“Any last words, boy?” spits the deputy from the lever at the side of the gallows.
“Yeah, I got something to say!” you shout.
“I think you’ve said quite enough, thank you,” mutters Jacob from the noose beside yours.
Your scouting mission to Belmont, Nebraska turned sideways after discovering that the Mayor and Sheriff were vampires and feeding off the populace. It went right over the cliff when it became necessary to lock them into the Mayor’s house and blow the whole thing straight to hell with a cart-full of dynamite. If it hadn’t been for Sergeant Brady Sims of the Texas Rangers, who was sent to Belmont to investigate the same rumors as you were, you probably would’ve ended up dead days ago trying to face down two vampires alone.
Well…not strictly alone…there’s Jacob, who is equal parts strange, crazy, and occasionally not useless. Jacob fell into your orbit a month ago on your way here, his curiosity drawing him into danger and you on the road alone too long to send him away.
The townsfolk hadn’t taken too kindly to their mayor and lawman being murdered, were completely unconvinced that they were the source of the mysterious disappearances, didn’t care a whit you were sent from Washington, and were downright rude when you admitted, quite honestly, that you had no idea where your third conspirator had gotten off to.
The cowled hangman had finished fitting Jacob’s hood and was pulling yours over your head and arranging your noose.
“This thing smells terrible,” muttered Jacob.
“Eyyyup,” replied the hangman in a very familiar Texas drawl.
You heard the wood creaking as the deputy pulled the lever on the trap doors. You had to stifle a laugh.
Two weeks later at the edge of the Sioux nation, the three of you stopped within sight of an ominous-looking steam engine and four dark passenger cars parked on a siding of the Wasatch line.
“Well,” says Brady, offering his hand, “I reckon that thing can’t get me to Dallas, so we best be parting ways.” You and Jacob both exchanged handshakes with the Ranger.
“Good working with you, Texas.”
“Don’t mention it, Washington. Seriously, don’t mention it or I’m like to be hung!” He rides off to the south, still chuckling.
It took just over three days to make it to Chicago, with a stop in Des Moines to pick up another small team of Agents at the end of their mission. The Agency train is luxurious, so you found yourselves refreshed and reporting to a Grade 4 by the name of Williams behind the desk of a smoky office in the private Chicago train depot. Jacob had used the time well, managing to talk his way into a temporary arrangement and small stipend for his (completely voluntary) troubles in Nebraska.
“Well then, since you’ve shown a penchant for solving mysteries, we have another one for you, though this time you’ll need to avoid blowing out every window in town.”
You cough uncomfortably at the appropriate moment.
“Abilene…and environs. For the last ten years or so the place has been going straight to hell, and if it wasn’t for the sheer bloody-mindedness of the men delivering cattle on the Chisholm Trail, the whole region from Wichita to Lawrence would be a festering pit of horrors.
We know there’s a spider at the center of it, some big damned boogums goes by the name Joshua. No one’s ever caught sight of ‘im, no one seems to be able to describe him, or claim to know anyone that’s seen him, but we know he exists, or, rather, did.
“There’s the thing, about six months ago, all chatter of Joshua simply stopped. Sun came out, birds started chirping, everything starts looking up. We thought maybe the Rangers had got ‘im, but reliable back-channels say they’re as confused about the developments as we are. But hey, we’ll take it, right?
“Well, no such luck. Last month, the whole area started getting weird again. People started dissapearing, bumps in the night, all the usual signs. Even the local Kiowa have started shooting first and asking questions never. We don’t know if Joshua’s back or if another player is in town, but we need you to get there and see what you can find out. The only lead I can get you is that one fellow we managed to get a squeal out of told us of a guy named Wu may have been one of Joshua’s lieutenants, so that could be a place to start.”
“Wu?” you ask.
“Just Wu. We’re also sending you in with a little help. Word’s come down to send one of the ‘specials’ we have in the stable with you, to give you a hand.”
“Pardon my asking, sir, but at your rank, there’s not many places for word to come down from.”
“No, Agent. There’s not.” He pushes a photo of a very dirty, very young girl across the table. “Her name’s Seri, you’ll pick her up on the Union Blue a mile outside the Kansas City rail yard. She got into a bit of trouble a few years ago in St. Louis and came out of it owing us a favor, it’s time for her to cash it in. Assets we have monitoring her will get her to the proper spot for pickup, but after that she’s your problem.”
Jacob coughs politely,”Is she…err…going to be a problem?” he asks.
“From what I understand, that’ll depend entirely on the direction of the goddamned wind.”
Your blood-pressure rises a few points.
“I’m not going to ask if you have any questions, because at this point you know damn near everything I do on the subject. So get out there and learn more. Your ride leaves in an hour.”
The small Agency train pulls onto a siding in a dingy district of Kansas City warehouses sometime after midnight a few days later. You, Jacob, and your coffee find the young girl, just a year or two older than the picture, waiting by the tracks with a bleary-eyed Agent who looks as if he’d been batted around by a kitten the size of an elephant. He silently takes half a glance at your orders, in the dark, obviously not caring if they’re valid or not, breathes a sigh of relief, turns, and strides away. The only words you ever hear him say are “she’s all yours…” before he disappears into the night.
Seri is somewhere in her late tweens. She doesn’t appear dirty so much as imbued with grime; and she comes with a scent that, while not particularly unpleasant, you certainly wouldn’t want, say, the cabin of a locomotive to smell like. She’s dressed entirely in a very worn suit of boy’s clothes purchased off the rack at Gutersnipes’R’Us, and carrying a worn but well-cared-for satchel on her back. Around her neck is a small bit of slate with some chalk on a string. She’s also got the biggest, mangiest, dirtiest rat you’ve ever seen in your life sitting on her shoulder looking at you with beady little rat-eyes.
You take a sip of your coffee. She looks at you. As does the rat.
“I’m Agent White. This is Mr. Brown.” She giggles a bit at that.
“I understand you’ve got some special talents, and you’ll be helping us on our mission to Abilene.”
She grabs the chalk and scribbles something on the slate.
MUST HELP FIND DESTINY
“Yes well, I don’t know anything about any destinies, but I suppose that’s as good a reason as any. I wasn’t told you were mute….”
Jacob finally musters his voice, “I’m afraid though that your pet will have to stay here, we simply can’t let vermin loose on the train.”
With a quiet, tiny, sweet voice, she says “fuck fish shit-tonsil milk-tits”.
“Er…,” says Jacob, “what was that?”
TEMPLETON COMES WITH
“Yes well, I’m afraid that’s not possible, you see….”
Jacob’s voice fades into the background as you happen to lock eyes with the rat. Inside those tiny, beady orbs you’re swallowed by a raw vastness, a brief, terrifying sense of the whole of nature, a power so ancient and vast that you feel for an instant that you’re drowning beneath it. You hear the sound of drums, of river stones shaking in tortoise shells, of chanting. You feel the heat of the fire on your face, smell the smoke and the sweat and the tobacco.
“…so as representatives of the Government of the United States we have an obligation, you see to-”
“The rat can come,” you sputter, “just get on the train.”
Hours later, you and Jacob are having coffee (and Seri is having her third breakfast) watching miles of snow-covered Kansas nothing fly by the window followed by more miles of snow-covered Kansas nothing.
The train blows past a tiny, one road town, so small there’s not so much as a platform for the train. It’s there and gone in your vision, but the picture it leaves you with is stark, deserted. Dry snow blowing in circular flurries across the single road. A door to a home or shop flapping open in the cold. A lone figure standing in the middle of the road, its body at an awkward angle, as if half of it, from shoulder to foot hung lifeless.
“Did you see that?” you ask.
“The horrifying fellow standing alone in the middle of the road? Yes.”
“What town was that? Grab the map.”
Jacob pulls the Dickinson County map over to the table and you both trace the rail line. Behind Jacob, Seri is standing at the window, babbling quietly to the rat as if in conversation.
“Enterprise?” Jacob asks.
“No platform, has to be Detroit.”
“That must be it, yes.”
Seri coughs quietly, getting your and Jacob’s attention. She holds up the slate.
You shake your head. “I’m sorry, girl, I don’t understand.”
Seri tosses the rat into the air and with a shimmer, the girl, the clothes, and the satchel melt into a huge grey hawk that, in one move, takes to the air, grabs the falling rat in its talons, and flies out the window.
“WHAT THE FUCK!?!?!
“DID YOU KNOW SHE COULD DO THAT??!!?”
“HOW THE HELL WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW SHE COULD DO THA-”
“STOP THE TRAIN!”
“I CAN’T STOP THE TRAIN YOU IDIOT PULL THE CORD!”
“SONOFABITCH DID YOU SEE THAT? HOW’D SHE DO THAT?!?!”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP AND PACK YOUR SHIT, JACOB!”
The train screeches to a stop while you and Jacob rapidly pull together your kits and start the process of getting the horses out of the stable car over the vitriolic protests of the Agency engineer. Twenty long, shout-filled minutes later you’re chasing down a small trail following in the general direction that Seri-hawk flew.
You catch sight of her twenty minutes of hard riding later, back in her dirty guttersnipe form, with an injun and a chinaman on the road, waving her arms at them emphatically. From the distance you hear her tiny voice scream “FUUUUCK!”.
And then there’s the explosion.