Thomas' hand fiddled with the high woolen collar of his jacket. On its way down it brushed the protruding handle of his concealed handgun. It was a vague relief. The pistol couldn't have gone anywhere in the last ten minutes but Tom had made a habit of checking anyway.
He didn’t really drink coffee for pleasure anymore. It made him too jittery, made thinking rationally more effort than it would be to just go straight, but some days he needed it to get the job done. This coffee place allowed smoking, a fact of which he took liberal advantage to keep his nerves on point. He could quit some other day.It was one of those shitty upscale places, pristine tables and jazz wafting down from the PA system. He didn't mind the tunes, but he couldn't help feeling like a jerk when he spotted some douchebag checking his twitter, or whatever the fuck, on a tablet computer in one of the corners. There was a similarity in their appearances that threatened him with a headache. Noting his own short, dark hair and simple, fashionable jeans-and-zippered-jacket combo, Tom felt disdain upon realizing how nicely he fit in here, without even trying.
There was one patron who didn't fit in. The slick-haired, Asian youth stood up and put on his bulky headphones. Tom reached quietly into his pocket and felt around for the silver medication packet. He broke a tablet out with his thumb, popped it into his mouth and sipped his coffee.
The kid hadn't noticed him, too absorbed in putting on his purple sunglasses and zipping up his ridiculous jacket. More zippers than were necessary and a line of trendy studs running around the cuffs of the sleeves. Tom's hand brushed his side again. The element of surprise was his, sure as the pistol was still in its holster-- but you could never be too sure.
Tom recalled his briefing. Class-II, predominantly Invisible. Host was a sixteen-year-old, chosen at random-- no desire to cause trouble, or even the required knowledge to do so. The target would try and get into Tom's head, but as long as he kept on top of things, no members of the public would be wise to what was happening.
He let the kid leave the cafe and counted to ten. He stood up and left, looked down the street to his right. It was hard to miss the little Asian goth and his calculated brooding step, shoulders hunched and hearing closed off by the headphones. Sloppy. He wouldn't hear Tom's footsteps bearing up behind him, or his pistol being cocked; or maybe the kid wasn't even worried about it?
Tom shook the thought out. No matter how many times you took these things down, the feeling that they were holding out on you, that they knew something you didn't never really subsided. Tom, however, consoled himself in his briefing. This was just a dumb kid, who didn't know, or even want, what he had. Easy.
Two blocks and he felt the xanax tablet taking hold. He had to act quickly. There were too many people around, now. His shoulders were budging against other pedestrians, and the pill made keeping track of the kid that much harder. Tom looked up past the roofs of skyscrapers and regarded the sky silently. The air was crisp, but his face felt warmth from the sun. A broader form of daylight, there couldn't be. Maybe not so easy.
He realized he was losing time and focus. Quietly formulating a plan, he quickened his step. He was closing in on the Asian youth and timed himself to catch up just as they reached a crosswalk. Tackling him to the ground in public was not an option; he'd risk bystanders getting involved. He'd accost the kid at the stoplight at the end of the block, hope he'd come quietly. In the more likely event that he didn't, he'd be ready for the shift. From there he'd have to play it by ear.
The foot traffic stopped. Tom popped his neck, reached his hand out. He clapped his hand on the kid's shoulder.
The target tensed, his hands stopping abruptly in the middle of turning up the volume on his mp3 player. Tom tapped him again. The kid brought the headphone down to his shoulders, scowling.
“Time to go home, Aki.”
Aki's host-- indeed, Aki himself-- stuffed his mp3 player into his pocket.
“I will level this entire block, if it means, that I don't have to go back. To that shithole.” Aki could only speak English as well as the host. His enunciation was very deliberate, a little broken.
“You should learn to appreciate home. It's not so--”
“In front of everyone,” Aki added, turning around gently. Tom flicked his eyes to the right, then the left. Noone had taken any notice of their conversation, at least. Things remained salvageable.
“ Aki, cut the shit.”
“You cut the shit, granddad.”
It stung a little. He was only in his twenties.
“So what? You going to kill me on a nice day like this?” Tom replied curtly.
“Your mistake, granddad, not my mistake.”
“You can break character, you're not fooling anyone.”
“Aki and I are one,” the kid snarled. “He is mine.”
“This is getting old,” Tom jibed. “You want them to send the A-listers after you?”
“I will take all of them.”
Aki finally had nothing to say in response. He turned around, eyes hidden behind those purple sunglasses. The walk sign started to beep, a wave of pedestrians taking the signal to start crossing. Tom and Aki remained there, sizing each other up. Tom had to stop himself reaching for the cuffs already. There's no way it'd be this easy.
“If you're going to do something, do it,” Tom goaded gently, almost wearily.
Aki took the opportunity to grin broadly. The dossier mentioned he had a penchant for theatrics. Tom waited for his glib response; and waited, and waited, noticing after a few seconds that the grin was getting wider. And wider.
The sidewalk widened, too. Aki was making the first move.
Color seemed to wash from the world as it shifted around them, warping as if through a fisheye lens. Tom felt a wave of animal fear run through him as his surroundings expanded, giving him the sensation of shrinking. He took a deep breath and centered himself. Aki's mouth opened up and stretched impossibly. Tom released his grip and unhitched the gun in his jacket but delayed on pulling it out.
“Tremble. Tremble. Tremble.”
A wispy voice rose from the back of Aki's exposed throat as he less stepped than floated back a few feet. Tom noted that as Aki continued to change, the world remained recognizable. He waited for his opening.
Aki's limbs contorted. His mouth, dislocated and opened now like a huge snake's, jittered and jerked. A huge, grotesque eye rose into view from its depths. Aki floated up several feet off the ground, and a sick cracking sound rent the chilled air. His body, from the neck down, twisted around as if on a hinge. He faced backwards and curled up as if suspended in midair by the chest. The eye stayed facing forward.
“You resist. You resist. You resist.”
“You're going home, Aki.”
“Your mind will feed me. Succumb.”
The floor seemed to drop out of the world. Tom found himself floating in place. The buildings around him twisted onto themselves until everything had formed a full circle, like a massive concrete tube. Surfaces shimmered, and the whole thing began to spin lazily around them.
The kid had some tricks; but the xanax kept Aki out of the deepest parts of Tom's mind, and the coffee kept him lucid. Tom pulled out the pistol.
“Noone can see us now, Aki. Don't make me do this.”
For all the horror movie-style posturing, there was desperation in Aki's voice. Tom willed himself forward, closing some distance between them. Aki quickly caught on and started to float backwards. The world passed them by, slowly at first, until they were moving like cruise missiles through the twisted, unending concrete landscape.
Tom took note of his surroundings. Ghostly, distended faces bobbed gently past them in the aether. They pleaded in strangled voices for what Tom guessed was release, in a language he couldn't understand. He was not moved.
“These aren't mine. They're yours, aren't they?”
“What are they crying for, Aki? What did this kid do?”
“You deign to...”
The distorted parody of a human form floating in front of Tom started to convulse. Tom heard a gurgling, muffled sound coming from the boy's throat, blocked by the gigantic eyeball; a desperate scream for help.
“Human meddling. It is insignificant to us. We will not be moved.”
Tom swung the pistol forward, and fired three times. It struck the quivering body in the back and exposed shoulder; the giant eye visibly receded with a wet slurping sound before the boy's distended mouth slid shut.
Time started to slow back to normal. A dull roar shook the world, like the horn of a sinking ship. Tom shielded his face from an ethereal wind, and heard the rumble of the buildings uncurling themselves. Soon, familiarity returned.
Tom stomped his foot on the ground as it came back into reach, grunting in satisfaction. The worst was over, he thought. Sunlight beat into his cheeks again. He looked up, taking a deep breath of inner city air through his nose to center himself. He reached into his jacket pocket for his cigarettes.
“There's a flight in six hours,” he began curtly with a filter between his teeth, lighting the tip of his smoke. He looked up and expected to see a perfectly intact, if shaken, young man.
Aki's body lay across the sidewalk, bleeding from two gunshot wounds. Bystanders disjointedly stopped and recoiled. Tom noted the looks of curiosity from some and the obliviousness of others, at least until passersby elbowed them or they heard some of the verbal commotion.
“Oh my fuck!”
Tom felt his heart rate speed up as passersby moved to detain him. As he blearily reached for the badge in his wallet he thanked God for benzodiazepines.
“You're not going to get fired, Tom.”
“I'd deserve it.”
“Oh, spare me. You used chems; it happens.”
“It shouldn't happen.”
Tom nursed at a bottle of brew, letting the gentle numbness wash across him. The patrons of the Kickoff Bar hooted and whooped around an eighty-inch flat screen on the other side of the bar's interior. Tom sunk quietly into the leather seat of the booth, casting an idle look to his right through the plate glass window at a simpler world of pickup trucks, jackets with football teams’ logos emblazoned across the backs, and 7-11 signs set across the sky as bright as the moon.
“This is nothing the DPSD can't deal with. You didn't do anything Visible. It's yourself you should be worried about.”
“You'll just have to slick a few high-end cocks to get them to pull the video!”
Tom rolled his eyes, trying to avoid looking at his scrawny friend, as Artie's gap-toothed grin launched into one of those deep yuck-hyucks of his. Tom couldn't help himself; he watched Artie's long bangs, as usual, lolling about as they hung from the band of his stupid West Virginia Mountaineers cap. Artie continued to guffaw as he wrapped his lips around his own bottle of beer, upending half the bottle down his stubbly gullet in a single swig.
“I thought you were switching to contacts,” Tom jibed.
“Aw, I like to look sophisticated.”
“You look like an engineering student.”
More laughter. Tom had long since given up trying to avoid the metaphorical minefield of comments that would lead to hearing Artie's exuberant crowing, instead just quietly sipping his beer and bearing it.
“Look, look, you'll love this one,” Artie continued, picking his fancy smart phone up off the table. He punched the screen a few times with his index finger.
Tom groaned loudly, “God, no, please.”
“No, no, look, you'll love this! I promise!”
“Quarter in the promise jar, son...” Tom sighed exhaustedly as he leaned over to witness whatever it was Artie had found on the Internet. The same candid clip of Tom conversing with the target started, but when Tom fired his handgun and sent the teenager's form to the ground, the clip shifted into slow motion and the colors flashed in and out of negative over some godawful death metal.
“Fuck yes! NILE!” Artie exclaimed with his other hand thrust up in the horns.
“Speaking of terrible shit that I never want to hear again in my life, who is this?” Tom pointed up at the ceiling; the P.A. system wasn't directly over them but Artie got the point.
“Are you kidding? Rebel Meets Rebel, shit-for-brains! Dimebag fucking Darrell!”
“I don't know what any of that means. You're lucky you're a decent Operator or you wouldn't be able to hold down a job at fucking Best Buy. With that hat. And that music.”
Artie chugged the remaining half of his beer, waving his hand for another. “And yer lucky that I'm the best damn Operator in these United States, or you'd be cooing in the gutter like a lost puppy, Tom.”
“Phone call for Thomas Bell.”
A smooth-faced waitress with short brown hair interrupted Tom as he opened his mouth, preparing to lay a diatribe on Artie, the likes of which he had never endured. She was flicking her bangs with a finger. Cute, Tom thought. The kind he could get into-- if he were six years younger. She smiled at him, which didn't assuage his wandering fantasies any, but he managed a response nonetheless.
“Phone call. Thomas Bell?”
“Did they say who it was?”
“Margaret!” Tom exclaimed in irritation. “Who calls the bar anymore? I have a fucking cell phone.”
“Are you sure? Says she tried it,” came her reply through a smirk, her fingernail running along her cheek coyly.
“She says she...” Tom reached into his pocket and drew his phone; the screen was dead black.
“Aw, shit,” he spat, standing up and stepping past the waitress. He heard Artie asking for another beer as he approached the counter, hailing the bartender and taking the offered phone with a quick sigh hidden behind his hand.
“Hi, Margaret,” Tom offered gently, testing the waters.
“Your phone is dead, Bell.” Margaret's voice was granite on a warm summer evening. She could be his best friend, or a boss worse than any creature Tom had ever faced.
“Yeah, I'm sorry, I must've forgot to plug it in after—”
“After you left the hospital.”
Tom winced. He could practically smell her lilac perfume hanging in the air, clouding his judgment, as she turned him into a kid with bad grades in front of the school principal.
“Yeah. How is the kid doing?”
“Kenichi will be just fine, and we have Aki in custody. The California Department of Justice will be making sure that he receives the best medical treatment available and that Arthur Connors will be handing in his badge tomorrow morning, no doubt to fade into total career obscurity.”
Tom managed a small grin. Things were looking up. It could be cigarette time.
“You're a dream, Maggie.”
“Mm, I'm the best thing that's ever happened to you. But you're not off the hook yet, Tom. You were using chems”
Definitely cigarette time.
“It was just a two and a half,” Tom pleaded calmly, reaching into his pocket and motioning for permission from the bartender. He got the okay and lit up. “If I had Artie on the line—”
“It wouldn't have happened? You know what a solo run means, Tom. You're trained for this kind of thing. You didn't need the chems”
“I got the job done.”
“Don't push me, Tom. You got lucky. If that thing had to come out in public...”
“That wouldn't have happened. It didn't happen.” A cloud of acrid smoke flew out of his mouth.
“You're not making a very good case for your continued employment, Bell.”
Tom sighed again, disguising it with an exhalation of smoke. “I'm sorry, Margaret.”
“Well. You can start making it up to me right now.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“You're taking the entity back home.”
Tom's chest seized. He put a hand on the bar, his voice raising. “Bullshit, I'm supposed to get—”
“A week of personal time after each successful solo run.”
“I got the job done!” Tom insisted, fuming cigarette smoke.
“Tom, I have a Class-II aberration in DPSD custody that needs an escort back to Tokyo by tomorrow afternoon. White has been applying for vacation leave for six months. Your colossal fuck-up this afternoon gives him a good opportunity to get in some family time while you go to time out.”
Tom finished his cigarette in what he figured was record time, stubbing it out in a nearby ashtray, and punctuating the silence with a long smoky exhalation. He grunted his reply: “Where? When?”
“I'm sending Artie an address. You can go over—alone, mind you, as soon as you two are done boozing it up—and get ready for your redeye flight.”
“You have your orders.”
Tom stopped himself from reaching for another smoke. He looked over at Artie, who cast him a curious look. He swiftly stopped giving a fuck and drew a new cigarette, lighting it as he prepared to hang up.
“You better believe it, all right.”
It took all of his reserves of tact not to quip back in anger. He handed the phone over to the bartender and sighed, taking the ashtray with him back to the table. Behind him another roar rose from the crowd around the flat screen Tom sunk heavily back into his chair, resolving to finish his smoke and then leave. Artie chided him gently.
“You get the shark, or the mermaid?”
“Fuck you. What's the address?”
Artie drew his phone, clicking his tongue to scold his friend. He was halfway through his new beer. “Oh, easy. Fifteen Fern Crescent, your GPS'll take you right there. Twenty, thirty minutes.”
“Fern Crescent... right. You know, Artie, I was about to say, you're not as great as—”
“Waitress back there?” Artie cut him off, motioning at the young server now making her rounds of the far end of the bar. She sauntered from table to table with a tray in one arm, delivering wings and fries to balding blue-collar schlubs and clearly enjoying every second of their drunken leering.
“What about her?”
Artie sipped his beer as he nonchalantly plugged at something on his phone. “Possessed. Aberration. Class-IV, probably, just here on a routine possession. Personal trip, I bet.”
“What the fuck.”
Tom watched her hand sweep down her side and it drew his attention up to her breasts. He tried to think like Artie, and noted her thighs rubbing slowly together as she walked.
“New body,” Artie began, drawing little circles in the air with his index finger while pointing at her. “Watch how she touches herself.”
“Huh-huh,” Tom indulged a juvenile chortle.
“Brushing the hair, rubbing her hips... Probably never been on this side before, at least not in a female. She told me her shift finishes in an hour—probably gonna try and take home one of these married morons and take in all the new sensations, but first she's gonna come over here...”
Tom watched in silent indignation as the waitress, true to Artie's call, started making her way to their table. She caught eyes with Tom and grinned, brushing her hair out of her face again.
“And she's gonna try and take you first, because sadly enough you're the best looking guy in here, or if nothing else, the least out of shape.”
“Artie. Fuck you. She's just seeing if I need a refill.”
“Hi again,” the waitress greeted warmly. “Can I get you a fresh one, Mr. Bell?”
“No, thank you, I'm on my way out,” Tom replied, flashing Artie a smug look. Artie glugged down a mouthful of his beer. “But my friend here will take another one.”
“Yeah, I have... I have a plane to catch, evidently.”
Artie's mouth turned up in a small grin. He didn't make eye contact with either of them. Tom pursed his lips and turned back to the waitress to reply.
“In, um, about four hours.”
The waitress looked back and forth. She bit her lip and ran a fingernail across her chin. Her hand swept down across her hip. Tom started to find these little tics rather infuriating.
“Listen... I'm kind of new in town and I finish in an hour. If you maybe want to hang out a bit before your flight...”
Tom resisted the urge to frown, as well as the urge to text Margaret that he was quitting right then and there. He shot Artie an annoyed, defeated look; Artie just smiled before masking it in another sip of beer.
“I'm sorry—um, what was your name?”
Fake. Absurd. Definitely a Class-IV. Tom choked down another irritated frown.
“I'm sorry, Serendipity. I'm married.”
“That's a shame.”
“You're not married. He's not married! He's not wearing a ring,” Artie exclaimed, pointing enthusiastically at Tom's hand as it hid quickly under the table.
“You're not married?” Serendipity asked curtly, pouting.
“Well—I am still, legally, but—”
Artie came to the rescue.
“Hey, miss. You said you're new around here?”
“That's right,” Serendipity responded coolly, giving another playful flick of her bangs.
“So you're... what, on a pleasure trip? A little weekend getaway to the surface world?”
“No, I have a job. I live here now,” the waitress replied, frowning.
“What class are you?”
There was a pregnant pause. Serendipity ran her tongue over her lip, fidgeting. She eyed Artie with a subtle, but obvious coldness—obvious to anyone who was looking.
“I really have no idea what you're talking about.”
“We're DPSD, miss,” Tom responded. Her look darkened.
Tom responded by drawing his wallet and opening it to display a badge. It read Federal Agency for Domestic Investigation-- a “fabricated front organization, to be invoked by an agent in the field to ensure seamless movement and activity in Visible scenarios; and any situation involving civilians,” as stated in the Department of Paranormal Study and Defense training manual.
“It's a front. We're with the US government's paranormal agency. If you're here legally, you've heard of us.”
The waitress bared her teeth. She leaned down to Artie, placed a new beer on the table heavily, and looked him coldly in the eyes.
“Don't fuck this for me,” she spat quietly. She stood back up and folded her arms. Her fingers scratched at the skin of her forearms. “I'm not haunting,” she snarled. “I'm registered.”
“Ah, so you have heard of us,” Tom said shrewdly.
“I'm just busting your balls, sweetheart,” Artie replied. He ripped into another toothy laugh.
“This body doesn't have balls,” the reply came swiftly. Serendipity stomped off back to the bar, almost knocking over a table in her wake. She returned to the other customers with considerably diminished pep.
Tom turned to Artie, who grinned as he recovered from a particularly good laugh. The gap in his teeth showed.
“You're a shithead, Artemis.”
“You have a flight to catch. Enjoy the double shift, movie star.”
Tom didn't even bother to swear at him.