Black January

Two years after the Starry Wisdom Church unleashed their dark gods in Boston, Becca Philips is trying to put the events of the Red Equinox behind her when Agent Brooks tracks her down in Brazil. Becca has been summoned back to Massachusetts by SPECTRA, the covert agency entrusted with keeping cosmic horrors at bay. Her special perception and skills are requested at the Wade House—a transfiguring mansion of portals to malevolent dimensions.

Becca would like to refuse, but Brooks believes her estranged father may be lost between worlds at the abandoned estate. As Becca struggles with grief and forgiveness, she joins a team of explorers uniquely suited to decode the secrets of the strange house in the black snow. But what secrets do her companions harbor? And who among them will take theirs to the grave?

Douglas Wynne’s SPECTRA Files series continues in Black January, available October 21st from JournalStone.

 

 

Prologue

November 2012
Concord, Massachusetts

By the time Maurice Ramirez found the witch house, the acid was starting to kick in. Maybe the shift in perception was why he finally found it. He had taken the commuter rail out of Boston first thing in the morning, knowing that he would need time to walk from the train station to Felton Street, aware that by all accounts the place would be hard to find and wanting to finish his business with the house before night fell. Walking the dusty road, he cursed himself for not undertaking the quest months ago, when the days were longer. But the research had led him down avenues almost as obscure as the one he was now pacing amid the brambles, false paths, and shifting shadows of the marshy valley.

The house was supposed to be perched atop a terraced hill, embowered with pine trees and overlooking a rolling meadow surrounded by new growth forest. The books were in agreement on the geography, but the handwritten accounts he’d consulted at the Boston Public Library suggested the address had possibly been changed in recent years, the road renamed and renumbered. And then there was the Internet lore—a hopeless tangle of urban legends in which a handful of accounts with the ring of truth here, or a telling detail there, were camouflaged.

Maurice hiked the dusty road north and south and north again, sweating in his olive trench coat. The coat had seemed vital against the chill wind of the morning, but had since become a burden. He almost wished he had a car to stow it in, but the deep pockets held a wide array of tools, and who knew what he might need once he found the place? He turned his mind to this inventory as he walked, and then to whatever other distractions he could think of. He recalled passages of poetry he’d memorized in college, and the recipes for meals he would cook if he could afford the ingredients. When he ran out of other distractions, he sang a White Stripes tune. Anything to keep his mind off of the house he was hunting.

All the literature agreed, whether in pixels or ink, that the place had used the years to hone its talent for hiding between planes, merging with the landscape, as if it were made of mirrors rather than timbers, stone and glass.

The trick to finding it was to catch it out of the corner of the eye, to detect its shape from an oblique angle, without grasping. The path to the pillar-flanked front steps had to be held lightly in the mind until you ran a gentle hand over the weathered porch railing and grasped the silver filigree doorknob.

The Wade House, built by renowned candle maker and rumored witch Caleb Wade in 1782, and known as the Concord Witch House since the 1920s, did not like to be seen.

Maurice took a deep breath of blue sky and felt the universe vibrate in and around him. He was not a regular user of psychedelics; those days were behind him. Entheogens had been useful stepping stones on his spiritual path but were mostly unnecessary once the faculties they introduced were established, and anyway, it had proven difficult to obtain a steady supply of lab-grade acid on the east coast after the Grateful Dead stopped touring. Nonetheless, he retained his appreciation for the value of viewing the world from a different angle now and then, and kept a few paper tabs printed with an eye in a triangle sequestered in one of his coat pockets with other emergency bits of kit.

After his fourth pass of Felton Street, he’d placed one of these on his tongue. On the fifth pass, he took a set of cardboard-framed red and blue 3D glasses and a tangerine from one of his deep pockets, placed the glasses on the bridge of his nose, and peeled the fruit as he walked. And on the sixth pass, with citrus sluicing like liquid sunshine down his throat, he caught a glimpse of the stately yellow and purple trimmed Victorian, and stopped dead in his tracks.

Shadows pulsed at the corners of his eyes. A sparrow flew over the road, blazing a prismatic trail across the sky. The house leaked streamers of blackness, flooding the fragrant valley with malevolence.

Maurice turned his head slowly, not looking at the crumbling mansion but holding it gently in his peripheral vision until it winked out of existence, then scanning back again until it flickered and returned. A silver path through high weeds wended up the slope to the front porch steps. He stepped onto it, whistling as he went.

In a moment the house towered over him, the harsh sunlight wavering on the windows as if the leaded glass pulsed with the beat of the house’s dark heart.

Was it an organism camouflaged as a building?

He had yet to strike that theory from his list. And if it was alive, was it young or mature by its own time scale? Certainly it was old for the New World, and had shown its age in decay long before its reputation for haunting had left it abandoned. Maurice wasn’t concerned with rumors of ghosts. Such anomalies were rare and seldom harmful side effects of greater forces. For him, the more vital mystery had to do with sentience in the structure and the possibility that it might be undergoing a growth spurt. All living things went through phases of volatility and—God help him—procreation. He didn’t know if the house had a mind or a will, couldn’t say whether it scrutinized trespassers, and he could only speculate about its criteria for allowing passage through its portals. But he knew what he had to do to put its innermost portal beyond reach.

He patted his chest and felt the leather pouch that hung from his neck. Hiding its contents here, so close to that damnable door was risky, for sure. And yet, for that very reason, it might be the safest place—a place where signals that would otherwise draw attention might blend into the background radiation bleeding through from the suns of other dimensions, converging and confusing the would-be seeker.

If the house itself was hard to find, many of its inner doors were even more elusive. Even if the Starry Wisdom cult traced Maurice’s steps to Europe and New Hampshire, they’d never think to look for what he’d found in Paris beyond the threshold where he intended to hide it today. He might be regarded a lunatic among lunatics, but no one would think for a minute that he was that crazy.

At the door, he took a piece of chalk from his trench coat and inscribed the five-branched Elder Sign on the splintering oak boards. He turned the silver knob and the door swung inward without so much as a creak, as if eager to welcome him.

The staircase lay straight ahead across a threadbare Persian carpet, the banister topped with an iron lamp in the shape of Eris, goddess of chaos, holding aloft a glass apple. Hand-carved dark wood moldings and cornices flanked the entrances to a sitting room on the right and a dining room on the left. Weak sunlight filtered in through moth-eaten curtains lending the bubbled wallpaper an even deeper yellow hue than time had imbued it with. He glimpsed antique furnishings draped with sheets, the upholstery thick with dust where it peeked through.

Maurice licked his chapped lips and reminded himself to breathe. The sour smell of sweat permeated his coat as he placed a hand on the banister.

He caught motion out of the corner of his eye and whirled around as a table lamp crashed to the floor, the rotting shade practically disintegrating on impact, coughing out a spray of shattered glass at the vanishing tail of a small animal; a cat, or a rat.

Steadying his nerves, he set a scuffed boot on the bottommost step, eyes trained on the pulsing shadows above.

For a moment, he thought he might ascend to the second floor without incident. But just as he began to drop his guard, he detected a roiling motion in the deeper darkness of the upper staircase. He had just enough time to draw the laser pointer from his pocket as a mammoth centipede of oily black smoke rushed down the stairs, blotting out the light from the circular window over the landing and eclipsing his field of vision.

Maurice sidestepped and sliced the dusty air with the red beam, branding a ruby pentagram on the creature’s mottled flank. The light sheared the smoke, and by the time the howling mouth curled around to snap its rings of teeth at him, the worm was vanishing in tatters of black vapor.

He pocketed the laser pointer, wiped his brow with a paisley bandana, and bellowed, “I ain’t afraid of you motherfuckers. You hear?”

When nothing answered, he climbed the stairs to search the second floor.

After a quick tour of the master bedroom—which had a murder vibe—and the upper level of a two-story library well-stocked with moldering volumes he wished he had time to peruse, Moe found what he was looking for: a canvas draped piano in the center of a large empty room beneath a chandelier. He swept the cover aside, revealing a baby grand with an inverted white-on-black keyboard.

He used the piano bench as a step to climb onto the closed hood of the instrument, then fished a length of nylon cord with a carbon fiber grappling hook attached to one end out of his trench coat. It took three swings to get a feel for the hook’s momentum and trajectory before he let it soar overhead, where it surprised him by wrapping around the chandelier on the first try. Maurice was not a small man, but fixtures had been built strong when this house was erected. He pulled at the rope, leaned back on his heels, and lifted his boots off the piano lid for a second. The chandelier creaked and rained dust, but it held.

He looked around the room for a stronger anchor point, but found nothing. The best bet might have been the staircase banister in the hall, but he had doubts about the length of the rope, and anyway, some of the rods had looked as crooked as bad teeth. Even the straight ones might be rotted. The chandelier would have to do.

He climbed down off the piano, rummaged in another of his trench coat pockets, and produced a folded square of paper. He shook out the folds and blew dust from the page—a handwritten musical score speckled with tea stains and smudged with ash at the corners. He removed his 3D glasses, stowed them in his pocket, and studied the page. It was a photocopy, but he could still see the spot where whorls of India ink preserved the composer’s partial thumbprint, and for a moment he could picture the man dipping his quill by candlelight. The title of the piece, scrawled in bold calligraphy, read: The Invisible Symphony.

Maurice lifted the hinged music rack, set the page on it, placed his fingers on the keyboard, and struck a chord. In defiance of the laws of physics, the piano was perfectly in tune despite years of neglect. Unable to help himself, he followed the chord with a little trill and a descending blues lick. He smiled, popped his shoulders, and cracked his knuckles.

He ran his finger along the staff and came to a cadence of three chords circled in pencil. He played through the sequence carefully, pausing for a beat between each chord while his fingers climbed the keys and found the next position. He hadn’t had access to an instrument for many years and now wished he’d sought one out in advance to brush up and reacquaint his fingers before it mattered. Even a cheap synthesizer at a Boston music shop would have been good enough. But he hadn’t practiced and it was too late now and his ring finger hit the wrong key—a dissonant little slip on the last chord. He corrected it quickly but the quick-beating vibration of the errant note continued to clash in the air. The lid of the instrument bounced and a thick gray tentacle lashed out from under it, slicing the air just inches from his face and leaving an odor of sewage in its wake before vanishing again beneath the thumping lid.

Like a driver recoiling from the gas to hit the brake, Maurice jerked his foot off the sustain pedal, cutting the music short. He stared at the trail of ichor smeared across the varnished wood for a moment, then played the chords again, stepped on the pedal, and let the sound ring out while he raised the lid a few inches to peer inside.

In the shadowy interior, he found only hammers, strings, and the gilded soundboard. He set the lid back down, went to the stairs, and broke a carved oak rod from the railing. Back at the piano, he knelt on the floor and wedged the rod under and over the three pedals so that the one in the middle would stay down. Then, standing hunched over the keyboard, he struck the chords again. He shuffled around to the side of the instrument while the rigged pedal kept the notes ringing, lifted the lid, and caught his breath.

This time he found none of the mechanical components of a piano but only a yawning void redolent of ozone and sea breeze. He rested the piano lid on the hinged arm, tossed the coil of rope into the blackness, and climbed in after it, grateful for his fingerless rawhide gloves as he grasped the rope tight and put his weight on it.

High above, the chandelier groaned, lurched, and chimed. A flurry of plaster dust drifted down onto his afro as he lowered his bulk into the darkness, his hot cheeks caressed by the stirring air of a vast, open space.

Down and down he went through the chill air. Above, the piano-shaped window glowed pale and distant, doing nothing to illuminate the ground below. He grunted a sigh of relief when his foot finally found it.

With hands now free, he switched on his flashlight and swept the beam over the cracked hardpan, illuminating seashells, driftwood, and desiccated horseshoe crabs. At the farthest reaches of his beam, he glimpsed a shadow cage of ribs clawing at the sky—a wrecked wooden ship or the carcass of some beached leviathan. Now that he’d recovered from the descent, his own breath no longer rasping in his ears, he listened for the sound of rolling surf, but heard nothing, not even the cries of gulls.

He had read that the tides of this shore took years to cycle.

Maurice scanned the desolate seabed, decided that the wrecked boat—if that was what it was—would be the most obvious landmark for any investigator, and ruled it out right away. He walked a winding course across the hardpan, checking with the flashlight for footprints—especially his own—and concluded that the ground was too firm to take impressions.

When he felt he had reached an adequate distance from his touchdown point, he chose a random horseshoe crab shell and flipped it over. Worming a finger into the leather pouch at his chest, he worked it open and peered inside. Silver light spilled out, tracing watery sine waves across his forehead.

It was beautiful. A beautiful, terrible thing.

He slipped the cord over his head, cinched the bag shut and gave it a last squeeze, hoping he was doing the right thing when he nestled it between the two rows of claws on the dead crab’s underside, then gently placed the shell facedown on the ground, just as he had found it.

Maurice lumbered back to the dangling rope, gave it a tug, and sighed. It had been a long day already. He was tired, and the rope was long. The knots he’d tied in it would provide footing for rest on the way up; but who could say what else might assail him as he fled the Wade House in the fading light.

He ran his gloved hand over his beard, appraising the rope with a grunt. “Shoulda quit those fuckin’ Whoppers.”

 


Chapter 1

January 2022
Pantanal Wetlands Region, Brazil

Becca Philips adjusted the settings on her camera, then, letting it dangle from the strap, wrapped her legs around the aroeira bough and quietly shimmied out over the dark water of the Rio Cuiaba. With dusk still some ninety minutes off, the declining sun had withdrawn the harsh highlights from the trees, and the wildlife was stirring. It was her third trip to the Pantanal since she came to Brazil two years ago, and she felt well attuned to its rhythms. This evening she was stalking a jabiru—a red-necked white stork—and had spotted one perched on a neighboring tree. In January, the water level was low, the green reeds high, and she hoped to capture a shot of the bird leaving its perch to glide down to the river bank once it chose a spot for fishing. For now, the jabiru was busy grooming its feathers, seemingly unaware of the photographer next door.

Becca went out a little further. The branch swayed, leaves rustling. On the ground below, her dog, Django, whined. Between the two of them they were going to scare the bird off before she was in position to take the shot. Wrapping her left arm around the branch, she took the camera in her right, and trained it on the bird. Her thighs stung below her cargo shorts where the tree bark had raked her with scratches and scrapes, but the pain scarcely registered while her mind was on the shot. With only one hand to work with, she relied on the autofocus and pressed the shutter release. The light was gorgeous.

She took another shot, and then another. The bird had to be aware of her by now, but it hadn’t flown off yet.

Could she reach the camera dials with her left hand and make a few adjustments? She was about to try when Django’s anxious separation whine morphed into something else: a long drawn out growl culminating in two warning barks.

Becca looked down and almost dropped her camera at the sight of the crocodile, its snout and fore claws emerging from the muddy water, followed by an endless procession of ridges. It climbed the bank toward the trunk of the tree where Django sat guard, Becca’s blood going colder with every inch until the tip of its tail was out of the water. It had to be 9 feet long. Her first instinct was to get a good shot of it, but the idea perished before it was fully formed, replaced by the urgent need to scare the monster away from her dog.

She did a quick mental inventory of objects she might throw at the crocodile, but the snacks and photo paraphernalia in her pockets were no substitute for rocks.

A buzzing sound caught her ear and she shot a glance back in the direction of the jabiru to find a dragonfly hovering in the air about a foot away from the bird. There was something slightly off about the insect’s movement and Becca realized she had never heard the sound of a dragonfly before. With wings too delicate to be detected by human ears, they weren’t supposed to buzz like bees. Was this some heightening of her senses brought on by panic?

Django barked again—aggressive bursts punctuating his droning growl. Becca couldn’t see him from this angle but pictured his hackles up. She was sweating now from the physical strain of holding on to the branch, the mental strain of the threat below, and her inability to act quickly with arms and legs essentially tied. She searched the tree for fruit or a dead branch that she could break off, but there was nothing. It was either throw the camera or hope that yelling would be enough to scare the monster back into the water.

Scare a predator in its native environment? Unlikely. She should’ve left Django back at the cabana in Porto Jofre.

The dragonfly buzzed over to her tree now, hovering nearby as she inch-wormed back down its length to the trunk. Another insect scurried across her calf and she avoided looking, didn’t even want to know what it was. But this dragonfly…there was something strange about it. It didn’t belong here.

Now that it was close, she detected other sounds: clicking and whirring.

Becca squinted at the bug’s faceted iridescent eyes.

The fucking thing was a drone. Suddenly, she didn’t know whether to swat it out of the air, try to catch it, or ignore it altogether.

The jabiru took flight, soaring toward the far bank of the river. She’d forgotten about it for a second, and when its white wings unfolded and flashed in her eyes, and set the leaves of her branch trembling, she slipped, lost her grip, and found herself hanging from her thighs, camera dangling below her head as the crocodile turned away from the dog and fixed its ancient gaze on this new gift of dangling meat.

The mechanical dragonfly shot past Becca’s face, and her gold scarab necklace slipped out from under her tank top as if to greet it as it passed. Django’s barking shifted in tone again, taking on another kind of excitement before cutting off entirely as a gunshot rang out.

Becca’s heart felt like it was giving in to gravity and tumbling into her throat, but she held on tight, crunched up, and hugged the branch. Below, the crocodile turned and slipped into the river as a second bullet plinked the muddy water. Muscles burning with fatigue, Becca reached the tree trunk, found her footing, and scrambled down to a branch low enough to jump from.

Upon landing, Django nuzzled her scraped thighs, whining. She crouched and soothed him; petting the ridge of raised fur along his spine and tucking the scarab back under her shirt with her other hand.

A man stood at the riverbank watching the crocodile retreat. The dragonfly drone hovered beside him as he holstered his weapon, and she knew him before he turned to look at her: Jason Brooks, SPECTRA agent and redheaded Boston homeboy. They had seen some shit together.

“Hey, Becca. Still doing your damnedest to die for a photo, huh?”

She tried not to smile and failed. Still, it was a wry grin that didn’t last long. “And you’ve still got my back, huh?”

“Guess so. Django doesn’t scare off the birds you’re trying to shoot?”

“I’ve trained him not to. How long have you been following me with your robot bug?”

Brooks didn’t answer. He didn’t deny he’d been spying on her, either.

“Would you have stepped out if we weren’t about to get eaten?”

“Hey, it ain’t like that. You’re lucky I found you.” He raised his palm to the sky and the dragonfly landed on it. “And the toy is yours. I was just trying it out.”

Becca crossed her arms. “It almost knocked me out of the tree. I think I’m fine without it.”

“I think it was a bird that almost did that.”

“No, actually, it was your gunshot.”

“Nah. Bird. Pretty sure I got a photo of it.”

“On that?

“Yup. Hi-res, too. Wanna see?”

“Seriously, Brooks, I almost let go when you fired that damn thing.”

“I knew you wouldn’t.” Now he was the one grinning.

Becca shook her head.

“You didn’t let go at Bunker Hill. C’mon, take a look.” He held what looked like a phone out to her and swiped the glass. “There’s your bird…and you…and the croc from above…”

He handed her the device. She took it, and was soon thumbing through shots and zooming in on details. The glass responded the way she expected it to, but the processor was light years ahead of any phone she’d ever tried shooting with. Her breath hitched in her chest at the clarity and detail. “Do you control the bug with this thing? It’s the remote?”

“Yeah.”

“And the dragonfly beams the pictures back instantly?”

“As you take them.”

She cupped her hand over her mouth.

“The drone hovers on autopilot if you have to drop the remote into your pocket. That’s why it didn’t crash when I shot at the croc. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Why are you here?” Now that the adrenaline had washed through her system and her heart rate was settled down, she found her innate skepticism returning. “You flew down here to give me a piece of classified tech because SPECTRA loves to share these things with nature photographers?”

“You’re a nature photographer now? What happened to urban explorer? Art school student?”

“I think you know.”

“Well, I guess you’re still risking life and limb among amphibious beasts, so it can’t be that different.”

“At least I’m not risking my sanity down here.”

They had strayed beyond the bounds of jest and for a moment neither of them spoke. A flock of birds took wing from the far bank, a tumult of black against the purpling sky. The boughs and reeds sighed in the breeze. Brooks swatted a mosquito on his neck, leaving a smear of blood.

“What do they want me to shoot with that thing?” Becca asked at last.

Brooks shrugged. “If we really knew that, I probably wouldn’t be coming to you, but…probably monsters.”

“Government’s getting good at shooting things from a distance.”

“What’s that, an anti-war comment?”

Now it was Becca’s turn to shrug. “What do they need me for?”

“Let’s say you have an eye for the weird. And the case I’m on has personal relevance for you, if you care to hear about it. Even if you don’t come back to the States with me, I figured I owed it to you to let you know.”

“Know what?”

“Your father went missing.”

Becca scoffed. “That’s news? He went missing from my life a long time ago.”

“I mean missing from…this dimension. Maybe.” He swatted another mosquito, this one on his arm, and waved his hand in front of his face. “Becca, this isn’t how I intended to have this conversation. I have a boat. Let me give you a ride back to your cabin and I’ll tell you what I know.”

She scratched Django’s head. “What do you think, Django? Take a ride with Jason and hear him out? He did pay our way to Brazil, after all.”

“Hey, I even brought a bag of marshmallows. You have a fire pit?”

“Django can’t eat marshmallows.”

Brooks rummaged in his field vest and brought out a thin package. He waved it in the air. “Beef jerky, buddy?”

Django sniffed the air, but didn’t stray from his mistress’ side.

*   *   *

Becca poked the fire with the carved tip of her stick and watched the sugar residue burn. Sparks drifted up toward the stars splashed across the sky. Beside her wood plank lounge chair, Django snored. “You said I have an eye for the weird,” she said. “So do you last I checked. Or did you take that drug, Nepenthe, to make it go away?”

Brooks shook his head and took a pull on his beer bottle.

Her eyes fixed on the flames, Becca asked the question she feared most: “Have you seen anything in Boston since the equinox? Anything…”

“Fucked up? No.”

The fire popped. The damp wood sizzled.

“How about you?” Brooks asked. “Seen anything since?”

“In São Paulo? No.”

“Anywhere.”

Becca bobbed her head side to side. “I thought I saw something once in the rain forest, but I couldn’t be sure. I was spooked, so…might have been my own mind playing tricks on me.”

“I wouldn’t rule anything out. Brazil’s been a hotspot for UFO activity since the 50s.”

“You think what happened in Boston has something to do with aliens?”

“Well…not in the usual sense. They don’t tell me everything, but I know there are people at SPECTRA who think UFOs aren’t from other planets but from another dimension here on Earth. So…what did you see?”

“I don’t know. And it was shortly after I got here, so maybe it was residual weirdness in my own head, my imagination acting up in a spooky place.”

“What place?”

“Calçoene. It’s a megalithic site in the north. Standing stones.”

“I’ll make a note of it. Might be worth looking at, eventually.”

“Did you come here to tell me my father might have been abducted by a UFO? Because that’d be a real good excuse for him missing my birthday this year.”

Brooks laughed, set the empty beer bottle down beside his chair, and leaned forward. “All right, here’s the deal: the first weird thing we’ve seen since the black sun blew up over Boston.”

We’ve seen? Or you’ve seen? You’re the only one besides me who still has the sight, right?”

“Far as I know, yes. And it’s ‘we’ because anyone can see this. Everyone can.”

Becca and Brooks didn’t have much in common, but the special perception they shared set them apart. In September 2019, a radical member of the Starry Wisdom Church had set off a harmonic bomb on a subway train. The technology, cobbled together from a boom box and a 3D printed, lab grown larynx known as The Voice Box of the Gods, enabled the pronunciation of ancient spells and mantras the human voice was no longer capable of producing. Brooks was on the train at the time, was one of the only survivors, and was exposed to frequencies that altered his perception, enabling him to occupy the same plane of reality as the trans-dimensional entities evoked by the event. And anyone who could see the entities could also be hunted by them.

Becca had become entangled in the situation—first as a suspect when her infrared photos started picking up traces of the same incursion, and later as an ally in the fight against the cultists and their dark gods. She was uniquely positioned to make a difference because of family secrets kept by her late grandmother, a professor at Miskatonic University and authority on the occult. In a sense, it was a war she had been born into, and her grandmother had left her an heirloom to aid her in the fight to turn the tide.

After first resisting the lure of secrets that had torn her family apart, Becca, in a moment of peril, had embraced her role, exposing herself to mantras chanted by the Black Pharaoh himself during an attack on Boston’s Christian Science Center in broad daylight. In the aftermath of the crisis, unlike the other civilians exposed, Becca had refused the drug that shut down the extra dimensional perception. Brooks had advocated to grant her that right, making the case that she was an unsung hero in an invisible war. He understood that she, like him, wanted to retain an early warning system in case the incursion wasn’t really over. In case the monsters came back.

“You know how those of us who were exposed could see the black sun and the tendrils that dropped down on locations where there was a manifestation? Well, we think this might be some kind of fallout from when your scarab blew it up. There’s black snow falling over Boston now, like ash. There were isolated reports of it around Christmas last year, or I guess you could say since the winter solstice. Then nothing. But now it’s back and gathering intensity.”

“And the people reporting it weren’t exposed in ’19?”

“No. Like I said, everyone can see it in the sky. You don’t watch the news, huh?”

“I avoid the Internet altogether unless I’m in contact with a client.”

“What kind of clients do you get?”

“Too few, but living here is cheap. Go on.”

“We didn’t know what it was. Still don’t. But we had a breakthrough when we realized the black snow is gathering at a specific location. It’s the weirdest fucking thing. When you map it, it literally looks like iron filings drawn to a giant magnet.”

“What’s the magnet?”

“It’s a house. An abandoned mansion west of Boston, in Concord. It had a reputation for being haunted even before the black snow, but hey, it is an old abandoned mansion, why wouldn’t it? Anyway, we’ve cordoned off the site, locked it down. Everyone on the scene can see the black snow. Of course, the neighbors saw it first. Publicly, they’re calling it an environmental disaster cleanup site. Even set up a shell company we can sue for toxic emissions at an old factory in Waltham. That’s the official explanation for the fallout.”

“People are buying that?”

“Managing the press has been…tricky. Fortunately, what the neighbors can’t see—and this place can be hard to see at all from the road—is that most of the black snow is being sucked down the chimney. The hill around the place is still covered with it, but it seems to want to go in. The house is definitely an attractor.”

“What does this have to do with my father?”

“When we first arrived, we found a motorcycle registered to him parked on the property.”

“And you haven’t found him.”

“No. Not at his last known address, not in the house or the surrounding towns. We even ran his picture on TV for a little while—with a fake name so people wouldn’t associate it with your five minutes of Beantown fame. No leads.”

“And obviously you didn’t find him in the house.”

“Yeah, no. Here’s the thing, though: this house, well, you know how mirrored surfaces and pools of water acted as portals to let things through? Well, the house hasn’t let anything out into our world yet—that we know of—but it may be letting people pass through into whatever world those things came from.”

Something cold wormed in Becca’s stomach. A knot popped in the campfire. “You think my father went into the house and got lost in another dimension?”

“Maybe. It’s possible. The place is strange. Its architecture changes. Passages and doors appear where they weren’t before. Other things too, little things like the number of steps in a staircase, the number of panes in a window. It’s all in flux, up for grabs. That’s the other reason they want your help; to explore it.”

Becca splayed her fingers. “Whoa, hold up. Not likely.”

“Not only would you have a drone camera you can safely maneuver into any questionable space you want to photograph, but you’ve already trained yourself in urban exploration. Abandoned buildings are your thing, right?”

“They don’t need me. You have the sight. And I’m sure they have military guys who can get around in a derelict mansion.”

“This is no ordinary mansion, Becca. And you’re no ordinary photographer. We need to document this. And…I thought you’d want to find your father.”

She crossed her arms. “You thought wrong.”

Brooks stood. “All right then. I told them I’d give it a shot, but I kind of figured Boston in January would be a hard sell for you. I’m glad you’re happy here.” He fished his phone out of his pocket to call for extraction.

Staring into the fire, Becca said, “Why would he go looking for the sort of trouble he ran away from? The stuff my grandmother was into…he wanted nothing to do with it.”

“I don’t know. I’ll tell you if we find anything. If you care.”

The dragonfly was perched on the arm of Becca’s chair, as if sleeping. It really was a fascinating piece of machinery; so intricate. She ran a fingertip between its aluminum lace wings, stroking it from head to tail, then picked it up and offered it to Brooks.

“We have a few fragments of info to get us started, so it’s not like it’s hopeless. The most promising stuff is from the journals of Maurice Ramirez. He visited the house about a decade ago.”

“Moe was involved in this, too?”

Brooks nodded.

“His stuff is always hard to decipher, but the geeks are working on it. He was a little more coherent before you met him.”

Moe Ramirez had been a homeless occultist living in an abandoned textile mill by the Charles River when Becca met him in 2019. Ranting about the apocalypse, writing on the walls, and performing banishing rituals with a Burger King crown on his head. It still seemed strange that the government considered him a reputable authority on the nature of reality, but then he had been right about that apocalypse.

“I wonder if my dad ever met him.”

“Dunno. Didn’t you think Ramirez might have been a student of your grandmother at one point?”

Becca shrugged. “Just a hunch. They studied a lot of the same rare books.”

“I could check Miskatonic’s records, if you’re curious.”

“I’m more curious about what my father was looking for in that house.”

“I have a theory,” Brooks said, dropping his phone back into his pocket but not taking the dragonfly from Becca.

She raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“You,” he said.

She closed her fingers around the tiny drone.

Excerpted from Black January © Douglas Wynne, 2016

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