Driving home, the image of that letter burned holes in my mind. I didn’t even have time to wonder how many more chances I’d get to stay in my lane before an SUV obliterated my car. Completely unable to focus on the very dangerous task of driving home in this downpour, I pulled into the safer confines a Wendy’s drive through. But still, sitting there in the parking lot with a Baconator barely eased my mind.
I couldn’t imagine what Ness was feeling. Or what anyone else was feeling for that matter. I’d come on not long ago, a freshly dubbed Master of Anthropology. And I’d spent my entire twelve month tenure competing with the rest of the group in their beliefs. Our feuds over the validity of folklore and legends had sometimes risen to volcanic proportions. Not one of them believed that magic didn’t or couldn’t exist. Ness was the worst of them all. But I think that’s why Dr. Darling hired me. To be the skeptic. To be the voice of reason. To be an opposing force in an ocean of acquiescence. From day one, nobody had shown me a single thing to prove that all things were not grounded in science. No matter the nonscientific explanations they gave, I always found reason logic somewhere. How many times had I laughed in Ness’s face or slammed the lab door on one of Roddie’s blathering speeches about the history of Atlantis.
I ate my words today. At least partially. I’d always maintained that if something was proven to me, then I’d believe it. “If we traveled back in time and I watched Jesus walk on water, then I’d believe that Jesus walked on water,” I’d say often. But when the paper crinkled itself into a ball and caught on fire…
I all but fell out the driver side door of my Civic to vomit Baconator and fries all over the deluged parking lot.
In a trance, I stumbled out to the curb and sat down. I sipped at my rainy soda. I breathed slowly, deliberately. I wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. Or any night for a while. The rescue expedition planned to leave on Saturday; it was Wednesday. Ness expressed her desire for me to join the rescue expedition. Her father had hired me for a reason and she knew it. After all, Dr. Darling had gone to a place riddled with lore. It was a place that could easily turn the entire crew into a pile of giddy school kids. Anytime a leaf rustled in the wind, they’d probably all gasp as if something supernatural had just happened.
But I was terrified. I had no idea if I could go. I didn’t know if I could handle any of it. But I felt like I owed Dr. Darling so much.
Painful chills surged through my bones. The rain wouldn’t let up. I don’t think I’d ever been more waterlogged than while sitting there on that curb. But that letter haunted me so much it felt better to just sit there without moving my life forward. Maybe I could sit on the curb and the rain would melt me and I’d never have to know why that horrifying letter only had one word written on it in blood.
When I walked into the offices of Cid Darling, PhD I found a man I didn’t know sitting at the Dr.’s desk. He wore jeans. He also wore a Pokemon tee shirt over top of a blue long sleeve shirt. His long black hair was messy, his shoes dirty. He sat with his feet propped up on the desk and was tapping on a smartphone.
I arrived early to find this guy sitting here as if he owned everything. “Who are you?” I asked. Trying to be as disinterested as I could, I took a big bite of my Sizzlie sandwich, bacon, egg and cheese on a biscuit. Crumbs fell down the front of me, but I was trying to seem like a slacker, so that helped.
The man stood up. “Where’s my father?” he demanded. He didn’t ask very nicely.
“Who would that be?” I went about my morning routine of turning on the lights and making coffee.
“Do you know who I am?” Not very nice at all, this guy.
“Um…” I turned up the disinterest to max as I sat at my desk and started looking through some images of rock carvings from mid eighteenth century Angola.
“Do you know who I am?” His voice had gotten noticeably louder.
“Um…” I looked up from the computer screens. “Um…I don’t think so.” I tried to sound innocent and ignorant, both of which were not deceptions.
“I’m Serge Darling. I’m the Professor’s son. Now tell me where the hell he is.”
“I don’t know where he is.”
“Will he be here soon?”
I shrugged. I’d tired of this guy long ago and wasn’t interested in his entitled crap.
“Well what the hell do you do here?”
I looked at him with eagerness that would hopefully turn him off to talking to me. “I analyze rock carvings and other sculptures to find connections with Dr. Darling’s research. Would you like to see what I’m analyzing today? They’re some wonderful pieces from Angola. A couple hundred years old too.”
As I predicted, the man huffed and left me alone, off to sit in the Dr.’s office once more. I went about my normal tasks of cataloging new pictures and setting up times to visit new arrivals at different museums and universities up and down the east coast. I knew I would have to face the reality of these coming days, but I wasn’t letting myself. I worked as if that single bloody word had never come to us. I worked as if nothing had changed. Even though everything had.
Roddie was next to show up. A young man of thirty-two, he was tall and strong, yet out of shape, and sports-centric to say the least. He wore a severely used backwards Boston University cap and usually some form of professional sport hoodie. Today it was the Celtics. Roddie had grown up in the same hometown as Dr. Darling’s kids, though the Dr. was seldom home. He had, in fact, divulged to me that he hadn’t known the Dr. at all before he got this job. Dr. Darling was somewhat of a phantom during his children’s formative years. But Roddie clearly had formed a bond with Dr. Darling’s son.
“Sergolio!” he cheered when he saw the rude entitled progeny of the greatest researcher of Atlantic occult this world had ever seen.
The pair of dolts embraced in a macho bro hug. “I can’t believe you got here so quickly. What’ve you been up to Sergento Cheese?”
“Not much, actually. I teach over in California. Stanford. It’s a class called Quantum. Sort of an intro to all things quantum. We had Stephen Hawking give a talk for our class once.” I couldn’t help but notice the supreme arrogance this man oozed. Talking about Stephen Hawking giving a talk to his class you’d think the man had resurrected Jesus or something. And not the real Jesus. He’d resurrect some white Jesus with an American accent and he’d cheer that he’d been right the whole time.
I shook my head and continued my work as I listened.
“So you still have that jet, right?” Roddie asked.
“Absolutely. But I don’t know why you think I’d just let Ness take it.”
“Oh no, of course not. But I figured you could work something out with her. It’d probably be a cheaper option. Because who the hell knows when we’d be coming back.”
“I don’t know why you guys think dad is over there somewhere. He’s a bullshitter. Not once in his life has he come through for any of us. He probably got himself into some trouble with the natives or the government and he needs money or something. What an asshole.”
“No way, dude. I’m serious when I tell you this is the real deal. All that shit he’s talked about forever. Dude, it’s real. I can feel it.”
Serge sighed pointedly. “You were always as fucking head in the clouds as he was. I don’t know why we were even friends.”
“Because we lived next door. Same age. We probably wouldn’t have been otherwise.”
“Hey, you brought it up, The Serge: Anarchy.”
I shook my head. These idiots. Serge was horrible. I wondered if Ness had anything in common with him. I couldn’t imagine her getting along with him in any way. What bothered me the most about this conversation was having to listen to Roddie sound like a dumbass. His expertise was in cartography, and that didn’t sit well considering how much of an idiot he just sounded. I didn’t like the idea of an idiot mapping out our path. Especially considering the dangerous nature of this rescue mission.
Angry that I’d had my mind pulled back into thinking this terrifying mission was a thing again, I sat back in my chair and slipped my ear buds in. Harry Belafonte filled my ears with his classic calypso sound and I continued working. Ness must have been running late. She normally arrived right after Roddie. But Kit, the resident occultist, Lonnie, a fellow anthropologist, and Rhett, the symbolist-slash-muscle arrived before her. Roddie and Serge stayed in the Dr.’s office talking like frat bros. Their conversation hovered feverishly over the idea that Serge was fully successful and transcendentally elite amongst his peers. Here and there he would bash the hell out of Dr. Darling and then continue about how great he himself was.
“What’s this guy’s problem?” Lonnie asked. We sat together as we both researched the same types of things. Lonnie had a remarkable eye for detail when we looked at things like carvings in different areas of the globe. He could connect dots like nobody’s business. His smile and messy brown hair were nice as well. We were good friends.
“He sucks, basically.”
Shoulders together, Lonnie and I gazed at a series of flat rocks carved intricately to determine if we could find anything similar in the lot of them. My attention was pulled, however, when Serge came out of the office deliberately. He came straight at me and I knew why. He hadn’t bothered creating a relationship with anyone else. And considering his request, he knew that if he asked Roddie to do the same thing, that Ness would lose her mind on him.
“Where’s my sister?” he asked.
I looked up at him defiantly, which he clearly hated. “Why would I know?”
I let my mouth drop open and laughed. Instead of picking up my phone, I pulled the earbuds from my speaker and let Harry’s sweet voice blast. “Oh, this is a good one.”
I turned to Lonnie. “…Senora’s dance has no title. Jump in the saddle, hang onto the bridle, jump in the line…”
“Are you fucking with me or something?”
I stopped singing to give the man a shocked look. “You’ve been pretty much a huge dick to me. Do you think that warrants any type of favors from me?”
“Can you fucking call her please.”
“Ahahaha!” I plugged my earbuds back into the speakers to quiet the office, and then went back to studying the images with Lonnie.
Then Ness arrived. She didn’t seem to expect anything that would piss her off. Our sociologist, Ella Reese, walked in behind her, but slipped by unscathed as it became apparent that Ness actually hated her brother.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“Nice to see you too, sis.”
“Fuck off. Tell me why you’re here.”
“That’s not a very nice way to talk to your brother who is here to help find your father.”
“My father.” She laughed. “You’re such a fucker. What the fuck are you doing here!”
“Roddie asked him to come and let us use his jet,” I said loudly. Ness fixed me with a furious gaze and then locked those lasers onto Roddie.
“What the hell, dude?” Roddie complained. I shrugged.
“Roddie,” Ness shrieked. “What the fuck is this? What the fuck were you fucking thinking!”
“Dude, we need a plane. And Dr. D is Serge’s dad too.”
“Barely! Did you just hear how he fucking referred to him! Goddamn it.”
“Do you want the plane or not,” Serge asked.
“I don’t want anything to do with you, ya piece a shit! How about you show up when we really needed you for the past ten fucking years. How about when grandmom died or when Emma got in the accident or any-fucking-thing that happened to me.”
“Whatever, Ness. Act however you want.”
“Dr. Darling,” someone asked from the office door.
Ness turned to regard an official looking woman. “I’m Dr. Darling.”
“You’re Cid Darling?”
“No. I’m his daughter. I’m running the department while he’s gone. Dr. Ness Darling.”
“Oh. Pardon me. I have a letter of termination, I’m afraid. The university has decided that without the actual Dr. Darling, this department will be overhauled. You will all be let go at the end of the month, which is when your grants are set to be renewed. They will, however, not be. I’m very sorry.”
“That’s next week!” The woman had already left. “How the hell did she know dad was missing?”
“I told her,” Serge said.
“How the hell did you know even?”
“I’m going to kick your ass, Roddie.”
“Sorry, Ness. I didn’t know he’d use it against you.”
“Right.” Ness sighed and composed herself. “I didn’t come here to find my shit brother standing here. I’ve got things to do. We need to plan this expedition properly. I just stopped by to get my hard drive I left here.”
She swept through the office to her private room. I shared an uneasy glance with Lonnie and Ella Reese, who had hovered into our vicinity. A minute later Ness stormed out, pulling Roddie along with her. Serge looked around with disgust. For no reason other than his own ego, he didn’t like any of us. I’d already made sure he knew I didn’t like him either. If somehow he ended up on this expedition with us, we would certainly be uncomfortable. But whatever. The guy deserved the treatment.
Eventually, Serge left as well.
The day progressed as normal. Lonnie and I churned through piles of images before lunch. We found nothing. We didn’t usually find anything. It was a labor of love for sure, searching images of hundreds of ancient, modern, postmodern, prehistoric, blah blah blah artifacts and art to find connections. We maybe had found three connections since I started twelve months ago. Lonnie had told me stories of the golden age multiple times. Years ago, when they all first started under Dr. Darling’s tutelage, they found many connections to the Dr.’s research. He was searching for something. The secrets hidden in MS 408.
Unfortunately, all the clues found during the golden age had been dead ends. The last clue, found during Dr. Darling’s most recent visit to Yale University, had sent him into a wild-eyed frenzy. Now he was gone.
“What was the clue?” I asked. I hadn’t found it, Lonnie had. And the Dr. had scooped up the clue so quickly, none of us could analyze it before he ran off to East Asia.
“I found a design from the scans of the manuscript that matched a structure from Angkor Wat.”
“The Buddhist temple ruins.”
“Yeah. The structure apparently was one of the few that had never had its purpose determined. There are only a couple. Well, the Dr. left immediately. I don’t know exactly what he found. Or what he thought it would do. If you’ve ever texted or emailed the Dr. you know how short he is.”
“Getting a response is basically impossible.”
“Yeah. Well, I texted him like four days after he left to see if he found anything. I was super interested obviously. Finding a connection is like finding gold, you know. Anyway, I actually got one response. It something about there being a path into the Phnom Kulen mountain range north of Angkor Wat.”
“Oh. Did you tell Ness?”
“Of course. Right after he replied to me. I was pretty sure he replies to us more than he does to Ness, so I told her right away.”
“Well, at least we have an idea where he went. I wonder if we’ll go right to the mountains or to the ruins first.”
We finished out our morning with no results. The pair of us were going to the Natural History Museum in the afternoon to check out a new tablet found in Northern Ireland. They brought it back to the States for examination. Luckily, we got in on that early. Before the tablet, however, we went out for lunch. Ella Reese and Rhett joined us. Kit, notably the most thrilled about our rescue mission, had become a maniac of preparations. He wanted to pack as much stuff on ancient Cambodia that he could find. Going to ancient ruins was a dream for him.
We walked together down Walnut to Bobby’s Burger Palace.
“I’m pretty scared,” Ella Reese said. She ravenously attacked her burger and fries. Despite being five-five and a hundred five pounds, Ella Reese wolfed down food like a competitive eater. She had one of those metabolisms. That was just one of her societal paradoxes. She had beautiful long black hair, a perfectly molded face, sparkling brown eyes, a figure like Scarlett. She also worked as a top profiler for the FBI until she was twenty-seven and decided she hated that whole world. She got a perfect score on her SATs and was a Rhodes Scholar. Dr. Darling paid us well, but I had the feeling Ella Reese could have been making five times that number anywhere else. She also had the learning ability and capacity of some kind of cyborg. Apparently she knew three languages, two types of martial arts, and several ballroom dance styles.
“I think we all are.” Rhett was huge. He ate in the same manner as his petite associate. He was over six feet tall and muscular. Short dark hair and dark eyes, offset by his massive white smile. He was easily the sweetest man I’d ever met, though I had seen him in a fight once and his sweetness very naturally melted away to something terrifying. Luckily, he was on our side. He always carried a soft cover notebook that he would put symbols in and take notes. Even the most common, everyday symbols he liked to remember. I didn’t know much about his past, but whatever. The only reason I knew so much about Ella Reese was because we had gone on a couple dates when I first started working for Dr. Darling.
“Why are you scared?” I asked. “You’re giant.”
“Well, you know. I think muscles lose to magic.”
Lonnie snorted. “You’re probably right.”
“My parents have always believed in that kind of stuff. It’s a little scary.”
“So you think the Dr. has come up against mystic forces of the unknown?” Ella Reese made her voice waver like a ghost. Then she laughed.
“All right, all right,” Rhett said, chomping on a pile of fries.
“What are you guys looking at today?” Ella Reese asked.
“A tablet from Northern Ireland,” I replied. “I’m wondering if they have a geologist around if we have any questions. I’d like to know if the stone the tablet is made of is supposed to be in the area. But whatever. We’ll see what kind of symbols they have on it.”
“I can’t imagine it’ll result in much,” Lonnie put in. “Of course, if something from Northern Ireland happened to connect to something from Cambodia, we’d have something really nice to tell Ness. Anything to help find the Dr., you know?”
“Right,” Rhett said. “I’ve got to go, guys. Ness asked me to supervise some movers coming to the office this afternoon. They’re moving out all the equipment that we own.”
“Already?” I asked.
“Apparently, she’d been waiting for Penn to shut us down. Even before Dr. Darling vanished, they were planning on moving on from MS 408. I guess it’s just not a very viable investigation anymore.”
Lonnie shook his head. “What a shame. There’s so much MS 408 could tell us if we ever figured it out.”
“Maybe we’ll find what we’ve been looking for when we find the Dr.” Rhett stood up with his milkshake. “Kay, guys. I’ll see ya later. Fellas. Coming back to the office, ER?”
“Nah, I think I’ll go see the tablet with the guys.”
The three of us stood over an examination table, the Northern Irish tablet laying in the center.
“It’s just a bunch of ancient Gaelic,” Ella Resse grumped. “Are there even any symbols or anything?”
“Not many,” Lonnie observed. “Here’s one. Actually, that looks like the only thing on here that isn’t writing of some sort.”
“What are you guys agreeing about?”
“No symbols, just writing. That means we’re looking for intricacies. The curve of script. The angles, the coloring, the rock type. Whatever else we can figure out.”
“Sounds tedious. I don’t think I’ll stick around for that, but I recognize something here. This.”
We stared at the marking she pointed to. A long slash with five individual slashes protruding from it; three on the left, two on the right.
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure. But I’ve seen it in Kit’s notebooks. Some kind of symbol. I think it’s been changed during modern times. Kit has told me about it more as a fanatic than a scientist. You should ask him for sure though.”
“Will do. Thanks, ER.”
“No problem, Lon. All right, guys. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“This symbol is the original Elder Sign,” I said, reading from my laptop. “The one that H.P. Lovecraft described.”
“He was a writer from the early 1900s. Some people say he’s the father of modern horror. He created the Cthulhu mythos. Why would this symbol be on a four hundred year old tablet from Northern Ireland?”
“It’s probably a prominent symbol in plenty of ancient civilizations. He could have just taken it from there.”
“Probably. I’ve read a couple of his stories. I also played a game where elder signs were a form of protection, but they didn’t look like this. They looked like this.” I showed him a five point star with an eye in the middle of it.
“It’s the modern view of the elder sign. Some writer continued the Cthulhu mythos when Lovecraft died and he changed the sign to look like this.”
“Hmm. It’s a little too Hollywood, don’t you think? That original one is pretty scary I think. It’s basic and ancient. I’d prefer to believe that this is the real deal. That eye looks like something he made up just to print on tee-shirts and board games.”
“I agree.” I read a bit more while Lonnie looked over the tablet. “Find anything in the details?”
“Ugh, no. I doubt there’s anything in here.”
“Weird that this other guy would change the sign.” I leaned over the tablet to stare at the Elder Sign. Absently, I slipped a rubber glove on my hand and traced the Elder Sign with my fingertip.
I gasped. A rush of energy flowed through me. I saw golden shores of a glistening city on a lake before everything went black.
“Dude, what the hell?”
I found myself lying on the ground, Lonnie standing over me. “What happened?”
“You had a coughing fit. Like you were choking on something. Are you okay?”
“Uh… yeah, I’m fine now. Weird.”
“Maybe you should go home. That was a pretty wicked fit you just had.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Okay, man, I’ll head home. Are you good cleaning up and stuff? Don’t leave the iPad here again.”
“Yeah, yeah. See ya.”
Sometimes I walked home from the Museum, but I didn’t feel well enough to do so. I took a bus south to Graduate Hospital where I lived in an overpriced apartment that I loved. I definitely identified as kind of a yuppie.
I sat on a bench in the small fenced in area behind my apartment technically considered a yard. It was paved entirely with a pergola covering half of it. I had a grill and a picnic table, some comfy chairs. I sat alone with a bottle of Casillero del Diablo and a full glass. I flicked through my iPhone with one hand, trying to get all the terrifying images out of my head.
As evening dimmed the yard, I started a second bottle of wine, and grabbed my laptop. Lights in the form of old fashioned bulbs on wire strewn about the pergola gave me enough illumination. A cool autumn breeze swept through the yard.
I found an obsessive desire to learn about the Elder Sign. Real knowledge was sparse on this subject. H.P. Lovecraft was the father of horror and the first mainstream evidence of the Elder Sign, but I had a feeling he used it simply as a writing tool, something used to terrify. It certainly did that. I started to feel paranoid as I read more. This possibly true symbol of Gods unknown to man and or any living being sent lightning strike jolts of fear straight into my heart. My whole body shook. I could feel pure, unadulterated terror coursing through my veins.
I discovered a blogger who claimed to have a book about the Elder Gods. He posted once a week about the truth in Lovecraft’s writing. He also stressed that this was not a conspiracy, there was no place you would find a cover up or a government trying to deceive. He insisted that the Elder Gods were real, but hidden away. Hidden by men who didn’t want to see their world perish under the ultimate destruction of Shubb-Niggurath or Cthulhu. Simply reading about what people thought these Gods looked like wasn’t enough. They were the embodiment of fear.
Suddenly chilled and afraid, I jumped back from the picnic table to stand. I slammed my laptop closed, my teeth chattering. The back door to my apartment clicked open.
“Hey, Tenny, everything okay?” Ness walked down the four stairs to join me. She had her own wine glass and poured for both of us. She spoke with a British accent on account of her father living in London for the first ten years of her life. Serge grew up in America. “Lonnie said you had a fit at the museum.”
“Yeah, a weird coughing thing. I’m all right now.”
“Don’t seem all right.”
“I’m fine, don’t worry.”
“Lonnie was pretty concerned.”
“Well, he’s a worrier.”
“Just a worrier?”
“Yeah, you know that. Let’s get inside, it’s getting a little chilly.”
“Chilly in Philly,” Ness chuckled.
We sat in my living room. I tried to chill out on the couch, the TV softly showing reruns of The Office. I didn’t pay for cable, just watched Netflix all day. Ness grabbed some left over Chinese from the kitchen before joining me. She normally calmed me when she showed up unannounced, but I was too shaken tonight. She shuffled out of the kitchen in baggy greenish cargo pants that hung low on her hips and a tight Deadpool tee-shirt. She was thick and sexy, hard-nosed and truthful. She had jaw-length wavy brown hair and big ears, but the most astounding emerald green eyes. She was cute when she wanted to be. She asked nothing of anyone without giving all she had and she was as sharp a mind as I’d ever known. She unapologetically let her pants hang so low that the band of her underwear showed and would tell you to stop being a creep about it if you pointed it out. I met her twelve months ago when I started working for Dr. Darling and I’d fallen in love with her quickly. Though she felt no need for companionship like I did.
Ness placed the food containers down on the coffee table before slipping off her pants and plopping down next to me.
“Firefly panties,” I noted. “Haven’t seen them before.”
“Mmm, my faves. Mmm, mmm. And this is my fave. I forgot how good this Kung Pao was. All this shit today has my head spinning.” She shoveled a pile of beef in her mouth and continued. “Fucking Serge. Who the hell does he think he is? As if dad’s resources wouldn’t be able to get us a fucking plane. I can’t stand him.”
“Well, Roddie had called him.”
“Fucking Roddie. Don’t get me started on him.”
“At least we won’t have to pay for a plane now. If Serge helps. Serge, by the way, is a total dickhead.”
“No shit. Maybe we won’t have to pay for a plane. Not in money, anyway. But I’ll have to pay. Some fucking emotional bill that Serge will hand me whenever he wants. Fucking hate him. You know he’s never been around.”
“I know, you told me. Your opinion of him gave me a negative predisposition. Though I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked him anyway.”
“Nobody likes him. I don’t know why Roddie tolerates him at all. Ugh.”
I let Ness finish eating before talking again. “So, do you think we’ll leave at the end of the week?”
“Hopefully. Not sure right now.”
“I think I’m going to go out tomorrow. Do some research. Maybe an interview.”
“Oh yeah? With who?”
“Did Lonnie tell you about anything we found with the tablet?”
“Well, there’s nothing much about it, but there is a symbol on it. It’s an ancient symbol that I think could be connected to your dad’s path into Asia. Have you ever heard of…”
“Okay, stop. First of all, let’s not talk about that shit pile that we’re going to be waist deep in for who knows how long. Second, after the day we’ve both had, we need to chill. So I want that all up in this in about ten minutes. Come up when you’re ready, I’m going to get a shower.”
I smiled. Ness always tried to be as calming as possible. It was the entire reason for our relationship. We calmed each other. We were good for each other most of the time.
“Yeah?” She turned before going upstairs.
“Put the Deadpool shirt back on after the shower. Just the shirt.”
She laughed heartily and skipped up the steps.