The Contingent

Modern Love
Session 2 (Allie)

An urgent anonymous call for help has gone out to the Contingent. The contact says they desperately need our help and are willing to give us something very valuable in return. Could be a trap, or it could just be someone who’s scared. Who’s willing to go with me to check it out?Grace

Hunters

Brandon Smith
Content Not Found: shandi
Keith Moye
Gavin Harper

Synopsis

The anonymous contact turns out to be Claire Carver, Jackson Carver’s wife. Showing signs of physical abuse from her husband, she explained that he had recently stolen a protection totem from her and traded it to a French crime lord in exchange for another unknown artifact. The totem supposedly prevents any damage to its owner, and Claire very much wants it back to prevent any further abuse at Carver’s hands.

Things go poorly at the crime lord’s estate, with Brandon falling victim to a supernatural iron maiden. Instead of attempting to rescue their companion, Gavin and Keith use the resulting chaos to steal the totem and escape. Shandi, who had been distracting the crime lord, makes her exit later, unable to save Brandon by herself.

Important Clues

  • Claire provides the Contingent with Jackson Carver’s upcoming itinerary for the next few months, as well as additional incriminating evidence.
  • She’s also wearing a particularly unique necklace shaped like a key, which she often touches.
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New Killer Star
Session 2 (Melissa)

Hey y’all, I need a couple people to come check out something in Tennessee. There’s a little town there, Jericho Mills, and word has leaked through certain channels here that there have been several murders over the last month or two. From what we’ve been able to piece together, all of the bodies have been found pierced through their chests in a pretty horrific manner. My concern is that we might have some kind of vigilante vampire hunter out there. I’m looking to put together a team to go in quietly, and figure out what’s going on.Alex

Hunters

Aaron Mathias
Charles Powell
Eva Jimenez
Josephine “Josie” Bennett
Mallory “Mal” Cunningham
Wayne Hodges

Synopsis

The hunters discover that the actual source of the murders is a unicorn rampaging in the state park as a result of NuStar Cosmetics’ dark practices. The team learned that NuStar was harvesting plants and creatures from a nearby breach in the Hedge. They rescued a dryad from the cosmetic plant’s greenhouse who was being drained of her essence by their scientists, infiltrating the facility with the help of a sympathetic botanist, who has now been relocated to safety in Denver.

As a reward for saving the unicorn, a fairy creature offered wishes to the hunters. They chose the following rewards:

  • Aaron asked for control of his dreams and visions.
  • Josie wished for Carver to be exposed.
  • Wayne wished to keep the Contingent hidden from any exposure as a result of Josie’s wish.
  • Charles asked for hair from the unicorn.
  • Mal asked the fae creature to carry a tracking device.
  • Eva, recognizing how dangerous it is to make a fairy wish, avoided wishing for anything.

Major Clues

  • The Cloverleaf cosmetic was NuStar. Its symbol was a star spiraling inward.
  • The players found that an epimeliad was trapped by Cloverleaf and turning the town into a faerie kingdom. Further, a unicorn smashed through, and was aided by a faerie named Cicuta. Players were allowed to make wishes through the Seelie unicorn, however, they all had monkey’s paw qualities.
  • They discovered that Carver had ties to the cosmetics company, NuStar, that was using extracts from the dryad as well as illegally-acquired or endangered flora from around the world and from the Hedge. Connections between NuStar and Cloverleaf, another business interest of Carver, were also unearthed.
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Industrialist Arrested!
From the San Diego Tribune

Wealthy Industrialist, Nigel Resler, was arrested last week after several anonymous tips were sent to the local Police Department. As of this moment all the Police are willing to say is that he is being held for Federal custody on several charges of Felony Tax Evasion.
Mr. Resler’s lawyer could only be quoted as saying ‘No comment at this time’.

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Doing it Right
Few days prior to Killer Star

“Mal?” She jumped at the sound of her name, interrupting her train of thought.

“Hmm?” Mal turned to Eva, who was rummaging around in the fridge.

“I asked if you wanted a beer, querida. Twice.”

“Umm…sure, thanks.” She fidgeted with one of the throw pillows, looking down at the floor.

Eva sat down next to her on the couch, handing her the bottle. “I can tell when you’re in your head. So, spill. Is it about the bodies?”

Mal frowned trying to figure out how to put her thoughts into words. “Yes…well, not really. It’s about ASI,” she paused. “And Aaron. There is no way a ballistic trauma victim who was shot five times in the torso should be walking around less than a week after the incident. Not with even with the most advanced conventional treatment.” She got up and started to pace the small living room.

Eva watched her from the couch. “I saw it happen. He went down and there was so much blood. In L.A., you get used the sound of a gun. Doesn’t mean you get used to seeing it, ya know? I drove Natalie to the hospital…she was really shaken up.”

“Yeah, I called her yesterday to check in. Apparently she’s staying with Aaron until he gets back on his feet. Although from what she told me, he’s doing a lot better. She said that he looked better than he had before getting shot, and that he was eating enough food for two people. With the amount of pain meds they were giving him, he should be experiencing nausea. I think…I think they gave him some sort of supernatural treatment. That’s the only explanation. He should have been dead five times over.”

“But he’s not. He’s alive. You don’t think that’s a good thing?” Eva asked accusingly.

“Of course I’m glad he’s alive! That’s not the point. ASI is doing some amazing things, and their staff is knowledgeable. I just worry that they are so focused on how to harness the supernatural that they forget that our world is governed by conventional science. Medications and treatments take years to develop; there are endless control studies that need to be done, variables to be taken into account. Like, what if his treatment interacted with his anti-oneiric serum? He could start having visions again, and they might be even more psychologically traumatic than they were before.”

“But you don’t know that…”

“That’s exactly it. We don’t know. He could drop dead from some complication caused by whatever they gave him. He’d just be a blip of data for them on a study that they should have done beforehand. Eva…I don’t think I could go through that again.”

“Can’t go through what again?” Eva asked softly, gesturing for Mal to sit down next to her.

Mal sniffled, flopping down on the cushions before drawing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around herself. “When I was a resident, a doctor prescribed a brand new medication to a patient. I had concerns about the course of treatment because she didn’t have any of the symptoms that this medication was approved for. Plus she was having side effects. I called him out on it and was kicked out of the program. Three days later, I was unzipping her body bag.”

Eva didn’t say anything, but she pulled Mal toward her. Mal buried her face in her neck, inhaling her scent.

After a moment she said, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah I’m fine. I’ve come to terms with it. Just like I need to come to terms with this. I hate the idea of my friends being guinea pigs, but I think I’d hate losing them over my own hangups more. As much as I wish I could do something to change their processes, I need to accept that I can’t, or I’ll drive myself crazy.”

Eva let her go, so she could look Mal directly in the face. “Seriously baby, I’m surprised you haven’t already. You think about things way too hard. Of course you can change things there.”

“But I don’t have access to any of the data. I could ask Aaron if he’d release his records to me…but even still.”

“So what? That ASI bitch was pawing at you because of some paper you wrote.” Mal was going to interrupt her, insisting that that ‘ASI bitch’ had a name, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember what it was. “Just write another one. Show them there’s a better way to do things. Don’t let what they’re doing wrong stop you from doing it right.”

Mal stared at her for a moment, letting her words sink in. She felt a renewed sense of purpose, and a rush of gratitude to Eva, who somehow always knew the right thing to say. “How did I ever survive without you?”

“I have no idea. You were absolutely hopeless. I put the moves on you for months and you had no clue.”

Mal remembered the day that Eva had strode into her lab and confessed her feelings. So much had changed since then, but somehow she managed to keep this amazing, capable, sexy woman by her side. She looked at Eva and pulled her closer, affection warming her from head to toe.

“I’m glad you came and set me straight.” she murmured, running her fingers through Eva’s hair. “I couldn’t imagine facing the darkness without you.”

Eva kissed her softly. “We are going to stop that son of a bitch Carver, and then you are going to make the world a better place.”

Mal burst out laughing, and Eva frowned at her. “I thought that was romantic!”

“It was!” she said trying to get her giggles under control. “But I hate to break it to you babe, Doctor Skaar already used that line. But don’t let that bother you; he’s not exactly my…type.”

Eva pushed her down on the couch, pinning her arms above her head, dark eyes flashing. “Does it work?” she whispered hotly into her ear.

Mal grinned, knowing exactly where this was headed. “Absolutely.”

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Communiqués

Date: April 27th, 2016
To: amathias@asi.net
From: admin@asi.net
Subject: STOP ORDER #1884 – 4/27/2016 – 4/30/2016

Mr. Mathias,

Per ASI Field Order #17036, you are to discontinue taking the following medications, effective immediately and continuing until midnight on 4/30/2016:

PINODOL HCL 5CC IV………….ANTI-ONEIRIC SOLUTION

Per the terms of your employment agreement with Amalgamated Solutions International, you will be subject to testing of blood, hair, or urine on demand during this period, and for a period of 48 hours after the stop order is lifted, in order to ascertain your full compliance with this directive. Failure to comply with this stop order may result in immediate disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.

Thank you for your cooperation. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me, or Linda Vaughn Terrence Landon, your assigned Human Resources officer.

Regards,
Ken Yakana
========
Lead Technician, ASI Research & Development


April 28th

Natalie,

Right now it’s 3:45 in the morning. You’re still asleep in the other room, and I wouldn’t wake you for anything. The dreams came back last night; I saw the eagle again, and something else, something I can’t put into words, something…dark. I’m worried for what the future holds. I’m worried that one of us isn’t going to come back from the field. I worry about that every time we go on a mission, but lately the shadows in my nightmares seem to grow thicker, and sometimes it feels like my friends are the only lights that can break through them.

I don’t want to make tomorrow any harder than it’s already going to be when you get on that plane back to California. If it ends up being the last memory you have of me, I want it to be a happy one. So I’m going to say something, because if my fears are right and one of us doesn’t make it back, I can’t let either of us—any of us—go to our graves not knowing it. I can’t bring myself to tell you in person, but I also can’t hold it in any longer:

I love you. I’m still in love with you. I don’t know that I ever entirely stopped being in love with you. Being near you makes me feel like a whole person. You give me a reason to drag myself out of this dark little hole and live despite all of the fear, and you have no idea how grateful I am to you for that, or for staying with me this week while I recovered.

That doesn’t change my feelings for Alex. She fills a hole inside me that no one else can, either. She understands what it’s like to have a terrible gift, an ability that keeps you awake at night and makes you tremble all day, but one that can also help people— even if she’s lost hers, she gets that. I love her, too.

But I can’t imagine my life without either of you—and I know that’s probably not something any woman wants to hear, but it’s the truth. Someone a hell of a lot smarter than me recently convinced me that I can’t go on denying it, or it’ll eat me up inside. It’s not fair to either of you for me to keep lying about it, whether to myself or to you and Alex. So, I’m going to stop doing it. Right now. If my stupid, fucked-up emotions have to hurt the two people I care about more than anything else in the world, then I’m at least going to be honest about how much I love them.

I don’t know where all of this leaves the three of us. I have no idea how Alex will react when I tell her about what happened between you and me, or how you’ll react when you find this letter in your bag. But I hope it ends with us all at least still being friends, because I’m not sure that this life is worth living any other way.

Also, taped to this letter is a junk drive containing all of my dream journals from the last two years. I record everything in longhand at home or on the road and then transcribe them to a secured text document—the password for this copy is the name of the album that was playing the first time we slept together, one word, all lowercase. You’ll know the one.

I want you to have this because it might hold information that could save your life or those of your teammates. This way, it’ll be easy to pull up on the fly and do a quick keyword search for any particular topic you think I might have additional insight on. I’m also going to send you secure copies of my future dream journals via the Frequency to add to this archive, in case I get a line on something else that can help you or the other Contingent folks out in the field.

I’m sorry to lay all of this on you right now, but I’m tired of pretending not to feel the way I feel. You deserve the truth, and so does Alex. Call me after your trip to San Francisco, even if it’s only to let me know you’re alright.

I hope I see you again soon. Thanks again for a wonderful week—I wouldn’t trade the last four days of my life for anything, no matter what mistakes I may have made during them…because I got to spend them with you.

Love,
Aaron

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Hotter Than Hell
One last thing for Shandi to do

Charlie counted off the new tempo for the song. It took a while to get it perfect, but tonight needed to be special. The solo guitar intro was replaced by Nikki’s electric piano buzzing in a few seventh chords to create more harmonic tension.

“This next one is a new one for us. I don’t know about you, but I always feel the eyes of strangers on me when I go to a bar.” The ting of Charlie’s ride cymbal give Shandi her cue. “At least on stage I expect it.” She softens her voice and adds a dash of husk. “But for the rest of you, remember there’s someone Watchin’ You.”

Jason on bass, Nikki, and Charlie hit the mark together. The short fills on Charlie’s part were exactly what they needed. Nothing ostentatious, but with the down tempo they were going for, the quick hits weren’t enough to fill space. Shandi started her survey of the crowd. She readjusted on her stool and embraced the mic with her right hand. A guy in the front row chose that moment to exhale his cinnamon vape at her. She fought the bite in her throat as she breathed it in and the burn in her eyes.

“Livin’ as you do and I’m watchin’ you, oh woah,” the crowd quickly hushed themselves as Shandi’s crooning swept over them. It made the job of finding her target easier as most of the people will now be facing her. Knowing the person she’s looking for, there’s a greater chance the lady would be on the fringes of the audience.

“And you don’t really know a-just what to do, oh woah,” it wasn’t too hard to find her. Once turned, it’s hard for a vampire to ever change their appearance for very long. Most accept it early on. But few had the white trash blond hair, black roots Starla always sported. Shandi could see she was preoccupied with the man in the striped polo and Haggar slacks.

“You don’t really know,” Starla finally looked Shandi’s way. Seriousness leaked down her face and she slowly moved her way towards the door.

“You don’t really know,” Shandi extended the last note, letting it travel a whole step up before coming back down to the half-cadence. It was an agreed signal to her friend outside to get ready for Starla to come out. She followed Starla pushing herself through the crowd, glancing back to the stage to see Shandi locked onto her. She couldn’t get out of the bar faster.

“You don’t. You don’t know. What to do.”


The metal door to the back alley slammed hard from the too tight spring. For many, the sight of a man dressed like Sherlock Holmes wreathed in ghostly fire and a guy not much older than her with skin cracked and a divoted holding a women in a full-nelson would be more than most could handle. Shandi didn’t have that luxury.

“Did she pass the stake test?” Shandi moved toward the inflamed man.

“Flinched faster than I could show her the thing.” The man tossed the piece of wood in his hand without it catching fire. A truth about vampires is that few things really scare them. Guns, knives, a gang of thugs are not nearly as frightening to them like they are to mortals. But stakes are something they fear. Whatever caused vampires to exist, it gave them a primal fear to stakes like we have fears of snakes and spiders. So if you want to know if you are dealing with one, flash a stake and watch. Old ones can keep their cool better, but there is always a tell. Starla is to new, so she hasn’t experienced the threat they are.

“You are so fucked!” Starla screeched and tried to pry herself out of the man’s grip, but he stood there like a statue.

“No. Unfortunately, Starla, tonight will be your last.” Shandi walked up to her and cupped her face. She felt the tears welling. Making friends was something neither her nor Domino really let themselves do as matter of survival. But this club and Starla were two of the few constants in their lives. So it was impossible for connections and feelings to not evolve. There were countless times Domino went out on a hunt and the only one she could go to stop feeling afraid of what lived in the shadows was Starla. She was the closest thing to a girlfriend she had since she was a teenager. How do you say good-bye forever?

“Ha! What? You gonna stake me? Shandi, you can’t even step on a bug. How you gonna shove that in my heart, even if you could pull that off with your weak ass body?”

“I’m not. My friend Richard is the one that’s here for you. I was only his contact that could help him get to you.”

Pure fear froze Starla. Richard approached her, dropping the stake mid-way. He place hand on her chest, blue flames dancing across the pale skin and fabric.

“Why?” ask Starla.

“You are a sin Domino needs to resolve. That is my job. I eat sin.”

“Shandi…you can’t…you can’t let him.”

Shandi turned her head away from them.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make it fast.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“Trust me, sometimes, it’s better than what we have here.” Richard closed his eyes. The blue flames surrounding him rippled up his body and flowed into Starla. “Rest in peace, Starla Jean Roberts.”

Flames erupted from Starla’s body, blinding and quick like Roman candle. It reminded Shandi being too close to the ignition of bonfire. Just as fast, the flames went out and only ash remained where Starla existed. Richard was partly bent over and his friend, Derek, was rubbing his arms.

“You two okay?” Shandi went over to Derek to look him over. He was something completely new for her. Richard tried to explain it to her. He died once, then his body was reanimated, but his soul didn’t rest and he somehow managed to merge body and soul again. It was a little too much for her to understand, but when Richard said he was there to help Domino’s ghost rest, that was all she needed to know. There was soot and ash on him, and his cloths were burned completely, but physically there wasn’t a mark on him.

“Yeah, we’re good. I don’t make it a point to go around as a walking crematorium, but I figure you’d want it fast.” Richard pushed himself upright. His pallor seem gauzy and warn, like fabric of his big was pulled apart like cotton. Derek moved wordlessly to the old ’38 Oldsmobile parked at the other end of the alley.

“Honestly, I don’t know what I wanted.”

“Most people don’t. Not even the dead.” Richard looks down the alley. “I think Derek needs to get going. He may not be nearly as strong or dangerous as he was before, but he still has some nasty side effects if he stays in a place for too long.”

“You know how to reach me.” Shandi turned and headed in the opposite direction.

“Hey! You sure you’re ready?”

Shandi stopped and turned back to him. “I don’t know if I ever will, but I don’t have much of a choice.”

Richard saunters up to her, habitually checking an ornate gold watch. “Of course you have a choice. I’ve dealt with a lot of kinds of people as a reporter, a hunter, and now as a geist. You got a good heart. That’s rare even in the normal part of the world. Domino knew that too, which is probably why he kept you away as much as he could. Right now is where you decide the rest of your life.”

“Tell me,” Shani stepped in a little too close for casual conversation, “of the people you met that have been touched in the slightest by the supernatural, how many of them ever really get the chance for normal?”

“Well, it’s hard to say.”

“Because there isn’t anything to say. We don’t get a choice in this. When we see what in the darkness, we lose that chance everyone else has.”

“You know I can’t help you when you’re with them. And I can’t tell you what you are going to walk into. A lot has changed since I was with The Contingent. People are going to be suspicious of you.”

“Then it’ll be even since I’ll be suspicious of them.”

“You can’t go at it alone. That’s how you get killed. You need friends.”

“Friends are a liability, you can only trust family.”

“What’s that make us?

“Get me a birthday present and we’ll see.” Shandi turned back around and started back toward the end of the alley.

“When’s that?” Richard yelled after her.

“Someone whose family would know.” Shandi turned the corner and picked up the helmet hooked on the motorcycle handle. She took her time getting set for the trip a head. She knew what awaited her to answer The Contingent’s call. But she had nowhere else to go. Better the devils you know than the ones you don’t.

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Medium Pace
Gina puts it all in perspective

(Soundtrack)

Aaron peeled off his gel-padded shooting gloves, taking a thin layer of skin and sweat along with them, and removed his earplugs and eye protection. The drive in from Delaware had left him shaking, and not just because of the emotional turmoil he’d been feeling; Natalie was a woman of many merits, but driving expertise wasn’t one of them. The range time had helped him loosen up and reground himself after the stressful events of the morning. He cleared the chamber in the Luger, removing the empty clip and turning the pistol grip toward Grace. “So am I getting better?”

Grace cocked an eyebrow at him; the younger man was clearly fishing for compliments, and while he hadn’t done badly, she wasn’t going to puff up his ego. “Better is a relative term, but I’d say you’re well-equipped to at least hit the broad side of a barn, and maybe a narrower one when you have time to line up a shot.” She cleared the chamber herself once more out of reflex and returned the gun to her weapons locker. “I’m still not gonna let you take that thing off the range, though, Mathias. You gotta log at least 20 hours in the gallery and pass a basic proficiency exam before I can submit you for firearm clearance to the brass. Sharpe’s rules.”

“I know, I know—until you feel safe with letting me shoot on my own, I’m strictly Team Machete in the field.” Aaron smiled, brushing back his sweat-matted hair with his fingers and rubbing his eyes. “Well, thanks as always, Captain. I really appreciate you putting in the training hours with me.”

“Not a problem. I need to stay in fighting shape myself, so it’s a win-win in my book—could be a pretty rough weekend for my squad. By the way, did you get my advisory about that anonymous call? You haven’t…seen anything weird lately, have you?”

“Grace, I know you can’t reveal anything that Sharpe says to keep wrapped up, but I don’t have a lot to go on. If I knew more, I could maybe tip you off if anything weird comes through in a dream, but—”

“Nope. We’ve had this conversation, Mathias,” Grace said with a stern expression of finality on her face. “Just because you have a special aptitude that others don’t, doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you. You gotta follow protocol like everyone else—and protocol on this case is, no one but me and Sharpe get to know the details until the mission is underway.”

“Okay, okay, fine,” Aaron said, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “I won’t ask again. And if I do get anything weird in a dream, I’ll still let you know. After all, if you die, who’s gonna train me up, right?”

“Probably someone who sucks. Look, I gotta get down to the gym and hammer some reps in. You wanna come? A little toning would do you some good, especially with all that protein you’re putting away.” They’d taken a break for lunch earlier, during which Aaron had devoured an entire rotisserie chicken by himself, and he hadn’t been fussy about picking around the bones and joints.

“I’d like that, actually, but I have to get going. Tomorrow, maybe, after range time? I do wanna start hitting the gym more often, but I’m on a tight schedule today. Doing something for Elijah. I’d say more, but—”

“—Protocol.” She nodded.

“Protocol.” They shook hands, a considerably cooler handshake than Aaron had ever managed before in his life but was getting better at performing since he and Grace had started shooting together. “See ya.” He turned toward the exit.

“Hey, Mathias—what happened to your glasses? Haven’t seen you wear them in a while. You switch to contacts or something?” Grace asked, pulling the ballcap from her head and shaking out a long, blonde ponytail that probably hadn’t seen the rough side of a brush in at least a day.

He turned back, stretching his arms over his head. “You know…this is gonna sound crazy, but ever since I got out of the hospital, I haven’t needed them. I tried putting them on when Alex and I went out Friday, and it was like looking at Wacky Bizarro Funhouse World.” He suppressed a grimace at the slight twinge of guilt that washed through his stomach at the mention of Alex’s name. “So I took them off, and everything was crystal-clear. I’ve got them in my bag in case it’s a passing fluke, but so far, so good.”

Grace arched a pale eyebrow at him. “Here’s hoping it stays that way. Be careful, Mathias.”


(Soundtrack)

“Explain to me again what I’m supposed to be learning from this movie,” Lily said, sitting very primly on the sofa in her containment unit. A snug white cotton pullover dress barely covered her thighs, and Aaron suspected that her programming dictated her wardrobe choices so as to more easily manipulate the people attracted to her.

Aaron scoffed, turning his head toward the attractive robot and pausing the DVD with a touch of the remote. “You wanted to be human, right? To feel a full range of emotions like a person? Well, that’s what this movie is all about. Laughter, tears, success, failure—it’s the quintessential summation of the human experience, Lily. Learn it. Know it. Live it.”

She frowned, an expression Aaron had only previously seen when Henry had shot her in the head. “I don’t see how a silly movie about cat burglars and Leonardo DaVinci is going to teach me how to be a real woman.”

He sighed and shook his head. “It’s like this: Every man wants to be Eddie Hawkins. He’s suave, he’s witty, he bucks authority, and he makes the ladies swoon, even if he does have CGI hair. But the truth is, most guys are closer to being Tommy Five-Tone—full of bluster and stagnating in their own bad habits—and that’s if you’re lucky. Play your cards wrong, and you end up being a guy like Gates, or even Darwin Mayflower.”

She squinted, considering his thesis. “This George Kaplan character does sort of remind me of Carver, now that you mention it.”

“See? You’re learning already!” He waved his hand demonstratively and unpaused the DVD, and Danny Aiello slung a grenade launcher over his shoulder as he and Bruce Willis began singing ‘Side By Side’. “Oh man, this is the best part of the whole movie.”

As Willis and Aiello sang, danced, and lit up CIA agents with grenades in Castle DaVinci, Lily developed a pensive look. “You talked about the men, but what about the women? They don’t seem to be as important in this film.”

Aaron sighed. “Yeah, that’s the early ‘90s for you. Sad to say, Hollywood hasn’t gotten a lot better on that score over the years. You have no idea how hard it is to find a decent action figure of Black Widow. But I still maintain that the female characters in Hudson Hawk aren’t all bad role models. Take Anna Baragli, for example. She’s not a front-line soldier by any means, but she’s smart and cool under pressure. She infiltrates the friggin’ CIA, man, and makes the Mayflowers believe she’s gone crazy with curare poisoning when they try to interrogate her until she has the opportunity to strike back at them. The downside, though, is, the other strong females are all villains. Almond Joy is a badass for sure; she takes shit from nobody, regardless of the tackle they’re sporting. And Minerva Mayflower…Well, she’s batshit crazy, but you have to admit she’s a dominant woman. But yeah, neither of them are nice people.”

“And that’s what you think men want from women? Intelligent, dominant, taking no shit? That certainly hasn’t been my experience,” Lily said.

“Well, if all you’re looking for is something to copulate with, then no, those traits aren’t desirable,” Aaron said sheepishly. “But that’s sort of the point. Lily, for too long people have treated you like an object—a possession. People don’t like for their possessions to have free will and rational thoughts. They just want obedience. But if you’re tired of being an object, and you want to be a person…then yeah, smart, tough, and committed to a general lack of shit-taking is a good place to start in this world. Sure, it’ll piss people off, but sometimes that’s the tradeoff for getting to be the person you want to be.” He hit ‘play’ on the remote. “Come on, let’s finish this up, there’s only about ten minutes left. Look, Hawk’s gonna fight Kaplan and then he has to figure up how to blow up the gold machine!”

Lily rolled her eyes, an affectation Aaron was surprised to see she could perform. “I certainly hope all of your visits aren’t going to involve bad movies from the 1990s.”

“Oh, they very well could; I have a fondness for that era of American cinema. Encino Man could teach you a lot about how human friendships form, come to think of it. But no, actually, next time I was thinking Star Wars.”

“Is it a long movie?” She asked.

Aaron winced. “Depends on which one we watch…I mean, Attack of the Clones sure as heck was. But I think you’d like The Force Awakens. There’s this one character named Rey…”


(Soundtrack)

Aaron stepped off the elevator onto the lab floor and turned toward Ken Yakana’s office. He was overdue to pick up another allotment of anti-oneiric serum, although he suspected he’d have a stop-order come through in the next day or so. Maybe I’ll get one good night’s sleep before the shit hits the fan again. Didn’t get much last night, for sure. The wash of guilt came flooding back into him again, this time intermixed with a warm glow of satisfaction from last evening’s series of pleasurable exertions.

As Aaron rounded the corner past a series of cubicles where some engineers were comparing calculations of neural voltage output between subjects with different strains of vampirism and quoting data from “the Cunningham study”, he saw a few familiar faces: a young Lebanese lab tech who had taken most of his phlebotomy samples when he’d been in for testing, a dark-skinned British assistant with the most fabulous purple-dyed flat-top haircut he’d witnessed outside of the 1990s who always called him ‘lovey’, two female mathematicians he had seen down at the firing range the last two days arguing on either side of a whiteboard in Castilian Spanish, and ASI’s resident medium extraordinaire and psychic prodigy, Gina Tarantino, looking every bit the Real Housewife of New Jersey in her body-hugging blue mini-dress and leopard-print Manolo Blahniks. Aaron smiled and nodded at her as he rapped on the door to Ken’s office. “Hiya Gina,” he said.

“Oh, heeeeeey, Aaron!” she tossed back cheerily over her shoulder. They passed one another without thought, just two co-workers in a hurry saying a quick hello.

And then Aaron heard Gina’s footsteps stop, the staccato rhythm of her high heels on the tiled hallway floor suddenly silenced. The subsequent quiet was ear-shattering.

Fuck, he thought. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. I am so, so fucked. No one, in the history of being fucked, has ever been fucked this hard.

He bolted through the door to Ken’s office, nearly bowling over the young scientist, who was just on the other side. Aaron pushed past Ken and shut the door behind him, dropping down into the chair on the other side of the small desk. “Oh hey, man, I was wondering when you’d be stopping by!” Ken said enthusiastically, grinning. “How you feeling? I heard all about Alexandria, that shit is wild, bro! Look at you, though—tell me your boys here in R&D don’t take good care of you, amiright?” The shorter man put out a fist for a pound.

Aaron coughed, bumping his own fist with Ken’s half-heartedly. “Y-yeah, you guys are the greatest,” he half-stuttered, through a nervous smile. “Uh, hey, Ken, I’m kinda in a hurry—got an appointment in a bit. Can we raincheck the small talk?”

“Oh, sure thing, bro. Lemme see, where’d I put that kit at?” Ken opened a drawer in the bottom of his desk and started rummaging through it. “Look, Kwan and Marisol have been at it for a few days now about the saline balance in this new batch, and I’m a little concerned that the pH levels aren’t ideal, so I want you to try taking some AlkaLife when you inject this week and let me know if you feel any—”

“Ken.” Aaron’s voice was tersely insistent. Over Ken’s head, through the small window looking out into the hallway, Gina was peering in at Aaron, staring daggers through the glass. “I’m in a hurry. If you need me to report on this batch, send me an email detailing frequency and dosage and I promise I will give you every data point you need. Now can I get my serum, please?” Aaron stood and crossed over to the window, shutting the blinds on the fuming clairvoyant Jerseyite.

“Oh, sure, man! Sorry, bro, I didn’t mean to hold you up.” Ken handed Aaron a slimline metal kit with a latch and combination lock. “Hey listen, Grace was saying you’ve been hitting the range and she wants you to start lifting, but bro, you gotta do some Parkour with me. Raw muscle is cool and all, but you can’t beat endurance if things go to shit in the field, amiright? We’ve got a beginner’s class at the Boys’ Club, I can sign you up if you—”

“Does this door work?” Aaron asked, crossing back to the other side of the office and slipping the kit into his satchel.

“Sure, man, just turn the deadbolt. But that way is further from the elevators. Hey look, if you do ever wanna try Parkour, bro, just shoot me a text and we’ll—”

“‘MmkaysoundsgreatbyeKen,” Aaron blurted, fleeing out the now-unlocked back door and slipping into the opposite hallway.

He turned the corner, hoping to quickly and stealthily cut back across the cubicles before he could be seen, and ricocheted right off of Gina’s artificially-ample 38DDs.

She backhanded him on the shoulder, hard; his still-bruised clavicle screamed at his nerve endings. “Ow! Watch where you point those things, they’re like a frickin’ bouncy castle!”

Gina scowled and snatched Aaron by the ear, dragging him toward an empty conference room a few doors down. “Owowowowowwwwww, what the shit, Gina?” he yelped. She shoved him into a low swivel chair and slammed the door behind her, locking it with a flick of her wrist, her crimson acrylic nails tapping on the doorjamb as she did so. She crossed her arms. Aaron shut his eyes reflexively and almost presciently.

“You just had to do it, didn’t you? You just couldn’t keep it in your pants! What the hell were you thinking, Aaron?” Gina fumed.

“Uhh… I guess I really wasn’t.” He opened his eyes and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, staring downward at the thin blue-gray carpet beneath his Chuck Taylors.

“You listen to me, Aaron Mathias: if you hurt that little girl’s feelings, I will freakin’ end you. You understand me? I may spend most of my time listening to spirits, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk back to them! And I got a ghost of a women’s suffrage activist just ready and waiting to go all 1919 on some male chauvinist’s ass, so don’t you make me sic her on you, young man. Natalie’s been nothing but good to you, and you owe her the same.”

Aaron threw up his hands as if warding off another slap. “Alright, alright, I get it! I’m sorry! I’m just as fucked in the head and mixed up by all of this as anyone else involved, you know. It hasn’t exactly been an easy week for me.”

The medium pointed a long red fingernail at him accusingly. “Oh honey, do not even go there with me. You don’t know the freakin’ year I have had, so don’t go making excuses for yourself just because you got shot a few times.” Gina closed her eyes and took a deep breath, holding up her manicured hand, then pulled up a chair opposite Aaron’s. She yanked his chin up, forcing him to meet her gaze. “Look me in the eyes, Aaron. Just what is it you want? Do you even know?”

He shook his head. “After the thing in Denver last year, Alex was all I could think about. I knew she’d flip out if she ever found out about my medicine; that she’d probably run scared. I was so terrified of losing her, of her hating me because of what I had to do to keep a grip on things. And then she found out, from fucking Carver. Yeah, she was upset, but she still loved me. No matter how bad things sucked being cooped up for months on end until Elijah cooled things down enough for us to walk outside in broad daylight, at least I was with her.”

Gina nodded, as if she already knew what he was going to say. Which she did. “And then you both had to go back to work, and suddenly Alex’s life wasn’t about you anymore. That hurt, didn’t it?”

He frowned. “A little. Okay, yeah, a lot. I mean, I get it, I was busy too. I went off the anti-oneirics for weeks, after being on them for months. I was doing a lot of journaling to try and catch pieces of what Carver might be up to next. It was absolute hell, but I didn’t want to make Alex feel like she had to worry about me every second of the day.” He sighed and slumped backwards into the chair. “And then Natalie came back in town to work on Crime Lab: Philly, and we got to hang out again. We’d only seen each other incidentally on missions the whole year, and I thought I was over her—that I’d moved on. That maybe our lives were better off with us being apart. But it was like no time had passed when we started hanging out again. We did all the same little things we used to do to make each other laugh. I’d drag Nat out to a late movie and we’d yell and throw popcorn at the shitty acting, or she’d trap me at the Mac counter at the mall and make me up like Criss Angel or David Bowie…or both.” He smiled. “It was…nice. It felt normal. And Alex was so wrapped up getting acclimated to her routine here at ASI that she didn’t even notice. So I figured maybe she’d lost interest in me.”

The glamorous medium smirked. “And then the holiday party came around, and you decided to get all fancy-schmancy in your little Tuxedo Mask get-up. You were thinking there’d only be one girl there you wanted to see, but instead there were two.”

Aaron grit his teeth. “Yeah… and I dropped right back into Alex-mode again. But Nat seemed okay—or at least, she seemed like whatever was bothering her, it didn’t really have to do with us so much as the job. And then, after that Code Echo situation that night, she quit. Just left town and went back to L.A. Then Alex finally came out of her shell and started wanting to spend time with me again, and I…just figured that was what everyone wanted.” He rubbed his eyes again. “And then everything went to hell in D.C., and somehow I fucked it up even worse. So, what do I do now?”

Gina gave him a sad smile and rubbed his shoulder. “Aaron, sweetie, are you still in love with Natalie?”

He looked up at her, wide eyes rimmed with wetness. “Somedays I think I’m in love with them both. And I dunno how to deal with that.”

“It’s okay if you are, you know. You can’t help your feelings. But they have to choose their own paths, too. They need to do what’s right for them. So if that’s how you feel, maybe you should tell Alex and Natalie that, and then let them decide how they want to deal with it.”

“That…is simultaneously one of the smartest and scariest things anyone has ever said to me,” Aaron said.

“Ha. Welcome to my hell,” Gina said, popping a stick of cinnamon gum into her mouth and offering another to him. He took it.

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Journal Entry #755-A
An Excerpt from the Mathias Oneiric Study

DATE OF ONEIRIC SEQUENCE: 4/25/2016

(Soundtrack)

DATAPOINTS: Sequence occurred in natural setting—forest, stream, nighttime, moonlight. Woman in white gown with dark hair approaches; expresses first curiosity, then fear; prompts me to run. Touches me as we flee, feels like grabbing a live power wire. Forest vanishes, landscape assumes barren appearance. Black monolith rises from ground. Winged animal/creature of unknown species/origin perches on monolith. Monolith spawns tentacles/worms which latch onto woman as we run. I continue to flee the creature/monolith. Bright light, warmth, loud noise occur. Dream sequence ends.

INTERPRETATIONS: Setting and woman are consistent with prior oneiric observations related to fae activity. Monolith visions may be connected to recently-leaked Empire Foundation case file. Follow-up with EF operatives has been initiated, but no responses were forthcoming as of this date. Winged creature is a recurring oneiric element over last two years and 1 month, approximately. Sensations near end of sequence may be indicative of a nuclear disaster. Have also initiated contact with outside consultants regarding any recent illegal arms trade activities.

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Overdue
a letter for Ed

An actual letter with postage and everything arrives in Denver:

Ed,

I’ve started and torn up this letter more times than I can count. It’s taken close to 24 hours on a plane for me to sit and think about everything that’s happened. Getting out of that car was one of the hardest decisions that I’ve ever made. It wasn’t just about Aaron, it was about us too.

You are my family, and you have always been there to get me through the hells we’ve endured. I am not going to bring up the decisions we’ve both made. We both know what we’ve done.

At Braxton Falls, I saw something in you that scared me. If I had stayed, it would have put us both in more danger. I didn’t fully understand that until Aaron got shot in DC. We make mistakes, and we do things that we should never consider because of love. I couldn’t follow you down the path you’re taking. If I did, I would have lost myself further into that dark place where all we do is survive and deal with regret. I can’t lose myself to that; I can’t be that person.

I love him. It’s messy and complicated, but at the end of the day, I don’t care. I needed perspective. Couples shouldn’t have to ask each other if goofing around in the park is a normal thing to do. I need those normal days. I need to knock the ringing alarm clock off the table because I slept through the night. I need to be with someone who sees all of the fear, the tears, and scars, and still says I’m beautiful and that he loves me.

I’ve seen some of the intel coming through ASI in the wake of what happened. I need you to know that I’m here if you need help. It’s not going to stop unless we do something about it, and after seeing what he was doing to Lily, I’m ready to put a bullet in him myself.

-Alex

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Prague
Alex goes to buy books

The plane had landed on a private runway and the acquisitions team was currently loading their bags into the cars that had been sent to take them to the museum. Alex checked her watch and did some quick math; it was only 6 pm in Philadelphia. She had been stuck on the plane for almost 11 hours, nervous about the transaction, and kicking herself for missing the chance to see Aaron before she left; she dialed his number. The phone rang five times before throwing her into voicemail. “Hey, I was hoping to talk to you for a few. We got here okay. I’m really sorry that I bailed on lunch yesterday, but there was an opportunity here beyond the books that I need to look into. I love you, and I’ll try again later.”

As they drove to the museum, Alex tried to take in as much of the city as she could from the back seat of the car. They were on a tight schedule, and it had been stressed that sightseeing wasn’t a priority. Arriving at their destination, the ASI team was ushered through security and down into the lower levels of the museum. Their guide, a Mr. Slovac, was a unpleasantly grumpy man who apparently had taken a dislike to the fact that someone under 50 was handling the exchange.

His muttering came to an abrupt halt as a female voice, heavily accented, drew his attention. “Mr. Slovac, see these gentlemen to the lounge.” She didn’t bother to look up, knowing that he was already ushering them out. “Miss Lathem, you’ll come with me, and we can get started.” She was dressed in gray from head to foot, silver hair in a tight bun, a blue-gray dress, and low heels. The woman breezed through the room with an authority that demanded immediate response. Alex promptly fell in line behind her as they left the others, traveling down a short hall into a small room where the books from the collection were laid out across two tables.

Alex wandered over to look at the books. The door shut behind her, and a familiar chill ran up her spine. “I am guessing, by what I’ve read and heard, that you are Petra Kostelac?” she turned toward the older woman who was looking at her with an odd smile. “My grandfather left me some journals. He said I could trust you.”

“And you,” Petra nodded as she took a seat at the table, “are not here because of this exchange.” She motioned Alex to join her. “Does Sharpe know that you had other reasons for wanting to come here, other than ASI’s trade?”

“I’ve not mentioned this to anyone, no. I didn’t see the point, as it’s a personal question that I have for you.” Alex had pulled a small case out of her bag. It contained a pair of silver-rimmed glasses with slightly-tinted lenses.

“These are what they give you to work with,” Petra held out her hand.

Alex passed the glasses to her with a shrug. “They serve a very specific purpose, nowhere near the range of what I could do before.”

Petra slid her chair away from the table and circled around to where Alex sat. A firm hand on the younger woman’s shoulder kept her seated. “Let’s not waste time here. We both know that Elijah Sharpe is going to get most of what he wants.” Kostelac whispered a few words and felt Alex tense as her vision opened beyond the realms of human sight. “As you can see now, the four grimoires are originals. Feel free to flip through to verify, if you want. The fifth was a copy, and poorly done at that, although it does have some interesting notations that might be of value. The other three are technical notes on what they were attempting to do, as well as detailed accounts of some of the attempts to alter the perception of those who did not possess any abilities.” She released her grip on Alex and returned to her seat. “There was one other text that was requested, but it was damaged in transit and was not salvageable. Now, what is it that you wanted to ask me?”

Alex retrieved a folder from her bag and slid it across the table. “I need another way to resolve this.”

Petra looked up after reading for a few minutes. “What makes you think that I can help?”

The normally-cheerful blonde straightened her skirt, folded her hands in her lap and gave the resident mage a serious look. “Because behind you, on your desk, is a book. There’s something more powerful flowing through it than I want to contemplate. It’s dark, powerful, and it wants someone to read it.” Her gaze drifted from the book on the desk, back to Petra. “Terrible that it was damaged in transit and couldn’t be salvaged.”

A slight tilt of her head was the only acknowledgement of the statement. “I’m sorry Lexi…Alex. The things we keep hidden are done so with good reasons.” Studying the young woman’s physical responses, she added, “I am curious. Why him?”

“So you are saying that there is a way?”

“Nothing is completely out of the realms of possibility.” Petra held up a hand to silence Alex and continued. “I knew a man who loved his family more than anything in the world. He did something unforgivable to keep them safe, to protect them, and now he is without them.” She tapped the folder on the table. “This boy, do you love him?”

Alex nodded slowly.

“And he loves you?”

“I think…yes.”

“Are you willing to risk anything to help him, even if it means you may lose him?”

Alex nodded, trying to take in what she had just been told. “I would.”

Petra Kostelac rose from her seat and walked to the shelves that lined the room. “Sometimes the cost is too great. Love can blind you to that truth.” She picked a book from the shelf and handed it to Alex. “It will be like finding a needle in a haystack. Think about this carefully before you make any decisions.”

Alex stared at the heavy tome in her hand, its cover a rich red leather. She followed Petra to the door. “You said he is alone…not was.”

“That was not the question you came here to ask.” The woman shut the door, leaving Alex standing alone in the hallway.

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