The Contingent

Sapphics
Storyteller: Justin

Sapphics

“Hey there. We’ve got a crazy woman here who I think y’all will be pretty interested in. She came running into the lobby of Cloverleaf HQ hollerin’ about “The Key,” and doomsday, and a few other wild things. Ordinarily, I would have tossed her out, but two things stuck out to me. The first is that this is Susan Rourke and her family goes way back in this town. The second is I read about that key symbol that the Patron uses, and when someone as dark as the Patron is involved, I don’t like to take chances. I can only keep this quiet for so long before authorities start poking their nose, so if you want to know more, you need to come quick.”

- Bob McCain, Head of Security for Cloverleaf Hill Valley

Hunters

Tazendra “Taz” Crow
Virgil Halfdollar
Miles Jaggens
Doctor Mallory “Mal” Cunningham
Xander Court
Darren Knox

Major Clues

Susan Rourke
A troubled woman who underwent unlawful medical experiments. She possesses psychic acuity and fragmented memories of the Patron’s location. Her memories were scrambled to the point of her almost killing herself, however, the players stopped that. Unfortunately, she was caught a hail of machine gun fire from the Triple Threat and fell into a coma.
Project Chimera
Possibly two factions of Project Chimera showed up in response to Susan Rourke arriving: Whim, and the Triple Threat. Whim wanted to guide her away. Triple Threat wanted to eliminate her.
Sickness
The hunters were warned by Rourke that there was a terrible Sickness in Hill Valley that was part of something larger to destroy the world. Rourke and the hunters restored a pact between the faeries and the Rourkes to help the land, but this won’t stop the Sickness directly.
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Lament for the Moths
Storyteller: Johnathan

Lament for the Moths

Through email, text message, or just the telephone, you’ve received a message from a Contingent contact in New Orleans. He directed you to a YouTube clip of pre-Mardi Gras celebrations on Bourbon Street. Drunk people were shouting and aping for the camera when a bright flash washed out the image. Once the camera auto-corrects, people were quickly backing away from a man completely engulfed in fire. The man falls to his knees and… dissolves. The blinding flames quickly gutter out and there’s simply nothing there but some soot and black scorching.

“We’ve had a handful of these the last week.” he explains after the video stops. “So far, we’ve been able to convince people it’s some street magician tryin’ to make a name for himself. But Mardi Gras is two days out an’ they’re getting more n’ more frequent. We need to find out what’s causing people to just burst into flames before the streets are so packed you can’t move.”

Hunters

Beverly “Bev” Carver
Charles Powell
Jack Mills
Eva Jimenez
Wayne Hodges
Zak Zimmerman

Major Clues

Strange New Drug
The hunters found a new party drug on the market in New Orleans named Usturanol. Its slogan is “Unlock Your Nightlife” and the blister pack has a large tower with doors swung open. A key floats in the open doorway. This opening frames the spot where the pill will pop through the foil. Checking the packaging against other hunter records after leaving New Orleans confirms it is a close match to the Key symbol used by the Patron.
GesChem National
GesChem National, the maker of the now defunct Filexa, is the maker of Usturanol. GesChem has been recently bought by another company. The Hunters intend to track down this parent company later when time allows.
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The Valley Of Unrest
Storyteller: Richard

The Valley Of Unrest

Hauntings in Washington D.C. are no new thing—but in the last month, sightings of ghosts in the city’s northwest quadrant have spiked dramatically. Joggers and tourists are avoiding Rock Creek Park during daylight hours, and people besides the usual drunks and crazies say they’ve seen the infamous Phantom Stagecoach of the M Street Bridge. Usually the stagecoach only shows up on nights when the moon is full…and it’s been seen by someone every night for the past week.

A corporate backer of the Contingent has asked us to find a contractor they hired to investigate the source of the hauntings—he disappeared several nights ago shortly after the stagecoach was sighted. Reach out to local contacts within our compacts and gather as much intel as you can beforehand so that you aren’t going in blind.

Hunters

Major Clues

The stone-carved Masonic wards sealing shut the Avernian Gate on the M Street bridge were deliberately weakened during unpermitted maintenance by a contracted work crew. The existing wards were marred by a pattern of sinister key-shaped symbols.

The paper trail on just who hired this work crew was a complete dead-end: false names attached to an LLC called GesWorks that has seemingly dissolved and left behind no traceable information.

Representatives from the George Washington Masonic National Memorial sent a permitted crew to the site a few weeks prior to the rogue crew’s visit. They were clearly there to refurbish the carvings, so it seems unlikely that the D.C. Freemasons conspired with this other crew to weaken the wards.

The key symbols had also been carved into similar weakened wards over the entrances to the two realms of the Underworld that the hunters visited—Cholera and Phlegmos.

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Down With Disease
This has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way

Aaron Mathias pulled off his jacket and hung it on a hook behind the door in the laboratory, then sat down on the narrow but comfortable bed in the center of the coolly-lit sleep chamber. Lying on a table next to the bed was an injector gun and several cylinders of liquid.

Ken Yakana paged him on the intercom system from the adjoining observation room through the double-paned glass. “Be careful in there—I want you coming out of this alive, bro. No way am I gonna let Natalie blame it on me if you get killed. I’ve sparred with her before, and she can outrun me, even in high heels.”

Aaron laughed. “Smart guy. Alright, I’ll give it a shot, then…literally.” He picked up the injector and inserted the first vial. Pressing the injector needle to a vein in his left arm, he took a deep breath and pulled the trigger, then swapped in the next two cylinders in the series and repeated the process.

The blackness of sleep claimed Aaron quickly, and he awoke next to the door inside his dream pod. Open Me, said the familiar hand-printed sign.

He did.


The crudely-handpainted wooden sign nailed to the red-barked tree pointing further down the path ahead of Aaron and into the violet twilight read ‘TULGEY WOOD’. He snorted derisively; the resident of this area did love to keep up appearances, but Aaron knew now who he really was, and he intended to use that as leverage to get a favor. No, not a favor—a squaring of a debt, he thought. As Aaron stepped into the shadowy entrance to the thickest part of the woods framed by the pair of scarlet trees, a multitude of colorful fuzzy creatures scampered out of his way and into the lush green grass.

Scarcely a hundred feet into the woods, Aaron stopped in his tracks, surveying the surroundings. There was no visible sign of the creature he’d come here to visit, but he knew it was close by from the tracks he’d spotted in the smudged golden dirt of the pathway. “I call thee forthwith, Pangur Bán!” Aaron shouted into the darkness of the woods. “Reveal thyself, Pangur Bán!” he commanded a second time. “Get thy fluffy ass out here posthaste before I lure a jabberwock hatchling here to do it for me, Pangur Bán!” he intoned decisively.

A trail of luminescent blue and gray pawprints padded across a purple-boughed branch nearby, then dribbled deliberately down the red bark of the tree and into the path before Aaron. The pawprints stopped several feet in front of him; some three feet above them a toothy grin, not quite feline nor human, materialized in mid-air. A pair of wide, expressive greenish-yellow eyes followed, and then a frame of long white fur mottled with tabby-like splashes of silver filled in around the facial features. A massive cat the size of a healthy panther stood in the pathway, settled on its haunches, bottlebrush tail twitching as it licked a paw. “Do you mind, dreamseer, taking care so as not to shout my name quite so loudly? Someone might hear you, and that would be most inconvenient for me. How did you even come by that information, anyhow?”

“The funny thing about poking around in someone’s head, Cheshire,” Aaron said flatly, “is that sometimes they can poke back.”

“Well, that’s rather rude,” Pangur Bán responded, laying down on the path and rolling on his back, but rotating his neck fully 180 degrees so as to maintain a level stare on Aaron. “After all, dreamseer, you did agree to let me in for a peek. ‘Twas the price for my help when last we met, if you’ll recall.”

“Oh, I did agree to that, Cheshire,” Aaron conceded, his jaw set aggressively as he spoke through half-gritted teeth. “But you took liberties. Several times over the last few months I found the door in my pod had been left open. Once or twice, things even got in and waited for me until I went to sleep. That’s quite a bit more than peeking, I’d say. You took more than you bargained for, cat—which means you owe me.”

“I owe you, you say?” Pangur Bán sprang upright to his feet, his head never reorienting with his body, but his grin grower wider and more menacingly feral as he bared his front claws. “And just how do you plan to collect on that debt, mortal?”

“Simple,” Aaron responded, his hand dropping to the gladius strapped to his belt. “You do a favor for me, right now—and then stay out of my head for good—and I won’t tell my other friends in your world that you overstepped your bounds. Right now, back in my world, there’s a package—sealed, addressed, and stamped—containing bits of your fur and a piece of a momerath kill that you left in my bedroom. Anything happens to me in here, and it gets shipped right to one of Sorni’s emissaries.”

The mention of a senior fae made the cat’s fur bristle anxiously. Aaron hadn’t thought it possible for the cat’s eyes to grow any wider than they already were, but that threat definitely got a response. Pangur Bán closed his eyes, narrowed his smile, and bowed his head in the closest approximation of contrition he could possibly muster, then hopped back up the trunk of the tree and onto his branch perch, leaving crimson pawprints in his wake this time. “Alright, dreamseer,” the cat said with a grin. “You’ve caught me red-handed. Just what is it you need me to do in order to clear up this little misunderstanding?” He crossed his front paws beneath his chin and waited.


Karen Sugimoto sobbed helplessly in a sweltering nightmare of orange twilight. A garden of dead, half-rotten trees and thorny white rose bushes surrounded the stone bier on which she lay. A fetid, musky smell lingered in the garden; it reminded her of a pet lizard her first-grade teacher had kept in their classroom. Hot stone pressed into her back, and sweat pooled on the smooth surface of her exposed belly and chest. Pain rippled through her forehead a mere inch above her eyebrows, a searing slash that ached. Her hands and feet were bound to her sides, anchored to the stone bier by heavy chains.

A creature loomed over Karen—a full six feet tall, a chimeric horror with the torso and head of a strikingly beautiful but pale woman with long red hair, black hollow eyes, and a mouth brimming with needlelike fangs. A smooth, legless lower body covered in brilliant gold and black scales stretched out some seven feet behind it.

It slithered closer, running a taloned finger across the gaping wound torn into Karen’s forehead. The young woman gasped in pain, sobbing as the talon dug into the torn flesh of her head, her pain intensifying with every stroke. “Hush now, child. It will all be over soon. I must bleed you slowly, you see, before I extract your third eye. Otherwise all of your precious psyche will be lost, and it simply won’t do to waste a single dram of it.” A forked tongue snaked past the fangs of the creature, and it bent to lap blood from Karen’s head wound. The young woman felt the serpentine tongue run through the triangular-oriented trio of skull-deep oval lacerations carved into her head—and then another voice broke her horrific reverie.

“Nice snack you got there. Sure you wouldn’t prefer a four-course meal?” Karen craned her neck to see the speaker—a young dark-haired man, seemingly in his late 20s with a light growth of beard. He was wearing Chuck Taylors, black denim jeans, and a teal t-shirt with a Celtic design on it that read MacLeod’s Antiquities & Exotic Weapons.

Karen felt the tongue pull away from her forehead. The snake-woman hissed. “Another Seerblooded? You are quite foolish to wander into my demesne alone.” The monstrosity coiled into a striking position.

“Catch me if you can, bitch,” the young man retorted, sprinting away into the woods. The snake-woman slithered off behind him in pursuit, and Karen was alone again. Her breath heaved in momentary relief, but she shuddered to think of what the thing would do to the young man if it caught him.

Long minutes later, Karen heard the other voice again. “Uh, miss? We’ve gotta get you outta here.” She felt a blanket being gently tossed over her, and opened her eyes. The young man had returned, and was trying to pick the locks on her chains.

“Wh-who are you?” Karen asked the man. “How did you get back here so quickly? I thought for sure it was going to kill you!”

“Huh?” He asked bewilderedly. “Oh! Right. You saw the other me. Yeah, that was my decoy. I have, uh…an acquaintance who’s very good at doing impressions, and he owed me a favor,” the man said with a lopsided grin as he raked a scrub pick in the metal cuff, whispering a soft “Aww, yiss” as the lock released, then moving to free her other arm and legs. “I’m Aaron, by the way. You must be Karen.”

“How do you know my name?” Karen asked as she stood from the bier and drew the blanket around herself.

“Some friends of mine have been looking for you for a long time,” Aaron explained, digging into a pocket of his jeans and producing a small drawstring satchel. “You have bad dreams, right? Dreams that sometimes come true? And they’ve been getting worse lately, I’ll bet.”

Karen nodded. “That woman, that…thing. It said it wanted to drain my mind. Why?”

“It feeds on thoughts,” Aaron explained. “Dreams, nightmares, any kind of psychic energy. It’s been feeding on people like you and me for a really long time. So, my friends and I decided to do something about it.” Aaron opened the satchel and pulled out two tiny glass bottles stoppered with cork and filled with glowing blue liquid, handing one to Karen. Hanging from the necks of both bottles was a tag labeled ‘Drink Me’ in a florid calligraphy script. Below it, in block lettering, was a phone number. “Stare at this number for a few seconds. You need to memorize it. Your memory retention ought to be pretty good right now, but call it as soon as you wake up and ask for Ken. He’ll explain the rest. He’s a good friend, and he can help you like he helped me.” Aaron uncorked one of the bottles, tapped it against hers, and said, “Bottoms up. Oh, and don’t go back to sleep until you’ve talked to him. We need to make sure those things don’t find you in your dreams again—because that trick I just pulled isn’t gonna work more than once.”

Karen hesitated. This was all too weird. She focused on the script, committing the ten digits to memory as best she could, then looked up at the man. “Thank you,” she said. “This has been the weirdest dream ever.”

“You’re telling me,” he said with a grin. “C’mon, drink up. Let’s get you out of here.” Karen tipped back the bottle, swallowed the sweet contents; her field of vision exploded into flashes of blue light. Aaron followed suit, draining the contents of his own bottle.

The dreamscape around them melted away like wet paint in a torrential rainstorm.


Aaron awoke atop sweat-soaked sheets and glanced at the clock. 3:21 am. I was under for nearly four hours that time. He reached for the intercom switch to page Ken, who grinned at him through the booth window. Ken answered almost immediately. “How we doin’, bro?”

“Karen Sugimoto is safe, and probably awake now. Expect her to call your staff shortly. Oh, and your oneiric carrier interruption drug works perfectly. It woke her up right away. Didn’t have to find her dream-pod to send her back, which saved me a lot of time and trouble.”

“Oh, awesome! Told you it’d work!”

“I’m sure as shit glad you were right—otherwise I’d probably be a psychic juice-box for that thing right about now.” Aaron crossed his arms at the wrists and leaned forward on the bed, his expression growing serious. “So, about my fee,” he added emphatically. “Do you want to cut me a check, or do you still have my direct deposit info on file? Because I’m officially done here.”

“Payroll’s already transferred the money to your account, bro. Sure you don’t wanna do a few more runs for me? Sharpe just greenlit my project, and he’s relocating me to D.C. to kickstart a new regional branch there. We could really use—”

Aaron cut him off decisively. “Ken. I told you, dude, it’s over for me now that this is done. And it wasn’t really about the money this time…although I won’t deny that it helps. At least I can finally pay off my credit card.”

“I understand, yo. Thanks for helping us out with this one. So hey, bro, what about that other thing we discussed awhile back? You finally doing it now that you’re out for good?”

Aaron reached into the pocket of his jeans, withdrawing and flipping open a black hinged box that he held up to the observation window; a diamond set in a white-gold band sparkled in the low light of the dream lab. There are some things dreamseers can’t afford without doing dangerous contract work, he thought sardonically. For everything else, there’s MasterCard. “Yep. Gina leaves for San Francisco in the morning, and then the awards show is tomorrow night. Both Natalie’s team and mine are up for nominations this year, so I’m doing it at the after-party.” He snapped the lid of the ring box shut again and replaced it. “It’s time for me to move on, Ken. All this has been…well, not fun exactly, but definitely worth the trouble. But I’m out. No more dreamseeing, no more hunting. Not even as a freelancer.”

Ken smiled. “I figured you’d say that. Can’t blame you, bro. I wish you all the luck in the world tomorrow.” A landline phone rang tinnily in the background of the intercom signal. “Oh, hey, that’s probably Miss Sugimoto now. I gotta run, dude. Hit me up after you drop the bomb and lemme know how it goes, okay? I want an invite if she says yes!”

“Sure thing, man. Take care, Ken—and say hi to Karen for me.”

“You got it, bro. Later.” The comm went dead.

Aaron stood and stretched his back, grabbing his jacket off the hook and hoisting his duffel bag over his shoulder. He needed to get out of ASI headquarters and catch a flight back to Vancouver post-haste. He had a big day coming up tomorrow. It was finally time to make some really good dreams come true.

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Message to Contingent Hunters

This message is distributed to Contingent hunters via snail mail, text from blocked numbers, e-mail from blind accounts, and robocalls.

Hunters of the Contingent,

We are in a period of danger, more so than we have ever faced. Already the Frequency has been taken out, and we are on the defensive. However, it is important that we not lose sight of our real mission: to protect the innocent from supernatural threats. And frankly, some of you have been lacking in the protecting department.

We’ve heard stories about hunters making… let’s say “rash decisions”. Putting innocents at risk, causing damage to their property. In some cases, being directly responsible for their deaths. Not because it was one life to save a thousand, or because the hunter just wasn’t good enough to save everyone…. But for expediency. Or to save the hunter’s skin at the sake of someone else’s.

That stops right now.

Some of you are simply inexperienced. If you need training, if you need equipment, we will help you. All you have to do is ask around, put your needs out there.

Some of you need backup. If you are on a mission and you don’t have the resources to make it happen, we will give you a hand if we can, or send you support if we can’t.

Some of you…. Some of you don’t care about collateral damage. If this is you, wise up. Or we will take it upon ourselves to make sure you can’t hurt an innocent ever again.

We’ll be watching. Be better hunters.

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As Fragile as Ashes

Sidney Denault sat at the massive desk that filled a large portion of his study in Longue View, his fountain pen quick at work. Others would think it antiquated, but he insisted on handwritten answers to requests for Empire Foundation funding, regardless of the answer. “Nothing is lost to a kind rejection,” he often reminded his assistant.

The sun had long ago set, and a tumbler of something once-iced sat on a coaster just off the leather blotter. From the stack, Mr. Denault had been at work for some time.

A loud commotion just outside the study brought a pause to the pen’s motion. Mr. Denault’s eyes raised to glance out the door, even if his head didn’t.

A thin man in his late 20s stood in the doorframe, his jeans slung far too low and his shirt open. Over his shoulder hung a grimy backpack. The two stared at each other for a moment, a visible power struggle between the two. The youth finally broke the silence. “I’m leaving,” he said through a thick Creole accent.

Denault continued to glare over his glasses. “Rene, you know the rules. Curfew is 10pm. You’re not leaving Longue View until morning.”

Rene bowed his chest and drew himself up to his full height, clearly trying to show dominance. “Fuck you, I’m outta here. Got a better deal than your old ass. Somewhere where I ain’t got curfews like a damn child.”

The sound of Denault’s teeth grinding was audible. Looking down, ink had sprayed across the crisp paper from Denault’s white-knuckled grip on the pen. “And just where is that, Mr. Blanchard. Your parole officer will want to know where to find you.”

Rene seemed pleased to have gotten under Denault’s skin. “Well, her name is Diana. Diana Bettencourt. She’s down from the East Coast for…some business deal, I don’t know. Gonna put me up on her riverboat. And take me back with her when she’s done. I’m finally getting out this shithole.”

“Oh really?” Denault countered. “A riverboat? Son, the only people who use riverboats are those with things to hide. Gambling and harlotry, that’s all that happens on riverboats, and we both know you’re shit at games of chance. So what, Rene, do you think this woman intends for you to do on this riverboat?”

Rene deflated slightly from Sidney’s barbs. “It’s not like that, she said…”

“She’s recruiting the best hustler in New Orleans for what? Company?!” Denault thundered, finally losing control of his temper. “For Christ’s sake, Rene, you’re nearly a year clean after living here—what the hell are you thinking?!”

Rene’s eyes hardened at the mention of his troubled past. “Fuck you, Sidney. Find another kept boy. I’m done.”

The young hustler pivoted and marched his way out of the room, slamming the door. A few moments later, the glass tumbler from Denault’s desk smashed against the thick wood. Denault leaned back in the leather desk chair, tossing the fountain pen onto the now-ruined letter. He stared up at the ceiling for several moments, calming himself from the outburst. “Goddamnit, I shouldn’t have pushed him like that,” he muttered.

He strode out of the office, shoes crunching the glass. “And who the hell is Diana Bettencourt?” he shouted to the now-empty house.

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The Luckiest

Natalie jumped as her phone began to vibrate in her back pocket. The silicone gash she was trying to apply to the actress sitting in the chair fell to the floor.

“Damnit…who could be calling this early?!” Natalie mumbled to herself as she leaned over to pick up the red, gummy piece of material.. One of the few downsides to her job was the 5:00am makeup calls. This meant she had to be at work by 4:30, ready to work on the monster of the week. Pulling her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans, she saw that it was Gina.

“I really need to take this—do you mind?” Natalie gave the actress a pleading look.

“Nah, go ahead. I could use another cup of coffee before we add my fangs.” She smiled at Natalie and took off for the catering table.

Nat answered the call. “Gina? Is everything okay?”

“Of course, hon! I have exciting news—I’m coming to visit you! In fact, I’m at the airport right now, getting a mani/pedi. My flight was delayed, ugh! You would think my psychic powers would help me know about these things, but apparently not.” Gina spoke a mile a minute, and it took Nat a second to reacquaint herself with the woman’s thick Jersey accent.

“That’s great, Gina!” Natalie replied genuinely excited. Then she asked hesitantly, “Is this a work trip?” She knew Aaron had been freelancing for Ken Yakana on the side, and hoped he wasn’t getting roped back into ASI.

“Sort of. Sharpe has purchased that crazy museum in San Francisco, and he offered me a promotion to be the head of ASI’s West Coast branch. You wouldn’t happen to want a new job, would you?” Gina asked, only half-joking.

Natalie looked around at her makeup station. It was cluttered with brushes, tissues, and open eyeshadow palettes; tucked into the frame of the lighted mirror were pictures of her and Aaron. In each one, they had their arms around each other, smiling, making silly faces, or kissing. Just seeing them made Natalie’s heart thrum. “No way, Gina. I’m out, all the way.”

“I figured, but I just had to ask. You and Aaron deserve a happy retirement. I wouldn’t be doing this anymore either if I had to keep going in the field. You’re lucky you got out before…” Gina stopped herself. Every hunter knew their life expectancy was rarely a long one.

“Yeah. I know,” Natalie replied quietly, staring at the chipped glitter polish on her nails.

Gina broke the silence. “Anyways, I’ll be arriving around 1pm your time. Think you or Aaron can pick me up?”

“Aaron should be able to. I’m here until 8 when we wrap up shooting.” She paused for a moment and then continued, “I’m really excited to see you again, Gina. Hey…while you’re here, do you think you can help me figure out what’s going on with Aaron lately? He’s acting all jumpy and weird.”

Gina couldn’t help but smile. Aaron had sent her pictures of the ring for approval. She was so excited for them. “Ehh, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. I’ll see you tonight! Love ya!”

“Love you too, Gina.” Natalie replied, hitting ‘end’ and sliding her phone back into her pocket. She tried to shake off the guilt she occasionally felt for leaving the Contingent. Still, these past months had been the best she’d had in years. Waking up every day with Aaron next to her, knowing they were safe, was too valuable a thing to give up again. She sent Aaron a quick text: Gina is coming today. Pick her up at 1? Love you!

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Misguided Ghosts
I'm trying to find my place...

She pressed her manicured fingernail against the doorbell, smoothing down her hair as she waited. A tall, athletic man with light brown skin opened the door. He wore a tight security uniform that showed off his sporty physique.

Gina pushed her cinnamon gum to the side of her mouth with her tongue so she could speak. “Well, hello there! You must be Guy. I think I’ll definitely feel safe with you around. I’m Gina.” She leaned forward, putting her hands on his biceps, and kissed both of his cheeks in a greeting.

Guy leaned back, not having expected such a friendly greeting, blushing in embarrassment when she used her thumb to rub off the lipstick that clung to his left cheekbone.

“Sorry about that!” Gina said with a laugh, pushing her way past him into the entrance of the Musee de Macabre. Her confident gait was broken for a moment, as if a wave of energy had pushed back against her. “O mio Dio!” she exclaimed, perching on the edge of a velvet Victorian-style armchair. “You sure have a lot going on in here!” The amount of spectral energy in the place was almost overwhelming.

Guy nodded, moving behind the black desk that stood at the center of the room. Skulls were carved into the top corners of the heavy piece of furniture. He pulled out a set of keys from a drawer and a ledger. “Mrs. Tarantino, I need you to sign for the keys.”

His voice seemed to ground her back in reality as she closed her eyes for a moment and turned towards him, smiling again. “My, what a sexy accent you have! Where are you from?”

“Brazil.” He pushed the ledger towards her and placed a pen on top.

“Oh, I just adore Brazil. The people, the beaches, the music—so…caliente!”

Guy opened his mouth, about to correct her on his actual native language, when a loud crash sounded from the floor above. A female voice shouted down, “I’m alright! It was just a mask falling!”

Guy rolled his eyes, mumbled something in Portuguese, and turned to head upstairs.

Gina placed her red leather Longchamp bag on the desk and followed. As she climbed the stairs, the whispers in her head grew louder. Gina tried to ignore them and focused her attention on the source of the noise. She found herself at the beginning of a dark hallway lined with white masks on both sides. Halfway down the hall, a young Indian woman stood on her tiptoes, trying to rehang a mask. Guy placed his hand on her shoulder, gently grabbed the mask, and placed it back on its nail in the wall.

“Gina, this is Calliope. She can give you the tour. I’ll be in my office.” Guy turned and walked away, his cologne lingering in the air behind him.

“Well, it’s a good thing he has a pretty face, because he’ll never win a personality contest,” Gina said as she watched Guy disappear down the stairs, her eyes on his rear the whole time.

Calliope laughed. “I’m so glad you’re here, Mrs. Tarantino. I’ve been really excited about working with you and ASI!”

“Dear, please call me Gina. Now why don’t you give me a tour? Then, we can discuss making this place a little more comfortable…and less Addams Family-ish. Also, I believe some pieces in your collection require my special attention.” She pointed to a room just off the hallway where she felt the strongest energy emanating. “Let’s start here.”

Calliope led Gina into a white room decorated to look like a child’s nursery. She began pointing out different features of the room, but Gina couldn’t hear her over the screams of “Let me out!” She turned, suddenly aware of the source of all the screaming. Encased in a glass box with a heavy padlock was an innocent-looking porcelain doll with blonde curls and faded brown eyes.

As soon as Gina’s eyes met those of the doll, there was an unbearable shriek. Gina quickly glanced at Calliope. But the petite woman was gesturing to and seemed to be talking about a rocking horse in the corner.

Let me out, you bitch! The doll’s voice seemed to fill every cell in Gina’s head.

Not a chance. Gina glared at the doll with the kind of disapproving look only a Catholic mother can give. I’ve heard all about you, Joliet. You’ve been a very naughty girl.

“I believe we’ll start in this room.” Gina said to Calliope. There was a hint of excitement in her voice. It had been a long time since she had been able to put her gift to good use—and it made her feel better than she had in a long, long time.

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There is Something Happening Here
Stop, hey, what's that sound?

The larger dog strolled on the pavement, wagging his tail enthusiastically at every human he passed. It made him feel especially proud when he could make them smile. He relied on this charm to earn him delicious scraps of sourdough bread soaked in remnants of clam chowder from the tourists on the Pier. Behind him panted a smaller black and white dog, his toenails clicking on the concrete as his short legs struggled to keep up with his friendly companion. Unfortunately, his driving need to pee on every lamppost kept him from ever keeping pace.

Walking tall and confidently behind his four-legged soldiers, the Emperor took his evening patrol of the waterfront. He raised his eagle-topped cane in a salute to the shopkeepers he passed. They all stopped and greeted him with a salute or warm hello. Eventually, he came to the back door of the Boudin Bakery.

“At ease, boys,” he said to his canine compatriots. The boys had already taken a position of ease at the door and put on their best begging faces.

The Emperor rapped on the door three times with his cane. An electronic buzz sounded as the door opened, but neither dog flinched. They were too focused on the deliciousness they knew to be behind the large metal door.

“Emperor, so good to see you! I hope you and your men are hungry.” A short Filipino woman handed him a brown sack with grease stains spreading across the bottom. The two dogs sniffed the air and tried not to whine at the mouth-watering scent of the ham and cheese croissants within the sack.

“Milagros, you are ever so kind to me and my men. Your food provides us great sustenance as we complete our last patrol of the day.” He gave her a quick bow after taking the sack from her hand.

“Emperor, it is the least we can do. Without you, surely our city would fall to ruin.” She smiled at him, her eyes filled with warmth and admiration, and no trace of condescension.

Finally, the smaller dog couldn’t stand it any longer. He let out a small whine and lifted his front paws up and onto Milagros’ apron. Pushing him off gently with his cane, the Emperor admonished the small creature. “Bummer, that is no way to treat a lady.”

Milagros chuckled. “I think your soldiers are hungry, sir. It makes me happy to know they are well fed tonight. I hope all is well…” She was cut off by someone from within the bakery calling for her.

“Your duty calls, milady. My men and I do not wish to impede your work. Fare thee well!” The Emperor turned, heading for a bench facing the water. Bummer and Lazarus followed, nearly tripping over each other, completely entranced by the smell from the bag.

Wiping the crumbs from the corners of his mouth with a linen handkerchief, Emperor Norton leaned back. It felt good to have his hunger pains subsided for awhile. Content with the food in their bellies, the two dogs lay at his feet. They rested as they watched the sun begin its descent over the Bay.

He must have dozed off for a moment, because the loud sudden barking of Lazarus caused him to jump. Soon after, Bummer began a frantic whine. Both dogs stood on alert, the hair on their backs raised.

“What is it, boys?” He looked in the direction upon which they were fixated. A thick fog was beginning to roll in from the sea, slowly engulfing the red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge in its path. “It’s just the fog, boys! You should be used to that.”

But by then, he was feeling it himself. Although the night was already cool, a chill seemed to seep under his skin and into his bones. The hair on his arms stood straight up and knots began to form in his stomach. Something was changing in San Francisco. Something was happening to his city, and he was going to need help to protect it. He slowly rose to his feet, his bones creaking in protest. He leaned over, stroking the dogs’ heads in a soothing motion. “Come, men—it’s time to head to Wilson’s.

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If You're Going to San Francisco
You're gonna meet some gentle people there

“I’m worried about her, sir,” Dr. Evie Cunningham said, gently placing her tablet on Elijah Sharpe’s desk.

Sharpe picked it up and began reviewing the data display. “No improvements since Rome?” He asked, never looking up from the tablet to hear her response.

“None, sir. In fact, the dreams seem to be getting worse.” Dr. Cunningham stood awkwardly, trying to read any sign of emotion on Sharpe’s face.

Everyone at ASI cared about Gina—she was the unofficial “mom” of the organization. As much as she tried to appear like the same person she had been, though, whatever had happened to her on that throne in Rome had changed her. No amount of expensive makeup could cover the dark circles spreading beneath her brown eyes. She was tired and distracted all the time. Evie knew things were really bad when Gina came into work wearing sensible flats instead of her usual Louboutin stilettos. Sharpe had personally asked Ken Yakana and Evie to monitor Gina’s sleep and dreams. Both of them had eagerly agreed to the task, not just because one didn’t say no to a request from Sharpe, but because Gina was a dear friend.

Sharpe finally looked up from the device and realized Evie was still standing. “Please, Doctor, have a seat.” He nodded toward one of the leather armchairs opposite his desk. Evie smoothed out the back of her gray pencil skirt before perching on the edge of the chair. Sharpe waited until she was settled before he resumed speaking. “Update me on your progress with the hypnosedative immersion sequence. Has the therapy been effective in initial trials?”

“Our first round of results are promising, sir,” Evie responded, pulling the tablet back towards her and looking over a series of reports she’d just received from Ken’s lab. “The oneiric virtual-reality environment responds differently to each user’s individual brain activity, but R&D is working on developing a technique that will unify the sequence and allow us to conduct trials on multiple individuals in a shared instance. We feel it’s safer this way, especially if we send in groups with similar mental trauma—they can reinforce and ground one another if things become too extreme.”

“Good,” Sharpe said. “Do you believe that Gina would respond positively to this technique once the final update patch is applied? I won’t place her at any further risk, so I need your utmost confidence on this point.”

“I’m very optimistic about her course of treatment, sir,” Evie responded without hesitation. “Mrs. Tarantino’s brain activity is consistent with the other individuals we’ve seen make the most progress in our alpha trials. I do think that it would be a good idea to begin her immersion therapy with someone she’s worked with previously, though. Ken was considering beginning with a dual-subject therapy sequence, perhaps pairing Gina with Field Operative Oliver. She and Tamara became quite close after their mission together in Greenbelt over the winter.”

“Thank you for your input, Doctor. That’s an excellent start. But I also think a change of scenery might help Gina.” He stood up and turned, looking out his large office window overlooking the Philadelphia skyline. After a moment of quiet contemplation, he turned back to Evie. “Did you know her son’s family recently moved to Palo Alto? I understand she has a new grandchild.”

Evie nodded, wondering where he might be going with this train of thought.

“I’ve recently acquired the Musee de Macabre in San Francisco. I wanted to wait until everything was finalized before making an official announcement.” He watched for Evie’s reaction.

Evie knew better than to even attempt lying to Sharpe. The acquisition of the museum filled with haunted artifacts had been the main topic of office gossip for weeks now. “I had heard rumors, sir.”

Sharpe smiled. He was already well aware of the water cooler conversations about the sale. “I intend to ask Gina to head up the West Coast branch of ASI—a branch I intend to locate in the former museum. I think she’s best equipped to help the spirits ensnared by Mr. Thorne’s collection, and Gina is most content when she’s being useful. With Aaron and Natalie settled into a quiet life in Vancouver, I know Gina would love to be closer to them. Plus, nothing makes her happier than family, and it broke her heart when her grandbaby moved to California. As her primary care physician, what are your thoughts on this?”

Evie knew he’d already made up his mind, but she appreciated that he wanted to hear her opinion. “In all honesty, sir, it couldn’t hurt. Being busy with a new role could be just enough to get her mind off these awful visions she has been plagued with.”

Sharpe nodded. “So, it’s settled then.” He leaned over and pressed a button on his desktop phone. “Kerry, please send in Mrs. Tarantino.”

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