Episode 3: A Deal on Midnight Milkshakes

When a person of Zack Gamma’s stature needed to lay low, the obvious place for doing so would be a seedy bar as far from the Desperate Measures Agency as he could get in a hurry; the kind of place where someone like him might have a few shady friends from years back who all had special skills that could help a person like Zack hide until the heat was off; the kind of place where no one was innocent, but everyone was just a bit better than the trouble waiting for them outside; the kind of place where the drinks all came in dirty glasses.

It was such an obvious place that Zack instead decided to go to a nice diner that had clean tables, friendly waiters, comfortable booths and a special deal on Midnight Milkshakes. At nine after midnight it wasn’t quite as far away from the DMA as he’d like, but he didn’t want to spend the whole night running recklessly before he knew more about what was up.
After ordering a Panini and shake, he switched on the transceiver in his hat so that he wouldn’t need to use the public access channels when he activated his computer. He ignored the looks from the college students a few booths away when the antenna in his hat started to glow. It was in style ten years ago, and he didn’t care how it looked now.

Sliding his finger over the screen of his computer, he accessed the remote version of the DMA database, logging in with account information that he lifted off of a higher ranking desk agent a few years back. At the time it was just for fun and made him feel more like a super sleuth so soon after joining as an investigative agent. He’d never thought that he might actually need it. He was honestly surprised that the password hadn’t been updated in all this time when the security glyphs turned green an instant before the database opened up.

“I’ll have to remind him about basic network security if this turns out to be nothing,” he thought. The database revealed dozens of categories, including Employee Dossiers. He opened it, alphabetized the names using his preferred dialect of English, set first names to be first, and scrolled to the bottom to reach his name.

His image began floating in the air just in front of the screen, rotating slowly. He wasn’t wearing the green trench coat he put on this morning when he heard an erroneous forecast suggesting that it might rain, but apart from that it was him, right down to the hat. It listed him as a Tier Four Investigation Agent, his ownership and basic competence with his CLI Striker Pistols, and noted that he was currently working on a case for a monastery on a moon near the newly arrived Xol territory which was listed as a ‘corporate espionage’ case even though the connotations were all wrong in a case of two rival religious sects spying on each other. He had been researching their tenets, the rival order’s tenets and, while he was there, what little information was available on Xol after the strange, sun-like body appeared on the outskirts of civilized space. He had sent a message to Igneous that morning since her people had coined the name Xol for it based on some legends in her own culture, though he didn’t know if she was of the opinion that the new Xol truly was the legendary place, or if it was just reminiscent of it in some way. She’d never responded to that message, and intercepted him at the library just as he was getting to that part of his research.

The screen dimmed and a message appeared, indicating that the database was being updated to reflect the night’s changes from the home computers. He slid the tablet-like computer away from him, knowing he might be waiting for a few minutes. It occurred to him that it was a little odd for Igneous to react that way right after his request for help. Had she not gotten the message? Perhaps she hadn’t wanted him researching Xol, and was trying to spook him into hiding?

He dismissed the thought almost immediately. She was notorious for not checking her messages, and it wasn’t as if the information in the DMA’s library couldn’t be accessed elsewhere.

“I didn’t know that the illustrious Zack Gamma frequented fine dining establishments like this,” said a voice behind him. Zack’s blood ran cold.

“Vox Cul-Dar.”

The alien took a seat on the opposite side of the booth, his green skin blending in with both the color of the cushiony seats and with the strange, toga-like robe that he wore. Either he didn’t own anything else, or was indistinguishable from dozens of other identical outfits that Zack had seen him wear in the years since he joined the DMA. He was taller and thinner than most humans, making Zack feel like Vox was constantly looming, like a praying mantis or viper getting ready to strike. That feeling was made stronger by the serrated series of yellow, tooth-like ridges that ran up his legs and forearms. He usually worked investigations like Zack, but had the physical combat requirements necessary to act in the more violent capacities that the DMA offered. Zack didn’t know much about Vox’s people, except for the fact that the symbol near the toga’s shoulder represented some sort of incredible computer from Vox’s planet that held near-religious significance for them, and that he must be bald by choice since his species grew hair and rarely went bald with age.

“You’re supposed to wait for the server to seat you, Vox,” said Zack.

“I like to live dangerously. And besides, why would I pass up a chance to sit near Zack Gamma? I always thought we worked well together.”

“We worked together once, and that was years ago,” said Zack. “You’ve had a knack for scooping up the choice assignments before I could get them ever since, if memory serves.”

“Your memory doesn’t serve you so well,” said Vox. “We’ve worked together twice. But business is business. I wouldn’t begrudge you the same. And we’re coming up to a time when people might need partners.”
“Why do you say that?”

“Word around the water coolers is that someone took the wrong job. Someone at the DMA is helping out someone who shouldn’t be helped. Any day now, we should know who it is, and how much the DMA is willing to pay us to finish off one of our own.”

“I always thought the benefits package around here could do with some updating,” said Zack. The spinning icon on the tablet indicated that the update was still happening, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Would Vox notice the updated file? Vox was a skilled combatant, and could probably end a fight before Zack could reach for the guns at his belt.

“For the amount they pay us, I can live without benefits,” said Vox. “But if the rumors are true about how much the price on this traitor’s head will be, then everyone will be after him. Not just here, but off-world. It seems to me that wisdom dictates the combination of resources… I’ll need a partner who can get the job done just as well as I can. Someone insightful. Someone tough. Someone terrifying.”

Zack’s Panini and milkshake arrived then, carried by a cheerful waitress.

“Here you go, sorry about the delay,” she said. “Anything else that I can get for you?”

She glanced at Vox, meaningfully, as he raised an eyebrow at Zack’s selection.

“Vitris Fillet, please,” said Vox.

“And could I see a dessert menu?” asked Zack.

The waitress nodded, wrote down Vox’s order and set a small menu in front of Zack. Zack opened it as the waitress walked away, making a show of perusing the contents while Vox stared at him disdainfully.

“As I was saying, there is strength in numbers, and it occurs to me that if the two of us were to agree to split the earnings now then we would have an advantage when the actual orders filter down from on high.”

“I think I’ll take the cheesecake,” said Zack, setting the menu onto his tablet to obscure the screen. “As for your offer… I’ll think about it. Depends who it is, I suppose. I’ve never been fond of the DMA’s shadier rackets.”

“Understandable,” said Vox, nodding. “You do lack the killer’s instinct… but the offer stands if you’re interested. You wouldn’t happen to have any insight into who might have taken this huge case?”

“Not a clue,” said Zack, which was true enough. “I’ve been off-world for a few months now with my last job, and my current case is just some monastic espionage. I’ve not exactly been keeping an eye on high profile material.”

“Don’t sell monastic work short,” said Vox. “Not even the guiding intellect of my world could keep those feuds down.”

Zack shrugged as he worked on finishing his milkshake and sandwich. Eating too fast might raise suspicion if Vox was familiar with the human ailment commonly known as the “ice cream headache.” Plus, while he and Vox had never exactly been friends, they were generally civil, and wrapping things up too quickly might be suspicious on its own.

“How about you?” asked Zack. “Any interesting cases at the moment?”

“Three equally tedious assignments,” said Vox. “Determining if a political candidate has any sordid secrets in his past, determining if a businessman is unfaithful to his wife, and basic security for an asteroid racing circuit. I doubt I’ll even take that last one.”

“Asteroid racing?” said Zack.

“Yes, a mundane circus for a particular breed of stone-sensitive telepaths to showcase their abilities. Or ability, I should say… they just move rocks with their minds while standing on them. Prizes are awarded to the ones who can move rocks faster than others. A simplistic use for a remarkable ability.”

“I’m familiar with it,” said Zack. “I’m just not sure why they’d need security.”

“Someone keeps sneaking their own asteroid onto the race course and stealing the thunder from the actual racers. Interested in taking it off my hands?”

“No,” said Zack, though ordinarily he would’ve jumped at the chance. “No, that sounds like something for a rookie. I’ll probably be heading off-world soon, honestly, depending on how my current case goes. “

The thought of the race intrigued him, however, and he knew just the racer that might be able to help him out. He couldn’t have Vox thinking that he had a connection to the races, though. He took a final bite of his rushed Panini as the waitress returned.

“Vitris Fillet for you,” she said, putting the pile of sliced, orange meat in front of Vox. She turned to Zack. “Decided on your dessert?”

“I’d been thinking the cheesecake,” he said. “But honestly, I think I’m full. I should just pay up and head out. Enjoy your fillet, Vox.”

“Rendelac will look out for you, Zack.”

He stood as Vox raised a limb in salute. Zack handed the dessert menu to the waitress, holding on to his tablet as he did so. He paid at the front register, and stepped outside. It was obvious that it would begin raining soon, so he wasted no time in hailing an air cab to take him home quickly. He had a feeling that he would need to do some rapid packing.
As he sat in the back seat of the cab, feeling his stomach drop as the vehicle lurched into the sky, he checked the tablet and saw that the update had finished.

Zack Gamma: Tier Four Investigation Agent.
Weapon of Choice: CLI Model Purcellian Striker Pistols (registered).
Active Assignments: N/A.
Status: Deceased.
Date of Death:

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