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The Queen in Red

Categories: Case Histories

By David Sokolowski, (c) 1998

Call me Lech.

I am a member of a disuniform conspiracy whose goals include the following:

– To protect the citizens of the United States from threats originating with paranormal phenomena.

– To maintain the security of the United States from paranormal threats.

– To gather intelligence on paranormal phenomena.

– To deceive the public to prevent panic.

But it’s much more complicated than that.

I have much to say on the subject of conspiracies in the U.S., yet since you won’t believe me anyway, I’ll just describe what I do, and you can laugh at me later.

Warning: Evil is real, I have seen it, and you will now believe:

I received a call once, years ago, from my teenage sister who told me of an 18-year-old man named Ted Moore who was apparently accosting young women near or on the campus of her high school. When accosted, these girls would receive promises of “powers beyond their comprehension” from Moore, who would then attempt to “show them the truth” by unbuttoning his pants. My sister had received such promises. Fortunately, the few girls who met Moore had escaped, and although the police had been contacted, Moore’s presence seemed temporary; no one had seen him recently.

I struck out with my pal Lentil to track down Moore. We work together at a government institution (whose name shall remain anonymous to protect the ignorant) — one way the conspiracy binds us. Lentil and I also grew up together in a Californian suburb, and our understanding of what this universe truly holds remains sane only by our friendship. I would not be alive today without him.

When we reached Moore’s apartment, having traced his name through computer records of his junior college attendance, we found the door unlocked. No one responded to our knocks, and the sounds of crying children and television from the other apartments moved Lentil to say, “What’s this guy’s deal? Who is he?”

“Just some shmo working at Border’s and taking computer science classes at the JC,” I replied, then twisted the doorknob open and stuck my head in the door. “Moore? Ted — oh, god!” I shouted as I pulled my head back out from the apartment. The stench was unbearable.

“What the fuck?” asked Lentil as he drew his pistol and stepped through the doorway. Let free, the entire rancid smell enveloped us and we fell to our knees, gagging.

Once we backed up further into the hall, we both held handkerchiefs to our mouths, and I drew my pistol. A woman stepped out of the apartment next door.

“What’s going on?” she shouted at us.

From under the handkerchief I shouted back, “Call the police.”

Then, with a nod to Lentil, we both stepped into the apartment.

Lentil moved down the hall as I checked the kitchen and living room. The smell sank into our skin.

“Lech!” called Lentil, and I ran back toward his voice.

Outside the bedroom, he leaned with one arm against the hall wall, breathing heavily, and as I passed him his eyes flashed the code: It’s bad.

Two naked, teenaged girls lay sprawled on the bedroom floor; dried blood caked their inner thighs, and their faces had been chewed away. The silver-dollar-sized holes across their cheeks, mouths, chins, noses, eyes and foreheads left little identification. My eyes moved between the two girls, and my stomach and member rose simultaneously.

I puked over their feet. Lentil came in behind me, but turned away with a “Fuck…,” and I heard him dry heave as well.

When our rasping finished, I stood slowly, moved almost out of the room when I heard a gurgle from the bed. Moore’s body lay sprawled across the covers, his bloody hands, mouth and groin testament to his crime.

But the rasping came again, and I stepped forward, examining his blood-encrusted face; his smile almost reached his ears. The rasping came once more, but Moore was not breathing, his dead face was white and had begun shriveling past rigor mortis; his fat, lazy stomach had shrunk to resemble an anthill. The rasping came once more.

Then I turned my head slowly to his groin, and I noticed for the first time he had no penis. Instead a small mouth filled his groin cavity; it spat blood and gnashed sharp teeth; brains and mucus frothed.

I only know that my pistol was emptied of all 13 shots. As I would expect, Lentil took care of everything; flashed badges change everything, and only once we sat in a bar with eight shots of vodka in each of us could Lentil talk to me.

“That was Moore alright, and two students from your sister’s school. Seems the girls had been missing for days but the cops hadn’t said anything for fear of panic. Evidently no one else knew it was Moore — all the girls had been,” and he held up his fingers to quote, “‘too scared to talk.’ Sounds like someone got to them before us. Think it’s MJ12?” he asked.

I downed another shot, lit another cigarette, closed my eyes and pressed them with my fingers. I saw the mouth before my eyes, but then it blurred slightly. The vodka was working.

I looked at Lentil.

“Did Moore have friends?” I asked.

. . .

The day after the incident with Moore, Lentil and I figured the best place to start for clues would be Moore’s workmates. Moore had been part-timing at Border’s Booksellers across town, so we slid down there to see what we could dreg up.

At the front cashier, a cute blonde girl with multiple face piercings directed us toward Randy Chump, a supposed friend of Moore’s. We found Chump, whose name tag read “Randall,” flipping through an erotica collection toward the back of the store.

Lentil and I walked up to him and stared until he looked up from the book. He gave us a sheepish look and asked, “Can I help you?”

“Shitty name there, Chump,” I said and poked his chest with my finger. “Way I figure it, God knew what kind of idiot you were before he even named you.”

Chump’s eyes darted between Lentil and me. He was confused.

“Do I know you guys?” he asked, his voice cracking slightly.

Lentil brushed me aside with wave and stepped in front of Chump.

“Look, Randy, we don’t want any trouble from you,” Lentil said in smooth tones. “We want to know about Ted Moore, you know, your friend, and how he’s been spending his time outside of this,” and Lentil waved a hand indicating the store, “shit job.”

Lentil smiled, and Chump looked first to me, then back to Lentil. Sweat trickled down Chump’s neck. His eyes flashed again, and I knew we had him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chump said with a distinctive shake in his voice. “I haven’t seen Ted for days.” He looked at his feet.

Lentil’s pleasant voice continued to sooth. “Yes, Randy, we know that, and we want you to know that we don’t want the same thing to happen to you. Do you know why you haven’t seen Ted in days? Hmm?”

This question jarred Chump, and his eyes snapped from staring at the floor to locking with Lentil’s — this boy was scared.

“I didn’t go; I didn’t want to, but they all went anyway,” Chump began panicking, rubbing his hand over his zitty face. “I told them it was stupid, but they didn’t listen they all went, but I didn’t, I swear!”

Lentil reached out and grasped Chump by the shoulders. “Randy,” he said, “where did they all go?”

Chump was fumbling with the book in his hand, and now glancing around the store at the customers passing by.

“I don’t know her name, I only know she was down in the Mission,” he was almost crying. “I swear I don’t know!”

Lentil held Chump’s shoulders, asked, “Who else went, Randy, who else besides Ted?” Lentil reached a hand up and touched Chump’s visibly shaking cheek.

Chump turned his head toward Lentil, then looked up at me for a second. He paused, as if he didn’t want to rat on his friends. But everyone wants to talk to Lentil.

“Mitch,” Chump said, and he began crying. “Mitch Rogers. He lives on 14th at Irving.” And he turned his head away, stuffing the book back in its place.

“Randall to the front cashier please!” called the loudspeaker. Chump turned back toward us, but we were already gone.

Soon we were in the car again, driving across town. Traffic sucked, and spurned Lentil to say, “Poor kid, probably doesn’t realize how lucky he is to be alive. Hey! We’re not heading toward Rogers’ place.” He lit a cigarette and turned slowly to face me. “Are you taking me home?”

I nodded. “I want you to talk up the cops and the girls and their families. See what you can find out about them being,” and I took my hands off the steering wheel to quote, “‘too scared to talk.’ It’s too convenient for my tastes. There might be someone on the other side of this trying to keep it quiet.”

Lentil took a drag from his cigarette and nodded.

“And you? You gonna call on Rogers by yourself?” he asked.

I shook my head and smiled.

“Nah,” I said. “I’m gonna give Lydia a call first.”

And we both laughed…

. . .

Hours after the encounter with Chump I sat in my car outside of Mitch Rogers’s place and waited for Lydia to show. The sun had just gone down, and the chill from the bay had begun creeping through the streets. I flicked my cigarette out onto the street and rolled up my window when Lydia opened the car door and got inside.

“Hey shit-for-nothing,” she said and smiled. “You know I was going on a date tonight? My first date in three years? I don’t know why I put up with you jerks.” She looked in the back seat and then back to me. “Where’s your better half?”

“He’s checking on some other stuff,” I said with a wicked grin. “And I can’t believe that a date would mean more than saving the universe from aliens.”

She didn’t laugh.

“I was going to get laid! He’s cute and he’s an architect, which means he’s got lots of money.” She crossed her arms on her chest. “Of course, anything’s better than what you jerks pay.”

I leaned over and tapped her chest where her heart was. “Honey,” I said, “all we pay gets deposited here.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she said and turned away. “What are we doing here anyway?”

I got out of the car, and she followed. When we stood on the sidewalk I gestured toward the top story of the house in front of us.

“Mitch Rogers has some information we may need…” I paused, and she looked from the upper story back to me, waiting for me to finish. “This may get ugly,” I said. “You ready?”

“More ready than you’ll ever be.” And we walked to the door.

After pushing the doorbell, a minute passed before the speaker crackled.

“Yeah?” asked a male voice.

“Mitch Rogers? Police. We have some questions to ask,” I said and gave Lydia a glance. She just shook her head.

There was another minute of pause, and I almost pushed the button again, when the voice replied, “Yeah, come on up.”

The door buzzed and we entered.

We went up the stairs and into Rogers’ apartment, where the lights were low and the smell of incense and marijuana mixed with … something else. The place was fairly large, with a full living room and kitchen, and a study adjacent to the living room. A dark hall led down the back, and Rogers stood looking out the front window with his back to us. His long, black hair covered most of his back.

“What do you guys need?” he asked as Lydia moved into the kitchen and I stepped toward him.

“Well, we’re here to talk about your friend Ted Moore,” I said, looking for a response from Rogers, but he stood still. I waited a second before continuing. “Have you seen him lately?”

I took another step toward Rogers, and noticed an ashtray full of butts next to an empty bottle of something. Two glasses sat empty next to the bottle. I shifted my weight so my pistol was more comfortable in its holster.

“Hmmm. Teddy, huh? Is he in some trouble or something?” replied Rogers. I stood about ten feet behind him, and wondered what his next move would be when I heard a gurgle from him, something like serious indigestion.

Then Lydia was behind me, and she whispered, “Did you hear that?” and motioned toward the back hall. I turned my head back toward her as she stepped down the hall, and suddenly my head rang as I was struck in the head with something large and heavy.

I fell to my knees as stars swam in front of my eyes.

Lydia called, “Lech!”

I slumped to my shoulder, and my brain hurt really, really bad.

“WONDER OF MY FLESH AND THE DELIGHTS IT BRINGS,” called a deep voice suddenly. “YOU WILL KNOW PLEASURES BEYOND YOUR MORTAL REMAINS.” The voice gurgled, muffled, and my head swam as I felt blood seep over my head.

“Jesus fuck!” cried Lydia, and something smashed. I felt nauseous, and heard the sound of flesh hitting flesh.

“Punk ass bitch!” yelled Rogers, and something slammed nearby. Lydia cried out again.

“I SHALL EAT OF YOUR WILL AND CONSUME YOUR VERY SOUL,” the voice commanded. It was nearby. I heard grunting and something slammed again.

“Eyaa!” shouted Lydia, and from my side I pried my eyes open. I saw stars, but things focused slightly.

“Dammit!” she cried again, and then, “Ugh.”

“EARTHLY BOUNTIES KNOW NOTHING OF MY BEING — YOU SHALL ACHIEVE RAPTURE,” that damn voice continued. I heard Lydia, then Rogers, grunt.

I shook my head hard, and felt blood spray. But I tilted my head up and I could see Rogers standing over a prone Lydia. Rogers had his pants down around his ankles and his arms above his head.

I got myself onto my knees when Rogers flashed a blade.

“TASTE NOW OF MY IMMORTAL STRENGTH — YOU SHALL UNDERSTAND ALL!” the deep, grinding, gurgling voice cried, much louder now.

I pointed my pistol at Rogers’ hairy ass and pulled the trigger twice. The boom echoed around the room.

Rogers’ made some motion as he dropped to his knees and then on his back between Lydia and me. The holes in his back leaked blood quickly. He didn’t move.

Lydia was sprayed with blood and guts, but a couple slaps to her face and she stirred. She sat up quickly, but then went back on her elbows as her eyes crossed.

“Ugh,” she said.

“Everything’s cool,” I said, standing, somewhat wobbly. “But we’re going to need to bolt soon. What did you hear?”

She shook her head and pointed her arm limply down the hall. “Someone called for help…” she said, and tried to shake it off.

I moved down the hall with my pistol still smoking, past a laundry room and bathroom, until I came to a locked bedroom. I knocked.

“Hello? Police. Is everything ok?” I queried the door and stretched my shoulder.

“Help. Please…” a weak voice, probably female, called.

I broke the door down with a hard shove, and found a darkened room, red candles burning, with chains and leather straps attached to the walls. Two boys, no older than twelve, were chained, naked, up against the wall, their bodies crossed with red and black paint, as well as scars and other marks. Their eye told it all: they were terrified. Another two bodies were dumped in the corner and covered with some powder. Lime?

“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw…” I said and began helping the boys down.

Without Lentil, it took quite longer to get out of the area once the police arrived. Our badges do work, though, and hours later Lydia and I found ourselves sitting in my car with icepacks on our heads. She drank from the flask I kept in my glovebox.

“What the fuck happened to Rogers?” she asked with a hard stare.

I reached in my shirt pocket and handed her a business card I found in the apartment. It read:

Heart of Babylon
Pleasure Palace

On the back was written:

785-7863
ask for Denise

“Looks like we’re going to find out,” I said.

. . .

“I wasn’t an alcoholic until I met you guys,” said Lydia, and we both laughed. We sat in Minni’s bar off Market, drinking triple Wild Turkeys straight up at 9 am while waiting for Lentil. I’m pretty sure Lydia was already drunk. “In fact, my life was pretty right-on until you jerk-offs came along and fucked everything up.” She shook her head, looked out the window at the traffic.

“Yeah, but think of how much you hated being a pawn of the Machine, and how you have been released from the shackles of oppression to become a better person,” I took a drag from my cigarette and raised my eyebrows. “If it weren’t for us you’d still be a mindless sheep happily munching on whatever they feed you.”

She shook her head again.

“I’d still be happy, though…,” she said and rolled her tongue in her mouth as the memory washed over her, “… and sane.”

“Howdy kids,” said Lentil as he sat in our booth. He held a large coffee cup in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. “Did you see the papers?”

“He’s been avoiding it,” Lydia said, gesturing toward me, then laughed. “How did they treat the …” and she paused for effect, waving her hand in the air, “Rogers incident.”

“Not well,” Lentil said and spread the front page on the table so we could see it.

Cops Shoot Arson, said the headlines.

Lydia raised her eyebrows. “Arson?” she asked.

Lentil nodded. “Yep,” he said, and drank his coffee. “Seems a fire was started that killed two young boys, and the police had to shoot the guy who was starting them. Can you guess the arson?”

“Rogers,” I said, knowing the answer before I spoke. It was a weak cover story, but it would work. Completely diffused the missing children/occult connection. “Better for us, anyway.”

“What about the other children?” Lydia asked.

Lentil shook his head, “No mention.”

“Well,” I asked him, “what did you find out?”

Lentil pulled out a pad of paper and flipped through it. He sat for a second, rolling his eyes and contemplating some numbers game, while Lydia and I waited. Then he put the pad away and looked at us.

“Seems more than twenty children have been reported missing in the past week, almost all in the last four days,” he said. Lydia whistled and I cracked my knuckles. “No one in the media knows anything about it, and have actually been warned away from running any stories of that nature,” he said and licked his lips. “I didn’t press too hard ’cause I got the feeling any further digging might catch attention.”

I lit a cigarette, and he continued.

“None of the families of the missing children would say *anything*,” and he took one of my cigarettes and lit it. “Except Dana Williams — the older sister of one of your sister’s classmates.” He paused for dramatic effect. “She told me some guy with a dark hat and dark glasses came to her parents the night her sister went missing and showed them something that scared them so much they wouldn’t even talk about their missing daughter anymore. Dana didn’t know what it was, but she was pretty shocked by her parents’ behavior.” Lentil chuckled. “Seems her dad had been dry for thirteen years, but that night both he and his wife hit the bottle pretty hard.

“Then…,” he paused and drank more coffee. I looked at Lydia, but she was staring at her drink. Lentil continued, “Apparently there was some mayoral task force on keeping this whole thing quiet. My buddy at the mayor’s office says he figures it’s so hush-hush that maybe even the mayor is taking orders. Most cops won’t even admit to knowing about anything about it, and those who do aren’t saying much. They preferred me to change the subject at that point.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Lentil held up a hand.

“Now it gets weird: after your debauchery last night, looks like the game is over. Early this morning five missing children were returned, unharmed, to their parents. Also, Moore and Rogers’ bodies were taken from the morgue at seven this morning by an unidentified man with government credentials.” Lydia and I shifted in our seats, and Lentil continued, “Last but not least: our names are now being passed around,” and he took a piece of paper from his jacket, “with a warning to call upstairs the moment we’re seen.”

He showed us a piece of orange fax paper that listed our three cover identities and warned that we were impersonating government agents and that one should immediately contact their supervisor if our names were encountered. We were to be considered armed and dangerous, but there was no physical description.

Lydia gasped. “Our covers!”

Lentil smoked his cigarette and nodded.

“It was handed out at the 12th Precinct’s morning meeting today,” Lentil coughed and laid his hands flat on the table. “That’s about it.”

I tapped my fingers on my glass while Lentil and Lydia looked at me. I pointed at Lydia.

“You go find out more about Rogers, Moore and all their friends. You might have to go back and talk to Chump,” Lentil and I smiled. “See if there’s something going down there. I’m not convinced they’re as innocent as they seem.”

Lydia’s jaw dropped and she sat straight up. “Innocent? Are you kidding me?”

I shook my head at her, “They don’t seem directly responsible — they’re too young to do something of this magnitude on their own.” Lydia looked at Lentil, but he just pointed to me.

“Just see what you can find,” I said and she shrugged her shoulders as she slumped in her seat.

“And you,” and I pointed at Lentil, “will come with me as we go talk to Professor Charm.” Lydia laughed at Lentil, who just groaned.

“I know, I know,” I continued, “he’s not the easiest person to communicate with-“

“Communicate, my ass,” Lentil interjected. “The man speaks 12 different languages, and he invented half of them himself!” Lydia laughed again.

“Anyway,” I said. “We need his help, so there’s that.”

“What about Denise and the Pleasure Palace?” Lydia asked.

I smirked and said, “I’ve got an eight-thirty appointment tonight.”

And so Lentil laughed.

. . .

I drove Lentil and me out of the city, toward Stanford and warmer air, and we listened to Steely Dan:

“I know this superhighway,
this bright, familiar sun,
I guess that I’m the lucky one.

“Who wrote that tired sea song,
set on this peaceful shore,
you think you’ve heard this one before…”

I think I knew what Fagan was talking about.

“You’re drifting,” Lentil said, and I looked to him. The car had changed lanes with my brain.

“Sorry,” I said, then checked my mirror to see the same white van I had been watching since the bar. “We’re being followed.”

Lentil spun in his seat, checking the light traffic behind us. “Who?” he asked.

“White van, four o’clock, guy with dark glasses and cap,” I said, and sped up a bit.

The van matched our speed. We drove for a few minutes, just checking my tail — it was tight; this man was a professional.

“Jesus!” Lentil jumped suddenly and reached around the floor until bringing up the morning’s newspaper. He pointed at the picture of Rogers’ house surrounded last night by police and fire trucks.

I tried to focus on the road while looking at the paper. “What?” I asked, trying not to swerve.

He poked the paper. “Here,” he said, his eyes alight with excitement.

Where he pointed I saw a white van in the background, and remembered, vaguely, seeing it. It hadn’t struck me as strange at the time.

“Well, shit on me and call me stinky,” I said and jammed the car sharp across three lanes and off the next exit, just barely missing a Dodge Neon whose occupants cursed silently in my direction. “Police business, ma’am,” I shouted as I swerved down the ramp, and sped through a red light, “Please get out of my way.”

The van clung about 300 feet back, but was catching up — now he knew we were onto him.

“Get Lydia on the phone,” I said and jerked the car again. We spun down side streets, but the van kept tight.

In a minute, Lentil said, “No response,” and looked to me.

“Get your gun,” I said, then jerked the car into an alley. He checked his pistol as I stopped the car.

He got out, ran across the road as I drove further down the alley until the van appeared at the alley’s entrance. The driver gunned the van down the alley until he realized I was driving in reverse toward him; by the time he braked my car slammed hard into his, sending it back, out of the alley and onto the main road. Another car swerved around it, but then the van crashed into a lightpole and stopped.

Lentil was already across the street, and as I stopped my car and got out I heard him yell something.

I pulled my pistol out and ran across the street toward the back of the van.

Suddenly a shot rang out from inside the van, then two more.

I stepped up to the back door when it swung open, knocking me on the ground. A tall, skinny white man with flowing white hair and dark glasses jumped out and ran toward a nearby shop.

I put a bullet through his head, but instead of spraying blood his head began deflating rapidly along with the rest of his body.

I stood and jogged over just in time to see his body shrink and retract into itself like an empty balloon.

All that was left were his clothes and a rag of shriveled skin. Lentil came to stand next to me. His shoulder bled.

“That’s fucked up,” he said.

I nodded and lit a cigarette.

. . .

Lentil scoured the van while I put the carcass in a garbage bag in my trunk; all he found was the man’s pistol. He took down the registration numbers (although I doubted it would get us anywhere) and I spun my car in a u-turn, letting Lentil jump in before speeding off toward the freeway. In all, the situation had lasted less than three minutes.

Once on the freeway, Lentil called Lydia again, but there was still no response. He looked at me as I opened my second pack of cigarettes for the day; it was 9:45 a.m. I just shrugged my shoulders, handed him a smoke, and we drove toward Stanford.

When we got to the university I parked in the handicapped zone and dangled my handicapped tag from the rearview mirror. Lentil and I crossed the campus, watched the cute, careless 20-somethings bathe in the California sun and eye each other as we eyed them. Soon, we came to the March Building, and headed down the back staircase to the lower basement.

We stood in the long, cool hallway, and looked at the stacks of boxes and books that clung to the walls in the darkness. Toward the end, light streamed out of a doorway, and we could hear the muted voice of … Roger Waters? Lentil and I shrugged and walked down the hall.

In the room we saw Professor Charm standing over a long, wooden table. On the table sat groups of white mice, squared off and arranged in military formation, and behind him a small stereo blared out Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.” The mice swayed to the sounds as Charm waved his hands in a conductor’s fashion with his eyes closed and a black cigarette on his lips. The room smelled of his sweet Turkish smokes and formaldehyde. The mice and Charm swayed to the music as Lentil and I looked on, smiling; when the music stopped we clapped loudly, which startled both Charm, who dropped his cigarette and looked up, and the mice, who scattered across the room. There must have been 50 of them, but Charm didn’t seem bothered by their escape.

“Ahhh,” he said, retrieving his cigarette from the ground. “Mr. L — what a pleasant surprise.” He came up to me, shook my hand and hugged me. Then he turned to Lentil, “And your cohort, too.” Charm then began waving his hands in the air in the language he termed Lentilia. Lentil just rolled his eyes.

“Do I have to?” Lentil asked, but I just pointed to Charm, who continued waving his hands at Lentil. With a sigh, Lentil waved and twisted his hands back at Charm, and although Lentil’s pointings weren’t as precise as Charm’s, he got all the moves right. After a few minutes of this exchange, Charm threw his arms up and hugged Lentil.

“I am so proud of my student — you’ve grown so much,” Charm said, then turned and picked a bell from the table. He rang the bell, and as its odd chime echoed in the room, the mice swarmed from the floor, up a table leg and into a large cage. “You’d never guess how good Pink Floyd is for brainwashing, no?” Charm smiled and closed the cage. “What can I do for you gentlemen today?”

I dropped the Polaroids of Moore on the table for Charm to see. He picked them up, studied them for a moment, then said, “Interesting — what was the period of incubation?”

“About a week — we’re not sure at this point,” I said, and showed him the pictures of the girls. Again he picked them up and studied them for a moment.

“How much of the brain was consumed?” he asked.

I looked at Lentil. “About fifty percent,” he said. “Seems the juicy bits were just sucked out.”

Charm smiled a sideways grin, said, “Oh, but they’re all juicy bits.” He then put the pictures down and changed the music to Brahms. He looked up and asked, “What’s my side?”

I took a vial from my pocket and handed it to him. He held it up to the light — it looked like chocolate milk.

“TK-529,” I said, and crossed my arms on my chest. Lentil lit a cigarette, and I said, “It comes from, surprise, surprise, the Mossad, and induces a state of stupor mixed with an overproduction of adrenaline.” Charm looked up and smiled. I shrugged and said, “Seems to be good for deprogramming Christians…”

Charm lit another Turkish cigarette, and the black smoke quickly filled the air between us.

“OK,” he said, and pocketed the vile. “I’ll have something for you tomorrow — consider us even, then.” He then turned back to the mice and Lentil and I left the room.

We climbed the stairs into the sun when Lentil’s phone rang. He answered it, mumbled a couple words as I lit a cigarette, then closed it and looked to me. I handed him a smoke of his own.

“It was Lydia — she says she threw her tail, then followed him back to a warehouse in Oakland. She doesn’t know who it is, though,” he said. “She only saw that the driver wore dark sunglasses and had long white hair.”

“OK, then,” I said and watched a young, blond woman peel off her shirt revealing fertile flesh. “Oakland it is.”

. . .

Lentil bandaged his arm as we crossed the Bay Bridge. Traffic was light and Tool played on the radio:

“Won’t you die for me,
don’t you fucking lie…”

“Sounds like he was talking about you,” said Lentil as he looked away from me across the Bay. I raised my eyebrows.

“Really? How do mean?” I said in my most innocent voice.

He turned to stare at me. “I don’t like the way you treat Lydia and me, and I don’t like when you lie to us,” he said — his forehead pulsed and flushed with blood.

“I don’t understand,” I played the role well.

“Don’t fuck with me, Lech — I’m about done here, and I don’t owe you anything,” he pointed his cigarette at me.

“Yeah, but Lydia does, and I won’t let her go,” I played my ace before I wanted to, but it would have happened eventually.

Lentil bit his lower lip and stayed silent. An angry flash lit up his face, then he bore his teeth at me.

“Fucker,” he hissed.

I shrugged, said, “What’re yah gonna to do?”

Lentil just realized I knew about his romantic — if you could call it that — involvement with Lydia. They had been sleeping together for months and neither knew I knew. They wanted it to be secret.

“You know how things go, man,” I said and he turned his head away. “This is for reals.”

He looked out the window and said, “Just drive.”

Thirty minutes later we parked in a warehouse district along the bay. The ships sounded from the water and metallic clanking filled the air. The street was empty of people, and we noticed Lydia’s car across the road, but she wasn’t in it. We got out of my car and crossed the street. As we stepped up to her car I fingered my pistol and scanned the area. My phone rang.

“Yellow,” I said.

“You’re in the wrong place,” came Lydia’s voice from the other end.

“Where are you?” I asked and smacked Lentil in the arm. He scanned the rooftops.

“A block and a half behind you,” she said, then laughed. “I could probably kill you from here.” She laughed again.

I turned around and walked down the sidewalk.

“Good, now up a block and climb the ladder,” Lydia said, more quietly. “Make it quick.” Then she hung up.

Lentil and I tried to look casual and walked past the cars and trucks. Men worked on cars and trucks in open warehouses. Soon we crossed the block and saw a ladder reaching up a four-story building. We clanked up the stairs.

At the top we crossed the roof until we spotted Lydia squatting next to an open skylight. We shuffled over next to her.

“Hey,” she said. Through the open window we saw a dozen or so men loading boxes from one side of a huge warehouse to the other. They all had long, blond hair and black caps.

“They’ve just been loading for about the last hour or so — that’s all they’ve done,” she looked and Lentil and me, then frowned. “I don’t know what to make of it.”

I watched the men carry boxes in some mindless motion. None of them talked; the warehouse was eerily quiet.

“It’s a trap,” I said and pulled out my pistol.

Lentil and Lydia looked confused.

Then a door burst open from across the roof, and four Blond Boys raced toward us. I took them down with one shot each — they shriveled instantly upon bullet entry, and my two friends pulled out their own pistols.

I pointed toward the ladder, said, “Go, go, go!”

Two more men stepped out of the door — I spent two shells per man as my shots wavered, not all of them perfect. Lentil and Lydia raced across the roof, and I followed.

Bullets ricoched next to me when I reached the ladder, where Lydia scuttled down the metal rails and Lentil stood and fired.

His gun made this sound: Kow! Kow! Kow! Kow! Kow! Kow! Kow! Kow!

I flipped over the side when he got hit. I heard the metal smash into his flesh; I turned and fired over the ledge at the storm of Blond Boys pouring from the door. I fired and fired and fired as Lentil switched clips. The men fanned out and each pulled out a large handgun. They hit Lentil again, who fired again and again.

“Go!” he shouted at me as I held on tight and slid down the ladder. Lydia was below me, then suddenly was already on the ground and racing toward her car. I slammed into the stairwell, then turned and slid down another flight. The sound of gunfire raged above, and as I reached the last ladder I looked up to see Lentil’s body slump over the side and crash down onto the staircase above me.

Then I was on the ground running toward Lydia’s car, which pulled in front of me. I wrenched the door open and dragged along for a second until jumping in. I turned my head to see the Blond Boys race down the street after us.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck,” Lydia screamed as I fondled my pager, then pulled it from my waist and pushed the buttons.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” she shouted. We sped down the road, and then, when the Blond Boys passed my car, I pressed another button and my car exploded, taking out the half dozen clones chasing us, as well as the two mechanics who had stepped out to see about all the commotion.

“Fuck,” she said once more.

I pulled out my clip and popped in a fresh one, then she cried.

. . .

Lydia wasn’t speaking to me. I dropped her off at her house, then told her I’d be back to pick her up at seven.

“Take a long, hot bath — don’t think about it,” I said as she slammed the car door and left me behind.

I pulled out into traffic and headed across town. It was almost one in the afternoon. Nothing was going well, and now I had to tell my boss what was happening…

At the bar, I waited for Lee and tried not to get too drunk. I wasn’t going to think about Lentil. I wasn’t going to think about him dead. No. I wasn’t. The booze hit hard, down in my stomach, but the chill still got through. I tried to watch the ballgame on the TV. The bartender watched me from the corner of his eyes. Did I look that bad?

“You look like shit,” Lee said as he sat down next to me. “Is it really that bad?”

I turned my head to look at him, exhaled smoke, took another drink.

Lee shook his head and ordered a coffee. We didn’t talk until the bartender filled his order and topped off my drink. We took our drinks to a booth and sat. My hands were shaking.

“Lentil’s dead,” I said, lighting another cigarette. “We were ambushed — Lydia walked right into it — and Lentil helped us escape. I saw him die.”

Lee stared at me with his deep, gray eyes. Lee is my boss — the man who gives the orders and keeps the whole thing away from the law enforcement’s notice. We only meet when the shit hits the fan. As he sat across from me, his long white hair and beard reminded me of Santa Claus. What was Father Christmas going to bring this holiday?

“And?” he asked, continuing to stare.

“There’s some operation running — it’s someone new,” I sat up straight and tried not to get defensive about this whole thing. I hadn’t fucked up, things had just gotten really bad, really quick. “They’re using clones unlike anything I’ve seen, and we were tailed pretty well. They know who we are, evidently, and seem to think we pose a serious enough threat…” I trailed off, hoping that would suffice.

“And this all started with the Moore kid?” He finally diverted his eyes as he sipped his coffee.

“Yeah, it was – hey? How did you hear about him?”

Lee scoffed.

“You idiot. I’m the one in the circle — don’t ever think that you know more than me.”

I looked into my drink and smoked my cigarette.

“Continue,” Lee said.

“Well, obviously there’s some sort of infection running through this group of kids — I’ve got an appointment tonight at the Pleasure Palace, where I hope to find out more.” I paused for effect. “I’m not sure of the connection between the clones and the kids, but something’s there for sure.”

Lee hummed to myself, then scratched his beard. He reached into his coat and pulled out an envelope, which he handed to me. I opened it and dumped it on the table. Two photos fell out.

“This,” said Lee, pointing to a picture of a man in a GI Joe outfit carrying an MP5. He was grinning and looking down at some black mass at his feet — it looked like he was showing off a trophy, “is Master Sergeant Timothy Kull — you don’t need to know anything else except that he might be able to help you tonight.” I raised my eyebrows at Lee; he shrugged. “He’ll be at the number on the back after six tonight and he’ll be expecting your call. He’ll be code-named Larry.”

I fingered the photo, then slid it in my shirt pocket. The next photo showed a bald man speaking at a rally. His hands were raised above his head as he spoke at a podium to a crowd behind the photographer. I was sure I had seen the bald man before.

Lee drank his coffee, said, “This is the Reverend Phel Morrow, and we think he may have something to do with your problems.” Again, I raised my eyebrows. Lee nodded and continued, “We’re not sure where or who his contacts are, but he’s been running experiments with some book he picked up in Egypt last year. Evidently, he’s got some funding to keep things tight, which is why you ran into problems with the clones. Obviously he’s not done with his experiments and doesn’t want anyone screwing them up before that.”

I put out my cigarette and finished my drink. After nodding to the waitress for another round I asked, “Experiments?”

Lee looked at me, then shook his head. Then it clicked.

“Moore and friends,” I said, putting some more of the pieces together. “I see…”

I lit another cigarette when I got another round of drinks, wondered where all of this was going.

“Keep your eyes open for Morrow when you go to the Palace tonight, he may be around, and we want to pin his location down,” Lee explained.

“Aha — and what if he spots me? I thought you said he was onto us?”

Lee stared at me for a moment, and my head began ringing. Suddenly he snatched the cigarette out of my mouth at the same moment he grabbed my left hand, twisting my pinky hard so I was forced to turn my whole body and press my face into the booth’s back. I bit back a shout and pushed back the sickening pain now jolting through my hand and arm.

Lee held my lit cigarette near my palm, which he had open in front of him. I stretched my neck to look at him — I could feel the burning cigarette’s heat above the pain from my arm, but I still had to focus to stop from crying out.

“Listen, you little punk, I don’t think you’re in a spot to question,” Lee hissed and lightly touched the cigarette against my hand. I bit my lip and shuddered hard. “You went off and started this investigation without contacting me, and only now that we see Morrow might be involved are you officially sanctioned. Got it?”

I struggled out a nod. He drew the cigarette away but kept his grip strong.

“You’ll go and find out what you can, and then report back with your information, just SOP,” he paused, took a drag off the smoke, then flicked it so it bounced off my head — at the same time he twisted my hand a bit harder, then let go.

I clung to my arm, nursing it and shifting so it was more comfortable — the pain was bad, but he could have done worse. Lee stood and finished his coffee, then dropped a fiver on the table.

“Don’t forget, Larry’s waiting for your call — don’t fuck this one up … any further,” he sneered and then left me to nurse myself.

I tried not to miss Lentil.

. . .

By 7:30 I sat with my new team in my new car two blocks down from the Pleasure Palace. In San Francisco’s Mission District things hadn’t even started warming up yet. Lydia sat next to me and loaded her pistol. Her curly, red hair was pulled back, and her pale skin reflected the retreating sun’s glow as the fog slowly rolled in. The bags under her eyes were dark, but her eyes were bright and alive. I thought she might be taking the Lentil-thing better than expected, but she’s too smart for that — she’ll wait ’til it was all over to show me how she felt.

“This is it Lech,” she said, slamming the clip home and chambering a round. She fingered the .357, then hefted it in her hand. She turned to me and pointed the pistol at my head. “After this, you leave me alone.” She paused and I took a drag off my cigarette and looked her in the eyes; her beauty was overwhelming and I wished I could have her for myself. Was I jealous of Lentil? Is that what this was?

“Are you even listening to me?” She shoved the pistol closer to me, waving it in my face. “I’m fucking serious — after this I’m gone,” she spat at me and pursed her lips.

“Um, yeah, ok, kids,” said Larry from the backseat. He leaned over the front seat between Lydia and me and held out open palms, exposing a pin and a pill in each hand. “I’m sure things are tough here, but we got a job to do, and as far as I know we’re still all on the same team, right?”

Lydia and I stared at each other.

“Yeah, um, ok, right, so here we are — take these please…” He held out his hands for us. I took the pin and pill in my hand while still staring Lydia down. She finally put the pistol back on her lap and took what Larry offered. “OK, good, so the pill is a stimulant, go ahead and pop it now…”

Lydia and I took our pills and I chased my with a smoke, which I passed to her. I looked at the pin, which was made of brass or copper and had a large black head. It wasn’t more than two inches long.

“Now the pin is a transmitter — both voice and position. This way I’ll know how things are going; just slide it in a lapel — they’re quite invisible,” Larry said, sounding pleased with himself. I slid the pin into my jacket collar, then turned back to Larry. He was like every other jarhead I had ever met: butch cut, sharp eyes, tough build. Bit smarter, though.

Lydia sneered at me, then asked, “What about the pill? How long can we rely on it before we hit the end?” I checked my pistol once more and tried not to sneer back.

Larry chuckled, “Oh, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Once you get out I’ll give you something else to calm you down.” He leaned back in the seat and fiddled with some device in his briefcase. A tingling started in my head.

“How long until these kick in?” Lydia asked as someone suddenly cranked all the lights brighter. I squinted for a second, then put my sunglasses on.

“Whoah,” I said, answering Lydia’s question. Larry laughed from the backseat, then said something unintelligible.

Everything changed then:

…someone kicked me in the back of my head it wasn’t Lydia or Larry but maybe it was Lee or Lentil but I couldn’t be sure instead I looked at Lydia and said “let’s do it,” and Larry said something about backup but I wasn’t quite sure Lydia and I were on the road on the sidewalk heading down and it comes down to this moment in time when you have to be exactly on top of things but not quite sure what reality holds because it’s never quite what you think and we crossed a street together and I looked at her again, dodging the taxis and the whores and bums and dealers and all the other small people like me who have someplace else to be than standing on the street corner not like the taxi is on the street corner we stepped on she was so damn beautiful why didn’t I have a chance I think this might have gone back to high school some time when Lentil got the girl I wanted and I didn’t obviously ’cause then things would be different but fuck Lentil I don’t care he’s dead and now I’m here to take care of Lydia and we’re almost to the pleasure palace we come to the back alley and she looks at me for a second kind of like she doesn’t think we’ll ever see each other so I grab her hand and then the back of her head to kiss her our lips almost touch then she shoves me hard away says “get the fuck off me, asshole” then she’s gone stomping down the alley toward the back entrance and I walk back out to the street and take a deep breath.

Ok.

Time to deal.

Deep breath again.

I think the pill was working.

I started walking again; I already knew everything was in place, with no worries I plodded forward until I came to the red door with the little neon light above it blinking on, blinking off, blink, blink blink.

Blink.

Another deep breath.

I stepped in, keeping my sunglasses on. Inside was a small room draped in red velvet; plush, red leather, high-backed chairs lined the walls.

I heard music from below. I heard music from behind a curtain across the room, which stirred as I crossed the deep rug; the most stunning Asian woman, her waist-length black hair spun in an elaborate braid down her back, stepped out; red satin gown and eyes that tugged at something special inside, something I hadn’t felt before.

Now I stood in front of her; she blinked, I inhaled her scent, her sex, her being.

I wanted to know.

I wanted to understand.

Her breasts heaved as she spoke: “Good evening. You must be Lech.”

I smiled. She smiled back.

“Excellent,” she said, “we’ve been waiting for you…”

She pulled back the curtain.

I entered…

. . .

I felt alive, there, right at that moment.

We walked down a long passage into the earth. A hypnotic beat entranced from below. The red walls surged and pulsed to the beat. A heart beat? Maybe, but I felt at home, there, in the channel leading down.

“Do you have any special requests?” the woman asked from behind me. I turned and her scent entered me. I closed my eyes, breathed deep, and shook my head.

“Just give me the same as everyone else,” I said. We walked down the hall. After a while it leveled out.

Then we entered a room.

Thumping, grinding, weaving women danced in the corner, welding, wearing and whipping each other with long, dark sashes of blood-colored fabric. They tugged, tied, and turned each other between these lines; flesh writhing and worming around. Naked flesh. Soft flesh. Fresh flesh.

I held my breath.

The Asian woman came from behind, stuck her hand in my pants, whispered in my ear, “Welcome to the Pleasure Palace. Can I get you a drink?”

It was all coming clear.

“Yes,” I said, and she detached herself from me as I strode into the room. A tense, tumbling, techno groove entranced the glowing chamber; the shadows lived here, dancing, bringing me closer. Was I the only customer? All I saw was naked, clean, favorite flesh. Young women danced, unafraid, pulsing to the rhythm.

I stared.

They stared back, groaning, inviting me inside, to their private reserve; a thought crossed my mind and I brushed it aside. I wanted everything at once. Had they read my mind? Was perfection real? Was IT real? I never thought…

“Your drink,” she said next to me, held up a martini glass with some crimson liquid splashing about, then pointed toward flaps of red fabric, saying, “Your room is ready.”

I sipped my drink and walked through the living room, into the flaps and a slight passage, down, down, down into the depths, until another curtain.

I stood outside the curtain sipping my drink, the pulse from above slight but still gripping me.

“Well, here’s to Lentil,” I said and slammed the drink. A cold heat tore at my throat, then was gone.

I pushed the curtain aside.

I was pulled inside. Pulled from below, by forces I don’t control. The women took me, held me, swallowed me. Suddenly, I was in Heaven.

Pleasures of the flesh pass so quickly, deliver only the present and past. Once Heaven has been achieved there is only history. When you reach the end there is only the memory of that moment when — despite all the latent fears now exposed and dissolved, despite a presence so intense that one cannot deny its occupance, despite every schoolboy fantasy — nothing could have prepared for this…

Every fantasy I ever had was realized in one long moment.

Then I blinked.

Something had taken me inside. Something different. Something unusual.

Something evil.

I looked down, blinking hard again, coming quickly out of my stupor. Naked bodies surrounded me, pushed me, pulled me toward an open, staring, vacant place of swift, carnivorous destitution.

I blinked again.

The woman’s legs were spread, but they weren’t just legs and they weren’t just spread. My cock was ready. So was I. It pulled me closer.

Blink.

Almost inside.

Blink.

I remembered Lentil calling, calling my name. Needing my help. So many poor girls. Not knowing what happened. The wrong committed. The evil induced.

My pistol and my clothes were gone. I was naked and near its center. It waited to take me.

Blink.

I think it all went wrong here: smashing forward, I sent bodies flying. I twisted and turned flesh suddenly, in a surprise, thrusting another something forward but not quite getting what the fuck was going on as bones broke and flesh tore.

The pill was getting involved.

Again, once again, I crushed something with my hand and blood splattered. I kicked free of the impulse and turned quickly, grabbing my clothes from the ground. Something moved and I crushed it. Then I found my pistol and shot everything. Filled ’em full o’ fuckin’ lead.

Yeah, oh yeah.

Once it was all dead I dressed. Picked up my things and got ready to go.

I didn’t look back, just climbed the passage alone, satisfied in a job well-done. I even had time to smoke a cigarette.

Then someone kicked my head from behind. I collapsed, then turned to see Lentil standing above me.

“C’mon, motherfucker — let’s fight,” he hissed. His hair was blond, he wore a black cap, but it was Lentil’s face and voice. All the same.

“Alright,” I said and leapt. I had him pinned instantly, pulling his head back by the ponytail and smashing his cheek against the floor.

I heard his face go: bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.

“Enough,” said someone behind me, and so I left Lentil’s bloody head to bleed and turned to the next idiot.

A bald man frowned at me.

“Is that any way to treat your best friend?” he asked. He wore a gray suit with many pockets. Behind him two young boys, bald, with sunglasses, stood at attention. “Come now, that’s not friendly at all.”

I licked my hand. It tasted salty. Was it blood?

Wait.

What am I doing?

I looked at the man, said, “Phel Morrow?”

He smiled, laughed lightly. Asked, “Lech?”

I brushed myself off and stood. I held out my hand. He took it and shook it.

“Pleasure,” he said, then his chest barked loudly and sprayed blood all over. I felt something inside hurt slightly.

One boy’s head blew up. Then the other’s.

I hurt inside. Something was gone.

“Fucker!” cried someone familiar, and then Morrow’s arm spewed blood all over again. I felt it best if I sat.

I sat.

Everything tilted once, then tilted again.

Which way was up?

Which way was down?

Oooh, that didn’t feel good.

Lydia was in front of me. She was saying something like “Lech, oh shit, Lech oh shit Lech, oh shit Lech, shit Lech.”

I felt cold.

“Lech,” she said.

And then the whole thing ended for me…

. . .

Call me Lech.

To say that it ended poorly would be to put it lightly.

When I woke, weeks later, recovering from two bullet shots to the chest, I found out that more than 50 people died in the fire that resulted from Larry touching off his incendiary packages; the two people who should have died in the fire, myself and Morrow, were the only two that escaped. Lydia pulled me to safety as the explosions touched off, and Morrow appeared the next day on television hosting a charity event for the families of the people who died in the fire.

We don’t know how he got away — he just did.

If you’re thinking I’m going to explain everything at this point, pull the curtain to reveal the secrets, you’re wrong. Even if I had a curtain to draw back, there’d be nothing for you to see.

I really don’t know what happened at the Pleasure Palace, whether it was actually Lentil I saw, or what was up with Moore and his friends. By the time I came out of the coma, everything was settled and back to normal. Lydia and I were pulled from the blacklist and the case was closed.

She came and visited me in the hospital, told me she was ditching, getting out, heading someplace They couldn’t find her. “You know this hospital room is probably bugged,” I said, coughed a bit.

She nodded.

“This is my resignation letter to them, too,” she said.

Then she kissed my forehead, lips, and whispered in my ear, “I forgive you.”

Then she left.

As far as Lee and Lentil and Professor Charm go, well. . .

Their story will be told later.

I found out Larry had orders from above to burn and run — it was Lydia who risked herself for me. They thanked her and apologized only after she roughed up Larry a bit when they left the hospital after admitting me. He coughed up two words that offered more questions, but at least helped me get direction for my future: Delta Green.

Seems they had been watching me for a long, long time.

No matter, Larry and I eventually made up and found another teammate and ended up saving the world and living happily ever after. . .

But it’s much more complicated than that.

Cha,

Lech over and out.

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