Title: Pentagrams At Midnight
Rating: PG (I think it's G actually, but just to be absolutely sure...)
Status: New, finished
Archive: Yeah, sure.
Feedback: Yes please...
E-mail address: email@example.com
Other websites: none...
Disclaimers: Not mine, more's the pity. I'm not making money, bla bla stupidownerscancelledtheshowcakes.
Notes: My first Chronicle fic. Got another in the works.
Summary: Um, our favourite intrepid reporters have to save a small fuzzy alien from a big, less fuzzy alien. And prevent Armageddon into the bargain. Come on, we all have those days...
Pentagrams At Midnight
The small blue fuzzy creature that was swinging its legs from the edge of his desk was staring at him. He met its gaze evenly. It was waiting for him to speak; he knew it. It wouldn't speak until he did. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he knew it, as sure as he knew that come Friday Donald would try to find an excuse to pay him late again.
He licked his lips. The fuzzy thing tilted its head expectantly.
He cleared his throat. The creature raised what could be considered a quizzical eyebrow.
Finally, he spoke. Apparently, the journalistic calm that had thus far enabled him to keep his cool did not extend to him speaking in full sentences. "Uh, is there, can I, is, uh, is, can, is..." His voice trailed off, and, giving up the pretence at normality, he stepped backward, next to Grace, who was standing behind him, and hissed, "What the hell is that thing?!"
Grace tore her gaze away from the desk and met his eyes, opened her mouth to speak, then just shrugged helplessly, looking back at the creature.
"You deal with it," he said desperately. "You're the head reporter."
"Do you see my name on that desk it's sitting on? Uh-uh. This one's all yours, Tucker."
Tucker turned to the photographer on his left. "Wes?"
Wes shook his head vigorously, holding his hands up, palms outward. "Leave me out of it, man. I just take the pictures." With that, a thought seemed to occur to him, and he raised the camera that was hanging around his neck and snapped a photo.
Tucker rolled his eyes. Okay, so obviously it was up to him to find out what the, what the, what the ? the thingamajig wanted. He turned around cautiously. The, the, the, the whatchamacallit was still swinging its legs, waiting patiently. He squinted. It was even stranger the second time around. Its three eyes looked somehow bulgier, especially the one on a stalk. He had the sneaking suspicion that if the thing had been larger than a foot tall, it would have been a very nasty critter indeed. As it was, the claws on the end of its four hands and three feet looked like they could still inflict some damage, along with the huge teeth in an oversized jaw. The only thing that ruined the overall pint-sized predator effect was the fact that it was covered in fuzzy blue fur, which made it look like a teddy bear with a werewolf infection, and yet none of the other reporters buzzing around The World Chronicle headquarters had given it so much as a second glance. Maybe they all thought it was a teddy bear, albeit a twisted one. This was so typical. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and he had been looking forward to getting home and relaxing for a few hours - but no, he had to deal with the Brothers Grimm version of Fozzy Bear.
"Hi!" Tucker said, faking a cheerful smile. "Sorry about the delay. My name's Tucker Burns, and that's my desk you're sitting on. Can I help you?"
The, the, the whosamajiggit clicked at him.
It clicked again.
"Ah." Tucker turned back to his friends. "I don't speak 'click', do you?"
"Maybe Sal does?" Grace suggested.
"I think Donald's gonna wanna know about this," Wes advised.
Tucker nodded slowly. "Yeah," he muttered. "Look," he continued, addressing the, the wopsiwoodle. "We're gonna take you to see our boss, okay? Follow me."
To his relief, the fuzzy thing hopped off the desk and stood by his foot, waiting patiently. He started to walk to Donald's office, and it followed, with Grace and Wes trailing a cautious distance behind.
The managing editor of The Chronicle scowled fiercely as he looked up. "Don't you ever knock? I'm a busy man, you know. You can't just come bursting in here and-"
Tucker stepped aside and ushered in the woosithingle. Donald stared at it.
"Oh," he said. "Well, in that case, maybe I'll let it go just this once."
The creature saw Donald, brightened, clambered onto his desk and started clicking excitedly.
"Uh-huh," Donald said. "Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Okay. Good."
"I don't even want to know how Donald understands that thing," Wes whispered.
"It's an easy language," Donald said, without looking away from the creature. "You pick it up pretty quickly."
Donald continued to respond as the creature clicked, giving his star reporters an appraising look. Tucker raised his eyebrows enquiringly, but Donald ignored him. Eventually the editor sat back thoughtfully, looked at the trio waiting in anticipation, and said, "Looks like I have a story for you."
Before Tucker could respond, Grace said, "No way."
"Excuse me?" Donald asked, with dangerous politeness, but Tucker and Wes were nodding enthusiastically.
"You promised us the next couple of days off," Grace said accusingly. "We've all been working non-stop all month and we worked the last five weekends in a row and we need a break and we just brought in two stories, one of which will be great for the cover - and you promised."
"Do you have that in writing?"
Grace exchanged glances with her co-workers. "Well ? no."
"Then, I don't remember promising anything."
"Donald!" Wes and Tucker protested in unison.
"I have plans!" Tucker shouted.
"So do I!" Wes yelled.
"I have to get my hair done for my date tonight!" Grace hollered.
The editor winced as all three together repeated, "Donald!"
"Now, children. I'm the boss, I tell you what to do," he said, severely. "And, right now, I'm telling you to listen to Svlok here."
"The clicky thing?" Wes asked disbelievingly. "We can't understand it!"
"Its name is Svlok?" Tucker wondered.
"What is it?" Grace wanted to know.
Donald sighed. "All right, I'll sum up. Svlok is a Fyorl from the planet Fyorlia. He's being hunted by a Vlarlg from a solar system a few million light years from his home planet. The Vlarlgs are a nasty race: they hunt things for fun and put the heads up on their walls, like we do with deer, only they prefer sentient beings because it's more of a challenge."
"That's horrible," Grace said.
"Yeah, but, not to be insensitive or anything, man, what does it have to do with us?" Wes put in.
"You're going to write a story on it," Donald said, coolly. "With a lot of publicity around, the Vlarlg will have to leave. They hate publicity. Of course, the piece will only work if we manage to keep Svlok alive until the article is published. You two can share the byline."
"Since when have our job descriptions covered playing bodyguard to a tiny alien?" Tucker complained.
"Check your contracts," Donald advised. "This is a win-win situation, guys. We get a great story; Svlok gets his life saved. Naturally, we'll need a picture of the Vlarlg."
"Naturally," Wes agreed, rolling his eyes.
Donald scribbled an address on a sheet of paper, which he handed to Grace. "This is where Svlok last saw the Vlarlg, a couple of hours ago. Check it out, it's an abandoned building. It'll be pointless running the article without a picture, so find the damn Vlarlg!"
"What was our fuzzy friend here doing in an abandoned building?" Wes wondered sceptically.
"Hiding," Donald said shortly. "Poor little guy's been dodging this thing for weeks. And why are you still here?"
"What about Svlok?" Tucker asked. "And what does a ? a Vlarlg look like?"
"I've never seen one, but apparently you'll know it when you see it. It's green. And you can take Svlok down to the archives when you go there."
"Are we going there?"
"Didn't I just say that?" Donald snapped. Honestly, investigative reporters are supposed to be quick on the uptake, he thought irritably. "From what I've heard, you don't want to be facing a Vlarlg with just a camera. Ask Sal for the MLK-775, that should be enough firepower - and get him to keep Svlok in the archives; he should be safe there for today. Get going."
"What about my date?" all three reporters asked.
"You know, that's creepy. You need to stop talking in unison. And hey ? think of this as a test. If your dates really like you, they'll wait until this story is in."
"Kristen's going to kill me," Tucker groaned.
"Tell her you have to work for the next few days," Donald said dismissively.
"I can't work if I'm dead," Tucker grumbled, but followed his friends out of the office, Svlok tripping along behind.
Sal beamed at Svlok, who had clicked twice at the pig-man and made instant friends. "You'd be most welcome to stay here for the day," he said jovially. "I wouldn't mind the company. What did you guys say Donald sent you for?"
"The MI-2," Wes said confidently.
"No, it was the ML-52," Grace argued.
"MGM-360?" Tucker hazarded, when Sal looked at him.
"Uh-huh," Sal said, unimpressed. "So, you're dealing with a Vlarlg, eh? Nasty things. I'm guessing he meant you to have the MLK-775."
"That was it!" the trio chorused.
"You know, that is getting creepy," Grace added.
Sal took one step backward, staring at them suspiciously. "So... Anyway," he said after a moment, turning to a nearby filing cabinet and pulling out a drawer. "Be careful when you find this thing. They're not the brightest aliens in the universe, but they're fast, and big, so try and get the picture without being seen." The pig-man hauled a weapon out of the drawer with effort and tossed it to Wes, who staggered as he caught it.
Tucker had to admit, he was impressed. He'd had some pretty big guns in hand since he'd begun working for The Chronicle, but this seemed much more deadly than the flame-throwers and net-shooters he had previously encountered, and looked suspiciously like the enormous guns he'd seen in Men In Black. He ruefully recalled how Grace and Wes had laughed when he had referred to that movie as fiction ? he still wasn't sure if they had been serious or not.
"Wow," Wes said, grinning like a fool. "Where've you been hiding this, man? I'm in love. Check it out, Tuck-B!"
Tucker grinned. "Why don't you hang on to that ? if you think you can handle it and your camera at the same time."
Wes gave him a withering look. "Yo, I could handle that camera with both hands tied behind my back."
"I'd like to see that," Grace said. "Got any rope down here, Sal?"
"Actually, we just got a really good specimen of-"
"She was kidding," Tucker interjected hastily. He did not want to know; not after what had happened the last time Sal started a sentence with those words.
Wes hoisted the MLK lovingly. "Let's go. I want to try this out, y'know what I'm sayin'?"
Sal and Svlok waved them goodbye as they headed for the stairs.
Tucker lounged in the back seat, with Grace sitting up front giving directions to Wes.
"I think we turn right here," Grace said, frowning at the map she was holding.
"I think we turn left," Wes argued.
"Who's the one with the map?" Grace demanded, waving said item in the air.
Tucker pointed out of his window. "I'm going with Wes on this one, Grace."
Grace looked to the left and blinked. "Oh," she said, eyeing the three police cars, ambulance and mortician's van that were parked outside the abandoned building on the corner of that street. "Okay."
Wes miraculously found parking across the street, and the three reporters hopped out of the car and eyed the crime-scene tape that was strung everywhere, forming a barrier.
"We're not getting past here while all these cops are around, man," Wes muttered without moving his lips, smiling brightly at a suspiciously staring policeman.
Tucker looked around, nodding thoughtfully. "Yeah, and it's pointless asking 'em what happened, too."
"One of the few downsides to being a reporter," Grace sighed. "People are so much less open around you. Wes!" she added, catching sight of the photographer. "Maybe we'll attract less attention if you leave the giant gun in the car!"
Wes pulled a face, but reluctantly stowed the MLK in the back seat.
"C'mon," Tucker said suddenly, grabbing Grace and Wes by their jackets and pulling them to the street corner, where an angry-looking woman was arguing with a detective.
They reached the bickering duo just as the detective said, "Look, lady, you got some helpful information, great. Don't waste my time with stories about the bogeyman." With that, he turned on his heel and stalked back into the building.
"I know what I saw!" the woman shouted after him. "Don't come crying to me when your friend's head gets ripped off!"
"Excuse me, ma'am?" Tucker pulled out his notebook, flipped to a blank page, and smiled his most charming smile at the woman, who looked utterly nonplussed. "We're, uh, we're reporters ? can you tell us what happened here?" She stared at him silently, so he launched into a winning introduction of himself and his friends.
Wes tapped Grace on the arm and made walking motions. She nodded, and watched as he began taking pictures of the scene, before turning back to Tucker and the woman, who was beginning to warm up.
"So, you work for the World Chronicle, huh? I love that paper. You gonna put my name in your paper?"
"Yes, ma'am, if you help us out, and if you're willing," Tucker said, suppressing a satisfied smile. Everyone talked eventually; it was just a matter of how you presented yourself.
"Well, my name's Bess Bauer. That's B-A-U-E-R, now, don't misspell it." Tucker dutifully wrote down the name.
"Can you tell us what happened?" Grace asked eagerly, as Wes wandered back up to them, patting his camera smugly.
The woman nodded, happy to tell her tale to someone that would believe her. "It was the damnedest thing. A friend of mine, haven't seen him in years, dropped by to visit me today, so we went for a walk. We thought we heard something coming from this building, and being a macho man, he insisted on investigating. I heard him scream, so I ran inside, and I saw this crazy-big green thing, like, eight feet tall, gnawing on him."
"Gnawing?" Wes repeated, looking nauseated. "Oh, man, that's not cool."
"Gnawing," Bess repeated firmly. "Then it saw me and just ? just tore his head off! And ran away with it. Naturally I got out of there, called 911 ? fat lot of good it did."
"Thank you, ma'am," Tucker said, politely. "I'm very sorry for your loss."
"That's okay," Bess shrugged, "I didn't really like him that much anyway. You just get that thing off the streets, you hear?"
"We'll do our best, ma'am," said Tucker, not bothering to hide a bewildered smile at the woman's blasÃƒ© attitude to the violent demise of her friend. "Come on, guys."
The woman watched them walk away, smiling placidly. "Such a sweet boy."
As they got back in the car, Wes was shaking his head. "Man, some people are just totally whack."
"Yeah," Grace agreed. "Look ? that head being ripped off thing? How long did Donald say Svlok's been dodging that Vlawhatsit alien?"
"Few weeks," Tucker shrugged.
:"Yeah. It sounds like a familiar story. I could swear I read about something similar recently. Maybe we should call Sal and ask him to run a check for stories matching that MO?"
"You do that," Tucker advised. "I have to call Kristen and tell her we'll have to cancel tonight's plans, again. Not to mention tomorrow."
"Aw, yeah!" Wes groaned. "I gotta call Fiona!"
"And I have to call Patrick!" Grace moaned. "Today sucks."
"Donald sucks," Tucker growled, pulling out his cellphone and climbing out of the car again.
"What did Kristen say?" Grace asked glumly, as Tucker resumed his seat in the back.
"She said if I'm not back for dinner at seven, she'll rip my throat out with her teeth."
"Kinky," Wes remarked approvingly.
"Did you tell her you're trying to save the life of a foot-tall, fuzzy-cute alien?"
"She also said that one of the things that bugs her about my job is that she never knows when I'm making up excuses and when I'm telling the truth," Tucker sighed. "Also that I keep even weirder hours than she does, but that's not really relevant. She'll get over it. How about you guys?"
"Patrick's convinced I'm trying to blow him off. I had to promise to go away with him for the weekend."
"Fiona's cool," Wes said, grinning. "We're just gonna catch up over the weekend."
"Ah, the honeymoon phase," Tucker sighed. "How well I remember. I'll be happy for you if you promise to spend the weekend at her place."
"Let's go," Grace said. "Maybe Sal found something."
"Grace was right," Sal informed the trio, as they crowded around his computer. "There have been four cases of decapitations with missing heads in the past two weeks." Little icons of scull-and-crossbones appeared on the screen to indicate where the decapitations had occurred.
"You're getting pretty creative with those little markers, huh, Sal?" Wes asked, poking the pig-man.
Sal smiled happily. "They're cute, aren't they? Anyway, all the murders, including the one this afternoon," - another skull popped up on the screen- "took place around this area, see, and Svlok says he was never in any of the other places. He stayed away from populated areas. Maybe it was just bad luck that led the Vlarlg to him today."
Svlok clicked his agreement.
"Hey," Tucker said, pointing at the screen with an amused expression, "You know, if you join all the little skulls you can make a pentagram." He glanced at his friends, all of whom were staring at him with horrified expressions. "What?"
"Yo, Svlok, man, you sure that Vlarlg thing is here to hunt you and not, say, to bring on a premature Armageddon through human sacrifice?" Wes looked critically at Svlok, who looked away guiltily.
"Svlok?" Grace said, severely. "Tell us the truth!"
Svlok clicked anxiously for a few seconds, Sal gazing at him intently. Finally, Sal translated. "He says that while initially it was a hunt for him, the Vlarlg may have found out that tonight at midnight is the one night every three hundred and twenty four years that certain species can create chaos all over the planet through a very specific sacrifice involving five people and a puppy. It might have decided to kill him and end the world at the same time. Apparently Vlarlgs are very good at multitasking."
"Oh, that's not good," Wes observed.
"We have to stop it!" Grace agreed.
Tucker stared open-mouthed at Svlok for a moment before saying, "Uh, so, Sal, can you figure out which building on this map is the centre of the pentagram?"
Sal nodded solemnly. "Give me a second."
"This block here," Sal said, pointing, then tapped away on his keyboard. "Uh, sorry, guys, the closest I can get is to narrow it down to within a four-building radius. They're all abandoned warehouses, so we can't eliminate any possibilities."
"Great. Why is it always abandoned warehouses?" Tucker glanced at his watch. Twenty past seven ? Kristen was going to kill him. "Can't we just call the cops or something?"
"Yeah," Grace scoffed, "'Cause the cops are fully prepared to handle an eight-foot-tall alien with a yen to end the world."
Tucker sighed. "I guess you're right. We'll have to check all four buildings. Come on ? if this thing happens at midnight, we don't have long."
"We'll wait here until you get back-" Sal stopped when Svlok clicked. "He's going with you," Sal translated. "He feels bad because he led the Vlarlg to earth, and he wants to help you find it. Apparently he can sense when it's very close."
Tucker hesitated. An extra second's warning was worth it, he decided. "Okay," he said. "Wes, you got that gun? Great. Let's go."
Two reporters, a photographer, and a small fuzzy alien trooped out of the archives, faces set grimly. Sal watched them go.
"Wow," he muttered to himself. "If they don't make it, Donald's gonna be pissed."
"Did it occur to anyone to get more than one gun?" Grace asked suddenly, as they sat in the car staring at the first building they were going to search.
Everyone looked mildly annoyed that no one had thought of that earlier. Svlok clicked. "Straight up, brother," Wes said.
They continued to stare at the building for a minute or so. Finally, Tucker said, "Okay, guys, come on."
"Whoa, hold it, no way am I going in there unarmed," Grace said firmly.
"Grace ? we don't have time to go all the way back to The Chronicle."
"Who said anything about that? Wes, open the trunk." Grace scrambled out of the car, rummaged around in the trunk, and emerged, triumphantly wielding a tyre-iron. "This'll do me," she said, satisfied. "Tucker, you can be flashlight-boy."
Tucker rolled his eyes. "Are we ready to go yet? Good. Stick together, guys."
An hour later, three extremely frustrated humans and one bored-looking Fyorl stood by the car again.
"It's almost nine o'clock. At this rate we'll be lucky to avert our impending doom at all," Tucker scowled.
"Who would've thought a warehouse could have so many offices?" Grace said.
Svlok clicked impatiently.
"Hey, you know what they say, man. The first building's the hardest. Ready to try it again?" Wes pointed to the next warehouse. The group set their shoulders and marched in.
It seemed that Wes had been right, since it took them only thirty-five minutes to search the second building. Of course, that may have been because it was much smaller. This time they took only a moment by the car to collect themselves before proceeding wordlessly to the third warehouse.
"Third time lucky," Wes whispered encouragingly as they walked in.
"So to speak," Tucker added.
Click click, said Svlok.
"Sorry," the humans whispered in unison.
Wes walked in front with the heavy artillery, and Svlok scuttled along beside him holding one of the two flashlights. The light was almost half the size of the alien, but he had wanted to make himself useful, and he seemed to be handling it all right. Tucker, having usurped Grace's tyre-iron, went second, and Grace grumpily took up the rear with the second light.
As they walked past doorways, closed and open, Svlok paused before each one. Usually he would click and they would continue the search, ignoring the door, but once in a while he would click in a different way and they would have to go into the room and look in every nook and cranny until he was satisfied the eight-foot Vlarlg wasn't there. He seemed much more doubtful in this building than in the last two, insisting on checks more often. The humans were uncertain whether that was a good or a bad thing.
They soon discovered which it was when Svlok stopped in front of one of the doors and jumped up and down, clicking excitedly.
"Okay, okay," Tucker whispered. "Keep it down. We're going."
Wes reached out carefully, turned the doorknob ever so slowly, then shoved the door open and leapt back. Nothing happened. Svlok continued to click, now running in little circles.
"You wanna cool it down and point that flash in there, man?" Wes said softly. Svlok sheepishly returned to the photographer's side and crept forward, flashlight extended in front of him the way a very short blue vampire hunter would hold out a cross. Wes proceeded next to him, with the others following a short distance away. Wes discerned a dim glow that seemed to be coming from the room adjacent to this one, and signalled the others to be quiet as Svlok gave the room a cursory sweep with the flashlight and then, like Wes, focused on the glow.
Wes reached the threshold of the next room and stopped abruptly. "Oh, man," he groaned, "That's not kosher."
Tucker and Grace stared over his shoulders, grimacing. The room was mostly empty, but right in the centre stood hundreds of candles arranged in pentagram form. At each point of the shape stood a severed head. In the centre of this rather gruesome arrangement was an open box, out of which a Labrador puppy peered, whimpering. Seeing them, it made a mighty effort and scrambled out of the box, then ran over to them and capered around their legs.
"That thing was gonna sacrifice a puppy?" Wes was disgusted. "Okay, now I'm really gonna kill it." Cautiously, he advanced into the room, his friends shuffling behind him. "Okay," he said, softly, turning back to them. "Looks like it's all-"
Wes whirled to see what was indeed a very large green monster leaping out from behind the door. "Thanks for the heads-up there, Svlok." He whipped the MLK up, pulled the trigger, shouted, "Eat this!" ? and the gun went "fzzt".
He had time to say, "Fzzt? That can't be good," before a long ape-like arm smashed into him and sent him crashing against the wall. The MLK skittered across the floor, although, being heavy, it didn't go very far.
As Wes was aiming, Tucker was scooping Svlok from the ground and tossing him to Grace as though he were a football. "Get him out of here!" As an afterthought, he tossed the puppy as well. "Go! I'll get Wes!" he added, seeing his friend get knocked to the floor. Grace, looking extremely annoyed at being stuck with the non-action role once again, bolted, puppy under one arm and Svlok under the other.
"Hey! Over here!" Tucker shouted, brandishing his (well, Grace's) tyre-iron, trying to distract the Vlarlg, which was bending over Wes, who lay motionless in the corner. The Vlarlg straightened and glared at him with reptilian eyes, and for a few long seconds they faced each other, unmoving. The thing was not actually all that scary, Tucker mused, although Grace would doubtless have a fit about the colour scheme ? Day-Glo green fur with bright orange stripes down its arms and across its chest. It did have vicious-looking claws, however, and what looked like a sharp ridge of bone along its forearms and hands. And a nasty set of big teeth. "Uh-oh," he muttered, as the Vlarlg launched itself at him with a roar.
Tucker easily dodged the alien's first attack by stepping to the side (which is why launching yourself at someone is never a good idea), watched as it landed, slid, and turned, growling, then stepped up to it and swung the tyre-iron. It hit the Vlarlg solidly with a dull "thwack", and Tucker's hand went completely numb, his now rather pathetic-seeming weapon sliding from suddenly useless fingers and clattering to the floor. It was like hitting a steel wall. "Uh-oh," Tucker repeated, retreating a step.
Tucker looked around nervously and saw that Wes was sitting up against his wall, one hand reaching for his camera and the other fiddling with the MLK. Momentarily distracted by his astonishment at the fact that Wes was thinking about taking photos at a time like this, Tucker didn't notice the Vlarlg's attempt at a backhand until it was almost too late. He jumped backward, and the weird sharp ridge on the back of the Vlarlg's hand caught his flailing arm instead of disembowelling him.
He staggered, off balance long enough for the Vlarlg to use its monumentally long arms to pick Tucker up and slam him against the nearest wall, once, twice, three times, its claws digging into his shoulders, before flinging him to the opposite side of the room. Tucker crashed against the wall that Wes was already leaning against, and slid bonelessly to the ground, groaning. The Vlarlg advanced, growling again.
"Hah!" Wes located and pressed a button on the side of the MLK (marked "activate"), pointed it at the Vlarlg with his right hand, and pulled the trigger. This time, instead of going "fzzt", the gun went "ptoo!" and spat out a bright blue pellet, which lodged smack in the centre of the Vlarlg's chest. The Vlarlg stopped dead, blinking in surprise. Wes hurriedly raised his camera and snapped a shot, as Grace appeared in the doorway and stopped short, taking in the scene with raised eyebrows.
Tucker propped himself up on one arm and looked hesitantly at the Vlarlg. "Why isn't it-" he began, but was cut off when the alien exploded. All the humans in the room were splattered with gobs of green goo and various other unthinkable things.
"Oh, man," Wes complained, struggling to his feet. "This is my favourite shirt. Hey, Tuck, you okay, man?"
"I'm all right," Tucker replied, accepting the offered hand and allowing Wes to pull him up, then gasped and clutched at his ribs. "Well, mostly all right. You?"
"I'm okay. You're bleeding. Hospital?"
"It's just a scratch. Sal can take care of it when we get back to the archives. Besides, I don't really want to explain this green gunk to a doctor, do you?"
"Yeah, good point. Let's blow out these candles and get out of here, huh? The cops can take care of the... heads..."
Grace finally snapped out of the shock of having her hair ruined by alien blood ? and chunks of alien flesh, but she was trying not to think about that ? and came over to give them a hand. "You guys okay?" she asked, putting out candles with her fingertips, and scattering the pentagram shape as she went along.
"Nothin' a couple of aspirin won't cure. And maybe a band-aid," Wes added, gingerly touching a spot of blood on his shirt where the Vlarlg's claws had caught him when it threw him against the wall. "Wow, G, that was pretty cool, wasn't it?"
"Yeah! We saved the world! I can't wait to have a shower, though." Grace ran her fingers through her hair and looked at her fingers in disgust.
"After we stop by the archives," Tucker reminded. "Sal's still waiting for us."
"Can't we just call?" Grace sighed. "Fine."
The moment Svlok saw them as they approached the car, covered in slime, he burst out laughing. They thought it was laughter, anyway; it was an odd huffing-wheezing noise like cartoon dogs make when they laugh.
"You'd better drive, G," Wes said, handing Grace the keys.
"Yes, sir," she said gamely.
"Turn the heat on, would you? I'm freezing."
Grace looked at Tucker doubtfully. He had his left hand clamped around his right arm, and blood was oozing between his fingers. "Are you sure you don't want to go to a hospital?" she asked. "You could be going into shock or something."
Tucker smiled reassuringly. "I'm not, don't worry. I'm just cold."
She nodded reluctantly, and as soon as the car was started she put the heater on high. "Tell me again why we can't just call Sal?" she grumbled to herself as a bit of muck dripped from her sleeve.
"And then it exploded."
The group of alien-busters had been surprised to find Donald waiting with Sal when they reached the archives, and had been forced to relay the entire story in condensed form, beginning the moment they had left Donald's office, while Sal dabbed at Wes and Tucker with antiseptic cream. At least, Wes and Tucker had relayed the story; Grace was staring at the two of them, who were sitting dejectedly on a table, with a thoughtful smile on her face. The smile may have had something to do with the fact that they had both removed their shirts for easier access with the disinfectant. Whatever the reason, it faded when she ran a hand through her hair, which crackled with hardened slime. The rescued sacrificial puppy gambolled around Donald's legs, attacking his shoelaces.
Donald scowled at them disapprovingly, nudging away the puppy with his foot. "I hope you got a picture before you blew it up."
Wes indicated his camera with one hand, holding his goo-sodden shirt (turning crusty at the edges) at arm's length with the other, trying to get up the courage to put it on. "I want extra danger pay for this one, Donald," Wes admonished. "And you're paying our laundry bills, man."
"Gladly," Donald said happily. "This is a cover story for sure."
"That doesn't look like a claw scratch," Sal said conversationally, tying off the bandage he had just wrapped around Tucker's arm.
"It's not," Tucker replied, reaching for his T-shirt ? which, thanks to the shirt he'd been wearing on top of it, was still largely goop-free. "It caught me with some weird thing on the back of its hand."
Sal froze, then slowly exchanged a look with Donald.
"What?" Tucker asked, then, slightly worried, "What is it?"
"Uh ? how long ago did it, uh, scratch you, exactly?" Sal wondered casually.
Tucker shrugged. "Maybe an hour?"
"And, uh, how are you feeling?" Donald asked nervously.
"A little weird, actually. I thought that was just because of being knocked against a wall a couple of times. Why, what's going on?"
"I'll be right back," Sal said, and hastened away to an unnamed destination deep in the archives.
"Donald!" Grace said, severely, casting a concerned glance at Tucker, "What's wrong?"
Donald sighed. "If I remember correctly, Vlarlgs have sharp ridges on the back of their hands that are, well, coated in poison. It's deadly within two or three hours."
Tucker blinked. "You - you mean I'm going to die?"
"Did I say that?"
"Well... yeah. Pretty much."
"You kinda did," Grace agreed, and Wes nodded vigorously.
"No, I didn't. I said it's deadly; I didn't say we don't have a cure. Sal's gone to fetch it."
The three reporters slumped with relief, and Svlok clicked happily.
Sal returned just as Wes managed to summon the nerve to slide his shirt back on, wincing at the cold sliminess of it. The pig-boy held up a bottle filled with a pale yellow liquid. Everyone looked at it distastefully.
"It looks... icky," Grace said.
"Of course it does; it's made of ?" Sal looked at Tucker and shut his mouth with a snap.
"What's it made of?" Tucker asked suspiciously. "I'm not drinking it if I don't know what it's -"
"Who said anything about drinking it?" Sal interrupted, holding up his other hand, which held a hitherto unnoticed syringe attached to an uncomfortably large needle. "Give me your arm."
Tucker blinked. "No way. Uh-uh. I hate needles."
"It's this or die," Sal said flatly. "Don't worry, I used to help out the vet all the time back on the farm."
"Oh, great! That makes it sound much more appealing!" Tucker said, tone bordering on hysteria. "Listen," he added, sliding off the table onto his feet, then swayed dizzily and clutched at the table for support. "I'm okay," he declared, in response to the worried looks everyone gave him, and promptly collapsed.
Sal shrugged as Grace and Wes knelt by the unconscious reporter. "Oh well, that'll make this a lot easier." He flicked the syringe with a finger and grinned sadistically.
Tucker opened his eyes cautiously and squinted until the four blurry faces hovering above him came into focus. "...the hell?" he rasped.
"Hey, Tuck-B! How you feelin'?"
Tucker took a moment to consider the question, then replied, "My head hurts like a... a lot, I'm very tired, but... Surprisingly good, actually." He sat up carefully and looked around. It appeared that he was on a fold-out couch in Donald's office. He frowned as he accepted a glass of water Grace handed him, and thought aloud: "Since when does Donald have a fold-out couch in his office?"
Donald, seeming slightly embarrassed, mumbled something about secret doors and late nights at the office.
"Where's..." Tucker searched the office until he found Svlok, sitting under Donald's desk. The little alien clicked happily. "Thanks," Tucker said, smiling. His smile faded as a thought occurred to him, and he checked his watch and winced. It was well after one in the morning. Kristen was going to kill him. He hung his head dejectedly.
"What am I gonna tell her?" he wondered aloud.
"Why not the truth?" Donald shrugged, correctly guessing what Tucker was talking about. "And you can add that I'm giving all three of you the rest of the week off. Provided, of course, you get this article in to me by Thursday."
Tucker and Wes brightened, but Grace narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Seriously?"
"Would I lie?" Donald smiled innocently.
Grace nodded slowly, pointed a finger at Donald, and said, "Okay, but I want that in writing."
The following Monday, Tucker located Grace and Wes in The Chronicle's kitchen, attempting to find out just how strong coffee had to be to melt a spoon. He showed them a copy of the latest Chronicle edition, beaming.
"Yet another cover story for Tucker Burns and Grace Hall," he said, cheerfully. "With excellent pictures by our resident photographic genius," he added, nodding at Wes.
"Alien Assassin Annihilated; Apocalypse Averted," Grace read. "Ah, the joys of alliteration."
"And may I add that you look radiant today," said Tucker, dropping into a chair.
"It was that Vlarlg slime. Did wonders for my skin, and my hair hasn't been this shiny in years!" Grace patted her hair proudly.
"You seem awfully chipper this morning, Tuck," Wes said inquiringly.
"Donald just told me that Svlok will be leaving for his home planet today, safe and sound, that annoying puppy's been adopted by a family with a farm, Kristen's totally over the missed-dinner thing last week, I had the apartment mostly to myself all weekend ? not that I needed it - the sun is shining ? why shouldn't I be chipper? It's a perfect ending to the story. And what are you doing with that coffee?"
Wes quickly explained the experiment. "We've melted a plastic spoon, but so far no go with the metal," he said, sadly.
Intrigued, Tucker joined them by the coffee maker, grabbed a mug and spoon, and unwittingly got involved in the makings of the following week's cover article. But that's a whole different story.