sources for Quechua knot-writing that I can send them?”
He nodded. “No problem. I already got one from a paper I’m working on. I can give it to you later tonight, or tomorrow if you want.” He hesitated, looking like he’d just remembered something. She had turned on the camera, switching the selector to “Review” so she could look at the photos on the small color screen. “Uh, wait a second–” He reached to take the camera from her.
Agent Laura, for this op AKA Special Agent Dolores Verde, real name Special Agent Maria Villanueva, felt herself blush at the picture on the screen, and willingly handed it back to Derek. “Um…” She was smiling, trying not to laugh.
“Ah…I, uh, had some pics of my girlfriend from a couple weeks back on the beginning of that. Sorry.”
Despite the tortures her partner had gone through, the sick worry she’d been nursing in the past hours as she’d felt trapped on the plane, the grief she’d suffered upon learning of his condition, that she’d been suppressing since, she giggled. “She’s really beautiful, Derek.” Then she burst into laughter. She couldn’t help it. It only lasted a moment, but it was strong enough she had to grab Derek’s arm.
He started chuckling, too. “Yeah. We, uh, kinda broke up, though.” Maria tried to say she was sorry, but she started laughing again, and so did Derek, and then they hugged, still laughing, breaking through the ice and suddenly finding themselves comrades if not friends. When they parted after a moment, she saw Derek’s eyes full of tears. The sight of it started tears in her own. He stepped away and wiped his eyes with the ball of his thumb.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just that, Alan, he’s a good man, God, what happened to him is just, it’s all wrong–“
“It’s okay, Derek.” She gripped his arm. “I’ve known Alan a long time. He’s strong. He’ll pull through all right. They’ll fix him up the best they can, and he’ll…he’ll do the rest himself. He’s going to be okay.”
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Um, I’ll erase these, uh, personal picture, then you can transfer the rest.”
She smiled. “You don’t have to do that. I can skip over them if you want to keep them.”
“But, uh, some are of me, with her.”
“I promise, I’ll squint so I don’t see too much.”
After Derek had gotten the cable from his car and she’d transferred the pictures, she erased from her notebook the ones of Derek and his ex-girlfriend en flagrante and viewed the ones of Agent Linus, Jerry Messer, “Alan Smalls” on this op, her partner of many years, her best friend, crucified on the wall, ripped open, inside out…she’d seen a lot over the years, things people like Derek and his friends couldn’t even imagine, some of it worse than this, much worse, but this was her friend, more than that, family in a weird way, her brother through shared horror. She was shaking, and felt her throat clamp up, trying not to vomit. She was glad she’d sent Derek, Ahmed, and Ruth home–they were all staying at Ahmed’s place tonight; she’d wanted them all in one place, and she’d go to join them as soon as she heard about Jerry’s condition–she knew if they’d seen her just now they’d be trying to comfort her, but feeling even more shaken themselves. She had to be strong for them.
She connected her cell phone to the high-speed modem in her customized notebook, then inserted a CD-ROM, hand labeled “Family Pictures,” and restarted the computer. It booted from the CD into a small, special-purpose, but very powerful OS that did almost nothing but support her Delta Green email program–a program designed by her cell leader, Luke. She typed in her regular password, then the password of the day, which was a random phrase she’d taken out of one of the flight magazines on the plane, something a full sentence long but easy to remember. She changed the password every time she used the program. The password-recognition program was “smart”–if she made a mistake, it analyzed how much of a mistake, and would only give her another chance if the difference was small, or if she accidentally used a recent expired password. It also analyzed her keystroke “fingerprint,” making it doubly difficult to impersonate her. If it decided she had been compromised, it would release a virus that would soon corrupt and destroy all the information on the computer more effectively than a reformating of the hard drive.
A moment later, the welcome message popped up: “User Laura, Welcome to Secure Comm v2.3” and a list of options. “v2.3”–Luke’s idea of a joke. It was upgraded several times a year as Luke tinkered with it and emailed her self-installing updates, but it was always Version 2.3. She chose an option and wrote her report, telling Luke the situation with Linus, Derek’s theory, and then attaching the photos. She sent it out–the computer chewed on it for a long while, encypting and compressing it, maybe steganographing it into a more innocuous report or a bunch of porno photos so that it wouldn’t look like an encrypted file to Carnivore and Echelon and far more powerful–and active–“anti-terrorism” monitors. Luke had told her that the governments had only released the information on the existence of Carnivore and Echelon because they were already obsolete–they only kept running as a smokescreen for monitor systems run by what Luke darkly referred to as the “Voodoo Men,” the conspiracy within the US government that her own conspiracy, Delta Green, tried to avoid conflicts with. Luke was a paranoid man, which she was often glad about. Sometimes she wondered if Luke was even a man. She’d never met him, after all, or even heard his voice except through an obvious voice filter.
She thought about the book Linus had been reading when he’d been attacked. A play, in English, a rare copy of _The King in Yellow_. She knew of it, had even read some passages that she was reasonably sure came from the original. She’d read a lot of fakes over the years, too. The book that had been stolen from the library had supposedly been the original French version, assumed lost forever. Linus must have been doing some research. Perhaps it had been a real copy; perhaps that was what had provoked the attack. She would try to get it from the local police. It was…her Grail. The key to the mystery she’d been trying to solve for twenty-three years, and Linus had come across it here, and while she had been in Hawaii, had read it and been paid for his trouble.
The King in Yellow. The palace, Yhtill, Carcosa. The Lake. Hali…Terror. Loi, and her brother.
The email had finished sending. No messages received, this time. She shut down the computer, returning the CD to the padded 6-disc case in her purse. The padding concealed a network of wires, connected to a small chemical packet, which she could trigger by holding down two corners hard for five seconds. The case, and its contents, would be a very hot, melted blob within thirty seconds after that.
As she walked back to the lobby, she thought of Loi again, and of Linus. They merged in her mind and she stopped, leaning against the wall, her eyes closed. She didn’t want to think of either of them.
She had lied to Derek. Linus would never be all right again. He’d read the wrong book, opened the door for the wrong person, and seen too deeply into the Outside. The investigation had gone rhino, and Linus would never be the same. Scarred horribly, inside and out. Like Loi.