Welcome to my Writing in Real Time serial novel experiment – this first story in the Realm Wraith Trilogy will unfold here on my blog in weekly episodes, and is yours to enjoy. Friendly discussion and thoughtful comments are welcome. Who knows – your ideas might just help shape the story as I write! If you’re joining us in progress, start with Episode One: Leap of Faith
The last ferry from Bainbridge Island to downtown Seattle is already boarding.
I hand a twenty to the glass-eyed attendant, a middle-aged woman whose dragged-down looks suggest decades of self-abuse, and wait for the change. Money perplexes me. Not the money itself so much, though it is weird. What doesn’t track for me is the concept of trading effort for colorful paper and coined metal that represents value, but has no particular inherent value itself. Little in this realm can be accomplished without it, either as motivation or as purchase. Once people start chasing after shiny objects instead of looking for ways to make a real contribution in their world, it’s a downhill slide into oblivion.
The attendant forces a smile over gritted teeth as she hands back the leftovers and waves me ahead. I thread the jeep through a maze of orange traffic cones and multi-purpose lanes, and line up on the boat deck. Not as many travelers as one might expect on a clear spring night, but enough that I’d rather ride the trip out in the jeep. The late night crowd is an oddball mix, but not so odd that I wouldn’t stand out.
This crossing is almost as brutal as the one that brought me to this realm. Before the boat chugs halfway to the Seattle dock, I can sense the elemental harmonics pitching toward a screech. Not that anyone of this world would notice, but the closer the ferry carries me to the city, the more distorted the spectral fields become. It’s a skewed view, like a reflection in cracked glass. The Seattle skyline is less a majestic backlit silhouette, and more a glaring clash of shifting angles and arcing pulses. It never ceases to astonish me that humans can’t see how broken it all is.
They live blissfully unaware of their surroundings, which is really just a poetic way of saying mankind is totally oblivious to its own impending doom. How the entire race came to be in such a predicament is a hotly debated topic among the leaders of the preternatural races – are the humans ignorant or apathetic, are they victims of an innate drive toward self-destruction and thereby unable to escape the consequences of their actions, or are they simply so arrogant they have convinced themselves there are no consequences to escape?
I guess it’s like the Caretaker says. They’ve adapted. Maybe Melody adapted too. She would have had to, in order to survive so long in this place. At some point, she must have made that choice, and that is the thing I just can’t get past. My sister decided to stay, decided to acclimate. Melody abandoned who she was.
I never could. I never would.
The low, steady grumble of the engine chucks into a whiny grind as the ferry gears up to dock, kicking me back into gear too. Much as I loathe the city, this is where I need to be. The perfect place for otherworldly creatures to hide in plain sight, especially in the dark. The freaks really do come out at night.
The coffee house is maybe a mile south of the ferry terminal, one of many trendy boutiques and eateries nestled beneath blocks of upscale condos and office space designed to look like retro-fitted turn of the century buildings. Architecturally appealing urban development intended to camouflage the city’s seedy underside and attract highly paid young professionals and tourists.
I pull the jeep to the curb across the street from the coffee house to size up the situation. After business hours, this part of town is mostly deserted, except on game days. The ball fields were just a block east. Tonight, however, the shops and restaurants are locked tight and the urban dwellers safely tucked inside their Pioneer Square townhomes. No obvious loiterers, no late night strollers, no derelicts sleeping in covered doorways on either side of the street.
But, appearances are often deceiving.
After midnight, behind a handful of darkened storefronts throughout the metropolis, a nocturnal subculture comes alive. The Cherry Street Coffee house is part of an underground supernatural social network that exists throughout the human realm. The owners of the coffee house happen to be halfling descendants of the Hyades race – rainmakers, in layman’s terms. By day they manage a chain of trendy barista bars. By night, they operate an after-hours bistro that plays host to a menagerie of magical folk. Just the place an exiled night crawler would go to get a taste of home or engage in an assortment of illicit affairs. I’ve been here more than a few times myself on Realm Wraith business, but never on my own.
I leave the jeep parked at the curb, cross the street and follow the sidewalk to the end of the building, sifting through the scents adrift on the air as I go. The entrance is around back, where the comings and goings of goblins, elves, faeries and other odd beings go unnoticed.
An electrical sizzle draws my attention skyward. A sentinel perches on the dome of the streetlamp directly ahead of me. No way to tell if it’s eyeing me or waiting for some other night crawler, but after the encounter near the Caretaker’s place I can only assume I’m being watched wherever I go. Eventually I’ll need to find out who is doing the watching and why, but right now I have more urgent business.
If Spade is nearby, he is lurking beyond my ability to detect him. The city is teeming with odors – most of them an assault on my olfactory receptors. Generally I can pick up and identify any preternatural trail in the vicinity, but every supernatural scent within range that hasn’t gone stale has turned a homogeneous mashup of familiar flavors. So indistinct it is all but impossible to distinguish any one smell from the others, but Spade is probably already inside.
An over-sized metal door painted black, with the letters CSCH stenciled on it in ten inch white block letters opens to a long, narrow hallway half-lit by a neon pink LED strip running along the baseboards on the right side. The magenta glow is essentially an open-for-business sign meant for night crawlers like me. The hall leads to the now-vacant public area of the coffeehouse, detouring where the lights break right around a dark corner. The LED strip ends abruptly at a plain, wooden, brass-knobbed door painted the same institutional white as the hallway. To the unsuspecting, this innocuous unmarked entrance presumably opens to some utilitarian space. Which it does, actually, but as I said before, appearances are often deceiving.
The door opens to a five-by-five storage closet lined floor to ceiling on either side with white vinyl-coated pressboard pantry shelves laden with industrial sized paper towel rolls, rags, and gallon jugs of cleaning chemicals. Opposite the door, at the back of the closet, is an unobstructed and unfinished wall of commercial grade sheetrock.
A human would perceive the wall as a simple two-dimensional surface. It would be flat and firm to the touch, seemingly impassable. But this is merely a corporeal illusion. In the presence of a magical being, the wall reveals its true configuration. It fluxes from a solid state to an intangible, permeable energy field, a gateway to a neutral space which exists outside the realms. Kind of like a pocket folded into the fabric of dimensional space. All I have to do was walk through.
Club Cryptid is exactly the kind of sleazy, back-alley dive you’d expect to find tucked into the ass-crack of the universe, but it is also a kind of oasis for the exiles and escapees. The bartender keeps an Empyrean ambrosia on tap that is nearly lethal but totally euphoric, and a rare find outside our home realm. I hear the management bootlegs the club’s backstock by the bottle a premium, but the tasty libation isn’t the only attraction. There isn’t much you can’t get at the Cryptid, if you know who to ask and you’ve got something to trade. And did I mention they also brew a truly magnificent dark roast java?
Coffee is my guiltiest pleasure. There are few things in the human world that I find palatable, but that smoky-sweet smell with its promise of earthy warmth and a heart-jumping jolt hooks me every time. I can’t get enough of it.
I order a cup at the bar before weaving my way through the two-tops to a corner booth at the far end of the room. The booth offers a solid wall at my back, and the best vantage point in the club. A quick scan of the crowd as I perch at the outermost edge of the curved bench seat reveals three possible targets, but none of them gave me so much as a sidelong glance as I passed. Still, one of them has to be Spade.
Not the middle-aged ogre lacking an ear and any obvious charm, seated three tables to my right. The Caretaker’s contact is a halfling, so the guy I am here to meet has to be more human-looking. The marginally younger but far more subtle dude immediately to my left is a better possibility, but the way he sucks on the rim of his glass without ever taking his eyes off me gives me the creeps. He clearly has some other kind of business on his mind. Best bet is a scruff-faced millennial in the corner booth opposite mine. But he is so self-absorbed that it’s actually conspicuous. He hasn’t looked up, even once. In fact, he is staring so hard into the froth on his ambrosia he appears catatonic.
“You waiting for someone special?” A slender elfin female with short, slicked-back red hair slides into the booth from the opposite side. She’s rocking low-rise acid-wash skinny jeans and a pink fleece hoodie over a white cotton tank. The elf is pretty, if you like the waifish, street-hardened type. She flashes a sultry, sidelong gaze through a thick fringe of mascara-caked lashes and long, spiky banks. “Or will I do?”
My uninvited companion emanates an inescapably pansexual aura, and although I am fiercely focused on my mission, I’m not entirely unaffected by the flirtation. We fae are sensually uninhibited beings and when it comes to hooking up, we have a tendency to be gender and species indiscriminate. Another time and place, and I might have been more intrigued by the come-on. As they say, our pleasure knows no limits except the bounds we set for ourselves. But just now I’m not that into what she’s offering.
“Not tonight, hon.” I smile, but toss a curt nod in the direction of the bar to indicate that she should move along. “I’ve got other plans.”
“Yeah, I thought maybe you did.” Suddenly her sexy vibe turns steely. She tilts her head to the left and swipes her brow with the fingertips of her right hand as she scoots toward the center of the booth to make room.
I glance around to see who she is signaling, simultaneously making a mental map of the quickest escape in case she’s bringing trouble my way. A tallish, relatively young guy with sharply defined humanesque features and the sort of dark, sullen looks that make people cross the street rather than pass too close to him, was cutting a path toward my table. He jaunts with his fists jammed into the pockets of his black Gore-Tex jacket and his chin tucked into the shearling-lined collar, constantly shifting his gaze from one side of the room to the other.
I smell the traces of fae blood in him, the scent growing stronger with each step he takes. This hard-edged halfling has to be Spade. So how is it I didn’t notice him before? I was sure he hadn’t been in the club when I got there, and no one else had entered since. Of course, I was momentarily distracted by his sexy shill. Spade is obviously no amateur, but apparently I still am.
He slides onto the bench next to his accomplice and levels his cagey glare directly at me. “The Caretaker sent you?”
I nod, wondering just what the halfling has heard about me. “So you know why I’m here?”
Spade’s eyes narrow, and the corner of his upper lip twitches in disdain, as though my query is unworthy of an answer. “You got wheels?”
I nod again, suddenly more wary than curious of Spade’s intentions. “Out front.”
“Let’s hit it, then.” Spade slides out of the booth and makes straight for the exit, apparently expecting me to come along.
I wait for the girl to go first, but giving this guy and his cohort the lead flips all kinds of emotional switches for me, not to mention the warning flares firing in my gut. So far nothing about this scenario feels right, but my only option is to see it through.
“Take the next right, and then the first left. The building will be on your right. Old, abandoned brick-face, two-story. Windows on the upper floors are all boarded up. You’ll know it when you see it.”
Spade directs me from behind the driver’s seat, while his sidekick, who introduced herself as Nipper, rides shotgun to keep an even closer eye on me. The logistics have me crawling in my own skin. My only view of Spade is his reflection in the rearview mirror, a risk-minimizing move I’d have made myself if I’d been calling the shots. But I wasn’t. Despite all my elite training and supposedly superior tactics, Spade had the upper hand even before I walked into the Cryptid Club. Even more troubling, though, is how hard it is to read this guy. He’s incredibly intense, and not at all friendly. We’re supposed to be allies, but there’s a lot more tension than trust packed in my jeep.
A mile or so southwest of the Cherry Street Coffee House is the heart of the industrial district. Once you veer off the main streets, this part of Seattle is even more dark and deserted, and dangerous. I take the first left after the right, onto a narrow side street lined with dumpsters overstuffed with industrial junk from the adjacent businesses, and slow to a stop alongside a derelict mid-century brownstone warehouse wedged between a much more modern machine shop and a city-owned commercial vehicle barn. It isn’t brick, really, but I decide not to point that out. “Is this it?”
Spade reaches a hand between the front bucket seats and points through the windshield at a driveway running between the warehouse and the machine shop. “Through there. Park next to the loading dock.”
I park the jeep alongside the concrete ramp abutting the dock, in the negative space just outside the reach of the sickly yellow gleam from the single street lamp mounted on a telephone pole at the back of the lot. From what I can see, the only possible entrance into the warehouse from this side of the building has to be through the loading bay, which is blocked by a padlocked chain gate. “So, now what?”
I hear the door latch behind me pop and Spade slides out of the truck. Nipper flashes a side-eyed beckon at me as she shoves open the passenger side door. “You coming?”
Like there’s a choice. By the time I get out of the jeep, Spade is already hiking up the ramp to the gate securing the bay. Rather than raise the gate, he bypasses the lock by wedging himself between the loose-hanging metal framing and the dock wall.
Nipper glances back to make sure I’m still with them, and then follows Spade into the shadowy recess. They lead me in through a small fire exit next to the loading area into a stairwell and down a narrow set of metal steps to a shiny new steel security door girded with a metal crossbar and some kind of electronic locking mechanism.
Spade selects one of several implements he carries on a ring attached to a retractable lanyard anchored on his belt loop and inserts a pronged rectangular device into a corresponding opening on a digital pad mounted on the crossbar. Instantly the lock disengages and the bar slides back, releasing the door with a click and the hiss of escaping air.
I step back, suspicious of the hermetic seal. “Just what the hell is in there?”
Spade is already over the threshold, waving me into a dark, amorphous space backlit by a diffuse blue flicker. “Look around all you want, just don’t touch anything.”
I step cautiously through the doorway into a cavernous room that seems to span the full measure of the building’s substructure. In the nearest corner is a makeshift living area cordoned off behind a row of metal filing cabinets and furnished with a couple of tables and some camp cots. The rest of the area appears to be a combination command center and research facility. There are half a dozen workstations, some outfitted with sophisticated lab equipment and others centered by complex computer monitor arrays.
“Where is everybody?” I wander from station to station while Spade watches from just inside the doorway, examining the data displayed on several of the monitor screens. There are maps and analytics and a myriad of simulations in progress. One station is dedicated to a series of remote live feeds from security cameras in some kind of industrial plant. It’s like the technicians or operatives or whatever they are just walked away in the middle of their work day and left everything running. “What is all of this?”
Still no response. I turn to glare at Spade, finally at the end of my patience with his secretive bullshit. He’s supposed to be here to help me. “You seriously need to start giving me some answers, or we are gonna have a big problem.”
He shrugs. “They call it ‘The Nest’. Basically it’s ground zero for the E.L.F. splinter cell Melody runs.”
“The Earth Liberation Faction, an eco-defense guerilla movement. It was founded by humans like thirty years ago, to combat corporate poisoning and pillaging of environmental resources, habitat destruction caused by urban sprawl, and other assorted crimes against nature. They use some pretty radial tactics. Collaborators call themselves Elves, which is kind of ironic, since quite a few actually are. Elves, I mean.”
“So, this is her base of operations,” I muse, drawn to a nearby monitor displaying the internal layout of a building. “Fine. So where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
I bend over the desk to examine the screen more closely. “Then we’ll wait here until she comes back.”
“I don’t think she’s coming back. Not any time soon, anyway.”
“Wait.” I snap straight and spin on my heels. “What?! Then what the hell are we doing here? I need to know where she is, now, this minute.”
Spade’s nonchalance is irritating. “I’m still running that down. Melody’s team has been prepping for action for months. And then yesterday, no warning, she mobilizes her unit and goes underground. That’s SOP, forty-eight hours before every mission the cell goes off the grid. But this is weeks ahead of schedule.”
“I thought you were part of her unit,” I taunt.
“I am,” he snipes, finally revealing the emotional undertone I’ve been waiting to see. He sounds wounded. “But, when I showed up yesterday the place was abandoned.”
Spade had been left behind. Maybe his cover was blown or maybe he hadn’t infiltrated the group as intimately as he thought. Either way, he has a weak spot. “So what’s the target?”
“I don’t know.”
I’m stunned. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“I don’t know what or where, yet.” Spade turns defensive. “But I do know who.”
“Yeah?” I now have some deep doubts this guy has anything at all useful to offer, but something about the markers on that schematic keep distracting me. I turn back to the screen to look more closely. “Who?”
“Melody is at war with a chemical manufacturer called EmChem. It’s kind of a personal vendetta. For a couple of years, right after college, she worked in their R&D department. They offered her a butt-ton of money to formulate a “green” polymer that was supposed to be the cornerstone of a new eco-friendly product line. Melody thought she was going to change the world.”
This information is interesting, but so is the image on the screen. I reach for the mouse so I can enlarge it. “So what happened?”
“The whole project turned out to be a front for something else,” Spade starts. “Hey! Shit! Don’t touch that!”
“Huh?” I’m more interested in the image now than anything he is saying. I double-click on the schematic, and hear Spade scramble toward me. What is his problem?
The unmistakable tick of a detonator switch trips a flash of regret. A roaring whoosh blows through me like a comet’s tail, and the last sensation that imprints on my consciousness is searing heat, just as my entire being dissolves into a cloud of blinding white light.
Auger Mangrove retrieves the half-empty bottle stashed in his personal locker and holds it with the hand-lettered gilt label turned out.
“Aged twelve years, in an underground cavern guarded by river trolls. Best boot-leg ambrosia you can find. There’s nothing like it.”
Rip taps the rim of his shot glass with his forefinger. “Hit me.”
Auger pulls the cork with flourish, pours, and waits for his second-in-command to swallow. “Well?”
“Smooth,” Rip grins through a cough. “Like razor-edged silk.”
“An acquired taste.” Auger swigs from the bottle and straddles the chair on the opposite side of the conference table in the center of the squad’s briefing room.
“Yeah, like a lot of things,” Rip says, holding out his glass. “Some you never do get used to.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Auger pours again for Rip and then slugs another shot straight from the mouth, closing his eyes to the pointed stare Rip levels over the barrel of the bottle. He savors the musky burn on his tongue, anticipating. One more and the gut punches his nerves are serving up would start to ease off. “What?”
Rip scowls as he raises the glass to his lips. “You know what.”
Auger had known that smart-ass retort was coming, but that didn’t make it any less aggravating. His recruiting record sucks. It sucks hard.
Since he’d taken command of the squadron, Auger had personally selected and overseen the training of three new recruits. All of them were highly capable, supremely qualified cadets who fought hard all the way through to the final test. The first, a decorated combat veteran with a gift for inter-species communications, completed his solo assignment in record time. But it all came so easy to him he’d gotten a little cocky and somehow screwed the return jump, blowing himself to bits inside the dimensional portal. The second was a top-notch intelligence analyst and military tactician whose independent thinking and quick action under fire was a real asset in the field, but she was also more than a little reckless. She’d disappeared mid-mission without a trace, and the recovery team eventually declared her MIA and presumed dead. That was almost two years ago now.
“It’s not like she doesn’t know what she signed on for,” Rip saus. “We all know the risks.”
“Like that means anything.”
“Hey, that’s the gig, man.” Rip snatches the bottle from Auger’s grip, poured himself another round and plunks the bottle down on the table between them. “We’ve done what we can. It’s on her now.”
“Bullshit.” Auger contemplates the glimmering amber liquid. “It’s on me.”
“Right, I almost forgot,” Rip mocks him. “It’s your squad, your responsibility, every day and every way.”
“Seriously?” Auger almost resents the well-intentioned jab at his ego. He would admit, though, that he took the training casualties way more personally than he did line of duty losses. If one of his cadets washed out or bit it, it was because he had failed them. Auger reaches for the bottle and gulps.
Rip shakes his head, sober-faced now, and huffs out a short, sharp sigh. “Fucking newbies.”
Auger can’t help the wry laugh that excapes. It was funny, but only because it was true. No matter how hard you try, sometimes you just can’t save people from themselves. “Asshole.”
“Yup,” Rip grins. “But you need to lighten up.”
“Whatever.” Whether from the ambrosia or Rip’s relentless banter, Auger feels his mood mellowing. “Nothing I can do now, anyway.”
“Nothing except wait it out,” Rip quips, snaking the bottle his way. “Let me help you with that.”
“You finish it. I’m good.” Three shots are his limit, even off duty. Just enough to take the edge off, but not enough to dull his senses.
“Naw.” Rip reconsiders. “I prol’ly oughta keep a clear head. No telling when the kid will shout out.”
Auger nods, mentally reassessing his cadet for the billionth time. Bliss Hoarfrost is every bit as smart and capable as any member of his team, and in spite of the chip on her shoulder, she has more potential than most. “She’s stubborn. She won’t call us in until it’s almost too late. That’s what worries me most, if you wanna know the truth.”
“Kid’s got grit, and she is damned determined. But she’s got some big time personal issues that could make her a liability down the line, especially if every decision she makes is motivated by a need to impress her daddy.”
Auger shoots Rip a warning glance. “Watch yourself, Captain.”
He expects straight talk from his second in command, but he also expects his team members to have each other’s sixes, every day and every way. And Auger doesn’t particularly appreciate the underlying implication that he had caved to nepotism.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong.” Rip offers an exaggerated shrug as a mea culpa. “I like the kid, and she’s earned her shot. But come on. I’m not saying anything you haven’t already thought. You’re not doing her or us any favors, pretending that who she is doesn’t factor. It does, and a lot more than you’d like to admit.”
Auger contemplates the bottle again. Maybe just one more swig.
“Dude.” Rip lowers his voice and leans in. “Tell me you don’t think this whole mission feels like a set up.”
“Wait, what?” Auger perks. Rip has given a voice to his own darkest concern. “I mean, yeah, I do. It does. But what makes you think so?”
The door to the crew room swishes open and Sergeant Firethorn steps through. Velvet’s eyebrows arch as she glances at Rip, then at Auger, then at the bottle on the table. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Nothing important.” Auger pulls back to engage Velvet with a less familiar posture. It’s no secret that he and Rip are close, but Auger prefers to maintain the appearance of at least a little professional distance. “What’s on your mind, Sarge?”
“Shadow Squadron is geared up and heading to the Sector Five transport site.” Velvet’s aggravation is barely controlled. “What the hell?”
Auger cuts a glance at Rip. Other than routine reconnaissance and sector patrols, protocol dictated that Auger be notified of any new operation taking place during his mission window. “As far as I know, we’re the only covert team with an official go order.”
“If we’re talking Shadow Squadron, there’s nothing official about it,” Rip points out. “And any unofficial op is an elite level command call. That’s the only reason you’d be out of the loop.”
“Need to know,” Auger shrugs. “And apparently, we don’t.”
Velvet shifts her weight from one foot to the other in a clumsy attempt to contain her frustration. “This doesn’t bother you?”
“Should it?” Auger is more adept at masking his concerns than she is. It bothers him plenty. The timing is a little too coincidental, especially given the circumstances surrounding Bliss and her assignment. But Velvet is already too amped up and about to start jumping to conclusions. Auger doesn’t want to egg her on.
“All I’m saying,” she argues, “is it’s a little odd there’s a kill squad jumping into our sector during a hot op, and you know nothing about it.”
“Maybe,” Auger says. “And maybe it just seems that way. Shadow Squadron has its own agenda. If they get a lead on a priority target, they move on it.”
“Besides, Sector Five covers a lot of territory,” Rip adds. “We don’t know they are even headed to the same zone.”
“Right.” Velvet’s exaggerated sarcasm is generally a part of her charm, but just now it is a little too pointed. “Just some kind of random chance thing, because, you know, it’s not like any double-dealing or back-stabbing ever happens around here.”
Auger’s sense of self-regard starts to bristle. He doesn’t like how any of this was going down. The mission parameters have bugged him from the start, and he never should have backed off of his gut. Velvet isn’t entirely off base with her conspiracy theories. Erebus Hoarfrost built his career on a series of risky command decisions that had succeeded despite heavy casualties, and some shifty political moves. There were rumors he had brokered his last promotion through secret back channels and blackmail. But, no matter what the truth behind the General and his power machine is, the man knows how to get things done.
“I can’t see how there would be any connection between their maneuvers and ours,” Auger says, attempting to reassure Velvet that her concerns are unfounded despite his own misgivings. He corks the bottle. “But if there is, I’ll find out.”
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