Virga

Virga: Act 5B

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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?”

“I… euh…”

TRIXIE
Commission from Sen Yomi

“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.”

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Virga: Act 5A

Previous INDEX Next

A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 5a: OF ZOMBIES AND ZEALOTS

“This is somehow several degrees worse than what I’m thinking, I guess,” I said at last.

Melissa looked startled, as if she’d forgotten I was even there. She looked towards me. “Sorry, James. But yes. A zombi is the ultimate perversion. Using witchcraft to turn a body into a puppet for one’s own purposes. There are laws against that sort of thing in our trade.”

“Aha. Obviously this is different from the classical ‘eat your brains’ kind of zombie.”

“Hollywood strikes again,” Melissa said with a shrug. “Also, zombi, fast i, only the plural uses an e.”

It also says something that she had to tell me that. I was pretty good at the language of the supernatural by now, yet zombies had never come up in all of our time together.

She went to sit back down at the desk, which I think was to prevent pacing back and forth. I waited until she was ready.

MELISSA VIRGA
Commission from Shirley

“There are three types of zombi,” Melissa began at last. “In the first case, a regular person, or occasionally animal, has their willpower totally supplanted by the spell, basically becoming a slave in their own body. Their actions are totally controlled by the caster. In the most dire of cases, the body can die because even though the brain knows they should be drinking water, the body received a command not to do so.”

My eyebrows went up. “That’s terrible.”

Melissa’s voice was clipped. “It gets worse. The second type of zombi involves reanimation of a dead subject by forcibly tying their spirit back into their body. This tends to warp and taint the spirit, be it slowly or quickly depending on the actions the zombi takes – and again there’s nothing the individual can do about it.”

Here I understood Melissa’s apparent revulsion. She strongly believes that once a death has occurred, that individual has passed into another state of being, if not another realm. Thus it’s unhealthy for us to use supernatural means to tie them to our mortal plane of reality, messing with the natural order of things. To do so is at best irresponsible, and at worst, can compromise the deceased’s spiritual existence.

She’s indicated that some ghosts and specters were not originally evil when they first chose, or were forced, to remain on Earth.

In fact, that one time I saw Melissa break down and cry? Was when she was forced to briefly call upon a recently departed spirit, in fighting an older witch named Melody. I’m not sure she’s ever fully forgiven herself for that one, though it did get me out of a potentially life threatening situation. It was one of the first cases that I chronicled.

“Do I even want to know about the third type?” I asked.

“Well, they’re perhaps the most dangerous, while simultaneously being the least horrific, as far as I’m concerned,” Melissa said. “Creating the third type involves enslaving a spirit, rather than a body itself, and requires at least passive acceptance on the part of the spirit. But said spirit is useless without a body, so it can take over whatever is available – temporarily. It can jump, and in fact must, once human immune systems kick in. But for hours, even days, it can supplant the will of whoever’s body it likes the most at any particular time. It is sometimes able to control multiple bodies at once. You don’t want one of them touching you.”

I thought about this. “Seems a bit like using magick on the unwilling,” I admitted.

“Alas, the dead don’t really have an advocate for what they want or don’t want,” Melissa said. “And a person not being satisfied with their life is often enough of a wedge for the zombi spirit.”

She finally couldn’t sit still any longer, standing and starting to pace despite her best efforts. “Incidentally, it’s that last zombi type that gives rise to the belief of zombies spreading an infection, and the lack of their own will that has people believing they seek brains. It’s more that a zombi seeks to regain control of their own brain. The whole practice is absolutely despicable, and I cannot believe that it’s still going on in what we laughingly call a civilized society.”

I looked a little more closely at Melissa. “Did you accept this mission in order to retrieve Alicia’s orb, or in order to free the zombies?”

She gave me a look, and I knew it was the latter.

“But if there are laws against this sort of thing, can’t you or Alicia notify the magick authorities?” I protested.

“I’m guessing this Mortum doesn’t publicize the scope of what he’s doing. Alicia probably only knows because of her person on the inside, and for that matter, this orb is probably giving the guy an advantage as well.”

I nodded slowly. “Well then, I’m going in there with you.”

“No.”

“Mel, we do these things togeth—”

“Not this time!” Melissa repeated loudly. Then her gaze softened and she reached out to take me by the shoulders. “It’s too dangerous, plus Alicia specifically stated that I’m the focus point. The only one who can slip under the radar.” She smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to go in unprepared.”

I tried to think of a good objection.

“Damn it, what’s all the shouting about?” came Trixie’s annoyed voice. Her twintails appeared as she opened her door and poked her head out. “I’m about to do some delicate work here, constructing a memory circuit using what feels like stone knives and bearskins. Do you mind?”

“It’s about zombies,” Melissa said, looking towards her cousin.

Trixie’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, fuuuuck. Spill.”

***

Melissa left us the following evening. She had already coordinated with Alicia by that point, so that she would have some idea as to the layout of Mortum’s castle and the size of the force she would be dealing with. She refused to share the information with me or Trixie.

“So what if we have to charge in and rescue you?” Trixie had asked earlier that day. “We won’t have your map.” The techno-witch had surfaced to find food, and found Melissa putting things into a backpack.

“You won’t need to charge in,” Melissa retorted.

“Uh huh. You know, being this Chosen One doesn’t make you invincible, yeah?” Trixie pressed. “There’s others who can take over, or whatever.”

“Of course I know that. The same way we both know field work isn’t something you excel at,” Melissa fired back. “So back off.”

Trixie glared. “Low blow. In return, maybe I should get in contact with your parents and tell them how often you’ve been sexing it up with James, against their advice?”

“At least I’ve had sex with a guy in the last three weeks, unlike you,” Melissa said. “Are your silly tricks not having their desired effect this month?”

“Whoa. WHOA,” I interjected from across the room. I’d been looking at Wing’s accounts. That had escalated too quickly. “Mel, decorum!”

Trixie’s face had become red, with either embarrassment or anger – or both. I’m not sure. “Wow, sorry for caring,” was all she snapped before going back into her room and slamming the door.

I approached Melissa. “You must know that was uncalled for.”

Melissa pressed two fingers to her forehead. “Right. Right, sorry. This zombi thing has me on edge. If you talk with Trix later, apologize to her for me? Please?”

Insisting to Melissa that she apologize herself felt like a conversation for later, particularly when Alicia herself came by to create the circle of salt for us shortly thereafter.

Know that it wasn’t strictly necessary for Alicia to do that, but she knew where the corresponding circle would be on the other side, as laid by her inside informant. Which would help to ensure safety on the return trip.

“Okay,” Melissa concluded, just before 8pm. Meaning after 1am European time. She had dressed in black for the occasion, within her usual motif – jeans, T-shirt and running shoes. “Give me at least two hours before you start to worry.” She shouldered her backpack.

“Kind of hard to schedule my concern,” I pointed out. “Besides, is there anything I can do when those two hours are up? That I couldn’t do now, that is.”

Melissa seemed about to wave me off, only to change her mind. “You could have Trixie contact the witch authorities,” she allowed. “Since at the least, I should have made it more difficult for this Mortum guy to disguise his zombi hordes by then.”

I nodded. “Please be careful, Mel.”

She simply grinned back, though the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Always.” Melissa leaned in for a quick kiss before moving into the salt circle. “Alea iacta est,” she muttered at last. And she vanished.

Less than a minute later, Trixie came out of her room. She was wearing a barely buttoned up red blouse and a short plaid skirt with long, dark stockings, meaning she’d changed from the more conservative outfit (for Trixie, at least) that she’d worn earlier in the day.

“Missy gone?” Trixie asked.

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “And she said she’s sorry about earlier.”

Trixie crossed her arms under her breasts, seemingly to push them up a bit, while leaning back against the wall. “Sure she is. Because you told her to be.”

“She is,” I insisted. “I mean, I know you don’t see us a lot of late, so maybe you couldn’t tell, but Mel is pretty on edge about this zombi stuff. Probably the Chosen One stuff too. Let’s talk again once this is over.”

“Uh huh.” Trixie looked me up and down. “Missy’s part of the reason I’m not getting any, you know,” she blurted out.

I stared. At Trixie’s face, for the record. “O-kay?”

“You heard her call me out on not bedding a guy lately, huh? She was right, of course. I dunno what the hint was, but her perception is as acute as ever.”

“I wasn’t going to bring it up.”

“No kidding, that’s why I’m bringing it up,” Trixie continued. “My last major Friday date was three weeks ago. Turned out to be one of Missy’s Worshippers. He was trying to use me to get to her. Ask me how I knew.”

“Um.” Playing along seemed safest. “All right, how did you know?”

“Any normal guy would be fine with nailing me back at his place. Ergo, insisting that we do the deed here, in this apartment, was a huge red flag. And yes, maybe he lived with his parents, the way I used to. Or it could’ve been a kink.” Trixie took a deep breath. “So I swiped his wallet when he wasn’t looking. Had pictures of Missy in it, and a membership card for some fan club. Can you believe it? What an idiot, keeping that stuff on hand while trying to pick me up.”

“Uh, yeah. Look, Trixie, I’m… not sure why you’re telling me this,” I admitted.

Trixie lowered her arms to push herself off the wall. “Well, aside from the fact that it’s a pretty good bit of field work on my part, who the HELL else am I going to tell? Besides, Missy’s life is interfering with mine in more ways than one… and I’ve wanted to get that off my chest.”

I think Trixie’s got it down to a science, using the word ‘chest’ at the same time as she does a heel bounce, to naturally draw the eye down. I still fall for it. “Fine,” I said. “Now could you at least… not do that, for right now?” I asked, gesturing.

“Oh, sure, because I can turn off my personality on a whim,” Trixie shot back. She stamped her foot. “Never mind all the work I’m doing for Miss Chosen One. Without any reward to speak of, aside from the work itself, I might add. Just screw Trixie, except of course I’m NOT getting screwed lately, I’m lonely as hell, and nobody cares!”

I now realized her eyes were misting over. My first instinct was to give Trixie a hug, except I worried that would result in mixed signals. “I-I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t notice.”

“Of COURSE you didn’t,” Trixie said. She rubbed her arm over her eyes, as if to clear them. “Because you’re the wonderful kind of idiot. But Missy obviously deduced it all, and didn’t care. That’s why I’m upset. Damn it, why am I helping you two idiots out again?”

I was swiftly feeling all kinds of awkward in this conversation. “Because you know Mel cares, even though she doesn’t express herself very well?”

“Cares about YOU, you mean. Maybe I should have just let her fan club into this place after all, might have taught her not to ignore me.”

“I’m, um, not sure that would have solved anything.”

Trixie stared at me. “You still don’t get it, do you. The big reason why I’m telling you.”

I rubbed the back of my neck. “No?”

“Agh, IDIOT,” Trixie groaned, sliding her palm down her face. “Look. I thought I was finally fitting in here, James. Sure, I’m a bit of a third wheel, but I was helping out, right? With my skills? It seemed like that. Finally, the fact that I’m so smart, or so shallow, or so witchy, or so whatever, wasn’t a barrier.”

“Is this about field work again?”

Trixie pursed her lips. “Only partly. It’s about how despite being a part of this, I still craved intimacy. Which I thought I could fulfil through… you know. But now this job is screwing that up. I mean, don’t misunderstand. I won’t leave you now, not when I’m so close, but damn it, I need to be held. And to not wonder if it’s happening because I know Missy.”

“Um.” Again, I wondered if I should give her a hug. “Held, or groped? Because as a friend, I could manage the first…”

“James, connect the dots, it’s kinda the same thing for me,” she interrupted. “Which is why I’m going out now, dressed like this, despite Missy’s life possibly being in danger. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s an attempt at self-care. You get it?”

I nodded. “Okay. You have needs too, I get it,” I agreed.

“Good.” She didn’t immediately make any move for the doorway. “James… I AM helping you both out, right? With more than just the engram work? You still like having me around?”

I didn’t get a chance to answer, because that’s when the protective wards downstairs tipped us off to the presence of a new arrival. When I went to look, I saw a blonde woman with short hair, wearing glasses. She looked vaguely familiar.

“I need to talk to Melissa,” she said into the monitor, seeming a little out of breath.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Danielle. Danielle Timins.”

I knew that name. She’d been involved in my first ever Virga Mysteries case.

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Virga: Act 4E

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A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 4e: OF PARENTS AND PROGRAMMING

Okay, so I suppose some context is necessary before the time skip, given how over two months elapsed between my taking control of Melissa’s supernatural agency, and the events involving Alicia.

First, by August, Melissa and Trixie had toned down their sniping at each other. This was largely due to how Trixie was very preoccupied with the immense computing task we’d given her, and as such remained mostly in her room.

I realized that her inexperience with field work had been a source of insecurity, one she masked through humour and conflict, to avoid appearing stupid. So having it scaled back by choice worked out.

MELISSA VIRGA
Commission from Shirley

Meanwhile, Melissa’s own insecurity – about whether I was in love with her, or with witchcraft – was put to bed within the first couple weeks of my return. Granted, she was still vexed with how her “rival” Trixie would shake her chest at me (particularly if it was over breakfast, because there occasionally wouldn’t be a bra involved yet, and that is damn distracting) but I explained (in private) how it was a coping mechanism for Trixie.

Meanwhile, Trixie seemed to be handling her relationship issues by vanishing on Friday nights and arriving home Saturday morning looking disheveled. (“Yes, it’s what you think,” she told me once, when I asked her. “If you must know, the challenge of programming a sophisticated magical neural net gets me hot and bothered, and a vibrator is not a great way to ever find myself a permanent relationship like yours, so what do you care anyway?”)

To avoid getting into deeper trouble, I simply said Trixie could talk to us if there were problems. With that, enough said about my roommates (Agency-mates?).

As far as the three factions went – recall the Crazies, who wanted Melissa dead, the Rationals, who wanted to petition her, and the Worshippers, who wanted her venerated – we didn’t see much of them. At first.

It probably helped that, with Melissa’s true location submerged, we’d put out a few false trails in other locations around the world. It’s also possible that Melissa’s parents were running interference somehow.

The first evidence that we weren’t invisible was near the end of June, when a guy refused to leave the front stoop of the apartment until he’d been allowed to touch Melissa’s hand. And present her with a rose. (“I’d almost prefer we see more of the type of people who are trying to kill me,” Melissa admitted that night. “At least I know how to handle them.”)

She did throw the rose out of the back window, over concern that it was booby-trapped. I suppose that was possible.

In July there was more of a shift. A guy came into the office claiming that he was being stalked by a demon, only to pull a bunch of files out of his briefcase and then begin a lecture on the benefits of urban fantasy entanglement.

A week after kicking him out, there was a ticking package left on our doorstep. After dunking it in water, we determined from the card that someone had tried to give Melissa a new clock. (We really should get the batteries fixed in the old one. The fact he/she didn’t know that the present wasn’t useful was somewhat heartening.)

Then the first Crazy. Someone in the apartment downstairs admitted to me that he’d let in a guy dressed in robes and a pointy hat; supposedly a knife salesman. We were out at the time, and there was no sign of the guy later.

We extended our protective wards out that day, from covering only Melissa’s apartment area to the entire building. As much for our safety as to avoid further issues with the other tenants. Also, fringe benefit, the wider net interfered with Melissa’s parents spying on us. So, one less thing for me to worry about.

Speaking of her parents, as far as I knew, they were continuing to work on the spell that would suspend all electronic activity on Earth, which would allow them to cast the ‘Merlin Reinforcement Spell’, for lack of a better phrase.

Melissa still didn’t think the latter would work, and still wasn’t sure why. If her parents knew we were working on a backup plan, they said nothing.

At any rate, none of the factions impacted our daily lives, aside from our decision to wear protective wards when out in the city. And speaking of being out, the Agency did get a number of supernatural cases that summer, though they were pretty routine.

And what is routine for us, you ask?

Let’s summarize it as:
-Person comes into office with a problem (“I think there’s a curse on me” / “My garden gnomes are coming alive at night” / “My roommate has become invisible”).
-Melissa (disguised) and I listen and diagnose (“It’s not a curse, there’s a devil on your left shoulder controlling your actions” / “Simple case of possession” / “Sounds more like your roommate became half an inch tall”).
-We take payment and remedy the situation (“We’ll distract the devil by creating an angel on your right shoulder” / “Don’t blink, don’t look away, and tape this scroll onto their pointy hats” / “Leave this small cake out with a sign reading ‘Eat Me’.”).

For some cases, the field work is necessary (for instance, to locate the origin of a problem, so that there isn’t a new curse next week, or in that one case, to locate the tiny roommate), but all these kinds of cases tended to take less than a week from start to finish.

But make no mistake. While the cases were routine, there was definitely an uptick in supernatural events, the longer into the summer that we got. It was simply in frequency, not scale.

That is, there was nothing I know of on the order of Amy’s knife remaining as a lamp, and certainly nothing that made us think elves were about to invade from a nearby realm or anything. (Spoiler: They don’t.) But maybe these things were happening in more rural areas, so don’t get the wrong idea.

Then in early August, Alicia Wing came by. That was a big deal.

***

Alicia runs a small store of mystical artifacts and trinkets, the location of which is half hidden above a bookstore. She’s been Melissa’s ingredient supplier for at least the last four years, and is very tolerant of the witch’s quirks, such as her calling at three in the morning looking for an ingredient for a spell.

I’d gotten to know her reasonably well too, but had never before seen her outside of her business. Alicia had always given me the impression of being a sixty-something Chinese shut in; the white haired woman was simply there whenever we needed something, wearing traditional garb, her store perpetually cluttered and always faintly smelling of incense.

So I was a little caught off guard when she buzzed to come into our apartment building in the middle of the day, and looked to be wearing a floral print dress and straw hat.

“Mel, did you or Trixie order something from Alicia’s?” I asked.

Melissa, still sitting at her desk, looked up at me. By this point, she had dispensed with any sort of illusion spell so long as she was in the apartment, and I’d effectively returned control of the office space to her.

“Not me,” she said. “And I doubt it was Trixie – you want to risk disturbing her?”

I glanced at Trixie’s bedroom door. “Pass. Could our supplier have been recruited by one of the faction groups then?”

“Let her up and we’ll find out,” Melissa concluded.

I let Alicia come up.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I seem to be making a house call,” the older woman said as I let her in the room. “Know that this is more of a case, along with a chance to finally settle your bill.”

I stared. “Our bill?”

It struck me then that she’d always extended us so much credit that I had no idea how much we still owed to her. In a business like ours, you’re pretty much fortunate when you’re making ends meet. Then again, maybe the same could be said of Alicia.

“Your bill,” Alicia repeated back, with a hint of a smile.

I looked to Melissa once more. “Uhm, Mel, check the third file folder in the second drawer, how much DO we owe Wing’s Mystical Collectibles and Assorted Knickknacks?”

She went to have a look. Then shook her head slowly. “Did you drop a decimal when summarizing the account back in April, James?”

I went to have a look myself. “Oh. That’s not good.” I looked back at Alicia. “Please tell me we’ve at least paid you something in the last four months.”

“Something,” the older woman said, nodding. “Interest accruing can really be a problem though, can’t it?”

“Well, you’re welcome to repossess a lot of stuff,” Melissa offered. “The way things are now, I don’t think I’ll be using most of it this August, and things are a little up in the air after that.”

“I’m aware,” Alicia said. “Chosen One.”

I tried not to frown at the title. “ARE you with one of the factions…?”

“No,” Alicia assured us. “But I know this city. And they are closing in on you. At present, they’re largely cancelling each other out.”

“Cancelling out? What do you mean?” I said, at the same time as Melissa said, “I wondered about that.”

I turned to look at Melissa. “You know what she’s getting at?”

Melissa nodded. “I saw a shifty looking guy with a rifle in a trench coat at the corner last week. He was chased away by what I assume to be a small group of Worshippers. And a Rationalist got his iPad zapped and deleted by examining rather too closely our ward across the street. The one meant to protect against bladed weapons.”

“And there was a worshipper in my store looking for leads,” Alicia agreed. “She decided to move on after being subjected to a librarian’s lecture about the dangers of fantasies coming to life.”

“See James, anyone in the Crazy faction can’t attack me by conventional means,” Melissa concluded. “The Worshippers wouldn’t allow it. While the Rationals can bore Worshippers to figurative death, convincing them to give up. Unfortunately, they ignite blind rage in the Crazies, to the point where that group don’t care anymore, which is why I got that death threat in the grocery store yesterday. It’s all a cycle.”

“You mean the fact that the groups are at cross purposes has been working in our favour,” I summarized.

“Correct, but it won’t last for much longer,” Alicia cautioned.

I turned back to her. “You get that from a crystal ball or something?” I wondered.

“Or something,” Alicia repeated back, again almost smiling.

“Okay,” Melissa concluded. “So you said you had a case that would settle our debt.”

Alicia nodded. “I want you to obtain a particular mystical artifact for me. A collector who lives overseas took it from my family some time ago. If you can return it to me, I’ll consider your debt to my store paid in full.”

Melissa frowned. “One artifact? It’s worth all that?”

“It’s worth all that,” Alicia affirmed. “And it will, incidentally, retain its value regardless of your upcoming decision. Because it’s an orb that gives one the ability to look into their personal future. Even alter that future. This makes it very valuable.”

“And very difficult to get,” I reasoned. “Since if you have it, you’d see anyone else trying to obtain it.”

“Precisely,” Alicia agreed. “Except recently, Melissa’s become a bit of a focus point. Ironically, this means she’s best suited for a stealth mission into Lord Mortum’s European abode, as signs will point to her still being in this town.”

“I don’t do break and enter though,” Melissa protested. “I stay within the law, not to mention within the country.”

Alicia wasn’t about to back down. “I have a person on the inside. You can teleport right inside Mortum’s castle, at which point you merely have to deal with his security force, get the orb, and teleport out. An orb, I remind, that was in my family originally. I have the papers to prove that. Also the orb will square your financial debt to me.”

“Still a form of theft,” Melissa said, hesitating. “Have you not tried other means to obtain it?”

“I have,” Alicia assured. “He’s very stubborn.” She paused a beat. “And his security force is zombies.”

“Fuck,” Melissa swore.

I’m sure I’ve heard her do that less than a dozen times in all our history together, so for her to do it now, I knew it had to be serious.

“I have your cooperation then?” Alicia said.

Melissa’s jaw was tight. “Yes.”

“It can only be you, of course. Your other associates must remain here.”

“Understood.”

“Very well. I’ll return tomorrow with the castle layout, once you’ve made preparations.”

With that, Alicia departed, and I turned an expectant gaze upon Melissa. The emotional walls that I’d worked my way around over the last few years now seemed to be firmly back in place. She continued to look at the closed front door.

END ACT 4

Previous INDEX Next Act

Virga: Act 4D

Previous INDEX Next

A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 4d: OF PARENTS AND PROGRAMMING

Melissa opened her mouth to say something else, but I didn’t think snapping Trixie out of her thoughts would be beneficial. I held up a finger, motioning for Melissa to keep quiet.

We remained standing that way for at least ten seconds, at which point I decided I might as well grab a piece of toast, and offer one to Melissa as well. It wasn’t until almost five minutes later that Trixie moved her head and gave a full-on blink, processing that we’d changed positions.

TRIXIE
Commission from Sen Yomi

“Oh, there you are. Okay, look,” she began. “Making such an AI from scratch would be ridiculous, as I’m sure you both realize, particularly given the time constraint. But what I COULD do is take what I’ve already got coded for Rixi, and find a way of laying down the mental engrams of a real person on top.”

“Sort of like creating a virtual Melissa?” I asked.

Trixie made a face, her nose scrunching cutely. “If you insist on using HER engrams, something like that, yes.”

“Hold on,” Melissa protested. “I know enough about science to know that engrams are, first of all, hypothetical, and second of all, only valid for reliving prior traumatic events. Moreover, I don’t want Trixie screwing with my head any more than she already does on a daily basis.”

“I’m obviously using a magick component here,” Trixie explained. “To preserve engrams to a level above your typical scientific definition. And while I’m not going to say there’s no chance of complications on the technical side, on the biological side, the real person involved wouldn’t feel in a thing. In fact, I’d been thinking of using MY engrams.”

“Ahh. You’re not the Chosen One though,” Melissa fired back. Her tone was matter-of-fact, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that she was trying to claim some sort of superiority over her cousin there.

“It can be done then,” I said, in an attempt to summarize.

Trixie pulled her attention back to me, crossing and uncrossing her arms. “Yeah,” she said. “That is, I’m pretty sure.”

She finally simply clasped her hands behind her back, while simultaneously pushing out her chest, in my direction. “James, truly, you may have just given me the first actual honest to goodness challenge I’ve ever had to face in my entire life to date. I kind of love you for that.”

I then that realized her breathing rate was quicker, and her face was getting flushed. I hoped it was only excitement over the project itself.

“Ahem, must I remind you he’s taken?” Melissa cut in.

Trixie’s gaze snapped towards Melissa. “Did I SAY–”

“Um, look, Trixie, I’m glad,” I said quickly, trying to head off another argument. “Though here’s the second thing. We also need to you retroactively scrub out any information on the internet related to Melissa’s Supernatural Detective Agency, putting it in my name instead.”

Trixie turned her stare back at me, pulling herself back to her full height. “The hell? Because you thought me trying to devise a highly sophisticated neural net wasn’t challenge enough?”

“You’re the one with the IQ of 151,” Melissa murmured.

“Yeah, 151, not 515, dumbass,” she snapped.

“Sorry, Trixie,” I apologized. “I figured it would be as simple as a search and replace virus. If it can’t be done–”

“Don’t YOU start with that,” Trixie said, obviously vexed as she pointed at me. “I can do it easy, but it would take a day and there would be loopholes and my brain is kind of totally preoccupied with your first project right now. Why didn’t you lead with the simpler task?”

“I… guess we should have?” I mused.

“Right. So.” Trixie pulled the end of her ponytail into her hands, curling it about her fingers, as she again leaned towards me, now batting her eyelashes. “Can you pleeease give me at least a week with the big stuff before I look into the silly name thing?”

“We need the name thing done first,” Melissa said bluntly.

“I wasn’t asking you, Missy,” Trixie growled, this time without looking.

“She’s right though,” I said. “We’re over the three month mark, if we don’t submerge Melissa’s name fast, we’ll be faced with interruptions from all those other factions we mentioned earlier.”

“Nnngh. Three days then?” Trixie pleaded. “I have some ideas that I want to start looking at right away.” She brought a hand up to unbutton the second button on her blouse. I think the first had been unbuttoned the whole time, I’m not sure. Either way, at this point my eyes wandered, I couldn’t help it.

“No,” I asserted to Trixie’s cleavage. “Sorry.”

“Multitask,” Melissa suggested, now elbowing her way in between the two of us.

The redhead stamped her foot on the ground. “Missy, you’re never ANY fun. I’d quit this agency, if I had anything better lined up.” She pointed at me. “And James, you… you… oh God, I don’t know if I want to slap you real hard or kiss you even harder.”

“I’d STRONGLY suggest doing neither,” Melissa said.

“Fine. I’m going to my room,” Trixie concluded, storming out of the kitchen. Moments later, her door slammed. Then opened, then was slammed again for emphasis.

I looked at Melissa. “Something tells me her parents had to deal with tantrums far more than yours ever did.” My girlfriend smothered a laugh.

***

At least Trixie understood, in the end. We’d decided to let her stew for a day, but by the next morning, a routine online search on Melissa Virga’s real name turned up nothing. Or at least nothing related to our Melissa. But the Agency still existed, and I was in charge.

It occurred to me after the fact that if anyone else happened to have the same name as Melissa, they might be in trouble (sort of like in those Terminator movies). Mel reassured me by saying that in person, she’d be giving off certain magick vibes that were unique to spellcasters – a bit like how there’s apparently a scent on people who hang around witches long enough – along with pointing out how unusual her last name was in the first place.

I resolved to thank Trixie the next time I saw her, for her prioritizing. But then I didn’t see her until Thursday. She spent most of the intervening time in her room, working. I glanced in at one point when the door was ajar, seeing that during my absence, she’d moved in a small computer mainframe, next to the bed. Where she was asleep.

Even after I saw and thanked Trixie over breakfast, she only mumbled back a thanks, obviously preoccupied.

It wasn’t until the following Monday that Trixie surfaced from her engramatic studies, having remembered that we were owed a dinner together. Melissa agreed, even though it was technically too late per the original deal. It’s not like we were busy with cases anyway, in fact I wondered if our Agency having ceased all advertising was responsible for the lull.

I let Trixie pick the restaurant. As such, I learned that the techno-witch may have a thing for Japanese.

Trixie also wore pants for the occasion, whereas I’d thought she only owned skirts of various lengths and fabrics. And she let her hair all the way down too. I commented on that fact, as we headed out.

“Yeah, see? I can be mature. VERY mature,” Trixie said, smiling. And with that, she thrust her shoulders back, pushing her chest out into her blouse, so much so that a gap appeared between the buttons.

“Remember, nothing’s coming of this, aside from a good meal,” I pointed out.

“Uh huh. Remember that you felt you had to remind me of that,” Trixie said, wiggling her shoulders to set up vibrations.

“I say that for your sake, not mine.”

“Uh huh,” Trixie repeated, still wiggling.

With that, I ceased looking at her. At some point on our way to the restaurant, she stopped thrusting her chest out. And her possible attempts at seduction diminished even further through dinner itself, to the point that, by the time we left, she was slumped as she walked.

Of course, I also knew more about her by then, as Trixie was more of a talker than Melissa. And as I’d suspected, Trixie hadn’t had many friends in school, in part because she’d told me that she’d never been sure if they wanted to be friends for her personality or her mind. Or as she put it, “It’s no fun if people are cozying up to you for test answers.”

I wondered if maybe that’s why she’d taken to emphasizing her body the way she did, after puberty hit. Namely to remove personality and mind from the equation, so that she would always know why people were approaching her.

Trixie also admitted over dinner that she’d always had something of an interest in technology, much like her mom. In fact it was Marissa’s marriage to Wayne, a technophobe, that caused Trixie’s mother to communicate less with her sister. They weren’t estranged, to be clear, but they talked so little that Trixie hadn’t even known about Melissa’s agency until she’d been approached.

Related, her Rixi device apparently took some inspiration from Japanese anime, and a television show called ‘Martin Mystery’.

And then there was the matter of Trixie’s sex life, which I didn’t get lots of detail on (thank goodness) but apparently she’d had a couple of boyfriends. Which she brought up as more evidence of her maturity. Even though it transpired that she’d basically initiated and then broken off the relationships herself.

Not because they’d been bad in bed, more “too high maintenance”. She may have been implying she’s more into one night stands.

As we reached our street, out of the blue, Trixie straightened her posture again. “So, have you figured out why I wanted to do dinner with you yet?” she asked.

I shrugged. “To annoy Melissa,” I figured.

“Fringe benefit, but no.”

“Then to learn about me first-hand, without Melissa’s possible embellishments.”

“Kinda, but also no.”

I realized I had to think about this now. “Was it because of Melissa’s cooking?”

“No, that was an excuse, not a reason. Keep trying.”

“Uh, because you hadn’t been out on a date in a while?”

“Oh, you truly are an idiot,” Trixie sighed. “I mean, I thought the whole point of this exercise is that this wasn’t a date? Besides, I only need to dress in leather and go to a club to get a guy to buy me dinner. Which, I gotta say, would end in a way more fun way than this night is gonna.”

“Why don’t you tell me then,” I decided.

She stopped walking and fell silent, looking away from me. Then, “James, I thought I was going to be kicked out of the apartment. Before that happened, I wanted to peek into the window of a successful relationship. To see if I could learn to spot whatever Missy saw in you.” She turned back to me, her gaze questioning.

“Oh.” I felt like I should say more, but I wasn’t sure what to say. “It’ll happen for you some day,” I finished, as she kept staring.

Trixie sighed, and resumed her walk. “I wasn’t asking for platitudes, idiot. Look, did I at least seem like a normal girl towards the end of dinner? I’ve kind of forgotten how to not mess with people.”

I fell into step beside her. “You’re asking the guy dating Melissa about what’s normal?”

“Point,” Trixie admitted. “Oh well. It’s funny though, I felt like I could ask you that question, versus anyone else I’d be out with. Oh, and kind of related? On a casual basis, I’m going to keep shoving my breasts at you and doing seductive things. Just so you know to be ready.”

I held back a sigh of my own. “Trixie, there are less annoying ways to bug Melissa.”

“It’s not about Missy,” Trixie snapped. “It’s about me wanting to treat you the same as I do all other guys, James. Because if I start treating you special, I think I’ll start to care about you, and then everything will get complicated. Because of how you’re taken. Okay? Can you maybe stop saying stupid things now?”

We reached the front door of the apartment building in silence. “I wonder,” I said as we headed into the stairwell, “do you call all guys idiots, or is that more reserved for me?”

“Oh, you’re a special kind of idiot,” Trixie muttered. “In that you actually listen to me when I say that. Now, stop talking altogether, or I might want to kiss you on the cheek.”

I stopped talking.

The next day, around the apartment, Trixie wore what I think was a sheer negligee overtop of a bikini, almost like she was making up for dressing so conservatively the previous night. Or maybe she wanted to reset her life equation back to something she understood? Or show up Melissa. Trixie’s mindset was still hard for me to understand.

Regardless, at this point, I’m going to jump from the end of May to the start of August. Because that’s when everything started to come to a head, including a case that came to us courtesy of a visit by Alicia Wing.

Previous INDEX Next

Virga: Act 4C

Previous INDEX Next

A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 4c: OF PARENTS AND PROGRAMMING

“How many other techno-witches do you know?” I asked.

Melissa’s expression morphed into a frown. “None on Trixie’s level. Even witches thirty years her senior aren’t at her level. Plus I don’t want to tell a stranger about all this Prophecy stuff.”

“Okay. So…?”

Melissa groaned, pressing her palm to her forehead. “Uggghh, it really has to be Trixie, doesn’t it. Of all the… James, is it okay if you’re there when I’m talking about it with her? The two of us are always bickering, and I don’t want to do that with something so important.”

“Sure, Mel, anything I can do.”

“Thanks so much.” And Melissa spontaneously reached out to hug me. “Not only for being there, but for seeing another path forwards here.”

I tried to hug back, despite my arms being trapped by the hug. “It’s fine. You’d have done the same for me.”

“For sure.” She pulled back. “Now, if only we can find a way for me to keep living my life too, despite all this insanity going on. Because I love my parents, but I don’t want to stay with them for months. Particularly not while you and Trixie are off… programming together.”

There was a bit of a hesitation there, which implies to me that Melissa wasn’t only thinking about programming. Seemingly still a bit unsure about my love for her, over any possible lust for Trixie. And to be fair, the last time I’d seen Trixie, she’d been blowing me a kiss back at the motel room, so maybe she wasn’t someone to be casually dismissed.

“Maybe we can move your business to Outer Mongolia,” I quipped.

“Hah. I get the impression these three factions would find me regardless,” Melissa sighed. “No, I think our Agency is done for, given how my name’s tied to it and everything.”

My dad’s remark from earlier in the day came back to me at that point. “Okay, so what if we replace your name with my name.”

Melissa did a double take. “Pardon?”

“What if we put your supernatural agency in my name,” I insisted. “Retroactively even, if there’s a spell for that, so that anyone looking into past cases wouldn’t turn you up at all. This way, we’d still be able to function locally, and any clients we already have would recognize me. Unless you had a ton in the year before I came on board.”

Melissa’s thoughtful expression was back. “We’d need to take that website down that you put up last year, and ideally scrub any trace of me from browser searches – damn it, I think we’ll need Trixie’s help with that one too – but it could work. I can even still be there with you, if I disguise my appearance. My parents shouldn’t object to that, they’ve done it often enough.”

“I’ll take down those old case files too,” I added. “The ones I put online.”

Melissa waved me off. “Don’t bother, you called me Melissa or something in those, right? Might even get people to chase false leads.” She frowned. “Of course, if we do this, I’ll want your assurance that you don’t leave the office without some form of magick protection. Even if it’s only a ward from our usual distributor. After all, the last thing I want to do is put your life in danger simply because I can be kinda stubborn.”

I half smiled. “You, Mel? Stubborn?”

“Ha ha. Promise me, James, you’ll use protection.”

I resisted the urge to interpret that in another way. “I promise, of course,” I said, raising a hand to my heart for emphasis. Then I beamed. “See? Problems practically solved. I knew you had it in you.”

She smiled, and blushed faintly too. “Couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks for that.”

Before I knew it, we were kissing. It was nice. It progressed to french kissing. Then I was somewhat climbing on top of her, and she was pulling my shirt up out of my pants, running her hands around on my back. It was after her leg had hooked around me while I was cupping a breast that Melissa’s hand shot up, pushing my head to the side.

“James… James, no, wait,” she panted.

I swallowed, regaining a measure of awareness. “Right. Not in your parents’ house.”

Melissa’s chest heaved. “I was thinking more we’re real close to disrupting the salt circle here, which would sever the connection back to our kitchen. But yes, good call about my parents’ place too, yes.”

We carefully disentangled ourselves. “Maybe later?” I said, half heartedly.

Melissa gave me a look. “James, remember earlier, when I said I only missed the casual sex a little bit?”

I nodded. I have a photographic memory, after all.

“I’m now realizing it was more than a bit,” she admitted. “Three weeks is a long time, even if I was on my period for part of it.”

I wasn’t sure if Melissa bringing that up was her being blunt, or an attempt to douse my flames of passion. Either way, I started tucking in my shirt. “Let’s say definitely later then,” I rephrased.

She smiled, then turned to the pantry door. “For now, I guess I go back and apologize. Let’s wait on hitting my parents with the Agency name plan until after mom’s pie though? And let’s not tell them about the technology idea at all… it’ll only upset my mother.”

“Okay then,” I said, managing to avoid saying how much Melissa seemed to be acting like her mother now. “You think it will take a lot of convincing?”

Melissa set her jaw. “I don’t care if it does. After all, I’m the one the Prophecy is impacting the most, and it’s my life.”

In the end, as soon as Marissa and Wayne saw how determined (stubborn?) Melissa was about her idea, her parents went along with us. Also, the dazzleberry pie was quite good. I only learned later that it was somehow a mix of both fruits and vegetables.

***

There was, incidentally, a compromise. Melissa also agreed to have a magick listening device in our apartment, to pick up on any kind of trouble, so her parents wouldn’t worry.

I suspected this was also Wayne’s way of keeping tabs on me. Given his suggestion that we still consider living apart, “just to try it out for a while longer”. But no, I’d had enough time away from Melissa, and by now I was more than happy to be be back in my girlfriend’s apartment. In fact, owing to Trixie’s presence, I was also permanently sharing Mel’s bed.

Now, mind out of the gutter, we weren’t having sex all the time. Not with her parents spying, and the wall between Melissa and Trixie’s room not being all that thick. Seriously, you can’t get any alone time in that kind of environment, not without a good soundproofing spell, one which doesn’t require constant concentration after casting.

Melissa does know one. That’s enough about that.

We spoke to Trixie on Sunday morning over breakfast. She had sounded like she was home when we returned late the previous night, but we decided not to disturb her.

After we came into the kitchen, I started by making Trixie promise not to make any commentary until we’d laid out the entire situation for her.

TRIXIE
Commission from Sen Yomi

“I’ll save you time. If you’re getting married, and want me to be the maid of honour, no thanks,” Trixie said, munching on a waffle. She was eating it straight out of the toaster.

“This is not about the relationship between me and Mel,” I assured her. “Not directly.”

“You’re just kicking me out of here under some other pretext, is that it?”

“No.”

Melissa sighed. “Can you not make commentary about a promise to not make commentary? I mean really.”

Trixie sniffed. “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot I was talking to the person who never commented about me at all for four years.”

I sidestepped, so that I was between them, but looking at the redhead. “Trixie, please?” I requested.

She looked at me, and took another bite of her waffle. For reference, at this point in the morning Trixie was not sporting twintails yet, but instead had yanked all her hair back into one ponytail that fell between her shoulder blades. It helped her look more mature.

“Tell you what, James,” Trixie decided, after chewing and swallowing. “I’ll do it under condition that I’m allowed to take you out for dinner this week.”

“Trix, you’re not dating my boyfriend,” Melissa objected.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I say date? I said dinner. I think James would appreciate one night of not having to deal with a blue cheese casserole with lemon juice, or whatever the heck it was I saw in the fridge last night.”

“Lime juice. It clears the sinuses,” Melissa grumbled. She was quieter though, I suppose annoyed that she’d been caught acting insecure.

I also had to admit that Trixie had a point. I’d tried to do as much of the cooking as I could when I lived here.

“We can go to dinner,” I agreed slowly. “As long as you’re aware that it won’t lead to anything.”

“Ooh, anything? Both of your minds are just in the gutter then, huh?” Trixie said. As if to capitalize on that, she made a point of adjusting the tall stockings she was wearing (even so, they still failed to reach the hem of her red skirt) and adjusting her white satin blouse (practically fluffing her cleavage).

It’s possible I stared at that a bit more than I should have.

“Agh, I wish we didn’t need her,” Melissa sighed behind me.

That helped snap me out of it, and when I turned to glance at Melissa, she was pressing her fingers to the bridge of her nose. I looked back at Trixie. “Okay, so let us explain,” I said. “No commentary.”

Trixie smiled, but nodded. And so Melissa and I laid out the whole Prophecy and Chosen One situation, along with the factions and the idea that someone – maybe Merlin – had been dealing with supernatural balance for centuries. Trixie’s smile faded, and I think she literally bit down on her tongue a couple times, but she kept up her end of the bargain.

“So with that said,” I eventually concluded, “we need your help with a couple things.” Trixie’s hand shot up, implying she wanted to talk first.

“Go ahead,” I yielded.

Trixie took in a deep breath, then let it out. “Okay, hold on.” She walked all the way around Melissa, who incidentally had merely pulled on another pair of jeans and an oversized green T-shirt after getting up.

“Okay,” Trixie began again. “So you’re telling me that Missy, my plain looking, fashion impaired, socially backwards witch cousin… is going to be single-handedly responsible for deciding whether Earth goes all Shadowrun??”

“Don’t overdramatize,” Melissa said in annoyance. “And what do running shadows have to do with it?”

“Shadowrun. It’s a roleplay game where cybernetics meets urban fantasy. Supernatural creatures and technology, living together. More culture you’ve missed out on.”

“You roleplay?” I said to Trixie in surprise. I didn’t know Shadowrun, but I knew what she was getting at. She hadn’t really struck me as the type of person able to work well in a group.

“Well, no,” the redhead admitted. She shifted her gaze away from me then. “I read fanfic. There’s not much point roleplaying, because I’d never be able to generate a character more interesting than I already am.”

“I’m sure,” Melissa said dryly. “You also seem to think you can get whatever you like by giggling and looking cute, which I imagine is more difficult to manage online.”

“Oh pssh,” Trixie said dismissively, waving her arm. “I get whatever I like by using my high IQ of 151. The giggling and looking cute merely makes other people – especially men – feel better about surrendering themselves to my intellect.”

“You mean surrendering themselves to your–”

“We’re straying from the point,” I insisted, before Melissa could finish her thought. “Namely that, Trixie, do you think your mind would be capable of coding up some sort of artificial intelligence, which would be capable of handling the world’s supernatural balance issues in Melissa’s place?”

The ponytailed witch snapped her gaze over towards me, shocked. She opened her mouth as if to respond, then closed it, then opened it again, then her brow furrowed. “Euh.”

“See, James, I told you this would be beyond our capabilities to resolve in three months,” Melissa said.

“Shut up, Melissa, I’m thinking,” Trixie snapped.

Not Missy, Melissa. This was one of the first times for me to see Trixie going into full-on serious mode. Even as I processed this, she began mumbling to herself.

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Virga: Act 4B

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A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT

ACT 4b: OF PARENTS AND PROGRAMMING

“Very well, moving on, the second group is the Rationals,” Marissa said, after shooting her husband a look. “Melissa, they’ll be the ones trying to accost you in order to make a case for your decision one way or the other. Towards order or chaos, as you put it.”

“Are you saying rationals because their arguments will always be rational?” I wondered.

Marissa rolled her eyes. “No, more because they rationalize.”

“And the last group is the Worshippers,” Wayne finished. “Those who believe you’re the greatest thing since slicing bread, or whatever. Their logic is that if they grant Melissa prayers and favours now, good fortune will shine upon them no matter how the final decision comes down.”

MELISSA VIRGA
Commission from Shirley

Mel’s expression morphed into one of disbelief, a good approximation of how her mother had appeared a few minutes earlier. “Worship ME? But how could anyone…” She paused, looked in my direction, then back to her parents. “I mean, that still makes no sense. I didn’t open a supernatural agency for more notoriety, and most clients find me, um, abrasive.”

“Sometimes you’ve got to tell it like it is,” Wayne said, nodding.

“Also, some men like strong women,” Marissa said, with a hint of a smile. She then glanced in my direction too.

“Hey, well, Trixie will ensure that any public adoration doesn’t go to your head,” I offered, trying to find a way to reassure my girlfriend, not to mention move the spotlight away from me. “For however long she’s around the Agency.”

“Ah, yes, about that,” Marissa said. “Melissa dear, you probably shouldn’t operate your supernatural agency over the next three months. It would be like painting a target on yourself. In fact, part of the reason we wanted you here now was to get you to start laying low, where none of those various factions will be able to find you.”

“I also think it’s best if you don’t see James from this point on,” Wayne added, looking sidelong at me. “As much for his safety as anything else, otherwise people may use him to try and influence you.”

Mel bristled. “Wait. Are you asking me to stay here for several months, while you send James away to shut down my Agency?”

“It’s an option,” her father agreed. “Plus, if things go wrong in three months time, you might not be able to continue your relationships anyway, so I think it’s best to end them now, at a time of your choosing.”

“MY choosing?” Mel yelped.

“Don’t worry about what your father says, darling, things won’t go wrong,” Marissa said, glaring at her husband pointedly. “You see how practical this is though, yes?”

I should mention here that, as of this point in my life, I had only seen Mel suffer an emotional breakdown once before. It had happened when dealing with one of her old high school friends, Eric, who had been attempting to contact people from beyond the grave. Some lines you just should not cross, and Mel had been forced to cross those lines herself when dealing with both Eric and another witch named Melody.

That case, coupled with being confronted with her controlling nature at an inopportune time, had almost devastated Mel. Yet at this point in the meal (if you can still call it a meal), I wondered if my girlfriend was about to suffer a second meltdown.

“So,” the young brunette said coldly, and I’d say only barely managing to rein in the emotions I’d seen flickering across her face. “In one shot, you’ve come back into my life, only to suggest I eliminate my livelihood, my boyfriend, and even my choice in deciding how this Prophecy thing will play out,” she said. Her jaw clenched, and I could picture her hands curling and uncurling into fists under the level of the table too. “Do I have that right, mother? Father? Tell me I don’t have that right.”

Her parents didn’t immediately answer, choosing instead to exchange glances one more time.

“She’s not wrong,” Wayne said at last.

Marissa winced. “Well…”

“Both of you, go to hell,” Mel exploded at that, standing up. She threw her napkin down onto the table and stormed out of the room before either of them had a chance to speak again.

Marissa’s expression was now much the same as when her daughter had used sarcasm. “Wayne dear, what was that?”

“A tantrum?” Wayne mused in surprise. “She’s never done that before. What happened to the calm, rational teenager we raised?” His gaze slid to me.

“Your daughter grew up,” I pointed out. “While you were off trying to make her decisions for her.”

Realizing such a comment may have been overstepping my bounds (not to mention thinking a fast exit would be prudent without Mel around to back me up) I added, “But let me go and talk to her for you.”

I rose and swiftly headed out after the girl I’d fallen in love with.

As I left, I heard Marissa say to her husband, sounding very irritated: “I told you we should have eaten the pie first.”

***

I found Melissa curled up into a ball in the pantry, having pulled a tissue out of her handbag for dabbing at her eyes, though I didn’t see any tear streaks.

She looked up as I entered, her expression momentarily angry, until she registered who I was, at which point she merely hooked her arms a little tighter around her legs and stared back at the floor.

There was barely enough room for me to sit down next to her without disturbing the salt circle, but that’s what I did. I then waited, to let her have the first word.

“I forgot I didn’t have a proper room to storm off to here,” Melissa admitted eventually. “What with my parents having moved. This was all I could think of.”

“Just as well, I only know how to navigate three rooms in your parents’ place too.”

She snickered. “I suppose I should have actually practiced this back when I was a teenager. Were my parents confused?”

“Surprised,” I stated. “I came to find you myself, by the way, they didn’t send me.”

The brunette witch turned to look at me again. “The worst of it is, despite what I said, I don’t think I can really blame my parents. They’re on my side here, looking out for me, like always. The problem is this Prophecy nonsense.”

“Which they kept secret from you,” I pointed out.

“Out of concern,” Melissa insisted. “And to do research.”

I nodded. “Okay, so they may be looking out for you, but you really should get to have a say in their decisions,” I added. “I mean, imagine where we’d be if my parents had unilaterally decided to find me different lodgings three years ago, rather than letting me stay with you over the summer. Our whole relationship would never have happened.”

“I guess,” Melissa said dubiously. “But I want to keep you from being a target, and keep myself from being some object of worship, just as much as my parents do. They know that.” She hugged herself even tighter before releasing her legs. “I’m going to have to agree to stay, aren’t I.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” I insisted. “There’s always options, so let’s take a moment to think about this.”

Melissa sat quietly for a short time, then shook her head. “I can’t concentrate. I’m still reeling at how supernatural balance, the thing I’ve been striving to maintain, is suddenly being handed over to me to fix. Me! I didn’t expect to have the whole world on my shoulders when I got up this morning.”

“It’s not really something you can prepare for,” I granted. “Of course, if this plan of your parents works, you may not have to make the decision. That’s the real problem here, isn’t it? That they’re taking this opportunity away?”

She didn’t answer, but I like to think I know Melissa pretty well by now.

I reached out to grasp her by the hand. “Mel, don’t think about this, but right now, off the top of your head, tell me, DO want to be the one to make that call?”

“Gods no.”

“But do you think you’re the right one to make that call?”

“Yes.” She seemed surprised by her own admission.

“There you go then,” I concluded, releasing her. “Now we need to think about why. How about you start with that.”

Her lips pursed slightly. “Huh. I… I guess… if I was chosen out of everybody on Earth, I feel like it means something. Like the Agency means something. Like, not that I should be worshipped, but that my work is important. And that if I pass the buck to someone else on this one, I’d be shirking my responsibility.”

“Stuff like this happens for a reason, even if it’s one that’s not immediately obvious,” I attempted to rephrase.

Melissa nodded. “Not to bring religion or fate into this, but yeah.”

“Which way would your decision go then?”

“Well, towards keeping the balance, obviously,” Melissa replied. “Order above chaos. Thing is, I don’t think I’m ready to handle being a Merlin. I’m barely into my twenties, and now I’ll be doing the balancing job myself, out in the ether, for some indeterminate amount of time? That’s huge.”

“Then what’s wrong with the solution offered by your parents? Surely Merlin is ready to handle being Merlin, and in the end, supernatural balance will still be restored. This will also give the witches of the world time to figure out a better solution, because the situation seems to be getting more press than it was 300 years ago.”

Melissa pushed her legs out, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, when you put it that way, there’s no issue.”

“Yet there’s something.”

“Yet there’s something,” she repeated back. “It’s weird. The more I think about it, the more I don’t think my parents’ plan is going to work. I can’t put my finger on why.” She frowned. “I wish they’d given me more time to figure it out by myself. Three months isn’t enough time.”

“Okay. So their idea won’t work, but you’re not sure if you can restore order all by yourself,” I summarized. “Meaning we simply come up with a new plan by ourselves.”

She turned to stare at me, smirking. “Oh, right, as easy as that?”

“Why not? I don’t think you’ve lost a supernatural case yet, Mel.”

“There was that one last year, with the pixies.”

I shook my head. “You gave that up voluntarily. Besides, being this Chosen One probably gives you a certain degree of extra insight.” She still looked a bit dubious, so I tossed in, “We can even make it official Agency business, bringing Trixie and her IQ in on it, if that would help.”

“Joy,” Melissa said dryly, I suspect trying to determine if I was joking. “I don’t think Trixie will save the day, James. She’s more into technology, the very thing interfering with my parents’ spell. The only way that girl would be useful is if…” Her voice trailed off, and Melissa looked thoughtful.

“I hope you’re not proposing sacrificing her,” I joked after a minute.

“Don’t tempt me,” Melissa murmured. “No, it’s the technology aspect. Could there be some way of writing a program to handle supernatural balance in my place?”

I blinked in surprise. “Artificial intelligence?”

“Kinda? I mean, it would require integrating technology with magick, but Trixie’s already managed that, insofar as her Rixi is linked to her storage space. That’s not a common thing by the way. For all her shortcomings, even I have to admit that, from a technical standpoint, she really is brilliant.”

I nodded. “Okay, so programming may be the answer. Which doesn’t have to be Trixie. Maybe your parents would be better at handling it?”

Melissa laughed. “Oh, Gods, no, my dad’s even more of a technophobe than me, and by now my mom is dead set on her way of doing things, seeing as she’s invested so much in it already.” She tapped her finger on the floor. “But maybe, another techno-witch…?”

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