Trouble is brewing in Nexus, and for some reason, they think I can stop it.
Some people are born to greatness. My mother wanted to strangle me at birth.
I’ve not had an easy life, not in a world that thrives on magic. Spells to reinforce buildings. Hexes to give you the face of a supermodel.
Or so I’ve been told.
No one can hide their true face from me, and people get ugly when they find out my presence is the reason magic shrivels and dies.
It’s not as cool as it sounds, so when I’m offered a job with the Special Monsters Unit, I take a chance and join a misfit crew to find out why the town of Nexus is a magnet for cryptids.
At least I’m part of a team. I’m making friends. I’m—
Finding out secrets about my past that are hard to handle.
But my emotional scars will have to wait until after we deal with the monsters. Especially those with human faces.
Shifting my weight slightly to the left didn’t ease the cramp in my thigh. Too bad. I wasn’t sitting again. My ass didn’t appreciate the cold tile floor in the frigid museum where I conducted my stakeout. I should have brought a pillow and a blanket. Hell, a face mask would have been welcome, given the dinosaur bones I crouched behind didn’t smell all that good even if dead for a gazillion years.
I’d been here since well before closing, pretending to be just another history buff, wandering the many rooms with their displays, hiding when the museum closed. On purpose and with permission, I should add. I’d been hired to resolve an unknown phenomenon. Given it had been months since my last consultant gig, I was stoked and determined to get this job right. Government contracts, like this current short-term one with the Cryptid Authority, paid well. Well, enough that a steady gig of them would let me quit the night shift at the cemetery.READ MORE
When you were as unlucky as me, finding good jobs proved hard. Fluke accidents plagued me because magic in my vicinity had a habit of failing with catastrophic results.
No one had died. Yet. That was the word they’d used when they put me on reserve status. I thought I’d been banished from the CA forever, but then they’d contacted me for help. This job at the museum required someone not affected by spells or other unexplained phenomena. Someone who could counter the curse causing so many problems.
At exactly three past two in the ungodly early morning, the power went out. As it had for the past few nights, according to the file I’d read. The backup generator didn’t kick in, meaning lights, cameras, motion detectors, all of it suddenly stopped working until exactly four-oh-five a.m. The maintenance guys claimed none of the equipment was at fault. The hydro folks couldn’t find a reason for the lack of power either. The surveillance cams, for obvious reasons, captured nothing during these dead moments, which, in turn, meant no one knew who kept rearranging the exhibits.
The first night it happened, museum staff entered the next morning to find the security guard trapped and panicked inside a sarcophagus. Upon being released, he screamed something about mummies and curses then quit.
It should be noted, there were no mummies in this particular location. The preserved dead tended to remain under heavy magical guard in order to avoid an undead-rising situation.
Everyone involved with the museum assumed it was a prank, a fluke, a nothing burger, until the repeat the following night. This time, the replacement guard found himself waking in the belly of the very dinosaur I crouched behind. Apparently, he had no clue what happened. He quit too.
Word travelled quickly, and no one would cover the next evening shift. Couldn’t really blame them. Obviously, something magical was at work.
The guards and their memory lapses weren’t the only thing happening. Entire collections of treasure, most of it old and very valuable, got displaced. The gold from the tomb of some ancient Egyptian sorcerer was piled in a Jenga-like tower that defied gravity. The mannequins showcasing the evolution of wizards’ attire were doing a conga around the room with the carved stone phallus from another exhibit adding a risqué flair. On the night when there was no guard on duty, a good chunk of the remaining staff quit on the spot when they realized various canine breeds had replaced the faces of some famous people in some very old—now worthless—portraits.
Someone was pranking the museum hard, and given the magical aspect to the various acts, the Cryptid Authority was called in. That was two nights ago. Two nights of their usual agents failing.
Including their star, the arrogant Percy Jenkins. Mr. I-Am-So-Great-Because-I-Can-Do-Magic didn’t fare any better than the security guards. He was discovered naked, hung upside down over a pyre of burning books—with stuffed animals placed all around, roasting pieces of his clothing and sitting on pillows made of the hair shaved from his body. All. The. Hair.
Savage. I’ll admit I laughed when I heard.
After Percy’s epic failure, they finally called me in. Hopefully it was the start of me getting off the CA’s shit list. Last job I’d done for them, I failed to properly secure a siren before bringing her in for unlawful singing with intent to bespell. My mistake? I removed her gag so she could have a drink of water. She’d said a polite, “Thank you.”
And people hit their knees screaming.
Not me. It had no effect on my nullifying-magic ass. I ended up stuffing the magic ball gag back in her mouth before she could utter another syllable. Too late. A few people had to go to the hospital for burst eardrums, meaning the CA uppers weren’t happy. Story of my life.
But this was my redemption moment. And if it involved a cold fucking floor that might permanently numb my poor cheeks, then so be it.
With the power out, I couldn’t see much. The skylights overhead offered only enough ambient light for me to make out shapes.
A few minutes after the power failed, I heard the scuff of something sliding. Silently, I rose and moved out from behind my boney cover.
Scree. Stone on stone. I turned to see a stone pedestal being shoved across the floor, but I couldn’t see by what.
I approached it quietly. The pedestal stopped moving. A few seconds later, a new screeing noise showed another display column being pushed. I neared the first one and did my best to hide behind it. When the screeing stopped, I popped around to see a slim figure walking away.
“By the authority of the Cryptid Authority, halt and put your hands up.” I followed the protocol to the letter.
The person paused and whirled to stare at me. It was a woman, slim, with indistinct features, hair long enough it swirled around her body. No clothes that I could see.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Who are you?” she mimicked.
“I am Cryptid Authority Special Agent Garcia. I need you to come with me, ma’am.”
The head cocked, and the blur of the mouth curved. “No.”
“You are trespassing on museum property. Please come with me.” I kept it by the book. Ask repeated times so there’s no misunderstanding. Change the phrasing if needed.
“I don’t think so.” Spoken in a sibilant whisper.
As I got closer, the person flinched. “Do not touch me.” It retreated, floating more than using its feet.
Its movement halted me. Could all this be the work of a poltergeist? It seemed unlikely. Most could barely affect their environment, but no denying she didn’t have definite edges. The closer I got, the more her shape wavered.
And she didn’t like it. “Away.” She shooed me with her see-through hands.
“I’ll go away once I know you’re secured.” Time to put in a call. Ghosts were a totally different department from mine. The Society for the Spiritually Challenged—aka Spook Club—usually handled them.
“Away,” it insisted. Then it hissed at me.
I hissed back and got close. She dove through a wall.
Whatever. Ghosts weren’t my gig. I made a call and got sent home. Great. At least they paid my hourly rate for the time I’d spent.
Two nights later, they called me back in.
It seemed that while we were dealing with a ghost, it appeared to be a cursed one and they were having difficulty banishing it.
I got a second chance.
This time, I didn’t bother hiding, and I brought my camping chair, the kind that unfolds with a flick and cradles the ass. I also had a thermos of hot chocolate and a bag of chips. By the time two a.m. hit, I was feeling pretty mellow.
Not so the cursed ghost.
She emerged to see me and screeched, “Away. You. Go.”
“This doesn’t have to be difficult. Just let me hug you and this can all be over.” Or so I hoped. The only thing they told me when I took this new job was, Get rid of it. When I asked how, they said, Figure it out.
Fantastic. My plan? Hug it and see if that killed the magic tethering it to this plane. Where they went after? That remained a matter for debate. The most popular theory being the afterlife. It sounded nicer than Hell.
The cursed ghost lady started throwing stuff at me. And before you think trinkets, I mean the rock with some of the commandments written on it, the lid of a coffin—the stone kind—glass display boxes. I might nullify magic but smack me hard with something and I’d still bleed, which would suck. I really liked this jacket.
“Why does everyone have to do things the hard way?” I grumbled. I advanced on the ghost, and she went all out, her tiny little spirit body inhabiting everything in my path and using it against me.
Pity the cameras didn’t work because I probably looked badass stalking though the disaster tornado.
I reached for her, and she darted out of reach while spitting, “No.”
“Don’t you get pissy with me. I’m not the one who couldn’t haunt the place nicely. You just had to be a jerk about it.”
I lunged, but she flitted away. I didn’t let her escape and kept swiping as she weaved through the next room with its mannequins. Most had toppled by the time I reached the other side. I almost caught her a few times, my hand swiping and catching thin air. Dammit.
When she finally allowed me to grab hold, I thought this was it. I’d destroyed her. Only I couldn’t actually touch a ghost. The specter had no solid substance. No actual magic.
She laughed as she escaped.
How could I stop the ghost if I couldn’t touch it?
I remembered my lessons in college about curses, a thing that interested me greatly for obvious reasons. While curses varied in application and other aspects, the one thing they all required? An anchor. All curses were tied to something. Living or not. The object didn’t matter, even the most benign thing you could think of could be a focal point.
The ghost mocked me, thinking she had me beat.
I smiled back. “Where is your version of a coffin? Is it in the museum itself? A backroom?” I began trailing my hand on objects. “Am I getting hot yet?”
The spirit couldn’t hide its shock or panic as it fled through a wall.
I’d obviously hit a sore point. I also had a new plan. Find the ghost’s anchor.
I moved swiftly through the place, wondering what and where it could be. I felt it when I walked past. A shiver of the very air itself. It coincided with a pang of hunger. I’d have to get a burger after this.
Turning to my side, I noticed a door marked Utility. Opening the closet, a shelf with cleaning bottles lined close to the edge drew my gaze. Pulling them down revealed the broken shards lying behind them, along with a jar of glue.
A broken vase, which explained why the ghost had only just appeared. Someone made a boo-boo and broke a vessel, releasing a curse. But rather than tell someone, they tried to hide it.
The ghost took that moment to peek out of the base of the vase and hiss at me.
“I have had enough from you.” I reached for the shards, and it screamed.
The ghost flung everything at me, bottles of cleaner and the shards. Big mistake. The broken pottery cut my flesh and hurt, but as the pieces touched me, they released whatever magic they held. The spirit tried to wedge herself into the base, whining and crying. Long dead and long overdue for peace. I placed my hands on the large chunk, and the spirit tied to it emerged as a thin wisp of smoke that ended in a spark. The tiny mote of light winked out, and I’d have sworn I heard a faint, Thank you.
Seconds later, the power returned, along with the lights and cameras. Not long after, reinforcements arrived. I gave my report to the museum director, who did not appear grateful.
Neither was the Cryptid Authority boss when I entered his office, considering he yelled, “Do you know how much damage you caused?”
Apparently, enough to get me sent home and not expect a paycheck.
Guess I’d better see if I could pick up a few graveyard shifts.
A week later, and the CA was still pissed at me. But in good news, I’d been hired to watch over a mausoleum for the Graven family. Apparently great-great-something-grandpa was due to rise, looking for a body. Not just any body but the son of whoever was the current leader of the family.
Given this dead relative hadn’t been liked when alive, the family had been making sure great-grandpa-squared didn’t succeed.
When the mausoleum door creaked open, I lifted my head from my exciting game of Candy Crush to wave. “Hey. So, two choices, gramps. You go back to bed all nice and undead like, or I end your curse right now.”
He wisely chose to go back to sleep for another seventy years.
Dawn hit, and I was free to go home, where Wally—short for What-the-Ever-Loving-Fuck, my oversize cockatoo slash caladrius—was happy to see me. I entered to his whistled, “Hey, sugar tits, how’s that juicy booty of yours shaking?”
“I just made rent for one more month.” But nothing more because I’d messed up the museum job. My mother had it right. I was cursed, and I didn’t have anyone to break it.
If only there existed a magic-free zone somewhere in the world. A place where buildings wouldn’t crumble or shoot water as I disrupted their construction hexes. I couldn’t be fooled by illusions. Ugly things remained ugly. If a power wasn’t grounded in hard science, the kind that could actually be measured and studied, then it had no effect on me.
You’d think that would make me the perfect CA agent. After all, the Cryptid Authority only dealt in cryptid beings, many with whom magic formed a part of their identity. However, my power usually brought chaos.
It led me to wondering more often than I liked if my mother spoke truly and I’d been born evil. It would explain my lack of friends. I had Wally. No one else.
“Who’s a fucker got to shank to get fed?” Wally complained.
It should be noted I didn’t teach him to talk like this. I’d found Wally in a cage at the back of an apothecary dealing in illegal substances, all of his feathers plucked. While only half caladrius, his white feathers were rare enough to still be prized and useful in healing potions. Even once I saved him, they never grew back fully, meaning he sported bare spots all over. Add in his somewhat colorful vocabulary and the rescue center who took him in said he’d most likely end up euthanized or released into the wild with the same effect, given he couldn’t actually fly with his docked wings.
I visited him when I heard. Walked in to his low whistle and a purred, “Hey, wanna make a bird feel good before he croaks?” He then made kissy noises and wildly inappropriate thrusts of his beak.
I’d felt an instant camaraderie. I knew why he acted out. I’d done the same while in foster care to ensure I remained in the boarding school for problem kids. I fit in best with misfits and hated the heartbreak of people saying, “Do you have a girl with different-colored hair?”
It gave me a bit of a complex at the time. Took a while to like myself, blah, blah, blah. I’d become a bit more ambivalent about it over time.
As I stared at the bird slated for death, I knew I couldn’t leave him there. I’d jerked my thumb to the door. “What do you say we blow this joint?”
“Cruel to tease,” it cawed, not believing me. Couldn’t blame him. After all, no one wanted me either.
But I’d taken Wally home two years ago now, and I could state with maybe five percent certainty we were friends.
“Hold on to your panties,” I declared as I slid off my shoes. “I just got home. I’ll feed you in a second.”
“Slow as molasses. No wonder you can’t find a man. Maybe I should catch one for you.”
“Please don’t. We talked about this,” I said, opening the fridge and looking for the box of dirt and worms. “People and birds,” I added to be clear, “can’t just pounce someone. Doing that will get you arrested.”
“It would be simpler.” Wally danced side to side on his kitchen perch. We had them all over my attic apartment. Three months and not evicted. Yet.
It would happen. The longest I’d made it in the last five or so years was six months. It was as if the curse no one could see got worse over time.
The worms wiggled as I grabbed and laid them on a plate. I bought fresh stuff every few days at a bait shop, along with minnows, another favorite of Wally’s. I kept them fresh by having them swim in a tank set up in the living room. Wally loved to perch vulture like and watch them dart.
“This is da fucking shit,” Wally squawked as he devoured the worms on the plate. No hand feeding because he claimed that was degrading. He did, however, encourage plumage petting as he chewed and swallowed.
“I’ve got the day off,, and I’m not tired.” I’d napped after handling the great-grandpa. “What should we do?”
“Zoo!” Wally had an instant answer.
“Pretty sure we’re still banned.” Not just my fault because my presence knocked out the magical ward holding their rare birds on the property. I also got in trouble because Wally taught the zoo’s parrots bad words. Like really bad.
Not everyone agreed it was funny.
“We could hit the rooftop and sunbathe.” A free activity. Before we could decide, an unexpected knock at the door had us both turning our heads.
I didn’t currently owe anyone any money. If I ignored the cases I’d been involved with that ended up with damages. Those were covered by the Public Safety Specialist Union, the membership I maintained with a monthly chunk of money for my dues. So long as I was sanctioned and doing the greater good, those that hired my services couldn’t sue or bill me.
Knock. The person didn’t leave, meaning most likely not a package, not that I expected any. That would require money. I barely had enough for the rice and noodles I ate daily.
“Barbarians at the gate!” Wally declared.
“Or someone very determined,” I muttered. This would be the first time since I moved in that someone bothered to walk up the three flights of stairs. Even the door-to-door folk didn’t trudge up to sell me anything, not even tickets to Jesus’s rebirth—currently slated for April 7th of next year.
“Fuck off!” Wally chirped. He was about as social as me, meaning not at all.
“Wally,” I admonished.
“You were thinking it,” he replied.
He wasn’t wrong. I bit my lip.
Persistent. Curiosity led to me opening the door without bothering to check who it was first. Hopefully not someone with a warrant for my arrest. Or an eviction notice.
A woman of medium height stood on the small landing outside my door. Asian featured but with bright pink hair cut in a bob, the hue matching her belted coat. She eyed me up and down. “You are Ruby Garcia?”
“Depends on who’s asking.” She didn’t look like a cop, or a lawyer for that matter. Insurance adjustors also tended to have a certain appearance and usually called first.
“I’m here with an offer for Ruby Garcia.”
“Are you from like that sweepstakes place? Do you have a giant check?” I peered past her to see the stairs empty.
“Are you selling something, because I’m going to say right now, I am broke. Like so broke I am going to scrounge under my couch for jellybeans to eat.” The five-second rule didn’t count with a hard candy shell. Dust them off and good to go.
“I’m not here to sell or preach. My name is Renarde.” One name only. She held out her hand.
I didn’t take it. With some people, simply being close could affect any magic in or around them. Touching flesh to flesh? Always took the magic, and sometimes moving away didn’t bring it back. Usually, I wore gloves against casual touch, but inside my own place? I went around barehanded. I tucked them behind my back.
“Best we not shake. I have a strange effect on some folk.” Then, because people with one name only intrigued me, I blurted out, “Is your name supposed to mean something?” Because I’d never heard of her.
“My name is not important. You are Ruby Garcia, Cryptid Authority reservist, yes?”
“Yeah.” The only option left to me when they released me from active duty. It didn’t pay much, but at least I kept my dental benefits. “Are you with the CA?”
“I’m higher than that,” she stated without any arrogance, more just matter of fact. “Have you heard about the recent incidents in a town called Nexus?”
The question brought a frown because the name felt familiar. “Isn’t that the place that recently had that necromancer hoax?”
“Not a hoax. That was just the story fed to the media to forestall panic. There really was a necromancer, and she almost hacked her way into world dominion.”
I snorted. “Using dead people? How incompetent is the local CA bureau? Necromancers are some of the easiest villains to take down.”
“You’ve encountered one before?” asked Renarde.
“No, but I’ve studied them. A necromancer casts magic into bodies to animate them. Take their magic away and poof.” My hand mimed a body dropping.
“There are some that say it’s not magic but life force that is used.”
Once more I made a disparaging noise. “Ain’t no one giving up their life to puppet the dead.”
“Guess we won’t be able to test that theory until the next one pops up. Hopefully we catch them faster. By the time the CA even knew we faced an undead event, it had unacceptable casualties that would have been higher if it hadn’t been handled by someone local.”
I snapped my fingers as I remembered the meme. “Wasn’t it an Earth witch with a knack for cupcakes?”
“Yes. She’s got quite the talent.”
“Is there a reason why you’re telling me about this?”
“What would you say if I told you Nexus has been having dragon sightings?”
“Dragons are extinct. Most likely it’s an animal they know that maybe lost some feathers or fur. Or someone playing a prank using a glamor hex.” Most times, claims of monsters were benign. In college, I’d dispelled the myth that the tunnels behind the school had an ogre guarding them. He was just an illusion to cover the moonshine operation, which I accidentally brought to an end. I never got invited to parties after that.
“Actually, we have it on good authority that a dragon was indeed reborn for the first time in centuries.”
“A real dragon?” I could barely repeat it. She had to be shitting me.
“Very real. Question, do you think gingerbread are solely animated by magic?”
“Aren’t those cookies?” Even as I wondered why she kept jumping around.
“Yes, but I’m talking about the ones that come to life. See, there was also an incident last Christmas in Nexus with some gingerbread, and we were wondering how to handle them if they come back.”
“Why not just bite their heads off?”
“That does work, but some find the screaming unnerving. They claim it’s ruined their love of baked goods. And mischievous cookies are only the tip of the strange iceberg in Nexus.” She ticked off fingers. “A unicorn has returned after a curse on it was broken. We have reports of a pony with wings. Even sasquatches have been spotted, along with a few centaurs, which, as you know, have been banned in North America since the 1950s.” The very puritan government at the time called centaurs lewd and disgusting perverts that needed to be kept from their womenfolk and children. They weren’t entirely wrong.
“And this concerns me how?” I’d never been close to this Nexus place, so they couldn’t blame me for any of it.
“I’d like you to be part of a special task force that I’m putting together to deal with the surge of aggressive nonhumans in Nexus. We need to hunt them down and capture them.”
“Sounds more like a job for a cryptozoologist.”
“If we were talking about run-of-the-mill cryptids, yes, I’d agree, but things like dragons and necromancers, those pose a very real danger to the world at large and require a special skillset.”
“So you want me to numb any magic they might have so you can take them out.” I wrinkled my nose.
Wally, who’d been remarkably silent until now, joined the conversation. “Murderers! Blood and death on their hands. Staining their rotten fucking souls.”
Renarde, to her credit, didn’t flinch, but her lips did purse in Wally’s direction. “I’ve heard of you.”
“I’ll bet you have, my queen.” He offered her a strut that was much too suggestive for a bird.
Renarde ignored him. “Helping to locate cryptids won’t be your only job. The fact so many things are happening in a small geographical area is suspicious. You’ll also be working on getting to the root of it.”
“Why me?” I had to ask. And then, because I was always brutally honest, “I don’t have a great track record.”
“On the contrary, you always complete your mission. It’s the collateral damage that is an issue.”
I wrinkled my nose. “And you’re okay with that?”
“Sometimes things have to break to be fixed. You were chosen specifically for your skills.”
“Don’t you mean lack of magic?”
“Yes.” She didn’t pussyfoot. “We think it will come in very useful with your team.”
“Team?” I arched a brow at the word. “I work better alone.” No point in mentioning the fact most folks refused to work with me.
“Not this time. I’ve assembled a special group, which you’ll meet when you present yourself to the recently created SMU division.”
“Special Monsters Unit.”COLLAPSE