Belle drove an old, broken down van that couldn’t be coaxed to go over sixty, not even on the highway. It looked as though its body had once been white but now hood and all the doors were different colors. This struck Adrian as an ominous sign; no one who needed that many parts replaced could be a good driver. But he slid into the seat beside the girl anyway and quickly discovered, much to his relief, that she was, in fact, a decent driver.
The inside of the van was even more bizarre than its outer appearance. The control panel was covered with switches and dials, the functions of which Adrian could only guess at. All of the usual utilities, such as a clock or a CD player seemed to have been removed to make room for these strange devices. A barrier sealed off the front of the van from the back but he could hear a veritable menagerie of objects, mainly metallic by the sound, rattling around with every turn.
Goose bumps rose up on the skin of Adrian’s forearms as they drove. It seemed heat control was one of the sacrifices made to create the super-panel. With a shiver, he dug his hands into his pants pockets until his fingers encountered something strange that crinkled in his hand. Pulling it out of his pocket, he realized it was the piece of paper with Belle’s phone number on it.
“I didn’t put this in my pocket,” he told her.
“I know. It’s automatic return paper. It’s impossible to lose.”
“Seriously?” He flipped it over, looking for some indication of what it could do, but it appeared to be nothing more than a ripped corner of notebook paper.
“Yeah,” she hesitated and then rushed into an explanation, “I knew you would probably throw it away or lose it somehow because everyone always does. I also thought you would call before the doppelganger made its move. Why did you wait so long?”
“I don’t know. I guess it didn’t seem real. Like it was just my imagination, or a joke or something.” A kind of mystified feeling came over him as he remembered but he immediately shook it off, he needed to stay focused, “But the real important questions are: What is this organization and what is a doppelganger?”
“A doppelganger is a shape shifting being that can exactly mimic the appearance of almost any person. Their powers are somewhat limited though, because they can’t shape shift into any creature besides a human being and they can’t copy the memory or personality of the person either. They are one of the most difficult creatures to fight,” she frowned at the thought.
“But they must be pretty easy to find. Wouldn’t it be easy to figure out if your friend was replaced by one?”
“Yes, but the problem is that the doppelganger will always try to hide as someone you don’t know; that way you can’t tell. Like you couldn’t tell who the real Eugene Banks was. And their physical copy is so perfect that there really isn’t any way to prove that a person is a doppelganger without knowing them personally.”
“Hmm, but why are they so difficult to kill?” he asked, remembering his many failed attempts on the creature’s life
“In order to shape shift, they need to be able to regenerate rapidly. Their bodies are in a constant state of flux, which allows them to heal themselves. The only way to be sure they’re dead is to either completely destroy the body or to completely destroy all of the organs within. But it must be done quickly and efficiently or else the creature will just regenerate again.”
“And there are more of these things, these doppelgangers, all over the place?”
Belle sighed, “So it seems. We don’t really know how many. Doppelgangers are impossible to track because of their excellent disguises. There could be hundreds, maybe even thousands of them. The hardest part of hunting them is actually finding them first.”
“Right,” Adrian said. He felt like his brain was turning to mush. Nothing made sense. Outside, the van was surrounded by shadow, broken intermittently by streetlights. He had no idea way time it was but felt like he hadn’t slept at all. “And this organization of yours just goes around and hunts these doppelgangers all the time?”
“What? No!” She laughed, as though that were a foolish idea, “We hunt down all kinds of things besides the doppelgangers. We manage the populations of many species so they don’t end up too close to people and try to eat them.”
“Yeah, okay,” he scoffed, “I think if there were a bunch a man-eating monsters running around everyone would know about it by now.”
“Well, by that token, one could also assume that if there were a bunch of government assassins running around killing mild-mannered businessmen everyone would know about it by now,” she said brightly.
He thought for a moment. Maybe she was right. There were more secrets in this world than there were people to keep them. “So what are these other ‘species’ that you ‘manage the populations’ of?”
“The usual. Trolls, vampires, ghouls, dragons, harpies, werewolves, imps, banshees, a few varieties wild and domestic fairies. You know, that kind of thing. We run the gambit on magical creatures. If it’s real, we deal with it.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Adrian said. He could feel a headache coming on. He put his head in his hands and almost fell asleep.
“You might think that” she said with a smile. She had a nice smile, he noticed groggily, “but I don’t see how. You’ve already fought one of them.”
Adrian mumbled something, vaguely agreeing with her. She seemed like a cheery person when not dealing with man-eating monsters. He couldn’t decide if this was a good thing though.
“It doesn’t matter anyway because we’re here now,” she told him.
Adrian looked up, surprised. They hadn’t been driving for more than thirty minutes. They hadn’t even left the city. The building Belle was parked in front of looked like a large, up-scale apartment complex in one of the nicest parts of town. Despite the early hour, several rooms had lights on, twinkling in the sky like enormous stars. The building looked normal, as did the neighborhood. There was no way an organization dedicated to fighting evil monsters could plant itself in a place like this. But Belle led the way to the ritzy glass door, through which he could see a lobby, upholstered in red and filled with people in suits and dresses. It looked more like a lobby you would see in a hotel or a restaurant, rather than an apartment building. Adrian hesitated as he watched the people walk around and drink champagne. Even as tired as he was, he knew what he was seeing was strange. Belle rolled her eyes at the scene as she unlocked the door.
“This is a leftover from when we were stationed as a hotel. It didn’t work out very well. People kept trying to rent a room from us. It was kind of a pain. Anyway, we’ve been meaning to change this screensaver for a while now.”