Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission019

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Dramatis Personae

Protagonists

  • James Darkwood, Poltergeist
  • Annie Harper, Metamorph (revenant)
  • Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
  • Tom Knox, Haunter

Supporting Characters

Phoenix (and Associates)

  • Ben Cotton, Poltergeist
  • Kate Dennison, Banshee
  • Annie Harper, Metamorph (Revenant)
  • Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
  • Chet Mason, Skinrider
  • Hoyt Masterson, Haunter
  • John Reeve, Skinrider (Hue)

Brook House

  • Lo-Jack, Wisp (Hue)
  • Mona, Banshee (Spirit)

City Hall

  • Various clerks and administrators

The Grand

  • Neil Brokawsky, Haunter (spirit)
  • Philipson the Shadow Man, unknown shade (Spectre)

The Mole People

  • Alice, Wisp? (Spirit)
  • Various ghosts

Independents

  • Yannic and Kasia Brokawsky, New York residents
  • Ms Charlotte McKennedy, collector of objects with interesting histories

Miscellaneous

  • Various homeless people

Shades of the Past

Annie

  • Ben Cotton, Phoenix
  • Two NextWorld operatives

Carlos

  • Agent Kevin Castel of the CIA, a former associate
  • Mr and Mrs Hayaté, parents
  • Agent Hicks, FBI, a former colleague
  • Joanne, a hostage
  • Mac, a survivalist

James

  • James’ father, an army man
  • Guy, SWAT, former colleague
  • Dr Malone, a psychiatrist/counsellor
  • Pete, SWAT, former colleague
  • Sandra, ex-girlfriend
  • Various former SWAT colleagues

Tom

  • Bill Knox, brother
  • Mary Knox, mother
  • Robert Knox, father
  • Captain Reynolds, NYPD, former boss
  • Various funeral-goers – the Knox family and friends


Mission Nineteen – House Clearance

Part One – Don’t You Open That Trapdoor...

Despite the fact that it’s a Sunday, Adrian and Hoyt somehow manage to arrange for the cheque to be paid in straight away. For their next miracle, they not only get hold of the estate agent dealing with the hotel purchase – it helps that Adrian managed to obtain her personal number – but convince her to contact the current owners and try to hurry them along. She’s successful (they do want to sell quickly, after all), and the exchange of contacts is scheduled for Tuesday. In two days, the Phoenix Group will be the proud owners – albeit through several shell companies – of The Manhattan Grand hotel. (The group decides that, despite the risks, they’re going to try to run The Grand as a hotel. More properly, they’re going to hire someone – possibly the existing staff – to run it for them. This has the twin benefits of concealing the fact that it’s their base, and being a source of income. They’ll simply have to find some way of declaring their living quarters off-limits without arousing suspicion.)

Now that they’re actually going to be able to move into the hotel sometime soon, they need to decide what they’re going to do about the spook in the basement. From the glimpse Tom had, it seems likely that it’s actually a spectre (or a ghost on the very brink of becoming a spectre), so it’s not something they just want to leave there. Someone points out that they now have Sunday free, so why don’t they go and take a look right now? In record time, they have a plan and a line-up, and then they’re off. Hoyt drives Annie, Tom, James and Ben in the flesh to meet Carlos. The four investigators project, and Hoyt takes all of their bodies back to the hotel, guarded by Rory. The disembodied spooks take the subway as far as they can and then walk the rest of the way. (There isn’t a subway station immediately next to the hotel, but the nearest isn’t too far away.)

James and Ben dematerialise to pass through the walls, but the other three use the lowest expressions of various horrors to get inside the hotel. Annie and Tom inhabit the door handle, one after the other, stepping out of it on the other side. Carlos simply teleports, earning himself an envious look or two. Once inside, James flicks a lightswitch (helter skelter), but the place remains dark; apparently the electricity is off. They gather in the foyer so that Annie can try a forebode before they go any further. She focuses on the likely consequences of interacting with the cellar spook, [1] concentrating until her spirit guide appears before her, glowing with a gentle light. [2] Teresa takes her hand and leads her forwards, through a corridor that, in the space of an eye-blink, changes into an expanse of desert stretching beneath a negative sky. There is a shape in the distance; something oddly familiar about it. She starts to run, but is abruptly standing in front of it, staring up at a crucified Teresa. The vision abruptly ends, leaving her to relay it to the others as best as she can.       “It looks like that thing’s a spectre, then,” she concludes. But what does the vision mean? Was it literal? Are they going to get dragged into the land of the spectres? The trouble is: they need to deal with the entity in the basement. Despite the possible risk, they decide to continue with the plan, hoping they can destroy it before the event the vision refers to actually comes to pass. No one’s even considering talking to it any more.

They gather at the top of the basement stairs, solving the lighting problem by means of Tom’s witch’s nimbus. At its lowest level, it provides enough illumination to see by. As part of his battle preparations, he ramps up the strength – being sure to maintain a suitable distance from the others – planning to lightning-bolt the spectre as soon as it comes into view. Annie dissolves into a swarm of huge rats. [3] James and Ben congeal weapons, boosting each other and the rest of them as necessary to avoid spikes. Annie extends her supernatural senses, getting an impression of a gaping void somewhere beneath them. [4] She tries to signal the others, but being a swarm of rats – even large rats – makes it impossible to get the message across. With some misgivings, she decides not to shift back and tell them. After all, she might need that energy, and they already know there’s something bad down there. They’re planning on being careful anyway, right?

Tom takes the lead as they make their way down the cellar steps. He places his feet carefully – the steps, like everything else in this place, are old and crumbling. It wouldn’t do to go tumbling head over heels all the way to the bottom. Despite his caution, he almost does stumble when he finds level ground instead of the step he was expecting. He should only be halfway down the steps, but he’s standing on a flat concrete floor. In a corridor. A well-lit corridor. Alone. Looking around, it’s apparent that he’s somewhere else completely. The corridor stretches as far as he can see in both directions. Walls, floor and ceiling are made of concrete; all straight edges and perfect right-angles and all perfectly clean and free of dust. It’s a complete contrast to the rest of the hotel, but then, it’s fairly apparently he isn’t in The Manhattan Grand any more. There is absolutely no sign of the others; he seems to be the only one transported here. Wherever here is. Now that he thinks about it, there is something oddly familiar about this corridor. It reminds him a lot of the underground training facility at Quantico. He spent some time there as part of his ongoing police training. But how did he get here, and why? And what happened to the others...?

One moment, Carlos was right behind Tom, picking his way carefully down the stairs. The next, he’s standing in the middle of an earthen-walled corridor. It’s dirty and over-grown, creepers covering the walls and snaking down through the wooden slats that seem to serve as a roof. He can see all this by virtue of the dim light that slips through the gaps between the slats and the vines. Like Tom, he has questions and, like Tom, he’s been here before, or somewhere very like it. This is just like the guerrilla tunnels where he carried out hostage negotiations with the South American drug cartels. It’s much hotter than he remembers, though; stifling and close. Apart from himself, the place seems to be completely deserted.

It’s déjà vu all over again for Annie; thrice-fold familiarity. She’s standing in a corridor, just as in the vision. There’s something about this place... Recognition? She’s been here before, or somewhere like it. And, for the charm, this whole situation reminds her of that time with Teresa and Kate. [5] Except... she didn’t get here by using forebode. At least, she doesn’t think she did. There’s no sign of the others, nor of anyone else. (Half of her is disappointed not to see Teresa. The other half is relieved.) She quails inside as she remembers the place they call the land of the spectres. Is that where she is? Given the circumstances, it’s a distinct possibility.

Composing herself as best as she can, Annie examines her surroundings. The walls of the corridor are lined with bookshelves, which are filled with books. The shelves are arranged haphazardly, standing all askew to the walls and to each other. On second glance, they’re not so much filled with books as overflowing with them. Tomes are shoved in every which way, with the ones that don’t fit simply spilling over onto the ground. Some of these are stacked precariously, while many are simply scattered, drifts of them collecting in corners like fallen leaves. The books themselves are battered, torn and ink-stained. Two library carts huddle forlornly up ahead, one of them overturned. It’s an oddly sad sight, reminding her of some great beetle that’s given up on trying to right itself. She resists the urge to set it to rights. If this really is the land of the spectres, interacting with it at all could be dangerous. But she has to do something...

James is in complete darkness. From his perspective, Tom’s light was abruptly snuffed out just as he was about to step onto the stairs. He stops dead, calling out to the others in a low voice, but no one answers him. The only sound is the steady drip of water. Congealing a flashlight from his hand, he sweeps the beam around, revealing a flooded tunnel, perhaps a sewer or a storm drain. He turns through a full circle, confirming that he is completely and utterly alone here. There’s a nagging sense of familiarity, something about this place making him think back to his time in Boston. After a moment or so, it clicks: these are steam tunnels. Specifically, they look a lot like the steam tunnels under the university, albeit in a much worse state of repair than he remembers. He was called in to help search for a missing kid; spent a good couple of days or so combing those tunnels. It was James that found the corpse. The boy had obviously fallen and hit his head – it looked like he just never got up again. There’s no trace of a body here, although the flooding would make it difficult to tell. James certainly doesn’t fancy poking around in those murky waters. Instead, he concentrates as hard as he can, focusing his sixth sense on finding the others. They must be around somewhere, right? And yet, as far as he can tell, he’s the only one here. Just him and the darkness. [6]

Tom looks around. The tunnel stretches off into the distance – both ahead and behind – with no end in sight. There are doors and passageways leading off from either side; routes to who knows where. As he seems to be the only person here, he decides to explore a little. Forward and back seem to be much of a muchness, so he sets off in the direction he was originally facing, examining the doorways and turnings as he goes. The first door has a neat little sign that reads: ‘NYPD Precinct 632’. That was his precinct – the one where he earned his rank. The place where he became disillusioned with the police force, and with people in general. He moves on. The second door is labelled ‘Ridgemount High School’; another place from his past. Like the first, the door is closed. At the lightest touch from him, it immediately burns to nothing, revealing a flight of stairs leading upwards. (He’s still sheathed in the crackling aura of witch’s nimbus, but there’s no way it should have gone up that quickly. It just confirms – not that he really needed the confirmation – that he’s not exactly in New York any more.)

The stairs lead to a T-junction: more of the same sterile concrete tunnels; left and right passageways terminating in closed doors. These are marked ‘Playing Fields’ (Tom was always good at sports) and ‘Theatre’ (he was a member of his high school’s drama club). Whatever this place is – and, like Annie, he suspects it’s connected with the spectres – it seems to be composed of places that mean something to him. After a moment’s consideration, he heads for the playing fields.

An American football pitch sprawls under a negative sky. It must be night-time – black stars are scattered across the expanse of white like ashes on a funeral shroud. The pitch is deserted, but there’s a football in the kick-off position, ready for a game. When he steps through the empty doorway – this door also burns up when he touches it – he leaves white, powdery footprints behind him; the only marks on that pristine surface. The light seems to change as he makes his way to the football and, looking down at himself, he can see that his aura has taken on an unearthly silver hue. It’s... odd, but it – or, whatever’s causing the change – does him no obvious harm, he continues on his way. The football bursts into flames when he kicks it, going up in an instant like the doors. That seems to be a recurring theme in this place. Nothing further happens, so he returns to the doorway to seek another path. Argent fire consumes the pitch behind him, leaving behind nothing but nothing. The same thing happens to the tunnels, and then to the stairs after that. Unlike the rest of it, the stairs leave behind a mess of charred and blackened rubble. This piles up in the doorway, effectively barricading it. It looks like he can’t go back that way again. Maybe someone’s trying to tell him something.

Like James, Carlos extends his senses, ‘listening’ for any trace of the others. He doesn’t find them, but he does become aware of a muffled whimpering sound coming from somewhere up ahead. [7] Maybe he’s not alone here after all. He makes his way towards the source of the sound, pausing when he reaches a crossroads. There are three ways he can go: left, right or straight ahead. All of them are marked with symbols – a handprint, a ragged cross, a shoeprint – made in what appears to be blood. There is light at the end of two of the tunnels, one a steady white glow (the handprint) and one a dim flicker (the shoeprint). The whimpering is coming from the one marked with a cross.

Without even needing to think about it, Carlos sets off down the cross-daubed passageway, following the sound to a door some way down. Opening that door reveals, incongruously enough, a forest. A hut stands in a clearing; trees deliberately hacked down to give the occupant a clear line of sight on whoever might be out here in the middle of nowhere. It’s a scene from Carlos’ past. It was the United States, rather than South America, he remembers. There was a man (Mac) living out in the forest – some kind of survivalist nut or something – who decided to take a woman (Joanne) hostage. Carlos was sent in to get her back safe and sound. The mission was a success. He didn’t get the man to release the hostage, but he did keep him talking long enough for the SWAT team to get a clear shot. They took it. The hostage lived, although she was undoubtedly traumatised by the whole experience. The survivalist... didn’t. Who knows how it’s going to play out this time...?

Moving slowly and non-threateningly, Carlos approaches the door. As before, he announces his presence before gently easing the door open. The inside looks pretty much how he remembers it: a Joanna tied to a chair; Mac threatening her with a gun. Those are the salient points, anyway. Still doing his best to look harmless, he tries to engage Mac in conversation. Unlike last time, his target doesn’t even seem to notice him. Also unlike last time, however, Carlos has a few more options at his disposal. As he talks, he channels a small amount of vitality into unearthly repose. [8] As he starts to glow gently, Mac looks in his direction, his expression blank. It seems Carlos has only just managed to attract his attention – he’s on the very edge of being entranced. Cautiously channelling more vitality [9] into the horror, Carlos glows brighter, solidifying his hold: his target is now completely entranced. Joanne has also been bespelled, but that’s not important right now.

Walking over to the pair, Carlos takes the gun out of Mac’s unresisting hand, leading him outside. (He knows Mac will follow him back in, but at least that puts Carlos between him and the hostage. He doesn’t want to simply close the door behind him, as the spell will break as soon as the target can no longer see him. Untying Joanne, he draws her to her feet and turns her away from him.
      “You’re safe now,” he says, reassuringly. [10] She jumps a little, looking around wildly. It takes some fancy footwork for him to stay out of her line of sight while remaining in Mac’s.
      “Where is he?” There’s an edge of hysteria to the words, as if Carlos’ presence is the only thing keeping her from losing it completely.
      “Behind me, but don’t...” Too late: she turns around and is promptly entranced again. Sighing heavily, Carlos starts again, this time managing to stop her from turning round to look at him. “Do you know the way out of here?” he asks her.
      “But... But he’s still here!”
      “He’s been... neutralised.”
      “Is he dead?”
      “No, but he can’t hurt anyone at the moment.”
      “Tasered?”
      “Something like that.”

With some manoeuvring, he manages to get all three of them out of the door. It actually proves much easier just to trance Joanne once more, walking slowly forwards so that they both follow him out of the hut. He leads them into the clearing and through the arch of tree branches that seems to be what the door to the corridor looks like on this side. (Carlos seems to be taking this whole thing very calmly, but then, he’s had a lot of experience dealing with the strange lately.) Glancing back to check on his charges, he can see the exact moment when Mac’s entrancement breaks. As the survivalist steps into the corridor, he goes from a blank-eyed sleepwalker to a mass of agitation and nervous ticks. Joanne still seems blissfully unaware of anything but the light. Mac’s gaze – flicking restlessly over his surroundings – suddenly locks onto Carlos, naked hostility pouring out through his eyes. He tenses, about to leap, but he’s ten feet away and Carlos still has the gun. In one smooth motion, he aims and shoots, hitting Mac solidly in the upper arm. He was aiming to disable, not kill. [11] Mac falls to the ground, clutching his arm. His outline blurs and, for a moment, he looks like someone else; a stranger. There’s an impression of age, of matted hair and filthy, ragged clothing; a homeless person? And then he, the hostage and the tunnel are simply... gone. There’s no sign that they were ever there in the first place.

Something clicks into place in Annie’s mind: she knows where she is now. Well, she realises what it’s supposed to be, which isn’t the same thing at all. The book-lined corridors are laid out like the Annabel Harper memorial wing of the university library – the one her parents built for her. Just being there makes her feel safe and warm, loved and vital, almost alive again. [12] This place... doesn’t. It’s a poor copy at best – the state of the place shows that they’re not exactly trying for a faithful recreation – but it still makes her angry. How dare they taint one of her cherished memories like this? With an effort, she pushes the anger aside, forcing herself to calm down. For the moment, she needs to concentrate.

Closing her many sets of eyes – she’s still in swarm form – Annie sends out her supernatural senses, searching for the others’ auras. There’s... something, right at the very edges of her awareness. A faint impression of... it’s them! It’s the others! [13] She’s not alone after all. But being able to sense them is a far cry from being able to find them, let alone to communicate. Unlike with Teresa and Kate, there doesn’t seem to be any mental connection between them. Convenient though such a thing might be right now, that’s probably for the best. Buoyed by this finding, Annie sends her awareness out again, this time searching for an exit. She must have got in here somehow, and a way in can easily become a way out. Unfortunately, if there is a way out – and there must be, she tells herself – she can’t find it.

The sound of rustling paper has been a constant since she appeared in this place. It sounds like there are things crawling through the leaves, or maybe the books themselves are moving. Perhaps it’s their way of speaking. Now, though, there’s a new sound: a sharp cracking, like breaking ice. Looking around, she sees a dark patch on the floor behind her; a hole that wasn’t there before. As she watches, a stone falls, and then another, and another. With a slow, deliberate pace, the hole expands towards her. Below it lies nothing but darkness. She starts to back away, and the stones stop falling. When she stops, they start again. The message is fairly plain: she’s supposed to keep moving. She scurries forward a few steps, but a thought strikes her: what if that’s the way out? Peering into the abyss tells her nothing and she has no intention of making a leap of faith. Fortunately, there’s another option. Channelling a small amount of vitality into one of her bodies, she splits it off from the main swarm. This means it can act as her eyes, without being so tightly bound that the rest of her will be dragged along after it. That’s the theory, anyway. Not giving herself time to fret about it, she sends her scout over the edge. The rat falls. And falls. And falls. The link grows faint with distance, and still it falls. Through its eyes, she can see only endless darkness. Onwards it is, then.

As she moves down the corridor – the rat is still falling – she examines the books she passes. The titles are all familiar: texts she’s consulted, books and papers she’s written. There’s even something that looks like it could be her teenaged self’s diary. Something catches her eye – a glint of silver, dangling there among the books and papers. It looks like... a locket? Curiosity wars with caution, and curiosity wins. Keeping a wary set of eyes on the abyss behind her (and another on the path ahead), she scrambles up to retrieve the locket. With most of her bodies working in concert, it’s a simple enough task – rats have pretty good manual dexterity, after all. Interestingly, even though she isn’t moving forwards, the hole stays where it is. Apparently, simply interacting with this place is sufficient to keep it at bay. (Still falling.) Ignoring her misgivings, Annie examines the locket. It looks like one she’s seen Teresa wearing, albeit cracked and tarnished. Opening it reveals a portrait of herself, which she just stares at for a long while, remembering and thinking. She’s thinking about doing something stupid. [14]

With nothing else to do, James starts walking, splashing through the flooded tunnel until he reaches a cross-roads. He explores a little way down each route, revealing a negative forest, a Boston PD briefing room and a blood-spattered ER, respectively. He chooses the forest. As he makes his way through the trees, he comes across a familiar figure: his father. He remembers this place now. His father’s eyes heavily shadowed, which in this place means they are brilliantly, starkly illuminated in an otherwise darkened face. The overall effect is quite unsettling.
      “Come on, son,” he says. “It’s time for your hunting lesson.” James takes the rifle he holds out; looks through the scope when directed and lets his father support his arm. The deer is placidly grazing, clearly pinned in his sights. All he has to do is take the shot. “Make it clean, son. You don’t want it to suffer.” James starts to squeeze the trigger, but the deer’s shape blurs and flickers. For a moment, it seems almost manlike, but then he blinks and it’s back to being only a deer again. He holds his shot, studying the target carefully. “What’s wrong, son?” His father’s voice breaks into his thoughts. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
      “I’m not ready yet.” Something’s not right here.
      “I thought you wanted to join the police? If you can’t shoot a deer, how can you shoot a man?”
      “I’m going to have to think about it.”
      “Are you a pansy?” his father snaps. “You didn’t want to join the army, but I was happy with the police. Now you can’t even do that.” The tirade continues. As his father rants and raves, James lines up the shot again and gently squeezes the trigger. He goes for a grazing hit, though – a wounding shot, not a killing one. The deer screams, the sound oddly human. “Not bad, son. But we can’t let it suffer.” Before James can react, his father takes the gun from his hands and calmly dispatches the wounded deer. “That’s better.”


Part Two – Shadows of Yesterday

Having made a decision, Tom stands before the door marked with his old precinct number. The door burns up when he touches it, revealing a familiar office: not his, but that of his old boss, Captain Reynolds. The Captain looks just as he remembers the man, short and sturdy with an immaculate uniform and grey-sprinkled hair. He’s occupied with paperwork, and doesn’t seem to have noticed the combusting door. Tom hesitates, and then steps over the threshold. Reynolds looks up at his entrance.
      “Knox,” he acknowledges.
      “Captain.” Feelings of déjà vu wash over him: almost everything about this place is exactly how he remembers it: the overflowing in tray and waste-paper basket, the medals in the cabinet; the photographs of colleagues past and passed on. The air heavy with scent that somehow still doesn’t manage to cover up the smell of stale – and not-so-stale – cigar smoke. The negative light is new: darkness streaming in through the window to paint everything in shades of black. The only real illumination is the glow of his aura, which is silvered again. (It reverted to normal once he was back in the corridor after the football pitch.)
      “What can I do for you?”
      More to himself than to Reynolds, he murmurs: “I think I’m here to quit again.” He remembers the situation as well as the place. This is the day he quit the force to join Orpheus. What is he doing here? Why go through this again? He has his regrets, sure, but the past is the past. What’s the point in trying to second-guess himself and his decisions?
      Reynold blinks at him, his expression puzzled. “Again? What?”
      Tom mentally shakes himself. “I mean: I’m here to resign, Sir.” If whoever or whatever has brought him here is expecting him to break down when faced with one of his regrets, they’ve got another think coming. He can play this game.
      “I know your father, Knox.” Everyone on the force knows his father, or at least knows of him: the great Officer Knox (retired). “I didn’t think he raised a quitter.” Tom refuses to let himself be drawn along this particular path.
      “I just think it’s time, Sir. Especially after what happened.” Injured in the line of duty: another medal for the wall and the latest in a long line of near-death experiences. He got the call from Orpheus – actually a visit – while he was recuperating in hospital.
      “Are you sure?” Reynolds looks grave; regretful. His voice is almost gentle. “I know that looking into the face of death can be a shock, but... Are you sure you don’t just want to try seeing the counsellor for a little longer? Maybe a few more weeks will give you some perspective on things.”
      “I’m sure.” And he is. That is, he’s going to stick with his decision, even though this isn’t real and it doesn’t matter anyway. Maybe they’re just trying to shake his confidence. If so, it isn’t going to work. Still, why does he feel the need to justify himself? Why is he continuing to give his reasons to this person who isn’t Reynolds, and probably isn’t really a person at all. “I just think it’s for the best,” he finds himself concluding. “Between the injuries and everything else...” Reynolds sits back a little, frowning. Reaching across the desk, he draws a file towards him and starts paging rapidly through it. Tom can see his own name on the cover.
      “Are you sure it’s the injuries?”
      “Yes.” Reynolds raises his eyebrows, looking at Tom expectantly. The silence stretches until Tom fills it with: “Well, there are other reasons. I need some time to... I need some time for me.” Another pause. “Maybe I’ll come back” The lie tastes like ashes in his mouth. It was never true; not even then.
      “Let me level with you, Knox. We need men on the streets. It’s all turning to shit out there.” He gestures vaguely towards the window. “There are monsters walking around free as you please, and we need everyone we can get if we’re going to hold the line against the darkness. We need you, Tom.” This is new. It’s the only time Tom has ever heard Reynolds call him by his first name. “You can’t leave.”
      “I need to leave. Sir.”
      “You’re abandoning your duty, Officer. You’re abandoning the line. Is that what you want? Do you want to let the monsters win?”
      “I...”
      “Come with me.” Reynolds stands abruptly, striding over to the door. “Let me show you the kinds of monsters we’re dealing with here.”

Apparently the real events are only a guideline, rather than a fixed script. Wondering where this is leading, Tom follows Reynolds down to the cells. The Captain is right: there really are monsters. The cells hold spectres of various types – Lost Boys, Frighteners, a couple of Fetches; even a Reaper (the original one, no less). Reynolds, however, doesn’t seem to see the same thing as Tom.
      “Look here,” he says, gesturing towards the pack of Lost Boys. “Filthy thieves, the lot of them.” He glowers in their direction, then turns to point to a Frightener. “Arsonist.” The Reaper. “Murderer.” Fetch. “Cannibal.” The expression he turns on Tom is almost pleading. “How can you walk away, knowing that creatures like these are out in the world?”
      “I’m going to be continuing the fight in my own way.” Isn’t that what Orpheus was all about? Isn’t that what Chet told him all those many months – only months? Really? – ago? Isn’t that what Phoenix is doing now? If not them, then who? But Reynolds, unaware of all this inner turmoil, is already shaking his head in disgust. The steel is back in his voice and face, his spine as rigid and unbending as he is.
      “You’re quitting. You’re a quitter.”
      “I’m sorry you feel that way, Sir.”
      “Go, then.” Reynolds waves a hand towards the door, the gesture as dismissive as the words. “But know that once you step through that door, you can never come back.”
      “I understand.” Does he? Well, it seems to be one of the rules of this place: only forward, never back. With a shrug, he turns his back on Reynolds. The Captain isn’t quite finished yet, though. As Tom is reaching for the door handle, he has one last thing to say.
      “If you’re not careful out there, you’re going to become the monster.” Tom takes a deep breath.
      “I know.” He steps through the door.

Annie moves cautiously through the dilapidated library, taking care not to drop the locket. She’s not going to risk trying to use it to find or contact Teresa, but maybe it can still help, somehow. It quickly becomes apparent that, even though this place has a superficial resemblance to her library wing in the real world, it’s not an exact match. For one thing, there doesn’t appear to be an exit, just a crossroads leading to more of this wretched place. Her three options are marked ‘Children’s section’, ‘Arboretum’ and ‘Offices’. After the briefest of hesitations, she simply picks one at random. Straight ahead, then: to the Arboretum. The place looks like a park more than an arboretum. Rather, it’s a negative image of a park: pale trees under a dark sky, black light seeping out around the clouds. She studies it from the threshold for a few moments, but can’t see anything moving. With a mental shrug, she steps across the threshold.

A short distance in, she recognises the place as Central Park. There are sounds from somewhere up ahead: gunshots. A firefight. Curiosity proves stronger than her survival instinct, and she scrambles over there as fast as her many legs will carry her. The scene is a familiar one: two NextWorld operatives converging on a van. Ben is visible in the window, ducking as one of the operatives pins him down with suppressive fire. The other is moving into position to take Ben out. He’s just lining up the shot... Annie reacts without thinking, swarming forward to barrel into the would-be killer, knocking him to the ground. The gun goes off, spraying bullets into the swarm of rats, one of which explodes in a spray of gauze. [15] The gun has to go. She sinks a set of teeth into his hand, biting down hard until he screams and drops the weapon. (His flesh tastes like it’s been a while since it’s felt the touch of soap and water.) She could finish him off – bite through an artery and let him bleed out – but instead she does something else. Using flesh flux, she tries to heal him. If she’d stopped to think about it, she would have remembered that she can’t use flesh flux as a swarm. But, just as she remembers that, she realises that it’s working anyway. The wound knits before her eyes, leaving the skin whole and unbroken. The man just lies there, staring wide-eyed at his hand. He seems to be in shock. For her part, Annie can sense something odd; something she wouldn’t have expected in this place. It feels like she’s on the cusp of resolving a tether. She teeters on the edge of decision, then plunges forward, throwing just about everything she’s got into this. This kind of thing usually takes more than one spook working together, but somehow she manages to dredge reserves she didn’t even know she possessed, channelling all that energy into breaking the tether. [16] The effort leaves her drained and weak, but she feels the binding unravel. She’s done it! Energy floods into her gauze, returning everything she’s just used. [17] And then the world fades to white.

James finds himself standing at a crossroads, the route behind him blocked with rubble. This seems to be a different crossroads to the other one, for the briefing room and blood-spattered ER are nowhere to be seen. Instead, his choices are: his apartment (with blood seeping under the door), his old squad room (that seems to have been blown up) and a psychiatrist’s office (with odd grooves in the doorframe). He heads for the office. On closer inspection, the grooves prove to have been made by someone’s fingernails. There are two sets of four, one either side, at about shoulder height. The biggest clue, however, is the torn-off fragment of fingernail still stuck in one of the grooves. It looks as if someone was trying to cling on desperately as they were dragged through the door. Somehow, James has the feeling that they weren’t successful. With a shrug, he steps through the door.

Inside, there’s an abrupt shift of perspective. Without any sense of moving – or of being moved – he’s now lying horizontal. He’s on something smooth and padded. After a moment or so he realises that it’s a couch. It’s hard to see in here; darkness streaming from the bulb on the ceiling. He squints, using the scattered patches of light – what do you call a shadow made of light? – to help him make out shapes. There’s the usual array of office furniture, and someone’s sitting in one of the chairs. Presumably, that’s the psychiatrist this office belongs to.
      “So,” says the doctor, his voice soothing and deep. “What did you feel when you killed that man?”
      “Not much.” James shrugs. “It was through a scope.” He doesn’t know precisely which kill the psychiatrist is talking about (his superiors always made him go to counselling after a kill), but as he’s primarily a sniper, that doesn’t seem unlikely.
      “And when you saw his brains splattered all over the wall?”
      “He was going to shoot my team-mates.” Another safe bet. “It was a job well done. I was satisfied with the outcome.”
      “What about when you found out those weren’t functional weapons? That they were just inactive replicas?” Now he knows what this is supposed to be. There was a man holding up a convenience store. He took hostages and a SWAT team was called in to deal with the situation. James was positioned on a nearby roof, looking down a scope. He’d been given the green light and, as far as he knew, there was a clear and present danger to the officers on scene. When the opportunity arose, he took the shot; a clean kill. It was only afterwards that they discovered the would-be robber’s gun wasn’t even real.
      “I did the best I could with the knowledge I had.” What was he supposed to do? Assume the danger wasn’t real?
      “If you could go back and change it, would you?” The psychiatrist never asked him this before.
      “If I’d known about the gun, I would have done things differently. Of course I would. But if I just had the same information I had back then, I’d do exactly the same thing.”
      “So, you see yourself as just obeying orders?” Not quite what he said, but it’s not that much of a leap.
      “Yes, I suppose so.”
      “With violence.” It’s not quite a question, but he answers it anyway.
      “Yes.”
      “Are you saying that violence is justified if it’s carried out within the confines of the law, or in pursuit of justice?” This seems to be more of a philosophy discussion than a counselling session.
      “Yes, if there’s a good reason for it, and the order’s been given.”
      “What about outside the law, and outside of grey areas like self-defence and protection?”
      “It depends on the context. The law covers most situations I think I’d be in, though.” He remembers being a lot more wishy-washy about his answer in the real world; a lot less certain of his position. That was then, though, and this is now. Recent events don’t seem to have shaken his confidence at all. The psychiatrist closes his notebook with a snap.
      “If that’s how you feel, then I think we’re done here. Goodbye, Officer Darkwood. Goodbye and good luck.”

Carlos’ next choice takes him from the South American drug tunnels to a motel on the same continent. He remembers this place; remembers it well. The gap-toothed fan turns lazily overhead, barely even stirring the humid air. The atmosphere is heavy with tension as well as heat, and he can feel his expression twisting into a glower as his eyes settle on the man lounging on the bed. Agent Kevin Castel of the CIA stretches out as if this was the Ritz or the Hilton, rather than some broken-down flea-pit in the arse-end of nowhere. Leaning back on his hands, he meets Carlos’ glower with a smug little sneer. That’s the last straw. Crossing the room in a couple of angry strides, Carlos reaches out and shoves the other man hard in the shoulder. He draws in a breath to speak, but Kevin gets there first.
      “What did you expect?” Despite the studied air of relaxation, he sounds like he genuinely wants to know the answer to that question.
      “I was supposed to be negotiating to free hostages, not making deals with drug cartels.” Carlos’ voice is low and tight, and it takes a significant effort of will to keep his hands rigidly at his sides. Even in high temper, however, he knows – knew – that would be a very bad idea. Inter-agency brawling is never looked on kindly. It’s amazing how worked up he feels, considering this whole mess was over and done with long ago. The argument proceeds, just as it did then.
      “You were negotiating.”
      “Haggling over drug money! Selling them drugs we’d seized from their competitors! That’s not what I signed up for!”
      Kevin shrugs languidly. “You have to give to get.”
      “People like these are poisoning the streets! We need to shut them down, not help them out.” He feels very strongly about this.
      “Are you afraid to get your hands dirty?” There’s a jeering, contemptuous note to the words. “Does the little Fed think he can stay squeaky clean forever?”
      “I’ve had enough of you. I’ve had enough of this. I’m leaving.” He makes for the door, but Kevin’s voice calls him back.
      “If you do that, you’ll never work with one of the alphabet soup agencies again. It wasn’t just us requesting your services – your superiors gave you to us. You think they didn’t approve this?”
      “I’ll take my chances.” He reaches for the handle.
      “What if I told you the money was going to save American lives?”
      “Helping the cartels is saving American lives?”
      “Al Qaeda’s been making inroads into South America. Haven’t you heard if the War on Terror? The War on Drugs is old news. Helping out these people keeps the terrorists at bay; keeps them from using the drugs market to raise the money to continue their war on us. It is saving lives, if only indirectly. You can deal with that, or you can run crying back to Quantico like a mother’s boy.” He lets Carlos consider his words for a moment or two, and then adds: “It might not be what you signed up for, but you don’t always get a choice in how you serve your country.”

For a long moment, Carlos pauses on the threshold. There’s a choice here: he can let what happened happen, or he can do something else. It isn’t just anger that’s driven him this far – he’s also interested in seeing what happens if he sticks to the script. (After all, the last scene ended up sort of differently: he didn’t have unearthly repose when the actual events took place. Nor was he the one who actually shot the hostage-taker.) As he considers his options, the word suddenly shivers around him, briefly fading out to reveal the dusty hotel basement he was expecting to end up in when he went down those steps. And then he’s back in the South American motel, standing on the threshold of the seedy room, and a decision. Well, he figures, he’s gone along with it so far – might as well follow it to the end. As he did all that time ago, he flings the door open with a crash, walking away from all of this. Walking away from his disillusionment, and from the FBI. Back then, he simply got the first plane back to the US. He barely even stopped to gather his things. Now, he finds himself back in the original tunnel. Behind him is what looks like the wreckage of a plane. A crash? Maybe it’s a sign. In any case, it’s time to move on.

James steps out into the stone tunnel, closing the door again behind him. Light flashes behind the frosted glass panels, accompanied by gunshots. And then... silence. He doesn’t bother investigating, instead making his way back to the crossroads and from there to the ruined squad room. It isn’t ruined anymore. In fact, it’s been decorated with balloons, banners and streamers. This is his penultimate day of work as a SWAT agent, the week before he starts his new job with the Orpheus group. The celebration isn’t for him – he hasn’t even told his squadmates yet that he’s leaving – but for Guy, one of his colleagues. Guy is getting married tomorrow, and the whole team’s been invited. Speaking of the devil, the man himself comes over, slapping him good-naturedly on the back as he presses a drink into his hand.
      “James! Good to see you, my man. Come on and join the party!”

Guy is just as cheerful as James remembers him being. Well, until he blurted out the news that he was leaving. Things were a little awkward after that. Oh, Guy reassured James that he wasn’t offended that he’d put the damper on what was supposed to be a celebration; that he hadn’t really spoiled the party. One reassurance after another, and James didn’t believe a single one of them. He hadn’t meant to drop the bombshell like this – it was supposed to be over with before this point, but somehow he’d never quite gotten around to it. [18] Still, there’s no reason he has to suffer through that again. This time around, he resolves to just enjoy the party. He’s certainly not going to say anything at the wedding – his reason for just coming out with it at the party last time – so he supposes the first his colleagues are going to know about it is when he doesn’t show up for work on Monday. At least, that would be the case if any of this was real. James decides not to worry about it and just enjoy the party.

It’s actually kind of nice just to kick back and hang out with his former friends in SWAT, if a little bittersweet. He hasn’t really kept in touch with any of them since joining Orpheus. Looking around at all the familiar faces, he knows that some of them aren’t around anymore, not really, but at least they’re here now.
      “James, my man!” Another colleague weaves his way over, a little the worse for wear. Winking exaggeratedly at James, he takes out a flask and pours a clear liquid into his plastic cup. As he slides the flask back, he takes a big gulp and smacks his lips. “This is good punch. Want some?”
      “It’s okay, Pete, I’m good. How’s it going?”
      “Life is fine, Jimmy-boy. Hanging with my buds, glass in hand. It doesn’t get much better than this. How’s things with you? Have you recovered yet?” James shrugs, the motion pulling at the stitches over his bullet wound.
      “I’m doing okay. Doc says it’s not as serious as all those other times I’ve been shot.”
      “Well, remember what the Doc says.” Pete leans in as if to impart a secret. “Don’t take medication and shoot!” They both laugh. The world shimmers, briefly revealing a dark and dirty basement before reverting to the party scene. James looks around, frowning. “Did you see that?” he asks.
      “See what? Has the stripper arrived? If not, why not? I’m going to check with Sam – he was supposed to be sorting that out.” He totters off. It looks like James is the only one who noticed anything amiss. What’s going on?

Tom is at his brother’s funeral. Again. White-clad figures cluster in the cemetery. (They really wore black, of course, milling awkwardly around the graves like a flock of ravens. Or perhaps a murder of crows.) Cousins he barely even remembers keep coming up to his parents to offer their condolences. No one speaks to Tom, but then he is there incognito. Being on the FBI’s most-wanted list means he can’t exactly be here openly. His mother is crying, quiet sobs that shake her tiny frame. Even his father keeps swiping at his eyes, bemused grief etched onto his face. The body is being lowered into the ground now. Bill is standing at his side, looking utterly distressed. He keeps trying to reach out to people, calling out to them, but no one else notices him.

      “Maybe we should have warned him more about drugs,” Robert Knox says, without preamble. I’ve... I’ve failed as a father.” It’s the first time Tom’s ever seen his father hesitant or unsure. Normally, the ex-policeman is a font of absolute certainty. Now, he heaves a great sigh. “At least he’s at peace now, with God.” (Tom’s parents are staunch Catholics.) Bill looks from Tom to Robert and back again, mute pleading in his eyes. Tom pretends he doesn’t know what his brother wants of him, concentrating on trying to offer his father what comfort he can.
      “It’s not your fault, Dad.”
      “I know, but...” Robert trails off into a helpless shrug.
      “These things happen.”
      “He was taking drugs!” The words are low and angry. “I’m a cop – I should’ve known.” He half-turns away; scrubs at his eyes with an abrupt, jerky motion.
      “You couldn’t have known, Dad. I don’t think he’d been using long. It’s not like he was an addict.” It’s hard to look at his father; harder still to keep his gaze away from his brother’s distress. “And you’re not a cop any more. No one blames you.”
      “Even you couldn’t stick it out as a cop,” Robert mutters, the needle skipping to an old track. “If I’d raised you right... I must have done something wrong.”

      “Tell him.” Bill’s voice is barely more than a whisper, but it cuts Tom to the quick. Should he tell his parents that their dead son is still here? Would it comfort them, or would it just cruelly take away their one comfort – that Bill is in a better place? He gives a minute headshake, casting desperately about for something he can say to make things better. But the words won’t come. Maybe they don’t exist. A hand on Tom’s shoulder makes him jump. Luckily, he recognises his mother’s voice before something unfortunate happens.
      “You’re all we have left, Tom.” Mary’s voice is hoarse with grief, thick with unshed tears.
      “It’ll be okay.” He puts a hand over hers; an inadequate proxy for the words he can’t say.
      “But... But can’t you just go to the police? They’ll protect you, won’t they? I know you didn’t do all those terrible things.”       “It’ll all be sorted out, Mum. Just try not to worry.”

Later, as they’re walking away from the cemetery, Bill asks:
      “Couldn’t we just have told them? It might make them feel better.” He looks to Tom for reassurance, trusting that his big brother knows best. It’s a heavy responsibility. How can he reassure someone when he doesn’t know the right answers?
      “Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t.” He sighs softly. “Maybe it would make things worse.”
      “Maybe.” Bill sounds uncertain, just as he did when this happened. When Tom made this very same decision: to keep Bill’s continued presence a secret from his parents. He made his choice then – why would he choose differently in this... recreation? For a moment, the world shivers around him – he catches a glimpse of a dark, windowless room – and then he’s back at doorway, standing on the threshold. Clearly something just happened, but what? He has the feeling that there are no answers to be found here so, without so much as a backward glance, he steps through.

Police tape seals the way back, closing off that part of James’ life. Maybe it’s meant to be symbolic. Or maybe someone – something? – just has a warped sense of humour. In any case, he examines the other doorways into his past. His choices are: his apartment, a fairground and a darkened alleyway. The apartment, then; girlfriend – ex-girlfriend – crying on the couch. ‘Maybe I should’ve gone for the alleyway...’ But she’s seen him now, and somehow he can’t make himself turn away just yet. The wounds are still too raw.
      “I’m sorry,” she sobs, looking up at him through a curtain of hair. Her eyes are red and swollen, her nose wet with mucus: this isn’t Hollywood heartbreak.
      “Can’t we just give it another try?” The same words as last time, ground out as if through shards of glass.
      “I have tried. But I got the call again. They said you’d been shot and that you might not survive the night. I can’t go through that again, James, I can’t. I can’t survive that.”
      “I’m the one who has to survive.” Anger flares, hot and bright. The flames have been banked for a long time, but they’re still there, waiting. Waiting for something like this, perhaps.
      “I go through it too, and I just can’t. Not anymore. I’m sorry.” James turns away, not saying a word. He paces around the small apartment, restlessly picking up and putting down objects. At least it’s something to occupy his hands. A tense silence falls over the pair of them, abruptly broken by: “I don’t want to be another goddamned policeman’s widow!”
      “Chances of anything like the last one happening again are very low.” His voice is low and even; a contrast to Sandra’s emotional tone.
      “That’s what you said the last five times!” She makes herself stop and take a couple of deep breaths. “You keep putting yourself in situations where the only choice is to risk yourself. Your psychiatrist said so.”
      “What?” Now he does raise his voice, pausing in his endless, restless motion to turn and glare at her. “When did he tell you that? What about doctor-patient confidentiality?” He’s not sure if that happened last time, but he certainly remembers being this angry. The object in his hands – some small ornament; something she bought to clutter up the place no doubt – cracks abruptly under the pressure of his grip.
      “Why do you keep risking yourself like this?” Perhaps wisely, she ignores his question. “You’re not supposed to even go in most of the time. Why do you always seem to end up in the line of fire?” Her only answer is silence. “I love you, James, but I just can’t live with this.” James turns away, resuming his pacing.
      “This shit already happened,” he murmurs to himself. There’s no sense in getting involved. It won’t change anything; won’t dull the pain of betrayal long past. What’s the point? What’s the point of any of this? Why make him relive this? What do they want from him? Aloud, he says: “Go, then!”
      “Alright, I will!” She gets up and storms out, slamming the door behind her. Glowering in the direction of the rapidly departing footsteps, James sits down, fuming to himself. He yells wordlessly, a sound borne of anger and frustration. The sound echoes through the flat, leaving silent emptiness in its wake. James sighs deeply, shaking his head.
      “This is fucked up!”

Out of his current set of options, Carlos chooses the one that leads to his parents’ apartment. This is one of the rare occasions where they actually spent time together, rather than simply talking on the phone. (Since their retirement, Mr and Mrs Hayaté travelled a great deal, rarely spending much time in the same country as him, let alone the same city.) This particular visit wasn’t due for another few months or so, but they brought it forward because of Carlos’ line-of-duty wounding. He’d been shot during a bank heist negotiation gone wrong. The doctors said he’d heal just fine with rest (and he did), but his mother and father were worried about their son and came to check up on him during his convalescence.

In the real world, Carlos was called away on urgent business just as they were about to sit down to dinner. It was a hostage situation – the same one he relived earlier today, as a matter of fact – and it was about to go bad. Even though he was officially on sick leave, his bosses thought this required his particular talents. The hostage-taker was behaving erratically and had stopped responding to their man on the scene – if someone didn’t talk him down soon, they thought he was almost certainly going to kill his hostage. Carlos agreed with their assessment of the situation and his skills – acknowledging one’s own superiority isn’t arrogance when any fool can see it for themselves – and went to do what he could. It meant he hardly saw anything of his parents on this occasion, but then they could always have dinner together another time. Alas, they never got the chance. His father died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack, making this the last time they ever saw each other. That was what happened in the real world. But here, it doesn’t have to go that way. Making a decision, Carlos switches his pager to silent mode – they’d know if he simply turned it off – and proceeds to completely ignore the device. This is an opportunity, and he’s going to make the most of it.

Carlos spends a pleasant evening with his parents. He has a long chat with his father, finding out things that he’s sure he never knew before. For instance: his father has recently taken up waterskiing; something he never had the chance to discover. Are these true facts, or is it just an approximation of what might have been said? Could he be conversing with his father’s spirit, or is the entity behind this place simply drawing on sources of information beyond Carlos’ subconscious? Does it really matter? His mother has prepared dinner – a veritable feast. They linger over their food and conversation, and by the time they reach dessert, Carlos can almost forget that this isn’t real. That’s why it’s such a shock when his mother peels back the foil to reveal a severed human head.

It’s a woman’s head – the hostage’s, in fact – her mouth stretched in a rictus of terror and pain. Neither of his parents seem to notice it, simply expressing concern over their son’s off reaction to the dessert. For his part, Carlos is thinking; re-evaluating certain assumptions. Apparently the hostage scene played out anyway and, in this iteration, the hostage died. There are a couple of lessons in this. Life – and death – goes on with or without him and, sometimes, the outcome is decided by the actions of one individual. If he’d gone to intervene in the hostage situation, would he now be staring at his father’s corpse? It looks like the House wins either way and refusing to play the game is just another losing move. As if to confirm this train of thought, the head blurs briefly, shifting into a stranger’s face. Plump, soft cheeks become sunken and emaciated. Glossy hair turns stringy and lank, straggling out from under a stained woollen cap. She could be any one of New York’s homeless – the people the city forgot. A blink, and then the hostage’s glassy-eyed stare is back. Carlos could almost believe the other to have been a trick of the light, but he knows it wasn’t. It was real. She was real – but how real? Are people actually dying out there because of what happens in here?

The new table decoration rather sours the idea of trying to recapture the comfortable pre-dessert atmosphere. In any case, there’s nothing else to be done here. Nothing obvious, anyway. Time to move on. A new crossroads; a new set of options. He chooses a path. The scene: a confrontation with a former colleague; a turf war. The bureaucratic infighting has been going on for some time – nothing personal, just politics – and now it’s come to a head over a particular high-profile case.
      “This is my case,” Carlos says, making a conscious decision to follow the script this time. It’s hard to see how someone could end up dead in this particular scenario. “I’ve been working on it for two years now – I’m about to crack it wide open.
      “Like you have been for the past two years?” Agent Hicks fires back without missing a beat. “Let’s see what Marks has to say about it.” Hicks is senior to Carlos, and Marks is senior to both of them. Carlos knows Hicks has Marks’ ear, and almost certainly has enough sway to take the case away from him. Heaven knows he’s done it before. Not this time, though: this time Carlos has some leverage of his own.

It was by chance that he noticed Hicks while on a night out with friends. Seeing the normally uptight agent in a gay bar was a bit of a shock, but not as much as seeing him passionately kissing another man. The sight didn’t bother Carlos – he couldn’t care less about the man’s sexuality – but it did present an opportunity. Hicks was old-school FBI – he’d been with the Bureau long enough that he probably had to answer questions about his sexuality as part of the screening process. Given the atmosphere – and policies – of the time, it’s a fair bet that he lied. If so, he would not want that to come out. He certainly did a good job of keeping his private life just that – private. If there’s one thing Carlos has learned during his time with the Feds, it’s that secrets can easily become weapons, if handled correctly. And he’s very good at what he does.

      “This is a very public, very high profile case,” Carlos observes, as if simply thinking aloud. “Anyone who takes it over is going to come under intense scrutiny. Their life – both public and private – will be examined in detail.”
      Hicks frowns at him uncertainly. “I fail to see how that’s relevant.”
      “You’d be surprised at what can be relevant.” He drops a few hints, making it clear – without simply coming out and saying it directly – that he knows Hicks’ secret. The agent makes a valiant effort, but Carlos can see in his eyes that the fight is already over. Sure enough, Hicks backs down and leaves the case to him. Riding the feeling of triumph – it’s still sweet the second time around – Carlos stormwends out of there. He’s aiming for the real world, but instead finds himself back in the South American guerrilla tunnels he started in. Apparently, this isn’t over yet.

Carlos relives scene after scene from his past. Sometimes he follows the script and sometimes he changes things. Either way, he always ends up back where he started. If there is a way to get out of here, it isn’t obvious. That’s also the conclusion reached by Tom and James. Like Carlos, they keep moving through their respective mazes: none of them simply remains in place and waits to see what will happen. Within the scenarios, Tom always sticks to whatever he did the first time around – why second-guess himself? – as does James, mostly. It’s not clear what this place – or the entity behind it – actually wants from them. Just when they’re starting to think they may be trapped in this place forever, something changes.

All five of them – Ben, Carlos, James, Tom and Annie – are abruptly back in the hotel. At the same time, everyone except Annie is hit by a wave of weakness and lethargy. They feel drained, as if some vital part of themselves has been torn away. [19] That’s the first thing they notice. The second is that they’re in what looks like the basement. The place reeks of decaying flesh, and sprawled, lumpen things – dead bodies? – are strewn haphazardly over the floor. Tom’s witchfire is the only source of illumination, the dancing light sending stark shadows skittering over the room. It’s hard to see down here, which is probably why they don’t notice the third thing until now: they’re not alone down here. A figure stands in the middle of the room; a black cut-out of a man, like a shadow given substance. It seems to be recoiling from Annie, the wispy remains of a black tendril pulling back from her to merge with the figure’s main body. Now that they know to look for them, the others have similar, intact tendrils connecting their gauze to the shadow man. [20] That... can’t be good. And now the shadow man is starting to move... [21]


Part Three – Forensic Investigations

Quick as a blink, the shadow man reaches for Carlos, one of its arms stretching impossibly while its body stays where it is. The appendage seems oddly flat, as if being cast over an invisible surface in the air. Carlos blips out of the way [22] leaving the field clear for Tom, who’s already ramping up juggernaut in anticipation. Bolts of lighting arc straight toward the shadow’s core but it reaches inside itself, pulling out something – no, two somethings – that it hurls in their way. The bolts strike the makeshift barrier, blasting their way through but expending valuable energy in the process. The shadow takes less of a jolt than Tom was hoping. That’s not the worst thing, though. The obstacles drop to the floor; their job done. Only now does Tom realise that they were people; raggedy-looking people like the ones they passed on the streets outside the Grand. They hit the ground in an awkward tangle of limbs, laying limp and still where they fall. Smoke curls from the holes where vital parts of their bodies have been atomised by the blasts. Whoever they were, they’re clearly dead now. They never even had a chance to scream.

Before the bodies hit the ground, James is already calling out to Ben for a boost. [23] Channelling vitality into juggernaut, he moves with hyper-speed, sighting with his congealed rifle as he uses his supernatural senses searches for a power source or something similar. [24] There’s nothing obvious, so – with some misgivings – he fires twice at the shadow. Two more people – a frightened woman and a stoned-looking teenage boy – are pulled from the darkness to take the bullets. They hit the ground and sprawl limply. ‘They’re just illusions. They have to be.’ Any other option is just unthinkable.
      “Fuck that!” Ben is shaking his head, backing away from the spectre. “I ain’t gonna kill people!” They could be illusions, but he doesn’t want to take that chance. Not knowing what to do now – any attack could end up hitting a human shield – he looks around the room, seeking inspiration or orders. Neither is forthcoming.

No one seems certain what action to take. Annie remains motionless, her attention focused on studying the spectre in detail. Maybe she can discover something that will let them hurt it without risking innocents. Tom backs off, waiting to see what happens and ready to back up anyone of the others that show signs of doing anything. Ben goes further than that, heading up the stairs.
      “We need to get the fuck out of here,” he says. “Can’t take this fucker on like this.” Suiting the action to the words, he steps backwards. That step should have taken him through the door, but he just bounces off it as if it was made of black glass. They know it isn’t anything of the sort – they passed through it easily enough on the way in, after all – so something’s changed. Ben, a practical man, doesn’t stop to consider the matter. He simply channels vitality into anathema and blasts the recalcitrant door open. Once the way is clear, though, he hesitates at the threshold, waiting to see what (if anything) the others are going to do. At the moment, he’s agitated and jumpy, acting out of character. He’s no martyr, but calling a retreat is never first on his list of options. (That honour usually goes to: “knock the motherfucking shit out of them.”) The spectre’s little reality show must really have gotten to him. (The other alternative is that it’s not actually him in there, but they can’t really worry about that right now.)

Speaking of acting strangely, even James hesitates briefly, scanning the basement again with his supernatural senses. [25] There’s an aura of dark power clinging to the place, but that comes as no surprise. It also doesn’t help. There’s really only one thing he can do to that’s unlikely to lead to more deaths. (Even if they are almost certainly illusions. Maybe. Why take the chance?)
      “Reflect me,” he orders Carlos; using the Wisp’s boost to overcharge his own anathema. [26] Silver waves of force ripple out from him, pinning the shadow man to the ground.

While this is going on, Annie channels vitality into trying to sense the entity’s tethers. [27] Ordinarily this shouldn’t be possible for with a spectre, but what she did earlier certainly felt a little like resolving a tether. It also seemed to hurt the thing. Opening out her senses, she gets a brief impression of twenty or so tendrils radiating out from the heart of the shadow, extending beyond the boundaries of the building. Based on her knowledge of spectres, [28] she thinks these are feeding tendrils. From their strength, they probably don’t extend beyond a block or so. There are five snapped remnants; the ones it used (or tried to use) to feed on the Phoenix spooks? Interestingly, the scattered bodies are still connected to their killer, but their threads seem different, somehow. Perhaps... ‘Focus, Annie!’ she berates herself. The feeding tendrils – that’s information they can use. Everything else can wait until the spectre has been neutralised. The subswarm she split off earlier is still there, just across the room (apparently, it never actually fell anywhere), so she merges it back into the main swarm and shifts back to human form, intending to tell the others about the tendrils (maybe they can sever them, somehow), but she doesn’t get the chance.

The attack doesn’t come from the spectre, but from the bodies on the floor. Without warning, their shadows pool and elongate, lashing out towards them. Ben, at the top of the steps, is out of range of the attack. Carlos and James dodge out of the way and Tom vaporises the one snapping towards him. Annie is hit; a small portion of her vitality ripped from her gauze, presumably to feed the shadow’s hunger. [29] James retaliates immediately, feinting a couple of attacks to see if the spectre can still pull out human shields. [30] There’s no reaction to his first feint (not convincing enough, perhaps), but when he launches the second there’s a snapping sound from the shadow’s direction and a dirty hand starts to emerge from its body. The hand is swiftly withdrawn when James doesn’t follow through, but it’s enough to answer the question: targeting the spectre directly would be a bad idea. The spectre has no such qualms about targeting James, though, sending the corpse-shadows lashing at him once, twice, three times. Each one hits, draining him of vitality he can ill afford to lose. Before they can strike again, Tom blasts two of them to nothingness. He’s half expecting to blow holes in two more unfortunates, but the shadow doesn’t pull anything else out of its body. Maybe it only bothers to shield against attacks to its core. That’s something, but it’s not going to help them take it down.
      “Carlos: get everyone out of here.” Ben has clearly decided enough is enough. “I’ll boost.” With that, the basement disappears.

Shock of cold; howling winds edged with ice. Hearing, breath, even thoughts – the storm takes it all away. Seconds that last a lifetime. And then they’re out the other side. [31] Carlos deposits everyone outside the hotel. No one’s missing, and everyone seems to be intact; that’s definitely a good start. Annie quickly relays what she found out, and the group discusses what to do next. One thing they’re not doing is going back in there right now. When they do set out to take care of their squatter problem, they’re going to make sure they’re suitably prepared. Their immediate plan is to return to their bodies and the motel. Between the fight and being drained by the spectre, most of them are in pretty bad shape at the moment. Tom is the worst off, and really can’t afford to stay out of body too much longer.

Once safely clothed in flesh again, they start putting together a plan. The first thing they need is information: what and who is the spectre? Kate has never heard of anything that matches it exactly, but they have come across spooks with similar abilities. If they’re going to go in there again, they need to be able to stop it from trapping and feeding on them. Annie points out that they’re also going to have to take away its other sources of energy – the people at the other end of the tendrils she saw.
      “Perhaps moving them out of the area might break the connections,” she muses thoughtfully.
      “We have to find them first,” James points out.
      “I have an idea how we might do that.” A short while later, Annie is helping out at St Peter’s, a soup kitchen near the Grand. [33] A couple of hours of chatting with the clients confirms that the place has a bad reputation among the area’s homeless. The Grand is commonly thought to be haunted. Malaise and an overwhelming lethargy are common complaints in the surrounding area, and not just among those living on the street. As a matter of fact, many of them seem to know at least one person who ended up homeless because they simply lost the will to do anything; including going to work and pay the bills. It seems likely that these people are the ones the spectre is feeding on. With a little more time, she might be able to persuade the people in the soup kitchen to tell her where to find some of them.

All in all, it looks like this is going to be a much longer-term job than they initially thought. Rushing in there unprepared almost got them all killed, or worse. Being on the run and pressed for time has led them into bad habits. Back at Orpheus, non-projecting investigators would have been all over this before any of the spooks even got within sniffing distance of the hotel, finding out all the relevant information. Tom and James did do some preliminary investigation, but it clearly wasn’t enough. The five spooks are lucky they got off as lightly as they did. With that in mind, the group as a whole decide to take a few days to recover from the ordeal and to do some more in-depth research. Sometime towards the end of the week, they’ll review where they are. If they think they’re ready, they’ll go back for round two. [34]

James does some more detailed research into the hotel and its history. (He and Tom have previously performed some investigations in this area, but they need more information.) The Grand was built in the nineteen-twenties. At first it did a roaring trade, but that started going downhill sometime towards the end of the thirties. Around this time there was a lawsuit against the owner/manager over the negligent death of one of his employees. (At this time, it would have been exceedingly unusual for an employer to be sued. The unions weren’t yet a force to be reckoned with, and there was such a dearth of jobs that employers were in a fairly powerful position. Accidents happened, and nothing was ever really done about it.) The employee’s cause of death doesn’t seem to be mentioned. The place really started to go downhill when the owner/manager died (of natural causes) in 1936 or ’37. It was passed from one manager to another, continually failing. The general pattern seems to be that someone takes it on, thinking they can make it work, but ends up selling it a short time later after losing considerable amounts of money on the project. This seems to be all the relevant publically available information about the Grand. (Tom also does some digging, but doesn’t turn up anything much.) [35] There’s likely to be more information in the City records (details of the lawsuit and the employee’s cause of death, for example), so James asks Carlos to see what he can find out from City Hall. (That’s going to have to wait until tomorrow, however.)

“... Free Death, welcoming all new listeners. Something happened in the heart of the ... –packing district ... four more died ... first ... be the last ... silver watch ... missing ... key ... signing out.”

Sunday night’s Radio Free Death broadcast seems to be referring to the day’s incident at the Grand. The hotel is in the meat-packing district, after all. The four who died – could they be the homeless people caught in the cross-fire? (Assuming, of course, that it was really their gauze that the spectre used as shields, and not just illusions of some kind.) Maybe this missing silver watch could be used against the spectre somehow; perhaps as the key to breaking a tether. It seems like another task for Carlos and the City Hall records. The deaths are something they can quickly check, however. First thing Monday morning, Tom talks to his police contacts. Sure enough, another four of the area’s homeless people died last night. There was no obvious cause of death for any of them. That certainly answers the big question, but raises a host of others. The group spends about five days or so [36] trying to answer these as well as making time for some much-needed training). Carlos does what he does best, turning on the charm and talking to people. Tom and James conduct investigations and carry out research. Annie spends some time helping out at St Peter’s soup kitchen, making contacts among the area’s homeless and gathering what information she can on the peculiarities of the area.

On Friday, the group embark on an in-body scouting expedition of the area around the Grand, aiming to find the people connected to the shadow. Tom makes the approach, under cover of spreading the word about the St Peter’s soup kitchen. The first few people he speaks to react with a thinly (or not at all) hostility towards “social workers”, but seem a little too energetic to be likely candidates. The catatonic man on the corner, however, has a good chance of being one of the people they’re seeking. He is lying in his own filth, staring blankly up at the sky without so much as acknowledging their presence. Speaking to him elicits no response, nor does shaking him gently. They estimate he’s probably been lying there for about a day or so. Annie studies him with her supernatural senses, confirming that there is something odd about him on a metaphysical level. It isn’t conclusive proof, but together with his general state it is certainly suggestive. Tom makes some phone calls, calling in favours from his police contacts to have a van come and transport the man to Central Park and deposit him on a park bench. The officers even clean him up somewhat, although that’s possibly just for the sake of their noses.

The homeless man doesn’t even react to being hosed down, hauled across the city and unceremoniously dumped on a bench. Annie decides to take a closer look at him. Stretching out as if having a nap in the sun, she steps out of her body and channels vitality into searching for a lifeline. Under normal circumstances this shouldn’t work, but then these aren’t exactly normal circumstances. Focusing her senses, she can see the snapped remains of a tendril; one she’s reasonably certain used to lead straight back to the shadow. [37] It’s possible that simply taking him far enough away from the spectre was enough to snap it. Either way, at least they now know these connections can be broken. As an experiment, Annie tries to infuse some of her vitality into the man. The energy certainly leaves her, but it doesn’t seem to go into him. Even if it does, there’s no obvious effect. She watches for a few minutes more, and then re-enters her body. In the meanwhile, Tom has acquired some hot dogs. He waves one of these under the man’s nose, managing finally to provoke a response. Dazedly, their new charge takes the hot dog and slowly starts to eat it. He still doesn’t speak – or even really look at them – but at least it’s something. A few phone calls later, and they’ve identified a homeless shelter that’s willing to take him. It’s nowhere near the Grand – and important consideration – but it doesn’t open its doors until six o’ clock. It looks like someone’s stuck on babysitting duty for a few hours...

Later that evening, when the homeless man is safely within the care of the shelter’s staff, Annie seeks out a vision of the future. She wants to know the likely outcome if they break all the connections and then take on the spectre. Unsurprisingly, she receives a vision of a fight. However, in the few seconds she glimpses, there’s no sign of the shadow pulling out any more homeless people as shields. That’s something, at least. Now all they have to do is come up with a plan of attack...


Part Four – Further Preparations

Over the course of the five days, Carlos pays a number of visits to City Hall, digging out all the relevant records relating to the Grand, the lawsuit, the original owner/manager and the dead employee. These aren’t particularly accessible, but Carlos has had a great deal of experience in digging out hard-to-find documents. [38] He also charms one of the clerks into lending a hand, which speeds things up somewhat. [39] When he’s finished, he has quite the treasure trove of information.

The dead employee was one Neil Brokawsky, and the cause of death was listed as “Nervous exhaustion caused by overwork”. The owner/manager’s name was Richard Philipson. According to the lawsuit, he widely known to be a penny-pincher, deliberately employing the smallest number of people he thought he could get away with. Those people he did (begrudgingly) pay, he kept pushing to work harder and harder and harder. This being the Great Depression, and very much an employer’s market, the employees had to put up with it. All of those examined were described as having health problems consistent with a prolonged period of stress and exhaustion. Brokawsky was simply the first one to collapse. A lawyer named Darren O’ Leary brought the lawsuit on behalf of Brokawsky’s widow, who had been left penniless by her husband’s death. Given his relative youth and inexperience, O’ Leary was likely looking to make a name for himself. It would seem that he succeeded: winning a suit against a prominent hotel owner in the socio-economic climate of the time was a significant achievement.

James is also doing some research, albeit with a rather different focus. As he seems to have discovered all he can about the Grand, he turns his attention to the Chinatown warehouse where he and Ben saw the Triad projector. His preliminary poking around identifies the building as being owned by a company called World Shipping. As the name would suggest, they are in the business of moving goods into and out of the country. Further digging turns up a few discrepancies here and there, not enough for conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, but enough to make him suspicious. It seems likely that World Shipping is nothing but a shell company; a front for something else. Over the next few days, he manages to identify the lawyers who drew up all the paperwork, following the trail to a Hong Kong-based firm. They date back to when Hong Kong was still part of the British Empire. World Shipping is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a Hong Kong-based company. They have shipments coming and going all the time, but tracking down the specifics is a little beyond his expertise. Fortunately, he knows a man who can. He contacts John Reeve, negotiating to trade some vitality for his assistance in following the money trail. John says he’ll see what he can do.

Back to Carlos, who continues to follow the threads of his investigation beyond the lawsuit. Philipson’s fortunes never really recovered after the payout. After the initial boom period, revenue from the hotel continued to decline, until it was actually costing him money to keep it open. Upon his death in nineteen fifty-three – apparently due to simple old age – his remaining assets were sold by the city council in order to pay off his debts. Carlos finds a copy of the auction list among the records, one item in particular catching his eye: a silver pocket watch, sold for twenty dollars to a C. C. McKennedy. Could this be the one mentioned in the Radio Free Death broadcast? (A quick phone call sets Tom on the task of tracking down Mr or Ms Mckennedy, or their descendants.) Philipson never married and died childless. The meagre sum of money left over after his debts were cleared was just enough to see him buried in one of the city’s many cemeteries. And that’s where his story – or, at least, the paper trail – ends. Brokawsky’s, however, continues.

Unlike Philipson, Brokawsky was buried in a pauper’s lot. (The funeral was long over when the settlement money finally reached his widow.) He had several children, most of whom scattered to the four winds. One stayed behind, however. He’s dead now, but his son still lives in New York. Perhaps the man will have some more information about his grandfather and the hotel... As far as Carlos can tell, there’s nothing further he can do at City Hall, so he arranges to call on Brokawsky’s grandson. On his there, swings by to take a quick look at Philipson’s and Brokawsky’s graves. He’s been working with Tom on developing his supernatural senses, so he figures he might as well put them to use. A scan of the area turns up nothing out of the ordinary, however. (He wasn’t really expecting much – contrary to many a Hollywood horror movie, ghosts don’t generally tend to hang around in cemeteries. Well, not unlike the person was actually killed their. They’re more likely to gravitate towards somewhere that meant something to them in life.)

According to Tom’s research, [40] C. C. McKennedy died some years previously. In life, he was a collector of interesting objects. He didn’t really deal in really expensive or high profile pieces (Elvis’ hair clippings, for example), just those with stories behind them. His daughter – Charlotte McKennedy – is still alive and currently living in New York. That’s awfully convenient. Tom gives her a call.
      “Hello?” The voice is middle-aged; the greeting abrupt, but not hostile or rude.
      “Ms McKennedy?”
      “Yes?” Both confirmation and question.
      “I’m Tom Knox. You don’t know me, but I’m investigating the history of the meat-packing district and The Grand hotel. As part of my research, I’m trying to track down an item I believe was a part of your father’s collection. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
      A brief pause. “Yes, I suppose so. What can you tell me about the item in question?”
      He recites the information Carlos gave him, ending with: “I would be interested in seeing the watch; maybe even acquiring it if possible. Do you have it or know where it is?”
      “Just a moment – I’ll check.” In the background, he can hear the sound of a computer booting up, followed by the click of mouse and tap keyboard.
      “Yes, I do have that piece.”
      “Would it be possible for me to have a look at it?”
      “Perhaps. I would have to meet with you first.”
      “How about tomorrow?”
      “Fine.” A time is proposed and agreed upon; Ms McKennedy selecting her flat as the venue. “We can discuss what exactly you intend to do with the piece. I will need to know details before I can release it to you.” It sounds like she takes her father’s collection seriously – maybe she’s continuing the family business. Perhaps that’s something Tom can ask about when he goes see her tomorrow. They say their goodbyes and hang up.

Yannic and Kasia Brokawsky appear to be an ordinary, unassuming middle-aged couple. They seem rather in awe of Carlos, both surprised and pleased that someone has deliberately sought them out to hear what they have to say. (Carlos’ cover story is that he’s researching The Grand’s history. The best covers are the ones based in truth, even if he has no intention of writing the book they assume he’s doing this for.) They’re only too pleased to answer his questions. The original Brokawsky was a Polish immigrant who came to America with nothing. Shortly after getting into the country, he changed his first name to Neil, both to sound more American, and because no one could pronounce his real name. He got a job at the hotel, quickly working his way up from bellboy to general handyman and boiler man. Given Philipson’s general miserliness, he spent a lot of his time fixing problems caused by substandard materials, and generally maintaining parts well past the time they were supposed to have been replaced.

Philipson used a combination of threats and bullying to keep his staff working hard – harder than they really should. He said that if any of them left, he would ensure that they never worked again. In the middle of the Great Depression, that possibility was not one to be taken lightly. He was always exhorting them not to waste time. If he thought they were being inefficient or lazy, he would take out his silver pocket watch and tap it impatiently, saying: “You’re costing me time, and time is money. I’m going to take this time out of your wages!” And he did. Clearly, that watch must have some potent associations for both employer and employees. According to his grandson, Neil Brokawsky had a heart condition – something not mentioned in any of the City Hall records – and he took to drinking heavily, possibly as a way of coping with the stress of his job. All in all, it’s not a surprise that he keeled over.

Once Carlos has gleaned all the information he can about the circumstances of Brokawsky’s life and death, he subtly steers the conversation in the direction of the supernatural. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Neil Brokawsky brought all kinds of folk tales and superstitions over from the old country, all interesting in their own right. Yannic’s father used to leave out milk for their version of ‘the Good Folk’, although probably more out of habit than any real belief. From Yannic’s generation onwards, however, the old traditions and beliefs have largely fallen by the wayside. Reminiscing, he recounts to Carlos that, in spite of everything, his father always liked visiting The Grand. He always used to say that he could sense his father’s presence there, as if he was really standing beside him. (Is this confirmation that they’re dealing with the departed soul of Neil Brokawsky, rather than Richard Philipson? It’s certainly a possibility, although the presence of one doesn’t discount the other also being there.)

The next day, Tom and Annie call on Charlotte McKennedy. Ms McKennedy lives in a rent-controlled apartment in a reasonable part of town – quite a nice place. From the looks of it, she seems to be doing okay for herself.
      “Who is it?” The question comes through the still-closed door, shortly after they knock.
      “It’s Tom Knox, Ms McKennedy. We spoke on the phone.”
      “Just a moment.” There are enough locks to speak of caution, but not so many as to be an obvious indicator of paranoia. When the door is open, Ms McKennedy nods briskly at Tom, and looks enquiringly towards Annie.
      “And this must be your colleague...?”
      “Yes. This is Dr Annabel Harper.”
      “Please, come in.” She steps back, letting the two of them past into the narrow hallway. Closing the door again, she glances from one of them to the other, a faint expression of puzzlement on her face. “Have I seen you before? It’s just that you look awfully familiar...”
      “Oh, we get that a lot,” Tom says vaguely, deliberately not answering her question. They may no longer be wanted fugitives, but why complicate matters by telling her she probably saw them on ‘America’s Most Wanted’?

After the rites of hospitality have been observed (namely, they’ve been seated and offered refreshments), Ms McKennedy gets down to business.
      “So, Mr Knox, Ms Harper: what is your interest in the watch?”
      “I think it may be connected to an investigation I’m working on.”
      A raised eyebrow. “What relevance could a watch from the nineteen twenties possibly have to a current investigation?” She clearly wants more details, but Tom is sticking to his policy of giving away as little as possible.
      “I’ll know when I have a good look at it.” Ms McKennedy has been looking at the two of them oddly throughout the whole (admittedly brief) conversation. They almost expect her to raise objections, or to press for more information, but instead all she says is: “Wait here. I’ll bring the item out so you can examine it.” Getting up, she goes to a door at the other end of the living room. As she moves, Tom realises that she doesn’t actually need the walking stick in her hand. In fact, not only is she not leaning on it, she’s holding it ready, as if she might need to use it as a weapon. [41] Is she expecting them to try to rob her? With an inward shrug, Tom takes care not to make any sudden or threatening movements.

The door is made of metal; obviously a later addition to the apartment. As he focuses his attention on it, Tom becomes aware of an odd humming from the room beyond. The sound stops when she turns the key; the abrupt silence the only reason that he registers that it was there at all. Annie notices nothing. Ms McKennedy pulls the door to behind her as she enters the room, but not before the Phoenix spooks catch a glimpse of stacks of lockers or drawers in the dim recess beyond. It resembles nothing so much as a bank vault. After a few moments, she comes out bearing a small jewellery box. Locking the door again, she opens the box, holding it out so they can see the silver watch nestling within.
      “May I hold it?” asks Annie.
      “I’m afraid not.” Ms Mckennedy’s voice is firm – she will not be swayed on the subject. However, she does – at Annie’s request – lift and turn the watch herself so they can examine it from all angles. That will have to do. Annie and Tom both examine the watch, but although they strain their supernatural senses as hard as they can, neither of them can sense anything out of the ordinary. As far as they can tell, it’s a perfectly normal – albeit exquisitely crafted – pocket watch. [42] The inscription on the back reads: “Time is the greatest resource.” The two spooks share a glance, a question asked and answered without speaking a word. (“Anything?” “No. You?” “Nothing.”)
      “Thank you,” Tom says to Ms McKennedy, who slips the watch back into the box and closes the lid. “Are the items you keep for sale?”
      “Some of them are,” she replies. “We also have a security service.”
      “You store things for other people?”
      A nod. “Yes. There are people who want their objects kept safe. We offer them a... specialised service.” She looks meaningfully from one to the other. “As I’m sure you realise.” Well, clearly this isn’t just an ordinary storage facility. Somehow, that doesn’t come as a great surprise.

It’s time to get into the details. Ms McKennedy won’t sell them the watch, but she will lease it to them for $500 a week. She will require a deposit of $3000, which they will forfeit if the watch is lost, or if it is damaged in any way. The hire fee and the deposit must be paid in cash, and the amounts are not open to negotiation or haggling. (Ms McKennedy somehow manages to give the impression that they could sooner talk a mountain into moving than her into giving ground on anything. She has a certain... presence about her.) After a few more questions, Tom and Annie take their leave, saying they need to think about it. (It certainly is a lot of money. They can afford it, just about, but it will make a not-insignificant dent in their capital.)

When they return to the others, Tom has James look into the McKennedy family business. As they expect, it’s a small business that seems to provide a very specialised service. Until recently, the bulk of its income came from things like finding antiques and family heirlooms, or locating the access details for ‘dead’ bank accounts, etc. Around the year 2000, however, the money flow largely dried up. It rather looks like the McKennedys’ investigative and information gathering methods involved ghosts. That would certainly explain some things. Post-2000, item storage seems to be Ms McKennedy’s main trade, but it hasn’t been bringing in much money. It seems that she’s been largely living off her savings.

Carlos pays a visit to Alice. It transpires that she and her people are aware of The Grand, and the strange goings-on in that area.
      “There have been incursions from above,” she tells him, frowning. “My people dealt with them. Harshly.”
      “What kind of incursions?” Carlos wonders.
      “An ephemeral kind. Not armies, but... a force; a presence. It isn’t anything I’ve felt before. But there are ghosts who can project emotion and, with effort they managed to push it back.”
      “When was this?”
      “The last time it tried to assert dominance here was a few days ago. It took more effort this time, but we drove it back.” Carlos fills Alice in on what they know about The Grand, and the fact that they’re planning on setting up shop there once they’ve dealt with the current inhabitant. “Good,” she replies. “Tell me when you plan on assaulting it – we will assist if we can.”
      “It might try to flee down here, into your domain.”
      She smiles, thinly. “We will be ready. We can try to weaken it from beneath as you assault it from above. I am confident that this threat can be eradicated.”

Saturday is the big day. First, Annie checks up on the homeless man they got out of the area. He seems to be doing much better now, suggesting that getting him out of range has prevented the spectre from draining him. The next step, then, is to identify and remove all the other people that it’s currently feeding on. Annie talks to the homeless people at the shelter to try to narrow down the search a little, identifying some likely candidates. Most of the others take to the streets to search, Carlos doing most of the talking. After a few hours, they have managed to find twelve catatonic individuals and had them taken to various homeless shelters and hospitals some distance from the area. Twelve isn’t enough to account for all the tendrils Annie saw, so the rest of them must be in the apartments. Splitting up into two groups, they conduct a systematic search, projecting to enter the apartments. Once they’ve pinpointed their targets – eight of them altogether – they go in in the flesh and physically carry them out. As with the homeless people, they drop them off at various shelters and hospitals. Now, the day is shading into evening: it’s time for Phase Two. [43]


Part Five – 1408

It’s Saturday evening, and the Phoenix team is awaiting the signal to go and evict their unwelcome tenant from the basement of The Grand. Earlier in the day – while most of the available spooks were tracking down and removing the people linked to the spectre – Adrian and Hoyt were about their own mission. After arranging the release of sufficient funds from the Phoenix Group’s business account, they lease Philipson’s old watch from Ms McKennedy. (They’re not exactly sure what they’re going to do with it, but they figure they might as well have it on hand. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it, after all.) Annie and Carlos have called upon Mona and Alice, respectively, and their allies are in place. Alice and her people are standing by down-below, as previously agreed. Mona and Lo-Jack – her for wail, him as bodyguard and escape route – are going in with the Evictors.

Ben and Chet are clearing the shadow-linked people from the apartments. Their method is simple: Chet puppets each one to the waiting van, and then uses pep to put them to sleep for a while. When they have a full van-load, Ben drives the passengers far enough away to break the connection and distributes them between various shelters and hospitals. When they’re done, Ben calls Hoyt:
      “All clear, man. Wish ’em luck.”

The car is parked up a little way from the hotel. Hoyt is in the driver’s seat (naturally) and Rory is along to help watch over the skimmers’ empty bodies. When the call comes, that’s the signal for the exercise to begin. First, Mona and Annie (with appropriate boosting) start to wail. They focus their attention on the group, aiming to prevent the shadowman doing whatever it did to them last time by filling all the spooks with a sense of implacable resolve. Second, Carlos (with James’ assistance) teleports everyone except Tom down to the basement. Tom materialises and takes the watch, running through the hotel. The fight will likely have started by the time he gets there, but if he’s fast enough – juggernaut helps – he should still get there in time to make a difference. Hoyt closes the front door behind him, returning to the idling car.
      “Good luck,” he mutters, driving away. It’s all down to them now.

The basement is dark, the shadow only visible by its glowing red eyes. They gleam dully this time, not brightly, and there are no visible bodies scattered around. Maybe their earlier activities have succeeded in weakening it, as they’d hoped. Whatever its state, its attention is fixed on Annie and Mona, who are wailing away.
      “How dare you desecrate my domain,” it snarls. Glancing from one to the other, it seems to settle on Mona. Reaching a hand into the ground, it says: “Strike her, you fool, strike her!” A wooden pillar explodes, sending a cloud of shards flying straight for the Banshee. James dives towards her, knocking her out of the way but catching a few splinters for his trouble. They tear into his gauze – something that shouldn’t be possible but yet, given the circumstances, doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Mona’s wailing cuts off briefly as she hits the ground, but she starts up again on the next breath, even before getting to her feet. They can’t afford to give the spectre an opening.

Ignoring the stinging splinters, James looks up to see Tom framed in the doorway. At the same time, Tom spots him:
      “Boost me!” James obliges, and Tom channels even more vitality into juggernaut. Running down the steps, he holds up the watch and taps it, trying to get the spectre’s attention. [44]
      “Where did you get that?” splutters the shadow. “That’s mine!” It looks like Tom succeeded. The spectre – presumably once the late Mr Phillipson, former owner/manager of The Grand – reaches for the watch, but is repelled by the sirens’ wail. Carlos steps forward and clears his throat, [45] using unearthly repose to amplify his natural charisma. [46]
      “This is wasting time, Mr Phillipson.” The spectre tears its gaze away from the watch, focusing on Carlos. The wisp meets that crimson glow calmly. “Tell us what you want.”
      “I want to run my hotel properly, even if I have to rely on slackwits like this!” He slaps a nearby pillar.
      “We’re the new management. We’ll run this place properly. You can...”
      “You’ll never take this place away from me!” the former Mr Phillipson shrieks. Maybe that wasn’t the best approach to take. Still at least the spectre isn’t paying attention to anyone else at the moment.

James takes the opportunity to focus his supernatural senses on the pillar. [47] It’s faint, but there’s definitely something there; some ghostly substance. Now he’s really looking for it, he realises that it’s not just in the pillar, but in the walls, the floor, the ceiling... He can’t be certain without checking the rest of the building, but he thinks it’s spread throughout the entire hotel. It’s definitely gauze, not spectre-stuff – it doesn’t feel at all like Phillipson, who is definitely a spectre.
      “Guys,” he murmurs, keeping his voice low. “There’s a ghost in this building – maybe a Haunter.”
      “Got it.” Tom concentrates on the mystery spook – Brokawsky? – seeking out the things keeping it tied to this place. If it really is a Haunter, he has the best chance of gleaning something useful. [48] He gets three images: the hotel, whole and repaired, a demonic man with distorted features – lots of fear associated with this one – and the silver watch ticking away the seconds. Focusing on each image in turn, he lets a combination of instinct and training guide him towards their deeper meanings, and how the tethers can be broken. [49] The last one is easy enough. “James – help me break this tether.”
      “Now?”
      “Wait...” Tom drops the watch to the ground, stamping down hard to smash it into tiny pieces. “Now!” He channels vitality into the slender thread, taking the energy James throws to him and shoving that along too. There’s a blinding pulse of light, followed by a backwash of energy that leaves both spooks feeling light-hearted and refreshed.

      “Yessss...” breaths a ghostly voice, the word filled with wonder. It seems to be coming from all around them, rather than from one particular direction.
      “No!” howls Phillipson. The spectre goes berserk, thrashing around and shrieking with rage. It lashes out at Tom, who narrowly avoids the blow. Side-stepping towards Carlos, he mutters:
      “Phillipson’s one of the tethers. It should be enough to destroy his dominance over Brokawski.”
      “Understood.” It will be another moment or two before Tom or James can channel vitality again, so Carlos has to turn to someone else. “Annie – can you help?” She nods. “On my signal, then.” Raising his voice, Carlos addresses the diffuse ghostly presence. “Brokawski, listen to me. You’re stronger than this. Look at Phillipson. He can’t even control himself – how can he possibly control you? It can’t control you. It can’t stand against us.” Carlos gestures to Annie, and the vitality flows. Another pulse goes out.
      “You’re... you’re right.” The ghost sounds – and feels – more solid, somehow. Another pillar explodes, but this time the shards drive into the spectre, tearing through the wisps of shadow-stuff. Phillipson roars in pain and rage.
      “You useless fool! Now I have to crush you! No-good immigrant! It’s time I showed you your proper place.” Tendrils of shadow reach out, but a wave of silver force [50] slams Phillipson into the wall. James does his best to smear the spectre into a formless lump of gauze, but it somehow pulls itself back together again. So great is its anger with Brokawski that it completely ignores the spook shoving it up against the wall. “Feel the price of your defiance,” it snarls, worming one hand into the wall itself. Brokawski starts to scream in agony, but quick as a flash James counters darkness with light, using anathema to forcibly pull Phillipson’s hand out of the wall. The screams trail off.

Tom dematerialises and lights up, hurling a ball of lightning at the pinned shadow. Brokawski starts to scream again as Tom’s aura eats into the parts of him spread out through the ground. Carlos tries to tell him to withdraw from the area around Tom, but the ghost is in too much pain to hear. All they can do is try to finish this off as quickly as possible... Helpless to avoid Tom’s bolt, the spectre shrivels at the edges, keeping itself together but looking decidedly the worse for wear. For the first time, it starts to show some concern for its own safety, struggling uselessly in the grip of James’ anathema. The threads now tighten, and then pull apart, yanking bits of shadow in all directions. Phillipson is torn to pieces. They give it a moment or so to make sure it isn’t going to pull itself together again, but the remaining wisps of not-quite-gauze simply melt away to nothingness. It’s over: they’ve won.


Part Six – Wrap-Up

Ding-dong, the spectre’s gone. Tom quickly drops witch’s nimbus.
      “I’m sorry,” he says, not sure where to aim the apology. “I was trying for him, not you.” Brokawski stops screaming. A red, sticky substance starts oozing from the walls and trickling slowly over the bricks. Before their eyes, the trickles form into words: [51]
      “I’m okay.” The certainty is undermined by the double question marks that appear after the words. After a moment or two, the question marks dissolve into more words. “What happened? Where am I?” Another pause, and then: “Where is he?”
      “Gone,” says Tom.
      “Shredded,” James answers, laconically.
      “He isn’t going to bother you again,” says Carlos, his voice reassuring. “You’re safe now.”
      “Safe...? It’s been a while. It...” Brokawsky trails off, the words fading into the brickwork. A sudden breeze skirls through the room, sounding for all the world as if the building itself is sighing. That too dies down, the Phoenix spooks glancing at each other as the silence and stillness stretches out. James leans in towards Carlos, keeping his voice low.
      “You going to tell him?” Tom and Annie join the impromptu conference. Mona, Lo-Jack lean in interestedly, but keep their opinions to themselves.
      “The last tether is to do with the hotel,” Tom whispers. “He needs to know it’s going to be taken care of.”
      “We could pass him over,” observes Annie, glancing around thoughtfully. “If he wants us to.”
      “What if he doesn’t want to?” James wonders.
      “Then we don’t. If he wants to stay, he could help to protect the place.”
      Tom frowns. “Do we really want a strange spook hanging around here? Especially one who’s been under a spectre’s control for decades.”
      “Why don’t we find out what he wants, first? We can decide then.” Everyone turns to look expectantly at Carlos.
      “I guess I’m doing the talking then,” he murmurs.

Moving into the centre of the basement, Carlos continues in a normal speaking voice. “Neil, can you hear me?”
      “Yes.”
      “Do you know where you are?”
      “The Grand.” These words are written larger than the rest of Brokawsky’s side of the conversation, placed prominently in the centre of the wall.
      “What do you remember?”
      Half-formed words appear, only to be reabsorbed again. The wind whips past them again, the sound this time a muted howl rather than a sigh. It’s a sound of frustration.
      “Umm,” says Lo-Jack, standing protectively in front of Mona. “Maybe we should...?” He makes a shooing motion with his hands.
      “It’ll be fine.” Carlos sounds confident and in control. “He needs to work this out. I don’t think he’s going to lash out at us.” [52] As if to prove his point, the wind dies down and new words start to scrawl themselves across the walls.
      “I died. I died a long time ago. I don’t really remember much – just The Grand. And him.”
      “Do you know...?” More words start to appear even before Carlos can complete the question.
      “What about my family? Are they alright? Please... I need to know.”
      “Neil, there’s no easy way to say this, but you’ve been dead a long time. The year is now 2004. I’m afraid your wife and children aren’t around any more.”
      “Are they ghosts? Can I see them?”
      “No, they’re not ghosts. They’ve moved on. You have grandchildren and great-grandchildren now, though. Some of those still live in New York.”
      “That’s good, I guess...”

The last words just hang there. Carlos waits for a few moments, but they don’t vanish, and nothing more appears.
      “You have a choice, Neil. You can stay here, if you want. Phillipson is gone: you would be safe here.” Tom frowns, but doesn’t interrupt. “Maybe you could look in on your descendants.”
      “Or?” The word forms slowly, hesitantly.
      “Or, we could pass you over.”
      “Over?”
      “To wherever souls go after death.”
      “Would I be able to see my family again?”
      “I don’t know. There’s a chance, but I can’t make any guarantees. We don’t know what lies beyond the veil.” Carlos pauses, giving his words a chance to sink in. “You don’t have to decide right away. Take as much time as you...”
      “I want to be with my wife and children and I’ll take any chance that might make that happen. Please pass me over.”
      “You’re sure?”
      “Yes. Yes.”
      “Then that’s what we’ll do.”

There’s some brief discussion among the Phoenix spooks, and then they begin. By common consensus, Annie acts as the focus. It’s already been established that passing ghosts over can help a spook to feel more human, and Annie’s connection to the spectres suggests that she needs it more than most. [53] She certainly isn’t arguing. The new caution shown by some of her comrades – most notably James – is a little hurtful, but then she can’t exactly call it unjustified. Maybe this will help allay some of their concerns. And she knows it will help her. Taking a deep breath, she pushes her worries aside and concentrates on clearing her mind of everything but the task at hand. She steps forward, standing in front of the wall that Brokawsky has been using as a writing slate.
      “Neil, I know this place means a lot to you. You’ve looked after it for a very long time. Well, now it’s time for you to let it go. We’ll take care of it for you. We’re going to repair it and look after it. You don’t have to worry any more. You can rest.”
      “I can let go? I don’t have to carry this any more?”
      “Yes. You can leave it to us.”
      “I’m free?”
      “You’re free.” This is the cue: the others channel vitality into Annie, and she pushes all of it into the last of the bonds keeping Brokawsky here. There’s a pulse of energy, a brilliant flash of light, and then:
      “Free...” The word hangs there for a long moment, and then simply fades away. With it goes the lingering sense of presence, leaving behind nothing but bricks and mortar: Brokawski has gone.

The next matter for discussion is the watch. Given the number of pieces it’s in, there’s absolutely no way they’re going to be getting their deposit back. Unless they can fix it. Tom thinks Hoyt’s a better spook for the job than him, but it’s not something they want to deal with right now. Over the course of the fight and its aftermath they sent out a number of vitality pulses – spectres may be converging on this place as they speak. It seems safest to back off for now and return when the heat has died down a little. They can’t easily take the watch with them – and don’t want to risk losing pieces – so they simply cover it with an overturned bucket for the moment. By common consensus, they agree to continue the rest of the discussion elsewhere.

      “I’m going to let Alice know what happened,” says Carlos. “Can you give me a boost, James?” James nods his agreement.
      “I’m going back to my body,” says Tom. As Carlos concentrates on storm-wending, he starts to ripcord... and both of them bounce. Dazed and confused, they look around the basement. Apparently, they never made it out.
      “What happened? The others all want to know the same thing.
      “I tried to ripcord.”
      “I tried to storm-wend.”
      “And you both bounced off the walls,” observes Annie. She and James extend their supernatural senses, studying the room around them. [54] There’s definitely something odd about this place. The structure – well, all of it that they can see – is glowing with a soft white light. And there’s a feeling... It reminds them of the tower.
      “Are we trapped here?” Lo-Jack wants to know when they relay this. He glances worriedly at Mona, who’s gazing thoughtfully at the wall.
      “We could open the door.” James is as practical as ever.
      “There could be spectres outside,” Tom points out. “Let me try to look outside first.” He tries to inhabit the doorknob but, as with the ripcord, just bounces off. Watching this, Carlos dematerialises and tries to put his hand through the wall, with exactly the same effect.
      “Looks like it’s definitely a barrier to gauze,” Annie observes thoughtfully. “I wonder what can have caused this... Mona, have you noticed anything similar happening at Brook House? We’ve passed over a lot of ghosts there.”
      “No.” Mona shakes her head for emphasis. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
      “I’m going to try something else.” Carlos concentrates, reaching into the storm and looking for any random small object. A quill pen appears in his hand. “Well, that still works.”
      “Interesting,” muses Annie. “I wonder why you can do that, but you can’t step through the storm yourself.”
      “I’m going to open the door.” Tom’s voice cuts off the imminent discussion. “Everyone be prepared.” Materialising, he grasps the door handle and opens the door a crack. After peering through, he throws it wide to reveal... an empty corridor. It’s a welcome anticlimax.

With a surprising lack of discussion, the spooks head out into the corridor and start making their way through the hotel. Carlos keeps trying to put his hand through random spots on various walls, but bounces every time. James examines the rest of the building, confirming that whatever’s affected the basement seems to have changed the whole hotel in the same way. Tom makes a circuit of the ground floor windows, doing his best to scout without being seen. He sees a pack of Lost Boys, a couple of Fetches and a Frightener wandering around outside. Just the odd spectre, then. Now the discussion begins in earnest, eventually culminating in a fairly simply plan: opening a window.

They select one of the uppermost windows; one with less chance of being spotted by the spectres. Once it’s open, Tom ripcords back to his body. After briefly outlining the situation, he has Hoyt swing by for a pick up. The others keep watch for the car. Once it’s within range, Carlos uses storm-wending to transport everyone except James directly from the room to the vehicle. (It’s rather cramped in there, even after the skimmers step back into their bodies.) James steps out onto the ledge, closes the window behind him and then ripcords. (No one wants to leave the window open behind them, and James’s anathema and helter skelter make him the obvious choice to stay behind.) Once everyone’s aboard, Hoyt – who never even brings the car to a halt – smoothly accelerates away. Much to everyone’s surprise, they seem to have evaded the spectres without incident.

Carlos pays a quick visit to Alice, who is most gratified to hear that Phillipson has been dealt with. Mona and Lo-Jack are returned to Brook House. Everyone else gathers back at the hotel to report on the events of the day. To no one’s great surprise, a great deal of time is spent in discussion. Everyone is in favour of waiting a day or two before returning to the hotel, to give the spectres time to lose interest. The building may apparently be impenetrable to spooks, but that doesn’t mean they want the spectres knowing that it’s going to be Phoenix’ new base. Why tempt fate? This does raise the question: do they still want to run (or, more properly, have someone else run) The Grand as a hotel? On the one hand, they really do need the money. On the other hand, letting the general public in and out rather compromises its security. It’s a dilemma. The discussion goes back and forth, but the matter isn’t really resolved. The closest they get is a vague agreement that maybe they can look into what it would take to make The Grand a viable business, and make a decision once they have the information.
      “We could make the place a safe house for ghosts,” suggests Kate. “Maybe they could trade information or skills for sanctuary.” It’s an interesting suggestion, albeit one with its own security problems. Overall, no one leaps at the idea.

Chet suggests that they take some time to work on some cases. Phoenix may only be a fledgling business, but they’re already starting to recruit clients. It’s about time they started to earn some money and build up their reputation. One of the jobs is from Jayne Jonestown’s [55] manager. Jonestown is doing a gig in New York on Saturday, and wants the spooks to provide some supernatural special effects. The job sounds pretty easy, and will pay a cool five grand for a few hours’ work. It actually sounds pretty good. The main problem is that it’s going to be a security risk for Phoenix. There are still people and entities hunting them, and it wouldn’t be hard for any of these to figure out that their targets are going to be providing the much publicised spook-show.

Other possible jobs include various hauntings resulting from the Bounce Night deaths. It seems that there are still a not-insignificant number of ghosts hanging around and disturbing their loved ones. The Phoenix spooks have to make some decisions about how they’re going to prioritise cases. Do they just take the well-paying ones? Is the aim to help the most desperate? How are they going to set the fees? Too low and the rich won’t value their services. Too high and the poor won’t be able to afford them. Also, what kind of approach are they going to use? Carry out proper research and aim to pass ghosts over where possible, or minimal investigation followed by fumigation?

They decide to (at least initially) set the fees on a case by case basis. Maybe once they have a good idea of their client base and the type of jobs out there, they’ll be able to put together a rough scale. They agree that they’re going to prioritise first by urgency, and then by how much the job’s worth. So, a poor family with a poltergeist that’s throwing knives will be dealt with ahead of a rich family who just want to find out where grandma hid the heirlooms. All things being equal, however (say, a simple case of communicating with a departed loved one), they’ll go for the client they can charge the most. Although it will increase the amount of time they have to spend per case, they opt for thorough investigation with a view to passing over rather than fumigation. (Unsurprisingly, this subject is one that Annie feels very strongly about.)

      “Do we want to consider illegal stuff?” Ben wants to know. It’s an interesting point, and one that leads to a great deal more discussion. Hoyt points out that they tend to commit minor illegal acts in the course of a case anyway: trespassing, mail interception, eavesdropping on phone conversations... The list goes on. So, the question should be: just how illegal are they prepared to go? After all, the shadier types of cases might well be where the big money is. The discussion goes round and round for some time. Eventually, they more or less agree that they don’t want to get into things like contract killings, theft or industrial espionage, so they’re not going to try to drum up that kind of business. If they’re approached for something like that, they’ll decide based on the specific details, but they’re leaning towards ‘no’. (“Unless it pays really well and we won’t get caught”.) With regard to defending themselves, however, or staving off the apocalypse, they’re willing to at least consider all manner of illegality. Again, they’ll make those decisions if and when the situation calls for it.

All in all, this exercise was an undisputed success. Assuming the spectres’ interest wanes, Phoenix now has a base of operations with the unexpected (and useful) property of being impervious to spooks. They just have to decide what they’re going to do with it and, more generally, what they’re going to do next.

Time is ticking on.


Footnotes

[1] 0 vitality: something that’s likely to happen in the next hour. 2 successes: 1 event, with context. [Back]

[2] Although I haven’t really described it recently, when Annie uses forebode, a vision of Teresa appears and guides her towards the vision she’s seeking. This spirit guide is only visible to her and to anyone boosting her at the time. [Back]

[3] Yes, those are Rodents of Unusual Size, or ROUS. Yes, that reference was made. Yes, we are geeks. [Back]

[4] 4 successes on the [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[5] The end of the first mission, when Teresa (with Annie and Kate’s assistance) used forebode to look at the moment of a spectre’s creation. They were dragged into the land of the spectres, where one spectre in particular tried to convert them to the cause. [Back]

[6] A botched [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[7] 2 successes on the [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[8] 2 vitality. [Back]

[9] Another 2 points. [Back]

[10] 3 successes on a [Charisma + Leadership] roll. [Back]

[11] Even rolling 1 for initiative (giving a total of 8), Carlos still goes first. 2 successes on a difficulty 8 [Dexterity + Firearms] roll. (The difficulty was slightly higher because Carlos was aiming to disable, rather than to kill.) [Back]

[12] In mechanics terms, the place was a Memorial – a physical place or object that acts as a focus for people’s thoughts and memories of the deceased. The Memorial background allows a ghost to regain vitality while they’re in contact with it. I think they can regain its rating in vitality points per day. As the default recovery rate for ghosts is 1 point per day, this is a very useful background for them to have. It’s a ghost-only background, so Annie doesn’t get the extra vitality recovery now she’s a skimmer. (Of course, it’s not really necessary for a skimmer the way it is for a ghost.) Being there still makes her feel good, though. [Back]

[13] 5 successes on the [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[14] Specifically, she’s thinking about trying to use this item as a focus to find Teresa. Which would almost certainly be suicide, or worse. I don’t think she’s stupid enough to actually do it, but I guess we’ll find out next time. [Back]

[15] 1 point of bashing damage. [Back]

[16] Resolving a tether needs 10 points of vitality. Under normal circumstances, this would be spread between 2 or more spooks, but Annie’s on her own. She usually has 9 points of vitality, but the day’s activities so far have left her on 3 unspent, 1 of which is tied up in the rat sub-swarm she sent down the hole. (It’s still falling.) Spooks can, however, spend willpower points to regain vitality. Every willpower point spent yields 3 vitality points, so Annie has to spend 3 to be able to do this. She is left with 1 willpower and 2 vitality (1 of which is still tied up in the sub-swarm and thus unavailable for use). [Back]

[17] Resolving a tether gives back 10 points of vitality, which is rather convenient. Projectors can go above their maximum level, so Annie now has 10 vitality to play with. (A spook can never go above 10 vitality. Technically, the point in the sub-swarm makes her total 11, but since this isn’t actually a part of her at the moment, it doesn’t count against the absolute maximum. [Back]

[18] A comment from James’ player: The GM is evil. [Back]

[19] Everyone except Annie has just lost 5 points of temporary Willpower. Ouch. See Footnote [18]. [Back]

[20] At the end of the session, the GM actually explained (OOC) what was going on here. Basically, the entity feeds on regret. The situations were set up so that there was a clear decision point where they could go one way or another and where the PCs had some regrets or doubts about whether they made the right decision. (The GM asked us to suggest events from our characters’ pasts that fitted these criteria.) Whether they went with their original decision or did something else, the entity could nudge the situation towards a conclusion where the PCs still regretted some aspect of it. For example, Carlos was on course for freeing the hostage without the hostage-taker ending up dead. The entity shifted things so that the man broke free of his entrancement and attacked, forcing Carlos to shoot him. Although the shot was intended to wound, not kill, another shift would make it have hit a vital area. It was essentially a rigged game.

There were two ways to avoid being fed on. The first was not to interact with the scenario at all. This is why it encouraged them to get involved, both by choosing emotionally charged situations and by making sure there was only one way they could go. (That’s why the floor behind Annie started falling into nothingness when she stayed in one place for too long. It wouldn’t actually have harmed her, but the trick lay in making her not want to take the chance.) If any of them had called its bluff and refused to be drawn, it would eventually have released them.

The second way was to ‘win’ the scenario: that is, to achieve an outcome about which they had no regrets. In addition to preventing the entity from feeding on them, this actively harmed it. To do this, it was necessary to overcome its ability to nudge events in a particular direction, which involved a little lateral thinking. (The entity didn’t seem to be able to create events from scratch, just work within the confines of the scenario.) Annie’s regret was that she killed someone. The NextWorld operative was the first time she’d ever killed, and it was a line that, in some ways, she wishes she hadn’t crossed. Simply not acting would have led to Ben getting killed – not exactly a regret-free outcome. In the real world, she grabbed the gunman, flew straight up and then dropped him. This time, she went for a non-lethal takedown, barrelling into him to throw off his aim and then getting the gun away. (Although she wasn’t intending to interact with this place if she could help it, her instincts took over upon seeing a comrade in trouble.) She managed this, but then the entity nudged things so that the wounds she inflicted on the operative were more severe than they first appeared. He started to bleed out, so she used flesh flux to heal him. The entity wasn’t expecting anything like this (it certainly wasn’t anything she would have done in actuality), and couldn’t respond to shift things back in its favour. So, Annie saved Ben without killing anyone – no regrets.

With 20-20 hindsight, Carlos could have used unearthly repose to boost his charisma and persuade the hostage-taker to talk to him, finding out why he was doing this. This may have allowed him to resolve the situation without the man getting killed. He could also have used storm-wending to deal with this and still get back in time to spend the evening with his father. Tom could have arranged for his parents to see and speak with Bill one last time, satisfying his need to see them while allowing his parents some closure. For James, perhaps actually talking with his father, or finding some way to bond with him without shooting the deer might have resolved any regrets about the way things turned out. [Back]

[21] Initiative time! We actually played the first round or so of combat at the end of this session, finishing off the fight next session. However, I’m going to break here because I think it’ll flow better. [Back]

[22] Carlos uses his 0 vitality storm-wending ability as a dodge, which gives him a bonus to the action. It’s one of the side-benefits of the horror. Carlos got 7 successes on the dodge versus the spectre’s 2 successes to hit, easily avoiding the attack. [Back]

[23] Just a quick note on artistic license: I’m not sticking rigidly to initiative order for the description of the fight. I’ve changed around a few things so the write-up flows better. A simple round by round account would be more accurate, but I find them terribly dull to write. [Back]

[24] Zero success on [Perception + Awareness]. [Back]

[25] Same roll as [23], but a single success this time. [Back]

[26] The benefit of Carlos’ third tier horror lets another spook use one of their own benefits on themselves. (Specifically, they can use the benefit of whichever horror they are using for their action.) It’s rather useful on occasion. Here, James used the benefit of anathema that lets him achieve an effect level of 4 + any vitality spent. The reason for this was that it gave him a larger dice pool for grappling with the shadow man. [Back]

[27] 1 success on a difficulty 6 [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[28] 4 successes on an [Intelligence + Occult] roll. [Back]

[29] Only 1 point was drained, fortunately. [Back]

[30] The roll for this type of thing is [Manipulation + Intimidation], because he’s essentially trying to provoke a fear response. [Back]

[31] This is actually normal. I’m not sure if it’s ever come up before, but storm-wending isn’t an instantaneous teleport. As the name suggests, the Jumper [32] opens a gate into the storm (possibly the one around the land of the spectres) and travels through it a short distance, opening a portal out to the desired location in the physical world. I don’t think a jump has ever taken more than a few seconds in this game, but we haven’t established whether it always takes the same amount of time, or if it varies according to the physical distance between the start and end points. (It seems like something that Orpheus would have investigated, but the subject’s never come up in-game.) [Back]

[32] A slang term for someone with storm-wending. I made it up just now, because it’s less clunky than ‘storm-wender’ and ‘wender’ sounds like Chekhov trying to talk about a salesman. [Back]

[33] 3 successes on a [Charisma + Investigation] roll to get information from the local street people. [Back]

[34] Time for some long overdue downtime. As well deciding to actually take some time for research and preparation before going after the spectre again, we needed at least five days for everyone to recover their willpower after being drained by it. Also, it had been a while since we’d had the chance to spend any XP. Might as well kill several birds with one stone. We had a grand total of 10 XP to spend on anything we wanted (and could justify), plus an additional 6 XP to spend on talents, skills or knowledges only. [Back]

[35] James and Tom got 3 and zero successes, respectively, on the [Intelligence + Investigation] roll. [Back]

[36] On a mechanics note, we needed five days for everyone to be back to recover all their willpower. We thought it would be best to make sure we were in top form when we made our second attempt on the spectre. [Back]

[37] 4 successes on a [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[38] 2 successes on the [Intelligence + Bureaucracy] roll. [Back]

[39] 3 successes on a [Charisma + Expression] roll at difficulty 8. [Back]

[40] 2 successes on an [Intelligence + Investigation] roll. [Back]

[41] 3 successes on a [Perception + Alertness] roll. [Back]

[42] [Perception + Awareness] rolls – 1 success for Annie, 4 successes for Tom. [Back]

[43] Everyone who’s been involved in the search and rescue is down about 4 vitality by this point. [Back]

[44] 2 successes on the [Charisma + Intimidate] roll. [Back]

[45] Carlos’ player wasn’t there this week and Annie wasn’t doing much, so I briefly took over Carlos. [Back]

[46] As well as entrancing people, unearthly repose also allows the spook to spend vitality to boost Charisma. [Back]

[47] 4 successes on the [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[48] For 1 point of vitality, a spook can use the basic ability ‘Sense Lifeline’ to try to work out what a ghost’s tethers are. The information comes in the form of visions. If a spook is the same shade as the ghost in question, they find it easier to interpret the images. A spook’s shade seems to be determined to some extent by their personality so, broadly speaking, two spooks of the same shade often have certain personality traits in common. (This isn’t always the case, but it was close enough for Orpheus’ psychological evaluations of potential employees.) Banshees tend to have a strong sense of empathy, as exemplified by Mona and Teresa. (Matthieu Kerekov would seem to be one of the exceptions.) Poltergeists are usually passionate people (Zoë), and frequently angry (Ben). (It’s not clear where James lies on this spectrum, if anywhere.) Haunters are often loners, a trait exhibited by Shelley and, to a much lesser extent, Tom. Observations of Adrian, Blink and Carlos would seem to support the assertion that Wisps tend to be gregarious individuals who are comfortable in the limelight. Annie is the only known Metamorph, so no generalisations can be made for these. [Back]

[49] Successes on an analysis roll ([Intelligence + Occult]?) can be used to get extra clues from the GM. Tom’s player got 5 successes, which he assigned as follows: 1 to the hotel, 2 to the figure and 1 to the watch. [Back]

[50] Anathema. [Back]

[51] Inhabiting a building allows a spook to pull off pretty much all the typical ‘haunted house’ tricks. Scrawling words in blood is a fairly basic application of the horror. [Back]

[52] With 8 successes on the [Charisma + Expression] roll, Carlos was definitely in control of this conversation. [Back]

[53] In mechanics terms, passing over a ghost removes 1 point of permanent spite from one of the spooks who’s taking part. Breaking a tether removes temporary spite from all the spooks involved. [Back]

[54] Both get 3 successes on the [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[55] Jayne Jonestown is a rockstar who was one of Orpheus’ clients some months before the New Year’s Eve attacks. His case was assigned to Tom and Teresa. They determined that he was being haunted by a Wisp called Gwynneth, the ghost of a woman he killed. Gwynneth was being driven to torment him by her spectre double, who Tom and Teresa dubbed ‘Not-Gwynneth’. Gwynneth was captured by Terrel & Squib while on her way to seek sanctuary with Orpheus. The ‘experiments’ she was subjected to eventually led to her being entirely subsumed into her spectre half, leaving only Not-Gwynneth. [Back]