Tag Archives: Extra

Great, 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.”


“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…


Four people.


“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 with 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.


“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.”


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?”


“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.


“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.



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.”

Great, 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.


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.


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…


“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.


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

One hundred percent, sell-my-soul, I 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.


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.


Is this the same person?” Teen ‘stache. Carpenter clothes. “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.”


“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 – 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.


You asked.


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.”


“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.

“Oh.” The words kind of half-sunk in. Plus there was probably a nicer way to have put that… “What are you showing me?”

Common sense. Just some normal fuckin’ sense. Of course the guy elaborated. For every problem you find, the answer’s almost always been, ‘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 get killed. If you don’t figure that out, you’ll be put down. Not in our cutesy, ‘Oh, life is harder’ – you’ll get sniped from six blocks away. On the bright side, it’ll be painless, but still – like… dead. Which you’ve helped me to understand is a bad thing?

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


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 – like, break? Could I have actually broken you years ago?

Alex shut his eyes for a minute, trying to focus himself. It was a figurative minute, though. Because teen ‘stache.

“My imaginary friend thinks I have a screw loose. There isn’t that much do to say.” He crushed the moist, overly sharp buttoned shirt inside his pocket. “At least you think I’m ‘funny nuts’.”

Oh, you’re hilarious. But it’s ‘cause I said ‘guns’, right? I know that’s a foreign concept for you. ‘Filed moose antlers’?

“Not mad, Xander. Let’s get this over with.” Fuck. The mildly good new was a sudden nothing-left-to-lose burst of zen, which steadied his heart rate better than he could remember in days. Still. “Kid!” He felt a headache coming on and a prickle at his stress rash. “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.

Alex put the mask back on.

“Was it –”


Footsteps? More of them.

Fast footsteps. A lot of footsteps. Too many.

The lemonlit corner that was supposed to have been his way out just surged with a tidal wave of ginger kid clones. They clumped up like a pack of rats, trampling over each other. Black dust clouds said even more of didn’t survive the turn.

“Do I –”

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

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

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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.”


“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.


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.


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.


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 –”


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.


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.”


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.


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

“Which artist?”


“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.”


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!”


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




No –”


“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.”


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.


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“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 –”


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.”


“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.


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.


“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.


“‘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?”


“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.”


“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 growing 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! 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.


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.


“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.

Click the line below to expand and have a chat with Tartra!

The Chat with Tartra - 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 with a pseudo- job:

Play with me!

TOKoR is fun as all hell to write, but my dream isn’t doing this alone. I want to get you into my sandbox – what do you like? What do you think’s going to happen? What should have happened that didn’t? What’re your theories? Your plots? Your ships? Your face-claims? Your musical accompaniments (I’m dead serious; I have my own)? Are there any perspectives you’re spying room to include, or perspectives we have that you want to see go deeper?

Everything I’m writing in this story, straight on to its sequel and possibly even a Part Three, is here to spark your imagination to comment and play.

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

Then I’m gonna reply, get way too excited, and hope I can keep chatting with you folks.

But that’s it! I want you to have fun, and enough fun to throw the ball back so I can have fun through your fun.

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. Hope to chat again later!

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