A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT
ACT 5a: OF ZOMBIES AND ZEALOTS
“Come on up,” I said to Danielle.
Trixie gaped at me. “Really? We want someone like that to realize Missy’s away?”
“We can pretend Mel’s sleeping, or will be back soon,” I answered. “Danielle Timins, she was involved in my first case here. The one I documented online. I’m curious about what she wants now.”
Trixie frowned. “First case… the invisible friend thing? Where you nearly blew up a building on campus?”
Apparently this was another of the cases that Melissa had mentioned to her cousin during my three-week absence in May. “That’s the one.”
“Okay. And you’re sure that this is the same person, not some sort of illusion? And that she hasn’t joined a faction in the last four years, like maybe the stabby-stabby one?”
“Once an idiot, always an idiot,” Trixie sighed, rolling her eyes. She glanced at her palm, as if debating smacking me upside the head, like old times. Instead, all she said was, “I’ll hang around long enough to keep you out of trouble.”
I opened the door for Danielle.
Trixie immediately fired off with, “What faction are you representing?”
Danielle shrank back. “Oh, um, I do have scriptures explaining why the human race isn’t ready for supernatural incursions,” the blonde said timidly. “Based on what I remember of my own experi—”
“Rationals.” Trixie slammed the door in Danielle’s face and turned to me. “Told you.”
“B-But that’s not why I’m here!” Danielle called out from the other side.
I sighed. “Trixie, let her back in?”
She shot me a look. “As if we don’t have enough on our plate already?”
I crossed my arms. “And here I thought you were eager to help the Agency out with more than just the engrams.”
“This IS helping,” Trixie said. “Isn’t it?” She searched my expression, then frowned and reopened the door. “Fine. Make your case for sticking around in ten seconds or less, Danielle.”
Danielle reached to push her glasses up higher on her nose. “There’s a guy in the park down the street who says that if Melissa doesn’t show up in the next hour to marry him, he’ll blow everything up.”
I did a double-take. “He’ll what now?”
“Huh. Blow the PARK up or blow MISSY up?” Trixie questioned. I turned to see if she was making fun of the situation, only to realize she was doing up the half of her blouse buttons that had been undone. She was taking this seriously.
“Blow the park up,” Danielle clarified. “The one where a lot of us faction people have been hanging out. Trying to figure out how we can get the upper hand on the other groups.”
“Wait, all the factions are there?” I asked, looking back at her.
“Sure,” Danielle answered.
“I figured you all had to have a home base,” Trixie mused. “Okay, sorry for slamming the door on you. Question though, how is him blowing up your base a smart move?”
“He’s not part of any faction,” Danielle insisted. “Or if he is, he’s some hybrid. He showed up about five minutes ago with that crazy ultimatum. And a priest, for the marriage. And our rudimentary magick shows he does have explosives. So we’re at a bit of a loss as to what to do.”
“Did you sneak out to come get us?” Trixie asked.
Danielle shook her head. “I was nominated, as a Rational person who had once seen Melissa, and could thus maybe gain her sympathy. Even though I don’t remember much about my case, they thought you’d at least let me in.”
“In that, they were right,” I realized. I looked to Trixie. “You know, the fact that Melissa just left can’t be a coincidence,” I pointed out.
“A-duh,” Trixie retorted. “Way to not be an idiot for once, though minus points for saying that with Danielle still here.” She turned to the blonde. “It’s fine. Run along and we’ll fix things within the hour time frame this guy gave. Unless you have other useful information?” She made shoo-ing motions.
Danielle started wringing her hands. “Are you sure? When is Melissa due back? We don’t even know where this guy’s explosives are, and a lot of people in the park are hanging around to see what happens, rather than being smart and running away.”
“It’s fine,” I said, to back Trixie up. “Though, you might want to be one of the smart people who leaves the area. Okay?”
Danielle nodded, her glasses slipping down once more. “A-All right then. I’ll pass on the message. Oh, if it helps, the guy called himself the Great Zamboni. That’s all I’ve got.”
I closed the apartment door as she headed down the stairs.
“Okay,” Trixie said, tugging up on her dark stockings. “I figure that Mortum guy used Alicia’s orb, and sent this Zamboni to keep Missy busy here, so that she wouldn’t be messing around his castle. But the message was a bit late.”
“Though it could be coincidence,” I suggested. “Maybe this marriage guy was planning to blow up the park regardless, and he wants Melissa there for it, to get her in the blast. He doesn’t exactly sound balanced, he might be full of crazy instead of worship.”
Trixie nodded. “No kidding. Anyone considering marriage to Missy can’t be balanced.”
She smirked. It took me a second to parse why, and as I did a double take, she extended her tongue impishly back. At least the earlier conversation hadn’t made things awkward between us.
“Either way,” Trixie stated. “I’ll put my intimacy cravings on hold to help you with this.” A flash of uncertainty appeared. “Unless you don’t want my help. Since I guess this will be field work and a half.”
“No, I’ll need the help,” I assured her. “Since my back-up plan is going to require magick casting, and that’s your department.”
Trixie nodded. “Cool, you have a plan. This, I want to hear.”
“We have almost an hour, so it involves doing some research, while hoping Melissa’s able to complete her mission particularly expediently.”
“Uh.” Trixie didn’t look impressed. “And your back-up plan…?”
I exhaled. “Well, Plan B involves getting some flour from the kitchen.”
I’ll now relate to you some of what happened with Melissa. You’ll find out in the end whether I know this from her directly, or through other means.
When Melissa first arrived, she was forced to blink a few times to adjust to the lower light levels. In the end, she didn’t like what saw. There had been three possible points for her arrival, as Alicia had said her informant couldn’t guarantee placement.
One was down in the dungeons. Another was an arboretum-style room. The last was at the top of one of the towers, where she now seemed to be. Where there was only one point of entrance or egress, unless you counted flying. (The dungeons, funny enough, had two.) With no alternative, Melissa crouched and hurried down the stairs before her, hoping not to encounter anyone on the way. These being the same stairs she would need to take to get back out.
One of the main reasons Melissa had known this would be difficult, was because she had to avoid casting any particularly powerful spells in order to avoid detection. Ironically, casting invisibility would only serve to pinpoint her position. Another drawback was the fact that Melissa didn’t want to attack any zombies if she could avoid it; she’d already resigned herself to the fact that she would need to obtain Alicia’s orb before attempting to free them.
After all, she could only be sure all of them were released by blocking, or otherwise incapacitating, the magick of Mortum. Which implied removing any advantage he might have. Alas, since (according to Alicia) the orb itself was kept in a sealed off storage room behind the throne room, a face-off might become inevitable.
Fortunately, Melissa was in luck – there was no one in the vicinity of the stairs. As she reached the bottom, she opened her pack to remove a small jar, which held the tracking spell she had prepared earlier. It appeared as a tiny glowing ball of light, and once Melissa had unscrewed the lid, the spell fluttered out and down towards the ground.
It remained there for a moment, hovering, before shooting off down the hall. Melissa attuned herself to it, before setting off in quiet pursuit.
It was upon peering around the third corner that she caught sight of her first zombi.
It was a male, perhaps in his thirties, looking none the worse for wear (outside of his tattered clothing), thus likely a type I or type III. He’d been slowly walking through the hall, facing away from her.
Another misconception I should dispel here is that zombies always move slowly. They tend to do that when they’re on a routine patrol (who wouldn’t get bored and go on autopilot?), but they can speed up if they have to, just like a normal human.
Melissa now searched her memory, to recall what Alicia had mentioned about security patrols. The majority of the interior squad was type II (no need to feed those ones), while the majority of the exterior squad was type I (despite the remote location of this guy’s castle, there was always the possibility of them being seen by the public, or one of his collector guests).
So the fact that she’d passed the perimeter, and yet this wasn’t a II, meant it was one of the inner guard. Melissa was closer to the throne room than she’d realized. The specs hadn’t been entirely accurate.
Moreover, given the position of that zombi, and the other information she had, she reasoned that she’d have to work her way back out and around. Then wait a full half hour before a window of opportunity opened for getting through.
Melissa’s tracking spell was already out of sight, but it remained close enough for her to draw a bead on it. She wasn’t in any hurry. Or so she thought, not knowing what we were facing back home.
“Flour from the kitchen,” Trixie said, dropping the sack onto the desk and then looking at me expectantly.
“Right,” I sighed. We were down to twenty minutes left. “So you didn’t turn up anything useful on this Zamboni guy?”
I’d spent my time combing through Melissa’s files for any reference to him, or any similar cases in the past, and had come up empty. My eidetic memory had implied as much at the start, but there’d been a couple places where I’d wanted to be sure. I’d left the internet in Trixie’s hands.
Trixie leaned forwards against the desk. I saw she’d unbuttoned part of her blouse again, whether as a conscious decision or otherwise. “I didn’t find anything I saw as useful,” she said. “But here’s the rundown, on the off chance you spot something.” She smirked. “First, Zamboni’s not the manager of an ice rink, much to my surprise.”
I rubbed my forehead. “Yeah, I’m going to have to curb a desire to pun,” I admitted.
“Maybe don’t,” Trixie said. “What little there is on the guy shows that he can get riled up when he’s made fun of, which in turn leads to him making mistakes.”
I frowned. “Do we want a guy with explosives to get riled up?”
Trixie shrugged. “I said MAYBE don’t.”
“Noted. Anything else?”
She seemed to hesitate. “He’s a regular guy with bare minimum magick who’s aware of its existence, and as such is constantly looking to hook up with a witch. Which is why I did find cursory information. But his lovers don’t seem to satisfy him, or he accuses them of ulterior motives, and so he keeps bouncing around, from one witch love affair to another. Never finding a lasting relationship.”
“Ah.” I wondered if Zamboni had been exposed to magick the same way I had been. Trixie seemed to want to say something else though, so I kept staring at her.
Her mouth tightened. “So even an idiot like you can see there’s a bit of a parallel in my own life? Fine. Look, I won’t turn out like that. Whereas he’s sleeping around trying to find his place in the magick community, I’m just trying to find my place in the world. And whereas he’s thinking he’s finished because he’s found a Chosen One, I’m just going to keep going until I make, oh God, I’m not as pathetic as this guy, am I? Please say I’m not.”
I couldn’t tell if her attempt at a smile was her joking or being sincere.
“You’re not,” I assured her, honestly. “After all, you’d never blow people up to find yourself a boyfriend.”
Trixie almost facepalmed. “James. Seriously. The explosives aren’t for Missy, they’re because he’s decided that, after all this time, if she ISN’T his doorway in, nobody else WILL be. She’s no longer a girlfriend, she’s his Chosen One. His final solution. Much like how I’ve decided that anyone who wants me must have ulterior motives, making me wonder if I shouldn’t just build an AI boyfriend.”
“Uh. Wait, what? Are you making an AI along with everything else?” I said, not sure about the timing of this conversation.
“No, idiot, I’m too busy helping you and Missy first.” Trixie glanced down, apparently realizing her button popping had been distracting, and she started to do them back up. “Look, don’t worry about having this conversation with me, James. You’re no good at it. Suffice to say, I’m realizing I shouldn’t coerce people to walk my path, even if it’s obviously the best path, because I’m so smart. People have to be themselves, and forcing otherwise means things will blow up in my face.”
“Right. You’re not like Zamboni though, seriously.”
“I’m glad you think so.” She gestured at the sack she’d brought. “Now explain to me why we are throwing flour at the guy?”
I seized the topic change. “Right,” I said. “We don’t throw it. The plan is, we put that in a circle, and then you work a transformation spell to make me look like Melissa.”