Rebecca watched in morbid fascination as a lone strand of hot cheese oozed out of Darla's Pizza Pocket™, threatening to disengage and land on her Tarot cards.
The addition of the fortune-teller to their merry band around the conference table had been only the latest in a string of weirdnesses that had Rebecca and her staff fairly reeling with confusion.
First, Jason had been murdered. Then the phones had gone out. Then the computers had started acting weird. And then in the midst of trying to get a handle on everything, Jake had arrived with a psychic.
Great. Just great.
And the psychic ... er ... fortune-teller, had succeeded only in predicting her own lunch, which would have been impressive if she hadn't brought the damned thing with her in her oversized handbag.
And now, after letting her use the office microwave, they were all sitting around the conference table, watching her eat.
Rebecca wondered if the scene was absurdist or existential.
Finally, she could take no more. She pushed her chair back, stood, stretched, and stepped to the window.
"I need a vacation," she muttered. "Anyone know a story with a nice, pastoral setting and no psychics or mechanical villains?"
"Fortune-teller, dearest," Darla corrected.
"Too bad there's no Jane Austen stories on here," Burt said. "That'd be nice and pastoral."
"By that you mean boring, I hope," Amanda said.
"It would have to be fan fiction," Judith said. "You can't post published works on Protagonize."
"Ah, well. Too bad," Burt said. "I'd love to visit a Jane Austen story."
"They've added zombies to Jane Austen," Amanda said.
Old Billy started chuckling maniacally. "Now there's a concept to bring a quickening to the pulse..."
"Zombies?" Burt asked, frowning at Amanda. "Who added zombies?"
Amanda shrugged. "A guy."
"Well, that's not a 'they', then, is it?" Burt growled. "It's a 'he'."
"I love Pizza Pockets™," Darla mumbled through a mouthful.
"Did she just pronounce the trademark symbol?" Alan asked, suddenly taking interest in the conversation.
"Yes," Old Billy chimed in, "and through a mouthful, too. What a fine specimen of a woman."
"Shut up, Billy," Amanda said curtly.
"Oh, jealous, are we?" Billy said, grinning.
Amanda glared at him.
"How did she pronounce the trademark symbol?" Alan was scratching his head. "I didn't think people could do that?"
"She's a psychic, Alan," Judith offered.
"Fortune-teller," Darla said.
"I just don't think that's right," Burt said.
"What's not right?" Alan asked him.
"Adding zombies to Jane Austen."
"That's because you are a small-minded man with no imagination," Amanda said.
Alan frowned. "Do you... even... like... anyone?"
Amanda leveled her gaze at him. "No."
Billy started chuckling again. "Oh, what a woman."
The assembled heads all turned towards the window. The voice had been Jake's. He was standing at the window with Rebecca.
"Uh... I think you'd better see this."
They all pushed their chairs back and got up. All but Darla, who contined munching her trademarked lunch items.
Rebecca was mesmerized. In the distance, a dark cloud had begun to swirl and move in their direction.
"What is that?" Alan asked.
Rebecca shook her head. "I don't know. But I have a bad feeling about this."
"That's that line from Star Wars they keep using over and over again," Burt said.
"Yes," Amanda said. "And on my desk is the letter opener I will use to stab you over and over again."
"You're a sociopath," Alan said to her.
"And you are an imbecile," Amanda replied.
The dark cloud was much closer now. Rebecca thought she could see the beginnings of a funnel forming.
"Is that thing turning into a tornado?" Judith asked.
"If it is," Rebecca said, "I say, let it come and do its worst. Put us all out of our misery."
"You really do need a vacation," Alan said. "I've never heard you talk like that before."
Rebecca sighed and continued watching.
All of a sudden, the swirling tornado-to-be stopped moving.
"What?" Burt said. "How can it do that?"
"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my," Billy said.
"Someone please disintegrate him," Amanda said.
"Will you all just shut up?" Rebecca said, her irritation finally getting the best of her.
The dark swirl had stopped just across the street from their position. It was spinning, expanding, contracting, and undulating.
"It stopped right beside that abandoned building across the street," Alan said.
"You mean the abandoned building with the little figure moving around on the thirteenth floor?" Amanda asked.
Rebecca squinted. There was indeed a figure in one of the thirteenth floor windows. There were, in fact, two figures.
Rebecca was about to open her mouth and shout for everyone to get down on the floor, but the black swirling cloud outside had other ideas. Alarmingly quickly, the cloud stretched itself out into a long strand. At one end, it became denser, while the other end reached up into the clouds above.
"What the hell...?" Jake said.
The shape became more refined. A long rope-like structure with a large, round object at the end of it.
Suddenly Rebecca recogized the shape.
"Oh, my God," she said. "It's a wrecking ball!"
She could now see the links in the large chain, and the sheer density of the ball at the end of it.
The ball swung away from the building across the street, and then swung swiftly back towards it.
The concussion was deafening. The building shook with the impact as the ball sailed through the thirteenth floor like it was made of cheese.
"Great balls of fire!" Billy exclaimed.
Within moments, the building was a pile of rubble on the street below. The wrecking ball was gone, and the clouds above began to dissipate.
Suddenly, Darla was pushing past Rebecca and pressing her face to the window. She sucked in a breath and stared down at the rubble.
"Evil," she murmured. "Evil..."
Wisps of black smoke were rising from the wreckage. At least it looked like smoke. Rebecca squinted. She couldn't be sure, but it almost looked like...
"Spirits," Amanda said. "Dark, malevolent spirts."
"Can you lighten up?" Alan said.
The wisps continued to rise. A shudder ran through Rebecca's body as the ghostly shapes passed their level and continued up. After a few moments, the wisps were gone. Only a cold chill remained.
Rebecca turned from the window. "I don't know what the hell that was," she said, "but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with--"
Susan stuck her head in the door at that moment. "Phones are working again," she said chirpily.
Rebecca nodded. "--with the troubles we've been having."
She turned to Alan. "I'm going to go down to my office, find a nice story, and go there for a few days. You're in charge while I'm gone."
Alan gaped at her. "What?"
She turned to Jake. "Get Darla back where she came from, and start taking this investigation seriously. I want to see some real progress when I get back. You got that?"
"The rest of you... Stop sitting around watching psychics eat."
"Fortune-teller," Darla said wearily, her forehead still against the window.
"Whatever," Rebecca said.
She turned on her heel and walked out of the conference room, leaving a gaggle of confused employees in her wake.
Please note that the next chapter (which had been titled "A Simple 'Hello' Would Have Been Nicer...") is gone. Its author deleted it and then left Protagonize. So there is a bit of a continuity gap. --E(F)