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NaNoWriMo 2008 (take one)

This was my first attempt at NaNo for 2008 - it was very short-lived, and one of the few times I've started a story I felt very little for. I just didn't know where it was going, and I gave up.


“A vampire, a witch, and a pixie walk into a bar…”

Charlie cut him off.  “Blah, blah, blah, yes, and he said ‘it wasn’t my fault the hose exploded, didn’t you see the size of that centipede?’  We’ve all heard that one, Mark, you really need to update your jokes.” 

“No, really, a vampire, a witch, and a pixie just walked into the bar.”  Mark gestured towards the door.  “I call dibs on the witch, she’s hot.”

I sighed and swiveled my head slightly to catch a glimpse at the girls in costume.  It was the first day of the Festival of Bacchus, and everyone at the station was dressed up.  Even Charlie had on one of those silly ‘This is my costume’ t-shirts, which was a pretty big step for him.  I don’t think I’d ever met anyone as violently anti-holiday as he is, though it’s rumored he has his reasons.  Good reasons, I’d heard, something to do with a ten-foot pike, someone dressed as a Roman Centurion, and a cheesecake.  But the matter was all sealed and only the higher-ups – the way higher-ups – had access to it.

“As if you’d have a chance with her,” Melody snorted.  “I’d have a better chance of picking her up than you would.”

“Care to bet on that?” Mark waggled his eyebrows.

“Two hundred kralls, and I get the pick of the assignments next time,” Melody said, holding out her hand.  Mark considered, then shook it.  The both hopped up and headed towards the trio, while Charlie and I sat and watched them.

“Side bet?” Charlie asked.

I shook my head. “I think we’d both bet on the same thing.” 

“That they both strike out?”  He grinned and took another sip of his drink.

“Undoubtedly.  I would bet on Melody if she hadn’t already had so much.”  I waved a hand at the table, littered with empty glasses.  “But…”

“…you know how she gets,” he finished.  “Yeah, if she manages to corner that witch I bet we see her scamper out of the bar like there’s a pyre burning as soon as Mel brings up her theory on missing dryer socks and the prevalence of black holes.”

“She’s sweet, but I do think she should be required to wear a tinfoil hat in public, just to warn the general population.  Hell of a storyteller, though, I’ll give her that.  If only she didn’t believe all of them.”

Charlie went rigid, his eyes fixed on a point just over my shoulder.  “Don’t look now, but James Sebastian is here.”

I stiffened and fought the urge to whip around.  Charlie let his eyes slide away casually, but I could tell he was keeping him in his peripheral vision.  “What is he doing here?” I hissed.  “It’s, like, almost a written rule that they don’t come here.  How are us peons supposed to relax with the suits breathing down our necks?”

“Well, to be fair, you did bring the attention on yourself.”

“I did not!” I yelled, and flushed when several heads swiveled in our direction.  “I mean, it wasn’t my fault.  How was I supposed to know a pool noodle could inflict that much… uh, trauma…”  I winced as I recalled the incident.  I know, it’s completely cliché that bad luck follows me around.  I’m the poor, downtrodden, klutzy peon that ruins all her chances at promotion, relationships, and an easy, happy life.  But I don’t want to be that way, and if I could change it, I would.  Most people dream of exciting lives.  I dream of days I stay in my pjs, watch TV all day and eat ice cream out of the carton.  And, perhaps, if I’d scored a little differently on my career placement exams, my life would be easier. 

“Bex, are you still with me?”  Charlie cocked his head and stared at me.  “He’s moving this way, I think… I think he’s coming to talk to you.”

“No, no-no-no-no,” I moaned.  Articulate, that’s me.  I opened my mouth to say something else, then felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Charles, if you please?”  I deep voice behind me spoke with quiet authority that somehow carried over the noise of the bar.  Charlie bobbed his head and vacated his seat.  I sent him a scathing look that said ‘you traitor!’ and he just shrugged.  I can’t say I blame him, Charlie’s up for promotion and his chances are looking good.  He hightailed it over to where Mark was forlornly staring at Melody, who was chatting quite animatedly with the witch.  Maybe she’d finally met someone as kooky as she was, I thought, and hoped it was true.  As weird as she was, she deserved happiness after that last rat-bastard had broken her heart.

James Sebastian, head of our division of the Specialized Procurement Unit (or, as most people not concerned with the deluge of political correctness still call it, the Thieves Guild), pulled out a chair and sat down.  I pulled myself out of my revere and tried to give him a cool, disinterested look.

“Well, Jimmy, what’s up?  You’re looking a bit haggard these days.  How’s the…”  I waved my hand vaguely in the direction of his midsection.  “I feel really bad about that, you know, I didn’t realize a pool noodle could-”

“Rebecca, please,” he cut me off, holding up a hand.  “One, don’t call me that.  And two, never mention that… incident again.  Okay?”

I nodded, my hands twisting nervously in my lap.  The big boss calling you into his office was bad.  I didn’t want to think what it meant when he tracked you down at a bar in your off time. 

“There’s an assignment that just came in that I think you’d be perfect for, the only catch is that you’d have to work with a partner.”  He studied me carefully as he spoke, and I felt my tension ratchet up a few levels.  This could not be good.  If it was a simple assignment, I would have gotten a slip of paper in my mail slot.  If it was an important assignment, I’d be called into a briefing.  I couldn’t think of any kind of assignment that required a clandestine meeting in a smoky bar after hours.  I took a deep breath, almost choked on the smoke, and returned his gaze.

“I don’t have a problem working with a partner, but I think you might have a hard time finding someone to work with me.  On account of…” I trailed off, flopping my hand about me like a dead fish. 

“Your past incidents, yes, I know.  But this is a new person, and I’ve done my best to, uh, keep him in the dark about that.  Thing is,” he paused, and leaned closer to me.  He looked very tired, and very stressed.  And when a man as cool and composed as James looks stressed, it’s time to worry.  I felt my muscles tighten even more, and my stomach clenched at his next words.  “I don’t trust him, which is a problem, because he’s Mr. Kalman’s son.”

Mr. Kalman was the biggest of the big cheeses.  On the cheese scale, he’s like Caciocavallo Podolico.  I’m barely Cheez Whiz.  I’m probably the crusty, dried bit of Cheez Whiz that invariably ends up stuck to the end of the nozzle.  You know, the bit that gums up the works and you have to chip off and throw away?  That’s me.   Anyway, on the non-cheese-analogy front, he headed up the federation-wide Specialized Procurement Unit and had connections in most of the divisions of the Early Termination Units.  Not the sort of man you’d want to piss off.  I stared at James.

“You realize what you’re saying amounts to…”  Again I made a vague gesture with my hand. 

“Blasphemy?”  He laughed.  “Perhaps.  But I need to tell someone, because if I am right, it’s going to be a lot worse.  Because we’ve been hired to procure the Ga’athlint Amulet.”

“Seriously?”  My mouth dropped open in shock.  “Why?  Who?  How?”  I sputtered.  Like I said, articulate.

“I’ll explain the specifics of the mission at the official briefing.  For now, while I have the chance, I’d like to talk to you about your unofficial mission.  If you accept it.”

“Do I have a choice?” I asked, my eyebrows arching.  Stop being a smart ass, I told myself.  This guy holds your career in his hands.

He smiled a wan smile and smoothed his rumpled tie.  I’d never seen him look so… disheveled.  “Actually, yes, you do have a choice.  If you turn it down, though, you are also turning down the main assignment.  Either you work with me on this, or you don’t work on it at all.”  I opened my mouth to respond but he kept going, cutting me off.  “I’m not saying that if you say no it will have any effect on future assignments or your career - this isn’t blackmail or harassment or anything like that.”

“I understand,” I said slowly.

“But,” he broke in again, “I also have to admit that if you take this job, and succeed, it will probably help your career a great deal.”

I nodded.  “I’ll… I’ll do it.”

“Are you sure?  You realize if I’m wrong, we’re both in for a shit load of trouble, right?”  He looked straight into my eyes, and either managed to impart the gravity of the situation with such intensity that it made my own eyes sting, or else the smoke in the bar was really starting to get to me.   I blinked rapidly.

“Hey, trouble is my middle name!”  I tried to sound glib, but my voice was high and trembling. 

“No it’s not,” he smiled wryly.  “It’s Marie.”

I blew out a sigh, glad to have some emotion to grasp to cover my nervousness.  “Oh, you’re so smart, you can read my file and you know everything about me, down to the color underwear I’m wearing right this minute.”  Probably not a good idea to be so snippy with your boss, but I never said I was the smarted cookie.  If I was, I’d not still be the lowest of the Procurement Specialists (aka Petty Theif).

He pursed his lips and a look of concentration passed over his face.  I rolled my eyes, there was no way-

“Oh!  I would have, uh, thought you’d have better taste than that,” he said.  “Really, those ratty old things?”

Okay, I told myself, no need to panic, that was just a wild guess on his part.  There aren’t really cameras watching your every move.  They’re not spying on you in your own apartment.  Take a deep breath.

“I’d have thought you’d have gotten rid of them when they got that hole in them after that fall you took while Magna-blading.”  He winced.  “Man, you bounced?  Really?  That had to leave one heck of a bruise – the hole in the underwear was the least of the indignities…”

I stared at him, speechless.  My eyes narrowed.  “Seriously, I know y’all keep tabs on your agents, but to track my underwear?  Don’t you think that’s a little… weird?”  Aha, I thought, I was right, there are cameras in my apartment.  I’d have to get Jason to come over and sweep it, if there was something there he could find it.  Or maybe… I had to do something to make them think I hadn’t found them, because they’d just put more up.   I frowned, trying to think of a way to leave the cameras but get back my privacy.

“No one is keeping tabs on you,” he said.  “At least not to that degree.”

“Oh, really?  Then you’re going to expect me to write that off as a lucky guess?”

“No, I…”  He paused, looking uncomfortable.  “Never mind, forget I said anything.  We don’t have much time to talk about the mission.”

“You what?”  There was no way I was going to let this drop.  “You tell me or I turn down the assignment.”

He stared at me, considering.  Then he shook his head.  “No, I can’t.  Not now.”

I ground my teeth.  He’d called my bluff, and now I had to decide if knowing whatever it was could possibly be worth this assignment and perhaps a promotion.  No more filching trinkets and wallets for vengeful family members.  I could get real assignments.  But damn my curiosity, this was going to bother me.

“Fine,” I said stiffly.  “But someday you’ll tell me, right?”

“Sure,” he said with an easy smile.  “Someday.  Now, the only thing I have to tell you now is that Alex Kalman has been seen meeting with some members of the Utzi.  The official story is that they are old college roommates, and this might be true, but there’s something… off about it.  Call it my intuition, if you will, but I think he’s been promised a lot of money if he delivers the Ga’athlint Amulet to the head of the Utzi.  There’s a legend that it will bring the wearer great power, and we’ve been expecting the Utzi to make a move on the Freie at any time.  The only thing that has kept them in check is the fact that they’re fairly evenly matched, and I don’t think either side feels assured of a victory.”

“But with the Amulet, even if it has no power, the false sense of superiority would be enough to make them lash out,” I said.  I shuddered at the thought of an Utzi-Freie war.  Both were very powerful organizations in the candy-making industry, and they had a history of nasty skirmishes.  I couldn’t imagine what an all-out war would entail.  I think the people of Delouth were still cleaning up the marshmallow fluff and melted chocolate from the little ‘disagreement’ they had ten years ago.  “But what makes you think he’d go against his own father?  You know Mr. Kalman wouldn’t hesitate to banish him to the Rim if he thought he was going to cross him.  Family might be important, but it’s nothing compared to business.”

“I know, and that’s why this is all so very hush-hush.  I have no solid proof.  But there have been some odd communications between them, and there’s just this feeling I have.  He’s very… smug and sure of himself.”

“So are you, are you working for the Freie?”  I arched an eyebrow at him.

“Point,” he replied.  “Like I said, it may be nothing, in which case, you’re risking nothing.  I just want you to keep a close eye on him.  Don’t trust him the way you would Charles or Melody.  Don’t assume he’s on your side.  And keep track of who he talks to, what he says, and report it to me.  Okay?”

I considered it for a moment.  It really wasn’t much of anything.  If Alex wasn’t planning on double-crossing the SPU, then I had nothing to worry about and might even eek a few more good assignments out of it.  And if he was…  well, I’d either end up dead, banished, or promoted.  A fifty percent chance of a good outcome, a fifty percent chance of a really crappy outcome.  Pretty good odds, for me.

“Okay,” I said.  He nodded and got up from the table.

“Thanks,” he said softy, and disappeared into the crowd. 

Charlie appeared at the table the minute I lost sight of James.  He’d obviously been keeping an eye on us the whole time, and couldn’t wait to find out what was happening.  “So?” he prompted.

I hesitated.  I trusted Charlie; I would trust him with my life.  But this is something that could get him into a lot of trouble, and I knew better than to think if I told him he’d stay out of it.  So I was going to have to lie to him, for his own good.  Unfortunately, I’m not a good liar.  Sure, I know all the tricks – keep to at least a partial truth, maintain eye contact, all that good stuff.  Knowing them didn’t mean I could do it, though, and I was always caught out.  Thus I’d made it a habit to tell the truth as often as I could.  I was out of practice at even the little white lies, since I’d been single for awhile. 

“It was about a new assignment,” I answered truthfully.  “I’m going to have to team up with someone, and he was just warning me.”  Also true.  Just not in the way he would take it.

“He came all this way and ruined your evening to lecture you?  Man, what an ass.”  Charlie rolled his eyes.  Then he frowned.  “Though I honestly can’t believe they’re teaming you up with someone – I’d have thought no one would take that job.  I mean, I’m your best friend and I love you and all that, but even I wouldn’t work with you.”

“Thanks,” I said sourly.  “That means a lot.”

“You are a bit of a curse, Bex,” Mark said.  I hadn’t seen him sulk up to the table, and I jumped.  He set down a tray full of drinks and plunked down into his chair.  He hunched over the nearest one and began to sullenly nurse it.

“Struck out, huh?” I said, patting his arm.  It wasn’t as conciliatory as it might normally have been, but then, he’d just called me a curse and I wasn’t feeling particularly kindly towards him.  “That’s too bad.”

“Even the pixie turned me down,” he grumbled.

“Better luck next time, mate,” Charlie said cheerfully.  “On the up side, it looks like Mel and the witch hit it off, they’re on their way out.”  He raised a hand and waved at Melody, who waved back and smiled at us as she left the bar arm-in-arm with the witch.

“At least this evening wasn’t a total bust,” I sighed.

“Speak for yourself,” Mark grumbled.

“Well, I’ve had enough of this pity-party, and I’m going to blow this joint before you guys bring me down.  Besides.”  He yawned and stretched.  “I have an early start tomorrow.  I’m heading out for a two-week mission, just me, the pilot, and a transport full of cheerleaders.  Wish me luck”  He grinned.

“You are incorrigible,” I said.  

“How do you get all the good assignments?” Mark grumped.

Charlie shook his head and left us to drown our sorrows in our drinks. 

***

I woke up the next morning with a mild headache and a really bad case of bed-head.  The first I fixed with a strong cup of coffee and two painkillers, the second took considerably more work.  I stood under the showerhead for half an hour, letting the water stream down my face as I massaged handfuls of conditioner into my hair and tried to ease out the knots without pulling out half of my hair.  Another 20 minutes with a wide-tooth comb after I got out of the shower and my hair was finally tangle-free, and I was officially late for work.  Not that I punch a clock, not really, but we were expected to poke our heads into the office if we weren’t on an assignment.  It’s one of those unwritten rules that’s not supposed to but really does affect your chances at promotion.  And today I had that briefing… although I wasn’t supposed to know about that yet.  Hopefully they hadn’t counted on me being there first thing in the morning.

I hurriedly pulled on some clothes and rushed out the door.  The streets were crowded as I made my way along the sidewalk to the bus stop, and for once luck was on my side.  I got there just as the bus was pulling up, instead of just as it was pulling away.  I hopped on and even found a seat next to a non-frightening decent-smelling person.  Most people would have been thankful they had such a lucky day.  I was suspicious.  The universe has never been this kind to me, and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was a prisoner being given a lavish last meal.  And waiting for the other shoe to drop was going to be wearing.  Not what I needed today of all days, to be jumpy and nervous.  As weird as it sounds, I would have felt better if I’d not only missed the bus, but gotten splashed by a car and ended up all muddy.  I would have at least felt normal, then.

Chiding myself not to look a gift horse in the mouth wasn’t helping as we wound our way uneventfully through traffic and I ended up at the office in record time, and my tension increased.  I thought my shoulders were going to be permanently hunched up to my ears when I didn’t have to wait for an elevator and found I’d made it just in time for the briefing.   This was not my kind of day, and as far as I knew, no fairy godmother had visited me in the night.  There’s no way I’d waste a wish on something as trivial as a good morning, either.  Unless, I mused, the good morning was what eventually led to me getting a better job and a better life.  Maybe I had wished for that, and this was where it all started.  Could be possible…

“Rebecca!”  A sharp voice broke into my musing.  The mental image of Prince Charming faded and was replaced with James’s vaguely irritated looking face.  “Are you with us?  Can we get started?”