I was invited to come to Ong’s Hat by an innocuous-looking man in a grey suit who took me to lunch at the best steakhouse in Georgetown. The innocuous-looking man (who had personally engineered two coups in Latin America) warned me that Ong’s Hat was a dangerous place. I reminded him that I’d been in lots of dangerous places. That’s not bragging; it’s a fact.
“Not like this one,” he said. He ordered the prime rib from the waiter who had silently appeared at his elbow.
I said I’d have the filet mignon, medium rare.
“Get the fiddleheads. They’re only in season for a short time and I know how much you like them,” the innocuous-looking man urged.
This was one of his little games. There was seemingly no way he could have known that I have a fondness for the tender young fronds of the edible ferns that look like the scroll on the neck of a violin, but somehow he did. Maybe it was in my dossier, along with dozens of other seemingly inconsequential details about me, including the fact that my thumbs are double-jointed and that I’d once owned a hamster named Meatball.
I decided not to give him the satisfaction of asking him how he knew I like fiddleheads. Instead I asked him where Ong’s Hat was. He said it was in New Jersey, way down in the southern part of the state where there are towns with odd names like Bivalve and Ship Bottom. I said I’d go; it would probably be my last posting before I retired.
Anyone watching us, a pleasant-faced man in his late forties and a dignified, grey-haired woman perhaps a decade older, sedately enjoying a convivial meal together, might have taken us for coworkers at some government agency. In that they would have been correct. They wouldn’t have heard of the agency that we worked for (very few people have) and they would have been highly surprised to learn what kind of work goes on there.
The Outfit is what we call our agency, although it has another, boring-sounding name in the records of the Government Accounting Office, which lists us as being part of the Department of Agriculture, of all things. We kept our existence on the down low. Not more than two dozen people outside the Outfit know it exists. The current president is not one of them.
Much of our work fell under the description of what is loosely called “intelligence” but what you’d call espionage. I’d been with the Outfit for over three decades. In East Berlin I was known as Frederika Chamov. I worked in a tobacconist’s on Ernst Thalmann Platz, selling packs of Inka, Karo and Juwel cigarettes that practically flew off the shelves. (The East Germans were enthusiastic smokers, bless their oppressed little hearts.) I also did a little bit of this and a little bit of that for Uncle Sam while I was there and got shot in the back as a result. Twice.
In London I was known as Millicent Fenton. I worked in the Barbican Library and had a nice little flat above a stationer’s on Chiswell Street. Nobody shot me during my time there, although I did make two people permanently disappear. I spent time in other places where I had other names but now I go by Mamie Outwater, the name my parents gave me when I was born, way back in 1954.
Not many people who do what I did for as many years as I did it live to enjoy their sunset years. I planned to make Ong’s Hat my last stop before collecting my pension and retiring to my condominium in Puerto Rico.
What’s in Ong’s Hat? On the surface, not much. It’s located deep in the Pine Barrens, the heavily forested, largely uninhabited area that is the stomping grounds of the legendary Jersey Devil. There are a few ramshackle houses and a squalid little convenience store out on Route 72 where you can buy lottery tickets and the kind of food that you eat only if you’re desperate. The Donner party might have thought long and hard before consuming the shriveled, bright red hot dogs that were sold there.
Six different kinds of snakes make their homes in the vicinity, including the venomous timber rattler. There are black bears and a thriving population of wolf spiders. Those look a lot like tarantulas. If you shine a flashlight on a cluster of them at night, their eyes light up like eldritch candles.
There’s also a secret underground government base staffed by scientists who monitor the periodic strangeness that occurs in Ong’s Hat. Most of them were perfectly nice people, but as the innocuous-looking man in the grey suit pointed out, they were eggheads, and eggheads generally have no idea how to react when the shit hits the fan. They tend to stand there like statues, rooted in horror as all hell breaks loose around them. People like me know instinctively what to do when TSHTF. That’s why I was there, as a safeguard, just in case things suddenly went sideways.
On the day that things went sideways, I was working in the Ding Dong Deli, the wretched little convenience store on Route 72 that’s owned and operated by the Outfit. The Ding Dong is a horrible deli but it’s a good lookout post. If any strangers come into Ong’s Hat, the only paved road takes them right past our door. They either stop in to buy something or we send somebody to discretely follow them to make sure they don’t go poking their noses where they don’t belong.
I was restocking the air freshener display up by the checkout counter. The air fresheners we sold weren’t the kind that are shaped like little pine trees. We sold an off-brand called Scent-U-Al that were imprinted with the outline of a recumbent, well-endowed woman. The best you could say about them was that they were cheap and pungent.
“Smell this one,” I said to Kurt Grau, who was helping me.
“Disgusting,” said Kurt, taking a sniff and wrinkling his nose.
“It’s called Big Pimpin’,” I told him. I dug through the box and unearthed one called After Party. “This one smells even worse. Smell it,” I invited Kurt.
“No thank you. I do not wish to smell it,” he replied. Kurt has a heavy German accent and speaks in a slow, deliberate way reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his role as the Terminator.
“These air fresheners all have names that sound like brands of heroin,” I said.
Kurt replied that he did not take heroin. “It is a bad drug. I drink the beer. I smoke the tobacco, but I do not take the drugs,” he rumbled.
I said that was very wise of him. If you’re thinking that Kurt sounds like he’s not the cleverest mouse in the maze, you’re wrong. Kurt is plenty smart. He’s been around Ong’s Hat longer than anyone, longer even than Bill Lightner, who was in charge of the team of scientists and had been there since 1994. Kurt has been at Ong’s Hat (in a manner of speaking) since 1778, when he was a Hessian soldier fighting in the Revolutionary War.
Kurt’s story of what happened to him one night in September of 1778 is weird, even for Ong’s Hat. He woke up in the tent that he shared with six other soldiers feeling an urgent need to urinate. He quietly crept outside so as not to disturb his sleeping comrades and walked a little way into the woods. The next thing he knew, he was stepping out of the woods, buttoning up his breeches, but everything had changed. The Hessian encampment was gone. There was nobody around, nobody that he could see, anyway. He stood there in shock, looking wildly around, trying to figure out what had happened.
“Uh-oh,” said Pierce Morrison, the young man who was seated in our underground base, watching the surveillance monitors. He thumbed the intercom and buzzed me where I was catching forty winks in the bunkroom in the back. “Mamie, get out here. We’ve got a visitor and you won’t believe what he’s wearing.”
I came out and leaned over Pierce’s shoulder to look at the monitor. The man in the clearing was turning around in circles, a confused expression on his big, broad face. He wore a pointy hat, a blue coat with some sort of military insignia on it, and white knee breeches. “He’s dressed like a Hessian,” I said, surprised. My father was a Revolutionary War enthusiast. He insisted on sharing his hobby with the rest of the family, relentlessly dragging us all over the Eastern Seaboard to look at battlegrounds and museums, where the most exciting item on display might be a rusted cannonball, or a dented pewter tankard.
Thanks to Dad, I knew a Hessian when I saw one.
I told Pierce I’d go out and talk to him. I went up the winding metal staircase, popped the hatch that led to the surface, and climbed out. I could see the man about thirty paces in front of me. I cleared my throat when I was about six feet behind him.
“Guten Abend,” I said. “Wie geht es Ihnen?”
He spun around. “Es geht mir schlecht,” he said, looking absolutely miserable. (I’m not doing well.) “Please,” he said, “tell me please where am I? My name is Kurt Grau, fusilier of the Second Regiment, Ansbach-Bayreuth. I am lost, but I cannot see how that can be. I went a little way only into the forest to make water. Now my encampment is gone. My friends all are gone. What has happened?”
He was in for a rude awakening, poor guy. I told him to come with me and I’d explain. Down through the hatch we went. Kurt looked around in amazement. It was quite an extensive place there, underground. It had capacious rooms filled with computer monitors and surveillance equipment and scientific devices whose uses I didn’t remotely begin to understand. Kurt took in all the video screens and the banks of multi-colored flashing lights and Pierce, who was seated in a black leather Aeron desk chair drinking a Red Bull, and gasped.
“Mein Gott!” he said.
Pierce pushed a rolling chair in his direction. He said, “Sit down, buddy.”
I told Kurt the truth, as far as I understood it. Science is not my forté and the science behind what went on at Ong’s Hat was completely incomprehensible to me. To put it simply, Ong’s Hat contains openings to other places, some of which are nowhere on earth. The scientists called them gates. The underground base was established to keep watch on these gates and to try and keep nasty things from slithering out by using the scientific equipment to slam the gates shut whenever one popped open. In a way, it was like the arcade game called Whac-A-Mole.
I told Kurt he’d inadvertently stepped through a sort of gate back in 1778, when he’d gone into the woods to pee. It led into the year 2012, where we were now. The gate had shut behind him, and unfortunately there would be no going back.
“This man and I work here,” I said, indicating Pierce, who smiled cheerfully at him. “His name is Pierce Morrison. My name is Mamie Outwater. We are among the guardians of this place.”
“So, I bet you want to know who won the war,” Pierce said chummily to Kurt in German.
Kurt morosely replied that he didn’t care. He was still taking in the fact that all his friends and family were dead and had been for two centuries.
“The British lost. That’s good news, right? You guys didn’t like them much, did you?” Pierce said.
No, Kurt said, he didn’t like the British. They were smug and bossy. “What is to become of me?” he wailed, completely shaken up. Pierce gave him a granola bar and a bottled water and told him not to worry.
A couple of guys from McGuire Air Force Base in Lakehurst came and got him, accompanied by a guy from the Outfit named Sanjay Patel. Sanjay and I were old friends. Kurt was taken to Langley Air Force Base down in Virginia and given a thorough physical and psychological going-over.
“Do you think they’ll let us keep him?” Pierce asked hopefully while we were awaiting word of what was to be done with him. I told him Kurt wasn’t a puppy. He said he knew that. He just felt sorry for him. He was all alone in the world and he seemed like a nice guy. Besides, we could use some extra help at the convenience store.
Bill Lightner made some calls and Kurt was released into our custody. Pierce was there when he was returned, and he asked him how he liked the twenty-first century.
“It is interesting,” Kurt said gravely. “I have ridden in the airplane and the automobile. I have eaten the Big Mac.”
That was two years before the day in the Ding Dong Deli when we were restocking the air fresheners and the man and woman came in complaining that a unicorn had run across the road in front of their car.
They wore expensive-looking hiking gear and took in their surroundings in distaste. That was the usual reaction of people who entered the deli for the first time. Millions of your tax dollars were spent on making it look and smell revolting. The idea was that visitors would be so put off by the Ding Dong that they’d leave Ong’s Hat and never return.
The Ding Dong smelled pretty bad. It’s hard to describe the smell, other than to say that it was like rancid grease with undertones of cat urine and cheap, lilac-scented perfume. This horrible odor was cooked up by chemists at International Flavors & Fragrances in Monmouth County and dispensed through a sophisticated ventilation system. It was a smell that lingered in my clothes and hair, but such were the sacrifices I had to make in the line of duty.
The overhead fluorescent lights had been adjusted so that they buzzed and sputtered fitfully, while the red and green linoleum tile floor was purposely sticky underfoot. The tiles were worn away in places, giving coy glimpses of the stained and pitted concrete subfloor. Fly strips laden with flies swung dispiritedly overhead. As the man and woman looked around, frowning, the coffee maker gurgled like a dying man before grudgingly spitting out a thin stream of foul-tasting brew that no one ever tried twice.
Kurt swung into action upon the arrival of the newcomers. “If you want to use the toilet, you cannot. It is broken,” he growled menacingly.
I neglected to describe Kurt’s appearance, which was deliberately off-putting. He’s big, six-four or six-five, and that day he was dressed in a black leather vest and camouflage pants. He had a way of drawing his brows down over his pale blue eyes and steadily regarding the object of his annoyance from under them that tended to make people uneasy. Various tattoos of flames and skulls and what might be either a surfer’s cross or some kind of skinhead symbol completed the picture that said this was a person who should be avoided at all costs.
I didn’t look much more appealing. My hair was a wild nest of grey roots and purple ends and I wore a tee-shirt with sparkly lettering that proclaimed me to be the world’s sexiest grandma.
I could see the visitors were thinking Oh, my God! They’re Pineys! Pineys are New Jersey’s version of hillbillies.
I told them, “If you need to use the toilet, you can go out back and use the Port-O-John behind the dumpster. Just look out for bears. A bear almost got Kurt, here.”
“That is right,” Kurt solemnly agreed. “A bear almost got me.
“Jesus Christ,” said the man. “Bears, unicorns. This place is crazy.”
“Yes,” the woman confirmed. “We almost hit a unicorn just now.”
Kurt and I looked at each other.
I asked, “Was it a big unicorn?”
The woman grimaced and rubbed her temples. “It was pretty big,” she said.
The man drew a trembling hand across his sweating forehead and said he didn’t feel well. In a gentler tone, Kurt said they should probably turn around and go home. “Okay,” the man said dazedly. “Come on, Lisa. Let’s head back.”
Kurt followed them outside and took note of their license plate number as they pulled out of the parking lot and headed back up Route 72, away from Ong’s Hat. We found out later that they were Michael Cormier and Lisa Cormier Hallenbeck, fraternal twins and avid bird watchers. Michael lived in East Brunswick and Lisa lived in Princeton Junction. They’d come down to the Pine Barrens to do some bird watching and had unwittingly stepped into the pocket of weirdness that surrounds Ong’s Hat. Some people register the weirdness as a mild sense of unease or not-quite-rightness. Others — and these are far more rare — are like Michael and Lisa in that they experience visual hallucinations.
It wasn’t a unicorn that ran in front of their car but an ordinary whitetail deer. Something special about the twins made them see the deer as a unicorn. What was disturbing was the fact that they didn’t appear to find anything unusual about encountering a mythological beast running around loose in New Jersey.
Remember how I mentioned the Jersey Devil earlier? Lots of people have reported seeing it over the centuries. It supposedly stands about three or four feet tall and has a head like a horse, a body like a kangaroo, cloven hooves on its hind legs and bat-like wings. During one week in January 1909, dozens of people reported seeing it flying over their homes or perched on rooftops.
The thing is, the Jersey Devil doesn’t exist. Animals with fur and hooves are mammals and with the exception of bats, mammals can’t fly. Its wings would be too small for a creature that size to fly, unless the creature is a bird, and that’s exactly what it was. What people were seeing were just birds, probably sandhill cranes. They saw an impossible animal because something emanating from Ong’s Hat made them see it, something malign.
What events took place following the Jersey Devil sightings of 1909? Some very disturbing ones, including the murder of the entire congregation of the Leeds Point Baptist Church by the church’s pastor, who served his flock cookies laced with rat poison. Then there was the matron at an orphanage in Burlington County who smothered six of her young charges with a pillow and dozens of stabbings, shootings and acts of arson. None of the people who committed these acts had ever done anything criminal before.
In the years that followed, sightings of the impossible animal in and around the Pine Barrens often portended disaster. And now two people claimed to have seen another impossible animal, this time a unicorn.
I needed to get back to the base and see what was going on. I had an awful feeling that the scientists were monkeying around with those gates that I mentioned earlier and that something bad was about to happen as a result. “Come on,” I told Kurt. We locked up the store, got into Kurt’s truck and drove as far as we could before the crumbling paved road gave out. We walked the rest of the way, Kurt taking long strides and me hurrying to keep up.
I popped the hatch that led to the underground base using a device that looks like a garage door opener. What we found down there ratcheted up the alarm I was feeling to a whole new level. All the scientific instruments that had lights on them were frantically blinking. A group of Bill Lightner’s underlings were standing around, looking puzzled. Bill wasn’t there. He was at a conference in Chicago, leaving a guy named Bob Robertson in charge. Bob was a scientist with a Ph.D. in something or other, but he was primarily a bureaucrat. I hate bureaucrats for the reason that they’re stubbornly unwilling to do anything until the proper forms have been filled out and then passed on to the proper authority for review. Taking quick action was not in Robertson’s nature, which was too bad, because it looked like quick action was exactly what was called for before all hell broke loose.
Bob had chosen to react to the flashing lights by phoning one of the IT people and asking him to come and take a look. The IT guy, he informed me, would be there in about an hour, after he picked his kids up from soccer practice. Bob had a Sudoku puzzle book open on his lap when he said this. I resisted the impulse to hit him over the head with it.
Instead I told him, “Something’s happening. You need to close the gate.”
“I don’t think so,” he said mildly. “It’s just a glitch in the system. Nothing to get excited about.”
That’s when I felt the ground shake. A photograph of a red-haired woman hugging a golden retriever on Bob’s workstation fell over with a clatter.
“Something’s coming. Close the damn gate,” I shouted.
Bob just sat there, fiddling with his Sudoku book.
Kurt resolved the situation by pulling a Beretta compact semiautomatic from the pocket of his camo pants and holding to Bob’s temple. “Close the gate, Herr Doktor,” he ordered. “Do it now.”
Bob leaned over and punched in a code on his keyboard. He grumbled, “This is very unorthodox. There’s nothing wrong. It was only an earth tremor.”
Shooting me a look of intense dislike, he said prissily, “Weeks of work just went down the drain. I’m going to report you for this, you know.”
That was two years ago. Bob did indeed report Kurt and me, although nothing came of it, seeing as how we’d prevented whatever was trying to get out from destroying New Jersey, or at least a good chunk of it. I retired to my condo in Puerto Rico, where I pass the time writing spy thrillers.
My old friend from the Outfit, Sanjay Patel, sent me an envelope recently containing something he found at a garage sale while vacationing with his family in Weston, Vermont. It’s a bumper sticker from the 2012 presidential election in which Hillary Clinton ran for re-election. Her campaign slogan was Let’s Do It Again! Of course she never did it in the first place, not in this version of our world, anyway.
Sometimes when a gate opens in Ong’s Hat, things slip into our world from other versions of reality. They’re usually not physical objects, like the bumper sticker. Sometimes the things that slip in are memories that feel as if they happened but never did, not in this version of our world, at least. The Talking Heads sing about this particular feeling of bewilderment. “How did I get here?” they ask.
That’s a good question. Sometimes, when a gate opens or shuts in Ong’s Hat, reality shifts to a version of our world that is similar to the one we knew before, but not quite the same. If you’ve ever looked at your daughter Madison across the breakfast table and thought, “That’s funny. For a moment there, I could have sworn her name was Mason, and that her eyes were green, not brown,” that’s probably because a gate opened or shut in Ong’s Hat.
If you’re driving to work in your Komodo hatchback, the thought might cross your mind that your car is called a Kia. Then you realize that’s ridiculous. There is no automobile manufacturer by that name.
Here’s what happened to me last week. I was seated at an outdoor café, watching a cruise ship send launches bearing cargoes of sunburned, rum-soaked merrymakers into the harbor. I fell into a conversation with a woman at a nearby table. She said she’d gone on a cruise when she was a little girl with her parents and her grandmother. Her grandmother recalled her father taking her to see the Titanic dock in New York. “Of course that’s impossible,” the woman said. “The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, but she insisted she was there when it came in. That’s funny, isn’t it?”
I agreed that it was.
JILL HAND lives in New Jersey, where she is a real housewife. She is a former newspaper reporter and editor whose work has appeared in Aphelion, Bewildering Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Oddville Press, and Weird N.J.