As it happens, male pattern baldness doesn’t actually run in Jasper Sitwell’s family. He’s the first and only one in his family to be completely bald, which causes awkward comment during family reunions.
“Most of us just turn grey,” his uncle says reproachfully, eyeing his scalp.
Most of us don’t work for SHIELD, Jasper doesn’t say. This was in the days when explaining his job to his family required more paperwork than any right-minded man would willingly deal with. “All my ranking coworkers are bald,” he says instead. “It’s a thing.”
“An In Crowd thing. Powerful men are bald.”
“Is there scientific research backing this assertion?” his cousin demands suspiciously.
“The Director’s bald. My direct superior’s got a receding hairline.”
“Do they promote based on follicle death?” His father has a dignified shock of silver hair that makes him look more like a retired movie star than the Ivy League professor of economics that he is. He runs his hands through it now, reassuring himself. “You should find another job.”
At least Jasper’s father treats his baldness as a case more to be pitied than censured. The specter of sudden baldness haunts him, as it does all men, so Jasper’s guaranteed a certain paranoia-based sympathy out of basic male solidarity. His mother is more embarrassing, in that she has through some unfathomable method learned his phone numbers and calls him during office hours to leave horrific, well-meaning messages guaranteed to aggravate his IBS.
“I saw a program on the BBC,” she enthuses into the SHIELD answering system, committing herself indelibly to encrypted record and an analyst’s faithful transcription. “They said there’s an extract from hippopotamus fat that’s showing great promise for follicle regrowth. Better than Rogaine, they said. I spoke to my friend Raparti, the one with the beautiful daughter who’s a doctor and single, and he said she knows where you can buy some. I asked her to call you. You should take her out to coffee as a thank you. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
It’s Jasper’s opinion that the quality of reporting at the BBC hasn’t been the same since Thatcher left office.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY, STEP I - THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.
The thing is, when an agent reaches clearance level five, it’s because they’re valuable, capable of something an exponentially diminishing few can offer in the ranks of SHIELD. Clint Barton, his personal issues notwithstanding, is unstoppable behind a scope. Jim Woo is an analyst and extractor par excellence. Melinda May has infiltrated half the presidential offices of Asia, and Phil Coulson has an instinct for the unusual that could be the basis of an entire TV show.
Jasper’s less certain what he brings to the party.
“Reality,” Phil tells him one day in the canteen, when they’re younger, less follically-challenged versions of themselves. “You bring the reality.”
“I could bring the badass,” Jasper says, because he still has hopes.
“Mel brings the badass,” Clint corrects.
Heads nod around the table: of course, of course. Mel brings the badass. She frowns at them, but doesn’t deny it.
“I bring the aim,” Clint adds unnecessarily, and, “I bring the style,” says Jim, and then all eyes turn to Phil.
Phil inspects his pudding cup. “I bring the heat,” he says placidly.
Jim snorts milk out his nose.
While Clint and Mel help him clean up, Jasper pushes a fish finger around his plate with his fork. “Reality’s boring. Who needs reality? ‘Oh, there’s Jasper, he brought the reality. Great, put it over there next to the boxed wine.’”
“Fury likes it,” Phil says.
Jasper’s one and only encounter with Fury to date had been when his recruiter had brought the Assistant Director in to watch him retake an analysis test. Wracked with nerves, Jasper had obediently reviewed six photographs, identifying objects in each, their relationship to each other, their likely provenance, significance, and etymological background. Long after Fury had impaled him with an incredulous one-eyed stare and stalked out of the room; long after Phil had greeted him with the simple words, “You’re Sitwell. We’re going to work well together,” Jasper had learned that the one thing about the photographs he had failed to identify—the one thing every other candidate had noted—was that to most people, the objects in the pictures looked like they spelled out the letters ‘F,’ ‘U,’ ‘C,’ ‘K,’ ‘E,’ and ‘R.’
He spent the next few days wandering around the Hub, muttering, “Fucker. Goddamn fucker. What idiot would miss that fucker?” Three weeks later, he looked up to discover he’d gained a wholly undeserved reputation.
“You see what’s there, never what’s not,” Phil says in the here and now. “It’s an admirable trait. Most people have to be trained to do that. You do it naturally. Fury has uses for people with that quality.”
“He’s never said a word to me."
“He’ll get to that eventually."
It’ll be another two years before people start to call Phil Coulson ‘Fury’s good eye,’ but already he’s an oracle that can be counted on. Less than an hour later, Jasper is pulled into Fury’s office and is given, in stunningly swift sequence: a promotion; a team of three; and a long-term assignment monitoring a thing he’s never heard about for a reason he doesn’t understand.
“You want me to do what?” he asks, bewildered and still reeling. “Secret police? In America?”
Fury leans on his hands, his not-smile speaking volumes. “Congratulations, Sheriff. Welcome to Night Vale.”
THE HERO’S JOURNEY, STEP II - SUPERNATURAL AID
Being sheriff of Night Vale is a bullshit gig. After years spent hunting aliens, supertech, mutants, and would-be sorcerers, dealing with sentient pavement and the occasional escaped librarian is refreshingly straightforward. The secret police trade enforcement roles with the hooded figures on odd-numbered days, so really, Jasper only works four days a week. If it weren’t for the vague stress of being followed around everywhere by the glow cloud, which is bizarrely fixated on him, it’d practically be a vacation. Unfortunately, Jasper’s staff of three rotates with depressing regularity, each transfer out preceded by increasingly pointed memos from Psych. The record is one level four agent who lasted for all of two hours before Jasper made a command decision and had him moved to distant pastures. He sent Jasper a thank you card from the middle of charmingly pyrrhic civil war in the Congo before the Night Vale effect erased his memories of it.
Jasper can’t see what the fuss is about.
“I’m level three, specializing in infiltration and covert surveillance,” says his new transfer when Jasper meets the man at the ambitiously named Night Vale airport. “I speak Croatian, Farsi, and French, and my last assignment was in Damascus, tracking down black markets in future tech.”
Agent Ward looks around himself at the desert. He’s tall, good-looking, has all his hair, and he's obviously wondering what the hell he did to get assigned to butt-fuck nowhere. Jasper has to remind himself that he's not a petty man. He’s not. Ward just looks unreliable, is all. Really, really, really unreliable.
Ward rumples his hair and frowns. "Is there anything here that actually needs someone with my skill set, sir?" he asks. His cheekbones are making the wind bleed.
Jasper suppresses the urge to shelve him like an Alan Alda biography. “Are those sunglasses SHIELD issue?”
“Make sure you keep them on.”
“On your face,” Jasper clarifies, in case Ward is one of the especially dumb ones. He looks like one of the dumb ones.
Creativity in eyewear is not worth encouraging in Night Vale. SHIELD has an orientation packet for the town that every assigned agent reads, but most of them don’t believe it until they experience the place. Jasper has lost more agents to poor eyewear protocol than he has to the library, and that’s saying something.
“It’s too early for Night Vale yet,” he says, checking his watch. “You’ll have time to make the pickup. Take the car. Take the GPS. You’ll meet a deliveryman outside the town. He’ll transfer crates from his car to yours. Watch him. Make sure all the crates are transferred, then bring them back to the hanger. And if any of the clouds talk to you,” he thinks to add, “don’t talk back.”
Ward doesn’t ask, doesn’t so much as blink at the milk run assignment or the incongruous addendum. He takes the coordinates Jasper hands him and strides off with tie flapping in the sullen breeze. A man without any curiosity has a—well, not a future in Night Vale, exactly, or in SHIELD, but at least not an immediate and painful death. Mostly. Maybe.
By the time Ward gets back with the crates and gets them loaded into Jasper’s car, it’s time to visit the town.
“There’s something wrong with the radio,” Ward reports, after fiddling with it on the drive in. “It’s off, but it keeps making noise.”
“That’s not noise. That’s Cecil. Put on your sunglasses back on,” Jasper says.
“It’s night time,” Ward objects.
Jasper isn’t wearing sunglasses, but then again, he’s never really needed them. “Put them on,” he says.
“It’s a disguise,” he says, on the off chance that’ll work. He turns the volume on the radio up. Cecil is already crooning a rhapsodic narrative of Ward’s arrival.
You ride towards an unknown destination, sitting beside a man you do not know and should not trust. He tells you to put on your sunglasses. You wonder why you should. Through them, the sky will look as black as your ignorance, the unknowable crossing paths with the unfathomable—
Ward is apparently oblivious. He puts on the sunglasses.
You make the right choice, Cecil congratulates. It will be the last right choice you will make for a long time.
Jasper says, “We’re going in to pick up intel from Old Woman Josie. That’s a description, not a code name. Be polite.”
“I’m always polite, sir.”
And now, the traffic, says Cecil. Air, rail, network, internet, illegal, control, arms, drugs, human, wildlife….
“Community radio,” Ward comments.
Jasper waits for the rest of what sounds like an opinion, but apparently it starts and stops there. “We’re at the town limits. Don’t take the glasses off,” he reminds. Cecil is warbling a paean to the beauty of Damascus.
“Yes, sir,” Ward says. And then, staring out the window, “Was that … Johnny Depp? With a crow on his head?”
What an asshole, Cecil huffs.
Josie lives in a tiny slat house a few blocks down what is currently Existential Crisis Avenue, a misguided street that has plenty of parking, if not much in the way of signs. Jasper parks in the conveniently empty driveway and pops the trunk, tossing Ward the keys. “Get the crates out of the trunk and put them in the garage,” he says. “Don’t drop any of them.”
The radio is playing in the parlor (of course) and Old Woman Josie is keeping herself occupied. Hobbies in Night Vale are never simple things like knitting, or stamp collecting—no, that’s not true. Mighty Stilton at the 7-11 knits entrails out of pig intestines when he’s feeling recursively anxious—but the point is that somehow Night Vale citizens always manage to do the normal things wrong. No amount of explanation will get them on the same page as the rest of the planet, so Jasper has given up trying.
Take, for instance, Old Woman Josie, who is putting together replacement children in an assembly line that resembles a doll factory. Fortunately, it’s not from original parts. Unfortunately, the replacement parts are from different … sets.
“There you are!” she greets. “I’ve been waiting.”
“That leg is the wrong color,” he points out. She peers over her glasses at it before realizing, “Too pink!” and replaces it with a brown one with undertones of green. It wiggles its toes. She tickles them.
He stoops to kiss her on a soft, plump cheek, and suffers the indignity of getting his butt pinched. At least he’s fast enough to prevent her from stealing his gun out of its holster again.
“Did you bring me something?” she asks, hopeful as one of the partially assembled children.
You take the last box out of the car, Cecil says ominously. It’s dripping. You can feel the wetness on your fingers, so you sniff at them in the dark. They smell like blood. Thick, viscous, salty, fresh. You can feel it splashing on your foot. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Oooo,” says Old Woman Josie.
“It’s not what you think—”
“Did you bring me a person to put back together?”
“—And then again,” he amends.
She rubs her little hands together. “I’ll get the yarn.”
SHIELD is privately acknowledged to have the best of medical plans and benefits by agents who’ve worked other alphabet soup agencies, though the inner workings of the most classified and dangerous medical services are known to a total of four agents. Of them, Phil is the only one who’s actually gone through the actual process. This is his third time in the four years Jasper has been sheriff. Jasper’s starting to wonder if Phil’s really as badass as people claim, or just the world’s most lethal klutz.
“He might not be in a good mood when you finish putting him back together,” he warns. “He had a bad time of it before he died.” Terrorists. Torture. Exsanguination over the course of three days. The usual.
“Little Peanut,” Josie says fondly. “I used to change his diapers, you know.”
“I didn’t say it was him,” Jasper protests, and she reaches over to pat his knee with one kindly, gnarled hand and says, “Maybe I’ll put a new scalp on him. That might cheer him up.”
He’s taken aback. “A new scalp? You mean— more hair?”
“I could find some in the same color.”
Jasper’s a professional, but he’s also only human, which is why he says with no guilt whatsoever, “We like him with what’s left of his original hair.”
Old Woman Josie purses her lips, but lets it go as one of the incomprehensible whims of a vague yet shadowy government organization. “I do enjoy your little challenges. They’re just like jigsaw puzzles. So much better than bingo. And Erika says they’ll help.”
Jasper has never been convinced about the angels. He sees Erika as a perfectly creepy, if somewhat terrifying, woman-possibly-or-maybe-a-man with a striking resemblance to a black Tilda Swinton. He knows from experience that his fellow agents see something very different though, so he simply bobs his head on general principles and remembers to say, “Don’t put a librarian inside this time, please. Original souls only.” He translates Old Woman Josie’s roguish twinkle as something that might be agreement. Cranky, resurrected Phil is bad enough, but a cranky, resurrected Phil with a librarian inside him doesn’t bear thinking of.
—a human hand, Cecil says. He’s been talking this entire time, of course, but Jasper was, in all fairness, distracted. It’s a nice hand, with a nice watch on it. You look at that hand and wonder what other hands it has held. Who knows where it has been? Has it helped a child over an impossible obstacle? Has it caressed a loving cheek? Has it brought implacable justice down on the darkest evil? Does it know how to play Tiddlywinks?
“Shit,” Jasper says, and dashes out. The glow cloud is overhead again. Typical.
He finds Ward in the garage.
“Sir,” Ward says, and holds out a hand. His hand. His hand, holding the other hand that is not his. He looks suspicious. “Are we delivering human remains?”
“You have to pick now to get curious?”
“I’m sure there’s a national security reason for this.”
“Okay. We’ll go with that,” Jasper says, resigned. “This wouldn’t have happened if you’d kept your sunglasses on. And now there’s blood everywhere.”
Ward looks down. “The plastic liner leaked,” he explains.
“You’ll have to clean it up. There’s bleach in the back of the garage. Make sure you get all of it, or the fairies will smell it and come hunting.”
“They’re like sharks when there’s blood in the air.”
Ward looks alarmed. “You anticipate a security threat from local homosexuals, sir?”
Jasper opens his mouth. Then he closes it. “Yes, Agent Ward,” he finally says. “Eight-inch, swarming homosexuals who can strip a full-grown cow to its skeleton in one point six seconds flat and can only be kept away with Neil Diamond songs or pleather. They’ll make eye contact by burrowing straight through your cornea into your brain, but they’ll look fabulous doing it.”
“Do you have any intel on how they’ll be armed?” Ward asks, in all seriousness.
It just isn’t worth trying to be funny in Night Vale. Jasper sighs. “Get the damn bleach.”
He’s back in the middle of the living room, saying, “Agent Ward will clean up the blood before any damn fae smell it,” when he’s stopped by the sight of Old Woman Josie and Erika sitting on either side of the radio, their hands folded in their laps.
—wonder what could be here that’s so interesting to the vague yet menacing totalitarian terrorist organization you work for that has infiltrated the vague yet shadowy government organization that thinks you work for them, Cecil says. You hope it’s easy to identify and retrieve without the little bald man noticing. Having to kill him might raise flags. Gosh, you live a hard life.
Jasper clutches at nonexistent hair. “Goddammit, I knew he looked— Little bald man, what the fuck, Cecil?”
Old Woman Josie and Erika both turn horrifyingly familiar looks on him. It’s like going back in time again to that one visit home, when his mother first realized that he was losing his hair. In retrospect, it’s not especially surprising that an Angel of the Lord would know how to make that face. The question is whether it’s an expression innate to disapproving female-or-possibly-female authority figures, or if it’s just something about Jasper himself that brings it out in female-or-possibly-female authority figures.
“You can’t leave a vague yet menacing totalitarian terrorist organization in my garage,” Old Woman Josie says severely. “It’s Tuesday.”
THE HERO’S JOURNEY, STEP III - THE ROAD OF TRIALS
To be honest, Jasper feels a bit vindicated. On the one hand there is Ward: handsome, tall, white, full head of hair, evil. On the other hand there is Jasper: commanding, slightly less tall, Honduran-American of Palestinian descent, bald, but—and this is key—not evil.
“‘Vague yet menacing totalitarian terrorist organization!’” he shouts at Cecil, who is regarding him through the sound room glass with the bewilderment of a pygmy owl meeting its first Ascot hat. “That’s what you said! He works for a ‘vague yet menacing totalitarian terrorist organization!’”
“There’s a narrative, dear neighbors,” Cecil croons into the mic, still staring fixedly at Jasper, “that waits for no storyteller. We’ve known it in our bones since the day we first crawled out of the primordial ooze and stood up proudly under the twin suns. We know it as the battle between good and evil. But is it really a battle? Maybe it’s a birth? Maybe good is born screaming and clawing, glistening with the fluids of evil’s womb, dragged forth into the light of day by the forceps of truth—“
Jasper’s cell phone rings. He pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingers before he answers, feeling his headache grow. “He’s not cooperating, Director,” he says, as Cecil happily plops his moral relativism on the backs of appalling, increasingly organic metaphors, and takes them for a gallop over the airwaves. “He’s barricaded himself in the sound booth. No, sir. I can’t. Station management is greasing Ineffability, and they took the key with them.”
“Bald women,” Cecil tells his Night Vale fans, “are powerful.”
“No, sir. Dr. Santos is out in the desert, trying to catch a— no, sir, Ward didn’t hear anything. He’s currently unaware.”
“Bald men are just . . . they’re just so shiny,” Cecil enthuses.
“Yes, sir,” Jasper says. The weather starts shrieking over the WZZZ speakers. “I’ll be waiting.”
THE HERO’S JOURNEY, STEP IV - THE MEETING WITH THE GOD(DESS)
In the five days he spends waiting for Fury, Jasper learns that Ward has the emotional backbone of a jellyfish, believes his act of socially inept upstanding agent is convincing, likes sandwiches, likes dwiches, can sing entire songs from West Side Story, and can’t retain ndwiches, likes sandwi, can’t retain any infor any formation in the likes sandwiches sehciwdnas sekil, can sin entire gons from West Side Sto
(“Que chingados!” Jasper swears, slapping a pastrami sandwich out of Ward’s hand. “There’s a reason why wheat is not allowed in Night Vale. Stop fucking with the space-time continuum, you dick!”
“Sir?” Ward says, looking puzzled.)
In the two days he spends waiting for Fury, Jasper learns that Ward has the emotional backbone of a jellyfish, believes his act of socially inept upstanding agent is convincing, likes sandwiches, can sing entire songs from West Side Story, and can’t retain any information in the Night Vale debriefing packet for more than fifteen minutes.
The last one is entirely the fault of Ward’s inability to follow basic eyewear protocol, though it’s too late to do anything about it so Jasper doesn’t bother to write him up. Ward’s not the first agent to have that problem, or the first one to shoot the briefing packet out of frustration, or even the first one to set fire to it and stomp on the remains. He might be the first one to stick his face in its ashes and sneeze, though.
“I don’t know why I did that,” Ward says at Rick’s, looking like a hilariously tragic raccoon.
“Why do any of us ever do anything? Why are we here at all? Why did you join SHIELD?” Jasper asks slyly.
“I don’t think this place is working for me,” Ward adds, completely missing this subtle interrogation. He pokes at his pizza without appetite.
Despite himself, Jasper can't help but feel a little sorry for the asshole. “I don’t think you’re wrong,” he admits. “On the bright side, Steve Carlsberg really liked that look on you.”
Jasper learns nothing about a vague yet menacing totalitarian terrorist organization. Jasper’s interrogation skills could really use some work. Cecil is no help whatsoever, because in a freak of bad timing, Carlos Santos decided to try a new shampoo and in his absent-minded way, accidentally picked up a bottle of Nair instead. The entire town is still in the throes of PTSD.
“So basically, you got bupkis,” Fury says when he arrives to debrief Jasper in person.
Fury wears his sunglasses. Fury respects the rules. Fury delivers a crate of wheat-free Twinkie knockoffs from Clint Barton, and then eats six of them while sourly reminding Jasper that he’s the goddamn Director of SHIELD, not a motherfucking UPS guy.
“I got a ‘vague yet menacing totalitarian terrorist organization’ out of a routine resurrection,” Jasper grouses. “What do you have? Sir.” Respect for authority is the first thing to go when you begin your morning by emptying a clip of .44s into your breakfast cereal.
“I got a secret chain of command under my command that isn’t under my command,” Fury retorts. “It’s not the first hint I’ve had that something’s rotten. I’m one-eyed, not blind. Whatever it is, it’s dug in deep. And it’s big. Quartermain noticed something three months ago and tipped me off. He started looking into it.”
“And two days later, he was dead.”
Jasper feels a chill. “How many people know about this?”
“Including you and me?”
“I mean, obviously if I’m not cleared to—“
It’s not a good feeling, being in a club that has Nick Fury as the only other member. Jasper thought being in the know would be cooler than this. This is not cool.
“Your cover story is that you’ve been running extractions for the last four years,” Fury says, apropos of nothing in particular. “You yanked Phil out from the Lambs of God base in Akrit with a covert team. And you got diagnosed with coeliacs while you were in Lyons last summer.”
Which explains why Clint sent the fake Twinkies, if not why Fury is telling him this. But Jasper’s not an idiot.
“You want me to go undercover,” he says, trying to hide his excitement.
“I can go undercover.”
“Like hell. You’re the worst damn liar SHIELD has in its employ.”
Jasper doesn’t droop. He’s a professional. “That’s hurtful, sir.”
“That’s fact. You told your mother you were a marriage counselor for the gay and trisexual community in Key Biscayne. You told your last girlfriend you were a secret agent working secretly for MI6 on a secret mission that was secret. You told your last landlord you were a yoga instructor specializing in therapy for quadriplegic veterans with Lupus. You—“
“Okay, I get it.”
“—told a fucking gas station attendant that the bullet holes in your car were made by Peruvian goats who escaped from a Shriner petting zoo,” Fury plows on, plainly enjoying himself. “You’re a good agent, Sitwell, but when it comes to lying under pressure, you’re the goddamn Clapper of bad choices.” He pauses. “If you’re going undercover, we’ll have to do something about your natural instincts.”
It takes Jasper a second to catch on. “Oh, no,” he says.
“Oh, yes. Man up,” Fury says with relish. “Or in this case, man down. Some kind of freaky Night Vale bullshit implanted in your meat sack, up.”