...I was tired then, and I’m very tired now, but I want to get this down. I feel like things are about to turn, or that I’ve gone ahead and done the things that will make sure they do turn, but I’m not sure if it’s left or right or just in circles.

This last job was an odd one. Even after all I’ve seen and done over the past couple of years, I’m still surprised and, in a case like this, full of wonder when something new like this one crops up. New to me anyway.

I have to assume that E knows what I am likely to find before they have C send me out. Or, I should say, that they know the nature of what I could find. I can see the purpose of sending me in pretty cold. Some of these guys are such elaborate hoaxers, or are just so plain deluded, that if you go in there with a preconceived idea of what you may find their vibe alone can infect you a little. Sometimes you want it to be true, even when it’s obviously just fishing line and smoke.

But C didn’t have it quite right when he said you get to know. Even after you do the job and it turns out to be one of the real ones; you still don’t know. Or at least I don’t know. Not really. Sure, I get to know that these weird things happen, that they exist, but I still have no idea why or how. Maybe C knows more. Maybe not. I know that there’s a guy out there somewhere who doesn’t have a shadow - at least not under the light of the full moon - but I don’t have a clue about how that could be. Or what he might be. C said that he wasn’t a vampire, that there are no such things as vampires, but I’ve pretty much figured out that that distinction is purely semantic; if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and has no shadow like a duck...well, you know what I mean.

I think there are people (things?) who fit at least part of the bill and that their oddness, whether it is a rare natural trait or something else entirely, is the germ that grows into the myth.

I’ve seen a couple people who can touch pure color. Can apparently open little holes between here and a place that is nothing, I mean nothing, but a universe of a particular, perfect color. Like a laser, but everywhere. And everything.

I’ve heard of a fair number of people, and I think I pegged one of them, who play around with fire. I don’t know if their thing is similar to the color thing (after the past couple days I’m inclined to think there is at least a similarity in concept), but I hear that they are able to manipulate fire, to call it up out of nothing. That seems like what I’ve seen done with color. And now with sound.

Looking back over the last several paragraphs makes me smile because they make it sound so common. Like you can’t bump into someone in the street without them unleashing a blinding orb of pure ‘greenness’ on your head. But the truth is that E (along with their front organizations) seems to hear about everything, and 99% of what they hear they already know to be complete crap. It’s that other 1%, the ones that they have already vetted against their crap-files, that get handed to C to look into. And C hands some of those over to me.

In the couple of years since that first night I’ve checked maybe 50 or so leads (and remember, these are good leads) and confirmed real strangeness 4 times. Actually, now it's 5.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of odd stuff out there. It takes some pretty interesting mojo to get through E and down to me, but almost all of that turns out to be just good old fashioned human crazy. The real strange stuff, that stuff that steps right over the line of what you or I could actually do is very, is very rare.

And very, very heavy.

There is a truly nasty vibe around the real ones; the shadow kid and the guy from last week notwithstanding. There’s a high-octane, underground, criminal feeling on the ones that I’m sure about. Back in the old private dick days I had a couple jobs in the northeast that brushed up against the Russian ‘element’, and those guys were just flat out scary. None of the Hollywood bad-ass thing you get with a lot of the American kids. Just stone hard. Most of those Russians had seen real action either in the wars or internally as everything was collapsing, so they understood the game. It’s that same ‘playing for keeps’ feeling that I’ve gotten from the real ones. The ones that truly touch something strange. Makes you wonder if they aren’t their own sort of Mafiya.

Makes you wonder if E isn’t pretty much the same thing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This guy last week, though, who I’m sure was the real deal - I’ll call him T - didn’t have any of that. Just a mousy little guy. Works all day in a shoe store. Sure, he’s odd in his own mundane may, lives in a tiny studio apartment that’s almost completely bare. Nothing on the walls or shelves. Clothes all perfectly aligned in his closet. No TV. No radio. No computer. Just one chair and a single bed. Everything, walls, bed, clothes, either white or grey.

I got a perfect setup across the street in a similar apartment; straight across and two floors higher. Watched him for a week. He gets up every morning and has a bowl of Lucky Charms, washes his bowl and spoon and puts them back in his drawer, goes to the shoe store, comes home at 18:30 every night, eats some prefab dinner, cleans up and spends the rest of the evening sitting in his chair listening to the music.

Yeah, no television and no radio. That’s what I thought too.

At first I wasn’t sure. I was watching from across a busy city street, lots of traffic noise and wind. But as the night wore on and the traffic noise died the faint notes came floating across. At first, I thought it was coming from one of the other apartments. You know, no radio or computer or TV. So I got out the directional mic and confirmed that the music was coming from the little guy’s apartment. He was just sitting there in his grey chair, eyes closed, looked like he had dozed off, and all around him the music. The most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. Sometimes it was just simple scales, one perfect note after another, held for seconds at a time. Sometimes complex melodies. Sometimes harmony on top of the melody. Sometimes silence, but an eerie silence, deeper than it should have been from that room.

The volume wasn’t over-loud. I’m sure the other people in the building heard no more than they generally heard from all the other apartments. But I was almost positive this guy didn’t have any of those.

The next day I made sure. Nothing. I mean really nothing. Not in the walls. Not in the floor. Not a single thing that could have made or played that music. Just a near-empty room. A chair. A single bed.

Then that evening the same thing; home, dinner, clean-up, sit in chair, music.

Music from somewhere else.

Like light from somewhere else. Or fire.

And just some mousey little guy sitting in his chair. Making his music. Making something beautiful. Keeping to himself.

Not, I must add, out doing deals and whacking people in the streets to get his hands on some new piece of knowledge or a little piece of glass. Not creating sonic waves, driving his neighbors insane or playing around in the Taos desert [just a rumor, but after this it wouldn’t surprise me].

C goes to great lengths to remind me that the main reason E is in this business, its charter, is to identify these people and then keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t do anything crazy. On the one hand this sounds like something you see on TV everyday, which right away gives it a feeling of familiarity. But does that really make any sense? What if one of these guys does go nuts and threaten to engulf the world in blue light? Or turn L.A. into a ball of fire? What could E possibly hope to do about that?

C says most of these guys, the real ones, are too consumed with their own pursuits, with learning more and more from the few others who know anything, with doing their research and experiments. Like doing this stuff is a drug, and the people who can do it can’t stop. They’re addicted. That it drives them inward, so they don’t turn into magical, comic book super-villains.

But why the hell not?

On the surface, I’m pretty sure I would. If I could do what I’ve seen a couple of these people do, it’d be pretty tempting to just say screw it and go for everything while I could. Which pretty much tells me there is far more to this than just me confirming that some guy is actually able to do these things.

Maybe E goes and pays these folks a visit, helps them understand the importance of not getting too ambitious. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was an Operations group in E to go along with what I like to think of as my Intelligence Gathering role. Operations and Enforcement, maybe. And I’m not so naïve that I don’t realize how that group would work.

If there is one, that is. No evidence. But then, I haven’t really been looking for any have I?

On the other hand, maybe there is something about all this weird crap that makes it self-regulating. Absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, just a thought that maybe because there does appear to be such power involved, there is some kind of balance to it. Maybe IT (whatever IT may be) doesn’t let ITSELF destroy the world, and the people who know about this stuff also know about that. It seems reasonable to me that there must be some sort of check, otherwise I think we’d have seen all sorts of freaky catastrophes by now - but what do I know?

Not enough, obviously. I’ve just been sneaking and peeking too much, running this way and that for C, and not thinking enough for myself.

But I did start having these thoughts while I was watching T, and one solid conclusion I came to was that I do not know nearly enough about E.

Or C.

Not enough to turn that little guy over to them, anyway. Not until I know whether there really is a SEAL team waiting someplace to kick his door inn.

So I did something that I’m pretty sure is the second stupidest thing I’ve done in the past 48 hours. I filed a false report to E through C. Everything on time and in the usual format, but I said that T turned out to be just a neat freak audiophile and that he had built all his high-end equipment into the walls of his apartment. Period. END.

Guess I’ve got to really hope that T doesn’t turn out to be one of those super-villains and start hurling sonic waves all over downtown Chattanooga, because there is no way I can go back on that report now.

Which brings me close to here and now; in this cheap hotel room on the main drag in Lake City, Florida – definitely not where I expected to be tonight.

I made it as far as South Georgia last night, Tifton to be precise. It just seemed too late to go the rest of the way. Would have meant another four hours, at least, at the speed limit. And I don’t speed. Ever. I can explain all the gear if I have to, in light of my former profession – that’s why I maintain the license that I never use – but I would much rather not have to explain any of it. The goal is to stay off everyone’s radar. That’s the main reason I drive these days, if at all possible. Way too much exposure with flying, just in the fact that someone somewhere knows where you were, or weren’t, for a couple days.

I pulled into a Courtyard Marriott in Tifton and crashed for what turned out to be only three or four hours before my eyes flipped open and I had that first lovely thought of the day. The one about sleeping a couple more hours. But I knew I wouldn’t. Too many thoughts colliding around in my head, and I realized a long time ago that when I wake up in that state it’s just better to get up and get on with it.

So I got up and checked out and drove across the street to Starbucks. That’s when I saw her. It was 06:15.

A young guy with an armful of tattoos was walking out as I was walking in. We did the little dance of who goes first (I won) and I went on to the register where another guy was reciting an order so complex he had written it down on a note card. Other than the two employees, she was the only other person in the place. She was sitting alone at a small table by the window.

There was nothing out of place about her. She looked exactly like what I assumed she was; a woman in her mid-twenties, in very good shape, having a cup of mud before going for her morning workout. Her warm-up clothes and the large gym bag on the seat next to her helped me out with this deduction. It’d probably be odd if I didn’t mention that I noticed she was very pretty. Her brown hair was in several braids, all of them pulled back together with a one of those elastic things. She was just sitting there deep in thought, an empty white china cup on the table in front of her next to a plastic cup of ice.

I ordered a regular Venti™ - always seems either redundant or oxymoronic, but I can’t decide which one - and took it to the counter at the back of the store. As I was leaving the register she came up and ordered another cup, then went back to her table and sat down with her back to me – which is how she had been sitting in the first place.

She dropped a couple ice cubes into her mug then she pretty much slammed the coffee, just knocked it back in one or two long gulps. She sat there for maybe two minutes before she got up and ordered another one.

That struck me as a little odd.

I tried to think about my next steps with C and E, but all my options were still swarming around like pissed-off hornets in my head. Maybe I’d try to talk outright with C. Maybe I’d snoop around a little on my own, quietly and very carefully. Maybe I’d fly to London and see what was behind The Whitechapel Foundation’s solid old Pall Mall address. But, really, I had no idea what to do, and nothing seemed like a more sensible option than the next.

Then I heard her chair squeak as she got up and headed toward the back, where the restroom was. As she passed I gave her a friendly little “gee, ain’t it way too early in the morning” smile. The look she threw back was unmistakable if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one.

It was that instant, almost subliminal, but extremely detailed sizing up to determine if she could kick my ass. And I was pretty sure I knew what conclusion she had come to.

Then she was past me, and in one of those moments that I’m beginning to realize happen to me far too often, I decided to follow her. Even now, I still have no idea why. It just hit me and I went for it. Head first.

I got up, went straight to my car, and moved it around to where I could watch the entrance without being observed.

She came out about three minutes later. I was surprised by how old and beat up her car was. Something about the way she carried herself made me expect a Lexus or a BMW. She opened the rear driver’s door and set her gym bag on the floor in the back, then she got in and drove off. I followed her out and we headed south, toward Florida.

I was heading toward home, so I’m sure that excuse came up when I asked myself on several occasions what the hell I was doing following some woman for no reason other that she drank a lot of coffee and gave me a look I hadn’t seen since the last time a guy had been about to make a point with his fists. The bottom line, I knew, was that I wanted something to do other than think about the very deep pile I had gotten myself into with E by filing that report. I guess I was honest enough to admit that to myself a couple times.

Tailing her alone wouldn’t have even been possible in just about any situation other than the one we were in; early in the morning on a mostly empty stretch of I75. AS it was, I could hang way back and see exactly what she was doing.

She drove south for well over an hour, past Valdosta and on into Florida a good way until she turned east. I had to close the distance a little, but the land was still pretty open, plus I could see her options on the GPS. She took a couple of small roads further east until finally pulling off onto an unimproved private road that I had no intention of following her down. Thanks to the GPS, though, I saw that there was another small road about 300 yards short of the one she had taken. That road ran parallel to hers and dead-ended, as did hers, about half a mile into the forest. Right up in the area where the two roads ended was a large clearing in the woods.

At that point I was pretty sure she was a courier of some kind. I had been rolling that idea around for most of the drive, but when I saw where she was ending up, how remote it was, and the clearing, I figured she was either delivering or picking up something illegal. That hypothesis explained the gym bag, and the attitude; nothing like a mule who could pull double duty as her own muscle. Didn’t know what she was carrying and didn’t really care, because I knew that it didn’t matter. I was in deep trouble regardless.

The irony wasn’t lost on me; I realized that it was very likely that I had landed myself in something at least as heavy as what I had been trying to avoid.

But now I was hooked. If she was meeting someone there was a good chance that they’d be along soon - if they weren’t already there - so I turned down that other road, barely more than a dirt track, and drove about halfway down it.

I found an area where the trees were beaten a little farther back from the road, far enough that I could do a three-point turn and head the car back out the way I’d come in (as if that’d help much) before pulling it back as far as possible into the trees. I did a pretty good job of convincing myself that if there was a Meth lab or some other hard core facility in these woods it wouldn’t have been so accessible. There would have been a chain across the road at least. I was sort of able to believe it.

I’d made sure a long time ago that no bells or whistles go off when I open my car’s doors. No dome lights. Nothing to draw attention. I thought about whether I should change into something that would provide a bit more camouflage but remembered that I didn’t have anything useful in my bag. Nothing better than the black jeans and dark grey pullover I had on. All my gear from the job was in the car still, so I grabbed my video camera and the good directional mic and slipped out of the car. Like I said, no bells or whistles.

Not much to say after that. I’d checked the navigation system before leaving the car to get my bearings. The smell of pine hit me as soon as I left the car, and the sun was just coming up, streaking though the trees. The bit of woods I was in was very thick. I could see some of the pines, but it was mostly live oak and laurel. The ground was loamy and damp, so I was able to keep very quiet, and the light was good enough to see that there was no one hiding in the trees.

That very thought, that no one was in the trees, was in my head when I noticed that the forest was thinning up ahead of me, and that the clearing I had seen on the GPS was just beyond that. Seemed closer than it had appeared on the screen.

I stopped dead, and listened, and heard nothing. The next 30 or 40 yards were slow, and wet. I crawled most of it. I was almost to the edge of the clearing when I saw them. That’s when I started taping.

The clearing was large and open, just a few little trees and bushes here and there. Probably about 180 yards at its widest part. I was facing East, so the sun was in my eyes, but it was high enough above the trees opposite that I could see the figures clearly in the middle of the glade; two men, standing close together at about 11:00 to where I was facing, and the woman I had seen at Starbucks standing away from the other two (about 1:00) with her back to them. It looked like she was stretching or maybe doing yoga.

I could see that the two men were talking, but at the time I couldn’t hear them. One of them had very short brown hair, and the other had hair all the way to the small of his back, pulled into a pony tail. The one with the short hair was wearing black fatigue pants and a loose t-shirt. It looked like he was taping his fingers, like a boxer. The other one had on jeans and a dark green oxford.

There are times when the moment is so strong, so overwhelming, that you don’t experience things or think about them the way you normally would. It was like that the first night at the beach. And it was like that this morning. I know I didn’t think, “I wonder why someone would drive more than an hour into the north Florida woods to have a workout?” and I certainly didn’t think “what the hell are you still doing here?” I just watched it unfold.

Then I remembered the zoom on the camera. I didn’t have earphones, or I could have heard what they were saying then, instead of later in the car driving up here, but I did zoom in and saw immediately that the long-haired guy was annoyed about something and that the short-haired one appeared to be in pretty high spirits. The woman just kept doing her yoga, or whatever it was.

I panned back over to the two guys in time to see the short-haired one bend down and pick up a Pelican case from the grass. He snapped the latches and took out a large knife - it looked a lot like a Ka-Bar - before handing the case over to his friend. The two men exchanged some words before walking over to the woman.

She heard them coming, I guess, because she finished up her routine and turned to meet them. She did not look happy.

I was still viewing through the zoom so I could see that the short-haired man still seemed to be awfully chipper, but that the woman looked like she was going to punch him in the face. The long-haired guy just looked like he wanted to be someplace else. That one opened the Pelican case he had brought over and handed the other man a small bundle that turned out to be a very long strip of purple cloth. The short-haired guy handed his friend his knife and started binding his right wrist with one end of the cloth. After a few moments of standing there with a look of utter disbelief on her face, the woman did the same with the other end – except that she bound up her left wrist.

When they had both finished, the long-haired man handed the knife back to his friend. The woman reached into her own gym bag and brought out a slim-bladed, single-edged short sword. It gave the impression of a katana, but it was too short and it had no guard at all.

Without a word, it seemed, the long-haired guy picked up the Pelican case and the woman’s gym bag and proceeded to walk out of the clearing, away from me, toward the opposite tree line. He dropped her bag where the glade met the trees, but he kept hold of his case and just walked into the forest.

In the meantime the other two had squared off at the length of the purple cloth. I’d say they were about eight feet apart. She gave him a formal salute with her blade and settled into what appeared to be a practiced guard position. He threw a sketchy salute back at her and bounced on the balls of his feet a couple times before falling back in to a sort of half crouch.

For what seemed a very long time they were both completely still.

I guess the purple cloth must have been silk, or something like it, because it turned out to be very strong. At one point right after they started he dragged her across the ground by it, but that’s when she got really pissed off and just cut it off her wrist with a flick of her sword. While they were standing there, though, completely still, the breeze blew the cloth’s long ends up and away from them. Against the grass and the trees in the background, with the sun behind them, it was a beautiful sight.

Then with no warning at all the woman moved. She closed the distance fast and slashed up at him, diagonally across his torso. He didn’t do much, considering; just shifted his weight and stepped back a little.

She missed him, but in that moment I knew that this was for real. They weren’t training. Or doing a kata. Or running through choreography for a film. They were fighting a duel. And from that first attack, I knew she was perfectly willing to kill him.

On some level, especially when you consider what I do for a living, it’s easier to accept the idea of magic than two modern-day people fighting an honest-to-god duel in some forest clearing in North Florida. But I know now that that is exactly what they were doing, and I guess after that first cut I knew it even then.

It was a remarkable thing to see. We grow up in this country watching sword fights in movies and on TV. But who’s really ever seen one. A real one. The same could almost be said for all the gunfights we see, except that some people actually do see real gunfights. It wasn’t perfect, not in the way that movie fights are perfect, and it deteriorated quickly into something brutal, but they were both very good, in that they could both deal with what the other one threw out. At some point they disarmed each other and she waded in bare-handed and ended up throwing him about 10 feet ass over elbows. I think it was about then that I remembered the look she had given me early this morning, in the coffee shop.

I don’t know how long it lasted. Actually, I guess I do, from the tape. Maybe three minutes. Seems like a long time for two people to be slashing at each other with extremely sharp objects without either cutting the other anywhere but the hands. [I have since found out, from Alex, that that was the intent of this particular duel; to fight until first blood was drawn, but that cuts to the sword hand didn’t count.]

After that throw, I thought it was over. She backed up in my general direction, keeping an eye on him while he ran in the opposite direction across the glade. I figured he was just running for it. But he stopped at her gym bag and pulled out another short sword. The twin of hers.

During his run she had picked up her own sword - he had beaten it out of her grip earlier - and his knife. They closed without a pause. With two blades, I thought she would have had a real advantage, but he was very fast and more than held his own until she trapped his blade (hers, really, the one he had taken from her bag) and sliced along the back of his left hand again; a move very similar to the one she had used the first time she had disarmed him.

And I thought that was that. There was no cinematic pause. No beat for the dramatic effect. She simply drove her left hand forward to sink his own blade into his chest.

But it didn’t.

It stopped at the edge of his skin like it had hit a brick wall. He hadn’t done anything, he couldn’t have. The knife just stopped.

Even before watching the tape as many times as I have, before talking to her about it, I knew that they were both shocked. That’s where the beat was.

But it was just one beat.

He may have been as shocked as she was, but he recovered remarkably fast. He did a beautiful move that had his own blade back in his hand by what seemed like magic (It wasn’t. I’ve watched it frame by fame and it was just fast. And perfect.) and ended with a cut across her upper arm that opened a deep gash.

The interesting thing is that as soon as he had his knife out of her hand she slashed up with her sword and raked along his ribcage.

They hit each other at exactly the same time.

They had ended up on my side of the clearing. She had her back to me and I could clearly see his face.

He smiled.

Not at me, I’m pretty sure he never saw me. Then he drew himself up, gave her the formal salute he had not given her just a few minutes before, and turned and jogged out of the clearing, following the path is friend had taken.

When he was gone, her whole body seemed to exhale.

~ ^ ~

I had to know.

So I walked out of the forest. I made damn sure she heard me coming, but I was still surprised by the speed with which she spun and had the point of her sword up to my neck.

It only took her a second to recognize me. “You were in the coffee shop this morning,” she said.

“Yes. I followed you.”

“Why.”

I didn’t have any lies in me just then, probably wouldn’t have even if I hadn’t just seen so many inexplicable things all at once. “Just curious,” I said. “You looked like something was up, I wondered what it was. It's what I do. Usually for other people, though.”

“Are you a private investigator?” she asked.

“Something like that,” I said.

She couldn’t help but see my camera, since I was essentially still holding it up to my face. “Did you get all that?”

“Yes.” I said. “Something weird happened there at the end, didn’t it?”

She looked over her shoulder to where the fight had ended. I think she was watching it again in her mind's eye and still not comprehending it. When she looked back she seemed a little confused. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

“Well,” I said, “the funny thing is, I probably would.”

~ ^ ~

Seems like this is as good a place to stop as any. Nobody's going anywhere for the moment and it's been too many hours with way too little sleep. More tomorrow.