Sunshine, p.21
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       Sunshine, p.21

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 21

 

  I was making it, I thought. I suppressed a shudder. "No. "

  "One killed and three missing in No Town," he said. "The one killed is confirmed sucker. "

  "You can't be sure this soon that the other three are anything but missing," I said. "Maybe they ran away. "

  Pat looked at me.

  "They may have run away from something else," I said, "that had nothing to do with vampires. "

  "The moon may be one of Sunshine's Killer Zebras, but I doubt it," said Pat. "A lot of people saw these four hanging around together earlier in the evening. "

  I didn't say anything.

  "Four is a lot for one night, even in No Town. "

  I still didn't say anything.

  "We'd like you to come round this afternoon and have another stroll through a few cosmails," said Pat.

  "I don't get off till ten tonight. "

  "We'll wait," Pat said grimly. "There's one little snag - Aimil doesn't want to do it. She says you tried it on your own a few days ago and it took you away somewhere. She said she thought you'd died. Now, why would you want to try it on your own, I wonder?"

  "Why do you think?" I said, looking at him steadily. The shadows on his face lay plain and clean. I slid a little further into my strange seeing. These shadows had a slightly rough or textured quality I was beginning to guess meant partblood - I'd seen it in Maud's face first, but Aimil had it too - and in Pat's case this not-quite-human aspect was distinctly blue. But the shadows said there was no deceit beyond the basic subterfuge of passing for pureblood human. Pat was who he said he was, and believed what he said he believed. "I want to find these guys too," I said. "And SOF, begging your pardon, makes me nervous. "

  Pat sighed and rubbed his head with his hand, making his short SOF-norm hair stand on end. "Look, kiddo, I know all the usual complaints about SOF and I agree with most of them. " He saw me looking at his hair and smiled a little. "So I don't happen to mind the hair and the uniform, that's not a crime, is it? But we can protect you better at SOF HQ than you can protect yourself anywhere else. What if what you were tracking had noticed you were searching for it the other day? You think you could have got back out fast enough for it not to follow you home? The fact that Aimil is still alive proves that it didn't notice. But I think that was dumb luck. Nobody has ever lived a long happy life depending on dumb luck, and depending on any kind of luck is as good as tearing your own throat out when you're messing with suckers. I don't care what extra powers you got, Sunshine. "

  I swallowed. "Did you say all that to Aimil?"

  "You bet I did, babe, and more besides. She is, after all, on our payroll and subject to our rules. You aren't. Yet, although I've thought about it. But SOF doesn't pay so good and generally we have to blackmail people like you and Aimil, to put it bluntly, not to mention figuring out what the official description of what we wanted you for would be. I could probably tie you up in a big knot of top-secret intelligence bureaucracy - we've got powers to compel ordinary citizens in certain circumstances, did you know that? And we could make these the right kind of circumstances, never fear - but it would take too long and I suspect it would make you ornery. We need you too badly to risk pissing you off, if we can get you any other way. By the way, you were planning on coming to us with anything you found on the other end of Aimil's cosmails, weren't you? You don't have any noble, suicidal plans to take these suckers on by yourself, do you? Tell me you are not that stupid. "

  I said with perfect honesty, "I have no intention of trying to take these suckers on by myself, no. "

  Pat looked at me with a slight frown. "Why doesn't that sound as reassuring as it should?"

  I gazed back at him as innocently as I could.

  He sighed. "Never mind. We'll see you at ten tonight. In fact, I'll come by myself at closing. "

  "I'm not going to sneak out the back way and go home if I've told you I'll come," I said, annoyed.

  "You haven't actually said you will come," said Pat calmly, "and I don't want you walking around by yourself at that hour, in case Bozo gets wise between now and then. "

  This was a little too near a little too much of the truth. "Bozo?" I said carefully. "Do you have a name?"

  "Have we ever had a name?" said Pat. "You find 'em and you stake 'em and then you burn 'em to be sure. But we're obviously chasing a master vampire here, and it's easier if we call him something. Assuming it's a him, which they usually are. So we're calling him Bozo. So, are you saying you'll be waiting for me at ten tonight then?"

  "But if Aimil - "

  "I'll tell her you're coming anyway and we've got that cosmail saved and we can do it without her if we have to. She can either come be part of the safety net or sit at home waiting for really bad news and be hauled over the carpet and messily fired later on. "

  "What sweethearts you SOFs are," I said.

  There was no humor at all in Pat's face when he replied: "Yeah. But we're real devoted to the idea of keeping the live alive. What did you do to your chin - and your arm? Is that from when you fell out of Aimil's chair?"

  "Must be," I said. "I don't remember that well. "

  It was a fairly ordinary day at the coffeehouse. We had one crazy wander in off the street who wanted to tell all of us that the end of the world was coming. He had an interesting variant of the standard format: in his reading the moon was going to be moved in front of the sun and kept there to create a permanent eclipse while the creatures of dark took over down here. The moon would be held in place by the something-o-meter invented by the creatures of dark and which they were presently perfecting. He said "creatures of dark," not "vampires. " I suppose I was in a twitchy mood anyway, but I didn't like this. There are lots of creatures of the dark, but I would have said that except for vampires none of them is bright enough to invent a something-o-meter. So why didn't he say vampires? He did say eighteen months, tops, before the eclipse began.

  It was a good thing he hadn't washed in a while and raved like a loony or some of us might have believed him. I told myself his story would make a good novel. It would sure make a better novel than it would a reality. Mel got rid of him. Mel goes all Good Old Boy amiable and eases them out the door, and the thing about it is that when Mel does it, they don't come back. The only times we've ever had to call the cops is when Mel hasn't been there. Ranting crazies make Charlie nervous. Because this is Old Town we get a fair number of crazies: hell, we feed most of them, out the side door, but not so many of them rant. Charlie can soothe a customer determined to pick a fight when Mel would just throw him out the first time he swore at one of the waitresses, and I'd back Mel against most brawlers, but taking them on their own terms isn't a good way to avoid calling the cops. Sometimes I think more throwing out would be a good thing - we have enough customers, we don't need to put up with the flaming assholes - but Charlie's is Charlie's because of Charlie, which is probably a good thing too. But Mel is the one who deals with the noisy nutters. If there's ever a Mel's it will be racier. And Charlie's will have to hire a bouncer with a degree in counseling.

  This crazy came in during the lull between the late-afternoon muffin-and-scone crowd and the early supper eaters so there weren't too many people around. Mrs. Bialosky was there, and I didn't like the way she listened to him either: it seemed to me she was having some of the same thoughts I was. Maybe she was just thinking about full moons. The crazy hadn't mentioned what was going to happen about the moon's phases. He must not be a Were himself.

  "Hey, a little live entertainment for slack time," Mel said to me. "This one missed the mark, okay, next time I'll get jugglers. " I smiled, because he wanted me to, but I noticed he was rubbing one of his tattoos: the hourglass one, that you can't see which way the sand is running. It's a charm about not running out of time. He'd been listening to the crazy too.

  I couldn't see into the shadows on Mel's face. They flickered less than some but the red edges were more dazzling as i
f to make up for this. I didn't know if I couldn't see past the dazzle because I couldn't couldn't, or because I didn't want to. If I didn't want to, what was it I was afraid I was going to be seeing?

  By ten o'clock I was tired, and I wanted to go home and go to bed. I had a lot of sleep to catch up on. The last thing I wanted to do was slope off to SOF HQ and plug into another live socket and fry my brains some more, but when Kyoko came into the bakery to tell me Pat was in front waiting for me, I didn't duck out the back door - even though I hadn't promised. I may have given the cinnamon-roll sponge a few more vicious stirs than it needed, but then I threw my apron into the laundry, washed off the worst of the day's spatters and stains, and went to meet my fate.

  I paused briefly under the doorway. A few days ago I'd tacked up a string over the lintel, so I could stuff some of Mom's charms up there. They balanced on the narrow lintel edge and were kept from pitching over by the string. She hadn't said anything, but then we'd never discussed the fact that she was coming into the bakery when I wasn't there (she rarely crossed the threshold when I was) and leaving charms round about. Well, so, the glove compartment was full. Or she was wearing me down. And they wouldn't last long trying to protect a doorway that had people coming and going through it all the time, but at least they could keep their eyes (so to speak) on me when I was there. And while they still had what in charms passes for eyes.

  The funny thing was that I'd begun to feel them there, and kind of didn't mind. I've said that charms usually rub me up the wrong way, like a rash, or a colicky baby living in the spare bedroom whose mom sleeps deeper than you do. And when I stood under the doorway for a moment I felt their - well, their good will, I'm not sure it was any stronger than that - soaking in. I felt like a baba sucking up rum. Or possibly chopped piccalilli vegetables vinegar. I shook my head to make the opalescent chain swish over my skin and patted my pockets.

  Pat and I walked over, to my surprise. "I kinda want to know if there's anyone close enough to make a pass at you," said Pat. "Hope you got a table knife in your pocket. "

  "Very funny," I said.

  "Shouldn't be necessary," said Pat, unfazed. "I got a few of ours skulking in the shadows, ready to race to our rescue. "

  This was not comforting, not so much because a vampire could have struck in from nowhere and killed us both before any human defender had done any more than take a deep breath and wonder if there was a problem, but because of what SOF didn't know about my extracurricular activities. I didn't want SOF watching me that closely. And I didn't like their spending that kind of expensive human time on me. "You sound like you're taking this very seriously. "

  "You betcha. "

  "Why? You haven't got any proof yet that what Aimil and I are doing is anything but psycho doodling. "

  Pat was silent a moment, and then gave a heavy sigh. "You know, Sunshine, you're a pain to work with. You think too much. Have you read anything about the little black boxes that are supposed to register Other activity? Called tickers. "

  "Yeah. They don't work. "

  "Actually they work pretty well. The problem is that there is a larger number of unregistered partbloods in the general pop than anyone wants to talk about - well gosh isn't that surprising - and the tickers keep getting confused. Or, you know, sabotaged. It's been a real bad problem in SOF for some reason. Can't imagine why. There's ways around this problem, however, once you all know you're reading off the same page. So we got some tickers that give us pretty good readings, once we figured out how to set 'em up. And I'll tell you that a couple we got down in No Town about fused their chips when you did your locating trick for us a few days ago, and they did it again that afternoon when, it turns out, you were committing your felony with Aimil. "

  "Felony my ass," I said.

  "Attempting to consort with an enemy alien is a felony, my pretty darling, and all Others are enemy aliens. It's not one of those rules anyone wants to pursue too close, but it has its uses. And trying to locate 'em is near enough to trying to consort with 'em for me. Anyway, we've never had readings like these readings. What you're up to may be psycho doodlings, all right, but they're great big strong psycho doodlings and we're beginning to hope you may be the best chance we've seen in years and not another one of my over-optimistic bad calls. "

  I considered having a nervous breakdown on the spot. I probably could have thrown a good one too, about how I couldn't take the strain, that my life had crashed and burned those two nights I went missing by the lake and all Pat and SOF were doing now was stamping out the ashes and oh by the way if you have an axe handy I'll run mad with it now and get it over with since my genes are being slower off the mark than I've been expecting since I figured it out two months or whatever ago, and by the way, that was SOF's doing too, you guys and your sidelong suggestive little chats. While half my brain was considering the nervous breakdown recourse the other half was considering whether maybe I could locate Bo well enough and then let SOF handle it. Con and I wouldn't have to go within miles (vampire miles or human miles) of No Town. We could sit at home drinking champagne and waiting for the headlines: NEW ARCADIA SOF DIVISION ELIMINATES MAJOR VAMPIRE LAIR AND DESTROYS ITS MASTER. Our correspondent, blah blah blah.

  My imagination wanted MOST IMPORTANT STRIKE SINCE VOODOO WARS, but it wouldn't be. It felt global to me because it was my life on the line.

  But it wasn't going to happen that way. I didn't even know why, not to be able to explain it. But I could feel it, like you feel a stomachache or a cold coming on, or somebody's eyes staring a hole in your back. SOF could go in and mess things up for a little while, stake a few young vampires and maybe wreck Bo's immediate plans. But. . . maybe this was something else I was learning to see in the shadows. Maybe it was from traveling through nowheresville or walking Con's short ways last night when I was somewhere else: watching my reality stream by, finding out there are other places with other rules. I was beginning to understand how the connections in the vampire world really aren't like our human connections in our human world.

  I was tethered to Con as absolutely as he had been shackled to the wall of the house beside the lake. And he and Bo had a bond that required one of them to be the cause of the destruction of the other one. I guessed now that this was as natural a situation to a vampire as making cinnamon rolls was to me. I wondered what happened if a vampire involved in one of these lethal pacts did the vampire equivalent of falling under a bus: did the other one, foiled of catharsis, spin off into the void instead? The really nasty void, that is. Which could explain why it was so godsbloodyawful a place to visit.

  He could have warned me, I thought. Con could have said something, that second morning by the lake. Would it have occurred to him? No. Besides, what was he going to say? "Die now or later"? That had been the choice all along. And as far as my situation now being the mere sad inevitable result of my being in the wrong place at the wrong time: grow up, Sunshine. Bo would be just a tiny bit irritated with me personally. Having not only escaped but taken his prize prisoner with me. What had kept me alive so far - my scorned and ignored magic-handling talent, my reluctant and harrowing alliance with Con - was also what was causing the bond. Ordinary mortals don't get bound up in ceremonial duels to the death with master vampires. But ordinary mortals don't survive introductory vampire encounters either.

  I cast back to that second morning at the lake and thought, he did warn me - or remind me. I just didn't hear it. Why should I? And why should he think I needed warning? ". . . That we are both gone will mean that something truly extraordinary has happened. And it almost certainly has something to do with you - as it does, does it not? - and that therefore something important about you was overlooked. And Bo will like that even less than he would have liked the straightforward escape of an ordinary human prisoner. He will order his folk to follow. We must not make it easy for them. " I was the one who'd assumed the time limitations around Con's annotations of our predicament.

  More re
cently Con had said, I knew what happened at the lake would not be the end. And it wasn't like I'd been surprised.

  Okay, what if - just as a matter of keeping our position clear here - what if we managed to off Bo now? What new chains of vengeance and retaliation would we have forged instead?

  I wanted to laugh, but I didn't want to come up with a likely story to explain to Pat what I was finding to laugh at. Unless I wanted to make the laughter hysterical, as a lead-in to my nervous breakdown.

  But I didn't. I wanted to find Bo and get on with it. Whatever happened next. Whatever. I would think about whatever if there was a tomorrow to think about it in. Right now today was enough - like getting away from the lake alive had been enough. If Aimil's cosmail was Bo, and I could trace it, and SOF could offer some protection from being traced back, then I'd risk doing it with SOF. I wanted to find Bo. And hadn't I just been saying there was a bond between Bo and me as well? Big ugly mega yuck.

  What I didn't want was to get sucked in again and maybe somehow this time pop out on top of Bo. As things I couldn't bear to think about went, this was very high on the list.

  My sunshine-self, my tree-self, my deer-self. Didn't we outnumber the dark self?

  What I had to figure out, fast, was if there was going to be a way I could make a mark, leave a clue, carry some bad-void token away with me that Con and I could follow or interpret better or faster than SOF could. There'd been kind of a lot going on and I hadn't sorted what I had found - or half found, or begun to find - in Aimil's living room. If sorting was a possibility. Aimil had been afraid I'd died. . .

  No. I'd figure it out. I had to.

  Did the tickers do anything but register activity, could they define it?

  They'd pick up Con and me too, when we started going somewhere - wouldn't they? If. Supposing our rough human-world guesses were right, and what we all wanted was in No Town. But. . . if SOF was now going to start keeping a closer watch on me, were they going to plant a ticker near Yolande's house? Oh, gods. Could she disable a SOF ticker?

  Aimil, looking subdued, was waiting in Pat's office, with Jesse and Theo. She got up from her chair and put her arms around me. I hugged her back and we stared at each other a moment. "I guess these guys worked you over so the bruises don't show," I said.

  "Which is more than can be said for you," said Aimil, touching my jaw gently.

  "I got that doing chin-ups on the top oven," I said. "Let's get on with this, can we? I want to go home and go to bed. Four in the morning is already soon. "

  Pat's combox was on, and the saved cosmail winked at us as soon as he touched the screen. Even before plugging in to the live connection it looked evil to me; the flickering print seemed to have a kind of bulgy red edge, so that it looked like tiny scarlet mouths howling behind every letter of every word. "Ready?" said Pat.

  I sat down and put my hands on the keyboard, like I was going to do some perfectly ordinary com thing, tap a few keys, see what the headlines were on the Darkline. "Ready," I said. He pressed the globenet button and the mail went live.

  I was almost sucked in after all. Hey, I didn't know what I was doing. Was there an apprenticeship for this? The globenet hasn't been around all that long, but magic handlers adapt pretty fast - they have to. If I'd been apprenticed, could I have learned how to trace a cosmail? No. If this was something magic handlers now routinely did, SOF would have a division of magic handlers that did it. And they wouldn't be all over me like a cheap suit. I was going where no one had gone before. And I wasn't having a good time.

  It was my talismans that held me together, and in this world. I felt them heat up, wow, like zero to a hundred in nothing flat with the throttle all the way open, like a cold inert vampire being brought back to undeadness by a surprise drop-in guest. I guessed there was a red hoop around my neck and over my breast now, and a red oval on each thigh. I hoped they wouldn't set my clothes on fire, which might be hard to explain as well as embarrassing.

  It was pretty excruciating. It was like being dragged forward and hauled backward simultaneously: as if I was living the moment when my divided loyalties ripped me apart and took off with their riven halves. Other-space yawned, and while last night, with Con at the far end of the back-country-lane version, it had merely been remote and unearthly and nowhere I had any business being, tonight it was the bad one again, the shrieking maelstrom. If I went headfirst into this one I wouldn't come out, except in small messy pieces.

  But I was frisking on the boundary of dangerous territory for a purpose. Dimly through the inaudible din, I thought, perhaps this is Bo's defense system. Okay, if I can find where the defense system is, presumably I can find where what it's defending is. Or is that too human a logic? I tried to orient myself, carefully, carefully, staying firmly seated on the chair in Pat's office, feeling my talismans burning their variously shaped holes into my flesh. I wasn't the compass needle myself this time - that would have been too far in - I was trying to angle for a view so I could see where the compass needle pointed. . .

  There.

  And I was flung over backward, with the chair, and landed on the floor so hard the breath was knocked out of me. This was just as well, because Pat's combox exploded; droplets of superheated flying goo rained down on me as well as tiny fragments of gods-know-what, and larger pieces of plastic housing. There were a few half-muffled shouts of surprise and pain, and then there were a lot of alarm bells ringing. I was still struggling to get some breath back in my lungs when people started arriving. I had thought those were real alarm bells. They were.

  What looked like everybody at SOF headquarters poured into Pat's room, and there were more of them than you'd think for ten-thirty at night. Once I could breathe again I could tell the medic I wasn't hurt. (There are medics on duty twenty-four-seven at SOF HQ: our tax blinks at work. Well, okay, lots of big corps have medics on duty, but few of them have combat patches. This one did. ) My shirt had got a little torn, somehow, and the chain and the mark it made were visible; he gave me some burn cream for the latter, while he muttered something about the weird effects of a combox blowout. Fortunately it didn't seem to occur to him to suggest that there was something funny about my necklace and I shouldn't wear it. I didn't mention the hot spots I could feel on my thighs. I was glad still to have thighs.

  Pat had fared the worst; he needed stitches in one shoulder where he was hit by the biggest single chunk of flying combox, and had several inelegant burn marks on his face and one hand, although none of them serious. "Hey, I was an ugly bastard before," he said. "It's not gonna ruin my social life. " Even Pat had been rattled, however, because the two guys who rushed in and sat down at the other combox in the room - one of them with a headset he kept muttering into - had been tapping away intently for several minutes before Pat noticed. I had been watching them as I lay on the floor, but I was pretty hazed out myself and hadn't managed to think about what they might be doing. I had half-noticed Jesse doing an ordinary startled-human stillness thing when those two came in, but I hadn't registered it. I did register Pat snapping into awareness and then exchanging a hard look with Jesse.

  And then the woman came in and the tension level in the room went off the scale. I felt like we were in one of those old-fashioned movie rockets where the Gs of escape velocity crush you into the upholstery. Okay, so my metaphors had taken a wrong turn, but when I first looked at her there were no shadows on her at all: it was as if she was glowing, in great sick-making waves, like a walking nuclear reactor or something, if I had ever seen a nuclear reactor, which I have not. Instant headache. Instant wanting-to-be-out-of-here, wherever here was; hereness seemed to fade under the onslaught of her mere presence.

  This had to be the goddess of pain. And I had thought that name was just a joke. Uh-oh.

  She snapped a few undertone orders to one of the fellows with the headset; he was obviously not happy, and he shook his head. His partner in crime shrugged and spread his hands. "Your little s
tunt has just bombed HQ's entire com system," she said in a cold clear voice that was worse than any shouting. "What the hell are you doing?"

  Pat, almost visibly pulling himself together, said, "I had clearance. Ask Sanchez. "

  "You didn't have clearance to close the regional HQ down, and you obviously didn't do your homework about safeguards," said the woman, not a split atom's worth mollified. "You still haven't told me what you were trying to do, and Sanchez isn't here. "

  One of the headset guys on the other combox barked something, and she listened to them briefly. When she turned to glare at Pat again he was a little more ready for her. "We were trying to trace an Other cosmail to a land source. We have been working with Aimil, here," nodding to her, "for some months. This is Rae Seddon, whom we had reason to believe might be able to help us. This is the second time she's tried to make a connection. As for safeguards, I. . . " and he ran off into a lot of technical jargon I didn't understand a syllable of, and didn't want to. I tuned out.

  By this time I was breathing again, although my lungs felt sore. Not nearly as sore as my head, however. My eyeballs felt like they were embedded in glass splinters and my entire skull throbbed. I was now seeing a fat glaring red edge to everything, an erratic fat glaring red edge, sometimes as wide as a pocketknife, sometimes as narrow as an opalescent chain. It didn't need shadows. It looked like cracks in reality, opening into the chaos I'd seen protecting the way to Bo through nowheresville. I clung to the arms of the re-righted chair I'd been helped into once the medic was done with me.

  "Hold still," he said. He was trying to put stitches in Pat's shoulder. I didn't want to look at the goddess of pain again; I knew it was my eyes, but there was something really wrong about her, and whatever it was, it made my headache worse.

  I watched a couple of people gathering up pieces of combox. Another person appeared bearing a big bottle of some kind of, presumably, solvent, and was wiping up the littler gel blobs. Somebody else was flipping the bigger blobs into a bucket. I noticed that some of them left marks behind them. Jesse had minor burns on one forearm; Theo and Aimil hadn't been touched. It could have been a lot worse.

  It was a lot worse. It just wasn't about being burned by combox gel.

  My red edges were, I thought, narrowing. Not fast enough.

  I didn't notice the pause in the conversation till I heard my name being repeated. "Rae Seddon," the goddess was saying. I jerked my eyes up - and flinched: neither my eyes nor my head was ready for sudden movements - and equally unequal to meeting the goddess' eyes. "I heard about the incident a few weeks ago," she said, "with the vampire in Old Town. "

  I didn't say anything.

  "I'd quite like to have a chat with you myself sometime," she said.

  I still didn't say anything. I glanced at Pat. He was so poker-faced I knew he was worried. There was a big red halo around his head, and the shadows across his face were so blue I was surprised they weren't obvious to everyone. I hoped they weren't.

  "I doubt I can help you," I said, not looking at her. "I think it was an accident. "

  "Some power residue from your experience at the lake?" she said. I didn't like having her so up on my history. I wondered what else she knew. "Yes, I agree that that is the most likely. But it is the first such incident I'm aware of in any of our records" - did this mean she was interested enough to have had research done on it? - "and I would like to know as much about it as possible. SOF is always interested in unusual and unique cases. We have to be. " She smiled. I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It wasn't that she didn't mean it, exactly. It was that it was an official lubricant-on-the-sticky-gears-of-community smile. It suited her aura of poisonous gases. A toxic oil slick on the sea of society. I didn't like the smile. I found Pat's single-minded commitment to the total annihilation of vampires a little inopportune but I believed he was one of the good guys. I didn't believe she was.

  I didn't smile back. I tried to look too beat up from what had happened to be able to smile. I wasn't. What I was was too beat up to make myself smile when I didn't want to.

  "I assume that tonight's misguided attempt at a connection was also based on some faulty reading of that same residue?"

  The tone of her voice could have made cinnamon rolls unroll, cakes fall, and Bitter Chocolate Death melt. I hoped cravenly that she was talking to Pat.

  Pat said, "There's a precedent. Milenkovic - "

  "You'll have to do better than that, Agent Velasquez," interrupted the goddess. "Milenkovic was a senile old woman. "

 
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