Jeanette Roberts was a nobody and she was happy with that. She didn’t stand out at work, so she never had to deal with extra responsibilities. She wasn’t the kind of person who was attractive enough to get hit on regularly, nor so unattractive as to draw negative comments and harsh whispers. She didn’t date due to lack of interest and thus had avoided the many pitfalls of the world of relationships. She was perfectly happy merely being which is why it was particularly distressing to find herself, for the first time in her short adult life, fighting for survival in a dark alley.
She’d run to the corner bodega for a few snacks to fuel a late-night horror movie marathon. While she’d made the trip around the corner plenty of times without incident, she still kept her wits about her as her mother always warned her. She’d passed a couple of women moments before who seemed familiar. One woman was tall and olive skinned with purposefully messy hair and a warm smile. The other was on the small side with long black hair and a distinctive red streak that started at her temple. Had she met them before or merely seen them around the neighborhood? Jeanette brushed the thought aside.
As she neared the mouth of an alley, she made a point to walk closer to the street to avoid it. The brick buildings the alley separated were just close enough to shield it from the streetlamps, giving it a more menacing look. Having passed it, Jeanette glanced back over her shoulder as a precaution only to be grabbed roughly from the front and thrown backward into the darkness. A hand clamped like a vice over her mouth before she could shout in alarm and slammed her head against the brick of one of the buildings.
“I thought I was gonna have to chase you all night,” a soft voice purred in her ear, “but lucky me.”
Jeanette struggled to see who was speaking. Between the shadows and the concussion she was confident she now had, her vision was understandably untrustworthy. She fought weakly against the form pressing her against the wall but whoever it was had an iron grip. She managed to use a free hand to grip the small mace canister she kept in her pocket, but as she pulled it out, it was slapped out of her hand, tumbling uselessly deeper into the alleyway.
“I guess I rang your bell a little harder than intended,” the soft voice came again. “Good to see you have a little fight left. Adrenalin adds a little something to the dish.”
Jeanette fought harder, but the results were the same. Whoever held her was enormously strong, and her flailing was as effective as sitting still. As her head was roughly pulled to one side, she was finally able to make out a detail of her attacker. A feature that froze her blood and brought tears to her eyes.
Her attacker’s mouth was massive and filled with row upon row of flat, jagged teeth that seemed to move ever so slightly. This mouth was a living nightmare, and it was approaching Jeanette’s painfully stretched neck. Terror beyond anything she’d ever experienced locked every muscle in her body. What was she looking at? Was that thing going to bite her?
The next sound she heard was horrific. It was as though someone had twisted a bundle of fresh celery. She was no longer pinned to the wall though her legs seemed uninterested in doing anything related to moving. She slumped to the ground, struggling to make sense of what was happening.
“I’m sorry,” a cheerful voice cut the air like a knife, “I thought you were hungry? Would you believe I salted my knuckles first so your teeth would have a little extra flavor when I knocked them down your throat?”
As Jeanette’s eyes slowly came into focus, she realized the speaker was one of the women she’d passed on the street. She was wearing an unbuttoned dress shirt the barely hid a pair of heavy looking guns on her lower back. On her hands, she was wearing what Jeanette thought were brass knuckles, but they looked more silver than brass.
“I’m warning you to mind your own business!” the soft voice had become an enraged snarl. “Do you know what I am?”
The woman scoffed at that. “To be honest, I don’t,” she chirped. “But do I need to know that to give you this free dental treatment?”
“Stop playing with it, Don,” the woman with the red streak said. “I’ve already got too much work on my hands with our rabbit here.” The woman was pointing at Jeanette with a look of mild irritation.
“Sorry,” Don grumbled like a chastised puppy.
The thing in the darkness swore audibly and took off at a dead run.
“See, Allie, now I gotta play with it!” Don laughed as she dashed off into the darkness.
“Such a fucking child,” Allie sighed in resignation. “It would be cute if it wasn’t so stupid.” She turned to look at Jeanette who had mostly recovered from her fear due mostly to the odd exchange from her rescuers. “Hello, Jeanette. Are you okay?”
“Do I know you?” Jeanette groaned as she struggled to stand.
Allie shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s your dream.”
Jeanette laughed at that. Being stuck in a dream made sense. Allie felt like an old familiar friend even though they’d never met. She even knew Jeanette’s name. Whatever that thing was couldn’t possibly have been real. If she hadn’t seen its mouth, she’d have been confident it was just some crazy killer. She felt something was wrong though. The whole situation felt too real. In particular, the back of her head still hurt. “But you can’t feel pain in dreams, right?”
“Depends,” Allie said as she stared intently into the darkness of the alley. “With the amount of wine you’ve had, it wouldn’t be surprising.”
“What?” Jeanette was well and truly confused.
Jeanette awoke with a start. Her head was throbbing in more ways than one as the light of early morning streamed into her living room. As she sat up, she realized that at some point in the night she’d fallen asleep on her couch, rolled off and ended up using an empty wine bottle as a pillow. She gingerly probed the bump on the back of her head with two fingers, finding it quite sore.
Had the whole night before been a dream caused by the combination of wine and horror movies? The sound of her alarm ringing from her bedroom forced her to shelve such thoughts. It was time to get ready for another day of quiet work.
“It’s a good thing she was a heavy drinker,” Allie mused as she and Don watched Jeanette leave her apartment building for her morning commute from their car, an old crown victoria with tinted windows. The pair had only just gotten their would-be victim home safely. They had chosen to take a break to make sure she was all right and file their report. “I’m happy at least that went right.”
“I’m not gonna live that down, am I?” Don said.
“You smashed its skull you colossal fuck up!” Allie snapped. “We needed it in one piece! If you’d just cut its head off, I could deal with that. You do understand how hard it is to autopsy a pancake?”
Don groaned and rested her head on the steering wheel. “It tried to bite me. It’s not my fault! It was an instinctive head stomp!”
“Instinctive head stomp my ass.” Allie sighed. She was working from a slightly bulky laptop that was as dangerous as it was dependable. At least three times in her first year of fieldwork she’d been forced to use it as a weapon and to significant effect. Today, though, it wasn’t much of an ally; the report it had dutifully sent off would not be met with much in the way of positivity.
Allie’s phone began to ring with a distinctive tone that was exclusively for Choir business. She took a deep breath, shot her partner a dirty look and answered the phone on speaker. “Allison Piper here.”
“Hello, Dear,” the familiar voice of Mary, the pair’s handler and Don’s mother, came through the phone clear and cheerful. “I am on speaker, yes?”
“Hi, Mom,” Don said, her voice full of false cheer.
“Ah, it sounds like everyone is already in the proper frame of mind,” Mary said. “I assume you both already understand why this hunt is considered such a critical failure?”
“Yes,” Allie said, her gaze boring a hole into Don.
“Good. If that thing wasn’t unique, we are going to have to hide more corpses. It’s not a simple matter to hide half-eaten human bodies from the general public even in a city as big as Seattle. Each time a new fiend pops up, it is the job of investigators to catch them for study properly. This failure reflects poorly on you two, me, and the whole of the north american home division. There is no way for me to cover for you this time. Commander Nix told me that I have to rein you both in before something bad happens. We are playing with people’s lives here.”
“Yes, Mary,” Allie said.
“Excellent,” Mary said. “I expect you both to be consumed with guilt.”
A snort of barely contained mirth escaped Don.
“Mary. Please be serious,” Allie said, rolling her eyes.
“I am serious!” Mary said. “I’ve been told I coddle you both far too much and I never remind you of your jobs when you mess up. You are both my precious babies even if only Don came out of me. You know you bungled that hunt, why should I beat you up about it?”
“Mom, we didn’t bungle it,” Don said.
“True. You bungled it.”
“That is an accurate assessment.”
“Of course it is. A mother knows her daughter,” Mary said matter-of-factly. “It’s a good thing Allie is your partner. I’m not sure what would happen without her.”
“Thank you, Mary,” Allie said with a smirk as Don tried without success to make herself smaller.
“In all seriousness,” Mary said, “we are using the populace as bait. Let’s fix that. Now that that is out of the way, I have something a bit more urgent to go over with you. You’re being reassigned.”
“To other partners?” Allie asked nervously.
“Of course not,” Mary said with a laugh. “That would be a disaster. No, to a different case. It’s more pressing than any of the ones you are on.”
“What so important that we have to get pulled?” Allie asked.
“A prophecy came up from the oracles. It’s got the watchers in an absolute tizzy.” Mary said.
“The watchers are always in a tizzy,” Don muttered.
“That will do, Donna,” Mary said, her tone firm. “The Watchers and the Oracles are a cornerstone of our organization and their sacrifice is to be respected.”
Don merely grunted as Allie gave her a comforting pat on the shoulder. Allie understood the very concept of the Oracle division bothered Don because of how common it was for Espers to end up as Oracles; trapped in their own minds, doomed to an unrelenting flood of visions and premonitions. Don hated the idea of anything she couldn’t punch and losing Allie to the madness of her blessings as an Esper was the purest manifestation of that.
“This is a big deal as it appears all the Oracles received the same premonition in one way or another at the same time,” Mary explained. “And when I say all, I mean all. Calls came in from the other homes so I can’t properly express how important this is.”
“Isn’t this a little too big for us?” Allie said, exchanging a look with Don. “We’ve only been in the field for a year. Shouldn’t a champion be called in for a prophecy of this magnitude?”
Mary was silent for a moment. When she finally spoke it didn’t ring with her usual playful confidence. “The order came from Commander Nix, and he was very specific about the need-to-know nature of this. We also don’t think we can send you any backup until something in particular happens, so you’ll need to be filing daily reports so we can figure that out.”
Don sat up. “It is what it is then,” she said solemnly. “Are we going into this blind? We honestly get no support at all?”
“We’ll be sending you the parts of the prophecy that are most clear as well as notes to boil down what we are fairly certain some things mean. A purifier team will be on standby in case something happens that demands their intervention or in the case things take a turn and we have to wing it. Also, there is a succubus in the area you’ll be looking for with a name that’s related to the color yellow.” There was the sound of shuffling papers as Mary looked through her notes. “She will have something to do with animals that are loose but shouldn’t be, so our best guess is something like a dog catcher or something of that ilk. Beyond that, I’m sorry, but you are on your own.
“One last thing. There is something very wrong with this prophecy in that something is missing from it that isn’t actually missing.”
“Well that’s just vague enough to work,” Allie said irritably.
“That’s a prophecy for you,” Don said ruefully.
“This isn’t a normal level of cryptic oracle language,” Mary insisted. “This is something else. There is something that you are supposed to find and protect, but when any Oracle attempted to express it, nothing came. They just went through the motions as though they were talking. Even the ones that communicate non-verbally couldn’t express whatever it is you are supposed to find. It’s pretty much unheard of for something like this to happen, so you have a critical piece of the puzzle that is a giant blind spot.”
“No pressure or anything.” Don laughed nervously.
“I have the utmost confidence in you two, and I mean that, but understand this: the prophecy references the fall of the walls of the world. Everyone agrees that could only mean one thing. So if you fail, we all fail with you.”