“- a bit unorthodox in our hiring process,” the woman leading him around- Mara, Ethan thinks she said- explains. “Sometimes we really do need a specific position, but usually Mr. Blackwood prefers to hire people who fit the Institute overall and then find a suitable position for them, based on skills and personality.”
“And that works?”
“It seems to. I applied and interviewed for an accounting position, but I was hired into HR. I have a knack for reading people, apparently. I’ve been Hiring Manager for seven years now, and all my chosen hires in that time are still with the Institute.”
“That’s- impressive,” he says, which it is. It also seems highly improbable.
“Thank you! So, this is the Research Department. They investigate new statements and track our various active projects.” They haven’t been through much of the building yet, but this is definitely the most active area so far. Louder, certainly, with a chaotic energy that seems to work for everyone there, though Ethan thinks he’d much rather get the library position he actually applied for. It’s a bit much.
“Oi, Mara,” someone calls, though it’s hard to tell where exactly it came from. Someone else yells about “another bug person”, and there are a lot of calls of “not it.” Eventually one guy, probably late twenties, emerges. “New guy?”
“A likely candidate, I think,” Mara says with a touch of smug pride. “This is Ethan. I’m showing him around a bit before he meets with Martin.”
“Weaver or Watcher?” Ethan doesn’t ask, but he makes another mental note and tags it onto the growing list of strange things about the Institute. There’s something weird about this place, and he has his guesses, but so far he’s determined to piece it together himself.
“Watcher, almost definitely.”
“I honestly can’t tell. Forsaken, maybe, but he really might just have the one.” That, at least, rings some bells, and if he’s right, then there’s no way. His mum would never stand for that.
“Well, I’m not going to bet against you. I’m Mike,” he says to Ethan and offers a hand, which Ethan takes. “If that dumbass Mick in Artefact Storage tells you he’s Mike, don’t listen to him. I have seniority.”
“Technically, Michael has seniority,” Mara says, then as an aside to Ethan, “Michael is our night receptionist. He’s been here like thirty years, I think.”
“He’s also ancient and answers only to Michael, which means I still get first rights to Mike. Anyway, nice to meet you, but I need to get back before someone tries to put this roach statement on my desk. Find me someone we can send into the hive, next, Mara.” She waves him off.
“There are three Michaels here?” Ethan asks as Mara leads him back into the quieter hallways.
“Five, actually. Michael, Mike, Mick, Kelly, and Em, with the honorary sixth, Michelle. I can only claim responsibility for Kelly. The rest are not my fault.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“As you should. Alright, next stop is Artefact Storage. So, I know you said you knew about the Institute before applying; what brought you to us?”
“Oh, uh- My mum kind of raised me and my brother on scary stories. I was never really sure why, since mostly I don’t think she really liked them. My brother wasn’t a big fan either, but I loved them. When I was little, Mum used to listen to this old podcast, What the Ghost?, and I absolutely loved it. I kind of forgot about it, though, until my first year at Uni when my roommate apparently discovered it. The creator made another podcast-”
“The Observer Chronicles, yeah! A bit hokey for a horror podcast, but I guess that was kind of Georgie Barker’s thing? I’m sure it was pretty well-known here when it first came out, but that was, what, twenty years ago? It made its rounds again here not long after I started when someone donated the entire podcast on cassette tapes.”
“Yeah. Since you brought it up, I’m assuming you’ve read the theory that it’s about this place. Rumour is Georgie herself donated them as a prank. If you ask Martin, the Archivist still complains about it sometimes. Right, here we are.” Mara stops in front of what looks to be a reinforced metal door with an old hazmat sign painted on. She taps some vaguely-familiar rhythm out and after a moment the door creaks open just a sliver.
“Password?” someone croaks. Mara looks at Ethan and rolls her eyes.
“My eyes are my own.”
“Mara Saraki and guest.”
“Do you swear not to touch any artefact without express permission of Artefact Storage personnel?”
“I do,” Mara says, and nudges Ethan so he does as well.
“Very well, you may enter. Remember there is no access to any but the first room without an escort.” Slowly, the door creaks all the way open and Mara leads him into a small office area. It’s so dimly lit, he can hardly tell objects from shadows, and the only clear thing is a pale, almost skeletal face that closes the door behind them and bolts three separate locks.
“Not used to seeing you on days, Greg,” Mara says, pleasant despite the new man’s scowl.
“Ali’s kids are sick and Senna’s off in South America for her honeymoon. I drew the short straw because I don’t cheat. It’s bright and terrible and I’m going to murder Steph in her sleep.”
“That’s fair. Can you give me a week to line up a replacement?”
“I promise nothing.”
“Right, well, I’ll be sure to keep this quick,” she promises. “If you want to just stay in here with the door cracked, we’ll stand right inside.”
“… Within arm’s reach?”
“Absolutely.” Greg grunts.
“No more than five minutes.”
“That’s plenty, thank you.”
The first room of Artefact Storage is fairly open. There are a few large pieces of furniture, all roped off just out of easy reach, and a number of shelves with a very odd assortment of objects on them.
“So, first room, as you might have guessed, is for dormant or relatively harmless items. It’s the room we use to show off for investors and seem impressive. Second room, through that door, is pretty much a DMZ. It’s for items that have been found or donated that haven’t been classified or confirmed as artefacts yet. Past that are another two rooms for the progressively more dangerous artefacts, as well as three small rooms off the fourth for the books.”
“Yeah, we do our best to keep the books with powers out of the library. The Old Guard still call them ‘Leitners’ even though we haven’t actually found one with a Leitner plate in like a decade. It’s a shame, really. A stupid idea, collecting them, but it did used to make them easy to ID.”
“… Right,” Ethan agrees, like any of that made sense.
“Anyway, there’s always at least two people here at any given time, one to guard the door, the other to monitor the artefacts. Practical research is only allowed if there are at least three people on shift. Mick is probably doing rounds, since Greg’s up here and the others are out.”
There’s music coming from further in, so distant and muffled it can barely be heard, but there’s something so familiar about it. If Ethan could just get a bit closer, maybe he could remember where he’s heard it before. He takes a single step forward, and there’s a tight grip on his arm.
“That’s our cue,” Mara says, and pulls him back out the way they came. Once they’re back in the hallway, the heavy door locking behind them, she checks her watch. “So, next would be the library, but there’s only half an hour before your meeting and Sasha’s still here, so I’m not confident we’d find our way out in time. Speaking of which, the library is only one story, so if you see any stairs in there, don’t take them. Anyway, we’ll go down to the first floor instead and maybe get a cup of tea or something while we wait.”
As they pass Reception toward the canteen, a loud, terrified scream rings through the open area, with no apparent cause until a minute or so later when a man comes running through, nearly barrelling over Ethan as he scrambles for the front door. As soon as he’s gone, another voice fills the space, clearly irritated.
“Martin! Martin!” A man stalks past, maybe mid-forties, thin with streaks of grey through his dark hair. He’s carrying something, held out in front of him, though Ethan can’t see what through his grip on it. “That statement was not complete yet, Martin! I don’t care how hungry you are, control your pest!”
“Sorry! Sorry, love. I thought she was still in my office,” another man says, maybe the same age or a little younger, coming from the door bearing a plaque that says “Martin Blackwood, Institute Head.” Very gently, he takes what appears to be a tarantula from the angry man. “She’s still mostly spider. She doesn’t know any better.”
Martin, Ethan assumes, disappears back into the office with his arachnid while the other looks to the front doors and sighs. He takes two steps back to knock loudly on a bright yellow door that Ethan hadn’t noticed until now.
“Sasha, hurry up. Tim is waiting for you.”
Two seconds later, the door flies open and Sasha, a tall woman in her late 20s, rushes out. “Why didn’t you tell me it was Thursday?!”
“When would I have done that? I haven’t seen you today.” Sasha scoffs, pulling on a jacket and running for the door where a handsome man, probably somewhere in his 60s, is waiting. When Ethan looks back, the yellow door is gone.
“Good morning, Jon,” Mara greets, and Ethan does a double-take.
“It was,” Jon grumbles. “Hello, Mara. How’s your grandmother?”
“Still on the oversight committee, terrifying surgeons. They tried making her retire again, but she wasn’t having it. Eighty-four years old and she doesn’t look a day over sixty.” Mara smiles slyly. “But you know that.”
“I’ve learned people still appreciate being asked. Speaking of which-” He looks at Ethan.
“Right! Ethan is interviewing with Martin today. Ethan, this is Jonathan Blackwood, the Archivist. Jon, this is Ethan Hearne.”
Ethan offers his hand, and notes a tattoo of an eye of the back of Jon’s when he shakes it. The way Jon looks at him makes Ethan feel disconcertingly Seen, but that’s not entirely unexpected.
“He’s definitely going to be on your side of things,” Mara continues. “Dare I say, he might even do well in the Archives.”
“It’s been a long time since I had an assistant,” Jon says, though whether that’s meant as encouragement or denial it’s impossible to tell. His next comment is very clearly aimed at Ethan. “Your mother never married, then. You have her name.”
“No, sir,” Ethan confirms. “My dad wasn’t around much, and he died not long after my brother was born. She told me to tell you ‘Hi’ from her, if I met you. It’s been a long time, she said, but she was sure you’d still be here.”
“She’s well, then.” Ethan wonders if Jon already knows this, too.
“Her health hasn’t been great lately, but she’s strong, and she’s got a good support network.”
The other man, Martin, returns and Jon bumps their shoulders together.
“Martin, you didn’t tell me you were going to be interviewing Naomi’s son,” Jon scolds.
“Did I need to?” Jon rolls his eyes, then looks Ethan over once more.
“Ethan, it was good to meet you. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you soon. Martin, you owe me lunch.”
“Yes, love.” They kiss and Jon walks away. Martin stares after him adoringly until he disappears back down a stairwell, then he turns to Ethan and smiles, holding out a hand to shake. “Ethan, I’m Martin Blackwood. I’m ready now, if you’d like to come into my office. Thank you, Mara.”
“I think so?”
“Are you asking me?”
“No, I… Yes, I’m ready, if you are.”
“I think we are… Jon?”
“Yes. Statement of Martin Blackwood, Head of the Blackwood Institute, and Jonathan Blackwood, the Archivist. Regarding… the death of Jonah Magnus, and their life together.”
There’s a deep breath, and a gathering of static.
“Statement taken direct from subjects, October 18, 2048. Ethan Hearne, Assistant Archivist, recording…