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A few drinks after dinner, Brandt asked, “What kind of person knows about owls?”

Raucous singing drowned out Agnet’s reply. Breaking out a barrel of the hard stuff to celebrate the “spook-hunters” arrival hadn’t been the warden’s brightest idea. Though the booze might improve the man’s chances with Philip. They seemed pretty chummy, over there tête-à-tête. She spotted Jemin’s blond mop amongst the chorus of trainees; he’d gone over to interview a few, and “subtly extract” the essence of their culture. Maybe they’d broken into song to display that culture. Or to avoid being interrogated about minutia.

The song died down to a mere uproar. “Jemin’s a history specialist, anthropology, politics, folklore. You name it. But I don’t know why he’d know about birds. Some people have scholarly interests outside their field.”

Brandt, who seemed more of a shoot-first-read-a-book-never type, tapped his rather significant chest. “I have interests outside my field, too. But I’m telling you, something’s different about the guy.”

“You perceiving behind my back?”

“Heck, no.”

Brandt might be onto something. “What’s different about Jemin? Just curious.”

“Just feel he’s not focused on the mission, like he’s got another agenda; you know? I’m not saying he’s trouble or anything, just…he reminds me of something. It’ll come to me. Hey, check out Phil and the Warden.” He pointed out the pair, chatting over drinks in a corner, with a wave of his glass. “Hope he’s packing condoms.”

Given what she knew of Spool by reputation, he doubtless hated the nickname “Phil.” That reputation, his dossier, and his spotless medical record suggested pockets stuffed with condoms, a suitcase full of condoms, long-term investments in multiple condom factories, a man who enjoyed physical contact and wasn’t particular about gender. Sure, promiscuity often was a response to trauma. But who wasn’t traumatized these days? Plus, good-looking agents often used hanky-panky as a tool of the trade. Not her style, but a strategy that didn’t phase her, if the agent was circumspect, had a thick enough skin to handle emotional fallout, and limited themselves to consenting partners. Sometimes those rolls in the hay revealed interesting details.

“Sometimes seems the gays have all the luck.”

Having recently come off the border, his tolerance of others might have dwindled below mandated levels. That last management meeting, Evangaline encouraging them to focus hate on approved scapegoats: believers in the supernatural, law-breakers, and residents of recalcitrant neighboring countries, anybody who didn’t follow Central’s plan for humanity, But even though Evangaline was a hypocritical ass-pimple, she didn’t have room for bigotry on her team. “What do you mean?” She set down her glass, hoping her offhand tone and the alcohol would encourage Brandt to show his true colors.

Brandt didn’t seem phased by her question. “I’m a ladies only guy, and look around. This place is slim pickings from my perspective. Ninety-five percent of the women here are terrifying.”

“Terrifying?” Brandt’s shirt accentuated his impressive pectorals and shoulders. The shirt looked custom made. What could terrify this man?

“Yep. The type of woman who slits your throat while you're sleeping.”

“Your mother make your shirts?”

He grinned proud as a cat with a lizard tail in its mouth. Had she hit a vain streak? “No. Custom made on my own dime. But my fine attire is wasted on this bunch. The non-terrifying females are too ugly or old.” Brandt delivered his too-much-personal-information with a slight slur. He’d better cool it on the booze.

“Now Orl—way too young for me—but I feel bad about her outfit. It’s nice the ugly kids have their own style, with the black hair and lips, the eyeliner. But Orl’s not ugly, even through she nails the freaky look. Sure, perceivers are supposed to be strange—that’s just how they roll from what I understand—but it’s sad the see her hiding behind all that black.”

“Don’t worry about her. Lots of kids experiment with style. And keep in mind, she’s dressing for herself. Not for anybody else. She’s not here to decorate our world.” Ouch. Now she felt hypocritical. But she’d looked so strange, dancing and mouthing words. Sending her off to bed had seemed like the best plan.

Brandt mopped the condensate from his glass. That move, plus the custom shirts, suggested a fussy side to the big bruiser that could give Philip a run for the money. “You’re right. And I hope she comes around because we could use her help with the ghosts.”

“We don’t have ghosts. We have monsters. Or maybe zombies. Make peace with it.”

“I can still dream. And I’ll bet Orl knows ghosts same as a normal kid knows—hey, look. Lover boy scores a point.”

Philip and Honing were off to fraternize. Jemin was probably boring witnesses to death. Orl was both mute and asleep, and she and Brandt were schnokered and gossiping. An inauspicious start to the mission. The weight of the day slipped off its shoes and settled itself heavy on her shoulders. She was hitting the sack.

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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