Author Archives: dreamfarer

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep4 – Act 3

Watching Connie climb up the natural chimney that lead out of the cavern they’d been trapped in, Val found herself wondering where a librarian had gotten muscles so amazingly toned. Not that lifting weights hadn’t done the same for Val, but if shelving heavy books could give definition like Connie had then Val wanted to look into the benefits cross training could provide.

Of course first they had to get home safely.

For a change they seemed to be off to a good start on that. Once they left the crevasse Connie and Joe had hidden in, they’d found a warren of natural and carved caves connected by irregular, time-worn tunnels. Avoiding the “zombies” as Connie called them proved to be easy. They tended to scurry away from light that Tam carried, rather than shambling forward like any other self respecting undead menace would.

With their travel unhindered, Connie was able to lead the rest to the exit to the higher levels of the ruins. She explained the significance of the various inscribed artwork as they went and made guesses as to each chamber’s purpose. That was mildly interesting to Val, but what really caught her attention was the well maintained vault door that sealed what Connie deemed to be the exit tunnel.

Someone far more modern than the original builders had remodeled the ruins to their own ends, which wasn’t too surprising. Val had a decent idea who might be responsible based on the briefing Tam had assembled and, if luck was on her side, she hoped she’d get a chance to meet them face-to-face before the current dungeon crawl was done.

“You doing okay up there Connie?” Joe asked in a whisper. He’d recovered from his fainting spell and looked horribly embarrassed by it, despite Connie and Val’s reassurances that it wasn’t his fault.

Extreme stress did nasty things to humans, both physically and psychologically. No matter how brave you were, even a relatively small shock could knock the wind out of your sails if it hit you right. That Joe was able to keep moving forward was a more important measure of his resiliency than anything else, but Joe had a lifetime of cultural programming that told him any sign of weakness proved him to be unfit as a man, and no rational argument was going to completely wipe away the effects of that, especially not while he was still under a life threatening amount of stress.

“I’ve been better,” Connie said, grunting as she grabbed another handhold and pulled herself up another foot in the natural chimney. “But been a lot worse too. We’ll call today a ‘5’ or so I’d say.”

With the primary exit blocked, it had been up to Tam to find them an option for escaping the cave complex. As far as Val could tell Tam hadn’t used any actual magic to do so. The spell to transport them through the shadows between the Second Chance Club in North America and a long forgotten cavern in Peru had left Tam ‘chilled’ in her own words.

To Val, Tam’s hands had felt as warm as they normally were but there was a slight frost that followed each puff of breath that Tam took. Val didn’t want to guess what other costs the spell had exacted. It was enough to know that Tam wasn’t at 100% and that she was relying on Val to carry the load until the mystic consequences of getting them to Peru wore off.

“Do you need a hand?” Joe asked.

“No applause please,” Connie said. “This isn’t as difficult as our star is making it look. She’s just a bit out of practice. And possibly still drugged.”

Connie rose another few feet as she spoke, putting her about twenty feet above them, and roughly half the distance up the chimney. Her movements were neither sluggish from drugs, nor particularly weak or uncertain though. Any claims of difficulty she made seemed to be for dramatic effect or to convince Joe not to worry about following her.

That was a kind gesture. The climb itself wasn’t trivial, and Val guessed it might have stymied either Tam or Joe. Connie was already extending her limbs far enough to show a visible strain while she climbs. Tam and Joe, both being shorter than her, would have had to extend farther and hold their weight at a more difficult angle. Connie’s angles weren’t optimal ones either, but she handled her movements and transitions with a reassuring ease, which was what Val had been interested in observing. Val could have gone first but Charlene was hoping to recruit Connie as a new associate for the club, and it was always a good idea to know what you could expect from your teammates.

“I think I’m right,” Tam said, as she examined the carving on the wall of the chamber they were  standing in. “This should lead up a bath chamber in one of the sealed areas of the ruins above.”

“We’re climbing up into a bathroom?” Val asked. “This is kinda big to be a toilet isn’t it?”

“Not a bath like that,” Connie said from above them. “We think it had ritual significance. The room you’re in is a memorial chamber. The ashes of dead were interred in the catacombs below the city. That’s basically where you are. Up here, the people would cleanse themselves and then speak their ancestors and offer them gifts.”

“Like a giant wishing well? Why not just come down here?” Val asked.

“The lower caves were a sacred place, we think,” Connie said. “Of course whenever we don’t understand what people were doing we assume it was had some religious significance. It could be that they just liked rock climbing a lot, and I’m using this chimney as the makers intended all along.”

“What happens if she falls?” Joe asked, trying to be quiet enough that Connie couldn’t hear him. He failed. It wasn’t his fault, Val thought, Connie just had fantastically good hearing.

“You all get to see how high I can bounce,” she said. “Put me in the betting pool for a good six inches on that one.”

“I’ll catch her,” Val said, offering Joe a reassuring smile.

“That’s a bad idea,” Connie said. “Not that I’m going to fall, but trust me you do not want to try to catch me at the bottom of a forty foot drop. I don’t want to kill the both of us if I slip.”

“I’d suggest not slipping then,” Val said. Connie was right, catching someone from a forty foot fall was an excellent method of producing two shattered bodies rather than one, but Val hadn’t come on the trip without a few mystic enhancements of her own. It wouldn’t be fun to act as a breakfall for Connie but it would be a lot more fun than letting her go splat on the hard stone.

“You’re in luck,” Connie said as she reached the top of the chimney. “Today it’s Connie 1, gravity 0. Anyone else want to try their luck against a fundamental force of nature?”

“I’m next,” Val said. “Tam, will you be okay down here while we get that vault door open?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m starting to thaw a little, and I’ll have Joe to keep me company.”

“We’re not going up too?” Joe asked, a mixture of worry and relief swirling across his face.

“I’m not in the best shape for a climb like that,” Tam said. “And I’d prefer not to be alone with the things down here.”

It was a gentle lie, arranged between Tam and Val with nothing more than small glances and nods. Joe’s fainting was, at least in part, due to the drugs his kidnappers had pumped into him. He was mobile but far from full strength and a relapse midway up the chimney would have disastrous results. At the time same time though, leaving him behind and alone wasn’t likely to end well either.

There was also a kernel of truth in Tam’s reluctance to make the climb. The shadow walk spell had taken a toll on her and the extra time to rest was something she would appreciate. Plus it would be easier for two people to scout the ruins than for four.

“You two hang tight then,” Val said. “We’ll be back once we’ve found a safe route out.”

“How long should we wait?” Joe asked. “In case you don’t I mean.”

“I need to spend a couple hours working on some sleight of hand tricks,” Tam said, pulling a deck of cards from a pocket that Val was reasonably certain had been empty a few moments earlier. “If they’re not back by then, we’ll give the chimney a shot.”

“I’ll be in touch if something comes up,” Val said, tapping the earring she wore before leaping up to start as high in the chimney as she could.

She held off using any of the enchantments she was carrying. It was fun to show off but there were enough dangerous people in the ruins above that she wasn’t ready to spend any of her resource if she didn’t have to, and even without magical aid she was able to ascend the forty feet in under half a minute. Far from Olympic time, she knew, but then Olympic times tended to be under more favorable conditions and by people more practiced in speed climbing.

“So, Tam said we’re in part of the ruins that are still sealed,” Val said. “How do we get to the other side of where the vault door is?”

“We’ll need to find the main path that leads down to the lower catacombs,” Connie said. “How does Tam know about this place though? We came here hoping to discover it based on some random notes I found that an 18th century monk wrote. No one thought there was anything here, and she somehow has the blueprints for it?”

“More like a rough sketch of the setup,” Val said.

“Yeah, but where did she even get that?” Connie asked. “I mean if this place is well known, then somebody would have published something about it. There’s enough here to explore and catalogue to justify a lifetime worth of grants.”

“She talked to the people in the city below the catacombs,” Val said. “It’s how we found where you were.”

“Wait, the what now?” Connie asked.

“It’s probably something I should explain later,” Val said. “The short form is; the world is stranger than most people know, and some of the strangeness wants it to stay like that.”

“So you’re saying there’s a city’s worth of human beings who’ve lived deep beneath the Earth’s surface for years? Generations? Millenia? And you somehow have their phone number?”

“No,” Val said. “I mean, they don’t have phones, obviously, and also they’re not human. More like lava people I think? We didn’t have a lot of time to go over that, and Tam was very clear that bothering them in person would be a bad idea.”

“Lava people?” Connie asked.

“Yeah,” Val said and waited for the inevitable cry of ‘but that’s impossible.’

“Hmm, ok, that makes more sense,” Connie said with a shrug.

“It does?” Val asked.

“Yeah. Humans living exclusively underground for generations would have all sorts of problems, from fresh air, to viable food and water, to heat and pressure issues depending on how deep they were. Lava people probably don’t have to worry about any of that.”

Val watched as Connie inspected a section of the wall and slid it smoothly out of place, revealing it to be a long unused door.

Acclimating to the stranger aspects of working with the Second Chance Club hadn’t been too bad for Val, but that was largely because Tam and Anna had introduced her to the more fantastical elements they dealt with slowly. Connie didn’t seem to need any of that, or, Val wondered, had the crisis they were in rattled Connie’s hold on reality enough that anything seemed reasonable?

She watched Connie for signs of mania or dissociation, knowing that she might easily miss the clues due to her lack of training as a psychologist. Connie, for her part, was busy examining the carvings on the walls as they walked down a passageway that was flanked by empty rooms. She seemed normal, or at least what passed for normal in the short time Val had known her.

“I think the religious idea was right,” she said. “The carvings here look like they’re related to ones commonly found on tombs, which means this area we’re in was a reserved space, I think, separate from the rest of the living and work areas.”

They turned a corner to find a wide archway leading out to a large chasm. Once upon a time a bridge had spanned the chasm, but only a partial arch worked stone was left on each side, the center having fallen away completely. As methods of sealing one area of a complex off from the rest went, it seemed a pretty solid option.

“There’s another bridge below us,” Connie said. “That must lead to the catacombs Joe and Tam are in.”

“So we need to get to the other side to get down there?” Val asked.

“We could try climbing down, but I don’t like how the walls arc inward from here,” Connie said.

“Yeah, me either. Also, we don’t know if we can get out from that level either,” Val said.

“Only one way to go then!” Connie said and backed up a few paces.

“Wait that’s…” but Val didn’t get to finish speaking before Connie bolted forward like a shot.

It was an impressive leap by any measure. The gap in the bridge was wide enough that crossing it would have been impossible for most people. Where they would have fallen to their death though, Connie managed to make it far enough to hit the edge of the bridge and then grab on before falling back into the abyss below.

With a grunt and some annoyance at the pain, she began to pull herself up.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s a bit farther than it looks.”

She was trying to protect Val. Val could see that. One person could sneak easier than two, and Connie looked to be the type who didn’t let others take on dangers when she could handle the danger for them. It was a nice thought. Val had a better one though.

With a few quick steps, she breathed in the scent of a spring meadow and bounded forwards with the proportional speed and strength of a jack rabbit. Her leap carried her across the gap, and down the far side of the bridge where she somersaulted to a graceful landing before scurrying back to the edge of the bridge and helping Connie get up safely.

“That was a good leap,” a man said in Spanish. “Maybe we can have some fun later?”

Val turned and noticed two important things. The man in the corridor beyond the bridge wasn’t alone, and he and his friends were all pointing their rifles at her.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 4 – Act 2

Connie wasn’t sure how she felt about being buried alive. On the one hand, it wasn’t exactly how she wanted to go. Too cramped and stuffy and no chance to say any last goodbyes. On the other hand, getting lost while on a secret archaeological dig was a pretty mysterious fate and, if she was ever found, there were so many amazing artifacts around her that she would be an instant celebrity.

“Something is moving out there,” Joe said. Joe had been hearing strange things every since they arrived at the dig site. He claimed that as a porter, site security was one of his responsibilities, and so he had to be extra alert. That didn’t explain why he spent half the night jumping at shadows, but also didn’t mean that he wasn’t occasionally right.

“More than one thing, I think,” Connie said. She didn’t want to panic the guy who was potentially the last surviving member of her expedition more than necessary, but given that they were holed up in a tiny crevice, deep within a hitherto unexplored cavern complex in the Peruvian Andes, and there seemed to be several zombies hunting for their blood, a fairly extreme amount of panic seemed quite reasonable.

Nails hard as steel scrapped on walls of the small passageway outside their crevice. Connie covered Joe’s mouth with her hand. The zombies, or whatever they were, didn’t seem to react to sound much but Connie wasn’t in the mood to take a lot of chances.

Inch by inch, in stuttering rasps, the scraping advanced, as though the creature dragging its claws across the stone was struggling through a great agony to move. It drew closer for several long moments before stopping and sniffing the air with a congested inhalation. Whatever it was looking for, it didn’t appear to find. Instead, it turned and began scraping away into the distance.

“What was that?” Joe asked, his face only saved from being ghostly white by the weird green illumination of the phosphorescent slime that grew in odd patches along the walls and provided the only light in the darkened caves.

“That was not our problem,” Connie said. “Whatever lives down here, was here before we arrived and will probably be here long after we leave.”

“Leave?” Joe held his voice below a scream but only with a visible exertion of will. “How are we going to leave? There’s no way out!”

“We got in, we can get out,” Connie said.

“Do you remember how we got here then?” Joe asked. “Because the last thing I remember was crawling into my sleeping bag and hoping I wouldn’t miss breakfast again.”

“Yeah, whoever, or whatever, took us did it in the middle of the night,” Connie said. “But, they kept us alive which means they want something from us.”

“Or they just want us to be lunch for whatever these things are,” Joe said.

“If we’re supposed to be food then we’d do just as good a job whether we were dead or alive, and dead would mean there’d be a lot less chance that we could get away,” Connie said.

She refrained from pointing out that there were several animal species which would only eat live food. If they were meant to feed things that were put off by the smell of carrion flesh then there’d be an excellent reason to leave them alive. That seemed unlikely enough that she didn’t need to worry Joe by sharing the information.

“Do we even know where we are?” Joe asked.

“In a cave,” Connie said, knowing it wasn’t a helpful response. “We can’t be far from the dig though.”

“How can you know that?” Joe lets his voice get louder, panic blinding him to the danger he was putting them in.

“They took us while we were sleeping,” Connie said. “I’m not a deep enough sleeper that they could have done that without drugs, and if we’d been drugged unconscious for a lengthy period of time we’d still be feeling it. Whatever compound they used has to be a short term thing. Also, I’m not starving. If we’d been out of it for days we’d be weak and hungry.”

“I just feel sick,” Joe said, his voice back to a miserable whisper.

“We’re going to be ok,” Connie said, patting him on the shoulder and giving him a confident smile.

“This doesn’t really feel anything like ok.”

“Believe it or not, I’ve been in worse scrapes before. There was this one time I fell through the ice in Antarctica and wound up trapped in freezing water beneath a glacier and surrounded by three giant squid.”

“What? Really?”

“Girl scouts honor,” Connie said. “Then there was the time I was skydiving and the plane I was on exploded before I got into my parachute.”

“Wait, I thought you were an archaeologist, why were you skydiving?” Joe asked.

“People can have hobbies,” Connie said. “And I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a librarian.”

Joe blinked and sputtered in confusion, before Connie held up a hand to explain.

“I was a dual major,” she said. “I know. It’s super nerdy, but I really like doing research. Technically I guess I’m both, but since  it my library position that pays a salary which I then spend on things like this, I get to call myself a librarian.”

“That’s…that’s not how libraries work is it?” Joe asked.

“There’s a secret to getting the job you want,” Connie said. “It’s real simple – basically know the right people and invent it for yourself. I wanted to be a archeologist librarian, and with years of study, the right friendly contacts, and a ludicrous amount student loan debt, that’s what I became.”

“So how did you survive?” Joe asked.

“Far too much Red Bull and almost enough full body massages,” Connie said. “Plus I stretched out the course work over another year so I could fit everything in.”

“No, I mean the plane,” Joe said. “How’d you survive it exploding?”

“Oh! Yeah, that was fun,” Connie said. “Well, I guess it’s more fair to say it disintegrated after it hit another plane, so that bought me about a half second. Wasn’t enough to get into the parachute but at least I had enough time to see where one was.”

“Why didn’t you have it on?” Joe asked.

“Because I wasn’t supposed to be skydiving that day,” Connie said. “So we crash, mid-air, thanks to the other guy being an idiot after the shortest half second in my life, the fuselage rips open and Mr. Air Currents say that outside is the place to be. I’m falling, our pilot’s falling, all of the divers are falling, and all our stuff is falling. The divers of course all popped their chutes because they’re not stupid. I was close enough to get to one of the falling chutes and get it strapped on enough to be functional. It’s really good I was a theater kid, I’d never have been able to change that fast otherwise.”

“What about the pilot?” Joe asked.

“Well, I was the only one who hadn’t opened their chute, so I got to dive for him,” Connie said. “Again, we were seriously lucky there. Derrick looked like the photoshopped version of a supermodel. He could only break into the triple digits for weight by wearing a wet parka.”

“You caught him?” Joe asked.

“Of course,” Connie said. “I don’t leave people behind.” She bapped him on the shoulder. “Even ones who are screaming in my ear the whole time.”

Joe managed a weak chuckle at that.

“So how do we get out of here?” he asked.

“Well, we start with what we know,” Connie said. “We were looking for some ruins. These are probably them. The room we woke up in had all kinds of amazing pottery in alcoves and the walls have the most fantastic art. So odds are good we’re somewhere below the dig site we were working on.”

“That makes sense. That means we go up?” Joe asked.

“Probably not,” Connie said. “Or at least not right away. Whoever caught us, put us down here for a reason. I’m going to guess the reason for that is because we were poking around somewhere they had something to hide.”

“Why not just kill us?” Joe asked.

“As a guess?” Connie said. “We don’t look that important. Gerald’s the dig site lead. The people who caught us probably want to know what he’s told the outside world about what we’re doing. We’re useful as a bargaining chip or to get answers from if Gerald won’t talk.”

“That means they can come and get us whenever they want,” An edge of panic crept back into Joe’s voice.

“Yeah, which is excellent,” Connie said. “If they can get us, that means we can get out. And if they’re intending to use us for leverage then they don’t think that the zombies in here will eat us right away, so we’re probably safe to move around.”

“But if they left us here doesn’t that mean they don’t think we can get out?” Joe asked.

“Well, they probably weren’t expecting us to get out of the ropes they tied us up in,” Connie said.

“They tied us up?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, you were still out when I came to,” Connie said. “I figured you’d be happier waking up and not finding yourself hogtied. Then I heard the zombies.”

“Umm, thanks,” Joe said.

“Let’s see if we can find how to get out of here, shall we?” Connie asked.

“I think we can help with that.”

Connie regretted the punch that she threw the moment the words finished registering in her mind. Appearances to the contrary though, her nerves were a bit too high strung for her not to lash out at an unexpected voice coming from deeper in the crevice.

Tam wasn’t surprised by the punch. She knew she was playing with fire by making a dramatic entrance. Connie had to punch past Joe to reach her though so she had plenty of time to step back and continue speaking before things got ugly.

“Sorry, that was mean to startle you like that,” Tam said. “You’re Constance Cruz and Joseph Guilder right? My name is Le Li Tam and I’m here to help.”

Connie’s brain wanted to lock up but she kicked her mental gears into action and they spun up a match on the name she’d been given.

“The magician?” she asked. “Like from Las Vegas?”

“I haven’t played in Vegas in a little while,” Tam said. “But, yeah, that one. I brought a friend too.”

“Is this glowing stuff radioactive?” Val asked.

In the dim light cast by the green slime, Connie saw an Asian woman and a Latina woman pressed into the deeper reaches of the crevasse.

“How did you get here?” Connie asked, reasonably certain no one had been in the crevasse when she’d pushed Joe into it. “Does this lead to the outside?”

“Not exactly,” Tam said. “I think the only path out is to either go down to the ancient city below us, which is probably a terrible idea, or to go back up through the ruins above, which will have its own set of problems.”

“Can we maybe move a bit?” Val asked. “I’m getting a rock wedgie standing here.”

Connie started to walk backwards and felt Joe slump against her. He’d passed out and was a lot heavier than he’d been when he was recovering from their drugging and had been able to partially stand on his own feet.

With a grunt, she supported his weight and dragged him out to the cavern tunnel outside the crevasse. Tam and Val joined them moments later as Joe began to come round again.

“So, you’ve got a lot of questions,” Tam said. “The important ones are why are we here, and how are we going to get out. The answers are; to help you because we need your talents, and with as much stealth as we can manage.”

“Stealth? Was I wrong about the zombies?” Connie asked. “Do they want to eat us?”

“Well, they’re not zombies, but they’re not the problem,” Tam said. “It turns out there’s a small army just a few hundred feet above us in the ruins you were looking for, they’re all armed, all pretty cranky, and all ready to shoot anything that comes out of this place.”

“No! That would be terrible!” Connie said.”They might hit some of the relics!”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 4 – Act 1

For Anna, walking through the oncology ward was like walking through a whole night of bad dreams. As she passed empty beds and heard the quiet and all too familiar sounds of the monitoring machines at work a host of bad memories leapt out at her. They belonged only to her past, they held no claim on her anymore, but the echoes of old terrors and pains hadn’t faded away despite the decade that separated her from laying in one of those beds herself and hearing those monitors tick away her fading life.

That she came bearing good news gave her strides purpose and strength but there were too many full rooms she had to pass by for her to retain any illusion that the second chance she carried wasn’t just as needed by so many others.

“The Garcias will be happy to see you,”  Chantel, Anna’s primary contact among the nurses, said.

“Getting to present news like this is it’s own reward,” Anna said. “I feel like you should be the one to give it to them though.”

“I think Maria will believe it more if it comes from you,” Chantel said. “I’ve had to tell her that a shot wouldn’t hurt too much one too many times now.”

They arrived at a room where a family had gathered around a young girl who was hooked up an IV.

“Auntie Anna!” Maria said as soon as she caught sight of Anna’s white hair. “Did it come in yet?”

“Maybe,” Anna said, allowing a heartfelt smile to crack the frown that had clutched her lips. She waggled an envelope without looking at it, before smiling again and passing it over to Maria directly.

“Is it good news?” Sylvia, Maria’s mother, asked.

“Yes,” Anna said. “Maria’s tumor matched the genetic profile they were looking for. She’s a viable candidate for the gene therapy treatment.”

There was a round of cheers from the family, excepting only Syvlia who was too overcome to speak. She turned to sit on the bedside chair, covering her eyes, as silent sobs of relief shook her shoulders.

“This means I’m going to get all better right? So I can take ballet then, can’t I?” Maria asked.

“Get well is still going to be a journey, it’s still going to take a lot of work and being really brave to get well” Anna said. “But this is like putting you in a race car!”

“What about a motorcycle?” Maria asked. “You said you ride a motorcycle, and you beat your cancer, so I want to be like you!”

“You’ll have to ask your mom about riding a motorcycle,” Anna said. “But I think we can arrange for some ballet training sooner than that.”

“How soon?” Maria asked, with just as much patience as a healthy six year old would have shown.

“I don’t know mom,” Anna said, turning to Sylvia, who had recovered but was still torn between crying and smiling, “Think you can spare her tomorrow afternoon?”

“What? So soon?” Sylvia asked.

“Well, the Bolshoi is only going to be in town for a couple of days,” Anna said, to which Maria squealed in delight.

Plans immediately began to be formed around seeing the world famous ballet company, which let Anna step out of the room with Chantel to give the Garcias time to absorb the happy news they’d been given.

“It’s days like this that make it worth it,” Chantel said, the proximity to the Garcia’s joy putting a warm smile on her face.

“I wish I could do the same for everyone here,” Anna said. “No one should have to fight a battle like that.”

“Yeah, but remember, we are fighting it,” Chantel said. “I don’t come in here every day because I have a ward full of people dying on me. I come in because little by little we’re beating this thing. I’m not going to lie, some days we don’t win, and those are hard. But every year we make things a little better. Used to be nobody walked out of a place like this. Now? It happens more often than it doesn’t, and that matters. Each time we win it matters, and each time we lose we grieve, but we keep moving forward and someday we’re going to kick cancer’s ass so hard that it won’t be any worse than getting the sniffles.”

“The future you see is wonderful, I want to be a part of it,” Anna said. “Until then though, if there’s anyone else like Maria who needs some help getting through all the red tape and financials, don’t hesitate to call me ok?”

“Of course,” Chantel said. “I already got my second chance, gotta make sure to share the love as much as I can.”

***

Zoe was waiting for Anna in the parking lot, the rental car purring as Zoe pulled it into place just as Anna reached the sidewalk pick up point.

“You look a little more relaxed,” Zoe said. “I take it Maria was happy with the news?”

“It’s hard to say if the treatment was the real winner, or the backstage access with the Bolshois,” Anna said. “Thank you for setting that up.”

“Thank you,” Zoe said. “It’s nice to get to use my connections for something good for a change.”

“One little signature and you could be doing this sort of thing all the time,” Anna said, buckling in as Zoe pulled away from the curb.

“It’s tempting,” Zoe said, traffic parting for her as though she were a visiting head of state. “You’ve made a wonderful case for the virtues of your club.”

“But not wonderful enough?” Anna asked, knowing the answer but curious as to the reason.

“Perhaps too much so,” Zoe said. “Your damnable honesty is wearing off on me. I’m finding it harder to deceive myself than it used to be.”

“What deception can you no longer cling to?” Anna asked.

“When I worked for PrimaLux, I convinced myself that what I did was what anyone would have done. That my actions were right and necessary for the circumstances I was in,” Zoe said. “There was just enough truth in that to shield me from the deeper reality. I didn’t have to see that I was happy to play the game and destroy those who could present a challenge to what I held because I value myself above all else.”

“That doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive with giving to others,” Anna said. She sought for a feeling of disappointment but her heart knew Zoe well enough after months of companionship that there was no surprise in Zoe’s refusal to join the Second Chance Club. All that rose from the depths when Anna looked into her heart was a subtle pleasure at seeing Zoe’s growing awareness of her own desires and truth.

“Yes, but while I find acts like helping Maria delightful, I know it’s not what calls to me,” Zoe said. Her easy tone spoke of confidence and certainty, but she had worn those feelings as a facade for so long that they were as true as any other element of her persona. In a few lingering pauses though, Anna could hear the whispers of worry that crept in the shadows of Zoe’s mind.

“Have you decided what lies ahead for you then?” Anna asked. Zoe had drifted after the fall of PrimaLux, content for a while to watch life as an outsider after Anna had cracked the foundations Zoe’d built a career and life upon.

“I enjoyed being your rival for the brief time we fought,” Zoe said. “So I think that’s what I’m going to do again.”

There was a sly undercurrent to her words. It carried both an unspoken challenge and a wordless hope.

“Interesting,” Anna said. “I suppose you could pick up the piece of PrimaLux, weld them back together into a small and yet no less dangerous entity, but I believe you’ve moved past that.”

Zoe was silent but her smile confirmed Anna’s statement.

“You want to form your own club then?” Anna said. “One that will outshine the Second Chance Club and all the work I do?”

“You’ve shown me how rewarding helping people can be,” Zoe said. “I can do the same, but I need to be helping my people. I don’t mean to own them. I mean for them to be my people because the effort comes from me, because I have chosen to include them in the world I’m building.”

“And what about those you chose to leave out?” Anna asked.

“To win, I can’t leave out anyone who needs me,” Zoe said. “The people aren’t what is important to me though. Their happiness is simply the coin I can collect to compete with you.”

“And what happens if you should win?” Anna asked. “Will that be the end of your good works?”

“I can only win once we are both passed on,” Zoe said. “So yes, once I am gone my works will end and a final tally can be made. It won’t balance out what I did for PrimaLux, but that won’t take away from the victory I intend to claim.”

“My best part in your life will be as an enemy then?” Anna asked, unsure of the answer she was hoping for.

“No,” Zoe said. “As a rival. I…you are not someone I want to be enemies with.”

“Have a left you afraid of me?” Anna asked.

“I’m not afraid,” Zoe said, “Except of losing you.”

“I’m not sure we can ever be just rivals,” Anna said, and saw a flash of worry ripple across Zoe’s face. “I have friends I am close to, people who are dear to me, but there are only a few that I’m able to invite into all the parts of my life.”

“Is that what I am to you?” Zoe asked, her voice softer than it had been.

“I think I would like to see if you are,” Anna said. “If you’re inclined to be both rivals and something more?”

Zoe relaxed and allowed a sunny smile to lit on her lips.

“I believe I am,” she said. “Being your rival inspires me to be more than I am and whatever our ‘something more’ might be, I think I’d like to discover it with you.”

***

Anna was late the next morning getting to the Second Chance Club’s staff meeting. That proved to be fortuitous as it meant that Tam had the extra time she needed to assemble the presentation they were reviewing.

“Sorry,” Tam said, and clicked ‘Send’ to deliver the slides to everyone else’s laptops. “I got derailed on this for a bit dealing a bank standoff.”

“That sounds dangerous to tackle alone,” Val said, starting to review the slides.

“Oh, this was in Montreal,” Tam said. “I just gave some of our members who were on site the info they needed to talk the hostage taker down.”

“That is part of the reason I asked you all to come in to day,” Charlene said from the speaker phone in the center of the table they were sitting around. From the background sounds, she was still in Puerto Rico helping with the rebuilding efforts to restore power to the island.  “I’ve been tasking you all, and Tam especially, too much lately.”

“Thanks,” Tam said. “But it’s ok. The work we’re doing really can’t wait.”

“That is also true,” Charlene said. “But it doesn’t mean you need to do it alone.”

“I’ve been bringing in the Club’s members on as many projects as I can,” JB said.

“They’re a resource we will continue to need to utilize,” Charlene said. “Ultimately however, we need more than they can provide. That is why I’ve been searching for candidates to form another team of associates.”

“We’re going to bring on another Tam?” Val asked. “Is there really anyone like that anywhere though?”

“No, not another Tam,” Charlene said. “You all have unique gifts and talents. None of you are replaceable. There are however different options for how a job can be done, and other people who can help carry the load that you’ve been shouldering so far.”

“Have you found any promising candidates yet?” Anna asked. The prospect of having some more free time than they’d enjoyed in recent months wasn’t entirely unappealing in light of the new phase her relationship with Zoe was entering.

“I have, her name is Constance Cruz, and I believe she can help relieve the strain Tam is under,” Charlene said. “There’s only one problem. As of noon today, she was reported missing from the dig site she was working at in Peru. In fact no one was found at the dig site at all when their supply van arrived. Just their tools and supplies. Everything else and everyone else was gone.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 3 – Act 4

There were two hours left until Anna arrived with the former citizens of Bright Springs. Statistically speaking, there was almost no chance that a disaster would occur the moment they arrived. Tam was sure of the math on that. She was just as certain though that whatever strands of magic had led to the Mare Luna Estates being the townsfolks new home weren’t going to ground themselves out harmlessly without a bit of help.

“How are these people moving in here tonight?” June asked. “There haven’t been any sales yet. Are they just going to be squatting in the houses until everything  gets put together properly? Will everything get put together properly?”

Tam didn’t fault her for asking. Werewolf or no, June still had to consider the property value of her house if she was going to put three kids through school.

“That would be my fault,” Jimmy B said. He’d joined them as soon as he could but between being farther away and not quite as fearless a driver as Tam was, he’d lagged a good bit behind them. That the delay also meant he wasn’t on the front line for facing the werewolves and didn’t have to enter the scene until any hostilities were resolved was, almost certainly, just a side benefit.

“You talked with the developers?” Henry asked. Tam could see the incredulity in his eyes. Housing developers were difficult to get ahold of under the best of circumstances, and should have been impossible to contact after business hours closed, not to mention the various other parties that would need to be brought in to complete a deal of that scope. Jimmy B had a gift though.

“Yeah, Marty sends his regards,” Jimmy said. “I guess they’ve been having a hard time moving this units, so getting the houses offloaded all at once like this is going to keep him afloat through the balance of the year and beyond.”

“When did you start putting this together?” June asked.

“Around 6:00 I think?” Jimmy said.

“This morning?” Henry asked, astounded.

“Oh no, that would have been easy,” Jimmy said. “Tam gave me the call around 5:30 tonight.”

“But that was only a few hours ago,” June said. “Real estate doesn’t move that fast.”

“It helps to have friends in the right places,” Jimmy said. “And a real estate lawyer on speed dial.”

“Can you work some more of that magic and see about getting the basic supplies they’ll need?” Tam said. “We can worry about clothes later, but food, water, soap, towels, toilet paper…”

“Already ordered and on a truck,” Jimmy said. “I need to check in with some folks, but it should get here just before they do.”

“Excellent, then that leaves paying a visit to Tartarus Technologies,” Tam said, and picked up her racing jacket.

“I’m with you,” Cynthia said, standing to join her.

“Thank you for all this,” Tam said, addressing Henry, June and the kids.

“We haven’t done anything though,” June said.

“You listened,” Tam said. “That counts for a lot.”

***

The Tartarus Technologies grounds weren’t just landscaped. Every green and growing thing on the lawn leading to their research building was sculpted and constrained, wires choking off the growth of trees, hedges trimmed into perfectly regular shapes which might have held artistry if they weren’t drenched in an omnipresent sense of constraint and control. Nature was allowed on the premise only in servitude to the will of its corporate master.

“Who are you here to see?” the guard at the checkpoint leading into the facility asked.

“Kevin Weist,” Tam said, naming the facility’s Director of Research and Development.

“Ms. Greensmith?” The guard asked after finding their name on a name on the approved guests list for the evening. That should have been enough but he looked at the bike and Tam’s passenger for a long moment.

Tam paid no mind to how strange she and Cynthia appeared, she was certain weirder people had shown up at the facility before, and instead nodded at the fake name.

“Mr. Weist is in the main building,” the guard said and passed them through. His job was not to question the whims of his superiors just to do what the system told him to do.

There would be photos of their arrival. Those photos would, sadly, be lost in a hard drive crash in two hours. Tam didn’t have any particular reason to secure her identity against Tartarus but given PrimaLux’s track record she didn’t see the need to take any chances either.

Weist wasn’t waiting for them at the door, which didn’t surprise Tam. He wasn’t aware they were coming. She could have included him on the meeting that she booked for them, but something told her he would have been conveniently unavailable if he caught wind of who wanted to see him.

She signed in herself and Cynthia at the main desk and collected their badges before claiming a space in one of the boardrooms.

***

It was late at night, far past working hours, so when Kevin Weist got a high priority meeting reminder telling him that he had fifteen minutes to be in Boardroom A, he at first dismissed it as a glitch.

Five minutes later it reappeared and he read it but dismissed it again, thinking someone had entered the wrong time for a meeting the following day.

Five minutes after that, the meeting reminder appeared again but this time when he tried to dismiss it his computer froze and a woman’s voice said “don’t keep us waiting any longer Weist.”

Boardroom A was on the ground floor, but Kevin managed to make it there before the final five minutes ran out. When he caught sight of Tam and Cynthia, clad in motorcycle gear, with their helmets on the table, waiting for him, he pulled up short.

“What is this? Who are you?” he asked.

“Zoe Skillings and Claudia Goodwin sends their regards,” Tam said and was delighted to see the names of the former Director of PrimaLux security and Vice President of R&D still held weight with their subsidiaries.

“We’re not affiliated with PrimaLux anymore,” Weist said.

“No, you’re not,” Tam said. “Which means you’re also not affiliated with their investment backing anymore either. From what I can see in your ledgers you haven’t been operating without anything like a sustainable amount of revenue since Tartarus was founded, and the investment nest egg you did have is pretty well dried up isn’t it?”

“Our accounts are not publicly available,” Weist said.

“It’s adorable you think that,” Tam said, “But it doesn’t change that you’re out of money and scrambling for anything that might let you keep the lights on until about next Thursday or so I believe?”

“Why are you here?” Weist asked. “Is this a buyout offer?”

“A midnight buyout?” Tam said. “That would be fairly classic I suppose, but, no, we’re here about another matter. You are primarily a bio-tech researcher company, which means you have access to all sorts of legitimate specimen samples, so can you tell me why you’re stealing cows?”

“I’m sorry, what?” Weist asked.

“Cows,” Cynthia said. “Several have gone missing from local farms. It’s caused at least one that was on the edge to close, and we’ve got tire tracks from the most recent one which match the tracks for your fleet trucks.”

“Why would we steal cows?” Weist asked, genuine confusion clouding his face.

“Bio-weapon research?” Tam said. “I know that’s not on the official corporate prospectus but it didn’t take much digging to find that you have a number of bio-weapon programs currently under development.”

Weist looked back and forth between the two women, his night turning into one of the few nightmares that hadn’t been plaguing his sleep recently. The weight of the failing company bore down on him, crushing his resolve, and his instinctual refusal to acknowledge Tam’s claim crumbled with it.

“No,” he said. “It can’t be them.”

“Are you sure?” Tam asked.

He rose and went to the door before saying “Come with me.”

Tam and Cynthia were treated to an elevator ride down to an unmarked sub-basement. When the doors opened, a broad and well lit lab was laid out before them with a few techs still inside, behind partitions which could stop an armored tank from breaking through. The techs inside were clad in the sort of environment isolation suits that made Cynthia curl her toes in jealousy.

Weist spent the next fifteen minutes pointing out the security features, their backups, the backups to the backups, the failsafes for when all the backups failed, and the monitoring systems which monitored the monitoring systems that ensured everyone was following proper protocols every second of the day.

“This is not the kind of work someone plays around with,” Weist said.

“What sort of plagues are you developing?” Tam asked.

“All of them,” Weist said. “Potentially. Our focus is actually on developing cures, but we can’t do that without active test specimens. Typically those are laboratory breed mice, but we also work with bird specimens and chickens. Cows however do not fit within the control requirements for the research we’re doing.”

“Why not?” Cynthia asked.

“Because we can’t guarantee that we can keep control of sick animals of that scale in this facility and without the guarantee of keeping the animals isolated we can’t risk exposing them to the pathogens we’re developing treatments for.”

“And no one’s cutting corners thanks to the budget woes?” Tam asked.

“No,” Weist said. “We’d never get FDA approval to move onto a new testing stage unless we could show that we conformed to the proper standards.”

“And what about the products which don’t require FDA approval?” Tam asked.

“Well for those we have a different…” Weist trailed off as the answer came to him, “facility.”

“Need to make a phone call?” Tam asked.

***

They arrived at the Tartarus Technologies Agricultural Products Research Center less than thirty minutes later. Unlike the main corporate office, the Agricultural Products building was little more than a renovated farmhouse and barn tucked away on an open patch of land in the Vermont woods. It had a few cars in it’s small parking lot, a hen house which was presumably full of sleeping hens, and glowing cows.

“Should those be doing that?” Cynthia asked, pointing at the frankly adorable bovines that shone with various pastel lights.

“I’m going to guess that this is their big new breakthrough?” Tam said.

One of the researchers picked that moment to exit the farmhouse and, seeing Weist advancing with a murderous look in his eyes, exclaimed “Wait, boss, I can explain everything!”

***

“And could he?” Anna asked.

“Not well enough to keep from being fired,” Cynthia said.

“Apparently the Agricultural Products division’s great idea for keeping the company solvent was to diversify out into performance enhancing drugs which could escape detection by the current suite of monitoring tests,” Tam said.

“It’s a sadly lucrative market,” Anna said. “But, glowing cows?”

“They were testing the effects on cows before they went to human trials,” Tam said. “I don’t know why they picked cows, maybe it was just intuition that something was wrong in the formula? Or maybe just desperation? In any case, the stolen cows began mutating. Fortunately the mutation is a fairly benign one, unfortunately it rendered the cows useless from a testing perspective and difficult to dispose of.”

“It sounded like they were still hoping to figure out what went wrong from them too,” Cynthia said.

“So what will become of the cows now?” Anna asked.

“They’re going back to their owners,” Tam said. “Weist thinks they’ll spark some tourism and there’s probably a few papers to be published around them. Tartarus won’t be the ones to get the credit there though. They’re essentially bankrupt now.”

“Yes, I mentioned that to Zoe,” Anna said. “I believe some new investors will be stepping in tomorrow before their experiments need to be shut down and destroyed.”

“Sounds like Zoe’s getting a bio-tech company at a bargain price then,” Tam said. “Was she setting us up for this?”

“I’m not sure,” Anna said. “I’ll have to ask her at the ballet next week.”

“Would she tell you something like that?” Tam asked.

“I believe she would,” Anna said. “That’s part of what we’ll be working out I think.”

“Wasn’t she your mortal enemy a few months ago?” Cynthia asked.

“Yes, but everyone deserves a second chance,” Anna said.

 

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep3 – Act 3

The full moon had risen, because of course it was a full moon when they were going to visit werewolves. It was casting a light so brilliant that Tam could have driven into the housing development without her light on. Behind her on the bike, Cynthia clung tight, holding onto Tam’s waist in part for comfort and security and in part to ward off the preternatural chill that cut through the early evening air.

“I’m shivering,” Cynthia said, clearly trying not to hold Tam any tighter for fear of crushing her.

“It’s the wolfscent,” Tam said. “We’re close enough that our noses are picking up on the fact that there’s are alpha predators nearby that we need to worry about.”

“I don’t shiver when I go to the zoo though,” Cynthia said.

“Zoos don’t have exhibits that are as dangerous as werewolves,” Tam said.

“Well, at least it’s easy to guess which house is theirs,” Cynthia said.

Tam had stopped her bike at the turn in to the Mare Luna Estates. Down a quarter mile road lay a half dozen large colonial style houses. They stood empty, wrapped in shadows and burnished bright by moonbeams. All of them that is except one.

At the top of the gentle hill the road meandered up, the most distant house sat with light peeking out of curtained windows.

“No lights on outside though,” Tam said. “Think they’re up for visitors?”

“It’s a bit late isn’t it?” Cynthia asked. “And if they are actually werewolves won’t they be, you know, kind of furry at the moment?”

She gestured towards the moon which hung perfectly suspended as a backdrop to the single lit building before them.

“That’s a distinct possibility,” Tam said. “But Anna’s going to be here in a few hours with the people from Bright Spring and we’ll need to get them into their new houses asap.”

“Are they in any more danger on the road than they might be if these people actually are werewolves?” Cynthia asked.

“It’s not that they’re in danger so much as they might still be connected to the residual magic in Bright Springs,” Tam said. “If we can get them settled into their new homes, that will sever enough of the connections to Bright Spring that Val wand Aranae will be able to collect the threads of magic cleanly. If they’re not settled in they may inadvertently drag a bunch of those threads along with them.”

“Should Anna have just left them there then?” Cynthia asked.

“No, that would have been even worse,” Tam said. “Val and Aranae wouldn’t have been able to clean up the stray magic that’s left in Bright Springs if the people it was bound to were still holding on to it.”

“How do you want to try approaching them then?” Cynthia asked. “Sneak up and peak in the windows?”

“I’d love to know more about them,” Tam said, “but they’re likely to notice any surveillance attempts. I mean, they probably already know we’re here.”

“Wolves’ senses are that good?” Cynthia asked.

“Werewolf senses can be. From what I read, they’re usually a lot sharper than either human or wolf senses,” Tam said. “There are a different kinds of werewolf though, so it’s hard to say what exact talents these people might have.”

A long howl rose from behind the house, a celebration of the moon, and the night, and the vitality of being alive. A primal voice in Tam’s mind recognized the cry for joy it expressed but also for the menace it carried. A happy alpha predator was still an alpha predator who might be even happier for a chance to tear your throat out.

Tam glanced to Cynthia before she pulled onto the development’s road. It was unfair to drag her into something like this. Tam had some tricks to rely on, both practical magics and arcane ones, plus signing on with Charlene’s crew made this sort of thing her job to deal with. Cynthia had been a trooper all throughout their journey through the Drowned City, but the world of the weird was a lot to ask anyone to face, even under the best of circumstances.

“We should probably roll on up there sooner rather than later, right?” Cynthia asked.

Tam could feel the shiver in the arms around her waist but, glancing back, Cynthia’s eyes were bright and steady with a gleam of mirth that accompanied the adrenaline high of daring the world to take its best shot and the knowledge that you could (probably) take it.

“You sure you want to come along for this part?” Tam asked. Cynthia didn’t need to impress her. She’d already done that the first night they were together on the boat simply by being open and candid and charming.

“Do you think I became a firefighter because I tend to run away from danger?” Cynthia asked.

Tam opened her mouth and then closed it, not having considered that idea but finding it fit too well to argue with.

“Onwards we go then!” she said and revved the engine.

They weren’t going to be sneaking up on werewolves, and even if they could Tam wouldn’t have been foolish enough to do so. The only thing worse than a large predator protecting their home is a surprised large predator protecting their home.

Despite the roar of the bike’s engine heralding their approach, no one was out on the house’s porch waiting for them when they pulled up in front of it.

Nor was the outside light on.

“Looks like we’re going to have to knock,” Tam said.

“Do we have some kind of cover story for why we’re dropping by so late?” Cynthia asked.

“Yeah. We’re here to visit with the werewolves since they’re going to be getting some new neighbors in a few hours and we want to make sure everything’s going to be cool.”

“Okay. That’s a bit less ‘misdirectiony’ than I’d have imagined from a stage magician, but I could see how it might work,” Cynthia said. “Assuming they can still understand English. You don’t speak wolf right?”

“Not at the moment, no,” Tam said with a small laugh and got off her bike.

Cynthia followed her up the cut stone path that led from street to the house’s front door. The developers were uninspired in the layout and aesthetic arrange of the house and its landscaping. The path wasn’t particularly well assembled, but it was serviceable and it didn’t take any dramatic turns, opting instead for the shortest (and cheapest) distance between the road and the porch at the front of the house.

The house itself was built to the same standard. Just good enough to attract a buyer’s eye, but without any extra touches of craftsmanship to reflect real pride in its construction. Once the neighborhood aged a bit the whole development would fade into obscuring normalcy, with the earliest homeowners being an unremarkable fixture of the landscape.

Unless they started eating people of course. That tended to draw attention from even the most jaded of suburbanites.

With thoughts like those buzzing around in her mind, and a few tricks literally up her sleeves (and on her eyelids), Tam walked forward trying for the best Anna-impersonation that she could muster.

When no one greeted them at the door, she looked for a doorbell and then settled on knocking instead.

It seemed a trifle silly. Even if the people inside were entirely mundane they had to be aware that someone was coming to visit.

“Hello?” The man who answered the door was not what Tam expected. He was tall but not exceptionally so, with a thin, academic’s build, deep black skin, and the sort of heavy eyeglasses that suggested he’d wrecked his vision reading far too many books from far too young an age.

“Hi!” Tam said. “We’re here to talk with the werewolves of the house.”

The man gave a surprised reaction. It was decently acted. Not professional grade in Tam’s opinion, but certainly acceptable for community theater or the like.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man said, his gaze a little too measured and intent for someone who was truly shocked to find strangers spouting nonsense on his doorstep late at night.

Behind the man a large “dog” was laying on the couch very obviously bored and watching the TV. A smaller “dog” flounced through the room tearing into a chew toy with mad abandon.

“Red Wolf bloodline,” Tam said, pointing at the two “dogs”. “You must have family down in North Carolina?”

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” the man said.

“That’s probably true,” Tam said. “There’s a lot I don’t know about werewolves. Except that you’re one, and they are too.”

The man’s lips tightened but before he could respond Tam continued.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You didn’t do anything to give it away. Take a look at my eye shadow.”

She closed her eyes so the man could get a better look at the iridescent shading on her upper eyelids.

“Moonstone?” he asked. “But why?”

“It’s a useful base for enchantments to reveal a shifter’s forms,” Tam said. “Also a pain in the butt to work with, but I have a friend who’s good with rush jobs like that.”

The adolescent red wolf and red wolf pup trotted over to stand behind the man, listening intently to the conversation.

“Why are you here?” the man asked again.

“Not to cause you any trouble,” Tam said. “Seriously, we just want to chat about some new neighbors that you’ll be getting in about, oh, three or four hours I think.”

“New neighbors?” the wolf pup asked.

“Awww”, Cynthia let out a delighted sigh before stifling herself and flashing Tam an embarrassed look.

The man, their father, let out an exasperated sigh and shook his head.

“Wow, that is fantastic control,” Tam said. “I thought it was really hard to produce human speech while shifted?”

“We’re gifted,” the man said.

“Hi gifted, I’m Tam,” Tam said, offering her hand.

“Oh my god, Dad jokes?” the adolescent wolf said, somehow conveying a teenager’s disbelief without the right body for the body language she used.

“You should come in,” the man said.

“Thank you,” Tam said, losing the disarming silliness from her voice. “This is Cynthia. We’re from the Second Chance Club. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of us?”

She followed the man and the two wolves inside in time to find a woman coming down the steps from the second floor with a baby in her arms. The woman was taller than the man, and more solidly built, though with glasses similar to her husband’s. If Tam had to guess, she would have bet that where the husband was a teacher and spent the majority of his time behind a desk, his wife was probably more of a field researcher.

“June, these are our guests, Tam and Cynthia,” the man said. “Somehow they know who we are.”

“Not much about who,” Tam said. “And even less about what. Just some basic info and that you’re werewolves.”

“And why do you know this?” June asked, her eyes never leaving Tam’s.

“Some quick research and a strong desire to head off any problems before they blow up unnecessarily,” Tam said.

She laid out for them the basics of what was about to happen and why. How their previously empty neighborhood was going to have over a dozen new tenants in the various houses, how the new neighbors were going to be a little shell shocked and out of touch with the modern world, why that was, and the kind of help they were likely to need.

Then she listened.

From Henry, the father, she drew out the concerns that the family had in general. The worries they felt over people learning their secrets, of worries about how judgemental people who’d missed the civil rights era were likely to be given how much prejudice and hatred existed in people who should have had decades of being raised better than that, and of how people were already starting to blame them for things that weren’t their fault without even being aware of the supernatural elements that made the family different from their neighbors.

From June, she learned about the specific difficulties they faced on a day to day basis. How the closer it got to the full moon, the more people could sense their wolf nature, and the more people grew fearful who otherwise knew them well.

“I don’t have answers for all of that,” Tam said. “And some of it will probably be a ‘work in progress’ sort of thing, but I can offer a few ideas right away. There’s a recipe I came across for a wolfsbane perfume. It’s potent stuff, but a werewolf named Karen Goldman left a book on it that said it could be made in a concentration that didn’t bother her nose but managed to suppress the wolfscent in her house and on herself. She lived in the Bronx and went from a social recluse to a kindergarten teacher and was beloved in the job for years.”

“My grandmother talked about a recipe like that but she said it never worked,” June said.

“There’s some finicky steps in the process, but if James can whip up enchanted moonstone eyeshadow in an hour, I’m pretty sure he can fix up a batch for you in the next day or two. At least to give it a try. If it works out, I can have him write down the directions, or show me how to do it and I’ll come back and lead you through it. If you’d like.”

“If it works, that would be very nice.”

“I don’t mean to pry,” Cynthia said. “But it seems like there’s a ton of misinformation about what werewolves. Do you really need to hide what you are?”

“We do,” Henry said. “The wolf nature we carry is still technically a curse. It didn’t work out quite how the man who cursed my ancestors intended, largely because we’re not the beasts he believed us to be, but attempts to repeat that curse on others could unleash the kind of troubles this world isn’t ready for and doesn’t ever need to see.”

“That just leaves one other likely cause for concern,” Tam said. “I read that there were some cows that have gone missing recently in this area?”

“Yes, that wasn’t us though,” June said.

“Yeah, the lack of a giant fridge to store the meat in kind of gave that away,” Tam said. “Any idea who could be responsible though? Something tells me that could be a problem that decides to complicate the lives of everyone here given how much residual magic there’s going to be floating around for the next week or two.”

“Well, there’s that research lab that had to lay off some people a month ago,” Henry said. “I know they’ve got a bio-tech division, and one of my students swore she saw one of their trucks driving around her farm before they lost three of their cows.”

“A bio-tech lab?” Tam asked, bring up her phone’s browser to do a check of the surrounding towns. She’d been diving so deeply into the werewolf research before she left that she’d skipped one of her most common steps.

“Yeah, Tartarus Technologies,” Henry said. “They’ve been here for decades I believe.”

Tam watched their homepage load and groaned as their logo appeared with a subtitle which read “A division of PrimaLux International!”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 3 – Act 2

Val looked like a hundred miles of bad roads and a trip full of loosely observed speed limits. From the state of her bike, which was still cooling off outside the Second Chance Club’s mobile headquarters, Tam guessed it was closer to a thousand miles and that local speed limits had passed into the rear view mirrors much too fast to be observed at all.

“How do you keep up with this?” Val asked, seeing Tam and Cynthia entering the mobile home’s side door. Papers were taped to every wall and stacked on every horizontal surface. Val’s jacket was hanging by one sleeve from a peg on the wall over the dining nook where she had a trio of laptops setup.

“She usually has a bit more room to work with than the inside of an RV,” Jim Baughsley said from underneath the driver’s seat, where he was tinkering happily away. Tam was glad to see the Second Chance Club’s resident mechanic taking a turn out in the field. Jim had been the one to teach her ride a motorcycle after Anna and Val left her in the dust one too many times. She still had to work to keep up with Val, and she valued keeping her skeleton intact too much to try to outrace Anna, but thanks to Jim’s patient tutelage she had grown to love the machines he spent so much time and energy enhancing for them.

“Plus you usually don’t see my office when I’m at this stage in the preparations,” Tam said, clearing a seat for Cynthia to sit on.

“Well, the good news is that I’m farther along than it looks like,” Val said, tapping a few keys on the laptop to her left before swiveling it on the small dining table so that Tam could see the results.

“Ok, that looks like a housing division,” Tam said. “Why are we buying a housing division? And who are these old West refugees you were talking about.”

“They’re not technically refugees, or from the Old West,” Val said. “But they have lost their homes. The short form is Bright Springs was a bust, and we had to blow it up. Several times since the place was stuck in a time loop. It was kind of fun for a while but eventually we made the destruction stick, and then we had to deal with the fallout, which includes finding homes for people who haven’t had much contact with the outside world since the 1930’s. The good news is, with the town demolished all of the ghosts and the people are free to leave. The bad news is, they’ve got nowhere to go..”

“That’s a bit more than I expected you’d have to deal with,” Tam said, settling for understatement to convey her dismay.

“You gave us plenty to go on,” Val said.

“A time loop though?” Tam asked, disbelief eclipsing concern for the moment.

“Yeah, there was some kind of spell so anytime the town changed, or someone tried to leave it, the whole place blew up and reset everything to exactly how it was when the mineral rights deal was signed,” Val said.

“Oh good,” Tam said, breathing a sigh of relief. “That’s not a time loop.”

“Time loops are bad I take it?” Cynthia asked.

“In a wide variety of ways,” Tam said. “The short form is they take a lot of power and things go bad when they break. Like divide the universe by zero kinds of bad.

“I am kind of glad I didn’t know that half a day ago,” Val said. “So what was happening there?”

“Probably some kind of wide area restoration spell,” Tam said. “It would have prevented the town or anyone in it from changing much, but they still would have been part of the normal flow of time, not bubbled off or anything weird like that. It was still a good idea to move the townsfolk away though. We’ll need to head out there at some point and ground out whatever remnants of the spell remain, but for now we can focus on dealing with any weirdness that’s lingering around them.”

“Cool,” Val said. “I’d hate for all this careful research to go to waste.”

“As a warning, I’m betting that if you’ve found a place that seems great there’s about a 50% chance it’ll have some strange things going on of its own. Like tends to call to like,” Tam said.

“So 50% chance that this housing development is normal? That sounds like fantastic odds compared to what we’re used to,” Val said.

“If it looks normal when we get there, I’m going to be really worried,” Tam said. “Our chance for finding a “normal place” is probably less than 1%, maybe even zero. The other chances we’re looking at are for the various flavors of horror story that we might walk into.”

“Should you be walking into this place blind then?” Cynthia asked.

“Sadly the only method of detecting a lot of supernatural traps is to spring them,” Tam said.

“That figures,” Cynthia said. “What I meant though was do you have any resources to find out what’s going on with the area before you go in there?”

“Yeah, JB normally handles that kind of thing,” Val said. “Charlene’s got them working on another project though so we’re a bit understaffed at the moment.”

“We’re going to pay for that if we’re not careful,” Tam said. “Fortunately, in this case James might be able to help out.”

“You’re not going to drag poor James out into the field are you?” Jim asked.

“Nope,” Tam said. “Just ask him to put us in touch with one of his guildmates in the area.”

“James is in a guild?” Cynthia asked.

“Several as it turns out,” Tam said. “For a guy who’s pretty dead set against going out and meeting people, he’s got a surprisingly large array of associates and friends.”

“Is that why he’s got that Owl in his lab?” Val asked. “I’m going to be jealous if he’s got his own Hedwig.”

“No, he uses the internet like the rest of us,” Tam said. “He’s an arcane scholar, not a Luddite.”

“You think he’ll have a guildmate near this development?” Cynthia asked.

“It’s in Vermont and I know he’s got a few friends there, whether they’re right nearby is an open question but if there’s anything odd with the development there’s a decent chance they’ll have some sense of it.”

There was a knock on the door.

“I can get that,” Jim said, having extricated himself from beneath the driver’s seat.

“Are we expecting more visitors?” Tam asked, knowing that Anna wouldn’t have bothered to knock.

“No good ones,” Val said, rising from her seat and moving past Tam and Cynthia.

Tam bit back an objection that she could take care of herself. With how tired she felt, she wasn’t sure that was entirely true and she appreciated Val acting as a shield for Cynthia too.

“You’re not the one I came here to destroy,” a woman said when Jim opened the door.

Jim started to square up, the wrench in his hand clenched as an undersized club, when Val laid her hand on his shoulder and shook her head.

“Aranae?” she said. “Uh, nice to see you I guess?”

She stepped back and allowed the Spider Goddess to step into the increasingly cramped confines of the RV.

“I was hoping it would be,” Aranae said and planted a small kiss on Val’s cheek. “Your friend James reached out to me. Impressive that he knows how, dangerous too, but I won’t be adding him to list to throw into the Abyss. You might want to let him know that. He seemed a bit worried on the subject.”

“You’re going to do what now?” Tam asked.

“It’s complicated,” Val said.

“Not tremendously so,” Aranae said with a smile that was strangely lacking in malice or menace. “Hello, you must be Ms. Le?”

Tam glanced up to Val to see how dangerous the situation was. Val offered a sheepish shrug that told Tam both more and less than she needed to know.

“The only Aranae I know of is a pre-Hellenic deity,” Tam said. “She was either the first spider, or the mother of spiders, or a mortal woman who wove so finely that she became the embodiment of what it means to be a spider.”

“Like Arachne from the Greek myths?” Cynthia asked.

“A precursor myth, or one possible precursor,” Tam said. “Myth’s get kind of messy.”

“Yes,” Aranae said. “We do.”

“Why did James get in touch with you?” Val asked.

“We have an interest in common,” Aranae said. “There is a lovely shattered web. It used to be called Bright Springs. There is also a storm coming which is going to sweep up the threads of magic which blanket the ruins of the town.”

“Does the storm have a name?” Tam asked, a single unpleasant idea forming in her mind’s eye.

“Yes,” Aranae said, with a nod of satisfaction that Tam understood her.

“Scratch what I said about waiting to deal with Bright Springs then,” Tam said. “If the wrong kind of storm sweeps through Bright Springs and picks up all that energy it’ll be a disaster.”

“Like a Cat 5 hurricane?” Val asked.

“Like start building an Ark,” Tam said.

“Okay, I guess Anna can bring our townsfolk to a motel or something for a few days then,” Val said.

“If we’re not there to clear it first, it’s going to turn out to be the Bates Motel,” Tam said.

“There is another option,” Aranae said. “But I will need to abduct one of you to serve as my companion, a mortal life to allow a divine will to work within this world.”

“You’re willing to clean up Bright Springs?” Tam asked.

“The threads of magic would be useful in my web,” Aranae said. “So I don’t need to ask for a sacrifice or payment beyond the uncontested right to what I collect.”

“I’m happy to go with her, if you can handle stuff here Tam?” Val asked.

“Are you sure?” Tam asked. “She did say she was here to destroy you right?”

“All three of you,” Aranae said.

“Yeah, that’s, a thing,” Val said. “It’ll be ok for now though.”

“Come outside when you’re ready to be abducted then,” Aranae said. “I’ll start casting the strands to return us to Bright Springs.”

She turned and stepped out of the RV, but not before flashing Jim a toothy smile that left him blinking and pale.

“Val, seriously, are you sure about this?” Tam asked, grabbing Val’s wrist to prevent her from following Aranae.

“I am,” Val said. “Aranae and I are kind of, I don’t know, dating? It’s weird, but I think that’s because we’re still working things out.”

“What about the whole ‘destroy you all’ part?” Cynthia said.

“I’m working on that,” Val said. “Worst case, if this all goes sideways, we’ll know more about her than we would have, but I don’t think either one of us really wants to fight it out at this point.”

“So you’re dating a Spider Goddess?” Tam said.

“She’s nicer than she tries to let on,” Val said. “And we have fun together. And to be honest, I was kind of hoping to look her up anyways when this bunch of headaches was all done, so getting to spend a little time with her might be kind of nice.”

Tam looked for any sign of external compulsion or geas that might have been laid on Val but the only thing she could find in Val’s eyes was eagerness and delight.

“Be careful then, please,” Tam said. “If anything comes up that you’re not sure of, call me. If you can’t get through, then walk away and call me. I’ll be there whenever you need, okay?”

“Definitely,” Val said and pulled Tam in for a hug before joining Aranae outside the RV.

Tam watched her leave and then turned to the piles of paper Val had left behind in her wake.

“She either loves Aranae, or she just wanted to get away from this nightmare,” Tam said.

“No reason it can’t be both,” Cynthia said. “Can I give you a hand organizing it?”

“I can’t ask you to do that,” Tam said.

“You almost worked yourself into a coma,” Cynthia said. “I’d like to help make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

“It won’t,” Tam said. “And we don’t need to go through these. I know Val did a solid job on them. What we really need to do next is talk to whatever friend James can find in the area.”

***

James, as it turned out, had plenty of contacts to drawn on, one of whom even lived in the town Val had selected for relocating the citizens of Bright Springs.

“Oh yeah, I know that development complex,” Elizabeth Victoria said after Tam explained the situation to her. “They put it up where the Moon Valley Acres farm used to be. It’s a nice place. But…”

“I promise, whatever you say, I’m not going to think you’re weird or crazy,” Tam said. “I’ve worked with James for several years now.”

“Well, the missing cows you can read about in the newspaper, or online I guess,” Elizabeth said. “That’s what most people would consider weird. Most people don’t know about the family of werewolves that moved in recently though.”

 

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep3 – Act 1

A police car ramped off a car parked on the side of the road, launching twenty feet into the air before it began to flip end over over. At the apex of its flight it exploded into a fireball that obscured the entire vehicle before its forward momentum and gravity brought it out of the flaming cloud to crash back onto the street. With a bounce, it landed on its somehow still intact wheels and the smoke covered driver floored the accelerator pedal, resuming their chase of the escaping bad guys.

Aside from its missing windows, omnipresent smoke stains, and some artful tongues of fire that were still burning, the car showed no discernible reduction in capacity related to the “Battle Damage” it had sustained after being hit with a rocket launcher.

“You know even with actual magic, I don’t think that would be possible,” Tam said, closing her eyes and leaning back against the lower part of her couch.

Cynthia, sitting on the couch above Tam, took the opportunity to adjust where she was massaging Tam’s head before answering.

“That’s the joy of these movies,” she said. “If you think about them at all you get brain whiplash.”

“No. Must. Overanalyze. Must. Science. Silly. Film. Geek. Cred. Demands. It.” Tam said in her best robotic voice.

“I thought you were going to rest that big juicy brain of yours tonight?” Cynthia asked, running her fingers slowly through Tam’s hair.

“Nitpicking movies is how my people rest,” Tam said, feeling tension that she hadn’t imagined she was carrying in her scalp melt away under Cynthia’s careful minstations.

“Well, lucky for you then, the stunts get a lot less plausible after this,” Cynthia said as the police car on the TV screen slid through an impossibly sharp turn and somehow wound up racing horizontally along the side of a building.

Tam chuckled when the car managed to reorient itself to land on its wheels in between camera cuts.

“Now that one, I could do,” she said. “But it would have to be near the middle of winter and I’d need a bucket of untainted spring water blessed by two opposing religious factions.”

Cynthia paused her work on Tam’s head.

“You realize I have no hope of figuring out when you’re being serious and when you’re pulling my leg, right?” she asked.

“Lying about magic is no fun,” Tam said. “It’s too easy, even with other magicians, and usually the truth is so much weirder and more interesting.”

“So everything you tell me is the truth?” Cynthia asked, both playful and serious at the same time.

“I hope so,” Tam said, curiosity rushing in with a thousand guesses as to where Cynthia’s question was leading. “I mean, I can always be wrong about things, but I don’t want to ever deceive you. I do that too much in both of my jobs. And I’ve seen what lying can do to a relationship. Or what it always does.”

“Yeah, I’ve lost a few thanks to one or both of us not being honest with the other,” Cynthia said. “It’s never pretty.”

“I don’t know that it’s something people grow out of,” Tam said, “but I hope that’s not going to be an issue for us. I feel like at 30, I should have learned enough of those lessons by now that being an actual grownup with a woman I care for shouldn’t be all that much to ask of myself.”

“I know what you mean,” Cynthia said. “Being with you is so easy, but there’s a part of me that’s still waiting for me to make one of the thousand stupid mistakes I made as a kid.”

“Maybe we should,” Tam said.

“Should what?”

“Make mistakes,” Tam said. “I don’t mean we should get into a fight for no reason, or go on a wild bender that leaves us with warrants across five states, I mean the simple screw ups. The things we can talk about. You’re so great to be with, but you don’t have to be great all the time. I want to be with you even if you’re feeling pretty mediocre. I want to be with you even if you’re feeling terrible. No matter how you are, I want to be with you.”

Cynthia let her hands drift down to Tam’s shoulders.

“Ok, well then maybe I should ask this,” she said. “What would you think about moving in together? I know we’ve only known each other for a few months now, so I will absolutely understand if you want to let things develop more gradually. I don’t want to rush you at all, I was just thinking that you need someone to watch your place while you’re on the road anyway and it’s always easier to cover rent with a roommate and…”

Before Cynthia could list off anymore reasons, Tam placed her hands over Cynthia’s and leaned her head over to hug Cynthia’s leg.

“I’ve been trying to figure out how to ask you that for the past week,” she said, with a chuckle.

“What? Really?”

“Yeah,” Tam said. “I mean, I’ve kind of felt like I was going with the sneaky weasel option of achieving the same thing by just being over here all the time anyways lately, but, yeah, I’ve been thinking I should ask you if you wanted to make it an official thing for a while now.”

Cynthia laughed.

“God. I’ve been trying to figure out if it was too soon, and how I should ask you, since the second time you slept over for two nights in a row,” she said.

Tam shook her head and sighed.

“Would you believe I talked myself out of staying a third night that time because I didn’t want you to feel too crowded?” she said. “Yes, I am a grownup. A grownup idiot.”

“Hey! We already did it then!” Cynthia said. “You said we should make mistakes together right? Look at us, on the ball and having it covered even before we knew we were supposed to be trying to mess up. Go us!”

Tam laughed and then turned around to climb up and meet Cynthia’s gaze at eye level.

“I am very lucky to have found you,” she said. “I know that and I think I’ve been holding back because I’m afraid if I show you how much you mean to me it’ll seem freaky, and I know I’m already super freaky as it is.”

Cynthia looked startled for the length of a heartbeat but then leaned forward and gave Tam a quick but gentle kiss before replying.

“Dating you has literally been out of this world,” she said. “I love the freaky parts of you and the regular parts. I love you, so you don’t need to hold back. I want you, all of you, or at least all you’re willing to give me, because I know I am very lucky to have met you too.”

Tam heard all of that but three simple words in the middle of it bounced back and forth in her head and drowned out all the rest.

She wanted to kiss Cynthia back. She wanted to make an even grander, more romantic gesture, possibly involving magic, or stagecraft, or both. She wanted to at least say those three words in return to Cynthia.

But her phone rang.

Before Tam could stop her, Cynthia reached over and picked it up.

“I’m your answering service tonight, remember?” she said.

It was part of Tam’s enforced rest that Cynthia had insisted upon. The world might be in dire need of Tam, but it was also as likely to be calling for tech support or to schedule something that could wait till later. Without putting up much resistance, Tam had agreed to the notion that Cynthia could handle any incoming calls that seemed important enough to answer in order to weed out the ones that Tam really didn’t need to deal with.

“Hello, you’ve reached Tam Le’s personal assistant, how may I handle your call?” Cynthia asked and after a moment added, “Oh, hi Val. Yeah, she’s in, is this important though? She’s still pretty wiped out.”

Tam waited and felt the tension that Cynthia had massaged out of her scalp starting to gather again.

“Refugees from an old west ghost town?” Cynthia said and Tam felt herself deflate.

She knew what that had to be a reference to. She’d been lining up hundreds of potential cases, but  the one revolving around the Old West town of Bright Springs had been in the Top 10 likely problem areas. That Val was calling about it suggested James had been able to track down the missing contract information and Bright Springs had gone from Top 10 to Number 1.

A pang of guilt passed through Tam at the thought that Anna and Val had been forced to deal with the problem without her, but she had to also admit that in the state she’d been in she would have been more of a liability that an asset.

The idea that the resolution had left them with refugees to deal with bothered her too though. It suggested a more destructive end to the case than she’d foreseen in her research on it. That was another sign that she’d been slipping from fatigue but also a sign that Anna and Val might have been in a lot more danger than they’d planned for.

“Ok, I’ll see what sort of shape she’s in tomorrow then and we’ll head over after breakfast,” Cynthia said before hanging up.

“Did Bright Springs explode or something?” Tam asked once Cynthia put the phone down.

“Umm, yes, I think?” Cynthia said. “Val didn’t give me the whole story but it sounds like there was a town with people from another era that need a place to live now. So I’m guessing the town they were in isn’t there anymore?”

“That’s not great,” Tam said. “The town I left them notes for, it was a place called Bright Springs, had some really complex magic woven into it. If it blew up, there could be all sorts of problems that rush to fill in the void the town left.”

“Like what? And is it something they can handle without you?” Cynthia asked.

“I’d need to study it in person to know for sure, but there could be bits of wild magic, or unstable portals to other places or times left behind,” Tam said. “Most of it would dissipate before too long, unless someone like our friend Sycorax decided to lay claim to the torn up threads of magic and weave them into something new to suit their own purposes.”

“You said James wasn’t good at field work right?” Cynthia asked.

“Yeah, it’s an area he knows that he struggles with,” Tam said. “He’s really brave, but new places and especially new people in new places he finds really challenging. That said though, he could do a lot to investigate Bright Springs without leaving his own Sanctum, so they’ve probably got that part covered.”

“And the people who lived in the town?” Cynthia asked.

“They’re a different story,” Tam said. “If Anna and Val are moving them, someone is going to need to go with them and make sure they don’t get snarled up between all the spells they’ve been living under and any existing magics of the place they move too.”

“Kind of like getting inoculations when you travel to a distant place in the world because the germs there are different than the ones we have here?” Cynthia asked.

“Basically,” Tam said. “We all adapt to the areas we live in, and that includes the casual magics that surround us. For normal situations, travel from country to country is trivial, magically speaking. There’s so few enchantments and spells that anyone runs into that carrying a thread of magic from Egypt into Greece wouldn’t even raise an errant spark, unlike a few millennia ago where it could have started a war. With a town like Bright Spring though, I’m guessing the among of lingering magic will be pretty substantial.”

“So are these Old West refugees going to start a war?” Cynthia asked.

“Not if someone can make sure that wherever they wind up is able to welcome them with basic human decency,” Tam said.

“Is there a place like that?” Cynthia asked, her cynicism having been sharpened to a fine edge by an awareness of human history, and especially recent examples thereof.

“There is if we make one,” Tam said, standing up and knowing that she’d gotten all the rest she was going to be able to afford to take.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 2 – Act 4

Anna was walking into an ambush. There was a warm comfort to that. She could manage uncertainty and navigate delicate political situations but sometimes it was nice to know exactly what she was getting herself into right from the beginning. The moment she stepped into the gas station office, the world came to life and everything went wrong in just the way she hoped it would.

She’d waited a few moments after Val entered the Post Office on the off chance that things were more or less as they appeared to be. When Val didn’t emerge after a minute though, Anna knew that the buildings weren’t as empty as they seemed to be.

She could have followed Val, and normally would have. Second Chance Club associates backing up their partners was a standard operating procedure but if Tam’s guess as to the nature of Bright Springs was correct then Anna didn’t have any concern about Val being able to handle herself.

Plus, the Post Office wasn’t the building that was inviting her to enter.

From the outside, the gas station had looked well lit with only a few pieces of simple furniture on the floor and and walls. Waiting inside however, she found three men and two women, all armed, and all with the sort of sour looks that said there was violence in the offing which they had little taste for.

“Before we get started,” Anna said, “which of you is the one I can have a nice  conversation with once the unpleasantries are taken care of?”

The largest bearded man in the room twitched at that and, rather than answering with words, swung the baseball bat that he was holding.

It was a good swing, solid and from the shoulder. If Anna had stayed in place it would have cracked into the left side of her neck with enough downward force to shatter her collarbone and disable her left arm. The only flaw in the attack was the moment’s hesitation that preceded it.

Anna wasn’t the fighter that Val was. She did ok when they sparred but that was only because Val held back and Anna didn’t.  That was how she always fought, which was unfortunate for the man swinging the bat at her.

From the position where he had the bat readied, and the grip he held it with, Anna could see exactly where his swing was going to go well before he decided to make his attack.

With a small side step, she slid away from the blow, allowing the man to overextend himself. As he started to tip forward off balance, she grabbed his shirt sleeve and forced him hard into the door beside her.

The gas station door was old, and hadn’t been built with the sturdiest of materials to begin with, so when the man struck it with the full force of his face and torso, the door shattered into kindling.

Then the town exploded.

Anna blinked and spit dust out of her mouth.

She’d wound up on the ground somehow.

Beside her Val was rising to her feet as well.

“Well that sucked,” Val said, shaking her head to clear the ringing away from her ears.

The explosion had rippled through the town fast enough that Anna could barely recall it, but given the immensity of the blast she was having a hard time understanding why she was around to remember anything at all.

“Things did not go well in the Post Office?” she asked, getting to her feet. They were back at their bikes, but this time the lights were on in all five of the buildings that made up Bright Springs.

“I may not have been as diplomatic as I should have been,” Val said.

“I don’t think any amount of diplomacy would have avoided that,” Anna said. She had her suit jacket back and Val was wearing her own racing jacket again.

“Well, at least we found the townsfolk,” Val said, dusting herself off.

“And now you’ll regret that you did,” the baseball bat wielding man said as he exited the gas station flanked by the other ambushers.

“Aww, did you find some friends to play with? They’re just adorable with those little sticks,” Val said, stepping forward into a casual fighting stance.

“We don’t want to fight you,” the short, older woman of the group said. That she was clutching a branding iron raised questions that none of the others were leaping to answer.

“You are not wrong about that,” Val said. Five on one weren’t great odds, but watching the five townsfolk move as a group told her they would be more a danger to each other than to her if a serious fight broke out.

“What Hilda means is that it’s too late for you, so there’s no point in fighting anymore,” the other woman said.

The resemblance between them was too strong for Anna to believe the taller woman was anything other than Hilda’s sister.

“And why was it that you were so intent on fighting before?” Anna asked.

“We were trying to save you,” the man with the baseball bat said.

“You have an odd method of saving people,” Anna said.

The townsfolk glanced at the weapons and nervously dropped their arms to their sides to show they weren’t threatening violence anymore. Anna noted that they didn’t actually drop the weapons though.

“We wanted to get you out of here before you did anything,” Hilda said. “Then you went and broke the door and now the town’s got you.”

“I broke a window too,” Val said. “Or I guess the Post Office manager’s face broke a window. Kind of the same thing really.”

“You shoved him through a window?” Anna asked. “We weren’t even inside for two minutes?”

“Technically I didn’t shove him,” Val said. “It was a knee strike, and what can I say, he deserved it.”

“Miller must be fuming in there,” Hilda said. “Poor Bill, he’s gonna get it for sure.”

“Sounds like I need to go have another ‘discussion’ with Mitchy,” Val said.

“No! Don’t do that!” the baseball man said.

“If you break anything in the town, the judgement comes,” Hilda said.

“The Judgement? That why the town seemed to explode?” Anna asked.

“It didn’t seem to, it did,” the baseball man said. “Anytime the town changes from how it was when the contract was signed, the Day of Judgement comes and sets it all back to how it was.”

“Like Groundhog Day?” Val asked, but the townsfolk replied with only confused silence.

Tam had speculated that the ‘town being kept as it was’ clause in the contract could have a component of temporal manipulation involved, but she hadn’t given them the full details on what a time loop that could hold a town in stasis for a century would entail.

“So when I broke the door, and Val broke the window, everything reset?” Anna asked. “And somehow that has made us a part of this town?”

“Yeah, that’s how I got stuck here,” a smaller man at the back of the group said. “I stopped in to grab a bite because I’d heard of the restaurant here from my grandmother. Backed into the gas pump by mistake and that was it for me, I’ve been stuck here ever since.”

“When was that?” Anna asked.

“1961,” the man said.

To Anna’s eyes the man couldn’t have been older than his mid-thirties but she knew that deceptions were the easiest form of magic. Not that the deception was complete. The man might look like he was in his thirties but there was a quality to his eyes that suggested sixty years of weight those thirty plus years were never intended to bear.

“Why couldn’t you leave?” Val asked.

“We don’t know,” Hilda said. “Anyone who’s here is a part of the town through. Anything happens to them, or the town, and it all gets rolled back like you saw.”

“What’s the longest you’ve gone without a reset?” Anna asked.

“It varies,” Hilda said. “I know we had one time where we went about three months with time passing like it does for everyone else. Other times it just seems to skip back whenever it wants. Sometimes two or three times per day.”

“So anyone who’s here when the town resets gets added on as a permanent resident?” Val asked. “How come you’re not overflowing with population here?”

“Most people cannot find Bright Springs, I imagine,” Anna said. “We did because we knew of it through PrimaLux’s contract. He did because he knew of the restaurant from his mother. Without a connection to Bright Springs, we might have driven right through and never noticed it.”

“It seems like that,” Hilda said. “Back before this all started, we never had all that many people come through, but afterwards it was like nothing else existed at either end of the road.”

“What happens if you try to leave?” Val asked.

“If we get too far away that seems to be the same as taking something from the town,” Hilda said. “We wind up back wherever the town wants us to be.”

“Is that why you were in the gas station?” Anna asked. “Did the town put you there?”

“And gave us the weapons,” the baseball man said.

“We only wanted to knock you out and dump you outside of town before the next reset,” Hilda said.

“So you were concerned enough for her well being that you expressed it with a baseball bat?” Val asked.

“No,” Anna said. “It wasn’t for my sake. They didn’t want another member of the town to spend eternity with.”

“Not one the town didn’t like!” the baseball man said.

“But it was for your sake too,” Hilda said. “Who would want to be trapped like this? Never able to move forward or change at all.”

Anna and Val looked at one another.

“The guy who holds the deed that set this up I would imagine,” Val said.

“Perhaps we should all go pay him a visit?” Anna suggested and began walking towards the Post Office.

The others fell into line behind her, Val trusting her insight and the townsfolk having nothing better to do at that point.

Inside the Post Office, Bill was dutifully reading a handbook on postal regulations which looked like he’d read it a few thousand times already.

“Hello?” he said followed swiftly by, “You shouldn’t go in there!”

Anna ignored that and marched into the office of Mitchel Miller to find the man backed into a corner and pointing a gun at her.

“Under the circumstances, that is a singularly ineffective threat, don’t you think?” Anna said.

Miller’s gaze flicked around as more people entered the room before returning to Anna.

“Mitchel Miller,” she said. “Former PrimaLux Director of Natural Resource Development for their Americas division. This is quite the golden parachute you arranged for yourself.”

“What is she talking about?” Hilda asked. “Mitch has been here as long as the rest of us.”

“Of course he has,” Anna said. “This is the one place on Earth where he was safe from the machinations of his former employer.”

“Mitch? What are they saying?” Hilda asked.

“You weren’t the one who arranged the original deal, were you Mitchy?” Val said. Miller swung the gun to point at her but didn’t answer. “You had one of your flunkies come and make the offer after you bought some land here so that you’d be a legit part of the town.”

“Then you put together a deal that would snare the souls of the dead to power the time loop that you caught the town in,” Anna said. “The deal required PrimaLux to create the loop but since it was self sustaining and got them the resources they wanted, it was easy enough to convince them to take the offer.”

“Strange time loop,” Val said. “It seems like it rolls forward with regular time.”

“That’s what we thought,” Hilda said. “We get set back, and the town gets set back, everything just like it was, but the rest of the world keeps moving on.”

“It’s the perfect tool for someone who wants to live forever, but also continue to exert their power on the outside world,” Anna said.

“There is one odd bit though,” Val said. “I’m not a legal expert, but I thought the deal stipulated that the Additional Value clause or whatever it was that gives the owner control over the souls of the dead only came into force if PrimaLux had to relinquish ownership of the deed. Kind of a payback for the loot they were losing.”

“That’s true,” Anna said. “Which suggests that the transfer didn’t happen when PrimaLux fell. It happened right after the deal was signed.”

“And who could have been the one to get the deed from PrimaLux?” Val asked. “Could it be Mister Mitchy Miller himself?”

She strode over to him and slapped the gun out of his hand.

Firing it would have been useless. It just would have reset the town and they would have done the same scene all over again until it turned out how they wanted.

“Why, what do we have here?” she said, pulling a thin envelope out of his coat pocket and tossing it to Anna.

“This would look to be the signatory sheet for the Mineral Rights contract,” Anna said.

“It doesn’t matter if you destroy that one,” Miller said. “It won’t void the contract. There are still copies on file in safe locations, and I’m still the owner!”

“That is true,” Anna said. “Which is why you’re going to sell us the Mineral Right deed and we’ll put an end to this ourselves.”

“Why would I do that? I would never do that!” Miller said.

So Anna threw his nameplate through the window.

And the town reset.

She and Val marched back into Miller’s office. Miller objected to their presence. So Val threw Miller through the window, again.

And the town reset.

They didn’t talk to Miller or make him any offers after that. They merely repeated resetting the town until he ran out to meet them before they could enter the Post Office.

“I will get you for this,” he said, offering them the contract.

Val tossed him in through the window this time.

And the town reset.

“You don’t deserve it, but this is your second chance,” Anna said when he hobbled out to them the next time. “Here’s one dollar. This pays for the contract. You’re going to take it and walk out of here and pray that the rest of your life passes by without you ever seeing anyone from Bright Springs or either of us again.”

“Because if you do to scheme against us or them,” Val said, “we’re going to make sure the ghosts you’ve been abusing get a second chance at their revenge on you.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep2 – Act 3

Ghost towns are supposed to be haunted. It’s the juxtaposition between the apparent emptiness of the buildings and streets set against the weight of time and memories that provokes fascination and dread. Walking through a ghost town involves brushing through hints and whispers of a past that foresaw a very different future than the one which arrived. The ruined windows and barren storefronts whisper a voiceless testament to mortality, quiet enough to be overlooked by a bit of bravado but clear enough to raise goosebumps on those who are either particularly sensitive or looking for a thrill.

Val wasn’t sure she fell into either category, but when she scanned the few buildings which made up Bright Springs, she didn’t feel like she was gazing on anything with ties to the afterlife.

There was something off about Bright Springs, something that made the hair on the back of her neck itch, but it wasn’t an absence like a proper ghost town should have had.

“I could swear we’re being watched,” she said, looking for the spots a sniper would naturally gravitate towards.

“That wouldn’t be unexpected,” Anna said. Her gaze was fixed on the Post Office across the street. “If so however, they seem willing to allow us to make the first move.”

“Where do we start then?” Val asked. It wasn’t a big town, but wherever they went in it she was sure they would find something. Whether it was something that wanted to be found or something they wanted to find was another story.

“Do you see a light on over there?” Anna asked, pointing at the Post Office’s dark windows.

“No,” Val asked, trying hard to see what Anna was talking about. “Do you?”

“It appears I am being invited inside,” Anna said. She brushed off her suit and straightened her shoulders, but didn’t move forward.

“But they don’t want me?” Val asked. There was roughly zero chance of an invitation like that turning out well. Despite that, history suggested there was a fifty-fifty chance that Anna would accept it anyways.

“Do you see any lights on anywhere here?” Anna asked, stretching the fingers on each hand as she contemplated the situation.

“Only the one inside the gas station,” Val said, nodding to the empty building behind them.

“Interesting,” Anna said. “To me, that building looks completely dark.”

“That’s probably not a good sign, is it?” Val asked. Separate perceptions of their surroundings either meant they were being drawn to different, and potentially disconnected, places, or someone was controlling what they could see. Neither was ideal, but neither was completely surprising either.

“Perhaps not, but I do think we can make use of it,” Anna said, unbuttoning her suit jacket. “Let me borrow your racing jacket.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not going to fit,” Val said. The difference in the two women’s builds wasn’t as much a concern as the difference in their height. Anna in Val’s racing jacket would find the bottom of the jacket reaching her navel and the sleeves would barely make it halfway down her forearms.

“We don’t need to wear them,” Anna said. “Just drape it over your shoulders.”

“Ok,” Val said and shrugged off the jacket she wore. “Why are we doing this though?”

“I want you to be my spokesperson,” Anna said. She took Val’s jacket in exchange for her own and dropped it onto her shoulders like a black leather cape.

“That’s not exactly my forte,” Val said, folding Anna’s coat and carrying it over her left arm.

“Whoever is inviting me into the Post Office and you into the gas station has some particular ideas about us,” Anna said. “Since they don’t know us, they probably think I am the leader since I’m older, and you’re my protection.”

“That’s not exactly wrong,” Val said.

“I wouldn’t have asked you to talk Misha over to our side when we took down PrimaLux if I didn’t think you were just as socially adept as I am,” Anna said. “I have a little more experience, but you’re good at reading people. Go see what our friend in the Post Office wants. I’ll deal with the ones they wanted you to tangle with.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to stick together?” Val asked.

“It would but I noticed that the light in the Post Office is only on when I’m the only one looking at it,” Anna said. “As soon as you turned to it, the light went off. I’m guessing the same was true of the gas station.”

“I don’t see a light on inside it at all anymore,” Val said.

“And I do, or I did until you just looked at it,” Anna said. “Take a look at the Post Office.”

“It’s lit up now.”

“And now?” Anna asked, turning to see it’s dark windows staring back at her.

“The light just went off,” Val said.

“Then I believe our invitations are for one only,” Anna said.

“Great. I guess we shouldn’t keep them waiting any longer then, should we?” Val said.

“I suspect they’ve waited quite a long time already, but we do have other matters to attend to,” Anna said.

There was no need to make plans for what to do if they wound up in trouble. Walking into such an obvious trap meant they were in trouble already.  The key was determining exactly how much damage they would need to do in order to get out of that trouble.

***

The door to the Post Office swung open with the creak of a problem long in need of repair. The light Val had followed inside turned out to come from a central ceiling light with an ancient filament bulb above a battered old counter, behind which row of post office boxes sat.

A tall, thin man sat behind the desk working on a crossword puzzle in folded newspaper. His suit looked overly formal for a post office clerk while also being worn and threadbare enough that Val had to wonder why he wouldn’t have chosen something simpler if he wanted to put on a professional appearance. Also, she didn’t pay much attention to men’s fashion, but something about the cut of his suit seemed archaic. Not “Wild West Boom Town chique” but the cut of his lapel and the overall fit of the suit was definitely from earlier in the previous century.

He looked up when she stepped through the door and blinked in confusion.

“Hello?” he asked, sounding unsure as to whether that was an actual word in English anymore. “Can I help you?”

“I think that’s my question for you,” Val said. She and Anna were in Bright Springs to rescue the town after all. It seemed like the Post Office clerk was going to be the last person who could give them the answers they needed to do so though.

Before the clerk could answer, another man stepped forward from the back office area. Where the clerk was tall and thin, his manager was tall and solid. His features held hard lines of masculine beauty that had been chiselled from granite, and his frown looked tight enough to squeeze diamonds out of coal.

“Don’t worry Bill,” the manager said. “I’ll handle this one.”

Val compressed a chuckle into a short huff. She’d grown up with plenty of meatheads who lived in the gym long enough to turn themselves into perfectly taut specimens of testosterone fueled muscle. Contrary to the stereotypes, some of them managed to be decent guys too, but the gleam of malice in the managers eyes was familiar enough that she knew he wasn’t going to be one of the chill bodybuilder types.

“This ought to be good,” she said and glanced towards the manager’s office to see if he wanted to conduct their discussion in private or whether Bill the clerk was going to get a ring side seat.

“Please, step into my office, Ms…?” the manager said, fishing for her name.

“I’m with the Second Chance Club,” Val said, following him into an office that took up the back half of the Post Office.

The manager’s space was subtly different again from what she’d been expecting. Where Bill’s outfit and the faded decor of the reception area spoke of a time decades gone by, the manager’s office held a timeless quality. Nothing within it spoke to a particular time period, but everything spoke of wealth and privilege.

Val was half certain that when she’d stepped through the door to the Post Office, she’d done the equivalent of walking into a fairy ring. She might still be on Earth, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other rules which applied as well. Rules such as names being the key to far more influence over someone than they normally would be.

“I am afraid I have not heard of your organization,” the manager said. On his desk a name plaque gleamed in polished gold reading “Mitchel Miller”. It probably wasn’t his real name, but it was still something to work with.

“We work for Charlene Potestates,” Val said. James, JB, and Tam had all cautioned Val against giving her own name out freely in an unfamiliar realm, but Charlene herself had instructed her employees to use her name whenever they were in unfamiliar lands.

“Oh,” Miller said. “Her.”

His frown turned the delightful shade of sour disgust that told Val she was speaking with exactly the person she needed to be.

“Nice town you have here Mitch,” she said, dropping into one of the chairs in front of Miller’s desk without brushing off the road dust from her pants. She was tempted to prop her feet up on his desk but she knew that would push him over the edge and for the moment she was willing to play things closer to how Anna would have handled them. Diplomatically.

“Why are you here?” Miller asked.

“We’re here to oversee that the revision of ownership for Bright Springs is handled properly,” Val said.

“On whose authority?” Miller asked, sitting behind his desk and scowling at her.

“The Second Chance Club is acting as a neutral party in this affair,” Val said. “At the request of principals from the now defunct PrimaLux Holdings, we are tracking down some accounting irregularities with the older and more exceptional contracts which Prima had on the books.”

The “PrimaLux Principal” in question was Anna’s new friend Zoe, the former Director of Special Operations for PrimaLux, and the request was more along the lines of general tipoff which Zoe had provided to Tam about areas to look into where problems were likely to arise. Val channeled her inner Anna though and decided that Mr. Mitch Miller did not need to be enlightened any more than was convenient for her to tell him.

“There’s nothing for you to shove your noses into here,” Miller said.

“Right, nothing going on here at all,” Val said. She kicked her feet up and dropped them on Miller’s desk.

Anna could have kept him talking, could have dragged Miller around in circles until he was so dizzy from the debate that he collapsed and told her what she wanted to know. Tam knew she didn’t have that kind of patience though. Miller was already annoying her, and she knew it wouldn’t be long before he crossed the line and she was forced to feed him his teeth. Guys like Miller were predictable to a fault. They had to be right, they had to be the most important person in the room, and they absolutely couldn’t tolerate the thought of being called to task for their wrongdoings.

“Get out here!” Miller yelled, jumping to his feet.

Just like Val knew he would.

She took one foot and shoved the desk hard enough to push Miller into the wall.

“No,” she said, and folded her leg back without rising from the chair.

Angry purple veins roared to the surface of Miller’s face as he went crimson with rage. Rather than leaping over the desk at Val though, he began to scrambled to push it away so that he could reach one of the drawers.

She kicked it again, crushing his hand in between the edge of the desk and the window, which brought a torrent of profanity pouring from his mouth. He favored gendered insults, but made time to insult her heritage, her family, and her sexual proclivities as well.

“You’ve got one good hand left,” Val said. “If you want to keep it intact, don’t try to reach for gun in that drawer again.”

“I am going to kill you, you little…”

Val didn’t give him a chance to finish his threat. If he was going to use his mouth to spew hate then she was going to teach him what the consequences of that should be.

Stepping onto the desk, she didn’t bother with any fancy moves.

His mouth was vomiting words, so she shut it.

With her knee.

Hard enough that he crashed through the window behind them and tumbled into the street as the bloody, shattered mess he deserved to be.

Then the town exploded.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 2 – Act 2

The conference room was cluttered, the cool breeze of the air conditioning threatening to blow the already chaotic piles of documents littered around it out of any semblance of order they might once have had.

“I thought paperless offices were the wave of the future?” Val said, holding a half dozen folders spread out like playing cards in her hand.

“I haven’t been home in four days,” Tam said, running her hand through the tangled mess her hair had become. “I don’t think I’ve showered in three. There’s been a lot to keep track of.”

“Have you slept?” Anna asked, placing a small cup of tea down in the limited open space near Tam’s laptop.

“Maybe?” Tam said. “That sounds familiar. Sleep is that thing you do in a bed right?”

“JB would you please take Tam back to her apartment,” Anna said.

“Can’t sleep yet,” Tam said. “There’s too much going on. We need to stay ahead of it.”

“We need to stay capable of dealing with it,” Anna said. “Go. Rest now. Val and I can ride this whirlwind for a while.”

“I’ll be ok, I’m perfectly awake,” Tam said, struggling to suppress a yawn.

“<Somnia>,” James said as he walked by her with a stack of aging books.

Like a balloon deflating Tam slumped down across her laptop, her arms just missing the tea cup Anna had left for her.

“Did you just put a sleep whammy on our magician?” Val asked.

“That was the precursor of a sleep spell,” James said. “Normally it wouldn’t have been enough to put an infant to sleep at naptime, but I suspected Ms. Le might have rather limited resistance to it under the present circumstances.”

“Just how long has she been working?” Val asked, concern slowly coloring her words.

“I think she’s been on this since she got back from Atlantis,” JB said, lifting Tam from her chair and carrying her towards the door. “I checked in with Cynthia yesterday and Tam’s gone back to her apartment a few times but even then she was in research mode. I’ll make sure she stays home this time until she’s rested and back up to speed.”

“What did you folks find in the Drowned City?” Val asked, looking over to Anna.

Anna paused and her gaze went distant for a moment.

“The Drowned City had more that called it home than just the scholars we saved,” Anna said. “There were ancient beings there as well, things that predate the dawn of humanity.”

“From Ms Le’s reports I believe they were older than that,” James said. “There are creatures which dwell in the myth-worlds which predate the formation of the Earth itself. Vast, cosmic powers which devour stars and to whom death is nothing more than a brief slumber before eternity passes and they can rise again to greet a new day.”

“And you met these things?” Val asked, her eyebrows arched in disbelief.

“No,” Anna said. “We saw shrines to them, and discovered texts in Old Atlantean which described their resting places.”

“Why would that put Tam into ‘all work, no play’ mode?” Val asked.

“We visited their resting places too, looking for an option to get back,” Anna said. “That wasn’t good. Most of the tombs were empty.”

“Like grave robbers got there first?”

“No, like something inside pushed itself out, despite all the bindings that the tombs were wrapped in,” Anna said.

“That…doesn’t sound good,” Val said. “Why didn’t you mention it before this though? We’ve been running around everywhere for weeks now dealing with all kinds of stuff. Some of it couldn’t have been as important as stopping the end of the world.”

“It’s not the end of the world,” Anna said.

“If the cosmic entities I spoke of had awoken we would not need to question their arrival. They are less creatures as we understand them and more cataclysms given a name and identity,” James said. “For as busy as we have been of late, we have yet to encounter any problems of the scale the Drowned Ones would bring.”

“So why is Tam melting down?” Val asked.

“She is trying to understand how the tombs could be empty without an apocalypse occurring,” James said.

“She’s been doing more than that too,” Anna said. “We’ve been busy because things are moving around. Different people and, in some cases, creatures, are rushing in to fill the power vacuum which PrimaLux’s collapse created. Some of them, like Sycorax, were freed from the binding arrangements they made PrimaLux, others are simply opportunists who seem this as a gold rush on PrimaLux’s former areas of operation and assets.”

“So did PrimaLux have deals with these Drowned Ones? Is that what was holding them out in the myth-worlds?” Val asked.

“We’re not sure,” James said.

“That’s part of what Tam was researching,” Anna said. “The rest was trying to get a handle on the overall trends we’re seeing to determine if there’s some larger player at work.”

“That sounds like a lot of detective work,” Val said.

“In this case, it is less about discovering who is guilty for a past crime and more about predicting who might be the next victim of a future one,” James said. “Ms. Le was able to isolate the incident with the school bus by finding a correlation between PrimaLux’s mining operations and the cage spells they employed on a number of Earth spirits.”

“The Old Green Man was the next spirit on the list to awaken and fortunately she sent me out there in time,” Anna said.

“Was she right then?” Val asked. “Do we need her working here to head those kind of problems off?”

“Yes and no,” Anna said. “Yes, her efforts are invaluable, but no, we don’t need her here at the moment. She’s already located the next issue we need to work on. We need to deal with that before we move on, otherwise we’re going to become too scattered. Let her rest for this one, and we’ll have a much better chance with the next problem, and the one after that, and so on.”

“I’m going to guess this is one we can handle with just the two of us?” Val asked.

“I believe so,” Anna said. “All we need to do is save the souls of a small town.”

***

Val cut her bike’s engine and wiped her face. She hadn’t swallowed the Gobi Desert but she was covered with enough dust that it felt like she had.

“When you said ‘small town’ you weren’t kidding, were you?” Val asked.

Anna had already parked and was pulling off her riding leathers.

“Bright Springs wasn’t a big city even during the gold rush,” Anna said. “From Tam’s notes there were only a few small strikes in the hills we drove through.”

“I’m surprised it’s still here,” Val said. “I thought little old west places like this turned into ghost towns and blew away a hundred years ago?”

“That was my understanding too,” Anna said. “Bright Springs held on though it seems. Tam says it’s location made it a convenient stop in the early 20th century for travelers and it had a well regarded restaurant to draw people in.”

“With a resume like that, if this was the east coast there’d be back to back strip malls here,” Val said looking down the single road which defined the beginning, middle, and end of Bright Springs. Along its left side sat a Post Office, a gas station, and a church. On the other side of the road there was a cemetery, a restaurant named ‘The Silver Spoon’, and a store that either served as a combination convenience store/hardware store or was the town dump. From the lack of organization of the various old fashioned tools strewn about the last store’s porch it was hard to determine its actual function.

“It worries me that no one is around,” Anna said. Underneath her riding leathers she wore one of her standard business suits, the sharp black lines standing out against the dusty backdrop of the town and marking her as a strange sort of alien visitor.

“They had to have heard us coming,” Val said. They’d parked in front of the gas station, both because it was the most reasonable place for travelers to stop and because it gave them the best view of the town, such as it was.

The pumps were old, maybe even the original ones which had been installed when the gas station was built a century prior. Val didn’t know if current safety regulations would allow for a pump to remain in service that long, but more important in her view was that there was no chance it was a self service station and yet no one was coming out to help fill up their tanks.

She looked inside the small station and while the lights were on, there didn’t appear to be anyone inside.

“What were the terms of the deal that PrimaLux had on this place again?” Val asked.

“In return for the town’s mineral rights, PrimaLux agreed to maintain the town in the condition it was at the time,” Anna said.

“There was an exceptional clause in there though wasn’t there?” Val asked. She didn’t want to put away her helmet and gloves. If anything, getting back on her bike and heading on out of town seemed like the smartest idea she could imagine. Something was nibbling at the corner of her vision, a hiccup in the world, that left her jumpy. Leaving would mean leaving Anna behind though and that wasn’t going to happen.

“Yes, it’s what drew Tam’s attention to this place,” Anna said. “There was a buyout clause on PrimaLux’s control of the mineral rights which said that if PrimaLux was ever required to give up their claim, the current holder of the deed would be reimbursed for the remaining physical wealth which was left behind.”

“And when they collapsed, they lost the mineral rights and the new owner of the deed was owed enough money to cover the value of anything that’s buried under the town. How does that get converted to souls though? Shouldn’t souls be priceless?”

“I gather from James that they are, in this context at least,” Anna said. “The key is that the mineral rights contract gave PrimaLux the right to anything more than two feet below the surface of Bright Springs.”

“How far down does that go? Do they own the opposite side of the planet too?” Val asked.

“No, the rights only go to the center of the Earth,” Anna said. “What’s more important is what is included just below the surface.” She nodded towards the graveyard.

“They own the corpses too?” Val asked, feeling sickened but not particularly surprised given Prima’s other projects.

“The corpses wouldn’t be that much of a problem,” Anna said. “The real tricky part came in a tertiary ‘Associated Value’ clause. The townsfolk at the time read it to mean that if there were any minerals in the soil that were part of a larger vein then the whole vein would be covered under the deed. What the wording actually enforced was that anything in the soil belonged to Prima and anything related to it did too.”

“So put a corpse in the ground and the person’s soul was theirs too? That seems like a stretch,” Val said.

“The wording is tricky, long, and in Latin,” Anna said. “It allowed them to get away with a lot more than would have been reasonable, though on the other hand it did require them to keep the town in the exact state it had been when they bought the mineral rights.”

“I was thinking about that part as we rode here,” Val said. “With mystic legalese like that causing problems, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to put the contract owner in violation of the deed and get it nulled out?”

“In theory, yes,” Anna said. “From how the contract was written, I would expect it to be terribly fragile. That it’s survived for over seventy years though argues it may be more resilient than we would think.”

“So what’s our plan then?” Val asked.

“I thought we would start by talking to the townspeople and asking what they know and what they wish to do,” Anna said. “Instead, it seems like we must first find the townspeople, and discover what it is they are hiding from.”