It was morning. One of those mornings. Goddamn it.
People who’ve spent a bit of time down the bottom of a highball glass or two know what kind of mornings I’m talking about. The kind where you struggle to open your eyes because there’s some kind of crud gluing them shut. The kind where you wish your heart would stop beating just because of how loud it sounds in your head. The kind where vomiting might actually improve the taste in your mouth.
Most of my mornings were like that these days. My own damn fault, I know, but it was preferable to the alternative of going to sleep sober. I’d rather face an hour of discomfort than an entire night of bad dreams and worse memories.
I rubbed the grit out of my eyes the best I could. Opening my eyes properly still seemed like a hefty chore for so early in the day. I had gotten to know my apartment pretty well in absolute darkness, however. Lots of practice stumbling in at three in the morning with a belly full of booze.
First things first, I had to get out of bed. An easy task for most, but most didn’t have what amounted to about one and a half functioning legs. I reached over in the direction of my nightstand. Most of my essentials could be found either there or in a liquor cabinet in the my study. First thing my hand encountered was my pocket watch. Wouldn’t need that just yet. It was too early to give a shit about what time it actually was. Next to it was a half-empty packet of cigarettes and a lighter. Those I might need soon. And next to that, leaned up against the wall in the space between the nightstand and my bed itself, would be… would be…
My cane was missing.
That was enough of a difference to finally force me to will my eyelids apart. I was able to visually confirm that no, my cane was definitely not where I usually put it.
I rolled over towards the edge of the bed. Maybe I’d misjudged how much I’d drunk last night and just dropped it on the floor before crawling beneath the sheets.
It wasn’t there either.
Shit. I know I had it when I came home; never would've made it out of the bar, otherwise. So where the hell—
Are you looking for this, Officer Richardson?
My body jerked in surprise. Unfortunately, I was still leaning over the side of my bed at the time. Two seconds later I was on the floor, tangled up in my bedsheets, trying to decide if my head or leg hurt worse.
The first thing I saw as the fog of agony slowly lifted from my vision was my cane, hovering in front of my face. The handle was pointed at me, which on its own wasn’t particularly reassuring. I know from experience the damage solid brass can do to a man’s skull. So do a number of other people in this city, which is largely why nobody has tried to mug me in eight months.
Just behind my cane was a Flower. Definitely a capital-F Flower. The regular kind don’t typically stand six feet tall and wear dresses. A somber grey number with a matching scarf, to be precise. The bloom just above the scarf looked a bit rose-like to my untrained eyes.
You seem to be in need of some assistance, she projected at me. My cane waggled a bit in her telekinetic grasp.
I'm not sure how long I stared at her before eventually managing to gain control of my throat and tongue. Far too long, I'm sure. "A nightmare," I finally mumbled as I managed to push myself into a sitting position. "I've gotta be having some kinda nightmare."
I'm afraid not.
"A hallucination, then. Rat poison in my last gin and tonic. This'll be the last thing I see before I choke to death on my own tongue."
I sincerely doubt that.
“So then… there really is a Flower standing in my room right now.”
No. There are three Flowers standing in your room right now.
I caught a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye, on the opposite side of my bed. I craned my head to catch sight of two dandelions kitted up in identical black suits and fedoras. I could see the tell-tale bulge of shoulder holsters underneath both weeds’ jackets. Bodyguards for the rosebush, I had to assume. They were looking at me in a way which suggested, had they been in possession of actual faces, that both would have been sneering at me in obvious contempt.
“I see.” I was starting to feel a bit sick, and it wasn’t just the hangover doing its usual work. This Flower was obviously someone high up on the food chain, so to speak. Not just because she was toting around a couple of armed toughs, either; she held herself like Boss Sunflower had, distant and imperious. Her thoughts were colored with an attitude of ‘you work for me, whether you know it or not.’
On the bright side (which was looking pretty dim at the moment), this probably meant that they weren’t here to kill me or anything. The Flowers didn’t get their leaves dirty with stuff like that, not personally. That’s what people like me were for. Me and… and…
Damnit. You do your best to drown old memories under a flood of rotgut, but they just keep bobbing back to the surface. Usually at the worst of times.
The rosebush waggled my cane at me again. The floor must be very uncomfortable, Officer Richardson. Wouldn’t you prefer to stand?
“It’s Mister Richardson,” I muttered at her. Not a hospitable answer, but hospitality was a privilege reserved for those who didn’t break into my apartment and start scratching at old wounds. “Not ‘Officer.’ Not anymore.”
My apologies, Mister Richardson. The tone of her thoughts felt anything but apologetic. I’m pretty sure she only said that because it was the expected thing to do, socially. The Flowers were like that sometimes. Semantics aside, she continued, my point about the floor still stands.
She wasn’t entirely wrong. The ache in my leg was starting to win out over the throbbing in my head.
A sudden cold thought hit me as I reached out for my cane. The Flowers didn’t get their leaves dirty. Not ever. So why was an apparently high-ranking one taking time out of her schedule to make house calls to washed-up former agents?
I was snapped out of my reverie by the sudden weight of my cane in my hand. The rosebush had released it from her mental grasp. We shall wait out in the other room while you comport yourself, she thought. Would you like some coffee? Weed Eighty-nine apparently brews a decent pot, although I have no idea how he could have acquired such a skill.
“I… I suppose.”
Excellent. We shall be waiting.
I watched, still sprawled on the floor, as the Flowers left my bedroom in single file. I allowed myself to slump backwards with my head against the wall only when the door had closed behind them.
* * * * *
It took about fifteen minutes to find some clothes that weren’t objectionably dirty. I skipped the shower, even though I could smell the travails of the previous night still clinging to my skin. Something in the back of my mind kept insisting that making this Flower and her entourage wait for too long probably wasn’t a good idea, regardless of my disdain for their presence.
The aroma of cheap coffee was thick in the air as I limped in from the bedroom, which was pretty much the last nail in the coffin of this all being some sort of delusion on my part. Weed Eighty-nine had apparently been able to find where I stored my coffee beans.
The Flowers were waiting for me in the little area I had set off for my study-slash-office, which is a rather convoluted way of saying ‘two stuffed chairs in front of a cluttered and stained desk.’ The rosebush was sitting in what was normally my chair, behind the desk. There was a newspaper — The Extraplanar Weekly, according to the masthead — hovering in front of her bloom. The two weeds were standing just behind her on either side, their petals turning to watch me as I stood in the doorway.
Welcome back to the land of the living, Mister Richardson, the rosebush said without looking up from the paper.
“You’re in my chair,” was my friendly reply.
There was a moment’s pause before the rosebush set down the paper and stood up. Of course. My apologies again.
I walked over as the Flowers circled around to the other side of my desk. The rosebush sat in the nicer of the two chairs. The weeds, as I expected, remained standing.
Besides the gazette and a steaming mug of coffee, everything looked to be in its usual state of disarray. I doubted that the Flowers would’ve stooped so low as to root around through my possessions, but there was always enough room for doubt when it came to them and what they considered to be acceptable behavior. Especially since they tended to consider anyone around them to be their subordinates.
The rosebush leaned forward in her chair, just slightly, as I slumped into my own seat. Do you know who I am, Mister Richardson?
I had a pretty good idea. The fifteen minutes I’d spent alone wasn’t just for the purpose of getting dressed. I’d been wracking my brain trying to remember the members of the Board and any other high-ranking roses. I’d never met this particular Flower personally, but word got around about the plants in charge. “Madame Sub Rosa,” I replied. “Head of the Office of Preliminary Investigation.”
Correct. Score one for me. Do you know why I’m here?
“I’m still a little fuzzy on that.” I leaned my cane against my desk before opening my top most right-hand drawer and rifling through it for my aspirin. The hangover had dulled, but not enough to put a smile on my face. “Outreach program for veterans?”
I want you to come back to the Agency.
I paused in my search, but only for a moment. That possibility had crossed my mind during those thoughtful fifteen minutes. It had crossed my mind multiple times, actually. Nothing else made much sense.
That made my response all the sweeter. “Fuck no.”
“Fuck right off you sunlight-sucking sack of shit, as I told Boss Sunflower right before I left.” My fingers closed around my aspirin bottle. I couldn’t help but give it a little victorious flourish as I pulled it out of the desk. “Was there anything else you wanted, Madame, or can I bring this meeting to a close?”
The thoughts brushing against my mind took on a sardonic taste. If you think I am one to be driven away with foul language, Mister Richardson, then perhaps you’ve lost a bit more of your edge than I had previously believed.
I paused, a couple of aspirin tablets halfway to my lips. “What is that supposed to mean?”
I came here because your record impressed me, the Sub Rosa projected. Your skills in the field were commendable, as were the transcripts of your completions. The OPI needs agents as talented and experienced as you were.
I couldn’t help but grimace as I downed the tablets with a swig of coffee. All the past-tense in her sentences was starting to grate on me worse than the hangover. She must have thought I was the dumb hero of some pulp crime novel, waving such a cheap tactic in my face like that. “Why come to me?” I asked instead. “Don’t you have a whole organization full of potential recruits?”
Ordinarily yes, but Mister de Sod has put a moratorium of requesting transfers from other departments.
“Sounds like things are in a tight spot.” I meant it, too. If de Sod was locking the departments down, the Agency had been run down a hard road.
We — by which I mean the Agency as a whole — have taken some casualties in recent weeks. Her reply reeked of understatement. My department was hit particularly hard. Most of the investigators still capable of action are untested. I need people with experience to guide them.
I let out a short and bitter bark of laughter. “Then you definitely don’t want me.”
If this is about your final mission with the OMS, I can assure you—
“No!” My head gave a warning throb, but I ignored it. I’d had just about enough salt poured into old wounds. “I’m not talking about that. Not with you. Not now and not ever. So not. One. More. Word.
“I threw myself into a hundred different Hells a hundred times over for the Agency,” I continued. “I gave up my old life, my friends and family, to fight in a shadowy war that will never be won. I sweated and bled and killed to save numerous worlds time and again, and each time got nothing more than a pat on the back and some new disaster to avert. And when… and when it was made clear to me that our sacrifices didn’t matter, I left. You can’t assure me of anything when it comes to the Agency, madame, no more than a scorpion can assure the frog it’s riding that everything will be all right.” I paused to take a breath. “Now get out and take your leg-breakers with you.”
The two weeds looked to be getting a little twitchy. Probably weren’t fond of my talking to their boss so brazenly. The Sub Rosa, on the other hand, appeared unfazed. I couldn’t get a read on her at all, actually, but she didn’t appear to be in much of a hurry to leave.
“I said get out.”
What exactly do you do here, Mister Richardson?
Nothing like a left-field question to send you off kilter. And my rant had been so good. “What?”
The Sub Rosa tilted her bloom to one side. Your job. The practice which keeps you stocked in alcohol and cigarettes. What is it?
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I… you know, just small jobs here and there. Helping people with various problems they might be having.”
Doesn’t seem like it pays very well.
I scoffed. “What, and the Agency did?”
The Sub Rosa leaned forward again. I still couldn’t get a sense of her thoughts. You were better off trying to enjoy the view of some beautiful vista through a roadside billboard. That’s not my point, Mister Richardson, she thought. I’m trying to say that now, as then, money is not a driving concern for you. You help people because you believe that you are a good person, and thus deep down are required to do what is right.
You sweated and bled and killed for the Agency, true enough. But not because you were ordered to. Agents are not soldiers; orders can only drive people so far. If that was the only thing pushing you to be part of the Agency, you would have left us far sooner than you had. You saved the lives of canonicals and stabilized all those worlds because you believed it to be the right thing to do. You made personal sacrifices because you believed it to be the right thing to do. You left the Agency when that last incident rattled you, but now? Even as you slowly drink yourself into oblivion, you still take time to help people.
That is why I came here, Mister Richardson. Not just because of your experience. I came to recruit you because of your sense of honor and duty. You act as you would, even when it would be to your detriment, because you have that sense of what is right. It may have been tarnished and dulled by the passage of time… she leaned back into the chair. But I believe that you still believe.
Silence fell across the apartment. After a few seconds, the Sub Rosa stood up from her chair. But I have obviously outstayed my welcome, she thought with a much lighter tone, as if her little speech to me had never happened. Weed Eighty-nine, if you would be so kind as to leave Mister Richardson our parting token.
I tensed up as the dandelion indicated as Weed Eighty-nine reached inside his coat, but relaxed a bit when he only pulled out two small non-weaponized objects. He set them both down in front of me on the desk before giving me a very curt nod.
They were both immediately familiar to my eyes. The first was a plothole activator, a chrome, cold grey box festooned with various buttons and dials. The second was a small silver shield with the words ‘Plot Protection Agency” along the top. Everyone in the Agency had one of these. You were only supposed to take it off when you were sleeping, bathing, or dead.
Think it over, Mister Richardson, the Sub Rosa said as Weed Eighty-nine returned to her side. The other dandelion had already pulled out an activator of his own and opened up a portal, presumably back to the winding halls of the Agency. My door is always open. I hope — and I believe — that you will do the right thing.
A few seconds later they were all gone, vanishing through the portal winking shut in the middle of my apartment. I looked down from where they had been standing towards the badge.
I picked it up. The metal was cold against my hand. On it was etched the emblem of the Office of Preliminary Investigation, which was some flower I’d forgotten the name of. It’d been a long time since I’d held one of these things. I’d mailed mine to Boss Sunflower after storming out of his office.
“Doing what is good,” I muttered to myself as I turned the badge over and over in my hand. “Doing what is right.”
Mornings. Goddamn mornings.