EXIT 23: PT. 6
"Back, Unholy Hellspawn -- I have a WASTEBASKET!"
Jacob Dumont, the trucker, probably thought he had the drop on our intrepid yet terrified heroes. But he'd forgotten the wounded Martial Artist in the donut shop -- Andy.
Andy hit Dumont broadside, hammered him to the head. Dumont dropped to one knee. Ross finished him off with the shotgun butt to the head.
In a minute flat the trucker was tied to a chair. The party debated about what to do before he awoke. Andy remembered from his occult education (a bad translation of the Necromonicon, a Goth girlfriend and too many Hellblazer comics) that snow demons were probably vulnerable to fire or silver.
"No," said Ross dryly, "I thought maybe fine china or crystal."
Ignoring him, Stephen guessed there was oil for the fryolators in the McDonald's next door. (DM's Note: Not in the adventure description, but hell yeah, you gotta give that one to him.) Stephen gathered fire-making materials: flares, two gallons of oil, a wastebasket to set a burning flame in, paper and magazines for fuel. Jo whimpered slightly when she realized her vodka had bottomed out, but she immediately converted it into an ad hoc Molotov Cocktail. Now she was a drunk Southern girl with a gun and explosives.
Ross slapped Dumont awake. The trucker awoke with a snarl. "You defilers! You will pay! You will suffer the WRTHMMPHMMM..." Dumont trailed off. Swallowed. Carefully considered his next move. A pistol crammed between your teeth will do that to you.
CLICK! Dumont shuddered as Ross pulled the trigger. "Now, either there's one bullet in here," Ross smiled. "Start talking." A beat. "Not gonna talk, huh? Well, let's pull the --"
"Ross, man, take the gun out of his mouth." Andy was still being practical.
Dumont snarled again, but with more respect. "You have crossed the Treize Corbins, fools. Even if you survive tonight, we will track you down!" With repeated "encouragement" from Ross (DM's Note: Alignment? We don't need no stinkin' alignment in Dark*Matter ...) Dumont spilled the beans. The Treize Corbins were "The Thirteen Crows", the acolytes of the Wizard who'd owned the Snow Globe. They'd thought all their Master's works lost. Dumont got wind that the Hoffman Institute was at the old house and swung by. He spotted Riley with the Snow Globe, recognized it for its power, and set off in pursuit. The other members of the cult had summoned ... what lay outside, focused through the snow globe.
"Give me the Snow Globe, and I promise you all quick, painless deaths." Dumont tried to look friendly.
"Smash the frikkin' Snow Globe," said Andy, Ross, and Stephen at the same time.
Jo raised the Snow Globe above her head. At that moment the wind HOWLED again. Stephen rushed to the door. A Dark shape coalesced outside the shattered front entrance --
"SMASH THE SNOW GLOBE!" Ahmed, Annie, Danny and the female trucker screamed. Mabel babbled incoherently. With a cry Jo HURLED the glass vessel of evil to the floor!
Clinkita. Bounce. Bounce.
Jo stared at the intact Snow Globe. She stepped on it. She SHOT it. An inhuman HOWL mixed with the obscene otherworldy whispers, building. Dumont cackled insanely.
The Winter Demon appeared in the doorway. The only way out.
"Back, Unholy Beast!" Stephen stepped forward brandishing a lit flare. The Seven foot killing machine actually jerked back a moment, its red eyes narrowing. Stephen dropped the flare into his wastebasket of fuel, which stood in the door. The flames LEAPED UP --
-- about seven inches. More of a pleasant kindling fire than the inferno he'd hoped for. Kind of ... cheery.
The Winter Demon kicked the wastebasket aside, in the same move raking his claws across Stephen, knocking him away. The Demon did hesitate when Jo's Molotov Cocktail burst into flames around it. Burning, screaming, it extended its full six inch claws and fangs, roared into the room.
"Fire? ... FIRE!" Andy dove for the Snow Globe. The stove behind the counter was on, they'd left a gas burner lit so they could light their explosives. "Catch!"
In one smooth move Andy underhanded the Globe to Ross. Ross caught the Globe in one hand, emptied a silver-packed shotgun blast into the beast. It ROARED with pain, and for once an actual wound appeared. Ross then turned, ignoring his girlfriend's screamed obcscenities and rapid firing, and SMACKED the Globe onto the burner.
Instantly, cracks appeared in the Snow Globe. The Demon SWATTED Andy away, a fine mist of blood shooting up as his wound reopened. It CRASHED past Johanna, the young woman falling in a heap with broken ribs. It reached for Ross --
-- as he brought the shotgun butt down on the Globe. The Snow Globe cracked again .. and SHATTERED!
The Demon convulsed, screaming. Blood trickled from Dumont's shattered eardrums. In a blur of snow and ice and inhuman wailing -- the Demon vanished.
An uneathly still settled on the room. Most of the bystanders were crying. Mabel rocked gently back and forth. Outside the wind softened. From his viewpoint on the floor, Andy could look all the way out the foyer to the outside; the snow stopped. The heavy grey sky broke up, revealing the black mountain sky and twinkling stars. Stephen and Ross helped Jo to her feet. They tried to get the nine mil away from her, but she kept her death grip on it. Something in her eyes told them that Jo had been ... "pushed" a little far tonight. She'd need some time. "Now what?" asked Stephen.
"Now," said Andy, practical even as he pushed his guts back inside himself, "we frame that trucker motherf#@*&er for all this carnage."
At the news of a dead Trooper, the State Police arrived like an invasion force. Dumont was unconscious and unable to give his side of the story (DM's Note: Thanks Ross.) so they listened as Andy spun out a tale of horror and violence, about how the crazed cultist had taken them all hostage, had killed some of them in some sick ritual, and finally had tried to burn the place down, only to be overcome by our intrepid heroes at the last moment.
A little thin, but Andy had made a point of putting Dumont's fingerprints on all the guns, the Trooper, and Riley's cornea. Some of the others were disturbed by the ease with which he covered up a violent crime scene, but they let it slide.
Jo waved to a now totally-snapped Mabel as she was eased into an ambulance. She was the first to spot the black Ford Taurus pulling up to the Rest Stop. "Guys?"
The party formed up as a trim, imposing woman in a business suit stepped from the Taurus. She seemd to know exactly who to talk to, walked right up to them.
"Mary Carter. Riley's papers?"
Andy handed them over. When the others looked at him he confessed, "I called the Hoffman Institute to tell them Riley was dead. Told them the whole story. Seemed the right thing to do."
Agent Carter took in the scene, the shattered doors, the deep drifts of snow, Her voice was a whisper, more from a habitual sense of discretion rather than any need to actually be quiet. "A Winter Demon. And you people walked out. Damn. Now I have seen everything. If I had a nickel for every time we showed up and there was nothing more than a series of blood smears..."
"Pardon the interruption but could you PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT THE F#&K HAPPENED?" The others quickly calmed Andy before he attracted the Troopers' notice again.
"You've figured most of it out. You fought a Winter Demon. The world isn't what you think it is. The only thing unexplained is why you people are alive, and I'm as puzzled as you. Come on then." She led them to her car. "The Hoffman Institute will pay for your treatment at the nearest Emergency Room plus any follow-up you need. I noticed some of the cars in the parking lot are destroyed. We'll reimburse you Blue Book plus a bonus to replace them if they're yours."
Stephen pulled up short. "Wait. You're trying to bribe us!"
Agent Carter was amused. "Bribe you? Why?"
"So we won't go to the press!"
"No one will believe you."
"There must be organizations that know these things exist."
Carter shrugged. "Yes. There's us, and the forty others who will kill you just to shut you up. Now, you acted as de facto agents of the Hoffman institute when you took over Riley's case. So I'm compensating you as such. End of story. You want to walk away without medical attention, you go right ahead. But stop trying to play me. I've run higher stakes with things that make that Winter Demon look like an Elmo doll."
With a look, the group made a silent agreement, climbed into the car. Agent Carter started the engine, turned to them. "Here. My card. The fact you're alive means you all have at least the potential to work with the Hoffman Agency. Give us a call if you're interested."
The group snorted almost as one. They all had lives, careers ahead of them in LA. They'd put this nightmare behind them, get on with their lives.
Sure, the world wasn't what they thought. It was different. Dangerous. Stranger. Terrifying. But they could live with that.
"Reality is not only stranger than you imagine, it's stranger than you CAN imagine."
It was only a few weeks later, during orientation training for the Hoffman Institute, when Andy, Ross and Jo, and Stephen saw each other again. A few terse nods, a few nervous words ... although all four had individually coped with the quantum weirdness of the incidents at Exit 23, somehow seeing the other survivors rattled them, made it tangible. All had to admit, though, that after that night, they had to see what the Hoffman Institute had to offer.
The public face of the Hoffman Institute was of a think tank/research center, sort of a paranormal National Geographic Society. That was also the first twelve layers of their private face. But despite the "need to know" attitute the Institute takes with recruits, they learned enough in a few days -- and saw the evidence to back it up -- to set every conspiracy freak in the world into permanent blissful catatonia.
All four did well -- better than most of the recruits, actually, as they didn't need to make the conceptual leap the others did. They already knew the world was strange, while the rest were just learning this. All four showed certain aptitudes. Ross picked up on strategy, interrogation, and general small arms tactics. Johanna wasn't much one for strategy, but she could get anyone to open up to her and she trained obsessively with her Sig Sauer pistol.
And she still drank.
Also, she developed a nascent interest in legitimate psychic research.
She didn't let it interfere with her drinking.
Andy found that what other people called "con man" the Institute called "Agent", and his surface knowledge of the occult was deepened by exposure to real phenomena. Stephen also proved an excellent interviewer and investigator. Despite his training, though, he seemed unable to bandage a wound without eliciting even more serious bleeding.
After several weeks of training, they were called before Richard Patterson, the LA Section Chief for the Hoffman Institute.
"I'm Patterson. You can call me 'sir.' Sit." The foursome looked at each other nervously, took their seats. "Congratulations. You've been fast-tracked. Read your file on the Exit 23 incident, helluva thing. You should all be dead."
"I really wish people would stop saying that," muttered Jo.
"Got a training mission for you, a straight fact-finding job. As you know, the Hoffman Institute keeps a website open for people to submit claims of the paranormal or supernatural. Got an interesting report from a Desmond family in Kenosha right out Route 10. Poltergeists. We'd like you to check it out." Patterson dropped a stack of files on his desk for them to plow through. "Take notes -- none of this is cleared to leave this room."
"You don't trust us?" asked Ross.
"Well, no. But that's besides the point. Many of our raw data sources come into our hands through rather .. unorthodox means. We can't have that traced back. Anyway, this pile is what archives spat out in the search, you'll have to make sense of it."
"What about a cover?" asked Andy.
"Soft, level 1." Patterson threw them car keys. "Passenger van out front loaded with video recording equipment, seats nine plus the cargo. You should be able to figure out everything, at least well enough to fake it. The father of the family, Peter Desmond, thinks you're a documentary crew. Get footage for real, if you can." Patterson then produced the Agent standard equipment pack. A Sig Sauer 9 mil with an extra clip -- "Leave it in the van unless you need it" -- ID Badges and state-of-the-art cell phones. Each of the phones came with earpiece plug-ins, and at the flick of a switch they became communicators tuned to a private frequency, like walkie-talkie headsets.
Patterson left the group to their research, with the caveat that they had to be on the road in two hours. After some careful collating, the group pulled the following useful information from the massive stack:
-- The Desmond home is a single story ranch house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Peter Desmond, his 17 year old son Jerry from his first marriage, his wife Susan and their 4 year old daughter Eliza. Desmond is a local police officer.
-- the house was previously occupied by Daniel and Sarah Moorehouse. During their time at the house, over 14 insurance claims for broken objects were filed, without adequate explanation. The year before the Desmond family moved in, Daniel Moorehouse was found dead of a gunshot wound to the face. Sarah Moorehouse disappeared and hasn't been seen since.
-- From various police reports collected over ten years, they found that Peter Desmond's first wife, Heidi, the mother of Jerry, suffered multiple breakdowns, multiple disappearances, once abducted infant Jerry, and was eventually committed. She escaped her institution, never to be seen again.
-- Peter Desmond is actually the grandson of one of the great spiritualist researchers of the early 20th century, although he appears ignorant of the fact.
Checking their watches, the four climbed into the van and set off for a pleasant afternoon in the suburbs ...
Don't think I tweaked anything appreciatively, may just have left out a few of the little details that the crew themselves didn't focus on.
This one and the first sample adventure played out pretty much as planned, except for Andy's innovative solution for the end of RAW RECUITS. It makes me doubt my adventure design skills, as they thoroughly confounded me on my three homebrews. I comfort myself with the knowledge that by this point they were experienced enough to handle Dark*Matter game style a little more comfortably, and because I gave them totally open choices.
I actually used a phrase which has come back to haunt my gaming group. "That is a perfecty valid story path." Now our rotating DM's delight in laying out meandering side roads which can easily lead impressionable players astray.
The price on Dark*Matter is that this very talented crew of writers (ALL of them are writers) will come up with perfectly valid yet totally out of the blue choices in handling individual crises. I have to scramble constantly.
Let's just say I didn't anticipate them Fed-Exing the undead.
A little more time must pass before the next update, but I'll leave you with several game quotes from different sessions, all in character because, as we know, they play themselves:
"Wait, didn't we KEEP that anal corer?! I know we did!"
"Ow. Apparently clerics can't turn the undead in the real world."
"Slinging my arm around the shapely teenage girl mechanic, I spray the flames with the gasoline hose."
"I think this geek-boy went Harry Potter on his brother's a$$."
"Everybody get in the van. We're leaving and letting Little Miss Majestic 12 talk her way out of this ..."
Unfortunately, I think that story was a true casualty of the board shift -- I don't know if she had it all in a file or not. I'll ask. We were neck deep in angry monkeys, and we hadn't even gotten to the shapeshifters, sewer gibbering mouthers, Vampire Vigils, or drug-crazed priapic priests of Corean ...
PC let me sweeten the deal for you, C&P the old thread and I'll send you a picante recipe that'll knock you out of your Penny loafers !! I'll have some new ones for you manana PC, Grilled Shimp anyone ?