Tag Archives: Post Zero

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.

[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.

Please. Please.

Please. Please. Please. Please fight. Please scream. Do something. Bang on the walls or throw a chair. Beth had four paintings. She needed nine in two days, excluding the blank trio on her floor. For the last months, that wasn’t a problem. The howling and the crashing of tables always eventually rewarded her with art. Now, she had a deadline. For the one time since they moved upstairs, Bethany Keeler’s neighbours were quiet.

Two days. The blank trio of canvases glared across their whitespace. ‘By Sunday,’ they said. The clock ticked! Her clock didn’t actually tick, but it would have, and it would again. This could not be the night they discovered healthy communication. Please.

Nothing. Damn.

Lesson learned, she told herself: don’t bet on blind luck when she’d already kicked its limit weeks ago. How about blind promises instead? This was the last show for Rage Against the Room – even though the series’ passion was immense and she could tasted the fury wafting along its acrylics – if only the universe aligned and simply squeezed out the rest of Beth’s quota. Terry’s gallery counted on it. She was counting on it.

Everything she had went into RAR. Beth even staged her living space around it. Her mother’s floral couch huddled under a pink blanket and against the wall, safer from errant splatters. She’d cleared her table away to lend her canvases the room. Hanging above them, hooked to the ceiling, dangled a system of tubes dripping stuttered lines of colour. It was impressive, if she said so herself. She built it with a fish tank pump and lots of tape.

When her neighbours flipped out, the machine would rattle and draw jagged streaks of flair. RAR’s intensity changed as quickly as the pointless crap they clashed over. Allusions of Crime, for instance, spread lazily due to the breaks they had taken, allowing her liquid hues to stretch across the fibres, but mostly plop at the centre in fat tears. Clearly, those two had less of a problem losing wallets than a sweatshirt. Torn Sleeves bore almost no drops on its belly since the tubes shook so constantly. It must’ve been a nice shirt! But probably not. They lived here; how expensive could something they owned be?

Still, nothing bared teeth as vicious as her Feed the Need collection. For ages, ‘coffee’ sounded to Beth like crack’s newest slang. No, one neighbour just seriously enjoyed Pequods. A hundred fights peppered the story through her depictions and reeked of agony, usually down the vein of the first neighbour screaming at the other to not destroy things, followed by things being destroyed. These creations’ paint ran to her floor in raw excess, devoid of drops anywhere but their brutal edges. Feed the Need exploded, unleashed, and rebelled, and notwithstanding oh God, please don’t let her be in a dark alley with them, the coffee fights were her neighbours’ most vivid inspirations. They won Beth her biggest award to date. Soon-to-be awards, plural, if they frigging returned to it.

Her machine coughed. The already slightly dry paint she’d scraped from a cluster of empty tins was going stale. She clicked off everything. There would be no choosing between supplies and sleeping on the street today. Besides, if the bills crammed under her table’s leg could gossip, the big problem wasn’t the rent but her phone. The forty dollars she saved stretching her paint barely covered her international texts.

Jessica never had those problems. Jessica painted for fun, and she leased a condo with a doorman and a foyer. Her building’s exercise room was a fitness centre, offering more than a broken treadmill and shady weights missing half of every pair. In fact, were Jessica to have muses that went quiet at the foot of her looming deadline, she wouldn’t need to tell Terry sorry, bad news, the neighbours weren’t feeling productively bananas, but instead skip on up there and knock on their door, and that – sounded…

Beth had two options left: a) abandon the designs painstakingly conceived for this exhibition, or b) sprint to a messy, open-and-shut, tag-team murder from above. Option A could work! Doing nothing welcomed every excuse she thought of to not go to their floor, which included selling Terry on the unfinished pieces if she retitled them: The Meek Forgiveness or Interrupted Wounds – crap like that to explain the whitespace. It could resonate! Well, it would bring the total to seven.

Dammit, Bethany… She’d laughed and promised to deliver these early. Now she was stuck for two, exactly as Jessica, with that whole year of experience, had cautioned her.

Between both those pains in Beth’s ass, at least the ones upstairs contributed sometimes. Jessica’s sole talent was shovelling fuel for Pity Petty Rival Parties. Last week, it was over furniture: Beth’s came castoff from family. Jessica ‘discovered’ stuff through feng shui hunts. Normal folk called it antiquing, and if Beth said that, maybe everyone would’ve marvelled as she too surrounded herself with rosy carpets, rosy curtains, and rosy doilies atop a faux-rosewood desk. Instead Beth earned eyes of sympathy, not applause, since rather than renting in a famous city where cheap furnishings begged stylish irony, she lived at a building that let Screamy and Coffee have a key.

She didn’t understand why they stayed. Why share a room? Her neighbours weren’t friends; she knew nothing about them except for that, and she was counting all the time spent capturing their emotions. Were they brothers, possibly? Special needs? She’d only heard the one guy talk. Beth absently paced as she weighed the notion. Yeah. Okay. Special needs. It turned her mind’s eye farther to the side of doubt. The duo probably did what they could to keep the noise down.

Of course, that let a few new implications parade in: neglect, battery, full-on abuse – no. Stop. Don’t. She’d agreed to cross this bridge when she started RAR, and today wasn’t any more the day she started morally crashing. To note, even less proof existed that they weren’t transatlantic crime lords. Whatever their deal, they’d obviously it survived this long. Except…

Oh shit. What if they had died? Oh shit! What if the cops thought she drove them to it? She had the perfect motive to push them! Shit – what if they took her series as evidence? She’d be hysterical! Her art was her life!

Don’t panic! Jam those fears in a corner, Beth! Beyond silence, nothing pointed to foul play. But she had to knock. She didn’t dare still kid herself when the stakes were this high. Fortunately, she didn’t forget to test the waters first. Beth swept the scene, listening and inching her head towards the ceiling. When this failed to provide results, she got a boost from climbing on her couch and doing the ear version of a squint.

Her broom rested on the pantry by the kitchen. She shuffled back with it, and – bracing herself – gave a committed whack to the stucco.

Freeze! Every muscle in her body seized. Oh God. She listened again. Damn, nothing. Never mind. It was probably for the best, anyway. Her first impression shouldn’t be an angry shit she knocked again why?

… Anything? No? Damn.

She moved to part two: room service. Guessing their nightly trigger seemed impossible, and since friendly-coloured clothes might not wash over well, she wanted a neutral palate. Check it off the list: she wore a white shirt and faded overalls, both stiff from paint. Her hair was in a brown ponytail. She couldn’t be more harmless if she tried, so the spattering of freckles on her untanned, easily burned face fit more like a sad bonus than a clever detail.

There. Good luck finding a reason to stab her now. So long as she spoke softly, didn’t make fast movements, left her hands in plain sight, and covered her tracks with an extra lap before home, she should theoretically survive. Unless she became a witness. ‘Loose end’, ‘narc’, ‘rat’, ‘snitch’… God, she hoped ‘coffee’ didn’t secretly mean that.

Two minutes later, she found herself a storey higher and on their free Welcome mat. No one else was around, which she didn’t blame them for. It simply meant she should’ve really left a letter. Too late; pushing forward. The near featureless, Amazon green door was watching her.

Okay. Do it.

Do it.

Knock, Bethany.

“Just shut up…”

“Just shut up…”

Definitely. Xander would definitely listen if Alex asked him for a seventh time. At least the prick quit trying to kill him, worn out with all that exhaustive ass-kicking. Xander’s voice was still going strong, though. After seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirty-six seconds – not that Alex had counted or anything – he had enough mental energy to bitch for another three. Days. Three more days of in-head screeching because Alex didn’t get him coffee.

It’s not just fucking coffee, you asshole, Xander helpfully explained. It’s Pequods. The only fucking thing I ask you for, you cheap son of a bitch.

Alex had considered handing himself in. Yes, the Agents more or less explained that getting the guy out involved hammers, chisels, a drill, his left temple and a grave, but it sounded pretty okay when the other choice was this. Besides, wherever they dragged him had to be nicer than his apartment. An asylum, maybe. Some place with lights.

I swear to God, the first chance I get, I’m grabbing a knife and stabbing you in the throat. You owe me.

Yeah, Alex owed him a coffee and a soul. They were in the mail or… something.

You think I won’t wait? I can wait, you dick. I can wait all fucking night.

Xander didn’t sleep. Yet another surprise Alex learned to live with.

I want my latté!

“Shut up,” he muttered.

The screeching started again. At least the neighbours couldn’t hear that. Everything else he guessed fell under the building’s No Questions pledge. Their room was a cramped bachelor with a bed wedged into the bathroom. Alex wasn’t paying what he paid for décor.

They did expect some furniture back though, including homey pieces like the mirror. The shards of it scattered everywhere made walking dangerous. Other chunks stuck under his skin from where Xander threw his fist against the glass. He would’ve taken them out, except with his ‘friend’ watching, if Alex dove in with tweezers, his hand could magically spasm and there’d be a field day of stitching his finger on instead of just slapping a bandage over it. Fine. The cuts barely hurt. He was more pissed he had to go dumpster diving.

Their latest table had been smashed in two. Alex had landed on it with his hip. The chairs he lifted from that thrift store? Destroyed. He’d been thrown through them. He took the hit with the centre of his gut, like he did with the desk from the curb – gone – and the IKEA shelves – shattered – and the dresser, which was the closest thing this place had to an original appliance and was also now cracked. He would be picking splinters from his clothes for weeks, provided he got the privilege. Sometimes accepting this shit was better than trying to survive Xander’s stupid wrath. Too bad the Agents didn’t see it that way. On the other hand, if they did, apparently Alex would have a knife in his throat.

First chance.

Xander’s control ran off a shrinking pool of energy. He needed to pace himself when he took over, so walking and breathing – anything minor – were left to Alex. Not fights. Xander handled fights. The number of Agents after him had dropped from armies to two main people. It felt cozy enough to rent for a while instead of moving twice a month, but lately…

Alex didn’t get it. Suddenly new Agent swarms appeared every other day. Hours ago, that afternoon, he found a cluster lurking half a block from the north Pequods coffee land. The struggle to turn around and go the hell home was why Xander didn’t have the strength to leave permanent damage. But his foot hurt. He’d kicked a streetlight. Was it worth it?

– won’t fucking let me kill Agents, won’t fucking go outside –

Yes. Completely. His basic sense of safety was on the line. Xander not getting his precious drinks was just a bonus. Fuck you. It still cost Alex his sleep. He hadn’t rested in days ‘cause of the anxiety. Why new Agents? Why now? How could they not have given up?

Maybe they were there to get lattés. It’s where I’d go, which was what I was doing until you ran like a little bitch. They didn’t know how many – Four. You ran because of four. I have shit with more effort than it takes to snap four Agents in half.

Yeah, well…

“Shut up.”

One thing, Xander spat. One thing is what I’m asking for.

His jaw hurt. Alex got off his bed. His feet responded. Finally, good news. Ignoring the sharp throb of pain humming from the right one, it meant Xander let go. He felt awful but the awfulness belonged to him. This was Alex’s body – it’s shared. Xander was the psycho he’d invented after a six-years-young nervous breakdown.

Alright. Time to check the damage. Shuffling, limping, he wandered to the last clump of mirror clinging to the frame. Alex had to keep turning his head if he wanted to see another part of it, but it worked. He was mostly intact. Bruises stretched from his neck to his ear, but the oval shape his face was there. So were circles under his eyes. He’d have to wait to tell if those came from the fight or being tired. Or maybe he was sick. His skin seemed pale. Normally he hovered on dark olive. Or else it was a daylight thing. Since the Agent swarms started, Alex stayed in so much that he barely remembered what sun looked like.

It’s yellow, it’s round –

“It’s a figure of speech.”

It’s bullshit, is what it is.

Black hair, brown eyes, cut short and kind of choppy. He did it himself. He didn’t trust Xander around barbers. Around anyone, frankly, but especially not people with scissors. Instead he used to not being picky. If he didn’t look deranged or like a serial killer, then great. Plus he stayed in shape. Xander kept him on a strict work-out schedule. His own face stood as proof of how hard he could hit.

I’m taking this body the second you’re gone.

Then Xander had to keep him alive. Alex knew how to run but sometimes there were pits he fell into, and he needed the little bastard to dig him out of those. Xander hadn’t failed yet. How could he? When he got sick of punching, stabbing or kicking everyone, there was always the ‘advantage’. Alex didn’t know what to call it. ‘Killing people with seizures I make with my eyes’ seemed like a mouthful.

Someone’s coming.

Agents?

No. Xander sounded bored. So…

Shit. Neighbours. Someone coming about the noise.

“Stay quiet,” Alex said quickly, “and I’ll get you coffee.”

Nah, I don’t want it now.

Liar.

“Just shut up, okay? Please? For once.”

Bitch, let’s see you make me.

His arms twitched to kick his ass again. Nothing happened. Xander was still tired. Alex felt him sink to a corner of his mind – or wherever he went – to sulk. Good. Stay. That would stop this from turning more horrible than it had to. Right now, he needed an excuse for why the apocalypse had gone off for half a day. Any chance there’d be brownie points for not stretching it to a full day this time?

“I’m serious,” he warned.

Xander didn’t say anything.

The third and last fact Alex had learned: no answer was almost always worse than getting one.

Fantastic. Just… fantastic.