Special Investigations agent Rebecca Burton took her usual spot within the Café Expresso coffee house, a corner booth, where she could face the door without being conspicuous. She removed her dark fedora from atop her head and shook loose her long hair. Several bright red strands fell in front of her eyes. She brushed them over with an impatient wave of her hand.
The café catered to college students attending Butler University. Though Rebecca was several years older, she loved the energy. The youthful creativity released itself into the room, auras that rejuvenated her without hampering or tampering with the energy of the people around her.
This was why she scheduled most of her more problematic appointments here. The Café Expresso proved itself a great place to meet new clients and size them up before taking on their cases. Meeting here put people off their guard. Much less formal, people tended to open up to her more quickly.
It was also a good place to meet when she didn’t trust someone not to try something stupid or dangerous if they were in private.
As if on cue, a dumpy, middle aged woman stepped through the door. Sparkle. Such a drama queen.
Sparkle’s tacky dyed blond hair–so blond as to look yellow–was outdone by the purple cloak. The upraised hood extended into a cape that flowed behind her when she walked. As she adjusted the cloak, Rebecca noticed a streak of purple in the dyed blonde. she wore beneath the cloak a tattered black dress that may have been quite formal a couple decades ago.
Rebecca shook her head. Such a disgrace. Hard to believe at one time they’d apprenticed together under the same master as young neophytes learning white magic within the Kelranian Order.
Sparkle’s gaze swept the room until she spotted Rebecca. Bright red-glossed lips parted into a smile to reveal crooked teeth. “Hello, honey!” Sparkle called from across the room and started toward her. “So good to see you again.” Rebecca cringed. Where did this witch go wrong, Rebecca mused, even as she figured Sparkle was probably thinking the exact same thing about her.
Sparkle sat herself in the booth across from Rebecca while Stella–a college-aged waitress–approached. “Hi, Rebecca,” said Stella. Rebecca counted Stella Templar as part of her inner circle. Besides serving a great cup of coffee, Stella kept her eyes and ears open for anything she thought Rebecca would want to know. Stella and Rebecca had developed an understanding. When Rebecca entertained a guest, Stella’s job was to make sure they remained undisturbed. “What can I get you and your,” Stella hesitated, “friend?”
“The usual for me,” said Rebecca, referring to a mocha espresso, extra hot.
“Hot tea for me, black, three sugars,” said Sparkle. At Stella’s startled look, Sparkle added, “I like devouring sweet things….you sweet thing.”
Stella turned to Rebecca, her confusion obvious.
“Just order a drink. Sparkle, don’t intimidate the help.”
“You’re no fun.”
Rebecca shrugged off the comment. “Actually, that’s why we’re meeting. In spite of my warning, you’re continuing to have way too much fun. You keep using your magic for personal profit and to cause mischief.”
“This again? What’s the matter? Don’t you like cheap gas?”
“I was referring to the North Korean internet crash.”
“Oh, honey,” Sparkle waved a hand. “No one paid me; I did that one for fun.”
“Sooner or later, your shenanigans could expose all of us, including those of us who are trying to actually do some real good.”
“Oh, give it a rest.’ Sparkle folded her hands in front of her, exposing knuckles covered in costume jewelry. “Don’t you have a demon to fight or something, Tesh Ke Ra?” She snarled Rebecca’s Kelranian title at her.
Stella returned and deposited the two steaming mugs. While Sparkle still ranted, Rebecca gripped hers by the handle without glancing Stella’s direction.
“Seriously, Rebecca, we’re on the same side here. I swore my allegiance to you years ago. Now mind your own business and let me get back to mine.”
“You’re allegiance is irrelevant if you continue to flaunt your powers.”
Sparkle scoffed. “I never figured you’d turn out to be such a coward.”
Rebecca’s anger flared, but unlike their previous conversation, she clamped down tight before it manifested. “You know better than that, Sparkle.”
Sparkle leaned across the table and glared. “If you’d just take the fight to the real enemy and stop all this secret agent nonsense, you and I would be sitting here today drinking a toast to your victory.” Sparkle waved a hand over the lip of her mug as she steeped the teabag by its string. “Instead, you’re whining about actions I’ve taken while you continue to be too scared to do the same.”
“We can’t risk exposing ourselves, Sparkle. If you continue to use your magic in front of normals, they’ll hunt you down and expose you. And I don’t know if I can protect you if that happens.”
“Nonsense, honey. Didn’t you get the memo? Science is in, magic is out. I’m a charlatan. A fraud. And those comments are from my satisfied clients. I do something miraculous right in front of them, and I’m not a witch. I’m not a sorceress. I’m a ‘masterful entertainer with impenetrable slight-of-hand’.” She sighed. “I love my adoring public.”
“You can’t count on that.”
“Oh, no? Maybe you need a demonstration.”
Rebecca bristled. “Don’t even think about it.”
Sparkle chuckled and raised her mug. Again, she tugged on the tea bag. “Just as I said. You’re a coward.”
The retort Rebecca had prepared stopped short as a wave of dizziness overcame her. At the same time, a sickly cinnamon aroma permeated the air. Too late, she realized her mistake as Sparkle removed her teabag from her mug and set it on the saucer.
Rebecca found her voice. “Aero…magic? You’re using Aero-magic…on…me?”
“Oh, don’t fret, honey. I wouldn’t seriously hurt the Tesh Ka Ra. That would be disloyal, not to mention….unkind. But I’m not above some…what word did you use…shenanigans, to prove a point.”
Sparkle chuckled, reached out, and set Rebecca’s coffee to the side. “No spilling,” she chided. “That looks hot.” Rebecca fell forward and the room faded to black.
Stella took care of the other two occupied booths. She tore off the guest check from the printer. Rebecca’s entertaining a real whack job. I hope they finish up quick before she scares off the dinner rush.
She closed in on the table and stopped. The creepy bag lady sat in her spot, sipping her tea. Rebecca’s drink had been set off to the side, but Rebecca herself was gone. Odd. Rebecca would have had to walk past her to go to the restroom. She deposited the guest check. “Uh….I’ll just leave this.”
The creepy lady smiled. Stella wished she hadn’t. “That’s fine, sweet thing.” She didn’t want the creepy lady to call her “sweet thing.” either.
“Did she….leave something out in her car?” Something smelled funny, pungent. Was it the woman, or was that some strange tea flavor she’d never noticed before?
The creepy lady raised the cup to her lips. “I don’t know where she went, sweet thing.”
Hey, there’s an image on our mug. I never noticed that before. She looked at the rectangular art print. Looked like a red haired mermaid of some sort, like that cartoon. But….wait, the mermaid looked an awful lot like Rebecca Burton.
The mermaid image had Rebecca’s red hair and even wore Rebecca’s fedora. Mermaids don’t wear fedoras. Stella realized how particularly stupid that sounded, and so she chose not to say it. Instead, what came out was “How did you do that?” She pointed at the mug.
The creepy lady turned the mug around to look at the print, a frown on her face. “Wow, that look’s a lot like Agent Burton, doesn’t it?”
“Quit kidding with me.”
“But it can’t be, can it? That would be absurd.”
Stella shook her head, and the cloudiness cleared. What had they been saying? Rebecca a mermaid on a coffee mug? How ridiculous. What was she thinking? “That’s awesome, lady. What a great trick. Enjoy your tea.” Stella stood. Best not to waste this nice woman’s time.
Finally, she could move again!
Rebecca slumped in the booth, furious. Images filled her mind of what she would do to Sparkle as soon as she regained her senses, even as she cursed her own stupidity. She commanded her body to get up, grab that witch by the hair, and throw her out a window, but her legs and arms couldn’t obey.
She just laid there, spasming, as she waited for the toxin to wear off.
She’d been trapped, frozen, held in place behind a barrier, her body twisted into a bizarre still image, her eyes unable to close, unable to talk or move. Behind the barrier, Stella gawked at her, but Rebecca couldn’t respond. She realized through their dialog what must have happened, though she had no clear idea what she might have looked like.
She found her voice. “You dare…to mock…me?”
“Oh, don’t be that way, honey. We’re still friends, aren’t we?”
Sparkle was no longer sitting across from her. She’d come around to Rebecca’s side of the table and now sat next to her in the booth. Rough hands grabbed Rebecca by the collar and lifted her up. “Oooh, you are angry, aren’t you? You have your cranky face on.”
“I’m going to—”
“Watch yourself, Agent Burton. You don’t want to do anything conspicuous that will draw attention to yourself, now, do you?”
Rebecca slumped, but caught herself with her arms. She could feel strength return by the second.
“Look at you. Pathetic,” snarled Sparkle. “We’re gods among sheep. And yet you prostrate yourself to blend in. Why? You can walk above the clouds. No one would stop you. No one would even notice. There are ‘explanations’, honey.” She held her hands out to mimic quote marks. “I’m proof of that. I’m your best friend, and you don’t even know it.”
“You’re nothing of the sort. I want you out of my sight and out of the state by tonight. Or nothing will keep me from finding you, and then you don’t want to know what will happen.”
Sparkle shrugged. “Well, that’s gratitude for you. But remember what I said. One day, sooner than later, you’ll need my help. Because I’m willing to do what you’re not. And when that day comes, I’ll just have to try to forget all the indignities you’ve caused me.”
“That I’ve caused you?” Rebecca’s voice failed, but not because of any toxin.
Sparkle grabbed the receipt and called out, “Oh, Stella! Come here, you sweet thing.”
The waitress appeared. “Yes, ma’am?”
Sparkle handed Stella the receipt, along with a crisp green bill.
“Wow, thank you, ma’am.”
“Oh, you earned it, sweet thing.”
“Hey, that was a neat trick with the mug.”
Sparkle flashed a smile at the waitress even as she held Rebecca’s eyes with a gaze of her own. “You liked that? Oh, that’s an old trick, but it’s still a crowd pleaser, don’t you agree, Rebecca?” Sparkle exaggerated a frown. “Oh, Rebecca’s not feeling very well right now. I’ll leave her to you, Stella.” Sparkle rose to her feet and headed toward the door. “How about getting her a nice cup of tea?”