Lock and Load
Mercenary Wing Rv6-4 “Zero Dogs”
Border Inn Economy Motel, Portland, OR
Zero hour. Go time.
We were weapons hot and cleared to use deadly force against murderous redcap goblins and being paid a pretty penny to do so. Usually this would be sheer bliss for a degenerate mercenary like me, but as I stalked down a back alley in the darkness I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was about to go very wrong. And by “very wrong” I meant more wrong than night-creeping down an alleyway choked with litter, decorated with size-deluded graffiti of male genitalia, and featuring a reeking Dumpster crawling with flies as the pièce de résistance.
I’m Captain Andrea Walker, pyromancer and commanding officer of the paranormal mercenary team the Zero Dogs. The first bullet is always free, but after that you gotta pay.
I led my squad toward a breezeway that ran from the alley through the motel to the parking lot on the other side. The alley’s foul stink and general filth was enough to make me wish I’d insisted on full-body hazmat suits. And to think some fools claimed the life of a paranormal mercenary was all glory, guns, and rampant hedonism.
We’d been contracted by the city government to hunt down and terminate a rogue group of homicidal redcaps. The hostiles had barricaded themselves inside the rooms of the Border Inn, a notoriously high-class establishment complete with peeling paint, hourly rates, and a purple coin-operated condom dispenser bolted to the wall outside the office.
I pressed against the cinderblock wall and raised my arm to the rest of the squad, clenching my hand into a fist, the signal to hold up. Alpha One halted behind me without a sound. The pre-combat stress hummed and snarled in my veins, but I ignored it and summoned magefire. Heat washed through me, shimmering from my skin, distorting the air around me in waves. Carefully, I lifted the Dumpster’s plastic lid and peered inside, ready to ignite a burst of highly flammable vapor and incinerate any threats.
No redcaps hid inside the trash bin, waiting to spring out and stab me…though there was a disturbing llama-shaped piñata lying on a pile of garbage bags, glaring at me with a malevolent red eye. Also, the festering stench seared off half my nose hair.
I turned back to the breezeway, gritting my teeth and promising myself life was all sprinkles-side-up for my donuts. Creepy llama or no, I was roughly seventy-seven percent positive our dynamic assault would go off as planned. For the Zero Dogs, that percentage was as close to a sure thing as we ever came.
Sergeant Nathan Genna’s deep voice rumbled over the radio, as hushed as he could make it, which meant he sounded like a highly pissed off Barry White trying not to be overheard in a restaurant. “Alpha Actual, this is Alpha Two. We are in position. Hostiles sighted. Ready to engage on your command, over.”
“Roger that, Alpha Two,” I said into the headset mike on my helmet. “Sit tight. Alpha One still en route to position, out.”
The redcaps had already killed one person: a door-to-door salesman from Maximum Force Sales, Inc. who’d been lured into a motel room to his tragic end. According to Lieutenant Stone, the SWAT team leader who’d briefed us, the tiny bastards had stolen all of the salesman’s Citrus Wonder solution to clean their iron-shod boots and then bathed their floppy wool caps in his blood.
Redcaps are nasty little shits, registering two notches past psychotic goblins on the New International scale of Fae douchebaggery. They sported huge, staring eyes with gray pupils the size of half-dollar coins, stringy, unwashed hair, sagging skin more wrinkled than wet jockey shorts stuffed in a car’s ashtray, and they stank like sauerkraut. I didn’t hate redcaps because they were ugly and smelled bad. I hated them because they wielded butcher knives, cleavers, pikes, hell, pruning shears and used them on the innocent people they lured into unsavory places. They murdered to keep the woolen caps they wore wet and red with blood. If those floppy hats dried out, the redcap would die. What these evil powries lacked in height they more than made up for in vicious disposition and abundant malice.
I slipped a small dentist’s mirror around the corner of the gray stucco wall, turning it to scan the dark breezeway for threats. The corridor was empty save for a vending machine lying on its side with the front smashed in, bleeding shards of plastic and empty candy wrappers onto the concrete.
I drew the mirror back and glanced behind me at the rest of Alpha One. Tiffany Sparx, our succubus, wore combat fatigues and body armor. Black, bat-like wings sprouted from her upper back, and her slit pupils made a stunning face all the more memorable, like goat eyes on the Mona Lisa. She carried two SIG Sauer P226 Elite semi-autos, one for each hand, firing .357 SIG rounds—a helluva lot of fucking gun for a succubus who technically should’ve focused on charming things with sex magic.
Mai Tanaka stood behind Tiffany, one hand resting on the stucco wall. Mai proudly wore her body armor over a bright yellow summoner vest and silk robes, and she’d slapped a sticker of the blue Powerpuff Girl on the front of her helmet. Around her feet swarmed a mass of what could only be described as voles crossbred with Velociraptors and dyed lime green. The alien voles made miniature idling chainsaw noises. Their mouths brimmed with buzz saw teeth. Mai caught me looking and gave a thumbs up. The voles all turned their heads to stare at me as if I were an intriguing spicy chicken sandwich. I avoided eye contact and tried not to smell either afraid or like white meat.
Hanzo, our medic, brought up the rear. He wore ninja blacks and the lower half of his face was covered, but anyone could see that despite the name Hanzo he was not Japanese. His real name was Austin Sorenson. His healing magic could mend bullet holes, broken bones, and disembowelments with amazing skill, but he fancied himself a practitioner of the Way of Stealth, even with the red medical crosses I made him wear on his black pajamas.
“On me,” I said and received nods all around. Even some of the voles nodded, chilling as that was.
I slipped around the corner and advanced down the corridor. The breezeway remained empty, without even a horror-movie-fodder cat to jump out and screech at the least opportune moment. Just more graffiti—stranger stuff than immense penises this time: “Edward Teach singed his beard but also burned the beaver” and “Red-nose Rudolph flies drunk”—mixed with an alarming amount of ancient bubble gum stuck to the walls.
I used the mirror again at the next corner. No hostiles. The parking lot was mostly empty, but the street beyond teemed with police cruisers and officers, the SWAT team, and more news vans than you could throw granola and Birkenstocks at. The alternating pulse and flash of cruiser lights turned the night into a ghetto disco show. The air crackled with clipped police radio chatter, live news broadcasts, and the murmur of rubberneckers.
As I cleared the corner, I spotted Alpha Two strike team in position at room 117, waiting on us. I moved out, creeping along the dirty façade, getting spider webs in my face with every other step.
Alpha Two appeared good to go, stacked along the wall outside the door. The team consisted of Sergeant Nathan Genna, aka Sarge, a massive demon I suspected had sold his angel wings for access to high-powered military weaponry. Rafe, our werewolf who loved organic health food, fornication, and gratuitous public nudity…not necessarily in that order. Stefan, our debauched vampire, who pretended to be an aristocrat from some Eastern Europe mountain range, but was really only a rich kid from the Hamptons. Gavin, our official driver of all things vehicular, specializing in the heavily armored, heavily gunned variety. His file also listed him as an empath…though I nursed serious doubts regarding that bit of resume padding. For this mission, I’d shoved an MP5 and a grenade into his hands and told him to get his empathic ass in gear and go feel some pain, preferably someone else’s pain, but I didn’t have the time to be choosy.
We were in sight of the cops and crowds but not the hostiles as I led Alpha One into position, flanking the door to room 118, with Tiffany on the near side and me on the far side. After the close concealment of the breezeway, the openness here had my hackles up. I gave Tiffany a thumbs up. She grinned and nodded, but couldn’t return the thumbs up because her hands were full of pistols.
Heat shimmered around my hands as I tapped my pyromancy again. Since the redcaps had murdered their only hostage for that repulsive blood-hat fetish, our contract with the city marked them as “Expunge with Extreme Prejudice” to be executed forthwith, care of yours truly and company.
I flipped the Heads Up Display on my helmet into position to check the view from the fiber optic cameras and listen to the audio feed from the mini microphones that SWAT had smuggled inside via the a/c vents. The HUD allowed me to switch views between the two groups of redcaps who’d turned this cheap motel into a half-assed evil lair for the malevolently height-impaired.
The HUD showed me the nine goblins in Room 118 first. Some of the wrinkled little bastards sat on the bed watching pay-per-view porn. Others ran around hacking and gouging the walls and furniture with their knives. Gleeful cackling mixed with erotic moans from the TV. The intertwined sounds made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because some things were just plain wrong.
One odd redcap caught my attention as he paced on top of the table wearing a ringmaster costume that was entirely white: vest, jacket with tails, balloon pants, bowtie, all as colorless as vanilla icing. In contrast, his top hat appeared to be glistening bloodred felt that drooped on his head. His leather boots were bright crimson, and he carried a whip the color of shimmering coals. Oh, and he appeared to be wearing a bright red codpiece, God save us. Little droplets of blood rained from his hat, and his boot heels made thock, thock, thock sounds as he stomped back and forth across the tabletop.
The fretting, frustrated scowl on the ringmaster’s face told me he was the leader. I knew that look well. He spun on his boot heel and frowned at a grizzled powrie using a bendy straw to sip from a fifth of Jack Daniels. The vanilla ringmaster had to shout to be heard over the evil giggling and porno moans.
“This is no thrice-damned trap,” the ringmaster shrieked in the perfect key of knife-scraping-ceramic-plate. “None of those knobscobbing flail-monkeys have any hope of capturing me.”
“Shut your yap-hole, fungus knuckles!” one of the other redcaps yelled back without looking away from the television. Apparently morale among evil fae ranked even lower than ours on any given payday.
The ringmaster’s eyes bulged in outrage. “I’ll shank you for that, Mosorg. I came over here to boot you sourblood femur-gnawing pus-packets into shape!”
He punted an empty liquor bottle across the room. It missed Mosorg and smashed against the wall. Mosorg flipped him off and still never took his gaze off the screen.
The ringmaster clenched his fists and executed a lively hopping dance of wrath before continuing his rant at the redcap sucking whiskey through a straw.
“Who loved the circuses more than I? Answer me, you slimy offspring of three blind hagfish. Who else yearns to rebuild the glory of the circus past? Those days when the road brought wonders instead of endless gas stations pushing three flavors of microwave burrito. And in repayment of my long struggle, you drink and fornicate with your own hands while watching shaved apes. As minions, you utterly fail!”
The grizzled redcap stared at him unblinking and slurped more booze.
I almost felt bad for the crazy little freak. Then I switched to the feed from the second camera and mike in room 117’s a/c vent and unease fluttered through me. No trace of crazed revelry or distraction here. All was grim silence. These redcaps stood as motionless as demented garden gnome statuary, focused on the only two ways into the room: through the door or the front window. They clutched knives and cleavers. One of them struggled to balance an unwieldy pike and knocked over a lamp. Another powrie clutched a Phillips screwdriver in one hand and a standard screwdriver in the other. Each wore spiked iron-shod boots. Fae hated iron as a general rule, but redcaps branched out from the inbred goblin side of the tree and were not affected by the metal. Lucky us.
The sight of the salesman’s corpse in the HUD viewscreen made my stomach clench and a snarl twist my lips. Murder most foul. Even annoying door-to-door salesmen deserved justice. Ripping through these knee-gnawing bastards would be a favor to the civilized world, and I planned to bring some serious payback…via Sarge and Alpha Two, because I was stuck assaulting the hyperactive rumpus room in 118 and it was too late to switch. Sarge had his work cut out for him against those grim redcaps, but it looked as if my Area of Responsibility would be a cakewalk. I’d buy Sarge a beer later for his trouble.
This close to the hostiles, I couldn’t risk voice commands lest I tip the redcaps off. My rapid flurry of hand signals confirmed to Sarge and the rest of Alpha Two the number of hostiles I’d sighted in 118 and their deployment. Gavin eyed me as if I were having some type of seizure. No doubt he’d failed to study the Zero Dog dynamic assault handbook. Glorious flaming harpy shit.
Sarge nodded at my signal and turned to the dirty green door. His finger scored patterns of strange glyphs into the wood, leaving smoking purple lines that glowed with muted light. Rafe crouched below the window in werewolf form. His appearance resembled The Howling werewolves without the oversized bat-ears, rather than Lon Chaney’s adorable furry wolfman. Rafe watched Sarge work, his canines bared, waiting for Sarge’s spell to go off.
I pointed at Mai. She nodded twice then turned to her horde of vole-raptor half-breeds. At her command, the creatures formed up in a carpet-like mass ten feet from the door. Another glance at Alpha Two showed me Sarge had finished his spellwork. He gave me the double nod.
I took a deep breath, tried to calm my rapid heartbeat, and failed. “Execute! Execute! Execute!” I yelled.
Sarge’s breaching spell went off with a rending crunch, crumpling their door into a wad of broken splinters. Next to me, the voles chirped as Mai ordered them to charge the door we were assaulting. They sprang off the parking berm and leapt at the doorknob/keycard reader combo. Each critter’s wicked buzz saw teeth ripped out a chunk of wood before it circled back for another leap. I flinched when Rafe launched himself at the window and smashed into room 117 in an explosion of glass shards and a tangle of brown curtains. Sarge charged inside after him, MP10 popping off on semi-auto, followed by Stefan, with Gavin stumbling along in the rear, clutching his submachine gun and wheezing.
In less than six seconds, Mai’s abominations had chewed away enough of the wood around the keycard mechanism for it to fall to the cement with a metal clank. They also gnawed through the wood around the swing bar door guard, though this was higher and resulted in more voles missing and bouncing off the walls with outraged chirps. Mai called them off.
I swung out in front of the door, ready to kick it in. A butcher knife thrust through the lower hole, sawing back and forth on the damaged wood. “Shaved monkey!” the redcap inside said and giggled.
I kicked the damn door in, knife or no. The thud and scream brought a wicked smile to my face.
“Fire in the hole.” I flung in my modified spell of super-condensed magefire and ducked behind cover.
Mai, Tiffany, and Hanzo looked away as my flash spell went off with a brilliant burst of light. When it was safe, I glanced into the room to see blinded redcaps flailing around and falling over each other. Others toppled off the bed. A couple of them accidently stabbed comrades, which sent off a flurry of hacking and slashing retribution, like cannibal mutant rats competing for a role in a slasher film.
I scanned for the ringmaster goblin, meaning to capture him first, but couldn’t spot him in the chaos. We needed to capture at least one demented goblin for arrest, trial, and resulting media circus. Time to improvise.
“Tiffany!” I pointed at a redcap who came hopping out of the bathroom with his trousers around his ankles and a scrap of toilet paper stuck to one of his boots. “Charm that powrie!”
Tiffany stepped into the room and fixed her eyes on the redcap trying to simultaneously straighten his red floppy hat and pull out his cleaver. I felt the surge of her sex magic, the pheromone flood crashing toward the hapless male creature, who instantly plunged into both love and dismayingly obvious desire for the succubus.
“Love you, cat-eye girl!” the charmed redcap bellowed. Then he buried his cleaver in the floppy hat of a comrade who’d had the misfortune to stagger into his strike radius. The hat was sheared in half and fell to the stained carpet. The goblin skull was likewise notched and the creature followed his hat to the ground.
The charmed redcap scrambled toward Tiffany, still dragging his pants and the scrap of toilet paper, all drooling and doe-eyed, reminding me of my date for the senior prom.
“Love you, queen of my hat!” The charmed powrie almost collided with another of his stumbling mates still dazed from my flash spell. The charmed redcap’s eyes narrowed and he began to hack at the other goblin. “Make beautiful fucky fucky—”
Tiffany shot him in the head with both pistols. What a .357 round will do to a goblin skull at close range might best be compared to dropping a hand grenade into a jack o’ lantern filled with oatmeal and red wine. So much for charming a redcap to throw to the media sharks, and goodbye to my appetite for the next three days.
I pushed deeper into the room, searching for the goblin in the ringmaster gear, still hoping to take him alive. The redcaps had regained enough of their sight to present a growing danger. The air rang with gunshots, growls, curses, erotic moans, giggling, and the happy chirping of the Velociraptor voles.
A glowing pinwheel of energy appeared in midair near the television, bursting into existence with the tortured shriek of a car squashed in a compactor. The cold backwash of partially consumed energy raised goose bumps along my skin. A spinning pattern of glowing filaments spread from the center of the pinwheel. The view of the wall behind it shimmered and distorted. The filaments shot further out, flattened, widened, and sealed together, creating a circular portal that wavered in midair.
I cursed and scanned for the goblin who’d opened the portal. Creating wormholes and Veil jumping were far more powerful and complex undertakings than standard goblin magic could handle. The distant dirge of a calliope reached me, along with the smell of buttered popcorn and corndogs.
The ringmaster darted from beneath the table and launched his small body onto the bed. “Flee! Flee, you red-knickered drool-nozzles!”
“This hovel has bedbugs, not fleas!” the redcap with the bendy straw and the Jack Daniels bellowed, spraying whiskey. He swore, wiped at his face, then shouted: “And they made you chief? Hah!”
“Tiffany!” I yelled again. “Charm the goblin in the balloon pants!”
Tiffany’s magic surged once more. The charm spell hit the ringmaster and he staggered, toppling off the bed. I hurried toward him, hoping to secure him before Tiffany changed her mind and began shooting him instead. The ringmaster stared at Tiffany with lustful mooncalf eyes, but her spell hadn’t hit with the same effectiveness as before. The ringmaster clambered back onto the bed. He screamed out, “You’ll be mine, sex demon!” and shuddered as if he’d been hit with electric current. Then he belly flopped through the portal before I could grab him.
Damn it. The flashing images inside the portal unnerved me: funhouse mirror distortions, dark roller coasters, and screaming clown faces. I edged closer anyway. I hoped to snatch him back before the portal closed, then drag him in front of the cameras by his bow tie. Before I reached the portal, another redcap flung himself off the nightstand at me. He gibbered and slashed with a broken pair of scissors. I dodged aside. The portal snapped closed, cutting off the circus soundtrack.
I cut loose with my magefire, blasting a horizontal column of fire at Mr. Scissors. A burning floppy cap drifted to the carpet with the slow grace of an autumn maple leaf. The remainder of the scissor-swinging bundle of goblin hate had been incinerated. The television screen exploded exactly as the chorus of moans reached an orgasmic crescendo. The wall behind it caught fire.
Shit. Not again. Why did everything burn so easily?
Mai’s small army of carnivores seemed to enjoy their goblin meat raw. Witnessing the carnage, I realized I wouldn’t be comfortable with those things coming within a five hundred mile radius of my person ever again. The air stank of burning plastic and blood, spilled liquor, sauerkraut, and the strange clove-like scent of the voles.
Tiffany continued to fire on the redcaps, more demon goddess of diabolical retribution than sexy sex symbol. I watched my chance of taking prisoners steadily evaporate into arterial spray. Ever since the night zombies had overrun our house, Tiffany seemed to take a little too much pleasure in shooting bad guys into pulpy red messes.
A goblin slashed at my shin. I kicked him in the stomach with my combat boot, punting him so hard he bounced off the wall, knocking down a hideous oil painting of Nantucket. Hanzo slashed with his katana at the redcaps battling him with chef knives. The voles chewed on everything that wasn’t a Zero Dog, including pillows, telephones, and lampshades.
My headset radio crackled. A transmission filled with werewolf snarls and measured, unhurried gunshots blasted over the com. I overheard Stefan in full auto bitch-whine mode complaining about the taste and consistency of goblin blood.
Before I could tell Stefan suck it up like a man—or at least a man-like vampire—my headset speaker distorted with a wild, ripping blast of submachine gun fire. Had to be Gavin, because Sarge never shot with such uncontrolled gusto. An instant later Gavin screamed words in the high-pitched shriek of a man who’d lost both testicles in a horrible canning accident. “Suck on explosive death, you ankle-biting freaks!”
A grenade blast roared simultaneously in my headset and rattled our window. I scorched a redcap trying to bite Tiffany’s ass cheek, then yelled into the mike, “Status, Alpha Two!”
Gunshots. Growling. Incoherent profanity. Screams from the redcaps. Then Gavin yelled over the radio. “Chew this, pus-eater!” More gunshots. “How you like a man’s boot in your ass?” Erratic gunfire. “And floppy hats are for fucking nimrods!”
“Room clear,” Tiffany called out near me. She paused to blow on both smoking gun barrels, managing to make rampant killing seem disconcertingly sexual. Hanzo kicked down the bathroom door. The shower curtain’s metal rings jingled as, from the sound of it, he slashed the hell out of everything inside before confirming the bathroom was clear.
I concentrated on the radio transmissions from Alpha Two, praying they were all right. “Alpha Two, this is Alpha Actual. I repeat: what’s your status, over?”
“Alpha Actual, this is Alpha Two,” Sarge said over the com. “Room 117 clear. Hostiles neutralized, over.”
“Then what the hell is Gavin doing?”
“He’s a little keyed up. I took away his gun and put him in time out.”
“Christ.” I closed my eyes for a second and took a deep breath…then nearly choked on the smoke and reek inside the room. The air also smelled vaguely of honey-baked ham. I didn’t know whether to enjoy the scent or toss my cookies.
“All rooms clear,” I finally confirmed. I knew I’d come to regret that little circus bastard’s escape. His strange thaumaturgy must’ve given him the resistance needed to throw off Tiffany’s charm magic long enough to flee through the portal. I switched frequencies on my radio to the band SWAT used. “Overwatch, this is Alpha Actual. One hostile rabbited through an interdimensional portal and escaped. All other hostiles neutralized, over.”
“Copy that, Alpha Actual. One suspect rabbited, unable to locate.” Lieutenant Stone’s voice dripped with schadenfreude. Our newly renegotiated contract with the city of Portland let the Zero Dogs take the first crack at “paranormally enhanced criminal elements,” which didn’t sit well with Stone or the rest of SWAT. “We’ll run a BOLO for the escaped suspect. Element incoming to your position, over.”
“Roger that, Overwatch. Alpha Actual, out.” I turned to the rest of my team. “All right, saddle up and move out. Leave everything for the cops and coroner. Nobody steal any towels.” I paused, frowning. “I mean it about the towels. They’re probably infested with very scary things.”
I escaped outside with the rest of the crew, reveling in the blessedly cool night air, free of the smoke and the stink. SWAT, in full tactical gear, swept past me into the room. Two fire engines roared into the parking lot. Fire fighters leapt out and began hooking up hoses.
I watched them, but from a distance, because fire fighters never loved a pyromancer. My hands shook with the aftereffects of adrenaline-dump. I crossed my arms and trapped them under my armpits. Black and gray smoke billowed into the sky.
Mind numb, body all jittery, I suddenly felt lonelier than I had in weeks. I wished Jake were around to crack a joke—hell, to put his arms around me, because even battle-hardened mercenaries needed a hug once in awhile. No dice, though. My favorite Green Beret was on a Special Forces op. So I sucked it up best I could and stared at the column of smoke, wondering where that portal led and worried about the havoc the ringmaster would plot next.