Burning Scarlet
rating: +11+x

One of the most difficult anomalies to fully contain is SCP-186; geographically one of the more expansive sites under Foundation supervision, a full catalogue of weaponry produced during the military engagement is always in-progress. This combined with limited mapping of the area due to its danger makes it a profitable venture for scavengers (or, as they are more affectionately called in the East, Stalkers). Even with tightened security, we are still seeing SCP-186's products trickling into the anomalous and non-anomalous black market.

— Report on Private Trafficking of Anomalies Weaponry, Presented at the International Para-Technology Regulation Forum, 1989

I remember. I return. I see.

1920. Wilson was still President. The Initiative was still kicking. The Foundation wasn't a thing in this hemisphere, no matter how hard they tried to get a foot in the door.

I had gotten to Omaha overnight, almost twenty hours of rail riding and station hopping. From there it was a simple horse ride to Kenning, Nebraska: Population, 1,012, plus two, minus one. County seat of the surrounding country.

Sleep only briefly eluded me. I read in between the twilight hours of waking life. Files, domestic and foreign, scanned across my eyes. I burned them afterwards. I was to meet my contact at the Hendricks mansion, along the road to town: William Underwood, Central Plains Department. Twenty seven, 5'10, 180 pounds, mustached with short, thin hair.

Bill was surrounded by the Sheriff and a couple deputies at the front door of the mansion. It was at least three stories high, surrounded by swaying corn stalks and wandering cattle.

"Agent Crane, I presume?"

I nodded. "Agent Underwood?"

He nodded.

"What's it look like?" I said, handing him a cigarette. I held a match out, and lit it for him. We walked forward into the house. The cops stood aside. One tried to come along. I held up my hand, and he gritted his teeth.

We stepped into the living room. It was spacious, grand, extravagant — obscenely so. Gold embroidery spiraled along various pieces of furniture, paintings and little statues dotted along tables and desks, and carpets whose patterns were too intricate and beautiful to have been made by anyone but the most skilled crafters in India. Our man was on top of one, still bleeding, so much so that it had soaked into most of fabric and was trickling out onto the wooden floor. The right side of his head was gone. Very unclean shot.

"This would be David Hendricks, I presume?"

"Should make you Department Head for that deduction, Mr. Crane."

"Was he a veteran?"

Bill shook his head. "Protective League. Still carried his card with him."

"He still breathing?"

Bill nodded. "I don't think he ever stopped."

The man wheezed. He coughed up blood. Brain matter slushed together into the pool trickling out of the carpet. His one remaining eye slowly, glacially, moved to stare up at me. Bill took a drag of his cigarette and blew smoke into the air. When done, he threw it onto the ground, crushing it into the carpet.

"Sorry about the mess, Mr. Hendricks. You won't mind, will you?" Bill asked. The man didn't respond, only staring. Bill laughed.

"So what is this all about, Mr. Crane? I was told you were coming down cause it had something to do with our European friends?"

"Yes. It's SCP-186."

"The fuck is that?"

"Their anomaly. Their system is strange, I must tell you."

The man wheezed again. His fingers twitched a little.

"Guns from a battlefield. Some locals and adventuring types sift around in the dirt and mud and sell it to anyone with a penchant for the cruel and unusual. Saw one in action myself, once. It wasn't pretty. Heavy occult stuff."

"And one ended up here?"

"I hear some of them are very good at delivering things on time. If you know where to look."

I put my cigarette out in a bowl next to a table near the couch.

"What exactly happened?"

"Maid heard a gunshot. Sleeping Beauty over there was eating dinner in here - I know, a rich guy eating in his living room, but they do it different out here, I guess — and she hears a loud bang. When she goes around screaming for Ms. Beauty, and she found him right here."

"Where did it come from? The shot, I mean."

He pointed towards a small hole in a large glass pane window. The glass hadn't been broken, only melted around the opening. Bits of liquefied glass had dripped and solidified along the ground.

"Did she think the bleeding abnormal?"

"Too busy calling the police to notice, I think. Probably thought he was dead the moment he hit the ground."

"Anyone else notice?"

Bill shook his head. "The Sheriff's the only one."

"Can he be trusted?"

"His name's Parson, and yes, he can. We were in the officer school together. Hates Germans about as much as he hates Reds. He's a good man."

"Was there anyone else who saw anything? Someone suspicious looking?"

"It was a Sunday, Mr. Crane. We're lucky he keeps a maid around or else no one would have noticed until the next day."

That would make things more difficult.

"What about the shooting position - did you find it?"

"Yes. Nothing. Not even a casing."

I nodded, screaming SHIT into the void of my mind. I pushed it down. That was always easy.

"I believe that they can still die from other causes, even after something like this."

Bill nodded.

"I'm surprised you didn't try."

Bill shrugged. "Had more important things to do. Like securing the perimeter."

"Should I do the honors or should you?"

Bill smiled. "My, I thought that the doughboys in Washington wouldn't wanna get their hands dirty."

I didn't respond. I pulled out my knife, and kneeled down. Hendrick's eye widened. For a moment his hands began to move slightly, and the wheezing just grew stronger. I dragged it along his neck. Fresh crimson poured out. His skin went pale.

He stopped wheezing.

We asked for the Sheriff to come in. We let him get a good look at the body. He whistled.

"I presume you put him out of his misery?"

Bill and I nodded.

"Good. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do something like that again."

Parson was tall and young. Clean shaved and well built, a scar on his face from where something cut deep. His presence was felt whether you saw him or not, and he made himself very seen. He pulled his hat off and ran his hair through his brown-black hair.

"Sheriff Parson," I said, "would you come with us?"

He nodded. He turned around towards the front door and opened it a crack.

"Joe, Wilson, go out and help Paul and John-John keep the crowd from getting him. The rest of you cover the back entrances. No peaking either, and keep everyone out."

Even from the other side of the room, I could hear one pip up. "How rough are we allowed to get with them, sir?"

"As much as you need, son."

I'm sure that boy was smiling.

Parson closed the door and turned to us. We walked up to the second floor, towards a balcony overlooking his large farm. It was noon, harsh summer light warming me against the wind. No one was working the corn fields or feeding the cattle. From up here I could see a couple people congregating at the large iron gate near the road, at the entrance of the farm. It was only about twenty or so feet away.

I asked him if he had any kin.

"A boy in New York. A writer, I think. Nebraska weren't his destiny, is what he said. At least what Mr. Hendricks told me."

"Do you think he could have done it? Maybe an inheritance play? Not uncommon in my line of work," said Bill, lighting of up another cigarette.

Parson shook his head. "Boy could barely kill a deer, from what I was told."

"Even through other parties?" I interjected.

"Nah, even that is too steep. Plus, he's rich enough as it is. Half the reason he lives there is for some rich flapper."

"Any enemies?" I asked.

"None I can recall."

"Are you sure?"

"I got some ideas."

"Such as?"

"You don't get rich without stepping on some toes."


"He has the majority stake in the Bank, along with Mr. Fisher and Mr. Sawyer. He owns a supply store. Half the farmers are in debt to him. The other half are about to be. He's in court with a couple speculators. I think he's got some oil land out a couple counties over. I can't imagine anyone who'd hate him bad enough to kill him, though."

"He ever do anything that may make someone want to?"

"Nope. Kept his nose clean. Hell, he was my Sunday School preacher a little ways back when."

I nodded. Bill interjected.

"Does he have any bad blood with the dead?"

"You think it's a family thing?"

"Perhaps, Harry. You never know how deep these things can go. Especially among hicks."

"I won't have you bad mouthing my constituents," he said, laughing.

They kept talking. I was looking out over the balcony, on to the winding dirt road just outside the gate, and I saw a woman. I wouldn't have noticed her at all, if she hadn't been wearing all black. She was walking along the road, the one I believed would go into town. She limped along, but just a little. If you weren't looking you wouldn't have noticed it at all. Occasionally, she'd stop, and look back at the mansion. I could not get a good look at her face. For some reason I couldn't take my eyes off her.

Bill and Parsons continued talking. They went through the same line of reasoning. As they talked, I kept staring at the woman and thinking about the guns. I saw the liquid glass pouring out of the hole, the obliterated face, flames pouring forth like a snake, clanking chains, weeping deutschen Jungs — sensations I had hoped not to feel again.

Suddenly, she turned around. I saw her face now. At this angle the black veil covered her eyes, but I could see her lips. She was smiling.

I got up. They stopped talking.

"Crane?" Bill asked, annoyed. I had interrupted something, apparently.

"You talk to the Sheriff. I'm going into town."

"For what?"

"Cigarettes. I'll meet you at the sheriff's office in an hour."

I didn't stay to look at their faces.

It wasn't a total lie. I expected to see her in town. At least, that's what I kept telling myself. It was maybe more wishful thinking than anything else.

I went into the general store. The man greeted me kindly. I put a buck on the counter and asked for matches and cigarettes. I exited, and looked around. Men and women crowded the porches along both sides of the towns streets. I walked a little ways down the street, trying to be unnoticeable. I was looking for the black veiled woman. I was convinced she had something to do with it.

In between, I kept looking for good spots for privacy. Alleys didn't work, too open, too visible. Outskirts: that was where the best place to do it was. I'd didn't want to do it in my hotel room.

It was a five minute walk. The town had three parallel streets, all connected by a horizonal street that ran through. To the west there was a forest, still untamed but not for long, as the east side was building another street, with skeletal buildings and working men meandering like ants to get their jobs done. I decided the forest would do.

I made my way down the horizontal street. The forest would do.

I then went down a small alley, making sure to not attract notice. No one did. They were too busy jabbering to each other. In the five minutes to the outskirts, which I could see even from the general store porch, I had heard that he had been savagely beaten, that it had been a lovers quarrel, that it had been suicide, that it had been a Red-Prussian spy hell bent on imposing free love and anarchism on their town, on and on down a list of various half truths and fabrications and barely coherent memories mixing together, circling the middle of town like water down a drain.

I found myself behind a building. Dust path ended there. Only forest in front of me. I stepped aside, back facing the wall. I pulled out the cigarettes. I pulled one out. I looked one more time. I put it back in and pulled out the matches. I lit one, and stared, and thought.

There weren't any leads. Nothing substantial, anyway.

I hoped that wasn't entirely true.

The black veiled lady's smile appeared again.


I threw the match down and crushed it beneath my boot. I took out another and lit it.

Smile. Black veil. Facing away. Walking away. Meaningless connections that screamed to be reunited like pieces of a puzzle. I tried to make them fit but there wasn't any string to do that.


Another match thrown and crushed, another removed and lit.

Background. Dates, positions, numbers, connections.

Oil fields out west - where? Who runs them? General store — Mr. Fisher, Mr. Sawyer — eliminating a thorny business partner? Farmers, pissed, angry, saddled with low crop prices and heavy interest, one decides to make use of his hunting skills for something a little bigger.

Each had problems - why need a gun like that? A normal gun would suffice. What purpose except to hurt? Perhaps bad blood enmeshed itself into the rational, and Mr. Hendricks had to hurt, had to suffer, for what he had done.

I closed my eyes for a moment. I knew that feeling. Knew it all too well, tugging at my back and clawing its way down along my spine, tingling at the base and wanting to squirm its way in. The need to hurt. The need to punish.

But why that gun? Why that place? And how did he get it? Who did it?

Black veil. Smile. Limp.

She was the key. I knew it, somehow. Overwhelming confidence founded upon an edifice of profound self doubt. I had been wrong before. I would be wrong again, perhaps. But I would have to trust my gut. Rationality followed instinct, clearing its mess, despite, ironically, the irrationality of it. I knew this. I continued forth regardless.

I opened my eyes. The match was close to my fingers. Match No. 5 was up next, and suddenly I felt like I was being watched.

I did not react. I simply put the match box into my coat, and turned around down the alley. It was best to let your enemy think he's got you. That's when he least expects it.

Three days passed. I read for the first day while Bill interviewed. I accompanied him the next two days to take notes.

Everything about Hendricks I knew from his birth. Born in Nebraska Territory, 1863, Paul Hendricks had come from a well connected Yankee family. Was privately tutored until he was sent East for a proper education in Chicago. Tried getting elected Senator in 1904 by splitting the Republicans in the State Legislature. Failed miserably. Decided that business was more suited to him. Investments went well, cashed out, started investing in Kenning, trying to get it to become the new county seat in 1907. When that didn't work he got the town to secede along with a couple others, and made a fait accompli by liberal use of "political friendships" he had cultivated over the years in the Legislature. Retired in 1916 from investing to become a booster for the town full time.

1917 came, and the war with it. President Wilson needed people like him — respectable, intelligent, efficient. He was appointed to the precinct draft board. From everything I could find from the papers sent to me by the Omaha Department and from Washington, he had done his job well. He could have run for office again, but he declined. Too old, he said.

Suspects were brought up and cast aside. Mr. Fisher and Mr. Sawyer of the General Store were with their families when it happened. Police from western counties sent the word - speculators in court weren't even aware he had died. Locals were the most likely spot. We closed in on some surrounding farmers, but we found nothing. The wealthy ones had nothing but praise for the man. The poor ones said nothing. Regardless, no witnesses, no connections, no leads.

Except one. Our only one.

It was a little boy. Part of the Granger family, little ways outside of town. He had been playing in the woods at the edge of Hendrick's corn fields. He had been playing soldier, using his imagination to fight and kill Huns. He had been on his belly, firing at a peaking squirrel with his stick when he heard the pounding of hooves and looked up.

For a moment, the boy looked pale, remembering the incident. Bill looked at his watch. I elbowed him. I told the boy to continue when he felt ready.

"I saw a man. On a big horse. He looked old."

"Anything that sticks out in your mind?"

The boy furrowed his brow. "He…he was wearing one of those things, the things that outlaws wear to hide their mouths. And…and he had black hair! And his horse was big. It was white. And he was pointing a big gun at me."

The boy's knee was shaking. The Mrs. Granger, who had been sitting beside him the entire time, grabbed his knee, and whispered something into his ear. The boy looked up at her and nodded.

"I…I think he was just scared. He put it down. He looked sad."

"Did you get a good look at this gun, son?"

The boy looked a little confused.

"It just looked like a gun."

"Would you be okay with showing us where you saw him?"

He looked to his mom. She nodded.

"Y-Yeah. But only if mommy and daddy come."

We followed him into the woods, surrounded by five deputies and the sheriff on horseback. We came to the spot, and through the trees and bushes and grass I could see little imprints on the earth. We had found something.

"You were a brave kid, for coming along to show us," I said, trying to make him smile. He tried to smile through the discomfort. I gave him five bucks for a treat - much to the chagrin of his parents. I would put it on my expenses fund.

We followed it, slowly, making sure to not miss a step. We were heading deeper into the woods. This place was so much bigger than the one near the town. Untamed and teeming with life. But even so we could see many fields of many different farmers. We could rule them out, at least for now, as long as the trail kept going.

But it did stop. We came over a little hill, and suddenly, I could hear the rushing of water, and my heart sank. Bill got over it first, and I heard him scream.


"What is it, Mr. Underwood?" screamed the sheriff, a little further behind to stay with his deputies.

I got over. It was a river, a relatively big one but shallow nonetheless. It went down hill and slowly began to taper off into several directions, ending at someplace, somewhere. That was irrelevant. I looked down at the trail and saw that it stopped at the edge of the water.

"He used the river to cover his tracks," I yelled back.

We combed along the river, trying to find any sign of horse tracks. We found nothing, at least nothing that we could say was definitively made by a horse. It had run cold.

We were back to square one.

I lit matches behind the hotel at night. I stared and thought.

I asked Parson about the black veiled lady I saw that day. When he replied, "Which one?", I said one with a slight limp.

"Oh, Widow Perkins. She lives off her first husband's war pension. Second one died during the flu."

"Is that why she's wearing black?"

"No, its on account of her son. Died in the army. A shame, he was a good kid."

I kept that in the back of my mind. I worked on the job during the day and went back through the county papers and records at night for an obituary. Found one for the first husband, 'Colonel Hanlon', a Civil War veteran of modest note. He was survived by a 'Jane Hanlon an Charles Hanlon'. Second husband, George Perkins, was even more sparse, only listing him as a farmer. I searched for anything about her son, perhaps some connection, some commonality to link the two of us together. I found nothing.

I learned her address. I learned that the debts transferred from her second husband to her. I learned she had been selling off her land, piece by piece, from the advertisements in the paper: GOOD LAND, LIMITED TIME. That was the end of it. No personality, no narrative. Only shadows of the past laid in ink.

It felt like a bust. I wanted to rule her out, but I kept returning to the smile, the soft, pretty smile.

I pushed it down and kept working.

Only me, Bill, and Sheriff Parson knew the truth of what happened at Hendricks mansion. Parson was uncomfortably accepting of the implications that the paranormal had on his world, on his people. A bullet that could do that, from a gun in the hands of a murderer, seemed to not bother him.

We made the Sheriff's office our office too. He was more than welcoming, perhaps too welcoming, with how much he seemed to pour himself into the work. Whenever he asked for a document, Bill gave it to him. I tried talking to Bill about it, in between puffs of smoke on the walk back to the hotel, on the third night.

"Trust me, he's far from a squealer," he said, grinning through his cigarette. "Besides, even if he does, so what? Let the man have his fun. Got nothing better going on around here aside from drinking and hunting."

"You know the rules."

"I know my rights."

"To spill secrets?"

He winked. "If it's in my country's interest, anything is permitted. Encouraged, even."

I slept that third night with the familiar flames surrounding me. I fell into it, falling into in the black empty void of nothing that extended into infinity as I did so. I felt euphoria, as it touched me, traveling up me in spirals, wrapping around my body like a snake until everything is burning. My flesh was melting off my skin, and I liked it, liked the way it hurt and liked the way it purified me and cleansed me of the weakness that surrounded my soul. Suddenly I heard shuffling feet and suddenly a hundred men in uniforms looked up at me from below, looking, watching, terrified, and it was then I realized I could kill them if I wanted to, and no one could stop me, and that thought terrified me in ways I could never describe.

Suddenly, I was no longer above them but now eye-to-eye. I looked around, twirling, and faces mixed and morphed in the void, gelatinously slushing around. Foreheads and noses and eyes circled together into one big mass of face-flesh, bulging and alive. They were all smiling, her smile, and the mouths began to open, but only banging came out, and the eyes were now Bill's eyes, staring, moving, watching, thousands, thousands, thousands, big, blue orbs that seemed to grow wider and wider until —

And then suddenly, I was out of it. I felt myself being shaked, and I could see up at the ceiling. Bill was leaning over me, holding my shoulders. I was cold from the sweat. The sun was barely out, the phantom remnants of night slowly creeping away. For a moment I thought I was still on fire, and that I was burning him. It took a moment to look down at my hands to convince myself that what I was experiencing was real.

Bill snapped his fingers, getting my attention.

"Wake up — we got another dead guy on our hands."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License