‘Can’t we teleport?’

‘Shift.’

‘Sorry. Can’t we shift?’

‘No,’ Curt said as he opened the passenger door. ‘Recruits can’t shift.’

Are you deliberately trying to piss me off?

She finished chewing on a fluffin she’d grabbed as he’d been paying the bill, wiped her hands on her pants, and climbed into the stupid little sporty red car. ‘But, we could, right? You said I could call to get a shift home, so why not a shift to yanno– Is this a mission or an assignment or what’s the jargon?’

And shouldn’t this be a Crown Vic or some sort of sedan, not whatever you saw on the cover of Fast Cars Monthly?

He waited for a gap in traffic, and pulled out in front of a bus. ‘I told you, it’s a follow-up,’ he said.

‘Need more data.’

He flicked on the indicator and waited for the light to turn green. ‘I’m not sure I can dumb it down any further, newbie.’

‘Follow-up cause of Astrin, or cause of the massacre, or cause there was a living witness? When, where, why do we do them?’

‘See? All you have to do is ask actual questions.’ The car shot forwards. ‘We do a follow-up on pretty much everything we do. A lot of the time, the danger rating is so low, it’s stuff we can whore out to the tech department. Most of the time, there’s nothing to follow up on, just a double-check that witnesses have no more questions, or are handling a memory wipe okay, check to see no evidence got left behind and that all damage has been repaired. Most of the time, it’s boring, which is why we can get newbies to do their own follow-up. Sometimes it’s a sensitive situation, and we can’t – like when someone is being taken into protection.’

‘All–’ She shut her mouth.

‘Huh?’

‘Nothing.’

Just tell me all the bodies are gone. Just tell me all the bodies are gone. Just tell me all the–

‘–bodies are gone.’

His voice took on a less sarcastic tone for a moment. ‘A clean-up crew went in straight after Ryan. There’ll be no sign of what happened last night.’

She took her eyes off the road for a moment to look at Curt. He’d been one of them. He’d been one of the crazy people who decided to–

‘And you promise that you never did anything like that?’

‘I told you already, didn’t I?’

‘Yeah, but lying is really easy.’

‘I freely admit that there’s a disconnect between reality and what the Solstice do,’ he said. ‘But there’s another whole level of dissociation between–’ He paused for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. ‘Hunting down things that look like they crawled out of a nightmare is one thing, but it’s another to gun down a room full of human civilians. That’s extreme, even for the Solstice.’

‘Lucky me.’

‘You’re damn lucky,’ he said. ‘You should have died last night, newbie.’

I don’t feel lucky.

It could have been worse.

Require: cookie.

She held the cookie aloft as it appeared. It, like the last twelve she’d required that morning, looked exactly like her default image for what a cookie should be. And it tasted like a cookie should. It was sensible magic, not needing a recipe or precise instructions; instead, it went off established parameters. She wolfed down the cookie.

‘Newbie?’

‘Hmm?’

‘Have you heard a word I’ve said in the last five minutes?’

‘…Probably not.’ Stef looked at him as he sighed.

‘Why aren’t you wearing a headset?’ he asked after a moment.

‘I wasn’t told to?’

Another sigh.

‘Give me a break,’ she said quietly, ‘it’s my first day.’

‘It’s a significantly better first day than some people get.’

Require: headset.

There was a weird feeling at her ear, and she scratched at it, and pulled the headset free. ‘It’s one of these?’ she asked, looking at the small Bluetooth-like headset. ‘Not one of the little white ones with the curly wires?’

‘The secret service–style ones?’

She shrugged. ‘Yanno, whatever Agent Smith wears.’

Curt took his eyes off the road to roll his eyes at her. ‘Yeah,’ he said flatly, ‘the secret service style.’

She slumped lower in the seat, the seat belt pulling tight across her chest. ‘Um–’

‘And your next question is going to be “Is there an Agent Smith?”’

She gave a small nod.

‘Yeah, newbie,’ he said, ‘there’s an Agent Smith. Probably a few, given how common the name is.’

‘Sorry.’

‘No,’ he said, ‘don’t be sorry. I said I’m not a douche, and I’m failing at that. But the people who keep asking me about the Solstice stuff tend to ask for a new partner within a week, and I hate wasting my time when there’s a good chance you won’t be talking to me by tomorrow.’

‘It’s kind of a big elephant to ignore.’ She tapped out the Fibonacci sequence onto her knees.

‘If Agent Ryan had partnered you up with Brian or any of his cronies, ten bucks says you’d be doing a Dumpster run right now, or something that would make you turn tail and run for the geeks.’

‘Dumpster run?’

‘How about we talk about that next week?’

‘Um, okay.’

‘If Ryan wants you here, I’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do. And we start now.’ The car stopped. ‘This is the place, right?’

‘Do you see any other possibly haunted mansions?’

He stepped out of the car. ‘Come on, newbie.’

‘But–’

‘Out.’

She stepped out of the car, and it disappeared.

‘Usually I don’t dismiss my car,’ he said. ‘It’s handy to have a vehicle already required.’

‘Cause one second–?’

‘In case wherever you are suddenly gets blacked out.’

Thoughts spun in her head as they walked up to the gate. ‘…Requiring is powered by electricity?’

‘Not that kind of blackout,’ he said. ‘There are things that can block our magic – Solstice weapons, fae magic – so it never hurts to be prepared.’

She looked at the intercom on the gate. ‘Do we buzz or just barge in?’

He leaned against the tall column near the intercom. ‘This is your follow-up, newbie. How do you want to play it?’

Think carefully.

‘By the book,’ she said, ‘I’d like to not fsck stuff up on my first day.’

This actually earned a smile. ‘Good job, newbie.’ He pressed the intercom button. ‘Usually we don’t just barge in. We’re the good guys, remember? Agency policy might be to exterminate leeches, but we can’t persecute someone for harbouring one. So that, plus what happened last night, means procedurally, we’re dealing with a victim, so we act professionally.’

‘I see Agency at my door,’ came Dorian’s intercom-altered voice. ‘I don’t feel like answering any more of your questions.’

‘Can I at least get my stuff?’ she asked.

‘Spyder?’

‘Be professional,’ Curt said under his breath as she stepped into view of the camera.

She gave a wave. ‘Lolhi?’

‘Spyder, you’re dressed like a recruit.’

‘You gonna let us in or what?’

There was a pause, then the gate began to open.

Stef sighed. ‘If we were still in the car, we wouldn’t have to walk all the way.’

‘Spyder?’ Curt asked, ignoring her complaint as they started up the long drive. ‘You actually have one of those “Call me Neo” hacker names?’

She shrugged.

‘Another reason you should be in the tech department. I’m sure some of those guys haven’t heard their real names in years.’

She shrugged again.

Dorian stood waiting at the door, an unreadable expression on his face.

I kind of want to punch him in the throat.

Don’t be an idiot. You’re not tall enough.

‘Do I even ask how this happened?’ Dorian asked as he stepped aside to let them in. ‘We’ll talk in the parlour, if you don’t mind.’

She shrugged and followed him through to the parlour, a room of lacquered wood and overstuffed red chairs. She sat, while Curt leaned against the wall.

Christ, he’s a professional leaner, isn’t he?

Better view of the room, better access to his gun – and you’re not even armed – defensible in a couple of seconds, whereas you’ll get stuck in the chair.

How the fsck are you so smart?

You’re a genius, remember?

‘Spyder,’ Dorian said as he poured himself a drink. ‘Plus one.’

‘Recruit O’Connor,’ Curt said. ‘You know why we’re here, so we can skip the introductions.’

‘Yes, I know why you’re here. No, I don’t want to answer any of your questions. No, your cleaners did not do a good enough job.’

Did they miss a body?!

‘I have a list,’ Dorian said, ‘of items that were broken or stolen that I’d like replaced. I will take the compensation package that was offered, and I’m not sharing this scotch.’

‘We’re on duty, Mr Gray,’ Curt said.

‘Agents always are,’ Dorian chided, then he looked at her, grey eyes staring until she turned her gaze to the floor. ‘How on Earth did you survive, Spyder?’

She flinched.

‘Or were you a plant all along?’

She gave a small shake of her head.

‘And you gave the code to the Agency.’

You left us all here to die! You left us all here to die!

Stef felt tears starting to form.

A hand touched her shoulder, and she jumped. ‘Go get your stuff, newbie.’

She slipped free of the hand. ‘Huh?’

Curt stepped into her line of sight, blocking her view of Dorian. ‘We’re not going to be here long. Go get your stuff.’

She bit the inside of her cheek, nodded, and quick-stepped out of the room.

Require: cookie.

Relax. You’re safe.

She shuddered as she walked up the stairs and towards the main room.

Her throat went tight as she rested her hands against the closed double doors.

I could have been in there. I could have died.

Spyder, breathe for me.

She sank down onto her knees.

I can’t.

Just breathe.

‘I can’t.’

She hugged her arms around herself.

It was supposed to be exciting. It was supposed to be– I don’t even know.

An adventure?

Just a little one?

She wiped tears away.

It was just supposed to be code. It was supposed to be safe. I was supposed to be safe.

She slowly stood, took as deep a breath as she could manage, and pushed the doors open.

It was cleaner than she expected.

The group room was emptier than it had ever been. Even at two in the morning, three in the morning, four in the morning, there had been people there – some asleep, some wide awake as if it was the middle of the afternoon. Life, however muted, had always been in the room. Now it was empty except for her, the girl that should have died, the coward in the wardrobe.

All of the computers had been replaced with shiny new ones – each surface sleek and new, unsullied by as much as a fingerprint. The table had been replaced – there were no telltale rings from where a hundred thousand million cups of coffee and bottles of drink had stood. There was no blood; there were no bodies.

Require: cookie.

She stuffed the cookie into her mouth and slowly sucked on it, feeling it turn to mush in her mouth as she sat at the chair that had been hers. She slowly spun on the chair, calculating how many times she’d need to spin to turn back time enough to undo the situation.

You need to go get your stuff.

She stood, the world tilting for a moment, then she walked down the hall towards room five.

The room had been reset – the bed made and the desk cleaned – it looked like it had the day Dorian had dragged her from what had been reality. Her stuff was at the end of the bed in a neat pile – clothes all packed tightly into the travel bag. She required a marker and vandalised two of the remaining clean Louis Vutton logos – one for the trip to the mansion, one for the trip from reality to wherever she was now.

The wardrobe pulled her attention away from the bag-graffiti.

She pulled open the door and knelt, staring at the small space. The wood was still splintered at the back – something the clean-up crew had missed. Ryan’s “pay attention to me” shot across the bow. Shot across her nose. Warning shot that–

A thought gave her a headband with a light, and another thought gave her a screwdriver. After thirty seconds’ effort and three splinters stuck in her thumb, she had the bullet. There was no reason to keep it. No reason to save it from being dismissed into nothingness when the clean-up crew came back to deal with Dorian’s nitpicky list. It didn’t mean anything.

She slid it into her pocket.

She sucked at her thumb, trying to get the splinters out.

Heavy footsteps creaked above her head.

[table id=15 /]