Omega-13's YF-12 variant pulled Mach 2 eastward then went VTOL and deposited me at Hector International Airport in the middle of Fargo under the cover of 4:30 in the morning. I was met on the tarmac in 20 degree weather by a black Crown Victoria and a petite blond woman dressed in black under a black trenchcoat who introduced herself as Absentia Rhodes.
"But you can call me Abby," she said.
Abby gave me the skinny: For the past three days, Neil Gaiman had been spotted sitting in a Starbucks on Kristen Lane South. This was shortly after rumors of a Mecha Gaiman had been circulating on the Intertubes. Abby was one of the Omega-13 operatives tasked with patrolling the Midwestern Sector and Duke had dispatched her to the scene to investigate.
"Was easy enough," she said as she pointed the big car southbound onto US-81/Interstate 29 from 19th Avenue North. "I'm local."
"You see a lot of this kind of thing?" I asked.
"You mean the odd stuff?" She nodded. "About five years ago. Little town northwest of here."
Ah yes. "In Devil's Lake," I said. " Haunted body parts."
"I was there. Wrote a piece about it."
"Ah, you're that guy."
"I am. Who told you?"
"Besides Duke? My old mentor, Jonquil Burkhardt. She was working that particular case."
"Tall?" I said. "Short dark hair? Looks like Ripley?"
"That's Jonquil. 'Jonni' for short."
"Ran into her while I was investigating the story."
"What happened out there? I was working another case at the time."
"Things got hairy for a while," I said. "Eventually worked out. But had to bring in the big guns."
"A plunger, they said."
"Lies," I replied. "It was a mutant shillelagh. The báeth cluith. A little-known Celtic holy weapon. Like a mace but bent and gnarled. Pistol grip. Anyway, I'll tell you about it later. Have to focus on this crisis first."
"Is it a crisis?"
"Too early to tell but you never know. Could change in a heartbeat."
"Duke send you out for that? The Devil's Lake Haunting?"
"All on my own, actually. Met Duke after that story ran. But didn't know anything about this. About Omega-13."
"He told you recently, didn't he."
I nodded. "And then told me about the Fae Invasion. He thinks this is related, doesn't he."
"Possibly," said Abby. "Is that why you're here?"
I nodded. "If it is part of the Invasion, I'm here to cover the story and make sure the public knows about it."
"I'm not sure how Mecha Gaiman fits, though. Iron and Fae don't mix much."
This much was certain. I, too, wasn't sure about the Mecha Gaiman connection. Unless, like the Auto d'Fae the Unseelie Court had dispatched against Carina Press editor Mallory Braus, it was a remote agent, enchanted to do its bidding then controlled from afar, maybe from a La-Z-Boy. Or perhaps, it only looked like it was made of iron.
Abby turned off the highway onto 32nd Avenue South and headed down a long stretch of road past small strip malls, turned on 25th, then pulled into the deserted parking lot near an insurance office and backed into an empty slot in front of Starbucks.
"That's it?" I said, gesturing to the building.
"Yep," said Abby, cutting the engine. "We've got about forty-five minutes before they open."
* * *
We waited until 6 a.m. before getting out of the car and sprinting into the place to warm up. Their heaters were at full-blast and the welcome warmth was much more welcoming than the lined leather gloves and Grabber Warmers Hand Warmer packs I'd had in the car during the wait. Even at this early hour, the place was filling up fast. They opened at 5:30 and cars had already begun to trickle in around us. By the time we shuffled inside, at least a dozen people were already seated, several cars were waiting at the drive-thru, and a line of ten people were at the counter.
Abby ordered a venti drip coffee for herself. I got two venti white mochas with two extra shots each, two breakfast sandwiches (sausage), and a bottle of water (cold).
"Hungry much?" Abby asked, eyeing my order as I brought it to our table.
"Fuel," I said, sitting down and unwrapping the first sandwich. "Body must be properly nourished in these situations. So when is he supposed to show up?"
"Based on reports, between 7:30 and 8," said Abby. "And he sat over there." She gestured toward a table next to the big front windows currently occupied by a small elderly Chinese man wearing Han Solo's blue Hoth parka with fur-line hood, baggy chinos, and Ugg boots, hunched over an iPhone and humming the theme to "The A-Team" to himself.
"We're early yet," I said, chomping away at my sandwich. "Gives us time to reconnoiter then blend in with the crowd."
"Good plan," said Abby. "Then we nab him when he shows up and take him to the local base for questioning."
"I'll make positive identification. I know Neil Gaiman."
"You two are close?"
"No. But I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express once. And I've made an extensive study of his photos, videos, and audio recordings over the last few days. I'll be able to tell if it's really him."
"With 100% certainty?"
"So you're skeptical it is Gaiman."
"I am. I've been following his Twitter feed since the reported sighting."
I leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. Abby leaned forward, too. "No indication that he's anywhere near here. He's been in Australia and only recently got back to the States. So this guy is either a bad celebrity author look-alike, a clone, or..." I looked around. "Or a doppelgänger."
* * *
It was 7:36 a.m. and the baristas were humming the Super Mario Bros. theme song out loud when Neil Gaiman walked in and got in line.
It took me under five seconds to check and re-check and double-check based on my extensive research and I quickly leaned toward Abby. "Not a look-alike. Not a clone, either, since there's no goatee."
"Doppelgänger," I said. I downed the rest of my mocha and got to my feet. As I did, I drew the retractable harpoon from beneath my jacket, deployed the fluke, and leveled it at Faux Gaiman. "Fake!" I called out. "Pretender!"
Faux Gaiman whirled on us, dropping to a crouch, baring teeth, and snarling. "You fools!"
"Suck on this, asswipe," Abby said, drew a Taser from beneath her coat and fired. The twin barbs plunged into Faux Gaiman's torso but he just ripped them off and threw them to the ground.
I charged, harpoon jabbing, and got in two good hits before he backhanded me and I went down.
People were screaming and running now. Someone yelled "Mortal Kombat!" Then came a chorus of voices humming the theme song and drumming the bassline against countertops.
I heard two blasts of thunder near me then an explosion of glass. When I looked up, Abby was empty a breech-loading sawed-off shotgun and shoving two more cartridges into it. I turned to where Faux Gaiman had been and saw a blown out window and a figure on the ground in the parking lot outside.
We bolted outside in time to see Faux Gaiman get to its feet and face us. "We are coming," it said, long ropes of saliva dripping from the corners of its mouth. "I am but the beginning."
Then it turned and bolted toward 32nd Avenue, leaping over cars and buildings.
"Pretender?" Abby said. "You got a Michael T. Weiss vibe, too?"
I nodded. "It was the voice. Same as Jason Blood on Justice League and Adam Strange on Batman: The Brave and the Bold." I collapsed the harpoon. "Crisis now."
"Yes. But not the gauntlet."
"Oh man," she said.
"And OMAC," I said then pulled out my phone and dialed Azerov. "We need more data on doppelgängers."
"The Gaiman sighting, yes?" he said. "I was afraid of that. I'll let Duke know and send over the material. Give me half an hour."
I hung up and Abby turned toward me with a questioning look.
"Azerov and I are on the same page," I said. "That doppelgänger is a scout."
"Yeah. We need to find it and stop it." I started for the car. "Let's hunt some Orc."
"Doppelgänger," said Abby.
"Don't change the subject."
Come back next week for another entry of The Jericho Files!
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.