November 22, 1963
Man, he was tired.
It was the kind of tired that came from sour drugstore coffee and aching arches, misread weather reports, indigestion, stress. Something bone-deep: something he hadn't felt since the early days of training camp, and something he never wanted to feel again. Damn the weather. Texas had no right being this warm in November. But it was a Friday afternoon, the end of his first week on the job, and destiny really had to cut him some fucking slack.
He checked his watch. 12:24.
Behind him, he could sense the crowd shifting, murmuring. Somewhere, a baby started crying. All around, coats were off and draped over the metal barriers, and the sun gleamed on tie pins and pearls. Nothing but the Sunday best for the President. The Secret Service agent grumbled something incoherent and curled his toes inside his shoes. 12:25. They said it was going to rain all day, and here they were, 67 degrees and sunny as the light shining out of God's asshole. Wonderful. He was sweating so much in his damn overcoat that he was about to dissolve. Not his fault that he was born and raised in West Virginia. Appalachian Novembers were brutal, but he was used to them. He was used to Novembers being chilly as the Arctic, not balmy and warm.
Man, fuck Texas.
A hand tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, sir?"
He summoned a bland Secret Agent smile and turned to face the voice: thin, faint, a bit shaky. Probably a nervous young teenage boy - the precocious type, a bit antsy, with freckles across his nose and his tie pulled up snug against his neck, with his school knapsack on his back and some ink stains smudging his fingers. Neat-combed hair and pressed pants. The kind of kid who would sooner staple his tongue than swear. Nervous and excited to see the President, and full of questions and bullshit and -
The bland smile froze on his face.
No rosy-cheeked, nervous-smiling up-and-coming student senator stood before him. Instead, the agent looked up, and up: he was face to face with a man nearly a foot taller than him - and at six foot two himself, that was no easy feat - with long, white-streaked black hippie hair pulled back in a ponytail. All sharp, hunching lines, and an anxious downturned mouth, and two positively enormous ears that were plastered nearly flat to the side of his head.
He wore red-lensed sunglasses that the agent could easily see his own reflection in. And an old secondhand army parka, battered and torn, with what looked like several sweaters underneath.
"Sir," said the man. "Uh."
The agent said, "Who are you?”
"Who are you ?" the man said, at precisely the same time.
The agent blinked.
"Sorry," the man said again, laughing nervously. His hands, jammed deep inside the pockets of his parka, flexed. The agent's hand drifted towards his gun. "Sir. Agent."
That puckered, nervous half-smile twitched and faded completely. Now the man before him was serious. A strange chill went down the agent's spine, like a breath of cold wind. "You have to believe me when I say this," said the gaunt man. "But -"
The man's cheek twitched, a convulsive half-aborted movement that sent off alarm bells in his mind. The agent's eyes skimmed over the man again - gaunt, pale, twitchy, long hair - and gripped his gun tighter. "Sir, I'm not sure you understand precisely what's going on," he said slowly. The man's attention drifted back to him; he had been watching the road. "The President of the United States is going to be coming through here in... approximately -"
"Four minutes," they said together.
"Yes, I know," the man said. His hands slowly emerged from his pockets, all long pale fingers that made the agent's skin crawl to see them. The fingers, faintly stained yellow, twitched; the agent surreptitiously took a deep breath, nostrils flaring to test the air. No skunklike odor; not a pot-smoker, then. What was this man's fix? "Two minutes now, actually. Agent." The agent frowned, blinked, and glanced at the clock tower. 12:28.
Hands seized the lapels of his jacket.
The agent was jerked around to see the pale man's face nearly against his. He had a long, pointed nose, and his skin was clammy - feverish, almost. The agent half-drew his gun. Next to him, a mother saw the altercation and grabbed her young son's shoulder in a vicelike grip. "Come along, Edmund -"
"But Mom -"
"Sir, you must listen to me," the man breathed, and his grip on the front of the agent's jacket shook.
"Edmund, come here this instant, I'm serious."
"Mister, if you don't let go of me immediately, I'm going to be forced to take action," the agent whispered fiercely. "You're -"
"Disturbing the people." Their words overlapped yet again. "I know, I know, and I am sorry," the man said softly. This close, his breath reeked of nutmeg and vanilla, and dust. "But I must - I - sir, I'm so sorry, but you have to believe me - at 12:30, the President is going to be shot and killed."
The agent's blood went cold. "How do you know?" he heard himself demand. "How do you -"
Faint cheers down the road.
"He's going to be shot, from the top floor of the Depository, sir, you have to believe me," the man demanded, his voice growing louder. "You just have to -"
The distant roar of an engine.
Now, this close, the agent could just barely see through those near-opaque red lenses, and behind: eyes wide with panic, pupils - pupils narrow and... He couldn't focus. He couldn't. Behind him the cheers grew louder, before him the man's shaking grew stronger, nervous sweat beginning to bead on his pale, corpse-like skin - and he knew the smell on the man's breath, now. Eggnog. Christmas was coming. Eggnog - he knew that smell. Christ alive, was this man drunk? There were dots swirling in his vision, in his mind, and he tried to connect them because it was 12:29, and there was nothing he could do.
"Sir," he said, his voice calmer than he felt. "I'm afraid you're drunk."
The man let out a slow, shuddering breath.
The agent holstered his gun, and reached for the handcuffs clipped to his belt. First week on the job, he told himself. First week. Bagged a maniac at the President's motorcade. Look at you go. He said sternly, "Let go of me and put your hands in front of you -"
Shots rang out. The spectators screamed. The agent whipped around, and the nervous man's grip slipped away - "Edmund, don't look, sweetie, don't look," said the woman, clapping her hands over the boy's eyes.
"Mom, my name -"
"Now isn't the time, Edmund, please," said a man that was probably his father, grabbing his wife's shoulder and dragging her back and away. "Oh, Christ..."
"My name is Ned, momma -"
"Edmund, stop it! "
The agent froze, and all he could do was stare. Three tons of sleek black metal screamed past - blood splattered like gravy from a shattered tureen at Thanksgiving all across the cream interior, Jackie frozen in tableau reaching out, reaching back, something red and glistening in her hand - and God, the blood, -
First week on the job. First week. First week, and this is what he gets - a dead president, on his watch, right in front of him, and nobody could have seen this coming -
"Hey! Hey, mister!"
There was tugging on the bottom of his too-warm, too-thick, thrice-damned to hell and back overcoat. "Edmund, get back here!" his father snapped.
"Hey, mister, that guy!" the kid said. Goddamn, no more than eight years old, not fazed at all by John Fucking Kennedy getting his head blown off twenty feet away from him, staring up at him with a set jaw and a serious glint in his eyes. Kids. Holy hell. "That guy, the one who grabbed you! He's -"
The kid pointed off into the crowd. The agent's head jerked up, and he saw the black-streaked white ponytail vanishing into the crowd. He grabbed his gun. "Thanks, kid," he said.
"My name's -"
"Ned, fine, thank you Ned -" The agent surged forward, shouldering his way through the crowd. "Secret Service coming through, move, ladies and gentlemen, I said move! " he barked. From far behind, he thought he heard the young boy shout something, but it was lost in the crowd. Voices, shouting, screaming -
He pressed on. Following that ponytail, and that pea-green army jacket, and the glint of red glasses in storefronts. Overhead, the sun beat down like an unforgiving lamp in the cloudless sky - no longer drowning him in heat, but dragging something heady and hot from his bones. Energy he thought he'd lost. That drugstore coffee finally kicking in. First week, his footsteps sang as he ran down the street: first week, first week, a president shot, and a case solved, maybe, with your name on it, in your first week, first goddamn week!
And it seemed like it would be simple, then, in that moment: the man in the seven sweaters and army jacket did not seem to know he was being followed, he did not know - his pace was slowing, those long and lanky legs of his buckling and stumbling. He seemed weary, already, and the agent felt a brief stab of sympathy, until he caught a glimpse of that man's pale pointed face in a storefront again -
"At 12:30, the President is going to be shot -"
He clicked the safety off his gun. The man knew. God, he knew something. First week, first week. He forced his legs to pump faster. Ahead, the man wove around a streetlamp and jumped over some garbage cans on the curb, almost seeming to take flight in that instant - the coat, unbuttoned, spread behind him like wings, and the shadow on the pavement seemed almost impossibly large.
And then the walkie talkie on his belt crackled.
"Agent Stern, this is Davis. Report your position. Over."
He hadn't expected that, the voice of his commanding officer, and it made him stumble - and ahead of him, so did the pale man in the green jacket. Right over a crack in the pavement, and into a storefront, so hard that the glass pane rattled and his glasses slid off the end of his nose -
And his body began to - to change.
(Decades later, when he told his children and nephews and nieces this story, he still found it hard to find the words to describe it. Like looking in a funhouse mirror, he said once, but no, that was not it - funhouse mirrors distorted what was there and made it something impossible, but something recognizable through it all. Your face, your bones, your clothes. This, this had no roots in anything that he knew. Nothing he could see, nothing of this world: like seeing shadow take shape and reach out with a grasping hand; like the moon growing eyes and following you with its new sight.
It - he could never find the words. So he just told them what he saw. And with every word, he wished he could find a real, true metaphor to fit what he saw, there in the stark November sun on a street corner in Dallas, Texas.
Because the cold stark truth was hardly believable.)
It began with the shoulders: the first part that Stern could see, with this man's back to him. The fabric bulged and twisted, as if something was trying to punch its way out from underneath; the man's back hunched, as if in pain, and his skeletal-fingered hand dug into the pavement -
And the hands too began to change: melding, growing, becoming almost grotesquely long and hooked. The arms followed, becoming spindly as sticks and growing far out of the sleeves of his coat, thin enough that Stern could reach out and break the thickest part of his arm with just one hand. The man's shoulders shook again, as he drew a pained breath. The sound was like a generator powering up in a cave, all echoes and shrieks and God, that sound, it made Stern’s skin crawl like it was on fire-
The man looked over his shoulder.
Stern’s grip on his gun tightened convulsively, and his breath turned to cold steel in his lungs. The face - God, the face. Red, multi-faceted eyes, like rubies sunk into his skull, and a nose growing steadily longer and longer like a - like a proboscis-
Suddenly the back of the man's coat exploded.
Stern flinched and pulled the trigger. The bullet ricocheted off the concrete and into the glass storefront; it exploded into a million sharp teeth, the sound like a thunderclap -
- as two enormous, batlike wings emerged from the back of the man's coat, casting the street in shadow. "Jesus Christ," Stern gasped, and dropped his gun. The wings swirled like a hurricane, sending the hats in the storefront whirling and twirling on their stands, and the jackets fluttering like dozens of tattered flags, and beat down. The man shot straight up into the sky, into the blinding sun, like a moth flying straight for a lamp.
Somewhere in the glass, scattered across the sidewalk, lay a pair of red sunglasses.
For a long time, Stern stood there and watched the sunlight gleam on them, in pure, shocked silence. First week on the job. First fucking week. Somehow he could only focus on that: that his first week had just ended, and that there was a broken store window in front of him, and for Christ's sake they would probably have to pay for that out of his paycheck -
There were sirens in the distance. Distant voices crackled down the line, stating positions, signals, names and faces. Stern signed and reached for his radio. "On Market and Elm," he sighed, staring at the red sunglasses. He slowly strode through the broken glass, crunching under his boots like new-fallen snow. "Thought I had a lead on a suspect. Fell through."
He examined the sunglasses, and folded them, and gently tucked them into his pocket.
December 24th, 1986
Clarksburg, West Virginia
Uncle Arnie fell silent, gazing into the fireplace. A log fell apart inside, sending a fountain of sparks up the chimney. "And that was it," he said, staring at the guttering flames. "That was what I saw, that night."
Out of their uncle's view, his cousin let out a jaw-splitting yawn. They had all heard this story dozens of times before, at every Christmas, every New Year's, every Thanksgiving, every single damn Easter - but it was a story that never got old. Gary liked it, damn it. He was eight. He knew what he liked. A story about Mothman at the Kennedy assassination? Hell, get that engraved on his tombstone, that was wicked.
His cousin never went for that kind of ooky-spooky creepy stuff. He glared, pushing his glasses up with his middle finger. Ignoring him, his cousin glared into the fireplace.
His mother cleared his throat awkwardly behind him. "Arnie, it's getting late," she said.
Uncle Arnie ignored her. "I was fired that very same day," he finished, with a wry chuckle, like he always did. Gary could practically hear his mother roll her eyes. "Didn't take a damn thing away from it -"
"Arn, watch your language 'round the kids," his other uncle, his cousin's dad, muttered. He was wearing a Christmas sweater that looked like Santa took a shit on it, all tinsels and glowing lights and pain. His mom's family always had really bad fashion taste.
"-'cept for those glasses. Still have 'em today," Uncle Arnie went on, patting one side of his jacket, as if he had them stowed away in his pocket - but Gary knew he never did. "Take 'em out and look at 'em sometimes - maybe put 'em on, just to see what'll..." He paused, and opened his mouth in a jaw-splitting yawn. "...see what'll happen. Criminy. I'm gonna turn in, folks -"
Everyone in the living room breathed a silent sigh of relief.
" - have a good one."
"You too, Arn," yawned his uncle. "Happy Christmas." There was a general murmur of the same around the living room, and one by one, they dispersed to their own rooms.
Except for Uncle Arnie. Gary sat there on the rug by the Christmas tree, watching the rest of the family filter out, and watching his uncle, who did not move and stared pensively into the fire. As if waiting; as if watching. When the room was empty, his eyes slid to Gary's.
"Cool story, Uncle Arnie," Gary said quietly. “Never gets old.”
One corner of his uncle's mouth twitched upwards - an oddly subdued smile, for a man usually so cheerful. Maybe it was the time - it was almost 11:00, after all, getting late - but his uncle definitely seemed a bit. Off.
"Gary," he said quietly. "You're a good kid, you know that?"
Gary wasn't sure what to say; he just nodded. People said these kinds of things to him all the time.
"You're gonna go places," his uncle said, that same soft half-smile on his face. "I've got a feeling 'bout that, Gary, you've got good things in store for ya."
"Thanks, Uncle Arnie," Gary said softly. The fire crackled.
Then his uncle reached into his jacket, and pulled out a small package - not very thick, about as long as a Hershey's chocolate bar, wrapped in brown paper and twine. "Got a bit of an early Christmas present for ya," he said, eyes twinkling a little bit. Gary scooted forward across the floor and took it, eagerly tugging at the twine holding it together.
The paper fell away. His fingers hovered over its contents. "Uncle Arnie," he said slowly.
"Hm?" the man said, raising his eyebrows.
Gary glanced up at him. "Are you just... yanking my chain?" he said. "Because if you are -"
"No, no, kid," Uncle Arnie said. His face was serious, now - not a twitch, hard as stone. Gary felt vaguely uneasy, and yet excited at the same time. "I'd never do that to ya. Not with this."
In the paper package was a pair of dusty, scratched red sunglasses.
"I got a bit of a request for you, Garfield," Uncle Arnie said quietly.
Gary stared at him. Uncle Arnie knew how much he hated his name, and never - never - used it unless it was important. His face was cast in two-toned shadow, light flickering madly in his eyes. "If you ever get the chance, in the future," his uncle said, "do me a favor. Look into those glasses. Investigate. Poke around. See what you find."
"But Uncle -"
"Shush, no, no sir. Quiet for a bit, alright? Listen to me. I might have only been a Secret Service agent for a week, but I know things. I've seen things. Kid, there are places you can go and things you can see -"
A shiver began to travel down Gary's spine.
"- that nobody else could ever imagine. You hear me?"
"Loud and clear," Gary whispered.
"So - so." A bit of the steam seemed to run out of Uncle Arnie, and he sat back slightly in his chair. "Hmph," the man said softly, staring at the glasses. "Just. Look into it. You'll get the chance."
"Thanks, Uncle Arnie," Gary said quietly, looking down at the red sunglasses. The fire flickered madly in its lenses.
"You're gonna go far, Gary."
"You say it, I believe it, Uncle Arnie."
October 5, 2018
Kepler, West Virginia
"Hello? Pardon me, I’m looking for... Ned Chicane. Proprietor of the Cryptonomica? I was told by his associate Kirby I could find him here."
The man turned around, bristling eyebrows raised in polite, friendly suspicion. He looked about his uncle’s age, maybe 20 years younger or so, and exactly like a "Ned Chicane" would look: bearded, burly, laugh lines around his eyes and mouth, like some kind of backcountry Santa Claus. "That's me!" the man said cheerfully. "Heh - hm! What, uh, what do you need jolly old Ned for?"
Agent Gary Stern held out his hand. "Mr. Chicane," he said smoothly, "my name is Agent Stern, FBI."
And he smiled. "At your earliest convenience, sir, I would just love to see your Bigfoot video."
When Gary saw the footage of Bigfoot - definitely too convincing to be a fake - he went to the Kepler and immediately noticed some odd things. Shimmering skin; strange shapes lurking in the hot springs; a Winnebago parked by itself in the woods; too-sharp teeth; suspicious park rangers, flame rippling on fingers, crystals on necklaces that gleamed a bit too brightly in the shadows.
Gary Stern started following Ned around first - that man doubtlessly had something to hide. He was connected to the original video, he was sure of it. But Ned gave him the runaround, locked all his doors, and ducked behind the imposing figure of "Mama" whenever Stern tried to corner him at the lodge. So that was out.
Next was Aubrey: the Lady Flame. A nervous, skittish, easily distracted young woman with an enormous pet rabbit, who seemed out of place in this town. Young, punk, full of life and vibrance that belonged more on the streets of New York than a backwoods, boondocks town in the West Virginia woods. Sometime after Stern arrived, she started wearing sunglasses at all hours of the day. Stern caught her walking into walls a couple of times, or shambling through the halls of the lodge with her arms outstretched like a zombie.
Her presence here was suspicious on its own, but sometimes if Stern looked closely he thought - he thought - that he could see sparks shooting from her fingertips when she was angry. And sometimes he thought he could see an orange glimmer through one side of her sunglasses. But Aubrey seemed to have some sort of government spook sensor, and was always impossibly busy when Stern came around. Elbow deep in cooking food with Mama. Hunting down Dr. Harris Bonkers. Discussing music with that girl Dani. So she was a dead end.
And Duck. Duck, Duck, Duck Newton. Good grief, that man could not tell a lie to save his life. Stern just knew that Duck was trying to hide something; every time he tried to talk to him, Duck stammered and hemmed and hawed and never gave him a straight answer. Like whenever his cousin got caught caught with his hand in the cookie jar at Gary’s house, around Christmas. Duck wasn't as good at evasion as the others, but Stern still found it hard to make him spill anything. The ranger station would call in sometimes about fires being set in the woods, or someone's old car breaking down on a lonely trail. And duty called, so Duck would have to go. Stern understood. He was a man of the law, too. It was just so inconvenient , sometimes.
But he could tell that those three were tied up together in something. Duck, Aubrey, and Ned. An unlikely team, but united by... something. A common secret, perhaps. A common cause.
There was only one way to be sure.
He was a government agent, after all - like his uncle Arnie. He had his ways. He could do it.