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For a VERY limited time**, Amazon has reduced Round Trip Fare from $4.99 to $.99! You can get your very own copy here at this amazing price. **As part of the Kindle Countdown, today’s price is $0.99. But that price will increase each day over the promotion until it’s back at the regular $4.99 after 31 August.

Carey’s Last Chance—

A Null City short story by Barb Taub

Now that the century-long secret Nonwars between Gifts and Haven are over and the Accords Treaty is signed, an uneasy peace is policed by Wardens under the command of the Accords Agency headquartered in Seattle. 

Accords AgencyRecruiting Notice

“Wait here.”

She had, Carey reminded herself, served ARC warrants on some of the most dangerous and violent runners the Agency had ever seen. She’d been shot at, stabbed, and hit upside the head with a surprisingly lethal Prada handbag. Just today, she’d brought in her prisoner, and she had all the proper approvals signed off for the check she’d requested for her little company, Bainbridge Solutions.

Her business partner Marley said it was weird to name their private investigation company after her dog, but—as Carey reminded her—the Accords Agency was supposed to be low-profile, so naming it “Outside Contractors Who Hunt Down Criminals the Accords Agency Doesn’t Have Time To Chase” was probably not going to fly. Still, she had a solid track record—better than any other Warden, internal or adjunct—of resolving open warrants. So was she really supposed to cower out in the hallway just because some Accords Agency accountant was glaring at her?

When the accountant in question was a were-badger whose eyes were squinting, nose quivering, and top lip even now raising over her teeth?

Carey dove for the gray plastic chair by the doorway. “You got it.”

HR warning

The clock on the wall outside Accounting must have been left from the days when the Agency’s offices belonged to the previous tenant, a now-bankrupt software company, because it showed the time in binary code. Near as Carey could figure, she’d been looking at featureless gray walls and floors accented only by the red lights on the binary clock for thirty-eight minutes. Or three days. She never quite got the hang of those flashing dots. Either way, her shot at making it to her history class was, well, history. Even as she mentally winced at that pun, Carey heard her name.

“Warden Parker. You haven’t brought me any work lately. Where’s the love?”

“Hey, Frankie. Believe me, I was tempted today.” She grinned at the petite figure in the lab coat. The Agency’s resident pathologist had autopsied more than one of Carey’s search targets. “So, resurrected anyone lately?”

“As I explained at the time—” The scientist’s tone was severe, but the tired eyes behind the rimless glasses crinkled with amusement. “—he was only mostly dead.”

“If you want to hang onto your geek creds, Frankie, you need to quote something more badass—or at least more recent—than Princess Bride.”

Carey’s former Academy roommate, Claire Danielsen, had once explained patiently that the three of them—Claire, Frankie, and Frankie’s partner Warden Laurel Franklin—were Carey’s friends—not just the kind of friends who would provide bail money, no questions asked, but the kind who wouldn’t bail you out because they’d be in the cell right next to you. Carey wasn’t sure about that whole friends concept, but when Laurel translated it as good people to get drunk with, she decided she could live with the definition.

Carey moved her chin slightly toward the accountant glaring at them.

Frankie’s freckles stood out against cheeks gone suddenly pale. Short, frizzy brown hair fluttered as she held up both hands, palms out. “Uh, right. Well, I’m…going somewhere. Tell Marley that Laurel and I are off to Portland for the weekend, but we’re on for Beer Tuesday.” As she backed carefully toward the door, Frankie didn’t take her eyes from the quivering accountant.

Carey didn’t blame her in the least. After all—badgers. “Hang on. I’ll come with.”

Seated in Frankie’s tiny office with the door locked behind them, Carey accepted the beer Frankie had pulled out of one of the morgue bays on their way in and sat back.

Frankie took a long pull from her own bottle, leaned back and burped delicately. She pushed her hands through her hair, raising the frizz to new heights. “I’ve been up all night doing the autopsies on those two ex-Haven soldiers Laurel dragged in. Is it just me, or are we seeing a hell of a lot more of what Director Jeffers keeps labeling ‘incidents’?”

“Poor baby. Never a moment’s peace.” Carey grinned, and pointed with her bottle to the newly framed photo on the desk. “Who took that?”

Leaning back in her chair, eyes closed, Frankie smiled. “Director Jeffers did. Don’t you remember him bitching about how you and Laurel should take off those goddamn shades and smile?”

“Yeah, and then when we did it, he said it was actually better before?” Carey looked at the photo of the five of them from last month’s Agency picnic at Gas Works—Frankie with her partner Laurel, surrounded by Claire, Carey, and Marley. Laurel and Frankie had their arms around each other, while it looked like Claire was physically restraining Carey from walking off.

She sipped and thought about how they’d met. Right out of the Academy on a three-month probation as Associate Warden, she’d been partnered with Tony Montari, an experienced Warden. It didn’t last the week before he transferred to another division. Neither ever mentioned a reason, and at their few meetings since, each had been scrupulously polite.

Her second assignment, Matt Coulson, was a relatively new Warden himself. They didn’t even last the day. He’d resigned, blaming job stress. The rest of the Agency, though, thought it might have something to do with his dislocated shoulder, broken jaw, and left arm fractured in two places. All Carey would say was that he had “slipped.”

Partnering with veteran Warden Laurel Franklin was, their former Director told Carey at the time, her last chance. She had to successfully complete her three-month probation to earn her Warden appointment.

Remembering Laurel’s face that day when she saw her new partner, Carey took a long drink from her bottle and belched.

Frankie shook her head sadly. “Neither of us will ever do that as loudly as Laurel.”

Carey nodded. “Did I ever tell you about my first ARC search with Laurel?”

Without looking up, Frankie waved a hand. “I’ve heard Laurel’s version, but every other line was something about how that damned rookie was going to get her killed.”

Carey started in a low voice, almost talking to herself. “It was that heatwave summer right after Claire and I graduated from the Academy…”

Carey and Laurel had been sweltering in a hot car most of the day, watching a small ranch-style house, and working their way through Laurel’s cooler full of Cokes, which she referred to as, “The real real thing, not any of that no-cal, no-caff, why-bother crap.” Unlike the surrounding East Side developments of McMansions owned by professionals from Microsoft and Boeing, these houses were small, with tired paint in shades of beige and gray, moss-splotched roofs, and parched brown yards.

Laurel had handed her a clipboard and a handful of brochures from a roofing company, and told her to go door-to-door pretending to sell roofing services. Not one house opened a door to her knock.

An hour later, she collapsed back into the passenger seat next to Laurel, but held up a hand as she swallowed the better part of a can of soda. “I’m having a WTF moment.” She pointed back to their target house. “I think the devil lives there. No, seriously. You see all those butt-cutouts all over the yard that look like the bottom half of a fat person bending over?” She took another pull on her soda. “Well, it gets worse. Along the path on one side, there’s a bunch of gnome statues. About half of them are peeing or sitting on little toilets. The rest of them are…busy with other little gnomes or various cement creatures.” She shuddered. “Very busy.”

“I grew up in Florida.” Laurel shrugged, and popped the tab on another Coke. Carey watched in admiration as she chugged the entire can, squeeze-flattened the empty, and tossed it into an already bulging trash bag. “We had flamingos. Pink plastic ones. Your block status was measured in flamingos per square foot.” Fingers laced, she stretched both lean arms above her head and gave a long, luxurious belch. “We were very high status.”

The house they were watching, which belonged to their ARC target’s sister, seemed deserted as the day crept into late afternoon. Around four, a tiny yellow car with a huge bumblebee across the front and “Busy Bee House Cleaners” splashed across the side, pulled into the driveway. A thin middle-aged woman wearing a yellow-and-black striped uniform smock emerged from the car and entered the house. Seconds later, a large-screen television cast a blue glow from behind the blinds.

They’d been sitting in silence for almost another three hours when Laurel spoke without taking her eyes from the house. “See, this is the part where on some ARCs you say, I’ll come back to this tomorrow. But…”

“But.” Carey’s voice was flat agreement. Their target, a former Haven soldier named Lawrence Ruh, had attacked his landlady the night before. She was in a coma when neighbors found her, battered and slashed in a pool of her own blood. Ruh had disappeared—along with his victim’s baby son.

Carey pushed her sunglasses up to hold back her short dark curls and turned to face the other Warden. “I’m staying.”

“You partnered with Tony first, right?” Laurel took off her own mirrored sunglasses, turned her head, and smiled slightly.

With her smooth oval face, olive skin, and dark hair pulled back into a bun, the senior Warden looked like a renaissance princess until she smiled. Laurel’s cold, savage stretch of lips over teeth looked familiar. It reminded Carey of someone… Oh, yeah. Herself.

That smile widened slightly. “I’m guessing old Tony wanted you to help some buddy of his, maybe forget about an outstanding ARC?”

Carey’s return smile was equally cold.

Laurel nodded as if Carey had spoken. “And I’m also guessing octopus-hands Matt thought he was putting smooth moves on the cute little recruit?”

Carey’s grin was even more feral. She finished her Coke and let out a sustained burp of her own.

Laurel sucked air in through her teeth and then put her dark glasses back on. “I think we’ll get along just fine.”

The long Northwest summer day had finally yielded to darkness when a man carrying a gym bag approached the house. Despite the Huskies baseball cap he wore with brim pulled down and face averted, the flickering light of a streetlamp briefly illuminated his figure and the line of his chin. Laurel’s voice was barely audible. “Gotcha.”

Instead of approaching the house, Ruh circled around to the backyard. Laurel motioned to Carey to take the long way around the far side of the house, while she followed the man. When Carey was in position, Laurel stepped out from behind a tree. “By the authority of the Accords Agency, I charge you, Lawrence Ruh, to accompany me to the Council Headquarters. Place your hands on your head and legs crossed.” It didn’t look like the police shows on TV, but experience had shown that position slowed down most forms of shifters or magic users.

Carey’s connections blazed. Gun! Her hands blurred as she hurled a shuriken into each of his arms.

When a furious Laurel came pounding up ready to rip her a new one for taking down a target without provocation, Carey showed her the gun, still gripped in his hand. Laurel looked around at the shadowed yard and the man on the ground in its darkest corner. “Good eye,” was her only comment.

They were both starting toward the groaning man when they heard a woman’s voice behind them. “Get away from my brother, bitches. Drop the guns, and hands in the air.” Carey felt the barrel against her head and saw Laurel freeze. They threw their guns to the ground, and Carey felt the gun pressing against her head shift slightly as the woman behind her kicked both guns away. “Turn around.” Both Carey and Laurel turned slowly to see the gaunt woman aiming her rifle with the confidence of a former soldier.

“You know what I wish?” Laurel asked conversationally to Carey as they stepped away from each other to widen the shooter’s target area, “I wish that bad guys’ guns really made that stupid cocking sound like they do in the movies, so you knew they were sneaking up behind you.”

Carey took another step to her left. “Well, I just wish I didn’t feel like such an idiot.”

The man on the ground moaned, and his sister looked down briefly. Laurel jumped her, and they fought for the gun while Carey snatched up the nearest bare-assed dwarf.

The woman struggling with Laurel caught sight of Carey lifting the dwarf by his substantial peeing member, and screamed, “No! You’ll break…” Carey shattered the dwarf across her head. Abandoning all interest in the fight, the woman sank to her knees, sobbing hysterically over the broken plaster shards.

When both siblings had been cuffed with plastic restraints, Carey looked from the hole the man had been digging to his gym bag resting on the ground. As she unzipped the bag, a tiny hand flopped out. Laurel’s string of profanity was quiet, vicious, and creative. Carey looked up to see her partner’s gun trained on the writhing man still on the ground. After a long moment, she swore again but reached down to haul him to his feet.

Backup emergency crews arrived and loaded the prisoners into ambulances. But when they prepared to remove the little body, Carey’s connections flared again, showing her the child, curled into a ball and sobbing. Alive.

Confused, she insisted that the baby needed to go to an emergency room. Laurel looked thoughtful, and then pulled out her phone. “Hey, babe. I have one you might want to see.” Laurel explained that her girlfriend, Dr. Janice Allerton, had just been hired by the Accords Agency.

Over the next hours, Carey watched as Dr. Allerton ran through an increasingly bizarre set of tests. The child’s body was subjected to mild electric shocks, ice packs, various needle probes, and tests she couldn’t even identify. Finally, the doctor went to the staff lounge and returned with a small carton of milk, which she warmed in the lab’s microwave. She painted the child’s face with the milk, dribbled some onto his lips, and stood back. Within moments, he shuddered, opened his mouth, and wailed.

“Thought so.” The young doctor sounded satisfied. “Protective adaptation. I read a journal article about this. Sometimes Nephilim young go into profound stasis if there is danger, until their mothers return to nurse them.”

An awed Carey had christened her Dr. Frankenstein, and she’d been Dr. Frankie to the entire Accords Agency ever since. Much later, over what soon solidified into weekly Beer Tuesdays including Claire and Marley, she’d heard how Janice Allerton had served as a field medic for the Gifts during the war. One of her patients was a prisoner, captured enemy lieutenant Laurel Franklin. Two days after the Accords Treaty was signed, Laurel and Janice signed a lease on their first apartment. Laurel joined the Agency as one of the first senior Wardens while Janice went to medical school.

“And that was how Laurel met me and I met you.” Carey looked over at the woman behind the desk. A light snore was her only answer. Okay. Carey pulled off the shawl currently wrapping the skeleton in the corner, spread it over her friend, and stepped back. Looking back, she shook her head. Nope, that’s not quite right. She pulled her chair around the desk, and arranged the skeleton so that its head leaned against the

sleeping woman’s, one arm stretched across her chest, the other circling her shoulders. Much better.

She smiled as she took the picture with her phone and emailed it to Laurel with a copy to Frankie before heading back to Accounting.

I think I might be getting the hang of this friends thing.

—Excerpt from Round Trip Fare, (c)Barb Taub 2016