I am sitting in the waiting room of the Alvin Melmoth Memorial Hospital, named for the twin brother of Oscar. Alvin was a philanthropist and international adventurer of some repute, lost and believed killed in 1970 while on a Himalayan expedition. Amazing the things you can learn from lobby plaques.
It’s been an eventful day, and I believe that it will soon become more eventful yet. Possum Reynolds has yet to fully awaken from his coma, but I’m told that the swelling in his brain is going down, and he may yet make a recovery. In the meantime, I’ll be interviewing Alexandra Melmoth on the events of her disappearance and kidnapping. She’s somewhere in the building getting an examination, but once that’s done I’ll have an hour with her, uninterrupted by her family or the hospital staff. I’m looking forward to it. Not because of her beauty, or even because I’m all that curious about what she has to say. After today, I have a pretty good idea of what she’s going to tell me. It remains to be seen how much of it she chooses to share, however, and that is something I’m very interested to discover, indeed.
I’ve come by this newfound knowledge after spending a day immersed in the world of the Alo. John Cheveyo seems to have decided that I’m at least partially trustworthy, based apparently on our investigation of the kitchen at the Opa Lodge. They were busy preparing the Continental Breakfast when we entered, and there was no sign that I had shot the owl-headed man there only an hour or two earlier.
But the layout was exactly as I remembered it from my dream. Slightly dazed, I went over to the counter the Horrible Thing had been lying on. Put my hand on it. The surface was cool and smooth and utterly clean. No stains, and no scratches from where that hoary blade had bitten through the flesh and into the wood. The thing’s awful screams filled my ears again, and I felt the gorge rise in my throat.
Luckily, that’s when Cheveyo came over. I started to speak, to explain that this was where it had happened, and that the floor behind the counter was where I saw the owl-headed man fall, but he shook his head and silently motioned for me to follow him. He changed the subject to trivial matters as we walked through the lobby, and kept the patter up all the way out into the parking lot, and his waiting jeep. Then, as he put it into gear and started driving, he abruptly dropped the lecture he’d been giving me on rates of snowfall in Pannawau County, and sighed.
“So this owl-headed man,” he said. “Was he short, stocky, muscular?”
“So you don’t think I’m crazy?”
“I didn’t say that. Just answer the question.”
“Yes. Yes, near as I can recall, that’s a good description of him.”
He nodded. “Naked?”
“Except for an apron, yes. John, what the hell’s going on here?”
“It was dark in the kitchen?”
“Yes, now that you mention it. But I don’t see how you could possibly–”
“His chest. Could he have had breasts? In the dark, under the apron?”
I thought back to the dream, and yes. “Yes, that… might have been possible. I didn’t get a great look at him, I don’t suppose, so… Sure. They’d have to be small, but it’s… Yes.”
Cheveyo nodded. “Nukpana.”
“Excuse me, what?”
“Nukpana. You shot a Nukpana. They’re… hermaphrodite spirits. Holy assassins that hunt the Mountain and provide for the tribe’s needs. The Council sometimes uses them for… other business. But if it was in the kitchen, it was preparing meat for the table.”
I tensed. “So… Where are we headed?”
He seemed confused. “We’re heading to the murder site. Where else would be be going?”
“So I’m not in trouble with the tribe?”
“Not as far as I’m concerned. The Nukpana are evil things. What they provide, we don’t need. Not anymore.” He went silent for a minute, and it dawned on me that this small bit of folklore was more specific detail than I’d seen in the entire Agency file on the Alo.
“You shouldn’t be telling me this, should you?”
He spared me a rueful glance. “Heh. No. No, not really.”
“Because if you saw a Nukpana in a dream, and shot him with a real bullet, that means you’ve been touched by the Mirror Worlds. I’m just trying to decide which one.”
“Would it help if I told you that, just before my arrival in Pannawau, I was visited by a tiny bird-faced man?”
He inclined his head a bit, the most surprise I’ve ever seen him show. “Hmh. White Mirror World, then. Good. I’d hate to have to kill you.”
I wasn’t about to be out-laconicked again, so I just smiled back at him. “Same here. Now, tell me. What’s the White Mirror World?”
“That’s just what we call it. Your people have different names. But it’s a place beyond this place, where the good spirits dwell.”
“Them, and others.”
“So what do you call the other place?”
“We call it the Black Mirror World. You can guess what comes from there.”
“Hmh. What would my people call these places?”
“Heaven and Hell, the Invisible College, Seelie and UnSeelie… The Norse divided reality into nine worlds, each called something different. You people have too many names for everything.”
“So you’re saying I’ve stumbled into some kind of stark black and white conflict?”
“What? Oh, hell no. Only the Mirror Worlds are all one thing or another, and neither much cares what the other one does. It’s all grey here in the middle, and we can choose to deal with whoever we want.”
“But you’d kill me if I chose the Black?”
“Only so you wouldn’t kill me first.”
And I’m afraid I’ll have to stop there for now, sir. A nurse has just come in and told me that Possum Reynolds has woken up and asked to speak to the Sheriff. I’ve got some time before Alexandra’s out of her examination, however, so I think he’ll have to deal with me instead.
Agent X-23, signing off.