When Ophelia Vernon’s latest absence eventually exhausted her manager’s patience for bleeding money into studio hire fees, he sent Gina the keyboardist to look for her. Though new to the band and younger than the rest, she was sharp enough to notice they were hiding something. She started her search in the bathrooms.
She found Ophelia slumped against the mirror, pressing a chilled soft drink can to the swollen mass around her right eye. Yellow going on purple-black at the borders, the bruise looked at least a week old. It hadn’t been there an hour ago.
Gina Akenzua hadn’t known Ophelia Vernon long enough to make the transition from fan to employee to friend, but she could see she was needed. She handed tissues to the shaken singer. “Who did this to you?”
Ophelia rolled her unblemished eye toward the ceiling; Gina knew she was trying to come up with a satisfactory lie. Then Ophelia let out a long sigh and said, “It was a demonic bipedal whale from beyond time.”
That did it for Gina. This was not a matter to resolve with dabbed tears and sympathy. She messaged the manager to cancel the rest of the session and dragged her boss to the nearest pub.
When their ales were half-empty, she said in her best no-more-lies voice, “Tell me what happened.”
Ophelia nursed her drink but finally answered. “When I stepped out to go to the loo, some people were waiting for me.”
“Were they fans? Did they attack you?”
Ophelia shook her head, brushing her shoulders with the mermaid green tips of her straight black hair. The shoulder seams of her blouse were torn. “No, not fans. It was a centaur, a dragon-priest and two teenaged hedgehogs with swords and lockpicks. They wanted me to join their quest.”
“Their what did you say?” Gina gave her beer a suspicious sniff.
Ophelia began to methodically tear a cardboard beer coaster to tiny shreds. “They needed my help to recover the Sacred Teardrops of Aka-Na-Zur. Their ancient prophecy told them only I could open the Way of Plentiful Calamities and overcome the Behemoth of Myriad Woes.”
“I see.” Gina’s thick lashes blinked in slow motion while she considered this. “And did you?”
“Help them? Yeah. All they needed was for someone to solve a puzzle and sing the second A above middle C. No harder than putting the Times Crossword to music.”
“What about the behemoth?”
“Banished back to its own realms in the Dark Crevasse with the same note.” Ophelia dabbed at the bruise on her face. “Not before it socked me with its hell-fluke though.”
“You’re not flustered by all this,” observed Gina, “which means you’re either totally delusional or this sort of thing has happened to you before.”
A sudden pub-wide lull in every conversation at once let through the song playing on the PA. It was one of Ophelia’s. As her fellow drinkers listened with a glaze-eyed reverence, Ophelia coughed and put on sunglasses.
“A few times,” she admitted.
Gina raised an eyebrow. “It’s more than a few, isn’t it?”
Ophelia blushed on the side of her face that wasn’t already discoloured. “You remember that campaign last year to raise awareness of Blavatsky-Mercado Disease?”
“Of course. We met at the benefit concert. You were great, even with a bad cold.”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t a cold. The head researcher deliberately infected me with a retrovirus so I would spread the cure before the disease could become a sentient pandemic.”
“Uh, thanks, I guess?”
“Don’t thank me,” replied Ophelia grimly. “He didn’t ask my permission.”
Heads turned their way from time to time. Gina saw their wariness as they turned away. “Go on.”
The rest came out in a single breath. “Last weekend I missed my acoustic gig at the Lighthouse because some teenagers needed help exorcising the ghost of Keith Moon from a post office in Bromley. Last November, the goddess Persephone kidnapped me and tried to trick Hades into taking me for the winter while she took a holiday in Acapulco. And I spent my twenty-fifth birthday dogfighting Void Centipedes through the rings of Saturn because a handful of survivors from an alien apocalypse needed someone with good video game scores to pilot their drone fighter squadron.”
Ophelia broke a breadstick in half and bit off a piece, waiting for Gina’s reaction. The rest of the stick shattered into crumbs between her shaking fingers.
“It sounds to me,” she said, handing Ophelia another bread stick, “like you’ve got a bad case of the Chosen Ones.”
Ophelia’s undamaged eye widened. “You believe me?”
Gina laid her hands across Ophelia’s, holding them gently until the shuddering began to subside. “The way I see it, I either believe you or I’m out of a job. How long has this been going on?”
Ophelia grinned uncertainly. “When I was five, some rabbits made me have a riddle contest with an elf while they stole his magic buckle.”
“Oooookay, then,” said Gina. “That one was weird. But listen, you shouldn’t have to do this all on your own. I can help you. When you need it, I’ve got your back, okay?”
More drinks arrived. As he cleared their empties away, the waiter nodded toward a table occupied by a group of stern-faced women in habits of midnight and crimson. “Compliments of the Sisters,” he said. “They asked if you wouldn’t mind joining them for a mutually beneficial discussion.”
Ophelia sighed. “I’d better see what they want. It never does any good trying to run away from these things.” She rose from the table, smiling from ear to bruised ear. “But Gina, thank you so much. It really helps, having someone to confide in.”
As she went to hear what the dark nuns wanted, Gina raised her beer almost to her lips and opened a channel.
“Concourse,” she said, “this is Agent Nineteen. I’ve established contact with the target. Full report to follow.”