“I have enough,” Grace nodded at her mother. “But I’m not sure if I’m ready yet.” The two women sat in the kitchen of their small home during their weekly visit. Grace lived with her parents, but work kept her busy. The Saturday morning coffee had become their time to connect.
“Why not?” the elderly woman asked. Her silver right eyebrow raised upward as she stared at her daughter. Grace blushed a blonde bang out of her eyes and sighed. The 24-year-old woman had long since learned that she could not lie to her mother.
“Because I’m not coming back,” the young woman said. Her mother nodded.
“You’ve known that,” the wrinkled woman said. She placed her hand on top of her daughter’s. “What changed?” Graced turned her hand over to squeeze her mother’s hand. She gave a sad laugh.
“I thought you’d be dead before I saved up that much,” she replied. She chuckled awkwardly. “It’s easier to leave if I don’t leave anyone behind,” Grace said. She felt her mother squeeze her hand in return.
“Mija, you’re ready. Sure, you can wait until your dad and I are gone..,” the old woman looked her daughter in the eyes. “…but I know I didn’t raise my daughter to be that selfish.”
“Selfish?” Grace sat up straighter at the offense. “Mom, I want to take care of you guys.” The woman smiled at her daughter’s reaction but shook her head.
“I took care of your dad, and him me, before you came along. We’ll be alright IF we get to see our daughter start on her dreams. You’ve wanted to be a knight since you could walk. We’ve given you all the support we could and you want to wait until we die before you leave? We’ve wanted this for you too, let us celebrate it with you.”
“Okay,” Grace replied and squeezed her mother’s hand. She nodded her head and tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. “You’re right, I didn’t think about it that way. I want you and dad to see me off.” She stood from the table then hugged the elderly woman. “I better go pack.”
Billy tossed his canoe out of the black portal, then stepped into it. The lean, navy-suited man floated in the middle of an endless ocean on a bright day. The only other craft on the water was a single, simple 10′ x 10′ wooden raft. A portly, white-haired man stood on the raft next to a shoddy cot. He resembled a castaway dressed in frayed pants and a threadbare shit. The man eyed Billy with an amused interest.
“I get time off for good behavior?” He asked when Billy’s canoe floated close enough for the man to hear. Billy shook his head.
“Not officially, Mr. Reddington; but, I have the authority to make you an offer.”
“Will it get me off this Earth sooner?” Raymond asked.
“Off this Earth, yes. But it won’t net you shorter sentence,” Billy replied. Raymond grinned.
“I’m in, what’s the gig?”
“My bodyguard while I gather inanimates.”
“Since when do you need a bodyguard?” Raymond asked.
“Since I started running into other Uniques hunting down the same inanimates. You have an AlterNet character, right?” Billy asked. Raymond nodded. Billy reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a golden skeleton key. He tossed it at Raymond. When the round man caught the key invisible walls glimmered around the raft. The sound of glass shattering filled the air as the walls came down. With the cell broken Billy wiggled his fingers at the air and opened a black portal on the raft.
“We’re on a scavenger hunt, Raymond. The game is afoot!”
“Since we’re traveling together, call me ‘Red’, Raymond said, then stepped into the black hole.
“We’re the first ones here!” The paladin in black armor lifted his visor to peer out across the wide open meadow. The golden sun hanging in the clear, blue sky sparkled on the giant dragon’s emerald hide. “It’s huuuuuuge. That thing wouldn’t fit in a football stadium.”
“It’s worth your own server. I’d be disappointed if it was any smaller,” Buck replied. He turned to the giant, pale, red-headed woman next to him. “Go get it before someone else tags ‘im.” She nodded and walked forward. They stood at the entrance to the meadow: a rocky ledge that extended from a narrow mountain tunnel. The dragon slept several miles away. The woman stepped to the edge, but Buck stopped her. “You gotta log in, Flutter. It won’t count otherwise.” She waved a dismissive hand at him.
“When I get there,” Flutter replied. Two sets of long, transparent insect wings grew out of her back then she leaped into the air. She flew straight toward the sleeping dragon.
“I’m Buck, by the way,” he said to the paladin. “I never got your name.” The mustached paladin turned and smiled at Buck.
“I’m Fern. You Unique?” Fern asked. “I’m #52.”
“#45,” Buck nodded. The ground shook and a deafening roar filled the meadow. They turned to see the very awake dragon roaring at an armored Flutter. She wore blood red plate armor and carried two shields. One in each hand and both of them half her considerable size. The dragon’s tail whipped forward to swat her away, but it bounced harmlessly off her left shield. She did not move an inch.
The dragon tried again to knock her away with its tail, but again Flutter stood her ground. The beast grew angry and roared at the sky. Black ash erupted from its mouth and filled the sky. It blocked out the sun and covered the meadow in darkness. The sound of footsteps behind Buck drew his and Fern’s attention. They turned and saw two women and a kid walking toward them with a large group behind them.
“You guys next?” The blonde knight asked. She wore silver chainmail armor and the paladin next to her wore thick, golden plate armor. The boy wore an elegant white and gold robe. Buck shook his head.
“There’s no ‘next’, he’s done for.”
“IS THAT FLUTTER!??” The female paladin yelled. She stepped to the edge while Buck answered the blonde’s question and saw the lone armored figure. Her armor glowed red in the darkness of the falling soot. Flutter stood still while the dragon tried everything it could to knock her away. Buck’s chest puffed out with pride and he nodded.
“That’s so cool! Totally unfair but so cool!”
“Raid disbanded,” the blonde yelled to the group behind her. “We’re not getting a shot.” A chorus of mumbles and murmurs ran through the crowd, but they turned to head back through the tunnel.
“I wanna watch!” the female paladin said. The blonde nodded.
“I know, me too.”
“Who’s Flutter?” the boy asked.
“She’s a fortress paladin that’s strong enough to solo a 20 person raid,” The blonde replied. The other three were watching the dragon assault Flutter.
“Whooaa. Can you do that, Rook?” The boy asked the female paladin. She shook her head, her dark dreadlocks wiggled on her head.
“She’s a Unique. Calavera,” she replied without taking her eyes off the action. The dragon’s swings were becoming slower, he appeared to be getting tired.
“Why’s she just standing there?” The boy asked. He approached the ledge to watch with the adults.
“Fortress paladins have a skill that lets them store up damage and dish it back out. Flutter can take a LOT of damage. Watch, I think shes’ going to use it. The dragon’s too tired already.”
In the center of the meadow, the dragon gave one final swipe with its claws then stopped. It supported itself with its front legs in order to rest a bit. The red glow on Flutter’s armor began to glow brighter. She brought both shields in front of her and fit them together like two halves of a whole. Her glow flowed through her arms into the shield wall. A wide beam of red light fired from the towering shield and hit the dragon right in its face. The energy continued to flow until the glow left Flutter’s body entirely. Then the, now headless, dragon fell on its side.
“Mrs. Walker?!” The cloud of yellowy, stinky sulfur dissipated enough for Murray to identify the figure in the pentagram. She locked eyes with him and sighed.
“It was bound to happen at some point, I suppose. Hello, Murray. You’re interested in selling your soul?” the blonde woman asked.
“You’re a demon?” Murray paced around the outside of the pentagram while looking her over. She looked the same as she every day at school and still wore the same outfit that she taught in that day. Mrs. Walker shook her head.
“Not a demon; more like a freelance contractor. Let’s talk about your soul,” she said. “What’s it going to take to take it off your hands?”
“Wait a minute. Are you really Mrs. Walker or demon that took her form?” Murray asked.
“I already told you I’m not a demon,” she shrugged. “This late in the year you have to be aware that I don’t like to repeat myself. Let’s talk about how much you value your soul.”
“It is you!” Murray’s grinned. “Why did you show up instead of a demon.” Her familiar, stern, hazel eyes turned colder.
“Murray, this isn’t a social visit. I’m here, on behalf of hell, to buy your soul. If you’re not going to sell it I have other leads I could be following.”
“I do want to sell my soul!” Murray blurted out, then he shrugged. “I’m just really surprised is all.”
“So, what are you willing to trade it for?”
“I want to be super rich. Always. No loopholes where I get a winning lottery ticket for a moment then lose it, or go bankrupt or anything. I want to always have money.” Mrs. Walker crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one leg. She looked Murray up and down.
“Remind me; are you 18 yet?” she asked. Murray puffed his chest out and nodded.
“Then I have an offer for you. How’d you like to always have money without selling your soul?”
“I’d love it!” Murray replied. “What’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch, it’s quite straightforward. You become a freelance contractor, like me and…” she reached into her pocket and pulled out a black credit card with red numbers on it. “… you get one of these. No limit. Accepted anywhere.”
“And I buy people’s souls?” Mrs. Walker shrugged.
“There are different departments. There’s no telling where you’ll end up. But, it’s a proper job with a schedule and everything; it won’t interfere with your schooling. You can turn in your credit card and quit if you’re not satisfied with your assignment.”
“Really? Just like that?”
“Well it’s never, ‘just like that‘ in a bureaucracy, but as I said: straightforward. If you do quit there’ll be mountains of paperwork to wade through. The process is simple, if not short.”
“I”ll do it! Where do I sign?”
“Right here,” Mrs. Walker gave him an onyx clipboard with a single sheet of paper on it and a pen. He signed it without hesitation. The moment he finished his signature a black credit card appeared on the clipboard with his name on it.
“This is awesome! So I can use it already?” Mrs. Walker nodded.
“Buy whatever you want. You’ll get your assignment in the next couple of days.”
“Whooaaa..” he stared at the card with glee. Suddenly his smile flattened out and he tilted his head at Mrs. Walker. “Hey, you have one of these, right?” She nodded.
“Why are you still teaching?” She smiled at him with sparkling eyes.
“I couldn’t afford to, but now I can.”
“You couldn’t afford it?” He wiggled the black credit card at her. “I thought it had no limit.” She nodded.
“It doesn’t. But it’s still a credit card. At least until you recruit someone. If you manage to hire someone,” she winked at him. “Like I did; it becomes free to use.”
“But you said I’d always have money!” Murray yelled. She nodded.
“And you do. I never said you wouldn’t have to pay it back.”
“Nevermind, this doesn’t help me at all. I’m not going to rope anyone else into it. I want to quit.”
“Are you sure?” Mrs. Walker asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes.” Mrs. Walker shrugged, then snapped her fingers. A plume of yellow smoke filled the room and blinded Murray for nearly a minute. When the smoke cleared he was no longer in his basement. The ground felt odd and he looked down. He stood on top of a small hill of loose sheets of paper. Murray looked up and found himself standing at the foot of a towering white mountain. He could not see the peak from where he stood.
“‘Mountains of paperwork’ wasn’t just a colorful exaggeration was it?” he asked. Mrs. Walker shook her head.
“I’m your student! How could you trick me like this?”
“I didn’t trick you. It’s not my fault you assumed things and didn’t ask questions. And I’m not your teacher anymore. I can afford to quit and it’ll probably take you a few hundred years to get through all the paperwork anyway. You’re not going back to school anytime soon.”
“MAGUS!” the boy’s scream echoed through the halls as he ran. “MAGUS!!!!” His hurried footsteps on the marble floor combined with the echoes from his shout to fill the empty hallway with a ruckus. He reached the door to the Magus’ meditation room; a tall, wide, solid oak door that was almost four inches thick. The boy had been apprenticing for a month, but he quickly learned not to disturb the Magus during mediation unless he wanted a harsh punishment. He decided he would rather risk punishment than let the end of the world happen. He pulled the iron ring that served as a door handle and stepped in. “Magus!”
A bald man with a long grey beard clothed in a long, simple, black robe sat cross-legged in the center of the empty stone room. He looked up at the boy but did not speak. He waited for the apprentice to explain himself.
“The world is in danger!” He said. The magus continued to stare at him but did not move to stand up. “It’s all over the news! Undead are raining from the sky across the world! Even here!” Finally, the Magus uncrossed his legs and rose to his feet at a slow, patient pace.
“Show me,” he replied. The boy nodded, turned, and ran back out to the courtyard. He ran as fast as he could. In the past month, he also learned that the Magus did not like to use his legs. When he moved, he floated along the top of the ground and could fly at great speed like this if he wanted to. The boy reached the courtyard and turned to see the Magus hovering next to him. The apprentice pointed up at a large black hole in the sky in time for the Magus to see a skeleton fall out of it.
He watched the skeleton shatter on the ground when it landed. After a moment, it magically pulled itself back together then headed to the nearest town. The Magus noted several dozen skeletons ahead of it marching toward the town.
“Stay here, you’ll be safe as long as you’re within the castle walls,” the Magus said. The apprentice nodded. He was not foolish enough to think he could help with only a month of magical training under his belt. He also knew the sorcerer cast a protective enchantment on the castle and felt safe.
“Yes, Magus. Good luck!” The wizard nodded and hovered forward. The moment he crossed the gate all the skeletons turned around to face him.
“Begone.” He casually waved a hand in their direction. A giant portion of the flat dirt plain jutted up toward the sky creating a dark cloud of dust. Then the upturned earth fell on top of the platoon of skeletons sending another plume of dirt into the sky.
“Now to see about you,” the Magus turned his attention to the black hole in the sky. He studied it for a moment to try and guess at its nature. Several skeletons shattered on the ground, reformed, then started their march toward him. The wizard ignored the skeletons and loosed a fireball at the dark hole. It entered the hole, then nothing happened. “Hmm.” He looked at the closest skeleton approaching and sent a ball of flame from his hand at it.
The skeleton exploded on impact but pulled its flaming bones back together. The flaming skeleton continued its march toward the Magus. He heard a sound behind him and turned around. Dozens of skeletons were climbing out of the overturned earth.
“You can’t kill them,” a woman said next to him. He looked to see a tall pale woman with long dark hair and twisting bone-white horns growing out of her head. “Not without killing me,” she smiled.
“Very well,” the Magus wasted no time. He aimed both palms at her and shot two lightning bolts, one from each hand, at her head. A small, dinner-plate sized black hole opened in front of her face and swallowed the lightning. He was surprised she was able to react so fast. She stood next to him and he expected the lightning to be fast enough to catch her off guard. After the hole disappeared she smiled at the Magus.
“Also, you can’t kill me either.”
“I haven’t tried yet,” the Magus replied. He turned to face her directly and made several quick, deliberate movements with his hands; then, they started to glow with purple light.
“You really should’ve,” the woman said. She lifted her palm to her face and blew a gentle breeze across her hand toward the Magus as if she were blowing a kiss. Black powder-like dust bloomed into a cloud around him.
His vision went black and he felt searing pain coursing through his head and upper body; everywhere the black cloud touched. The Magus tried to scream, but his voice never came. The last thing he felt, aside from the unbearable agony, was warm liquid pouring down the front of his chest and sticking to his robe. He felt himself falling toward the ground but died before he landed.
“Welcome to-,” Jack’s introduction to the two women was interrupted by the one in a white suit.
“Him?” the pale, dark-haired woman asked the pale, dark-haired woman in a dark suit next to her. Their similarity highlighted their differences. The woman in white sat taller than the other with perfect, flawless alabaster skin and icy blue eyes. Her austere face seemed to be formed solely from sharp angles. The woman in black nodded. Her skin was not as pale nor as blemish free as the stranger in white; but she also had a rounder, friendlier face with dark chocolate eyes.
“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” she replied. The woman in white, Ms. Sharp, glanced at the waiter’s name tag.
“Why are you working, Jack?” she asked.
“I’m sorry?” It was strange to hear someone else a question he’d been asking himself for almost a year. Ms. Sharp’s cool eyes narrowed at Jack until he saw only a hint of blue.
“You are aware that you’re dead, right?” she asked. Jack’s eyes widened; he stepped forward and knelt next to their table.
“You know?!” Ms. sharp nodded.
“My name is Dana Sharp. I’d like to buy your soul.” Jack chuckled and stood up; then, he took a step back for good measure.
“What do you mean?” He glanced around the restaurant but no one seemed interested in the odd conversation.
“You’re a soul without a body; I’d like to know how that happens. I’ll give you a new home and a generous monthly allowance in exchange for consenting to some tests.”
“How generous?” Jack asked. He found the idea of not working very appealing, but he felt he could haggle himself into an even easier afterlife. Ms. Sharp shrugged.
“We don’t use money as such. The ‘generous allowance’ is shorthand for, ‘you won’t want for any creature comforts’.”
“Whoa, I’m in! How soon can I start?” Jack grinned at her. Ms. Sharp shuffled out of the booth and stood up. A tall black portal opened next to her.
“Melody will get you sorted,” she said. She stepped into the portal and disappeared, then the hole closed.
“Let’s get some basic info out of the way,” Melody said. She gestured at the open end of the booth for Jack to sit. Jack looked around the restaurant to see if anyone noticed but everyone went about business as usual.
“Where’d she go?” Jack sat down and stared at Melody with wide eyes. “How come nobody saw that?”
“Time stopped when she stood up,” Melody replied. Then she changed the subject. “How long have you been dead?”
“Eight months. What do you mean time stopped?” He looked around the restaurant again to double check that everyone else was still moving. “It’s moving now. Where’d she go?”
“I mean time stopped. You’re walking around without a body, I wouldn’t expect much else to surprise you. She has an important meeting in an alternate universe. Do you know how you died? What happened to your body?” Melody asked. Jack shrugged.
“Dunno. I died at home. I’m guessing a heart attack, or stroke or something. It was kind of weird to stand up from the couch without my body. Once I realized no one knew I was dead, I needed to get rid of my body. So alternate universes are real too?” Jack asked. Melody nodded.
“You’re a ghost,” she reminded him. “How did you dispose of the body? Is there any chance we could recover it?” Jack shook his head.
“It’s mulch now. I possessed it long enough to walk it into an industrial wood-chipper. After making sure I could get out again.”
“You possessed it? Why didn’t you stay in it?”
“It was already dead. It would’ve kept decomposing,” he explained. Melody nodded. The short woman scooted out of the booth and nodded at Jack.
“What’s your favorite number?” she asked.
“49,” he replied. Surprise flashed across her face but she recovered quickly.
“You’re hired. Go home and wait for someone to contact you,” she said. Then she spoke louder to no one in particular. “I’m ready.”
A tall black portal opened next to her. Jack glanced around the restaurant and noticed the waiters were frozen mid-step. Time started flowing again after a few moments. He realized Melody was gone.
“Here’s the master bedroom.” Jesse heard a woman’s voice coming from the hall. He glanced around the empty room and realized he had nowhere to hide in the empty room. He moved toward the master bath, but the voice echoed into the room. “It’s a cozy 100 square feet, with an attached master bath–” Jesse froze. “… and the occasional intruder.” Jesse lifted his arms to show he meant no harm and turned around slowly.
“I don’t know where I am or how I got here,” Jesse explained as he turned. He found an older, well-dressed, silver-haired real estate agent showing the house to a tall, bearded man in t-shirt and jeans. The man looked exactly like Jesse, with a different t-shirt and jeans.
“Hey, you look like me!” The Jesse next to the real estate agent pointed out their similarities first. “Why does he look like me?” He asked the woman. She sighed and lifted her black leather portfolio to dig through it.
“The walls between universes are weak here,” she explained while searching each pocket in the portfolio. Finally, she pulled out a solid black business card. “As a result,” she nodded at the misplaced Jesse. “Anyone can just walk in.”
“Whhooaa! Really?” Both Jesses asked in unison; they seemed surprised despite looking right at each other.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get home,” the agent said. She threw the black card against a wall and it formed a large, black, empty hole. After a moment a short, round man in a dark suit and flowing golden curls stepped out of the hole. He looked at the real estate agent and the two Jesses.
“Taxi?” he asked. The woman nodded and pointed to the Jesse that was out of place.
“He needs a ride home.” The short man nodded, then reached into the black hole. The hole shrunk and flowed toward his hand until it was all compressed in his hand in the shape of a business card. He gave the black card to the woman, then moved toward Jesse with an outstretched hand.
“I’m Roscoe,” he smiled. Jesse shook his hand.
“I’m Jesse. Thanks for the ride,” he said. When their hands touched he felt a tingling pulse in the palm of his hand. Roscoe lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers at the air. A black portal opened next to Jesse in the center of the room.
“Good luck, me!” the other Jesse shouted from behind the real estate agent. Jesse waved at them, gave his doppelganger a thumbs up gesture, then stepped into the black hole. He found himself in his familiar messy room with paint-faded walls. The portal closed behind him.
“Anything else?” Roscoe asked.
“No, thank you,” the agent replied. Roscoe nodded and left through a new portal.
“Wow,” Jesse said. “So.. that happens often enough that you have a taxi?” She nodded.
“It’s not very often,” she shrugged. “But often enough that my agency has them on retainer for this and other properties. Of course, I understand if you’d like to see some other houses. This one is kind of-“
“Does it happen more frequently at other properties?” He asked with wide eyes. “Can you show me those?”
“You want it to happen often?” She asked. Jesse nodded vigorously.
“YEAH! There’re other universes! That’s awesome, aren’t you excited?”
“I guess anything gets boring after a while,” she shrugged. “Honestly, I was trying to play it down. It happens a lot in this house.” Her comment was punctuated by the sound of someone stepping out of the master bathroom.
“She already knows,” Donna Chang smiled. Thomas Moon handed her a messy, store-bought bouquet of roses with a small box of candy hearts taped to the green wrapping. The short, ancient woman turned her nose up slightly. She dropped the bouquet into the trashcan beside the warming lights. “Takeru will get you pretty ones.”
“Those were pretty-ish,” Thomas said. He reached into the trashcan but his hand only returned with the small box of candy hearts. He left the discarded roses on their bed of discarded fish heads. “I’ve kept it secret for so long, there’s no way she knows. But that’s what tonight’s for,” Thomas smiled at Mrs. Chang. “How do I look?”
“Like a werewolf,” she replied.
“Thanks, Mrs. Chang,” Thomas smiled and turned to leave the kitchen. “Wish me luck!” he exited through a side door into the same hallway that housed the restrooms. Then he went back to his table. Emma smiled at him when he slid into the red and gold booth.
“That was a bit of a wait. Everything okay in there?” Emma asked she pointed at his stomach.
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry. I ran into Takeru and gave him our order.”
“That took 20 minutes?” Emma asked with a smile. Thomas hated to lie but knew he could explain the situation once she got the flowers.
“No. I needed some time to build my courage,” he said truthfully. Though, he’d planned to tell her for some time and only needed a couple of minutes to build his courage. The rest of the time was spent running to and from the nearest market.
“For what?” Emma asked. Her eyes sparkled with interest.
“I -uh,” He reached across the table and wrapped his hands around hers. “I’ve been keeping a secret since we started universe-hopping. There’s no easy way to say it so I’m just gonna blurt it out. Ready?” Thomas asked. Emma nodded. He took a deep breath.
“I’m a werewolf!” He half-shouted to make sure the secret came out. Emma tilted her head to the side and she gave him a confused look.
“Was that a secret?” Thomas narrowed his eyes at her.
“You knew?” She nodded. “Since when?”
“Since we met…,” she winked at him. “…the first time.”
“What? If you knew why did you help me hunt those other werewolves?” Emma shrugged.
“Because you let me. You weren’t a violent, mindless animal like them.”
“But how did you know?” Emma smiled broadly.
“It’s kind of funny. Back then I knew without knowing how. Mundo gave me a rundown of my powers when he taught me how to traverse; Estrellas can learn to see magic and fae.”
“Huh. So… it doesn’t bother you that I’m a werewolf?” Emma shook her head.
“It hasn’t so far,” she looked past him, then sat up straighter. “Food’s coming.” A giant cook with multi-color dragons tattooed on his arms walked toward their table with a full serving tray. He placed their plates in front of them then looked at Thomas.
“Thanks, Takeru. You can bring the rest now too.” Takeru nodded then walked back to the kitchen.
“What else did you order?” Emma asked.
“Well, I thought my secret might open a gap between us,” Thomas shrugged. “I didn’t want to let that happen.” Emma looked past Thomas and her eyes widened.
“OOOOH, Those are so pretty!” She said.
“So I ran to the market to buy you a pre-emptive bouquet.” He watched Emma’s reaction instead of turning around to see the flowers that Takeru picked out.
“You’re such a liar,” she said playfully. “You did not pick those out.” She pointed at the elegant red and gold flower vase Takeru placed on the table.
“Whoooa those are pretty!” Thomas said. The vase was beautiful, but it held a dozen of the most beautiful roses he’d ever seen. He assumed they were roses. The petal formation looked like the roses that went into the trashcan. Instead of the dull red color of the supermarket flowers, these roses formed golden, segmented petals. Thomas thought it looked like each petal was made of shiny, jagged, golden scales.
“See?” Emma giggled. “You’ve never seen them before.”
“Dragonbreath Roses,” Takeru said. “Be careful.” He leaned forward and blew a gentle puff of air along the top of one of the roses. A small flame flickered to life on the disturbed petal.
“Wow!” Emma said. “Thanks, Takeru!” The large man nodded then walked away.
“How do we-,” Thomas began to ask. He looked up at the roses, but the flame already died out. “Nevermind.”
“I just got here. Did I do something wrong?” Morgan asked. He made himself comfortable in his favorite booth moments before a teenage waitress appeared to ask him to leave. She shifted her eyes to the kitchen then back to him.
“No, Sir. I did. We’re closed but I took too long to turn off the sign,” she gave him a light apologetic bow. “I still have to ask you to leave.”
“Closed for lunch on a Monday?” he shook his head, then shrugged. “I’m already here. It’s not my fault you can’t be bothered to do your job,” He tilted his head toward the entrance. “If I were you I’d change the sign before anyone else comes in, then you can come back and take my order.” Morgan crossed his arms to wait. The waitress sighed but nodded.
“I still need you to leave, but you’re right. I’ll be right back.” She jogged to the electric sign and pulled the string. She also made sure to bolt the door. Then, she jogged back to Morgan’s booth. “Thanks,” she smiled. “We’re closed for a private party, but they won’t be in until a bit later. If you take your order to go, there’re no problems.”
“There’s no problem now,” Morgan said with a stern look. “I’m here to enjoy a meal. Does Mrs. Chang know you’re turning customers away?” The waitress’ eyes widened.
“You know Mrs. Chang?” Morgan nodded.
“She’s an old, old friend. I’m sure she’d appreciate knowing how her staff treats her customers,” Morgan grinned. The waitress stood up straighter with a growing smile.
“Mrs. Chang appreciates staff that follows orders,” she crossed her arms and stared down at the seated businessman. “I won’t take your order unless it’s to-go. If you’re not going to order then leave. Or I’ll call security.” Morgan waved a dismissive hand at her and looked past her to the kitchen door.
“I don’t need you to take my order, I’ll tell the cook myself. Takeru!” He half-shouted at the kitchen door. In the blink of an eye, a burly, tattooed, monster of a cook appeared by the table.
“Yes, Morgan?” The mountain of a man asked the seated man.
“I’ll have the usual,” he said then cast an eye at the dumbfounded waitress. “Make it a double portion. I want to take my time.” Takeru turned to the waitress and raised an eyebrow.
“Britt?” he asked. She shook her head; her twin afro puffs jiggled on top of her head.
“What’re you asking her for? I’m the customer!” Morgan said.
“You can’t be a customer if we don’t serve you,” Britt replied. “Please leave or…,” she pointed sideways at Takeru with her thumb. “…security will see you out.”
“What?” He looked up at the giant man. “Takeru, c’mon, you can’t toss me out. What would Mrs. Chang say about this kind of treatment?” Takeru shrugged.
“Mrs. Chang left the restaurant in Ms. Britt’s care. I will follow her orders. She is asking you to leave for your own safety,” Takeru replied.
“Takeru! Shhh!” Britt hushed him.
“It’s okay if he knows,” Takeru said, then walked back to the kitchen instead of just disappearing.
“What does that mean?” Morgan asked.
“The private party I mentioned earlier…,” Britt sighed. “I didn’t want word to get out; Flutter’s coming.”
“Flutter?!” Morgan shuffled out of the booth in a hurry. “You know what I am?” He asked then walked to the door. Britt followed.
“Mrs. Chang wouldn’t trust me if I didn’t,” she said. Morgan reached the door but waited for her to unlock it. Once she opened the door he stepped out but turned to face her again.
“Here’s a tip. Dragons know who Flutter is and none of us want to risk getting on her bad side.” He gave her a polite nod then turned to walk away.
“I don’t like your show, Mr. Sero,” Dana Sharp said. She talked to the bald, suited man sitting on the other side of her desk. He smiled broadly.
“Please, call me Bald Lenny. I hope you didn’t drag me across dimensions just to insult my program,” Bald Lenny said.
“No,” Ms. Sharp said. “No, I did not invite you here to insult your show. No, I will not call you by that ridiculous stage name.” Bald Lenny shuffled uncomfortably in his seat but remained quiet. “I don’t like your show in its current format; I find the unnecessary bullying of Zeros mean-spirited and childish. However, you’ve already established quite a large audience in a relatively short time.” Bald Lenny nodded with pride. He was the most watched show in 30 of the 50 universes his broadcasts reached. “From a business perspective I can’t ignore your show, but I want nothing to do with it as it is. To that end, I have an offer for you.” Ms. Sharp paused to ensure she had his full attention. The bald man sat on the edge of his seat staring at her intently.
“Change your program from hidden camera pranks to a reality show contest for Zeros. I’ll sponsor your show and increase your reach.”
“A reality show? I’m assuming you’ll bankroll the prizes too?” Bald Lenny asked. Ms. Sharp nodded.
“There’s only one prize. The winning competitor gets to become a Unique.”
“Become a Unique? Bald Lenny’s eyes widened. “You can do that??”
“I can,” Ms. Sharp replied.
“That’s amazing! Which one did you become?” Bald Lenny asked.
“We’re not talking about me. Do you accept the sponsorship.”
“Well, hang on a minute,” Bald Lenny found enough courage to voice a concern. “I gotta say, you dodging the question like that is a tad suspicious. Now, personally, I don’t care what you picked but I cannot promise my contestants something if I can’t guarantee it’ll work. Let me rephrase it. Instead of, ‘which did you become?’ I should have said, ‘I need proof this works.'” Ms. Sharp nodded.
“That’s easy enough to arrange. We could do a live demonstration during your next episode if you’re willing to volunteer.”
“Me? I get to be a Unique??” Ms. Sharp nodded.
“What better way to foster goodwill from your audience than by going through the procedure yourself?”
“You’re right!” Bald Lenny grinned and nodded, but then his face turned serious. “Wait. Does it hurt?”
“What, like a lot or a little?” Doubts formed in the back of Bald Lenny’s mind.
“My favorite description I’ve heard is: ‘It feels like flaming fire ants are trying to eat their way out from inside you.’ ” She replied with a smile.