Edie and I walk into the cafe. As predicted, it’s empty at this early of an hour.
There’s a waitress beaming behind the counter.
“Hey, guys, how can I help?”
I ignore her, walking to the booth in the back. “That’s the one.”
As predicted, it’s the perfect vantage point to the office of Doctor Elma. Or, as we know her – Phoebe Reinhart. As far as cover-up attempts go, it’s a pretty feeble one.
“I don’t know what happened in that apartment,” I say to Edie, “and the fact that you’re not talking is a problem best saved for the higher-ups, as far as I’m concerned. I just need to know what I’m getting myself into.”
“She’s dead.” Edie murmurs. “I—I killed her.”
“And yet, she’s very much alive.”
I don’t know what’s gotten into her. Yeah – Harris died. Poor kid, God bless him. Brought me coffee once and everything. I’m sure it came as a great shock for the family.
But Edie, of all people, should be used to people dying on her. People coming back from the dead should be even less of a shock. When they flew me out here, I figured this would be a two-day operation at most. Reinhart’s a Class C, for crying out loud. A dangerous one, sure, but they’re all dangerous.
Instead, I find Edie like this, and suddenly Reinhart wasn’t the only one around here forced to play the shrink.
The waitress practically skips to our table. “What’re we having?”
“Some flapjacks would be divine, thanks.” I say.
“I’m—I’m fine.” Edie’s staring at her hands.
“You haven’t eaten anything, for Chrissakes.” I point out.
The waitress makes herself scarce.
“Listen. I don’t know if you’ve got something going on in your personal life,” I tell her, rubbing my hands across my face, “or you had a thing going with Harris, or what, but I need you to get your act together, Edie. Fuck’s sake.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore.” she says simply.
“Well, you don’t get to choose.” I scoff, leaning against the window. I really picked a good vantage point – the entrance is right there.
No patting myself on the back too much, though. Can’t. Not with this mood-killer sitting across me. “Look, you’re fucked up. I understand.” Let’s try to be nice. “The higher-ups understand that something’s happened. So all that we’re gonna do now is observe, okay? We’re gonna sit here, watch over her for a week or two, and then they’ll make a decision. Part of that decision will be based on my recommendation, and my recommendation will be that you go home. Okay? I don’t know what that’s gonna do for your job, though, so it would be in your best interest, I think, to just relax. Get it together. We’ll get through this. I just need to know what she’s capable of.”
“I don’t know.” Edie whispers.
I roll my eyes. “Okay, well, that doesn’t really help me, does it? ‘Cause I need—“ I knock my fork over. “Shit.“
As I go to pick it up, I see a piece of paper taped beneath the table.
“Wh—What is it?” Edie asks.
“A bad sign.”
I get the fork and the paper.
“Getting worse now.” I murmur, unveiling the note.
The handwriting’s mine.
YOUR MEMORIES ARE BEING TAMPERED WITH. THE DATE I AM CURRENTLY WRITING THIS ON IS 08/24/2021.
YOU HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE. YOU THINK THIS IS THE FIRST DAY OF YOU OBSERVING ELMA’S OFFICE. IT’S NOT.
SHE ERASES YOUR MEMORIES. I DON’T KNOW FOR LONG OF A PERIOD OR THE DETAILS. I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW LONG IT’S BEEN HAPPENING FOR. I THINK SHE DOESN’T ERASE THEM, PER-SE. SHE ‘PAINTS OVER’ THEM OR SOMETHING SO YOU DON’T NOTICE YOU’RE MISSING TIME.
WHEN YOU FIND THIS NOTE, PLEASE PUT A TICK BELOW IMMEDIATELY AND RETURN THE MESSAGE WHERE YOU FOUND IT.
IF, DURING YOUR OBSERVATION, YOU SEE SOMETHING IMPORTANT, RETRIEVE THIS MESSAGE AND WRITE THE OBSERVATION DOWN. OR TAPE AN ADDITIONAL NOTE NEXT TO IT UNDER THE TABLE.
I show it to Edie. She’s shocked. Terrified, really. But not surprised. At least that part of her remains intact.
“There’s thirteen ticks here.” I murmur, putting down my own – fourteenth one – as instructed. “So, we’ve showed up here at least thirteen times. But, judging by this, probably way more than that.”
“I don’t understand.” Edie clutches at her head. “The Agency—They—I mean, this says August! It’s mid-way into September! they would’ve known it’s been weeks!”
I nod. “There’s a good chance that they already know. Even a better chance that they called us up and flat-out warned us. But, for one reason or another, we go here to do the watching – someone has to do it, after all – and we forget. Or we get messed with.”
“B-But if she knows she’s being watched—is—I mean, what’s the point of pretending to be Doctor Elma? Why wouldn’t she run? Is she even still there?”
“Well, I’d say it’s a safe bet she is, given that we keep having our memories erased.” I can’t help but chuckle. “As for why she’s not running… well. Given the display of competence we’ve shown so far, I’d say she hasn’t found it necessary to run from us just yet.”
“What do we do, then?”
I put the paper back where I found it. “Well, proper protocol would be to call for backup. Overwhelm her and just get it over with. Slight hitch there is that you can’t really place a request like that without knowing what the target is capable of. And since you won’t tell us anything—“
“Don’t act like this is my fault!”
“—We’re forced to sit here and do surveillance. Except, we’ve apparently been doing that for a little over half a mon—Actually!”
The waitress has just arrived with the flapjacks!
“Excuse me,” I ask, “how long have we been coming here?”
“Oh, about a month.” she says, putting the plate in front of me.
“Let me guess,” I grin, “you’ve never seen me order anything but these, have ya?”
She smiles. “Never have, miss.”
“Thanks. You’re grand.”
I wave my hand, sending her away.
“Holy shit.” Edie’s rubbing her temple.
I dig into the pancakes. “These are good.”
“Holy SHIT.” she looks to Elma’s office.
“Fantastic, really. Downright delicious, I’d say.”
“What the hell are we going to do?!”
Well, true, we’re pretty fucked here. The paper said to write down any actual observations made, so there’s nothing there. So, what little surveillance we do get done is a complete waste of time anyway, or we get zapped before I get a chance to put an update down.
The consistency at which we’re being hit is worrying, though. If there’s something she doesn’t want us to know about, she must be doing it at a constant basis. But, at the same time, she knows we’re here, supposedly. I can understand wiping our memories the first time she catches us, but why do it this frequently? If there’s something we can see by looking at the front entrance, just don’t use the front entrance for it!
“Ah.” I realize.
The only logical conclusion is that she has no choice but to mess with our heads. And the only scenario in which she has no choice is the one where we’re the ones making the first move.
I get up. “Stay here.” I tell Edie.
“What?” she blinks. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to pay her a visit. Confront her. Try to kill her. Whatever is enough to pressure her. Force her to wipe my brain. That’s what we do. That’s what we’ve been doing for a month. Something happens that forces us to go in and confront her. Maybe it’s a sudden order from the Agency. Maybe I get bored and decide we go in. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It always ends the same way. But if it’s just me, she’ll also wipe just me. Get it? Just me. Not you.”
“What does that accomplish?”
“We get info. You get to see just how she altered my brain by comparing our memories. So, when I leave the cafe, you leave, too – she knows we’re watching her, after all – but stick around until you see what happens to me. Alright?”
“That’s insane. That’s a completely insane plan!”
“Christ, since when are you such a coward?”
“Since—!” She shakes her head. “I shot her! I killed her! I unloaded an entire fucking clip into her! At least, that’s—I mean, I—I’m—I don’t—I don’t even know if the person I shot was—“
“Alright, alright. Enough. I’m just gonna go, okay?”
But I don’t.
Something’s not right about this, either.
Thirteen times. I’ve apparently seen that note at least thirteen times.
Wouldn’t I have followed this exact same train of thought at least once before? It wouldn’t have taken thirteen times.
Which means, I’ve done this exact same thing before, which means she gets us in the end no matter what, since I always decide to do the same thing… But that can’t be right either, because if I’ve reached this line of thinking before, the natural thing would be to decide to start writing down everything I plan to do, specifically so I avoid doing the same thing twice, in case the idea fails.
I haven’t done that. At least, I can find no trace of having done that. Which means, I haven’t taken this line of thinking before. Which means, I haven’t seen the note thirteen times before. Which means, I’m not the one who put the ticks on it.
No, even beyond that—
Am I even the one who wrote the fucking note?
The handwriting’s mine, sure, but—
Wait. Is it?
Or was my memory just retroactively changed to make me think it was, immediately after I put it away?
“Is she just playing with us?” I wonder aloud.
“Yes.” says a woman’s voice.
Edie jumps from her seat.
Someone is standing behind me. But I can’t turn around. Why?
My stomach hurts.
“Huh. That was easier than I thought it’d be.” I hear the waitress’ voice.
“It always is. They’re not terribly clever.” says the unknown voice. “Thank you for playing along, by the way.”
“Anything for you, Phoebe.” the waitress hums.
It’s her. She’s right there, behind me, but I can’t turn around. I can’t even say anything. All I can do is see forward – see Edie, standing there with the dumbest fucking expression I’ve ever seen – not drawing her gun, not doing anything.
Thinking? What good is thinking going to do now?
Does she have human accomplices? Has she gotten to the people of the neighborhood, like the waitress? Is she spreading her influence? How far? With what goal?
I don’t know. I can’t know. I never could know.
This really was the first day of surveillance. But she knew. She knew and she waited and she set a trap. A prank. A joke. She wanted to see what we’d do – what I’d do – as if I were a rat trapped in a maze. She was sussing out how difficult it is to mess with our sense of reality.
Not very, as it turns out.
I fall to my knees. The pain in my stomach is unbearable.
I’m probably going to die here, aren’t I?
“Hello, Agent Harris.” says the witch. “How’ve you been?”
“I—killed—you.” This must be an extra layer of punishment; making me watch Edie shiver like a pathetic schoolgirl.
“And you failed. So, what does that tell you, Agent Harris?”
My fellow agent steps back. “Leave me alone. Leave me alone!”
“That’s my line, I think.” she laughs. “But – really – how can I do that? If I let you run off now, you’re going to bring me another one like Sierra here. Maybe a dozen of them. And I can’t take on a whole dozen. Not yet. So, no. I can’t just leave you alone.”
I feel a force behind my back – pushing me flat against the floor.
“But,” the witch continues, “I say we could make a deal. Give me a head start. Feed your superiors fake reports for about a month. Keep them at bay. I’ll keep Sierra here as collateral until the month’s up. I won’t hurt her. You have my word.”
Edie looks to me.
What do you want me to tell you? She’s lying.
She’s fucking lying, you idiot!
This is what it’s all been about! This moment! This whole charade has been designed top-to-bottom to manipulate you into thinking she’s more powerful than she actually is! If I bought into it – great – she got you to believe your memories of the past month are fake! If I didn’t – great – I’m now on the floor, powerless.
See through it.
See through it, damn you!
“And, as a bonus, if you end up being a real good boy,” the witch says, “I’ll even put you back in your right body. How does that sound?”
Edie’s fist squeezes. “...It sounds like you’re lying.”
YES! Thank you! Fuck!
“Jake. I really have no reason to lie. You’ve seen what I can do. I already have quite a few people who will be more than willing to fill up two agent bodies and have them masquerade for my interests. That’s kind of the beauty of being a therapist – all you get is people who wish they were someone else.”
Right, except we have protocols specifically designed to catch those scenarios out.
“Or – better yet? – I just get you to think what you’re reporting back is real to begin with? The test with Sierra worked surprisingly well. I think it’ll work even better with you.”
Most senior agents are good enough to figure out when that sort of stuff is being done to them. Especially over long periods of time.
Also – what do you mean, ‘it worked with me’? I figured it out.
...It was just a bit too late to act on it.
“Either way, I could give myself way more than a month. I could even take over your entire Agency if I really wanted to. ”
Aw, c’mon, don’t kid yourself here.
“But I’m not going to do that. We don’t have to be like this.
“Because I am a good person. I know I’ve done some bad things. But a vast majority of it is reversible! I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt Sierra. I just want a month. And then I’ll put everything back in its place. This is an act of good faith. I want you to trust me. I have no intention of spending my life in war with the world or its shadow attack dogs like you.”
“...A month to do what?” Edie asks.
“Careful now, Jake. That’s not how trust works. You’ve invaded my space. The privacy of my apartment. You then burst into said apartment. You shot me. And now you’re trying to do the same thing all over again. Which has forced me to do this.
“Understand: I am not a bad person. I want to help people. And the final result of this will be me helping you. I just need to know you deserve my kindness, Jake. My trust. This is about you giving back to me. Not the other way around.”
Edie says nothing.
My vision begins to blur.
“What’s it going to be?” asks the witch.
Her voice is swallowed by an eternal hum.
All becomes darkness.