Authors: J. C. Nelson
Tags: #Fantasy, #Urban, #Fiction
I flipped open my pocket compact. I’d thrown the makeup in it away a few years ago; always made me itch. I kept it for the mirror. “Grimm, we’ve got poodles, and there were ten people in there.”
“Mom!” said the teen girl, jumping over the counter and running for the door to the warehouse. Ari held out her hand, and my skin felt like it lit on fire as she drew in the magic. A bolt of purple light hit the girl and she slumped to the floor. Did I mention Ari could perform magic?
I nudged the girl with my foot. “Sleep?”
Ari shrugged. “Can’t do sleep yet.”
The girl moaned and rolled over, then puked on the carpet.
I rolled her over with my foot, noting her breathing. “Looks like sleep.”
“She’s drunk. Completely wasted. I’m still working on sleep.”
“Ahem,” said Grimm, watching from the compact.
“Did I do good?”
Grimm shrugged. “Did you give her ethanol poisoning?”
Ari took a penlight from her bag and flashed it in the girl’s eyes. “I don’t think so. I haven’t done that to anyone in days.”
“Then you did fine. I have a SWAT team en route. My closest team of mercenaries is twenty minutes out, but I have a mobile grooming service less than five minutes out.” Grimm sighed.
“What exactly is a mobile groomer going to do against flesh-eating monsters?” Ari could be so naïve at times.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Bows. All you have to do is stick a bow on one; it’ll die of shame.”
A woman’s scream from the warehouse, along with the sound of many small dogs yipping. My gaze snapped to the door and I took off for it at a run.
“Marissa, don’t go in there. I’m detecting a full-blown outbreak now, and that was probably the last of the survivors. Wait for the SWAT team.” Grimm spoke with all the authority that living through several eternities gave him.
I flipped the compact shut and looked to Ari. “Stay with her.”
Ari dropped the girl’s head with a thud and picked up her gun from the counter. “Two barrels are better than one.”
Grimm would be ticked about me going through the door. He’d be even more ticked about me taking Ari. But I had this thing about families. I still missed mine, and I wasn’t going to stand around if I could save someone else’s.
Ari grabbed the warehouse door and looked over her shoulder. “Ready?”
“Let’s do this,” I said, and she flung open the door.
A BLAST OF hot, humid air hit me as we stepped inside. Overhead, the lights flickered and buzzed like a giant bug zapper. The skittering of pedicured claws on concrete and the clink of bone-shaped name tags against rhinestone collars echoed in the warehouse.
Ari kicked the remains of a poodle out of the way. “What do you think caused them to break out here?”
“They’re attracted to places where atrocities were committed.” I peeked around the corner of one pallet. A bloody, mangled body lay on the floor.
“Some sort of gang shooting in the past?”
I took my flashlight out and shone it into the shadows, looking for hellish eyes. “Could be almost anything. Maybe one of them picked out the gold carpet in their office. The music that girl was listening to. You see the bumper stickers out front? Mets fans. Their pitching’s worth a poodle all by itself.”
A poodle leaped from the darkness between two pallets. I rolled to the side, putting a bullet into it and ruining a leather recliner. Liam always wanted one of those. Another poodle snarled and yipped as it leaped for my ankle. I sidestepped and kicked as it landed, dodging razor-sharp teeth and snapping its spine.
The crippled poodle shrieked in pain and feral rage, desperate to tear our throats out. Ari walked over and crushed its bouffant head under her heel. “I don’t get why these things are so dangerous.”
Another bout of screaming killed my reply. I took off at a run toward the sound with Ari close behind. At the edge of the loading bay stood a fort of recliners, turned on their sides to make a wall. A few desperate workers were making a last stand inside, armed with broken recliner levers.
A hedge’s worth of poodles ringed the fort, occasionally leaping at the edges. Then I realized that in the corner, a strike team of poodles had begun to gnaw their way through the back of a recliner.
“There’re too many to take on. Get out of here,” I whispered to Ari. The thump of an approaching helicopter made the loading doors shake as Grimm’s mercenaries circled, but these folks wouldn’t last another two minutes.
Every single poodle in the flock turned as one to look at us, growling like a hundred miniature wood chippers. I shuddered clean down to my toes and glanced back at Ari, who held a silver whistle in her lips. “What did you do?”
She spat out the whistle. “Called for help.”
I fired six rounds, killing a couple of poodles with each, while beside me Ari’s Desert Eagle roared, plowing through a row of them with every bullet, but still they came for us, a fluffy white cloud of doom.
“Run,” I yelled. We took off at a sprint, tiny terrors with bloody muzzles nipping at our heels.
I made it to a tall metal shelf four steps behind Ari, who could outsprint me any day. I liked to think of myself as being built for distance rather than just slow. She began to climb, and I followed behind her, shaking a poodle from my pant leg. Beneath us, poodles howled in frustration.
At the top of her shelf, Ari leaned over and blew a raspberry at them. “I’ve seen Chihuahuas that were deadlier. And cuter.”
“Don’t mock them.” My throat constricted with fear. From below came the sound of rasping metal as the beasts gnawed raw steel. For one moment, the warehouse stood silent, then the shelf groaned, shuddered, and folded over. I could only watch as Ari slipped off the edge of her shelf and fell into a churning mass of curly white dogs.
She screamed as they bit at her, and I lunged into the fray, crushing dogs underfoot and hurling them away as fast as I could grab them. Teeth gnawed my ankles, and a poodle hung from my jacket sleeve. I glanced behind me. Wall to wall poodles filled the warehouse. Then someone grabbed me from the side and threw me to the floor.
“Hold still,” said Ari, her face bleeding from a dozen nips. Every poodle that bit her did so exactly once, then fell over, vomiting. Half-digested chunks of flesh covered the floor around us.
That’s about when the wall exploded. Debris stung my eyes, but the only sounds were the terrified screams of poodles, and the wet noises of tearing flesh and snapping bones.
Then the room went silent.
A shadowy form with four-inch claws padded up and began to lick Ari. She rolled off me and put her arms around Yeller, now the size of a subcompact car. “Good dog. Someone’s earned a lawyer for dinner.” Yeller wagged his tail, walked into the shadows, and faded away.
I stood up, wincing from every single bite. “What took him so long?”
“Do you have any idea how many fire hydrants there are between here and my apartment?” Ari wiped blood from her eyes.
“We’ve got to train him to hail a cab.” I ran my fingers down my arms, grateful I wasn’t missing large chunks of flesh. “What was with trying to protect me?”
Ari reached out and touched her tongue to the back of her wrist, then spat. “Remember?”
Of course. From all accounts, princesses tasted like gym socks boiled in iodine, then soaked in pus.
A team of mercenaries wearing night-vision goggles smashed in the loading bay door, training laser sights on anything and everything. Yeller’s rampage left only a single poodle, lying on its side, gasping its final breaths. The strike team commander swaggered over and put a bullet through it.
He flipped up his visor and triggered the radio. “It was rough, but we managed to secure the place. Threat neutralized.”
Behind him, his team led out the survivors, who would most definitely be cat people for the rest of their lives.
“Ma’am,” said the commander, “you need to leave. We’re going to level the place.”
I took Ari’s hand, and we headed out into the sunlight. Grimm watched us from the silver lettering in the door, then in the chrome on my bumper, and finally in my rearview mirror.
He stared at me until I finally looked him in the eye. “Marissa, I believe I told you to wait for the mercenaries.”
“So fire me.”
Grimm shook his head. “I tried that once. It’s not a mistake I’ll repeat. Take Ari to the emergency room and have those bites cleaned out. Tell them she hid pepperoni in her pockets and tried to run through a dog show.”
Ari leaned back in her seat as I drove us away, adding yet another layer of bloodstains on my car’s upholstery. Two o’clock on a Monday, and we were already heading in for sutures and shots. Just another day in the Agency business.
* * *
THE AGENCY, IN case you were wondering, was a normal business. We paid normal rent and normal taxes. We had normal janitors and a somewhat normal receptionist. I say somewhat normal because Rosa was downright awful. She had a look that could turn Medusa to stone and was equally handy with a sawed-off shotgun or a credit card machine.
As you might expect, the Agency also had agents. We worked for Grimm, handling problems too sensitive to contract out or tasks that had to be done right. In theory, Liam was an agent as well, but since he was a man, we used him for what men were best at. He broke toys, played with fire, and beat the living daylights out of the occasional hard case. Also, I loved him more than anyone I’d ever known. For him, I’d kill any of the things that go bump in the night.
That’s why I drove to my apartment instead of the hospital. I wanted to see Liam, maybe offer him a ride to work. Mind you, I also planned on fixing up Ari. I kept a full suture kit and bought antibiotic ointment in five-gallon buckets. Came in handy in the Agency business.
I kicked open the apartment door and yelled, “Honey, I’m home,” at the top of my lungs. The only answer was a slight shimmer in the room. Ari walked past me, looking like a stunt double for a bag of dog chow, and into my guest bathroom. For the better part of a year, Ari lived in my apartment. When Liam moved in, she moved out, saying we never slept, and she couldn’t either.
While Ari showered, I went to my bathroom mirror to pick blood out of my hair. “Hey, Grimm, Liam out on assignment?”
He appeared almost immediately. “Your boyfriend is making the usual Monday rounds, now that he’s awake. Didn’t I say to go to the emergency room?”
“I’ll take care of Ari.”
Grimm shook his head. “You were a lot easier to deal with as a slave.”
I studied the golden band I wore on my wrist. These days, it was my choice. “Was I?”
Grimm thought about it a moment. “No, not really.” Then he faded out of view, off to grant someone else an answer to their problems.
I picked up one of Liam’s flannel shirts and sniffed it. It smelled like wood smoke and man, a scent I’d grown to know and love. Liam was a blacksmith. When he wasn’t breaking people’s toys or teeth for Grimm, he made iron art at a studio on the south edge of the city.
The shower cut off, and a few minutes later Ari emerged, dressed in one of the only outfits she’d left at my house when she moved. She wore the frilly tracksuit like a cone of shame. I glanced up at her. “Who’s a pretty princess in pink?”
Ari tensed like a spring, scrunching her eyes and face. “I wish you’d stop saying things like that. Stop introducing me as ‘princess.’ Stop buying pink bandages. There are other colors, you know. I like blue. Or green.” Ari was so cute when she was ticked.
“You’ve got to learn to be who you are.” I poured Ari a consolation cup of stale coffee, adding sugar and cream until it congealed into pudding. “Here. Just the way you like it.”
She slid into a chair at my table, her head in her hands. “I’m not a princess anymore.” This was technically true and false at the same time. Ari’s stepmother threw her out of the house, and in fact cast her out of Kingdom entirely a couple years ago.
“Grimm says different. Being a princess is like a soul tattoo. Can’t be undone.” Personally, I bet it was a huge, ugly tattoo of Bob Marley’s face. “So what’s going on with school? You breezed through the first two years. You got good grades. Your teachers love you.” Admittedly it probably wasn’t their fault. Princesses had that effect on everything.
Ari sighed in frustration and put her head down on the table. “I met someone.”
“As in ‘I ran into or over the postman again’ or I
Ari’s groan gave me the answer I expected. “I wasn’t studying for the civics exam on Thursday. I was out with him.”
“I had to exorcise the Hukkkuti brothers by myself so you could play kissy-face with some guy? The least you could do would be to introduce me. I’m your best friend; I should get to make sure he’s good enough for you.”
Ari looked up, her eyes wide with fear. “No! He doesn’t know where I work.”
“You mean he doesn’t know what you are.” I put my hand on hers. “He’ll find out. People love princesses. They can’t help it. And you’re a seal bearer. That’s got to count for something.” Though the royal families pretended otherwise, their true purpose was to make sure the realm seals remained intact, and in order to do that, one woman from each generation per family would be bound to a realm seal.