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Authors: Robert Kroese

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Chapter Eight

Berkeley, California; October 12, 2016

 

Eddie frowned at Mercury. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why is organizing the angels a terrible idea?”

Mercury sighed. “What are we going to do with these angels once we get them all together? As long as they’re scattered all over the world, they’re mostly harmless. But if we recruit them to join Eddie’s Angels, suddenly we’ve got to have something for them to do. If you don’t, someone else will. So what’s that going to be, Eddie? You going to retrieve cats from trees? Stop earthquakes? Intervene in wars? Prevent genocide? Thwart a coup, or maybe foment one? With that kind of power, you’re going to have to make some pretty tough calls. And like it or not, you’re going to end up involved in politics. People are going to look to you for solutions. Do you want that responsibility, Eddie? Do you think you can handle it?” Mercury took a swig of beer and shook his head. “If it’s true that I’ve got $800 million in the bank, I’m going to give it away. I’ll donate it to Doctors Without Borders or Nurses Without Boundaries or something. I don’t want that kind of power.”

“I get what you’re saying, Mercury,” said Eddie, “but we don’t have the option of doing nothing. You know that Tiamat is working on something right now. Probably Michelle too. We’ll find out about it after the nefarious plot is already well underway. You’ll try to stay uninvolved, like you always do, but in the end your conscience will overcome your apathy and you’ll save the day. You’re not as unpredictable as you like to think you are. I’m just asking you to put a little planning into what you’re going to end up doing anyway. You save the world, Mercury. It’s your thing.”

“No,” Mercury corrected, “my thing is saving the world begrudgingly, with minimal forethought and an immense amount of style.”

“It’s really the first part that matters,” said Eddie.

“Says you,” replied Mercury. “I’m sticking with the full package. It’s worked for me so far.”

“So far, yes,” agreed Eddie. “But what if this time you’re too late? Is it really worth it to risk the world just so you can maintain your slacker image?”

“It’s not an image,” said Mercury. “I’m fully devoted to the slacker lifestyle.” He let out a groan. “You know what we need?”

“What?” asked Eddie.

“An adult.”

“You’re seven thousand years old, Mercury. I think you qualify.”

“Only on paper. I’ll admit that I’m the smartest, bravest, most heroic, and apparently richest angel on Earth. But I don’t want to be in charge of anything. I’m not cut out for it. I’m not sure any of us are.”

“What are you saying?”

“As much as I hate to admit it,” said Mercury, “Heaven is a stabilizing influence on this plane. Yes, there was the whole apocalypse thing, but that was an anomaly. For seven thousand years, the authorities in Heaven kept pretty good tabs on this place. Michelle has an authoritarian streak, but you have to admit she’s largely been a positive influence. She just needs guidance.”

“You want to try to reestablish contact with Heaven,” said Eddie.

“I don’t
want
to do anything,” said Mercury. “But it’s like you said. If we don’t do it, someone else will. Imagine if Tiamat figures out a way to travel to other planes while the rest of us are still cut off from Heaven, with no way to call for reinforcements. Sure, she could do some damage if she managed to rebuild Chaos Faction with whatever demons are still running free, but the real risk is that she finally discovers the secret to interplanar travel. She could recruit demons from all over the multiverse and bring them here.”

Eddie nodded, his brow furrowing. “But nobody knows how to build a portal generator except Balderhaz, and he’s disappeared as well.”

“’Disappeared’ is a subjective term,” said Mercury.

“You know where he is?”

“I think I could get a hold of him if I needed to.”

“Okay,” said Eddie, thinking it over. “I can see the value of focusing on building a portal generator rather than trying to locate the other angels. But if you really think it’s a good idea, why haven’t you started on it yet? Why haven’t you already contacted Balderhaz?”

“Denial, I guess,” said Mercury. “Also, a project like this will take a lot of money. And I didn’t know I was loaded until five minutes ago.”

Eddie nodded again, rubbing his chin. Mercury was actually making some sense. If Balderhaz really could reestablish contact with Heaven, it might be their best bet for keeping Tiamat under control. Suzy would probably be a little disappointed they wouldn’t be using her algorithm after all—but at least it had gotten them to Mercury, and Eddie was sure they’d find some other use for her.

“All right,” Eddie said. “Let’s do it your way. When can we get started?”

“Well,” said Mercury. “First we need to find Balderhaz.”

“Okay, how do we do that?”

“You have to understand,” said Mercury, “he may not want to be found.”

“I understand,” said Eddie. “But you have some way of reaching out to him?”

“Well, yes,” said Mercury. “It’s not a foolproof means of communication by any means, but I can give it a shot.”

“Got it,” said Eddie. “So... should we come back tomorrow? Or, like, next week?”

“What?” asked Mercury, furrowing his brow. “No. It shouldn’t take that long. It’s not that big of a house.” He took a deep breath and bellowed, “Balderhaz!”

“Hang on,” said Eddie. “You’re saying that he’s—”

“Shh!” Mercury hissed, cocking his head as if to listen.

There was no sound for some time. Mercury sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of. He doesn’t want to be found. You take the upstairs, and I’ll take this floor. And if you find him, don’t make any sudden movements. He spooks easily.”

Eddie nodded, getting up from his chair. Before they reached the door, it opened and Rhonda came in. “Did you say something, Mr. Curry?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Mercury. “We need to find Balder—I mean, Mr. Baldwin. You check the basement.”

Rhonda nodded and turned to leave.

“Oh, and Rhonda?” said Mercury. She stopped and turned to face him.

“If we don’t find him in the next twenty minutes...” Mercury said, and then made the house-blowing-up motion.

Panic came over Rhonda’s face and she turned and fled from the room.

Mercury gave Eddie a puzzled glance. “What is it with people and banana bread?” he asked.

Chapter Nine

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; October 12, 2016

 

Tiamat’s smile faded, and was replaced with a look of exasperation. “How are you doing that?” she asked.

“Doing what?” asked Burton.

“Interfering with my ability to harness interplanar energy! You shouldn’t be able to do that!” She paused. “Unless...”

“Unless what?” asked Burton.

“Unless you have a Balderhaz Cube.”

“Is that what it’s called?” asked Burton. He reached into a backpack that lay against the crate he was sitting on and pulled out a metal box about the size of grapefruit. As Tiamat watched in dismay, he set the box on the spool, flipped a catch, and opened it. He pulled out fist-sized obsidian cube and set it on the spool next to the box.

“Where did you get that?” Tiamat growled.

“I got it from my boss. He said it would render you harmless. Frankly, though, you look pretty harmless anyway.”

“Do I?” said Tiamat with a smile. She almost tried to lean back in her chair again, but caught herself in time. “In that case, perhaps we can agree on a friendly wager. Do you work out, Special Agent Burton?”

Burton shrugged again. “I try to stay in shape.”

“It shows,” said Tiamat. “How would you like to arm wrestle me?”

Burton frowned. “I’m not going to arm wrestle a middle-aged woman.”

“Why not? Afraid you’re going to lose? Tell you what, if you win, I’ll come with you willingly and tell you everything I know. If I win, you let me go.”

“And what do you know that’s so valuable?” asked Burton.

Tiamat smiled. “Nice try, Special Agent Burton. You find that out
after
you beat me. Obviously your boss thinks I know something or he wouldn’t have sent you after me.”

“My boss thinks you had something to do with the Myrmidon plot. Says you spearheaded the whole mind control chip thing. But then, my boss didn’t just hear you pitch us the plots from three different Superman movies.”

“I’m in a regrouping phase,” Tiamat said, trying not to sound defensive.

“Clearly,” replied Burton. “As you’ve been reduced to posting ‘minions wanted’ ads on Craigslist.”

Tiamat chuckled. “Oh, you are precious, Special Agent Burton. Do you really think I posted that ad in an attempt to attract demonic henchmen to my cause? This was merely a ruse to gauge the FBI’s response. The fact that you are here tells me that you have no clue about the actual plot that is unfolding even as we speak.”

“You’re bluffing,” said Burton.

“Am I?” asked Tiamat. “Only one way to find out. Beat me at arm wrestling and I’ll tell you everything I know.” She pulled up her right sleeve and leaned forward, planting her right elbow on the spool.

“Fine,” said Burton. He holstered his gun and rolled up his sleeve. “Watch her.” Rogers and Dexter held their guns steady on Tiamat.

“Only one condition,” said Tiamat, glancing down at the Balderhaz cube next to her. “You have to get rid of this.”

Burton shook his head. “No sale. My boss said to keep that thing near me at all times.”

“And you’re always the good little special agent, aren’t you?” Tiamat said. “You always follow orders, no matter how silly they are. Your boss tells you to apprehend a crazy woman spouting ridiculous world domination schemes and you do it. He says, ‘oh, and make sure you have your magic box with you, or there’s no telling what she might do!’”

“You did just threaten to turn me inside out,” Burton noted.

“And how on Earth would I do that, Special Agent Burton? Voodoo? You’re smarter than that.”

“A lot of strange things have been happening lately,” said Burton. “The Anaheim incident, the Moon imploding, the Myrmidon project... Also, there’s the fact that there’s no way you could have known I had this—he glanced at the cube—Balderhaz whatsit on me. I don’t believe in magic, but something isn’t right. If you don’t want that black cube around, then I’m for damned sure keeping it in sight.”

Tiamat sighed. “You honestly believe that little black cube is the only thing keeping me—a woman half your size—from beating you at arm wrestling? And you’re so certain of this that you’re willing to forgo the possibility of obtaining critical information on an active terror threat?”

Burton shrugged. “If you’ve got that kind of information, then my boss was right about you being a threat. And if he’s right about you being a threat, then he’s probably right about this cube. Logically speaking, you’re either completely harmless and therefore useless to me, or extremely dangerous, and therefore not to be trusted.”

“I suppose that’s true,” she said. “All right, then. Take me in.” She held out her hands as if expecting to be handcuffed. “But first, tell me if you would: if you had to say, what would be your guess? Am I extremely dangerous or harmless?”

Burton regarded her for a moment. “I get the feeling,” he said, “that you could be dangerous under the right circumstances. It follows that you could be useful under the right circumstances. But at present, your circumstances don’t favor you.”

“You’re dodging the question, Special Agent Burton. Do you believe in demons?”

“Beliefs are a liability in my job,” said Burton. “They get in the way of facts. I will tell you this, though: I
hope
there are demons.”

“And why is that?” asked Tiamat.

“Because the greater the evil out there, the more necessary a man like me is.”

“Ah,” said Tiamat, smiling, “so you’re an opportunist.”

“Exactly,” said Burton. “Word around the office was that this meeting was a fool’s errand. Following up on a Craigslist ad for demonic henchmen. Nobody wanted to do it. But my boss insisted it needed to be done.”

“And that made you suspicious.”

“Yeah,” said Burton. “Made me think there was more to it than he was letting on. I had heard through the grapevine that he was looking for someone to head up a special division having to do with... unusual threats to national security.”

“A real-life
X-Files
.”

“Something like that. Anyway, I put two and two together. Figured worst case scenario, I waste a few hours apprehending some harmless nut. Best case, I neutralize one of these threats and put myself at the head of the line for the new division.”

“So you do believe in demons.”

“I suspect my boss believes in demons. If I act like I believe in demons, I’ve got an in with him. Like being a member of the same lodge, but without the silly hat.”

“Quite the schemer, aren’t you, Special Agent Burton?”

“I don’t scheme,” said Burton, shaking his head slightly. “I just try to stay alert to the scheming going on around me, and react accordingly. For example, right now you’re thinking about grabbing that cube and hurling it across the warehouse. My boss said it has a range of about fifty feet, so you could conceivably throw it far enough to escape the effect—assuming there
is
an effect. Of course, if you do, I will shoot you.” He produced his pistol from his coat.

“You’d shoot an unarmed 45-year-old woman?” Tiamat asked. “Won’t that be difficult to explain to your superiors?”

“I’m not going to have to explain anything,” said Burton. “You’re a narcissistic sociopath, but you’re not delusional. And you clearly know more about that cube than I do. So if you pick up that cube, it’s because you know it really does have some kind of mystical power over you. And if that’s true, then I have to assume you are not what you appear. Which, given my boss’s level of concern, presumably means you really are some sort of malevolent supernatural entity. In which case, I suspect that it’s going to take more than bullets to put you down.”

Tiamat stared at him coolly. “You’re going to feel differently when you’re standing over the bleeding corpse of the unarmed woman you just murdered in cold blood.”

“Maybe,” said Burton. Before he finished the word, the cube was already in Tiamat’s hand. She pushed her seat back and twisted to the right, bringing the cube to her shoulder to hurl it across the warehouse. Six shots rang out in the vast space, tearing holes in the back of her jacket. The cube clattered to the concrete floor and Tiamat collapsed face down, not moving. A pool of blood spread out from underneath her.

The three agents got to their feet and studied the scene for a moment. Rogers and Dexter holstered their guns. Burton did not.

“So, do you?” asked Dexter, after some time.

“Do I what?” asked Burton.

“Feel different.”

Burton walked to the Balderhaz cube and picked it up with his left hand, as he was still holding his gun in his right. He walked to the table and put the cube back in the box, keeping one eye on Tiamat the whole time. By the time the box was back in the backpack, the fingers on her right hand had begun to move.

“I feel like you should handcuff that bitch,” he said.

BOOK: Mercury Shrugs
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