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casually cruel

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Agent Stern thinks Barclay is the owner of the Amnesty Lodge right up until the owner herself thumps across the Lodge and up to him a little over a week into his stay. She walks like someone with silent footsteps, the low bounceless stalk of someone who’s grown up in the woods. It’s hindered greatly by the cast on her foot and her cane, both of which she doesn’t seem to have entirely figured out yet, so he hears her long before he sees her. He’s got a feeling she’s not used to that.

“So, I hear you’re my new guest,” she tells him, standing over him where he’s seated at his favored table in the main room. She’s smiling, her face is cut up and bruised, same with her arms.

Stern stands up and shakes her hand. “That I am,” he says, a little shocked by her height. He’s got a very short torso, so he’s used to being towered over when sitting, even though he’s of average height while standing. But this woman is imposingly tall, enough that he has to incline his head slightly to look her in the eyes. “Are you the owner?”

She laughs. “In name only. This place is Barclay’s baby, he does all the work. I just provide the cash.”

Stern gingerly places her into the mental category of Barclay’s sugar mommy as she sits down across from him. He shuts the Lamplighter he’s been reading, slides his notebook into his inner pocket, and sits as well, because from what he knows of people from the country, every interaction is a whole production. Even if you’re just trying to buy your Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter World ice cream and go home, you have to factor in the fifteen minute conversation with the cashier. He learned this his first visit to the general store, when Leo kept him standing there talking about the price of gas longer than Stern had previously thought possible.

“So you’re an FBI agent, right? What brings you to Kepler, Agent Stern?” she asks, stretching her injured leg out under the table. It bumps into his shin, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

“I work with a small task force called Unexplained Phenomena,” he says, fighting back a grimace. He hates the explanation, typically it gets him laughed at, but to his surprise she just nods thoughtfully. “I’m currently investigating the latest Bigfoot sighting that was filmed here,” he continues. He realizes that he’s forgotten to ask her name, but he’s sure there’ll be a good opportunity somewhere soon.

The woman smiles. “Ah, so you fancy yourself a real Fox Mulder type, huh?”

Stern smiles, allows himself a small chuckle, figuring leaning into the humor of the situation will probably fly with her, gain him a little mileage that he’s yet to get from any other guests. “Yes, sure. Although I’m not sure I would say the show is entirely accurate -”

“Of course not,” she interrupts, “On the show the monsters are real.”

Stern feels his expression crack. “Of course,” he parrots flatly. “Unfortunately, though, there are a good number of disappearances related to the Sasquatch, and the FBI has to investigate all angles. I’m probably just out here looking for a very hairy man living in the forest,” he jests, and waits for her to laugh. She doesn’t. “Would you happen to have seen - or perhaps felt - anything strange in the woods lately? You seem as though you must spend some time out there.” He gestures loosely to her outfit, her hard-wearing jeans, faded flannel, and fleece vest. He doesn’t like to stereotype - Sherlock Holmes-ing people almost never works out - but he can call a shot when he sees it.

She shakes her head. “The cryptid gig ain’t really my area,” she tells him. “You should try down at the Cryptonomica, ask for Ned Chicane. He filmed the damn thing, I believe.”

“I have,” Stern says, “It’s just always important to interview everyone, you never know who might have information.”

“So Ned wasn’t forthcomin’, huh?” she asks. Stern is sure his expression doesn’t change, but hers does - a moment of surprise, a brief flash of satisfaction, then into a little grin. “Yeah, he fed you his line of bullshit, didn’t he. He’s real good at that.”

Stern feels a muscle under his eye twitch, and he exhales slowly, resisting putting a finger on it. “I see you’ve interacted with Mr. Chicane before,” he says. “What would you have to say about him?”

“He can be very vociferous, that’s for sure,” she replies, which is not an answer.  “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, and I could probably get some distance.”

“You probably could,” Stern concedes, looking at the size of her arms. Her body type could be described along the lines of aging former bodybuilder, only the muscle’s come mostly for labor, not for show.

“Now, listen,” she says, putting an elbow up on the table and setting her chin in her palm. “I’ll tell you this, ‘cause you’re new to this town, and you ain’t really got a clue how it works yet.”

The way she says it is like she’s doing him a favor, but given the trajectory of the conversation, Stern thinks she’s probably not. “What do I need to know?” he asks, studying the scabbed over cuts on her cheek. He would say they look like a cats, but the angle and the pattern is rather distinctly human.

“Nobody in Kepler really believes in all that cryptid stuff,” she says, her lips curling ever so slightly into the ghost of a sneer, or maybe a smile. “It’s great business, particularly if you’re a good salesman, which Ned is. When he bothers to turn it on. That man could sell a dildo to a nun, when he tries.” The turn of phrase startles a smile out of Stern, which he quickly smothers. She smiles back at him, charming, and she called Ned Chicane the businessman, but he can feel the sales pitch coming. “But it ain’t real, none of it. Kirby and Ned don’t even believe in it, and they run the Cryptonomica. You can ask ‘em. Ned will feed you his usual line of garbage, and Kirby will bluster about the research and the history of it all, sure, but neither of them think it’s real. It’s all just business.”

“Is that what it is?” Stern asks, perfectly pleasant and not quite believing, and yeah, that was her sale, because her eyes go hard and he can feel the buried threat pulsing out of her like heat from a broken limb, but she covers that up almost as soon as he feels it.

“There are no monsters in Kepler, Agent Stern. There never have been,” she says, smiling, and if he hadn’t been watching her so close, he would believe it was genuine. “This ain’t The X-Files, because if it were, you’d be Agent Scully, I’d be much happier to have this conversation, and I’d probably be anglin’ for a date. Gillian Anderson is one hell of a woman,” she laughs.

Stern’s eye twitches again. “So how did you get injured, Mrs…?”

She shakes her head. “Call me Mama. Everybody does. And sometimes I help out down at the wildlife rehab place,” Mama says, tapping at the gouges on her cheek. “My good friend Marla runs it, and ever since her husband broke his back she’s been hard up for some muscle. And as for the rest…” she shrugs. “I work with wood and I’m a klutz. Things happen.” She stands up, claps him on the shoulder. He braces for it, but the touch is normal, not the threat he’d expected. “I hope you enjoy your stay at Amnesty Lodge, Agent Stern. Let Barclay know if you need anythin’. I barely know where the towels are, I won’t be any help.”

She smiles at him, and then limps away.

Barclay intercepts her in the hallway practically quivering with nerves and frustration. “Mama, what the hell did I just see you just do?”

Mama pulls him into her office, shutting the door behind them. “Relax,” she tells him. “I know what I’m doin’.”

Barclay rubs his temples. “Knowing what you’re doing is purposely provoking an FBI agent now?”

Mama shrugs, limping over to sit down in her desk chair. “If he’s mad at me and investigatin’ me, he can’t be spendin’ too much time investigatin’ you, or any of the other residents. No matter how rock solid we’re sure your identities are to the local police, the FBI is a whole different animal. It’s safer to let me be his suspect, because I ain’t got any secrets. Let me keep the heat off of y’all,” she tells him. “I’ll be fine. Now relax.”

Barclay worries his bottom lip between his teeth. “Dinner’s gonna be at six,” he says, opening the door and stepping back out into the hall. “Don’t be late.”

Back in the lobby, Stern pulls out his notebook and writes Kepler Wildlife Rehab - call Marla in the to-do section, then flips to the suspect list.

Mama, he writes. Find real name.