Chapter 1 1
Connie’s trip from Shangri-la had taken longer than expected. The ox ride had gone smoothly, but her plane had been delayed and she’d missed a connecting flight. She’d made up some time by calling in a favor and hitching a ride on a fishing boat, but she was still running behind.
She’d told Byron not to bother waiting for her, just in case she didn’t make it. She didn’t expect anyone but Chestnut the Wonder Dog to be waiting for her in the condo when she arrived, but she wasn’t terribly surprised when she found a pair of alien envoys also there. It was shaping up to be one of those kinds of days.
“You could have warned me,” she said to Chestnut.
The envoy that was a mass of writhing tentacles with four eyestalks cooed over Chestnut. “Your companion beast has proven most engaging.”
Connie turned over a couch cushion to find a gold-plated ionic crystal, which she handed to the envoy. “Does this belong to anyone?”
“Oh my,” said the envoy. “How did that get there?”
“It’s a mystery.”
Chestnut had sticky paws, acquired under an unscrupulous animal trainer. Connie had yet to break the wonder dog of her larcenous habits. Connie snapped her fingers, and Chestnut ran into the bedroom.
The second envoy, a vegetable-based hominid, rattled its leaves. Connie had a working knowledge of plant-ese.
“Blessed Snurkab, we come on matters of great importance.”
Connie tossed her fur-lined hat on the coffee table. “Great, but can we skip the honorifics and get to it? I’m on a schedule.”
“We apologize if this is an inconvenient time,” he shook. “We wouldn’t have come—”
“Yes, great importance, I’m sure,” said Connie. “Do you mind if I change while we talk?”
The aliens followed her into the bedroom, but she shooed them out and shut the door. Chestnut sat on her dog bed in the corner, and Connie thought about turning over the bed to see if any other alien objects had wandered into the golden retriever’s possession, but she was on a schedule. She stripped out of her dirty clothes. Byron had prepared an outfit for her on the bed. Just a shirt and some pants, but it saved her some mental energy, so she made a note to thank him later.
“Talk. I can still hear you.”
“Well, honorable Snurkab,” said the tentacles, “as it is known that you are the most trustworthy and honorable being in the universe, we have come to you because…”
She half listened as he explained the situation. A sacred artifact had been found, and several different civilizations were vying for control of it. An interplanetary war was brewing, and it had been decided by several wise leaders that the artifact should be kept in safe hands while negotiations were underway. There was more to it than that, but she stopped listening after a point.
She checked herself in the mirror. Her hair was a tangled mess. She ran a brush through it with mixed results. She sniffed herself, and she smelled like ox and sweat and raw fish. A shower would be prudent, but she didn’t have the time. She applied deodorant liberally, gargled a capful of mouthwash, put on some perfunctory makeup. It’d have to do.
She opened the door. “Yeah, sure, I can hold on to your artifact for a bit.”
The plant shook. “You are as gracious as—”
She pushed her way past them. The tentacle alien brushed her, leaving a bit of goo on her pants. She thought about grabbing a paper towel to wipe it up, but time wasn’t on her side.
The envoys produced a barbed dagger made of shimmering metal. They bowed, presenting it to her. It was warm to the touch and vibrated ever so slightly.
“This isn’t radioactive or cursed or anything?” she asked.
“Radioactive? No,” said tentacles. “It might be cursed.”
“Did we fail to mention that?” said the plant. It curved its leaves sheepishly around itself.
“Whatever,” said Connie. “Is that all?”
“Yes, we cannot express in mere words our gratitude—”
“No need. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
The envoys disappeared in a flash of teleportation. She tried putting the artifact in a purse, but she discovered she couldn’t let go of it. It whispered promises of conquest and glory. She saw herself on a throne of skulls, ruling a thousand worlds.
She was in her car when she got a phone call. She shouldn’t have answered it, but she assumed it would be Tia or Byron checking on her progress. She struggled to hold the wheel, dagger, and phone.
“I’m on my way,” she said.
“Verity, we need your help,” said Agent Ellington.
“It’s an international crisis.”
“It always is.”
“Listen, Verity,” said Ellington. “As your official liaison, I’m mostly stuck cleaning up the aftermath of your messes. And I do it without complaining.”
“You complain about it a lot, actually.”
“I still do it. You owe us.”
“Why do I owe you?” asked Connie. “I’m the one who is out there saving the universe.”
“And we make it easier for you to do. I know you’ve got things to do today, but this shouldn’t take you long, and it’s on the way.”
“How do you know where I’m going?”
“It’s my job to know,” said Ellington.
“And if I say no?”
“We both know you won’t.”
Yes, they both knew that.
Twenty minutes later, Connie pulled up to a restaurant surrounded by special agents. Agent Ellington waved Connie past security.
“Whoo, Verity,” said Ellington. “What is that smell?”
“Destiny,” said Connie.
“What’s with the bat’leth?”
“Just another favor I’m doing for someone else. It’s a cursed alien weapon that thirsts for blood, so you might want to avoid getting on my bad side.”
Inside the restaurant, a handful of customers and employees were lined against one wall while a corpse lay slumped over a table.
Ellington explained, “His name was Werner Neumann. Top scientist in the research of biological weaponry. Two hours ago, he stole a sample of an omega-level genetically modified virus from a laboratory. Thirty minutes ago, he was found like this.”
“Shit, did you bring me into a contamination zone?”
“Relax, Verity. If the virus had been released, you’d already be dead.”
“That’s a comfort.”
Connie checked Neumann. “He’s been poisoned.” She pulled back his eyelids and lips. “The distilled toxin of a rare South American blood orchid, otherwise known as the death bloom. A dose can be fatal in seconds to minutes, depending on method of delivery. My guess, don’t try the soup.”
She put a napkin over the bowl.
“Don’t really care how he died,” said Ellington. “Just need to know what happened to the stolen virus.”
“Getting to that. The blood orchid is the poison of choice for a death cult that believes the world should have ended in 2012 and is out to correct that mistake.”
“Like Aztec religious nuts?” asked Ellington.
“They’re an international organization,” said Connie. “You’ll want to arrest the busboy and that woman in the hat.”
The busboy shoved something into his mouth and fell to the floor, foaming and twitching.
Connie threw a wineglass across the room and knocked the suicide pill from the woman’s hand.
The agents jumped on her.
“How’d you know, Verity?” asked Ellington.
“As much as I’d like to take five minutes to explain, I’m on a schedule. I’ll give you the breakdown later.”
“We still need the virus.”
Connie bent over a potted rubber plant, dug out a small metal vial, and handed it to Ellington. “Don’t lose this again.”
Connie jumped into her car. She still had time. Traffic was light. She’d make it. She always made it. Almost always.
A black SUV tagged her bumper. Hard. Before she could dismiss it as an accident, it happened again.
Two more SUVs moved into position on either side of her. They rolled down their windows, and goons in ski masks leered at her.
She jammed the gas pedal.
“I can make it.”
“Durodoye, party of nine,” said Tia. “We have a reservation.”
The host glanced up from his reservation list. “We only seat full parties, miss.”
“One of our party is just running a little late,” said Tia. “She’ll be here.”
The host made a noncommittal, but slightly displeased, noise. As if he worked in the highest-end restaurant, rather than a place that justified selling overpriced fish tacos by employing minimalist decor and putting vests and ties on the waitstaff.
The host adjusted his own tie. “We’ll see what we can do.”
Tia thought about slugging the guy. He was just doing his job. He didn’t have to be a jerk about it, but then again, maybe he did. People probably paid more for the passive-aggressive tone.
“He’s seeing what he can do,” she said to Byron.
“We could push it back a little if you like,” replied Byron.
“Oh, Mom would love that,” said Tia.
Behind her, Zoey was sitting on one of the leather couches in the waiting area. Beside her was Harold, her second husband. And she was not happy. Between Mom and the host, Tia felt caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of disapproval. But she only had to worry about one of those dangers tomorrow. Whichever one was the whirlpool, she decided. Her mythology was rusty.
She turned to the host and placed her hands on his podium. He didn’t like that, but she withstood the withering glare.
“I know your policy, and believe me, we will have a full party. And even if we don’t, I will personally order two plates of whatever your most expensive item is if you seat us now.”
The host smiled, savoring the power. He waved over a server, who guided them through the crowded, decadent world of trendy tacos to their table.
Hiro pulled out Tia’s chair for her. He sat beside her and kissed her cheek.
“Shouldn’t you be sitting with your folks?” she asked.
“We’re not that close,” he replied.
His mom and dad and sister sat at the far end of the table. It still struck her as odd that the world’s greatest ninja/thief had such normal parents. His mom was an office manager, his dad a pediatrician. Neither of them spoke much English, but that saved her the trouble of trying to make conversation beyond exchanging bows and nods of acknowledgment. They seemed nice.
His sister, Sayuri, was long and lean with short black hair and enticing black eyes. She’d gone to the same ninja school as Hiro, though her specialty was vague. Something about fighting a secret war against time sorcerers or cyborg vampires. Hiro had advised Tia not to ask too many questions about it, and she’d taken the hint.
Byron left the seat beside Tia empty and sat next to Zoey and Harold. Harold, bless him, was trying to manage Zoey’s dissatisfaction, but it was a losing battle. She drummed her fingers on the table. Another fight about Connie was brewing.
“I’m on it,” said Hiro without Tia saying anything.
He went over to Zoey and Harold, inserting a chair between them. He said something charming, like he could, and flashed a smile. Zoey laughed and patted him playfully on the shoulder. Mom didn’t approve of much, but she liked Hiro.
He winked at Tia from across the table, and she blew him a thankful kiss. She could handle this. They could handle this. It was just a casual dinner to celebrate their upcoming nuptials. No big deal. Not like the world depended on it.
“I’m sure Connie would be here if she could be,” said Byron.
A server appeared and asked if they could have Connie’s empty chair.
Connie flung open the doors. All heads turned toward her, perfunctory makeup running down her face, her hair and clothes drenched, as she walked through the crowd.
“Do you mind? I believe that’s my chair.”
The server retreated as Connie plopped into her seat. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and used a napkin to dry her face and neck. She dropped the soaked napkin on her plate and kindly requested another.
“Sorry I’m late. Car chase. Had to park the car in a fountain a few blocks from here. You know how it is.”
“Never doubted you for a second,” said Tia. “You smell like destiny.”
“Should’ve smelled me before the fountain.”
“Just glad you made it,” said Tia.
“I brought a change of clothes,” said Byron. “Just in case you might need it.”
Connie kissed him. “What did I do to deserve you?”
“Saving the world once or twice is probably enough,” he replied before going to retrieve the suitcase from the car.
Zoey frowned at the scene caused by Connie’s entrance, but Hiro whispered something in her ear. She laughed and squeezed his arm.
“Nice knife,” said Tia.
“It’s technically a dagger, and I was planning on getting the steak.”
And even though the place didn’t serve steak, Connie and Tia laughed anyway.
The rest of dinner went as expected. Connie couldn’t change her shirt, since she couldn’t let go of the alien conquest dagger, but at least her pants were dry. Hiro kept Zoey from making a scene. Connie kept the oversized dagger under the table to avoid confrontation, and the restaurant staff was happy to skirt an incident.
Afterward, everyone parted ways in the parking lot. Hiro left with his family, and Zoey and Harold went to retrieve the car, giving Connie and Tia a moment together.
“You look tired,” said Tia.
“I wouldn’t have minded if you’d left early.”
“Are you kidding? Wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
“I should have gone with you,” said Tia.
“No, you shouldn’t have. I’ve gotten along on hundreds of adventures without a sidekick. It’s nice to have someone around I can rely on, but you have a life. You’re busy enough as it is. Consider this my wedding gift.”
“My offer still stands. Hiro and I can push the wedding back if it’s inconvenient.”
“When is it ever going to be convenient?” said Connie. “I can keep the galaxy from catching fire for a few more days at least.”
A shadow moved across the sky as a spaceship several blocks long hovered over the city.
“This is probably for me,” said Connie.
A towering reptilian warrior materialized in front of her. Zoey and Harold pulled up in Tia’s Honda Accord. Zoey glared from the passenger seat.
The ten-foot-tall alien, dressed in shining crimson armor, removed her helmet with a loud hiss. Her tail swished, clanging as it knocked a dent in a streetlight.
“So this is the Snurkab of legend?” asked the alien. “I don’t care what the rest of the universe says about you, I see an insignificant fool unworthy to carry the glurbakashah.”
Zoey reached over and jammed the horn three times as she impatiently waved Tia over.
Tia opened her eyes wide and mouthed an exaggerated, Give me a minute.
Connie held up the alien dagger. “If you’re here for this, I can’t let it go. And I made a vow to watch it anyway, so I wouldn’t give it up if I could.”
Byron came over. “Is there a problem, honey?”
“No, I’m on it. What’s the deal here? Are we going to fight for it?”
“Once the glurbakashah has chosen a champion, it can only be satisfied by the spilling of blood.” The warrior drew a sword and leveled it at Connie. “I challenge you, Snurkab. You can’t refuse.”
“Okay, but not here,” said Connie.
The warrior lowered her sword. “As you wish.”
“Do you need my help?” asked Tia.
“No. I’ve got this.”
Zoey honked again, and Harold slapped her hand. They started fighting. Even with the windows rolled up, Tia could hear them trading jabs. It’d be a long ride back to their hotel.
“Please, let me come fight aliens to the death with you,” said Tia.
“Maybe next time.”
Connie hugged Tia.
“Standard intergalactic ritual combat rules?”
“Of course,” said the alien warrior.
“Great. Shouldn’t take more than a half hour.” She kissed Byron. “I’ll meet you back home.”
Connie and the alien dematerialized in a flash.
Tia drew in a deep, cleansing breath and marched toward her car.
Connie, covered head to toe in rancid alien ichor, materialized via matter transmitter in her living room.
“Hey, honey,” said Byron, approaching with a cup of warm tea. “How’d the death match go?”
“A lot of buildup and then all the stabbing and stuff.” She took the tea and sipped it. “You are a lifesaver.”
“I do what I can.”
Chestnut pawed at her nose and left the room.
“I need to wash the destiny off,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” said Byron with a smile. “I put out fresh towels.”
She paused on her way to the shower to get rid of the glurbakashah. Now that it was sated on blood, she could finally drop it. It was an ancient relic of intergalactic conquest. It was probably dishwasher safe.
She jumped into the shower and let the warm water run down her face. All the alien sludge was bound to be hell on the pipes, but she’d worry about that tomorrow. Byron loosened his tie and threw his jacket in the hamper.
She traced a heart in the steamed-up glass and winked at him. “You look like you could use a shower yourself.”
“Really? After the day you’ve had?” he asked. “I would think you’d be too tired for… showers.”
“You would think,” she said, “but nothing like a little blood duel to wake a girl up. Still coasting on adrenaline, but I don’t know how much longer it’ll last, so I wouldn’t waste the opportunity if I were you.”
He was in the middle of stripping out of his pants when a flash and low hum announced the materialization of the tentacle alien envoy in the bathroom. Byron was forced to sit on the toilet to avoid its slimy limbs.
“Blessed Snurkab, I hate to bother you, but I seem to have misplaced my precious scwoob and—”
The emissary averted its many eyes from the naked primates. It politely swallowed its retch. “Is this a bad time?”
“Is this it?” asked Byron, holding up a multidimensional object that was either a cube or a sphere, depending on how one held it in relation to the cosmic axis. “I found it under the dog bed.”
“Many thanks. I promised to bring one home for my offspring. My mate pairing would’ve been most dissatisfied if I’d returned without it.”
The alien dematerialized with a soft pop, leaving behind a small puddle of slime.
“I’ll get the mop,” said Byron.
“It can wait.”
Connie grabbed him by the collar and yanked him into the shower.