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The Darker Agency
By Jus Accardo, Erica M. Chapman and Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jus Accardo
All rights reserved.
It was hard to piss off my mom, but I'd managed to do just that — piss her off. Big time. Matter of fact, I couldn't remember the last time I'd made her this mad.
My punishment was pretty severe and totally didn't fit the crime. At least, that was my opinion. I'd been sent out to deal with a client. Not just any client, but a client from The Ledges — Penance, New York's very own mini Beverly Hills.
On the doorstep of the opulent Victorian, I listened as the doorbell announced my presence in a yak-worthy, upbeat version of Beethoven's Fur Elise. It was loud enough to hear over my iPod. Christ. It wasn't bad enough to use the work of the greatest musical genius of our time as a doorbell, they had to add a bass and cymbals, too?
I flipped off my iPod and pulled the buds from my ears. A few moments later, the door opened, and I was greeted by a middle-aged woman wearing a leopard print bikini, rhinestone flip flops, and huge matching sunglasses. Lord. What possessed these people to spend money on this junk? The price tag for the glasses alone was probably way into the triple digits, yet they looked like something you'd see at a dollar store.
"I'm Jessie, from the Darker Agency. They sent me to deal with your problem."
The woman pulled down her glasses and blinked a few times. "You're just a child," she said finally. "What can you do about it?"
I should have been insulted, but it was the same song on a different day.
"I promise I'm qualified to deal with the issue." Not that I knew what the issue was. Mom had neglected to tell me. If she'd sent me out alone though, chances were it was easy peasy — which equaled boo-ring as hell.
The woman shrugged and held the door open. Obviously, my age wasn't a big concern for her as long as I could make the problem go away. Yep. That was me. A regular fairy godmother in Sketchers.
I followed her through the house, trying hard not to touch anything. The décor was as tacky as the woman. Zebra print couch, leopard print rugs — the people from PETA would have a coronary on general purpose alone — and an extremely creepy four-foot statue of Buddha covered entirely in rhinestones. Or maybe they were diamonds. With these people, who knew?
When we got to the back door, she stopped and waved me ahead. "He's out back. In the pool."
I froze. "Your husband? Ma'am, if this is a domestic dispute, the police are probably better suited to deal with it ..."
The woman came forward, pinning me with an indignant glare. Arms folded and finger tapping, she said, "I called the police. They told me I was crazy."
"It couldn't possibly be my husband," she continued, voice taking on a slight squeak. Head shaking furiously, she marched to the edge of the deck and waggled a scarlet-tipped finger at the pool. "Your husband died a week ago, they said."
Oh, hell no.
She scrunched up her nose and stomped a flip-flop clad foot, doing her best impression of a spoiled five-year-old. "He showed up three days ago, and I can't get rid of him."
I took a single step forward and peered over the edge. In the middle of the pool, underwater, was a man in a dark suit.
I couldn't believe it. Mom had sent me out here to deal with a zombie. A frigging zombie!
She must have been really mad ...
It was silly, really — my issue with zombies. They were generally harmless. More annoying than anything else. That whole thing about eating brains and craving flesh? Bunch of crap. Zombies smelled bad. They had the whole creeptastic, stare-right-through-you thing going on. But munching people? Not their thing.
There were plenty of other things out there that did that.
From an early age, Mom made sure I knew Hollywood had it all wrong. Zombies didn't rise from the grave to eat brains and infect people with their chompers. They were a corporeal manifestation of the deceased — her overinflated wording, not mine. They pretty much appeared in a place they found comforting in life — and stayed there. An occasional gurgle or muscle twitch, but otherwise nada. Getting rid of them was simple. A little quartz powder and a match did the trick.
Of course, that was when they weren't under six feet of pool water.
"Payment was discussed with the agency?" I asked, unlacing my sneakers. The one thing Mom and I learned the hard way — get the money up front. It wasn't just credit card payments and dinner checks people skipped out on in this economy. We'd been stiffed too many times to count.
The woman nodded and waved a check in front of my face. "Just get rid of that icky thing and it's all yours."
Icky thing? She and her husband must have been an epic kind of love ...
"I don't deserve this," I muttered under my breath. Pulling off my socks, I stuffed them into the shoes, then pulled the iPod from my pocket and set it on the table next to my cell.
"What was that?" the woman asked. She was standing off to the side, tapping her foot. Apparently, I wasn't moving fast enough.
"Nothing." This was a clear case of punishment not fitting the crime. All I'd done was sneak off to take some incriminating pictures of the school principal and his much younger new girlfriend at a swingers bar outside town. Marcy Dubois, a girl in my math class — and the principal's daughter — paid me five hundred bucks to do it! No one in their right mind turns down an easy five hundred bucks ...
Apparently, I should have.
Mom had a strict no student jobs rule, meaning I was forbidden to take side jobs from classmates. What I'd done hadn't even been about the money. Well, it had a little, but it was also semi-personal. Another no-no in Mom's book. I'd gotten detention four times last week for being three minutes late to class. Three minutes! Plus, I wasn't a fan of cheaters. If you asked me, I should have gotten a handshake and an oversized chocolate cookie for what I'd done.
Not a soggy zombie.
Squatting down by the edge of the pool, I slipped my legs into the cool water, sending ripples across the surface. The zombie didn't move. I held my breath and slipped the rest of the way in, fighting back a shiver.
Communication was an issue with zombies. They didn't chat. Asking it nicely to step out of the water so I could set it on fire probably wasn't going to fly. I'd have to drag it out. That meant touching it. My stomach convulsed and I fought back the remnants of the tuna bagel I'd eaten earlier.
I was a professional, dammit. I could do this without tossing my cookies — or my tuna.
I let my head slip beneath the water and dove to the bottom of the pool. Extending a hand, I poked the thing's shoulder. Nothing. Gripping it under both arms, I pushed off the bottom and kicked hard for the surface. When my head broke the water, I nearly choked on the smell. The air stank like a month old dead chicken in the summer sun mixed with rotting road kill. Pungent and able to induce yakking with a single whiff. The tuna bagel tried to make a reappearance, but once again, I swallowed it back and made my way to the edge.
When I got there, I planted both feet on the top step and heaved the zombie from the water. It complied with no resistance, righting itself once we were on solid ground.
So far, so good.
Grabbing my bag from the picnic table, I pulled out a small vial of quartz powder mixed with salt. Fairy Dust, Mom dubbed it. Some girls I knew never left the house without makeup essentials — the hottest shade of lip gloss and a killer waterproof mascara. Not me. I was all about the tools of my trade.
Popping the cap on the quartz, I sprinkled some of the Dust at the feet of the zombie, then pulled the small container of lighter fluid from my back pocket, spritzing the thing down. Still no complaints.
Everything was going fine until I flicked the flint on my lighter. The zombie, previously a lump of stinky silence, let out an otherworldly howl.
"Oh my God!" the woman screamed, jumping back. "What the hell was that?"
I flicked the lighter again and a small flame burst to life "It's fine. Sometimes they make noise. They're harmless, though. It'll be over in a sec."
With another scream and an angry chomping of teeth, the zombie picked that moment to make a liar out of me. Before I could move out of the way, it lurched forward and knocked me back. Everything blurred for a second. There was a strange, weightless feeling, and then I hit the water.
When I surfaced, the woman was screaming, hopping from foot to foot on a lawn chair near the edge of the pool.
Really? A chair? What did she think that was going to do?
"Calm down," I called, dragging myself from the water. I grabbed a handful of my long, brown hair and wrung out the chlorine water. "You'll only make it — "
The zombie let out another cry and lunged forward a few feet toward the woman's chair. As if the screaming wasn't enough, she'd started waving one of her pink, bedazzled flip flops at the thing. With a hair-curling screech, she hurled the flip flop at her dearly departed husband's head. It missed its mark and beaned me instead. "Lady, you've gotta stop — "
The zombie roared, pivoted, and charged.
"Crap," I spat, sidestepping the lumbering carcass. Zombies might be awkward looking, but holy crap could those bastards move. I took off across the lawn, waddling just a little, because running in wet jeans? Sucks. Running in wet jeans with an uber fast walking pile of rot on your ass? Sucks even more.
I rounded the corner of the pool, slipping on the slick surface of the wet deck. As soon as I righted myself, I doubled back and jumped just as the zombie's arm crashed down where my leg had been. "What is your damage, Stinky!"
The thing skidded to a stop and turned for another go. I scanned the yard. The lighter was in the grass on the other side of the pool. No way was I getting to it in time. I was fast — but the zombie was faster — and since this one seemed intent on munching my limbs, I wasn't taking the chance. Mom always said the stories about turning into a zombie when bitten were totally false — we'd never even heard of anyone being bitten — but I wasn't about to be the first.
"Light the grill!" I screamed from across the yard. The woman hesitated for a moment before stepping down from the chair and hobbling toward the large poolside BBQ in no particular hurry. I guessed she could afford to take her time since her ass wasn't on the menu. She fumbled with the grill controls for several seconds, squealing once and lifting her right hand to examine her fingernails before finally stepping away.
As soon as the flame flickered to life, I sprinted forward. The zombie chomped at the air behind me and even managed to get a few strands of hair.
I sucked in a deep breath and tore across the lawn. Heart thundering and legs pumping, I vaulted onto the table and over the grill. The zombie followed. Unfortunately, I'd overdone the jump. Sailing over the grill — that was my plan. Crashing through the wooden fence and hitting the ground hard enough to knock a few teeth loose — not so much.
"What was that thing?" the woman shrieked.
I climbed to my feet and limped to where she stood, fingers pinched across the bridge of her nose. The lighter fluid I'd doused it in had done the trick. When it tried to follow me, the flames did their job. The zombie lay twitching on the ground beside the grill. "Don't ask because you really don't want to know."
I padded to the edge of the pool, retrieved my vial of quartz powder, and sprinkled it over the burning corpse. A tuft of blue smoke exploded and the zombie stopped moving. When I turned back to the woman, she was staring, face pale.
It wasn't really possible to keep every civilian in the dark about the things that went bump and tumble in the night, but Mom insisted we try. She was convinced the world wasn't ready for them — and honestly, I agreed.
She looked from me to the pool, then back again. "Do — do I need to have my pool drained?"
"Doubt it." I wriggled into my sneakers and glanced back toward the fence, cringing.
Mom was going to rip me a new one. In the past month alone, I'd done at least three thousand in property damage. The month before, it was close to two. It wasn't that I was careless, really. More like focused. If a piece of furniture or a stupid fence had to suffer so I could reel in the big bad, then so be it. A girl had to have priorities.
I snatched the check from the table and grabbed my phone and socks, along with my iPod. "Thanks and call again."
"Wait! What about my fence?"
I looked from her to the fence, then down to the flip flop lying off to the side. Those damn rhinestones were probably diamonds. "Something tells me you can afford to have it fixed."CHAPTER 2
"So not your biggest fan at the moment," I said, closing the office door behind me. The runoff from my jeans had soaked my sneakers pretty good. With each step, I gave a slight squishing noise accompanied by an annoying squeak against the old tile floor.
From across the room, Mom stared. "What happened to you?"
"It attacked me." Tossing my bag on the couch, I sank into her chair and made sure to grind my butt into the cushion. Got it nice and wet. I was all about sharing the love — and right now, the love was soggy.
She laughed, waving a folder in my direction. "Surely you're overreacting. It was one little zombie. They don't attack people."
"I'm serious, Ma. It tried to drown me. And the client assaulted me with ugly footwear. As far as punishments go, I'd say we're probably square. I've learned my lesson."
"You're serious?" Amused expression now replaced by concern, she crossed the room and leaned over her desk to get a better look at me.
"As a coronary." Once I was sure the chair had sponged up all it could, I stood and huffed past her. Pulling at my favorite T-shirt — the word Fate inside a blood red heart, is a four letterword on the back — I said, "Child welfare would not be happy to hear you tried to feed your only child to a walking corpse..."
"But why would it attack? Did you provoke it?" Folding her arms, she frowned. "Insult it, perhaps?"
I winked at her. "Provoke it? Sure. I went and wiggled my ass in front of it yelling lunch just to see what'd happen." I'd called it Stinky, but that didn't count as an insult. Something couldn't be considered an insult if it was true, right?
Right eyebrow twitching, she fought against a smile. "But you're okay, right? No bites, broken bones, head injuries, possessions ...?"
I smiled and did a little twirl. "All in one piece and still me."
Mom had a checklist she went through at the end of each job. I was known for taking almost as much damage as I inflicted. Thinking of damage, it was time to come clean.
"Oh, and you're probably going to get a call from the client. I sorta smashed her fence in the process."
Mom groaned. "I told you to be more careful."
"It's not like I tried to break anything."
"Something tells me you didn't try hard enough not to break anything, either."
"In my defense, it wasn't a simple trap and slap..."
"We can't afford this." She reached down and pulled a white envelope out from under a stack of papers. "This is the bill for that Mercedes you smashed."
"Oh! So not my fault. How was I supposed to know that Spring Heel was gonna land on the car? If it makes you feel any better, I think he was aiming for my head..."
"If you keep this up, we won't even be able to afford the rent."
She was right, of course, and it made me feel horrible. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm a wrecking ball wrapped in blue jeans. Take my cut of this job and put it toward the repairs. Keep my paycheck for the next month, too." A good start, but it didn't feel like enough. Sure, it would cover the damages — I hoped — but I felt guilty about upsetting her. The bills that were piling up kept her awake at night. This was only going to make things worse. We got a fair amount of business, but the overhead in our line of work was sky high.
As much as I hated the idea, I knew what would cheer her up. "I'll even throw in pet possessions for the next month."
Mom raised an eyebrow. Aha! I had her.
Excerpted from Darker Days by Jus Accardo, Erica M. Chapman and Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2013 Jus Accardo. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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