MERcURY IS HoT
Loredana’s condo was in Tabb Terrace, the oddly terrace-less section of a nicer neighborhood of northeast San Camillo. By the time we picked up a replacement bottle of wine and assorted appetizers—and dropped Ramos at the Ninth Precinct—evening was setting in.
I sliced chunks of cheese as Loredana poured us a couple glasses of the red blend. It was bold, brilliant scarlet against the rest of her home, which was a study in how many variations of white and cream you could pack into a single living space. A warm breeze brushed aside the curtains of the open bay windows. No big surprise when my phone’s weather alert squawked about the prevalent fire conditions.
“It’s a miracle the hills aren’t constantly alight.” Loredana carried the glasses to the window and curled up in one of the corners. “Joining me?”
“Once I’m through slaving away.” I flung a napkin over my arm and held a paper plate of cheese and olives above my head like I was navigating tables at the finest bistro in the city. “Dinner is served, milady.”
“How lovely.” Loredana handed me a glass as I set the plate between us. It’d make more sense to have the windows shut and the AC going, but the early evening weather was pleasant and dry. Not unlike the wine. “Your setback doesn’t seem to have affected you.”
She nudged my prosthetic leg with her bare toes. “The glitch.”
“Ah. That.” I repositioned until I was comfortable, not an easy task when one of your limbs is devoid of all sensation. Plus, I didn’t want her glancing at it all evening. Yeah, I was wearing shorts, but that didn’t mean I had gotten over the inordinate amount of attention people gave my fake leg. Seriously, you’d think it had a big Post-it note that said, “Please gawk and wonder what happened to the real thing” for as many times as people stared when I was out in public. “Liz can fix it. Not like it hasn’t hit a few speed bumps before. It’s just, I’d rather not have it freak out when I’m face to face with another astral fiend.”
“Understandably so. This new aberration: Do you think it the work of the Whisperer?”
“Really don’t want to think about that. Because it wasn’t bad enough when he absorbed Marigold—now he’s got Arkwright rattling around with him in the Interstice. I prefer my villains one at a time, thanks very much.”
Her lips twisted into that combination of amused smile and serious thought that I’d come to love. “Don’t we all. In all seriousness, Mercury, tussling with astral fiends is one thing. Goodness knows Procyon has ample experience in that arena. But fiends with an altered form? This bodes of a phenomenon that, whether intentional or nature, does not bode well.”
“Natural? You mean, accidental?”
“Elizabeth is contemplating a theory that has to do with merging dimensions and the unfortunate results thereof. I’ve set it aside until she can provide me more evidence. In the meantime, I suggest we stay on alert.”
I drained half my glass.
“You are supposed to sip, darling,” she said.
“Yeah, well, when you say ‘alert’ that usually means ‘get ready to go out for a busy night trolling for monsters,’ so I figured I’d accelerate my relaxing.” I grinned. “Besides, it’s the only way I can put up with another episode of Dr. Who.”
Her expression didn’t change but a piece of brie shot through the air and rebounded off my forehead.
We passed the rest of the evening in pleasant conversation, working on the wine—which, yes, I sipped—and relocated to the couch because she was intent on that episode, no matter how much I teased her about it. The show passed in a blur of us curled against each other, her head resting on my chest, my feet up on the coffee table. Had to admit, watching an actress portraying Agatha Christie contend with a giant evil space hornet was pretty fun, though the monster slayer aspect of my personality kept trying to critique their handling of the beast. I mean, come on, somebody slice the thing in half, already!
Somewhere amid the talking and the laughing and the wine, I dozed off as David Tennant was staring into the middle distance like he does so well.
I wish I could say it was all romantic walks on the beach. No such luck. Astral fiends hounded my every step. Tentacles dragged me into the Interstice, where dust storms scoured my skin. I collapsed. No prosthetic leg to hold me up.
You failed this time.
Him again. The Whisperer. The dark shadow that walked among the fiends. Their general and my archenemy—okay, the amalgamation of three archenemies.
What will you do when you fall again? Procyon is crippled, just like you.
I snapped free. Sweat soaked my shirt. I was gonna contend with serious body odor before too long.
Loredana was leaning on my shoulder. She didn’t have to look up from the episode. “Nightmares?”
“Prize for the pretty lady.” I ran a hand through my hair. “You know, I could live this life of monster-slaying with ease if I didn’t have to suffer the bad dreams.”
“Couldn’t we all.” She poked me. “I take it, then, that you missed my prior sentence.”
“Probably, if I was asleep.”
She poked me again. “I asked if you’d given the date any thought beyond our last conversation.”
Date? Ah. The date. “Right. Christmas is the big day.”
“Dad will gripe mightily about traveling during the holiday. The crowds at Heathrow—”
“Oh, come on. He took out corpse-fiends with a sniper rifle. Certified zombie killer, in my view. Is he really gonna let tourists and TSA keep him in England?”
“Hardly. But he’ll fuss nonetheless.” Loredana nodded, not at me, but at the prospect of future wedded bliss, I assumed. “Very well. Christmas it is. And the venue?”
“Working on it.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, I’m working on it. Ramos suggested we tie the knot in his church.”
“That sounds delightful. He’s kind enough to welcome us into his home. You should value that.”
I valued a world of a lot more than Ramos sharing a pew. He’d always had my back. Right now, he was probably at San Camillo’s Ninth Precinct, bringing his squad up to speed on the fireball creature that had shown up. He’d be ready to face it, with just his gun and his badge and his prayers.
The TV screen was blank. Show’s over. I stretched my arms. “I’d better get home. Got all that venue planning to do, you know.”
“Stay for a while, won’t you? We can talk about where we can have the reception if the restaurant is busy.”
“What’re the odds Saito-on-sky will be busy at Christmas?”
“High. Which is why I suggested you place the call two weeks ago.”
“Which I did.” I grinned. “And I’ve been bothering them weekly. So, give me a bit longer and—”
My phone buzzed. It was Liz. Which meant this relaxing interlude was going to come to an abrupt and likely dangerous ending. “Yello.”
“Oh, hey, Mercury! Sorry to bother you but I thought you’d like to know we were getting some great results from the drones after I uploaded the new software that lets them monitor for tachyon flux.”
“That’s awesome. I’m super happy.” I massaged my forehead. Really wished I was more into Dr. Who, so I could boot up the next episode. But Loredana was already off the couch. She poured herself a glass of water, watching me from the kitchen as she drank. “What kind of results?”
“Um… Good ones.”
“Oh, sure! I mean, I knew that. The coordinates are incoming to your phone. Of the astral fire-fiend, I mean.”
“Roasty’s back? Where at?”
Another buzz. I lifted the phone from my face. Yep, coordinates. I put Liz on speaker and woke up my mapping app.
“What is the location?” Loredana asked.
“Out in the sticks. Not far from our first fight.” I dug my car keys from my pocket and stood up. Not dizzy, so that was good. Getting a DUI on the way to vanquish a beast from another dimension would not be a great way to end the evening. “Get me visuals when you can. I’m headed out.”
Loredana intercepted me at the door. “Elizabeth? Pass the word to Ms. Crown.”
“Whoa, wait, I don’t think we need to bug Wilhelmina with this one.”
“We do and we will.” Loredana folded her arms. “I’ll remind you who your handler is.”
“I could so make a play on words—”
“And I would be happy to hear it when the threat is neutralized. You’ll have a better chance at doing so with a second warrior on your side.” Loredana pursed her lips. “Especially given that your more combat-specific prosthesis is in the shop, as it were.”
Translation: She didn’t think I could hack the job on my plain old fake leg. “Fine. I’ll go get her, since I need a chaperone.”
Loredana sighed. “That isn’t what I meant. I want you back safe.”
“And I can’t do that solo anymore, apparently.”
Liz cleared her throat. Kinda forgot she was still listening in on speaker phone. “I, um, notified Wilhelmina. She’s waiting for you to pick her up.”
“On my way.” I glanced at Loredana. “Look, I—”
“We’ll discuss it later.” She kissed me. “Alone or with a partner, watch yourself.”
“As long as you’re watching me.”
“I will be in Tracking, rest assured.”
Rest. I’d be happy to do that, minus nightmares. Fingers crossed that slicing up this flaming astral fiend would get me a good night’s sleep.
Wilhelmina rode shotgun, making it look like I was driving a friend’s grandmother out on a late-night errand.
The knitting needles reinforced the image. Her hands flew, the shiny blue needles flashing as the streetlights illuminated the car’s interior. How those same hands could keep up with her mind, I had no idea. Wilhelmina was in her 70s, with frizzy white hair and wrinkled dark skin. If she had any arthritis problems, she didn’t let on.
Of course, I was betting that her knitting bag—the one with a bizarre cat staring out at me—held the modified dagger that my brother had brought from our home dimension. So, if she was getting in regular practice with the tachyon-laced weapon, it was in turn keeping her healthier than she’d otherwise be.
“You feeling up to a second tussle with our new monster?” She asked that between her humming, which was a welcome break from the duplication of the song Luther Vandross was crooning over the radio. Hey, she rides shotgun, she gets radio privileges.
“I’m looking forward to cutting a hole through him big enough to drive my car through, if that’s what you mean, so, yeah.”
“How’s the leg treating you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Really? Another reminder? You guys are the worst support group, you know that, right?”
“Calm down, child.” She winked, those brilliant blues full of more mischief that I’d ever seen in my expression in a mirror. And trust me, if you never saw it in my face, you weren’t looking closely enough. “Liz told me it malfunctioned and all. I wanted to make sure you were all right using the older model before we put ourselves in danger.”
“I’m fine. It’ll be great.” I tightened my grip on the wheel as I steered us up the 311, back into Arbor Valley. “Probably shouldn’t be so snotty. It’s the Whisper’s suggestion I’m washed up and useless, not yours.”
She made a face, a for a moment, I couldn’t tell if she’d missed a stitch or wanted to stab the Whisperer—which, frankly, we all did. “That old liar. He’s in your head for good, is he? Best we work on that.”
“I wouldn’t say for good, and it’s not like I can text him and say, ‘Hey, this thing? It’s not working out. I’d like my mental health back,’ you know?”
“That ain’t what I meant, and you know it. Talk with Ramos, he’ll tell you.”
“You’re gonna say pray on it, aren’t you.”
“Can’t fight the enemy in this kind of war if you’ve got the wrong weapons, Mercury.”
Yeah, yeah. We’d been over this. I didn’t belong inside a church. Don’t get me wrong—I envied what Ramos called la paz—the peace. It had seen him through the worst horrors of being a cop, and that didn’t count the insane things he’d experienced when he joined the fight against the monster of the Interstice. Yet he kept his head screwed on straight. “Thanks for the heads-up, Wilhelmina, but I’m doing okay. Really.”
“I’ll take you at your word, but mind, I won’t hesitate to smack you in the back of your head if you step outta line. Especially if we’re in the midst of a fight.”
“I knew you would.”
Liz’s coordinates told me to turn left onto the next fire road. The numbers were missing, meaning I was relying solely on GPS—without the evil robot voice narration, because if it said one word, I was gonna punch the pulsar stave through my phone.
The car bounced up rutted roads. Crusty, dried-out weeds scraped the undercarriage. Kinda surprising, since the Subaru had a higher clearance than most small cars. But I was not about to complain about foliage damage. My brain provided flashbacks of previous rides getting slashed in half by astral fiends.
Maybe we’d get out and walk the rest of the way to the target.
Liz’s face and number appeared on the phone’s screen. I tapped the speaker. “Good news, Liz?”
“You’re about a half mile away from the tachyon surge, but it’s off the road, so I hope you brought some hiking shoes and also don’t forget there’s probably a lot of ticks still out in the underbrush—”
“Keep feeding whatever the drones pick up.” I nudged Wilhelmina. “You ready for a stroll?”
She was already opening the car door. “The less jawing you do, the more oxygen you save for the hike and the fight.”
“Everybody’s a critic.” I snatched the pulsar stave from its holster and followed her.
Wasn’t much of a moon but the stars filled the night sky. I was glad for the natural illumination; still, I powered up the stave for extra lighting and, well, I didn’t want to stumble upon our fireball friend in the dark.
Wilhelmina withdrew her dagger without comment. The weapon was long as my forearm, with a slender blade forged of Medan metal that, as far as I could tell, cut through most everything in its path. Liz had rigged up a contraption on its hilt that absorbed tachyon particles and infused the dagger with their energy, making it a less-powerful version of the stave that could still imbue Wilhelmina with similar strength and regenerative capabilities as I had.
She carried the genetic marker that let her use Medan weapons. Heck, she’d been Procyon’s operative against astral fiends for decades before I came along. And if it wasn’t for her, I might have been abandoned to the streets or death after my parents died defending this dimension from the monsters.
I owed her a lot, so I was super glad she was there with me that night.
“Mercury?” Liz was whispering. I guess she was worried I’d have left the phone on speaker while we crept through silent woods toward a possible encounter with a slavering beast. Yeah, I’m not that stupid. I had an earbud linked. “The distortion’s just a few dozen feet ahead of your position.”
“Um, thanks, Liz.” I had trouble finding the right words. “Pretty sure we found it.”
The forest was mostly junipers and scrub pines. The ones ahead of us were bent into L- and J-shapes, where they weren’t growing in bizarre loops. Something had singed their bark. The scent of burnt sugar—sap, I guess—filled the air.
It was the writhing portal in the middle of the clearing that really held my attention.
A great shimmering sphere, cloudy like a fog-socked San Camillo bay in the middle but rimmed with flickering purple-blue light, sat on the ground. Grass sizzled where it touched. Sounds rolled forth—muted roars, muttered words, groaning winds. The air swirled around us, knocking pine needles free.
I brandished the stave. “I’m gonna guess we’ve got incoming.”
“More than likely.” Wilhelmina took a deep breath, the dagger held lazily in front of her face. Yellow-white sparks rippled along its blade, across her skin. She relaxed, her body languid, like she was ready to run a marathon. “Let’s be sure and give the poor boy a kind welcome.”
“Amen to that.”
The portal burst into a yawning corridor. It looked like it stretched for miles, yet as it twisted, it had next to no depth. Whether it was an optical illusion or dimensional warping—or maybe both—I had no clue. All I knew was Liz started hollering and I couldn’t hear a thing with the suddenly howling wind.
Roasty barreled out like he was late for a train. Trees burst into flame.
But he exited at a 90-degree angle from us because that stupid portal had twisted.
“Intercept him!” Wilhelmina sprinted, dust kicking up behind her shoes.
“Working on it!” I vaulted into a tree, landed on a branch so hard it bounced underfoot, then somersaulted toward the fiend. I wasn’t going to let him rampage out of there.
But then I slammed spine-first into a body that definitely wasn’t on fire and wasn’t even slimy like an astral fiend.
The owner of the body cried out. We tumbled together, caromed off a tree trunk, and wound up sprawled in the brambles. Which, it should be noted, cut and stung. And me without the supersuit.
What? We were in the middle of a forest. No need for a disguise.
“Unhand me!” The guy’s voice was strident yet commanding.
Before I could demand an answer for his interference, I hear a metallic hammer clicking.
“Move, and I’ll gift you a gaping hole in your chest,” another voice growled. And I do mean growled. Like a bear.
I looked up at a werewolf in a cape, armed with a musket.
What kind of messed up portal was this?