RETURN TO KINGSPORT
(Part 1 of 2)
1. A Fine Day for Skinnydipping
May of 2014…
“When’s Ella gonna get here?” Syndi asked.
“I don’t know,” Kiki said, as she pocketed her iphone. “She’s said she’s still working at the lab. But she should be done soon.”
The two girls walked slowly out to the old wooden pier. The distinct smells of the sea, prevelant throughout the town, were strongest here. Overhead, gulls wheeled and squawked. Kiki looked up at them and smiled. Off in the distance, a tugboat blew its horn.
“Watch out, Kick,” Syndi said, “they might shit on your face.”
“Syn, they wouldn’t do that. They’re nice.”
“They’re birds. They shit whenever they need to. Nice has nothing to do with it. If you’re under them, you get shat on.”
“Oh… Do you think so? I can’t imagine they’d do such a thing.”
Syndi looked away so that Kiki would not see the rolling of her eyes.
The girls came to the end of the dock and looked over Kingsport Harbor. All about were docked boats with tall masts and furled sails. They sat on the edge of dock. Syndi looked down at the lapping waves below, attempting to plumb the dark, polluted depths below. Kiki looked out towards the Atlantic's horizon, where the sea twinkled under the mid-May sun. There were no boats out at the time, as the fishermen had already returned with their catches.
Kiki Strawberry was tall and perfectly tanned, ever posing, ever aware of the image she projected. A finely coiffed mane the color of rich Belgian chocolate cascaded down her sleek back. She bore the poise of a fashion model, as well as the face and body. Indeed, becoming such was her greatest aspiration. Her mind, however, was that of a ditz.
By contrast, her best friend, Syndi Goddard, was pure goth. Her fashion sense could be summed up in a single word: black. For that reason alone, her clothes always matched. Syndi was dark in appetites and interests, but playful in demeanor, often at Kiki’s expense.
Together, they were Yin and Yang, Starfire and Raven, Betty and Veronica. Opposites, yet the best of friends.
There seemed to be no one else on Pier 3, save a scrawny dog that gave them an evil eye. Kiki looked over at Pier 2 where there was more activity. She saw a group of men moving about there and watched them for a moment.
“The sailors look so sharp in their uniforms,” she said, waving at them, “they're so brave.” None of them men waved back. Perhaps they never spotted her.
Syndi, not looking up, said, “They're not sailors, they're fishermen. And what's so brave about fishing all day? Sounds boring.”
“Oh, OK,” Kiki conceded, “but they do look so handsome in their uniforms.”
“Fishermen don't wear uniforms,” Syndi said, annoyed. “They wear t-shirts and jeans.”
“Well these guys do.”
Syndi took a look for herself. Sure enough, the six men moving around on the next pier, about a hundred feet away, wore dungaree uniforms and square rig caps. They were indeed sailors... of some kind.
Now Syndi took an interest, and looked. “That's odd,” she said, “Since when do they have sailors in a tiny dump like Kingsport?”
Kiki shrugged her answer, and looked about for anything else of interest. Syndi scanned the piers and spotted nothing like a battleship or a aircraft carrier, or anything else she would recognize as a military craft. But near the men, tied to the dock, was a pontoon boat, just large enough for the six of them.
“What's that?” Kiki asked.
“Some kinda inflatable raft. But they're not getting into it, they're leaving it.”
“Huh? No. Out there. There's a ‘thing’ in the water.”
Syndi looked to where Kiki was pointing. She squinted and spotted in, far in the distance. Breaking the horizontal pattern of the water was something vertical.
“What could it be?”
Syndi, perhaps inspired by previously spotting the sailors, declared, “It looks like a periscope!”
“I think it's moving closer.”
“Syn! Look over there! By the lighthouse!”
A long quay jutted out from the southernmost edge of the harbor. At the end rose one of the last functioning lighthouses on the Atlantic Seaboard, thanks to contributions from the local artists' colony. But what had caught Kiki's attention was a lone figure standing at the end of the quay. They could make out few details at a distance of close to half a mile, but the figure held something before his face.
“I think he's got a telescope.”
“Really? What's he looking at?”
“I think he's looking at that periscope!”
* * *
Kiki ran all the way to the quay—an amazing feat for someone in heels. Syndi struggled to keep up and she was in tennis shoes. All-black tennis shoes, of course.
Thus, Kiki was the first to approach the old man standing there. He wore a long overcoat, of an off-brown color, stained by a hundred storms and suns, and a sea captain's cap. His windswept hair was long and white, matching his beard. Neither seemed acquainted with comb nor brush. He continued looking out at the periscope with his telescope.
Kiki tried to sneak up on him from behind. But without turning, he said, “Stay where ye be, lass.” His voice sent a chill up her spine and she froze in her tracks.
Seeing Kiki stop, Syndi also stopped along the rocky quay, a hundred feet behind. Despite the distance and the squalling gulls and the lapping water, Syndi had heard the man as well as Kiki. She stayed put and watched as the old man turned and approached Kiki.
“Hello, sir,” said Kiki, “We noticed you out here and, um, we wondered if you were OK.”
The old man had no response. He merely continued his approach.
Kiki continued. “We saw you looking at that thing in the water. Do you know what’s going on?”
“I might ask the same thing of ye,” he said, “both ye and yr friend, the over-painted trollop.”
Kiki blushed and looked back at Syndi. Syndi shrugged.
“We think it's a submarine. What do you think?” Kiki asked.
The old man stopped before Kiki. She felt a shiver as he looked her up and down with his cruel, yellow eyes. His face was as old as anyone she had ever seen, and weathered not only by time but harsh winds and foreign suns.
“Aye 'tis one of them ships what sails beneath the waves rather than on them. Tain't a lick of sense fer a man ta do so.”
“Oh. We saw sailors too. Maybe they came from the sub.”
“As like as not.”
By then, Syndi had forced herself to catch up with Kiki. They took each other's hand and shuddered as the old man looked down at them. There was a gleam in those yellow eyes that made neither girl comfortable.
“I'll be needing strong arms,” he said, wistfully, “but ye two will make do.”
* * *
Shortly, Kiki and Syndi found themselves in a commandeered rowboat, rowing their way out into the bay. The old sea captain sat in the back of the boat—what he called the aft—and pretended to fish with a pole he'd found in the leaky bottom of the boat.
The girls exchanged disbelieving glances as they pulled the heavy oars. In the movies, it always looked romantic to row around in a boat. In real life, they were learning, it was backbreaking work. Topping it off, the captain gave them strange commands, like “leeward”, “hard about stern”, “steady yr course”, “mark time”, and “put yr backs into it, lassies!”
They had rowed the old man to about the center of the harbor before he allowed them to stop. Then he set the fishing pole in a bracket and surreptitiously took out his old-fashioned telescope and expanded it. He aimed the scope—a spyglass, he called it—between Kiki and Syndi, largely obscuring himself from view of the object in the water.
Using his trained eyes and a sextant, the old man made calculations. Then, employing the telescope once more, he looked not at the periscope, but where it was aimed most often... the base of Kingsport Head.
The old man nodded to himself, then said, “Row us back, lassies.”
Kiki and Syndi, although exhausted, lowered their oars into the water once more. Then he suddenly stopped them.
“Belay that...” The captain pulled up his line. On the end hung a respectable carp. He took it off the hook and tossed it to the bottom of the boat.
“Now put yr backs into it! Heave ho!”
The girls began to row again, but Kiki had questions.
“OK, but what did you see? Do you know what it is—and who's inside? Do you know what they're doing?”
“Ye've enough questions ta fill a bilge, lass. I saw what I needs ta see. And maybe I can't fathom who be down in that accarsed tin can, but I've a hunch she's got her eye on the same spoils as them from that fancy school up in Arkham.”
“The university? Syn and I are students there! Who wanted the spoils? And why were they spoiled??”
Syndi and the old man both rolled their eyes at that one.
“Twas a fancy doctor of sorts with spectacles and the soft hands of a man what never did an honest days work in his life. But a clever sort he were, more so than that young feller with 'im.”
“Young fellow? Who...?”
“A fair-haired lad he was. Claimed ta have his inheritance here about. Well, if that be all he wants, leave him be. But that's the extant of the snoopin' about I need ta tolerate.
“Now put yr backs into it. Heave ho! Don't be all day about it!”
* * *
Back at Pier 1, where they'd found the boat in the first place, they landed and the old captain tied it professionally to the pilings. Then, looking more spry than his features and usual stance would indicate, he climbed up on the deck.
Without a glance their way, the old man left them, saying only, “I’ve some mates with whom I need to palaver. Fare thee well.”
When he was out of earshot, Syndi said, “What a jerk! Making two girls row that big, heavy boat. That was like the hardest thing I ever did!”
“I know!” Kiki said, “but I kinda feel sorry for him. He seems so lonely.”
Syndi, ignoring Kiki, said, “You'd think he'd at least pay us or … Hey!”
Slowly, because she was still tired, Syndi climbed back down into the boat and picked up the fish the old man had caught. “We might as well get something outta this! I bet the cook at the tavern would fix it for us.”
“But that’s stealing,” said Kiki, scandalized, “and maybe it’s all that poor old man has to eat!”
Syndi grumbled for a bit, but eventually relented. The girls followed in the direction the captain had turned after he left the pier and looked around. They spotted him just as he turned onto Fish Street. Kiki called out, but he had disappeared behind a distant corner.
At the corner they came to Fish Street but the old man had disappeared. As it seemed likelier he was continuing south, they went that way along the narrow winding street. Syndi, who took a course in Colonial History, would not have been surprised to learn that this street had been laid out in the 1650s. Until it was paved over with asphalt in the 1930s as part of a WPA project, it had been cobblestoned.
They asked a passerby about the old sea captain, but the man merely glared and kept passing. They kept walking but soon Fish Street came to an end.
They stopped in their tracks, looking up at the house that prevented Fish Street from continuing. It was an old wooden structure, two rickety stories high, with a peaked roof on which some of the shingles still remained. Dead trees and strange Polynesian tikis surrounded the place, frightening unwary visitors.
“No effin way,” Syndi declared, “you just gotta know he lives in that mausoleum.”
“Um, but, well he could live in any of these houses, Syn,” Kiki said, not believing her own words.
Catching hold of the lie, Syndi said, “OK, sure. We tried to find him and we couldn't so let's take this fish back to the tav--”
“No,” Kiki said, taking the fish from Syndi, “I'm going to knock on the door.”
Kiki went up to the house but Syndi stayed back on the pavement. The fish felt slimy and smelled like... fish. Kiki climbed three crooked, wooden steps and came to a patio—or whatever such things were called in New England. To determine if she had the correct house, she first looked in the window.
Through the dirty glass she saw the strange old man sitting at a table, on which sat several black bottles. He'd removed his captain's hat, revealing a balding head. He held one of the bottles and... he seemed to speak to it! Then he cocked his head, appearing to listen to the bottle. Then he replied again.
Kiki took a deep breath and went to the door. She knocked. Seconds later, the old man answered, his yellow eyes burning with anger.
* * *
2. Library Duties
“And then what?” asked Dr. Artemis, the next morning.
“Nothing really,” Kiki replied, “I handed him the fish and he took it. Oh, he said, 'Fine. Be off with ye!' and he closed the door. Then we came back here.”
Dr. Artemis was the chief librarian of the library of the Miskatonic University and head of the Occult Studies Department. Dapper in his three-piece suit, and accented with glasses, the chain of a pocketwatch, and university ID, he spoke dignity in world where dignity was fast becoming an endangered species. He sat at the Reference desk, idly turning in his swivel chair, thinking things over.
Kiki Strawberry, one of his assistants, had just told him an interesting story about the previous day's adventure. And as the doctor believed he had met this same mysterious old man a year earlier, he began to think over those events.
“This sea captain... Long beard? Ratty clothes?”
“Yes!” she squealed, and Syndi nodded.
“I see. And his house was at the terminus of Fish Street?”
“Yes, docter,” she said, with her curious California accent. “He was very nice... but he knew things before they happened. An-and the whole talking to bottles thing...”
“Nice!?” interjected Syndi, despite promising to let Kiki tell the story, “I got blisters on my hands from that dirty old man making us row him all over. See!”
She displayed her palms to the doctor but he ignored them.
Then Kiki lowered her voice a notch to ask, “So have you been around there lately... with a... a fair, young... lad?”
The doctor's eyes widened. “I beg your pardon!”
Two of the security guards snickered and exchanged winks. However, a glare from Artemis silenced them.
“Oh! D-Docter, I'm so... oh...” Kiki said, suddenly realizing how it sounded, “I-I mean.... h-have you been around Kingsport? I didn't mean it that way...” She realized she was blushing terribly.
After determining the security staff would remain silent, Artemis said, “I go to Kingsport quite often. I can always depend on picking up some fresh fish.”
“Oh... Well,... did you happen to go with someone?”
“Actually, there were three of us that one time. It was almost a year ago...”
At that point, Dr. Artemis related most, but not all, of the details about his previous adventure in Kingsport. He had went there along with Party Officer Xiang—currently employed as yet another security officer for the university—on behalf of Andre Carter. Like Kiki, Andre was employed as an assistant librarian while he completed his studies. He was her senior by one semester.
However, Andre Carter had a curious legacy. He claimed to be the son of a Twelfth Century monk and a Gaulish sorceress. Somehow, in an attempt to save their infant son from the depredations of rival wizard, his parents sent him to this time period. Upon growing up, Andre learned these things in a series of dreams.
He also learned of a legacy left behind in a sea cavern under the shadow of Kingsport Head. The three of them went to Kingsport, sought out the same aged sea captain whom Kiki and Syndi encountered, and from his directions, discovered the cave.
However, the cavern was guarded by some manner of disembodied spirit whose touch was death. Artemis employed a powerful potion in hopes of banishing the wraith, only to split it in half—giving them not one but two adversaries.
Fortunately, Carter recovered his father's legacy, an ancient—or medieval—or antediluvian—scroll containing the necessary banishment. Since then, Carter had learned other spells with Artemis's help translating the Latin bits.
Artemis left out the bits about wraiths and spells when he told the story. Even so, Kiki was suitably alarmed. Syndi Goddard, however, added a detail.
“When we left, we saw the sailors closer and they were Korean.”
Artemis startled in his chair. “Koreans? The sailors? North or South?”
“Oh. I forgot to mention the nice Korean sailors, I guess,” and here she blushed again. “You see, we met up with Elladora Jamison and we told her what happened and she wanted to see, so... Well, she saw the sailors and said they were North Koreans... And you know how she is about them...”
“Yes. I do.”
Elladora's parents were on a trip around the world when their boat ran into bad weather and ended up in North Korean waters, a la the earlier Pueblo Incident. They were imprisoned and never heard from again.
“But these sailors... are you sure they were North Koreans?”
“No docter, but they were Asian and some of them were very handsome, but that's not the point, I guess. And Elladora was sure they were North Korean—something to do with patches on their uniforms. In fact she got a gun and was going to follow them!”
“...And all that slipped your mind, Miss Strawberry?”
“A little. Anyway, Syn got the gun away from her and we took her back home. I hope she's not mad at us still.”
“I was afraid Elladora would get us all killed if she started shooting at those gooks,” Syndi added.
“Thank goodness you did, Miss Goddard,” Artemis said, “and don't use that word.”
Dr. Artemis leaned back in his swivel chair and mused. “Mr. Xiang has 'friends' in the North Korean forces and he's worked with them before... If these men you saw really were North Koreans they would be in violation of our maritime laws. Even if they were South Koreans they would...”
“Docter!” Kiki exclaimed, “Do you think they hurt Xiang? I mean, he disappeared like weeks ago! I...I'm so worried and...”
Syndi took her hand.
“No, Miss Strawberry,” said the doctor. “That's not what I'm worried about at all. In point of fact, I think that Officer Xiang must have reported the outcome of our expedition last year to the North Koreans.”
“I always knew he was up to something,” Syndi said. "Effin' commie."
“Given the state of the world,” the doctor said, “this situation could become serious. President Kim's antics make it exceptionally so, in this case. We could have an international crisis on our hands!”
* * *
Soon after, Elladora Jamison came in with a severe injury to her leg after an excursion in the Bridgewater Triangle, some twenty-five miles away. Dr. Artemis went to the lab to tend her wound. Syndi Goddard went to lunch and when she returned to the library she found Kiki still there, working. Actually, she found Kiki giggling and talking with Mr. Hodge, one of the guards.
“Am I disturbing you two? There's a spot in the garden, behind the wall if you guys wanna be alone.”
Kiki instantly blushed, very darkly. “No! W-we just, I... W-were just friends!
Syndi laughed. “Love messing with you, babe.” Then she looked over Kiki's shoulder at the computer screen. Hoping for porn, she found tips for hairstyling.
“How's Ella?” Syndi asked.
“Docter called and said she has a broken whatsit and whatsit... leg bones, I guess. But he said they were clean breaks, so...”
“That girl is always getting in trouble.”
“Yeah...” said Kiki, pouting. “No sign of Xiang?”
“Nope. But don't worry, babe, there's lotsa guys out there. You'll find somebody... eventually.”
“Huh?! What do you mean? Stop that!”
Syndi smirked. But Kiki became very serious.
“Syndi, do you think Xiang is dead?”
“Dead??!” said Syndi, surprised, “why would he be dead?”
“W-well I dunno! B-but...”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“That's not a long time.”
“Oh... Y-you're right... It was a stupid thought. He knows so much and he's so agile and strong... I bet he isn't dead..”
“Did he go into a war zone?” Syndi asked, “guys get killed in war all the time.”
“I don't know. Even if he did, he has a good aim.”
“What if he stepped on a land mine? He might not be dead,” Syndi hypothesized, “maybe he just had both his legs blown off.”
For a moment, Kiki looked horrified. But then it passed and she giggled a little. “Oh, Syn. You're so silly.”
“Silly? Oh yeah... silly me.”
Kiki rested her head on the table and Syndi began to pet her long brown hair. “Seriously. He'll be OK.”
Kiki lifted her head some. “I hope so. I love Korea and the K-Pop sound and all the fashions... but North Koreans are harsh.”
“Yeah,” Syndi agreed, “that fat little g—uh, guy... killed his uncle and his girlfriend.”
For not the first time, Syndi's words made Kiki shiver. “Oh dear...” but then an innocent thought gave her a smile. “He does have a pretty daughter. She's very young.”
Syndi only smirked. “He'll probably hold her in front of him to catch a bullet from the CIA.”
“Syn, from what I read, he really loves her.” She smiled. “Even the meanest people have hearts. Sometimes you just have to find them.”
“I'm sure the CIA is trying to find his heart.”
* * *
Late that afternoon found Dr. Artemis in the library's parlour, having high tea with an old friend, Chief Jamison St. Clair. She was currently the chief of police in Collinsport, Maine, but before that she was a detective here in Arkham. Seeing her tall, sleek figure and blonde pageboy haircut, one might be forgiven for thinking she was a fashion model.
“It's good to have you back here, Detective—sorry, Chief St. Clair,” said Dr. Artemis, as he poured her a second cup, “I'd understand if you never wanted to set foot in the library again.”
She gracefully accepted the cup of steaming hot oolong, the doctor's perennial favorite. “I'll try not to get shot again, doctor. And once again, my thanks for saving my life.”
“That's what doctors are for. I'm just glad my efforts led to your complete recovery.”
They smiled, then sipped at their tea, but Artemis was recalling the trouble it took to get all that blood out of the carpet.
“What you've told me about these events in Kingsport concerns me, doctor.”
“I wasn't certain who to call about these North Korean agents, Chief. I considered contacting the Taskforce or Homeland Security, but you have a bit more tact. And you have a personal connection with Kingsport.”
St. Clair nodded. “Yes. And I was going there anyway to see Vicky.” Her dearest friend, the novelist Victoria Wren, was the current resident of Kingsport's most famous edifice—that strange High House sitting in the mists atop Kingsport Head. In fact, Artemis suspected the two might be more than friends. But ever the gentleman, he never broached the subject.
“I had to cancel my plans to look into the matter this evening,” Dr. Artemis said, “I want to stay with Miss Elladora until I'm certain there's no infection. One can never be to careful with a bite from an unknown species. I can, however, send Miss Strawberry along to show you what she saw.”
“I'd like that very much, doctor.”
“I'm sure you will,” he said, and sipped his tea.
To Be Continued...