The Hollows series
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UNDEAD
I hitched the canvas strap holding the watering canister higher up on my shoulder and stretched to get the nozzle into the hanging plant. Sunlight streamed in, warm through my blue institutional jumpsuit. Past the narrow plate-glass windows was a small courtyard surrounded by VIP offices. Squinting from the sun, I squeezed the handle of the watering hose, and the barest hint of water hissed through.
There was a burst of clattering computer keys, and I moved to the next plant down. Phone conversation filtered in from the office past the reception desk, accompanied by a belly laugh that sounded like the bark of a dog. Weres. The higher up in the pack they were, the more human looking they managed, but you could always tell when they laughed.
I glanced down the row of hanging plants before the windows to the freestanding fish tank behind the receptionist’s desk. Yup. Cream-colored fins. Black spot on right side. This was the one. Mr. Ray raised koi, showing them in Cincinnati’s annual fish show. Last year’s winner was always displayed in his outer office, but now there were two fish, and the Howlers’ mascot was missing. Mr. Ray was a Den boy, a rival of Cincinnati’s all Inderland baseball team. It didn’t take much to put two and two together and get stolen fish.
“So,” the cheerful woman behind the desk said as she stood to drop a ream of paper into the printer’s hopper. “Mark is on vacation? He didn’t tell me.”
I nodded, not looking at the secretary dressed in her snappy cream-colored business suit as I dragged my watering equipment down another three feet. Mark was taking a short vacation in the stairwell of the building he had been servicing before this one. Knocked out with a short-term sleepy-time potion. “Yes, ma’am,” I added, raising my voice and adding a slight lisp. “He told me what plants to water, though.” I curled my red manicured nails under my palms before she spotted them. They didn’t go with the working plant-girl image. I should have thought of that earlier. “All the ones on this floor, and then the arboretum on the roof.”
The woman smiled to show me her slightly larger teeth. She was a Were, and fairly high up in the office pack by her amount of polish. And Mr. Ray wouldn’t have a dog for a secretary when he could pay a high enough salary for a bitch. A faint scent of musk came from her, not unpleasant. “Did Mark tell you about the service elevator at the back of the building?” she said helpfully. “It’s easier than lugging that cart up all those stairs.”
“No, ma’am,” I said, pulling the ugly cap with the plant-man logo on it tighter to my head. “I think he’s making everything just hard enough that I don’t try to take his territory.” Pulse quickening, I pushed Mark’s cart with its pruning shears, fertilizer pellets, and watering system farther down the line. I had known of the elevator, along with the placement of the six emergency exits, the pulls for the fire alarm, and where they kept the doughnuts.
“Men,” she said, rolling her eyes as she sat before her screen again. “Don’t they realize that if we wanted to rule the world, we could?”
I gave her a noncommittal nod and squirted a tiny amount of water into the next plant. I kinda thought we already did.
A tight hum rose over the whirl of the printer and the faint office chatter. It was Jenks, my partner, and he was clearly in a bad mood as he flew out of the boss’s back office and to me. His dragonfly wings were bright red in agitation, and pixy dust sifted from him to make temporary sunbeams. “I’m done with the plants in there,” he said loudly as he landed on the rim of the hanging pot in front of me. He put his hands on his hips to look like a middle-age Peter Pan grown up to be a trashman in his little blue jumpsuit. His wife had even sewn him a matching cap. “All they need is water. Can I help you out here with anything, or can I go back and sleep in the truck?” he added acerbically.
I took the watering canister off me, setting it down to unscrew the top. “I could use a fertilizer pellet,” I prompted, wondering what his problem was.
Grumbling, he flew to the cart and started rummaging. Green twist ties, stakes, and used pH test strips flew everywhere. “Got one,” he said, coming up with a white pellet as large as his head. He dropped it in the canister and it fizzed. It wasn’t a fertilizer pellet but an oxygenator and slime-coat promoter. What’s the point of stealing a fish if it dies in transport?
“Oh my God, Rachel,” Jenks whispered as he landed on my shoulder “It’s polyester. I’m wearing polyester!”
My tension eased as I realized where his bad mood came from. “It’ll be okay.”
“I’m breaking out!” he said, scratching vigorously under his collar. “I can’t wear polyester. Pixies are allergic to polyester. Look. See?” He tilted his head so his blond hair shifted from his neck, but he was too close to focus on. “Welts. And it stinks. I can smell the oil. I’m wearing dead dinosaur. I can’t wear a dead animal. It’s barbaric, Rache,” he pleaded.
“Jenks?” I screwed the cap lightly back onto the canister and hung it over my shoulder, pushing Jenks from me in the process. “I’m wearing the same thing. Suck it up.”
“But it stinks!”
I eyed him hovering before me. “Prune something,” I said through gritted teeth.
He flipped me off with both hands, hovering backward as he went. Whatever. Patting my back pocket of the vile blue jumpsuit, I found my snippers. While Miss Office Professional typed a letter, I snapped open a step stool and began to clip leaves off the hanging plant beside her desk. Jenks started to help, and after a few moments I breathed, “Are we set in there?”
He nodded, his eyes on the open door to Mr. Ray’s office. “The next time he checks his mail, the entire Internet security system is gonna trip. It will take five minutes to fix if she knows what she’s doing, four hours if she doesn’t.”