"Did you find anything out?" Agent Abernathy asked as they pulled away.
"Only that your local health care system seems to take things a lot more seriously than other places that I've been. Instead of a nurse or a lab worker, we were helped by a doctor, a specialist, and he seemed to be really on top of things." Agent Simmons responded seriously.
"How are you holding up, Roberts?" Agent Abernathy asked as she glanced at him in her rearview mirror.
"Don't worry about me. I'm not going to wimp out. I was all about figuring this out before, but now it's personal."
"Good for you. Just don't let your determination get in the way of your professionalism. Remember that whatever you do, you're going to have to be able to defend your actions after the fact." Agent Abernathy said seriously.
"Good advice. Be sure to keep everything on the up-and-up so that whatever actions you take can't be called into question." Agent Simmons added.
"I'm not going to go rogue. Let's just say that I'm uniquely motivated to get to the bottom of this."
"Good. Then listen up. We've been able to come up with some information about local cult activity. At this point I can't say that it's related to our case at all, but you need to hear this so we can all be on the lookout for any signs of it."
"Sounds serious. What are we talking about?"
"Apparently, it's been going on for decades." Agent Abernathy said slowly, then continued, "Every now and then some kind of 'death cult' will rise up and cause all kinds of trouble for a while. The strange thing is, just as suddenly as they arrive, they also seem to disappear."
"The Autumn People."
"Nothing. It's just something from a kid's story that I read once."
"No. Please go on. If it bears any resemblance to this case, then I'd like to hear about it."
"The Autumn People, the hungry ones, they appear each generation to feed on our nightmares and delight in our pain."
"I think I'd better be keeping a closer watch on what my kids are reading." Agent Abernathy said slowly.
"The thing that made me think of them is the way they blow into town on an autumn wind and cause all kinds of trouble, and then before anyone can realize what they're doing, they disappear, leaving only misery in their wake."
"Roberts, if I ever invite you over to my house, you are not to tell stories to my grandkids." Agent Simmons said firmly.
"All I'm saying is that the timing of your 'cult activity' sounds to be like the story of the Autumn People." Agent Roberts explained, then cautiously asked, "How long has it been since the last report of that type of activity?"
"It's only been three years."
"What was the previous incident like?"
"I wasn't with the bureau then, but according to the reports, there was about a five hundred percent increase in criminal activity of all kinds within a matter of days. Most of the perpetrators seemed to be from out of town, but none of them were ever arrested. There were some horrifying incidents of arson, vandalism and brutal random violence, but the perpetrators were always gone before police arrived. No one at the scene could identify any of them, they all stated that they'd never seen them before."
"How did it end?" Agent Simmons asked cautiously.
"Just like he said, all of a sudden, everyone was standing around wondering what the hell had just happened. It was just... over."
"If I remember the story correctly, those that had fallen into the Autumn Peoples' traps were condemned to leave with them, never to be seen again."
"Seriously. You read some fucked up shit as a kid." Agent Simmons said uneasily.
"I know it's just a story, but I'm still going to count it as one more reason to keep pressing forward. We've got to rescue Devin. If we're caught in something that could suddenly end at any moment, we're his only chance."
"I guess it's time to see if it's all talk." Agent Abernathy said as she pulled the car to a stop. "We're here."
* * * * *
"Do you want to come back for us?" Agent Simmons asked as he and Agent Roberts got out of the car.
"No. I've already called my husband and let him know that I'm going to be late. I'm going with you." Agent Abernathy said firmly.
"Glad to have you along." Agent Simmons said as he waited for her to join them.
"Where do we start?" Shawn asked nervously.
"When we left you before, you were walking toward that park entrance." Agent Abernathy said as she gestured toward a path which led into the wooded area.
"It's going to be dark soon. Will we need flashlights?" Shawn thought to ask.
"Actually, that might be a good idea. I've got some in the trunk." Agent Abernathy said as she doubled back to the car.
The others followed and were surprised to find just how 'well stocked' the trunk of her car was.
"I've got my sidearm, but do you think that we might need a little more 'stopping power'?" Agent Simmons cautiously asked.
"I'd rather carry it and not need it than need it and not have it." Abernathy said as she automatically handed guns to her companions.
"Aren't these illegal?" Shawn asked as he examined the weapon in his hand.
"Not for us, they're not." Abernathy said simply, then handed him extra clips.
Shawn loaded a clip, then checked to see that his flashlight was functioning properly.
"Let's do this before we lose the light." Agent Simmons finally said, then started leading the way.
"Do you want for me to call in a few more agents to help us with the search?" Agent Abernathy asked as she followed.
"Let's wait until we actually find something before we do anything like that. So far, all we know is that a boy who disappeared from Connecticut was spotted here. Until we can show that he or his captors are still here, there's no point in us calling for more manpower." Agent Simmons said as he slowly walked toward the treeline, carefully taking in every detail.
"What about the stuff that happened to me?" Shawn asked cautiously.
"There's no proof that that's in any way related to what we're looking for."
As they entered the wooded area, Shawn could see that the trail seemed to branch off in two directions.
"Which way do you want to go?" Abernathy asked cautiously.
"It looks like the left path will take us to another entrance. Let's go right." Simmons said decisively.
Although Shawn was in the habit of second-guessing decisions and questioning authority, he was more than happy to allow Agent Simmons to take the lead in this investigation.
* * * * *
"Abernathy, did you notice the reports of missing pets being in any particular area?" Agent Simmons asked as they slowly walked.
"No. There was no pattern that I could see. They were all just in close proximity to the park."
"So it's possible that whoever has Devin is catching and killing house pets. Animal cruelty is a common theme in the histories of most of the mass murderers and serial killers of the modern age." Agent Simmons said slowly.
"Or they could be catching them for food." Shawn interjected.
"What's that?" Agent Abernathy asked curiously.
"We've assumed that they're catching and killing pets as either some kind of religious rite or to get their psychopathic jollies. But what if they're just hungry?" Shawn asked uncomfortably.
"The police report did say that Devin was found looking through garbage cans." Agent Abernathy said slowly.
"It makes more sense than just about anything else in this case." Agent Simmons added.
"Maybe if we brought some food, we might be able to lure them out." Shawn said thoughtfully.
"Depending on what we find tonight, we may consider that our next step." Agent Simmons said decisively.
"What's that?" Agent Abernathy asked suddenly.
"What did you see?" Agent Simmons asked as he followed her gaze.
"A light, over there, to the right, close to the ground." She said as she took slow careful steps in that direction.
Suddenly, all around them, small discreet lights lit up along the path.
"This park isn't quite as 'rustic' as I was led to believe." Agent Simmons said as he relaxed.
"No. This is actually kind of nice... well, except for the pet killing, kidnapping psychopath who seems to be living here."
"Well, you can't have everything." Agent Simmons said with a grin.
"Wait. If the park is lit up at night and is in such a central city location, why don't the homeless people live here?" Shawn asked cautiously.
"I had been assuming that it was because it was so rugged. But now that you mention it, I can't think of any reason that this wouldn't be an attractive location for them." Agent Abernathy said thoughtfully.
"Can you recall any incidents involving this park in the recent past?"
"Nothing comes to mind. There's always something going on in the downtown area, but the park... you'd expect for it to have higher than average crime statistics. Parks typically do." Agent Abernathy said in realization.
"So, is our kidnapper part of what's going on here or is he intruding on something that's always been here?" Agent Roberts asked thoughtfully.
"Are you suggesting that there's something or someone keeping order in this park that is completely separate from the authorities?" Agent Simmons asked cautiously.
"Yes. That's exactly what I'm suggesting. This park is well lit, reasonably maintained, has public restroom facilities and even running water, and yet the homeless population seem to avoid it like the plague. I don't think it's too farfetched to suggest that something's going on here." Agent Roberts said reasonably.
"Okay. If we carry that line of reasoning further, then I suppose that the kidnapper is most likely not here by invitation. His presence would seem to go against the status quo that has been maintained here. It's likely that he arrived in town with his victim and found this perfectly lovely location not being used by anyone else, so he claimed it for his own."
Agent Abernathy nodded, then carefully added, "If that were the case, then there might be some counter-force also searching for the kidnapper, since he broke the sanctity or whatever it is that keeps this place from being a drug-infested crime-ridden hellhole."
Both agents looked at her with surprise.
"Walk around downtown for a few minutes, you'll understand." Willem assured them.
"Okay, again, just for the sake of argument, let's assume that there is a counter-force at work. How likely do you think it is that Agent Roberts encountered the counter-force rather than the kidnapper?" Agent Simmons asked carefully.
"I'd say that it's almost a certainty. If our kidnapper is eating pets and garbage, he's probably not in a position to be wiping out people's memories." Agent Abernathy said frankly.
"So it follows that by us being here, we're not only looking for the kidnapper and his victim, but also the regulating force that maintains a state of peace in this area." Agent Simmons said thoughtfully.
"You shouldn't be here."
All three agents looked up suddenly and were surprised to find a skinny young man, barely more than a teenager, standing before them wearing jeans and a black hoodie.
"We're FBI agents and we're here investigating the disappearance of a young man. He's been spotted in this area." Agent Simmons said professionally.
Agent Abernathy stepped forward and held out her phone with a picture of Devin displayed.
"Have you seen this boy?"
"No. I haven't. But it's really not a good idea for you to be out here after dark. Investigate all you want during the light of day, but it's not safe for you out here at night."
"It's not safe for us? But it's safe for you?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"Listen. I'll leave if you will. Just please, you've got to go right now." The boy urged.
"What's your name, young man?" Agent Simmons asked authoritatively.
"Lane Kingston. Can we go now?" Lane urged.
"What are you so afraid of?" Agent Abernathy asked curiously.
Lane froze in thought for a moment, then carefully said, "I know about Devin. Okay? The guy who went rogue and took him, he's already been dealt with. You don't have to worry about him. But right now we've got... people on the way here. They're going to help us catch Devin and see that he gets all the help that he needs. The thing is, if they catch you here it's going to turn into a really big mess. All you've got to do is walk away right now and forget that you ever met me."
"C'mon Rookie. There's nothing to see here. Let's call it a night." Agent Simmons said simply.
"I'll drive you to a hotel so you guys can get set up. That way we'll be able to start fresh in the morning."
Agent Roberts looked at Lane apprehensively and quietly asked, "What did you do to them?"
"I'm just trying to help them by getting them out of the way of something dangerous. Why don't you go with them?" Lane asked as he looked deeply into Agent Roberts' eyes.
"You comin?" Agent Simmons asked insistently.
Shawn very nearly answered 'yes', but something within him fought against the compulsion and instead he answered, "Can I call you when I'm finished here?"
"Agent Abernathy is about to go off duty, so I'm going to get her to take me to get a rental car. Call me when you're done here."
"Will do." Shawn answered as he searched Agent Simmons' expression for any indication that he was aware of what was going on.
Agents Simmons and Abernathy turned around and walked down the path, back the way they came, without a care in the world as Agent Roberts watched them go.
"You should have gone with them." Lane said honestly.
"Maybe. But it was more important to me to learn the truth." Agent Roberts said frankly, then hesitantly asked, "What you just did to them, is that the same thing you did to me this afternoon?"
"Come on. We need to get moving. Devin's not in this area." Lane said as he indicated the path before them.
"It was you, wasn't it?" Agent Roberts persisted.
"You never would have known that anything was off if you'd been from Columbus. I could have just told you to forget about me and to go somewhere safe and everything would have been fine."
"But since I'm not from here, I wouldn't know where a safe place might be."
"Right. And with you being totally out of it, I couldn't just leave you on your own. I had to take you somewhere that I knew that no one would mess with you."
"So you took me to White Castle?"
"Yeah. If anyone tried to mess with you there, the entire dining room of customers would kick their asses. You'll never meet better, more down-to-earth people than White Castle customers."
"If you say so..."
"Shawn, what I'm trying to get at is that I didn't want for you to be hurt. I don't want for anyone to be hurt. If you'll let us do our work and resolve this, then everything can go back to normal."
"Who are you?"
"What are you?"
"That's a little more complicated. For now, let's just say that I'm one of the good guys and leave it at that."
* * * * *
They walked in silence for a few minutes until Agent Roberts quietly asked, "You could have made me leave and forget again if you wanted to, couldn't you?"
"Why didn't you?"
"You remember when I said that I didn't want to hurt anyone?"
"Every time I enthrall you and cause you to forget, it causes damage to your psyche. Conflicts arise in your subconscious that can eventually manifest in some fairly disturbing ways."
"Would wiping my memory two times cause that?"
"Probably not. But the way I enthralled your group was kind of a test for you. If you would have been capable of accepting my command and dropping the investigation, you would have left with the others. But since you're so tenacious, you were able to break the thrall and see through it."
"So that's it? You're just going to tell me everything that's going on?" Agent Roberts asked slowly.
"For now. If all goes well, everything will get resolved, then we'll be able to enthrall you again and your subconscious will be at peace with it."
"And if all doesn't go well?"
"Then we'll do what we have to do to protect ourselves." Lane said simply.
"Who is we?"
"That's another long story. I'm not going to tell you everything, mostly because you don't need to know. But what it comes down to is that there's this... disease, I guess. Those of us who have it have some... super powers. It feels really wrong to describe it that way, but it's close enough for what we're doing right now."
"What kind of super powers?"
"Well, you've already encountered the thrall. That's kind of like hypnosis. We also have improved strength, speed, hearing, eyesight... the list goes on, but you get the idea."
"Okay. So you're super people. What does that have to do with what we're doing right now?"
"Good question. Before I can get into that, you need to know that we're very careful that Brightsiders don't find out about us..."
"People like you. Along with our super powers come some super limitations. The biggest one is that Shadesiders can't go out in direct sunlight. Brightsiders can go into the light. Shadesiders can go near the light. And Darksiders despise the light and want to destroy it."
"I take it that you're speaking metaphorically, to some degree."
"Yeah. I do that sometimes. But we've gotten off track. We try to keep Brightsiders from finding out about us. That works out fine for the most part, but every now and then, someone will go rogue and start turning people."
"Infecting them with your disease?" Shawn asked to verify his understanding.
"Yeah. Our transformative can be passed by blood or by sex. So if a Shadesider or a Darksider were to bite someone and they survived, they would become one of us."
"So you're basically talking about vampires."
"Yes. Two distinct groups. The good vampires try to protect the Brightsiders and keep them from finding out about us. The bad vampires tend to find places to feed where they won't be noticed and are careful not to leave any of their victims alive."
"Hold on. When I went to the hospital for a blood test, the doctor made me strip naked and looked at me really carefully to be sure that I hadn't been bitten. He was checking me for vampire bites, wasn't he?"
"Yes. I guess you must have mentioned White Castle when you talked to him, because Rafe called me when he was done examining you and asked me about what was going on."
"Dr. Killian is one of you?"
"Yes. Even though it can be difficult at times, some of us have found ways to manage lives in the Brightsider world."
"So all that talk about 'brain eating amoebas' was just talk?"
"Yeah. He used to talk about hemorrhagic fever like that, but people aren't as afraid of that as they used to be." Lane said with a smile, then his expression became serious as he quietly said, "Be on alert. There's someone up ahead."
* * * * *
Agent Roberts took slow careful steps as he followed Lane into the next clearing. His hand automatically went to the weapon he had tucked in his belt.
"Oh, it's you!" Lane said with relief.
"It took you long enough! I was just about to call to see if you were alright." A younger teenager said with annoyance.
"Shawn, this is Duran, my husband." Lane said as he draped an arm around Duran's shoulders.
"It's nice to meet you." Agent Roberts said uncertainly.
"Is he the one from earlier?" Duran asked quietly.
"Yes. I could tell that he wouldn't be able to let it go until he saw for himself that things were resolved, so I brought him along."
"If Morgan finds out, he's going to explode."
"I'll count that as a bonus."
"I just heard from Kevin a few minutes ago. We need to go north. They may have found him."
"You up to a hike, Shawn?"
After making a point to look at his suit and dress shoes, Agent Roberts asked, "Do I have time to go and get some proper hiking gear?"
"Try to keep up." Lane said with a grin, then left the path and took off cross country.
* * * * *
Shawn did his best to keep up with the pair, but he was frankly in awe of their ability to travel across the untamed landscape without even a flashlight to guide them.
At one time or another he had seen each of them dart into places that he would swear that a rabbit couldn't go.
At one point he found Lane standing on a rise, watching him, waiting for him to catch up.
Agent Roberts had the distinct feeling that the pair could have traversed the distance in half the time if he hadn't been accompanying them.
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts finally arrived, Duran made a shushing motion.
With a few gestures, Lane and Duran indicated for Agent Roberts and another man to remain where they were and to stay silent.
After receiving matching nods from the pair, Duran and Lane moved so quickly that they almost seemed to vanish right before Shawn's eyes.
* * * * *
The minutes that followed were agonizing.
Agent Roberts and the unknown man stood silently, both listening for any indication of what was going on.
The sound of the man's cell phone ringing nearly made Agent Roberts jump out of his skin.
"This is Kevin. What'cha got?" The man asked by way of greeting.
Shawn waited anxiously for any clue to be revealed.
"We're on our way." Kevin said before disconnecting the call and putting his phone away.
Before Agent Roberts could ask, Kevin said, "They've got him, but they're going to need our help."
"Who are you?"
"Kevin Erickson. I'm guessing since you're on the sideline with me, that you're not one of them either." Kevin said as he forged their path through the untamed woods.
"No. I'm just a regular guy." Agent Roberts reluctantly admitted as he did his best to point the flashlight where it was needed.
"Don't let it get you down. They need people like us. I sometimes wish that they'd bring a few more in. They take too many unnecessary risks just to protect their secret." Kevin said as he determinedly pressed forward.
"People like us?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"Yes. We're their hands and eyes in the world of sunlight. The Shadesiders have amazing abilities and can do so much to improve the world, but they're hobbled by their aversion to sunlight and their need to remain hidden. Together we can realize possibilities that neither of us could conquer alone." Kevin said passionately.
"Forgive me for asking, but are you part of some kind of a religion or something?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"I guess you could say that. I'm what's called a Behilflicher. My family line has been the daytime protectors of those we now call Shadesiders for thirteen generations. Although it isn't exactly a religion, I was raised to understand that I was born with a duty and a destiny."
"Thirteen generations? This thing is a whole lot bigger than what I'm seeing, isn't it?"
"Yes." Kevin chirped, then quickly added, "They should be just up ahead."
* * * * *
"You two, be sure to stay back until we have him under control." Lane said with difficulty.
Agent Roberts was surprised to see Lane, Duran and two others trying to overpower and subdue the naked, filthy version of Devin Barnes.
"What can we do to help you?" Kevin asked seriously.
"Some handcuffs would be nice." Lane immediately responded.
"That's not something I'm in the habit of carrying." Kevin said regretfully.
"Here you go." Agent Roberts said as he held a pair of handcuffs out to Kevin.
"Your new friend has some. Catch." Kevin called, then threw the handcuffs to Lane.
Agent Roberts was surprised when Lane's hand popped up and caught the handcuffs perfectly.
As Lane fought to get the cuffs on the boy, Agent Roberts caught his first good look at Devin's face.
Whereas he had been able to tell himself that everything so far had been mistaken perceptions and enthusiastic exaggerations, the hideously deformed face with snarling fangs finally convinced him that he was actually dealing with something beyond the 'natural'.
In addition to that drastic physical transformation, Agent Roberts could also see that Devin appeared to have some formidable claws, on both his hands and feet.
As Lane got one of the handcuffs placed, Devin suddenly twisted and arched his body and very nearly freed himself.
Without thinking, Agent Roberts drew his weapon and trained it on the boy as he held perfectly still.
"Please don't shoot him." Kevin said quietly from his side.
"I promise not to shoot unless I have no other choice." Agent Roberts said as he fought down his rising adrenaline.
"If they can capture him, we're hoping that we'll be able to help him." Kevin quietly explained.
"Help him? How?"
"That's not my department. But if they believe that they can do it, I think it's worth giving them every opportunity."
"What caused this to happen to him?" Agent Roberts asked as he continued to hold his gun steadily before him.
"I don't know his story, so I can only tell you what I believe based on the stories that I was told as a child."
Devin let loose a feral growl that sent a shiver up Agent Roberts' spine.
"It's been said that in the past, there were people among the peasantry who couldn't accept the blessing of the bite. Those wretched souls would divest themselves of all humanity and assume the forms of animals, living only for carnal pleasures, never to be human again."
"Could you tell me what that means in plain English?" Agent Roberts asked hopefully.
"Although it's basically unheard of in the modern age, I believe that what we've encountered is a werewolf."
"A werewolf? You mean with full moons, silver bullets and all of that?"
"Those are just things made up by authors and movie producers to make their stories more entertaining. In reality, the stories of actual werewolves are nothing less than tragic. By my understanding of it, werewolves are failed vampires. When the transformative organism is introduced into their bodies, the change that results is drastically different from Shadesiders or Darksiders. Mentally, they lose their sense of self and become wild animals. Physically, their bodies are able to transform to become almost animal in appearance."
"I've seen some pictures taken of Devin from yesterday and he looked... well, mostly human. He certainly didn't look anything like this."
"He can transform now. I doubt that he has the mental capacity to know that he's doing it, but there are times when he'll look entirely human and other times when he will look like a beast."
"But he was wearing clothes yesterday and today he's not."
"Again, I don't know anything about this boy specifically, you said his name was Devin? Well, if he were wearing clothes yesterday, that could indicate that he either hadn't completed the transformation yet or that he had only recently transformed and hadn't fully lost his humanity at that time."
"Does that mean that if they're able to subdue him, that they might be able to do something to help him?"
"That's the hope. As I said, there are no accounts of werewolves existing in the modern age. While I'm sure that Rafe has a plan, no one can be sure if it will work or not."
"Rafe? As in Dr. Killian?"
"Yes. He has the most knowledge about the transformative. He's been studying it for centuries. If there's anything that can be done to help Devin, he'll know about it."
"You can put your gun away. We got him." Duran called out.
Agent Roberts surveyed the scene before him and saw that they had Devin's hands cuffed behind his back and had the boy forced down on the ground with his face in the dirt.
"What do you need for us to do?" Kevin asked seriously.
"We're parked at 3rd and Reinhard. Go on ahead and see if you can arrange it so that we won't draw too much attention." Duran said decisively as he pitched Kevin his keys.
"Will you help me?" Kevin asked Agent Roberts hopefully.
"Sure. It'll be good to be able to do something to help."
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts and Kevin arrived at the street, it was like stepping into a different world. There was light traffic passing by and no one seemed to take notice of them at all.
"Good. It's not too busy." Kevin said with relief.
"What are we supposed to do?" Agent Roberts asked as he looked around.
"Open the trunk for them, then we'll do whatever else is necessary. We might have to provide a distraction so that they can get Devin into the car without being seen."
"I'm an FBI agent. I'm not sure that I should really be participating in something like this."
"FBI, huh? Tell me, why are you here? What kept you from calling in reinforcements at the fight or firing your gun back there?"
"I guess that I just wanted to know what was really going on."
"Then help us get Devin into the car. Whatever answers you're looking for are probably going to be at our destination."
"Do you know where that is?"
"No one's said, but I'd be willing to bet that we're going to Rafe and Dodger's house."
* * * * *
It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for the four Shadesiders to carry the naked struggling boy out of the woods, but as soon as they cleared the park entrance, they had Devin in the trunk in the blink of an eye.
Lane and Duran got into the car where they had put Devin in the trunk, the other two Shadesiders hurried back into the park as Kevin and Agent Roberts got into Kevin's car.
Although Agent Roberts was aware that he had an opportunity to ask any questions that he might have, he found that he already had too much new information to process.
In the end, they rode in silence, each thinking their own thoughts.
To Be Continued...
I can't tell you how happy I am to read a new episode of this wonderful saga.
I will point out that it would help you understand who some of the people you have met in this part if you have already read or will take the time to read the earlier sections. Having said that, I will also say that you can read this story without having read the previous material and still be able to keep up with events as they unfold. As is always the case with stories by MultiMapper you will find that you will be completely invested in keeping up with the people you will meet.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher