“Diane, it is four twenty-two and we are currently driving along Wagonseller Road. If you remember, this is the exact road upon which Thomas Moorley so recently lost his life. He is the latest in a string of suspicious motor vehicle accidents that have occurred between two hills on the way into Prophetstown, Illinois these past two week. Having so many MVAs clustered in a single place over such a short span of time is highly suspicious, Diane, and with the most recent victim having traveled from out of state, the Bureau has been called in to assess the situation.
“The sun sets earlier and earlier this time of year, and is already near the horizon. The countryside around here is really something. The trees have lost their leaves, and there are small patches of frost along the road. Fields stretch out on either side of us as far as the eye can see. I can easily imagine that this is the part of the country that feeds the world.
“I hope to reach Prophetstown before that sun sets, Diane, even if we have little chance of visiting the scene of the collision before we lose light. I would at least like to get a feel for the town, and I’ve found that becomes increasingly difficult with reduced visibility.
“I will contact you again when we’re checked into our hotel for the night, Diane. Say hello, Albert. Albert says hello, Diane. This is Special Agent Dale Cooper signing off.”
The Dictaphone clicked off, and half a dozen different forms of birdsong filtered into the car. Albert Rosenfield was sorely tempted to break his pacifist vows and shoot any bird stupid enough to voluntarily remain in Illinois for the winter. What did birds have to do in a Midwestern winter besides sitting on a wire with 33,000 volts running through it singing shrill little ditties, each competing with the next to be louder, higher in pitch, and more discordant? God, but he hated rural life. He sank deeper into the leather seat of their rental 1990 Cadillac Deville, cracked window and lit up. In the face of such omnipresent insipidness, even Cooper couldn’t blame Albert for needing nicotine.
Or maybe he could. “I can’t understand how an educated man such as yourself can inflict the contents of that cigarette on your lungs.”
“Cooper, I go chasing after men who are both armed and dangerous with nothing to defend myself but my principles and a can of Capsicum spray. The risk inherent in a cigarette seems paltry in comparison, don’t you think?”
A slight smile tugged at his lips, but for once Cooper didn’t pipe up. He just drove them further from civilization. They were making their way to Prophetstown, Illinois, after seven hours in the air and two hours’ layover in Detroit, an airport that left Albert with the feeling he needed a shower. When they finally touched down for the last time, they loaded their baggage and briefcases into a rental car with a rattle in its engine and a smell in the heater that made Cooper frown.
Then they drove away from the relative civilization afforded by Chicago, and into No-Man’s Land. Prophetstown had all the potential of being one of those burgs that made Albert remember why he avoided the Bible Belt. He didn’t know what offended the residents’ delicate sensibilities more: that he was a scientist or that he was a Jew. Cooper, with his crazy dreams and mind-body psychic mumbo-jumbo, would need to watch his ass if he didn’t want it burned at the stake.
Albert took another deep, satisfying drag and blew the smoke out into the chill of the waning day. Wagonseller Road flashed by, painted in a pattern of bare branches and a golden sunset. It was nice if you were into that sort of thing. Albert wasn’t; it reminded him how isolated the area was. Cooper probably loved it.
The country highway had a forty-five speed limit, which Cooper met and held. He had always been a stickler for adherence to stupid laws like that. Albert said, “At this rate, we won’t get to Prophetstown until the evening rush hour. If there is an evening rush hour. The last instance of gridlock around here was probably caused by a three-buggy pileup on the way to the county fair.”
“I find gridlock to be a very harmonious experience.”
Albert said what he always said when Cooper indulged his own particular brand of insanity: “Okay” with just enough incomprehension and sarcasm under that one word that he might get an explanation.
Cooper obliged. “All those cars are unified in a desire to go in a single direction.” His smile was brighter than the sun through the leaves. “A mutual will straining for motion.”
Albert rolled his eyes. “And the little old lady at the front of the line whose will is straining much more slowly.”
“Life is more enjoyable with an optimistic mindset.”
“And it’s less frustrating without one.”
Cooper returned his gaze to the landscape without comment or reaction, but the feeling that he was disappointed disconcerted Albert more than he liked to let on. Albert prided himself on never caring about the opinions of others, but Cooper . . . Cooper was different in ways Albert had little desire to confront.
The best way to accept Cooper’s perfect adherence to the speed limit—and to ignore Cooper’s disappointment—was to close his eyes, lean the seat back, and enjoy a few more cigarettes. Albert would have to go without as soon as he reached the morgue or whatever passed for it in Prophetstown. God only knew how long he would have to spend there. He’d talked to the funeral director, and the word ‘antediluvian’ had sprung to mind. Until Albert got to whatever little shop of horrors had been set up for his forensic benefit, Cooper would be drinking in the view and Albert would be getting his nicotine fix.
Complaining about the situation, the weather, and the road conditions were habitual reactions for Albert, who wore his cynicism as other men might wear expensive clothing: with pride and a sense of the untouchable. But truth be told, pre-case car rides weren’t so bad. Cooper was tolerable even in his strangest moods, and a bit of relaxation was nice after the five o’clock redeye from Philly. Albert let his eyes drift shut and tried not to trace the light patterns on the backs of his eyelids.
He raised the cigarette for another drag when Cooper slammed on the brakes.
The cigarette flew from Albert’s fingers, and he lurched forward against the locked seatbelt. For a sickening moment he thought they had hit a patch of black ice and they were skidding toward a tree. But then his vision cleared, and everything seemed to fade to slow, precision analysis: violent deceleration, but not so violent as to indicate a collision; country highway made wildlife the most likely cause of Cooper’s actions; pain in his chest indicated bruising, but nothing sharp enough to warrant the suspicion of a cracked or broken rib; his cigarette was well and truly lost to the dull blue mat on the floor.
The car stopped just short of the tree Albert had seen initially. All Albert’s irritation—momentarily supplanted by the need to gather data—flooded back in. He started swearing as soon as the air could get back into his battered lungs, and he ground the cigarette out on the carpeting before he started a fire and rounded out their disaster. The smell of the damn thing scorching the cheap carpet was like engine oil.
“Cooper, what the hell was—” Albert turned to give him a tongue-lashing that would still be smarting when they returned to Philadelphia, but his words trailed off when he saw Cooper’s stricken expression. Albert followed that stare through the windshield. There was nothing there, but that didn’t mean there hadn’t been. His voice wasn’t quite as harsh when he asked, “What the hell was that?”
“Albert,” Cooper said as one hand went to his seatbelt and his eyes didn’t leave the road. He killed the engine. “I think I just hit someone.”
Albert fished his medical bag out from the backseat footwell. He didn’t question what Cooper had said. Jokes of that sort were in poor taste, and Cooper didn’t have an ounce of poor taste in his body. Albert flung the door open and hauled himself out onto a shoulder peppered with gravel, dead weeds, and the barest hint of frost.
They both rounded the front of the car and looked down. Albert expected to see some poor schmuck flattened under the tires, but there was nothing, no one, and more importantly, no sign that anything had been hit. The grille was intact and undented, there was no blood, and there was no indication of violence on the road. Albert felt his temper rise and he retracted what he’d thought before about Cooper and poor taste.
“Really funny, Coop,” Albert said. “If you didn’t want me smoking, you could have just thrown my pack out the window. My sense of humor is healthier than most—a necessity given my particular profession—but I don’t appreciate sanctimonious practical jokers. You could have cracked a rib during that little stunt of yours.”
Cooper didn’t respond. He was gazing at the ground with a stare that could burn holes through concrete. Albert knew that stare. It usually came right before a flash of brilliance or a bout of insanity. Either was possible with Cooper, even more so since Twin Peaks. Many was the night that Albert woke to shouts from the adjoining room in their hotel, and rushed in to find Cooper in the grip of a nightmare terrible enough to make his nose bleed.
On those worst nights, when Cooper wouldn’t wake from the dream and his blood speckled his pillow, Albert could do nothing but hold him as still as possible, put pressure on the bleed, and wait for it to be over. He feared aneurism, stroke or any number of brain traumas, but each time Cooper would eventually settle down. The next morning, he would wake with little to no negative effects. Albert wouldn’t sleep well for the next week.
“I saw it,” Cooper said. He looked up, and those burning eyes made Albert want to back away. Albert held his ground, but had to cross his arms to keep from fidgeting. Cooper went on, “I was driving. A person was standing on the side of the road, almost in the ditch. I couldn’t tell the sex because the person was wrapped in some sort of shapeless brown garment. It jumped in front of the car at the last minute. I saw it.”
Albert frowned. If it had been anyone else, Albert would have said he needed to lay off the acid. But this was Cooper, he of the nutty dreams and nuttier waking visions. The only man on earth who was able to convince Albert that monsters were real, and psychic abilities weren’t just a sham to bilk the uneducated out of their money. Albert looked again. He crouched down and peered under the car. Cooper crouched down too, flashlight in hand, and illuminated the undercarriage.
“I don’t see anything,” Albert said, able to quell all but the slightest hint of irritation. This was Cooper, dammit. If he saw something, then real or not it had to be important.
“Do you think this was one of those . . .” Albert started to say, but didn’t know what to call what Cooper got. ‘Vision’ sounded trite and obvious, but it hadn’t been a dream, and ‘premonition’ seemed too vague.
In the end, Cooper saved Albert from having to choose the least hokey word. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never had one while I was driving, nor have they ever been so realistic. My mind works in abstraction. It’s how I’ve always known what existed in the physical world and what didn’t.”
His posture was rigid. Albert could imagine how he felt. Getting visions was one thing, and it was a thing with which Cooper had learned to work in a way only he could. Not being able to discern dreams from reality was something very different. It was too easy a slide from there to the padded room, and Albert was again put in mind of those nights when Cooper teetered on the edge of breakdown.
“You’ll be fine,” Albert said, and tried to sound reassuring. He managed gruff, which would have to do.
Cooper straightened and played his flashlight across the scene. The tree they’d almost hit was a gnarled thing, skeletal. Its branches were tipped in frost and there was frost in its cracks. Albert wished he’d brought more than a wool trench coat if the night was going to get cold enough to encourage that sort of freezing.
Cooper frowned at the tree, and then trotted to the side of the car. He dragged his briefcase out of the seat well where it had slid after its introduction to rapid deceleration.
Albert joined him while Cooper hefted the Moorley case report and flipped through the pages. Albert continued to stand by. He refused to be the partner who asked Cooper about his strokes of genius every five minutes. Albert Rosenfield was no one’s Doctor Watson. This was a partnership, and he trusted Cooper to tell him when he came up with an answer. Albert could, in turn, integrate that answer into a larger understanding of the problem. Whatever their current problem was.
Cooper stopped flipping. Albert looked over his shoulder at a collection of crime scene photos showing the twisted wreckage of Thomas Moorley’s new Nissan Sentra. Even without seeing the body Albert had hypotheses about cause of death. A hinge fracture caused by forcible ejection from a motor vehicle was a common enough form of death by misadventure.
Albert scanned the rest of the photograph to see what had caught Cooper’s eye. Then he saw it: the gnarled, distinctive tree in the background.
“Don’t tell me this is where the MVA we’re looking into happened,” Albert said. “Because ghosts don’t cause collisions. Blind corners, leaping deer and rampant idiocy cause collisions. Falling asleep at the wheel causes collisions. Ghosts go bump in the night and aren’t real nineteen times out of twenty. And that one time, they aren’t even ghosts.”
“Albert,” Cooper said, serious and straight-backed. “I can’t lie to you. This is indeed where Thomas Moorley lost his life.” He pointed across the road, and Albert could see the damaged tree and a scrape of pale blue paint across the bark.
Albert crossed the highway and picked his way down into the ditch. He placed his feet carefully in the first hints of frost. It wouldn’t help anything if he went down in a mess of over-long limbs, and broke something useful like an ankle or a wrist or his self-confidence. He pulled sample bags and tweezers out of his medical kit. The locals might or might not have decided to send forensics in, but Albert didn’t trust any of them to know evidence from their ass cheeks. He took scrapings of the paint and pictures of the tire tracks, particularly where the tires had spun against the tree. The foliage was crushed a short distance away, and there was blood splashed at the foot of a dead Dutch elm a short distance off the road. The probability of a hinge fracture went up. There were worse ways to go than the quick death afforded by a severed brain stem.
He took more pictures, and then sampled the blood and the tissue still caught in the rough bark of the tree. “I’ll send these to St. Louis,” he said. “We should have turnaround in two days. One if I light a fire under someone’s ass.”
Cooper gave him a smile and then a hand out of the ditch. Albert brushed himself off, and noticed that some of the blood had still been wet enough to fleck his pants. “Moorley died two days ago, right?” he asked.
“Yes, he did.”
“Dammit,” Albert said. “Look around. There might be a second body, or someone injured.”
They both stepped into the ditch and then searched the area from the standard five-meter distance apart. Albert could see the collision playing out in the small details and from the memory of the photographs in the report. Shattered windshield, but no indication of a second passenger. Luggage only for one, but that wasn’t conclusive. The splash against the tree had to be Moorley’s impact. Given the direction in which Moorley had been ejected, any passenger would have overshot the tree and landed in the undergrowth. Albert made his way through untouched scrub that snagged his trouser legs and burs that clung to his socks. The ground was damp, but the recent freeze prevented his shoes from sinking in the mud.
The passenger, if there was one, might have been thrown as far as twenty feet from the vehicle. Albert kept moving, but the undergrowth continued to appear untouched. Even the spray of glass from the collision didn’t extend so far.
Albert reached the limit of what he estimated to be the range of an average body’s flight. He scanned the area. There was a small path to the north, but it was too narrow to have been made by people. Probably a deer run or something equally woodsy and distasteful. To the south was the road. Albert could see the occasional human castoff lying in the ditch: a few cans, a used condom, and one forlorn child’s shoe. Nothing out of place for a stretch of country highway. No indication of where that fresh blood might have come from.
Albert felt a touch on his arm and turned. Cooper stood next to him. “There was no passenger,” Cooper said.
“It’s unlikely,” Albert conceded, “but I’ve got no better explanation for the fresh blood. Is it some sort of hunting season? Aren’t there restrictions about the proximity to roadways?”
Cooper’s smile would have seemed out of place to anyone who didn’t work in death for a living. Albert had seen MEs play polka when picking up a stiff. “You don’t know?” Cooper asked.
“No, Coop, I don’t care. Contrary to popular belief at the Bureau, I don’t possess an encyclopedic knowledge of every single way someone might die. I have a preference for urban murder. Someone else can memorize hillbilly homicide.”
Cooper’s smile faded as he turned and took in the stretch of highway. “This is where Thomas Moorley died,” he repeated, and Albert knew he was talking about whatever he’d seen when he decided to reacquaint Albert with his seatbelt.
“Look,” Albert said, trying to be the voice of reason. “Let’s not jump to conclusions about the nature of our investigation until we know all the facts. You weren’t exactly sleeping like a baby on the red eye from Philly, and the sunlight through the trees can play tricks on a fatigued optic nerve. Give me the keys. Next time, it’s going to be me slopping something you like all over the passenger seat floor.” Albert held out his hand, and was not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. Cooper didn’t need Albert soft and understanding. He needed Albert sharp and brilliant and clear-headed. He handed over the keys without a fight and they switched places.
As Albert started the car once more, Cooper inspected the butt of Albert’s cigarette on the carpet. “I don’t think we’ll get our deposit back,” he said.
Albert drove on, keeping his eyes to the road and his attention sharp. If they were going to run into any further not-quite-normal unpleasantness, he wanted to see it. He would prefer to photograph it and collect bits of it for evidentiary purposes, but he’d learned to settle for seeing things that made him question the nature of reality. And to hear windy explanations of said things from Cooper over coffee.
They rolled into Prophetstown as the sun was getting low on the horizon. Cooper was staring at it, the dippy moron, with a smile on his face and his eyes squinted just a little as it turned the sky orange. There was a haze settling that diffused the color to gold. Albert ignored the sunset.
“Albert,” Cooper said, “have you noticed something odd about Prophetstown?” He never looked away from the sunset.
“It’s got a name that makes us secular science-types leery?”
“There’s no one out.” Albert looked around and felt a disconcerting jolt as he realized that Cooper was right. There was no one walking the sidewalks, no one standing outside the public buildings. There wasn’t even another car. They were the only people driving the streets, and for a crazy moment Albert wondered if they were the only people living in Prophetstown.
Albert considered the implications. “Even assuming there’s some community activity or a popular church service on a Friday night, there is never unilateral action within a community. There are always dissenters or abstainers. Hell, there are teenagers.”
“I agree, Albert,” Cooper said. “Something is not quite right in Prophetstown.” He glanced over at Albert and his face broke into a wide, cracked smile. “Let’s go to the sheriff’s office and find out what.”
“Whoop-de-do,” Albert muttered, and kept driving.
The sheriff’s office was next to the post office, which was next to a church, which was next to a bar. Albert hoped that Cooper understood the strain of not commenting on that. Albert killed the engine, and the silence of Prophetstown settled around them. Albert stepped out of the car and strained to hear some indication of life. There wasn’t even a breeze. There were no lights on in the windows of any building they could see. Puddles of ice had formed on the sidewalks, but there was no indication of salt or shoveling.
“I have the feeling something larger than we anticipated has happened here,” Cooper said.
“We did just discuss conclusions and jumping, right? I didn’t imagine that?”
Cooper turned to him, and then, in the middle of the deserted town with night approaching, he tapped Albert on the side of the nose. Then he walked over toward the sheriff’s station. Albert resolutely ignored any stupid giddy feeling he might have got, shook his head and followed.
The sheriff’s station was unlocked. The receptionist’s desk looked lived-in, with papers scattered or stacked like someone had made a half-assed attempt at organization and then got bored. Albert checked the opened mail and inter-office memoranda. They were all dated two days before. The receptionist could have gotten sick, but that didn’t explain the lack of more recent unopened mail.
Cooper slipped through the divider into the rest of the small station. Albert followed and saw desks laid out, but no one seated at them. He drew a breath to call out, but the silence was pervasive, and for a second his courage faltered. He couldn’t bring himself to break the stillness, so he stared investigating the scene. He’d be damned if he was too cowed by some eerie quiet to do his job.
The computers were all powered down, but one typewriter held what looked like a half-finished report. The nearest desk held a coffee cup with ‘#1 Dad’ printed on its side.
Albert saw that innocuous mug and felt like an idiot for being scared of an empty station. “Nice,” he called out. “What is this, hide-and-seek? I’m not buying it. You called us in, so let’s get to work.”
There was no response.
Cooper approached the desk with the coffee. He looked into the cup. “There’s a thin film on the surface of this coffee.” He dipped a finger in. “It’s ice. The heating must be off.”
“It’s not too cold right now,” Albert said. He went over to the coffee pot still sitting in the percolator. There were brown frost crystals all over the glass. The coffee didn’t swirl when he jostled the pot. “This is frozen too.”
Albert looked for any evidence more helpful than frozen coffee. The computer was off on the desk closest to the percolator, but a folder was open next to the keyboard. “The most recent notes here are dated two days ago, three p.m.”
Cooper took the folder and read the report. “A standard traffic stop. Nothing overtly strange about the report itself.”
“Cooper, there’s nothing ‘overtly strange’ about anything here. This is all archetypical office supplies and personal effects, right down to the ‘#1 Dad’ mug. This is the most ordinary sheriff’s office I’ve ever seen, except for the fact that there are no ordinary people here to fill out their ordinary reports and drink ordinary coffee out of their ordinary mugs. And that makes this ‘very ordinary’ situation potentially extraordinary.” Albert crossed his arms across his chest. “What’s going on here, Cooper? Some sort of mandatory town meeting? Everyone is just that into Jesus? Because if this is a prank, it’s a bit elaborate for the sorts of brain trusts bred in these backwater burgs.”
Cooper was already moving away. He walked until he stood in the center of the room. Then he started turning slowly, taking in a three hundred sixty degree view of the scene. Albert remained where he was. It was moments like this when, although he would never admit to such weakness, he willed Cooper to pull the answers from out of nowhere.
Cooper ended up staring at the ceiling, his head thrown back under a dark neon lamp. It was then that Albert realized that all the lights were off. There was a pale light in the room, but none of the lights were on. He tried to calculate the angle of the setting sun on the windows, hoping to explain the discrepancy.
When Cooper spoke, he addressed the ceiling. “We were called in because of a series of motor vehicle accidents along Wagonseller Road. Those cases may or may not be connected to the apparition I saw on the road. Now we find an empty sheriff’s station, apparently abandoned in the middle of the workday. The coffee has ice in it.”
Albert looked over the room with a professional eye. “Not abandoned; this room shows none of the classic signs of intentional abandonment. No removal of important documentation. No hurry to take personal effects. No mess of any kind.”
Cooper looked down slowly, until he was focused on the door to Sheriff McGee’s private office. “An entire station’s worth of people have gone missing,” he said.
“It’s probable,” Albert said, not yet willing to concede that this wasn’t some sort of elaborate joke at their expense. He’d seen how far some of the local nincompoops would go just to get a rise out of Federal Agents.
Cooper finally acknowledged that he wasn’t the only one standing around in an abandoned sheriff’s station. “How are these things connected, Albert?”
“You’re assuming they are.”
“Two such strange events happening simultaneously yet without any connection strains credulity, doesn’t it?”
“I think we passed ‘strains credulity’ about an hour ago, Coop. About when you started seeing ghosts.”
“Technically it’s a spirit of unknown origins. A person wrapped in brown rags. At least I assume it was a person. It could have been entirely rags.”
“Great. It’s a carwash Cousin It. At least we won’t be alone.” Albert turned to the door. “Come on, Coop. Let’s check the funeral home. If we’re lucky, someone will be there with answers. If not, I’ll see what information I can manage to squeeze out of Moorley.”
Cooper nodded, but he was drifting toward the Sheriff McGee’s office. “Or we can stop and see one more empty room before we go,” Albert muttered, but followed. If the past two years had taught him anything aside from the proper care of a guy with uncontrollable nightmares on the constant verge of a mental collapse, it was to trust Cooper’s instincts.
Cooper opened the door and they heard static. A radio was switched on, but no station came through. The sheriff’s desk was the first space Albert had seen that showed signs of disarray. He could see rips in several reports and interoffice memoranda, and as he drew closer he could see gouge marks in the wood of the desktop. He laid his own hand over them. Evenly spaced. Four gouges not quite as wide as his finger-span. Someone with small hands had ripped into this desk. He pulled his tweezers from his inside jacket pocket and then produced an evidence bag. From the end of one truncated gouge he pulled a single white and red splinter of keratin. Cooper joined him.
“It’s a fragment of fingernail. Proportion suggests a woman, and I’d nominate Sheriff McGee.” Albert followed the gouges to the leather blotter, torn by a jagged fingernail. The scratched lines on the blotter almost formed a pattern. Albert leaned in, and then leaned back in an attempt to bring the scrawl into focus.
“Someone left us a message,” Cooper said.
“No, someone left a message, period. I may think highly of my abilities, but I’m not so assured of my own importance that I believe someone who’s never met me would leave me clues to the mystery.”
Cooper positioned his head about two feet away from the blotter, right where a woman of average height would be if she was sitting behind the desk. His voice was hushed and tight when he read aloud, “Don’t listen when you hear the call.”
And as though responding to Cooper’s voice, the radio static cleared to one continuous, ringing note with undertones and overtones, like a bell in that split-second of being rung.
Cooper fell away from the desk as if burned, clutching at his head and twisting his face away. Albert jumped forward and switched off the radio, but the sound continued to come through the speakers. Cooper thrashed in a manner so similar to how he reacted to his nightmares that it brought Albert up short. For a crazy moment he wondered if he himself was trapped in Cooper’s fevered dreamscape.
But that was idiotic. Albert caught hold of the power cord and yanked it out of the wall. The noise continued. His heart beat faster at the impossibility, but he responded with a flush of anger and determination. No cheap piece of Wal-Mart crap electronics was going to stymie Albert Rosenfield. He pulled the radio from the shelf, dropped it on the ground and put his heel through it.
Albert felt a jolt of something run through him, but it didn’t feel like an electric shock. His breath was knocked from his body and his posture went rigid. Then it was gone as soon as it had come, and Albert fell back against the drywall, his chest heaving in an attempt to make up for the air he’d lost and his ears ringing in a pale imitation of the strange sound.
Cooper uncurled bit by bit, and he looked dazed. “I don’t want to remember that room, Albert,” he said. “I don’t want to remember that place.” Albert wasn’t certain what Cooper was talking about, but he could guess. Cooper never talked about what possession had been like, aside from the most general of dire warnings against trying it himself. But Albert remembered what Leland Palmer had said right before he smashed his brains across his cell door: when BOB was there, Leland went away, and when he left he couldn’t remember. Albert always assumed that Cooper couldn’t remember what had happened during those times either.
In truth, he’d hoped Cooper didn’t remember. He’d willed it to be so and refused to accept any alternative.
But stubborn denial only worked without facts to contradict his beliefs. Albert would admit to a considerable ego, but it was not one that would reject reality in order to be right. He was a scientist. The ego had to come second to fact, always. And Cooper remembered a place after acting like he’d been stuck in another nightmare.
Albert pushed himself away from the wall and staggered over to Cooper. His legs felt weak and his body shook in the aftermath of the jolt he’d gotten. Falling to his knees was not only to help Cooper; it was a necessity. Cooper dragged himself to his elbows and they met halfway.
Albert ran through his post-nightmare checkup with an ease born of years. Check the pupils: wide but not lopsided. Check the sclera: no burst blood vessels. Check the pulse: fast but strong. Check the nose: bleeding.
Albert applied pressure, and Cooper peered at him over his hand. Those serious eyes were wide and haunted. Albert wanted to look away. He had been fighting to keep Cooper from breaking down completely for two years, but on Cooper’s worst days Albert knew that his was a losing battle. He refused to accept it because he was arrogant enough to think that he could outmaneuver the encroaching crisis through sheer will.
“What do you remember?” Albert asked. He kept his tone professional. Cooper did not need to know how badly Albert fretted over him. He needed a medical professional, and Albert was the best for a reason.
“Some part of me never forgot,” Cooper said. His eyes were focused on the middle distance. “I dreamed about it before I went there. A room of red curtains and a jagged pattern on the floor. I was there for so long, Albert. Time does not function in the same way in that place. I was there for years. And the nightmares . . . the nightmares make me wonder if I have ever truly left.”
Albert was rattled. He hated being rattled. “You did leave. I was there. I’ve been watching you. If you were still . . . lost, I would know.”
“And if, in the wake of my experience, a splinter of that place remained within my mind? As you say, you’ve been with me these past years. Before Twin Peaks I could go weeks without a strange dream. Now, scarcely a day goes by that I don’t have some dream or vision or nightmare. I believe that possession was a disease that left my resistance compromised, and my mind open to further infiltration.”
Albert pressed against Cooper’s nose a little harder than necessary to staunch the bleeding. “Cooper, I have worked my ass off for the past two years to ensure that you remained on the straight and narrow. I will not lose you now, not to some ridiculous psychic immunocompromised status, and especially not to some noise on the radio. Come on. While we’re sitting around there’s a stiff in the funeral home rotting away.”
He started to stand, but Cooper caught his hand. His smile was warm, and it made Albert’s heart clench. “Oh, Albert,” Cooper said. “What would I do without you?”
Albert stepped away, uncomfortable with the sudden closeness. “Spend the whole investigation being beaten up by the radio,” he muttered.
They returned the way they’d come, out past the receptionist’s desk and to the heavy front door. Albert thought he heard scraping behind them, but there was no sign of movement, and their own footsteps echoed enough that such a sound was easily explained. He pushed the front door open without comment.
The sun was nearly set. The sky was a sickly, cold yellow, and the frost on the ground had spread to tip the grass of the lawn in white. Albert glanced up and down the road. They had a map of the town in the back seat of the car. Albert wasn’t a testosterone-fueled side of beef, and he was more than willing to consult the map again to confirm a destination. In any case, it made more sense to take the car to the funeral home. The temperature was dropping and Albert didn’t want to spend the whole night on long, pointless strolls when a short drive accomplished the same thing.
They climbed into the car, and Albert reached into the back seat for his briefcase. He popped the catch and dug through it until he found the map. The funeral home was one street north and three blocks east of the sheriff’s office.
“Albert,” Cooper said. Albert looked up from his map to find Cooper staring at the mat on the passenger floor, his feet lifted a bit for a better view.
It was a testament to the amount of time Albert had spent with Cooper’s bizarre requests that he didn’t bat an eye before looking. The burn mark of his cigarette was gone, as was the butt itself.
“What the hell is going on here, Cooper?” he asked. “Someone replaced our damaged floor mat? I would say that this defies any logic, but I don’t like to state the obvious.”
Cooper shook his head and Albert produced the key. It slid into the ignition, and he turned it. Nothing happened. There wasn’t even a whine to indicate the car was trying to turn over. Albert tried again, and again there was nothing. They might as well have been inside a statue.
Cooper’s eyes were tracking across the dashboard, then skipping to the floor, then back to the dashboard again and again. Albert did the same. The burn was gone, and the car not only refused to start, but also seemed to have no function at all. He thought back. The lights in the police station hadn’t worked. The radio worked, but it worked with or without being plugged in.
Albert dug in his briefcase again and pulled the phone out. The Bureau had issued them one of those new mobile phones for emergencies. The battery didn’t last that long, so Albert tended to leave it off. He flipped the cover down, pulled the antenna up, and pressed the power button. He’d charged the phone before they left Philadelphia, so there was no reason it wouldn’t turn on.
It didn’t. Albert looked to Cooper. Cooper pulled his Dictaphone out of his inner jacket pocket and clicked it on. The tape didn’t advance. The red light didn’t come on. Albert felt a rising clamor of fear in his throat that he choked down and pulled his flashlight out of the briefcase and twisted the end. It remained dark. Nothing in their car worked. Albert breathed deeply, focused himself on the problem at hand and glanced in Cooper’s direction.
“Strong electromagnetism could have wiped out our electronics,” Albert said. “Though where a backwater burg like this would have come by an electromagnet powerful enough to take out a car is anyone’s guess.” A thought struck Albert, incongruous amidst the rising fear. It was so wonderfully demented that he smirked. “Hey, maybe it’s a mad scientist. He has an electromagnet and a freeze-ray.”
“You believe in mad scientists but not in ghosts,” Cooper said, and his smile was faint but honest. It felt like a relief to mock in the face of such strangeness.
“I’ve met mad scientists,” Albert said.
“Some might even argue that you are a mad scientist.”
“I’m certainly an irritated scientist. We’re going to have to walk to the funeral home, and I didn’t come prepared for an Arctic expedition.”
Cooper opened the car door. “We’ll just have to make do, Albert.”
Albert climbed out of his own side. Cooper had joined him by the time he’d shut the door, and by the time he’d half-turned, Cooper had slid his hand around Albert’s elbow.
Albert crooked his arm out of reflex. He looked down at their linked arms, and then up at that idiotically sincere look on Cooper’s face. “Am I escorting you to the Prom?”
“I think it best not to lose sight of one another, don’t you?” Cooper said.
Albert thought about protesting. They looked like morons. They didn’t have to do this. But there was no real harm done, and there was a chill in the air that Cooper drove away. Albert, God help him, enjoyed the feel of someone at his side.
He did not have some sort of sappy infatuation with his mentally questionable, altogether straight partner. Because Albert was many things, but he had never been and would never be horrifically pathetic.
They made their way down the main drag, two men in drab suits with their arms linked, and Albert tried to convince himself that the subtle scraping sound he heard behind them occasionally was nothing of note. He never saw anything when he turned around, or when he glanced back without being obvious. The more it continued, though, the more certain Albert became that someone was following along behind them.
Cooper gave him a curious look.
“You don’t hear that?” Albert whispered, not wanting to alert whoever was following them. “Someone has been following us since the station.”
“You hear footsteps?”
Albert was disconcerted. The scraping was quiet, but in such silence it should stand out. “You’re getting your hearing checked when we get back to Philly,” he said. “Is this some sort of joke at my expense? You have to hear the scraping.”
“I believe you may be hearing something not meant for me,” Cooper said after a second’s consideration.
Albert snorted. “So you’re going to start being the brilliant, sarcastic one while I chuck rocks at milk bottles? Don’t quit your day job, Cooper.”
Cooper turned back to the road, but his hand was perhaps a bit tighter on Albert’s arm. “I trust your observational skills, Albert, more than those of anyone else I have met. Tell me if the sound changes at all, becomes louder, or draws closer.”
They kept walking again. Albert focused on the warmth of the compliment. It was better than the chill of fear he felt every time he heard the scraping behind them. It didn’t change, or get louder, or get closer. It stayed the same, trailing behind them with the sound of metal on stone and a dull sense of a threat. Albert stared straight ahead. The sun dipped beyond the horizon, but its glow remained. Their shadows stretched out in front of them, long and thin and joined at the chest.
“It’s going to get cold,” Cooper said. Then he dug in his coat pocket and pulled out a pair of bright yellow knit mittens. “Did you know that I was once a Boy Scout, Albert?”
“If you were always prepared, you would have brought me a pair too.”
Cooper pulled one of the mittens onto the hand currently wrapped around Albert’s arm, and then, to Albert’s surprise, slid the other over his own exposed hand. His knuckles were festooned with white knit snowflakes and the bottom of the mitten didn’t quite reach his wrist. “A Boy Scout is adaptable, as well as prepared,” Cooper said.
Albert shoved his ungloved hand into his pocket and refused to look awkward or touched. This was not sweet. The situation was potentially dangerous, and someone was trailing them. No amount of yellow mittens and out-of-left-field thoughtfulness was going to change that. If it had been anyone he respected less than Cooper, Albert would call the entire state of affairs insipid. No matter how warm his hand was now.
The sky was still cold and yellow. The light was wan. The scraping behind them remained.
Albert gritted his teeth. No way in hell he was going to roll over just because of some out of place noises and an abandoned town. He had been in the Bureau over a decade, and he knew how to handle high-pressure situations. Someone had to remain in control at all times, and that person was going to be Albert Rosenfield.
“Your ghost has self-esteem issues, Coop,” he said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Long shadows? Ugly yellow sky? This atmosphere is a cliché. Does this ghost not trust in its ability to scare us in broad daylight? What’s next, thunder and lightning to highlight dramatic dialogue?”
“Do you approach all such situations with flippancy?” Cooper asked. It wasn’t an accusation. He seemed genuinely interested.
“Flippancy implies a disregard for potential danger. I am more than willing to acknowledge the fact that this town is potentially dangerous, and that there is very likely something wrong here. But acknowledging the inherently ridiculous nature of this situation allows me to keep it and all pertinent data in perspective.”
“Then I approve of your approach,” Cooper said. “If any of our electronics were working, I would turn my flashlight on and off in rapid succession.”
Albert didn’t even try to follow Cooper’s thought processes. “Okay,” he said.
Cooper looked at him, guileless and sincere. “Lightning,” he said, “to highlight dramatic dialogue.”
Albert couldn’t help but grin for a few seconds. In all his years, he had never had a co-conspirator in his one-man crusade against stupidity, uselessness, and aggression. Even when he worked with someone else, he felt that they were moving in the same direction and going through the same actions, but their goals were completely different. No one else in the Bureau, or in medical school, or in college, and certainly not in the godforsaken suburbs had ever considered themselves a crusader for peace and intelligence, and so no one had ever been on Albert’s side.
Cooper’s smile said that they were on the same side. Albert reminded himself once more that he was not attracted to Cooper. He didn’t go in for straight men for the same reason he didn’t swallow razor blades. There was enough pain in the world without indulging in gratuitous masochism.
Maybe Cooper picked up on the shifting mood, because his smile faded away. They continued walking in silence, but they didn’t let go of one another.
In the end, the funeral home was easy to find. There just wasn’t enough town in Prophetstown to get lost, and they found themselves standing in front of a one-story building with shell pink siding and a tall row of skeletal lilac bushes. The doors were closed.
They walked up to the doors. There was a button for an electric doorbell set into the frame. Albert rang the bell more in whimsical hope than any form of genuine expectation of answer or function. Nothing happened.
“I don’t suppose you got a merit badge in lock picking too,” he said.
“I appreciate your confidence in my abilities, Albert, but I’m afraid that housebreaking has never been a skill I could claim. We could look for an open window.”
Albert thought leaving windows open during this sort of weather was about as likely as winning the lottery. Or perhaps just as likely as the situation in which they currently found themselves. He wasn’t certain if their present levels of improbability improved their chances or not.
They circled the building, and Albert wondered why so many funeral homes insisted on being sided in such aggressively cheerful colors. Did they somehow think that the people arriving were going to forget their grief and loss by the sheer power of pink vinyl?
In the back of the funeral home they found the garage door up, and a hearse inside. Albert peered through the car windows. The ambient light had faded somewhat, but it was still enough to confirm that there was no one inside the hearse, alive or dead.
The door to the funeral home was unlocked, and Albert was not surprised that it opened into the sterile white walls and tile floors of the prep room. A guttered operating table stood in one corner with a hose running from it to a sink in the far wall. On shelves nearby were bottles of pink tissue filler and clear organic solvents, jugs of sealants and Paulex powder. On the shelves below that were boxes of mouth formers and eyecaps, tins of hair wash, spools of suture thread, needle injectors, and tiny bottles of bonding agents, lip glue, molding wax and makeup. Everything you might need to make the dead look like wax statues of themselves.
He inspected the operating table, but if it had been used recently it had been scrubbed down. There was a heavy metal door on the far side of the room to what had to be the cooler, and with Thomas Moorley nowhere in sight, that was his most likely location. Albert paused before opening the door. “Fair warning, Cooper: if the electricity has been cut off for some time to the entire town, then the cooler is off. Anything in there will have resumed decomposing.”
“I believe my stomach is prepared,” Cooper said, and Albert believed him. Cooper, for all his seeming innocence, had never been squeamish.
Albert twisted the heavy metal handle and pulled. After a second the pressure seal broke, and air rushed into the fridge with a hiss. Bitter cold poured out, penetrating Albert’s clothing and prickling at his skin. The improbability of that chill was not lost. There was no sound of a motor. Even the pressure seal on the door would only do so much to maintain a cold temperature without power, and yet the refrigerator was well past the standard temperature and dipping into a range that would freeze tissue and denature evidence.
Lacking any explanation for the cold, Albert took a tentative step inside. The ambient light didn’t permeate the cooler the way it did the prep room, but the spillover illuminated enough for Albert to see that there were no bodies in the cooler; no bags on the operating tables. There wasn’t even a catastrophe bag hanging from one of the hooks off to one side. The cooler was spotlessly clean, and had no lingering smell of decomposition or urine. It didn’t smell as if the dead had ever been in residence.
What there was, dangling from the ceiling and strung along the hooks for the catastrophe bags, was ice. There had to have been some sort of leak to cause that much condensation to form, drape, and drip its way into something so sculptural. It was beautiful, which was not a look Albert was used to seeing in a morgue cooler.
“The body is gone,” Cooper said. “Either we were directed to the wrong institution, or it has been removed.”
“Either way, we have no idea where that corpse is now,” Albert said. “That’s wonderful. I’m always so pleased by useless visits to an institution whose sole purpose lies in the vain attempt to make the deceased beautiful.”
“You don’t like mortuary services,” Cooper said. His gaze was keen, and his tone not quite questioning. “And yet you yourself have performed countless autopsies.”
“What a pathologist does is a public service,” Albert said. “We explain death. We disseminate information that could be vital to surviving relatives and the public alike. We take away doubts and we bring closure. I’m disquieted by the attempts of American mortuary practices to sanitize and glamorize death. Is pumping a loved one full of chemicals, gluing their mouths and eyes shut, replacing their fluids with formalin and then painting them some semblance of a living color really going to aid the process of grief? We’re so desperate to believe that nothing ends that we make caricatures of people we loved instead of focusing on their memories and honoring their lives. It’s superficial, shallow, and distasteful. Mortuary services are a travesty. Burn me when I die, Cooper, because I’m not being put through this chemical mess.”
“Duly noted, Albert.”
Albert left the prep room through the door that led into the rest of the funeral home’s back area. There was a short, white hallway with two cheap plywood doors in the sidewalls, and an expensive wooden door at the end. Albert assumed that door led into the public half of the funeral home.
Albert opened the cheap door to their left first, which opened into a supply closet filled with heavy organic cleaners. The door on the right was the door to the office.
Within they found an empty room. It was lined with bookshelves, filing cabinets, and a small end table. The bookshelves held various books on mortuary services, catalogues for mortuary supplies, and what looked like business textbooks from a community college. The end table was packed with boxes of pamphlets on grief and choosing the correct coffin.
A large oak desk dominated the center of the room. It was in good order but for the pen standing up in its center. The pen had been jammed through a piece of paper and into the desk with such force that it remained vertical. Someone had exerted a great deal of effort leaving some form of message, and Albert went to see what it was.
The note said, ‘Don’t answer the phone. The call is not for you.’
Albert glanced at the phone sitting on the corner of the desk. Someone had ripped both the power cord and the phone line out of its body. They lay a short distance away, wires exposed by the violence with which they’d been removed.
“That’s one way to deal with the issue,” Cooper said.
And then the phone started to ring. Underneath that sound Albert could hear the scraping. It was far away, but it was moving through the building and getting closer.
Albert took an involuntary step back. Cooper was at his side, pressed arm to arm, and Albert took a stupid amount of comfort in that. The phone continued to ring, setting aside any need for power or input. The scraping got closer, and Albert half wanted to slam the door to the office shut. But they had to know what was following them, and if the phone worked as a lure then he would leave the door open.
He was so focused on keeping his eyes and his attention trained on the doorway that he almost didn’t notice his partner start to do something brainless. Cooper stepped forward, his hand extended. The scraping stopped abruptly, and Albert was momentarily shocked into stillness by the double-fronted insanity. Then he jerked out of his paralysis and grabbed Cooper’s arm.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Cooper?” he asked.
“Information is critical at this stage,” Cooper said, “and we are running on a tank that is very nearly empty. We need a lead.”
“No, we need common sense. The last piece of electronics that operated without power sent you into convulsions. This one might do worse. Call me old-fashioned, but when someone manages to stab a ballpoint into a desk and make it stick during an effort to scrawl the words ‘the call is not for you’, I take that message very seriously. The call is not for us, Cooper. Look at the files, see if Moorley got his cooling ass shipped elsewhere, and then we’re leaving.” Before the scraping finally found them.
Cooper’s hand lowered with reluctance, and Albert released him with even greater reluctance. The last thing he needed was for Cooper to be rendered unconscious by some strange noise or to be given some cryptic message that sent him scuttling off into the woods to track down an unrelated lead.
The phone continued to ring as Albert sorted through the funeral director’s inbox and Cooper sifted the rest of the papers on the desk. Moorley was a recent enough acquisition that his papers shouldn’t have been filed yet, particularly if the locals were expecting FBI agents to come in and handle the processing. At least, that was what logic dictated. When Albert could find no mention of Moorley in the inbox he moved over to the filing cabinet and flipped to the M section.
The phone continued to ring. The scraping did not resume. Albert watched Cooper out of the corner of his eye. There was nothing on Moorley in the files, so he joined Cooper at the desk and placed himself between Cooper and the phone.
“It’s not a compulsion,” Cooper said.
“Your curiosity? You could have fooled me.”
“You know what I mean.”
Albert thought back to the radio. He thought back to sleepless nights in nameless hotel rooms praying that Cooper found his way out of his nightmares. And when Cooper woke up with Albert half-asleep on a chair near the bed he always, always wanted to talk about it, pick at it, and try to figure it out.
“I know what you mean,” Albert said.
They sorted through the desktop in the relative silence afforded them by the ringing phone. The papers were in no sort of order, but after a few minutes they’d been through over half of the accumulation with no sign of Moorley’s write-up, and Albert was beginning to wonder if Thomas Moorley had ever existed at all, evidence found on Wagonseller Road notwithstanding.
Then Cooper said, “Albert, I think this is it.”
Albert moved around the desk to where Cooper stood. Cooper held a slim file folder with a few papers inside. Albert saw a newly filled out death certificate, internal papers from the funeral home, and—
“Hold on,” he said, stilling Cooper’s hand. Cooper brought the page down again.
“It appears to be an autopsy report,” Cooper said.
“Preliminaries,” Albert said. The fields for name, age, and weight had been filled out, which wasn’t of great concern. Different pathologists did their paperwork in different orders.
But no one started an autopsy and shipped the body elsewhere in the middle. Albert scanned the notes. They mentioned a tattoo on Thomas Moorley’s hip, and a scar in his inguinal region. That implied that he had been stripped for the external exam. There were notes mentioning fluids being collected.
He shook his head. “Either this coroner was the most incompetent boob ever to disgrace the medical profession, or they didn’t crack Moorley.”
“Perhaps they were interrupted,” Cooper said.
“With what? What exactly has happened in this town, Cooper? I keep expecting to turn a corner and see the word ‘CROATOAN’ carved into some tree.”
Cooper frowned. The telephone rang. Cooper glanced at it again.
“Don’t,” Albert said.
“Thomas Moorley is gone without a trace,” Cooper said. “There are no transfer papers. The coroner is gone without a trace. Everyone who should be present in this town is gone without a trace.”
“That doesn’t mean we do something stupid.”
“Albert,” Cooper said. He laid a hand on Albert’s arm. “Do you trust my instincts?”
That was unfair. Albert shot back, “Do you trust my intelligence?”
Cooper’s eyes were dark and intent, that thousand-mile stare a physical thing holding Albert in tableau. Was this how Cooper wrangled such rabid devotion? People looked into those large, dark eyes, and they were never able to look away.
Albert broke the stare. They weren’t going to solve anything making googly eyes at one another. There were always explanations and logic to be found, clues to be analyzed, and facts to be weighed, even in situations that defied belief. If Albert couldn’t trust in that constant he could not believe in anything.
He forced his words out, not backing away from Cooper’s gaze or from the ringing phone or from the tense anticipation inherent in the silence outside the door. “I’d appreciate an answer, Cooper. I trust you to go on your vision quests and talk to inanimate objects. I trust you to have dreams that give you clues, and I trust you to have impeccable investigative technique and instincts. If you haven’t noticed, that is a hell of a lot of trust for me to give. But what I do here, what my job entails, is to make certain that you don’t step off a cliff while your head is in the clouds. I’m your partner, Coop. We’ve got what we came for, so let’s go.”
And, miracle of miracles, Cooper stepped away from the desk and phone. He didn’t look away from Albert. “There is an adage about temptation detailing the choice between foolish action and driving oneself insane wondering what might have happened if one took the risk. I find it difficult to turn my back on potential answers.” He turned and opened the office door. “Let’s leave.”
The phone stopped ringing. Cooper turned to look at it, but Albert didn’t have time. The scraping was feet away and making for them fast. His heart thudded in his chest and he whirled around. Something was coming at him in the hall, and Albert caught a glimpse of brown as the ambient light began to fail. The scraping took on a ringing tone and Cooper stiffened too.
“Albert!” he said, and then pushed past Albert to slam the door shut. The scraping became something like that tinnitus noise in the radio, and then it stopped. There was something on the other side of the door, and Albert couldn’t bring himself to call it a person. Cooper stepped away, his gun drawn and his eyes focused on the handle.
It turned slowly, just a little at a time. Albert’s hand went to the holster at his belt, and he drew the canister of OC spray he kept on himself. Albert was a pacifist, but he was also a pragmatist in a very dangerous occupation.
And then the door handle snapped back closed and the scraping retreated. Albert and Cooper ran after it, flinging open the door and giving chase. Albert’s longer legs did him credit, and he took the lead down the hallway toward the back room.
Albert kept the canister held level. There was a trick to running in leather shoes without making sound while on linoleum and it had to do with center of gravity. Before Cooper, such knowledge was academic. Things changed. Albert changed.
He shouldered his way through the door and his feet went out from under him. For a crystallized second he saw the whole room as though in snapshot: walls and floor and ceiling slicked with ice, the operating table dripping with icicles. In the corner next to the freezer there was a figure draped in brown rags. The ambient light vanished for a split second, and Albert heard the shriek of scraping louder and harsher than the ringing tone on the radio. Cooper shouted, and the light came back on. The brown-clad figure was halfway across the room in that second, feet from Albert.
Albert hit the floor. He felt his spine compress and his head snap back. He knew that a concussion was probable at that point, but instead of colliding with tile or ice, he was caught and dragged backward. The back of his head thumped against Cooper’s chest. Cooper braced Albert with one arm while the other covered the room with a practiced sweep of his gun.
“What did you see?” Cooper asked.
“You didn’t see it?”
“I only saw movement, but I heard that scraping, Albert. And I saw something standing right in front of you.”
Albert tried to steady his breathing. He was lucky the fall hadn’t winded him or worse. The residual fear was bad enough.
He made his brain keep moving, and then he forced words out of his mouth. “It could have been a person. Slender, tall, but no exact height because it was hunching. No fix on sex.”
Cooper’s voice was a whisper in Albert’s ear. “Was it wrapped in brown rags?”
“Yeah,” he said. “And it’s fast. It crossed a quarter of the room in a second while the lights were out.” He looked up at the darkened fluorescent bulbs. “Or the general ambient light that somehow lights up every building.”
Albert pulled away from Cooper’s grasp. He stood up slowly on the ice and processed the myriad minor aches. He might have bruised his coccyx, but he didn’t think there was any serious damage done.
“What the hell is going on here, Coop?” he asked. “There’s light without any light source in every building we visit. This room iced over in minutes. Even if the temperature had somehow dropped enough for that sort of rapid freeze, where did the water come from? This room had to have been flooded for this amount of ice to form.”
Cooper stepped into the room, careful on the ice. Albert followed, and he felt the smooth leather soles of his shoes threatening to give way again. Albert started to examine the possible sources of water. There was a sink, but any spray from that faucet couldn’t have reached the ceiling. He looked up and identified a fire sprinkler as the most likely option. The question was whether or not the sprinkler worked, and if he could duplicate this phenomenon.
Albert let out a quiet whistle. Cooper turned from his examination of the autopsy table as Albert pulled his lighter from his inner pocket and held it up. His reach brought the lighter immediately under the nozzle. “You might want to clear out if you don’t want to get wet,” he said.
Cooper didn’t move. Albert flicked the lighter on.
It didn’t spark. Albert tried again. Then he dropped his hand to inspect the lighter. There was fluid inside, and wheel’s teeth hadn’t even begun to dull. It was a new lighter. Albert flicked it again and again with no result. Not a single spark sprung from the meeting of flint and steel.
Albert tried to understand what was happening. A lighter wasn’t electronic. It was caveman-style technology.
“It doesn’t work.” He hated feeling lost in a situation, but he was lost.
“Then we’ll do without,” Cooper said.
Albert strained against the impulse to lash out. He was the one with his feet on the ground. If he couldn’t keep it together they were screwed. His voice was strung taut and his body trembled with the effort to keep from shouting down the building. “This isn’t even electronic,” he whispered, and then fished out a book of matches from his pocket.
He struck one. Nothing. Phosphorous susquisulfide, potassium chlorate, paraffin wax and wood: all very flammable. Nothing would catch light. He tried another, and then another. Finally he slipped the matchbook and the lighter back into his pocket, because he refused to throw them across the room in a fit of helplessness.
Cooper’s hand on his arm was a gentle thing, and it only served to shatter what control Albert had managed to maintain. The terror that he’d held at bay for so long suddenly crested and Albert wondered how long he’d been drowning. The panicked reaction was natural given the circumstances. Not that it helped the humiliation any.
Albert stumbled back, almost slipped, and Cooper caught him again. Albert shrugged away, staring at the floor as words poured out of him. “Even on our strangest cases, when the suspects and the victims and the crime itself make no sense, I can count on the world at large to continue to function in line with natural laws. If the entire world has been turned on its head—if even the basic laws upon which all understanding of nature has been built have been suspended—then I’m useless. I’m worse than useless. I—”
The ambient light vanished, and Albert jerked at the sudden intense cold. He gasped, and the air in his lungs felt like it was freezing his alveoli. Cooper’s hand clenched on his arm and Albert grabbed blindly for the connection. Cooper’s other hand caught at Albert’s elbow, and the toes of their shoes jostled.
The lights came back on as quickly as they’d gone out, and Albert found himself staring at the far wall. A message had been carved in the ice with such force it had ripped into the drywall, and Albert could see insulation at the ends of letters.
The message read, ‘It is beyond the fire.’
Cooper stared up at the message. “Fire?” he whispered. “Fire. ‘Beyond the fire’. Oh, I understand. All the devices that haven’t worked—lights, combustion engines, matches—they all work through processes that cause intense heat. They all burn, and this place . . . this place is beyond the fire.”
Cooper blanched, and that failing in the face of the unknown forced Albert out of his own panic. One of them had to function, and if this message, whatever it meant, had caught at Cooper so deeply he would need Albert standing tall.
So Albert straightened, steadying his feet underneath him and gripping Cooper’s arms through his coat sleeves. He needed information to do his job, and supernatural mumbo-jumbo crap wasn’t going to cut it. “And what does that mean for those of us who lack your mystical attunement? Give me something to work with.”
Cooper hesitated, and Albert held his arms tighter. He was the only point of heat in the chill. “Tell me what’s happening here, Cooper,” Albert said. He swallowed his pride in favor of desperation and added, “Please.”
Cooper drew a breath, let it out, and repeated the process several times. For all Albert knew, he was trying on some sort of meditation or something. “The Black Lodge,” Cooper said at length, “or the place that we call the Black Lodge in our limited understanding, is a place of fire. Chaos. Interference with the mortal world. Madness. And in each way, the White Lodge stands as its opposing force. No fire burns here, Albert. Do you understand the implication?”
“You’re saying this is the work of one of your inhabiting spirits? A White Lodge spirit? Correct me if I’m wrong, Cooper, but I thought that they were the good guys in this story. They stand for what? Non-interference? Sanity? An entire town’s worth of people have vanished. I would call that interference.”
“MIKE broke away from the Black Lodge,” Cooper said. “I can only posit that what we are facing is a similar but opposing situation. A rogue element, functionally a White Lodge spirit, but acting for its own purposes. Don’t you see, Albert? This world is neat and orderly, with no human elements save ourselves to sully it.”
Albert shook his head. He understood what Cooper was saying. He had to pick up some of that fairytale crap over the years. But this was different. This was having to face Cooper’s own special version of reality head-on because he was trapped inside it. His voice was tight when he managed to say, “I can’t buy that, Cooper. Neat? Orderly? It’s just cold.”
Cooper couldn’t debate that; he was shivering. A glitter in Albert’s periphery made him look down and he saw that Cooper’s shoes were beginning to ice over. Albert grabbed him and yanked. They stumbled toward the door. Albert had no idea where they were going, but given the evidence it suddenly didn’t seem smart to stay still.
Albert knocked through the back door of the funeral home and outside. The progress of the ice was horrific and vast. It was slick across the grass and it hung from the trees and it clung to all the buildings. The sky had gone from sickly yellow to a dull, dusk blue. The ambient light had grown pale and it reflected off the slick streets. Albert started to shake, and it wasn’t entirely due to the cold.
He squared his shoulders and growled out, “I’m not going to lay down and freeze. I am Albert fucking Rosenfield and I am damn well better than this. It’s a White Lodge spirit? Fine. How do we defeat this White Lodge asshole?”
He heard a dry chuckle, and for a second it blended into that horrible scraping that heralded their pursuer. That panic, never really gone but merely held at a distance with a precision application of anger, started clawing at him again.
But then he saw Cooper, cheeks rosy and a demented grin on his face. Cooper was defiant, and Albert couldn’t be less. “You’re absolutely right, Albert,” Cooper said. “We cannot allow this to stand.”
“My initial thought would be to talk to the spirit itself, but given its behavior so far, I don’t think that’s a good idea at this point.”
“Okay, we can’t talk the spirit down. What about the host?” Cooper stared at him, and Albert felt uncomfortable. This was out of his depth, and he always felt like he was some sort of UFOlogist whack job every time he tried to have a serious conversation about Cooper’s mumbo-jumbo. “These inhabiting spirits have to have hosts, right? Even if they aren’t Black Lodge?”
If it was possible, Cooper’s smile got wider. “Albert, you are a genius,” he said.
“Wonderful. Tell me something I don’t know. Preferably about hosts.”
“It has been my observation that, while the Black Lodge spirits directly possess and occasionally control the host body, White Lodge spirits exist outside the host for brief periods. The host is likely not aware of the possession, and may well lead a relatively normal life, with only the hint of something strange.” He leaned in closer, excited. The ice on his shoes chipped away in little shards as they crunched across the grass. “But the host must be present, or the spirit cannot exist. Albert, we aren’t alone here.”
“And if we find the host, we’ve got a shot.”
“I suggest we make a stop at the car,” Cooper said. “Even if there are no sources of heat here, we can retrieve warm clothing.”
Albert nodded. There was a thin sheet of ice over the sidewalks, and after abortive attempts at walking it they sacrificed their shoes to the frosted grass. Their footprints crunched in and stayed in stark relief behind them.
Prophetstown was dark. No lights shone from any of the buildings. Ice was spread in veins across the windows, obscuring the view. The walk back to the car felt longer than the walk to the funeral home had been, and they stayed close together. Albert had one hand stuffed in his pocket and the other in the yellow mitten. The knitwear seemed to be the only point of bright color in a muted world.
Albert found himself counting steps, listening. Two sets of feet crunched along. And then he heard it again. The scraping was dogging them again, a scavenger waiting for them to drop.
Albert looked around, but there was no movement. “Cooper,” he said. “It’s back.”
Was there anything to say to that? Albert focused on the task at hand: get to the car, find some warmer clothing, and then try to find shelter before they froze to death in this unnatural winter. Hats were imperative, as was covering any exposed skin to avoid frostbite. Multiple layers would provide better insulation.
And something continued to scrape along after them.
The car came into view, and for a moment Albert felt himself relax, back in some form of control. They approached the car, only to see that it had been overtaken by ice. Cooper produced a pocketknife. “I believe we can still chip our way into the trunk,” he said. Albert pulled his own knife out of his back pocket. After a moment’s consideration he chose the screwdriver head instead of the knife. He didn’t want to blunt the blade for a job a screwdriver could do just as well.
They moved to the trunk, and Cooper asked, “Would you like to do the honors, Albert?” as though he was asking Albert to dance rather than hack at a car trunk. Albert smirked, and then gouged at the ice over the keyhole.
It didn’t give. Albert struck again. Cooper tried his luck as well, but the ice may as well have been stone for all it gave. Albert kept at it until sweat sprung up on his face. He closed his eyes. Something beyond the natural was happening again, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He couldn’t even get into the damned trunk.
Albert opened his eyes when he felt a strange stinging on his cheeks and along his scalp.
Before Albert knew what hit him, Cooper was scrubbing at his cheeks and raking his hands through Albert’s hair. Albert tried to jerk back, feeling acutely uncomfortable with the physicality, but Cooper held him in place. It took Albert a moment to realize that small flakes bits of ice were falling from under Cooper’s hands. He saw that Cooper’s hair was freezing at the temples and decided that mutual feeling up was better than death by ice. He scrubbed away at Cooper, trying to keep the freezing at bay. They fell still once the ice had been knocked away. The ice on the car remained, undented and implacable.
Albert felt a sputter of something worse than fear rise up: despair. The world had stopped playing fair, reality bending around them to stymie any attempts to get warm or to analyze the problem with logic. How the hell could he compete against a world gone insane?
The simplest answer would be to do the best they could. He sure as hell hadn’t fought his way through medical school and the testosterone-soaked ranks of the Bureau to be killed by inclement weather. “We have to get inside,” he said.
At the same moment, Cooper said, “We have to leave this town.”
“And since we can’t, what do we do? Work within your limitations,” Albert said. “We have to survive. That’s what’s important. Everything else at this point is gravy.”
Cooper drew up short, stopping and skidding a little. Albert held them both upright as Cooper scanned their surroundings.
“We can’t stop,” Albert said. “The last time we stopped, we started freezing.”
“A moment, if you please,” Cooper said, holding up his mittened hand.
“I swear to God you were put on this earth to drive me up a wall.”
Cooper kept scanning the darkness, and his voice was distracted when he said, “Now, Albert. We both know that you don’t believe in predestination.”
There was a scrape behind them, close. Albert heard a quiet whispering noise. He looked around, but saw nothing. The shadows seemed deeper. There were things squirming in the dark, or maybe the dark itself was squirming. He remembered Cooper saying that this spirit was trying to enforce some sort of order, but this wasn’t order. This was just a lonelier form of chaos. This was the entropy death of the universe writ small.
That realization was a punch to the gut, driving out all that bravado and anger that had kept Albert moving. The base animal in him was shrilling in terror, his brain was rejecting the possibility that he could be witnessing such a complete end to his world. But the ice was growing thicker in the distance. The darkness was closing in tighter and tighter and he could see houses and streets and trees melting away into it.
“We have company,” Albert said. His voice was hoarse.
“A moment,” Cooper repeated.
“We might not have it.”
The sickening feeling that the shadows were moving became more than a feeling. There were twisting things fuzzing the edges of the deepest shadows in front of a house halfway down the block, like hairs or fingers. The shadows ran together, twisting tight. Albert started to feel dizzy and sick. There was something drawing about the way the shadows pulled everything into themselves.
Albert took a step forward, and he didn’t know he was moving until he was three steps away from Cooper and closing in on the darkness.
Albert startled and turned. He could have sworn he was only feet away from Cooper, but he was twenty feet down the road. His hand went to the holster at his belt and pulled the Capsicum spray canister as he turned.
The figure was ten feet away, well closer than Cooper. Albert was generally of the belief that when one could see a threat it became less terrifying, but there was something in the angle of that body, the fluttering tatters of the brown rags, and the deeply shadowed folds of cloth where the darkness still squirmed that made the clear vision so much worse.
Albert leveled the canister at the figure and stepped backward. “Federal Agent!” he shouted. “Stay where you are.”
The figure didn’t move at all but for the fluttering of cloth. Not so much as a twitch. It could be a cloth-covered statue, leaning forward, halfway into a lunge. Albert’s heart pounded and he heard footsteps advancing behind him. He could only hope that it was Cooper. He refused to take his eyes off the figure. He refused to even blink. His eyes fluttered, and he tried to will instinct down, but he knew reflex actions better than that. He was going to lose.
Albert blinked as quickly as he could. The figure was five feet away. Albert could see things in the darkness of its fold snake out for him.
“Shit!” Albert gasped. He jumped back. The terror was overtaking his other faculties. Reason and logic were developed characteristics. Fear was an instinct in the face of predation.
He squeezed the trigger on the canister, but the spray froze around the nozzle before it could go anywhere. Albert stumbled. His feet slid, and he knew that when he went down the figure would be on him. It would be over. It had found everyone in the town eventually, found them in their weakness through phone calls and radios and hiding in the shadows, and he wasn’t in any way equipped to be the one who stood against it.
He never hit the ground. Cooper caught him, sudden and decisive. Albert half-expected it at that point. Cooper had caught him once, and he would do so again. That trust felt so alien after his particular brand of intellectual isolation, but this was right. Even in the face of this reality, this was right.
“Nice catch,” he said. “Again.”
Cooper squeezed Albert’s shoulder. His gaze was steady, but he wasn’t looking at the figure. Instead he looked over its head at an upstairs window of what might have once been a baby blue two-story. Albert followed his gaze. In the window, so dim Albert hadn’t noticed it, a candle burned.
“That is our destination,” Cooper said.
Albert stared at Cooper, aghast. “Maybe it’s slipped your notice, but that thing is standing between us and the door.”
“Yes it is,” Cooper said.
“What are we going to do? Ask it to move?”
“No, Albert, we are going to walk straight through it.”
“I can’t,” he said. He sounded small and shattered and he hated himself. “I can’t, Cooper. This isn’t—I don’t do this. I am a scientist. I live in a world dictated and explicated through laws of nature. I don’t go tripping down your metaphysical rabbit hole, and I don’t do this.” His cheeks heated with more than cold, and he couldn’t look at Cooper in his shame. He was failing. He’d reached the end of his line. “Please. Please let’s find another way.”
Albert felt the stillness settle around them, and he saw that his shoes were covered in ice, and the ice was reaching up his trouser legs. His brain supplied the phrase, ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’
And then Albert felt a woolly glove on his cheek and his face was lifted. Cooper stood inches from him, and Albert was arrested by a different paralysis. He didn’t breathe or move. The ice crept upward.
When Cooper spoke, his words were warm bursts of air against Albert’s mouth and Albert wanted nothing more than to kiss him senseless. Pathetic. Moronic. But if Albert’s world was ending in ice, as Frost might put it, he could at least admit in some corner of his mind that what he’d tasted of desire certainly included burning a candle for his partner.
“Facing the entropy death of this town is not so bad, Albert, so long as you can keep the fear at bay.”
Albert squeezed his eyes closed. The terror was invasive, and he knew that when he opened his eyes again the figure would be close enough to see its face. “I can’t.”
And then Albert felt a red-hot burn against his cheek. His eyes snapped open and he realized that Cooper had kissed him. It burned even when Cooper drew back the scant distance it took to stare directly into Albert’s eyes. He was inching them toward the house, but he was so close he filled Albert’s vision.
“You are Albert fucking Rosenfield,” Cooper said, his diction perfect in vulgarity, “and you are better than this.” His smile was sunny. “Are you really going to leave me alone to be killed by radios?”
Albert grinned. He couldn’t help it. It was probably delirium, anyway. “You’re an asshole. You know that, right?”
“I have been called that and worse upon occasion.”
Albert turned, and the figure stood before them. The terror threatened to choke him, and he dropped his gaze to the hand in a stupid yellow mitten wrapped tightly in his. He kept his gaze on the mittens as they walked. He focused his attention on the pattern of the knit, on the seam at the end of Cooper’s thumb. If there were details then he could focus through the fear.
The air got colder. It hurt to breathe. Albert let his gaze tick up the beige sleeve of Cooper’s trench coat to his face. He looked incredible, profile set and determined. There was no fear there, no indecision.
Albert’s joints ached as the cold worked its way inside him. He held on to Cooper’s hand and studied the way Cooper knotted his tie, the way a pack of chewing gum stuck out of his breast pocket.
Albert felt fluttering touches against his arm, and through his suit. In the corner of his eye he saw brown rags. The light faded. The smell of wet ashes filled his nostrils. He clenched his hand hard, and felt Cooper squeeze in response. He could do this. He was better than this. He wasn’t going to give in to some six-foot-tall brown handkerchief.
And then the light was back, barely there, but there was a house, and Cooper broke into a sprint. Albert needed no further urging. He kept pace, his long legs matching Cooper’s more athletic leanings. The door was white, and it was iced but for the doorknob. Cooper grasped it, and hissed in pain. It turned, and they tumbled inside.
Albert caught Cooper’s bare hand and saw that it had frosted over. His nails were blue. Albert heard the scraping behind them. He would have time to treat Cooper for frostbite later.
“Come on,” he said, taking the lead up the stairs and down the hall. He grasped the handle to the room where he’d estimated the candle stood, but it was locked. Albert Rosenfield, sworn pacifist, kicked the damn door in.
There was no one inside.
The disappointment and defeat swam up inside him. No host. There would be no one to talk to, no explanation, no reason. The scraping and whispering stopped right behind them. Albert felt the cold and the squirming against his skin.
In the window, the candle burned, its base locked in the ice that had taken over the house. They stumbled forward. Albert tried to pry the candle loose, but it was stuck fast in that unbreakable ice.
Albert’s laugh was hollow. “I don’t suppose you’ve got another idea.”
“There is a fire in this room, Albert. That’s promising.”
Albert nodded. The candle was distant and the thing behind them was right there. They would never reach the candle before it was on them, and while they had walked through once he didn’t trust their luck in this place.
“Then pull a miracle out of your ass, Cooper,” he said. “I’ll buy you the time.”
“Don’t be a sap. Move.” Albert shoved Cooper forward and he turned. Unarmed, all he had was the hope he could hold out long enough for Cooper to do something extraordinary.
The figure was less than two feet away, and then it unfurled. The rags peeled back and the darkness within it might as well have been made of worms. And then the worms burst open.
Albert saw something, but he could never articulate what it was that came boiling toward him in that split second. Then Cooper was between them with his coat off, and it was on fire. He swung the coat at the figure like it was a baseball bat and he was hoping for a homerun.
There was a blaze, but the figure was gone. Instead, the ice itself ignited. The house began to burn.
Albert had a moment of heat-induced clarity: burning to death was even less pleasant than freezing to death. He grabbed Cooper’s wrist and dashed for the stairs. The fire roared after, licked the doorframe and eating up the previously frozen hardwood floor in the hallway. There were photographs on the walls, and in the second between being obscured with frost and being burned Albert could see the face of a young man in each, grown steadily older and more worn, moving from health to illness, prosperity to the haunted look of the homeless. Albert thought of cells from a film reel as they scrambled down the stairs. Some of the flames became ice statues of themselves, and some of the icicles became miniature infernos. Albert hit the front door, but it was closed and locked. He kicked it, but it held.
“Come on!” he growled. Cooper kicked it hard, and it shivered.
“One,” Cooper called over the hiss and crackle of ice and flame. “Two. Thr—”
They kicked. The door shattered outward.
And Albert found himself crawling through snow. He didn’t know why, but he knew that he had Cooper by the collar and that sense that they had to get out was still very much alive. He cut his hand and for a second he thought he was in a spray of shattered ice reflecting the flames of the burning house. He could see the house in the shards.
But they didn’t melt. And they weren’t sprayed across a lawn, but across the gray concrete of a highway. Albert turned in a daze. Their car was upside-down against a tree. The field of ice was the windshield, and from the pain in his leg he guessed he’d kicked it out. The car was burning.
And thrown in relief, slumped against the other side of the tree, was the man in the photographs. He had to have been there for days in the cold nights. The snow was piled all around him.
“Cooper,” Albert rasped. “Coop!”
Cooper stirred against his leg, and Albert kept dragging until they were clear of the car and close to the man. His eyes were open and staring.
Albert tried to process the realization that it had all been some sort of dream or hallucination. The whole thing was goddamned ‘Dallas’, no more real than his own imagination. Just something his brain had cobbled together to get him out of the car.
He didn’t know if he was relieved or royally pissed that his brain put him through that much trauma just to kick out a windshield. But then he heard sirens wailing, and the staring man’s breathing shuddered in the cold air.
“Oh,” Cooper whispered. “Oh, I got it wrong, didn’t I, Albert?”
“Crashing the car? Yes, that would be the wrong thing to do.” He refused to mention anything about his own special vision quest. He refused to think about passing an evening clinging to Cooper and feeling the ice closing around them when it never, ever happened. And it never would.
And then Cooper said, “The intent was never malicious. Malice is too simple an explanation. That place was this man’s—”
“Shut up,” Albert said. He couldn’t accept that it had happened and yet hadn’t. Not for his own sanity, for his ability to function as a Federal Agent and as a human being. He had a patient. Until that was taken care of, Albert would compartmentalize. He reached out for the man against the tree and stopped when he saw his own hands.
One was bare, and the other was encased in a yellow knit mitten.
“Oh, God,” Albert muttered. “Dammit, I have a patient. I don’t have time—”
Cooper’s fingers wrapped around Albert’s, and he sounded calm. “Come on, Albert,” he said. “Let’s help this man. Everything else will come in time.”
Albert breathed, and the air was warm near the fire. Cooper was right. There was a man near death, and everything else could wait. He reached for his patient.