Special thanks to Katy Reynolds and Chris Reed for supplying some of this week’s .gifs!
Episode 3: Hone, Hone in on the Strange
Hello there, dear reader! Dr. Jackson O’Brien here. Long-suffering Bibliophile, notable Ergophile, unfairly accused Chrysophile, and self-admitted Turophile. Currently freelancing as a detective into matters left of reality center.
With the events of Chance Valley behind me, I endeavored to make good on my promise to the newly restored Dr. Terrance Staffordshire to seek out additional allies in my quest to unravel the tangled web of dubious intrigue that had been so deviously crocheted into being by my illusive nemesis: The Man in the Paisley Scarf.
I had to concede that his brilliance was only outstripped by his continued patronage of malevolent arts and crafts superstore, Pastime Foyer. (Today’s episode was brought to you by a generous contribution from Pastime Foyer. “Pastime Foyer: Fine purveyor of overpriced Fleurs-de-lis and secretly hoping that none of you have ever had access to a thesaurus since 1965!”)
But that meant that there was only one place that I could travel to, if I hoped to find the kind of savvy, expertise, and constitutional fortitude that such bizarre cases require.
The Idiosyncratic Institute Headquarters. The I.I.H.Q.
And T.B.H. I had to get to I.I.H.Q. decidedly A.S.A.P. to garner assistance P.D.Q. Or the situation would turn decidedly F.U.B.A.R., at least I.M.H.O, when looked at objectively. A.F.A.I.K.
Once home, I immediately retired to my study, wherein I consulted with the personal contact line the I.I.H.Q. Had gifted me with upon completion of their curriculum. It in turn regarded me, quite intensely.
You will no doubt note the oddity here, to which I can only apologize on their behalf. It does not, in fact, have Wi-Fi. Your disappointment no doubt mirrors my own, but we soldier on with what we have in the face of such technological adversity.
Incidentally, though I studied at this historic institution, I could not begin to relate to you where it is located. As far as I am aware, the I.I.H.Q. has no physical address, GPS coordinates, does not appear on satellite photography of any level, and quite possibly does not exist within the confines of three dimensions as we would recognize them. It does, however, have a newsletter.
So, for those of you wishing to follow in my footsteps, I’m afraid you will have to take what is ostensibly the long way ’round. Just stand in your bedroom, facing north, on the third Wednesday of that month, and recite the code word that was printed on the inside of every box of Corn Pops with a serial number ending in “42”. From there, you need only close your eyes, assume the fetal position, and wait. You will know that you have correctly followed procedure to the letter when every electronic device in your house, including the ones that have no speakers to begin with, begins playing Europe’s seminal hit, “The Final Countdown”. For absolute verification, the lyrics will be sung in Esperanto.
Closing your eyes in this instance is not a prerequisite, per se, but it is for your own protection to shield you from what follows, as the Entrant Gathering Organism can prove to be . . . somewhat unsettling to those that are not properly prepared for its unique presentation. I recall witnessing it in action attempting to collect a would-be recruit.
It was an unfortunate occurrence, and it lost the I.I.H.Q. a promising candidate.
So, by way of the direct line, it let out a piercing shriek from an unseen orifice, and I simply materialized before the non-euclidean edifice of the I.I.H.Q., and made my way inside. The spacious lobby was as inviting as ever, and still decorated in an ahead-of-its-time blending of tastes best described as Art Deco-meets-Lucid Dreaming. This was complete with an indoor forest of a questionable morality. The seasoned enthusiasts reading this are no doubt nodding their heads in appreciation for such avant garde interior design.
The receptionist, a dour individual from realities unknown with a name rendered impossible to pronounce by the human tongue and therefore known simply as “Dave”, greeted me with marginally less menace than he otherwise used on new petitioners and solicitors. Trust me. That was as good as a hearty hello and a warm embrace from the fellow, who for some reason I’m told inspires night terrors in the janitorial staff.
I honestly never saw the fuss. He’s congenial enough in his own multidimensional way.
Apparently my arrival was a matter of foreknowledge, for before I could speak my request to meet with any current agents on sight, Dave merely pointed with an inhumanly elongated hand to his left towards what I knew to be conference room one, and the flow of grit from what passed for his eyes took on an earnest quality.
He then fixed me with a look that would have seized the very intangible weave of my soul’s essence—as the predator’s talons might slice into the supple viscera of the unfortunate mewling prey—had I not already undergone HR orientation and Outer-Dark interpersonal sensitivity training. I responded, as per Institute policy, with a shaky laugh and a thumbs-up, as we have been told that such psychic assaults are Dave’s attempts at humor.
I found it a bit dry with some work needed on the delivery, but far be it from me to stifle Dave’s flair. Not everyone can appreciate a good knock-knock joke that provokes a spiritual crisis, and the last thing I wanted would be to ruin the quality relationship we had.
I inclined my head to him in thanks, and proceeded past the double doors of polished wood inlaid with the Institute’s Crest—a single Eye bisected with an unknown glyph that appeared to track your movements no matter where you stood—and into the conference room. Upon my entrance, two full agents with whom I’ve passing familiarity turned to regard me.
“Agents Ein and Zwei,” I said happily, “it’s good to see you gentleman again.”
Ein, clean-cut and ever the raconteur, beamed and inclined his head to me. “Dr. O’Brien, it is positively a delight to meet with you today. I was just remarking to Agent Zwei that it is past time that you enrolled in the primary agency course. You’ve certainly conducted enough field work on your own to merit an official badge. Of course, Zwei here almost would not allow me to get a word in edgewise, overflowing as he was with commensurate praise.”
Zwei adjusted his ponytail, and grunted something that could be construed as an affirmative response.
“Well then, high praise indeed,” I replied, and gestured to the waiting armchairs. “Shall we get right down to it, gentlemen? I trust that you’re already aware of the situation, and my needs.”
We sat, reclined, and paused for a moment to allow Dave to enter with a tray of tea. After the three of us shuddered in silence beneath the baleful attentions of another of Dave’s jokes, we laughed, thumbs-upped in unison, and bade him farewell. As customary, we enjoyed our tea quietly before we would move on to proper discussion.
Ein reached into his coat and retrieved his after-tea relaxation implement of choice, The Party Favor of Hephaestus. Both agents were quiet for a moment as he enjoyed.
Exhaling the last supple cloud of Olympus-brad vapor, Ein tucked away the device, and regarded me with a knowing smile.
“As you said,” he began, with that sonorous tone of his, “it so happens that we do know the particulars, and the request you are going to make. It is certainly a situation that warrants our expertise, and you would be hard pressed to see the matter you’ve undertaken to conclusion without our invaluable assistance.”
I saluted with my empty cup. “Thank you, gentlemen. I daresay I’m-”
“Which is why,” interrupted Ein, “after careful consideration and at least five minutes of passing deliberation with the Board of Directors, we’ve decided to deny your request.”
Had I any tea left, I would have splattered it down my front in shock. “You what?” I asked, dumbfounded. “But why?”
Zwei might have smirked. It was rather hard to tell, but his answering grunt sounded slightly more sarcastic than usual. Ein leaned forward in his chair at that, nodding to his compatriot. “Aptly stated,” he said. “Though perhaps a bit terse.” There was a sudden chime, and the sound of a loud click from the wall. A hidden door on the far side of the room opened, revealing a jovial man inside, whose default setting was, apparently, set to “capering”.
He informed the agents that their next meeting was waiting, a message that was cleverly delivered by tap-danced Morse Code which was in and of itself encoded in case of spying. I, being studious, knew the cipher.
Having heard and understood the musical message, Ein turned to regard me, and continued his explanation. “The sad truth of the matter is that while we believe and have painstakingly documented the cases that you have brought to our attention, it is the position of the Idiosyncratic Institute that the individual known as ‘The Man in the Paisley Scarf’ does not exist. Therefore, we can not apply time, money, and personnel to a matter regarding a non-existent individual, for as you know our budget allotting for matters concerning irritating illusive individuals was cut last year. I’m terribly sorry.”
Anger stirred in my breast. I stood, my shoulders shaking with indignation, and I pointed vaguely in the direction of where I knew the Board room lay. “Surely the Director would not be so quick to dismiss my claims!” I challenged.
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Ein replied smoothly. “I’m afraid that regardless of your past history with him, the Director only fields direct requests from official staff. Which is precisely why Agent Zwei and myself were so intent on postulating when you would become a full agent, you see. From the moment you completed the training course to receiving a response would only be a mere two years. Less time, if you excel.”
Both Ein and Zwei smiled at me in a way that did not reach their eyes, which were dull with the lingering morass of the choking miasma that is the machinery called bureaucracy.
“Was there anything else, Dr. O’Brien?” Ein politely asked.
I knew a dismissal when I heard one, in seventeen forms of communication no less. “No,” I said, turning to depart. “I suppose there isn’t. Thank you for your time, Agents.”
Both nodded, and I left the way I came. As I exited, the aforementioned follow-up meeting rushed past me, and into the room. I assume by the manner of gait and posture that the individual was involved in something decidedly time-sensitive, and so I politely made way.
I gave Dave the barest of nods as I passed through the lobby, and I walked through the front doors into nothingness that was lit from without and within by the light of might-have-been. I was blinded but for a moment, before I was once again standing in my study at home.
Denied. I was on my own as far as the I.I.H.Q. Was concerned. But fear not, gentle reader, for I, Dr. Jackson O’Brien, am made of more resilient stuff than your average do-gooder, and refused to capitulate to the whimsy of this Universe. If I could not find help through the official channels, then I would seek out allies through less orthodox means.
The Man in the Paisley Scarf had gathered capable individuals, and so would I. I flipped through my Rolodex Arcana—a gift from a previous client that I had helped once in a harrowing day of moving to a new apartment—and stopped upon the first likely possibility. I dialed the number.
“Hello,” I spoke into the phone upon connection. “It’s me. I’m calling in my marker.”
Stunned silence answered me for a handful of moments before a raspy voice replied, “Are you sure, man-thing?”
I felt myself smiling. “Yes. Summon the Order of the Velvet Elvis. It’s time for debts to be repaid.”
And that is where I leave you for now, beloved reader. I wish you the most courageous of endeavors, a willing heart, and the tenacity to press on, as I certainly shall!
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