by Leslie Fish
Damn, I'm not good at this, Joe Dawson worried as he strolled - ...slowly, let the cane show, look non-threatening -toward the shocked-looking young man at the end of the alley. "Are you all right?" he asked gently.
"I-I... Yes." The stranger - Caucasian male, under 30, tall, thin, reedy-looking, sharp features, brown hair, nondescript clothes -looked as if he were about to faint. "But what was that? What happened?!"
"Something quite rare and remarkable." Joe came up to the young man, patted his shoulder reassuringly, and then tugged at his elbow. Best lead him away, while Harris calls the clean-up squad. "There's a bar just back there. What say, we go sit down there and have a couple beers while I explain?"
"I- Beer... Yes, I'd like that."
The man gave no resistance but let Joe lead him out of the alley, down the street and into the bar. He moved awkwardly, almost stumbling over his own feet, as if still in shock. Joe steered him gently to a back booth, snagged a waitress and quietly ordered two Heinekens, then sat them both down. The man looked wide-eyed, bewildered, not seeming to know what to do with his hands. He plainly needed that drink.
Fortunately, the waitress brought their orders promptly. Joe took a thoughtful sip of his beer, noting that the young man grabbed his glass and gulped at it. Reassure him. Fast. "All right," Joe said, setting down his beer. "Just what did you see?"
The man spread his hands wide, a helpless gesture. "...I was walking down the street and I heard a strange noise in the alley. Metallic, like clanging machinery, but irregular. I went to look, and I saw..." He paused to grab his beer and gulp again. "I saw two men fighting, with swords. I couldn't believe it. Then one of them hit, and the other went down, and the first one..." He turned wide eyes to Joe. "He cut his head right off!" he said, all in a rush. "Right off! With the sword!"
"Easy, calm down," Joe soothed. "Take a couple of deep breaths. ...Better? Okay, go on." If he actually saw the Quickening... Hell, how could he miss it?
The young man dutifully calmed himself, and proceeded. "I saw...glowing mist rise up, out of the body. Then it turned to lightning, and it struck the other man. Not just once. Several times. I saw it spark off a dumpster, break glass... The other man groaned and fell down. I thought he was dead, electrocuted, but then..." He shook his head feebly. "He got up and ran away. Then I saw you. I don't understand any of this." His hazel eyes looked at Joe, imploring as a puppy's. "What was it?"
Recruitment time. No avoiding this. Joe sighed. "It's a long and amazing story," he began. Standard recruitment speech. This will take awhile...
Twice during the long recital, the young man drained his glass and begged for another beer. Joe obliged, picking up the tab, wondering if he shouldn't have ordered a pitcher. "And now that you know," he finished, "You may as well join us." Not that there's much choice. "Welcome to the Watchers, one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. How long will it take you to quit your current job, tie up loose ends and go to our training academy?"
"Not long," the man admitted. "I've just finished graduate school. PhD in Linguistics. No teaching offers yet. I'm at loose ends, really. In fact, I was planning on looking for a job here in the city..." He shook his head wonderingly. "I suppose my new job has just found me."
"I guess it has," Joe smiled. "By the way, my name's Joe Dawson, and I do fieldwork."
"I'm Adam Pierson. I have no idea what you'll want me to do; I've never done anything but study and research, really."
Graduate student... Joe studied the man before him, considering that young Adam didn't look fit for fieldwork: too delicate, too unworldly. For all his height he seemed fragile, as if a strong wind would blow him away. Linguistics... That could be useful. "I expect we'll put you in research," he guessed. "You seem to have the skills for it."
"I should like that," Adam smiled shyly. "I really didn't fancy working as a clerk in some shop somewhere."
"So I guess this turned out to be a lucky evening for you, after all," Joe grinned back. "Let me take you home, get your phone number and all that. One of our people should come knocking on your door tomorrow morning."
"Thank you. I'll...try to be prepared."
For an instant, Adam's smile looked jubilant - almost smug. Then he buried his expression in his glass, and Joe wasn't sure he'd seen it at all. Just a trick of the light, Joe shrugged to himself, and turned to pick up his cane. Adam seemed like such an unworldly young scholar, unfit for the everyday world, really; working as a researcher for the Watchers might be the best thing that could happen to him.
With luck, he'd keep the job for a good long while.