"How very intriguing," Gandor the Great said, though he did not elaborate further on which part of this he found so intriguing.
One of the agents brought The Daoist a can of pop from the fridge.
“All done getting to know each other?" Agent Fletcher asked a minute later. "Now get nice and comfy because it's my turn to tell you all a little story. Any of you ever been to Highland, Minnesota? Probably not. It's a little, out-of-the-way township up and over in Lake County," he said, gesturing as if there was a map behind him he could point to. "Problem is, some nutballs built a temple up there seven years ago. At the time they said it was a synagogue, but no later than 1934 we know they were being led by some kook calling himself St. Stephen. We've found some pamphlets these people distributed back then full of quackery like how rooster parts could solve everything from your love life to your job hunting. On the back is the really disturbing stuff, about the End of Days and roosters inheriting the Earth." As he speaks, he produces an old, bent-up pamphlet from his pocket and shows it to you. The subject matter matches his description and there is a picture of a rooster on the front cover. "You'd think that would get them laughed out of town, but this was the height of the Depression and they somehow had money to throw around. They'd built up quite a cult for themselves when we got called in a year ago by a local sheriff who told us he'd seen...human sacrifice going on at their temple. The sheriff turned up dead shortly after that. We've sent in three agents since then to either observe or infiltrate this cult and they've all gone missing. We have learned that St. Stephen is still leading the cult. We also know that he's hiring mercenaries, mostly ex-cons. He seems to be recruiting a small army, but we don't know why. We also don't know if our missing agents are alive or dead.
“Our idea is to get you recruited by the cultists. Sending in our agents hasn't been working and we're afraid to send in more. There's a slim chance that we lost three agents because the cultists got one of them to identify the other two. You, on the other hand, are fresh faces who should be in no danger of discovery. Whether you sneak in as recruits or make a frontal assault on the place is entirely up to you. We don't really care what happens to these nutball cultists, which is why we don't care that you're all vigilantes. Whatever happens in that temple, we're turning a blind eye to, if you get my meaning. If you find any of the missing agents, don't worry too much about getting them out of too far out of Highland. We'll have another team following you. Once you're clear, they'll get you home. There should be enough agents on that team to raid the temple once you've done all you can.”
"Sounds like someone is obsessed with cock," said Tommy, only half-aware of the joke. "Well, I'm more of an infiltrator I guess. I'm sure they'd love a fresh new face to fill with Rooster love."
"What exactly is in it for us if we do this for you?” asked the Mountain Man. “Why not just send in the army and take the place down? That's what you government-types did to the Bonus Army back in '32. Sent the tanks and the gas canisters in against some respectable veterans, why not against these crazy cultists? And last I checked, the Depression is still raging, at least it is for most of America." He leaned heavily against the wall, awaiting his answers.
The FBI agents started to snicker at Sewer Rat's comment. Evidently, this was something of a private joke between them already. But their looks sobered at The Mountain Man's mini-speech. Agent Fletcher answered dryly, "Different administration, different response. Hoover would of rolled in tanks, but Roosevelt doesn't want another public relations debacle, like headlines saying the Army had to kill a bunch of poor, crazy farmers. And I didn't mean to rile you up about the Depression. I'm sure it's still bad for a lot of people. At least in my neck of the woods, though, it's not as bad as it was a few years ago. That's all I meant by 'height of the Depression'."
Dice Morgan cracked his neck to the left and then to the right. "Yeah, yeah. Get in, look around, raise a ruckus, an' then get outta’ Dodge. Let's get ‘dis over with already. I'm gettin' grey hairs just standin' here listenin' to all the talk."
“That's the mission. If you need a reward, we can offer you $1,000 per agent you get out of Highland. The agents you'll be looking for are Andrew Morland, Rudy Malefor, and Vincent Meridan. Here's a photo of each of them. You can look at them as long as you need to, but you can't take them with you. There's only one thing more we can give you – another name. This guy is from Highland and we're pretty sure he's a low-level cultist. You might be able to throw his name around to get you into or out of places. It's Milo Haroldson.
"One last thing,” he says, holding up a small pill bottle. “This is hush-hush stuff now, but the FBI has whipped up these things we call healing pills. This bottle has two of them. You swallow one, it cures anything short of a serious wound. We're letting you take these two pills with you if you accept the mission. Now, you can talk over the offer yourselves or, if you're already sold, you can start planning what you're gonna do right here. You already know everything me and the boys know, but if there's anything else you need, we'll try to help.”
Much of what Agent Fletcher said meant little to the Daoist. He couldn't understand American politics one bit. He did, however, know the rooster.
"The Rooster is a stwong figure. One that should be ‘wespected. His forrowers’ wirr’ be brave. And keen of sight. We muss be cautious."
Dice Morgan narrows his eyes. "So just ta be straight, do we get the dough if, say, we bring your boys back in little bits, or only if we get 'em out in one piece?"
"I'll make that extra clear too," Agent Fletcher answered. "The $1,000 is for bringing each one of them back alive. If I wanted them dead, I could send agents in now with guns blazing. But I figure someone like The Shadow could do it with a little more finesse. I can't get The Shadow, though, so you guys will have to do."
After The Daoist finished his Coca-Cola, and Dice and the Mountain Man finished their questions, everyone headed up topside. With two vehicles for five Heroes, there was ample room to transport everyone.
It was a lonely 30-mile stretch of dirt road reaching northeast of Duluth, with dense forest all along the left side and Lake Superior staying within sight past the trees to the right. The road kept going on and their only company for most of the trip, beside each other, were truckers heading to and from Canada and vacationers hauling boats to some remote lake for a fishing expedition. The townships became few and far between, pockets of civilization punctuating the spreading wilderness, with Palmers Township the last before entering Lake County. The townships were more like rustic farming villages now, each more rustic than the last. It was like going back in time as they passed Knife River, Larsmont, and Two Harbors. By the time they reached a dirt road heading north from a wooden signpost that read “Highland, 12 miles,” they had the uncomfortable sensation of having driven back into the 19th century.
When they did reach Highland, they were not even surprised to find it looked like a dried-up ghost town. Most of the businesses had “closed,” “out of business”, or “gone fishing” signs on their doors. The only place that seemed to be open was Town Hall. And there was no sign of a temple.
Back at the Comeback Motel and Diner, FBI agents were (unbeknownst to most people) becoming a common sight. Two of them were heading out of the diner after a lengthy chat over cigarettes and apple pie, punctuated with their favorite hobby of hitting on the waitresses. The basket of apples was empty, but still sitting on the roof of their car out front. Little did they know that they were being observed.
Alpha-Woman, Duluth’s still-unknown hometown defender, had been working surveillance on the Comeback Motel for a week and decided that she was going to make her move and confront these suspicious characters, who were surely hoodlums.
Man Thing by Jim Cheung
19 hours ago