The weather that afternoon was unabashedly foul. The sky was heavy with clouds, the dark grey wetness oozing into everything until nothing was dry. Patches of skeletal, leafless trees stood guard over the miles upon miles of sodden, empty cornfields. The wind blew mercilessly, beating fat raindrops to earth in a miserable drizzle. The winter snows were gone, but spring had yet to appear in its blaze of green glory, leaving the world dull and dead.
A dented red pickup truck trundled along the gravel road, splashing through puddles and potholes alike. Inside, a talk show fought waves of static for dominion of the radio. The man who drove smoked a cigarette. The woman riding beside him was loading a pistol.
The truck turned off the desolate road onto an even more pitiful driveway, little more than a winding dirt path that crept off into the woods. The trees formed a leaning, claustrophobic tunnel with their gnarled branches, reaching down as if to ensnare the unsuspecting in their grasp.
The truck slowed to a stop at the very end of the path. There stood the decaying shell of what had once been a nice, two-story home, now reduced to a pile of creaking, rotting timber and filthy windows. The man turned off the truck’s engine, and the two stepped out into the drizzle. Both the man and the woman were wearing blue jeans and camouflage-pattern jackets, nothing unusual for the place and time.
The man crushed his spent cigarette under his boot. He was in his late forties, with a neat brown beard, thick eyebrows, and a fluorescent orange hunter’s cap on his head. He had gone through many names in his life: currently, he was known as Scarborough. The woman was younger, with green eyes and blonde hair tied into a short ponytail. Her face was sharp and slender, giving it an almost hawk-like, predatory look.
“So, this is the place?” the woman asked.
“I’ll answer that with another question, Montgomery. How often are we wrong?” Scarborough stepped up onto the porch, the boards groaning underfoot. He reached for the tarnished knob and found the door open.
Scarborough brandished his pistol in front of him as he stepped into house. The living room was dim and filthy: what furniture there was ancient and moldy, buried under piles of trash and a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. Leaning monoliths of black and white supermarket tabloids stood among the black plastic trash bags, empty beer bottles, and overflowing tobacco spittoons. The stench was easily comparable either to a dead animal, bad plumbing, or a combination of the two.
Montgomery’s hand shot up to cover her mouth and nose. Scarborough had lost his sense of smell long before. With a silent hand gesture, the two waded through the refuse towards what was presumably the kitchen.
The kitchen was hardly better than the living room, though now most of the garbage consisted of old fast food wrappers and beer cans. None of the appliances were younger than twenty-five years old, and none looked to have been actively used in at least that long. The only thing of note was the basement door, which hung open at a crooked angle. A comically large number of extra locks had been installed, up to a heavy-duty deadbolt, though at the moment they were hardly fulfilling their intended purpose. The stairs beyond were a black pit.
Scarborough felt the hairs on the back of his neck stick up. It took a second for him to realize the cause of his goosebumps was not any anomaly, but something far more mundane.
“Please close that window.” He motioned to the stained window above the trash-filled sink, which was open just enough to let a breeze ruffle the mildewed curtains. Montgomery shut the window, with only minor difficulty in moving it from its stuck position.
The ceiling above them creaked loudly. The next ten seconds were breathless, torturous, and silent. When no other sound was heard from upstairs, Scarborough quietly pushed the basement door fully open and felt for the light switch. The two moved into the basement with haste.
The stairs were exceptionally rickety, and creaked even under the trained steps of Scarborough and Montgomery. The basement itself was hardly better: a bare pit of concrete lit by two bare light bulbs. Much of it was filled with the omnipresent trash, along with a dented hot water heater, and some everyday piping and exposed insulation.
One corner of the basement, however, had been repurposed into what could only be described as the workstation of a rather unhealthy mind. The old wooden desk seemed to sag under the weight atop it. Disorganized mountains of stained manila file folders and worn paperbacks with broken spines cluttered its surface and spilled out onto the floor, all the while hiding a laughably old computer and printer behind their summits. Three corkboards had been set up on the walls: the first was a map of the continental United States with colored push pins stuck in it in numerous locations. From the condition of the map, there had been many removed and re-positioned pins over the course of at least a decade. The second board was filled with plain sheets of paper, all of which were covered edge to edge in either miniscule handwriting or poorly-formatted computer print.
The third board was the most notable, filled with tacked-up photographs and sketches. Most of the photos looked as if they belonged in the tabloids sitting upstairs: blurry, unfocused images of ghosts and UFOs and Bigfeet, schematics for free-energy machines and hidden government facilities. Some others were not as easily glanced over: the severed head with a scaly arm sprouting from its mouth. A hazy shot of a massive creature with matted red fur, holding a crushed car over its head. A beached whale, its stomach burst open to reveal a mass of bloated bodies that had begun to crawl across the sand. A man offering a box of chocolates, his face blacked out and a dozen screaming mouths in the background. A blank white room labeled only as “NOTHING”.
“Busy fella,” Montgomery said, picking up a file folder and flipping through the magazine clippings inside. “How much do you think is legit?”
“Outside of what command verified, I can’t say. Most looks to be garbage, but there might be a few bits worth looking into.”
“We still have to go through everything when we get back, though.”
“Opus semper tecum est.”
“Thanks. I thought I was done with high-school Latin.”
“You’re never done with high-school Latin, Montgomery.”
The investigation was interrupted but moments later by a thunderous bang. Scarborough and Montgomery dived to the side, just avoiding the spray of buckshot.
At the top of the stair stood an overweight, disheveled man, wearing a stained undershirt and ragged pajama pants. His wild hair was a sharp grey, and he held a smoking nine-gauge shotgun in his hands.
“Ha! You think you could break into my house and walk away with my property?!” The man stepped down the stairs, reloading the shotgun. “You can’t get past me that easily! Now, I’m going to give you to three to get the hell out of my house…”
He was answered by a bullet tearing through his right shin. The man tumbled down the rest of the stairs, landing flat on his back at the bottom with a thud. Scarborough holstered his pistol and walked over to the, gasping, wounded man.
“You little shits!” the old man screamed. “I'll have you in chains for this!”
“Mr. Malone, you are being extremely unprofessional,” Scarborough said, showing neither excitement nor anger. “I am aware you’ve had to make some drastic changes in the past, but I would think a man such as you would hold himself in a more reasonable manner than this.”
Malone’s eyes grew wider, were it possible. The fear behind them was clear and potent.
“You’re not getting it…you’re not getting all my research.”
“That’s secondary to our purpose here, Mr. Malone. We are primarily concerned with the simple fact that you’re sticking your nose into places it doesn’t belong, and given your previous connections, that does not bode well with us.”
“You…you won’t get me to talk. I won’t talk.”
“Mr. Malone, we did not come here to listen to you: Your little website already told us you’ve been investigating several items that we’ve been keeping an eye on. You may have traded in your glass card years ago, but no one ever leaves it all behind, and we just can’t afford a slip, Mr. Malone. It’s as simple as that.”
Malone’s mouth worked silently for a few moments.
“Foundation bastards…” he wheezed.
“Indeed we are.”
The beaten red pickup truck rumbled down the road. The rain had stopped, for the time being, leaving wet roads and puddles in its wake. Far behind in the distance, a plume of smoke rose above the trees. Just a wiring problem, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Nothing unusual in the country home of Mr. Martin Malone, just some faulty wiring. Mr. Malone himself was, thankfully, elsewhere when it occurred, and would not be back for quite some time.
The inside of the truck was silent, all save the old, coughing engine and the crackling radio. In the cargo compartment beneath the floor sat several plastic bins, filled to the brim with the recovery efforts. Even working fast, it would take nearly a week for a thorough examination.
Montgomery hit the ‘off’ button on the radio, interrupting the used car salesman assuring the public that “everything must go!” She brushed a strand of hair out her face.
“Well, that went about as well as expected.”
“That it did, Montgomery, that it did. The site’s down, the hole’s plugged, the body’s hid, and it looks like there was quite a bit he was keeping for himself. All in all, a job well done.”
“I almost feel sorry for the guy, y’know? He went from being a full member of Marshall, Carter and Dark to some nutty backwoods hick.”
“He couldn’t take the heat, so he left the kitchen. A smart move on his part, though it didn’t do him much good in the end. Tene memoria, Malone, mortes hominum causam scientiae, et cautelam omne progredi saepe serviunt.”
Montgomery shook her head and smiled.
“Now you’re just being pretentious.”