I love it when Friday rolls around and our whole case is wrapped up so I can just tell you what happened without having to wait to tie up loose ends.
I thought the bone snake would take days of struggle, but it turned out to be really easy. All we had to do was go walk in the woods and think prey thoughts and within like an hour, it was following us.
“Do you hear that?” Neal whispered. The only sound was a slight whispering in the undergrowth. “It’s following us.”
“And that’s… a good thing,” Agent Steva said, because yes, surprise, we have our own FBI escort now!
At that point we were pretty sure they thought we’d set up an elaborate scheme to draw them into a trap, because they were just… going along with everything we said and did without causing much of a fuss. If I didn’t have a deep-seated rage and terror of them, it might have been sort of funny.
“Our goal is to bring this creature to a safe, comfortable place where it can live out the rest of its life in peace, without hurting anyone” Julian replied. “So yes, it’s good.”
“And what was your goal at the blood bank?” Steva said. She wasn’t being sulky, she had the quippy, neutral tone of cop trying to lull you into a sense of security so you spill all your secrets.
“Oh that was to protect people from vampires,” I replied and kept right on walking through the ferns.
It barely took twenty minutes for Neal to bring us to a stop. “He should have caught up to us by now,” he said. “He must still be bleeding.”
He pulled out the steaks from his bag, tossed one in the dirt in front of him and sat down.
“All right, I’m gonna need everyone that has no idea what’s happening here to go ahead and back away,” he said. “I don’t think this guy’s gonna have much juice, so we should be safe, but just in case, Julian —”
“Yeah,” Julian said, which I knew was code for keep an eye on Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, FBI.
“Shiloh,” Neal tapped his earlobes. “Just in case.” So I put in my headphones and we waited.
Within ten minutes the poor creature appeared, at first just a white skull in the ferns.
“Hello,” Neal murmured, and tossed a chunk of stew meat at it. It opened up its bony jaw and something dark inside reached forward and grabbed the beef. It disappeared inside. “Yeah, there you go,” Neal said. “Little closer.”
“Oh my god,” Mulligan breathed. “What is it?”
I rolled my eyes, and none of us answered.
None of us answered the next ten questions he asked us either as Neal coaxed the poor creature out of the undergrowth. It took barely an hour for the creature to be taking meat out of Neal’s hand. The bullet wound in its thigh was still oozing blood.
“I’m gonna tranq it,” Neal said, in a soft even tone as the snake went for the steaks. He murmured soft things to the snake friend as he got his needle out, stroked in the feathers, and gently poked it. For a moment the snake lurched in alarm, but then got drowsy, it’s eye lights dimmed and it fell asleep.
“Alright, he’s out, let’s move,” Neal called, and we all got to work. Julian lifted the snake’s hips so Neal could get a better look at the wound. My job was to slide the muzzle over his bony snout and keep an eye for when he started to wake up, which basically meant I got to just pet his soft soft feathers.
Neal had already finished the cleaning, stitches, and bandaging when the bone snake started to wake up, and Julian quickly took my place holding his head still while I got to work sliding meat between the jaws of his skull and into the strange grasping little hands inside, which reached for and then dragged inside little chunks of meat.
So fucking cool. What a weird little friend.
Eventually he calmed down. Funny what being hand fed steaks will do for an animal. I was, obviously, enamored, so enamored that I almost forgot that Agents Steva and Mulligan were keeping an eye on us until Agent Steva asked,
“What are you going to do with him now?”
“We have help flying in tonight,” Julian explained. “They’ll take this guy somewhere he’ll be safe and cared for.”
“…so like… a national park?” Mulligan asked.
“No,” Neal said coldly. “We’re not in the business of unleashing wild, strange creatures from other worlds into the wilderness where they might wreak any kind of havoc. No, they’re going to a…” he hesitated. “A rescue?”
“An organization that looks after monsters,” Mulligan said, awestruck. “Where is it?”
“Nowhere you’ll find it,” Neal promised, and Mulligan finally got visibly frustrated.
“You don’t think the general public has the right to know about this stuff?”
At which point, Julian intervened. “Maybe they do,” he said. “But in our experience, the more the public gets involved the more fear reactions we have to deal with, and the more fear we have to deal with, the more commonly we see unnecessary deaths. So yeah, maybe if we were going to act on our most noble aspirations, we would tell the world about the existence of these creatures. But the reality is that we can keep more people safe if we’re allowed to work without government interference. Which,” he added, before Mulligan could argue, “the government agrees with. That’s why they haven’t given you the answers you want.”
It’s just been like two days of dunking on our shadow agents and I feel so alive hahahaha. Which is funny, because if it were up to them, I’d be ✨dead✨
And then Agent Mulligan said, “was Fog Town a paranormal event?”
None of us answered him.
April came to pick up the snake from the emporium herself with a couple of interns, who’s names I don’t remember because they were really only in town for like 20 minutes. This bone snake really doesn’t take sedatives well, and keeps waking up on us so they pretty much had to put him in a trailer immediately.
“You came yourself!” Neal said when she arrived, and she wrapped him up in a huge hug. “It’s just a bone snake, you could have just sent interns! Aren’t you busy?”
“We’re slammed but I was nearby, and I heard you almost died,” she said, patting his cheeks with her big callused hands. Neal rolled his eyes.
“I’m alright,” he promised.
“Well you had us all scared,” she told him. “Beau is scheming to get you to take some time off at the emporium. You’d be doing us a favor, it’s out of control out there.”
Neal put his forehead on hers affectionately. Neal and April are literally so cute with each other. Like definitely platonic, I’m pretty sure April’s gay, and even if she wasn’t Neal’s pretty ass isn’t her type, but they’re so snuggly. “God that’s tempting,” he said. “Maybe we will. It would be good for Shiloh.”
Which perked me right up, because actually if we all went to the emporium that might actually be sort of ideal.
“But don’t tell Beau,” Neal added. “You know how he gets when he’s disappointed.”
“Do I ever,” April said and then rounded on the agents. “Who are these?”
Agent Steva began to answer, but Julian didn’t give her the opportunity. “These are our government tails,” he said. “They caught us.”
“Oh,” April said and made a face. “Yikes. What are we gonna do with them?”
Neal shrugged. “Bait, maybe?”
“Gotta be good for something,” April said, looking them over with a slight smirk, and while Agent Steva has been perhaps a bit disgruntled by their teasing, Agent Mulligan is literally IMMUNE. Like, I don’t know what this man’s damage is, but he is fucking RELENTLESS.
“Are you from the monster rescue?” he asked.
“We actually prefer cryptid,” April said. “Or creature, if you life. Monsters get a bad wrap.”
Neal and Julian ducked their faces to hide their laughter.
“Cryptid rescue,” Mulligan corrected, absolutely without irony and apparently oblivious to being teased.
“I am,” April said, directing one of the interns to unbend some of the bone snakes feathers. The plan was essentially to keep the poor thing sedated the whole way to the emporium. The stress of being trapped in the back of a dark, moving van is a lot for any creature really, and according to April, bone snakes can be psychologically delicate.
“Where are you located?” Mulligan asked and April laughed outright at him.
“You chase our best hunters all over the country for a full year, and then you want in?” She shook her head. “I don’t have time to deal with that kinda bullshit. You’re not getting a scrap from me.”
They suspended the bone snake in a big, heavy net hammock from the sides of the trailer, with ropes on every side to hold it still. The bone snake, who I’ve been calling Fingers (or Fingies), because of the weird, grasping tendrils that come from behind it’s skull, was sound asleep, which was sad. It spent all Wednesday night in our hotel room with us hahahaha. It’s wound was infected and it was getting sicker and sicker, which was probably why it was so happy to curl up on the end of my bed. Julian had to go get some emergency antibiotics from a local vet, and we kept it partially sedated, and kept watches all night, just in case — but listen, it was getting cuddly by the end there. I was sad to see him all loaded up and ready to go.
Despite being reprimanded at every turn, Mulligan wanted to know every detail of everything that was happening, kept getting in everyone’s way trying to understand.
Everyone — even the interns, who I don’t even know — were all cold and withholding, which I appreciated, even though even I had to admit, his enthusiasm was annoyingly endearing.
“You know,” Steva said at one point, while I was watching April show Mulligan how the skull was not actually attached to the animal, but actually held in place by those grasping little tendrils in order to protect the creature’s delicate mouth and many, writhing, boneless little fingers. “Hurting you was the worst mistake of his — either of our — careers.” And then after a pause. “Maybe our lives. We never meant to cause you harm.”
“…so the tracking me across the country despite my clear protestations was…?”
Steva sighed. “You’re an 18 year old girl, Shiloh. You’d just gone through something traumatic, you were so vulnerable, and then you get in a car with two strange, adult men — who, by the way, don’t legally exist. According the government, they’re not real.” She watched Mulligan peering between the skull’s teeth at Fingers’ face. “And then we had your mom saying you’d never leave without telling her what happened…”
That stung, that really stung.
“We truly thought you were in danger,” Steva said. “We thought that our actions had pushed you into a dangerous, abusive situation.”
At which point we looked up to watch Neal using his hands to imitate all the bone snake’s reaching tendrils. He wasn’t satisfied with the number of fingers, so he made Julian join him and then they both went after an intern with all their wriggling fingers to make them laugh.
“Yeah,” I said, sarcastically. “Abusive and dangerous.”
“Well, they didn’t turn out to be abusive,” Steva admitted, smiling wryly. “But you can’t deny, your life is dangerous.” And then, after a moment, “It was perhaps arrogant to think that we knew what was best.”
Steva smiled. “You might not understand this,” she said. “This secret world you live in, it found you. It doesn’t find all of us. Some of us have to chase it, are shut out of it at every turn, have powers greater than us slamming doors in our faces.”
She meant Mulligan who was deep in earnest conversation with April, who despite herself, couldn’t quite help engage with his enthusiasm.
I took a deep breath. I knew she was trying to explain, and to apologize.
“My best friend was as psychic,” I said. “She was having visions of me getting shot and dying in the woods.”
I watched Steva’s face carefully to see what she’d think, but she was a perfect mask of calm.
“So,” I went on, “she decided to do everything in her power to prevent my death. And to that end, she had to die herself. That’s how I lived. Madelyn sacrificed everything, and I woke up.” I watched Mulligan run a reverent hand along the bone snake’s feathers. “He didn’t just kill me. He killed both of us.”
Steva was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “If your friend sacrificed everything to keep you alive, why were you in the woods that night?”
I opened, and then closed my mouth.
“From where I was standing, you were about to have your throat slit by cultists. I’m not sure you can blame us for that.”
But see, I wanted her to just eat crow and let me be angry.
“So it’s my own fault,” I said.
“No,” Steva replied. “Not at all, and I am truly, deeply sorry for the role we played in what happened that night. And I know our efforts were flawed, but we’ve spent this whole year trying to remedy that mistake. I don’t think you can put Madelyn’s death at our feet. She made her own choices, and so did you.”
Which is true, but I don’t have to like it.
“You don’t have to forgive us,” Steva began.
“I don’t,” I interrupted, to clarify, and she smiled.
“Fair enough. But just in case you’re still worried, don’t — we’re off your case,” she added. “We wrote up all our reports last night. As far as the government knows, your case has been a year-long mistake, a wild goose chase. Mulligan retracted his insistence that you were killed in the woods. Your file is clean. You’re a totally normal girl. No one from the government will be bothering you from here on out.”
What’s funny is that I genuinely hadn’t expected that. I hadn’t dared to imagine that I’d ever be safe from them again.
I’m free. No one is following us. It’s like an oppressive cloud has been lifted.
Since then, everything has been actually pretty civil. Julian took pity on them and explained our role in a few key cases — the cannibal one for starters, and the blood bank, but a few others as well, when they came close to catching us.
Mulligan is starving for details about how the world of hunting works. He wanted to know everything, first about the creatures and where they came from, then about how the life of a hunter works, from how we fund our endeavors, to how we create our false identities, and then — perhaps most passionately — about how it worked in conjunction with our government.
“You must have your own whole system of law,” he realized last night under the dim lights of a dingy little pizza parlor. “Your own government, and politics.”
The Hawthornes exchanged a glance. “Not exactly,” Neal said, hedging.
Mulligan waved him off. “Surely, you’re all fairly organized. You had people out here to handle transportation within 12 hours for goodness sake.”
“April’s a friend,” Neal said, shrugging.
“There are a few guidelines,” Julian admitted.
“Guidelines?” Mulligan repeated. “But surely hunts have the potential to become… I mean just violent and dangerous. How do you vet hunters?”
“We don’t,” Julian said.
“So… just anyone can hunt?”
“Pretty much,” Neal said, and Mulligan stared at him.
“So you… you’ll just give anyone who asks a false identity? Any amount of money they need?”
Which, damn, when he puts it like that — like I get it, from the outside that seems sorta insane.
“How do you keep people from taking advantage of that system?” Steva asked, because Mulligan was too aghast to vocalize the question.
Neal shrugged. “It’s not a problem that comes up often.”
Which is true. Sorta. I mean, I haven’t forgotten about Alec, Dennis and Rosie, who were selling those poison pelts and getting people killed. Or about the Allens who took civilians sport hunting for hailu puppies. Or hell, at white pyre Julian specifically told me that he doesn’t trust most hunters. They’re an infamously rough crowd.
“The Scelerats fund the project,” Julian said. “They keep an eye on how we spend their money. If they see anything suspicious they look into it. They’ve cut people off before.”
And when that didn’t appear to reassure them, Julian admitted, “it’s a trust system. There aren’t that many of us. We self police, and keep an eye on each other. We have a few hunters who specialize in organizing us, making sure everyone has the support and backup they need. Apart from that… our job is to keep these creatures from hurting anyone and from getting into the public eye. That’s all we can do.”
“A trust system,” Mulligan echoed, awestruck, as if he’d discovered Atlantis, and I found myself feeling a swell of pride.
“That won’t work forever,” Steva said, flatly, totally ruining my little moment. None of us liked that hahaha, and she could see it on our faces. She shrugged. “When it blows up in your face, don’t let it blow up on civilians.”
She’s kind of a party pooper. I sorta respect that about her though.
We said goodbye to them today.
“What are you going to do next?” Neal asked.
“Well,” Steva said, putting her practical little bag in the back seat of their town car as they prepared to head to the airport. “I suppose that depends.”
“On what?” I asked.
“Whether we’re fired or not,” she said.
HA. Yes, that is satisfying, thanks for asking.
“And if you’re not?” Julian asked.
Steva glanced at Mulligan, who shrugged helplessly. “No idea.”
“Keep our numbers,” Julian said. “If you run into a case you can’t solve, we might be able to help.”
“And don’t shoot anymore kids,” Neal added.
And then there was this awkward silence, where it would have been natural for me to add something, and I just stood there, scowling.
“Shiloh,” Agent Mulligan finally said. “I am so sorry, for all the harm I’ve caused you. I certainly don’t expect forgiveness. But I hope you know, I’ll be doing everything I can —”
“I know,” I interrupted. It is so annoying that the asshole that shot me in the face is genuinely trying to do the right thing. Like he’s doing a bad job, but he’s really trying. Literally dude, just suck so I can hate you in peace.
“Well,” Neal said, watching them pull out of the parking lot. “No more government surveillance. At least, no more than anyone else.”
And that was that. I did sleep okay though. Not that I forgive Mulligan. I know it was an accident, but what if Madelyn hadn’t been there in that cave? By all rights he should have killed me, and accident or not, that’s still a whole ass murder. I don’t know. At least I know he’s not gonna shoot anyone again.
How do I know? Steva told me yesterday before they left that he doesn’t load live rounds anymore. He shoots blanks exclusively.