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I’d arranged with Earl for a couple more days, told him why, and hit the first flight to DC. Something was rotten in Sodom on Potomac. But that was usually the case.

A car met me at the Dulles and headed south into Prince William County.

“You sure we’re going the right way?” I asked. I hadn’t made hotel arrangements since I could do that in DC just as easy. But I generally stayed in town.

“The address I was given is in Manassas, sir,” the driver said.

“Odd,” I replied. “But let’s see where it leads.”

I’d picked up my checked guns and moved them to more appropriate places in a restroom in the airport. I didn’t believe that Garrett Terry would set me up. But that didn’t mean someone hadn’t. If I was deep in the shit with MCB, strange things might happen.

The two-story house in Manassas was in a plain suburb. Nothing to distinguish it from a million more in the area.

The congressman’s aide, Bert Kemper, was outside before the driver could get out to get my bags.

“We need to get inside,” he said, looking around nervously.

“You seriously need to get your game on. We weren’t followed. Unless there’s a tracer.”

“We just need to get inside,” Bert said. “You do. Quick.”

Congressman Garrett Terry, aka Gary, representative of and for the Fourth District, Washington State, was waiting in the house.

“Gary.” I shook his hand.

The congressman was tall and rangy with weathered features from growing up a cowboy. He’d passed the bar and later run for Congress, but he still had that cowboy look.

“Chad,” Gary said. “Come on in and get situated. We need a talk.”

“Sounds like I’ve been called into the principal’s office.”

“More like we both have,” Gary said, sitting down on the couch. He had a highball of scotch and it didn’t look like his first.

“What’s MCB doing now?” I asked.

“Not even sure it’s MCB,” Gary said as Bert came in and perched on a chair. “You’re under investigation. We got that thirdhand. Because due to my close relationship with you, so am I.”

“Congressional Ethics panel?”

“Criminal,” Bert said. “But we don’t even know what charge.”

“Oh, it’s MCB. That has their fingerprints all over it. As long as it’s an ongoing investigation they can keep up the smear campaign indefinitely. They don’t have to charge me with anything. In fact, no charges are better than definite information. People can make up whatever charges they want in their heads. The scarier the better.”

“That’s what we’ve been saying,” Bert said. “Everyone inside knows MCB is our professional weasels. This has weasel written all over it.”

“We’ve been hitting all our usual contacts but we’re not getting many results,” Gary said. “There’ve been a lot of investigations lately and a lot of careers destroyed.”

“Iran Contra, the stuff with Good Time Charlie. Got it.” I thought about it for a few seconds. “That phone work?” Gary nodded. “I take it this is a clean safe house? I’m going to have to make a lot of phone calls. Long distance.”

“Should be clean enough,” Bert said. “Who are you going to call?”

“Everybody. You don’t charge straight at MCB and you don’t shout and whine and complain. What you do is start a reverse fire. What is MCB hiding that they’re trying to shut me down? What do they know that you don’t know? Who’s really pulling the strings? MCB’s been acting even squirrelier than normal lately. I’m surprised, given all their resources, that they haven’t been able to find this ring that’s kidnapping and selling virgins. Since I’ve been coming up with most of the leads, it’s funny that they’re suddenly smearing me. Why would they be doing that?

“I’ll show them how popular they actually are. I’ll start with Van Helsing. They have a great rapport with MI4. I’ll get them asking those questions across the pond. I’ll call everyone who MCB might have asked questions about me and see what questions they’re asking. And I’ll brainstorm with all of them, to let them ask the questions and get it planted in their minds. Before long, MCB will be answering so many queries about what’s going on that they’ll have better things to do than fuck with Chadwick Gardenier. Or his friendly congressman.”

“You’re evil,” Gary said, shaking his head. “I like it.”

“I grew up with the sort of people who do this like breathing,” I said, shrugging. “Alinsky. Villify, demonize, destroy. It’s what they’re trying with me. Then, Congressman, you get to start asking them hard questions. Like why haven’t they found that ring? Like why monster attacks are on an uptick everywhere and they can’t seem to get a root cause? Like are they really worth the money we’re spending on them, since they don’t really seem to be protecting the world at all? They seem to be mostly playing politics. ‘Perhaps, Director, if you paid a little more attention to your job, we wouldn’t be having these problems.’”

“MCB is a tough nut to crack. They’ve got a lot of clout in this town,” Gary warned. “They’ve ruined congressmen before.”

“That’s why we start the counterfire first. Asking them now would seem to be trying to clear your name.”

“And if there’s a point?” Bert said. “I mean, Chad, we trust you, but what if there’s a basis to the investigation?”

“Are there things to investigate about me? Sure. I work in New Orleans. The whole place is corrupt as hell. You don’t get anything done there without paying people off.”

“I don’t think so. I looked into that,” Gary said, shaking his head. “I did get it’s not a corruption thing. It’s a mystical thing. Supernatural. As in, you’re playing the other side.”

“Hmmm…” I said, frowning. “I made a deal with a Fey queen once.” I thought about it for a few seconds again. “I’ve got contacts that are PUFF-applicable. My house was found through a houdoun priestess, but she’s White side. I’m not seeing anything, honestly. But when I ask the questions, I’ll see what they’re asking about.”

“We need to go,” Bert said. “And Gary was not here.”

“I’ve played this game a bit. Got it.”

* * *

First thing in the morning, predawn, I called the Van Helsing Institute.

VHI was similar in some respects to MHI and very different in others. It was a group of paid Monster Hunters, like MHI. Differences branched out from there. For one thing, it also had a nonprofit supernatural research side associated with the Royal Society for the Study of the Supernatural. It shared its extensive collection of supernatural research, including memoirs like this one, with Oxford and the BSS. It also tended more towards, hem, “smart” Hunters versus the MHI approach of “if you don’t have tattoos, you’re probably not worth hiring!”

Fortunately, Dr. Rigby was available to take my call.

Dr. Rigby was a character. Crazy eyebrows, crazy hair, crazy English academic one each. Looked like Einstein crossed with Gene Wilder. More on the Einstein brains. He’d dropped out of Reading to join the Royal Navy right after Dunkirk. After getting a destroyer blown out from under him in the North Atlantic, a major came to visit him in the hospital and asked a lot of questions. Tests of memory, tested his knowledge of French. Then asked him if he’d like to do something more dangerous than guarding convoys but also a bit more interesting.

Which was how he ended up first in the Royal Marine Commandos doing cross-channel raids into occupied France, then on to working with the Resistance in France and Germany. It was during the latter period he’d started working on the supernatural side. After the war, he completed his degree at Reading and went straight into hunting.

At one point in Seattle, while recovering from major surgery, I’d gone over to England to see how Van Helsing operated and we’d clicked. Once a Marine, always a Marine or something. Also something about being able to communicate at a level above farts and grunts.

“Chad, boy, how are you doing?” Rigby asked.

“Surprisingly enough, not in recovery,” I said. “We had a bit of an event at Mardi Gras. But it was one of those you either survived uninjured or you didn’t survive at all. I was uninjured.”

“I heard that the rest of your team was lost. My condolences.”

“They fought the good fight. New business and old business. Choose.”

“Old business,” Rigby replied. “We have found several possible references to your mysterious burrower. Alas, the only one that we found that quite fits the description is limited in detail.”

A while ago I had asked for Rigby’s help to try and identify an unknown type of monster that had snatched several people from their homes in New Orleans. It tunneled through their floors and left behind few clues. We had started calling it the basement boogie, which was a stupid name, but it worked.

“Limited is more than we have. Details such as they are?”

“An ethnologist, Thomas Bowditch, studying witch doctors in the lands of the Ashanti, came upon a curious ritual. A powerful witch doctor would sacrifice slaves to what he described as a massive amorphous wormlike creature. The witch doctor professed that the emanations from the worm were the source of his great power, notably the power to raise the dead. The slaves would be chained near a ‘great turmoil of earth,’ then the witch doctor would chant prayers and cast herbs upon a symbol laid into the ground. The symbol appeared to be some sort of fungus rather than something inscribed. After the proper ritual was complete, the witch doctor would run away quickly. Then the worm would erupt.

“His description becomes somewhat erratic at that point. He has a clear drawing of the symbol but the drawing of the worm is mostly eyes and teeth. Were it not for his description of it as ‘a loathsome white foul thing, unclean and evil,’ I would say shoggoth. But white mitigates against it. The writings were first to be published in his seminal work, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashanti, but British Supernatural Service became aware of his writings on witch doctors and forced a selective edit. We managed to find a copy of the edited portions at Oxford.”

“Thank you, Doctor. That’s an interesting possibility.”

“I’d suggest checking for the symbol near the eruptions,” Dr. Rigby said. “I’ll fax you a copy of the symbol.”

“Please. To my home, preferably. I’m currently out of town but I’ll pick it up when I get back. And, again, thank you.”

“I’d be curious to know if this is, in fact, what you are dealing with. If the witch doctor’s statements are correct, that would explain the constant necromantic outbreaks in your area.”

“Agreed,” I said. “But that text describes a single eruption. We’ve had dozens.”

“That’s assuming this was the only such site,” Dr. Rigby pointed out. “This was deepest, darkest Africa at the time. Admittedly, the Ashanti were fairly developed for the period. But it’s possible there were other sites which were unknown to the traveler. He left Ashanti soon thereafter at least in part, I surmise, from horror. He’s quite positive about most of the rest of the culture but not that part. So concludes old business. New business? Perhaps a bit of a tiff with the American Monster Control Bureau?”

“You’ve heard from them?”

“From MI4,” Rigby said. “Asking various questions under the Official Secrets Act.”

“About an ongoing investigation they cannot divulge.”

“I suspected that was the new business. To the extent I may know, I cannot divulge the nature of the investigation. Official Secrets.”

“I’m less clear on that act than similar ones in the United States. Can you divulge the nature of the questions? I am trying to determine if this investigation has some validity or if it is a fishing expedition as part of a smear campaign.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” Rigby said. “But is there a reason for such a smear campaign?”

“I’m unsure. I have to wonder why this has come up now? If it is a deliberate smear campaign, to what end? I have been active in politics for nearly three years. They don’t like that I’m it but you’d think they’d gotten past that by now. Has something happened recently? Some shift in the political winds? The only real change was the loss of most of MCB New Orleans and the replacement office head.”

“Perhaps, but have there been any recent cases where your name would have come up?”

“Well…” I had to think it over for a moment. “There is one. We’ve had a systematic series of raids on homes primarily in search of virgins, where they were sold for supernatural purposes.”

“The Seattle Lich,” Rigby said. “We heard about that.”

“I worked with the FBI a bit, which has the primary duty of investigating the nonsupernatural aspect of the case. They’re stymied. Very little evidence to go on. But what puzzles me, in terms of the MCB, is that this is a major case. There have been over a hundred young women disappear who match the profile and those are just the known cases.”

“In my experience, Chad, virgins are a valuable commodity among cultists. Especially those who worship the Great Old Ones. They are a vital component in many of their more powerful summoning rituals. Terrible business indeed. The MCB should be extremely concerned.”

“Yet MCB seems either disinterested in pursuing it or…something. It seems…odd.”

“Do you think MCB is…” Dr. Rigby paused. “You’re not suggesting collusion, I hope.”

“I’m simply puzzled. Maybe? They seem to be more and more hostile towards hunting. They seem to believe that if all the Hunters stopped hunting, monster problems would go away. That we are the provocateurs rather than defenders.”

“That has always been an undercurrent of MCB and MI4, lad.” Rigby chuckled. “If we weren’t such a problem, the problem would go away. The undercurrent is that they feel are superior at Monster Hunting, even though that has repeatedly proven untrue.”

“Monster events are on an uptick, so their hostility is on an uptick. I suppose the cause and effect could be there. They are more hostile because there is more work. I suppose that could be it.”

“Or the hostility could be linked to the monster uptick?” Rigby said. “That, again, would assume collusion in their ranks.”

“Which even I find hard to believe.” I said. “Franks works there.”

“Indeed.” Rigby shuddered.

“So I guess the question is, returning to the main point, can you divulge the nature of their questions about me?”

“Very well. They were mostly about your relationship with your family. Specifically your mother and brother.”

“Thornton?” I didn’t think about my hated elder brother much. I wasn’t even sure where he was living and what he had done with himself. “Mother I can understand. She’s a monster advocate. A group I could see the MCB being less than thrilled about. But I have no idea why they’d be asking questions about Thornton. Did they specify?”

“Really can’t say, lad. However…Your question about the virgins is interesting. That is really all I can say on the matter.”

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

* * *

I had never realized just how many contacts I’d built up over the years.

Jesus, I had a lot of numbers.

Most of them said the same thing as Rigby. Not all of them were read in on Unearthly Forces. Those had been asked questions by mysterious men from the “FBI.” My dad said there were particularly pointed questions about Thornton and our relationship. I found out from him that Thornton had joined some cult out in California called the Church of the Sepulcher. Which, come to think of it, didn’t sound good at all. He also said that his answer about our relationship was a frank admission that Thornton had been a serial abuser and as far as I was concerned he could drop dead. I admitted that was pretty much the case.

Oshiro had not been contacted. The FBI did not just ask yakuza bosses questions. And our relationship had mostly been at arm’s length. But they had questioned people in Saury who knew me and most of the questions related to anything they knew about my brother. Had I ever been seen in his company? Did they have times I was positively present in Seattle?

Given the number of receipts from Saury, the answer was if something was going on outside the Seattle area, I probably had an alibi. The Doctors Nelson had gotten similar inquiries. I’m sure that went over well. They purely hated the MCB.

Oshiro also said other contacts indicated that the investigators were asking about the virgin selling ring. I’d not only been on the lich case, where a previously known string of disappearances and serial killings had finally been linked to the supernatural, but also the zombie outbreak where I had met Congressman Terry. A necromancer had been collecting potential sacrifices there, and according to his last words, they were to be traded to some group called the Dark Masters. Oshiro had picked up from Tong contacts that something had the FBI ringing alarm bells about me and my involvement. Where they got the information, unknown and unconfirmed.

Special Agent Don Grant was the lead agent on the missing girls’ case. He was in, and even took my call.

“So, I’m now a suspect? I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time that someone who was helpful turned out to be involved. But that’s also fairly rare.”

“Not as rare as you might think,” Grant said. “Anything else?”

“Am I a serious suspect?” I asked. “’Cause right now it looks as if MCB is using it as a smear campaign.”

“That’s where it’s coming from is all I can say. Probably shouldn’t even say that. But MCB said that you were now a suspect.”

“I’ve got alibis out the wazoo. I don’t think I was in the same state as most of those girls when they were kidnapped. And I was on call almost the whole time or working.”

“I really can’t discuss it, Mr. Gardenier.”

We’d had a couple of dinners and drinks batting this case back and forth. He’d called me Chad. Now it was Mr. Gardenier. Which means he suspected I was involved somehow.

“Okay, Don. I’m not involved. Period. I’m busy as shit in New Orleans trying to keep a lid on this hellhole. MCB is crawling up my ass and running some secret-squirrel investigation. The job of the MCB is lying and smearing people. That’s their entire job. So you can either take my word that I’m not a culprit or take the word of some supposedly sworn agent who spends his entire career wiping his ass with the Constitution. Just one question. What’s it going to take for me to get this off my back?”

“I really can’t say. Is there anything else?”

“Will solving it for you do it?” I said. “I’ve got shitloads of other things to do, but if that’s what it takes, I’ll just let the citizens of New Orleans die to hold your hand for you!”

“What part of ‘I can’t talk about this’ is unclear?” Grant said. “You’re a God-damned suspect, Chad!”

“How? Not. In. The. Same. State.”

“MCB was clear. They have you pegged as part of the ring. I don’t know where they got their information from.”

“Well, then they are fucking wrong, okay?” I snarled. “Okay, fine. Get it. I’m a suspect. I am guilty until proven innocent. That’s how the MCB works. Hell, that’s how I work. Now I just have to find out why I’m a suspect so I can clear my name. Which is impossible if nobody will tell me why I’m a suspect! I get it, can’t talk about it. Fine. I’ll call you when you can talk to me again. Bye.”

Except at some point during that he had hung up on me.

* * *

Oh, this was bad.

MCB had identified me as being part of a ring that kidnapped little girls to be used as human sacrifices. In most cases killing their entire families using necromancy and necromantic entities like wights and revenants.

There were two possibilities: Either MCB was doing this to deliberately smear me or they actually thought I was involved. Either way, my name was Mud. If it was a hit job, MCB could go right on saying they had evidence but it was part of an ongoing investigation.

MCB seriously needed an Inspector General.

If they really thought I was involved, knew it for anywhere close to a fact, I’d already be in a basement somewhere either being put down, or undergoing “hostile interrogation.” That didn’t mean they didn’t consider me a suspect. They could be letting me roam free to see where I led. Or they could not have quite enough proof. Or they were going to garrote me the minute I walked out the door.

Or they knew I wasn’t involved and picked the worst possible case to smear me with.

Why me? More interestingly, why Thornton? Why ask people about my relationship to Thornton?

I had tried to forget I’d ever had a brother. Thornton was an unmitigated bully growing up. Seriously, horribly abusive. One of those guys who could get away with it from being just so pathological that nobody could see the evil. It was easier to never think about him.

But two…entities had mentioned him. One was when I was dead in heaven. Pete had said…What was it? It was years ago and while I was dead. “Your brother is headed in the direction of evil.” Something like that. I wouldn’t say “headed” so much as “got it down” based on growing up with him.

But Queen Shalana had mentioned him as well while I was taking the Harper’s Challenge. “Your brother is of another faction.”

The government grouped Unearthly Forces into different “factions.” God was, from the POV of people like my mother, simply one faction of Outworld Entities. I doubted Thornton had found Jesus. Fey wasn’t a possibility because the Queen had said “another” faction. The two cases where the Dark Masters came up both involved necromancy. Necromancy was Old Ones’ magic. Not everyone dabbling in that worked directly for the Old Ones, but they went hand in hand.

So was Thornton involved in some necromantic cult?

A call to Ray confirmed that the Church of the Sepulcher had turned up on MHI’s radar before. Only the full name was the Church of the Unholy Sepulcher. A sepulcher was a holding place for the sacramental items during the Easter celebration but it referred to the Old French and Latin for a tomb. So…Church of the Unholy Tomb. Satan worshippers? On the other hand, an unholy tomb was simply a tomb that contained something unholy. Or in which something unholy was trapped or buried.

Those are not dead which sleeping lie…

Assume the MCB are actually being heroes. I knew a lot of them, whatever their actions, were more duty-bound than I was. They felt like they were the only people holding the line against the End Times which would, yeah, be worse than New Orleans.

The MCB loathed magic, but I’d heard they kept “consultants” on tap for serious cases. Making a bunch of powerful sacrifices to Old Ones certainly qualified. They’d probably done some sort of reading or scrying. So why would they peg me, Chadwick Gardenier, as being involved in this ring? I wasn’t, I knew that. So assuming this wasn’t a smear campaign, how had they come up with me as a suspect? It had to be my blood relation to Thornton.

I would worry about how to deal with that later. Right now, I needed a plane. I had until sunset, Central time, to get back to work. It was full moon in New Orleans.

I made one last call.

“Remi,” I said. “Have you sent out the dinner invitations yet?”

“No, sir,” Remi said. “I was intending to in tomorrow’s mail.”

“Hold off,” I said. “Something’s come up.”

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