The park ranger looked up at the clearing sky as he took his hat off long enough to wipe a little sweat from his brow. The day had started wet and dreary, but the clouds had vanished before lunch and the afternoon had become a scorcher. He leaned back into his jeep to put away his now-empty canteen, pausing long enough to grimace at his radio.
“..day’s top story remains the President’s resignation. Vice-President Ford …excuse me, President Ford …is expected to take the oath of office and assume the title officially within the hour. KXLK News 92 will break from our normal broadcast at that time to cover this historic event, but at the moment here’s Paper Lace and their single currently climbing the charts, ‘The Night Chicago Died’………”
God, what a world, he thought.
The President of the United States resigned so he wouldn’t be impeached. Impeached! He probably should have expected it after Agnew last year, but still. What a depressing mess. This just wasn’t the same country his daddy had died at Inchon fighting to defend. He wasn’t even sure it was the same country he’d taken a bullet in the leg for in that rice paddy four years ago trying to do the same.
Best not to dwell on it.
Mama Harris’ favorite son Joe had a job to do. He turned off the radio and started walking back to the camp site where his guests were setting up tents. A strange bunch of kids, this group. He didn’t know what strings they had pulled to get permission to camp in this area and he had decided it wasn’t worth his job prying. There weren’t just a lot of jobs out there in this economy for a vet missing a good chunk of one of his legs, especially jobs as safe, boring, and relatively easy as this one. He liked safe. He liked boring. He’d realized this right before losing consciousness on the floor of that med-evac chopper in the sky over ‘Nam.
So what if this area was normally off-limits. Aside from those idiotic ghost stories about this part of the park, he’d never understood why the restriction was there in the first place, and the higher-ups always stayed quiet on the subject.
The one that looked like a surfer, he was obviously in charge. The others even kept calling him “Cap,” and “Captain,” though the kid certainly didn’t look military. Long blond hair, black turtleneck under a psychedelic vest, and that odd-looking medallion he kept swinging around like some kind of diviner using a dowsing rod to find water.
Why wasn’t the kid sweating?
Everyone else was, and that turtleneck had to be hot.
And the other two guys were just as odd.
The little Asian kid who thought Joe hadn’t seen the sword and those six-shooters hidden in the kid’s gear, wearing the cowboy hat, the leather jacket, and the Rising Sun bandana? Joe had never seen a cowboy that looked anything like him. But he had to admit the kid sure sounded all kinds of Texas when he talked, even if his face came right out of some chop-socky flick; and at least the guy was just carrying the jacket around in this heat and not wearing it.
Sheesh. 80 degrees in the shade and still climbing.
The big one? He’d heard the others call him “Kronk.”
What the hell kind of name was Kronk?
Not that Joe was gonna ask him. The guy was HUGE. Had to be pushing seven feet tall and with the muscles to match. That wacky Prince Valiant haircut hid his eyes like a low-hanging helmet, too, so Joe couldn’t make out anything of the face above the nose. The greasy t-shirt put Joe in mind of a mechanic, but the bell bottoms and sandals said hippy. Where had they found sandals to fit those feet? He’d seen smaller shovel blades.
Joe corrected himself— “Monkees haircut,” not Prince Valiant. He immediately felt old.
He hadn’t even liked that show. Beatles wannabes, he thought to himself.
Now the girl, she was all right. Even if she hadn’t been a redhead —Joe had a weakness for redheads — she’d still have been all kinds of easy on the eyes. Not too tall, not too short, athletic build, and those adorable freckles. Okay, maybe she was dressed like she was on safari somewhere in Africa … but she managed to pull of the look. She really did. She’d made a little bit of a fuss about putting up her own tent, but when the others had insisted on doing it for her, he noticed she hadn’t really argued the point all that hard.
She was sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of the VW van they had driven up here in, flipping through some kind of odd-looking little book. Almost absent-mindedly, her hand drifted out to pet the dog sitting beside. Big, white, German Shepherd it looked like.
“Don’t judge too much based on appearances, Ranger Harris. We do a lot of good work,” she said in a friendly tone of voice, though she didn’t look up from the book.
“Oh, I was just lettin’ my mind wander, miss…?”
“Challenger. Agrippina Challenger. My friends call me ‘Penny,’ and so can you, if you’d like,” she responded.
“I’ll leave it at Miss Challenger for the moment, ma’am, if you don’t mind.”
“Suit yourself. Perseus, say hello to the nice ranger,” she told the dog.
The dog turned to look at Joe.
Joe’d been required to attend a fundraiser for the park once, forced to rent a tux and everything. The people in that ballroom, rich and full of themselves, he remembered how they had looked down at him the entire night, same as they had looked at the wait staff, like something to be scrapped off of a shoe.
The dog had that same look right now.
How a dog— no clothes, four legs, and probably fleas— could convey condescension and disapproval so thoroughly in such a contemptuously brief glance in Joe’s direction, Joe would likely never know.
Mental note, he thought – don’t like that dog. At all.
“So, Miss Challenger, what kind of work is you and your friends do?” he asked politely, choosing not to hold her taste in pets against the prettiest girl he’d gotten to talk to in a while.
“We stop bad guys. The weird kind. The ones the cops aren’t equipped for or interested in dealing with,” she answered, climbing to her feet and dusting off her shorts.
“Sorry?” he said, showing his confusion
“Those so-called snake people that were scaring the locals down in Ironcreek last year? We were the ones that exposed them as frauds. The shadowmouths in Chicago sent by the Children of Carcosa? We stopped ‘em. The Frankenstein Kult in Denver? We busted ‘em up. Grimley Ghast? In FBI hands because of our work. ” she recited for him.
“Ghast was even the one who we took these little beauties off of,” she said, waving the little book in her hand in his general direction. She cocked her head and smiled at him, showing her dimples to full effect.
“The papers call us ‘Captain Mystery and the Cool Crew,’ but Joshua there isn’t really our leader. Not that I’ve been able to explain liberated realities to a bunch of chauvinistic journalists, mind you…,”she said, her smile melting into a half-annoyed smirk, half-pout.
“So, you guys are some kind of vigilantes or something? Superheroes?”
“No, silly. No capes or tights here. Just responsible citizens using their unique gifts for the betterment of humanity,” she said, her voice taking on a tone reminiscent of a TV announcer introducing a public service message.
Damn, he thought. A nutcase. And she was so pretty, too.
“Well, if you and the, ummm…, ‘Cool Crew’ need anything, I’m in that tower to the south, the one you can see above the treetops over there. Old ‘Walking Bear’ here, she’s a mighty big park and I gotta check a few other things before heading back to the tower. Best of luck doing …whatever it is you guys are doing here.”
She looked worriedly at the book.
“Trying to head off a potential problem before it raises its ugly, goose-stepping head, Thanks. Enjoy the rest of the day. Hopefully you won’t hear from us again,” she said as she turned and walked toward her friends.
“Ooookkaaay, then,” Joe said. He got in the jeep and headed off toward Eaglehead Ridge to the north. With any luck, he’d catch those pot-growers before they heard him coming.
It was close to midnight before Joe made it to his bunk in the ranger tower. Busy day, busting those pot growers and turning them over to the state troopers. Paperwork alone had taken hours.
He had no idea how long he had been asleep before the sound and tremors woke him. It was like a cross between an explosion and being right under a descending helicopter’s rotors. After a few seconds, the tower stopped shaking. Springing to his feet, he could see a strange reddish-purple glow illuminating the woods north of the tower. The glow faded in and out of intensity, but stayed in place.
In the place where he had left that girl and her friends earlier this afternoon.
He threw on his clothes and grabbed his gun as he rushed down to the jeep. Flooring the gas he arrived at the campsite after 10 minutes of hair-raising, tail-jerking daredevil driving that would have made his army buddies proud if they had seen it.
The site was a mess. It looked like a battleground. Little fires burning out all over the place, chunks of trees missing, and holes blasted in the ground. There were even pieces of metal strewn about that hadn’t been there before. But there was nobody there, and he didn’t hear anything moving around either, just the crackling of the little fires.
“Shrapnel?” he asked out loud.
What had happened here?
Then he saw Agrippina staggering out from between some trees. Where had she come from? She hadn’t been there a second ago. She looked battered, bruised, and burned, and she was barely standing. He ran over to her just as she started to collapse.
“They’re…they’re …gone. All of them. My friends …my friends!” she managed to get out, a tortured wail dying off into strangled sobbing. She buried her head in his chest, crying her eyes out.
Confused and more than a little scared, he barely registered the thing in her hand, at least at first.
In her anguished state, she didn’t even notice as he took the tattered fabric from her hands. It was an armband, ripped off of someone it looked like. Then he saw what was on the armband. Joe may not have been a well-educated guy, but he recognized that symbol immediately and there was no way a swastika …a swastika …meant anything good.
Absolutely no way.
Once he was satisfied that there was no one else lurking around, nothing even moving that he could tell, he slowly wrapped his arms around the traumatized young woman as he half-carried her to his jeep. Joe had no idea what was going on, and no idea what he’d tell his superiors.
“Let them figure it out,” he finally decided. He needed to get her some medical attention, and then this whole thing was someone else’s problem. He hoped.
He looked over his shoulder for a moment as he started driving back to the tower.
He, really, really hoped.
Small Word of Explanation:
I mentioned Captain Mystery and the Cool Crew in a small reference buried in the expanded rituals section of a product I wrote for Vigilance Press called Devilish Duos #5: Kid Kadaver and the Necronaut, but I didn’t talk about any of their members there. As the group name is Viglance’s IP after publication of that tome (shameless plug – which you all need to rush out and buy now…it’s chock full of good stuff), you won’t see the group proper statted out in The ALGERNON Files. However, I might stat out the members here, since I didn’t give any details on them in that book.
The Challenger family will show up in TAF (a team entry for the family, a team-member entry for Minerva Challenger separately in The Furies team entry, and a separate individual entry for family black sheep and international villain-for-hire Lucien Challenger); also, if everything works out, eventually you’ll get to see info on Walking Bear National Park should I ever get the chance to write up city setting book Sterling City for Blackwyrm.