Strange Cases: Behemoth - Part Two
NSB HQ, 4TH DAY OF SWIMMING, 10:16AM
The first thing Junior Agent Francis Tanner saw when his feline eyes finally became accustomed to the dazzling lighting of the underground cavern was the hub of the Neopian Special Branch’s headquarters; a large, elegant lobby created from the planet’s natural rock with two rows of marble pillars running down each side. Close to the lift entrance was the reception desk, where agents signed in and out of work as well as noting where their assignments were taking them and what amount of agency funds they had taken to cover expenses.
Both agents signed in, Head Agent Leonard Fuller first, Tanner following his example quickly afterwards, fumbling the pen with shaky, nervous paws. When their identities and arrival had been acknowledged and logged, Head Agent Fuller led the young cloud Kougra beyond the desk and past the six doors set into the cavern’s walls, three on either side of them, thirty-feet apart. Each door led off to a different division, its name engraved on a burnished plaque above it. They passed Major Crimes and Natural Disasters first, followed by Anti-Megalomania, Encryptions, Plots, and Communication, each in turn before they finally reached the far end of the vast lobby. There were only two doors before them now, one being the Head Agent’s office.
The last door held a much smaller plaque than the rest, no larger than a bar of chocolate, and the Junior Agent – even with his sharp eyesight – had to get very, very close to read its encryption. It simply read:
“Strange Cases Division:
Agent Max Steele.”
Tanner stopped reading, and frowned. “So it’s just this... Agent Steele that runs the division?”
“Until today, Agent Steele was the Strange Cases Division, yes,” nodded the Head Agent before adding, “shall we...?”
Without waiting for an answer (something Tanner was beginning to notice was a habit with him), the red Techo stepped forward, rapped on the door sharply and then pushed it open before any response could possibly be made.
Before the young Kougra had even set eyes upon the room’s interior, the deductive skills that had earned Tanner his job quickly told him that the room would probably be one of the smallest in the HQ, since it only needed to accommodate one person (until now). But nothing could have prepared him for the awful truth.
“You expect me to work in there?” he exclaimed, all before his mind had a chance to guess that it probably hadn’t been the smartest thing to say as soon as he’d clapped eyes on the cramped conditions of what was to be his working confines.
The dimly-lit room was possibly large enough to hold both Agent Steele and himself, but only just. Tanner could see that the majority of space in the room was taken up by filing-cabinets (some of which were actually overflow from the other divisions), bookshelves and one, solitary desk square in the center of it all, a dark figure hunched over the opposite side of it, studying something Tanner couldn’t see over the many piles of newspapers, which carried a pungent mustiness suggesting the age of some copies, and miscellaneous files.
Upon hearing Head Agent Fuller clear his throat purposely, the figure straightened up with a start, and Tanner could now clearly see that Agent Max Steele was, in fact, a shadow-colored Scorchio, his right-eye enlarged to bug-like proportions through the lens of a magnifying glass he held in his hand. Steele noticed the cloud Kougra’s shock and lowered the glass, slowly, down onto the table.
“Sorry, kid,” he murmured kindly in a soft, growling voice before addressing his Head Agent. “This is the one, then, Sir? The open-minded wonder-boy you’ve been telling me so much about? What do you know of ball lightning?”
Guessing the strange new Agent was once again speaking to him, Tanner replied quickly and instinctively. “It has been recorded to range in diameter from as big as five-foot right down to one inch, generally appears in hues of yellow or white, and doesn’t necessarily occur in thunderstorms, but sometimes entirely on its own.”
“Cute, but I didn’t ask to be informed on what you have read about it, Kid,” Steele sighed, keeping his eyes on Head Agent Fuller with an unimpressed expression as he flitted up and over the desk, only to land at the young Kougra’s feet, and stare him straight in the eye. “I asked what you knew about it yourself; your personal views, so to speak.”
“Personally,” Tanner coughed, taking a step back from the Scorchio’s experienced gaze, “I feel that the term ‘ball lightning’ would mean it was better suited to be studied and scrutinized by the Natural Disasters division, surely?”
The Scorchio winced and stumbled back in a melodramatic fashion, knocking over a small tower of Neopian Times in the process, to which he paid no heed. “Ooh, so close, and yet so far on so many levels!” he groaned, walking over to his desk once again. “You see, natural disasters are things like hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes, et cetera, et cetera... anyway, you see where I’m going, anything like that that injures or kills many people is classified as a ‘natural disaster’,” Steele’s claws went up at this point to form two quotation marks as he rolled his eyes, and young Agent Tanner figured this Scorchio held little to no love or respect for those working the Natural Disasters division. “Anything else – lightning, for example – is called natural phenomena. Ball lightning is the exact opposite, and it’s darn rare, too.”
“Did I forget to mention that Agent Steele’s incessant behavior was yet another reason some agents refused to work the Strange Cases division?” chipped in the Head Agent with a sigh, but Steele went on regardless.
“Most normal lightning – with the exception of some cloud-to-cloud forms – follows a distinct path, namely that of descent, straight down as the electricity works its way through the air to ground itself in the earth. Ball lightning follows no such predictable guideline, the little rebel. No, it goes anywhere it jolly well pleases (and, let’s be honest, who’s going to stop it?). Incidents involving ball lightning strikes are few, fatalities even fewer; do you know why, Kid?”
Glad to have a chance to speak again, Junior Agent Tanner thought only for a second. “Because lightning – both normal and ball kinds – will strike metal if it is closer to the ground?”
“Yes... and no,” Agent Steele replied in that frustrating manner young Tanner feared he would come to dread already. “Indeed,” he conceded, “lightning will strike metal if it just so happens to be directly in its path... Ball, on the other hand, has been supposedly reported to seek metal out, sometimes floating through windows, both opened and closed, just to chow down on a mere steel chain. So,” he added in conclusion, “as far as natural phenomena goes, ball lightning is about as unnatural as you can get.”
“Very... informative, Agent Steele,” Head Agent Fuller rolled his eyes. “Are you investigating a case involving ball lightning?”
“Huh? Oh, no, Sir,” the dark Scorchio coughed and snuck Tanner a sheepish glance, which was as close to a outright apology as the young agent was going to get. “No, I should be so lucky... no, I just wanted to test him out a bit, and that was the first thing that sprang to mind... good news, Kid; you didn’t pass, but you only just failed.”
“Tanner,” the young cloud Kougra interjected flatly. “My name is Francis Tanner.”
“Yeah, and you’re a Junior Agent, so for now you’re going to be known as ‘Kid’,” the Scorchio caught sight of Tanner’s baleful glare. “Okay! Fine... Tanner, was it? Fine, Tanner... so, they’re trying to rope you into this division, huh? I take it you haven’t been fully informed on what it is we – I actually do here, since if you had you wouldn’t even be here right now...”
“Look, sorry, but what do you do here, exactly? No one’s told me a thing, and I’m not about to jump into a job I know nothing about!” He was flustered, and when Tanner got flustered, it made him impatient. It was one of his very few bad qualities.
“Hold your Unis, Ki – Tanner. I was getting around to the job description if you’d have just waited. At the Strange Cases division I deal with situations and occurrences others deem mysterious, baffling and – most important of all – supernatural. Some also call them laughable, but they also think that keeping a doubloon under your pillow kept the pirate faerie at bay, so they can hardly –”
“Steele,” warned Head Agent Fuller with a single, piercing glare, “where have you been told about going off on wild tangents?”
“Oh, right... sorry, Sir. Anyway, Junior Agent Tanner...” The emphasis wasn’t sarcastic, but exasperated, as if the Scorchio was already tired of the formality. “The kind of cases I deal with can range from anything as simple a haunting or a UFO sighting to something as big as a chain of alien encounters or a worldwide conspiracy...”
“Conspiracies,” Tanner repeated, eyebrow rose despite his attempt at disinterest, his face betraying his curiosity.
“Sure, they happen more often then you’d expect.”
“I’ve never heard of any such conspiracies.”
“Well, they wouldn’t be top-secret conspiracies if you had – wait, did I mention they were top-secret?”
“That’s because they were top-secret. So,” Steele added after a dramatic pause. “What do you say, do you want to join me and go alien-chasing everyday, or try to predict the next time an icy wind will blow the hat off Donny the Toy Repairer up on Terror Mountain over at Natural Disasters?”
Junior Agent Francis Tanner looked from the straight-faced shadow Scorchio who would be his partner if he agreed, to Head Agent Fuller, who would be his boss no matter what, and back to Steele again.
“Okay,” he said finally, arms crossed, “when do I start?”
LOCATION: UNKNOWN, TIME: UNKNOWN
The room was large and shrouded in shadows, a single white candle shedding the smallest of flickering orange light in its center. The darkness gave the impression that the room was immense, although its exact dimensions were impossible to speculate in the dim illumination.
The empty void was finally broken by the flare of a taper as it was ignited against the candle, the glare briefly increasing the light to reveal a close-knit circle of peculiar looking, grey-robed figures, but before any other distinguishing features could be registered the shadows fell back in around them.
With now just two points of light, the taper was passed around the circle, its holder muttering some hurried words before passing the small stick on. When it had passed a dozen pairs of hands, once around the circle, the original figure to have held it did so once more, their features still in shadows despite the close light.
“This meeting is now in session, brothers... I was told there were urgent issues that needed to be addressed...?”
At this the taper was passed three times down the right-hand side of the circle. When it came to rest in the hands of the fourth member, they spoke.
“The NSB have a new recruit; one Francis Tanner, a Junior Agent.” His voice was dry, clear and emotionless.
“You have reason to believe we should fear this newcomer?” This came from an inquisitive, disembodied voice in the gloom, across from him.
“He is to join the Strange Cases division.” This seemed to be a sufficient enough answer for the candle holder.
There was a general collection of acknowledgements and calm concern from most of the circle, but the same questioning soul spoke up once again.
“You are certain of this?” he asked, his voice steeped in skepticism. “In the five years that the NSB has been operational, there have been well over one hundred and seventy such Junior Agents, all of which have been offered the position in the Strange Cases division, and all of whom have turned the offer down... all except one...”
“Agent Max Steele,” another voice confirmed, and there were more mutters of agreement.
“...what makes this newest recruit any different from the one hundred and seventy before him?” the doubter went on after the hubbub had died down.
“Because he, unlike those others, has no choice but to accept,” the taper carrier replied slowly. “Or, at least, he believes he has no choice... he will join, if he has not already.”
The taper was passed back to the opener of the meeting, and when they finally spoke their voice was grave. “If what you say is true, then contact must be made and fair warning issued when this report is confirmed... Matthias, you shall be our messenger.”
Across the circle there was a rustle of cloth as the one addressed bowed in the darkness. “It shall be done, Hahrnar.”
“Good... now, let us close this meeting.”
As one, a chant sounded around the circle, reverberating throughout the room:
“The Secret is life,
Nothing matters but the Secret,
The Secret is everything,
And must be protected to the End.”
To be continued...
Author’s Note: All facts as stated by Steele are correct to the best of his knowledge; you can take his word for it. Me, on the other hand, I like to do my research.