Dax Plays Faire by Void Munashii
When Reg said this town was in the middle of nowhere, he wasn’t kidding. You know, I get this whole planned community thing, but why in the middle of the Nevada desert, and why in the world would you build it so far away from everything else? There’s not even a portal directly into it.
I have my windows rolled up and air conditioner blasting against the hundred-and-ten degree heat as I speed past the sign reading:
Gas, Food, Lodging”
Sure, a hundred-and-ten is not so bad compared to the hundred-and-twenty I dealt with on a daily basis while I was doing jobs in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. The temperature is not my biggest concern though; my assignment is.”
“This one is different, Dax,” Reginald Thracken, my handler in Purgatory, explained to me as I sat in his small office yesterday, “We’ve already lost contact with one Hunter.”
“Was he killed?” I asked. ‘kill’ is not really the right word, as the guns merely banish their victims to Hell rather than actually ‘kill’ them. Seeing as I found myself at the wrong end of my own gun the first time around, I am rather leery of losing my weapons now.
“She, and not that I am being told. I don’t know what happened to her, but as far as I know she is still active, just missing.”
“How can you not know? You guys know if I even think of punching someone, how can you just lose a Hunter like that?”
“I know what I am told, Xader, you know that. The higher ups aren’t telling me anything, and I don’t know if that means they don’t know or not,” Reg explained, “Her last report was two days ago, said that her ring was giving her false positives all over town.”
That gave me a pause for thought. A Hunter is issued very few tools; a gun, a knife for a backup, and our agency ring. While the gun and knife are useful in that they can actually banish a demon, or an agent for that matter, the ring is probably the most useful in that it helps us to identify any demonic presence no matter how well they disguise themselves… usually.
“None of the other agents in town saw her?” I asked. Not every agent of Purgatory is a Hunter like me; many are put into jobs in the DMV, post office, police, or other positions where they can provide support for more active agents.
“There are no other agents. It’s a relatively new town, and no one has been installed yet.”
Reg looked at me with one eyebrow raised, “I would think you would be used to that by now, you’ve been doing this, what? Five years?”
“Yeah, alright, so what do we have on this demon? Another succubus?”
“It’s a Mutator Formarum.”
“Don’t speak Latin at me, Reg.”
“Shape Shifter. It can be whoever it wants, so not only do we not have any pictures of it…”
“But with my ring not working right I won’t even be able to tell if I’m close or not,” I finished his sentence.
This is hardly my first assignment, and it’s not as if I’m afraid of going up against a demon, but I have never realized how much I depended on this little bit of metal on my finger. To make it worse I couldn’t even be put down anywhere near Arcadium Acres, like Las Vegas lets say, no, I’m portaled out in the Los Angeles FBI field office where my official orders state I am to take a car on an investigation.
Bureaucracy is bureaucracy in the living world and the afterlife, so no one questions why I am being issued a car in L.A. despite my cover showing me as assigned to the San Francisco office. All I had to do was flash my badge, fill out some papers, and I was on the road.
I can see the town up ahead now; the buildings shimmer in the heat. My phone chirps at me from the cup holder. I see Reg’s name on the screen. I really don’t know if Nevada has a hands-free law or not, but I don’t see any cops around, or anyone else for that matter, so I answer it.
“New info for me, Reg?”
“The lost Hunter is named Emily Adams.”
“What was she, FBI? Highway Patrol?”
“Journalist. She was supposed to be in town to cover the….” Reg pauses for a second, as if reading something, “the Spring King Faire.”
“King? As in Elvis or royalty?”
“Royalty, it looks like. It was a festival started two years ago by the development company, King’s Realm Homes, to try and attract people to the town. I guess it worked,” I can almost hear Reg shrug over the phone, “You might tell people you are investigating her disappearance, she’s not checked in with her cover job since she went missing either.”
As I talk to Reg I can feel my ring start to tingle warmly on my hand, “I see what you meant about the ring; something setting it off already, and I’m not even in town yet.”
“Be careful, Dax, we don’t need to lose anymore agents. Remember that your primary is to eliminate the shape shifter, but it would certainly look good in your file if you can find out what happened to Agent King.”
“You got it,” I say, sounding a lot more confident than I actually feel.
The road into town leads right down Main Street. It has that cute faux Americana feel to it, like Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland does. The street is lined with shops; a mix of national brands like Apollo Coffee and what I assume are local businesses like bakeries and coffee shops.
A few blocks in and this old fashioned look gives way to more of what I expect to see in a small town nowadays, a strip mall complete with a Taco Hut, T-Mart, and Burger Bro. The parking lot itself though had a small carnival set up in it; nothing major, just a ferris wheel, merry-go-round, tilt-a-whirl, and bumper cars. There is a large banner stretched between two light poles over the carnival that reads “Arcadium Acres’ 3rd Annual Spring King Faire. This Year’s King Announced Wednesday Night. Have You Voted?”
Wednesday, eh? That’s tomorrow night. Maybe I can wrap this up and get to enjoy the festivities.
I’ve been wrestling with how to approach this the whole way out here. Part of me says to not go around flashing my badge; it tells me to try and stay under the radar for as long as possible. Of course another part of me is pointing out that Agent Adams was here as a reporter and the demon still found her. Was the demon somehow able to pick her out of the crowd, or was her mere presence as an outsider what gave her away to it?
Screw subtlety, lets start with the police.
At the center of town I find a large grassy roundabout with a stage set up on it. In the center of the stage is a very ornate, if kind of cheap looking, throne under a large banner reading “Meet the new king of the Spring King Faire this Wednesday” fluttering over it in the light hot breeze. On the other side of the roundabout was my goal.
The city government building is the police station, city hall, chamber of commerce, city council building, and a half dozen other offices all under one roof. The building is flanked on the right by the town fire department, and on the left by the town medical clinic. The medical clinic in particular strikes me as quaint, but I suppose that being so far from anywhere, Arcadium Acres needs to have at least basic emergency care available.
All the city buildings are made from the same light colored stone, probably to make it easier to cool the building interior during the intensely hot summers here. Flagpoles sporting the American and Nevada state flags sprout up from the roof of each of the three buildings.
I pull my car into the parking lot between the government building and medical clinic, and turn it off. The temperature inside the car starts to rise as soon as the air conditioner cuts out. The heat assaults me like a right hook to the face as I get out of the car, and run my hands over my pockets in a habit learned through a lifetime of not wanting to lock myself out of my house.
Wallet in one pocket, badge in another, gun in its holster, and knife sheathed at the small of my back. Check, check, check, and check. I lock the car, slip my keys into the pocket with my wallet, and head into the building.
The police department is not what I expected. It is small; basically just one large room of desks with a few small offices around the edge of it, and a public service counter separating me in the small waiting area from the rest of the office. Maybe I just spend too much time in big cities to have a reasonable expectation of what to find in smaller towns.
Seeing me come in, one of the officers, a man about five years and twenty pounds past his prime, heaves himself up from his desk and comes over to the counter, “How can I help you, sir?” he asks in a way that tells me he already knows me to be a stranger.
I pull out my badge and I.D. and flip the leather case open to show it to the local cop, “I’m special agent Xader Dax.”
“I’m Captain Bill Andros,” the cop introduces himself, but does not extend his hand to shake, “What brings the FBI out to our little piece of the desert?”
There’s something odd about this cop, but I can’t quite place it.
“I’m investigating the disappearance of a journalist from Los Angeles named Emily Adams,” I slipped my ID back into my pocket as I spoke.
“Now what makes you think we’d know anything about that here?”
“Her editor said her last assignment was to cover your little spring fair.”
“Son, we’re just a small town out in the middle of the desert, don’t no one pay any attention out here. I think we got a TV station from Vegas out here last year, but certainly no one from California.”
It’s almost as if he’s trying to act like a small town cop from a TV show; like this is all an act.
“Well her editor told me that Miss King checked in from here before she disappeared.”
“Why is the FBI so interested in some girl reporter? How does this even fall under your jurisdiction? We haven’t received any calls here looking for her.”
“She crossed state lines before disappearing,” I bluff. I don’t know if that would really fall under federal jurisdiction or not, and hopefully neither does Captain Andros.
“Hmm,” Andros grunts, as if thinking, “Well, you’re welcome to look around. You should come to the Spring King Faire tonight if you decide to stay in town.”
“I just might do that,” I reply.
“Here then,” Andros reaches under the counter for something. My hand twitches to go for my gun, but I don’t let it. The cop pulls out a sheet of glossy paper, “Chamber a’ commerce gives these out to visitors. There’s directions on here to the hotel if you’re staying the night. There should be vacancies since most of the carnies are staying in their own trailers.”
Okay, that’s it. Every instinct I have wants to just grab this guy and knock his head into the counter, but I don’t for two reasons. First off, pissing off the local cops is not a good way to start a job. Second, if this guy’s not the demon, and I kind of think he isn’t, I would just be inviting a large amount of paperwork on myself.
Demon or not, there is something very wrong with this guy. The small-town cop act is an act, but I’m not sure why? Could this just be the way they treat outsiders? This town seems too new to have developed that kind of isolationist mentality, but maybe it’s just him. There’s another weird thing about Andros though; his smile, fake or otherwise, doesn’t seem to reach his eyes. It’s almost like I’m talking to an animatronic instead of a person.
I expected to get some sort of a lead from the police; being told that agent Adams has never even been here kind of puts a monkey wrench in my plans. I decide to head to the hotel and get a room.
According to the handout that Andros gave me, the “Arcadium Acres Motor Lodge” is the only hotel in town. I cannot imagine why this cute little town out in the middle of nowhere south of Vegas wouldn’t get enough tourist traffic to justify having more than one place to stay. Still if this is the only place for someone from out of town to stay, then Adams would have had to get a room here, if she made it this far.
The hotel isn’t far from the center of town, and much like Main Street is another retro affair.It looks like the kind of fleabag hotel you see along formerly busy highways that are mostly frequented by prostitutes nowadays. This one looks clean and new however, and advertises a free breakfast for guests. I don’t really need to eat, but I have found that food paid for with agency money does taste better.
The desk clerk is a cheery blond girl, maybe in her early twenties, but she has that same fake feel to her that Andros had. I’m not a paranoid person by nature, but this is starting to give me the creeps.
“Okay, Agent Dax, you’re going to be in room twenty-one on the second floor, all the way at the right end. It’s one of our best rooms; you can see town center from there. You should be able to see the king’s throne from there,” the girl with “Mindy” printed on the badge stuck to her chest says to me as she processes my credit card.
“So how long have you lived here?” I ask, trying to make conversation.
“Oh, my family moved here when they were still building the town. It’s nice to be away from Vegas and all of its bad influences, you know? Plus we’re still close enough if we do want to go and indulge in a little sin, if you know what I mean,” she smiles knowingly at me, but again, nothing behind the eyes.
“Have you had a lot of visitors in town for the Spring King Faire?”
“Mostly just the carnival people. There are a couple of them here in the hotel and a couple of other people who came for the faire.”
I bring up a picture of Emily Adams that Reg sent to my phone. Agent Adams is a cute woman, looks to be in her mid-thirties and wears black framed glasses. She could certainly pass for a journalist. I show the picture to Mindy.
“Have you see this woman at all?”
“Hmm, no, but I can ask Suze or Martin if they’ve seen anyone like that. She your girlfriend?”
What kind of a question is that?
“No, she’s gone missing, and she said she was coming here, This is the only hotel in town, right?”
“Yup, the only and the best.”
“So if she were going to stay in town, this is where she would stay.”
“Unless she’s couch-surfing, yup,” Mindy hands me a plastic card and a piece of paper, “Okay, here you go, your key and receipt. If you have any other questions Someone’ll be right here, or you can just call us on your room phone.
The room is not bad, it’s a little small, but modern. I toss aside the bedspread (they never wash those thing, you know), and sit on the bed with my laptop and phone. While the computer boots up, I call Reg.
“Dax, are you making any progress?” Reg asks when he answers his phone.
“No. So far the people I’ve asked say they’ve never seen her. I wanted you to check her credit card activity from before she disappeared.”
“To see if she used the card in town?”
“Yeah. Since you guys don’t give us cash, she must have used the card for something, the hotel, gas, something. Can you send me what you find?”
“Good thinking,” Reg said, and I can hear him typing, “Okay, I’m sending it to you.”
The laptop pings, notifying me of a new email. I open it and find a blank white page.
Reg lets out an annoyed sigh, and I hear his fingers hitting the keyboard harder, ”I’m never going to get the hang of these things.”
“How did you do this stuff without computers?”
“We would deliver it in person; it was a lot easier. There, check now.”
“I cannot imagine you outside of that office,” I say as the computer pings.
The information in the new email shows me that not only did Agent Adams use her card to buy gas in town, but that she also charged a room at this motel to it, and her last charge was on Sunday at Apollo Coffee.
“Well that confirms it, she definitely was there,” Reg says to me.
“There’s something very wrong with all of this. Why would people lie about her being here?”
“How many people have you asked? Maybe they really didn’t see her. I’m sure she didn’t speak to everyone in town before she stopped reporting in.”
“The people I’ve talked to have been… off. Can a shape shifter possess mortals?”
“Not that I’ve ever heard of; why would they need to when they can impersonate them?”
“I’m going to go look around some more. I’ll check in with you later.”
“I’ll be here, and Dax….”
“Good to know you care.”
Heading back to Main Street, I decide to retrace Agent Adams’ steps to the last place I know she was, Apollo Coffee. The sun is starting to set, and it’s beginning to cool a little, but it is still uncomfortably warm in my suit jacket. I have no choice but to keep it on unless I want to have my gun and knife visible to everyone.
The boy behind the counter at Apollo is the same as Andros and Mindy. He’s cheerful and acts like he wants to be helpful enough, but he seems to be not all there, and as he calls his co-workers over to me to see the picture on my phone they all seem the same way. Can a demon even possess multiple hosts at the same time?
Of course none of the coffee jockeys have seen the missing woman. I don’t go out of my way to point out how I know she bought a coffee here (or someone did using her card), but the beeline I made coming here from the hotel probably gives me away anyway. I should have checked a couple of other places first to make it seem like I was just guessing. Still not too late to give that a try though.
Coming out of Apollo my eye catches a glint of setting sunlight off of something in the gutter; something metal. I kneel down and find a single shell casing from a nine millimeter bullet. Now why is this here? I pocket the casing, not knowing if it has anything to do with Adams’ disappearance or not.
The sun falls lower and lower in the sky as I move up one side of main street and down the other, asking each store employee if they have seen Adams. I’m not at all surprised that everyone says no, but they all, every last one of them, seem wrong.
As the sun drops behind the buildings I hear music start up from up the street in the strip mall parking lot as the carnival comes to life. I decide to head in that direction.
Kids run and scream around me under the flashing lights of the few rides that are here. There’s a trailer selling corn dogs and cotton candy, a booth with two older ladies wearing plastic crowns trying to get people to cast their votes for King of Arcadium Acres, and even a small stage with some local high school kids playing almost decently. It would bring back the memories of my own childhood if it didn’t seem staged.
I cannot shake the feeling that they are all watching me. It seems like whenever I turn around everyone suddenly turns away and resumes doing whatever they are supposed to be doing, as if it is all a performance being put on for my benefit. Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe they recognize me as an outsider, maybe it’s just the fact that I am the only suit among the t-shirts and jeans, but I don’t think so.
I walk over to the waist high railing enclosing the ferris wheel, pull out my badge, and stick it before the operator’s face, “You’re not from town, right?”
“No way, man!” The guy says in a strong southern accent, “I’m just here with the midway. I finished my probation, man, I don’t want no trouble with the cops.”
“I’m not a cop, I’m a fed, get it straight.”
“Yeah, sorry dude,” he sounds authentic, but there’s that same thing with the eyes. If I hadn’t already seen that not quite there look from every shop owner on Main Street I might chalk it up to a trick of the light, or maybe the carny just being stoned, but I know better than that.
“How long have your people been in town?”
The carny cocks his head like he’s taking offense, “My people have been here since last Wednesday. We finished setting up on Thursday and passed our inspection. Everything’s legal, man.”
“I’m not interested in that, I’m looking for someone.”
“I don’t know nothing about drugs or prostitutes!”
If it weren’t for the ring burning steadily on my finger in reaction to demonic presence somewhere around me I would have rolled my eyes at that, “I’m looking for a reporter who came to town to cover the fair,” I bring out my phone, and show the carny the picture of Emily Adams.
“Hey, she’s cute!” the guys says.
“She’s also missing. I figured she might have come around while your people were setting up to ask questions. Did you see her?”
“No; I didn’t see no one asking questions ‘cept the inspector, and he don’t look nothing like her.”
This is getting frustrating. I know that randomly asking people if they’ve seen her is hardly the best way to go about this, but I don’t know what to do at this point. I have never had this much trouble tracking someone down, especially when I know where they disappeared from.
I thank the carny for his time, and turn around to find a flock of children, pre-teens, maybe between ages ten and twelve, standing behind me. They are looking at me without trying to hide it at all. The tallest one, he looks to be about twelve, steps away from the group towards me. He’s wearing a white t-shirt with the words “Vote for Glenn Gervase” written on it in puffy paint.
“Hey mister,” the kid begins, “Have you voted for king yet?”
“Then you should vote for me!” the kid steps forward, and slaps something on my chest. I look down to see a white rectangular sticker, the kind you would use for printing mailing labels, stuck to my chest. On the sticker written in red marker are the words “I Support Glenn Gervase”
“Why should I vote for you?”
“I would be the youngest king yet, and I think I would be a good king!”
“What policies do you support?”
“Huh?” the kid, Glenn, I suppose, asks.
This kid is different than the others. He seems more real; not like he’s just acting out a role. I pull out my phone and show him the picture of Agent Adams, “I’ll vote for you if you answer a question for me; have you seen this woman in town at all?”
The kids eyes go wide, “Um, no,” he says rapidly, “I haven’t seen anyone like that.”
He’s lying, and he’s not good at it. I want to call him on it, but I think he’s lying because of the kids with him. This is the first person I’ve run across today that does not seem to be possessed, or otherwise under control of the demon. I make a note of his name in my mind to try and track him down later when I can talk to him without an audience.
“Okay,” I say, and start around the kids in the direction of the voting booth. I pick up one of the ballots from the stack on the table, and one of the stubby little golf pencils in the box next to them, write Glenn’s name on the paper, fold it, and stuff it in the plastic storage bin labeled “ballot box”.
“Thanks mister!” the kid calls to me, and the group of kids leave.
Realizing that I am not going to get anymore information tonight, I decide to head back to the hotel. As I walk to where I parked the car, I notice that people are watching me a little more openly now. Was it my interaction with the kid that’s caused this? I think the kid may be immune to whatever this demon is doing to the townspeople. I need to talk to this kid again.
Back at the hotel, I check in with Reg, telling him about the kid, “I think this kid knows something; he’s certainly different than the others.”
“Well, it’s something to go on at least. I’ve been doing some research, and I think maybe the other people you are dealing with are enthralled.”
“A sort of mystical enslavement, like hypnotism, but more complex. They’re not really possessed, but their free will is still being overridden.”
“Wonderful. I guess that means they’re going to be protecting the demon from me then?”
“I would think so.”
“And just what do I do if they attack me?”
“They’re still innocents, Xader, you can’t kill them, so you keep your gun holstered until you can use it on the demon.”
“So I’m in a town full of potential attackers who have already taken out one Hunter, and I cannot defend myself?”
“You cannot kill or cripple them; not unless you want to spend the next year filling out reports about it.”
“What if I just make it so they limp a little?”
“You do what you have to do to complete this mission, and I’ll fight for you, but just keep in mind that I’m a nobody in the grand scheme, okay?”
“Listen, I want you to look up this kid for me,” I look down at the sticker still on the front of my coat, “His name’s Glenn Gervase.”
“Alright, give me a minute,” his finger rakatak on the keyboard.
“You know, if you would just give me full database access from the laptop, I wouldn’t need to bug you for stuff like-,” a knock at the door stops me in mid sentence, “Shit!” I mutter, pulling my gun.
“There’s someone here.”
“Isn’t it almost eleven there?”
“Yeah. I’ll call you later, Reg. Get out from behind that desk for awhile.”
I slip my phone into my pocket, and grip my gun tightly in my hand. I know I’m not going to be using it on whatever is behind that door because it’s not like the demon is going to come to my hotel room and say hi, but I should be able to dissuade anyone from doing anything too stupid just by pointing it at them.
“Who is it?” I say in my most menacing tone.
“It’s me, mister, Glenn from the faire!” comes a hushed young voice from the other side, “You gotta let me in before anyone sees me here!”
I sigh, and holster my gun. I open the door a crack to see that the kid is alone on the balcony that runs the length of the second floor of the motel. I can see down below that the parking lot is empty too.
“Thanks, mister,” the kid says as I step aside and allow him entry.
“How did you know where to find me?”
“They’ve all been talking about you, plus this is the only place to stay, so…” the kid trails off.
Glenn moves farther into my room, standing between me and the small table by the window with my laptop sitting on it.
“So why did you want to see me?”
“The lady you were asking about, I couldn’t say anything in front of the others, I’m afraid of what they’ll do to me.”
“Where is Miss Adams? What is going on around here?”
“They took her,” Glenn explains, “Last week everyone started acting weird. It was just a few kids at school at first, but soon everyone was acting like that. I think I’m the last one left. I’m scared they’re gonna-”
The window behind Glenn explodes inward and he stops talking. His eyes go wide as I see a dark wet flower begin to bloom in the front of his t-shirt. I catch him as he starts to pitch forward, and slowly lower him to the ground. I check his neck, and find no pulse.
My ring is burning hotter than ever now, it’s as if the demon were right here with me, but there’s no one here but me and a murdered child. I think I may be in some serious trouble here.
Rushing to the window I can see people moving around out in the street running behind the motor lodge. There’s a large truck parked out there and a man standing on top of it. There’s a flash from the man, and I feel something hit me in the chest hard enough to make me stagger a step. I look down and see a bullet hole in the front of my shirt with blood spreading out of it.
Was it a trap? Were they waiting to see if he would come to me, or were they planning to try and kill me, and he just made for a lucky two-fer? I ignore the pain in my chest, you can’t kill me that easy, and run for the door.
I throw open the door to find Mindy the desk clerk standing there smiling at me, and holding a shotgun. I dodge to the right as she fires both barrels at me. I manage to avoid some of the buckshot, but not all of it. My face and chest feel like they’re on fire as the small metal spheres tear into my flesh. Luckily my eyes manage to escape any damage, and I can still see.
I grab the barrel of the shotgun, the hot metal burning my right hand, and yank it towards me. Mindy staggers into the room, and right into my left fist which knocks the smile off of her face as she collapses to the carpet unconscious.
Someone else is in the doorway now, white tank top, mullet, I’m guessing he’s one of the carnys. He’s holding a crowbar, and comes at me with it. If the demon is controlling them somehow I don’t know why he thinks a crowbar will succeed where two guns failed.
Wielding the shotgun in both hands like a staff, I block the carny’s swing of the crowbar, and shove him back into the doorway where he runs into another person; a teenager in the hideous multicolored uniform of Taco Hut. The kid staggers back into, and then falls over the railing. He never yells out as he falls, but I hear him thud solidly on the parking lot below.
“Not my fault!” I yell out towards the ceiling.
I sock the carny in the face with the butt of the shotgun, and he drops to the floor of the walkway. I step out of my room to find the rest of the walkway clogged with people. At the front is a police officer I haven’t seen before. He fires with his service pistol, putting another hole in my already hurting chest. This one pierced a lung, and I can feel the organ deflating inside me. I don’t strictly speaking need to breathe to survive, but it always bothers me when I can’t.
Rather than fight my way through the crowd of possessed… sorry, enthralled people I leap over the railing, landing hard on the ground next to the bleeding Taco Hut kid. I don’t quite stick the landing, but I stay on my feet.
People start coming out of the first floor motel rooms, various improvised weapons in hand, as I try to make it to my car.
“Fuck!” I yell when I get to the car and find the tires flat, not that it really matters since I left the keys on the dresser in my room. I’m surrounded now, and the once peaceful people of Arcadium Acres close in on me. They form a circle around me and the car, staying back far enough that I can’t hit them with the shotgun.
We are at a standoff. They can’t take me, but I can’t take them out. They surround me, all grinning, but other than the sound of their breathing they are silent. I glare at them, looking from face to face, a young woman in a “Maneki Neko and the Cha’an Chus” t-shirt, a balding older man in a shirt and tie, a young child with a “I Support Glenn Gervase” sticker on his chest. They all smile back like this was all a game.
I try to inventory my possible escape routes. I could try and go through them, I don’t care what’s controlling them, I can take a group of untrained mortals, but the paperwork if I badly injure any of them would be horrendous. I look up; I could climb the car and jump back up the the walkway on the second floor, but it’s still clogged with more weapon toting locals. I could try to jump from the top of the car over the crowd, but I don’t think I would make it.
The silence is broken by the sound of an engine. I can see headlights behind the group in front of me, and they’re getting closer. Somehow I doubt this is the cavalry coming to my rescue, especially since I am the cavalry. It’s something big, the engine is definitely diesel by the sound of it.
As if it has all been rehearsed, the crowd clears a path open in front of me, and the headlights of a very large semi pulling a silver tanker that shines in the moonlight momentarily blind me. The truck is coming fast, I need to move, but where?
I jump up onto the hood of my car, and then onto the roof, I intend to leap onto the front of the truck before it impacts, and then try to leap clear before it sandwiches me between either my car, or the front of the motel. I barely hear the shot from someone’s pistol, but I feel it slam into my right leg, and hit the bone. It is an incredible shot against a moving target, but someone, one of the cops I am guessing, pulled it off.
My leg gives out, and I fall off the roof of my rental car and right into the path of the oncoming truck. I pull myself to my feet, and try to leap again, but I’m too late. The last thing I see is blindingly bright lights before the grinning grill of the truck slams into me.
I am damned near invincible, and that’s not boasting, but one of the few truths in life is that you can incapacitate pretty much anything, living, dead, or otherwise, by hitting it with a truck. I have just enough time to remember that this is a pretty similar experience to my mortal death before the darkness overwhelms me and I lose consciousness.
“Oi!” I hear a woman’s voice hissing.
Everything hurts. I try to move and find my arms are secured behind my back. I can feel the metal cuffs digging into my wrists when I pull. I try to move my legs, and find them to be similarly shackled together.
“Come on, you can’t still be unconscious. What did they do, hit you with a truck?”
“Yeah, actually,” I groan.
I open my eyes, and squint against the harsh fluorescent lights set inside the wire cage on the ceiling. I am in a sitting position, my back propped up against a cold hard wall. I look around, and find that I am sitting on a bunk in a jail cell, no doubt below the same police station I was in earlier today… or was it yesterday? How long was I out?
“So are you my back up then?”
I look at the source of the voice. I recognize her instantly despite the fact one of the lenses on her glasses is shattered, and that the hair on her her head is largely matted instead of curly like it is in the picture. There is dried blood on her face and staining her white blouse and the front of her blue jeans; her clothes are speckled with what look like bullet holes. She is sitting on the bunk opposite me in the same cell; her hands behind her back, and her ankles shackled together.
“Emily Adams?” I ask.
“I guess that answers my question, so who are you?”
“Special Agent Xader Dax, FBI.”
“Oh, you can drop your cover, they know who we are. Did they get your weapons?”
I don’t feel the weight of my gun on my side. I feel for my knife, but find it missing also; the chain between the handcuffs on my wrists clank softly as I feel the small of my back for the missing weapon.
Losing your weapon is a big deal for an agent, and for me personally. I’ve been told by other agents that our weapons could even banish an angel to Hell, but I have my doubts about that.
“Shit, yeah,” I groan, embarrassed as much as anything.
“Don’t worry about it, they got my gun too. So how long did it take before you knew something was wrong?”
“The first person I talked to seemed odd, and the second. I started to put things together once I realized that everyone was that way, not just those two people. How long was I out?”
Emily jingles her handcuff chains, “I can’t exactly look at my watch, but I’d say a good five or six hours at least. It’s kind of hard to keep track of time in here. So how did they get you anyway? I’m sure if you came in here flashing a badge that it didn’t take them long to figure out who you really are.”
“There was this kid who seemed immune to the demon’s control; he came to me for help. They killed him, and then tried to capture me.”
“And that’s when they hit you with the truck?”
“Yeah. What happened to you?”
“I had been in town a couple of days. I know what you mean about people seeming odd, but it wasn’t everyone. I think it takes time for the demon to gain control over more people, and I think that is what is setting my ring off, because it’s a lot stronger now than when I first got here.
“I had gone into Apollo’s for a cup of coffee, and when I came out there were three police officers there, guns drawn. They started shooting, I tried to run, they ran me down with their car, broke my legs, and had me tied up before I could recover.”
I pull against my handcuffs; they don’t feel any stronger than standard police handcuffs; with a little effort I should be able to break the chain linking them together. I then wonder why Agent Adams is still here.
“Your cuffs?” I ask, jingling mine.
“Yeah,” she nods, understanding my full question, “but where would I go at this point? I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t get through those bars.”
I nod back. Time is something agents of Purgatory have plenty of, so we can wait.
We don’t have to wait too long though. It’s been maybe ten hours of just me and Agent Adams talking. I’m back to a hundred percent now, and I could snap these cuffs as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
I hear footsteps coming down into the police station’s holding area; a lot of them. Captain Bill Andros leads a dozen khaki clad police officers towards our cell. All but one of them has their weapons drawn.
“Time to move, Demon Hunters, we wouldn’t want ya to miss the crownin’ of the king!”
Adams was right, it is hard to keep track of time down here. If they are getting ready to crown the king that means I’ve been down here closer to twenty hours than the 15 I had been estimating.
In Andros’ hand I can see my agency issued gun. In the hands of a female officer, identified as Wohoviak by the patch above her breast pocket, next to him is what looks like a civilian stun gun. I look at Adams questioningly.
Adams shrugs, “Yeah, it’s mine. It’s not like I can carry around a pistol with me, now is it?”
A young officer with short blond hair unlocks the door to our cell.
“Now you two are gonna behave, or I’m gonna use this,” Andros threatens, “and then you can see what Hell is like first hand.”
“It’ll probably take your arm off if you do,” I caution. That little gun has quite a kick.
“I appreciate your concern, but I think you’ll be a little too gone to care if that happens.”
Neither myself nor Agent Adams make any threatening moves while the cops move to one side of the hallway to allow myself and Adams to shuffle-walk out as best as our ankle restraints will allow us.
There is an elevator they could use to get us back up to ground level, but the cops don’t lead us there. I don’t know if they just don’t want to be in such a tight space with us or if the demon just wants to laugh as us while we try to climb stairs with our ankles chained together, but it is the stairs we are led to.
Andros waits at the top of the stairs while Wohoviak stands at the bottom. They both keep the weapons trained on us as we make the slow awkward climb. Even if we did try to make an escape while in this stairwell we would have nowhere to go without going through one of them and risking getting our own weapons used on us.
It is already dark when we are led outside, but it’s still quite warm. In the distance I can hear music blaring from the carnival, but looking around it seems like everyone in town is here. The circle of road with its island of grass in the center is full of people, all smiling and standing silently facing the stage with its gaudy throne on it. The stage is all lit up from spotlights mounted on poles at the corners of the stage.
A path opens for us as the police lead us around to the front side of the stage so that we can see the front of the throne. I clench my teeth at what I see, and look over to find a look of surprise on Adams’ face.
On the stage, propped up in the throne of gold spray paint and plastic gems is the dead body of Glenn Gervase. His head hangs limply against his left shoulder. I pull on my restraints harder; yes, I can get free, but who do I attack? The demon must be here, but who? I can’t simply start laying waste to everyone in this town. Whatever I’m going to do, I need to get my gun back; Adam’s gun too.
A pudgy man with thinning gray hair climbs up onto the stage from the set of stairs on the right side; he is wearing an immaculate black tuxedo. He approaches the microphone set up next to the throne with its dead occupant, “Alright, it looks like everyone is here now, so lets get started. All of the votes have been tallied, and it is time to crown this year’s Spring King Faire King!”
The crowd cheers in unison. It’s like listening to a recording of one person cheering played a thousand times over, and at different pitches; a thousand different voices making the same exact noise, right down to the same inflection, at once. If my blood wasn’t already boiling with rage I would probably find this chilling.
“If I may have the envelope, please!” the man says into the microphone.
A young red haired girl with a sash reading “Miss Arcadium Acres” across her chest comes on stage. She has a small white envelope in one hand, and a large shiny crown in the other. “Here you go, mister mayor,” the girl says, and smiles at the crowd. This time everyone whoops in unison at the pretty girl, not like they mean it, but like they are a bunch of bad actors following a well rehearsed script.
The mayor makes a big show of opening the envelope, and holds up the folded paper inside, like he is trying to read it in the spotlight. “And the two-thousand-eleven king of Arcadium Acres is… Glenn Gervase with over ninety-nine percent of the vote!”
A thousand voices cheer the same cheer again as Miss Arcadium Acres walks over, lifts the dead child’s head off of his shoulder, and places the crown gently on it before letting it slump over again.
“This is really fucked up,” I barely hear Adams say next to me.
“Lets hear it for King Glenn the First!” the mayor roars into the microphone.
“Long live the king! Long live the king!” chants the crowd.
I have had just about enough of this. None of the demon’s puppets are paying any attention to us now; they are all too busy cheering for the dead body on the stage. I look to my side and see that Adams has spotted this opportunity too, and has snapped the chain joining her wrists.
“’Long live the king! Long live the king!”
I jerk violently against my chains as hard as I can, and they break as if they were made of string instead of metal. The shackles on my ankles are a little harder, but a couple hard jerks snap them as well. This is all too easy, and I can’t help but wonder if the shape shifter, or whatever it is, wants us to get free.
“Long live the king! Long live the king!”
Andros is standing in front of me, chanting along with the crowd. I wrap my left forearm around his throat, and pull back hard. I grab his right wrist, the one still holding my gun, with my free hand, but he doesn’t even try to bring it up to fire. After a few moments he goes limp in my arm, and I drop him to the ground.
When I straighten back up after retrieving my gun, I look over and see Adams standing over the unconscious body of Officer Wohoviak. In the light from the stage I can see that her cop has blood flowing from a likely broken nose.
“Now what?” Adams asks, “Who is it? It has to be here, so who is it?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” A voice asks over the stage’s speakers, but it’s not the mayor’s voice. I recognize the voice, it belongs to-
“The kid!” gasps Adams, pointing with her stun gun.
I look, and there on the stage in his own blood stained t-shirt is Glenn Gervase standing at the microphone grinning. He looks taller now, as if he has stretched out to match the height of the mic stand instead of lowering it down to his level; his shirt stops a couple of inches short of the waistband of his jeans, which themselves stop a couple of inches above his sneakers.
“Oh, but you’ve gone and figured it out now.” Glenn says.
I raise my gun, but the mayor and the beauty queen step into my line of fire.
“Now, now, you cannot assassinate the king on the first night of his reign.”
“You came to Earth and took over an entire town just so you could be named king of some stupid street fair?” I yell.
“A wise man once said that it is better to reign on Earth than to serve in Hell,” Glenn replies.
“That’s not how that saying goes,” Adams says.
“Do you contradict the king?” Glenn asks, “Well lets put it to the people. My followers, is that the correct saying?”
“Yes, my liege!” the crowd replies in unison.
“The people have spoken! It’s good to be the king.”
“I thought you were supposed to be a form mutator or something?” I ask, “How are you controlling these people?”
“I’ve learned a few things along the way,” Glenn replies proudly, “And it’s not just this town you know? Already my followers are spreading my influence across the state; soon I will be the king of Nevada, then the west, then the country!” The crowd cheers.
“Oh great,” Adams mutters, “He’s a cartoon villain!”
“But I guess you want to see me do some shape shifting, is that it? Okay.”
Glenn’s features melt, and he grows a little taller. His hair lengthens and his shirt stretches out as breasts grow beneath it. Suddenly a perfect copy of Emily Adams stands on the stage, “Is this better?” the demon asks in Emily’s voice.
His features melt again, and he grows taller still, his shirt stretching so much that pieces of the puffy paint lettering on it break off. Suddenly I am standing there in jeans and a t-shirt that are stretched out like sausage skins. “How about this?” the demon asks in my voice.
“What about animals?” Adams asks, working her way into the crowd, and towards the stairs on the right of the stage. Her stun gun has been shoved into one of her pants pockets, and instead she is just holding a silver retractable ballpoint pen which she is clicking nervously.
“Now Emily, may I call you Emily? I just feel like I know you well enough now for that,” demon me asks.
I start to make my way through the crowd too, heading for the left, looking for a clear shot. More of the controlled mortals move to stay between me and the stage.
“If you like,” Emily says. The crowd lets her pass; lets her walk right up to the stage, “I just want to know what the range of your abilities are, I’ve never seen a shape shifter before.”
Demon me shakes a finger at her, “I know that story. You want me to turn into a mouse or a fly or something so you can just step on me. I’m not that stupid, thank you very much.”
Adams climbs up onto the stage, keeping her hands well away from the gun tucked into her pocket, “I would never try something that cliché, and it wouldn’t work anyway; we both know that.”
I cannot figure out what Adams’ game is here. If she’s trying to distract the demon to give me a shot it’s not working. The civilians continue to place themselves between me and my target, and unless I want to shoot through them I will not be able to pull this off.
“Can you change into something else?” Adams asks, looking up into the demon’s copy of my face a full foot above hers,“That’s very disconcerting.”
“I suppose I can grant such a small request to a follower,” the demon’s features again melt, he grows shorter, less muscular, and now Adams is standing right in front a handsome man with slicked back brown hair. His clothes are still too small for him, but no longer look like they are threatening to tear.
“Is that better?” the demon asks in a smooth new voice, “Is this shape more appealing to you?”
“No, I thought you were better looking the other way,” Adams says, stepping right up in front of the shape shifter, “but you are shorter this way, which makes it easier for me.”
“For what? To kiss me? Come on, give me some sugar baby.”
Adams chuckles, “No, I don’t think so. It makes it easier for me to do this.”
I can barely see her over the heads of the townspeople trying to keep me from a clear shot, but Adams’ right hand becomes a blur of motion as she stabs the demon in the throat with the pen she had been fidgeting with. I am surprised to see a flash of bright red flame spray out of the small hole under the demon’s handsome face.
The demon staggers back from Adams, its hands coming up to try and stop the flames gushing from its neck wound. Its features blur and darken, and it starts to grow. His fingers turn black and lengthen into claws as it grows taller and taller, shredding the child-sized clothing it was wearing.
The shapeshifter lets out an inhuman roar as Adams leaps up onto it and drives her pen into its chest. The demon topples backwards to the floor of the stage as all of the townspeople turn and rush towards it, obscuring my view of the fight as they rush to help their king.
I start pushing my way forward to where Agent Adams and the demon are buried under a pile of innocents, throwing the demon’s puppets aside like they are rag dolls as I fight my way towards the woman I was originally sent to rescue.
I’m up on the stage, only a couple of yards away from where I know Adams went down when it happens. I cannot see it, but I know that Adams has pierced the demon’s heart with her pen, and it finally clicks for me; the pen is her backup weapon. Of course, what else would a writer have?
There’s a bright flash, and I am thrown backwards in a shower of bodies as bright red flame shoots skyward. I can see the silhouettes of the townspeople flying through the air before my vision is obscured by people landing on me.
I know it’s over when they burning sensation from my ring suddenly ceases. I am buried in a pile of motionless bodies. I note the strong smell of brimstone in the air as I pull myself out of the heap, and start making my way to where Adams was. All of the spotlights were blown out by the force of the demon’s explosion, so I can now see only by moonlight.
I am only a little surprised to find an open circle in the middle of the piles of bodies with a small pile of ashes and tattered pieces of clothing in them.
“See,” Agent Adams; voice comes from behind me, “The pen really is mightier than the sword!”
I turn to see Adams standing out on the grass surrounded by more bodies; she is holding her hand up in the air. It is too dim to see, but I’m sure she’s holding her pen up.
I find that my phone has not survived the activities of the last twenty-four hours, so Adams walks back to the police station to call Reg while I check the bodies. To my great relief I find that everyone I check is breathing, but unconscious. I don’t know if there will be any permanent damage to their minds or bodies, but at least I don’t find any dead ones to have to write reports on.
Adams makes her way back over to me after coming out of the police station, “Is this yours?” she asks, holding a knife in a black sheath out to me.
“Yeah,” I say, taking it from her, “So what did Reg say?”
“He wasn’t there. I got Rose,” Adams rolls her eyes as she says the name of Reg’s less than pleasant receptionist.
“Thracken actually got out from behind that desk? Where is he?”
“Rose wouldn’t say; she just says he’s out. “
Not wanting to talk about Rose and end up getting a rant-fest going, I change the subject, “So the pen, that’s you…?”
“My backup? Yeah. It is a lot easier to explain having a ballpoint pen than it is explaining away carrying a large knife in my purse.”
“How did you get it past the demon’s followers?”
“I told them the nail file in my purse was my backup. It’s not like Gervase had any way of proving it short of stabbing me or himself. They let me keep my wallet too, want to see if Apollo’s is ope-”
Adams stops talking and looks up. We both hear it; a motor in the distance, “Crap,” she groans, and then, motioning to the bodies littering the park, “I do not want to have to try and explain this to a mortal.”
The motor grows louder, and suddenly a spotlight appears in the sky, its beam searching the ground. The light darts back and forth across the unconscious townsfolk before finding and stopping on me and Agent Adams. We both put up our hands to shield our eyes.
The large black helicopter hovers over a clear piece of road, and ropes spiral out of it. Men in riot armor and helmets start sliding down the ropes to the street, and immediately begin checking bodies. One of the armored men calmly approaches us as the helicopter rises back into the air and flies away.
“A little late for the cavalry to come riding to the rescue?” the familiar voice asks. The man flips the visor on his helmet up to reveal the serious face of Reginald Thracken.“Xader, Emily, you guys look horrible,” he says matter-of-factly.
I look down at my self and for the first time realize that I must look worse than Adams. My shirt and jacket are dark with dried blood and practically shredded from a combination of shotgun pellets and being on the wrong end of a big rig.
“You should see the other guy,” Adams quips.
“So what are we going to do about all this?” I ask, motioning to the
field of unconscious mortals.
“We’ll call it a chemical spill or something; that’s for people higher up than me to decide. You two however have reports to start on. The chopper is landing over by that ferris wheel, it’ll take you to a portal so you can get back.”
“You know, some people get rewards for this sort of thing,” Adams complains, but without dropping the smile from her face.
“You’ll get your reward eventually,” says Reg, “and guys, I’m glad you’re both okay. Good job, both of you.”
“I couldn’t have done it without my big, strong hero here,” Adams says and throws an arm around me just above my waist, ”Without you being all big and menacing over there, making me look all small and harmless, he never would have let me get so close. We should be friends!”
Friends, huh? I’ve never really had friends. Why not, it could be fun.
Adams and I start in the direction of the carnival, “Do you think we could get some cotton candy before we go?” she asks me.
I shrug, “We can see,” I say as we head towards the flashing lights and blaring music in the distance.