The street outside F.B. Coffee, fine purveyors of caffeinated beverages since 1995.
15 minutes before sunset.
Wendy strode purposefully down the street, trying to keep one eye on her BRTS scanner, another on her Middlewatch and a third on the horizon. There was a trick to looking natural while doing it, but it had been a long day and she suspected she mostly came across as twitchy. Stressed. Frazzled, even. She hadn’t seen her hair since o-dark-thirty and it was probably approaching dire. Whatever. There were more important things to worry about.
“I’ve got the building evacuated and the ritual set to go, Dubbie,” Clarence’s voice was small and kind of tinny under the noise of just-off-main-street traffic and evening shoppers. Wendy shifted her gaze from the sunset down to her watch and turning up the volume. Time to make another push for earpieces, this was beyond ridiculous. “Any luck finding our second Vita Vorae?
“I’ve narrowed down my search radius,” she answered, “but the damn thing must have crisscrossed the neighborhood a dozen times today. Its trail is all over the damn place.”
Her partner nodded, not bothering to comment on her double damn usage. He’d been sloooowly loosening up since everything went sideways at Fat Boy Industries; her goal was to slip a fuck through unnoticed by the end of the year. “I hate to seem pushy, but we need that supernatural soul-sucker tagged and bagged before—”
“Sunset, so that the barrier to the Underworld Outlands isn’t ripped open a day early, plunging the city into a nightmare of Lovecraftian proportions. I know, boss.” She winced at the slip—Clarence hadn’t been her boss for more than a year.
“I’ll leave you to it, then - happy hunting. Agent Colten out.” His feed winked off and was immediately replaced with a flashing code 7 alert. She checked her BRTS scanner, which still wasn’t showing anything but ‘getting warmer’, and tapped the face of her watch. Louis Rick: Alarm Activated it told her before pulling up a map, but she was already moving. They’d asked their psychically inclined allies to keep an eye out and Louis, as proven by the sorority thing, the haunted davenport thing and the talking goats thing, had a special knack for finding trouble. He was also working at the coffeehouse down the street, thank Primus. Maybe today wouldn’t end in death and destruction after all.
Inside F.B. Coffee, fine purveyors of caffeinated beverages since 1995.
12 minutes before sunset.
Wendy pushed through the coffeehouse door, ignored the wave of coffee-scented alt-rock that washed over her and headed for the counter.
Louis was standing on the other side, doing something arcane with machinery and talking to a dark-skinned woman with long, wavy hair and a sleeping baby—of course a baby, why hadn't they thought of that—strapped to her chest. He sagged a little when he saw her, widening his eyes and nodding toward the woman in a completely unsubtle this one, this one here, look fashion, which was fine. She could roll with unsubtle.
“Green and yellow miasma, smells kinda like brimstone?” Wendy asked him, propping a hip against the counter and smiling at the endangered citizen du jour. She got a wary look in return.
“Exactly!” Louis said, eyes flicking between the two of them. “Well, assuming brimstone smells like matches and death, yeah.”
“Good.” The BRTS scanner was hovering at the edge of ‘you’re on fire!!’; the Vita Vorae had to be near by. What the hell had this woman been doing all day that it hadn’t already caught up to her? “Louis, I need you get everyone out the back. Can you do that?” He nodded jerkily and ducked under the counter, heading for the nearest cluster of laptop jockeys.
Wendy fished her badge, her real one, out of a belt pouch and held it out to the woman. “Wendy Watson, Middleagent. Hate to skip past the formalities, but can you confirm you live at the The Park at Sedgewick Heights, Luxury Lofts and Apartments?” She knew the answer, but a bunch of easy questions would give the Vita Vorae time to get with the program. And later, after the emergency was over, she could have a quick moral crisis about using a baby as bait. Greatness.
The other woman curled protectively around her kid’s head and dropped the other too-casual onto her purse. “I don’t know you, I don’t know what the hell a middle agent is,” she said after a moment, barely glancing at Wendy’s ID. “And I am having a bad day. What. Do you. Want?”
Oh, this one had gumption. And, possibly, a concealed handgun. Wendy mentally upgraded her from 'endangered citizen du jour' to ‘possibly an ally if I spin this right’.
“Okay,” she said, setting the BRTS scanner on the counter and doing her best to project authoritative-yet-nonthreatening, “here’s the deal. One, Middleagents—formally known as The Middleman but there’s two of us now and gender-specific titles are so 1970s—work for a top secret organization dedicated to fighting evil. Mad scientists, vampires, possessed gerbils: the works. If it’s evil, we kick its ass. Normally with an alias and a cover story, but we don’t have time for the song and dance routine.” Seven minutes to go. The Vita Vorae had to be close.
“Two, what I want is to do my job. They had to relocate the city’s oldest cemetery to build your new apartment building, which you’d know except I think you’re new in town.” Easy guess, no one from the city had been willing to get near that complex. “The sudden shift of psychic energy created a tear in reality, exacerbated by the approach of Halloween, and it’s gotten big enough for things to slip through ahead of schedule.” Monologuing was the precipitous slippery slope to simple-yet-elegant plans and also tacky beyond belief, but needs must. Yadda, yadda. “Things like the Vita Vorae eat life energy. You’ve probably felt like you’ve been followed around all day, your kid’s the right age to consu—”
“Get down!” Possibly-An-Ally shouted, dragging Wendy to the floor with her. Thick, twisted green tentically somethings lashed over their heads—shit, it was behind her; that was a cement wall—and shattered the chalkboard menu. Wendy got to her knees, drew her gun from its thigh holster and pivoted to face the far side of the shop. A quick shuffle got her between Quick-Reflexes and the roiling green mass spilling through the wall. Louis' 'matches and death’ was an accurate description of the smell, gross.
“I want to apologize,” Quick-Reflexes said, making rustling noises behind her.
“That’s inordinately polite.” Wendy kept her gun trained on the Vita Vorae, which seemed more interested in getting its bulk through the hole than attacking again. Better for her—she needed a clear shot at its core. “What for?”
“For thinking—just a minute. Here, can you take him?”
“What? Uh, yeah. Like this, right?” Shit, that was Louis. Which meant he’d come back instead of amscraying like he was supposed to. Fraking civilians.
“Be sure to support his—you've got it, thanks. And I was saying, Agent Watson, was it? I’m sorry for thinking you were crazy. Or pretending to be crazy for nefarious purposes.” She edged into Wendy’s peripheral vision holding a, was that a Beretta M9? Was Quick-Reflexes military? She held it like she knew what to do with it.
“Hazard of the job,” Wendy said. “Don’t worry about it. Anyone who uses ‘nefarious’ in casual conversation is a-OK in my book.”
“Good to know,” Actually-Kinda-Awesome replied. “I’m Jolene, by the way. Am I going to do any good with this?” She tilted the Beretta slightly.
“It’s corporeal, so you’ll be able to piss it off. We’ll need mine to take it out—it’s a modified phase disruptor. One good shot’ll punch a hole through its interior psychic field and kaboom.”
“I like kaboom,” Jolene said. “Kaboom sounds fantastic.”
The Vita Vorae was completely inside now, sending out a dozen creepy appendages to grope over the coffeehouse’s tables and chairs, spilling abandoned soy lattes and scattering ginger-carrot muffin pieces everywhere. The Middlewatch showed three minutes to sunset. It was now or never.
“I need to get closer to that red thing at the center,” Wendy murmured. “Try to distract it.”
She lunged to her feet, the sharp crack of Jolene’s Beretta ringing in her ears as she hurdled one tentacle, then another, and slid to a stop just shy of its main mass. Something inside turned to look at her but no way was she making eye-contact. She’d learned that lesson the hard way. Instead, she focused on the red blob floating inside all the swirling green bits and fired, corrected for distortion when it went wide and fired again.
There was a moment of stillness and then an all-encompassing, satisfying:
The reverberation threw her back onto a faux leather couch. Green ooze rained down a second later, typical, and somewhere behind her the baby started crying. Wendy wearily re-holstered her gun and punched in an all-clear on her watch. Eighty-three seconds to spare. That should give Clarence just enough time.
“You weren’t kidding about the kaboom.” Wendy tipped her head back to see Jolene standing over her, the baby on one hip. Back at the counter, Louis was looking was looking at the ooze stained walls with the horror of knowing he’d be the one to clean it up.
“Nope,” Wendy said, taking the hand Jolene extended her and pushing to her feet. “If it’s big and green and stinky, it’s going to blow up.”
“Another hazard of the job?”
“Correctamundo. And hey,” she scrubbed her hand against her vest and held it out. “Thank you. That was good shooting with the M9. Ex-military?”
“Oh, no. I’m a research librarian. My husband’s in the army. He taught me how to shoot.” She smiled. “His whole team did; it was a group project.”
“A research librarian?” Wendy asked, her brain pairing Ida’s litany of complaints at having to mind two agents—were they trying to sap her will to live?—with Jolene’s clear head in the fight. “Okay, this may be a little strange, but since you’re new in town...” She reached into a belt pouch and pulled out a business card. “If you haven't found a job yet you should give us a call. Not field work,” she hastened to add, glancing at the baby. “More like technical support.”
Jolene took the card. “The Jolly Fats Weehawkin Temp Agency?”
Wendy nodded. “We solve exotic prob—” The ground shifted suddenly under her feet, followed by the sound of every window in the place shattering at once.
“What now?” Jolene asked, her voice finally sounding strained.
“My partner. Hopefully,” Wendy answered, reaching back into her pouch for a pen. A boom that big meant Clarence had gone with Plan D. “Here, give that back to me for a minute.” She plucked the card from Jolene’s hand and scribbled her cell number on the back. “We also solve not-so-exotic problems. If, as I suspect, your apartment’s suddenly uninhabitable, give me a call. I know a place.”
Jolene took the card back, rubbing a thumb along its edge as she stared at it. “Fighting evil, huh?”
“Wherever it rears its ugly head,” Wendy confirmed.
“You know,” Jolene said, tucking the card into a pocket. “I like the sound of that.”