Have you ever worked on-call? No? Never let anyone convince you the money is worth it.
Because it isn’t.
The people who hired you and told you that you would be getting an obscene amount of money never mentioned how often they would call you at an inopportune time. Meaning every time they called you it would be inopportune. On a trip with the family on your first outing in months? They’d call. Eating your first home cooked meal in months with the love of your life? They’d call. Having sex with a woman you have just met and discovering just how much you miss sex? They’d call.
It had been a long time since I had sex. And even longer since I had enjoyed it. My particular baggage didn’t let too many people get close to me.
A man had to get his priorities in order. World-shaking sex. Saving the World. In that order. Besides, I knew my boss, she’d call back.
Dominique didn’t wake up as I slapped around my nightstand until my black phone found its way into my hand. “What. Do. You. Want?” I hissed into the phone, while I got up and went into the bathroom. I already knew what she wanted. What I wanted was for her to hear my displeasure and decide to suspend me for another six weeks. No such luck. She overlooked my tone and my threatening voice and proceeded to have the conversation I had been dreading during my recovery.
“I said I wouldn’t call you unless Hell froze over. The Night Train is scheduled to arrive in New York.”
And this was my business why?
“So? To quote Old Ben Kenobi, ‘You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.’ If it’s going to New York, it needs to. That is a kettle of fish I want nothing to do with.”
She proceeded to explain in her patient voice. That’s never good. “You understand, the Night Train sends an email to a designated city official indicating where it will come into the city, how many disembarking and how many it is willing to take on, yes?”
She knew I understood this, for a time in my life, I rode the Night Train until I got my act together after my aunt died. “Yes. I am familiar with the protocols.” I looked at a picture of an angel and some armored warrior hanging up in the bathroom. One of the children of Dominique’s staff had painted it and she took a fancy to it. I used it to distract myself from the impending bad news.
Her patient voice was starting to make me afraid. Where was the venom, the loathing I knew so well? “What do you know about Protocol Zero?”
Shit. I expected bad news. But not this bad. I was hoping for a cabal of bloodthirsty vampyres feeding on a small town or a collection of demons seeking converts among the Amish. This wasn’t even on my list of ‘here’s-an-easy-mission-while-you-finish-recovering’ list of things to do. “Only that the last time it was enacted, an entire town disappeared, lock, stock and barrel. A population of fifty thousand souls was never seen again.” I could feel my curse marks tingling with anticipation; it was my built-in danger sense.
“The email sent by the Night Train to the governor of New York, said. ‘Protocol Zero’. There were no personnel numbers, no requests for food, no requests for resources. The governor called the Agency and has considered an evacuation of New York. I advised him against it. I offered him you, instead. Now say goodbye to your girlfriend and haul your ass to the Big Apple while its still on the map.”
“How long do I have?” I was much less sleepy now.
“It’s supposed to arrive tomorrow at midnight. I want you there to meet it. Find out what it wants, talk to the crew and stop Protocol Zero. Don’t call me back until you have good news. Your equipment will arrive in two hours. Good luck, Engram.”
“Thanks, boss.” The click from the other end had the proper doom-laden click I had come to expect from these four A.M. calls. I squeezed in a shower while I waited for my kit to arrive.
When I got out of the shower, Dominique was standing there with a cup of her excellent coffee. I tried not to think about its origins. She tried to explain to me it was harvested from the droppings of the civet cat in countries where they raised coffee beans. The stomach acid of the civet removed the acidity from the beans in a way that the normal process could not match. Truth be told, I never had a better cup of coffee. Ever. But I asked her to never tell me the origin of her coffee ever again. Whenever she handed me a cup, she just gave me that smile that reminded me I was about to have a cup of coffee from the ass of a civet cat.
I couldn’t believe I had been here for six weeks and didn’t want to leave. Dominique traced the curse mark tattoos from my right shoulder down my back and smacked my ass as it crosses over to my left leg. “Your master called. I thought I would be ready for this. I am not good with goodbyes.”
I had to be honest, I didn’t have a lot of practice with them either. “My work doesn’t allow me to make many friends and if I do, they have a nasty habit of dying prematurely. I don’t do goodbyes well either. Why don’t we just call this an extended time out and I will be back before you know it.”
“No, cher, you won’t be back right away. It is not your fate. Damballah has told me as much.” She got into the shower while I sorted through the casual clothing I had gotten used to wearing while I was here. I would get dressed officially after breakfast.
“Does Damballah have a nightclub act? Read the future, count beans in jars, take requests from the audience?” I teased gently.
There was no response from the shower for a few seconds and I thought maybe I had made a joke in poor taste. But she hadn’t been defensive before now. I decided to take a peek inside the curtain to see if she was alright. Her nakedness always took my breath away. She had her back to me with the water running down from her hair. She stood there still as a stone. I reached in and turned her toward me. Her eyes were lit with an inner fire, the fire of possession by a loa.
“Does Damballah perform party tricks? Would it please you to know I can? Let me show you, Cursed One. You will leave my agent on this plane and return to the dying city of wealth. I foresee your meeting with a priest of the White Christ, who will offer you what you desire and take from you a promise you cannot hope to fulfill. I see you taking a journey which will end in death and suffering but for you, you will live with the consequences of your failure. Do you like my party tricks, Ingram, Eater of Dead Gods? Leave my servant in peace for you have caused enough vexation in her life. Tell her naught of what we have spoken. It is bad enough she has chosen the company of one such as you. Leave and never come to this place or risk my wrath.”
My cursed mark flared up from the tip of my right hand to the heel of my left foot, electrified with the rage of the loa who wished to impress upon me the seriousness of his threat. Its dark pathways were lit with the spiritual power of this ancient deity who was old before Men walked the Earth. I fell backward out of the shower to the warm tile wracked with agony before the Ingram rose to beat back the anger of Damballah. My marks returned to their dark, light-absorbing state and the presence of Damballah left the room.
Dominique returned to showering as if nothing happened. “Cher, would you pass me a towel?” Her voice had lost the ethereal otherworldly overtones it had a moment ago. She had no memory of the visit.
I reached over to her over-fluffy towels and grabbed hers as she pulled back the curtain and I drank in her exquisite loveliness. I dried her off, playfully enjoying her responses. I walked her to the bed and rubbed her favorite oils onto her, savoring the moment. She dressed in something light and appropriate to late summer, a counter to my dark preferences and I kept the conversation equally buoyant until the doorbell rang and my kit arrived.
A black corvette drove out of the back of a large truck and within a few minutes, the technicians took my thumbprint and disappeared as quickly as they appeared. I found my clothing, my gear and anything else the Agency thought I might need in the trunk. I took the garment bag from the trunk as the tech confirmed my thumbprint. “Godspeed, sir. I have family in New York.”
“I’ll do my best, son.” I don’t bother to ask how he knew, the fact that he did showed me just how important this was to everyone. Nothing moves faster than the rumor mill.
I went back into the house, keys in hand and proceeded to get dressed. My custom-fitted suit and long coat, embroidered with hidden sigils, only awaited my touch to activate their defensive energies. I sat quietly for an hour, re-establishing my defensive posture, charging my cane, checking my long knife, its edge, sharp enough to cleave a man from his soul.
Dominique avoided me as I put back on my Agency face, puttering around in the kitchen.
When I was done, I came to her, my darkness restored, my armor renewed, every bit the terrifying thing I was supposed to be when confronting city-destroying evil.
She kissed me fully on the lips, cracking my armor, for just a moment. She walked me to the door and taking my hand, she passed her beaded bracelet given to her by her father, to me. I knew better than to tell her no, unless I wanted one of those beatings she gave me while I recovered and was getting my edge back.
Stopping at the door, she held out a thermos. “Filled with enough of your favorite coffee to get you to New York with time to spare.” The twinkle in her eye brooked no refusal. Hell, civet cats or not, it was still the best coffee I ever had. I laughed all the way to the expressway until I opened it up heading north. Damballah be damned. I’m coming back.
I never responded well to threats.
Motus Vita © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved