Hi, Chief. Or Simmons. Whoever. This is Denise again. X-23’s out on more business this morning, and the Somnambulists are refusing to provide transcription after that business with Heyoka. Which is ridiculous. The Alo are a notoriously secretive people, and X-23 has entered into certain confidences with them. His personal notes are already longer than their entry in the Blue Book, and he plans to turn them over as soon as the case is done. But there are things he just can’t share, and the Somnambulists have got to understand that.
Sorry. I’m just pissed off that I’m stuck here transcribing our dinner conversation with Cecil Murden, when I should be out tracking down the doctors who performed the Melmoth’s girl’s MRIs. Oh, the life of the Good Girl Friday!
Anyway. This Murden. As I said last night, I don’t like him. He’s fake. Superficially charming, but under that? I don’t know. Something nasty. X-23 says he’s just seen too much, but we both know he’s too easily charmed by crusty old bastards. And they don’t come much crustier than Murden. His eye patch has this… wet spot on it. And he taps that wooden foot of his constantly, like he won’t know where it is if it’s not raising a racket. Made transcribing the tape a joy, let me tell you.
Alright. That’s enough editorializing. Here we go.
X-23: So how did you come to meet Oscar Melmoth?
Murden: Well, that’s a right intrestin story in an of itself. I was in port at Capetown, an word got out that some rich lubber was lookin fer guides fer an expedition inta the interior. Musta been sometime round 1961. Well, I had a few jungle trips under my belt by that time – Ivory trade, don’tcha know? Toldja my work with Melmoth was the only honest trade I had in those days.
‘Course, as it turned out, that ivory business was what got me the job. Oscar was lookin fer the Elephant’s Graveyard that time. Wanted a full, INtact skull, an wanted it from a natural place a dyin. Well, I not only knew the way ta one, I was also on friendly terms with the right native tribes to get us there with a minimum a bloodshed. Not that there wasn’t a few scrapes. Always are, when yer after the things Oscar was after. An it was the way I handled those scrapes that made him bring me on full-time.
X-23: And how did you handle them?
Murden: With a gun, lad. How else? Them pygmies might be little fuckers, but they’re mighty fierce.
X-23: I can well imagine. What did he want with an elephant’s skull?
Murden: Hell if I know. I didn’t ask no questions, an he didn’t tell me no lies.
X-23: Gotcha, gotcha. You were just the guide.
Murden: Guide, muscle, overseer, procurer… Any details of a trip didn’t specifically involve the artifacts, was handled by me.
X-23: This was just in Africa?
Murden: Nah, lad, nah. We went all over. Africa, the Orient, the South Pacific… We even mounted a polar expedition once! (smirks) That one went well. Lost all the boys ta the snow, an whatever was up in them mountains. Came back empty-handed. Froze our balls off fer nothin.
Oh! Pardon me, ma’am.
Me: That’s okay. I’ve frozen my balls off a time or two, myself.
Murden: HAH! Oh, I like this one, lad! You hold onta her tight!
X-23: I intend to. What sort of stuff did you go after?
Murden: You name it! Jade dragons in China! Forgotten idols ta heathen gods on islands ya never heard tell of in yer life! Once, we tracked a Yeti all tha way up outta northern Canada an nearly lost im on tha tundra. I shot, near-snowblind, at somethin I thought I saw movin in tha distance, an bagged me a snow monster!
X-23: And what did Oscar do with that?
Murden (all but shouting): He chopped tha great beast’s head off, chucked it inta the ocean, an ate its heart, raw, right there on tha plain!
X-23: That must have been a sight!
Murden (clearly relishing the memory): That it was! An one I hope never ta see again.
X-23: So… That’s a lot of travel you’re talking about. How long did you work for Oscar?
Murden: Oh, musta been ten years or more. Right up til the end.
X-23: So you were on the Crystal Skull expedition.
(A funny moment here, Chief. I was watching Murden’s reactions while X-23 handled the questions. Most of the time, he kept up a jovial front. Smiled no matter what. Made him impossible to read. But as soon as X-23 mentioned the Crystal Skull, that changed. Something dark passed over his face. That smile became a rictus grin. If X-23’s right, and Murden has seen too much, that’s where he saw it.)
Murden (still smiling, but speaking with a flat tone): Aye. Aye, I was there fer the matter a the Crystal Skull. Bad business, that.
X-23: This was in Mexico?
Murden: No. No, you’d think that. But Oscar, he said them Mexican skulls was just copies. Copies a somethin much older, an far stranger. Those were his exact words: “Much older, an far stranger.” Stuck with me, fer some reason. Funny how some things do that…
(He trailed off, and the grin left his face for a minute. That’s when I figured out why he smiles all the time. Without it, you can see the cruel curve of his lip, the deadness in his eye. You notice that one of his hands shakes a little. Just a little. But it’s there, and without that smile and that charming sea dog eccentricity to distract you, it might as well be a palsy. X-23 had to prompt him back to the story.)
X-23: So where did you get it?
Murden (starts, reconstructs grin, and continues): South America. Deep Amazon. Jivaro country.
X-23: Head hunters.
Murden: Aye. But me an them Jivaro, we had a relationship. They banned tha shrunken head trade, ya know, back in tha Twenties. Got so the tribes were killin extra. They’d sell tha heads fer guns, then use tha guns ta kill more, an sell tha extra heads ta get more guns, and so on. Ecuador was turnin into a slaughterhouse. So they cracked down on tha trade. But if you was an enterprisin young merchant marine like me back in tha Fifties, you could make some good money on tha side, dealin heads ta collectors on tha black market. So me an them Jivaro, we had us an understandin stood me in good stead when Oscar wanted ta go traipsin round their jungle lookin fer his original crystal skull.
But there’s worse’n Jivaro in them jungles. Worse’n I ever knew existed. Little things, like them pygmies. But not human. (speaking faster) They got me in the eye, they did. Got me in the eye with their damn little blowguns. I plucked three tiny darts from my own eyeball. Hurt like hell, but I didn’t have time ta worry about it right then, on accounta they was chasin us. They was dark little things, and fast. Skitterin round that jungle like…
But I’m getting ahead a tha story. We went in deep, deeper than I’d ever been before. My friends in tha tribe told me not ta go. But what did they know, ignorant savages that they were? Me an Oscar’d faced down worse than their like before, an always come out on top. Even when all the men died, we got out safe an sound. Lucky devils, we were. But not fer much longer.
We found tha temple without much problem. Oscar’d got us a map, ya see, a map with all kindsa queer writin on it, the likes a which I never seen before. Somethin bout it made me head go all squiggly, like I wasn’t sposed ta be lookin at it. It was a little like some a tha Alo writin ya see in tha caves round here. But diff’rent. Worse. Oscar could read it fine, though, an he used it ta take us right where we needed ta be. There was the usual traps an all on tha doors, but Oscar got us through those, too, an we only lost one a tha bearers doin it. That was pretty good results fer us.
So we stole inside, and tha’s where I noticed somethin wasn’t quite right. Tha inside a that temple wasn’t tha usual carved stone an such. There was metal, lotsa metal, sort of a dull gray, like an old gun. Looked more like tha inside of a freighter ta me than some heathen tribal temple. But Oscar, he took it all in stride, so I did too. Helped keep tha men in line if we showed a united front. Still, I was happy when we grabbed tha skull off tha altar an hauled ass outta there.
That was where tha trouble really started, though. Somethin went outta tha air when Oscar grabbed that skull. Somethin… electric, like. But we got tha thing, an we ran. Ran out tha door an back inta tha jungle. We knew, I think. We knew we’d crossed a line, an wanted ta get away quick as we could. It weren’t no good, though. Cause no sooner had we lost sight a tha temple than they were on us.
They got Escobar first, I remember. I heard somethin hit tha dirt behind us, and when I looked back, I saw him gettin swarmed by somethin small and black. Then I heard em movin all round us, tiny feet skitterin through the undergrowth, click-clackin along limbs over our heads. That was the only sound they made, that click-clackin a their feet, like they was made a wood.
So we ran, an they chased, takin us down one by one. Rodriguez screamed somewhere off ta my left, an was gone. Montclaire was next, then that big Norwegian fellah. Couple more bearers. Trejo. I lost count, near mad with fear, an just kept runnin, Oscar always one step ahead a me, the crown a that crystal skull shinin out tha toppa his pack as he went.
Finally, they got me. Darts, like I said. Darts in me eye. Three of em. I plucked em out, an kept runnin. Nothin else I could do. Me eye started ta swell up real bad not long after, though. Everythin started goin black, an I fell. Last thing I remember was Oscar lookin back over his shoulder, an skiddin to a halt. Just as I went under, I heard him say, “Not this one! I told you! You can have all the others, but this one stays with me!”
He’s a good man, that Oscar Melmoth. Always lookin out fer his friends.
X-23: What happened then?
Murden: I dunno, do I? I woke up in a hospital in Albuquerque two weeks later. Me eye was gone, an Oscar was nowhere ta be seen. He’d paid me bill, though, an seen to it that I got tha best care New Mexico had ta offer. They fit me with a glass eye, but it’s a funny thing… (taps wet spot on eye patch) The damn thing didn’t last. They never do. Somethin in there eats away at em. Breaks em down. (shrugs) We all got our crosses to bear, eh?
When I got out, I went lookin Oscar up, an heard about what happened with tha snake god an such. He’d hired a man name a Ramirez to get him where he needed ta go that time. Can’t help but think he mighta come out better if I’d been there.
X-23: Or you might have wound up just as crazy as him.
Murden (smirks): Who’s ta say?
X-23: So that’s it. Your life with Oscar Melmoth.
Murden: Well, there is one last thing. When I checked outta tha hospital, an packed up me things ta go, I noticed somethin in me bag that weren’t there before. (reaches into jacket pocket, pulls out a battered old manilla envelope, and hands it to X-23)
X-23 (opens envelope): It’s a picture of shrunken heads.
Murden: Aye. There was a note inside, too. A note tellin me that them heads was all that was left of tha Crystal Skull expedition. I don’t know where it was taken, or who sent it. But that writin down tha side. That’s tha writin I saw on that map a Oscar’s. Tha writin that made me brain hurt. But it don’t make it hurt no more, Mistar Matthews. I look at it with my one good eye, an it seems just as normal as anythin. Sometimes, in my dreams, I can read it. But in them same dreams, the world don’t look right. It looks big. An the hands that’re holdin’ tha picture… They’re tiny and black. An my feet… They click-clack along as I get outta bed, an make tha long walk back ta tha jungle.
Murden told us to keep the picture. He hopes that having it out of his possession will stop the dreams. He’s an old man, after all, and Ecuador is too far to walk.
Before we parted company, I asked him how he lost his foot. He said it was in a chainsaw accident. An unfortunate danger of his chosen artistic medium.
But I think we both knew he was lying.
– Denise, signing off.