“The Easter Bunny Must Die!”
The words met me at eye height, startlingly red and crooked as though hand-printed, although at this distance, I could tell that the sign was mass-manufactured. Figured. The Anti-Supernatural-League pretended to be a grass roots movement, but everyone knew it had been organized by Ferret News to give them something to feature in their broadcasts.
I looked down. The protester standing on the concrete in front of me was so short that she might have been taken for a Supernatural herself, a gnome or goblin or gremlin or any other of the few hundred humanoids in that height range. She seemed as broad as she was tall, adding to the illusion. She glared up at me from beneath a mop of brown hair spilling in all directions, as though getting to the protest that day had been so important that she’d skipped all other considerations.
I’d hoped to slip out this back door of the office to quietly grab lunch from the Taco Taco TACO TIME truck for myself and my co-workers. The protesters had been besieging the front of the Supernatural Investigations and Relations Bureau for a week now, but now they’d discovered the back as well. I wasn’t sure what they thought they were going to accomplish. We’re a government agency, even if one only a few years old.
“Consort of Darkness!” she screeched. I thought for a second that she was screaming it at me and technically she was, but she was also calling for reinforcements. Clearly she’d been enterprising in trying to stake out this door. I appreciated her ingenuity, but wish it had been applied somewhere else. Like maybe trying to consider why a kill-all-supernaturals-because-the-Bible-says-so might not be the least paradoxical position anyone had ever held.
I’d had a week of lunches of granola bars and shared egg salads. We’d been under orders not to engage with the protesters in any way. They had a way of filming such confrontations to make themselves look a whole lot better, and it was amazing how much support they had. When the world cracked open in 2005 and the Supernatural World was forced to reveal itself after the Gingrich episode, a whole lot of people hadn’t been happy at the idea that we were coexisting with a whole lot of creatures we’d been saying never existed.
I’d been putting off some errands as a result of all this too. I had a slew of overdue bills stuffed in my purse ready to be mailed, and the credit card and insurance company were both a week overdue.
I was used to going out and getting a coffee around ten too. A week of forgoing that, a week of pretending that we were just going about our business while trying to talk over the noise of the chanting and bullhorns outside.
And I’d stepped in gum that morning.
So maybe it was inevitable that I’d make the bad decision I did.
I pushed her.
The protesters were well aware of the orders we were under. They were pretty gleeful about it all, actually. They knew we couldn’t fight back, and they weren’t filming things like the gauntlet of spit our office administrator had had to face when she was a little late that morning.
So this one didn’t see that push coming. Her eyes widened as my hands came out and mine might have gotten a little wider too, because sometimes you find yourself doing something and you know this is a terrible idea and that consequences are starting to rush at you at about a million miles per minute, but you go ahead and do it anyway because you just can’t help yourself?
Yeah, that was it.
She went sprawling back amid the icy-rimmed puddles and concrete covered with slush and the marks of the garbage truck that had come through this morning. Her sign flew through the air like a kite, with a funny little flutter to it as it spun, red letters flashing at a certain angle as though in appeal.
Being short, she didn’t have far to go, but a grunt of air still escaped her. She didn’t waste a second on her back, but started scrambling to her feet, emitting a sound that wasn’t coherent, just a high-pitched song of rage.
I looked up to see two cameras catching all this. The other protesters stood there with cell phones out and pointed, grins on their faces confirming that they had caught the push. My heart sank and I half-closed my eyes.
That was a tactical mistake, because four feet of anger hit me in the side, making it my turn to go down. The back of my head thudded against the steel security door behind me, so loud I knew they’d hear it inside. It hurt. A lot.
Maybe I could have salvaged the situation even at that point, but it was too late. A red haze had surrounded me, and I’d launched myself at the protester, instincts so finely honed by a half decade of monster hunting that she didn’t stand a chance. My foot hit her solar plexus, drove her back with a ludicrous startled expression on her face. She hit the brick wall six feet away with a solid, meaty impact and slid downward, sagging.
Shit shit shit went through my head, and I started forward to see if she was all right, only to find more protesters between us. They clearly thought I was out to do her more harm. I held my hands out, trying to signal non-aggression, but the lead one, just as short as the one I’d kicked — a brother or cousin, maybe? — wasn’t buying it. A glance at the mouth of the alley confirmed that the digital cameras were still rolling.
This was going to be on YouTube in seconds. The push part might already be there.
The security door clanged open behind me, and everyone turned. My boss stood there, sleeves rolled, looking as usual like a walking Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Those looks had served him pretty well — he wasn’t that much older than I was but his weekly check bore a sum representing a good six or seven pay grades more for sure.
Seriously. Brad Manley (Cat: okay, I know it’s a bad name, but for me that stuff usually comes in a later draft. Be glad his name’s not Mr. Dick.) had almost every woman and a few of the men salivating over his 6’6” of lanky muscle and Midwestern good looks.
It was too bad he was such a total asshole.
As evidenced by his failure to exclaim, “My dear Miss Emma Amme, are you all right?” upon seeing the scene. Instead he bellowed, “Amme, what the f…” before catching sight of the cameras and managing to rein in his last word, “…friggin’ Hades is going on out here?”
“She attacked me!” the protester who’d incited all of this screamed, pointing at me.
I started to snap back a retort, then bit my tongue.
Actually, she had the right of it. I shouldn’t have pushed her.
Manley could see the guilt in my eyes. He stepped aside and gestured me in. I slunk back into the building. From looking at Youtube later, I can confirm that the protesters caught every minute of it.
But at the time I was still clinging to some shreds of optimism. Pretty, sparkly shreds that vanished in a poof when Manley told me to clean out my desk.
“You can’t do this!” I protested. “I’m the best agent you’ve got!”
“You and I both know we’re negotiating to have the Supernaturals police their own,” Manley sneered. “They’re tired of having you and the other buffy-wannabes running around staking vampires and taking DNA samples from werewolves in order to track down unsolved crimes.”
Even sneering, he looked handsome. In a douchebaggy way.
He turned, and I snapped after him, “You haven’t heard the last of me!”
Yup, that’s me, mistress of a thousand witty lines. Another deathless gem, which Manley didn’t even bother to acknowledge before his office door closed after him.
Some of the other employees were giving me sympathetic looks, except for Fred Raistlin and Jessica Dorn, both of whom had gotten passed over in order for me to get the shiny new promotion and a pay-grade bump that I’d gotten last month. I was starting to think that maybe that hadn’t been such a good thing. At the time I know people were muttering about my over zealousness making it harder on every one else and by a few looks, that thought was occurring to more than a few again.
Still, they made a good show of things. Coraline, the receptionist hired only for her looks, brought me a cardboard box to pack my belongings into. She perched on a nearby chair, snapping her gum and chattering away as I transferred my desk contents to the box.
Three years hard work all confined to three cubic feet, exactly a foot per year.
My nose was running and my eyes were hot, but I’d be damned if I’d cry in front of all of them. Instead I listened to Coraline chatter away about my possibilities, each more absurd than the last.
“I bet they’d pay big for a biography of some kind, you know, like Memoir of a Vampire Hunter…”
“I signed the same non disclosure clause that everyone else did,” I said.
“You could start a radio show and talk to people about what the supernaturals are really like…”
“There’s plenty of those figures out there,” I said. “That chick on NPR, for instance.”
“You could freelance as a buffy.”
“Buffy-ing’s illegal,” I said. “And I don’t approve of it, either. Too many untrained people out there getting encouraged to run into things so far above their head that they’re drowned before they even start.”
She fell silent, watching me put the last of my good luck charms atop the pile of folders and books. One maneki neko cat, one slice of fossilized ammonite, one tapering spiral of unicorn horn, souvenir of my first big bust. Mounted in such a way that you could caress the mother of pearl surface, draw your finger around and around the hypnotic spiral. It was a comforting feel and I found myself doing it, refusing to put the horn in the box but instead standing there in the office looking around at a loss while my fingers traced that long coil.
What was I going to do? From the moment that the Supernatural World had revealed itself to humans, I’d known what my calling would be: to work with them somehow. And an undergraduate degree that combined folklore and biology was a natural. It didn’t hurt that I was an athlete, although that was something that hadn’t come half as easily as the studying had. Still, I’d managed to pass the government training program and I’d been with the Bureau from day one. A lot of people here couldn’t say the same thing, including my soon-to-be-former boss.
Who chose that moment to poke his head out his office door. Spotting me, he scowled, and Fred, who’d been starting over to talk to me, reversed course and headed towards the water cooler instead.
“You’re out, Amme!” he shouted. “You’ll get your paperwork in the mail. And I won’t be sorry to see you go, you’ve been a pain in my ass since the first day I came here.”
“Sorry doing the right thing has proved such an inconvenience,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Is that what you’re calling it,an inconvenience? I have to fill out more paperwork on you than any other person in this office, Amme. Or had to, as I can say now.”
He sneered, and it didn’t look quite as pretty on him as it usually did.
I could feel Manley watching me as I trudged out the door. I paused outside the offices even though I knew he could see me through the glass. The protesters were still clustered around the main entrance and there was no way I was going to face those again.
Instead, I went along the corridor and slipped into the Stare Hair Care Salon. The owner was sitting behind the counter, reading a Regency romance. She glanced up at the sound of the door, brightening when she saw me.
“You finally come in for a nice hair cut, get you a pretty boy to make you smile all the time?”
“No thanks, Miss M,” I said. “I was hoping to use the back door, if you don’t mind.”
Her eyes flicked out towards the direction of the front door, and her hair stirred at the thought. I might have imagined the tiny indignant hiss that didn’t come from her lips.
“You should watch out for them too,” I said. “They were in back of our place.”
A little grin crept over her lips, sly as a Cheshire Cat. “I’d like to see them try coming in here,” she purred. “Law says anything that happens then is their own fault.”
I eyed the lumps stirring underneath the scarf that covered her hair, knowing that the fabric was enchanted to keep the snakes there contained, but as always every time I met her, there was an edge of worry. As a Medusa, Miss Melaine was technically a Prime Class supernatural, a creature possessed of powers with killing force. A lot of supernaturals fell in that range. Very few fell in the range of the creature mentioned on my protester’s sign: the Easter Bunny.
The Easter Bunny is a textbook (and I mean that literally, we studied him in my Fables and Reality class) example of an ultra Prime, and it was the ultra Primes that really had the anti-supernaturals stirred up. Because technically they were more than Supernatural creatures — they were gods, although everyone still disagreed what that word meant, exactly, other than that they had extremely powerful abilities that no one could explain. There were more ultra Primes than anyone really wanted to think about, but luckily most of them had their own, unguessable things that they wanted to do, none of which seemed to involved humans or human territory or anything else that might document them.
Now wasn’t the time to sit there reviewing my class notes in my head. It was time to get going. But I paused and extended a hand.
“I’m not coming around any more,” I said. “I’ll miss grabbing coffee with you.”
“You finally found yourself a new job!” she beamed. Her face fell when I shook my head. “What did Manley do now?”
“Fired me,” I said, feeling the burn at the back of my eyes at actually saying it aloud. A worm of embarrassment and shame wriggled in my stomach. What had I been thinking?
She grabbed a slip of paper from her desk and pushed it in my direction. “You leave me your number, in case I know someone looking to hire someone?”
“Hire someone for what?” I said. “Buffying’s illegal.”
“I wouldn’t send you buffying,” she said, scowling, and I remembered she’d lost her mother to Jolie in the blowup of 08.
“Sorry,” I said, chagrined. “My mouth’s getting me in all sorts of trouble today.” I grabbed the pad and scrawled my email and cell phone on it. “Sure, if you find someone who needs legit work, I’d be all over it.”
And I would. My job skills fit a very, very narrow profile. I’d realized even in college, in my junior year when the revelation hit, that we’d need people to deal with them and I’d picked my training keeping in mind what an organization devoted to dealing with supernatural creatures might need. It meant there weren’t a lot of other things I was really qualified for. Panic kept trying to grab me about that, and I kept trying to push it away before I could think too hard about it. Instead, I focused on the mural of a kelp forest on the wall, on a serene shaft of light slanting down into the blue depths.
Breathe. It was important to breathe.
M touched my wrist with a sympathetic look. “You can sit down and stay here a little while, if you like,” she suggested.
I shook my head, even though I was pretty tempted. But right now the sound of getting to my apartment and sinking into a hot bath with a glass of wine and Imani Coppola blasting in the background overrode all other desires. “The back will lock behind me, won’t it?”
M nodded. “It’s on the opposite side from your exit, so I don’t think they’ll be looking there at all, and even if they are, you can just pretend to be one of my staff leaving.”
“Thanks,” I said. When I’d first found out about M’s studio moving into the building, I hadn’t been happy about it at all. But she was one of the ones who’d persuaded me that not all Supernaturals, even the powerful ones, were dangerous to humans. M just wanted to live and let live.
That was all any of us wanted, really.
With a backwards wave, I wen into the storeroom, past boxes of hair product, and slipped out the door with a screech of metal that sent a shiver down my spine, thinking it’d bring the protesters swarming.
But apparently they were all still around the entrance or the exit I’d first tried, because there was no one here on the street. I tucked my collar up around my neck with a sigh, and headed towards the bus stop.
All the way home I tried to avoid thinking about it, but it was hard. I’d get some sort of unemployment, wouldn’t I, if Manley had fired me? The Bureau had been my first and only job directly out of grad school and they’d locked me in months before I graduated. I had no experience with job hunting.
Or resumes. God, what was I going to put on my resume?
And if I didn’t get a job before the unemployment ran out, what then? My savings might get me through a month or two, but things like my student loan payment would keep eating away at them. Should I begin super-economizing as soon as possible, trim to the bone, try to cling on as long as possible? It couldn’t hurt. And my mind skittered away from ideas like moving in with relatives — not that I had that many. My parents, both only children like myself, had passed away when I was young, and all I had was a handful of distant cousins.
I stared out the window as the concrete walls lining I-5 rolled past, listening to the city sounds: the roar of traffic and a distant fire engine’s siren over the churn of the bus engine.
I’d kept my apartment after college, up in the University District, and the rent had been pretty stable, so moving probably wouldn’t save me enough to make the hassle and expense of doing it worth it. No, I’d put that particular maneuver off as long as possible. I liked my little apartment with its neat little rooms, the ways of doing things that I’d developed over years of living there. I knew all its ins and outs, and I was well acquainted with the three building ghosts, all benign and well-intentioned souls that had accrued over the building’s eighty years.
But I could do some things. I never watched TV anyway, I could cancel that, and stop eating out. Cooking wasn’t something I’d ever really done much of, but how hard could it be, really, if you knew the basics, like how to boil water? No, that would be easy enough. I focused on that and avoided everything else. I could worry about a lot of that tomorrow. I’d had a shock. I’d give myself one more day to pretend it hadn’t happened, let the pain fade a bit.
Maybe I’d drink more than a single glass of wine in that bath.
Yeah, that was it. That was the ticket.
It seemed like a good idea until I got home and found my building on fire.