“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they
knew that they were naked.”—Genesis 3:7
Alphabet Agent carefully steepled his fingers
under his chin, the white cotton of his gloves
barely brushing the white porcelain of his mask.
that we understand each other Professor Astray,
I was hoping you could tell me everything you
know about the Anti-Grail, including, of course,
where I might find it.”
Milan Astray, late of the University of Barcelona,
presently of the Days Inn just off Rt. 40 near
Albuquerque, New Mexico, clutched his freshly
fractured forearm in a bid to keep it immobile,
licked his sun-chapped lips and desperately played
a tautology. A figment of the Medieval mind-set.
If God is perfect His plan is perfect, His universe
is perfect. That perfection, to doctors of the
early Christian church, meant the universe and
everyone and thing in it were symmetrical—balanced.
As above, so below. No heaven without a hell,
no God without a Devil, no Christ without an
Antichrist. So, once the Grail legend had been
in place long enough, its acceptance implied
the legend itself, Professor?” The Alphabet Agent
has a Voice he uses for interviews that makes
him sound exactly like newscaster Peter Jennings,
right down to the slightly Canadian diphthongs.
Some survivors of those interviews have remarked
how this is both soothing and at the same time
really, really creepy.
are endless variations on the legend. The most
common elements have it that at the same moment
Christ was dying on Cavalry, Judas Iscariot was
Astray, sweating profusely, was trying to do
several things at once: to inch closer to his
nylon gym bag lying on the bed, to outline enough
of the legend to sound cooperative without giving
away too many useful facts, and to gauge the
distance between himself and the Alphabet Agent,
which, given the surprising level of violence
the Agent seemed casually capable of rising to,
did not seem to be nearly distance enough.
as the blood of Christ was being collected in
the cup he used at the last supper,” the Professor
continued, “so was someone waiting at the dangling
legs of Judas to catch the…the effluvia that
dribbled from beneath his tunic in the very cup he had
“By effluvia you mean the shit,
the piss, and the jizz—the evacuates common to
a death by hanging?”
Professor Astray, who was not a
native English-speaker or a regular watcher of
the evening news and consequently several stages
removed from the average listeners’ Jennings-awareness
threshold, suddenly tweaked to how very strange
those particular words sounded in that Voice,
and began—quite inadvertently—to dedicate a portion
of his already overworked cerebrum towards identifying
added to his current total, proved to be one
too many things to try and do at the same time
and some subtle signal of his eyes or posture—a
signal that only someone like the Alphabet Agent,
long-trained to look at people in much the same
way a mantis looks at june bugs, would pick up—gave
him completely away.
With a sigh of mild disappointment,
the Agent rose from his chair and crossed to the
bed. “Any speculation on who might have been holding
the cup? That would seem the logical place to start.”
He began calmly to pull clothing and toiletries
out of the bag.
Astray’s body tensed as he contemplated a sudden
lunge at the bag, then relaxed as he checked
himself. “In most of the extant stories—the earliest
of which date to the 14th century—it’s some unnamed
agent of Satan. There are apocryphal tales of
St. Simon Peter or in some cases St. Barnabas
rebuking the holder of the Anti-Grail…”
Professor’s voice trailed off as the Agent pulled
out a Ruger Redhawk .357 Magnum revolver; chrome
finish, cherry wood grip, wide channel feed.
said the Agent, weighing the gun in the palm
of his hand. “Hefty.”
the Professor gave the word a certain mournful,
goat-like quality, “I was scared. Ever since
you nearly caught up to me in Rome I’ve been
weighs a little more than scared,” said the Agent,
shifting the gun so he held it by the grip. “Anything
up to and including thirty-eight caliber I could
go with scared. This here feels more like howling
batshit terrified.” And with that twirled the
gun cowboy-style in a tiny moment of pure nostalgia.
The Alphabet Agent has not carried a firearm—or
has needed to—in many, many years.
Astray was about to reply when, with the suddenness
of a thunderclap out of a clear blue sky, the
subroutine still running in some corner of his
pain-wracked and, yes, batshit terrified brain
at last spat out the answer: Peter Jennings.
Not just any old Canuck, not just kind-of-sort-of-sounds-like,
but hey, this guy’s Voice sounds exactly like
Peter Jennings’. It creeped him out so thoroughly
that the little hairs stood up on the nape of
his neck, and instead of saying anything he just
stood there with his mouth hanging open while
the Alphabet Agent rolled on.
you say you’re afraid of me, though…I
don’t buy it. I mean, I go and break your arm
for you and it still doesn’t scare you enough
to keep you from inching towards this fist-sized-chunk-of-flesh-extractor
here.” With a deft move the Alphabet Agent unchambered
the gun, letting the rounds spill onto the floor.
Noting the blue tips to the bullets he added,
“Mercy, make that cinder-block-sized-chunks.
So. I just really, really have to know. Who are
you afraid of? Or is it what are you afraid
since the fear was the paramount thing in Professor
Astray’s life and had been for the past three
months, one week, and four days since a rather
innocuous phone call from an old colleague had
turned his little academic world inside-out,
having it—the fear—mentioned blasted the Jennings-inspired
unease right out of him. In a very cold, centered
voice he hoped would have the metallic ring of
truth to it, he said, “Listen to me, whoever
you are, the Anti-Grail is wholly and completely
is not the same thing as saying it isn’t real,”
said the Agent. Because of the Voice and the
porcelain mask it was impossible to tell if he
was smirking or not. “That picture of a Super-Bird
on the Denny’s menu—you know Denny’s? The restaurant?”
Professor gave a flummoxed nod. He’d had lunch
at a Denny’s not half an hour earlier. He had
ordered the Super-Bird. And then, on returning
to his hotel room, to his locked hotel
room, he had just closed the door behind him
and thrown his coat over a chair when this man
in the gray trench coat, with the white gloves,
with the bizarre white mask, this man, THE man
who had dogged him across two continents had
calmly stepped out of the bathroom and asked
him the time.
when the Professor had made a move for the door
had just as calmly broken his forearm with a
small metal rod about the size of magic marker.
the Agent rolled on, “that picture of the Super-Bird
isn’t the actual sandwich. It stands for
the sandwich in this one highly contextualized
situation. Just like the word: Super-Bird. Only
the word is another step removed. Just a collection
of sounds in the mouth, of letters on a page.
wait, this is…” the Professor’s specialty was
in Medieval Literature, and his last linguistics
class had been more than 18 years ago. Plus,
he was pretty sure he was going into shock from
his arm. “This is madness. How can something
be a symbol of itself?”
and orders,” said the Agent. “From the thing—the ding
an sich—to the picture to the word to the
idea existing only in the mind.” The Agent’s
words seemed to echo across the room. A room
that seemed to be tilting a bit to the right,
from the Professor’s perspective, just now. “But
there are ideas, and then there are ideas.
Thought-forms completely alien to our human experience.
Powerful enough to channel themselves down the
semantic chain, to scrape a toe-hold in this
don’t…” the room was growing dim in the corners
and the edges. The Agent’s Voice seemed to come
from far, far away as the Professor reached out
with his good hand for support.
The Agent quickly stepped to
his side, guiding the Professor to the bed. “Down
into our world. First as concept, then as legend,
and now it has taken physical form. It has been
in chrysalis since the 14th century, and now it
is getting ready to remake this reality, to rewrite
the source code for our universe.”
Agent elevated the Professor’s feet. “First,
Professor, I’m going to get you some medical
attention. Then, you’re going to help me find
the Anti-Grail, and then together…together we’re
going to do our best to save the world.”
the Professor croaked, his skin pale and waxy.
afraid you’ve little choice.”
the Professor started up with surprising strength,
his head spinning. “Can’t find it without first
uh, yeah, that was kind of what—“
seek a Grail—any Grail—without yourself becoming
changed…it’s what…questing for a Grail does…”
and he would have added more, but he needed at
that exact moment to pass out.
said the Alphabet Agent, to no one in particular.
“I hadn’t really thought about that.”
TO BE CONTINUED…