Category Archives: Day Two

Beth has skidded into fifth on Alex’s list of Survive This Shit, right under the nine year manhunt, Xander, the Agents and Xander again. The bonus manhunt probably covered sixth and seventh place.

“I understand it’s a longshot.”

« Toxicology report available. [C] ^@, [t] 87 detected. »

^@.

Agent Aird didn’t think those were numbers. Then again, it’d been twenty-six years since kindergarten.

^@.

The rest of the text read normal. Compounds were defined. Outside of a name, his suit seemed to know this.

Agent Aird lowered his goggles and turned back around, looking ^ and @ her.

“All right,” he said. “I understand it’s a longshot, but when the spooky A-3 jabbed my neck with a mystery chem, did you consider asking what it was he gave me?”

Agent Karla Chai, who had yet to stop smiling, or to blink, maintained her stance on both of these.

“Sure, boss,” she death rattled.

Then she stopped talking, and stared at him.

“But you didn’t ask because,” he prompted.

“Orders, boss.”

Orders.

She stopped. And stared. Almost blinked, before he realized it’d been his reflection in the glassy whites of her monolidded eyes.

“What orders, Agent Chai,” he inquired.

She smiled wider.

“To not to, boss.”

That was his fault. He deserved the non-answer for a bad question.

“Okay.” Agent Aird tried again. “Whose orders?”

“Talbot’s, boss.”

Great! Okay, this was good. He kept a straight face, but they were getting somewhere. Agent Chai had cooperated.

Masked suits took patience. He’d been one. He knew she could talk in full sentences, but he also knew she felt slighted by him moving in on 616 outside of their investigation’s scope. In hindsight, to a Deployable, that dumpster meant vindication, but as this investigation’s lead, Agent Aird had been obligated to visually confirm their target’s status, especially at the sign of a disturbance in an area with reported external threats. He’d agreed to let Agent Chai donate her mask to him during this to prove he still valued her input, but again, he used to be Deployable. This was what they did. Once she got it out of her system, they could move on.

Her creepy jack-o’-lantern grin, he just kept ignoring, along with how her arms dangled, ready to grab whatever landed in their reach. His grandma had an old, Victorian doll collection; Agent Chai reminded him of the one his cousin gave a haircut. The eyes didn’t shut, the paint had scraped off, the cheeks were black from fingerprints, and a tattered bowl of fake hair drooped from its head. He used to find it under his blanket taped to a knife. Agent Aird didn’t like his cousin. In that vein, for her second time in the last fifteen minutes, she blinked.

No, that was his reflection.

“Agent Talbot told you not to inspect the chemicals added to my bloodstream,” he restated. “Show me.”

She did. Agent Chai curled her arm towards her belt, leaving the other to hang. The gap between her rows of teeth swelled.

“All yours,” she said, holding out her issued phone, “boss.”

Then she stared.

“Thank you. Agent Chai.” He took a moment of angling his hand before accepting her offer so they wouldn’t have to touch – out of politeness. He was a mess; it wasn’t as if Agent Aird thought she was going to bite him. Anyway, “He texted you?”

“Problem, boss?”

“No,” he said. “It’s no problem.”

It was more casual than he expected, but he dealt mostly with A-2s.

You can ask but I cant say. Blame our privacy act

Their privacy act.

Did Agent Talbot mean privacy legislation? Was he treating ^@ as some sort of personal medical history?

“We good, boss?”

He quickly thumbed at the screen. The rest of their conversation was Agent Chai establishing how the A-3 had known so much of what happened: she told. Her tattling was accurate, but she’d gone into excessive detail. On that note, Agent Aird stressed, “You realize I was dying through this. In a dumpster.”

That dumpster. The one she’d watched as he crawled out from under the lid, and then while he dragged himself over the rim, crushing his leg to better land like a brick and re-heal from ^@.

She scrolled for him.

Hes fine

“Oh. Good.” He’d been worried they didn’t care. Now when Agent Aird caught whiffs of the hours spent baking the curls upon his head into layers of fish, Indian take-out, and kibble clotted at varying stages of digestion, he could rest assured they’d left him there deliberately. “Thank you, Agent Chai.”

“Welcome, boss.”

He couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm. She seemed to know this. Her grin stretched. He couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm.

“Where are we with the job,” Agent Aird asked instead.

“Where you left it, boss.”

What Agent Chai, the Deployable, had meant was that his involvement left no discernible impact on their work either way. What she had referenced, and what Agent Aird elected to focus his attention towards, was that the status of the external threat hadn’t advanced. She was wrong; they now had to manage an active DTD armed with new knowledge of their target’s hotspots. These were hotspots purportedly swarming with external threat activity. If the DTD lied about wanting to avoid them, it pit a maximally volatile case against a group that cared even less about discretion.

“I think,” he said, “I need to call Agent Talbot.”

Domestic disturbance, acted on local reports, sought to verify the case’s ultimately inaccurate profile; when he was asked, he could at least explain his side of things.

“Using my phone, boss?”

Out of reflex, he began handing it back. He paused as he noticed she wasn’t taking the phone from him.

“What?”

“Gross, boss.”

The phone. He’d smeared it a little with what he told himself was innocently Vaseline. He tried wiping it, and crusted more of this dumpster paste into the charging port and under the volume rocker.

“Agent Chai,” Agent Aird suggested, “why don’t you find me something to clean up with?”

Without a word or facial tic of acknowledgement, his subordinate turned ninety degrees and moved past him. She then turned those ninety degrees back, and thus departed.

This wasn’t a person for whom out of sight, out of mind should have applied, but as she faded around the corner, he got the feeling she had never been here. It got chased by an odd plurality that she was also still behind him. She wasn’t, which he confirmed after snapping to check.

Good. Agent Aird was alone, free to call an upper tier Agent and explain how essentially a typo had put their second most delicate type of case into arm’s reach of anarchistic lunatics. The phone had 18% of its charge left; putting aside that neglect, he doubted the conversation would last past 16.

Benoit.”

“Agent Talbot? This is Agent Aird.” He kept his voice light and professional. “I’m calling about an overlap between our cases. Are you available to talk, sir?”

What followed was a long, gliding breath from the other end. To no one’s surprise, it sounded like somebody smoking.

Mr. Aird,” he heard afterwards. “You’re looking sprightly.

Agent Aird adjusted his posture, and checked the alley.

“I am, sir. Thank you,” he said, scouting the other way. “I’m feeling sprightly, too.”

Nothing reacted, chess pear.

Ah. French.

“No, sir. Not that I’ve detected.” Up. “But if I could ask, Agent Talbot,” he quickly proceeded to, scanning the brick by story, “what was I administered?”

You’re the suit. You tell me.

There. The man was leaning through a window, alighted on a sill now likely covered in ash. Those sunglasses and embers of a cigarette loomed from what Agent Aird counted as the sixth floor; along with the glass shards, it served as enough proof that this was the DTD’s room.

By the way – what?

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not sure I caught that,” he lied. “What was I injected with?”

The phone-lit smog circled the A-3’s head. Through it, Agent Talbot gave what appeared to be a shrug.

I know what they think it is.” This twirled the smoke curling down the alley. “So?

Agent Aird didn’t answer. His professional instinct spoke, because nothing else would.

“Our system recognized it in part – I’m truly, very sorry, sir, but did you stick me in the neck without knowi–”

What part did it recognize?

Again, instinct said, “The compounds, sir. The make-up, the…” He wasn’t a scientist. “I can send the details to the lab and have them produce a report.”

Had I wanted to wait for the lab, Mr. Aird, I wouldn’t have stuck you in the neck.” Agent Aird wasn’t able to respond before the A-3 soared on with, “You mentioned an overlap.

“Yes.” He agreed. With this. With that – with what Agent Talbot was doing, moving along topics. They could discuss what had happened later, and if what had happened involved someone stabbing him to get to his suit’s bloodwork instead of waiting four days for a lab report. “There’s overlap.”

And you’re planning to tell me what it is.

“Yes. Yes, sir,” he said. “Given my condition at the time, I wasn’t able to inform you that the cross contamination of our cases surrounding my target’s known locations should be considered our new, top priority.” He waited for the hammer to drop. A-2s yelled, A-4s swore, A-5s telegraphed the impending consequences through hysterical laughter. Agent Talbot continued quietly smoking. “… Your target knows where my target could go, and may attempt to interact with her.”

Mm.

A-3s went mm.

Staring up this way hurt his neck; his posture was slacking. Agent Aird pulled back his shoulders, correcting his parade rest.

“As you’re aware, sir,” he resumed, “my target forms an extensive component of an A-1 project. More than any case, with no detraction intended towards your own, it cannot afford the public exposure risked through open conflict. We have two teams of sixty deployed to this location, one to address a locally reported external threat. I’m not sure how familiar you are with these reports, Agent Talbot; they’re classified, but I can assure you this threat won’t neglect the opportunity to attack your DTD if he’s discovered where they both think she’ll be.”

He counted to ten in the silence. He had to leave time for what he’d said to register. Or, as Agent Aird squinted, managing a clearer look, time for Agent Talbot to light a new cigarette off of the old one.

I can’t say I am familiar with these reports,” he heard exhaled. “Enlighten me.

It could have been sarcasm, or it could have been French. Either way, it seemed safer to reply in earnest.

“Other people with powers, sir. Quasi-organized. Destructive. They’re meant to be active in this area.”

Meant to be.

“Yes, sir.” According to the Keeler case file, which was obviously under review. “It’s best to err on the side of caution.”

Who am I to argue that.” Definitely sarcasm, however subtle the undertone. “All right, Mr. Aird. What do you suggest we do?

Him?

“I was hoping, sir,” Agent Aird said slowly, “that you would monitor the situation.”

Ban it’s been monitored. They’re out together as we speak.

His suit pinged. He didn’t need to check – he did – to know it was suggesting the 14. The grip he had on his phone tightened. His other hand centered behind his back clenched in a ball. Very evenly, Jason asked, “What?”

You know, Mr. Aird, for all the information you release, you don’t seem to get much.” The A-3 sounded like he had changed to speakerphone. From these six stories away, he also looked to have started poking at his screen. “Why, say sa. She’s not here, Karla writes.

Agent Chai. About Keeler.

“That doesn’t mean she’s with your target,” he argued.

I do.

A need to ask what Agent Talbot was basing this on pinched at the back of his mouth. Before the words could leave, he shut it. When it felt safe to speak, Agent Aird tried being less confrontational.

“When did she send this?”

I don’t get a sir?

“Sir, when did she send this,” he asked again, amplifying the urgency.

The sense of the A-3 rolling his eyes dripped down to the alley; nevertheless, he got a response: “A little before you called. I think they’ve maybe been out for an hour. Everything’s fine, Mr. Aird. I haven’t heard that he’s killed her yet.

Agent Aird had been thinking in terms of leverage through kidnapping. DTDs were trying to get away; the thought of this one stopping to usher in her wanton destruction hadn’t even crossed his mind.

“Sir,” he said, over his suit pinging about the 14, “I have to request full access to your case file.”

Agent Talbot laughed and laughed, and then laughed more for good measure.

Oh shit. You meant that.”

Of course he’d meant it.

“This situation has escalated beyond…” Agent Aird caught himself. “… well beyond my case’s condonable parameters –”

Do you rehearse how you talk, or is that it naturally?

“By authority of the A-1’s commission, I need to formally request, if not demand, that you supply me with your case’s full profile and its relevant, supporting information.”

His chest was seizing. If he hadn’t known what a heart attack felt like, he would swear this was it. He tried to keep his eyes focused on something close – like the fucking dumpster.

You don’t work for an A-1.

The smugness in there sent a hard series of pings through his neck. He didn’t need the 14. He wanted the 87.

“No, sir, I don’t. But I work for an A-4 with a direct line to his A-2, who has her direct line to that A-1. If I report to either of them that Bethany Keeler is at risk of dying because of a DTD, who went undisclosed in this area, I can promise they won’t ask as nicely as I did.”

He wasn’t shouting. He wasn’t quite not shouting, however, and now the silence on their line had flooded with his ragged, panicked wheezing. His throat still felt raw from how hard he’d had to work to breathe this morning – again, because of this guy’s rogue case.

You understand how this will turn out for you, should I give my interpretation of events.” The A-3’s voice had gone low and deliberate. “I’ll begin with you having divulged the very information being used against your target now.

“That’s okay, sir,” he cried, “because at this rate, I’ll be equally as screwed if she dies.”

Mm.

He counted to ten this time to keep his sanity. Every upper tier rank had quirks, but universally, they abided by the rule that the first to speak lost the negotiation. This was more of an ultimatum, he realized, but the rule applied. He stayed quiet, counting higher until he heard something.

I’ll think about it.

The line cut. Agent Talbot stepped back into the room’s embrace, and the gray smog thinned until it had cleared. Agent Aird was alone again. He stayed alone until the pings stopped.

Karla.

The name flashed through his mind like a bomb. He had her phone. How could she be texting? Why hadn’t he been the first for her to –

“Jason!”

He looked up in time to get hit in the face. It was a glove; more specifically, it was his glove. The other and Agent Chai’s mask landed beside him.

“As a favor, when I call your mommy, I won’t mention that the other boys stole your hat and mittens.”

And then Agent Talbot disappeared.

It could have been worse. He had his gloves back, and the mask he thought he’d lost. Reunited with this equipment, Agent Aird looked to the fifth floor.

“Don’t get caught this time,” he muttered.


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Thanks, Eddy.

Bethany put down the canvas and mutely left the room. She didn’t look back. She didn’t answer Edison. Terry had another, smaller office built into his, attached by two cherry doors; she headed there, and with a tug, slid those doors open. As they shut behind her, she was left inside a darkened space ruled by a darker veneer. A polished table for eight and matching, high-backed chairs sat below the golden chandelier. It nearly seemed too large for the ceiling, but it gracefully sighed under what light slipped in through the three, arched, captivating windows. As a side note she felt deserving of special mention, Beth was ten seconds from puking and passing out in the juice.

This was a looooot of money. Like, a lot of it, and she had to hide here until she got her mind around the three thousand dollars. She’d been holding her breath for five hundred, yet there Terry was, outside and counting it in cold, hard cash – pardon her, counting in American cash, since that was what Edison brought for his trip. Whatever – American, USD, the exchange rate? Those grossly pale green bills may have sworn they were worth three grand, but here, that was closer to infinity billion. She needed to puke, she promised to puke, she absolutely would puke, last night’s bender so was not helping, but holy moly, Terry had earned his commission.

“– might just hold off on that arm-chopping business.” The doors slid open and shut, but this time, in swept the man of her glorious hour. He glided to her side, catching her hands in his, and while he gazed into her eyes, did so sweetly suggest, “When Edison asks, you’re a manic depressive gone into shock from the loss of her unicorns, and the only thing that can pull you off the edge of severing a limb is that therapeutic sound of twenty Mr. Franklins. Clear?”

Beth could have kissed him. She would have kissed him, but with the whole ‘puke’ thing and her hangover, she whispered instead, “You beautiful, British bastard.” While he fluttered his eyes at that, she crunched the rest of his math. “Did you say ‘twenty’?” Times a hundred, so adding two zeroes. “That’s not three thousand.”

“Well. Netted.” Yeeeah, no. She took her hands back. “Oh – come on, Beth! You only had one the job, and that was to hold the bloody things.”

“You told me to!”

For the record, it hadn’t only been holding. She’d lifted the canvases, lowered them, angled them, turned them, found the perfect strike of light, all for those stupid horse paintings, and all without even once complaining about sore forearms. Those lonely years of Bop It! had finally paid off, and if she didn’t have his ‘Second Favourite Artist’ spot already clinched forever – first place was a pipe dream; Terry’s favourite artist was Terry – she knew for a fact he would have stuck it to her head then with a shiny, gold star. This, she distilled into a single frown. Funny how fast his tune changed.

“If it hurries you up, we’ll go two thousand two,” he said. “You aren’t the only one paying bills.”

Awww. Someone dropped their caviar in the Porsche again, and that someone’s brow twitched like he’d heard her mispronouncing it. ‘Por-sha’, not ‘porsh’.

“All right. Two thousand and two.” Porsh. Porsh, porsh. She held out her hand. “And I get your tie clip.”

“Done.” Off it went, quickly replaced by another one. The man kept – like, six in his vest pocket. She used to laugh, but those little things were handy. “Bringing your total to a staggering two thousand two thirty-five. Are we happy?”

Two thousand dollars, and he’d put the money in her hand? This was cloud fifteen, which was exactly what she wasn’t going to say.

“I guess.”

“Ah! The old ‘I guess’. Nothing makes this all so worth it quite like that uninspiring flatness. Thank you. For it. Again.” He smoothed out his tie, ego safely checked and creeping definition of commission rates back in line. “Right – now I’m heading out, and I’ll need you to count to eighty. When you’ve finished, you’ll emerge as a prostrated spirit, wounded by her art’s commodification, but having come to terms with it in time for our next sale.” His grooming paused. “What’s this one again?”

Primed and Tuned? The piece he had to gush about like he’d loved it for years?

“Whatever you think is best, Ter. I trust you.”

“Good answer.” Terry actually sounded impressed. Maybe first place wasn’t such a pipe dream. “No smiling. Prostrated spirit.”

“Sorry.”

“Better.” As his hair commercial’s big finale, he ran his fingers through every tress. His head sparkled more than the light fixtures. “I might just be buying you that brunch, Keeler, if this goes as I expect.”

Was somebody outside?

“You say ‘might’ like it’s a maybe.”

In her same breath, she peeked off to his side. Beth had caught a hint of something; not to wander from the critical discussion of her meals, but there were only three people meant to be here, and they…

Wait.

Four people.

Noooo!

“Well –” That was Alex outside! “– it may be a free dinner –” Alex was outside and walking. “– provided you behave yourself.” Alex was outside, and walking, and leaving! “Damn. Nearly said that with a straight face.”

He didn’t see her. Nobody saw anyone; Alex had his head down and his shoulders hunched, and Terry’s back was slightly angled more towards the windows than away. For her part, Beth put the carefully tie-clipped cash down her overalls, and took her boss-slash-friend-slash-trigger-happy-thumb-on-the-alarm by his elbow. She never felt more Zen than she did leading his ass to the main office’s doors – but like a high-speed version of Zen, where the only thing she could do less than standing up the neighbour she so wanted to believe wasn’t the crazy half was letting Terry sic his cloud of private security on the poor bastard.

“Oh, you,” she chittered, utterly missing the line for ‘too loud’. “You’re funny – and you’re going to be great! Get on out there and make me proud.”

She tipped him a British bum pat and pulled him a couple of steps. By the third, he had morphed into Heels-y McGee.

“What did you do,” Terry drew out.

“Nothing.” Why did he always ask? “I simply think we shouldn’t keep Eddy waiting.” Oof! Too far. His eyebrow twitched. “‘Eddy’. Ol’ Ed. What’s in a name? We just bonded so much over art. All right – go, go!”

The arm she’d been hanging onto swung to spin her in front of him. She took very little solace from how it kept his back still turned to Alex, à la Scooby-Doo, since it also left her with a full view of how fast her sort-of-date was clearing the windows – and they were big windows.

“Beth,” Terry sang, trilling her name through the air, “you wouldn’t be planning anything tricksy?”

She tried not to peek.

“No?”

“And you’re sure?”

Well, gee, Ter. Big thanks for the trust.

Yes,” she answered.

“Good.” He returned the bum pat. “We’re back to two thousand.”

“What?!”

He already had it in his hand! Hers went to her pocket; son of a bitch, Ter! Those bum pats were sacred.

“You’ll get this back –” Terry rolled her two hundred into his vest. “– after you don’t ring every steakhouse asking how many lobsters they’ll pile on filet mignon.” She didn’t have time to flounder over how she had only done that once, since he whisked past and headed for the doors. “Still pick someplace nice.”

“Oh, may I, sir?”

Ha!

“Within the limits of your wardrobe. Lord knows none of this will go towards a decent dress.” He had to turn his head for that foppish snark, but only at last his syllable did she notice his gaze flicking off to the window. It took every tendon in her neck seizing to not check it out, too. “Eighty, Beth.”

He wasn’t screaming about Alex. That was… good? Bad? Bad.

“Hmm – yes. Eighty. Gotcha.” Terry hadn’t moved. She glared at him. “One. Two. Six. Fourteen.”

“That’s charming,” he said, sliding the doors apart. “Arthur! Wonderful news: she’s not chopping off a thing today.”

She waited until the doors shut, and then she whipped around. No Alex. Shit!

Her next move was grabbing an overweight chair, scraping it over to the glass, jumping on, pushing open the panel that topped the arch, and jamming her chin in the mesh that clearly hadn’t been cleaned to yell, “Alex! Alex – wait, please, don’t go!”

Pathetic, Beth. The word had already had a definition, but she just repainted it to this.

So that was that. Here she stood, and then sat, and then sort of fumbled over the windowsill, and then sat for real, stuck in this place with a geezer and an ex, counting until she went home and picked up the dead bird nailed to her welcome mat, the first of many I-hold-a-grudge gifts. It was a little of that column A and a good scoop of column B that she screamed.

Loudly.

“Beth? Beth, are –”

Dammit-Terry-go-away!” She jumped up, hiding Alex’s face, which had freaking reappeared beside her. “Go! Go outside! Go sell things!” Terry switched his look of panic to a withering frown, but left without adding to it. Once again, she waited for the doors to close. “Coast clear.” She climbed the chair to re-reach the mesh. “Alex! There you are.”

It was to judge how he’d been doing with all the signs that affirmed how he did not, in fact, require more caffeine. His face looked red, bringing out his caramel hues – and the hues of all his bruises – while his hand scratched at his arm. Alex seemed anxious, not angry, since for any second of eye contact, he spent five scanning the front parking lot.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Right! With me to Pequods.”

“No, I…” His itching arm jerked. He pinned it with his other hand. “I mean, yes, but I have to go. Can I have your keys?”

Uhhhhhhhh, what?

“As in, ‘will I drive you places’? Like Pequods? Sure!”

“No – I…” Alex stopped and rolled his eyes. He put on the fakest smile this side of pure ham. “Pretty please, might I get the keys?”

All right. Now she was frowning. She worked her ‘staring down at him’ vantage to help get the point across.

“No? Because it’s my car. I’m not going to give you the keys to my – whoa, wait!” He’d started walking. “Wait! You’re leaving?”

“I said I was.”

“Well – yeah, but –” Use words, Beth! “Then what? You’re walking home?”

“I was planning to stick with driving.”

Like he had to spell it out for her.

“But – wait! Seriously!” She needed to mash her face into a lot of dust-laden fibres to ‘go after’ him, but he stopped. “You don’t have keys.”

“Don’t need ‘em. I was being polite.” What?! “Hey, was that dick stain parked out front? Cancer Guy? Is that his car? I’m taking it.”

Terry was going to murder her in a million different pieces, and if this was really happening and not a dream, she had no way to explain why he shouldn’t.

“Let me drive you,” she blurted. “I promise – I’ll drive you, but give me a second to come out. Please.”

He tilted his head. What had looked so much like a puppy-dog last night now more closely resembled the lizard from Jurassic Park, the one that had busted out a fringe and spat up acid in a guy’s mouth.

“Sure.”

“Actually?”

She felt immediately apprehensive. Alex had gone from carjacker to model citizen in less than a second.

“Sure,” he said again, shrugging. “But if I were you, I’d hurry. I gotta get my Pequods on, and you people have got to stop getting in the way of that.”

Off he marched, growing her urge to vomit beyond a simple night of binge drinking. Also: craaaap.

She ran. Terry’s voice hit as soon as she opened the doors. The man didn’t even blink, only casually beckoned to her during his speech.

“It isn’t simply the brashness of the skeins. It’s their urgency. That the piece is unique amongst its series as the only canvas gone unprimed speaks to a thirst for the subjects’ misfortune. By endorsing it as art, we’ve lauded its brutality, and yet in that lies our truest nature: for so long as we’re allowed the fruits of our neighbours’ pain, we are content to let them endure in silence.”

All of which was Standard Terry Bullshit, and kept them distracted enough for her to sneak to the exit.

“Amazing.” Applause. “Here I thought it was all splattered crap.”

Thanks, Eddy. Enjoy the dumb horse.

“When we refuse what’s beneath the surface, we… Beth.” No, no – shit. Terry spotted her. She froze, less than three feet from escaping. “Are you planning to join us?”

Please, brain, work.

“Bathroom.”

Yes! Good excuse. At least she thought so until Terry’s back gently straightened.

“What about the bathroom, my dear?”

“Have to use it.” She felt for the hallway door. “To – ah… wash the tears I shed for this tragedy.” A billion pieces. A billion and one murdered shards. “Bye!”

“Beth –”

Nope, bye! She flew out and down the hall, forever grateful she had the floorplan burned into her mind – except for those pallets that rammed her hip since this place was as dark as a butthole. The rush of golden light flowing from the lobby’s round expanse served as her hope that she may have made it in time, and the relief she felt as her hand knocked against the main entrance also very nearly won out over her need to kill the next person who spoke.

“Keeler?”

Not fucking now,” she screeched at… whoever – some old guy dressed as a painter, an interior painter, a different kind of painter, who she doubted should even be here, but oh sweet mercy, not now. She ripped the entrance doors open and leapt outside, calling, “Alex! Alex, if you even touched his car…!”

But Alex wasn’t listening. Alex was busy cutting his arms through somebody’s neck.

“‘Cause ohhh, no. You can’t stay dead. You have to go and make some friends – who usually explode by now, so boy-oh-boy, you sure do look like our fucking source. I’m gonna break your favourite throat today. You deserve this.”

“Looooo,” the other person was wheezing. His eyes bulged from his sockets. “Looooo.”

“Just make a noise if you want it counter-clockwise. I know it’s a little rougher, but you get a better sound out of it. Regular-wise? Hey, it’s messy, but this is your execution, and I’ll be damned if I don’t grant a bitch their last request.”

Beth… backed away…

“Looooo!”

“Counter-clock? You got it, bud!”

The sound that followed was not a neck.

To be perfectly honest, she didn’t know how a breaking neck would sound, but her confidence in stating it wasn’t that came from a bare awareness of the sweet burning fire hose of piss, someone shot her.

Her hands patted at her belly. Feeling nothing but speed, she craned to look back inside the lobby. There, holding a gun – a red gun, like a toy – and running in sluggish strides towards her, was the old painter. His eyes went wide and rolled in on themselves, and she watched as he slowly started to fall. Her blink took hours to pass, dryly scraping her cornea. They shut to the wet echoes of a sharp crack and a long, “Looookrrhhhk.”

There was one last voice as the ground sailed to greet her.

“Dude, shut up about the latté. Get her keys.”

“Work builds character.”

“Alright. I think this’ll work.” He had three feet before the first step. That was plenty of room to swing the corpse around, so Alex hauled it in by its upper pits. He pushed the rest of the door open with his shoulder. “Yeah. This is good.”

Don’t slip. Hate to see you reap karma.

“I’ll manage,” he grunted.

I’ll bet.

The door shut when they were through. Not that he needed to see, but he’d’ve preferred it to having his eyes strain at total darkness and Grave Encounters looping in his head. Xander wasn’t helping either, on pain of I-didn’t-get-my-way, so Alex pulled the corpse to its feet himself. He kicked out its heel just like it’d been strolling down this pitch-black stairwell when it suddenly died from a heart attack. The cops could rule it as natural causes, the news would babble about workplace stress, then everyone would enjoy a normal day. As for the ‘four arms’ thing…

Well, that was the Agents’ problem.

“Come on, gravity,” he said. “Don’t screw me.”

Alex let go.

The first sound he heard might’ve been its kneecap shattering. The other slops were more like meat bursting on concrete. That last noise told him the corpse had found the bottom or at least stopped rolling. Good enough. He felt for the door and left, back to fake gold walls and too-tall, pearly ceilings.

Happy?

“Ecstatic.” Deep down, he kind of meant that. “I know you think I should’ve let them handle this –”

I one hundred percent, sell my soul, promise it’s not ‘think’.

“– but they’re Agents.” Xander’s little ‘Fucking really, Sherlock’ got Alex to put it in plainer English. “I’m not letting Agents hide a body for me. I did that once and they laughed at how stupid I was.”

So did I! You left a fuckin’ note to please ‘tidy the crime scene’.

“It was a threat. I was threatening them.” He yanked off his outer shirt, sick of the moist beast’s sweat-marinade. It was why he dressed in layers. “You keep killing their guys. I just was telling them to remember that when they scraped up their latest group.”

What you did was piss off the people who already have to handle your mess by smearing a bigger mess on the wall.

“Yeah, well.” He wrung out his sleeves. “Work builds character.”

Ohhhh, you asshole.

“I’m the asshole? Who’s trying to suck out whose eyeballs? If you love them so much, marry them.”

Fine. I will. And we’re gonna have a super sweet wedding you don’t get invited to, ‘cause I don’t want a shitty speech finger-painted on my cake with priest blood.

Alex opened his mouth to once again explain what threats were when a gray flicker caught his attention. Up ahead.

“Shut up for a sec.” The corner heading to the lobby looked empty. As the one part of the hall with actual, lemony light, he trusted that instinct. Closer, though, to where the shadows got bigger, all he saw was the blinding white entrance to the skull room. It flickered again. “There. See that?” Xander’d started walking to it. “But I’m paranoid, right?”

Broken clock’s still broken. Shut up for an hour.

So under the skull room’s silent brightness, Alex got to make out the smears left behind from their previous fight. Well – ‘fight’. Xander sank his hands in the moist beast’s face and pried its lids apart. Where its corpse dropped sprayed a greasy sketch of limbs that eventually dragged back to those stairs. Great, then. The Agents could find it after all. His problem was with how many came to look.

“Ten,” he said. “At least.” The anti-Agents didn’t ambush less than that. “And we’re early.” Because the old guy and kid weren’t rushing. “Which means there’s a squad of real Agents alive somewhere.” Who Alex had technically saved from an anti-attack, but since two of those Antis escaped, he’d effectively pissed off both camps. “Neither one can find me. Got that?”

I think the better question is, ‘What am I gonna do with all these firstborn children you owe me?’ I don’t have that many sweatshops.

“They have kidneys.”

Ooh. Dark. I like it.

Yeah. Xander would. On that pleasant note, Alex let himself go numb and watched the room stalk closer. The flickers kept up, adding in muffled clicks of feet. He figured it was pacing by the time he’d moved to stand outside the way in. It might’ve been alone or its other nine-Agent-friends-at-least could’ve not moved for thirty seconds. They did that sometimes. A lot.

Xander knocked on the wall. The pacing stopped. The flickers became a waiting shadow. He thumped again, and it scurried into the hall, mirrored shades first. Its yellowy buckteeth glimmered under its red hat of hair. Its orange shirt still matched the moist corpse’s, and its wispy lip of fuzz twitched when it spotted him.

Awwwwww.”

Not an Agent. But it knew who Alex was.

Xander shrugged and made a fist.

“Shitty,” he said. “I have to kill you now.”

The kid’s shades exploded. Cartilage crushed against its head with the splinters of plastic caving in on itself. Alex’s arm drew back to get its neck, but it already went limp. It landed staring up, eyes unfocused.

‘Fight’.

Is this the same person?” Teen ‘stache. Carpenter uniform. “It left.”

‘Left’ meant ‘gone’. Their anti-group had a star under ‘Kill All Agents’ that pretty clearly said, ‘Unless Alex shows up to wreck shit, then whatever, we’re not getting paid’. They’d played by that rule for seven years. Every run-in had martyrs but nobody stupid enough to come back if they got away. Now he half-expected the old guy, on top of the Agents these dicks lured everywhere.

Think he died too fast.

“That’s not a thing.” No more flickers. How early was he? “Alright. Stairs.”

Auuugghhh.

“I’m not arguing with you.” He went to grab its pointy wrists a second before he stopped to check, “It’s actually dead though, right? Definitely dead?”

I dunno, he looks dead. Kick ‘im.

No other flickers.

“I’m not going to kick a corpse,” he said. “Maybe I don’t Jesus – shitwhat the hell –”

Its arms ripped off in his hands. Two wrists of open bone speared out from its graying sockets, snapping black as its skin dried into ashy curls under his fingers. The kid crumpled into dust and vanished. Gone. He stayed standing with a palm full of leather-sand that started to vaporize in the air.

Or you could’ve kicked.

Shut up, Xander.” Now he had a problem. “What happened? Where’d it go? Why’d it do that? Was it attacking me?”

Easy there, pork chop. He’s gone. Stick to that. Shirt. Alex got turned towards the lump of red abandoned at the stairwell. He took off the other way. That’s not where your shirt is.

“Forget the shirt. The Agents can get it.” He’d pulled the white-ish one he was still wearing over his mouth. “I don’t know if that dust’s floating around or a corpse or not, but if this is their fucked up plan to get inside my lungs –” Could they do shit from there? Maybe? “Shit. Shit, shit.”

Every now and then, somebody had an actual power. No wonder they came practically alone. One of those three was a death fog.

‘Forget the shirt. The Agents can get it.’ Fucking wow.

He didn’t break his stride until he reached the lemonlit corner. Even then, he glanced around the edge before uttering, “Don’t.”

Oh, I’d never. But you know I’m within my rights to choke you. Alex’s head turned back to the stairs. Instead, being such a swell guy, I’ll helpfully point out that unlike Four Arms, who’s immediate proof of superhuman advancements beneath the nose of the general public, your shirt’s a shirt. Judging from the moment of silence, Xander assumed that spoke for itself. He was wrong. Your laundry’s not part of the Agency’s mandate, genius.

“Of course it’s not.” Why would shit start working for him now? Alex’s jaw clenched while he double-checked the corner, in the likely case that the way to the lobby had changed and also screwed him by deciding to burst into fire. “I’ll forget all your, ‘The Agents will do it, I pinkie-swear.’”

I never told you to strip. I got my lesson on your evidence abandonment issues the last time, which’s why I’m sorta-kind’f-fucking insisting.

Those were the three grades of Xander’s sincerity. One way or another, Alex had to get the shirt.

“If I die,” he warned, “it’s your fault.”

Holy shit, I just had the best idea. We go to Roasters, right? But after the gallery.

“Alright, I get it.”

He took a last glimpse at the lobby and pushed off of the wall, mouth re-covered. The jog was just as cold without a corpse trailing along. That thrill of figuring what the skull room sure as hell had evaporated, too. He didn’t trust crossing the light but on a scale of run to leave-his-shirt-somewhere-that-anti-Agents-had-actively-smeared-themselves, crossing killed the question of, ‘How do we finally figure out how to track Alex forever?’

God, it was still damp. He got a fresh coat of ‘moist’ on him from picking up the fabric and trying to wring any –

Hey. Alexander.

For shit’s fucking sake.

Oh, okay, Xander said. I see where this is going.

The kid stuck its head out from the skull room, skull-light glinting off its lenses. Its voice wobbled halfway down the hall but it gave an obviously alive, “Alexander.”

Alex blanked on his protocol.

Here’s a hint: for starters, lose this.The makeshift breath mask yanked to under his chin. Can’t shit-talk through polyester.

“We’re shit-talking?”

Alexander,” it yapped. “Hey!

Shit-talk. Don’t shit-talk. Whatever your heart desires. Xander patted his shoulder. You got this, sparkle butt.

“I – wait –” Then the full weight of control slammed into him. Everything minus his jaw, his foot and stomach started moving like they were on helium. The shirt felt so moist. “What the hell are you doing?”

Training you.

“Now?!”

You asked.

Alexander!

With nowhere to look but at the kid, Alex spat out, “Actual training. I wanted actual training, not smashing bricks on my face or running at someone, but sparring practice. Reflex tests. That kind of thing.”

And shall we practice our basket-weaving? Go get him.

Douchebag! Hey!

His stress rash was screaming. Screw all three of them. Or – four, because he just pinched his hand on the shirt’s goddamn buttons. Swallowing what he meant to say, Alex managed instead a quick, “No.”

‘No’?

“Yeah. No.” That felt empowering. “It’s too early. I have to learn, I get that, but right now I can’t even watch you kill stuff without getting sick. So – just…” He tried to shrug at himself. “I’ll fight it, but you have to still… ‘do the rest’.” That felt lame. “For now.”

He stared at his would’ve-been exit and the anti-Agent in his way, a short twenty feet off from him. Or he could run. He wanted to, but then he remembered these assholes had no choice in chasing him. They took any chance of destroying him as their only chance. Real Agents cut their losses to hunt him later. These assholes, for whatever bullshit he wasn’t going to fix, didn’t seem to know how. He had to trip over them, like a bastard leprechaun of murder.

He got the feeling Xander was shaking his non-existent head.

Okay. We need to talk. Again: now? I’ll be fast.

The kid inched out of the room.

Hey! Are you deaf or just stupid? Answer me!

Shut your whore hole, junior. We’re busy.” It did. Ha. Cool. Listening?

That wasn’t rhetorical. The guy waited for Alex’s awkward, “Yeah…?”

I am not training you to kill someone. I am not training you, Xander said, to kill someone. I am not training you to kill someone. Ever. For any reason. Agent and ‘anti-Agent’ alike. Got it?

Which also wasn’t rhetorical.

“… Sure.” The meaning sank in. “Then what are you showing me?”

Common sense. Just some badly fuckin needed common sense. For every problem you have, the solution’s almost always, ‘Use your head ten minutes ago.’ My goal’s to make you do less stupid shit, thus preventing situations where you feel people have to be killed. If you don’t reach that point, you’ll be put down. Not in a cutesy, ‘Oh, life is harder’ – you’ll get sniped from six blocks away. On the bright side, it’ll probably be painless, but still – like… dead.

… That was surprisingly direct. Usually it took three tries for Xander to land this close to a real point.

“Who’s shooting me?”

Santa. Fine, dumb question. The Agents. I’m gonna let you in on a secret: they think you’re nuts. Not ‘funny’ nuts like I know you are, but psychopathic, ape-shit, blood-on-the-walls, politely head-fucked, which’s why they’re skittish with you. You’re at the point of insanity making them uncomfortable – too little to write you off but too much to suffer a mistake.

“What mistake?” Xander hemmed and hawed right then. Alex had to turn to talk more to the ceiling, the kid forgotten for as long as it shut up. “Seriously. What kind of mistake?”

Y’know – just… Poor judgement.

He narrowed his eyes on a spot of crown moulding.

“What does that mean?”

I dunno, just… poor judgement, is all. Like if I showed you how to spot an Agent for once and you used that to act in a way exposing them. Pause. And you decided to end them before they ended you. Next pause. And you were wrong about whether they were an Agent. Longest pause. Any training I give you has to take that stuff into account. The ‘stuff’ being your proclivity towards shenanigans.

Huh.

The kid hadn’t moved. Alex didn’t have much peripheral vision, but enough to keep a basic watch on it.

“You won’t ever train me to kill ‘cause you’re accounting for my judgement.” Every syllable was emphasised. “What are you actually expecting me to do?”

Well, you’re you, so nothing. The ‘but’ on the end of that howled. But you don’t give crazy people bigger guns. If the Agency heard you kill people you absolutely thought you had to, they would lose their shit, so you can’t risk misinterpreting what I say as active encouragement. Fuckin’ Ron Weasley over there? He’s the epitome of common sense: I don’t think he’s real. He died way too fast, then reappears looking the same. He’s either immortal or sending avatars in or some shit, but he’s also a pussy ‘cause after one admittedly stellar skull tap, he hit his disconnect and oh my God you’re being quiet, stop it.

The voice in his head had called him crazy.

This was his life now.

He breathed.

“If it’s not real,” Alex said, bringing his gaze back to Captain Teen ‘Stache, “can it hurt me?”

… I mean, probably, yeah. I hit him. Something’s there. You’re taking this well.

The kid’s expression was covered by the mirrored shades, but its body language seemed crystal clear. It didn’t want to be here anymore and as for Alex, it thought he was high on bath salts. Fair enough, he guessed.

“You think if I charge it, it’ll… what – vanish?”

I was gonna jump in if it didn’t. Did you break?

“My imaginary friend thinks I have a screw loose. What do you want me to say?” Alex crushed the moist, overly sharp buttoned shirt inside his pocket. “At least you think I’m ‘funny nuts’.”

It’s ‘cause I said ‘guns’, right? I know that’s a hard concept for you. ‘Filed moose antlers’?

“I’m not mad, Xander. Let’s just get this over with.” Fuck. The mildly good news was a sudden nothing-left-to-lose burst of zen, which steadied his heart rate better than he could remember in years. Still. Fuck. “Kid!” He felt a headache coming on. “This is your last chance to run.”

“No,” the kid shouted, “it’s yours.”

Change’f plans.

Alex was in the passenger seat long before he noticed, seconds after Xander launched himself at the ginger’s head. Twenty feet shrank to inches. His fist demolished where its face had been, and it dropped to hammer its temple off the tile. The foot Xander put through its larynx scattered the rest into that ash.

He put the mask back on.

“Was it –”

Shh.

Footsteps? More of them.

Fast footsteps. A lot of footsteps. Too many. The lemonlit corner that was supposed to have been his way out surged with a tidal wave of ginger kid clones. They clumped like a pack of rats, trampling over each other. Dust clouds said a few didn’t make the turn.

“Do I –”

No. Xander had a flight mode after all. To no one’s surprise, it was better than Alex’s. You tell anyone and it won’t be snipers who get you.

They were past the stairs and into the darkness when Alex replied, “Agreed.”


As the fifteenth post in TOKoR, it’s time to start the P15 Club: a full recap of what into writing this story so far. Check it out for some sweet behind-the-scenes action.

His suit chimed.

Agent Aird is an exceptional resource.

Agent Aird comes highly recommended.

Agent Aird is distinguished through initiative.

Dr. Grace Li offers a personal commendation.

Agent Aird is successfully on track to obtaining his A-5.

He was also dying in a dumpster.

The exceptional, highly recommended Agent Aird had been awake for an hour. It felt like days, and every sound that led to nothing stretched his wait. He’d sent a priority distress alert when his eyes first opened, but until his partner acknowledged it, and according to his goggles, she hadn’t, here he stayed, trapped in rancid bags of trash.

It’d been said that men were best known by their garbage. The dog shit priming his heels for when he finished sinking through molded curry gave all sorts of insight into these residents: they were assholes, in case attempted murder left too much doubt about it.

His suit chimed. He’d fought five broken ribs and a shattered leg to pull his goggles from their pouch on his calf; he would answer every ping it sent, whether or not they had news.

« Administering 87 (12%) – confirm/deny? »

Confirm.

He lowered his goggles back to his collarbone right as the arms of his suit hissed. The hundred, tiny needles pinched to bring a familiar, jolting high, and then dulled to a lucid hum.

« 87 (4%) administered. Next recommended dose: 17 minutes. »

This text was how he tracked time. The 87 could blunt severed limbs to a reasonable ache without the 85’s constipation, but like the rest of the 80 series, and unlike the 90s, it didn’t repair damage and wasn’t designed for extended use.

He hadn’t requested the 90 series. Those were for suits who got caught or were too stupid to think of a way out. Masked suits, in other words. Deployable.

Agent Aird anticipates and learns from others’ miscalculations.

He shouldn’t have borrowed her mask. Fading was already his second nature, and the edge a mask offered provided nothing if he broke his own illusion. The room upstairs was a mess; the most management-friendly explanation placed what happened on him unsettling the wrong pile of dirt. He knew better, but his alternative theories refused to ignore that that person had been neither one of them nor a civilian. If he’d been wearing his goggles instead of trying to make nice with subordinates, he would have an answer by now.

« Administering 14 (100%) – confirm/deny? »

Agent Aird blinked to deny and lowered his goggles again.

The 10 series moderated moods. His suit had sensed frustration, compared it to his physical health, and decided he was disadvantaged if he needed to hide. The fading technique relied on a calm mind, which didn’t come easily to rookies or closet panickers. As suits were no small investment, and following the mantra adopted from their parent company, the Agency picked salvage over surrender and developed a would-be Zen-state Viagra. He didn’t need it. He put his theories on hold, agreeing to look into them after he escaped this wet egg stench.

The last hiss of his 87 reserves ended with a whimper. There’d been no acknowledgement of his distress alert. His suit offered him the 14, and once he more, he blinked to refuse it. He could wait.

For seventeen long minutes, Agent Aird endured. By the eighteenth, his body realized how hard he’d hit the trash. A tremor started in his right thigh, and a pain near his spine thrummed down his torso.

« Administering 14 (100%) – confirm/de– »

He turned off the chimes.

Bracing took his whole focus. He didn’t notice the voice until it was outside the dumpster, muffled by the closed lid. No one else spoke. It must have been a phone call. So now he had to die quietly lest he alert the damn civilian, because if this was a person from his team, they would be saving him.

No sooner did the thought occur than a rusted screech of hinges cried out. He whipped his good arm to block the sun, but not before its light rented into his eyes. The pain sparked havoc through his limbs, like every nerve had ripped along an old wound. It ended just as violently, buried by a newfound weightlessness. The syringe he’d also failed to notice needling his jugular then pulled from his neck and dropped beneath the curry.

“… say Pa Ma foot –” Blather. “– cash tay marred.

Not English. He told his good hand to reach his goggles and translate, but the weightlessness worked too well. He overshot and hit himself.

“Ban Prussian fawn, cash neuf.

French. Was there another language he should have expected? The five words of it he remembered from grade school and movies bubbled to mind, and at the silhouetted figure he strained to see, Agent Aird mustered a frail, disarming, “Bonjour.”

The lid shut. The voice moved a step away, never missing its beat.

A-3.

Before he’d been chained to a furniture pyre at the top of his list of extenuating circumstances, he called it impossible to screw up on matching senior Agents to their rank. The upper tier took to promotions like they came with vows to uphold the stereotypes: A-5s were too giddy over having authority to use it less than excessively, while A-4s, who were arguably better, imagined every fourth word was a coded slur. He had yet to meet an A-1, but the rumors promised twelve, hulking gods. Personal experience with his A-2 confirmed those rumors that any of them running their assigned facility on only a handful of Adderall and bi-nightly therapy sessions was underworked. With so many ranks leaping over each other to be the most choleric, it was almost inspiring to hear them agree that A-3s were undisputedly the most self-centered.

An A-3’s responsibilities began and ended at their case, and they had as much interest in other Agents’ affairs as they did in revealing their own. This was a rank guided by avoiding inconvenience, which gave them a unique logic behind saving colleagues from death one minute, only to lock them back inside a reeking vault the next for talking.

There’d been an A-3 listed at this area. This was not them. Agent Aird went for his goggles, and had the pair this time when the sun violently returned. Once the stream of colored dots across his eyes waned enough to see, the silhouette gave way to details of a man propped over the edge. One hand, the hand holding a phone, draped loosely over the dumpster’s rim. The other stayed lifting its corrugated lid.

He was in his forties, this rescuer. His head cast a triangular shadow, and in his gleaming aviators was the haggard reflection of a buried suit. These mirrored lenses rested on a nose that looked broken more than once, above a jaw bearing its own shade from two days’ worth of growth. This stubble matched the black fuzz looming over his creased forehead, and darkened the already grim lines around his mouth to a permanent, unsurprised wince.

“Agent Aird,” the figure told him. “You’re in my garbage.”

Agent Aird’s tongue felt too numb to talk. He made it work.

“I’ll need,” he huffed, “to see your ID.”

Those grim lines tightened. Agent Aird felt an immediate, cold sweat despite his current inability to feel. He was about to sputter an apology and lather his request in more pleading when a sudden understanding of the gesture swept over him: this man thought this was funny. The tighter wince was there to smother a grin, which un-smothered as soon as the man recognized Agent Aird’s enlightenment. Without a word about it, he obligingly tossed the lid to support itself against the building, and then retrieved a card from inside a scuffed jacket that would have been black three years ago.

“A suit who asks for facts before he makes his decision.” A-3, the card confirmed. Agent Benoit Talbot. “We should throw more of you from windows.”

Rude frog.

“Thank you, sir, for your timely intervention.”

Had he been allowed to finish the ceremonial gratitude, he would have next explained how he’d arrived here. Instead, the A-3 moved on to producing a cigarette, jamming it in his mouth, lighting the snack, tucking his lighter back into its pocket, and exhaling a long, plume of smoke, all while refusing to put his phone away. Agent Aird cut himself off by coughing, and Agent Talbot, seemingly content with this, ordered, “Skip to the part where you thought he was an Agent.”

The man spoke like a cartoon, through his nose and in a leaden accent that clumped his words and hit as much pluralization as it missed. He also claimed to want an answer, but without the apparent intention of listening to one. While this wasn’t French that Agent Aird had ever heard, as far as whether Agent Talbot was an A-3, it couldn’t be more obvious than if he closed the lid now and never returned. Hoping to avoid precisely that, Agent Aird continued.

“You’re referring to the gentleman…” Those lines tightened. He changed his phrasing. “… the individual upstairs.”

Agent Talbot’s reply in its entirety was to wait on his elbows at the dumpster’s rim, perched. More smoke curled from the cigarette’s red tip. Again, Agent Aird continued, grateful for the weightlessness’ effect on a clenched jaw. The upper tier demanded respect.

“He asked about my case. He wanted to know how many were on the primary team, who was managing it –”

“The NCA.”

This was his turn to ask a question.

“If you’ll excuse me, Agent Talbot –”

“Bo.”

The noise caught him off-guard. Agent Aird recovered just as politely, with a pleasant but curious, “Sir?”

Bo. Tal-bo. Ignore the last T.” When Agent Talbot now exhaled, he switched to saying, “In fact, ignore the name completely. Jason. Benoit. Ignore the last T.” Some ash flicked between them as a multitasking indication towards Agent Aird, and to knock the burnt excess into the waste. Agent Benoit Talbot, lacking two of his three last T’s, added, “You won’t impress me with formalities when all I can ask myself is what that is on your arm.”

Agent Aird checked to then report, “Fish, sir.”

“Mm.” This simple conclusion bored the man. “You were saying something.”

“Yes. About the NCA’s involvement. That’s protected information,” Agent Aird reminded. “I understand you’re an A-3, and I can provide you the details you need, but if you’ve obtained access through means I wasn’t made aware of, outside of legal protocol, I’m not sure I can cooperate – wait, wait!”

“Jason,” Agent Talbot overstressed, mid-reach of his cigarette hand towards the dumpster lid, “I have things to do.”

“I understand that, sir, but – wait,” he nearly snapped. Agent Talbot waited. The lid was now half-closed, shielding Agent Aird’s head from the angry sun. “I was dropped from a sixth story window by someone who more than presented at an A-5 status. The only reasons I’m alive are the dozen adjustments to my suit’s shock absorption last month, not landing on my head, and wearing something that’s kept my insides inside on impact. I’ve had to remain this way because my subordinate failed to address my distress alert, and because I extended my deference to higher ranks to someone who isn’t part of the Agency. I can’t feel the pain, but I’m sure I’m still dying for my mistake. You’ll have to forgive me for being sensitive.”

This became the longest handful of seconds he’d endured yet. He watched himself in Agent Talbot’s mirrored lenses, looking too young to be taken seriously, gawking with his mouth open as if he had more to say. It may have been why the A-3 stood frozen. That, or the thrill of leaving him to rot was a lot harder to ignore than Agent Aird felt comfortable imagining.

“Your subordinate,” Agent Talbot finally said. “Karla Chai. A-6 Deployable.”

Agent Aird blinked up at him.

“You’ve seen her?”

It would explain how –

“Put your goggles on.” Agent Aird didn’t waste a moment doing as he told, further inspired by the A-3’s relenting decision to re-open the lid. Once he had, the man now standing over the dumpster rather than leaning on it said, “Find case DTD 05.”

Agent Aird did this, too. Across his goggles’ interface appeared the large, loud word of Classified. Underneath was a plainer notice reading, “Case lead: Benoit Talbot.”

“I don’t understand,” he admitted.

“You want to talk about protected? About access outside of protocol? Everything in that file is for my eyes only. When I’ve finished, I’ll pass it off to whichever A-5 who wants to feel special by archiving high level documents, but not before. It’s a simple system, one you’ve bruised by intruding on my case, in my room, and in my garbage.” The humor in Agent Talbot’s voice about this from earlier failed to appear at its second mention. “You spoke to him. Cooperate, or he discovers your suit has had those shock adjustments, and that you’re still here.”

The ball landed in Agent Aird’s court. He worked through this information.

“This really is a DTD site?”

Agent Talbot reared back, like he was ready to take off and slam the lid after all. He didn’t go through with it, but his tone changed again to something near patronizing. He flicked away his ash and said, “My boy doesn’t lie. He gives half-truths. Being on the case is an old favorite. What did you tell him?”

“That my target is being tracked at her regular establishments, and that her latent abilities require physical distance as a precaution.”

Apologies were best made through actions. Agent Aird’s had been accepted, as evidenced by Agent Talbot leaning his elbows on the rim once more.

“Keeler.” The novelty of the A-3 knowing everything had worn thin. “You realize she moved.”

“Yes, sir.”

It’d been brought to his attention.

They had come full circle, because the ghost of another smile quickly hid behind a smoke screen and innocent, “Do you know where she moved to?” Not waiting, Agent Talbot finished, “516. One floor below. She claims she got a better price.”

“You spoke to my target?”

“Ben sir.” That was more French. “Since we’re all doing it. But my question is, given the number of little details you don’t appear to have, where did you get your information?”

Agent Aird prided himself on admitting faults. It sped up being able to fix things when he bit the bullet early. Right now, he recognized he’d been distracted by trying to process an A-3’s actual ribbing to see where this was going. Agent Talbot’s aloofness waned, and when his grinning wince tightened now, it took on an air of concentration. These changes were slight and almost imperceptible with sunglasses blocking the man’s eyes, but Agent Aird paid too close attention to miss.

For whatever reason, the A-3 was more concerned by this than by what had happened during Agent Aird’s DTD encounter.

“From the working case file, sir.”

“When?”

“Two days ago.” And it was gone. The instant those words hit the air, Agent Talbot stopped caring, leaving Agent Aird flapping in the breeze as he waited for the reward that wasn’t coming: the full story. “If something is wrong with my case, I’m obligated –”

“Your case is safe, only missing your target’s proper whereabouts. Stay out of 616,” Agent Talbot said. He crushed his snack on the dumpster’s inside wall and dropped the butt down a corner. Agent Aird might have protested this if he wasn’t more immediately concerned by the A-3 reaching for the lid. “Thank you, Mr. Aird. You’ve been very helpful.”

The hollow slap of this rotting grave closing drowned out his yells, but the even worse sound of a phone being answered while footsteps moved away shut him up entirely.

Jason laid his head back on the trash bags.

Agent Aird’s deference to higher authority can come at personal expense.

He noticed his suit had been trying to ping him. It quietly rumbled against his collar.

« Administering 14 (100%) – confirm/deny? »

No.

But maybe.

Was there a dragon?

The only reason Alex stayed in the lobby was to make sure they weren’t coming back. Once he had, he headed straight for the hall on the left – chin down, hands inside his pockets, moving until any eyes keeping track lost sight of him – and went that way until he hit a corner turned towards the mansion’s guts again. He stopped there and leaned against the wall, relieved at finally having one behind him.

“So that was…” Yeah. He leaned his head against the wall, too. “Fucking artists…”

I warned you. ‘Pack of dicks’, I said.

“I thought you meant they’d laugh at my sense of style or something, not flip out ‘cause I can’t recite the zodiac.” Was there a dragon? His one shred of knowledge on this thing had vanished. “Forget it. I’ve got bigger assholes to worry about than her asshole friend.”

D’awwww!

“The Agents.” Xander took the dumbest stuff as compliments. “Tell me you have something on them. Anything.” The sooner they nailed this theory on who these swarms were after, the better. He didn’t get a reply, though. When the reason for that dawned on him, he ground his knuckle into his forehead, trying to smother the thudding aches. “Thank you, Xander, for being the bigger asshole, even though you had no reason to help me outside of your giant, caring heart.”

Xander flopped around in his tribute, enjoying the praise, but eventually reported, Nothing new.

“Seriously?”

Surprise, surprise – I can’t hunt Agents where there are no Agents to be found. His fist clenched. Did make progress on this, though.

“Wh–” And he dropped, collapsing on the tile as he choked, “– furh –”

I told you. You had ten minutes. As he sat with face planted on the floor, hacking from the pain across his ribs, Alex vaguely remembered those words. It’s 8:13, which means you got an extra seven.

“Thanks,” he rasped, “for being so patient with your shot to my lungs.”

Yeah – I mean, I’m not gonna be rude about it. We were in the presence of Terrance SheridanOh, was that what made the goddamn difference? Hey. You’re still down there.

He had ten minutes to fetch a drink and nine seconds to get up after he didn’t. Alright. There was their schedule. He climbed awkwardly to his knees.

“Happy?” Great. Talking hurt. “I can’t leave until Beth’s back, genius.”

I can wait. But owing to your poor decision to save Pequods ‘til after the gallery – oh no, sorry, fucking ‘Roasters’ – you better hope she’s here in the next three minutes. His torso went numb. Xander had taken it for a bit. Aw, you fuckin’ baby. Quit flattering yourself. You’ve walked into doors harder.

“Doors don’t aim,” he chewed off. But he stood, annoyingly aware of how it’d changed from ‘effort’ to ‘instinct’ over the years. The silence hinted someone was waiting on gratitude for that, too. “This doesn’t count as training me.”

You took a surprise hook, coughed a little and hopped up. When this started, you once cried ‘cause I said I was gonna slap you, then slapped you. Alex didn’t cry – At this rate, I’ll have you crushing bricks with your head by the time you’re thirty.

At least one of them had a dream.

He limped along the rest of the gold-soaked hall, past the brightness that the corner had offered. The windows being left behind were covered by those same, thick curtains, but there’d been a dotted line of squashed, yellow skylights on the ceiling. Lemon-shaped skylights. ‘Lemon light’. Yeah, he got it. They didn’t keep leading him, so except for a white square ahead he guessed was a lit room, the hall sank to black fast.

Alex hunched more, not liking the mood of this. He tried to lighten it by murmuring, “You’ve been here six years and I still have to take it day-by-day. Don’t remind me that you’re staying for the next four.”

Probably only two now.

He slowed to a crawl. That wasn’t lighter.

“‘Two’?”

Or thereabouts. Probably two.

His mostly digested juice-flakes turned to ice.

“A month ago, you told me five.”

Key words: a month ago. My energy’s not as shit this week, but we all have our good days.

… Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck –”

That’s out loud.

I don’t fucking care,” he spat. The hall was empty anyway – whatever. He checked though, despite himself, and brought his voice down just in case. “How did your death date drop by three years? We went over this!”

Xander had been very specific that based on how fast he was losing strength, he wouldn’t be able to take control after five more years. Five.

I high-balled you. The guy sounded too calm. Call me crazy, but I had a feeling that otherwise, you were gonna cry and shit your pants. His lungs sucked in a cold gasp. Breathe, dumbass.

Right. He forgot when he switched to pacing around, tugging at his hair since it came the closest to strangling this unstrangleable

“Why are you telling me now?”

As in, ‘right now, on top of all the other stresses’.

I had to eventually and you brought it up. Plus you seemed chill. That’s usually my perfect storm to tell you shit. That wasn’t what that movie was about. And we’re on a ground floor, so it beats telling you on the sixth storey and watching the panicked defenestration. Xander made a noise damn close to a huff. Shall I add this to your list of crap I’m not allowed to talk about?

No.” Crushing his knuckles against his head wasn’t helping anymore. He gave up and let out a ragged sigh. “No, I – just… I needed to hear it, alright, but you could’ve put it better – or waited or… something.”

You want ten minutes of foreplay for ten seconds of news. I’ve literally finished explaining I don’t have that kind of time.

“Your voice isn’t going anywhere,” he shoved back. “Alright, sorry. It’s fine.”

I know it’s fine. I’d like to have these conversations on the first try, but again, shit-pants.

Because he was the one stuck with the Agents. They weren’t just going to drop from their next-level nightmare to an angry but survivable chase for him, and Alex had long since accepted he couldn’t unlock Xander’s subconscious, psycho, death hound, berzerker strength. They were the same person, so it used to make sense thinking they could do the same things. It didn’t happen like that. He’d squeezed a few techniques under his belt, but every other fight left him counting on self-possession or muscle memory.

“I can’t even see suits.” There’d be a second spy later, if one hadn’t crawled in already. Eventually, they’d notice Xander wearing down. Or maybe they had. Maybe the Frenchman knew and was running out the clock with these cheap attacks, and this was all just their grand scheme. “You have to make sure I can do this. I don’t care how.”

Ooh. Was that free rein?

“No brick smashing.”

The number ‘two’ echoed in his mind. He’d sworn five years wasn’t long enough. It’d only been half of one since Xander floated the Death Date theory, but they were talking then about a vague ‘sometime possibly’. Three months passed before it changed to ‘the foreseeable future’. As Alex had mentioned, the date tweaked again last month. His updates were getting faster, if nothing else. By Christmas, he might even hear the whole truth.

He hoped to hell it wasn’t something like ‘tomorrow’. The thought pitched a wave across his stomach.

Their last ten feet to the room was silent, but walking in had him grateful for the break from more goddamn gold. Now he could go blind from all the white. A glass tower sat at the middle of the bedroom-sized roof, shining down a sickly clean pillar that bounced more light off the whiter walls. Squinting helped him find a see-through box by its edges and the wires it hung on. The box had then been stuffed with scraps of whitest paper.

He guessed that was the art.

Thinking of you.

“What?”

The thing’s name. Xander angled him towards black letters on his left. ‘This installation serves as a pseudo-functionalist revisioning of legacies. The obituaries collected within its cube embody our memories over time, left to fade to obscurity under the sun of new horizons.’ He paused. The fuck is this kitschy shit?

Alex blinked away the light’s glare. The farthest wall had twin black ovals painted on, just outside the sun laser’s reach. More details came as he adjusted to the brightness.

“Those are eyes.” He glanced at the rest of it. White walls, ‘memories’… “This is supposed to be a skull.”

I bet the asshole who made it went home and jerked off for ten hours about how profound he was, then jerked it again to holler’s doors and the phrase ‘avant-garde’. Oh, how I love being here instead of my humble coffeehouse. There’s nothing I enjoy more than art. Maybe I’ll even get to see some!

“It isn’t that bad.” The skull gave the room kind of an adult Playplace vibe. He felt a smile touching his face, a little proud over figuring it out. “I like it.”

You also liked the dragon-horse. ‘Scuse me if I don’t read into your opinion.

Another entrance was at the back, where the skull’s right cheek would be. Alex headed there, more upbeat. It led into shadow territory again, but he could probably open a window. There’d been tons around and he doubted Terrance cared.

“Since when did you become an art snob?”

Since the best art became the blurbs.

That got his second grin going. To it, Alex said, “I don’t understand how you like everything I hate, but as soon as I take an interest in –”

Ice.

The sentence died inside his mouth. Bile pooled under his tongue as a man stepped from the hall and into the skull. It bubbled with the sharp taste of acid as he and Alex locked eyes.

“Oh.”

He heard a sea of meaning hid behind the man’s ‘oh’, almost as much as from the kid who walked in next and muttered, “Told you.”

Shit.

Alex tore through every face he’d ever saved in his pit of hyper-memory. Thousands flashed across his mind, scrambling to match.

The man was going gray and wore a leathery grimace. The kid had just ditched his teens, with a patchy lip of fuzz as proof. They were the same height, both wearing an orange shirt and tan pants, their black logos smeared by grayish paint or plaster. In their hands were stuffed tool bags, as if they’d packed to go home.

He had never seen this pair before but they knew who he was. And they knew he knew what they were.

He felt his blood freeze.

Ask ‘em where they hid the talent in this fuckin’ place. ‘Challenges norms’, my ass.

He couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t move. Out of options, Alex waited for them to start.

There! With his eyebrows – the kid did a… thing. The man understood what it meant and seemed to reply through silence. The kid turned to watch the suddenly fascinating hall, leaving his older friend to hitch his breath before he spoke.

“We’re closed.” The skull echoed those words at them. “What are you doing here?”

His throat had dried but he got out a rough, “I’m… a guest.”

“We’re closed to guests, too.”

The man passed between firm and wary. Firm, Alex accepted – hell, he welcomed anything that decided the pecking order fast. But ‘wary’… His arms tensed.

Concentrate.

“I’m waiting for one of the artists,” he said.

“Which artist?”

“Beth.”

“Beth what?”

“I don’t know her last name.”

That grimace deepened to a frown.

“Then describe her for me.”

‘Describe her’. Why?

Xander was paying even less attention than the kid now staring at the floor, so he didn’t plan on holding out for advice. He steadied himself, remembering to breathe and that no one was attacking anybody yet. They were normal people in a normal conversation.

“Brunette,” he listed. “Freckles. Overalls.”

The man pulled back, lowering his head and rubbing it like a war captain who’d heard his reinforcements died.

“That’ll be Keeler.” When the man looked him in the eye again, Alex didn’t miss the effort it took. “Guest or not, we have a gallery to set up and limited time to do it. You, I want keeping to this area. Don’t touch the exhibits. Do we understand each other?”

“I – yeah.”

“Good.” Giving him a clipped nod, the man moved away as the official end to their discussion. He swatted the kid next. “Carbon, go.”

“Yessir.”

Not once had the kid so much as glanced at him, and as if they were still testing the waters, they lingered where they were. The man finally herded the pair off, disappearing the way they came like this route wasn’t worth it anymore.

At least he didn’t have to hunt for a wall to drop on now.

“I hate this place,” he gasped, dropping. “I hate this room, I hate this skull, I hate strangers and I hate the darkness.”

I dunno. It’s not so bad once you get into it.

“Did you not pick up on any of that?” He dragged himself across the wall, hand over hand, aiming for the lobby – and exit. “Those were them!”

‘Them’.

“Yes, ‘them’.” He straightened long enough to do air quotes. “You know. ‘Them’?”

Contractors.

“No.”

Custodians.

No –”

NAMBLA?

“Shut up and let me finish,” he hissed. Alex staggered into the hall with the skylights. “‘Them’, meaning the other people after us. The non-Agents. The anti-Agents.”

Ohhh. You mean the group indistinguishable from ordinary citizens that you constantly order pre-emptive strikes on.

“It’s that or eat a fireball.”

Or lightning. Even Xander’d found that uncomfortable.

I’m gonna go ahead and say this like it’s news: you’re paranoid. This is a symptom of it.

Alex glared into space.

“It didn’t seem off for them to be lurking around? They didn’t act like they were planning shit?” He rewound the past five minutes. “They asked about Beth.”

They asked you to name Beth, which they would’ve done for anybody you said. ‘Who are you here with? Joe? Who the fuck is Joe, you lying prick? Oh, Joe Knob? My apologies, sir. Clearly you have high connections.’

It was that easy, huh?

“I know you can’t tell when it’s not about Agents –”

Fine. Let’s play your game. Xander took over his right arm purely to add a flourishing hand gesture. Imagine they’re exactly what you claim they are. Imagine they’re super strong and dangerous and have all the fun stuff you whine about. Marry that to this basic fact: they’re gone. His fingers wiggled in unfathomable excitement. If they’re up to shit, it’s got fuck-all to do with you. If they’re not, I’m saving their asses from your crazy one.

Alex dug his feet into the ground and curled his lip.

“Don’t talk like you’re some hero when I’ve still got a suit’s blood under my nails.”

Yeah, I’m saving that. I like to keep trophies from my murderin’. Speakin’ of which… His spirit fingers quickly balled into a jazz fist. You are again over your allotted amount of time.

And then the fifth voice erupted.

OI!” Alex snatched his hand back. Xander let him. The weight of a slur of noises blasted through the white room, roared across the shadows and hammered into his head like an avalanche. “CAWKFAK!

The word slammed his ears.

‘Cockfuck’. Well – good work, everybody. I’d say that’s the end of people trying. Xander punched Alex anyway, then full took control, really dawdling on when that included his torso. Almost as loud, he answered, “Can I help you, dick docker?

“So now you believe me.”

Shhhhh.

He would take that as his ‘yes’. Xander replied by releasing his stomach. The pain barely had time to hit him before it became the last thing on Alex’s mind.

A fleshy, bald-headed, pink sack of beer guts with four – oh, fantastic – tree trunk arms thundered out into their hall. Its bloodshot eyes swiveled over the space, and as it gushed air from its nostrils, torrents of drool leaked from its teeth. The goddamn second it saw him at the corner, under the first lemon-shaped skylight going back, it howled again, louder.

Alley-FAKKIN’-xan-dah!” It also had an orange shirt and tan pants, with two extra holes torn for two extra limbs clawing out, looking too meaty for its stubby legs to lift. “Ya killed a hawl lot’f m’friends, ya li’l shitcant.

Xander had to translate for a moment, but then he said, “Cool. Anyone I’d remember?”

“Ya fakkin’ shit,” it screeched. The veins down its damp neck were pulsing. Nearly bursting them, the moist beast whipped its head towards the white room. “OI. Do I haft’a do everythin’ m’-fakkin’-self? Get y’cants out ‘ere ‘fore I shove ‘em up y’cant-eatin’ queen!”

He’s gonna squish real good. Alex’s shoulders turned, angling into a coil. His arms hung loose, one pointed at the moist beast and the other obscured behind his waist. Xander liked keeping the hand he used to rip jaws off a surprise. Four arms. His knuckles cracked. Hope he has room to fit those up his ass, or this’s gonna be unpleasant.

 



Hey, friends! TOKoR’s listed on Top Web Fiction. Grab a few seconds and vote for the story! Every effort supports the series and is paid back in priceless, warm, fuzzy feelings.

[E] “Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts.”

Bethany loved this place. She felt more at home within these walls than the ones she paid rent for. If she hadn’t already tried and been found and kicked out, she would live here instead.

The mood was a stoic peace wrapped in white and gold, gently settled by polished floors of crisp pearl. Dust waltzed through the skylight’s round and filtered glow. She watched it spin under the porcelain masks hanging at the highest corners. The masks were hand-carved by their featured artists, and although they hid behind blushing shadows, she sensed their fashioned smiles upon her. A gilded embossment tied the whole effect together, reaching up from behind the curved reception desk to the ceiling as an intricate tree. Its branches arched over the three halls and dark entryways.

Beautiful. Romantic. Sullen. Suave. Resolute. Exquisite. A hundred words and more. She clutched Primed and Tuned, letting its frame steady her. The foyer’s openness and classical design left her free to sail across the room as much as sit and drink this quiet atmosphere. Nowhere else offered that emotion. She sighed, dreamy and full of glee, then turned to face her guest.

“Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts,” she declared, “your gateway to the nation’s most inspired collection of homegrown talent. Since 1993, these halls have paid tribute to our unsung masters of style, who challenged the norms of their day to shape a new trend. From painters to sculptors, photographers and models, these artists have thrown caution to the wind and dare you to flourish in their world.”

Alex looked confused.

“Did you practise that?”

Technically.

“I work the front desk most weeks,” she said. “I know that blurb better than I know my name.”

“Which is why it’s such a marvel she never remembers it.” Terry! The man of the hour, always prepped to lend his sardonic tenor to a chat. Today, he wafted in from the East Wing, clipping along the floor with shoes shined to a mirror finish, ironed slacks, a tidy vest – charcoal and pinstriped – and his famous, royal yellow shirt and tie. When he stopped, it was at a respectable two and a half feet. “I see we’ve brought a pack mule.”

“Good morning to you, too,” she greeted. “Where’s my breakfast?”

“Where indeed? I didn’t honestly expect you to arrive on time. Colour me shocked.” Terry tipped his whip-straight nose to Alex. “You have a new friend.”

“So that’s a no on breakfast? Do you want to move it to brunch? Lunch? One of your fifty teatimes?”

“Bethany,” he sang, looking good and uncomfortable under his stylized face scruff. “I can’t introduce myself.”

It was ‘unseemly’.

“I know. I like making you wait.” He gave her a tch. In his native land, which here meant Brighton instead of Jordan where he’d actually been born, the noise meant ‘You utter bitch’. Point: Beth. “Terry, this is Alex. He’s from my building. Alex, this is Terry. He’s the –”

Stop. Stop.” Now the man looked pained. The left of his raised-in-perma-sarcasm brows twitched, but he composed himself and extended a hand – not to shake, but merely gesture. With it, he gathered a breath and leaned into a glorious exhalation. “Alex.” The room savoured the sound, balancing the syllables hovered over them. “Terrance Sheridan. Director of Lemonlight Fine Arts. Co-owner of the estate to which you’ve journeyed this morn. It is a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.”

“Hey,” Alex said.

They waited.

And they waited.

So it turned out silence hovered, too.

“We’re going to Roasters,” she blabbed, “after this thing with Edison’s done. I brought the stuff!” Beth lifted her canvas. “Fresh off the brush, all for him.” Terry hadn’t shifted his eyes from Alex yet. Alex, who she’d been trying to unwind from the ball of nerves he’d been since she opened her door. He started to freeze at the hawkish attention. Beth to the rescue. “Ter? Money?”

That caught his interest. Terry swiveled to find Primed and Tuned waiting.

“Well, this is manic.” He ran a thumb down its length. Yes, the acrylic was dry, and what he was checking for happened once. “Fresh off the brush, you say. Not ‘tube’?”

There came a faint heat to her cheeks.

“I… may have had to manually adjust some places…”

He recoiled, gasping, “Beth.”

Yeah, hilarious.

“I’m not proud,” she said, “but it’s not like Edison’s going to care. It counts as a part of RAR, and I was showing Alex this morning that if you look at the right angle –”

Once again, Terry cut through, having waved a palm and gone, “Up-up – no. You’ve done your eighth of the work. The rest, you leave to me.” Somehow, Alex got roped back into his line of fire. “So. She showed you this morning. And what did you think?”

Nonchalant, her neighbour answered, “Good.”

“Mm.” To Beth: “Doesn’t talk much, does he?”

“He’s new to this,” she told him. “When we’re done at Roasters, we’re going to wander around here and flesh out his experience. It’ll be an official Lemonlight sightseeing tour.”

“What a treat.” Terry beamed, though his mouth looked a touch too wide and his stare a tad narrow. He’d – for the third time – turned his focus onto her date, who at least seemed more comfortable with it since he pleasantly wide-smiled-narrow-stared right back. Eventually, however, Terry loosed a second ‘Mm’, then motioned to the paintings Alex had tucked underneath his arm. “What are those?”

She braced. Here went nothing.

“My new series! I call it: Pink Beauty, and it requires a very open mind –”

“It’s shit, isn’t it?”

“Wh– no.” Stay positive. “It’s your boulder!” Stay positive, Beth. After all, this was Terry. Ter-bear! Also Terrynx-larynx, for when he needed to fall down a peg. She glued on her ray of sunshine and barrelled through. “You always say you can squeeze pennies from a rock, so… surprise! Here’s your ultimate challenge.”

“Funny,” Terry said. “I can’t recall asking for a challenge.”

Okay, screw positive.

“No, you asked for nine pieces of RAR, and then bumped me to five to fit Jess in since your professional loyalty’s no contest to Edison’s wallet. You completely reneged on your duty to the actual artists slaving to fill this place, so you’re going to take Pink Beauty and cram it down his neck until Edison spits up cash, and you’re going to drop your precious commission because this is your fault to begin with.”

“She’s a bit of a firecracker,” he chirped at Alex.

“Terry!”

“All right, all right – I’ll sell the bloody thing. Inside voices,” he scolded. “Show me already.”

Beth made sure he wasn’t going to change his mind, which he promised via frustrated hand flap at the unicorn trio. Fine. She was holding him to it. Retrieving her latest creation, she arranged the frames in a proper display on the floor.

Terry studied these for the longest time, pressing his fingers into a steeple against his lips. More silence. When she couldn’t keep taking it, she blurted, “Well?”

“Ms. Keeler.” Ugh – he took forever to say her name. Stupid pauses for dramatic effect… “I stand corrected. That.” He pointed by tilting his steeple forward. “That is divine.”

“Aw, shut up.”

“I’m being a thousand times serious. Look at the pony!” Beth would slap him. “It’s fighting a lizard monster! Is this its tongue, by the way?”

“A horn,” Alex popped in, obviously not too unsociable that he would miss a chance to ladle on crap with this jerk. But he grinned at her, coming dangerously close to yesterday’s adorable smirk. “I still like it.”

Then he was still wrong, since Pink Beauty – not lacking a better word – sucked. But… she appreciated the sentiment. She thought he’d been joking before, as expected from everyone else. His sincerity gave her a warm flutter of gratitude.

“Thank you,” she told him.

He did seriously need to learn about art, though. She was not having him compliment the horse if he still couldn’t ‘get’ RAR.

From out of her peripherals, Beth caught Terry’s brow twitching again.

“Good to know she’ll listen to someone,” he noted breezily. “Alex.” Hands clasped, and stepping to the side of her grounded paintings, he wandered closer. “Any last names, or do you only have the one?”

Alex moved his head, dutifully following Terry’s approach.

“It’s just that.”

Did she detect a hint of something? Hostility?

“Ah! Much like Bono. Another man of small mystery.” Terry’s lips quirked. “Cancer.”

“‘Scuse me?”

Definite hostility. She jumped to explain, but not before Terry rammed ahead with, “The crab!” Of course the crab. This was his icebreaker. “Your sign. Astrology. I’ve a talent for reading postures, and yours holds a distinct guardedness across the chest.”

Alex continued staring.

Okay.

Um.

Don’t mind her or anything. She was simply going to tip-toe back on over to the spotlight and ask, “Where’s Edison?”

“Office.” Bethany had had the oddest sensation, as though dear Terry forgot she was here and him saying ‘Office’ marked more of a coincidence than a reply. “Are you?”

To which Alex – not her, since ha, ha, Beth who – said, “Are I what?”

The left brow gave its third twitch, and a lithe wince alighted on Terry’s smile. Never one to let grammar interrupt the theatrics, however, he composed himself and gently prodded, “A Cancer.”

So this was happening? The train had boarded and the ball had already started to roll? Her last attempt at changing the subject involved a cough for their attention and the novel suggestion of, “Maybe we should go to the office.”

“Is that the dragon?”

Alex, according to these four words, hadn’t heard Beth at all, and thus resumed the two men totally ignoring her.

“The dragon is from the Chinese zodiac. We’re focused on the Western set.”

“There’s two?”

“Two –” Terry practically choked. “There’s more than one, as the common knowledge goes.”

She got nothing from either of them.

“Common knowledge. ‘Cause it’s not real knowledge, I guess.”

“Spoken like a Taurus.”

“Is that the dragon?”

Fine! Beth started gathering the canvases her own damn self.

“Let’s go slow,” Terry said, pushing on, “as I do for all the kiddies who don’t quite have it. Taurus is the bull, assigned to late April and May. Not a dragon. Cancer is the crab for late June and July. Not a dragon. I am a Libra. The balanced scales. A refined advocate. Romantic. Not, despite what one might assume, a dragon. Clearer?”

It seemed like Alex was enjoying things after all. Good for him.

“Oh. Those. The goat and the cat and the – right, sure.” He nodded. “I’m in the middle of March. What sign’s that again: the little boy Zeus kidnapped to fetch him booze and bend over, or the half-horse too busy reading to rape as much as the other centaurs? I’m always confused.”

Terry hummed a grim chuckle.

“Pisces. March is a Pisces, with the middle of the month forming an Aries cusp.” His sardonicism cranked to eleven. “Yes, that’d be right.”

“And so relieving! I was worried we weren’t gonna solve this.”

To twelve for Alex.

“It’s the magic of teamwork.” Call the press: Terry’d hit thirteen, and his happy expression pulled tight enough to nearly crack his face in two. “As I said, I’m sure it’s been a pleasure.”

That was her cue. With both series piled snugly atop her wrists, Beth took the chance to get a word in.

“I don’t know about you,” she announced, “but too much male bonding makes my head spin. What do you say we put a pin in this and let Terry get on to bringing my art over for Edison?”

His brow shot so far up his forehead, it was all it could do to not pop off.

“You can’t seriously think you’re not helping me with this,” he barked. Then since everyone waited for his instruction, Terry spun on his heel and glided into the dark hall from whence he came. “Keep up, you.” Snap, snap. “Bring the wares.”

She decided not to move until he vanished. As soon as he had, she was all over apologizing to Alex.

“I am so, so sorry. He’s normally a nice guy –” Well, in public. “– but he’s also sort of my boss and I can’t do as much to help as I want when he’s – ah… less nice.”

Or whatever they wanted to call this tiff. Oh. A tiff! Perfect.

“It’s fine,” Alex assured, casually shifting his weight. That shirt was the best mix of tight and modest. “But for the record, if anything says I’m not paying today, that was it.”

“Right – you’ve got it. For enduring him, the first coffee’s on me.” The wind flew out from her lungs. She hadn’t even noticed she’d been holding it there. “Feel free to wander until I’m done. I’ll come find you.”

She left him and jogged into the shadows alone, following after Terry’s wake, but it wasn’t until she arrived surrounded by a cloak of shade that she realized describing this as such felt entirely too generous. The hall was pitch black, save for white outlines glowing around the curtains at the far end. She walked by squeaking her foot forward and touched for paths with the edges of her outstretched paintings.

Where was he?

“Beth!”

Jesus, Ter –”

Two hands took her by the waist and steered her down the long way to the office. Every time – every time Bethany went somewhere dark and hadn’t adjusted yet, Terry, half-bat, frigging appeared and freaked her ass out.

“What an absolute wanker,” he fumed, doing an excellent job of not walking her into a wall. He did a poorer job of speaking with the inside voice he’d mentioned. It ran straight through her ear while his fancy beard tickled her lobe. “I had him pegged right for it as he walked in. I let him talk, of course, for your sake, before casting my judgement, but now it has been cast. Wanker.”

“Easy, Ter,” she said. “He’s not that bad.”

Too little, too late. Terry started mocking Alex through his teeth.

Two zodiacs? Where’s the dragon? Aren’t the centaurs sexual deviants? Didn’t Zeus bugger Aquarius?” Which sounded like Zeus, but she chose not to point it out. Mandela’s Peace Prize awaited her claim. “Honestly, Bethany. Your heart cannot have been so dashed by our uncoupling that this is what attracts you now. He might look like me –”

Whoooooooa.

“Down, boy,” she told him. “You two do not look alike.”

He squeezed her sides and led her through another blind corridor. Ah, the scenic route, the favoured path of people who weren’t carrying four big, flat pieces on their arms.

“Beth,” the people in question assured her. “I’m flattered. Truly, I am. But I’m not stupid. He’s taller than you, I’m taller than you. He’s well-built, and so am I. He has a bronze complexion…”

“You think you’re bronze now?”

Because outside of his amber, Arabic flush, Terry was as fair-skinned as they came. At her best pre-third degree tan, she managed a shade beiger. Alex’s ‘complexion’, on the other hand, embodied deliciousness, like a medium double-double.

Secondly, well-built? Terry was ten percent body-fat! The skinny ten percent, not the toned fifteen Alex clearly worked with. His admittedly impressive sense of style may have allowed Ter to moonlight as someone svelte-esque, but be serious.

“Same diamond-shaped head, same dazzling smile for occasions like being a prick, and he has the same ebony hair as I. Except I’ve cut mine whilst giving a shit –” He grew it past his chin, oiled it, then tucked the locks behind his ears. “– and he’s used a hacksaw.”

Was he going to mention the long schnoz, down-turned eyes, plucked caterpillars who’d given their lives to emote his pouts, or – again – the tickly jaw fur obsessively trimmed to a fade Alex didn’t have?

“You don’t look alike,” she repeated. “You’re taller by a breathtaking inch.”

“Inch and a half. Please,” he said, before she could call him on using colonial measurements, “let me believe this is your quarter-life crisis, and you’ll run its course without begging to move in with me once the thrill of your fling has lifted and you’ve realized the shame of floorcest.”

“He doesn’t live on my floor. That’s how much you know.”

“Oh! Well. Pardon me, then.” Beth could hear him shaking his head behind her, still simmering from Alex. “I suppose whether he is or isn’t a wanker – although he is, it’s not my place to comment on your affairs.”

“In writing, please,” she crooned.

“And I suppose,” he talked over her, “it could be worse. You haven’t shacked up with your other neighbours yet.”

It took eight steps for the ‘yet’ to register. She’d furrowed her brow by the ninth. On the tenth, a thought occurred to her.

“Terry,” she began. “Are you…?”

He tittered. Nothing good ever came of those.

“I’m simply playing the house,” he swore. “Everyone else bet on how long it’ll be. Big money’s on the New Year, so just keep these –” He tapped her thighs. “– closed until January, yes? Or forever. Amuse yourself with sodding Alex.”

She must have been really drunk still, to misunderstand the situation as obviously as she was. Surely a cluster of assholes wasn’t actually gambling on her sex life, when that was the one thing they agreed was off-limits.

“Ter?”

“Mm-hmm?”

“Who’s ‘everyone else’ that’s betting, exactly?”

After drumming on her overalls, Terry replied, “You remember the group we had over Gina’s pregnancy test.” She remembered losing fifty bucks on a barely there pink line. “Us again! Only it’s about you now.”

“About me shacking up with –”

“No, being murdered by, when you’ve let your guard down after a night of fresh starts and rigorous toi-et-deux-rois. Really, Beth,” he said. “This isn’t my first pari-mutuel. As if I’d allow wagers on something someone could influence.” Oh dear God. “Your private life is your own, unless it makes an airtight case for how the main event unfolds.”

To clarify, she echoed, “The main event being that my neighbours will inevitably kill me.”

“You’ve been on about it since they moved in. At this point, we’ve assumed it’s happening.” Terry was taking extra turns on purpose. The office was not this far away. “We gathered the theory during our creative thinking exercise last week. Missed you at that. Next one’s early November.”

“Don’t hold your breath for my R.S.V.P,” she bit off at him. “I might be inevitably dead by then.”

“Oof. Hard luck on that payout. But I wouldn’t worry; if they left you alone for this long, there’s a good chance they’ve up and killed each other,” he spectacularly failed to allay. “Unless, perhaps, your building hid its drugs long enough to learn English and call the police?”

Her building had called somebody, Beth knew from today, but not a cop.

“No.”

“Then dead it is. Such a shame – RAR was growing on me.” The fingers on her sides tightened for a moment. “What’s your problem?”

“Huh?”

“You’re not as bouncy all of the sudden, which means you have a problem.” He tried actually bouncing her to prove it. “Like a wet sack of cats.” Thank you. “So what’s wrong? Bedded them already? Both? Only one, but twice? As I mentioned, it’s not my place to comment. Though I’ll judge. And tut. Might even wag my finger.”

If anything would be the death of her, it was his sense of humour. She’d worked too hard convincing herself that she didn’t need to spit a trail of forensic DNA to let Terry stick her with another dose of worry. Calmly, collectedly, she said with high hopes that he couldn’t notice the slight wobble in her voice from last-second doubt, “It’s nothing.”

He noticed. He so noticed, in fact, he stopped his blind-sighted power strut and brought her to a halt.

“Bethany,” Terry warned. “What’s happened?”

“Nothing!” For her next trick, she added, “As far as dropping my guard is concerned. I can’t really be caught off of it in a vibrant, bustling, noisy, public place like Roasters, right?”

She literally, figuratively, heard him putting the pieces together. The very instant he had, he whirled her to face him – presumably to stare into her eyes, but hello, still dark – and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“You didn’t.” He rumbled the words. “Beth. You didn’t.”

Her neighbours were the only stories she never had to fluff. Following that novelty, Terry – and tons of others, like regular visitors, fellow artists, maintenance workers, check-out clerks, raccoons, birds, and Jessica, but especially Terry – knew every detail.

“It’s a cup of coffee,” she said, “and a quick tour. I mean, I don’t know… Is it so dangerous?”

“That you’ve just asked whether it was dangerous rather than any other adjective in your vocabulary says more than you most days,” he spelled out at her. “Yes! The answer is yes! It is really fucking dangerous.”

“But,” she shushed, because oh God, be quiet, “he is really cute. And – and – stop it – of the two of them, he’s not crazy. It’s his brother-roommate-friend person. Alex apologized for the noise.” After he stalked her back home, she omitted. “By the way, I have a wonderful vocabulary, you…”

What a lovely time to draw a blank.

Terry’s fingers retightened and relaxed. Then they tightened, relaxed, and held.

“Alex,” he began. “No last name of which we can speak. Allegedly sane – brother indeed – and is aware of where you live.”

“Yes.”

“He has bruises on his jaw. You’re not aware if he’s given as good as he gets. And you have no way of telling if whatever is his problem can become your problem next.”

Those were good points.

“But he’s so cute.”

“Not happening.” Terry whirled her back and marched her on towards the office. “It’s not happening. I’ll not allow it. Let him wait for a while, and then we say there’s been a painting emergency and he’ll have to go home.”

“Um…” Now she was second guessing the second guesses. Alex seemed so nice… and more scared of her than vice versa. “I drove him here –”

“Bus. Cab. Couldn’t care less. Fly, for God’s sake, but he’s leaving.”

Once or twice, she’d fluffed the story for him a bit.

“Maybe you’re overreacting,” she said. “He seems normal.”

This time when he spun her, a muted shine from underneath the nearby at last office door helped her to pick the disappointed frown across his features. Terry looked annoyed by what she’d suggested, and the expression of ‘How have you lived this long without choking to death on your tongue when you sleep’ reminded her how nice it was not to still be dating that.

“We’ll get your things when he’s gone. You’ll stay with me for now. The single ‘probably’ I want to hear is you’ll probably look for a new flat while you’re at it.”

Alex seemed normal.

“Whatever,” she mumbled.

“Not whatever. Yes. I’ve had a trying enough time with you in that hovel,” he shot back. “Now’s an even better occasion to leave it behind. Clear?”

Practised, Beth glued on her frilly sunshine ray again.

“We’re clear.”

“Good.” He released her arms to go into preening mode, straightening his vest. “Right – you know the rules with him. Old Man Misogyny: play dumb, look pleasant, let me be the son he never had, and I’ll have you set for rent at wherever you live next.” Gently, he chuckled to her. “I was largely kidding about the pool. Had I honestly thought you would talk to one of them, I would have placed my bet first.”

She chuckled too, so sweetly, readjusting the canvases as she agreed, “Let’s get this over with.”

Then she was going to Pequods.

“You know who else painted?”

It was the longest walk he’d had down five flights of stairs.

‘Hop in the car,’ she told him. So he did. The smack of the door shut the world off to him while she stood outside, merrily shoving crap in her trunk, oblivious to everything headed her way.

“We are the worst people.”

He would’ve liked some silence to let it sink in. Instead he had Xander.

You countin’ Adolph? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that guy was vegetarian.

“We’re leaving her to die.” Before the psycho got too giddy, Alex tacked on a flat, “Not literally.” But yes, literally, if they caught her. They would. The Agents were already this far. “Your suit said it was hunting a painter. This girl is one.” The dots weren’t hard to connect. It fit Xander’s theory, too: Agents didn’t breathe so much life into cover stories. She cared about her pictures. Someone lying couldn’t fake that. “I can’t help her, even if she is innocent. They sent sixty guys.”

Could whittle it to forty.

Alex shook his head.

“It’s not a physical ‘can’t’. We’re not getting involved.”

He ordered, riding shotgun.

“Just stay out of it,” he said. “Do what you’re here to do. If shit hits a fan, we’re gone and she’s on her own.”

Beth. The girl’s name was Beth. He rubbed a hand across his face, trying to stay awake long enough to remember. So maybe coffee wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t make going outside any less suicidal. The sidewalks looked empty, but only as far as he could tell, and not two seconds later came a thud that shot off behind him.

He nearly broke his neck whipping around to see. It sounded like something had hurled through the trunk, but the lid was still propped. Alex saw her puttering over it from the side-view mirror. False alarm.

Cut her brakes, crack her ankle. Gotcha.

“No, don’t –” Again, he rubbed his face. The little adrenaline spikes always left him worse off. “Don’t let it seem like we’re here to save her. That’s all. Throw her a few tips, point her in the right direction, but you already risked my life for someone once.” Peter. “Next time, it might be us smashed with a rock.”

As is, of course, the natural rock smashing cycle. Another thud. He caught a glimpse of the trunk bouncing back up. So it had been slammed. What was going on out there? I’m surprised you’re not swinging the other way on this. The chick has two separate teams allegedly juggling her case. It’s no nine year manhunt, but her powers aren’t active. That doesn’t interest you?

“Nope.”

You fuckin’ suck, Alex.

“Stay out of it, I said.” He hadn’t noticed he’d switched to chewing his fingers until he bit too hard on the skin. So much for kicking his habit. “Take the hint from the Agents. They’re not recruiting her, just running her down.” Screw it. He kept chewing. “They think she’s dangerous.”

They think you’re dangerous.

“I have a voice in my brain telling me to kill people, who then gets bored and kills them for me anyway – a lot. Yes, I’m dangerous.” Third thud. Seriously. “They probably know something’s wrong about her, too.”

Like?

“I don’t know! But for starters, she lied about having a dog, because that’s the cleanest smelling apartment I’ve ever been to. And she lied about her ‘noisy showers’.” The look of panic when he asked if she heard the suit tipped him off. That bastard screamed the whole way down. Unless she’d had something blasting in her room since sunrise, the girl would’ve caught it. “I can’t tell what her game is, but if it’s worth two teams, she has to be incredibly…” More Xander-like than Xander. Alex shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe she can wipe out cities and they want to get to her before she holds one hostage.”

She is an artist. They’re usually a pack’f dicks that way. He said it like a fact. It is fact. You know who else painted? Hitler. Total crate of cocks. Also only had one nut, so his wurst-to-spatzle ratio skewed way towards pork.

“Well, that’s nice for Hitler.”

You think? The dude was literally mostly penis. Other than fucking with France through occupations and bike tours, what’s a uniball ever notably accomplished? Xander sighed. All that wasted potential. It’s like naming your kid ‘Roland’ – once you’re saddled with certain woeful marks, your life can only be a tale of douchebaggery.

Alex frowned at himself. His reflection didn’t look impressed.

“Done?”

Not really. You kinda got me all worked up about a Fourth Reich. Ask her how she feels about trout.

“You’re done.”

He tuned out. There’d been movement outside. The trunk had shut and the girl headed back. Alex snapped to sit less like he’d crawled inside to shank her, relieved that Nazi Bingo hadn’t distracted him enough to miss his cue. For her part, she didn’t look like she noticed. She just opened her door, sat, chucked a jacket at the back seat and flashed him a sheepish smile.

“Sorry. I know that took a while,” she said. “Usually I pile my art where you’re sitting, so it only hit me now how undersized my car is.”

Translation: I may’ve lied about the dog, but I’ve got – like, fifty sad cats at home.

Shut up, Xander.

You laughed. I heard it.

Which was why he had to shut up. Alex forced himself to ignore the bastard. He questioned her instead.

“Did it fit?”

“Ahhhh… I’m going to go with ‘eventually’?” She shrugged. “They’re in one piece and that’s what counts. The rest, I can describe as ‘flair’.”

“You can just do that?”

“Mm-hmm. The jerk buying ‘Pink Beauty’ doesn’t have a choice. As long as it seems like my real work, I can do anything.” The girl jingled her keys into the ignition. This was an old car, but she seemed to be jabbing harder than she had to. She only eased off when it finally speared in. “There we go.” Then she looked at him. “How much time do you have today?”

His rash burned.

“Why?”

“I was thinking outside about my schedule and wanted to run a plan by you.” Oh. “I know the idea was Pequods and that’s why I’m simply spit-balling, but there’s this little café beside the gallery – a gorgeous one – with hundreds of exotic, fair trade beans. It’s called ‘Roasters’.” The girl beamed. “The other artists go every week, and there are a dozen blogs screaming about how good it is: quiet, fantastic service…”

She stopped like it was just those two things.

Alex cleared his throat.

“You want to go there now?”

“After. And I’m spit-balling – spit-balling! It’s nothing against you – ah, Pequods,” the girl replied, “but – and bear with me – but… maybe we could try somewhere more local. Someplace I already know and… where I already know people if I need them – and who can totally make recommendations for you. Maybe… we could try Roasters.”

Something flashed in her eyes. Alex wasn’t sure on how to interpret it.

Xander?

She lost me at ‘fair trade’. And, y’know, by not being Pequods.

The chill down his spine gave him other doubts. That suit said ‘latent abilities’ made the extra forces worth it. So, what? Activated, she destroyed cities, but from reflex, she smashed a couple blocks? He might survive, and he’d have a night of peace within his head if he followed his instinct to do the thing Xander had raged about for eight days. Blowing that kind of vacation to go somewhere the suit said was probably crawling with Agents, just to keep her happy on the off chance she might be a threat… It was a hard sell.

Still. Two teams. For a girl who drew magic ponies. Who wore overalls. Who had freckles. Whose wide-mouthed grin crinkled under a ridged nose.

She looked about as harmless as he did.

“Okay.”

‘Scuse me?

The relief on her face was instant. She – Beth – lit up and breathed, “Really?”

You’re kidding right now. You have to be.

“Roasters could be better.” Shit. He’d tried phrasing that as something to answer the girl and Xander, but the spike of fury at his neck said he missed the mark on one of them. Alex kept trying, really weighting it towards his imaginary friend. “I know so little about you, Beth. I’d really hate to bring you somewhere you’d feel uncomfortable.”

And then be trapped as she killed him and everybody else around.

“That’s specific,” she uttered, “but… okay! I’m happy.” The car’s engine caught and shuddered to life. “After I’m done at the gallery, we can run over there and come back. I’ll give you a peek at the exhibits.”

She kept sitting there and talking, but Alex didn’t hear. His ears were tuned to a different conversation.

You taint spice. That one was new. An hour ago, you were pissing yourself over whether the bitch was an Agent. Now you clear her on that and decide she’s a warhead? He felt his hand lock to his right knee. His nails dug into the meat. Get. Me. My. Latté. Not from fucking ‘Roasters’. Like Xander’d stuck a set of fangs in there. As I’ve emphatically requested, do it.

“– and sorry about the seatbelt on your side,” Beth finished.

“What seatbelt?”

“Mm-hmm.” She clicked hers together. “Remember to duck if a cop drives by.”

The car yanked from the curb, adding a full-body rub to each of the potholes it rammed its busted shocks across. Beth took them through a street off to the side of Friday’s early gridlock. The drive itself only took five minutes, but he counted them through rising shots of pain. They lurched into a parking lot sprawled at the foot of a gray manor. Except for a white coupe she pulled beside, he didn’t see any cars. Then again, the feeling of his leg as it tore apart might’ve been affecting his damn concentration.

“This is the gallery?”

“Uh-huh. It’s nice, isn’t it? You should come by at night,” she said.

He felt like he already had in his nightmares. The house almost resembled a church, what with the steeple over the entrance, but nothing gave him the sense that any less than eight people died here and got stuffed inside the walls.

Spooky.

His point exactly.

Its windows were covered by black roof-to-floor curtains. A yellowed clock stroked the wrong hour from its place above the peeling doors. Latched to them was a brown web of vines sagging under their own, moist weight. Worst was the heads hacked from a grinning, cold brick. Their dead eyes watched him through the windshield, following along as he moved.

“What do you think?”

You have ten minutes to put a latté in my hand ‘fore I rip one of those down and shove it up your ass.

“Love you, too,” Alex muttered.

“What was that?”

“My leg,” he explained, louder. Sure, Xander was gnawing at his limb and damn near scraping bone with his own thumb, but she didn’t know that. She wasn’t going to because he more evenly replied, “It’s cramping.” Slow and smooth. “I’m going to need a second, so… why don’t you go ahead…?”

With how hard he trailed off, a corpse would get the hint: get out. To her credit, she mumbled a ready, “Sure.” It didn’t sound sure, but whatever. It worked. “I’ll start unloading the canvasses.” She immediately did the opposite and stayed where she was. “Does your leg cramp a lot? Are you alright?”

“Fine.” He forced a smile. “I can handle a cramp. It’s the pain in my ass I get every hour that’s tough. Ha.” Based on how her eyebrows twitched – down – he guessed that didn’t sound as friendly as he’d had it in his mind. But if Xander said the same thing… “Yes. I’m alright. I do need a second, though.”

This time, she gave a long “Oookay” but hopped onto the asphalt. Alex waited until she’d gone to the trunk and flipped it back up. As soon as she had, he whipped his head to the mirror, ready to snarl at the glass.

Xander beat him to it.

You’ll kick her out’f her own car, but you can’t manage a simple, ‘Hey, let’s leave Roasters for the next adventure and go to Pequods the fuck today like we agreed’? Unbelievably, his grip tightened. Eight days.

“Keep this up, and it’ll be nine.” Alex scratched at his wrist, fuming, trying to peel the hand away. Xander didn’t budge. “I’m not going to die ‘cause you couldn’t wait and pissed her off.”

‘Pissed her off’? The guy howled with laughter. What do you think she’s gonna do that I can’t take care of? At best, she’s got no powers. At worst, they’re inactive.

“Mostly inactive,” he snapped. “The suit said –”

The suit is rotting in a dumpster where he belongs. Fucker couldn’t read an address. That’s the word you wanna pit against mine?

Yes. And at that, he felt Xander curdle in a mix of scorn and offence. It didn’t loosen the vise crushing his sinews, but the pressure quit where it was. Progress.

“The suit,” Alex pitted away, “said to manage my distance. If her powers trigger through physical contact, I can’t touch her.”

He’d shaken her hand but she might not have been… ‘triggered’ enough to do whatever it was she did. She had to have a way to get through life with some contact.

You’re a death ray. You don’t have to touch her.

“And what if she grabs me?”

Xander sneered, which was always impressive given his present lack of a mouth.

Use your imagination.

Alex returned with his traditional scowl of, ‘Much obliged, dick’, before cutting to the chase and spelling out, “No physical contact. My ‘death ray’ requires me to physically make eye contact or else I can’t stun, can’t cause seizures, can’t put anyone in a coma and you can’t kill. Do you understand the problem yet?”

In the side-view mirror, he watched himself curl his lip at the dumbest asshole to walk the planet. Screw you, Xander. He knew what the guy was going to say: You’ve made me retarded. It didn’t change Alex’s mind.

“You can’t promise it’s not a risk.”

Uh, yes, I fucking can, ‘cause it isn’t. Sure as shit not by that logic.

“I’m not taking the chance.”

There is no chance to take. You don’t have a physically-based power, shithead, Xander spat. Fuck it – just get out’f the car. I don’t even have breath and I’m wasting it. Feeling came back to his right hand, along with free arthritis in every joint. Ten minutes. I want my goddamn drinks.

That left him nine minutes, because one went to detaching the Jaws of Life. Two knuckles cracked like they’d been drying in cement. As for his foot, the pain of blood re-flooding his toes made it pretty clear he’d be limping for a week. It was his survival instinct mostly, more hyperactive than most days, that pushed him to ask anything else.

“You okay?”

Fucking dandy. Get out.

No ‘It’s fine’. He wasn’t even pretending now, and they were in enemy territory. Alex couldn’t wade through it alone. Any silent treatment might as well be an execution order.

“If you want,” he carefully ventured, “before I head home, I can go by that pond and throw rocks at the geese.”

Half an hour of harassing birds was a small price to know Xander wouldn’t screw him over because he was pissy.

Depends. The guy considered his bait. Alex could hear the gears grinding in there. Are you gonna act like you’re there to feed them but then drop the rocks on their stupid heads?

One time, four years ago, a goose hissed and chased him a little.

“Sure.”

Then whatever. Sure.

Great. Now everyone was happy so long as they weren’t geese.

Alex opened the door, just to flinch when it swung out and nearly knocked over Beth on her walk back. She jumped away faster than he could, even while holding one of the unicorns.

“Whooooa – careful there! I haven’t sold this yet,” she said.

“Sorry.”

Beth grinned, tickled by something, and told him, “No, it’s alright. That hinge is a little wonky. I take it you’re feeling better?”

“Better enough.” There’d been five chips clawed out of his leg. At least if he had to run, they were Xander’s problem. “Thanks for waiting.”

“Oh, it was nothing. I had to do some last-second repairs. Here –” She lifted the picture higher. “Tell me what you think. In your professional opinion as an outside observer, does this seem intentional?”

It was the picture she’d shown him in her room, now with a massive tear under the dragon’s head and across the pony’s torso. She must’ve had a stapler ‘cause it looked like Frankenstein. The ‘stitches’ didn’t match up, either. They left a warped, open gap between the sides.

“Is it supposed to?”

“Yes! Sort of.” She shrugged. “It’s supposed to be a painting that I didn’t rip on a sharp bit of the trunk after I wedged it in, slammed the lid on its frame repeatedly and then yanked out. Which is what happened, obviously, but again, it shouldn’t seem like it.”

It did. The way she stared at him, though, painted it just as obvious that she had a very right answer in mind and a very wrong one. He played safe.

“I… guess?”

“I’ll take it.” And so she blossomed into a grin. “Whew! That is a relief. I was worried there. Here’s hoping Terry feels as open-minded.” The girl strode towards a pile of her other pictures leaning on the back bumper. “You’re still okay to carry stuff, right?”

“Yeah –”

“Awesome! You grab ‘Pink Beauty’ and I’ll bring this.” Beth swapped for the splattered paint thing. “So long as you don’t drop them into a million, splintered pieces, you can stack those however you want. They’re bulky, not heavy.”

Finished, apparently, she turned and headed to the manor’s pale stairs. Alex took longer, easing his weight onto his sore leg, but eventually he made the trip, grabbed the pile and followed after her.

“Tough morning?”

At a quarter past seven, Beth heard a knock. Score one for Mr. Coffee and his fashionable sense of time. She meant to do it back at him when she tip-toed to the door and stylishly delayed answering, but after a pause, she remembered he’d seen her shadow last night. This more than likely looked as though she was waiting there with her finger rammed up a nostril. New plan: open the door, which she did with a flourish of her arm and brilliant smile that only strained when she saw how tight and nervous his smile seemed. It was uncomfortably similar to the one he used when they’d first talked.

“Heeeey,” she welcomed, ramping down her giddiness. The arm she flourished tucked behind her head as if she’d been stretching all along. “You made it.” This earned a half-hearted nod. “Tough morning?”

“Why? Did you hear something?”

“No,” she said quickly, flicking her damp ponytail. “I was in the shower. Showering. Noisily, and for hours.”

Beth dubbed this her Plausible Deniability. She considered adding that fake dog to the story – for consistency’s sake, of course – but eeeeee. Creepy. She had an aunt who showered with her dog. It was an image no one should feel too keen on adopting.

He gave her a second nod, this time with an equally passive, “Oh. Good.”

Kind of an awkward silence there, buddy.

“So – um…” She guessed it was up to her to stir things. “Do you –”

“I’m Alex.”

Whoa. Alex was intense. She took it that that was his name, but he said it so seriously, as if he’d expected more of reaction than, ‘Cool. I’ll stop calling you Mr. Coffee’.

She wouldn’t, by the way. Mmm, Coffee.

“It’s nice to meet you, Alex. I’m Beth.” Soon to be known as tomorrow’s local kidnapping headline. “You look good!”

He did look good. Alex had a whole I’m Too Cool to Iron ensemble. Plain, faded jeans slung around his waist. His white-ish shirt went ever so slightly taut against his chest. A pale red, checked button-down layered over that, and it almost seemed like he’d taken a brush to tease his cocoa black hair into careless bedhead. Hot. This was ignoring the bluish-black and green bruises surrounding his jaw. Other than those, the eye-witnesses sketches were going to look amazing.

Yeah, she still wasn’t ‘sure’ about this. Carpe diem only brought her so far before hitting YOLO territory.

“Thanks. You, too.”

Ha! Liar. She was wearing almost exactly the same as yesterday: overalls and a teeny pair of black booty shorts for the ass she didn’t have, except she’d swapped her crappy top for a stretchy, long-sleeved one. On second thought, she shouldn’t have picked a hue of fabric that clashed as badly with her vampire skin as dark purple did. On third thought, that was every hue but orchid, and laundry day had dictated no dice there.

“Thank you.”

That floated between them fairly listlessly. Beth curled her hair around her hand and tugged it, trying to rattle out a plan for her next move. Should she let him in…?

“Is that a horse licking a dragon?”

“What?” She jerked her head over her shoulder, towards the garish display of yellow-trimmed wings and soaring hooves stacked up against her kitchen bar. The colours were hard to miss. They practically leered at her and him. “Ah! No. That’s Pink Beauty. The tongue is…” Beth was a professional artist. “The tongue is his horn. He’s a unicorn.” To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there lay her dying reputation. “It’s a commissioned series. I don’t… I mean – this isn’t really my thing, the whole fantasy element, but when a client says jump, am I right?”

He appeared to be thinking awfully hard about the three-legged, magical pony. It was like he didn’t trust her, or thought the joke was on him somehow.

“What do you usually paint?”

Alex asked as though he wasn’t sure he could handle the answer. To be fair, drip painting was a violent cascade of emotions. She could rein them in long enough to title their blazing moods, but otherwise, she fell as lost to them as any person before a wonder. Beth wasn’t the only person saying so, either. Her work didn’t stand for simple explanations; it elucidated through a subconscious interpretation. That’s what the critics wrote anyway, and so as long as they kept awarding her cash, she would let them pile on whatever smarmy narrative they wanted.

Under these casual settings, however…

“I’ll show you.” Her heart began to race. She barely knew this person, and already her palms had sweat from the pressure of living up to his standards. While she rushed inside and leafed through the throwaway series, she eased her mind towards him hating it. Her style didn’t always top a guy’s list. Beth tried not to blame anyone for their opinions, but when they couldn’t see the canvases come alive, there was a certain sadness she had to bury. “Here.”

Oh God, his thumbs went straight onto the paint when he grabbed the frame. From the record scratch that went off in her head, Beth winced. He, more focused on studying the piece, missed this look of pain and lifted her portrait higher in the far window’s daylight.

This was the one ‘real’ entry from RAR she would sell to Edison. Its blues flashed out to the sides, taunted by reds calling from the edges. Sprays of black shattered the contrast to ebb below a muted green. This was an experiment in primary tones, and as she recalled, it was from the last night her neighbours owned a TV before Screamy flipped and smashed the damn thing. Primed and Tuned, she’d named this. The dark streak across its middle was from their screen crashing to the floor.

He took his time to gather his thoughts. She didn’t wholly mind the wait. The way he had to hold the bulky shape made his biceps flex. At last, he did utter, albeit more to himself than her, and staying in low in his throat, “This looks angry.”

Eureka.

“Angry,” she squealed. “Exactly! It’s supposed to be. Here – see this?” Her fingers waved over a top corner. “This is its defining madness. It snapped out on when the scene hit its high notes. The natural serenity of the blue got completely destroyed when it started chewing away at the red, and the bottom layer was shredded by how harshly the droplets cut in. You’ll notice the light – tilt it this way –” There was a perfect angle she’d found that, if Edison hadn’t screwed her out of wall space, she would’ve pointed a small lamp to catch. “The shadows. Recognize anything?”

Was that a smile? Beneath his furrowed brow of mild concern, did she spy enjoyment?

“Uh…” He cleared his throat. “Scary face.”

Right. Objectively! I hate calling my work objective, but the snarl that this black line ripped up left me a hellish glare from one damning eye. You become the subject of its rage.” She put her hands on his wrists, guiding him along the vision. “It’s powerful, isn’t it? Yet it’s so shy. The glare disappears the instant you turn your head the wrong way. It’s a thin glimpse into the fury it’s trying to hide from the world.”

His glance was more sidelong than she expected, but attentive.

“Your painting is passive-aggressive?”

“Unbearably,” she delighted. “My teeth hurt from clenching at it, but unless I twist to understand the deeper pain, I’ll miss the hidden beauty of its wrath.”

She could’ve stood and marvelled for hours. Beth took a raw pride in her art – in any art that forced her spirit to the surface. Had Jessica slipped even a single emotion into her dumb islands, Beth wouldn’t have complained so much about sharing a space.

Alex stared at her sidelong, having reservedly watched her while she talked. His stance softened a little, and as he lowered the frame, she noticed a light appreciation and intrigue.

“You’re really into this.”

As if until now, he hadn’t believed her.

“Well, yeah. Everybody is, deep down. It’s the same as music,” she told him. “Human nature can’t help forging connections, and with art, it’s to suites of work that can cross generations. We end up connecting to each other. At this very moment, you might feel the same as a stranger will in forty years, but your cousin could walk up tomorrow and have the total opposite experience. It blows my mind.” She quietly nudged the canvas closer. “So… what about you?” Beth leaned in, studying his eyes as they swept across the glossed fabric. “Are you feeling anything?”

Alex looked to be considering it. Then he said, “I think I liked the unicorn.”

“Oh my God.” He was grinning, in that cautiously warm way she’d started growing used to. When she whacked his shoulder, she did it with high spirits. “Come on, neighbour. Let’s get going.”

He didn’t at first. After she’d bent to grab half of the stack by their feet, she saw his head still turned towards Primed and Tuned. He held it firmly, his tentative smile clouding in concentration. Beth delayed bothering him until he came to whatever decision he’d been trying to make and fluttered to reality on his own.

“Sorry. Just…” Another grin. This one was more pensive than earlier. He twitched his arms as though he meant to hand the canvas back, but figured out what was happening and simply added it to his half to carry. “It’s good. I think I’d need a day to get it, but…”

“You’re new to the art world,” she assured him. “Don’t rush it! Let the meanings come to you. That’s the most satisfying way.”

“Yeah.” He apparently glazed over at those words, floating off again to wherever his mind went to think. When he returned this time, he maneuvered in front of her with two deliberate steps. “I’m Alex.”

Ooookay.

He was exactly as intense about it as before. Beth blinked, sort of stuck on what to do. He hadn’t seen the napkin she’d left on her counter, which was good, since she’d scribbled a few things on it – height, build, other identifying features – that might be cause for offence. She got so caught up wondering what she’d left out, she nearly missed the offered hand waiting for her.

“Oh.” Then they truly were doing this twice. All right. She shuffled, freeing one of her own. “Hi. I’m still Beth.”

Her hand found his.

… Something happened. Stopped happening, rather.

“I’m not great at first impressions.” Alex smiled. Actually smiled. Sheepish, but real. “Or second. Or – uh – third.”

“No, your…” She swallowed. “Your second one was good. Impression, I mean. Last night. When you apologized. That was sweet of you.”

His eyes. Beth hadn’t realized how deeply they’d pierced her. They brimmed with such a wild energy… No wonder she’d been avoiding them. She never noticed she was avoiding them until now, when his gaze touched hers and she held it. The comfort of the gesture threw her off.

Alex pulled away. Bethany’s hand felt empty from it.

“I’ll try not to need a fourth.”

“Hmm? Oh.” Oh! “Um – sure, no, yeah, you’re fine,” she said. “All is forgotten. Water and bridges.”

She was talking too fast. This marked her other type of nervousness, the one that had her girlishly agree to get coffee with his cheekiness and cocky attitude. But he wasn’t acting like that today. If she had to label him, she would have picked meek. But nice. Beth could live with nice.

“So,” he said, hoisting the last of her wares onto his unignorably toned shoulder, regardless of how many shirts he wanted to wear, “where are we walking?”

“Well…” Weird. Was it a good weird though, to suddenly feel this at ease? “I figured we could drive. My car’s parked out on the street.” She should warn him now: “It’s a screaming, metal death trap, but it has tires and it usually stops before I hit a dog.”

“Great.” Really? He elaborated with, “My old car’s method for braking was exclusively trees. I’m used to tucking and rolling.”

Unlike yesterday, where every word from his mouth apparently won either high-pitched giggles or a snort she continued to smack herself over, Beth found her current crack of amusement relaxing onto her lips. She enjoyed it.

“Let’s just say I’ll drive,” she said. The paintings in her hands tut-tutted. Dammit – yes, Terry, she hadn’t forgotten about him. “I just have to send my buddy a text when we’re downstairs. He told me to be early, but since it is me, he probably hasn’t even bothered waking up yet.”

“You’re a night owl?”

“Ah…” She imagined her ideal day. Four AM, no work the next morning, not sober but texting everybody. “Sure.”

Alex seemed okay with this, in a way that vaguely suggested he was on her wavelength.

Interesting.

“Okay.” He adjusted the canvases. “I’m ready.”

Pink Beauty awaited its maiden voyage. Beth shooed Alex out and locked the room behind her. She got a feeling the counter-napkin of Cop Cliff Notes blew off from the breeze of door swinging shut.

She doubted she needed it.

“Special, special, special.”

“Agent Aird. Rank: A-6. Acting Lead. Suit Status: Special. Age…” Xander walked off with the ID. “Doesn’t say.” He flicked the plastic at the ground and got back to walking with his ‘cereal’. “I bet you’re old enough to know about Goldilocks.” He made another pass by the Agent. Then another. And another. The light from the wall-hole teemed with expectant shadows. “Or there’s Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Pinocchio… Really any fable where some bitch kids start their shit at a private residence.” Around and around, cutting a deep path through the rubble. “I think you can guess what happened next.”

“It’s been a while,” the Agent rasped. Xander’d dropped it on a mountain kicked together from broken chair legs. Since then, it had to balance while straining against the chains that bear-hugged its ribs. “If my memory serves…” Puff. “… they each had…” Pant. “… happy endings.”

“Why? ‘Cause they lived? Oh, suit.” Xander sucked back more spoonfuls of Corn Flakes soaking in orange juice. Alex didn’t even know they had juice. “Nine times out of ten, you walk into a house made of candy, you better hope your parents abandoned you. That way, when they have to lie about how you died, you’ll get a better epitaph than ‘was retarded’.” He sipped his juice-flakes. “I’m sorry – ‘special’. Can’t believe you put that on a card.”

“The titles,” it wheezed, “are assigned to us.”

“Which explains why it’s so modest.” Around and around, like the Agent had dripped blood in the water. Xander lingered at its blind spots when he wasn’t carving sharp circles by its face, not giving it a chance to focus before he strolled past. “Special, special, special. That’s new. So what did they title the other suits? Bullet sponges?”

“… Deployable…”

“Seriously? Shit, that’s meaner.” His cow-ish chewing was the only sound covering their footsteps and its ragged choking. “Alright. Screw those masked jerks. Sure, they have the same bulletproof, shockproof, fireproof, wizard-proof, camouflage tights and do the same amount of nothing, but they don’t wear goggles and don’t kiss nearly as much ass.” Xander tapped its head with his spoon like a fairy godmother. “You are gonna need tongue to smooth this one over, though. I’d pity you if I wasn’t already sure you’ll enjoy it. Fuckin’ suits.”

Alex had no idea what started them again. After forty dead and two years as a no show, he’d figured they got the message: so long as he had Xander, the suits’ little camouflage trick – the ‘fading’ – wouldn’t work, to the point that he switched back to sleeping with his eyes closed. He’d recycled the headspace into self-soothing techniques. Happy thoughts netted more mileage than nervous stretches of insomnia whenever ‘Xander has control’ and ‘Agents’ turned up in the same breath.

This wasn’t his show. Alex watched carefully, trying to take notes on what it said before its neck got snapped, but he couldn’t say anything. His body wasn’t his right now. He was better for it. Agents occasionally had good information, and the chances of Alex wringing it out of them compared to Xander’s were…

“I don’t enjoy –”

“I’m sorry, did a fucking A-6 start talking back to me? Did an A-6 try to tell me what he does or doesn’t enjoy?”

“… No.”

Yeah. So Alex stayed out of it, letting Xander handle this like he’d handled all the other ones. Today’s happy thought was that he owned plenty of bleach and garbage bags. They also had the community Purell can downstairs. The thing was two-thirds acid, good for burning fingerprints.

He wasn’t stupid. He knew what Xander did, and recognized that a few ‘ohm’s weren’t going to cleanse Alex’s soul, but they needed this. He used to bet his life on a one-size-fit-all solution: run, which – fine, was morally better, but where did it get him? Caught. No matter what, the Agents were always right behind. Xander’s method skipped that forever. Less Agents. Fuller intel. A life where he fought back.

There’d been nightmares at first, at the sight of… everything. His insomnia got worse. Xander had to talk him through the logic: if he wasn’t controlling his body, then it wasn’t technically Alex hurting anyone. The exact words were more like, ‘Blow me. You didn’t do dick’, but it still let him sleep at night if he didn’t pick at it.

Practice made perfect.

“Relax, suit,” Xander ordered. “I’m not gonna kill you.”

He was lying. Its eyes swivelled to follow him as he walked by again. It didn’t get a good look, which was the point of moving around, because it would have seen Alex’s cheeks raised in a blatantly bullshitting grin. Instead it croaked, “Will you –” Cough. “Will you be… documenting this?”

“Right. That.” He shrugged, scraping the bowl. “Well, if you wanna take the coward’s way out, I guess I could just kill you. But that’s a lot of paperwork, and it’d be funnier to hear that my boss washed all your precious work climbing to A-6 right into the shitter. And then you’ll probably kill yourself anyway.”

The Agent waited for something. Across its face was a web of pieces slowly fitting together, and when the one it needed didn’t show up to finish the thought, it prodded with a tight, “Unless?”

Xander snorted.

“‘Unless’. You think I’m negotiating? You think I’d – what, cover my eyes and ignore my duty to report you by blaming some A-8 instead? That if you start talking real goddamn fast and explain why the fuck you intruded on a DTD site, I might hear enough to consider deceiving the very hierarchy we’re conditioned to show debilitating obedience, all so they don’t rip those magical leotards off your tiny, soon-to-be-demoted limbs?”

“Or…” Its lips were almost blue from the lack of airflow. “… I go back… without my goggles… and say you… threw them –” Cough. “– as a punishment. I don’t care… if you’re… an A-5 –” Cough, cough. “Good luck –” Cough. “– explaining that –” Cough, hack. “– to my A-4 –” Cough-cough-hack-cough-hack-cough-cough.

A-5, huh? I’ve been called worse. Out loud, after chucking their last bowl somewhere in the room’s debris, Xander said, “Touché. Pick your scapegoat.”

“Can you untie –”

“Nope!”

The new look on its face told them it hadn’t expected any better. Shifting awkwardly on Mt. Chair Leg, it drank in the fist-sized holes and bits of wood still decorating their walls, then murmured, “This… is a DTD site?”

“Welcome to a real case, suit. That aroma of cat piss and old farts is the smell of the big leagues. Maybe you’ll get to go on one someday.” He never stopped circling. Even in the passenger seat, Alex felt dizzy. “Talk. Why’re you here?”

The Agent’s mouth pursed, but eventually said, “I’m on an investigation.”

“Alone?”

“No. With –” It puffed. “With one other. We… separated.”

“You ran your mouth off,” Xander translated. “Fuckin’ suits. What’s the investigation?”

“It’s –” Cough. “It’s classified.”

“Unclassify it.”

“It’s… above…” The Agent stopped to suck down as much of a breath as it could manage hogtied. “It’s above an… A-5’s authority. What I can tell you… is that our main team… noted disturbances… in the area.” Three guesses who that could be. “They’re affecting our case… and the main can’t afford… to be sidetracked. The case lead… had to call in another group to handle it. All of them… have the information I have… that you don’t.”

The Agent was really trying to hype this.

He has to. If I’m ‘not convinced’, I’m gonna turn him in and he’s gonna lose his suit.

Not even loud enough to call it whispering, Alex asked, “Is that bad?”

The only thing worse is a goggle suit losing their goggles. They go fuckin’ insane, Xander chirped. It’s too cute. But yeah, they’ll kill themselves. You’ve seen it.

“No.”

Right, right – I’ve seen it, back at my ‘birth’. When Alex went crazy, blacked out for a month and woke up with a sociopathic voice in his head. My version’s shorter. Anyway, shut up. “Alright, suit. I’ll bite, since I apparently have to ask: what information?”

“That this address,” it said, “is listed on our files… as our address. Our target… is supposed to live here. For… whatever reason… that’s wrong.” It took another break, shaking its head like it was fighting sleep. “Now… I… could tell my lead… and be praised for… for correcting the mistake. That’ll save some time for us but… for a DTD site, with – uh… delicate operations in place… this is another hundred and twenty Agents… who could wander in after me. Think of the trouble you’d save… your lead if you…”

Xander slowed down, and Alex saw his eyebrows drop. He must’ve been frowning now. Sure enough, he heard his other self say, “The fuck?”

“You would save… your lead… plenty of trouble –”

“Not that, dipshit. The number. You’re saying there’s a hundred twenty people here?”

“Two teams… of sixty,” the Agent replied. “One for the main team. One for the… response force… to the external threat.”

Wait. What external threat?

Xander had a different question.

“Since how long?”

“Since,” it puffed, “July.”

Three months. That was when the swarms started.

Seriously, what external threat?

“Your mountain rights have been revoked,” Xander said. With a kick, he knocked half the rubble away. The Agent dropped off and smacked its shoulder on the floor, beating the sound of its skull thudding off the linoleum by a decibel. A blast of air choked out of its throat. “The one fucking job you suits have is keeping facts in order. This is the second time you fucked it up.”

What,” it gagged, wheezing even harder on the ground. “What –”

“Don’t shit in my sock and call it a hamster, Aird. There’s not a hundred twenty guys here. I counted fifty-eight. You know what’s not fifty-eight? A hundred twenty.” Xander casually buried the Agent under the rest of the chair leg pile. “Hey. It’s okay. Not everybody’s meant to have a suit.”

Th–“ Hack-hack-hack-cough-hack-cough-cough. “There were two teams of sixty sent –”

“There weren’t.”

Outraged, it barked, “The external threat… could have impacted their numbers –”

I’d be the first to take credit but I didn’t off that many. To the Agent, Xander spelled out, “Other than a DTD, there are no targets worth a team of sixty. Maybe for your fuckin’ external threat, but not your actual target. That’s an army.” A small army. Which would be dead if you let me go outside, Alex. “Aw – I ruined my trench! Now I can’t keep walking. Fuck you for that too, suit.”

“I didn’t make a mistake,” it swore. “She might not be a DTD, but it should mean something… when I say… my work… is… being sanctioned… by the NCA…”

“Ran out at the end, huh?”

“You could untie me,” it snapped at him.

Alex focused very hard on thinking, ‘What’s the ‘NCA’?’ He did it on a loop, hoping Xander noticed one of them.

National Cell Archive.

Which was…?

Shh. “Considering those valuable NCA’s lab rats are best known for licking Cheetos dust off of their keyboards, no, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“The project.” The Agent had flopped back onto its stomach and took a second to look proud of itself. Then it shook off some of the rubble by wiggling its shoulders and waited for some noise of recognition over what it’d said. There wasn’t one. “The commissioned project.” Alex and Xander both stared until it added, “The A-1 commissioned project. My target’s a part of it.”

“Some of our jobs involve work, suit,” Xander said. “I can’t be on a first name basis with every shenanigan.”

It screwed its face up.

“I can’t divulge those details. They’re classified. Even for an A-5.”

“Okay.” Xander cleared a space to sit. With his full attention on their captive, he politely said, “You have two options. The first is where, now that I realize our case will be seen as intruding on an A-1’s territory, even though we were fuckin’ here first and were actually intruded on, I leave you for my DTD to find but blame it on your external threat.”

“It’s classified for me, too,” the Agent blurted, not waiting around for option two. “I’m from the NCA and the most I know is that the project exists and that my target belongs to it – but I assumed you heard of it.”

“Ohhhhh! So when you told me, ‘It should mean something that the NCA is watching my target’, you were bluffing. Well, Aird,” Xander detailed, “I’m bluffing that I’m not going to punch you in the face.”

“I wasn’t –”

The Agent took its hit better than Alex usually did.

Don’t feel bad. Suits get punched all the time, and you have the fists of a prepubescent girl.

Thanks.

“I wasn’t bluffing,” the Agent spat. “My target’s powers haven’t manifested, but her latent ability warrants the size of the main team. It comes down to belonging to the A-1 project.”

“Fascinating. I’m gonna punch you again, this time for taking so long to get to that.”

Wait. ‘Her’?

“I’m happy to have been of help,” the Agent answered, spinning each word as ‘go fuck yourself’. “Let me up.”

“Tell me where your target is,” Xander said instead.

It mentioned a ‘she’ before too, didn’t it?

No. Alex was hearing things.

“Why?”

“‘Cause if she’s still in the area –” Xander said ‘she’. Xander had also just said ‘she’. A thousand red flags shot up in Alex’s head. “– then she’s still my problem. Where’s your target, and then I’ll let you leave.”

They needed to talk. Right now – him and Xander had to talk, because who the hell was ‘she’?

“It’s…” The Agent frowned. “It’s classified.”

Oh, for God’s sake. “You don’t have to give me every detail, suit. Hell – if it saves you from crapping your pants, I don’t even need to have an exact location. Mostly ‘cause sixty bucks says you’re wrong. Again.” Xander had enough eye contact to end this conversation permanently. He didn’t take it. “You just put an A-1 project on my boss’ list of shit to dance around. Active avoidance of your target’s hotspots, along with you people updating your fucking addresses, is my fastest mitigation strategy.”

Who was ‘she’, who was ‘she’, who was ‘she’ – Xander couldn’t ignore him forever, so who was ‘she’?

The Agent bit its lip, silent for what felt like hours.

“I can’t guarantee this is accurate,” it finally replied. “I’m on a separate investigation –”

Xander punched it in the head for a third time. The Agent didn’t like that nearly as much as the first two, and it didn’t like the first two. It worked up a storm, turning purple.

And you, settle down in there. It’s not your turn.

At Alex’s first thought of the word ‘But’, he felt a massive mental pinch. He decided to settle down.

“Coffee shops. Art stores. Cliffs overlooking a sunset. Soup kitchens,” the Agent listed at last, now that it’d quit yelling about its treatment. “Anywhere an artist’s stereotype would go. Are you satisfied?”

It is nice knowing she’s too poor for Pequods. And to the Agent, Xander asked, “Am I gonna get a tip-off from visible patrols?”

“Plainclothes patrols. Small clusters. She isn’t aware we’re here, which is why we have to manage our distance.” It shifted uncomfortably. “And latent or not, her powers are triggered by physical contact.”

“Was that so hard?” The Agent looked ready to explode. Ignoring it, Xander got on his feet and… actually started unlocking the chains. “When you’re out, go to the window and show me how you climbed up.”

“I could describe –”

“I did not say ‘describe’. Get off your ass, move your twiggy legs and show me.” Xander yanked the restraints, giving it a last rattle before setting it free. “Fuckin’ suits. God forbid your day involve effort.”

As the chains fell off and the Agent was distracted by taking real breaths, Alex reached out to quietly check, “You’re not really…” Letting it live. “Are you?”

I’m making him stand beside the wall-hole.

That was a ‘no’, right?

Since Xander’s only response was shaking his head, it didn’t matter that the Agent got the next word. It tripped clambering to stand, awkwardly balancing on chunks from the table, then nodded at the chains and muttered, “You’re good with those. Disturbingly.”

“Takes a lot of idiots with no survival instinct. You should see what I can do with handcuffs.”

It didn’t look like it wanted to know and Xander didn’t elaborate. Instead, he shoved the Agent towards the window and had it kick a vague path through the mess. Bits from the old TV stand crumpled under their heels as they came to edge of the wall – and the hole that’d been smashed through.

Alex didn’t relax until the Agent leaned outside, not positive on what to do and even telling them as much.

“There’s not much to show. I climbed up and in.” Its back was angled away from them. Xander stepped ever so slightly behind. “This was due to faulty intel. Our files said room #616. This is room #616.”

“How’d you climb the brick?”

It scoffed and turned back to flex its hands at them.

“The way any suit would. Gloves. Special suits are assigned the type to attract magnetic fields in steel girders, which is why the holes from the claws that deployable suits still use aren’t there. The forces pull through the wall.”

Somebody rented Mission Impossible.

“Bullshit those things support your weight. If you found a key to this place, I will eat your family.” Xander paused. “Within the confines of protocol, obviously. I write really mean letters.”

The Agent had had enough of being picked on.

“Okay,” it said, clipping the word. It did something that a flicked a blue glow across the palm of the black fabric. “Watch.” And it leaned out so far, Alex couldn’t see its head. “As expressed, the magnetic fields allowed me to climb up.” It tugged for proof. “There’s no key.” Tugged again. “Only this.” Tugged once more. “Like I informed you.” Xander grabbed its legs. “Whoa – what are you doing –”

“A lot of idiots, no survival instinct.” He pitched its kicking legs out the window. “That’s three times you’ve fucked up fact-checking. You’re crazy bad at your job.”

Pull me up,” the Agent screeched, anchored to the wall by its right hand. Alex watched it tangle as Xander reached outside after it. “We had a deal – you were letting me go!”

“Yeeeah. I think I’m gonna go with the ‘leaving you for my DTD’ scenario. Hi, by the way.” With all its flailing, they managed to snatch – well, Xander did – its other arm. “I’ll borrow your gloves forever, though. You won’t mind for long. You…” He started picking at the flap on the left glove. “… are gonna be having too much fun cannonballing into the trash that I pushed right there for these laughably frequent encounters.”

“‘DTD’,” it shrieked back. “‘Trash’?”

And you didn’t wanna move the dumpster. ‘How many times could it happen, Xander?’ He went after the anchored glove, picking at the flap on that next. “Yes, suit. The trash. No mess, easy clean up every Thursday… You’re not my first rodeo.” The flap was coming undone. “But I’ve gotta say, I’ve never had a guy wander in on me by accident. You hit the jackpot on Murphy’s Law.”

We can talk about this!

Alex… felt a little sick. There were red marks being scratched in skinny trails across the wall, and it just occurred to him that with all their fighting these past months, no one was going to think twice about the yelling now.

He hoped.

He sincerely hoped.

Fuck, these are on tight. They better fit. They heard a snap. Got it.

“Fu–aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa –”

Five storeys left. Four storeys.

Before you talk, shut up and let me enjoy this. BLAM. Yes! Fuckin’ fuck yes – look’t that shit! Perfect goddamn landing. The dumpster lid slapped down and blew out a cloud of dirt over the nestled garbage bags. Except for the bang, no one would suspect a corpse. I love suits. You can’t get that anywhere else. Then he sighed. Alright, fine, go.

“‘She’, Xander,” Alex barked. Pain sparked through his jaw. “Were you grinding my teeth?”

Whoops.

“We talked about that!” Never mind. He wanted the truth first. “Who’s ‘her’? What’s going on?”

God, the whining… Xander fiddled with his new toys while dully answering, Logic dictates ‘her’ is the chick his team is after.

“It was supposed to be after us,” he hissed. “That’s why I’ve been hiding. The swarms, the ambushes?”

The hundred fuckin’ times I told you to go outside? Were you not watching me play Agent? Explain how that worked if the suit knew who you are.

He backed from the hole in the wall, trekking through rubble to find a pile flat enough to sit on without being stabbed.

“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Dude.

“Second worst, whatever. I just found out I wasted a month of my life for nothing.”

You wanted less Agents after you. Good news, these aren’t. That’s why this date is perfect. I get my latté, I can check if there’s still heat and if there isn’t, we disappear. Why aren’t these fitting your hands?

“We’re their external threat.” He didn’t want to be on their radar at all, but at least as a side focus, he was… something. “We can’t ‘disappear’ from another sixty – ow!”

God-fucking-dammit, we found the one suit with girlier fists than you. Xander whipped the black gloves at the ground. He said nothing about the chunk of flesh he’d shredded on Alex’s skin. And no, we’re not the external threat. These people have their own party going on without us for once. Assholes.

“We’re not their target or their side-quest?”

Yeah. It sucks. Not that I care or anything. ‘Cause I don’t.

“No – it’s not…” He gave up. He didn’t matter in this. If he’d never attacked, they would’ve never noticed him, so she, the girl downstairs, had legitimately… “Huh.” Alex sat straighter. “This is just a date.”

Oh my God, like I’ve been saying.

“But now I have a dead Agent under my exploded window. If somebody sees glass –”

My gloves don’t fit! I am having a bad day. I don’t need your shitty, non-problems, too. For once, enjoy the morning without anybody chasing you. He felt his teeth grind. Fucking suits.

‘Enjoy the morning’. He almost didn’t understand. This was like a vacation from… well – his life.

“I guess we’re doing this,” he said.

His rash didn’t itch quite as bad.

Everything had chilled.

Beth planned to be asked one day about what drove the iron-like focus in her art. She’d already memorized her coy response of a wink at tonight’s events and a life lesson: that her inspiration didn’t strike so much as steep. The real answer, for which she had Mom to thank, was delicately becoming shitfaced on tea-quila.

The family recipe made four cups a pot. She brewed her first at midnight: a crisp hot toddy, honeyed and spiced. The night had been a wash. Once Mr. Coffee left, she spent about an hour fretting over tomorrow, as if tomorrow needed more than five minutes to fret about. She picked through her closet for an outfit, arranged her cosmetics in order of classiness – ranging French Escort to Bag-a-Chips, as was natural – and then hemmed and hawed over whether it was worth painting her toenails. From a psychologist’s point of view, it could only help her confidence, but it was also October. Everything had chilled. She didn’t plan on walking out there wearing sandals, and in the list of things that got her shoes off during a first date, there wasn’t a lot of room for foot varnish admiration. Well, unless she took them off more casually, like if she wore her UGGs and they got warm. But then if she did lose them, wouldn’t she be wearing socks? Her socks should be the issue here. She spent another hour picking socks.

By the second brew, more of a ginger-lemon mix, Beth had finished painting pumpkins on her foot-thumbs that were sure to shine through the thin, white stockings she’d presciently selected for such toe-thumb shining purposes. If he cared, which he might not so this wasn’t a huge deal, but if he did and she shook out of her boots, he’d be able to notice the festive designs on her toes. Since it’d be gross pulling off socks in the middle of a restaurant – she figured she could ask him to lunch, too – she came up with the idea of painting her fingernails. Now she could whip them out as a sample. There was a little DIY Halloween pattern she’d found online and brought alive by glossing her base coat with a spookcular – ‘spook’ and ‘spectacular’, thank you – charcoal. Beth’s pinkies had bats, her rings had witch hats, her middles had hissing felines, her indexes had witch faces since on second thought those hats seemed mottled, and then her hand-thumbs had pumpkins and hats and bats because they were a great look and she wanted them. A quick top coat and… done!

By her third brew, Beth started to panic. The plain taste of green tea and its burning -quila hadn’t dulled the fact that three empty canvasses were staring at her from the floor, accusing, scowling, leering. The half-finished fourth leaned on the wall, giving her the stink-eye. She begged for their patience. Rage Against the Room was her most precious work. Whenever she reached for a brush knowing what she was meant to do, a sliver of her integrity died that much more coldly. She couldn’t make herself stain the innocence of these blank three simply to take Edison’s money, not for beauty he didn’t appreciate or to save face in front of Terry. No, there were lines she wouldn’t cross. She – just… No.

Arrrgghh – how did Jess do it? How did she take lifeless paint crusts and sell them as if angels sneezed on the scenes? What fuelled her strength to smile at buyers and coo, “That’s all right! If it won’t suit your den, how about your kids’ rooms? Little girls like ponies,” then offer to slap on a free unicorn for every purchase?

“People like unicorns,” Beth imagined Jessica’s reply. It was easy, because it mirrored a similar night that ended with Jess counting flaccid stacks of consumerist cash. “It’s about the demand. Sell them what they want!”

“It’s not about what they want,” Beth would have cried were Jess actually here. “It’s about feeling passion and hate! It’s what I invoke from their very souls!”

“I don’t know about souls,” tea-Jessica said, “but I think I invoked their money.”

After her fourth brew, Beth switched to a cranberry and citrus twist tea-whiskey. That sting of desperation nearly shot her stress levels through the roof, and so she took it upon herself to tap into her stash of Calm Down Herb.

Things began feeling very, very calmed down.

Her night flushed with new inspiration. Armed with tea-whiskey that had grown sweeter with every sip, Beth found herself on her knees, willing to work and throw a small care to the wind. Purely to say she had something in the half-finished piece’s white space, she curled a single line. The relief of that progress hit her harder than expected, and by the time she finished her third tea-less cup, she was herself cramming in an entire unicorn. Its peridot horn pierced the left corner with a vengeance. Its sketchy mouth curled from a burgundy whinny. Its pink eyes gleamed lavender-hot with wrath. Oddly, her ethics felt satisfied.

She was headlong into a dragon five seconds later. The damn thing’s wings spread like a cyan fire along the length of a dark sky, cutting past loose clouds of a copper she’d found at the bottom of a drawer. The look came fast and easy. She refused to dwell on the awkward bend of its chest or varying tally of claws from foot to foot.

Edison was going to pay her for this, the whiskey murmured. She giggled. Then hiccupped.

Her next canvas told the tale of that unicorn landing on the dragon’s head, clobbering it to the ground as they streaked across the night. Or something. Her unicorn had wings now. She also turned its little taupe hooves into bricks which, judging by the dragon’s ticked frown, had really pissed it off. Her brushes smeared a soft hint at an ocean in the background. That – great, since she couldn’t be assed to draw actual ground. This, then, was a black sky with no stars, straddling a sort of water body formation featuring a red unicorn as it kicked the crap out of a purple lizard. Nothing wrong there.

The first touches of daylight swelled under Beth’s window as she finished her last, sobering, no-tea-yes-olives-Caesar. She wasn’t horribly clear at this point where the line sat between a safe outlet and fire, but she plugged in her eleventh fan blissfully assuming she was on the right side. Nothing exploded. She took that as a fantastic sign and carefully kneed away, worried a sharp movement might upset the balance.

Done.

Done! She laughed and stretched in the sweet breeze of paint fumes and wet success. She did it! Before her lay the drying saga called Pink Beauty, wraith of the ocean sky, devourer of dragons, miss-er of legs. The whole thing was hideous.

She freaking loved it.

Sell out? No, no. Bethany was so much better than that. She had seized this moment and expertly unveiled its purpose. Edison meant to buy her work and burn it. Pink Beauty relished the chance.

Pink Beauty. Oh, Pink Beauty, the magnificent lovechild of satire and deadlines. It was her littlest cancer patient against Edison’s tit-sagging Tyson. Even if he won, he lost, because that rich skeleton couldn’t insult intentionally worthless art. He’d failed to rob her of anything, and without a martyring speckle on RAR’s gorgeous face. The tea-quila had shown her how.

Take that, liver. She dabbed a point on the board for budding alcoholism.

The buzzer rang.

Ah, crap. Her mind shot to Mr. Coffee. He’d said seven! This wasn’t seven. Plus he lived here, so buzzing from the lobby looked… All right, it probably wasn’t him. Panic averted, only to revive as her tea haze pulled back and bared the types of news people rang with at 6:15 AM. She spun to her feet – ooh, that made her have to pee – and ignored the thousand pins sizzling down her legs after hours kneeling, and gave a clumsy jog towards the intercom: a sticky, beige speaker hooked to a stickier, beiger, corded phone by the door.

Please don’t be bad.

“Hello?”

Good morning,” the other end of the line told her. “I’m calling for Bethany Keeler. Is she available?

Ooh. A Quebecer. Breakfast was served, and it was a clash of ‘d’s replacing every soft ‘th’, and a steamy love affair with ‘e’s. Her name had never sounded so interesting.

“This is Beth,” she said. “Who am I speaking to?”

In the breaks between anyone talking, a fine crackle of static met the void.

I apologize if I disturbed you, Madame. This shouldn’t take much of your time.” The man seemed polite enough. “Regarding my business here, can you confirm you lived in room #516 since July 8th?

“Um…” Had she? Beth didn’t keep those dates memorized, but it felt right. She still had to pee. “Sure.”

And before then, you had room #616? Upstairs?

He knew his stuff.

“Sure,” she confirmed again, slower.

For my record, may I ask why you moved?

No way. The landlord sent somebody who gave a damn?

“The stairwell sticks.” Holy crap! For once when she uttered those words, they’d reached an ear. Her story melted out of her: “I can’t remember how many times I said it. I sent emails, I left messages – I even wrote a letter once. I bought stamps. I didn’t know they still made those! Something on the lock is gumming the door up there, and I’ll live with everything else, but that pushed me to my breaking point. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it’s like this stairwell is sticking, too. Are you fixing it?”

Today, I’m here only to investigate. Did you have other reasons for leaving?

“Not really.” Once she stuffed her standards down a hole, there was little else in particular to chase her away. “Sorry, what are you investigating?”

The tenant upstairs,” he explained, “who moved in – I believe – the day you moved out.

Quite the sucker punch, mister. Her tea stopped sitting so well.

“Ah…” Beth’s mouth had dried. “What about him? Anything serious?”

I’m not in a position to say.” Naturally. But he did offer, “I imagine that by now you noticed the noise.

Oh.

“You’re here about those complaints,” she muttered. “Not mine.”

Unfortunately, no. Doors aren’t within my jurisdiction,” the man said, forming every patient syllable as the French were wont to do. “I’m surprised you haven’t moved twice, Ms. Keeler. Me, I’ve been here ten minutes and already want to douse myself with bleach.

“You can use the can on the bench.” The community can: always an option. “It’s sanitizer. It’s free.”

The pause following this implied a good deal of thought, neatly ending in, “I wasn’t aware sanitizer came in open cans.

“Yeah, it’s sort of on a potluck system. Mostly it’s Purell, sometimes it’s rubbing alcohol, occasionally it’s beer but…” Ohhh, it just hit her now how that sounded. “Maybe wear gloves next time. And – um… don’t go easy on the bleach.”

I like this place.

Yes. For all its passionate aromas of garbage and farts sweeping through the vents, it was indeed a place. The very definition of a place, she might add.

“It’s cheap at least,” Beth told him.

I’ve seen your lease, Ms. Keeler. It isn’t.”

“But that doesn’t show the discount.” Which management tried to screw her on every month. She got a hundred off this room’s sticker price. That was the deal to shut her up from reporting them, and it was not being questioned again. “It’s a loyalty rate for people who’ve lived here long enough to know the rooms aren’t what’s advertised.”

Discounts are standard fare, then?

“No, it’s hush-hush, like phone companies,” she explained. “You only get the good price after you say you’re cancelling.”

The previous occupant of #516, he cancelled?

“I never met him, but he dumped half his things in the closet.” Whatever remained couldn’t be sold, like greasy foot massagers and back scrubs and other violations of personal space. “It’s past the thirty days. If he wants his stuff, it’s too late.”

Hmm.” The conversation hovered there. Beth waited, longer than she typically liked, but only readied herself to break the silence after it dragged for a full minute. “Thank you, Ms. Keeler.” His voice had returned from nowhere. “You’ve been very helpful.

“You’re –” Click. “… welcome.” Okay then. She hung up too, partly annoyed he hadn’t fixed either door and slightly concerned that Screamy’s case called for its own investigation. “You know how to pick ‘em, girl.”

Her canvasses glimmered at her.

“Carry us, Beth,” they sang. “We’re ready!”

As much as it mattered, she figured.

The clock flashed enough time for a shower and a bathroom break. Assuming Mr. Coffee didn’t plan on being an early bird, she could slide this home right on schedule.

Okay, but after one more drink.


A friendly chat with Tartra. Click the line below to expand!

The Friendly Chat - Welcome to TOKoR!

Hey, how’s it going – Tartra here! I figure now’s a good time to butt in. Thank you for reading, first off, but secondly – and more important – I’m here to bring you on board.

You’ve got a role in this adventure: comments!

I picked out three reasons why anyone gets into this writing madness during my humble experience as a for-free serialist: fame, money, and pleasure. There’s also something-something-art, but let’s be honest, TOKoR does not exactly smack of that noble refinement. It is fun as all hell to write, which puts pleasure up as my all-guiding motive. It’s also why you should read this straight through to the sequel I have planned and also maybe a Part Three, but it’s triply why you should comment.

‘Cause I am going to read the shit out of ’em.

Your likes, your dislikes, your theories and headcanons, your favourite ships, your face claims, your musical accompaniments, my typos (this story’s the poster child for Pobody’s Nerfect), and all the parts you didn’t get – all of it. Whatever little thing pops into your mind, I’m not only going to read, but I so very want to. And then I’m gonna reply, ’cause there’s nothing so fun as chatting with you folks.

So that’s it! Comment. It’s a fair trade: I blind with you a literary coffee-rush, so you get to hit me with what you’re packing. Besides that, don’t forget to subscribe. TOKoR’s update schedule is… I think I settled on the word ‘wacky’.

Cool! Glad we had this talk.

You’re the best, and keep enjoying the story.