MERcURY OUT CoLD
Winnemucca was super quiet. There were some cars navigating downtown, sure, but even on this Saturday night Dominic and I jaywalked without fear of getting run over. Once that glut of traffic passed, I expected tumbleweeds to roll by.
That’s not to say there wasn’t anything—a few shops, some bars and restaurants. Nice homes. We could walk to the other end of the town from the park in which we’d materialized without getting mugged, so, bonus.
I slung the backpack over one shoulder. “Thanks for dropping by my apartment first.”
“Considering you would have whined about not having your supersuit, I didn’t have much choice.” Dominic kept his gaze resolutely away from mine.
“Relax. We’ll take care of this. We always do.” I hoped. Fingers crossed.
“Always? We’ve only fought as a team twice, Mercury.” Dominic sighed. “I use the term ‘team’ loosely.”
“Only because you want to be in charge.”
“I do have considerable experience the covert operations aspect of Procyon,” he said. “For an architect, anyway.”
“Sure. And my nighttime exploits killing monsters for the last couple of years doesn’t count for jack.”
“Will you stop it?” he snapped. “I’m trying to get us onto the same page, but your attitude’s worse than usual. What is your problem? Besides an ingrown inability to play well with others.”
“What’s my problem?” I grabbed his shoulder so we both stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Which was fine, because we were so far out the southwest end of Winnemucca, I was surprised there was paved highway, let alone a sidewalk. “Gee, let me think. I get dragged out of a perfectly normal day—”
“Mind-numbingly boring, was your description.”
“Normal. Dragged out into a bachelor party that turns out awesome because, you know, Europe, and instead of ending up sleepy and full, I’m running away from my brother and the only guy who’s ever cared about me like a real father should because you took us on a secret scavenger hunt for another stupid weapon that shouldn’t even be on this planet!”
“This operation was necessary,” Dominic said, “Unless you’d rather Serena Cyr bid the sword off to the richest criminals east of Berlin. And what if one of them was a doppelganger from the other Earth? Who knows what they could use the sword for?”
“The point is, I should have been in on the loop. Loredana, too.”
“Alvarez was worried about your mental state lately.”
“Yes. Distracted. Irritable.”
I rolled my eyes. “Dominic, that is me literally since kindergarten.”
“You know what I mean.” He prodded my chest. “Something’s been weighing you down, since we fought that fiery astral fiend.”
“I don’t care about the name! You haven’t been fighting crime. Extradimensional incursions have declined, so you haven’t been battling the evils of the Interstice, either.” He folded his arms. “So, out with it. What’s been bothering you?”
What an idiot. I pushed past him and kept walking. My target was a single-story former gas station of stucco and wood timbers. The paint had worn off its sign, leaving a ghost of “Conoco.” Someone with a steady hand had painted “Trinkets Treasures Antiques” in bold blue letters in its place. “Three guesses. They all start with ‘the wedding.’”
Dominic laughed, but when I didn’t turn around, he jogged to catch up. “Are you serious? That’s what’s been bothering you? It’s marriage, for heaven’s sake, Mercury. It isn’t the end of the world.”
“That’s not—I know that.”
“But you and Loredana … You love her.”
“Of course I do! I wouldn’t have proposed if I didn’t.”
“And she loves you. Anybody who isn’t blind and deaf can tell.” He shook his head. “Look, all the stories, all the stereotypes—don’t worry about those. The best thing for you is to find a woman who makes you happy, and who you make happy. Someone for whom you wouldn’t hesitate to give your life. There will be conflicts. Probably more than you’d imagined outside of slaying monsters. But, well, as a certain book I revere says plainly, man wasn’t meant to live alone.”
I bit back a smart aleck response because, let’s face it, I had those in heaps. “That’s the problem.”
“The …” I blew out a breath. I really wished I was having this conversation with anyone else. Or maybe, maybe he was the perfect guy. Younger. Married a few years. Semi-devout, from what I could tell. “The part the Bible talks about.”
“What part? A man and a woman joining in marriage?” Dominic smiled. “Or the part about submitting?”
I chuckled. “No, uh … Sort of. It’s the …” I rolled my hand. “The leaving and cleaving. Especially the cleaving. If you catch my drift.”
“Oh.” Dominic’s eyes widened. “Oh. Wait a minute. Are you telling me you’ve never—?”
I held up a hand. “Don’t.”
“I’m not laughing. I’m serious.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Wow. Mercury, I have to say, that’s near miraculous.”
“I mean, you are a nice-looking guy—”
“You’re kinda hot yourself, Operative Gemini.”
Dominic frowned. “This is serious, Mercury. Jess and I were young when we got married. Right at the end of college. So, abstaining wasn’t too far-fetched, especially given the cultural expectations from both our families. But you …”
“I know. It’s weird.”
“I think it’s commendable.”
I winced. “Now you make it sound like I’m really lame.”
“Hey. I understand why you’re worried. But if you two haven’t …” He repeated my hand-rolling motion. “Then you should look at this as a chance to express your love to each other. It is the kind of thing we aspire to in the sight of God.”
“Okay. Thanks. I just don’t want to, ah, you know. Be bad.” I grimaced. Wow. That sounded terrible even to me.
Dominic chuckled. “I think you kids will be fine. What does Loredana think?”
“We … Haven’t talked about it much. I mean, we’re looking forward to the honeymoon, but, uh, we’ve been… Non-specific.”
“You’d better remedy that. If you’re having concerns, she needs to hear them. Because she may be thinking the same things.”
“That’s a lot of talking about feelings.”
“Since you’ve got the heroic part of saving the world down pretty well, I’m sure you can fit some of that into your schedule.”
Yeesh. A few months hanging around me and everyone’s a comedian.
The store sign said closed, but as soon as we reached the front door of Treasures & Trinkets, a thirty-something woman of Native background I couldn’t pin down opened it. Even set off jingly chimes. She was a hand taller than me, with black hair dangling clear to her waist, tied in a thick braid. Streaks of silver touched her temples. Two gold earring loops on each lobe and a tiny animal—wolf?—pierced her nose.
“You’re it?” Her voice was firm but airy, like it had blown on the dust across the desert.
“If by it, you mean ready for battle, then yep.” I held out my hand and grinned. “Mercury Hale.”
She inspected my hand as if it were a scorpion and she were holding a shovel. When she reached for the door handle, the light overhead flickered across the violet tattoo of a pawprint on her right shoulder. Which I could see clearly, because she wore a blue and red flannel shirt sans sleeves with tight blue jeans that had suffered some tears.
“So, ah, Procyon called you, right?” I pointed beyond her. “You got an office back there? Or maybe a squad of security muscleheads?”
“Just me.” Her smile was sort of welcome. I mean, she stopped frowning, but I also felt like Jerry when Tom cornered him outside the mouse hole. She zeroed in on Dominic. “And you’re Gemini?”
“I—Yes. Dominic Zein.” They shook hands. “Have we met?”
“Edith Pathkiller, and no, we haven’t. But I keep up on the dossiers from headquarters. Too bad it became rubble—though I hear they got a bunker. Lovely.” She headed back into the store. “Hurry up.”
There wasn’t a chance to peruse the tables and shelves full of knick-knacks. Plenty of old books, used typewriters, a handful of clocks, pottery, military surplus, postcards … Anything and everything you could imagine. Had a musty smell that surprised me, given that Winnemucca’s dry air was itching the heck out of my eyes.
Edith led us behind the counter, with its stack of papers, Square payment console, and ancient cash register, into a short hallway. Emergency exit door at the back. Bathroom on the right—because where else would it be? There was another door across from it. A metal one. Bookshelves filled the wall to its left.
“I’ve got him tracked.” Edith held her cell phone up to the bookshelf adjacent to the door. A red light flashed between two Zane Grey westerns. The shelf, two feet wide, rumbled back until it zipped to the left, revealing a closet full of computer monitor and glowing racks of equipment I’d only seen in Tracking.
“Secret passageway,” Dominic murmured. “That’s excellent.”
“It’d be more excellent if it was another person with Medan weaponry,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to have some of that, would you, Edie?”
“Edith.” She sat in the lone chair and donned a wireless headset. “You two zip it. Looks like your compatriot is right on target. ETA five minutes.”
I blinked. “That’s—slightly faster than the 300 miles per hour I was quoted. I thought we still had a half hour or more.”
“You’d better hope his powers don’t have a long range.”
“No kidding. So … What’s your plan?”
Edith drew back on a handle. The roof shuddered. Metal clanked overhead. “You boys get out front and be ready to intercept him.”
“This just in: We can’t fly.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get him down to you.” She flicked her hands to the emergency door, eyes searching the radar screen at the center. A blinking red light sped toward the center of green concentric rings. “Go.”
Dominic smacked my shoulder. I’d have smacked him back, but he was already on his way out the emergency exit. I sprinted after, into the rapidly cooling night air.
There he was. Above the eastern horizon—a glint of white streaking through the sky. Any other day, another threat, the sight would have made me pump my fists and let the bad guys know they were in deep trouble.
Problem was that Brandon was bringing that trouble to us.
“What are you doing out here?” Dominic put on the ski mask. The Echo Watches glowed under his sleeves.
“What? Oh.” I ducked back to the restroom. Forgot all about getting into the tights.
Half a minute later, I was back outside—not that anyone could see unless they squinted. The pulsar stave’s energies fed through the suit, making it indistinguishable from the crumbling adobe and hardscrabble prairie underfoot.
“That is a neat trick.” Dominic watched the incoming rocket of a human. “I don’t mind you knowing, I’m a bit nervous about this.”
“Relax. Like I said, we took him before.”
“Took? It was a draw. And he was being nice. This time, I doubt the people steering his mind are worried about our well-being.”
I glanced back at the rooftop. Flat surface, except for a couple of ventilation pipes and a hulking swamp cooler that sat at an angle. “Just be ready. Whatever Edie in there has planned, I have a feeling we’re gonna need you to focus on praying if Brandon decides to flex his muscles before I can poke him with the pulsar stave.”
The ground around us started shaking. Chunks of concrete ripped free from the old gas pumps, drifting above our heads—so, not an earthquake. Check. And more to the point, the shaking and breaking was confined to an area that encircled the gas station alone. It didn’t even bother the highway pavement.
Brandon slowed enough I could make out a human form, but it wasn’t his costume. Duh. I figured he’d left that back in Drake City, because who takes a superhero suit of armor to a bachelor party? He still had on the ski mask but wore a winter coat over top.
“Okay.” I backed up. “Here’s the plan. I’ll get a running start. Enhanced speed. You use your Echo Watches and—”
A growing hum interrupted my train of thought. The gleam from the antiques store’s roof derailed that train and threw it off a cliff. That gleam belonged to a spotlight. First impression? The spotlight was way too heavy duty. It swiveled on a hydraulic mount as panels dropped away, panels I realized had been the sides of the swamp cooler, nothing more than a rusty shell concealing that thing.
The humming intensified. No glaring light. Just a pulse.
Wait. I’d seen that pulse before.
“What is it?” Dominic asked.
“The same kind of military-grade mounted laser turret Procyon used to fry a bunch of zombies downtown,” I said.
Brandon must have realized something was up, even in his brainwashed state, because he raised his hands. His jacket erupted in fire. He hurtled to the ground, staggering in mid-flight, before skidding in a dusty heap toward is.
“Come on!” I ran for the road. “Here’s hoping Edie didn’t incinerate the poor guy!”
She hadn’t. Brandon was on his feet, shedding the smoldering remains of his coat. He turned around just in time to see Dominic sprinting, his Echo Watches raised for attack.
Sure, Dominic could have teleported. But I needed a distraction.
I lunged for Brandon and slammed against the shielding he had in place. The suit didn’t cut through it but whipping out the pulsar stave sure helped.
Not by much. I got six inches from that stupid medallion of his before an invisible force threw me fifty feet.
But Dominic, bless his uptight little heart, blasted right through the shield and sent Brandon tumbling.
I whipped the pulsar stave around—after I inverted myself so I wasn’t laying around upside down—and contributed my own weapon to the fireworks display.
Also didn’t hurt that a truck-sized patch of dirt exploded right in front of Brandon, lifting up a cloud that obscured everything he’d need to see.
I accelerated through the dust storm, draining power from the pulsar stave into my suit. A kick in the face was just what the doctor ordered, so I sprang up at Brandon using my prosthetic leg—you know, the one that could channel extradimensional energies through it.
Would’ve broke his nose good if he hadn’t caught me.
I froze in midair, twisted twice, and slammed face first into the dirt.
Dominic was already there, pinned on his chest. He gasped through the dust swirling around him.
Couldn’t imagine why. Probably because Brandon was using the medallion to squash us both. My fingers clawed at dirt. The pulsar stave was a foot away. Almost—Had it—
Suddenly air rushed back into our lungs. The invisible field let us go.
Brandon cocked his head, like a dog hearing one of those high-pitched whistles. Then he barreled by us so fast the wind rolled us over.
He bashed straight through the antiques store and out the other side, turning into a pile of rubble. Windows shattered. The ceiling collapsed. Walls crumbled.
His form rose into the evening sky, leaving a destroyed Procyon office with its guts spilling out the back, and two battered operatives literally eating his dust.