i. Flying in the Grass
Last Wednesday of every month is the All-Comers Freak Show, tucked away in the shabby conference room at the back of the basement – the one with the lingering smell of old socks. On the official room bookings program the time slot says, "Interdepartmental Anomalies Colloquium," the remnant of an old Shop joke about the CIA, but no one actually calls it that.
Most of the time what's discussed is garbage. Entertaining garbage, the better internet copypasta, the less obvious urban legends; sometimes one of the agents sets up a line to see how many others they can fool and what information they can draw out with a few artfully arranged scraps of bait. Sometimes it's real. All the Shop staff who come have scars from cases they don't discuss anywhere else when sober, things they can't explain, dreams they will never fully wake up from. The Freak Show is not for everyone. Some come once and never again. Some never bother. An African-American woman in her fifties with lightning-white hair and a twenty-year service ribbon attends every meeting and never says a word.
Today Sam Rodriguez has the floor, and he is not talking garbage. This is the real thing, the shape beneath the sheet about to be exposed. He is an experienced agent and he left his nerves behind years ago, but he woke at 4 a.m. thinking of what it would mean if he can convince the audience that he is right. He is halfway through his presentation and the room of agents — trained skeptics all — is pin-drop silent.
He takes a sip of water and puts his glass down. Lean, dark-haired, smooth and polished, he has the face of an army recruiting poster and the eyes of a soldier who has done one tour too many. He clicks, and the image they are all watching changes from a blackened corpse to something more palatable.
"Peak temperatures over seven thousand degrees on thermal signature sampling," Rodriguez says. Click. False color overlays the wreckage of the apartment building. "No accelerants detected despite multiple samples." Click. Gas chromatograph readouts obligingly fail to spike, and cascades of numbers emphasise his point: there is no way that these materials could have burned that hotly. No known way.
He returns to the CCTV footage, his opening gambit. Flames leap silently up against the sky in an agonized clawing at the dark. Just after the roof collapses two figures, adult and child, emerge from the heart of the blaze, unharmed and holding hands. The camera pauses and zooms in on the taller one, a woman, features blurring in close-up. Split screen, and a newspaper headline: “Girl Sole Survivor of Deadly Commune Fire.” The face underneath is twelve years younger, but the resemblance is clear. Rodriguez glances over to the door.
"Ms. Miller, please."
The middle-aged woman who has been shifting uncomfortably by the door, her arms full of aging folders, snaps into motion. Thick-waisted, a defiant streak of purple in her graying ash-blonde hair, she moves with the timidity expected from the only non-agent in the room. Despite that, when she puts the folders down — their covers stamped and overstamped with glaring red declarations of TOP SECRET and DO NOT DISCLOSE, their contents time capsules from the days of the manual typewriter — and opens a round plastic case to extract a reel — a reel! -of film and feed it into the waiting projector, her movements are sure and confident. At a nod from Rodriguez the man nearest the door dims the lights, and Ms. Miller, the Shop archivist responsible for this chunk of carefully controlled history, steps back as the projector whirs to life. Grainy black-and-white numbers count down on the front wall: two, one, zero. A flash of white, and then a fixed camera shows a long dark room with a row of tanks on the left, a block wall adjacent, and a small blonde girl with pigtails regarding these features. Her profile has the serene focus of a Christmas card angel.
This is theatre; the film is digitized, backed up, clips leaked to YouTube and pored over by conspiracy theorists worldwide. Rodriguez knows this, as do the watching agents, but they also know that ritual — the right ritual — is important.
The temperature gauge in the corner of the screen monitors a sensor in the cinderblock wall. It starts to move upwards, slowly at first and then so rapidly that the numbers blur. A wisp of smoke curls up midscreen and then the blocks implode, all cohesion lost, and clouds of particles blur the figure of the girl. She turns a little as if remembering something, and the surface of the tanks suddenly erupts with steam, a thick white cloud that rapidly obscures everything. The temperature readout is visible. The sensor disintegrated at seven thousand degrees Fahrenheit.
This is also unnecessary. Everyone in the Shop knows about Charlie McGee, the firestarter: how she wiped out Longmont and killed forty-five agents before running to the media wailing about secret government experiments and ensuring that every newspaper and magazine you looked at for six months or more had her face and another stupid fire-related pun splashed across it. The Shop's existence had even been threatened, before Three Mile Island melted down with suspiciously convenient timing and suddenly public sympathy tipped away from cute blondes and towards the effective containment of a walking apocalypse. She had her sympathizers, though, and she proved adept at playing one quasi-official secret organisation off against another, surviving assassinations and kidnap attempts like the Shop’s very own Fidel Castro.
When puberty hit her powers went haywire. Spontaneous fires sprung up like deadly crop circles in the towns she hid in, and the Shop lost twelve more agents but gained a great deal of sympathy and, more importantly, government funding. Another two years of random destruction. The people who'd supported her crumbled away like ash, and the Shop had a very nice bunker built with a lot of lethal failsafes. Then the trail went cold, literally and figuratively. What information did eventually filtered out had her running south across the Mexican border and her powers failing as she moved further into adolescence.
There is a film that Rodriguez doesn't show. In it, Charlie is sixteen or so, thin and edgy, nails bitten and skin sprinkled lightly with acne. She is crouching on her heels over a pile of crumpled-up papers, a battered saucepan and a tin of beans off to one side. She is staring at the papers with fixed attention. A tiny spiral of smoke unfolds from the topmost page, and the edge of the paper glows red in a wire-thin line. Then it dulls to black. After another ten minutes of unexciting staring Charlie blinks, digs in her pocket and pulls out a Zippo lighter, thumbing it into life.
Everyone has a theory. The film (source never identified) is real. The film is fake. Charlie was finally caught by the Russians. No, the Japanese. No, a secret splinter group of the Shop itself has her, in a bunker under a bunker. She's in Mexico, in Fiji, on the Moon. Clapped up in a religious cult with seventeen children all blindly obedient to their new leader. Drunk in a back alley, posting on Facebook. She's one of the dozen piles of inexplicable human bone and greasy ash that the Shop had investigated meticulously over the years.
Rodriguez has, obviously, a theory of his own. "These two are obviously too young to be McGee," he says. "I think she's had children, and I think whatever she had they've got." He puts up the faces again against the burnt bodies, and waits.
Ninety minutes later Rodriguez has a working party with six assigned agents and a remarkably amenable budget. No one wants to fuck this up again. He sits back during a quibble over border jurisdiction and notices Ms Miller sitting forgotten by the door next to her dismantled and boxed projector. She looks bored.
"My apologies," Rodriguez says, a little irked at his oversight. "We're all very grateful for your expert assistance." He insists on carrying the folders out for her to the waiting cart. He is grateful. It was her mix-up over a file number that put the missing girl’s poster and an executive summary on McGee on his desk at the same time, sparking the connection.
As he closes the door he can hear one wheel squeaking into the distance, a counterpoint to her footsteps.
Jennifer Miller, Shop archivist, leans on her cart and waits for the freight elevator to descend. She took Jennifer from the top of the list of girls’ names for her birth year, something practical and unsentimental, but Miller is from the man who first recorded her mother's favourite song. It is one of her best memories: the three of them in the kitchen, her mother singing along with the radio, head back shaking her copper-red hair and mouth open, and her father dancing with Charlie's feet balanced on his feet as they moved over the worn linoleum, her hands in his hands, warm and safe. "Feelin' good was good enough for me," her mother sang, and Charlie giggled, knowing the best bit was coming. "Me and my — " and her mother flicked a quick, knowing glance at her father, teasing him, closing her mouth on a B before relenting and opening wide — "Andy McGee."
She is happy with the day's work. Rodriguez is an efficient killer and heartless, like all the best Shop agents, but he thinks in straight lines and is proving easy to manipulate. She would have liked to hear more of their plans, but she has enough. She has spent a long time watching and waiting. It’s good to finally act.
The doors open. Charlie McGee trundles her past into the waiting darkness.
ii. We Met in Therapy
One month earlier
The two men had been following her along 17th Street for at least five minutes. Charlie slowed to study the price list on a nail salon window, shut for Sunday. She checked her pursuers again in a conveniently placed mirror; a young black man in cargo pants and a T-shirt, his face obscured by thick-framed sunglasses, and another man, Latino, a little older and a lot more neatly dressed, with a hitch in his step. She got no sense of threat from them, but there was something there, something she couldn’t quite place. She frowned at the cost of a French manicure. No volatiles or gun residue on their clothes, and they were talking to each other in low voices, which no professional would have done. She strained to listen.
“You think she’s one of the Sisters?” the older man asked.
The other man shrugged. “She's who you need to ask. I told you.” He tapped his sunglasses as if in emphasis.
“Very helpful.” The older man sounded resigned.
Charlie checked the surroundings: a woman with a stroller at the corner, a man checking his cell phone on the steps of a bank, a cyclist standing at the lights sipping from her water bottle. Nothing set off that inner warning. She made up her mind.
“What do you want?” she asked, loudly, and watched their reflections jump before she turned. Neither had reached for a weapon, nor did they try to run.
The older man looked at the one in sunglasses, who in turn inclined his head towards Charlie with a "you first," gesture. He turned in response to face her.
“Ahem. Um. I’m Harrison.” He smiled. It made him look older and sadder. “I’m looking for a woman. Greta.”
He dug in his pocket for his phone. “Here.”
A young white woman with short blonde hair stared back at her from the screen. She had an expression that suggested she had little time for fools, something with which Charlie could sympathise, and a high-necked black jacket on, zipped all the way up the front like armour.
“I don’t know her,” Charlie said. She'd been expecting a question about her own identity, she realised, a discovery she'd anticipated for so many years; this topic should have left her relieved, but she felt strangely disappointed. “Is that all?”
Harrison put the phone back. “Okay. Sorry.” He chewed his lower lip for a moment and then looked directly at Charlie again. He didn’t smile this time.
“It sounds stupid, but she – she has a thing inside her that can burn. That kills people. And I think the wrong people have found this out.”
For a second Charlie's vision went white-hot, and the pulse of blood in her ears became a deafening roar. She'd been expecting to be found out ever since she'd come back to the States fifteen years ago, armed with fake papers and real qualifications, driven by the inescapable feeling that her business with the Shop was not over, and time has done nothing to dull the danger. Before she'd even applied for the archivist job, advertised blandly as "for a private collection," she'd considered hundreds of possibilities and how to respond to them. Every time she altered a record or established a false connection, muddying already murky waters, she thought about what she would do if this were the time she finally got caught. The only way she could deal with her apparently suicidal instinct was with meticulous planning. Everything covered, and yet this odd sideways query about a woman she'd never met threw her completely.
When she could think again, Harrison was apologising, apparently unaware of her reaction.
“ — Martin can sometimes tell where we need to go, and he suggested you. I guess he was wrong."
Martin pulled off his sunglasses, looking unimpressed. "You're the one who said I could do it."
"I know," Harrison said. "We should call Jan again."
“Wait,” Charlie said. The hairs on the back of her neck were settling. “You need to tell me more.”
Harrison looked dubious. "You said you didn't know her."
"No" Charlie could tell he was already preparing to leave. "I used to be her."
Martin pushed his sunglasses back on. He and Harrison contemplated Charlie. Both of them looked like they were really considering her, for the first time.
"All right," Harrison said.
When Martin had pointed the woman out Harrison had assumed she was one of the Sisters, but she'd shaken her head when he asked after he'd started to outline Greta's background, and her bare forearms were free of scars. He wouldn't have looked twice at her otherwise; she was just another forty-ish white woman, white-collar professional rather than mom-style clothing, deliberately quirky hair that made her blend in rather than stand out. But there was something there now, a depth beneath the surface. Martin had said she wasn't marked like the dwellers when he looked through the glasses, but that there was a dull glow all around her.
They went to sit on the grass in Lakeview park, midway between the skate park and the fountain, the noises sufficient camouflage against casual eavesdroppers. Harrison shifted a bit to get the sun out of his eyes and went on with his recap.
"So, after the fire, we didn't see Greta around at all, but eventually she sent me a message. Not much, just — 'Hello. Sorry,' but I wrote back, and she wrote a bit more, and eventually it was almost a conversation.
"She felt terrible about the fire. Both fires. I kept telling her that it wasn't her fault, that the Sisters were the ones who pushed her, but — well. I know how she feels. It may be true, but it doesn't stop you hating yourself. She asked what I did to get through it, after Dunnsmouth. I said I wouldn't recommend most of my coping strategies, but helping other people through the same things helped. Like the group."
The woman nodded.
"So she went looking for people to help. Weird stuff — I have some contacts, I put her in touch with a few of them. Small things. A farm with a well that laughs at midnight, and all the animals that drink the water have yellow eyes. A unit in a storage facility where everything you leave there comes back a bit strange, like changed dates on newspapers and people turning their backs on you in photographs. A guy who swore the roses in his garden would swivel their heads to follow him."
Martin snickered at that one. Harrison continued. "She fixed things. It was working; she was getting her confidence back, feeling she could do something and not just be a vessel. She even started to talk about catching up in person.
Then I sent her this letter. Not from me, one of the ones sent via the publishers. A letter to Jameson Jameson. Someone talking about how they'd been invited to a book group, and they thought it was actually a cult, how their first book had been The King in Yellow and the cracker dip looked like clotted blood. It sounded dumb but I figured Greta could check it out.
She sent me an email two weeks ago saying she'd made contact and was going that night — they met in the room over this little candle shop — and that was it. Nothing. I wasn't worried at first, but after two days I drove down to check it out and the shop was all closed up. I broke in — " He coughed — " and the room upstairs was empty, but there were these marks on the walls in unreadable writing, and a triangle drawn on the floor in ash. No Greta. When I went back downstairs I saw they had the complete set of Jameson Jameson books stacked up on the shop counter. The name on the letter turned out to be the pharmacist in Dunnsmouth, whom I last saw having an ink-black tentacle thrust through his chest, and who's buried along with half the town in the Uxton graveyard."
"You think they were looking for you," the woman said.
Harrison shrugged, miserable. "I don't know," he said. Yes, he thought. "But I think they knew what Greta was when they took her. I — we've — been trying everything to find her. No leads on Greta, but there are rumors. Something big is coming."
Martin broke in at that point. "All the everyday stuff I usually see, the dwellers," he said. "They've gone to ground. Like barracuda hiding when a shark shows up."
"So." Harrison leaned over to get a good look at her face. "What about you? Shark, barracuda, or tentacled monster from the sunless deeps?"
The woman was watching a young girl with pigtails and a crash helmet on the skate ramp, her knees bent as she readied herself at the top of the slope. "All your monsters," she said. "Do you think they'd be a threat if there weren't people here trying to help them?"
Harrison had wondered this, often, but put it down to basic misandry and a lot of really unhelpful early experiences.
"My parents needed money when they were in college. They signed up for a psych experiment, a medication trial. That was where they met." There was a smile on her face, but it disappeared as she continued. "The drug gave them psychic powers — weak, but real. And then they had me."
"Holy shit." Martin sat bolt upright. "Charlie McGee."
Harrison took a second to make the connection. "Really? You're Charlie McGee?" He'd done a project on her in grade school, back when he'd thought having superpowers, even destructive ones, sounded pretty cool and losing a leg and his father in a horrible accident should at least mean he could end up as Batman. Back then, he'd decided she was hiding somewhere until she was needed, which he had hopefully assumed would involve some supervillain with a freeze ray and a unique susceptibility to half-orphaned amputees. Later, he'd assumed she was dead, like nearly everyone else who mattered to him.
"Roberta Miller, now," the woman — Charlie — said. "I work in the Shop."
"You work for the bastards who killed your parents." Martin sounded incredulous.
"I workin the Shop," Charlie repeated. "Not for them. I'm an archivist, that's all they know. I control their records."
Oh. Harrison felt a definite admiration. "Can you still light fires?" he asked, and then realized how loaded a question it was.
The girl on the skateboard hopped up on the guardrail and held it for a single perfect second before leaping off, laughing, as her board tumbled to the ground.
"No," Charlie said. "No, I can't."
"Can you help us?" Martin asked.
"I can put the Shop on to your cult," Charlie said. "They've dealt with that sort of thing before. But it'll put Greta on their radar, and they will definitely want her."
Harrison was remembering more details of Charlie's story. Having the Shop after Greta was definitely an undesirable outcome. His spirits sank rapidly.
"Unless,"Charlie added, "we offer them something more tempting."
iii. Over and Out
Sam Rodriguez has three boats in the water under the docks, a helicopter overhead, untold uniforms in cars around the perimeter, and he is in control of every piece, can feel them clicking into place like parts of a well-oiled weapon. No fuck-ups here. He snaps an order into his Bluetooth mic to check on the outriders, and the acknowledgment is near-instant.
Infrared says over a hundred people in the building. Ops have IDs on about half of them, known weirdos and bottom feeders, just the sort of losers to join an apocalyptic cult that think it can burn its way into another dimension. Rodriguez wishes these idiots would realize there's no escape. Every door opens on an ending. He can't even be impressed by their capture of the girl, which was far more luck than good judgment, although he is a little surprised they've managed to keep her incapacitated enough to avoid having everything go up in flames. The woman they picked up and convinced to talk babbled something about a ritual and a barrier, but Rodriguez thinks the recent burglary of a local vet's for a couple of liters of horse tranquilizer and some needles and syringes is more relevant.
The first agent reports back. Clear. He waits. Nothing from the second, nothing — and then, "Confirmation. I repeat, target confirmation," and Rodriguez is running along the walkway, giving orders into his mic with his backup at his heels. The door bangs off the wall behind it as they go through, and the handful of people in grey robes inside are far too slow to react. Rodriguez takes one out with a shot that rips half the man's neck away and leaves the others to his backup. His feet leave bloody footprints as he jogs on.
More rooms, more people. They meet a bit of resistance here, but his pincer movements have forces joining them from the back and sides, and it's like tearing through wet tissue paper. The room he wants is right at the heart of the building, no windows and only one door in, although the architectural blueprints show there's a trapdoor in it covering a sheer drop down to the ocean. As he gets closer he can hear the engines of the Zodiacs underneath, circling in lazy spirals, each with six armed men aboard: no way out there.
Updates crackle in his earpiece. All exits covered, although almost all the cultists have chosen to fight rather than run, and those that can have retreated to the central room and a desperate last stand. Time for more finesse. Rodriguez gives the order, and then reaches for his own mask, the rubber straps tight against his cheeks and the respirator tang a familiar taste in his mouth. Simulations have estimated three minutes if the hatchway in the central room is shut, five minutes if it is open. At six Rodriguez nods to break down the door. Bodies everywhere, and the hatchway shut. He wades through them, heading for a raised platform by the far wall with three candles each as thick as a man's arm burning in a warning triangle. In the centre of the triangle is the girl, curled up on her side, chest rising and falling, wrists and ankles tied and wearing a thin black sleeveless vest and bike shorts. Every inch of exposed skin is coated in something thick and white, and when Rodriguez pokes it with his index finger it is soft and greasy. Wax. Freaks.
The other agents are mopping up the last few cultists. Rodriguez hefts the girl onto his shoulder and carries her out. He keeps his respirator on, but he can feel exactly when the gas levels drop back into the safe range, because the girl suddenly twitches and gasps like a landed fish. He steadies his grip and keeps walking, but she starts thrashing and he doesn't actually want to hurt her. Not yet. They're not out of the warehouse, but there's an office a few meters away. He ducks inside and swings the girl off his shoulder and to the ground, fast enough for her to stagger, and unholsters his pistol.
"I'm trying to help you," he says, sounding wounded.
The girl backs up, hobbling with her bound feet. Her shoulders hit the wall. The wax covering her is messed up, cracked and gouged like the moon, as if her face is melting.
"Get away from me!"
"If you'd rather stay here, I can arrange it." Rodriguez watches with amusement as her eyes widen. "Tell me," he says. "The woman you killed in Oregon, the first one. Was she your real mother?"
He doesn't get to see her response. A voice behind him, familiar but not immediately placeable, says, "I can take it from here," and he pivots on one heel — weapon still trained on the girl — to see the archivist who'd helped him with the McGee files standing in the doorway, two men trailing behind her. It is unexpected. He shifts position to keep her and the girl in sight, two points of a triangle with himself as the apex.
"Ms. Miller." He'd asked her to track down DNA samples — there are numerous mentions in the files of blood and cheek swabs being taken, but actually locating them has proven difficult. Maybe that's why she's here, although he would have thought she'd send a lab tech for the confirmatory samples from the girl. "Did you find the samples?"
Ms. Miller ignores him. "Greta," she says. "You can let go."
"Did you hear me?" Rodriguez demands. One of the men behind Ms Miller moves forward, drawing attention to himself.
The girl startles. "Harrison? What — you have to get out of here, you and Martin. I don't know what they did but I can't hold it much longer."
"I'm not leaving you," the man says. "Let go. It's okay."
Rodriguez has no time for this. "I don't care what your problem is." He hefts his weapon. He doesn't really want to shoot the girl, but Miller and whoever her friends are are inconsequential, an administrative annoyance. He picks the man who spoke, aims, tightens his finger on the trigger.
"No!" the girl howls, and something breaks free with the howling, something hot and strong and very fast, boiling up in the enclosed space between them. Rodriguez pulls the trigger anyway and feels it disintegrate in his hand, and suddenly there is no air in his lungs and everything is bright hot pain. The last thing he feels is confusion, unfamiliar and deeply objectionable.
When Greta lets the hidden one loose, all Charlie's perceptions seem to speed up. She sees the bullet ignite in a brief flare, air molecules ripping and the slow-motion unfolding blaze of Rodriguez, and Greta against the wall, her face running with wax and tears and terror. The heat presses against her, thick and inescapable.
She can still feel the pull of it, the desire to give everything over to the flames. She reaches out, welcoming, and as the fire comes to her she extinguishes it.
There are a few papers smoldering on the desk. Martin knocks them on to the floor and stamps on them. Harrison is trying to untie Greta, wipe her face, explain everything and hold her at the same time, which is as effective as one might expect.
"You need to go," Charlie says. There is a small dinghy tied up at the end of the pier, left there earlier by Harrison — who turned out to be good with boats if very unkeen on them — while Martin watched for dwellers. The fuss Charlie is about to raise after the sudden combustion of both Rodriguez and his prisoner, all DNA evidence eradicated, should act as a suitable distraction. Her plan for what to do if Rodriguez proved less trigger-happy than expected is now discarded, and Charlie finds she is not particularly saddened by this. Possibly she has been at the Shop too long.
"You could come with us," Harrison says, one arm and his jacket now draped around Greta. He looks hopeful.
"No." Charlie knows it to be the right answer, despite everything. Her business is still unfinished.
Harrison nods, accepting. Martin gives Charlie a hug, unexpected and welcome, and then Greta stands before her. The wax coating is partially scraped off, her scars now visible, and she studies Charlie with intense focus.
"Charlie McGee," she says. "You used to light fires with your mind."
"Used to," Charlie agrees. She'd spent her childhood battling to control her power, and as she started puberty she thought she'd lost, first her control and then her power itself. It had taken her a long time to realize that things may go, but they leave traces. She hopes Greta can learn to live with what she has left. "Now I put them out."