wildman

Bane turned slowly, and met the volcanic glare of two burning, bloodshot eyes, peering out at him from a dirt-streaked, nut-brown face, wreathed by greasy, tangled hair; the apparition thrust from the undergrowth less than a foot from Bane’s nose.

I

That intrepid team of inquirers into the improbable and the inexplicable, Atticus Bane and Cullan Finch, were not always colleagues and companions. In fact, there was a time when, it might be fairly said, they found themselves on opposite sides of an encounter. The incident in question is even more intriguing when one considers that it was the occasion of their initial acquaintance. Heretofore, each of these gentlemen was mutually unaware of the other.

It was but a few short years after Bane (and, of course, good old Burtie Wodehouse) graduated from Miskatonic University, while Bane was pursuing arcane trans-curricular studies on his own. While he had yet to take up residence at Runeharrow, as he would some twenty years hence, Bane had moved south from the vicinity of his alma mater to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He would come to fall in love with the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially in their lambent autumn splendor, but at the time, Bane’s motivations were a bit more pragmatic: residence in the Shenandoah Valley situated him nicely between the those self-same, eon-haunted mountains and the arcane resources of Washington, DC.

As has been noted in at least one previous Chronicle, the vast majority of so-called magical tomes are nothing more than overly – and oddly – specialized reference books. Of those dealing with matters that interested him, Bane had exhausted the selection available in the Boston area where Miskatonic U was nominally located, whilst he was yet a student at that august institution. The next greatest concentration lay in the public and private collections of the nation’s capitol, and thither Bane went as soon as he was able.

In addition to the academic and scholarly resources, it must be said that the Blue Ridge are second only to the curiously domed hills of the Upper Miskatonic Valley in eldritch portent, ominous folk-legends and rushing, airy presences. Just the sort of place for a budding arcanologist to do his independent field research.

The Summer of Love found Atticus letting a small suite of rooms in the quaint little hamlet of Dismal Hollow, Virginia. The accommodations were more than adequate for the price, and the name of the place was so evocative of the atmosphere that Bane, with the pretentiousness of youth, sought to cultivate, that he was constitutionally incapable of passing it up.

Many times over the succeeding years, both Bane and Finch would reflect on the happy circumstances that placed Atticus in that particular place at that particular time.

Several months after occupying his new digs, Bane awoke from a sound sleep to a horrible, hair-raising medley of barking dogs, honking car alarms and the metallic clatter of a trashcan bouncing off a brick wall. There was also a low, eerie, rumbling sound that Bane’s drowsy mind connected, for some obscure reason, to an oncoming train. The total of all these impressions and connections brought him to immediate wakefulness with a single word: tornado!

We all form impressions of foreign parts which, even if dismissed by rational consciousness, nonetheless continue to influence us and inform our behavior. At some point, probably as the result of viewing one too many TV news stories about tornados and southern trailer parks, Bane’s mind had formed the opinion, quite on its own, that Virginia was second only to storied Kansas in its affliction by those howling storm-furies. Sniffed at and dismissed by even the lowest level of rational thought, that belief now erupted in the cacophonic night, galvanizing Bane and sending him leaping out of bed.

Or would have, had Bane not been wrapped in his bedsheets tighter than old Tutankhamen in his funeral bindings. What should have been a coordinated and effective action became a painful and embarrassing tumble to the floor. Before his mind could lash him with visions of being plucked up, still helplessly wound in the linen, by a passing whirlwind, Atticus took himself in hand, and managed to achieve lucid – and wary – wakefulness.

Lights flared outside, from many directions, and the resonant rumbling noise cut off like a speaker wire had been snipped. Atticus breathed a bit easier despite himself – it was no tornado then, whatever else it might be.

Voices called back and forth, and he recognized the neighbors on either side, joined a moment later by his landlady. Atticus pulled on his robe, opened the sliding glass door, and stepped out onto the private upper deck that was another excellent reason for taking these particular lodgings. Bane padded, barefoot and all but silent, to the railing and peered over.

Directly below, his landlady stood in the pool of yellow light cast by her bug-repelling patio lights, her capacious muumuu fluttering in the warm spring breeze, while she wrung her hands in a face towel. Her attention was directed at the thick belt of woods that bordered this side-road neighborhood and its handful of dwellings. Following her gaze, Atticus saw lights bobbing through the dense foliage and heard again familiar voices calling to one another. Even as he watched, several of those voices lifted above the others with an odd quality of angry affirmation, as if an especially odious fact had just been confirmed.

Bane heard his landlady, Mavis, gasp in horror, her hand flying so swiftly to her mouth that she slapped herself in the face with the towel.

“Ho-lee shit!” she said in a cowed, breathy voice. “He’s come back!”

“Who’s come back, Mavis?” Bane called down to her, so overcome by curiosity that he failed to realize she was ignorant of his presence above and behind her.

Predictably, Mavis gave out a piercing shriek, shot straight up into the air at least eight inches, and toppled sideways into her prize-winning petunias. Who, it should be noted, took this occasion to express their appreciation for her years of care and cultivation by sacrificing themselves to cushion her fall.

II

To his great relief, Atticus found that Mavis’ last memory before awakening among her pet petunias was the shouted news from the search party that the Wildman of Dismal Hollow had, apparently, returned to his old stomping grounds. Figuratively speaking of course, the size of his footprints notwithstanding.

Bane saw no reason to further upset poor Mavis by confessing his role in her rather dramatic fainting spell. Further, he discharged any lingering feelings of guilt by helping her to get settled in her TV room, fetching a hefty dose of whiskey and water, and sitting raptly as she regaled him with the story of the Wildman. That the last was the true motivation behind his solicitousness was lost on Mavis, and her gratitude was both effusive and repetitive.

“It must, oh ten years or more now, Mr. Bane” Mavis began tremulously, her drama-generator at full RPMs. She patted her forehead with a tissue, where the whiskey, Bane thought, rather than her fright, had provoked tiny, lady-like beads of perspiration.

“It was autumn, just like it is now. Mr. Watkins – my late husband, you know – said that it was likely the coming winter cold that forced the critter down from the higher mountains across the river. He terrorized the whole area by night, killing livestock, chasing off pets, destroying property. He seemed to take an extra special interest and delight in demolishing garden gnomes and those cute precious little pink flamingos.”

Bane was virtually certain, from the wistful look in her eyes, that she had lost both sorts of paraphernalia to the rapacious beast.

“Did it harm anyone? Kill anyone?” Bane asked.

Mavis’ more than adequate eyebrows scrunched together, as if she had never before considered that question.

“Noooo…” she said tentatively, “not that I recall offhand. Just kept everyone up-tight and on edge for the better part of a month.”

“And then?” Bane prompted.

Mavis gave an anticlimactic shrug. “Nothing much. He tore up a couple more yards, then vanished as sudden and mysterious-like as he came!”

“But he returns regularly, I take it?”

Again, Mavis furrowed her brow.

“Well,” she drawled, “Not what you’d call regular, you understand. But often enough that we know him when he comes around, and that was him tonight, mark my words!”

“I don’t doubt that at all, my dear lady,” Bane reassured her. “Has anyone ever attempted to capture the beast?”

“Oh, heck yeah,” Mavis said, laughing with sudden gaiety. “You shoulda seen all the men folk – and a few of the rougher gals, too – and all the cockamamy schemes they came up with for catching him. Hah! The Wildman never hurt nobody I know of, but that bunch of yahoos gave themselves more than their fair share of bumps, bruises and sprained ankles, if I recollect rightly. And I do.”

“He proved to be an elusive quarry, then?”

“Elusive?” Mavis fairly hooted the word. “I’ll say! Remember, Mr. Bane, he’s a wild man, not a wild animal. As in thinking man. And he sure out-thought the best of the men ‘round here, no doubt about it!”

Another half hour of polite but persistent prodding produced nothing new in the way of lore on the Wildman: for the last ten minutes, Mavis had been rehashing the same story over and over again, with only slight variations in the details. Assuring her that he would keep his eyes – and other sense organs – peeled for the interloper, and raise the alarm at the slightest inkling of his presence, he bid her good night and returned to his apartment.

As has been established, this tale takes place in the year 1968, well before the advent of such boons to the chronically inquisitive and information starved as the internet, tablets, cell phone and other such oracular devices. Therefore, Bane was unable to immediately satisfy his now-raging need to investigate the mystery he had stumbled upon in this pleasant, out-of-the-way hamlet. He fidgeted for some time, tossing and turning, considering and then rejecting this plan of action and that, until sleep stole upon him at last.

As Bane descended the seven-hundred and seventy steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber, a hulking shadow fell across the sliding door to his balcony. The deck at the threshold creaked in protest and relief, as it first received, then relinquished a substantial weight.

A spatulate nose, protruding only slightly from a mass of tangled, dirty hair, snuffled at the outside handle of the door, where Bane’s fingers had lingered only a few hours earlier. The snuffling provoked a sneeze, muffled at the last second; nonetheless, the shadow froze at that slight sound.

Two or three yards over, a pair of dogs whined to each other, working up the courage to begin barking again at the lurking stranger.

Before the hounds could find their voices, the shadow turned and bounded across the deck with silent, astonishing agility, and vanished into the darkness beyond the deck railing with a last, long leap.

III

Atticus had grown to young adulthood in rural New England in a time when that still counted for something, still yielded skills and experiences that actually proved useful in later life. However, while he knew his way around the woods, he wasn’t at all certain he could say the same for the other denizens of his newfound neighborhood.

Under different circumstances, Bane wouldn’t have hesitated to track their odd visitor from the night before. But one look at the posse that had set out at first light to do just that convinced him his efforts would be more usefully applied elsewhere. There were outposts in the jungles of Viet Nam, Bane suspected, that would see less gunfire that day than the woods around Dismal Hollow.

Rather, he arrayed himself with the tools of the dedicated scholar of the day – a set of battered notebooks and a pocketful of pens and pencils – and set out for the District of Columbia and the National Archives.

During his last fretful bits of planning before sleep had taken him the night before, Bane had decided that his best bet lay in DC. He could have assayed the county seat, or asked about until he found the oldest extant local newspaper, but he might also require more academic resources – unavailable in these rural environs – if news archives failed to provide the breadcrumbs his intuition urged him to seek.

Again, the reader should be reminded that, in 1968, microfiche record storage was considered bleeding edge frivolity, and mimeograph machines still ruled the Earth. Bane was under no illusions that his search would be a brief or easy one, and was prepared to spend however long it took bivouacking, as it were, in the District.

Indeed, that necessity may have influenced his decision as much as any other factor: he enjoyed the solitude and natural ambience of rural Virginia, but the locale was what his maiden Aunt Clementine would have called a cultural wasteland – the nearest movie theatre was lucky to run last years features on a Saturday night and the closest thing to musical performances were impromptu hoe-downs at the local volunteer fire department.

Bane was looking forward to entertainment of a more urban flavor.

The observant reader will by now have considered a number of statements in the manuscript thus far, and formed at least one salient question in his or her mind: Where did a young chap, fresh out of university and having no discernible, marketable skills, find the financial wherewithal to live such a vagabond life, moving hundreds of miles cross-country, renting spacious digs in a wilderness paradise only to go haring off in pursuit of a local folk-legend rather than holding down a responsible and lucrative position?

A simple question, to be sure, but one that must wait till another day to be answered. Suffice to say at this juncture that Bane’s wealth was acquired while he was yet at university, and at no cost to anyone – or anything – that you might be inclined to weep for. So let’s leave it at that for now, shall we?

Bane’s sojourn in the capitol was both lengthy and profitable, on a number of fronts. He ran down several useful and interesting contacts at various museums and universities, academics known to him from his days at Miskatonic, or referred by former professors; he plowed through musty archives of newsprint and foolscap by day, like Gandalf in the archives of Minas Tirith, and in the evenings savored the best of the nightlife in and around DC.

His final stop before returning to Dismal Hollow found him scaling a narrow, precipitous set of stone steps in the armpit of Georgetown, at the intersection where the Key Bridge enters the District. Halfway up the vertiginous climb, he shivered, as if someone had not only walked across his grave, but stopped to pour out a gallon or three of ice cold water. He looked up, flinching, expecting – for some unfathomable reason – to see a body plummeting down at him from the house above. Then shook off the eerie interlude and finished the steps at a run.

A hand-drawn map that, at first glance, he wouldn’t have trusted to lead him to his boot-laces, nonetheless took him unerringly to his destination, once he had cleared the summit of that spooky staircase. He rapped lightly on the slender, painted door of the trim, tidy, and quite ordinary-looking townhouse that matched the address on the map.

Later, Bane could not be certain of precisely what occurred after his knock was answered. That it was answered, there could be no doubt. When he suddenly found himself in the onrushing dusk, once again at the bottom of those dizzying stairs, the answers – all the answers – to his questions were firmly fixed in his mind.

But of how that information was obtained, of what transpired within that trim, unremarkable edifice, or of the nature and identity of his host, Atticus could say nothing.

Even to himself.

And yet he knew with unshakeable certainty, even as his hand sought his pocket and closed on the crumbling sheaf of ashes that had once been a map, that were he to search from that moment until the hour of his death, he would never find that trim and tidy townhouse again.

IV

Damp and dreary was Dismal Hollow when Atticus sallied forth at dawn several days later to track and, it was to be hoped, confront at last the living, lurking legend that was the Wildman of Dismal Hollow.

Bane had taken some time to settle back into his lodgings and domestic routine after his protracted stay in Washington; that last visit in Georgetown had been more than a little unsettling, even for a scholar of the inexplicable like Atticus. More to the point, the Wildman’s most recent appearance had been two days prior to Bane’s return, so there was little hope of finding any useful sign until the elusive entity returned.

Bane’s patience was rewarded in short order. Earlier that morning, in the long hours just after midnight, the Wildman had returned with a vengeance and, much to the surprise and amazement of the neighborhood, seemed to focus the entirety of his manic wrath and rage on Atticus!

It began with a series of howling, daemonic vocalizations, as if the bass-baritone of Hell was warming up his voice. Then Atticus’ second story eyrie was besieged by a sporadic bombardment of ad hoc missiles: rocks, empty bottles from the neighbors’ trash, rolled up newspapers appropriated from local driveways, sticks of various sizes and even a plastic dog dish at one point. (The neighborhood canines had apparently given up, and had declined to even notice the Wildman’s nighttime antics for weeks. They slept indoors at night, and a great deal sounder than their owners.)

Curiously, Bane noted that the intent – and there was intent there, not mere animal histrionics – seemed to be to make noise and not necessarily to inflict damage upon property or person. Even the two or three bottles that broke seemed to be inadvertent exceptions – the bulk of the considerable number of projectiles simply thumped, rattled or banged on roof, deck or siding.

All calculated, it would appear, to do nothing more than keep Bane awake and irritate the dickens out of him.

The crowning achievement and most spectacular volley came as dawn approached and, it might logically be concluded, the Wildman was departing: a plastic recycling bin brimming with mostly empty bottles, reeking to the high heavens of stale beer and wine, arced over the railing of the deck and slammed into the planking with an unimaginable racket, bursting open and scattering its contents in a clinking, clanking, clattering cacophony that left only the dogs asleep in a half-mile radius.

Atticus, however, had anticipated something of the sort, and remained undistracted, undaunted and undismayed by these demonstrations. He had applied his burgeoning expertise in herbal infusions to ensure that he slept during the afternoon and, quite rested, spent the night – while his quarry raged outside – completing his preparations for the coming pursuit, and catching up on his reading, earplugs deflecting the worst of the Wildman’s racket.

Now, Bane glided through the dripping, misty woods, and the memories of his youth they evoked. Through the ghosts of the past, his sharp, experienced eyes followed the minute traces left in loamy soil and upon mossy rocks by the retreating anthropoid, signs that would have passed unnoticed by all but the most skilled of the local woodsmen. They laughed behind their hands at the “city feller,” but would have blanched in awe and hidden their faces in shame had they but known the true nature and extent of Bane’s wilderness competency.

The trail led steadily upward, toward the summit of a local mountain now obscured by weepy, low-hanging gray clouds. Too steep to accommodate either cultivation or timbering, with only a few locations amenable to construction, Mushroom Mountain was largely treated as untenanted common land by the folks thereabouts, although it was doubtless owned, on the books at least, by someone, somewhere. It was popular in deer season; otherwise, its slopes seldom felt the tread of shod feet.

The dense, almost claustrophobic mist not only restricted vision but also suppressed and deadened every sound, so that aside from the limited radius in which he could see and hear with any measure of acuity, the larger world beyond might have ceased to exist altogether.

After an hour or better of climbing, Atticus paused to hydrate and consult his compass. He had no fear whatsoever of getting lost, per se – home was downhill any way he cut it. But “the Shroom,” as a nearby commune of hippies had christened it, had a sizable footprint, and he didn’t want to come back down too far from his boarding house, not after a day of summiting mountains and apprehending wildmen.

Atticus snapped the compass case shut with a tinny clack that was swallowed immediately by the fog. As he adjusted the small day-pack on his shoulders and reached for his hickory walking stick, a palpable thrill of energy spider-crawled up one side of his body. The already oppressive silence deepened even further, and Atticus was suddenly aware that he was being watched.

From very close by.

With obvious and exaggerated care, Bane turned slowly, and met the volcanic glare of two burning, bloodshot eyes, peering out at him from a dirt-streaked, nut-brown face, wreathed by greasy, tangled hair; the apparition thrust from the undergrowth less than a foot from Bane’s nose.

The Wildman of Dismal Hollow growled, an infra-bass rumble in the inhumanly wide barrel of his chest, and gave Bane the benefit of a lip-curled snarl, displaying a set of teeth rather whiter and in better repair than one might expect in an itinerant Sasquatch.

Whatever reaction the Wildman was expecting, it was surely not the one Bane provided.

Touching a finger politely to the brim of his weatherbeaten Aussie bush hat, Atticus returned the grin and said, “Dr. Finch, I presume?”

V

The deep-set, blood-red, almost inhuman eyes blinked.

Atticus continued to grin; the eyes blinked again, looking a lot less fierce and a bit more uncertain.

“Uh…” the resonant voice droned, but it was no longer an animalistic growl. If anything, it now sounded rather confused. “What?”

“Atticus Bane, Ph.D,” Atticus introduced himself, thrusting out his right hand at the nightmare vision of primordial man that loomed before him. “Miskatonic, class of ’63. I can’t tell you how much I’ve looked forward to meeting you, Dr. Finch.”

“Uh…” repeated the individual who, it should be noted, had not yet refuted his identification as Dr. Cullan Finch. “What?” His eyes darted to either side, and over Bane’s shoulder. This was, after all, during the heyday of Candid Camera, and the unusual being known in certain esoteric circles as Professor Cullan Finch was beginning to suspect that this was an elaborate setup of some kind.

Out of pure reflex, he took the proffered hand, and Bane pumped his arm vigorously.

“My research tells me, Professor Finch,” Atticus said, “That you are likely under the influence at this moment of a particularly potent member of the genus Amanita, a highly psychoactive mushroom. In other words, Professor, you are tripping your balls off.”

“Uh… What?” was what Finch said, but what he meant was, “I know that, you meddling nitwit. Go away and leave me alone!”

In all fairness, Bane should be excused for not grasping that particular message.

“I imagine it’s rather difficult to communicate right now,” Bane said, intuiting that much at least from the growing look of panic in the red-rimmed eyes that darted about, as if seeking an escape route. From an intimidating apparition, Finch had transformed into a tremulous door-mouse, ready to spring for imagined safety at the slightest questionable move on Bane’s part.

Turnabout is fair play, and it is Finch who should now be excused, in his case for his burgeoning sense of panic, of needing to be elsewhere than this odd lanky fellow with the Australian hat and the frenetic manner.

As anyone can tell you who has had to deal with an over-stimulated friend whilst in the throws of serious hallucinogens, sometimes you just have to get away from those kind of vibes.

Of course, there were any number of people who felt this way about Bane stone cold sober.

Finch took himself in hand with a visible effort. “Uh… Wha…” he began, then raised a hand as if to forestall an interruption from Bane. He swallowed, then tried again, the words croaked out with difficulty: “Uhhh… W-w-w-wait!”

The Wildman of Dismal Hollow looked down in an expectant sort of way, frowned in puzzlement, and then looked around as if he had lost something. He started when he located his hand where he had left it, raised in the air at face level between him and Bane.

Watching the appendage closely, so that it couldn’t dart away like that again, he reached under what Bane now saw was a gilly suit, a kind of traditional Scottish camouflage poncho, and produced a small canteen. When he removed the cap, Bane caught a whiff of the contents and his respect for the eccentric scholar increased by an order of magnitude. Bane wouldn’t have drunk that miasmic mess to save his own life, let alone to facilitate a trail-side chat with some oaf interrupting his field research.

To Bane’s hastily concealed amusement, Finch pinched his nostrils like a schoolboy, threw back his head and tossed off the noxious potion like a shot of single malt.

For a moment, Bane thought Finch was simply shivering in disgust and distaste at the unmitigated foulness of the concoction, but he soon saw that the frequency and pitch of the vibrations were escalating. Within seconds, Finch was in a veritable standing seizure. He thrashed and growled like a wildman indeed, whirling and slamming himself into the massive boles of granddaddy oaks, until he literally threw himself of his feet, tumbling downslope in a welter of guttural exclamations and technicolor sputum.

Bane hesitated, and when Finch came to a halt, still thrashing and retching, he decided to stay put. Whatever counter-agent Finch had administered to himself, it doubtless included the physical purgation of the upper digestive track as part of its restorative. Unless Finch showed signs of acute distress, Bane would leave him to heave on his own.

As is always the case in such circumstances, the violent sounds of voiding lessened and, in the fullness of time, ceased altogether. After a brief interlude of silence, Finch heaved his gilly-draped bulk from the forest floor, and began to trudge back up the mountainside to where Atticus sat upon a mossy boulder, watching a Daddy Longlegs make a similar effort to ascend his trouser leg.

Breathing in enormous, gulping gasps – the better to oxygenate his blood, Bane surmised – Finch waddled up to a stone opposite Bane, and groaned like a bullfrog as he sat.

He gave Atticus the hairy eyeball for a few more breaths, then said, “Now, just who the fuck are you, mister, and what the double-fuck are you doing on my mountain?”

VI

“One of my profs at Old Misk,” Bane said, blowing on the sweet, steaming warmth of Finch’s sassafras tea, “used to say that research largely consisted of pawing aimlessly through endless stacks of hay, hoping to impale oneself on something sharp and pointy.”

Finch, still a trifle addled by the last vestiges of his fungoid frolicking, squinted at Bane, trying to parse meaning from the statement. Bane continued, unaware that his audience was limping along several sentences to the rear.

“Once I made the connection between your work with psychoactives and the particular subspecies of Amanita found, coincidentally enough, only on Mushroom Mountain, the rest was, well, elementary.”

Finch winced, as if ducking a swooping bat that only he could see.

“Don’t do that,” he told Bane in his freakishly bass voice.

Atticus blinked. “Don’t do what?”

“Don’t quote Holmes,” Finch growled. Intuition told Atticus that it might not be the best time to correct Finch’s attribution from the fictional character to the factual author. As usual, his instincts were unerringly accurate.

“What intrigued me,” Bane forged gamely on, “was not so much what you were doing, as why. That is to say, what you hoped to accomplish. Do you really think the mental manipulation of the zero point field can be accomplished through altered states of consciousness?”

Finch snorted in disgust and rolled his still-crimson eyes.

“You make it sound more frivolous than that punk Leary,” he complained. The burly scholar crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders ever so slightly, assuming the defensive posture of the academic sensing an imminent challenge to his own well-domesticated theories and conclusions. “But to answer your question,” Finch said, poking the statement out like a tentative jab, “it’s not only possible, but inevitable in the course of the evolution of human consciousness.”

There followed a discussion and debate on the nature of awareness, the unreality of reality and the paradox of existence itself that would have caused the hardened and inscrutable metaphysicians of ancient Atlantis and lost Lemuria to blanch and call for strong drink.

When that stratospheric and far-faring communion wound down at last, it was clear the two were destined to be fast and enduring friends, though neither could have anticipated the years of comradeship, adventure and inexplicable improbability that lay ahead.

The sun had set beyond mountains still further west; the horizon in that direction was now a towering escarpment of incandescent, salmon-hued flame.

The rapt and enraptured duo had talked away the entirety of the day, snug despite the lingering mist and bone-soaking damp, in Finch’s bunker. The latter’s assertion that Mushroom Mountain was his had not been complete hyperbole, although to be precise, the property was owned by his family’s various corporations, endowments and foundations, rather than Finch himself. Since he was the only one of the lot to take any interest at all in the place, however, Finch would be considered a caretaker at the very least, and thus on the mountain legally, as opposed to Bane, who now discovered himself to be an inadvertent trespasser.

Of course, Finch had no inclination to prosecute this particular violator.

“I’m up here for a month at a time,” Finch had explained, as he led Bane to his camouflaged base of operations, a house-sized tumble of boulders on the western slope of the Shroom, a quarter of the way around the mountain from Bane’s lodgings, “sometimes two, every damn summer, and the locals usually aren’t any the wiser. I doubt they’d see my, um, alter egos at all if they’d just stop strewing their cast-off appliances along the property line and dumping oil and antifreeze in the streams. That really seems to piss me off when I’m tripping.”

Finch now sat on the opposite side of a tidy, smokeless fire, cradling his own streaming cup. The so-called bunker was, in fact, little more than a day-camp for the self-styled psychonaut, serving as a handy crash pad in the event Finch found himself unable or unwilling to return to the hunting lodge during one of his fungi-fueled forays into the phantasmagoria of the human mind – and beyond…

As has been previously noted, vertiginous as the slopes of the Shroom were, they nonetheless provided a handful of sites where a daring sort might build, and one extant structure graced its heights in those days – a modest hunting lodge that had been old when the Finches acquired the property.

Finch’s woodcraft was honed during his boyhood days in the Pacific Northwest even as Bane had tramped the backwoods of New England, supplemented and further sharpened over the intervening years by the former’s association with indigenous peoples and various schools of esoteric of martial arts. Bane had no doubt that ad hoc posses scouring the slopes for the so-called Wildman had in fact walked right past this hideout – quite possibly while Finch was ensconced within – without noticing a thing.

“Despite the pollution and litter,” Finch explained, “I really don’t have any truck with those folks down yonder. For the most part, I manage to keep my Hydes under rein, but every once in a while, they bust quarters. Out here, it creates a bit of a stir, a few more reports of the Wildman, and that’s about it. Can you imagine what would happen if something like that took place in Georgetown? Or Manhattan?”

“Frankly,” Bane replied without missing a beat, “I can’t say that I’d notice much difference.”

They laughed together at that, and an owl hooted from the growing darkness to keep it the fuck down.

From somewhere – Bane would have bet on a pocket universe, after their earlier discussion – Finch produced a pair of fragrant Havana’s, and the men smoked away the remainder of the sunset, sending, on clouds of pungent smoke, their prayers of thanks and gratitude for the beauty of the evening.

The next morning, when Bane awoke alone in the bunker, swathed in old army blankets, the fire smoored and simmering just enough to keep him warm, he found a greeting card pinned to a nearby rock with another Cubano. In the opalescent light of the pre-dawn forest he smiled at the simple text:

Cullan Finch

No titles, esoteric or otherwise; no alphabet soup of incomprehensible and irrelevant degrees and associations appended to the name; no pretentious, up-scale addresses. Nothing in addition to the name but a phone number.

Bane grinned to himself and pocketed the card. Then he stirred the coals to life, added kindling to the sleepy flames, and set about making a cup of sassafras tea before commencing his journey home.

VII

At the sound of a discreet tapping, Atticus looked up from his dogeared copy of Cliff’s Notes on the Necronomicon of Al-Hazred, A., TMA, and frowned in puzzlement at the short, muscular, immaculately groomed and attired gentleman who stood at his side door. The fellow grinned at him through the glass, from a broad, flat, rather homely face, and it was several seconds before, with a shock of delight, Bane realized he was, in fact, gazing upon his new friend and colleague, Cullan Finch!

Bane leaped to his feet, tore open the sliding door, and seized Finch’s massive paw in his, shaking it warmly. Atticus ushered the huskier man into his modest digs, and fairly danced to the tiny kitchenette to put water on for tea.

Finch, as the saying goes, cleaned up rather well, and proved Joseph Merrick’s assertion that there was no physique so problematic that a well-cut suit couldn’t improve matters. Lifers at Brooks Brothers spoke of the Finch Family’s taylor in hushed and reverent tones, and one could almost overlook Cullan’s stunted, Pictish build in the gray wool masterpiece he wore. His face, wild-eyed and mud-streaked when Bane first saw it – was now clean-shaven beneath a neat, not-quite-Ivy-League haircut. The once-bloodshot eyes were clear, shining with warm brown humor and hidden wisdom.

Cullan accepted his mug – traditional but dependable Earl Grey, with a double dollop of local honey – and the two made themselves comfortable in the living room.

They had exchanged quotidian pleasantries while Bane was fixing the tea, so he wasted no further time on trivialities. “I was going to call you in a week or so, after you’d had a chance to settle back into urban life, but I’m damn glad to see you, all the same! To what do I owe this extreme pleasure?”

“Well,” Finch said, after sipping his tea with delicacy unexpected in such a massive fellow, “I was thinking back over our, er, acquaintance this summer, particularly my last night on the mountain, the night I really went nuts on you.”

“Oh really?” Bane said, leaning forward, intrigued.

Finch nodded thoughtfully, rolling the mug between broad, thick palms. “I started wondering why I targeted you the way I did, as soon as you got back from DC.”

“And did you come to any conclusions?”

Finch’s nodding slowed, but gained an air of profundity. “I did indeed, Mr. Bane,” he said. “I came to the conclusion that I was, in a very real sense, acting under orders.”

The last might have sounded a bit ominous, had Finch not been smiling, his eyes alight with humor and… something else. Something free and wild on an essential and fundamental level that had nothing to do with psychoactive hallucinations.

Something that struck a resonant chord in Bane’s soul.

He returned the numinous look in full measure, holding up a bookmark finger. He rose, departed, and returned in short order with a hoary old bottle of hand-blown brown glass and two water glasses. Without a word, he uncorked the bottle and half filled the glasses with thick, amber mead, the traditional drink of skalds, far-farers and madmen.

Bane sat, and resumed his attitude of rapt attention, mead forgotten for the nonce. “Tell me,” he said.

“You’re familiar, I assume, with the phenomenon of shamanism? At least academically?” At Bane’s nod, Finch continued.

“As you know then, a shamanic practitioner – not necessarily a shaman, you understand, but someone who is learning to do what a shaman does, perhaps – enters an altered state of consciousness in order to commune directly with powerful spirits in this world and others. Many extant indigenous cultures use plant-based hallucinogens to achieve those states.”

He looked mischievously at Bane. “With me so far?”

Bane nodded again, and Finch took a sip of tea before continuing.

“As a scientist, I have no choice but to acknowledge that my subjective experiences while under the influence of various substances are suspect at best. In other words, I can produce no hard evidence that my experiences are anything but the effect of various chemicals on my brain chemistry. But…”

And in that single word – uttered with that particular inflection, in just that precise tone of voice – was conveyed the supernal and unshakeable knowing of the pure and clarified mystic, a gnosis so absolute, so universal, so infinite as to render such fallacies as proof both irrelevant and irreverent.

“But,” Finch continued, “as the experiencer, I find it difficult to doubt their essential reality, and concepts such as objectivity and subjectivity cease to have any useful meaning. I have no means of substantiating my beliefs, and yet my conviction is such that I feel no great need to do so.” He glanced at Bane. “Any of this making sense, old sport?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” Bane encouraged. “Do go on!”

“Over the years,” Finch said in an even voice, “I’ve made the acquaintance of what indigenous shamans might call…helping spirits.” He looked levelly at Bane, and when the other showed no adverse reaction to that rather outlandish term, he went on. “Whatever these encounters may be, there is one thing I can say with complete candor, as a scientist and trained observer: they have an actual, palpable presence and power in what we call objective reality. If nothing else, when I heed the wisdom of these spirits, these…entities, things seem to flow so much more harmoniously.”

“Hmmmm…” Bane squinted in recollection, “Reminds me a bit of the angelic spirits in Medieval ceremonial magic.”

“Apt analogy,” Finch agreed. “At first, even I wrote them off to the hallucinogens. But after a while, as the so-called coincidences continued to pile up, I started…consulting with practitioners of various disciplines, including but not limited, you understand, to shamanism, and…”

He trailed off, looking sheepish, like a young lad who is reluctant, even this close to the end of the story, to put into words how big the fish really was.

“And they told you,” Bane finished for him, grinning, “the spirits, and therefore the encounters, were real!”

“Exactly!” Finch exclaimed, relieved not only at Bane’s understanding, but his implied acceptance of such unusual assertions as well. “Those spirits wanted me to be absolutely certain to grab your attention when you returned from Washington; to pull out all the stops. And those spirits, my dear Mr. Bane, now tell me it is vitally important that you and I become co-workers.”

Atticus blinked. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but one couldn’t say a job offer was high on the list. He cocked his head at Finch, brows furrowing in confusion.

“Co-workers?” he echoed. “Working for who? For what?”

Finch smiled at him, the way he would smile a thousand times in the coming years, and said with that same, utter, transcendental certainty:

“Why, for the good of all mankind, of course…”