A Lovecraftian Military Serial
By Sean Michael O’Dea
© 2016 by Sean Michael O’Dea. All rights reserved.
Cover by Steve Gray (http://norden41.com/)
Edited by Lindsay Ross-Hazel (https://lrosshazel.wordpress.com/)
This book is the first in a serial format. Expected publishing schedules will be every 6-10 weeks.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopied medium without express written permission of the publisher or author.
This book series is a reimagining of Lovecraft’s remarkable universe now found in the public domain. Some liberties were taken not only with his work, but with the military action and protocol sequences in order to make this series appealing to the widest possible audience. If you have serious reservations about the Lovecraftian elements, or about the military action or dialogue, please feel free to kiss the author’s ass. It’s fiction. Oh and, speaking of fiction. Names of characters, places, events are products of the author’s imagination, or are used factiously. Any resemblance to any persons – living or dead-, business establishments, events, or locales is purely coincidental. Again, fiction.
Additionally, should the reading of this book open any interdimensional portals, or gates to hell, etc. The author assumes no personal responsibility for your physical property, mental constitution, or your soul.
For all the veterans.
Thank you for your service.
Infiltration of Herbert West’s Laboratory/Yukon Territory/Canada/01 JUL 16/0343 hrs
Captain Don McCormick kept his rifle at the low ready. He leaned around the corner quickly and scanned the room before returning to his position of cover in the stairwell. “Clear. Jesus, looks like Guillermo del Toro’s wine cellar in there.”
Across from him, on the other side of the doorway, Siesta went down to one knee and performed his own quick peek, rapidly eyeing the corners he could see from his location. He popped back up to his position with his rifle pulled tight to his chest. “Clear. Shit, you’re right, Pepper. Place is caz,” he announced.
With the last name McCormick—like the spice company—Don was just glad his nickname wasn’t Cumin or Cinnamon. “Totally caz,” Pepper replied. “Let’s move.”
With a practiced crossover maneuver, they both entered the quiet, nightmarish room. A brick and mortar cellar, six stories underground, lined with seven dark cells. Three to the left, four to the right. All of the cell doors were closed, making the room look like an old western sheriff’s office –assuming Wes Craven was the sheriff. The only light came from a handful of dim lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling that flickered and buzzed like the sound of dying flies.
Pepper signaled to his partner to clear the cells on the left. He would take the cells on the right. Both of them used their infrared scopes mounted atop their special operations and peculiarly modified (SOPMOD) M-4 assault rifles. They sidestepped together, slowly scanning each cell and looking for heat signatures.
“Clear,” Siesta whispered after inspecting the first cell on the left. Siesta’s real name was Kyle Murphy, a red-haired, tried-and-true Boston Irishman who had a habit of falling asleep when he drank.
“Clear,” Pepper whispered, surveying the first cell on the right.
“Clear,” Siesta whispered, moving to the next cell.
“Clear,” Pepper echoed as he moved to his next cell.
“Venom to Pepper,” Stanly Kirk interrupted over the radio. His call sign, Venom, was actually an acronym. It stood for Very Enormous Neck Of a Man. Petty Officer Kirk’s giant neck also gave him a hollow, baritone voice that boomed in Pepper’s ear. “Fifth deck secured. It’s a ghost town up here.”
“Freakin’ Navy guys. Always calling it a deck. Jesus,” Pepper muttered, stopping to adjust his earbud. He depressed a small button on his rifle’s grip, wirelessly activating his throat mic. “Copy that, Venom. You and Voodoo comb the lab. Bag and tag.”
“Copy that, Pepper,” Venom replied. “We’re on it.”
“And Venom,” Pepper called back.
“It’s a floor. Not a deck. Seriously. Casper is retired, remember? No one wants to hear your ridiculous sailor jargon.”
“Amen,” Voodoo chimed in. The Air Force sergeant Melanie Hamm was empirical evidence that ass-kickings came in small, heavily tattooed packages. And true to her call sign, trouble seemed to follow her everywhere. Pepper was also fairly certain Venom and her were … involved.
Pepper cued his radio again. “Boss? Big Mac? How are the scientists?”
Big Mac, a former Heisman runner-up turned marine, answered. “Secure, but these cats are gettin’ contentious.”
“Heh,” Siesta snickered. “Contentious. Good word.”
Pepper called out again. “Yodel? Shorty? How we looking on the perimeter?”
“Clean and green,” Yodel came back with a Southern drawl.
“Copy,” Pepper replied before barking at his partner. “Ready, Siesta? Let’s get this done and prep the scientists for evac.”
“Hooah,” the fellow Army Ranger replied.
The two of them resumed their scanning. Their infrared scopes showed the empty cells as huge bands of cool flickering blues and fluttering grays.
“Clear,” Siesta said.
“Clear,” Pepper said. “Last one.”
Siesta spun around to Pepper’s flank and stepped in front of the last cell on the right. Both of their scopes registered the churning orange, reds, and yellows of a massive body squatting in the darkness. “Contact,” Pepper called into his mic. “Standby.”
“What the hell is that thing?” Siesta whispered, watching the hulking thing’s shoulders heave up and down as it presumably breathed.
“Identify yourself!” Pepper yelled in the same voice he used to chide his elite unit. He kept both eyes open, but his natural eyes were unable to register the figure in the shadows, so he concentrated on the swaths of color within his infrared scope.
The hulk lifted its bulbous, malformed head slowly. Warm colors continued to swirl on its face. Saffron lips finally parted, “You. First.” It’s low, gravelly voice echoed in the dark cell.
“We’re the guys with the guns. Now, identify yourself and maybe we can work something out,” Siesta said.
The thing in the cell said nothing.
“Talk to us and maybe we’ll think about getting you outta here,” Pepper added.
A throaty, wet laugh escaped the prisoner. The sound made the hair stand up on both seasoned combatants. “I don’t know a lot of folks who prefer cells. Let us help you out,” Pepper said. “What do you say?”
The hunched prisoner finally stood, slowly growing to near the top of the 10 foot cell. At the shoulders, the beast was nearly four feet wide. “I. Am. Not. Most.” The prisoner talked as if it pained him to utter each and every word.
“Fine. How about we start with what you are doing in this place?” Pepper asked. The great creature grunted eerily like the wild boar Pepper used to hunt in south Texas. “Okay, then. How about tellin’ me where Dr. West is? Where can we find him?”
“Doctor?” the beast replied.
“Yeah. Is he still here? Is he the one who did this to you?”
“The doctor …”
Pepper glanced quickly at Siesta. The Army Specialist’s gloved trigger finger twitched ever so slightly as he maintained his aim at the creature’s center of mass. Whatever this thing was, it was humanoid, which meant that the majority of its vital organs and arteries rested in its torso. “Hey, asshole. You wanna answer our questions or not?” The frustrated Siesta kicked the cell door with his boot to get the prisoner’s attention.
The cell door clanged, then creaked open slightly.
“Oh shit,” Siesta muttered.
The prisoner charged at them like an angry bull. Pepper and Siesta fired their weapons, each of them placing single rounds between cell bars and at the creature’s center of mass as they backed up.
The cell door flew outward in a blur, striking Siesta and launching him into the adjacent brick wall. Being a hunter of both men and beasts, Pepper heard the familiar sound of bones breaking and piercing flesh. His partner was down.
Pepper yelled into his coms as he continued to back away and fire. “Engaging target! Code Alpha! Code Alpha!” His squad mates would hear the distress call and hurry to his position.
The freed creature’s naked flesh seemed to absorb every hypersonic .223 round Pepper fired without pause or pain. With every third round fired, Pepper aimed for the head, hoping its skull wasn’t as bullet-resistant. The headshots did nothing. The creature charged him, ape-like, propelling itself faster with steroidal arms. The violent locomotion shook the concrete beneath Pepper’s feet.
Pepper heard his own ribs crack as he absorbed the charge. He heard his own shoulder blades split as he hit the brick wall behind him. Adrenaline graciously relieved him of the pain of both injuries, but it failed miserably to give him the oxygen he desperately needed. He tried to inhale, but the air seemed to pass right through him. A broken rib must have punctured a lung.
He tried lifting the rifle still slung to his right side, but the creature stomped on his ankle, pulverizing the joint and the three bones that intersected there. Pepper tried to scream, but the creature grabbed him by the neck, sealing off his airway with one massive hand.
Frantically, Pepper unsheathed his single-edged, Yarborough knife from his load-bearing vest. With a tight arch, he swung and dragged the blade across the thing’s forearm, intending to sever its strained tendons. But the seven-inch, stainless steel blade failed to penetrate the creature’s tough hide.
Pepper heard footsteps hurrying down the nearby stairwell. His team would be here any second. That’s when he felt the hyoid bone in his neck buckle. His windpipe collapsed. He dropped his knife. And as he heard it clank against the cold concrete, a soldier’s ultimate reality became perfectly lucid. In his fading thoughts, he could hear, of all people, Casper. Quoting Homer’s Iliad, as he often did.
It is entirely seemly for a young man killed in battle to lie mangled by the bronze spear. In his death, all things appear fair.
Freakin’ Navy guys.
Starbucks Coffee/San Diego/California/02 AUG 16/1034 hrs
You know what’s better than waking up at dawn’s ass crack for some heart-pounding cardio and muscle-tearing calisthenics? Getting up whenever the hell I want, heading down to everyone’s favorite stylishly overpriced coffee shop, ordering something with enough caffeine in it to kill a large exotic mammal, and doing the LA Times crossword. In pen.
The TV in the corner blares among the chattering patrons and clanging spoons. The local meteorologist mentions something about continued seismic activity in the Pacific causing some serious swells to hit Southern California. I make a mental note to wax my surfboard later. Also, I make a mental note to finally learn how to surf.
“Heya, Skip,” Bryan the barista greets me. His scraggly beard and unkempt hair pulled up into a man-bun makes him look like a disheveled but confident Hollywood type. Or a samurai. In actuality, however, Bryan the barista is a severely underperforming student of criminal justice studies at the local community college. “The usual for ya, boss?”
“I don’t like surprises,” I reply.
“One white chocolate mocha with extra shot of espresso and extra whip comin’ up.”
“Hey Bryan,” I ask the future crime-fighter.
“What’s up, boss?”
“The suit in the corner. Crew cut. You seen him around lately?”
“Couldn’t tell you? Why?”
“No reason,” I reply. While waiting for the mocha, I pull out my smartphone. It’s obnoxiously large and equally hip. I click it on, pretending to check the time, my email count, the daily forecast, or whatever. Then, I click it off. The screen itself is reflective. It might as well be a mirror. It takes me a split second to scan the entire coffee shop behind me. The suit with the crew cut is doing a very poor job at blending in. He’s now donned his dark wayfarers and is still pretending he’s reading the paper even though his eyes are squarely fixed on me. I pull a similar maneuver when wearing my own sunglasses so I can admire the female form when I’m at the beach. Or the mall. Supermarket. Whatever. But here’s the thing—wayfarer sunglasses are typically worn by two types of people. Hipsters and frat boys. Given that crew cut has creases in his pants that are perfectly centered, a flawlessly knotted tie pinned to his blockish chest, and shoes shinier than a hooker’s nail polish, I’d say he’s neither. This guy is military. And he’s keeping tabs on me. I put the phone back in my jeans pocket.
“Here you go, Skip.” Bryan hands me a hot cup.
“Gracias,” I reply, forgoing the cardboard sleeve and popping the lid off onto the counter. Scolding hot coffee isn’t necessarily a deadly weapon, but it’s highly effective. For example, if I, theoretically, needed to throw my steaming cup of joe in crew cut’s face over there, it would blind him and make every nerve ending in his face flare like a supernova. And, in the brief amount of time that the reptilian part of his brain tells his hands to cover his face, I could either sidekick his knee with the 7.5 pounds of pressure I need to snap it, or chop his throat with the knife-edge of my hand. The former requires years of physical therapy just to walk without a limp. The latter collapses your windpipe and ensures you breathe through a straw for the rest of your life. So, yeah. Theoretically, hot coffee is effective.
I stop in front of crew cut’s table and obnoxiously slurp the whip cream off the top of my coffee. Crew cut tenses his right hand like he wants to reach for the gun that is most likely on his right hip, concealed by his suit coat. I also notice his left ring finger has deep grooves of various widths swirling around it. He’s been married at least twice. Each ring scarred his finger as it jostled about—probably on multiple combat tours. Yes, sir-ree. Crew cut here fits the typical bill for a Marine Corps sergeant.
I would like to think that I intimidated the older marine—what with my flip flops, frayed jeans, and vintage Mötley Crüe T-shirt, but I probably didn’t. But here’s the bottom line: I don’t know this asshole and he is watching me like a hawk. I don’t like that. I really don’t like that.
I set my coffee down on an empty table and head toward the bathrooms. I round the corner into a small hallway, out of sight from crew cut. Adjacent to the single bathroom, there is another door. I’m guessing, although I’ve never really confirmed, that it leads to a storage room. My hope is that the storage room also has an exit to the alley where I can make a quiet escape. My predication turns out to be correct. As I enter, I am confronted by looming shelves of coffee bags, shrink-wrapped stylish cups, various holiday decorations, and a larger-than-normal receiving door.
As I step into the brick-lined access between buildings, a new model Ford Taurus, painted battleship gray with illegally tinted windows, careens through the alley. It screeches to a diagonal stop between the dumpsters. The driver-side door opens and a man emerges. I recognize him immediately. His voice echoes in the alley. “Lieutenant Commander Scipio Cincinnatus Conway.” He slams the door. “We need to talk.”
“Director Fiske,” I reply. “You know, you could’ve just called.”
“We tried,” he says, walking toward me. “And tried. And tried.”
Blaine Fiske is basketball-player tall, caramel-skinned and, essentially, hairless. His bald pate ends in a point and compliments his condor’s beak of a nose. His tailored charcoal slacks and open-collared white shirt look like they are painted on his thin, muscular frame. The man doesn’t have a single curve on him. He is all sharp angles held together by rigid tendons—the kind of guy people hate to hug because a casual embrace with him would bruise your soft tissue. I remember returning to the Haunt after a particularly difficult mission in the Gobi Desert. I gave him an emotional, happy-to-be-home hug. Not like a full-on hug, mind you, but one of those bro-tastic side hugs. Anyway, I’m quite certain his collarbone punctured my carotid artery.
At the age of 50-something, Director Fiske is technically an Air Force colonel and a bureaucratic cog in the sputtering machine that is American government. He’s also one hell of a triathlete. If the man isn’t hosting a meeting, writing a report, or scolding a subordinate, he is cycling, running, or swimming. Beneath his glistening and shorn dome, he wears a pair of brushed titanium glasses with a camera and prism overlay on the right lens. When Google came out with their new, wearable tech, he was the first to have one. It’s quite possibly the nerdiest fixture invented since the pocket-protector.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, sir?” I ask.
“We need your help,” he replies.
“We do? Well, I’m sorry to inform you that I retired 18 months ago.”
He sighs deeply through his nose and stares. His telltale sign of frustration.
“Oh fine. Tell me what’s up,” I finally say.
“I’m afraid I’m unable to disclose the nature of my request until you sign the required documentation.”
“It’s the rule.” He stops talking to me and starts talking to his glasses. “Open file Conway contract. Send to email. Recipient Scipio Conway. No. Scipio Conway. No,” he sighs again, “fluffykitty908 at Gmail dot com.”
I chuckle. Seconds later my obnoxiously large phone vibrates in my pocket. I pull it out and check the email, downloading and skimming the pdf attachment. “So you want me to come back? I thought that was against the rules? No operative shall serve more than seven years? You instituted that policy, remember?”
“More than 200 years of statistics are clear: Operatives spending more than 84 months in the field are subject to a host of different mental disorders and have dramatically lower lifespans.”
“Kinda like the NFL, huh?”
That earns me a petrifying glare.
“Too soon?” I say.
“My willingness to bend the rules here should tell you the gravity of the situation, Casper.” He calls me by my former call sign.
I read the fine print. “Activation for six months only?”
“Geez, I don’t know. I mean, what if I found somebody? What am I supposed to tell her? I’m almost 36, maybe I want to settle down?”
Fiske lifts an eyebrow.
“Ah, fine. I was getting bored anyway.” I tap my screen, sign with my finger, and after a few swipes, I send the document back to him. I can tell he gets it because his eyes bounce side to side as he reads the display on his lens. “I’m all yours, sir.”
Director Fiske looks back to the Taurus and nods. The passenger side door opens. A woman emerges that I don’t recognize. She’s all legs and torso in her pencil skirt and white blouse. Her brown hair is pulled into a slick and perfectly symmetrical ponytail. She wears wide-frame tortoiseshell glasses. Probably designer. Overall, she’s the girl next door. If the girl next door majored in quantum physics and could serve a tennis ball over 120 MPH. Her clicking heels echo in the alley.
“Commander Conway,” she says flatly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She’s as tall as me in her heels –just over six feet—and carries a black Pelican case the size of a toaster. It’s the kind of case you could put a carton of eggs in, drop it off the Empire State Building, and not a single one would crack.
“Scipio. This is our new Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Northcutt. Recently hired from Miskatonic University, where she was a professor of cryptophysiology.”
“Miskatonic. Wow. Good school. And cryptophysiology?”
She’s too polite to roll her eyes, but I can tell she wants to. “I search for hidden structures and systems in living organisms in hopes of explaining unique function.”
I look at the ID badge clipped to the bottom of her blouse. It’s corporately ambiguous and bland. It’s also a terrible picture of her. It reads: H. NORTHCUTT, MD, PhD. “What’s the H stand for?”
She ignores the question and rests the Pelican case on a nearby recycling bin, unlatches it, and withdrawals rubber gloves and an alcohol swab. As she dons her protective gear, good ol’ crew cut appears from behind me.
Fiske nods in crew cut’s direction. “This is Gunnery Sergeant Lyle Baines. He’s our new Quartermaster and Director of Training.”
The brutish marine extends his hand while he slips his jaw back and forth. He looks like an aging Buzz Lightyear and even sounds like him. “Nice to meet you, sir. Sorry if I alarmed you in there. I’m not exactly cut out for this cloak-and-dagger shit.”
“No problemo, Buzz.”
Dr. Northcutt pulls out a massive needle-tipped syringe. It’s filled with an iridescent green fluid. It’s a classic operative vaccine. A cocktail of innocuous microbes meant to build your immunities against diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, werewolf bites, zombie viruses, and what not. You know, the usual. They’re probably giving it to me now because they want me back in the field within the week. Fantastic.
Without consent, she grabs my arm, swabs some real estate on the meat of my shoulder and jabs me. It stings. Then burns. Really burns. I try to look tough in front of my new coworkers, especially Dr. Northcutt, as spiderwebs of green and black grow underneath my skin, spreading both toward my chest and past my forearm. The lines slowly dissipate, leaving me with a tingling sensation like the inside of my body has become an ant colony, and thousands of ants march within my hollowed veins.
Dr. Northcutt inspects the injection site and prepares a small bandage. “I read your file, Commander,” she said with her glasses falling to the tip of her nose.
“Please, call me Skip.”
“I’m curious to know if there is a story behind your name? It’s rather unique.”
“Actually, my father is a professor, too. University of Wyoming. Classical Studies. He named me after his favorite figures in Roman history. Scipio Africanis, the general who defeated Hannibal. And Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the consul and dictator.”
“Yep. Instead of children’s books, my dear old dad read me Homer and Virgil.”
“Do they call you Casper because you’re from Wyoming, then?” She finally placed the adhesive blood stopper on and pushed her glasses back with her pointer finger.
“Unfortunately, no. It’s short for Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
“I don’t get it,” she admits.
Director Fiske steps forward and interrupts, “On his first mission, he had an unpleasant encounter with a banshee.”
I nod. “A Grade II Phantasm.”
She squints her eyes. She’s either in disbelief or cataloging her brain for what Grade II Phantasm might be.
Fiske continues, “He absorbed an unmitigated shriek head-on, instantly turning his hair ghost white. By the way, I like the new look.”
I run my hand through my disheveled brown hair. “Just for Men. According to the box, it’s called warm chestnut,” I reply. Dr. Northcutt finally cuts the slightest of smiles.
“So now that the formalities are over, you wanna tell me what’s going on?” I say.
Fiske sighs deeply through his nose again. “Six weeks ago, we had a T.S.E.”
I close my eyes. “Ohhhhh, man,” I manage to say. The government speaks in acronyms because acronyms are emotionally detached. Acronyms are cold. And this particular acronym is so cold my veins freeze over, halting the warm ants marching inside them. You see, T.S.E. stands for Total Squad Eradication. And this would only be the third one in S.P.O.O.k history.
“Who was team lead?” I ask.
“What about Venom? Yodel? Siesta?”
“They’re all presumed dead, Scipio.”
“Bodies have yet to be recovered,” Fiske adds.
“I served with Pepper for my last two years,” I say. “The man was an incredible soldier. As capable as anyone on the team. I mean, for Christ’s sake, he hunted wild boar with only a knife. Something doesn’t add up?”
Fiske says nothing. He lets me process.
“How?” I finally ask.
“Infiltrating an underground laboratory complex. There was … something in there.”
“And you want me to find your something?”
“We recently received new intel. There will be 0630 briefing at the Haunt with your new team. You will resume your role as team lead. All your questions will be addressed then.” Fiske abruptly turns and walks back to his car. Dr. Northcutt and Buzz follow. No handshake, no pat on the shoulder, no “I’m sorry, Skip.” Or, “Hey! Thanks for your help, Skip! We really appreciate it. Now let’s go get the shitbags who killed your friends.” Honestly, Fiske can be a real dick sometimes.
“Hey,” I call down the alley, “I’m gonna need Moose on this one.”
Fiske turns. “We called him first.”
Sunset Point Apartments #21B /San Diego/California/02 AUG 16/2025 hrs
She looks at me with those eyes.
“The hair, right?” I say with an awkward laugh. “I went to Great Clips. Got cleaned up. Nice, huh?” I run a hand through my cropped, freshly dyed hair. “Listen, I’m sorry I’m so late, but I had some things to sort through, you know, take care of.” I don’t know how, but she knows. She knows I’m leaving. Jesus. I told her I was done with this.
“Listen,” I say, “I’m not exactly good at this kind of thing.”
She squints her eyes and tilts her head slightly. She’s heard this before. I’m not the first guy to do this to her. She’s smart, and I know she’s anticipating what I’m going to say. Dammit.
“I know I said I was done. But the truth is …” I sigh.
She takes a step closer to me. Eyes wide now. Cautious.
“I mean, you’re welcome to stay here. You are. It’s fine. But … I … I have to go away for a while.”
I swear to God she peers right through my soul. “I’m sorry, baby girl. But this is something I have to do.” I massage my temples. “I’ve already talked to the neighbor kid. He’s gonna stop by every once and awhile. Check up on you.
The automated feeder clicks, and food pours into her bowl. She races toward it, ignoring me.
“Really? That’s how it’s going to be? I mean, seriously. Do you remember the dump I rescued you from? The least you could do is say goodbye. Mojo? Mojo!? Are you even listening to me?”
The black cat gobbles up her food without a care.
“Oh, fine.” I head back to my room, where I exchange my relaxed, frayed jeans for Wranglers. I don a plain white tee under an open work shirt the color of the desert I’ll be driving through soon, and I swap my beach sandals for thick black socks and a pair of worn leather cowboy boots with Kevlar inserts. Lastly, I ruin my new haircut by putting on my sun-stained University of Wyoming ball cap with the iconic yellow silhouette of a hat-waving cowboy riding a bucking bronco.
In my closet, I snatch my previously prepared bugout bag. In it is a change of clothes, a gallon of water, $3,000 cash, extra cellphone, energy bars, a multi-tool, flashlight, cheap-ass watch, a can of Copenhagen, and a compact Glock 30—a big bore .45 caliber with a smooth pull and requires little maintenance.
I walk to the kitchen. On top of the fridge is a half-full bottle of rye whiskey. Midshelf. I take a small swig because I have a long drive ahead of me. I grab the keys to my 1989 Ford F-150 pick-up truck with a rebuilt V-8 and take a last look at my apartment. Most people would consider it sparsely furnished. I prefer the term “Spartan.” But my three-quarter view of the sunset over the Pacific, that’s what I will really miss.
Mojo finally hops from stool to counter and meows at me. I scratch her chin and tell her a final goodbye.
Like most cats, she doesn’t give a rat’s ass.
Groom Lake/Nevada/03 AUG 16/0535 hrs
North of Las Vegas on Interstate 15, you will find U.S. Route 93. Follow that north to a historically designated ghost town called Crystal Springs. That’s where you’ll catch the famous Nevada State Route 375—the Extraterrestrial Highway. Aptly named because off that route you will find a poorly marked exit called Groom Road. Don’t blink, you might miss it. Groom Road leads you west for 30 miles through a variety of military checkpoints to Groom Lake, a salt flat remnant of an ancient lake and home of the infamous Area 51.
I drive all night. Windows down, a plug of Copenhagen Long Cut in my mouth, and a medley of glam rock playing to keep me awake. When I’m about 50 miles out, the government tracks me, as they do everyone, with a variety of nifty surveillance equipment including high-def drones made to look like soaring hawks, nesting rattlers, and precariously arranged cacti.
My vintage truck kicks up a huge cloud of dust into the desert air as I pull up to one of two adjacent hangars directly off the southern shores of the glaring white salt flat. A salt pan more than two miles in diameter, which contains two enormous unmarked, unpaved runways. Google it. It’s neat.
Both hangars are corrugated steel, faded white due to the sand-filled winds that whip off the northern mountains in the White Pine Range. The east hangar houses our own MC-130E transport aircraft (the slightly more attractive cousin of the C-130 Hercules). It also contains the pilot’s quarters, and all other vehicles our task force uses. We appropriately call it the Hangar. Next door to the Hangar is a nearly identical building. Only it has a single, highly secured entry door surrounded by a series of meticulously painted Viking runes. Those runes are ancient wards that act like an electric fence to evil poltergeists. This is the headquarters for S.P.O.O.k. We affectionately call it the Haunt.
The high-pitched whine of a sports car at high speed distracts me. I turn to look down the access road and see a sleek, yellow Chevy Corvette barreling toward me. Its halogen headlights burn through the early morning air, and its tires chew through and spit up the gravel from the road. The vehicular embodiment of America with dealer plates slows as it enters the makeshift parking lot of the Haunt. The rear wheels then lock up as the driver pulls the emergency brake, spinning the car to a stop exactly parallel to my old truck.
“Show off,” I mutter.
The deeply growling engine shuts off, and the driver door opens. A sharply dressed man emerges. He wears a finely tailored suit that emphasizes his broad triangular frame. His muscles are so large and defined, it looks like he’s smuggling rocks under his Armani coat. He pairs his ensemble with stylish, perfectly white sneakers. His jet-black hair is cut short and is perfectly groomed. His skin is olive and his features surprisingly soft, almost boyish. His eyes, however, are dark and serious. They’re the eyes of man who knows no complacency. A man who has seen death. A man whose trade, in a way, is dealing death. Not because he is some sociopath or a bullied kid with an axe to grind as an adult. No. He’s a warrior. And he knows the death he deals is unfortunate, but necessary. Purposeful, but still, somehow, entirely futile.
He is a former member of Delta Force, the U.S Army’s most elite of special ops. His name is Mustafa Sadik. He’s Turkish-American. He’s a Muslim. He’s one hell of an operator. And he’s my friend.
“New car, Moose?” I ask him.
He answers with a smile that would melt a camera lens. “Nice, huh?”
“Kind of fancy for a high school teacher in East L.A., don’t you think?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Yes.”
“You ready to do this again?” I ask, giving the classic bro hug.
“I wouldn’t miss it, my brother.”
The door to the Haunt opens behind us. Gunnery Sergeant Lyle Baines emerges wearing a crisp, plain tee tucked into green athletic shorts that reveal a little too much of his tree trunk legs. “Good morning, gents,” he says, throwing a leg back to stretch his quad. He’s wearing brightly colored trail-running shoes.
“Morning, Buzz,” I respond.
Maintaining perfect balance, he says, “Director Fiske requested I administer your physical readiness tests. Passing is a requirement to rejoin the team. We’ll start with the two-mile run. Ready?” He clicks his wristwatch. It beeps, and he takes off into the desert landscape. Moose looks down at my cowboy boots, then to his sneakers, and smiles. Operators have to be ready for anything. He shrugs off his Armani coat in one fluid motion and throws it at me before sprinting to catch up with Buzz.
I swear under my breath, shed my work shirt, and hustle to catch up.
Groom Lake/Nevada/03 AUG 16/0613 hrs
Buzz, who is easily 10 years my senior, dashes through the familiar desert course like a goddamn gazelle. I slog through it in my boots, managing not to break my ankles or rub off every ounce of skin on my feet. After the timed run, Moose and I perform the remainder of the tests. Push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. We pass and thrash our civilian clothing in the process. Have I mentioned how much I don’t like our new Quartermaster?
We escape the already blazing desert heat by ducking into the Haunt, where the industrial-strength air conditioner pumps out an arctic cold front that turns the sweat on our skin into a sticky glue. We make our way down to the briefing room and subsequent nerve center of S.P.O.O.k.
At the center of the briefing room is a polished mahogany table embedded with touch screens and encompassed by leather chairs that look like they could furnish an Old World chateau. At the north end of the table is a wall of monitors displaying everything from satellite images to news feeds. The 70-inch megamonitor at the center of the array plays continuing coverage of the undersea earthquakes in the middle of the Pacific. A raincoat reporter on Japan’s east coast jabbers on about the immediate effect on East Asian maritime commerce.
Toward the south end of the table, in the corner, is a sleek metal box the size and rough shape of an office copier. It’s painted black with red warning stripes lining the bottom. A solitary swivel-arm protrudes from one side, holding up a laptop. Four people stand around it. Dr. H. Northcutt adjusts her tortoiseshell glasses as she stoops and stares at the laptop screen. The man nearest the laptop with his hand hovering over the keyboard is Dr. Rakesh Radhakrishnan— S.P.O.O.k’s resident mad scientist—or if you like bureaucratic government acronyms, the M.S. Or, for us phonetic-alphabet-loving military types, the Mike Sierra.
The mechanical genius from Calcutta is of average height with silver-black hair and the bitchin’ mustache of a Bollywood villain. “Inside this machine is highly sophisticated scanning equipment set in a vacuum,” he explains. “It also contains one of the only three remaining copies of the Necronomicon. When we need to reference the ancient text, we access it through this interface.” He taps a few keys. A window pops up, showing the scan of the original blood-red manuscript. This particular page is written in an ancient Arabic, but within the tome bound in human flesh you will also read Demotic Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Latin, and a handful of other yet-to-be identified languages. Another adjacent window pops up on the laptop screen, providing the translation in crisp Times New Roman font. “As you may have been told, those who study the book descend into madness. So reading directly from its pages is expressly prohibited.”
“I don’t get it,” announces a young girl in desert camo fatigues. She’s the shortest of the onlooking group. One side of her head is shaved. Light blonde and electric-pink hair hangs down the other side. She chews a wad of gum while she talks. “Why all the tech? Why not just download the book? Can’t be that big, can it?”
“We’ve tried,” Dr. Radhakrishnan replies. “But the saved data always disappears within hours. Real-time scanning is the only successful method to date.”
“Fascinating,” Dr. Northcutt says.
“Hey Mike, tell ‘em about the guys who built that machine,” I say.
Everyone turns to look at Moose and I.
“Who the hell are you?” the young girl asks. She pops a bubble the same color as the pink in her hair.
“Calm down, Bubble Gum, and listen to the story,” I reply.
Dr. Radhakrishnan sighs and continues. “Twenty years ago, two gentlemen were contracted to build this machine. Upon its completion, one of them went back to his home in Norfolk, Virginia, and shot himself in the head. Twice.”
“What about the other?” a young Hispanic man asks. He’s almost as tall as I am, with a thick carpet of black hair. His camouflaged sleeves are rolled up so that his Army Airborne tattoo—the screaming eagle of the 101st —is clearly visible on his left forearm. He’s classically handsome and looks like he could play the role of the rookie cop from a bad telenovela, the kind of character who lasts maybe three episodes. Maybe.
“The second man walked out the front door,” Dr. Radhakrishnan points toward the entrance of the Haunt. “And he kept walking. Into the desert. They found him three weeks later. Dead. Petrified, even.”
“No shit,” Bubble Gum interjects.
“No shit,” Mike confirms as he extends his hand to me. We perform our elaborate, secret handshake like we’re middle school best friends.
“All right, everyone. Have a seat. Time is of the essence,” Director Fiske announces as he strolls into the room.
“Always, sir. Always,” the young Hispanic man mutters as he follows me to a chair.
Directory Fiske stands at the head of the table in front of the wall of monitors and stands with his fingers pressed into the mahogany. Moose and I take the seats near him, our sweaty skin sticking the leather chair. The young Hispanic man sits next me. Bubble Gum, the sweat-stained Buzz, and the two doctors also grab a seat.
“For those of you who don’t know them, this is 1st Sergeant Mustafa Sadik and Lieutenant Commander Skip Conway. Better known as Moose and Casper. They’re former S.P.O.O.k operatives and will be the new team leads going forward. Gentlemen,” Fiske looks at Moose and me, “you know Dr. Radhakrishnan. This is Dr. Northcutt, our new Chief Medical Officer. Gunnery Sergeant Lyle Baines, our new Quartermaster and Director of Training.” He finally points to the young people. “This is Corporal Raymond Hernandez and Miss Stephanie Treader.
I look over at Bubble Gum, who scowls at me, and then back to Director Fiske. Historically, S.P.O.O.k has recruited from the Department of Defense. Military types. And although no one but the Director really knows the criteria required to serve on this unit, to my knowledge, we’ve never brought on a civilian.
“Where’s the rest of the team?” I ask.
Fiske shakes his head. “Only two recruits graduated our last training class. We are currently operating at minimal staff with only four field operatives. Most of our support staff resigned after the recent incident.”
Operators have to be prepared for anything, even working with short staff. “What about our pilots? Our chaplains?”
“Twister and Blue are still with us. As are the Three Wise Men.”
“So that’s it? That’s everyone?” I ask in disbelief.
“That’s it,” Fiske says. He punctuates the conversation by clearing his throat. “Just over a month ago, Warlock Team infiltrated an underground laboratory in the Canadian Rockies. They were looking for evidence of illegal human experimentation and unsanctioned necromancy.”
“Who was doing the experimenting?” I ask.
Fiske talks to his glasses. Behind him, the newscast on the 70-inch megamonitor flashes. A commercial begins with soft, synthetic music accompanying a sweeping, helicopter view of rural Massachusetts. Rolling emerald hills are spotted with aging barns that finally yield to a modern, angular tower of ivory-colored metal and glass. The scene cuts to inside the tower, and we see handsome man with plastered salt-and-pepper hair wearing a lab coat. He has high cheek bones and a square jaw covered in fashionable stubble. He rests a polished oxford on a small metal stool that matches the others scattered throughout the laboratory around him. Engulfing him is a whole array of science-y shit. The entire frame explodes with sunlight through the wall of glass behind him that overlooks the countryside.
The dashing scientist speaks.
“You know, more than a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather, Dr. Herbert West, founded our company on a single principle—to make the human body as eternal as the human soul.”
The camera changes angles like it would on a news anchor. The doctor cocks his head slightly.
“Hello, my name is Dr. Herbert West IV, and I am proud to say that we here at West Pharmaceuticals have never stopped working to fulfill that vision.”
The scene cuts again to Herbert West IV briskly walking down a hallway lined with happy, smiling test subjects. He talks without stopping.
“Through our advances in immunotherapy, gene therapy, epigenetic modification, and cellular rejuvenation, we’ve been able to accomplish things that science never thought possible. Come on, I’ll show you.”
He signals the camera to follow, and the scene cuts again, this time into a patient room where a young boy of maybe 10 sits atop a hospital bed happily kicking his legs that don’t quite reach the ground. West ruffles the boy’s thick, dust-colored hair.
“As a result of a house fire, Tommy here suffered first-degree burns to more than 90 percent of his body.”
A frame within the frame slides into the picture, showing a child wrapped in gauze, mummy-like. The exposed parts of his skin are grotesquely charred as he grimaces for the photo.
“Thanks to our patented Pnakotic Therapy, we were not only able to treat Tommy’s burns and ensuing infections, but also regrow what he had lost. Epidermal skin, including hair, eyelids, fingertips, and his nose. The good doctor taps the tip of the boy’s nose. “And all of it with less than 1 percent scarring.”
Dr. West smiled, and the smooth-skinned boy gave a cued thumbs-up.
“Pause video,” Fiske said to his glasses.
“Holy shit,” I interject. “Herbert West IV? The Bill Gates of Big Pharma?”
“The same.” Fiske talks to his glasses again. A new image pops up on megamonitor. It’s a night-vision view of from atop someone’s helmet. “Sergeant Melanie Hamm, call sign Voodoo, wore a combat camera throughout Warlock Team’s last operation. Despite all the underground interference, we were able to piece together their last moments. Play video.”
The video runs. We all see the gloved hands of Voodoo inspecting papers, vials, and various instruments strewn about tables. Because of the night vision, everything in the frame is some shade of green. We can hear scattered radio calls through static. I hear Pepper’s firm voice bark orders. I hear Voodoo’s no-bullshit voice crack a joke. Then we all hear Pepper radio in a Code Alpha. A priority command that means every able body needs to get their ass to the caller with guns blazing. Just listening to the video makes my muscles tense.
Voodoo exchanges the papers in her hands for her MP-5 submachine gun and runs for an exit. It looks like a goddamn video game. The camera bounces as she descends flights of stairs. It’s on the stairwell that a green mass rises from the darkness to meet her. The muzzle of her MP-5 flashes. Full auto. But the green mass doesn’t stop. It races toward her. She swears and continues to fire. The green mass final collides with her, knocking her to the stairs. The mass is clearer now. It’s an enormous man. Face malformed. It cocks a fist back and strikes. And strikes. And strikes. Voodoo stops firing. She stops moving. It sounds like someone punching through a watermelon. The frame freezes as the monster cocks his hand back one more time. We all look at the thing.
“What is that?” Moose asks stoically.
“Totally caz is what it is,” I respond.
“I’m sorry. Caz?” Dr. Northcutt asks.
“It’s an acronym. C.A.S.,” Moose spells it out.
“What’s it stand for?”
“Creepy as shit,” I answer for Moose since he doesn’t swear. Ever.
“We haven’t been able to identify who, or even what, this thing is,” Fiske says.
“Does it match anything in the Nec?” I ask, referring to the Necronomicon.
“Two full scans reveal nothing,” Mike Sierra answers.
Fiske continues. “Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 cleared out the lab 12 hours later. They found no trace.”
“Of the bodies? Of evidence? No trace of what?” I demand.
“No trace of anything,” Fiske says. He rewinds the footage with a command. The frame stops on a piece of paper Voodoo was holding. “Zoom,” Fiske commands. “This is an invoice for a state-of-the-art oxygen generator. It works by the electrolysis of water. After some research, we’ve found that this particular unit is used in top-of-the-line civilian-operated submersibles.”
“Private submarines?” I say.
“We were able to access the databases of various manufacturers. As it turns out, Benito Delacerda purchased two such submersibles.”
“Whoa. You mean the Bill Gates of the Mexican cartels,” Corporal Hernandez says.
“The same,” Fiske replies.
“Nice one,” I say to Hernandez.
“Always,” he replies with a nod and a wink.
“The DEA captured Benito Delacerda more than a year ago. With an indefinite prison sentence looming, the Mexican government auctioned off all his known estates. Including this little gem on the Baja Peninsula, outside the town of Rosarito.” The megamonitor changes to a 3D satellite view of walled hacienda set against a sheer rocky cliff that plunges into the Pacific Ocean. The touchscreens embedded in our table light up with the same picture. “This estate was purchased by Dagon Industries. An obscure holding corporation controlled by …”
“West Pharmaceuticals,” Corporal Hernandez says.
“Correct,” Fiske confirms. “Herbert West via Dagon Industries purchased the home and the two submersibles docked a mile down the coast at auction.”
“So what’s the plan?” I ask, turning the hacienda’s image 360 degrees on my touchscreen. “We hit the house?”
“According to Mexican authorities, there is a laboratory beneath the house. A place where Delacerda’s scientists could cook up the latest and greatest in narcotics. So far, this is our only lead. We’ll hit the house, hit the lab. See if we can’t find some answers. Find out what happened to Warlock Team. If we’re lucky, we might even nab West himself. Gunnery Sergeant Baines and I have already tailored an action plan.”
“Whoa! Whoa!” I say. “What is our time frame, here? This mission is going to take months to prep and rehearse.”
“You’re on the flight line at 2300 hours this evening.”
I laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No,” Fiske says flatly. “We’ve seen an increase in activity around the complex over the last 48 hours. Something is buzzing there. That’s clear enough. And I want to know what.”
“Insertion?” Moose asks calmly.
“Commercial air traffic is common over that airspace. We’ve decided a HALO jump is the least likely to be detected. Twister and Blue are working on flight plans as we speak,” Fiske replies.
“Always, sir. Always,” Corporal Hernandez, the paratrooper, agrees.
“Infiltration?” I ask.
“There’s a secure door we believe leads directly to the underground laboratory on the premises. Probably an emergency egress. Ms. Treader should be able to bypass the biometric security measures,” Fiske says. The aforementioned door on the west side of the property appears on our touch screen.
I look over to Bubble Gum. She winks and chews her gum.
“Resistance?” Moose asks.
“Armed private security inside and on random perimeters. Basic surveillance package. We’ve also confirmed at least one canine,” Fiske replies. Our touchscreens zoom into the hacienda, showing an interior layout. “Corporal Hernandez had a perfect score on his sniper practicals. He’ll be on overwatch and have eyes on the perimeter. Dr. Northcutt, Dr. Radhakrishnan, and I will monitor the satellite and communication feeds from this room.”
“OK,” I say, “so Hernandez is our archangel, and Moose, Bubble Gum, and I will be on entry.”
“Hey!” Corporal Hernandez yells. “How come she already has a call sign and I don’t?”
I look at the young paratrooper. “What’s the Spanish word for always?”
“Siempre,” Moose replies, who speaks four languages. Seriously. The guy is a total stud.
“Welcome aboard, Siempre,” I say to Hernandez.
Siempre nods again. “Always.”
“How about evacuation?” Moose asks.
“A little trickier,” Fiske says. “You’ll make your way east, hump it roughly three miles through rough terrain to the town of Rosarito. You will disguise yourselves as tourist backpackers and take the 9 a.m. bus north to Tijuana. Our San Diego channels should be able to pick up there.”
“What if we have a package in tow?” Siempre asks.
“You will have tranquilizers on standby. The package will become your ‘buddy who had a little too much to drink the night before and needs to sleep it off on the bus ride home.’ Any questions?”
I look around. “Yeah. Warlock Team’s out. What’s our team name?”
“Your team, your call, Casper,” Fiske says.
I nod. “Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher and historian told the story of a giant brown bird brought to Rome from Arabia under the reign of Claudius I. It’s said the displaced bird nested on a bed of spices and promptly died.” I hold up a solitary finger. “But days later, from the rotting feathers and bones of the old one, a new bird rose. A bird with feathers so orange it looked to be on fire. Pliny called this resurrected creature the Phoenix.”
Over the Baja Peninsula /Mexico/04 AUG 16/0300 hrs
Moose wakes me up with a hard shove. He stands over me, wearing all black with the dark visor of his helmet already pulled down. He looks like a cross between Darth Vader and a jungle insect. With a gloved hand, he signals to me that we are five minutes out from our drop zone. After an entire day rehearsing room-clearing techniques with my new team, reviewing HALO procedures, a little yoga, as well as weapons familiarization and loadout, I couldn’t help but fall asleep on the 2.5 hour flight to the Baja Peninsula.
We affectionately call our MH-130 air transport Velma, as in Velma Dinkley from Scooby-Doo. It’s a tribute, you know. To the only member of the gang who actually solved supernatural mysteries. Anyway, the inside of Velma’s hull looks like the inside of a giant pop can. But when filled with 64 geared-out paratroopers, it looks like the inside of a veritable can of whoop-ass. Since there are only four of us, however, and we don’t need to carry the gear for a sustained operation, one could say that we are a flying can of diet whoop-ass. Or maybe, Whoop-Ass Lite. Highly concentrated whoop-ass. Whatever. You get the point.
In the jump seat to my left, Bubble Gum has her visor up. All I see between her helmet and oxygen mask is her panther-like eyes and a small tuft of pink hair. She’s in a warrior’s trance, visualizing her part in a successful mission. I leave her alone. A few seats to my right, a quiet Siempre makes the sign of the cross. The good news is, we’ve all been sucking fresh O2 for more than three hours, so our blood is nitrogen-free and our minds are clear and alert. I toggle on my coms. “Siempre. You ready to roll?”
“Always, sir. Always.” he replies with a thumbs-up.
“All right, Phoenix Team. It’s go time. Final checks,” I announce, standing up.
We inspect each other’s equipment one last time. Straps, buckles, and magazines. As we complete our final checks, I can hear music start from the internal P.A. system. With my helmet on the song is muffled, but I still detect the opening guitar lick from Mötley Crüe’s Kickstart My Heart. Twister and Blue remembered my battle song. God, I love those guys.
The lights go down. It’s pitch black for only a second. “Get ready,” I say. A solitary red light flashes on and faintly illuminates the hull. The rear door yawns open slowly with a mechanical drone revealing the night sky. We can see thin wisps of clouds below us glowing blue in the half-moon’s light. We shuffle in pairs toward the back of the aircraft, flip down our night vision goggles (NVGs), and wait for the green-light-go.
Moose and Siempre stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front, while Bubble Gum and I wait behind. Siempre cues up his mic. We all hear the conversation. “Hey, Moose?”
“Yes?” Moose replies casually, like someone just got his attention at the grocery store.
“There’s something you need to explain to me?”
“S.P.O.O.k, right? It stands for Supernatural Paranormal Otherworldly Operatives?”
“I don’t get it? What’s the K stand for?”
“It’s unofficial,” Moose replies stoically.
“What does it unofficially stand for?”
The cargo light changes from red to green. We’re over our drop zone.
“Kick ass,” I reply kicking the backside of Siempre’s parachute. The young soldier lurches forward and manages to give me the one-fingered salute as he sails into the void in front of us. Moose follows. Then Bubble Gum. Then me.
Over the Baja Peninsula/Mexico/04 AUG 16/0306 hrs
We fall like a deadly rain. Or, like midnight birds of prey. Whatever. Pick your fucking simile. And while you’re selecting a poetic expression, my team screams toward the dark earth at nearly 200 mph. Nighttime high-altitude low-opening (HALO) jumps are the most dangerous and technically complicated, but they are the most efficient at avoiding enemy line-of-sight and radar. As a result, this is the preferred method of insertion for operators wishing to avoid detection. Contrary to popular belief, skydiving isn’t rollercoaster scary. As a matter of fact, after evacuating the aircraft, you don’t actually have any real sensations at all besides the howling wind. That general lack of sensation, however, is what can cause severe disorientation. Fail to orient yourself in time and … splat.
I twist my wrist, angle my head, and quickly glance at my digital altimeter. 28,000 feet and falling. The temperature is a balmy -37°F (which my testicles already knew, despite my insulation measures). The good news is, at this latitude, I should gain 3.5°F for every 1000 feet I fall.
Siempre is ahead of me, piercing the night air in a headfirst free-fall. In the corner of my night vision field of view, I can also see Moose in a similar descent posture. I can’t see Bubble Gum, but I can sense she’s nearby.
70 seconds into our free-fall, Siempre begins to veer to the left of our relatively tight formation. His voice echoes in my ear, “Braking in 5. 4. 3. 2. 1 …” Slowly, Siempre postures up into a belly-to-earth position. We all follow suit and decelerate. I check my altimeter once more. 2000 feet above ground level. Two seconds later, we all pull our chutes. It’s a hard opening. I’m like a marionette being yanked upward by an impatient puppeteer. The jerking feeling is welcome, though, since it means my parachute successfully deployed. With this type of low opening, you only have one chance to deploy your main chute. There’s not enough time to activate a reserve. So if you have a main chute failure … splat.
My team sails to the ground. We all land within 100 yards of each other on a secluded shore. High, rocky cliffs loom above us to the south. “Phoenix Team. On me,” I say.
Moose, Bubble Gum, and Siempre gather up their chutes and sprint to my position. We take cover behind a nearby outcropping of boulders. Operating in the field means leaving no trace behind, so Siempre unfolds a collapsible shovel and starts digging a hole underneath one of the boulders. The rest of us begin our transition from aerial to surface operations. From insertion to infiltration. We shed insulating layers and head gear and put them in our light packs, which also contains our civilian hiking disguises. We all don black balaclavas and remount our NVGs to our helmetless heads. The four lenses seem a bit bulky, but they give us a field of view of 97 degrees, almost double that of conventional NVGs. We won’t necessarily need the night vision yet, though, because the half-moon will give us enough light to navigate by while keeping us relatively undetected.
We loosely fold up our parachutes and shove them in the hole Siempre dug. Moose tosses in an exothermic grenade the size of a soup can. With its magnesium base, this little puppy will burn hot enough to melt our nylon chutes into hundreds of glass-like beads. I hear and smell the sound of burning nylon and sand as Siempre begins to fill back in the hole.
“Bubble Gum, how far out are we?”
She removes a touch screen datapad in a rugged encasing. A small black keyboard unfolds from it. The combat datapad lights up red, a wavelength that won’t disrupt our eyes nor travel long distances and give away our position. With fingerless gloves, she manipulates the screen and depresses the soft keys soundlessly. “Three klicks up that ridge.”
“Good to go. Everyone, single file on me. We’ll go through the rocks. Try to find solid footing to avoid footprints. Hand signals only while we move. NVGs if you need them. Clear?”
My team acknowledges the command and sets out behind me.
Our legs churn as we move silently and efficiently up the ridge that leads to the hacienda nestled in the southern cliffs. As we crest the ridge, we can just see over the 12-foot security walls 500 yards in front of us. We also have a clear view of the north end of the pink-washed adobe mansion. Moose disappears to the east, sprinting toward the access road that leads to the gate on the east side. The rest of us stop and hydrate. Siempre deploys his M24-A3 rifle and tripod as planned. It’s outfitted with a silencing flash suppressor, as well as a Predator targeting scope that can see further than the Hubble Space Telescope. Through his state-of-the-art optics, he surveys the hacienda and the grounds. “Main floor lights are on. No movement. Scanning. Contact. Roving tango with canine. Southeast side headed toward the east gate.
I activate my coms. “Moose. Turn and burn.” I look over. “Bubble Gum, how are we on surveillance?”
“It’s on a wireless system. I’m trying to bypass the firewall now,” she replies as her fingers dance across her keyboard.
“How long?” I ask.
“I’m using a program we developed at the NSA to get through the firewall.” She points to the top of her screen, where a loading bar ticks up slowly. So, Bubble Gum is former NSA. Interesting.
“How long?” I ask again.
“Could take up to 48 hours,” she replies, still typing.
She finally looks at me, NVGs turned up and her mouth moving beneath her balaclava. “That’s why I started the hack 72 hours ago.”
She continues, “Once I’m past the firewall, I can force password resets across the board. When the operator retypes their credentials, we’ll monitor the keystrokes and have full access to any application we need in the system without looking like an intruder.”
“How long?” I growl.
“Calm your tits, Casper. I’m working … wait. Yes. Here we go.” She types more. “I’m in. OK. Dropping a loop on the surveillance cameras. OK, all cameras are secured. Good to go.”
Staying low, Moose returns to our position. “Canine countermeasure deployed,” he whispers. By countermeasure, Moose means he threw over a vile of hyper-concentrated female dog piss over the wall. So if poochy down there wants to smell us, then it’s going to have to do so through a tsunami of sex pheromones.
“Copy that. Entry team, let’s roll. Siempre, you’re our archangel. Time to earn your wings.”
“Always,” he whispers, continuing to scan the perimeter.
We luck out as a passing cloud covers the half-moon. We sprint, taking advantage of the well-timed but quick-to-pass shadows. We kneel at the northwest corner of the concrete security wall. There are two security cameras above us, but we ignore them. I make a lasso gesture with my left hand, knowing that Siempre can see me in his scope. “Standby,” he says over coms. “On my mark.”
We wait silently. All of our chests heave up and down as we attempt to calm our breathing.
“You have a clear path,” Siempre calls. “Move.”
We all swing our weapons out of the way. I squat and clasp my hands together to form a foothold. Like we rehearsed, Moose flies at me, planting a heavy boot in my hand cradle. With all my strength I heave him upward as he simultaneously jumps. With a cat-like grace, he snags the top of the wall and pulls himself over. Bubble Gum performs the same maneuver. She weighs significantly less than Moose, so I catapult her easily to the top.
My turn. I jog nearly 10 yards away from the wall. Then, I do a 180 and sprint toward it at full speed. I breathe out all my oxygen and plant my right foot on the wall. Then, my left. I run nearly a third of the way up before rocketing to the top and catching the lip. With obstacle-course efficiency, I pull myself up and maneuver my body around the wall, hang from the other side, and finally drop.
“Damn, Casper. That’s some ninja warrior shit, right there,” Siempre says over the coms.
As we beeline for the laboratory door, I acknowledge him with a gesture of thanks I know only he can see through his scope. I give him the finger.
Former Residence of Benito Delacerda/Outside of Rosarito/Mexico/04 AUG 16/0348 hrs
“So you were NSA, huh?” I whisper to Bubble Gum as she inspects the security panel. It’s only got one depressible button and a massive gray screen that reads finger and palm prints. “You know, I’ve seen Special Forces types not make it through the first week of S.P.O.O.k training. I have to admit, I’m impressed.”
“Casper,” she says.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Copy that. Sorry. Do your thing.”
Moose shakes his head as he covers our six.
The entrance to the laboratory is dug deep into the ground and slightly angled like a cellar door. It’s also concealed among a grove of ficus trees, so we remain difficult to detect. Bubble Gum works fast, tearing off a panel, stripping an internal wire, and clamping onto it with a wire that connects to her combat datapad on the other end.
“Got a guard taking a smoke break on the west side,” Siempre calls.
“Distance?” I ask.
“100 yards from your position, maybe.”
“Copy that. Bubble Gum, status?”
Bubble Gum cues her mic to inform the entire mission team. “This terminal isn’t on the main network, but it has an internal database. I’ve worked with this model before. Here we go. Looks like only two registered users. H. West and D. Halsey.”
“Wait,” an awkward voice blares over our coms. It’s the soft voice of Dr. Northcutt from back at the Haunt. “D. Halsey? As in Douglas Halsey?”
“We ain’t got time for a high school reunion, doc. Do you mind staying off this channel?” I bark.
“No. Douglas Halsey was the former dean at Miskatonic University,” she yells back.
“Great. We’ll keep you posted,” I reply. “Bubble Gum, pop the lock.”
There’s a deep click followed by a thrum inside the metal doors. I yank open one of them. “Let’s move.”
Moose turns and slowly steps into the dark hallway in front of us with his Heckler & Koch MP7 at the ready. The MP7 is a compact submachine gun with undeniable man-stopping power and a seven-inch barrel, which makes it easy to operate in small, confined spaces, like the one we are about to walk through. I follow him with my Belgian-made FN P90 submachine gun, a small, sleek, fully automatic harbinger of unholy death. Bubble Gum falls in behind me with an American made AR9, a newer model carbine that could turn a man into walking Swiss cheese.
Together, we’re off to see the wizard … and in our line of work, sometimes that means we will actually run into a wizard. Or necromancer. Whatever.
Underneath the Former Residence of Benito Delacerda/Outside of Rosarito/Mexico/04 AUG 16/0351 hrs
The passageway we methodically pace down glows blue thanks to dim running lights on either bulkhead. It feels like we boarded some alien spacecraft. Eat your heart out, Ridley Scott. We travel about 50 yards, and then the passageway opens up into something the size of a university science lab. More blue lights give the sterile lab an ethereal quality and spawn uncomfortable shadows along the edges—edges we can’t all see because a Plexiglas barrier lines one side. The room appears empty. It’s filled with stainless steel tables strewn with papers, various glassware, a medley of labeled solutions, and scientific machinery with lights that intermittently blink green or orange and cause the entire lab to subtly hum. Strangely, I don’t see a single computer.
“What’s the plan, Casper?” Bubble Gum asks, scanning the room with her AR9.
“Comb the lab. Document everything.”
Bubble Gum lets her weapon hang and once again removes her datapad. She systematically starts recording every square inch of the lab. Moose watches the staircase that, according to our blue prints, leads up to the hacienda. He doesn’t say anything, but I know him. I read his posture as he plays the ever-vigilant sentry. It’s not the rigid stiffness one operates with when adrenaline courses through every vein. And it’s not the relaxed disposition of a seasoned Special Forces operator who’s prepared for his mission. No. It’s something different. He doesn’t like this place. And considering his field experience, that scares the living shit out of me.
“Casper,” Bubble Gum calls frantically. “You … you need to see this.”
I make my way over to her. She stares at something on one of the tables. A machine, maybe, covered entirely by black cloth. “What’s the problem?” I ask. She points at the covered machine. It buzzes like it’s powered on. Slowly, I reach out, grab the corner of the cloth and pull.
It’s not a machine. It’s a large bell jar. A bell jar that contains a severed human head, and one I recognize. “Jesus Christ.” It’s the red hair and sharp, Irish features of a soldier I used to work with. Kyle Murphy. We called him Siesta. Small tubes and wires run from his neck and through the base of the jar and table. Some kind of dull white fluid pulses through one tube, while something the color of maple syrup flows out from another.
Siesta’s eyes open as if startled awake. Instinctually, I raise my weapon and point it at him. “Holy fuck,” I mutter. His eyebrows crease and his eyes turn and look at me. His mouth moves like a fish out of water. No sound escapes. He doesn’t look real. It doesn’t look real. It looks like a prop from a cheap horror movie. His mouth continues to move. We all hear a thump coming from behind the Plexiglas wall. Bubble Gum and Moose turn and raise their weapons toward the noise. Bubble Gum flips down her NVGs to see into the dark cells. “What is that? What the fuck is that?”
I flip down my own goggles. I see a body. Just a body. No head. Its clenched fist is raised high and smashing the Plexiglas. Thump. Thump.
“Moose,” I call out. Keeping his weapon trained on the body behind the glass, he moves quickly to check the cell.
He inspects the body. It’s secure behind the glass with a seamless electronic lock. Moose also notices that tattoos beneath the body’s tattered shirt. “We know this man. It’s Siesta,” he confirms. Seeing this kind of supernatural phenomena is nothing new to Moose and I, but knowing this thing was once an operator, was once a human being, was once our friend. That chills our spines and freezes our souls.
I look back at Siesta’s head. I finally read the words he mouths. Help me. Please. Help me.
“Jesus,” I say before activating my coms. “Casper to HQ.”
“HQ. Go ahead,” Director Fiske replies.
“Sir, we’ve located a member of Warlock Team. We’ve found Siesta.”
“Status is … complicated,” I reply.
“Spit it out, Casper,” Fiske barks.
“Sir, his head and body are in two different places and both are … alive.”
“Necromancy?” asks Fiske, matter-of-factly.
“Unclear, sir. He’s hooked up to a machine.”
“It’s reanimation,” Dr. Northcutt interrupts, still unaccustomed to radio protocol.
“Yeah, copy. HQ, please advise.”
“Pull the plug, immediately,” Dr. Northcutt shouts in my ear.
“Listen, doc, I don’t take orders from you, so do us all a favor and—”
“Pull the plug, Casper,” Fiske orders.
“Copy that,” I reply, stooping down. Beneath the table, an upright machine the size of a portable heater churns and processes the fluid that flows in and out of Siesta. I run my hand along the machine and find a massive switch. I flip it, and the machines powers down and becomes silent. The fluid no longer churns. When I stand, I see Siesta’s face grimace in pain. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. His body pounds the glass faster. White fluid leaks from Siesta’s eyes and nose, collecting at the bottom of the enclosure. I grab the black cloth and drape it over the jar. Siesta’s body now slows. Thump … thump … thump. Moments later, through my night vision, I see his body collapse to the ground.
“Everyone, finish combing the lab,” I say, sullenly. “Then we’re gonna find the sonovabitch that did this to our friend.”
Former Residence of Benito Delacerda/Outside of Rosarito/Mexico/04 AUG 16/0359 hrs
We quietly breach the door to the hacienda and enter a small library. Moonlight streams in through high-paned windows and provides the only light. Turns out, the entrance to the secret laboratory is a secret door that looks like a full bookcase. A little cliché if you ask me, but whatever, we clear the room and position ourselves by the door to the hallway. It’s closed and we can see light seeping in from the edges.
“There’s home automation. I can kill the lights if need be,” Bubble Gum whispers.
“Negative,” I reply, lifting my NVGs and locking them into place above my forehead. “We’re still undetected. I wanna keep it that way.”
Moose cracks the door to the hallway. He signals with his hand. We have an unsuspecting guard. Probably on his rounds. Moose signals again. He plans to move in. Bubble Gum and I will provide the necessary cover with our silenced weapons. We are not allowed to engage in deadly force without first being fired upon, so apprehending an armed target silently and efficiently can be tricky. And also, incredibly dangerous.
Moose moves quietly and expediently into the hallway with perfect balance. I follow, my weapon at the ready and my finger running along the smooth trigger guard. Bubble Gum watches my six and faces the dead end of the hallway behind us. The guard in question nearly has his back to us. He hunches and peeks through a slightly open door. According to our blue prints, that door leads to a bedroom, which begs the question: What the hell is he looking at? The guard, a thin-framed Hispanic man, wears all black, with a Kevlar vest and thigh holster for his fully-auto MAC-10. Classic cartel security. Moose kicks the back of his knee. As the guard falls backward, Moose places the man in a rear-naked chokehold, which simultaneously closes off the jugular (allowing no blood to flow out of the brain) and the carotid (allowing no blood to flow into to brain). It take nearly six seconds of inaudible flailing before the man goes limp. Moose drags the guard into the library, where he injects him with a field-grade tranquilizer and props him in one of the reading chairs. He’ll be out for 12 hours.
The three of us rally around the cracked bedroom door the guard had been peering through. I take a peek myself. A small lamp on the nightstand lights the room. Two people lay on a bed, sprawled across disheveled sheets. Naked. One of them, the one I can see clearly, is a young female. She’s brunette, maybe 22, with peaches-and-cream skin coated in sweat.
I give the hand signal to move into the bedroom. We all spill in, Moose moving to one side of the bed, me to the other. Bubble Gum closes the door softly behind us and posts there. We see the other sleeper in full, now. An older gentlemen, around 70, with loose-hanging skin, liver spots, and white hair springing up all over his body like spectral seedlings. I wish I could unsee this other sleeper, now.
Moose points to the dresser to my left. Syringes, rubber tubbing, and small medical vials are scattered on top. With sleeping beauty drooling on her pillow, and sleeping ugly snoring away, I take a look at the vials. It’s morphine manufactured by, you guessed it, West Pharmaceuticals. There’s no hand signal for these guys are passed the hell out, so I just give a thumbs-up.
Bubble Gum and I rifle through the room and find identification for both individuals, which she scans into her datapad. I dial up my coms. “Casper to HQ.”
“HQ, go ahead,” Fiske says.
“Tell doc I found Dean Douglas Halsey.”
“Positive ID?” Fiske asks.
I nod to Bubble Gum. She takes a picture of the naked man with her data pad and uploads it along with the scanned IDs.
“That’s Halsey, all right,” I hear Dr. Northcutt finally say.
“Yeah, in all his glory. Now, what’s the dean of dear old Miskatonic U. doing here?”
“He worked closely with Dr. West’s father, Herbert West III. They did pioneering research on the rejuvenation of neural systems using the direct the introduction of stem cells,” Dr. Northcutt replies.
“Neural systems? You mean like reanimating my friend down there?” I ask.
“Possibly, but it’s not that simple,” Dr. Northcutt replies.
“Fantastic. Listen, we have reason to believe that Halsey here has morphine onboard. If we tranq him, he may stop breathing, and I am not giving him mouth to mouth. So please advise.”
Fiske returns to the coms. “Consider him a secondary objective. West is still primary if he’s on site.”
“Copy that. Clearing the rest of the house. Will advise,” I reply. “Siempre, status?”
Siempre comes back, “Good to go. I currently got two tangos on the second floor. Stationary. Looks like they’re on the Internet. Probably porn. The rover with the canine is at the far west end of the property now. And I got one more tango in the living room talking with a civilian.” I cut a look at Moose. He nods because we’re thinking the same thing. We might just have West in here with us. “Siempre, any ID on the civilian?”
“Negative. Bad angle.”
“Copy that. Keep your eye fixed on the living room; we’re moving in.”
Former Residence of Benito Delacerda/Outside of Rosarito/Mexico/04 AUG 16/0407 hrs
From my angle in the hallway, it sure looks like Dr. Herbert West IV. He stands by a wooden coffee table. He’s barefoot but wearing a linen sport coat over a plain white T-shirt and jeans. And this may sound weird, but he seems to be glowing. Couple that with his chiseled jaw and messy salt-and-pepper hair, and this guy looks like he’s filming a commercial as he talks to the armed guard next to him. They seem to be discussing transportation logistics and timing. Moose will take the armed guard while Bubble Gum and I subdue West. Tranq him. And haul his ass to Rosarito.
I give a countdown with my fingers. 3…2…1….
Moose takes the guard down swiftly with a running punch to the chin. Physics says force equals mass times acceleration, or F = ma. Given that Moose is, in fact, massive, and he is accelerating like an Olympic sprinter out of his blocks, a punch from him is like being hit by a Mack truck. This, of course, causes the man’s brain, which is suspended in a vat of cerebrospinal fluid, to bounce against the inside of his skull. The result is a traumatic shock injury causing the man to lose consciousness. At the same time, Bubble Gum and I surround Dr. West.
“Hands were I can see them,” I say forcefully, but not loud enough to rouse the guards upstairs. “Right goddamn now.” While I’m distracting West, Bubble Gum prepares a handheld tranquilizer. West, however, seems completely unfazed.
“Well ain’t that cold coffee,” he says with a smile, looking over at Moose zip-tying and tranquilizing the downed guard. He reaches in the pocket of his sport coat.
“I said hands where I can see them,” I bark. Bubble Gum readies the tranq and waits for my signal. I’m about to give it to her when I realize Dr. West has pulled out a pack of cigarettes with a lighter tucked into plastic wrapping. He withdraws a solitary smoke keeping it between his fingers.
“You can put that barker away, son,” he says to me, nonchalantly. “It won’t be necessary.”
Something’s not right. Something here isn’t right. “Hit ‘em,” I say to Bubble Gum.
She steps forward with an overhand strike attempting to lodge the tranq into West. She hits the meaty part of his neck. Only, she doesn’t. She stumbles. Right through him. Nearly falling to the ground. I step forward, bringing the butt of my FN P90 up to West’s jaw as fast and hard as I can.
The weapon goes right through him. Shit.
West snickers and removes the lighter from his pack and lights his cigarette. He inhales deeply and exhales a plume of smoke out of the side of the mouth. The smoke rises only inches before disappearing completely. It doesn’t rise to the ceiling. It also doesn’t smell.
“It’s a hologram,” Bubble Gum announces.
I look all around. I see projectors and speakers embedded in the ceiling. “Dammit,” I say.
Strangely, I don’t lower my weapon. I keep it fixed on the smoking, hologram man in front of me. “Siempre?”
Siempre calls back, “Still good, Casper. Guards are static.”
“Copy,” I reply, watching Moose scan the only two entrances to the living room.
The hologram West finally speaks. “Now, would you fellas be the ones that raided my lab up north? That proved to be quite the disruption.”
“What did you do to my friends, asshole?” I bark.
“Have no reservation. They have simply become martyrs for the cause,” West replies. There is something odd about his word choice and the cadence of his voice. It sounds nothing like the “commercial” Dr. West.
“What cause?” I ask, still aiming my weapon at his chest.
He pulls a smartphone from his back pocket, keeping the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He thumbs through it and finally taps the screen. “Rest assured. You’re about to become martyrs, too.”
We hear a rumble deep within the hacienda. We also feel distant thuds vibrate through our boots. The hologram disappears. The thuds get faster, louder, and closer.
Former Residence of Benito Delacerda/Outside of Rosarito/Mexico/04 AUG 16/0409 hrs
The thing explodes through the door frame, sending chunks of plaster and wood in all directions. It’s a gigantic, malformed man. It looks like a poorly molded Cro-Magnon hulk. Moose and Bubble Gum fire their weapons. Some bullets get absorbed with a sickening sound. Other bullets careen off him, shattering vases and burrowing into walls. The creature swats at our ammunition like our small-caliber rounds are pesky mosquitos. He swings one massive arm around. Bubble Gum ducks in time, but Moose doesn’t and is sent sailing across the room, indenting a far wall.
I aim my FN P90 at the thing’s head, switch from full auto to single shot, and fire at his head. It does nothing but attract its attention. I can literally hear the hollow thud of bullets ricocheting off its thick skull. The creature bull-charges me like a linebacker. I mitigate the impact with my arms but fail to evade it in time. The thing’s enormous frame crashes into me and sends me careening across the room. They say fortune favors the brave. Well, sometimes it also favors the slow and the stupid, because I fly into a plush sofa, knocking it over.
I sit up quickly and balance my weapon on the toppled sofa. The creature swings fruitlessly at Bubble Gum, who circles the hulk while firing her carbine. Damn, she’s good. That’s when I hear the sound of glass breaking over and over again. Siempre’s high-caliber bullets puncture the large pane glass windows, whistle across the room, and sink into the creature’s massive frame. I hear Siempre’s voice over the coms. “Two guards headed your way. Targeting big ass tango.” The unseen Siempre continues to fire. Two cartel security guards rush into the living room firing their MAC-10s. They stop a little too close to the angry hulk. The creature takes a few steps toward them. It reaches out with both hands, clutching each man’s head with an enormous palm, and smashes them together. Both men’s skulls split like cracked eggs. Bubble Gum continues to fire at the creature, but it finally catches her with the back of his hand. She takes the blow on her side and grunts as she slides out of sight toward the kitchen.
And that’s when I see Moose vault across the room. He flies in the air with an M48 tactical tomahawk in one hand and a combat knife in the other. Amazingly, the tomahawk’s pointed heel sticks into the creature’s shoulder blade, allowing Moose to pull himself up like an ice-climber. He reaches around and slices the thing’s throat with his double-edged knife. It’s like dragging a knife across a wooden chopping block. The monster’s hide is too tough and the maneuver is ineffective. If Moose ever did swear, now would be the fucking time.
A German Shepard bounds into the room, growling and showing its teeth. The monster, ignoring Moose on its back now attempting a chokehold, kicks the canine with a gigantic foot. The dog whines as it catapults across the room, crashing into a decorative mirror and spraying reflective shards throughout the room. The dog now lays motionless in a heap of bloody fur on the ground.
The creature finally reaches back with its primate arms, snags the back of Moose’s tactical vest, and flings him across the room into the hallway we all entered from. Moose skids out of sight, and I hear his weapon drag on the tile floor. From that same hallway, the dog’s handler runs into the room, firing his weapon. I swear, if this were Star Trek, the guy would be wearing a red shirt. The creature winds its arm back and unleashes an uppercut that slams the dog handler upward and into the ceiling. The handler is already dead before he falls back to the floor.
And that’s when I notice it. A tattoo on the creature’s shoulder. A campaign cover-wearing drill sergeant beneath a maroon Texas A&M. Jesus, it’s him. It’s Pepper. It’s Captain Donald McCormick. West changed him. Changed him into something … fucking cyclopean. Wait. Hold on. Cyclopean.
I hurdle over the couch, letting my weapon fall by its sling and unsheathing my MK3 Survival knife. I sprint hard and launch myself at the creature’s back. I snag the handle of the tomahawk still sticking from its shoulder blade and lift myself up. I hook my legs around Pepper’s torso and swing my knife around, hoping to bury the point into his eye. Fortune favors the stupid once again. I feel and hear the knife plunge into the creature’s eye and bury itself in its frontal lobe.
Pepper, the creature, howls. And as he does, I let go of the knife and unclip a M67 fragmentation grenade from my belt. I pull the pin and shove the grenade down the thing’s gaping maw with such force that it breaks teeth and lodges in the thing’s throat. I let go and fall to the ground. Pepper grabs his throat. But after a three-count, the explosive detonates. With an impenetrable hide, the high-pressure blast and shrapnel scrambles his insides. The pressure blast also finds the path of least resistance and blows out the creature’s remaining eyeball, and both its eardrums. Gray matter erupts from every orifice.
The creature collapses with a resounding thud on the marble floor.
Former Residence of Benito Delacerda/Outside of Rosarito/Mexico/04 AUG 16/0413 hrs
I lay sprawled across the floor next to a dead giant. “Siempre. Status?” I hoarsely call into the coms. Moose and Bubble Gum limp back into the living room.
“Man, that was some like superhero shit right there,” Siempre calls back.
“Status!” I demand.
“All clear, Casper. All tangos down. I still got you covered. ”
“Copy. Casper to HQ.”
“HQ. Go ahead,” Director Fiske replies.
“House is clear,” I say as Moose and Bubble Gum help me to my feet. “Pretty sure West used Warlock Team for his experiments. I found Pepper. He’s dead, but he’d been turned into one of those giant things—like the kind that attacked Voodoo in that video.”
“Change of plans,” Fiske announces. “I’m launching a bird out of San Diego for evac. ETA 40 minutes. Toss the house. Collect what you can. And bring me Halsey.”
“Copy that. Casper to Siempre, prep for evac. We’ve got an inbound helo in 40.”
“Always,” Siempre replies.
“All right team,” I announce to Moose and Bubble Gum, “Let’s tear this—”
A figure enters from the hallway. She wears a white bathrobe that hangs open. It’s the young girl from the bedroom. But it’s not a bathrobe. It’s hooded and lined with archaic symbols embroidered in gold and black. We all raise our weapons. “Stay where you are,” I yell. She stares at me blankly, with dilated pupils. She points at me with a long finger and speaks softly, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
“What?” I say.
She steps forward. The shattered bits of the mirror crunch beneath her bare feet. She doesn’t register the pain. “Cthulhu,” she says slowly.
“I said, stay where you are!”
She drops to her knees and sways subtly. Blood begins to run from her knees. Bubble Gum takes out her datapad and begins recording.
“Hey, listen. You’re not right. Let us help you,” I say.
She reaches for a mirror shard in front of her. It’s jagged and ends in a dagger point. She grips it so hard, I can see blood seep between her fingers. It’s also oriented in a way that I can see my own reflection in it. She screams in that guttural language once more, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!” She tilts her head up to the sky, and with both hands wrapped around the piece of mirror, runs the shard through her chin and deep into her soft palate.
Monsters exist. Yep, it’s okay. I’ll give you a minute. Better? Awesome. Now let’s talk about a particular government agency with a global and interdimensional reach that combats those monsters. Yes, sir. If it bites, claws, sucks, shrieks, flies, haunts, or curses - you call us. Okay, you don’t actually call us, but you get my point. My name is Skip Conway and I’ve recently been reinstated by that particular agency after an 18 month hiatus. Why? I’m afraid we can’t share those details right now. Who are we? We are Supernatural Paranormal Otherworldly Operatives. Better known as S.P.O.O.k. P.S. Wondering what the “k” stands for? You’ll have to read to find out