13 January 2012

The Secret World

So The Secret World is due out in April. I'm intrigued by its setting: the modern world, with a hugely epic backstory spanning millennia, where every myth, urban legend, and conspiracy theory you ever heard is true, and where secret societies fight for control of these powerful myths. I don't know how it will shake out as a game, but the idea has piqued my interest terribly. I haven't gone in for this sort of thing since I got into Lovecraft back in college. Feeling inspired, I wrote a little story about a character finding his way into the secretive Illuminati of TSW. Enjoy!



“I do hope you’re ready,” said Samuel. “But that really doesn’t matter now.” Without a further word he shoved Harcourt over the edge and waited.

What Harcourt experienced then was a magnificent and terrifying feeling, one of liberation and horrifying truth. He found himself falling, without a scream, and he kept falling and when he thought the earth must have spat him back out, only to let him fall again, and that surely this imagined second fall would end soon, that only the stratosphere was higher than the place from where he’d fallen, he kept falling. Years went by, sleet struck his face like gnats. And then, as quickly as he had been pushed from the top of the Sears Tower, he stopped.

Tabernac, he thought, I hate Chicago.

When he opened his eyes his nose was touching West Adams Street; he stared straight into black pavement under a blacker sky. At his point of stopping he hadn’t jerked, had hardly felt a thing as if he were magically frozen in space.

Magic. The word came into his mind and trailed away like a drop of rain on the windshield of a speeding car.

“Monsieur Dupuis!” said a voice that obviously belonged to a non-native French speaker. “This is something new we have been playing since one of our operatives returned from Papua New Guinea. Shaman there have claimed a bit of magic that keeps men from falling from their tree-houses and into the black night...where the demons dwell. There was some kind of something there and we took it home, contained it, beat it into submission. Now we can do things like this!”

The man clicked some button or other and Harcourt Dupuis fell the last inch or so onto the street.

“This is what you have to look forward to now that you are one of us.” The man, of whom Harcourt could only see his shoes, flicked a clove cigarette on the ground and pulled Harcourt up by his shoulders.

***
It was there, on the ground before stepping into the black Chrysler 300 and speeding off to God-knew-where (There is still a God, right? he thought), that Harcourt Dupuis went back to New York. Specifically he went to his sophomore butchery class at CIA, the Culinary Institute of America. It was there that he met Samuel Siegel, lopping off the head of a duck to the pleasure of their instructor, Romero de Torres.

“Harcourt,” said Samuel, not  looking up from his task. He was like an Ivy League, trust fund type who had someone garnered both book smarts and street smarts. As if a punk from 1970s Brooklyn had been raised with money and privilege. He had short brown hair, smartly greased and combed, shaved on the sides like a modern version. He was handsome, high-cheeked, and didn’t seem to care. “I’ve been to Port Harcourt.”

“Nigeria,” said Harcourt.

“Right!” said Samuel, smiling easily. “Now I’m not a very smart man but Harcourt is an English name, not French.”

“My father was Scotch.”

“Your accent could have fooled me,” said Samuel through that easy smile.

Harcourt just gave this brazen American a calm look and went back to observing the butchery. Chef de Torres sauntered by again and examined the duck, now mostly cleaned and feather plucked, ready to be roasted to a perfect golden brown by the next class. He nodded and checked something on a clipboard. An hour later the two of them were walking through the old hallways of the school, making their way to the dining hall.

“Christ, I hope Cooper’s class isn’t making lunch today,” bemoaned Samuel, also whining about there not being alcohol served in the student dining hall.

“There is enough partying after school hours, don’t you think?” chimed in Harcourt. It was the first thing he’d said since leaving butchery.

Samuel nodded thoughtfully, “Maybe. Maybe not enough for me. Business before pleasure, eh Harcourt? That doesn’t sound very French.”

“Maybe that is because I’m French-Canadian,” said Harcourt sardonically.

“Ah! A Quebecois, mon ami! Even better,” said Samuel and ended his sentence with a shove, pushing Harcourt into the dining hall playfully. It would not take long for Harcourt to realize that Samuel was pushy, literally and figuratively. There they enjoyed the worst of Chef Cooper’s freshman preparation class over discussion that would reshape the course of both their lives.

“What’s the dream, Harcourt? Open a little boucherie somewhere? Wife and kids?” asked Samuel with his easy smile.

Harcourt was generally a reserved person and would have shrugged off such a question had it come from anyone else but Samuel was seemingly the most charming person Harcourt had ever met outside of Montreal. It helped that Harcourt didn’t have a friend in the whole country.

“I want an empire,” he admitted.

“Well! Now we are getting somewhere, Harcourt,” said Samuel, his smile fading into interest and mouthfuls of runny parsnip puree.

Harcourt continued with only a hint of reluctance, “More than that I want to be a Chef and a Man worthy of an empire. I am tired of seeing fat American chefs or French chefs or nobodies opening restaurants where anyone can stuff their faces with gruel, with no skill or care for the craft. Food is the start. I will have my home restaurant, a small brasserie in Montreal, from there it is a restaurant with a new focus in every major city on the continent. Then design, fashion, money, influence. Wife and kids? Probably not.”

Samuel was more or less staring at his new friend now, a faint smirk responding to this revelation. Harcourt wondered if he had tipped his hand too early and was about to say “Forget it” when Samuel spoke first.

“I think we are going to be great friends, you and I.”

***

The next semester was a whirlwind for Harcourt, a blur of late nights, butchery and knife exams barely passed, dreams like he’d never known, rides in expensive cars with Samuel into the City and parties like he’d only seen in movies. It was a taste of a life he’d never known he’d wanted. Certainly he had visions of the “good life”, but only after years of intensely hard work to build up the little storefront empire of his imaginings. The scope of things began to set into his mind the night he met Samuel’s father, Grant Siegel.

“Samuel tells me much about you,” said the great man over the stereotypical snifters of brandy. It was good brandy, too. Harcourt only nodded. “A person of vision, he even said. I find that a high compliment! I think of us as men of vision as well, vision beyond the sight of your average person you might say. You see this? All of this around you?” He gestured to the sitting room around them, an impeccable blend of class, sophistication, antiquity, and modern style. Brown bookcases flanked by modern glass end tables and find leather chairs, dangling tapestries of Americana, black and white marble tiling the floor. “It is a reward reaped by men of vision, but a paltry reward I think.”

There were other men milling around the massive Manhattan flat of the Siegel’s. It was one of many properties, Harcourt was convinced, even though he had only seen this place and their home in the Hamptons. The men walked here and there, chatting, peeking into books, getting drunk, all wearing tuxedos. Most were their own age, in their early twenties, some were older, distinguished men in their fourties and fifties. It felt a little bit like a frat party, one said. Harcourt thought he heard the sounds of a fight breaking out downstairs. He did not own a tux; he’d borrowed one from Samuel that did not quite fit. “Work smart, dress smart, play hard,” he had given Harcourt these words as he taught him how to properly tie a bow. He looked good in a tux that complimented his height and broad shoulders, even if the sleeves were too short. Since falling in with Samuel he’d started dressing more smartly, kept his frizzy black hair short and grew a fashionable pencil moustache.

“Paltry indeed,” continued Grant Siegel. He seemed to drift in his mind to far away places, fire ebbing through his veins as he spoke, saying, “The true rewards are power beyond the grasp of men who choose those mortal and fallible means. Politics, corporate greed, and the like.” The sounds of fighting and all else faded now for Harcourt. He only had ears for this strange, rich man whom he’d previously dismissed as a child of privilege, a soft bag of money resting on the laurels of his great-grandfather. His words had taken on a strange tone. “Those aren’t the real ways to power, Harcourt. Those are dead ends, glass ceilings, you see.”

At that point the two men stared at one another, one old and one young, a child of poverty seeing the world through the holes in an empty wallet. It was as if there was communion happening, thought Harcourt later on, inaudible and unspoken words, like he was discovering something about not only himself, but the world he thought he knew. Samuel Siegel stepped into the room through two large oak doors and the elder Siegel broke the silence. “I want to offer your friend a job, Samuel,” he said without looking up.

Harcourt looked stunned. Samuel grinned broadly and said, “Thank you, father”. Had he been in lighter company he would have shouted “Yes!” and pumped his fist. The night would end with the pair of them passed out drunk in that same room, Grant Siegel looking them over before retiring, knowing he had made a wise choice.

***

“Now, I don’t believe in magic per se,” started Samuel. “There are forces in this world that manifest themselves in ways that are hard to understand. That’s why we find ways and means to understand them, control them.”

He was holding a dodecagon, an old and decorative one made of brass with singular dots marking each side. Harcourt had heard of Dungeons & Dragons but had never played and was not interested in starting now, with the wide world opening before him and possibly capsizing his nonexistent culinary career in the wake. In case this whole “global domination” thing did not pan out he did mean to stick things out here at CIA; roleplaying games would not help him pass food science. He kept his mouth shut all the same.

“Did that poor, Canadian public school education inform you of some mythology?” asked Samuel.

“It taught me more than your bunkies at prep school did,” Harcourt shot back.

“Then you know about Pandora’s Box?”

“Where all the suffering of the world came from.”

“That’s right,” said Samuel. “See, the people I’m getting you involved with know the truth about such stuff. We’ve been around some time. We’ve taken the power of that box and...well, weaponized it.”

With that he muttered something and tapped the top of the dodecagon which whirred mechanically, expanded and opened slowly. Some kind of green mist, or was it light rays, issued from the box and lit Harcourt’s dorm room. Just as he was about to kick it over and tell Samuel to stop his fooling, he felt a lump in his throat. It got scratchy, like strep. He felt himself get angry, thought strange thoughts, felt pain in his feet, legs, and up it crept like pins and needles. His breathing sped up, his chest hurt; it was not pleasant and before he could scream the box closed. All that remained was a faint green glow that highlighted the troubled look on Samuel’s face.

“Holy...it worked,” he breathed. “Do you believe now?” His expression was at once triumphant and concerned. He hadn’t wished to harm his friend.

“I’d say I’m almost there.” Harcourt forced the words out of mouth. He was sweating but the pain fled. This was new, this was what he wanted and if these insane people who his college friend had introduced him to could help him get it, well, then he had little choice.

***

By the end of that semester Harcourt had withdrawn, officially, from CIA and was now working for Grant Siegel exclusively. What that job was, however, Harcourt could not say. He spent the next month and a half speeding all over New York City and its many boroughs, through Nassau county and up to Boston, south to Washington DC. Always in a black Rolls Royce, always with some message or to pick up someone or to deliver gifts to seemingly important people. His “work” even took him all the way to London once. It was all tremendous tedium and by the end of the first month Harcourt was ready to go back to CIA.

“This is a joke,” he told Samuel.

“Just hang in there, another month I promise. I’m working on something,” Samuel reassured him. Harcourt nodded and stuck with it, suffering silently. He trusted his friend. Three weeks later he would find himself falling from the Sears Tower.

In the time between he began paying attention, making connections, looking for the reasons why he called on the people he did. He noticed the politicians he escorted to secret parties represented the same states as the CEOs he brought sealed packages to; that the lobbyist whose home windows he had smashed had previously been seen with the same senator, on whose committee the lobbyist depended for certain legal action, he’d brought Grant Siegel to dine with. All very powerful people, all with specific interests, all moneyed and influential. No real puzzle there. The further strands were harder to grasp, the ends harder to discover than the means, but they all arrived at the same conclusion: consolidation of power, control.

The wrench in the machine of his thoughts came the day before he was spirited away to Chicago. He was waiting for an associate of Grant Siegel, a lanky man of 52 years called Carson, on a quiet street in Staten Island. Harcourt leaned against the luxurious Rolls Royce, the care and awe he’d once had for the automobile now a thing of the past, smoking a cigarette. He’d never smoked before attending CIA, but it seemed to him that everyone involved in the food preparation game was a smoker and with good reason; it did help with the stress somehow. It was two o’clock in the morning. As he pondered on whether or not the enjoyment of smoking was worth its related health risks, the door to the shady building he had let Mister Carson into two hours before burst open red and the sounds of thousands of screams filled the air. It was the sound of a small village of young women was being stabbed to death.

Carson walked to the car in a hurry, furtively glancing around to ensure the street was deserted. It was and, as if by magic, had been since they’d arrived. The shock of the noise had startled Harcourt into dropping his cigarette. Momentarily he regained himself enough to open the door to the backseat for Carson, who was clasping a brief case with a bloody hand. He almost shoved Harcourt out of the way to get in, Harcourt stared at his wounded hand. The blood seemed to be some kind of shape he’d recognized but the frenzy of his thoughts and a lightheaded rush had driven any chance of recognition from his mind.

“Drive the fucking car!” shouted Carson and slammed the door. Harcourt rushed around to the other side, smoothing out his suit and jumping in the driver’s seat. The Rolls Royce sped off into the street and Harcourt drove hard, avoiding traffic and praying to whoever would listen that there was still a ferry to take them back to Manhattan. Carson breathed heavily and shakily in the backseat. Harcourt focused on driving but his mind kept wandering back to Carson’s hand. Then it struck him: the bleeding shape was a pentagram.

***

“I won’t bore you with any more talk of power and influence and blah-dee-da,” said the Chicago man. “I think you understand now who were are what we’re about.”

“I’ve an inkling,” muttered Harcourt. The man smiled behind his dark sunglasses. The Chrysler bounced on the quiet city streets where, even if there were a soul to see, no one would have guest the shadowy business being conducted. After his fall and saving stop Harcourt had been lazily led to the car where two glasses of whatever liquor he wanted were waiting. When he protested (“I like beer better,” he’d said) the man laughed and poured him some exotic white rum. Now Harcourt was left to half-listen to what the man was saying and to brood on the dark thoughts the last few months of his life had brought to life.

“Very good, then,” started the man again. “Everyone who’s had an eye on you agrees with me when I say you’ve got the stuff to be of great use to us, Harcourt. When you’re useful to us you’re helping yourself, see?”

Harcourt nodded.

““Right. Well we won’t keep you in Chicago for long. You should be back in New York by this time tomorrow and Mister Siegel will tell you what comes next. We’ve a special task you’ll be assigned to, Siegel has the details. How do you feel about politics?” the man asked calmly.

“I don’t care for them.” Harcourt was too tired to say much more than that.

The man laughed and said, “Neither do I. Welcome to the Illuminati.”

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