Death prophecies, ghost clowns, homicidal redcaps…this town has really gone to the dogs.
Zero Dog mercenary Andrea Walker used to love fortune cookies—until the day she cracked one open to find a death prophecy. Of course, believing a fortune from a mass-produced baked good would be insane—until a berserker shows up on her doorstep claiming he’s been sent by an oracle to save her life. She must hire him or die.
But hell really breaks loose when the Zero Dogs are contracted to stop a ghost-summoning goblin’s plan to bring his Eternal Malevolence Carnival and Incredible Show of Evil to Portland, starring a company of ghost performers—clowns, acrobats, and nefarious balloon-twisting mimes. Meanwhile, Andrea’s abnormally shy succubus friend Tiffany seems to be falling for the mysterious berserker. Too bad a malfunctioning charm spell has the redcap goblin yearning for her as well.
Now Andrea must elude a death prophecy, discover if her new-hire berserker can be trusted, and avert the looming ghost clown apocalypse. Just another day at the office for the Zero Dogs.
Mercenary Wing Rv6-4 “Zero Dogs”Zhong Kui’s Chinese Restaurant and BarJune 7thWe’d swung by the house to clean up, gathered our significant others from across Portland and Beaverton, and then crashed Zhong Kui’s with a rapid deployment. The hostess’s eyes had bugged out as we’d piled through the door, loud and laughing and on the hunt for food and alcohol.Now I sat on a swivel stool at the bar, sipping a BridgePort India Pale Ale while eyeing a Chinese painting on the wall. The painting depicted a pissed off Chinese guy with a blackened face and hyper-bushy beard who looked ready to rip out someone’s eyeball and eat it. I’d tasted that kind of fire earlier, but now I merely felt tired and down. Even perfect beef curry and pork fried rice couldn’t salvage my mood.Also, the nine fortune cookies I’d eaten and the nine bad fortunes they’d given had done nothing to help. The cryptic fortunes brought back the same feeling that had haunted me as I’d stalked the alley behind the motel—the uneasiness of spotting storm clouds gathered on the horizon set to rain poisonous frogs. When the mission had been a success, I’d wanted to believe the premonition of things going very wrong had only been the jitters of pre-combat stress. But the feeling hadn’t left. And now these evil fortunes…I pulled out my cell phone and dialed Jake’s number. He didn’t carry a cell with him in the field, but I clutched at the hope he’d be back at barracks by now.My call went straight to voicemail. “Captain Sanders. Leave a message.”For a moment I couldn’t talk. Hearing his voice sucked all the air out of my lungs. Then I forced myself to draw in breath and spit out words. “Jake…just Andrea. Uh. Calling to see how things are going…” God, I was so bad at leaving coherent phone messages. Heat crept up my neck and ears. I had so much I wanted to say, but now that the chance had arrived, the words dug into my throat with grappling hooks. “Just wanted to tell you about my day. Goblins. Ass kicking. Kicking goblin ass, I mean. We didn’t get our ass kicked, are you kidding me?” That sounded pathetic as hell. I hesitated, not wanting to babble into the echo-chamber of voicemail, but doing so anyway. “Pick up some milk from the store on your way home—don’t forget.” Even more pathetic. I likely wouldn’t see him for another two months at least, and my joke fell directly from my lips to the floor, landing on its face. My throat clicked when I swallowed. “Keep yourself safe. Give me a call when you’re done top-secretly saving the world. I miss you. I—”The voicemail cut off. I disconnected and stared at the cell phone as my pulse pounded in my ears, then I shoved it back in my pocket. Sipping my beer, I watched as the seconds slipped by on the wall clock, knowing that with each passing minute the hope I’d nursed that Jake would immediately call back faded further away. The accusations and, more than anything, the hostility of that activist guy kept reverberating in my head, making me feel even worse when piled on top of my unease and the tragic murder of the salesman. I stared at the crumbs from all the fortune cookies. The desire to simply pack up and go home ached in my chest. But I was paying the tab for the team and couldn’t leave.The rest of my crew were living it up, drinking and laughing. Zhong Kui’s had a full bar in a room behind the main restaurant which featured karaoke, so Rafe was on stage, shaking it for all he was worth while enthusiastically maiming an Aerosmith song. His current girlfriend…Nikki, if I remembered her name right…cheered and stuffed dollar bills down the front of his jeans. Jeans I’d ordered him to leave on his body in their standard position, ruefully remembering the last time he’d creatively interpreted the standing order by wearing jeans and jockeys on his head.Sarge sat with Shawn at a booth, both of them leaning their heads together to hear one other over the music. Sarge held Shawn’s hand across the table, a small smile on his face. There were two times I could bank on Sarge being happy: when he was shooting guns or when he was with Shawn.Gavin slouched in the corner at his own table, writing in a battered journal, empty beer bottles clustered around him. I’d tried to talk with him earlier, but he’d dismissed me with a curt “I’m in a creative phase,” and continued to scrawl unmetered lines of poetry in spiky handwriting. Tank driver. Empath. Wannabe writer. He’d given up on becoming a romance novelist a couple months ago, claiming you couldn’t throw a happily ever after without hitting another budding writer these days. I suspected this was sour grapes because he’d failed to find anyone interested in his work.“Poets get laid more often,” he’d assured me. I’d nodded as if I hadn’t believed he was a hopelessly unhinged wingnut with the maturity level of a thirteen-year-old. He’d grinned back as if I’d encouraged his madness. So much for his empath powers.Our degenerate vampire Stefan was still trying to pick up a Goth girl at the far end of the bar. Earlier I’d had the misfortune of walking past him and caught an earful of his routine. “—it really does sparkle, I swear before my ancient vampire sire. Are you curious? Don’t worry. I never bite…unless you like. ”Hanzo was rambling about a movie he’d loved called Alien versus Ninja, trying to impress Mai as he waved his hands around as he reenacted various scenes with a fork instead of a sword. Mai ignored him and fed lo mein to one of her mutated voles that she apparently hadn’t sent home with the others. Tiffany sat with them, but she seemed focused on her cherry soda, staring into the glass as she swirled the ice with two straws. I frowned, momentarily forgetting my own woes. Two studs had tried to pick her up already. Succubus pheromones and otherworldly beauty were a bitch—though, as she still wore combat fatigues and had cinched her hair into a ponytail, she’d done nothing to provoke attention. The men had lingered longer than decorum allowed, forcing Hanzo to interrupt his inspired monologue and make threatening motions toward his sword, finally driving them off. I’d smiled, because he’d handled it better than I would have. I would’ve lit somebody on fire by now.Watching Tiffany made me think of Jake again and ripped that hole inside me—that place he fit and made me happy—even wider, leaving it aching and empty. I wanted to cheer her up, but didn’t have it in me right now. So I failed her and turned back to my beer and my fortune cookies, feeling like shit and not knowing how to make things better for anyone.I sipped beer and glared at the cryptic fortune cookie fortunes collecting by my elbow. Nine little white pieces of paper amidst a layer of cookie dust. Normally, I loved fortune cookies. Something about having a cookie, a breed of food-type thing that I cherished, dispense obvious advice or vague fortune innuendos amused me every time. But these cookies sucked. Each fortune had been more disturbing than the last. I arranged them around the wet ring from the bottom of my beer. The first read:A heavy heart drowns the strongest swimmer. Well, I could agree with that one at least.Accept fate before fate accepts you. Standard fortune cookie crap.Answer not clear, ask again later. Some guy at the bakery was a smartass fond of his magic 8 ball.Competence like yours is undervalued! That one was a hundred percent true facts.Ghosts of the past haunt the future. This fortune only made me remember the ghost jellyfish that now haunted our rebuilt mansion, which sent a shiver of revulsion wracking down my spine.This cookie contains ingredients known to cause cancer in the state of California. Troubling. Very troubling. Especially after I’d just eaten nine of them in a row. But because I wasn’t currently in the state of California, I maintained hope I was safe.Don’t confuse stupidity with confidence. Not a problem. The Zero Dogs had both in abundance.Every flower blooms. Every petal falls. Lucky numbers 217, 0, 1.618, 9, 23, 9413. I could barely keep my cactus alive in its little sombrero pot. This fortune mocked me to my face with its dark metaphor.You will die, but a last hope approaches. This final fortune bothered me the most. It didn’t seem like advice you’d hide in a cookie. The little slip of paper sat there half-curled on the bar. Cryptic. Likely meaningless. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the universe had fired some kind of metaphysical shot across my bow. Should I have taken the activist’s parting shot about karmic payback more seriously? Or was this connected to the redcap ringmaster who’d escaped? I’d studied the lore and intelligence dossiers. Redcaps had access to a bastardized version of nurata, goblin hedge spells, but weren’t supposed to have interdimensional portal-hopping capabilities.Or was I over-thinking this? These were the type of suspicions I usually entertained at two in the morning or after downing a few too many absinthes. Two a.m. was hours away and I didn’t feel drunk. I took another swig of beer. A very mild buzz, nothing more.Gavin wandered past me, clutching his composition book and chewing on his pen as if it were a cigar. Our gazes met. He veered over and plopped onto the stool beside me. “Hey, Captain. Drowning your sorrows again? Don’t worry. No one judges you.”“How’s the poetry? You still trying to find a rhyme for the word silver in your epic unicorn poem?”Gavin rested a hand on his composition book as if fearing I’d light it on fire. Perhaps he knew me too well. “It’s free verse exploration of existential suburban despair. You want to hear some?”“No. I just ate a bunch of cookies and I’d prefer them to remain untossed.”“Everyone’s a freakin’ critic.” He picked up the last piece of paper, fortune number nine, and eyed it sourly. “Nice, this one says you’re going to die. Looks like my fortune cookie was correct about an imminent promotion.”“Does this fortune seem a little…I don’t know, weird to you?”“Nah, I had one once that said, ‘Help, I’m trapped in a Chinese bakery!’ Those fortune cookie writers are always bustin’ someone’s balls.” He swiveled back and forth on the stool and threw a glance toward Tiffany. “Let me ask you something, Captain. Me and Stefan were talking. So Tiffany’s a succubus, right?”My hackles went up and my eyes narrowed. “So you finally noticed,” I said carefully. “You’re about that age when you might start noticing some changes in your body and you may begin to feel differently about girls. Don’t worry, it’s called puberty and it’s all a part of growing up.”“Hilarious, Captain. With you, the yuks come twenty-four seven, three sixty-five. So is Tiffany a demon? As in fallen angel, eviction notice from heaven, spawn of Lilith, ‘I fornicated with the archangel Samael’ and all that crap? Because Stefan said a succubus is only a kind of crude vampire that feeds on passion and the lust of people bumping uglies. But I always heard a succubus is a demon who turns a man into a mindless horny tree frog with an erection that lasts way more than six hours, before she devours his soul.” He shrugged. “We have a bet on it.”“Strange that none of my fortunes mentioned something like: You will soon incinerate two of your employees. ” I turned on my bar stool and leaned toward him. “You’re very close to a line, Gavin. She’s my friend.”“Fraternizing?” He waggled his eyebrows, though the look in his eyes was sharp, almost challenging.I took a deep breath and willed myself calm. “I’m not going to respond to that. You’re a good driver. You suck as an empath, but you can steer things around like nobody’s business. So I’m going to ignore your behavior here tonight, choosing to believe it’s the beer talking. But don’t you dare mention your stupid bet to Tiffany. Ever. Keep your mouth shut or I’ll staple your testicles to the apology card I’ll make you send her…with a poem begging forgiveness, written in your own blood.”He raised his hands and shook his head. “Whoa, whoa, Captain. Threatening a man’s yam bag is a bit aggressive, don’t you think? We all care about her. I wouldn’t hurt her feelings or anything.”“The fact that you and Stefan made that bet tells me all I need to know.” I had problems enough with the fortune cookies and brooding about the escaped redcap, with zero patience left over for juvenile idiocy.“Don’t be like that, Captain. I’ll be discreet and ask Sarge. He’ll know the ins and outs of demonology.” He smirked at his innuendo, and I barely refrained from smacking him with my beer bottle. “But speaking of bumping uglies, I could use your advice on a little something something.”My scowl deepened. Gavin paid no attention. Instead, he stared down the bar toward an auburn-haired woman who sipped a margarita and played with the salt on the rim.“You think that chick loves poetry?”“Classy segue as always, Gavin.” My dislike deepened. Gavin and I had a rocky relationship, and tonight he was doing it no favors. I waved the bartender over for another beer. Widmer Hefeweizen this time. I studied the woman in question as I tipped the bottle back. She looked far too intelligent for Gavin, far too refined. Then again, ninety-six percent of breathing females were too intelligent and refined for Gavin. “Tell her you drive tanks. That might impress her. But for God’s sake, try being a gentleman for once in your life.”“Hmm. Drive tanks. Write poetry. Man in uniform, or sensitive artist? I can’t tell what she’d go for. I don’t want to screw up my only chance.” He chewed on his pen. “What about pilots? Don’t forget, I also have my wings. Chicks love pilots.”“Just don’t tell her you’re qualified on our new armored assault moped. That’ll cost you all your man points, sadly depleted as they already are. And don’t call her chick.” I peeled off the bottle’s label and used it to hide that last fortune cookie paper. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the fortune was somehow aware of me. That it watched me, ticking off prophetic seconds until I died. “I don’t know why I’m helping you. You’re an empath. Empath something. Ask her if she likes otters.”“Who the hell likes otters? That doesn’t even make sense.” He stared at the woman while rapidly tapping his pen against his teeth. For the first time I caught a glimpse of the indecision and nervous—almost desperate—tension that twisted around him in python coils. I gritted my teeth against any twinge of sympathy after he’d acted like such an ass, but I was too soft for my own good.“Go on. Give it a try,” I said after a long moment, focusing on rolling the neck of my naked beer bottle between my fingers, anything to keep my hands busy and my eyes off him. “No guts, no glory.”He frowned at me again, but he finally climbed off his stool. “The poet in me yearns for the day you steal a few inspirational quotes that ping a little lower on the cliché meter.”I smirked and let that one slide, coming from a guy who wrote about endless, soul-rending love, stock car racing, and heart-trampled Yuppie despair.He picked up his composition book and headed toward the woman. I drank beer and arranged my collection of fortune cookie fortunes in different patterns while trying not to watch him in case he crashed and burned. My armpits were damp. My skin felt too warm. God, it was bad enough that Jake was out on some mission while I was here alone and under threat of evil fortune cookie doom, but did I really have to vicariously experience the stress of hitting on strangers in a bar? Completely unfair.“Think he’ll score?” Shawn asked from behind me, making me jump and almost knock over my beer. Sarge loomed behind him, appearing terrifying without even trying, with his skin all various degrees of red and eggplant purple, a dying sunset look, and his eyes unnerving with their black irises and red pupils. No demon wings or horns, cloven hooves or pointy tails, but he sure as Hell didn’t need them to broadcast his badass status to the world.I motioned for them to sit down. They each took a seat flanking me.“Depends,” I said, rearranging the peeled beer label. Had that fortune crawled out from under it to eye me again? Damn, I thought it had. “A girl likes to be approached by someone classy, respectful, and genuinely interested in her as a person.”Shawn grinned. “Because this is Gavin we’re talking about, your answer means no.”“He’s an empath. He’ll be fine.”Both Sarge and Shawn stared at me.“All right, all right. He’s toast.” I drank more beer and found the bottle empty. Dammit. I saw a pattern forming here. “So what can I do for you gentlemen?”Shawn caught the bartender’s attention and ordered me another beer. He played the cello in the Oregon Symphony. In his late twenties, with scruffy two-day beard growth that I knew was carefully cultivated, dressed in slacks, dress shirt, and an electric blue tie only slightly rumpled this late in the day. “How’s Jake?”“Jake’s off saving the world, fighting evil while playing in the sun.”“Good soldier.” Most of Sergeant Nathan Genna’s pronouncements came out in deep bass rumbles, and this one was no different. “When’s he due back in the world?”“Not soon enough.” Truth was, I didn’t know. Because he was Special Forces, he could be out in the bush for another month or six. Me, I was only a mercenary. I didn’t have access to US Special Operations Command mission info, and it drove me nuts. To not be in control. To always be waiting, but unable to influence anything. I hated being helpless more than anything. But no one said this thing Jake and I had would be easy.Time to change the subject and avoid a maudlin beer-flavored soliloquy. Luckily, Gavin chose just that moment to get shot down. The woman stood and stormed out of the bar. Gavin slumped on the stool, chewing on his pen and trying to look as if he’d meant for that to happen.None of us said a word. After a moment, I lifted the piece of paper that held the cryptic legend I’d come to think of as Fortune #9. “What do you think about this?”They both leaned in to read it. Shawn shrugged. Sarge only frowned, watching me out of the corner of his demon eye.“You don’t think this is some type of real prophecy, do you?” I laughed to show I wasn’t serious.“In a fortune cookie?” Shawn said. “It’s just some pseudo-philosophical fun. Read and then toss.”I nodded, reassured.“I’ve seen stranger things,” Sarge said.I considered banging my head on the bar and barely managed to hold myself in check. “You’ve had accurate fortunes from a mass-produced cookie before?”He nodded and scanned through the rest of my fortunes, brushing away some of the crumbs. He arched a black eyebrow at me. “Hungry?”“They’re cookies, ” I replied, as if that explained everything.“I’ve heard stories about prophecies showing up in strange places,” Sarge continued. “Tea leaves are standard, but also coffee grounds or the sludge from hot cocoa. Tarot, of course, but standard playing decks as well. Crystal balls and car rearview mirrors. Palms…and there was this imp in Topeka who read people’s toenails.”“That’s disgusting.” Shawn said. “I need another beer just to wash that image out of my brain.”“I don’t believe in prophecy.” Unfortunately, I didn’t sound as confident as planned. I tried again. “I don’t believe in prophecy. I don’t believe in fate. I hate them both. I believe in free will. I’m the master of my destiny. Me. No one else. Anything else is too horrible to consider.”Sarge slapped a hand on my shoulder. “Try not to think about it then, Captain. Especially how prophecy can be self-fulfilling.”He and Shawn headed off together, leaving me to wonder if he’d meant I shouldn’t think about the half-assed prophecy from a fortune cookie and thus avoid it being self-fulfilling, or if he’d really meant that last bit as a warning that I should give it more thought or I’d inadvertently spark my own death. God, I was turning neurotic.I crumpled all the pieces of paper into a ball and shoved the ball down the neck of an empty beer bottle.Fuck you, prophecy.