The Contingent

Knowledge

“You want something, don’t you?” The little Fae girl bounced from foot to foot, staring at her intently.

Mal struggled, trying to find the words to express what she wanted. In that moment all she wanted was not to fail again, which meant she somehow needed to get one of these creatures to wear the tracking collar. There had been at least three opportunities prior to now where she could have tagged either the unicorn or the dryad, but the circumstances had been too risky. Even though in the back of her mind she knew that this wish was too good to be true, she couldn’t pass it up.

What do we ultimately get from the tracking device? She mused to herself as she removed the collar from her med kit.

“Knowledge,” she said out loud without thinking.

She could immediately tell that this was a bad answer by the looks of ‘Oh my God what have you done?’ on Aaron, Alex, and Eva’s faces.

The tiny girl grinned and patted the unicorn’s flank. “Are you sure?” she said, putting emphasis on the last word.

“Umm…no…I mean…” Her thoughts were racing, trying to find some way to salvage the situation. She held out the collar with trembling hands, hoping to buy herself some more time.

“Ooh, is this a present?” Cicuta’s eyes lit up, and she held out her hand.

“Yes. It’s a present.” Mal dropped it in the girl’s palm and sighed in relief as she turned her attention to Josie.


Mal leaned her head against the window, watching the scenery go by without actually seeing it. The tension in the car was palpable, and she could tell by the way Eva was gripping the steering wheel that she wanted to go faster than the thirty-eight miles an hour they were currently traveling at. Driving at very fast speeds was Eva’s way of decompressing; however, getting arrested for reckless driving would be a foolproof way for both of them to get back on Carver’s radar. Still, Mal wished they would go faster, just so she could escape the pressure in the car.

She closed her eyes, trying to think of anything she had read about the Fae. Most of her supernatural research was focused on creatures that inhabited this world: vampires, shifters, mages. She knew that there were other planes of existence, though; she had even traveled to one or two. The problem was that she didn’t have a frame of reference in regards to the creatures that inhabited these realms…and that lack of knowledge was becoming a problem.

I could have had all the knowledge I wanted and then some, but at what cost? Maybe I should take some time and do some research. I can’t keep using ‘I didn’t know’ as an excuse…

The sudden jerk of Eva violently putting the car into park shook her out of her musings. Eva waited for her to get out first. They avoided each other’s eyes in the elevator, and Mal fumbled a little trying to swipe the key card that unlocked the door. Finally the light turned green, and she rushed inside. As soon as the door swung shut with a click, Eva rounded on her.

Dios Mio, Mal, what were you thinking? I said, esto no es tan malo, at least I didn’t have to save her from getting gutted by the damn unicorn, and then you go and…”

She was right, the thought of tagging the unicorn had crossed her mind, but that was before she watched it impale one of the security guards. “Eva…”

“You can’t trust anything that pequeña de mierda says, it always turns out bad.”

“Eva I know.” Now, she amended in her head.

“Knowledge, what the fuck does that even mean? She could have given you all the knowledge in the fucking world and driven you loca…

“I know!” Mal shouted back, just wanting Eva to stop saying all the things she had been thinking. Somehow hearing them out loud made it more real.

“Yeah, well, for someone who is so smart, sometimes you can be bien estupida.

The silence was deafening, and they glared at each other for a moment before Mal’s shoulders slumped and she looked at the floor in shame.

Eva’s expression softened. “ Ay, Mami, come here.” She reached out and wrapped her arms around Mal. “You’re not stupid, you just…”

“No, I am stupid, about certain things. I’m glad you’re here to remind me of that.” She tightened the embrace briefly before stepping back so she could look her in the eyes. “Sometimes I think you’re the smartest out of all of us.”

Eva smirked. “Glad to know that someone appreciates my street smarts.”

“I always have. That’s why we work so well together. You remind me that that there is more going on than what’s in front of me. You make me want to live.” Eva had filled a void inside of her that she didn’t even realize had existed. Her world used to be black and white; everything was cold and clinical. Now, she was beginning to see things in color, and it made her want more. Slowly, her obsession with death was turning into an obsession to get more out of her life.

“So, does that mean you’re going to stop doing stupid shit that might get you killed?” Eva teased, and Mal was glad they had returned to their usual banter.

“Probably not,” she countered, leaning against Eva’s shoulder.

Chica, you’re going to be the death of me,” Eva huffed, pulling her closer.

“I certainly hope not. Although given the specific combination of the skills that Alex and I possess, reanimation is not off the table…”

Eva took a step back, eyeing her suspiciously. “Are you talking about turning me into a fucking zombie?”

“Nope. Not at all.” Mal leaned down to kiss her, hoping that would be enough to distract her. It was, apparently, because a few moments later she was being pulled down to the bed.


“Hey, what’s this?” Eva reached under her to pull out a now slightly-creased white envelope.

“Oh, that’s from Aaron.” She had hadn’t had time to look at the contents when he had given it to her; she had just tossed it on the bed on their way out the door. “Let me see it.”

“Can’t it wait?” Eva pouted, kissing her shoulder.

“Nope!” Mal’s curiosity always got the best of her, and it could not be denied. She plucked the envelope from Eva’s hands and opened it carefully. Her mouth fell open when she pulled out an official-looking document.

“What is it?” Eva asked over her shoulder.

“It’s a medical information release form. But why would…” She tipped the envelope over and three USB drives fell onto the comforter. She snatched them up and dashed over to her laptop, shaking with excitement.

She opened up the first file and stared at the screen for a moment. “Why would they run that particular panel? Ah, okay, the levels were elevated the previous month…but that doesn’t make sense…unless…”

Eva sighed, fishing her keys off the floor. “I’m going to get more beer,” she announced, but didn’t wait for a response because she knew she wouldn’t get one. “Screw you, Mathias. I swear to God, one day I’m going to find a way to cockblock you,” she muttered as she exited the elevator, and stalked out to her car.

She had just put the key in the ignition when she stopped, smiling to herself.

ASI had put them up in a decent enough hotel, the kind that came with a complimentary breakfast, elevators, and bathrooms that weren’t smaller than a closet. They also had normal curtains, the light-blocking kind that were usually reserved for establishments where you could rent a room by the hour.

From across the parking lot she could see her the outline of her girlfriend sitting at the desk situated directly in front of the window. If anyone cared to look closer, they would see a very naked woman, oblivious to the world, talking animatedly to herself.

Eva sighed. “Ay, chica, what am I going to do with you?” She locked the Trans Am and took the stairs this time, using her key card to open the door. She grabbed a robe out of the closet and wrapped it around Mal, kissing her cheek.

“Hey, thanks, babe.” Mal looked up and smiled at her before returning to staring at what looked like some sort of brain scan. “I won’t be too much longer, I promise.”

They both knew she was lying, but the fact that she said anything at all meant everything to Eva. Still, it was getting late, or early depending on how you look at it, and the exhaustion that came after a mission was starting to catch up with Eva. And she knew Mal—when she was hyper-focused on something, her brain wouldn’t shut off. It looked like Eva would need to take matters into her own hands.

Eva shut the curtains and took Mal’s med kit into the bathroom. She filled a styrofoam cup with water and sat it in the microwave, hitting the button for “Hot Water”. Toward the bottom of Mal’s kit, she found what she was looking for: a small bottle labeled Diazepam. She pulled the cup out of the microwave, crushed two of the pills, and swept the powder into the cup along with a packet of instant hot chocolate. Eva stirred the contents of the cup furiously, making sure the pills had completely dissolved. After placing the cup gently on the nightstand, she flopped down on the bed, turning on the TV. She resolved to watch one episode of Top Gear before putting Mal to bed. It wasn’t the method that she had wanted to use…but hey, her girl needed sleep.

The credits ran; Eva looked over at Mal, who was still typing furiously. She kissed the back of her head and put the glass down next to her. “You need to drink something,” she said insistently, and Mal took a sip without looking away from the screen. After about fifteen minutes she began to slump in the chair, and Eva shut her laptop, gathering her into her arms.

“I’m tired,” Mal murmured into her shoulder, and as soon as her body hit the bed she was out, breathing softly. Eva stroked her hair, watching the tension leave her face. It seemed like over the past few months things had been escalating and they were both starting to realize just how much they needed each other to survive it. There was no guarantee that any of them would make it through the next day alive.

Eva lay down by Mal’s side, stretching and sidling as close to her as she could. Mañana no nos esta prometido, asi que hacemos lo más que se pueda con hoy, she thought as she closed her eyes and rested her chin on Mal’s shoulder. Pena que hoy ya se nos fue.

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Mr. Blackwell

Dear Domino,

I know it’s silly to be writing this journal to you, but I’m too old to be writing, “Dear Diary,” and just dating it makes it seem like my experiences are…mundane. You are the only one I have left, which is a sad state of affairs.

Where to start. I guess I should start with the dreams. They involve Midge, the little girl I told you about. It’s been a while since I thought about that day. I thought I might have gotten over it. Apparently not. They started after I came back from Paris—oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, I’m a member of the Contingent. That’s what you get for going dead on me. But I’ll get back to that in a bit.

Paris. There was a call on the Secret Frequency for people to meet up because someone called on the Contingent for help. I was surprised no one even got details about the area of where we were to meet this person. Those were always your worst days: scouting and prepping. It always got to you when you’d catch bad shit go down and you couldn’t go in yet. Or you knew it was a bad situation and you could be leading people into a meat grinder. I can’t say I’m gonna miss those days. Anyways, after intros and debate, we finally head in. These were definitely not Remington people as they kinda looked at me sideways when I put on your flack jacket—I took a few things of yours before I ditched the Malden place. God I was so fucking scared. I’m not sure where they found the other guys. Ed and Grace, who seemed to be ones taking the lead, I don’t remember you talking about them before, but they seemed to be all right. The others, I don’t know, they reminded me of the guys you’d get alone before a mission and pep talk them to keep them focused. I kept to the back and hugged myself so hard waiting for the first gun shot.

But it never came. Instead, we found Claire Carver. It took me too long to remember what you told me about what went on with that Jackson Carver guy back in the Chester days. Apparently this was his wife and she’s decided to scratch the Contingent’s back if we got back something he took from her and sold. She has some protective statue that’s been in her family for a while. It seems Jackson either made a deal or got an upgrade, but he ain’t human no more and that statue protected her from his worst moods. The other’s were skeptical till she showed the bruises, but I could see it in her eyes. The defeat. The existing on sheer will. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing me when you got me out of Anastasia’s grip.

The trick was, we had to head over to Paris and steal it back from some French master criminal. We were supposed to get into a party were the guy was going to show off his collection, including the new statue addition. Claire was already invited so we used her as our way in posing as her entourage. These other guys, Lord, I hope they don’t have wives or girlfriends cause they just ignored Claire unless they wanted info. “Gaining trust doesn’t mean earning yours.” I remember you saying that to Chaz before that scouting mission. I did what I could to give her an ally. I think it started to work. I just did what I remember you doing for me.

We get to the party, a flight and an afternoon later. This where we meet Guillaume. There was this song my dad loved to play when he thought he was Gene Simmons, “Mr. Blackwell.” While my dad’s performance was goofy and ridiculous, the words started echoing in my head when Guillaume introduced himself. Luckily I had managed to calm Claire down, so she could confront him civilly and strongly, but I knew this guy was going to be a threat and he needed to be out of the picture if we were going to steal from him. I felt dirty even before he took my arm. I remembered the nights Anastasia would parade me, pass me around, safe from anything vampires do only by her mood. You do what you need to do to keep them happy. Gain their trust. Get the mission done.

It was going fine. It should’ve worked.

But then it happened. One of the guys, Brandon, he was sucked into this magical iron maiden. I watched him get pulled in and the casket close tight. His screams echoed in the building. And everyone just stood there. I tried to get info from Guillaume, who was a proud peacock about his little treasure. I told the others what to do, but I knew Guillaume would stay there and watch if I didn’t get him away. He would’ve stopped them from helping Brandon. I get him to take me to his office and…preoccupied him for as long as I can.

They didn’t help him. They left Brandon in there. They left me there. Apparently they got the statue, but…I don’t know, Dom. This wasn’t the Contingent I knew. I know I’m new to the game compared to most, but I know Remington, I know the hunters you’ve been with except your last…

Damn it! I should’ve gone, I’m sorry. I should’ve been there. I’m so sorry. It was a stupid thing to fight over. And now all I can to is this! Fuck!

Sorry. The dreams.

I dream of Midge, still in her Sunday dress. I see her walking towards the iron maiden. But this time there’s no one there but me and her. She walks right up to it and turns back to me. I just look away. I hear the maiden snap open and her body slam inside. The wet sound of the spikes going through her. The doors close before I can look inside. Then it’s silent. I always think, “Good, she maybe she didn’t feel it.” As soon as I finish the thought, Midge screams. Not far away, where the iron maiden is, but right by me—deafening me with her pain. The same scream when Anastasia killed her, and it repeats over and over. Nothing blocks the sound. Every time the scream starts, the iron maiden changes shape and becomes Anastasia’s figure. I wake up just before she completely transforms.

Why did you leave me, Dom? I thought, maybe, with you gone, the Contingent would be a safer place. But it’s fractured even more. It reminds me how it was when you had to deal with Mossberg. Everyone’s got their agendas and work together while their aligned, but if they ever become contradictory…I don’t know. I don’t care what those vampire jackoffs did to you, I still know I could have counted on you. Too many times. Too many times you could have given me over, they would’ve given you anything for me, and you never even let me know. You hide it from me. Purposefully. That’s how I know it wasn’t you, it was them. I wish you told me. Maybe we could’ve figured something out. All I know is that now I’m alone. My family is gone. You were the last of it and the vamps took that away too.

And I want to be so mad at you! Why won’t you let me be mad! Why do I have to feel sad and heartbroken?

[tear stains]

I think this is enough for now. I gotta resell a mink stole to help kids learn to read. I can’t let someone else end up like me.

Later.

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Adventures in Babysitting
When Reasonable Adults Miss Naptime

Querido Eduardo, Eva composed in her head, today I had to kill three of your friends because they were pissing me off

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Mal and I finally surfaced from our marathon… reunion…and I headed out on the road so that she could actually get some work done. A few days later, she texts me:

Alex has a case in TN. Multiple corpses, maybe staked. Stakes + corpses = you + me?”

Shit, yeah! Maybe vamp-related, plus Mal, plus maybe Miss Alex has heard something from stupid Ed? ¡Ya! I’m already out the door!

Soon enough, I’m stopping to pick up Mal, and then pulling the Trans Am I…acquired…into the lot of a decent motel in a little town called Jericho Falls, TN. Aaron, Miss Alex, and Charles the ex-cop are already there, and a mechanic named Wayne (hey, hermano!) and Josie (very, very smart lady) arrive not too much later. Miss Alex tells us that there are four dead altogether, although only one is still above ground. All of them were found in the park that borders on the NuStar Cosmetics property with, like, two inch wide stab wounds in their chests, some that went almost all the way through.

Mal is super-hot to go poke the corpse, of course, so off she goes. Josie and Wayne dig around the local bar to see what the town has to say about the dead people. Miss Alex decides to do some digging on local history and on NuStar, at Aaron’s suggestion. On his way out of the motel, Wayne suggests to me that maybe I should look over a map of the town and have a couple of fast escape routes in mind, just in case. I like Wayne; healthy paranoia is a good thing. I could have used some in Braxton Falls. I spend about 45 minutes poring over the map: there’s not much town to be had, but it’s near the highway, and there’s a couple of good access points, so I think we’re solid.

When everybody gets back together, we got a lot of info. Whatever the dead guy was stabbed with, it wasn’t a stake. Local gossip says all the corpses were sort-of assholes: the security guards liked to rough people up a little too much, the football player was a bully, and the banker cheated her way up the promotion ladder the old-fashioned way. Maybe somebody was looking to get even with them? No parecen conectados, but who knows, right?

So we all go down to a local place to get some dinner and plan out the rest of the night. Aaron, Charles, and I decide that we want to take tonight and stake out this park where all the bodies were found, and everybody else is going to rest up and see what info we bring back in the morning. The waitress is really pushing the apple pie (“…made from local apples!”), and several people go for it. Charles gets a second slice to go, and Aaron gets that plus a whole pie to take with him. Everyone is having a great time…until the text messages start coming in. Orders arrive from almost everybody: Skaar, Sharpe, Natalie. Nothing from Ed or any of our guys yet, though…¿pasa algo? Anyway, now, everybody’s plans change. We’re all going into the woods tonight.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

We leave our cars in the lot and head into the park. Miss Alex points us in a particular direction, and says that her research says that there’s a place up ahead where two ley lines cross, and that maybe that has something to do with whatever’s going on. It’s as good a theory as not having one at all, so why not, right? Plus, of course, Aaron had a dream about a place that looked like this. Of course he did. Puta madre. As we go further toward the crossing, the plants start to get weird. Like, not-of-this-world weird. Like, Cristo Rey, ¿en que me he metido? weird. And then we find a ring of weird-ass looking mushrooms. And because Aaron Fucking Mathias has the self-preservation instinct of a Carver supporter in East LA, he decides that touching the freaky mushrooms is a great idea. Fortunately, Mal has ointment and bandages for the nasty blisters that sprout up across his hand the second he makes contact.

So of course, it’s about this time that we hear noise in the woods up ahead of us: screaming, some gunshots, and then two guys come running out of the trees like el diablo is chasing them. One dies from a crushing kick to the head, the other from a piercing stab to the chest from the horn on…its…head…HOLY SHIT IS THAT A FUCKING UNICORN?! Because puta madre que lo parió that sure as fuck looks like a goddamn giant fucking white horse with a goddamn giant fucking white horn sticking out of its goddamn giant fucking head. I am stunned, frozen, can’t move a muscle, and it looks like no one else can, either, except for Josie, who gracias a Dios has decided to take pictures of it instead of trying to shoot it.

The unicorn (really? Unicorns now? Really?) rounds on us and slows, checking us each out individually, especially taking its time with Charles. Then it stops right in front of Aaron FUCKING Mathias, God love him, and makes some kind of horsey noise. So Mathias starts talking to it about “her” and if “she’s” being held “in there”. Now we’re taking orders from fucking unicorns. Jesucristo, perdóname , but I’m really having trouble believing this shit. And now we have to plan a raid on NuStar to rescue what is apparently a fae of some kind. Of course, lemming-boy wants to go right now, but Charles manages to convince him that we need a plan of some kind. So we tell the unicorn ( sigh…) that we’ll be back the next night to rescue its friend, and having delivered its quest to us, it wanders back off into the woods.

As we’re coming back to the parking lot, we see that there’s a woman checking out our license plates, and as she sees us coming, she turns to leave. Charles uses his very best cop voice to stop her in her tracks and find out what her story is. Turns out she’s a botanist working at the NuStar plant, and there’s bad stuff going on there; stuff that’s weighing on her conscience. She wants out, but she’s worried for herself and her daughter. As soon as she said that, I should have known what was going to happen. Fucking Mathias tells her that he can take them some place safe…and Mal completely loses her shit, right there in the fucking parking lot: cell phone in one hand, one digit away from calling Skaar, screaming at the top of her lungs about ASI constantly stealing people from the Empire Foundation. Atlanta Barbie follows suit, also losing her shit and screaming like a banshee (not, like, an actual béan sidhe, though), leaving poor Mathias with his mouth hanging open like a fish. Poor Marcia the botanist lady looks like she’s seen the apocalypse, Charles looks like maybe he’s gonna shoot somebody, and Wayne and Josie just look confused. Charles finally bundles Marcia into his car and takes her back to the motel, and Josie and Wayne pile into his car and drive off, leaving me with the giant tantrum babies.

Mathias and I manage to wrestle our respective ladies into my car, even though they are still bitching at each other at top volume. He’s trying to make peace between them, but neither of them is listening. I am trying very hard not to ram us into a telephone pole just to shut everyone the fuck up. I am also composing a letter in my head:

Querido Eduardo, today I had to kill three of your friends because they were pissing me off. One of them was my girlfriend, so you can understand how maybe I really want to patearle a somebody en los cojones right now. I know you don’t have so many friends that aren’t werewolves, so this is probably a big loss to you, too. Maybe this will remind you that the kind of keeping in touch that doesn’t involve your pinga is also important. Because apparently I haven’t screwed the uptight out of Mal yet, and Mathias hasn’t screwed the uptight out of whatever Miss Alex is to you yet. They’ve been trying to claw each other’s eyeballs out for about twenty minutes now, and the boy started it. Apparently, they need actual friends, not just a regular fuck. Who knew?

About this time, we’re pulling into the lot at the motel, and they are still bitching. I feel my phone vibrate: a text from Denver. There’s an active portal through the Hedge in the middle of that ley line convergence, and the Union wants it closed. Okay, I’ll see what we can do. A sudden thought strikes, and I send back a quick text. I get a positive answer almost immediately: yes, Kincaid would love to offer a wayward botanist and her daughter sanctuary in Denver. Beautiful. I’m gonna take this opportunity to shaft Skaar and Sharpe, and at least temporarily kill the argument.

Charles effectively shuts everybody up by reminding us that we’re supposed to be working together. As he and Mathias chow down on their second slices of pie, we start hashing out a plan for infiltrating NuStar, liberating whatever creature is being held there, and closing that portal. Marcia can get two people into the facility for a tour as “family”, so Mal goes for the science and Aaron goes ‘cause…dream. The rest of us try to relax until go-time tonight; as if I can relax when I’m about to try to infiltrate yet another secure compound associated with Jackson Fucking Carver. Yeah. ‘Cause last time went so well.

They get back with intel about the night security detail, and about the captive. Miss Alex identifies it as a dryad, and says that it’s probably what’s making the local plant life so lush and productive. Speaking of which, Aaron and Charles look particularly…attractive…today, for some reason. Even Mal seems to notice, and they are really not her type at all. Anyway, in an attempt to soothe egos and act like adults, Mal and Miss Alex decide to work together to keep an eye on the portal along with Wayne, to make sure nothing tries to come through, while Josie, Aaron, Charles, and I storm the castle, er, NuStar plant.

We know there’s only one security guy on the front entrance at night, so Aaron gets Josie to do the classic “distract him with boobs”, but he doesn’t fall for it. So I figure, honestly, what works for 90 percent of men if two boobs don’t? Four boobs, pressed up against each other. So I wander in, pretending to be drunk, drape myself all over Josie, babble about being sorry, and lay one on her. This distracts the guard just long enough for Charles to knock him out. Which is good, because the next option was for Aaron to try distracting him. I only hope Mal either doesn’t hear about it at all, or she forgives me if she does. It’s not like I did it for shits and giggles.

We get in and manage to get the security cams up enough to see that the only other visible guards are currently on break down a hall in the opposite side of the building from where we’re going. Josie and I close the fire doors on that hall and jam them closed, buying us some time, and we all head for where the dryad is being experimented on. It takes a group effort to pry up the cold iron bars that are keeping her trapped in the grow pod they have her in, but once they’re gone, it’s easy for Aaron to help her make her way out as the rest of us cover with our guns, just in case. We make our way out to the woods, towards where the others are waiting for us, and Alex uses some kind of spell from a huge book to pull the portal open so the dryad can step through. As she does, a dark figure coalesces and steps back out into our world and the (goddamn fucking) unicorn comes out of the woods to meet it.

It looks like a creepy little girl, and it acts like it knows Fucking Mathias, because of course it does. It also implies that the only reason it’s telling us the truth right now is because it’s speaking for the (goddamn fucking) unicorn and not for itself. The (goddamn fucking) unicorn’s name is Carfax, apparently (…), and it wants to grant us each a wish for completing the quest it gave us. And…nope. Listen: seré ladrona, seré bisexual, but I’m still a halfway decent Catholic, and if there’s one thing I ever learned from Padre Mauricio, it’s that you don’t make deals with things that just walk up to you out of thin air. Hell no. Literally. There is nothing in the world that I want enough to deal with whatever the consequences would be. My soul is my own. I wish the rest of these people had that much sense. But no. Every single one of them sold at least a little bit of themselves. And it wasn’t my place to stop them, because some decisions, you can only make for yourself.

I can only be thankful that they didn’t take my Mal’s mind from her immediately when she said she wanted “knowledge”. Now I have to worry about what they will take. And about what Fucking Mathias will have to pay for control of his dreams, poor dumb kid. And what Miss Alex is paying for touching what she used to have. And what Wayne and Josie will pay for outing Carver and protecting the Contingent. And, hell, what Charles is going to pay for that strand of hair.

At least the pot farm is getting a botanist.

Goddamn Fucking Unicorn.

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A Pain That I'm Used To
Part 2 of 2

Ed watched Alex get out of the cab by herself and walk into the night office at the no-name motel where they’d stayed on their first trip to Denver. Beside him, Dain sat, arms crossed, still pouting hours later. He kept looking out the passenger window, secretly staring at Ed in the reflection. “There she is, let’s go.”

“Wait!” Dain hissed, grabbing Ed’s arm. “Patience. Let’s make sure she isn’t being followed.”

The time crawled by as the two surveilled the hotel, watching Alex get her keys and disappear into the interior portion of the building. Several minutes later, Ed’s phone buzzed with a text message that had been relayed by some technical wizardry on Simon’s part. With the room number in hand, Ed wouldn’t wait any longer. He hopped from the cab, shouldering his bag and checking his sidearm. Dain sauntered in a more casual fashion, taking in the surroundings at they moved. Ed barreled through the lobby, not even pausing to look at the night manager. Dain casually took a seat on one of the threadbare couches, giving the night manager a grin that gave no warmth. He picked up a months-old copy of the local newspaper from the table in front of him and pretended to browse the sports section.


Ed reached the room number from the text and hesitated. Other than some very brief letters and text messages, Alex and Ed hadn’t spoken since Braxton Falls. At first, there had been the excuse of laying low. Then, with the passage of time, there was just too much funk between them for either to make the first move. Now, Ed was staring at a flimsy door with the numbers barely hanging onto it, more scared of what was behind it than anything else he’d encountered.

Knocking quietly on the door, Ed stood with his head bowed, chewing at his lip when he heard movement on the inside. There was the scrape of metal as the chain and bolt were drawn, and Alex opened the door cautiously.

“Ed!? I didn’t really thi—OOF!”

Ed pushed into the room, wrapping Alex into a bear hug and holding on for dear life.

“Ed? ED! You’re squishing me!” Alex muffled from somewhere in Ed’s jacket.

“Don’t care…” he mumbled, not letting go.

“Ed, I need to breathe!” came a more frantic muttering and now wiggling. Alex pulled back, her hair knocked loose and glasses askew. “Dammit, Ed!” Alex took a whiff of her sweater. “Oh God, you stink!”

Ed looked up in surprise. “What? I live with a pot-smoking werewolf. You tell me how you expect someone living with Scooby Doo to smell.”

From down the hall, a quiet “I heard that!” floated into the room. Alex couldn’t help but giggle. “God, you haven’t changed a bit.” she said.

Ed looked at Alex, hopeful. “Things don’t have to change, do they?”

“Everything’s changed. That’s why I’m here.” There were too many things she wanted to say, but for right now, she needed to deal with the binder sticking out of her backpack.


Quickly the two got down to business, sorting through the accordion file of information Alex had brought with her, along with some digital resources she’d pulled while traveling. The pair fell into a comfortable silence, a rhythm well-established from the year they’d lived together. Ed didn’t bother asking how Alex got the info, and she didn’t see a reason to bring it up. A few hours later, there was a knock at the door. Ed answered it to find Dain with coffee cups in each hand and a paper bag of some wonderful smelling bagels in his teeth. Ed took the bag and ruffled Dain’s hair before he could pull back. Dain continued to give Ed the evil eye while handing one of the coffees to Alex. He started sipping from the other one.

“What? I don’t get one?” Ed said.

“You lost coffee privileges when you called me Scooby Doo,” Dain said, rummaging around in the bagel bag.

With breakfast in hand, the trio started filling in the gaps of the last six months. As they talked, Alex’s mood changed. When Ed asked about Jericho Mills, she grew silent, staring at the cup in her hand. The happy facade dropped away. Tears started, but she turned away, making an effort to put all of the papers back in order. “I fucked things up royally,” she stated quietly. Alex took a deep breath as she sat back down and told them everything. “Aaron left. I got a text to say he was heading to Nat’s to sort things out. That’s it.”

The room got very quiet, with Dain quickly glancing between Ed and Alex, and slipping out onto the balcony to give them some privacy. “A fucking text?!” Ed shouted as the door slid closed behind Dain. “I swear to God…”

“Ed, calm down.”

“I will not! What the fuck is his problem?!”

“People could have died, I put them all at risk; I said as much to him. I don’t blame him for being angry.” She pulled her knees up under her chin, “I thought I was…I wasn’t thinking, I just put everything in motion to try to get Aaron off that damn serum, and now I don’t know…”

Ed rolled his eyes “Ugh, Could have. Might have. Possibly. Alex, you didn’t. No one died. Which is more than I can say for my last mission, by the way. And do you really think I had a damn brainstorming session and flowcharts when I tossed your ass in that ambulance in Littleville? Let me put it this way: Is he better? Did it work?”

“As far as we know, yes. But the whole reason was because he was stuck with Elijah controlling him, and I did the same thing in a way, didn’t I? I set him up and never told him anything because I didn’t want to get his hopes up, and he would have never agreed to it.”

“Would you have agreed to what I did in Littleville?” Ed asked. “The answer is no, before you try to put together some fancy response, by the way.”

Alex huffed, but Ed continued. “Listen to me, and listen carefully. There is a lot of fucked up shit out there. You and I both know it. And a lot of shit choices. Somewhere, somehow, Aaron got fucked and ended on a short leash that made other people kill to keep him sane. He was right in the middle of a long walk off a short pier, and we both know it. Yeah, what you did was dangerous for a lot of people. Hell, I’m sure it was stupid. But it sounds like it worked. And if he wants to act like some White Knight from one of those damn games he writes, I’ll knock his ass down a peg or two myself. You saw someone hurting and you did what you could. If he can’t see that…Fuck ’im. And if I have to put the black marks on my soul for the decisions that save the people I care about—well, then that’s the way it’ll be.”

Alex wrapped her arms around Ed tighter than he would have thought possible. “I know what you did. When Aaron got out of the car, it all fell into place. All the things I did to you, things I said…but I never left because I knew why you did it. I don’t know what I expected. I thought because he loved me that he would understand…but now, I don’t know.” Alex sniffled and wiped her face on her sleeve. “Everything has a price, and I was stupid not to realize that this was a possibility. I risked the one thing I wanted to hold on to…”

Ed pulled Alex in even tighter. “No, you saved the one thing most important to you. You did your part. The rest is up to him.”

“Don’t you ever fucking disappear on me again,” she said, laughing through another tremorous sob.

“Deal. As long as you’re not allergic to dogs,” Ed whispered back.

“I can still hear you!” Dain shouted from the balcony.

View
Never Let Me Down Again
Part 1 of 2

Another night, another takeout container sitting on the table’s edge, as Alex poured through the disorganized mess that was this section of the stacks at ASI. She’d been trying to track down a lead referencing just where ASI had sourced all of the components used to keep Aaron sane.

Sometime around midnight, she found a box labeled “ZK, San Diego”. Opening the box, she found piles and piles of invoices; the ones on top were the most recent and they got progressively older and older the further down, until they were hand-written and quite fragile at the bottom. Examining the information, she quickly realized she was looking at just one half of a very damning relationship that many groups, including ASI, had maintained with the Zookeeper in the past. It seemed that the Zoo had been a clearinghouse for disposing of, or gaining access to, nearly any supernatural creature. Other folders in the box held a number of ASI’s files on the facility, including Grace’s reports on the most recent raid there.

As she sat the box to one side for later, Alex’s phone gave the telltale chime of a new post on the Secret Frequency’s Jobs board.

Ed here. Our earlier raid on the Zoo got some great dirt on Carver, but it didn’t put the Zookeeper out of business. I’m assembling a team to shut down the Zoo permanently, one way or another.

If you’re in, meet me at VFW Post 5985 off Turquoise St in San Diego.

Grabbing the box, Alex made her way as calmly as possible out of the Stacks, hoping to fool anyone else masochistic enough to be here at such a late hour. Rushing across town, Alex nearly rattled the door from its hinges trying to get into her small apartment. She kicked off her shoes as she rushed to her desk. She flipped open the laptop on the counter, fired up a Tor client, and typed out a quick message.

To: symins3z@lu.org
I have a package for Uncle E. from Philly. Don’t take the kids to the petting zoo without it. Be there in 6 hrs. Place we checked in when we all met.
The Librarian

She hit ‘send’ and ran back to her room to pack an overnight bag. Her phone chimed again and she got her flight information—she was due to fly to Denver in two hours. Another notification pinged from the other room as she stuffed her toothbrush and some hair ties into the side pocket of her bag. There was a file with a phone number waiting on her desktop. Quickly, she shut everything down and shoved it into a carry case along with the cables and headed out the door to the waiting car.

The flight itself was under four hours. Alex was checking into the hotel after a short ride from the airport. She sent a text to the number Simon had given her along with her room number and flopped on the bed to wait.


Ed and Dain had just left the chow hall and gone back to their cabin when someone started banging on the door. Expecting pack business, Ed sat on the bed’s edge to take off his boots while Dain walked over to the door. “Seriously, what the hell could have caught fire in the three minutes it took us to walk home?!” Dain shouted, snatching open the door.

Simon half-stumbled back down the steps, trying to get out of Dain’s space. “Sorry, boss, not you—Ed, I’ve got something I think you should read.”

Ten minutes later, Ed busted out of the cabin, a go-bag on his shoulder and a stream of curses echoing out from behind him. Dain was right on Ed’s heels. “Oh, fuck no, not again. It’s the middle of the fucking night, the world can have the common fucking decency to wait until the gods-damn morning. Ed, are you listening to me?”

Ed tossed his bag into the back seat of the SUV. “It’s Alex. Now get in or shut up.”

View
Slippery When Wet

The five-hour drive from Los Angeles to Monterey passed quickly. Hourly stops to walk and water Fae notwithstanding, Aaron and Natalie made pretty good time, spending most of the drive swapping music on the stereo and singing at the top of their voices to their favorite songs. Natalie even ceded to letting Aaron drive for a little over half the trip, which was a relief to his nerves.

Once in town, they stopped at a deli on the waterfront and grabbed sandwiches and beers for a picnic lunch on the beach, then walked to the aquarium to kill a couple of hours while their room was being made up. Aaron had brought along a pair of cheap binoculars for otter watching, so they got an eyeful of fuzzy cuteness and then spent an hour wandering through the jellyfish exhibit. Natalie brought her sketch book and made a few drawings to color in and touch up later, and they found a comfortable spot to sit and cuddle for a while. Natalie settled back into Aaron’s arms, watching the myriad cnidarians float by in the tank. “They’re so peaceful,” Nat said as she relaxed against Aaron. “I could watch them for hours. It’s mesmerizing.”

(Soundtrack)

“Yeah, me too. Kind of a nice change from the usual pace of our lives. Y’know, despite all the fuckery in Tennessee, it’s been nice going a solid month or so without seeing anything too unspeakably horrible. I think my mind needed a little beauty to get readjusted, especially after getting shot. Lately I’ve thought so much about what ‘normal’ people do, thinking we’ll never really get that chance…but the chances are right here in front of us if we just stop for a moment and take them.” “He pulled her closer, crossing his arms over her midriff, wishing he never had to let go but knowing that was a far-away dream. “I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll always hunt. But that doesn’t mean we can’t live our lives when we aren’t facing down the stuff that lurks in the dark.”

“Exactly!” She turned to face him, her eyes wide with empathy. “That’s why I’ve distanced myself from ASI. They get so wrapped up in the paranormal that they forget just how beautiful and amazing the normal can be.” She moved her hand up to his cheek, sliding it down to gently grab his neck and pull his mouth to hers.

For a handful of seconds, there was no fear. There was no world in peril. There were no fallen comrades to mourn. There was no Jackson Carver, the dickface. There were only the jellyfish glimmering in the light of their tank, and the narrow space between them.


The drive up the coast to Santa Cruz had been breathtaking. Aaron was beginning to understand why Natalie was so fond of The Golden State. They had ridden along with the top down, singing and laughing and enjoying the view of the waves crashing along the rocks. They’d even spotted a few sea lions along the coastal highway.

“Look, it’s the Dipper!” Natalie squealed, pointing to the large wooden coaster that peaked over the tops of the palm trees along the road. Red and white cars zoomed up and down its gigantic crests. “That’s the one I can’t wait to go on!” She leaned forward in her seat and pulled off her sunglasses.

Aaron’s stomach turned as he gazed upward at the coaster. Conversations with structural engineers who sometimes did cartography work for his books flashed through his mind as he speculated how up to code the coaster was. “Yay?” he managed to respond questioningly.

“Wait, what?” Natalie turned and looked at Aaron in shock. “Do you mean to tell me that the great Aaron Mathias who has faced unicorns, vampires, and revenants is scared of a roller coaster?”

Aaron’s expression turned sheepish. “It’s a height thing. I even get nervous going out on the executive balcony when Elijah wants to have one of his breakfast time heart-to-hearts.” He took a deep breath and looked back at her, taking her hand in his. “But if you wanna go, I’m in.”

She tossed back her head laughing. “Breakfast on the balcony? You know he does that just to fuck with you, right?”

“I’ve noticed a pattern with him, yeah. Last time it was the oval office song-and-dance.” He grimaced and scratched at his jawline. “Hey, uh, let’s maybe not talk about Elijah right now? He’s not as pretty as you. Trying to stay focused, here.”

“I can help with that.” She gave him a sly look as she slid back into her seat. Then she playfully pulled her dress hem higher, just a tiny bit. When he glanced over, she placed her hand on his chin, turning his face back toward the road. “You should be watching the road, Mathias!”

“Yes ma’am,” Aaron said, snapping his eyes back to the horizon. He steered the Mini Cooper into the parking lot, and managed to just close the car door before Natalie grabbed his hand and dragged him through the park gates.

Natalie turned a sharp left when they entered the boardwalk. She was a woman on a mission, and that mission involved the red and white coaster that loomed taller with every step they took towards it. Stopping at the ticket booth across from the coaster, she purchased unlimited ride bracelets for both of them. “I figured paying for your torture would be the right thing to do.” She looped the bracelet around his wrist and gave him a quick peck. Then she intertwined her fingers with his and dashed toward the line for the Dipper, pulling Aaron in her wake like a tidal wave of chromatic hues. The line grew shorter and shorter as the operators opened up the cars for the parkgoers; as the current cycle of the coaster cars ended, Aaron gulped audibly, his eyes frozen on the highest peak of the Dipper.

“You okay, babe?” Natalie peered at him, trying to gauge just how nervous he actually was.

He drew in a deep breath and looked at her, wide-eyed. “Yeah, I’m good.” The cars rolled to a halt; people poured out into the exit corral, and the operators beckoned them forward. “Let’s do this.”

Nat smiled and hopped into the first car. She patted the seat next to her. “C’mon, you won’t regret it!”

He shook his head and slid into the car. “Never have, never will.”


The setting of the sun behind the park broke the vampires’ torpor like a bubble bursting on a needlepoint. Benj was the first to rise, clawing his way through the shallow layer of sand above his coffin vault. He surfaced and shook himself violently, throwing up a cloud of fine sand into the night air and reaching into the pockets of his jeans for his red bandana. “Hey Corey! Wake the fuck up, man!” he shouted, stamping his foot on the loose sand and tying the bandana around his forehead. He pulled off his camouflage jacket and beat it a few times against a nearby pier pylon to shake off the layer of beach grit that had accumulated on him while he slept, tossing his long hair behind his shoulder to clean it out as well.

An eruption of fine silica burst up out of the coffin buried next to Benj’s. Out of the blast of particulates rose an average-sized vampire who looked more like a goofy teenager than a bloodsucking fiend. He wore two shirts—a yellow button-down layered over a tacky Hawaiian-printed shirt—and his hair was perfectly feathered. He brushed the sand off his Dockers, popped the color of his yellow shirt and looked at his buddy. “What’s on the menu tonight, bro?”

Benj inhaled deeply, his enhanced olfactory senses cruising along a potent wave of odors emanating from the boardwalk environs: the salt air of the sea, the smell of freshly-made pizza and popcorn, port-o-john sanitary fluids mixed with urine and feces, wafting puffs of ganja smoke from a secluded corner of the park…and blood. Everywhere, warm rushing blood, sweet as ambrosia to his supernaturally-keen palette. “I’m thinkin’ Italian. Something in a size 8, with a sweet ass.”

Corey nodded in approval as a goofy grin of delight spread across his pale face. He crouched down, then sprang upwards and landed with a barely audible thud on the wooden planks of the boardwalk above. Peering through the crowd like a kid in a candy store, he spotted something he thought would satiate Benj’s craving. “Coming right up, homes!”

Benj leapt lazily from the ground below, grabbing the edge of the boardwalk and pulling himself up the last few feet. He scanned the track of the roller coaster, watching the cars clack up the first peak before they plunged into the most intense part of the ride. At the very front of the ride, he spotted a young woman with tawny skin and blue hair; next to her was a dark-haired man. She had her hands up in the air and was laughing as the coaster plummeted. The dark-haired man looked frightened beyond comprehension, but the fear soon coalesced into a smile of delight and a staccato of tenor-toned laughter. Benj coughed up a wad of Marlboro tar and sand, spitting it to the boardwalk and running his tongue along his fangs. “Good lookin’ out, bro. She is babelicious!”

Corey beamed with pride. “Thanks, man! So how do we wanna run this? Beat up the boyfriend and grab the girl, or more subtle? See if I can win her over with my smooth moves?” He ran his hand through his bouncy blonde hair.

“No way, man—I wanna eat tonight. Let’s run the carousel gag for a while, watch ‘em move, wait for ‘em to get alone. Then we take the girl—any way we want to—and let him watch.” Benj smiled wickedly, growling as his fangs lengthened momentarily in his mouth. “He can be dessert.”

Corey stretched his arms overhead and yawned. “Alright, but we gotta jam. That Bon Jovi cover band starts at 10.” He looked anxiously at his Swatch watch.

Benj didn’t bother addressing the manliness, or lack thereof, of his friend’s taste in music; he dropped to all fours, crawling beneath the boardwalk and clinging to the underside of the wooden slats, quiet as a mouse. Corey followed him until they reached a spot about 30 feet out from the lights of the midway, and then they slipped back into the lamplight and towards the carousel.


The coaster came to an abrupt stop back at the boarding platform. The bar had barely lifted off of their laps when Natalie shouted, “Yes! That was awesome! Let’s do it again, back car this time!” She climbed out of the car and looked back at Aaron. He was pale, but smiling; once they’d reached the bottom of the first drop, he hadn’t stopped laughing.

“Oooh, man—again already? Let’s, like, grab some beers or something first. But yeah,” he said, stepping out of the car and slightly stumbling as he caught up with her. “I’d go again. That was a lot more fun than I remembered it being when I was 11.”

She turned back, stopped, stood on tiptoes and kissed him. “I’m really proud of you! And yes, I think you deserve a beer, my treat.” Grabbing his hand, she led him back towards the refreshment stands, weaving through the crowds. Soon after, plastic cups in hand, they walked to the edge of the boardwalk to watch the ocean while they drank and talked. Taking a long sip of her beer, Natalie slid her other arm around Aaron’s waist. “I’m really happy right now,” she said, looking out at the dark water as it lapped upon the shore. “Can we quit our work and just do this forever?”

He draped his arm around her shoulder, leaning in closer. “Don’t I wish. But unless you know of someone in L.A. who’ll pay a game designer at an ASI salary rate, I think our hands might be tied for the time being.” He sighed. “And I do have to get back. I don’t wanna leave…things unfinished.” He saw no point in mentioning Alex. He’d texted her a few times that week but gotten almost no response back.

Aaron felt Nat’s shoulders slump in disappointment. Then she perked up slightly, an idea forming inher head. “You know, they’re often hiring writers on set. Ever think of switching to writing cheesy Sy-Fy shows? We could work together! And to be honest, they could use someone of your talent. Also, my trailer is often empty after I make up the actors…and there’s lots of chairs we could break in.” She gently nudged him with her shoulder.

“Hmm, that’s not a terrible idea, honestly. It’s not as if I don’t have plenty of inspiration for weird stories to draw on.” He took a deep pull of his summer ale, considering the ramifications of a career change. “I’d have to learn how screenplay formatting works, though—but compared to the standards and practices some of my publishers adhere to, that really wouldn‘t be that hard to get a grip on.”

She turned her head to look at him, but her eyes zeroed in on a spot far past his face. “Oh Aaron, look! There’s an old fashioned carousel. I think that’s a ride you can handle,” she insinuated, smiling playfully at him and quickly finishing off her beer. “Let’s go!”

Aaron tipped back his cup and drained it, then stood and followed her. “Anyone ever tell you that you might have an impulse problem?” he shouted.

Natalie paused. “Funny you should ask—I’ve had a few cab drivers say that to me.”


(Soundtrack)

Benj glided through the rows of pole-mounted, brightly-colored stone animals beneath the carousel lights, his nostrils flaring as he followed the scent of the blue-haired babe. Corey followed closely behind, keeping her azure locks squarely in his line of sight. This was his favorite part: the chase. The boyfriend was still nearby; they hadn’t moved more than fifteen feet away from one another since the vampires started trailing them through the park, which was starting to frustrate Benj. You’d think this chick would go off to pee, especially after beers. Girls always hafta pee.

Corey swung off the edge of the spinning platform, making his way past his buddy and one horse closer to the woman. He was just about to glide up to her when she whipped her head around to look at him. She stared at him a moment, and in that split second of eye contact, he felt like he was the one being hunted. Just as quickly, her gaze turned past him; she looked around at the other riders as if she were looking for someone. Corey could sense her pulse quickening; a smell of delicious fear began to waft off of her. He inhaled a deep whiff of it and watched as she tried to settle back into her saddle and enjoy the rest of the ride. This only intensified his hunger and he lurched forward—pretending to slip—and grabbed her ass to break his fall.

“Hey asshole! Watch it!” the woman screamed, turning and trying to kick him away.

The dark-haired man hopped off the anthropomorphic walrus next to her, landing lightly on his feet next to Corey. Again, the vampire got a sense that he was out of his depth—and he sensed no fear coming from this human. “You got a problem, pal?” Corey heard the sound of muscle fibers tensing, sensed the rush of blood as the man’s temper flared.

Benj slipped out from the poles, between a unicorn and a dark-feathered eagle, deliberately interposing himself between Corey and the man. “You’re the one who’s got a problem, bud.” He bent his neck and leaned in, locking eyes with the man, giving his meanest glare of intimidation.

The woman slid off of the purple sea horse she had been riding and stood next to her man. “C’mon guys, don’t be dicks. There are kids on this ride. I know I have a hot ass, so just ask next time, okay?” She tried to lighten the mood, but the vampires could sense the tension in her neck and shoulders.

Corey turned to face her, beaming with the same dreamy smile he’d used when he was still alive to bait girls into a makeout session. “I promise, it was an accident. Never happen again. Say, you wanna ditch this loser and go hear some awesome Bon Jovi tunes? I can get us up front early,” he said, pulling a pass out of his shirt pocket.

The dark-haired man laughed, sidestepping around Benj as if he wasn’t even there. “Bon Jovi cover band? Seriously, dude?” he said, standing very close behind Corey. “I’m no fashion mogul by a long shot, but I think your mom watched ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ one too many times before she dressed you today. C’mon man, she’s not interested. Don’t make this ugly. Go find someone else to bother,” he said pleadingly.

“But babe, he has front row seats!” The woman protested mockingly, pretending to pout. “Seriously, though, I hope you enjoy the show, but my boyfriend and I are going to head off now. Enjoy your night…and keep your hands to yourself.” She grabbed the man’s hand and began backing away, not taking her eyes off the strangely dressed men.

Benj wheeled in place and advanced on the man, shoving his chest with the heel of his palm and pulling him closer by his t-shirt. A brief flash of insight ran through him when he did; for a second, he thought he caught the smell of another beast, like a long-gone trail of wolf musk. He must have been imagining things, though—none of their kind ranged this far north along the coast. He’d prowled this park for thirty years and never seen a loup garou, although all of the other vampires in the region had terrifying stories about them. “You need to watch who you talk trash to, bro,” Benj said, working up his bluster again after the brief olfactory derailment. “Plenty of folks buried in the sand underneath that boardwalk, y’know. Be a real shame if you ended up bein’ one of ‘em.”

The man’s eyes narrowed; Before Benj had the presence of mind to let go of his mark’s ‘Han Shot First’ shirt and snatch back his hand, a strong grip encircled his wrist; he felt subtle but exacting pressure being exerted on his bones and muscles. The man looked confused for a second, surprised at Benj’s sturdiness and lack of apparent pain—and then all Benj saw was swirling lights overhead, as his leg was swept out from underneath him and he fell hard to the deck of the carousel. A black Chuck Taylor dug into his throat; the man leaned into his line of sight above him. “You have got to stop making bad life decisions, y’know that? Maybe go pick up some litter, volunteer at the Boys’ Club…and give Rambo his bandana back on your way there. Make the world a better place for once.”

The woman looked around nervously at the crowd that was gathering around the carousel. The ride was slowing to a stop, and she could see security guards pushing their way through the onlookers. “We should get out of here,” she said, eyeing the man pleadingly.

“Yeah.” He pulled his foot off Benj’s throat. “Let’s.” The young couple locked arms and hopped off the ride, breezing past the security guards casually; the woman risked one last glance back over her shoulder at Benj and Corey before they disappeared into the crowd.

“That guy totally kicked your ass, dude.” Corey leaned against the painted walrus and laughed at his friend sprawled on the floor. “Yep, you got your ass handed to you—and I got to put my hand on dat ass!” He cackled at his own joke.

Benj flipped up on his feet with a single bound and backhanded Corey across the face as he found his footing. “Shut up, dork. This ain’t over. I’m gonna drink that son of a bitch dry while his girl watches. C’mon.” The pair slinked back into the darkness beyond the carousel, following the couple’s scent onto the midway.


Natalie and Aaron continued walking quickly away from the carousel. “What was with those guys?” Nat wondered aloud. “Are you okay?” she stopped and looked at Aaron.

“Me? I’m fine.” He scoffed, rubbing his sternum. “Little bastard palm-heeled me in the chest, but those bones healed up weeks ago.”

“Those fuckers!” Natalie looked at Aaron with concern. She reached over and gently slid her hands up his shirt over the front of his chest. “May I look?”

“Sure…but I’m more worried about you right now. Who the fuck grabs a girl’s ass on a carousel full of kids? You alright?” He touched her cheek, his eyes dark with worry.

She smiled. “I’m fine. It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with guys who don’t understand personal space. Besides…this makes me feel better.” Her hands lightly caressed his chest as she lifted up his shirt to check for bruising. “Uh oh…” she looked at him with concern.

“What?” he said perplexedly, looking down his collar.

“Yep, you need some special attention, Mr. Mathias. You have what’s called in medical terms—and I know, because Dr. Cunningham is my friend—a boo-boo. And the cure is a kiss.” She grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him to her, bringing his mouth to hers. He didn’t fight her, closing his eyes and taking in the sensation of her nearness, of the faraway pounding music and the whirl of lights and voices surrounding them.

“Thanks,” he whispered when they finally parted. “That did help. A lot.”

“You know, I have a nurse costume I almost brought out when I was taking care of you back at your apartment…” she trailed off, giving him a suggestive smile. “Maybe Nurse Natalie can give you a more thorough check-up some other time?”

Aaron arched an eyebrow. “I’m skeptical about this nurse’s credentials, but I don’t hate that idea.” He took her hand and started walking. “I vote for a round of mini-golf before we go ride that coaster again. Whaddya say?”

“I say be prepared to actually have your ass kicked this time, Mathias.”


Corey and Benj watched the couple from their perch on the roof of the saltwater taffy shop. Corey could sense Benj’s impatience growing. He was relieved when he saw where the couple was heading. “Dude, they’re going into the glow-in-the-dark mini-golf place! This is our chance!”

Benj didn’t speak a word, just tightened the knot on his bandana, moved to the side of the building, and scampered down the wall, not even looking to see if Corey followed. I’m going to get that fucker. He stuck close to the shadows as he moved, trailing them by scent and instinct. Behind him, he felt Corey edge closer, quieter than any human in the park but still not quite as stealthy as him. From behind a large wooden cutout of a peg-legged pirate with a green parrot on his shoulder outlining the rules of the golf course, the pair watched as the couple picked out clubs and balls, then slipped past the attendant when he was checking his phone, darting after their prey.

Corey was so intent on their prospective meal, and Benj so enraged by the insult of being clowned by a mere human, that neither of them heard the sound of metal being drawn from leather behind them in the blacklight-and-neon darkness, nor the booted footsteps that softly padded across the felt-lined concrete in their wake.


“Yikes,” Aaron said, tabulating another series of strokes on their scorecard with the tiny pencil they’d given him at the start of the course. “You weren’t kidding about the ass-kicking.” Four holes into the course, Natalie hadn’t even broken single digits; meanwhile, he was sitting on a fat 17-stroke game. “This is worse than the time I took Eva up on head-to-head tequila shots for cash.”

“Ouch, babe. Drinking against Eva is probably worse than the time we had to outdrink those dwarves. You should see if ASI still has some of those sobriety pills lying around.” Natalie bent over and placed her hot pink ball on the tee plate, then tapped it with her club, leaving it a scant few inches away from the hole. She stepped aside to let Aaron drop his midnight-blue ball onto the plate.

He started to bend down, then thought better of it. “Nat…what’s up with that painting you were working on at your apartment? The one with the strange key and the black star.” His expression betrayed his severe concern on the matter, as if the question had been eating at him for days.

She had been swaying to the music on the side of the green, waiting for her turn again. When he mentioned the key and star, she froze. Looking down at her feet, she replied, “I don’t really know. I keep seeing those two things. I’ve seen them in graffiti, on company logos, on people’s t-shirts. I’ve even seen a guy with a tattoo of the key on his arm.” Natalie paused, twirling the club on the felt ground. “I thought by painting them it might help me figure out what it all means, but it’s not helping at all. In fact, having them on the same canvas just feels wrong. It’s very unsettling to me. I meant to paint over it before I found out you were coming.”

Aaron leaned his club against the massive faux fiberglass pirate ship set into the water hazard and moved to her side, sliding his arms beneath hers and wrapping his hands around her shoulders. “I’ve seen them, too. On that bottle Alex brought back from Lily’s place, and on the NuStar products and company logos. And there was a case file that got leaked from the Empire Foundation with similar imagery mentioned in it. One of our agents didn’t make it out of Paris last week, but there was a rumor that their contact on that job was wearing a piece of jewelry in the shape of that key…I didn’t get many details, though.” He tried to meet her gaze, touching her chin in hopes that she’d lift her face. “It seems like this really got into your head. Have you been feeling strangely ever since you saw these things? Or just since you started painting?”

Natalie looked up at Aaron, locking eyes with him. “I thought it was odd that they kept popping up but it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable…more like curious. After I painted them, the feeling was almost visceral. It made me feel slightly nauseous. I didn’t really want to bother you about it, because it seemed so petty compared to the horrific things you’ve experienced with your visions.”

He pulled her close and hugged her tightly. “Nat, don’t ever think you can’t tell me something is bothering you just because you believe I’ve been through worse. I’m okay now. Really. Better than ever before. I have these dreams now because I choose to. But you’re not choosing to feel this way—it’s not like you. You make people look like bus accidents for a living, and you’re a hunter on top of that. So if you’re worried sick over these images, then there’s something more to them.” He stroked her hair. “And I’m gonna find out what that something is.”

As she returned his embrace, he could feel some of the tension leaving her. “Thanks for making me feel safe. However, bringing this up is not enough to throw me off my game. Nice try, Mathias.” She gave him a quick kiss and pulled back, jumping down the green to swiftly tap her ball into the hole. “Two strokes!” she called out.

Aaron smiled and shook his head, hankering down over his ball and hitting it a good deal harder than was necessary. The ball skipped across the blue-tinted water hazard next to the pirate ship, bounding off a fake boulder and careening out of sight into the room where the previous hole was laid out. Nearby, Aaron thought he heard a grunt of pain; he cringed and hurried out of sight of the other room’s occupants.


A midnight-blue golf ball bounced off Corey’s skull. “Fuckernickel!” He reached up and rubbed his forehead. “That hurt. You wanna drain ‘em now, Benj?”

“Give ‘em a minute—they’re going into the cave, and it’s a par three. That means no other mini-golfers in there with them for a few minutes. They’ll all be stuck on this par six.”

“Yeah, like you usually are!” Corey chuckled.

“Fuck you, asswipe. Shut up and follow me.” Benj slunk around the walls of the purple cave, slipping past the neon treasure map that some underpaid employee had added to the wall. He crouched behind an animatronic treasure chest and eyed the couple as the lid opened and closed before him. Corey was actually quiet for once, which made Benj all the more eager to get in and grab one of the lovers before he said something stupid again and tipped them off to their presence. “Wait back here,” he hissed. His face contorted as his fangs lengthened and his jaws unhinged; the compound joints and elastic tendons in his ankles and knees sprang into action, and he leapt forward toward the blue-haired woman, his mouth and nose drinking in her scent.

He didn’t make it five feet.

(Soundtrack)

A figure popped into his line of sight as he jumped, holding a two-foot-long wooden stake. Benj couldn’t stop himself in time; he rammed into the stake’s tip, felt it pierce his heart. As Benj’s muscles and joints locked up, the figure pushed him back into the room with the pirate ship, pinning him against an orange fiberglass stone wall.

On the ground nearby, Benj saw Corey convulsing, a nearly-identical shaft of wood jutting through his torso; the wave of pain that was about to spasm through him as his undead heart seized had already paralyzed the other vampire. It was excruciating, but did not deaden his perceptions of what was going on around him. He was fully aware of the danger he was in, but utterly powerless to react to the train of events unfolding.

The figure’s face was illuminated in a brief flash of orange light. A middle-aged man with two days’ worth of scruffy beard wearing a leather duster stood nearby, lighting a Swisher Sweet cigar and inhaling deeply. “Well, fuck,” he said through a cloud of smoke as he tucked his cigar lighter back into his black denim jeans. “You idiots? Really? My bet was on the guess-your-weight-and-age guy out on the midway. Guess I owe someone some money.” He pulled a hunting knife from his belt and knelt next to Corey, sawing neatly through his neck with five clean cuts, severing the still-twitching head and kicking it into the blue water nearby.

The man stood and advanced on Benj. The vampire looked into his eyes. Not to plead for mercy, but to gaze into oblivion. The knife cut; the head lolled; the blue water came rushing up around Benj’s eyes.

An inch away from him in the indigo-dyed depths, he saw Corey’s face, smiling at him.

It was going to be a long eternity.


Trent Remington grabbed the vampires’ remains by the collar and pulled them through a nearby employee maintenance hatch that led up a short series of steps and through a steel door that led just outside the mini-golf building, on top of the faux pirate ship that made up the fifth hole. The exit opened onto the eastern side of the complex, so no one would ever see up this far before the dawn came unless they were climbing the light poles in the parking lot. By then, the decapitated bodies would be long gone, reduced to ash by the first light of the morning. Remington dropped the corpses on the ground, laying them as flat and unobtrusively as he could, then hopped off the exterior of the pirate ship and back down to the boardwalk.

Nearby, a beer vendor had just marked down his domestics to clear his last rack of the night. Remington beelined toward him, cigar clenched in his teeth, the sweetness of the wooden tip lingering on his tongue as he inhaled once again. So, Allegro and Mathias are still alive. Good, he thought. A goddamn shocker, but good. Guess I’ll keep them on the list for now. He bought a 32-ounce plastic cup of Budweiser and stalked off down the midway, savoring his drink and his smoke as he pondered his next move. Can’t save all these stupid kids, but I still gotta watch out for ‘em when I can. The thunder’s been called down, and I’m gonna need every last warrior I can recruit to get through this storm.

View
The Normal They Need

(Soundtrack)

“WHAT?! Are you freakin’ kidding me?!” Natalie yelped. The car swerved dangerously into an adjoining lane of the 405 as she turned to face Aaron.

He reached up with his right hand in panic, clutching for an ‘oh-shit’ handle that wasn’t there. “Hey, hey, hey, eyes back on the road, there, babe!” They’d been traveling a good 40 minutes or so, and after getting the more immediate physical part of their reunion at the airport out of the way, the flow of conversation had been non-stop between them. It’s so good to hear her voice in person again instead of over a stupid phone, Aaron thought. Now if I could just live long enough to keep enjoying it…

“Oops! Sorry,” she said, steering back into the white lines. An angry chorus of horns sounded behind the Mini Cooper. “But you can’t just hit me with that shit on the highway, Mathias! A freakin’ unicorn?! I want every detail, now. What did it look like?”

He stared into blank space outside the windshield, trying to put the mental images into words. “You’ve seen a white horse before, right? You know how they usually aren’t really white? Like, there’s a few gray patches in its coat, or mottling on the skin beneath, or its mane is a little darker or off-white in parts? Not this thing. I’m talking pure cloud white, even its hooves. The only dark thing about it was its eyes, and you could tell it was smart—definitely not an animal level of intelligence. Huge, too. I dunno what ‘hands’ equate to in non-equestrian lingo, but this thing was the height of a Mack truck’s cab. It could fill my living room, easy. Horn was about a foot and a half long, white ivory, completely smooth, and sharp like a dagger at its point. I saw that thing gore a NuStar security guard like he was made of papier-mache, and when it kicked the other rent-a-cop, he went flying a good 15 feet. It was strong, Nat. I’ve never been so damn scared in all my life as when that thing stood in front of me and looked me in the eye.”

“So what did you do?” she asked excitedly. “Could it talk?”

“Not exactly,” he said, giving her the short version of how the rest of the Tennessee mission went. “So now,” he said at the end of it, “I’ve got control of the dreams, or at least it seems that way. They’re…different than before, though.”

“Different how?” she said, frowning. “Can you sleep without the serum?”

“Yeah, but I’ve had the exact same dream every night with only a handful of variations. It’s like I’m in this big translucent dirt dauber’s nest, a sort of dome about the size of a decent walk-in closet. And there’s…things? People? I’m not sure what to call them, but they’re always hovering nearby just outside the dome, talking in riddles and poems.” He took a deep breath; this was where he was about to go firmly into pants-on-head crazy territory. “They’re always quoting Lewis Carroll. Poems, passages from his books, lines of dialogue. The first night, it was two short little fat guys dancing around and yammering about the Jabberwock. The second, it was a guy in a tall top hat and a big rabbit on two legs sitting at tables on opposite sides of the dome. And I still don’t know how a raven is like a writing desk.” He rubbed his eyes. “But that’s not even the weirdest part. There’s a tiny door set in the bottom of the dome. And a handwritten sign hung over it by a string on a nail that says, ‘Open Me’. I get the distinct impression that the universe is fucking with me, Nat. And while that’s nothing really new in our lives, it sure feels a lot more directed now than before.”

Natalie’s eyes grew wide. “What. The. Actual. Fuck.”

“Right? So when I got back to Philly, first thing I did was set up a meeting with Ken and Gina and give them the lowdown. I figured maybe Gina could walk me through what was going on, project into my mind and guide me through opening the door for the first time. Only when they put me under, she never showed up. I was too afraid to go through with it without her. When I came out of it, Gina said she couldn’t touch my mind anymore. She can still get surface thoughts, residual energies, general psychic emanations—but she can’t get into my head. It’s like it’s walled off from her with mental concrete.”

“So what did you do?” Natalie asked, reaching for his hand.

“I went back under and I opened the door,” he said wryly, his long digits enveloping her perfectly-manicured fingers. “Got a vision, just as expected. Nowhere near as nightmarish as what I used to have, so that’s a relief. And I sleep just fine now. I feel more rested than I have in years. But every night, it’s the same dream. I’m in the dome, and the only way to change the scene is to open the door.”

“Yikes, that’s bizarre. Did Alex come up with anything that might help you understand what’s happening, considering all the changes?” Natalie slammed down her turn signal hard as she steered into the exit lane for Highway 2, narrowly missing a collision with a guy on a Yamaha crotch rocket who zoomed by on their left, a gloved middle finger extended in the Mini Cooper’s direction.

Aaron’s stomach lurched again; once he overcame the wave of nausea, he took a deep breath. Might as well get this over with now. “Alex and I…haven’t spoken in a few days.”

A mask of concern crossed Natalie’s pixie-like features. “Did she get mad when you told her about us?”

“No, actually, not at all,” he said. “She was fine with that. Seemed almost happy about it. Said if she had to share me, she’d rather share me with you than anyone else.” He let that hang there a minute. Natalie raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t respond. Okay, so we’re not having that conversation yet then, I guess, Aaron thought.

He cleared his throat and continued. “We kind of had it out after we left Tennessee. Alex had been clammed up about something ever since we asked the unicorn for those wishes. Turns out she planned this whole outing. Knew exactly where to go, and more or less what to do to please these weird fae. She led us blind into Jericho Mills to find a way to cure my nightmares. And while I know she was only trying to help me…someone could have died. As pissed off as we get when we walk onto a hunt and the suits at ASI don’t show us all the cards they’re holding, you’d think she’d know that was a terrible idea. I couldn’t handle it. So I left her in North Carolina and caught a bus home. I just couldn’t ride in that car for another ten hours knowing what she’d done. I still love her, but she’s gotta realize that doing shit like this is gonna make everything worse, not better.” He looked over at Nat, trying not to choke up again. “Maybe I made the wrong decision, I dunno. I know Mal wanted me to make sure she got to a doctor, and Ken did tell me at my appointment that she’d checked in with the physicians at headquarters. But the only communication I’ve had with her since then was the note she left under my apartment door with my key taped to it.” He closed his eyes, his neck dropping as he slumped slightly in the seat, looking thoroughly defeated and anguished.

Natalie remained uncharacteristically silent for a moment. “You mean she set everyone up? On a potentially deadly mission? I can’t believe it. After all she’s been through, did she really just throw caution to the wind like that? What was she thinking?!? She’s turning into Elijah!” Natalie’s brow furrowed with worry and her cheeks began to flush with anger.

Aaron sighed. “That thought crossed my mind, too. I know she did what she did to help me, but, well, roads paved with good intentions and all. Anyhow, after getting cleared with Ken and Gina and finishing my field operative certification test with Grace, I figured it’d be better to just skip town for awhile. I can do my dream journaling from anywhere, and there’s no need for me to take the drugs anymore.” He smiled and rested his left hand on her leg. “And honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather be with while I get adjusted to my new definition of normal.”

“Why didn’t she just tell us? Why didn’t she tell me? I would have helped!” Natalie glanced at him, her brown eyes displaying a mixture of hurt and anger.

“I said the same thing. Any of our friends would have probably been willing to help out if they’d been clued in.” He stopped for a moment, thinking over some things before he spoke again, hesitantly. “I think maybe Alex has gotten too used to needing to keep things secret. Having Atlantean powers weighed on her for a long time. Especially when every hunter in the country was keen to kill off mages last year. And she had to make sure Sharpe didn’t know what she was plotting. She’s really only opened up to me and you, and Ed way back when, too, I guess. And trust can be a hard habit to develop. She had to hear her boyfriend’s darkest secret from a murdering megalomaniac, and then with everything else that happened last week…” he trailed off. “So I get it. But I don’t know what to do to make her snap out of it, and in some ways, me being there might even make it worse right now.”

“Maybe she needs an intervention from her friends? Let’s get you relaxed and rested and then we’ll come up with a plan.” She squeezed his hand on her thigh. “However, I’m not sure L.A. is the ‘normal’ you need to recover. How about we head up to Monterey for some gorgeous scenery and fun?” She smiled at him slyly, moving his hand up her thigh a little higher.

“You must think I’m a poor listener or something,” he said with a quick laugh. “I did kinda get the memo the last few times you mentioned Monterey on the phone, you know. We’ll be vacationing on a budget, but I just got a nice payout from a big freelancing gig, so this trip’s on me.” He tapped a button on his smartphone, pulling up a browser tab and flashing it at her briefly. “Already booked us a room for five nights. Victorian-style inn—pet-friendly, so we can bring Fae—not beachfront, but only a few blocks from the ocean and a quick drive away from Monterey State Beach. We check in tomorrow, after our trip to the aquarium. Per your request.” He risked distracting her from driving with a quick kiss on the cheek.

Not too long thereafter, they pulled up to Natalie’s apartment building. Aaron, a light packer in even the most strenuous of circumstances, grabbed his small suitcase and satchel out of the back seat and followed Nat up to the main door. Their timing couldn’t have been better; a massive thundercloud was rolling in over West Hollywood, and the bottom fell out of it as the security door locked behind them.

She led him up two flights of stairs and unlocked her door. A ball of brown and white fur vaguely shaped like a loaf of bread came trotting out of the kitchenette and amiably hopped up on Natalie. “Hey Fae,” she cooed. “Hang on, let me put my stuff down, jeez.” The corgi turned her attention on Aaron as Natalie pushed past her, her tiny paws skidding across his jeans in joyous recognition. Nat flung her purse onto the sofa and kicked her shoes off her feet and into the open coat closet.

Aaron dropped to one knee and gave Fae some much-beloved ear and chin scratches. He hadn’t seen the little dog, or the inside of Nat’s apartment, in a long time. Bright colors, mostly sea foam and ochre, stretched across every wall of the studio apartment, a few adorned with clustered layers of intricate line drawings in black and white paint. Everything was a canvas to Natalie, from her pampered skin to the walls and floors of her home: a section of hardwood directly across from the neon fuchsia “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” doormat had been meticulously inlaid with ceramic tiles and beads and then relacquered, an easel by the fireplace held a half-finished painting of a strange looking key with a black star behind it, and the table in her kitchenette was strewn with makeup bottles, brushes, and applicators. Aaron arched an eyebrow at a few of the ones with NuStar labels on them, a slight pang of nausea running through him as the sight of the imprisoned dryad at the cosmetics plant flashed through his mind. “Uh, Nat, I don’t like telling people how to live their lives, but you might wanna rethink keeping those in your collection.”

“Oh yeah? That brand is new. They’ve been getting rave reviews on MakeupAlley. In fact, they sent me some samples to review. Their shadow is nicely pigmented,” she remarked as she pulled a bag of organic dog chow formulated by some local hippies and poured some into the dish by the fridge. Fae abandoned her path up the insurmountably-Sisyphean denim treadmill that was Aaron’s pants and bounded over to the food bowl, burying her face in the kibble.

“I have a feeling their new brand is gonna have to get reformulated very soon, then. Remember the cosmetics plant I told you about?” he said, hoping the point would sink in.

Aaron sat his bags down next to Natalie’s couch, kicked off his shoes, and stretched, unfurling cramped muscles that had not much enjoyed an hour-long ride in a car seemingly designed for munchkins. Natalie had already pranced back to her bedroom; he heard the sound of a window being unlocked and thrown open from within; a peal of thunder echoed from outside over the patter of rainfall. “Oh wow, come here!” she shouted. He walked into the bedroom, where Natalie was leaning out of her window; rain droplets collected in her electric blue hair as she inhaled deeply. “I love the smell of fresh rain. And look!” She pointed over the skyline to a break in the clouds; a rainbow had formed in the breach, pouring down into the street below. “Talk about a beautiful ‘welcome home’ gift, huh?”

(Soundtrack)

Aaron curled his arms around her waist, leaning out with her. “Yeah. I think I really needed this getaway. Thanks for letting me stay.” He nuzzled his right cheek into her hair, drawing in her scent, a comfort he had greatly missed over the last week. “So, I spent the last hour chewing your ear off about my trip, but you haven’t said much about yours. Did that damn museum finally run out of spooks yet?”

“So, apparently Alex isn’t the only one doing stupid things for love. This kid who worked in the gift shop learned of a ritual that can summon ghosts. He thought he was in love with this Fatal Attraction ghost chick who tried to kill her ex-lover’s wife.”

“Freaky. I take it Alistair’s looking for a new retail manager, then. Sounds like your team got out of it mostly unscathed, though.” He craned his neck to do a quick survey of her body, for more than the usual reasons. “Were you hurt?”

Natalie slipped nimbly beneath Aaron’s arms and plopped down behind him on the end of her low queen-sized bed; an overstuffed white comforter with line art of the San Francisco skyline contrasted with the deep royal purple splashed behind the mountain of plush pillows piled at the head. Aaron turned to face her, propping one foot on the wall beneath the window and crossing his arms. She crossed her arms in front of her, pulling her loose-fitting, long-sleeved top over her head. “Come find out,” she said slyly.

He pushed off the wall, propelling himself toward the foot of the bed. Natalie’s skin was a deep red in several spots on her forearms; she wore a fresh gauze bandage over her right breast, dotted with skulls painstakingly rendered in black magic marker. Aaron cradled her arms in his, inhaling sharply. “You need some vitamin E ointment on those.”

Natalie reached upwards, her fingers curling around the collar of his shirt, and pulled him down on top of her, falling back into the comforter. “You offering me a rubdown? And you know I take care of my skin. I already moisturized the first-degree burns and changed the bandage on the bad one while I was waiting in the car. And since your flight was a bit late, I had time to decorate the bandages with skulls wearing bow ties!” Her hands slid underneath his shirt, running up the length of his chest. “I didn’t want any distractions once I got you home.”

“Y’know, I think I recognize this bedspread,” he said through a toothy smile.

“Oh, really? I can’t imagine where from.” She thought back to her artistic outburst the prior week, after she’d read the letter he’d slipped into her carry-on bag.

“I’m sorry I didn’t respond to that in as dramatic a fashion as it was delivered. I felt bad about just calling, but every other idea I could come up with just didn’t measure up. That’s pretty much the awesomest thing anyone has ever given me, Nat.” Unicorn wishes notwithstanding, he amended internally. A week ago he might have felt some guilt at that notion; he didn’t, now.

“This is all I wanted back from you,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck and drawing him nearer, kissing him, hard.

When they surfaced from the kiss, he pressed his forehead to hers for a long moment; their eyes closed as they reveled in a degree of intimacy they’d never allowed themselves before just then. Their last encounter had been fueled by raw lust and fear of loss, a raging storm of emotions. Now, the energy between them felt quieter, soothing, like the falling rain outside. “I love you,” he whispered. “Feels good to actually say it rather than just think or write it for once. Thanks for waiting on me to come to my senses.”

“Took you long enough, Mathias,” Natalie said, kissing him again. “Now shut up and don’t make me wait any longer.”

Clothing was soon strewn across the floor and furniture near the bed; their bodies intertwined in a tantric swirl of rising tension and urgency. The last waves of the storm rolled overhead like a blanket in the minutes that followed, the dying drums of thunder punctuating their long, wordless reunion.

Fae trotted into the room sometime during the storm, giving the pair a quizzical look from her low and awkward vantage point on the hardwood floor. She considered hopping up on the mattress with them, but then thought better of it, and curled up in her own bed nearby instead.

Soon thereafter, all three of them were sound asleep.

View
Morning After
Immediately after the mission in Tennessee

Aaron parked the Audi in front of the motel lobby and grabbed a carrier full of steaming coffee cups and two bags of pastries out of the passenger seat. It was just after 8 a.m.; through the lounge windows he could see Eva and Mal seated at a small table next to a massive ficus plant. Eva was poking at her smartphone; Mal was furiously clicking at something on her laptop. He pulled the lobby door open with a few free fingers and sat down next to them, pulling cups from the carrier and tossing down the pastry bags.

“Alright, so I’ve got a redeye for my favorite alleged felon, and a French roast for the good doctor. Extra croissants for all, as well.” He craned his neck to look at Mal’s screen and snorted. “Going through them already, I see.”

“Claro que ya lo empezó. I had to slip a Valium in her hot chocolate just to get her to sleep last night,” Eva said, taking the lid off her cup and knocking it back.

“Aaron, this data is astounding,” Mal said, unable to wrench her eyes from the computer. “The ASI physicians were remarkably thorough. I might have to revise my opinion of their methodology…well, slightly.”

“Told you, man, we’re better at what we do than you and Adrian want to give us credit for. I’m just sorry I can’t get you more information on what’s actually in the serum mix.” Aaron stirred two packs of raw sugar and some half-and-half into his coffee and took a deep pull of it.

Mal frowned, pushing back from the table and folding her arms. “Why share this with me now, though, Aaron? You and Alex both hate Skaar; that’s very obvious. So why help us at all?”

Aaron laughed. “First of all, I don’t hate Adrian. That doesn’t mean I want him involved in every job we take on, but he’s not a terrible person. Sure, he’s an arrogant bastard who assumes that every problem is solvable if only folks would let him meddle in it, but deep down he’s a decent enough guy.” He leaned forward after another sip of sweet caffeinated heaven. “Second, I wasn’t so much helping you by giving you this information as I was trying to help myself…not that it may matter much after last night. Look, Mal, you’re one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Every scientist I know who works in the same field as us looks up to you. If anyone can find a treatment for a condition like mine, it’s you. And just because we’ve never found any other dream seers like me doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. How many people are suffering every night like I did for the last three years of my life? How many lives could be saved by sharing this data with you? If I didn’t hand it over to you, I’d be part of the problem. It’s time we all started working together as a team again and putting aside all the stupid politics between our organizations. What we accomplished here just goes to show how strong we are if we watch out for each other. Both of you have saved either my life, or the life of someone I love. It’s important to me that you know that I trust you, and I’d do the same for you. That’s why we’re the heroes, man.”

“That is…very humbling. This isn’t my area of expertise, but I am certainly willing to help in any way I can. Just from a cursory glance at your MRI I have a place to start. There is increased activity in the primary visual cortex, which isn’t abnormal, but when you take into account what’s going on in the anterior prefrontal…Ow!”

She rubbed at her shin where Eva had kicked her under the table. “Right, sorry, I’m getting carried away. I’m glad you are trusting me with this, Aaron, and I just want you to know that none of this information will have your name associated with it. You are right, whatever is going on between the Foundation and ASI shouldn’t be our primary focus. And…if I have the chance to be a hero, I’m glad that I get to do it with you.”

“Thanks, Mal.” He smiled his signature crooked grin; Mal couldn’t help but notice that the effects of the fae-tainted apple pie were still lingering on him and had to shake her head to stave off the residual glamour before she started staring again. “So,” he said, turning back to Eva, “what about Marcia? Is she going back with you?”

She nodded. “Yeah, I’ll pick her and the girl up on my way out of town. Ed’s meeting up with us after I drop off Mal, so they’ll be in good hands.”

“Good,” Aaron said. “I very much look forward to sampling some of her work soon.”

Eva snorted. “I bet. Pinche grifo.”

Mal shut off her laptop and closed it, sliding it back into her bag and standing up. “We should be going. I have a seminar to attend tomorrow and I need to prepare my speech. And Eva has a long drive ahead of her.” An unspoken intention hung in the air between the two women, but Aaron wasn’t inclined to pry. God knows my love life isn’t exactly a Rockwellian staple these days.

Aaron stood and shook hands with both hunters—a stiff, vertical double shake for Mal, and a slightly more friendly wrist clasp and fist bump with Eva. “Understood. Have a safe trip back, both of you.”

“Take care of yourself and your chicas, Mathias,” Eva said. “Be seeing you again soon, probably.” The pair headed outside, hopped back into Eva’s car, and headed west on Highway 412. Watching the Trans Am roar away from the rising sun, Aaron smiled and pulled out his phone. It would be 5 a.m. in California, and he didn’t want to wake up Natalie (who was not known for being an early riser). Her team had wrapped everything up on the San Francisco job Friday night, and she’d indulged in some retail and makeup therapy Saturday evening, so Aaron was pretty sure she was probably still sleeping off some victory rounds. He tapped out a quick text message letting her know they were alright. All good in TN. Hell of a weekend, lots of things to tell you about. Love you and miss you like crazy already. We still on for next week? He hit ‘Send’, then grabbed the other coffees and headed back down to the room he and Alex were sharing.

“So I gave Mal my dream journals. And my medical records.” Aaron said as he closed the door to their motel room. There was a muffled comment from under the sheets, and Alex rolled over, still looking a bit rough from the night before. “Was that an ‘okay’ I heard?”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” She pulled herself upright and stared at the big, beautiful Stars N’ Scones cup he was holding.

“It can’t hurt to get a fresh pair of eyes on it. Who knows, it might do some good for someone else with my exact same problem some day.”

“Was that them leaving just now?”

“Yes, and Mal made me promise to take you straight in to see the doc when we get back. You scared the shit out of everyone last night, and considering what else was out there in those woods, that’s pretty impressive.” He held out the drink. “White chocolate mocha?”

“I was a real bitch to her, wasn’t I?” Alex took a sip of coffee, thankful for the fact that the room was still dark. Her head was pounding. Walking out into the sunlight was going to suck. This was worse than any hangover.

Aaron shrugged evasively. “Well, I think we all got a little pissy in the moment. Though I’d probably recommend that you not call her a ‘sanctimonious cunt’ within earshot of Eva. You’re a lot sexier with all your teeth.”

Alex patted the spot next to her on the bed. “I’m glad you gave her the files. I think sometimes that we’re all so wrapped up in the way we deal with this shit that we forget to look outside of our own experiences. We’re a hell of a lot better prepared when we work together.”

Aaron flopped down sideways on his elbow, digging a croissant out of a brown paper bag and taking a massive bite out of it. “Glad we agree. It was kinda nice having the old gang back together this weekend. Well…almost all of us, anyway.” He sipped at his coffee and sat it down on the bedside table. “Is it weird that I miss Ed?” he asked, one eye squinted halfway shut.

“I miss him, too. At least he still acknowledges that you exist. I don’t know what I can do short of flying to Denver, and I have a feeling that even that isn’t going to fix things,” Alex winced, staring at the bad painting on the wall. “I know he’s pissed at me for what I did. I don’t know what to do to make things right.”

“Well…maybe time is all you can give it,” Aaron said, reaching for a cup of water and a pill bottle. “Ed’s been through a lot of shit. What happened to his sister really haunts him, I think. Knowing Carver was behind it all may have given him a new purpose, but eventually he’s going to need something in his life besides revenge. That’s when he’ll need us most.” He passed Alex two pills from the bottle and nudged the cup into her hand. “Here. Dr. Cunningham’s orders. She says this’ll keep your neurotransmitters stable until your mind recovers from…whatever it is you tapped into.”

She nodded and quickly downed the pills. “I should have anticipated some sort of backlash. There’s always a…” Alex trailed off. I did this, every step. It’s my price to pay, not his. “How did you sleep?”

“It’s…different than before. I got a lot of Lewis Carroll imagery, but nothing too scary.” He scarfed up the rest of the croissant and crumpled up the bag, tossing it into the faux-leather wastebasket nearby. “I do feel like I can tap into it if I wanted…but I’m not sure that’s such a smart idea until I talk to someone first.” He reached out to cup her chin with his hand. “Besides, right now you need some taking care of. And it’s nice not to be so zonked out on sedatives that I can actually feel you sleeping next to me.” He kissed her softly on the lips.

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but you not drooling all over the pillow was kinda special,” she giggled.

He laughed self-deprecatingly. “If you weren’t holding hot coffee, I would so be tickling you right now.” He leaned back, grabbing his own cup again. “Alex, what’s with that book? It didn’t go to Sharpe’s people when you came back from Prague, and I’ve never seen it before you went on the trip. I do know my way around your personal library, you know.”

“It was a gift from the woman who was handling their end of the trade. They had a few that looked interesting, and she let me borrow it. Nothing overly important, but some variants on a few legends and myths.” She set her cup on the nightstand and stretched out on the bed, giving him a mischievous grin. “So, we’ve got a few more hours before we need to leave—or were you in a hurry to get home?”

“Not particularly,” he said through a smile, sliding closer to her and stretching one arm beneath her back and around her shoulders. “We could order Pay Per View, get some room service, ask for late checkout. I bet this joint’s got stellar concierge service.” A puzzled expression crossed his face. “Actually, now that I think about it, this motel is sort of like everything else here: so happy and pristine. It’s not a four-star joint by a long shot, but it’s clean, and the pool water didn’t look like it’d give us any communicable diseases. Maybe we ought to come back here for a vacation sometime? Tour some orchards, or whatever normal couples do when they have days to kill.”

“It’s a good plan, but you forgot the important part.” She snuggled up closer to him. “We can sleep in on the weekends.”


(Soundtrack)

Alex had missed driving. She and Ed had always driven in the SUV to wherever the hunt took them. It was a good chance to let everything go and clear her head. There were too many things that needed to be said for her to do anything more than worry. She pulled off at a rest stop somewhere in North Carolina and parked on the far side of the building, close to a picnic table, and far enough away from the general traffic that they could talk. “Aaron, I need to tell you some things, because once we get back, they’re going to piece it together.” She was avoiding looking at him as she sat staring ahead. “I’ve been keeping things to myself, because I thought it was for the best, but I can’t do that, not after what’s happened.”

“Alex, what are you talking about?” Aaron’s feeling of unease grew as he started to think back on the events of the week. “This isn’t about us, is it?”

“No…It’s about me not telling you some things because I didn’t want to get your hopes up on something that was statistically not going to happen.” She breathed deeply, preparing herself for the torrent of truth she was about to spew. “I’ve been digging through the archives at ASI, and I found some variants on old folk stories from Europe. The R&D guys there were more concerned with controlling the symptoms rather than searching for the cause. That’s why I’m okay with you handing things over to Mal. She’s the type of person who will try and understand both, but I don’t think she’s going to be willing to let herself believe in something that she can’t put under a fucking microscope.”

Aaron squinted, confused by the stream of conversation. “Alex, I don’t understand…”

She continued. “I was talking to some of the people that scan all of the emergency bands and papers, looking for odd things for us. I gave them some keywords to look for and got a bunch of hits, too many and too vague to even attempt to start checking things out. I saw the article on the books that were found, and a name came up that I recognized, Petra Kostelac. She knows my grandfather, mentioned by name in one of his journals. I had to talk to her, Aaron. She was probably the best chance I had.” Alex sighed heavily, pushing on. “I asked Elijah to send me to Prague for the book acquisition deal. I didn’t want to tell you. I was afraid that if anyone knew why I was going, it would all go to hell, and I couldn’t risk exposing her. So I went and talked to her while I was there. She warned me about trying anything, but in the end, she was the one who gave me the final information I needed. That book I had in the room is full of rituals and rules for dealing with these things. They’re not even remotely human; they don’t think on the same terms that we do. I made mistakes.”

“Alex…you mean to tell me you engineered all of this?” He was silent for a few seconds, assembling the pieces in his mind. The puzzle had finally snapped together, judging by the look on his face. “You brought us here to give me a shot at a cure, didn’t you? You knew there’d be fae here, fae who would owe us a favor if we helped them get something they wanted first.”

“The night you called me in Prague, I was sending additional parameters to Kelly. I knew what I was looking for at that point, and it pinged Jericho Mills. I knew what we were walking into and I didn’t tell anyone, not even you.”

Aaron set his jaw, letting that last sentence sink in. “So you sent out a call for Contingent hunters. That flimsy story about vigilante vampire killers gone wrong. It was all bullshit. You knew it was bullshit. You knew we’d find that unicorn here. That it could give us whatever we wanted if only we played the situation right. Alex, I…I can’t pretend I’m not grateful, but we could have died. Mal, Eva, one of the new hunters—any one of us could have slipped up and taken a horn through the heart, or made a wish that had some terrible repercussions! Hell, I’m shocked Mal walked away from this still sane!” There was anger in his last statement, unmistakable and fresh.

“I knew the possibility was here. I couldn’t tell you, don’t you see that? If I had even hinted at what was there…” she snapped back, catching herself before she could say more. “What would have happened if Elijah had any idea of what we found here?”

His face froze as he pondered the implications of that. He looked down into his lap. “Yeah. I know. He’d have only seen another opportunity. Another asset.” Just like you did, he thought to himself.

“There are some things that humans…that men can’t have.”

Aaron’s mind raced back to the grow room and the pod of soil where the NuStar scientists had anchored that poor creature—no, that woman—into the ground with cold iron. “Things we shouldn’t have,” he said in agreement.

She stared straight ahead, tears running down her cheeks. “I knew the risk, and I have to live knowing that I would have let them all die to give you this chance.”

He turned to face her, his expression a mixture of disappointment and astonishment. “Alex, you should have told us the truth. All you’d have had to do was ask Mal and Eva to help you on this and they’d have probably done it. Heck, Natalie would have come out here in a second if she’d known what this could have meant. Maybe even Ed.” His face hardened; he teared up. “The worst part is, you did all of this because of me. All that time spent in that basement, or buried in books, all that time when I thought you were bored of us, when I was…” He choked up. “I should have paid more attention. I should have seen what you were doing. I should have stopped you.”

Alex reached out for him, took his hand in hers. “I promised you that I would find a way. It’s not a clear cut answer by any means. I’m not even sure that it’s not going to come back on us, but for now it’s a start.”

(Soundtrack)

Aaron inhaled sharply, shutting his eyes as he pulled his hand away from hers. The mid-day sun was suddenly blinding, painful to his sight. “I can’t, Alex.” He opened the door of the Audi and reached into the backseat for his satchel and backpack.

“Aaron, wait, please!” Alex sobbed. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone! Please, believe that!”

“I’m catching a bus back to Philadelphia,” he said, stepping out of the car. “I can’t have this conversation right now, Alex. I love you…but you put our friends in harm’s way, and I don’t know how to even begin to deal with that.”

Aaron closed the door and walked toward the rest stop, dialing a number on his phone as he went.

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Desert Thoughts
Taz, 3 weeks after The Zoo encounter

Taz shifted her backpack more comfortably under her head, lying in the bed of a rusted-out old pickup abandoned in the Mojave Desert somewhere between Victorville and Ridgecrest. Every star the human eye could see seemed to be out tonight, soothing her mind and bringing her scattered thoughts into something like clarity. It’s been a few weeks since the latest adventure with The Contingent folks, and even the crazier details of what they saw in The Zoo were starting to blur and fade, which worried Taz. They were doing testing…creating? Trapping. Breeding. Why? Is it a secret agenda, like what They were doing to those kids They’d kidnapped and brainwashed? Which They? I can’t remember. Maybe it’s all one They. There was an arena…tickets? That sick politician guy, he was a guest. Was it all just for some twisted new form of cockfighting ring, where you watch supposedly mythical creatures die for human amusement? What the fuck is wrong with people?

At least we got the sphinx out. I wonder if I’ll ever get to talk to her again. I’m not really good at riddles, though, so maybe she’d be obligated to eat me if I screw up the answers too many times. I think she left with Ed. I hope Ed’s good at riddles.

Wait, a sphinx? Are you sure that’s what happened? Seriously, a sphinx? Are you crazy? Are you crazier?

Taz pulls out her curiously modified smartphone, its bluish glow highlighting eyes that have suddenly gone frantic, lines of strain on her face. She rapidly types out a text, fingers stumbling in her haste. Forcing herself to slow down, she fixed the jumbled mess and hit send.

“Ed? It’s Taz. Was there a sphinx at the Zoo? With an exploding collar? And lizard things? And stuff in a tank? We did go to the Zoo, right?”

She waits, trying to slow the pace of her breathing, trying to recapture the peace in the stars again. It’s got to be like 3am. I think Ed sleeps, so maybe he’s asleep. Maybe he won’t see this for— the slight vibration sends her diving back for her phone. She scans the – paradoxically – brusquely patient response and breathes out in relief. Flopping back onto her pack, she shifts uncomfortably for a moment then, blinking, turns over to unzip a pocket in it, pulling out a notebook.

Huh.

Taz pulls out the phone again. “Um, Mal? I think I picked up something I was supposed to give to you or Dr. Skaar.” She opens an app on her phone and flips through the pages as a red beam captures the data much more rapidly than the app had originally been designed to do. She sends the attachment to Mal, sure she’ll know what to do with it.

Curling up one final time with her pack and her ragged nest of flannels, a little lonely but at peace with it, Taz watches the stars and sinks into sleep, idly creating new constellations in her eyes.

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A Tendency to Start Fires
Ed comes out of semi-retirement

From his lookout point, Ed watched as Keith and Gavin raced out of the swanky party, security guards hot on their heels. Gavin carried a large bundle under his coat, likely the statue Claire Carver sought. The pair leaped into the getaway car and, moments later, Grace peeled out of the narrow streets. There was no sign of Shandi or Brandon.

Ed waited a few beats before pulling out his cellphone and dialing Grace. “Tell me you didn’t just leave two people in there…” he growled before she could finish her hello.

“I didn’t do a damn thing!” she shouted. “These two jumped in the car and said floor it. Bullets were flying, Ed! Also, kinda busy. This isn’t exactly the interstate. Shit.”

Ed heard the phone go bouncing around the inside of Grace’s car before the call disconnected. Ed cursed under his breath before grabbing his bag and moving towards the door. He had to know what happened to the rest of the group.

About the time Ed intended to rush the door, a cab pulled up. Shandi exited, being escorted by a man that Ed didn’t recognize. She was all smiles and vixen, but there was an obvious tension in her stance. Ed slinked away while she exchanged pleasantries with her host. As the car turned the corner, Ed stepped into the lane, hand on his pistol. As the driver came to a sliding halt, Ed slipped into the backseat. “Keep going!” he said, waving at the shaken driver.

The surprise on Shandi’s face was obvious, as were the constant glances at Ed’s hand on his sidearm. “Where is Brandon!?” Ed demanded, cutting out any introductions.

Shandi’s mask fractured for a moment, both sadness and rage flickering across her features. “They left him! In that thing! I told them how to save Brandon, but then they were just gone. I don’t know what happened, but there were too many of Dubois’s goons. I couldn’t do it by myself.”

The cab let Shandi off at a cafe not far from the airport. In the span of a few panicked moments, Shandi explained how Brandon had fallen victim to the Iron Maiden in Dubois’ collection. She doubted he’d survive long, and her brief exposure to the events of Brandon’s capture had left her certain that Brandon’s death would fuel some dark ritual. The events had obviously shaken her.

“Listen to me.” Ed said, grabbing Shandi’s shoulders and locking eyes with her. “This isn’t your fault. You tried. You did the smart thing, getting out alive. Now, get the hell out of Paris before he realizes you’ve duped him. I imagine Grace is holding the plane for you at Charles De Gaulle.”

He let Shandi go and stepped out onto the curb to hail another cab. He opened the door and motioned for her to enter. Shandi gave him a quizzical look when he didn’t join her. “What about you?” she asked.

Ed shook his head. “The last place I need to be right now is on that plane. Take care of yourself, Shandi.”

Ed closed the cab’s door and made his way to a nearby bar. A brief interaction later, mostly with slow talking and hand motions, Ed had a glass of dark liquor in front of him. Slamming back the contents, he motioned to the bartender to refill the glass while pulling his cellphone from his pocket.

Skaar, it’s Ed. I need a favor. I’m stuck in Paris—and if I get back on the plane that brought me here, the Contingent is going to be short a few members.”

There was a slight pause. “Intriguing. I’m in Geneva for a conference. These so-called peers have worn on me; I look forward to a reason to make my exit. I’ll send a car when I’m in the air.”


By the time the town car retrieved Ed, he was roaring drunk and angrier. He stomped up the steps of the private jet and found Dr. Skaar lounged in one of the leather chairs, crystal rocks glass in hand. “Ed! Tell me, what has darkened your doorstep?”

Ed collapsed into the chair across from Skaar. “This backseat bullshit is getting old, Skaar. Twice now I’ve rode bitch with Grace and these new kids. And twice now they’ve fucked up. They’re damn green! And obviously don’t give a fuck about one another. They left someone, Skaar. They left someone bad. It’s that Brandon guy who ran with you, and Domino’s other half says he’s stuck in some torture device. Who does that?!?”

Skaar leaned forward, staring intently at Ed. “So, what do you intend to do about it?”

Ed sat quietly for a moment. The plane accelerated and Ed’s ears popped as it began to climb. “Damn the consequences. I’m going back into the field. Like I used to. No more of this hiding bullshit, I don’t care who’s looking for me. The wrong people are dying, Skaar. And I intend to change that.”

Skaar leaped to his feet. “Excellent! Action over inaction! Where do you start?”

Ed leaned back in the chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose, deep in thought. “The Zoo. We should have done more…I’m going to do more.”

Skaar pivoted. “Hmm, I cannot take you to San Diego. Not directly. I have my own plans in New York. However, once the jet is refueled at JFK, it can take you to San Diego International, or one of the nearby private airports.”

Ed nodded. “Okay, great. I’ll make some calls and see if I can get a ground crew together on a short notice. It’s time to start clearing these ledgers.”

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