Trouble wasn’t content to follow Constance Verity. Trouble was more proactive when it came to Connie. She’d grown used to trouble, so she knew it when she walked into a room. She’d been recognized, and there was nothing to be done about it. She almost stopped right there, thanked the interviewers for their time, and went on her way. But she’d come this far. She might as well go all the way.
“Please, Mrs. Smith, have a seat.” Tom, an older man in a gray suit, gestured to the chair across the desk.
“It’s Smythe,” she corrected. “And it’s Ms.”
Jan continued to study Connie like a complicated math problem she couldn’t quite solve in her head. She leaned over to Tom and whispered in his ear. His eyes went wide, then narrowed. A curious smile crossed his face.
“Terrific,” mumbled Connie to herself.
“I’m sorry?” asked Tom.
“Oh, nothing.” She smiled and smoothed her pants.
“Ms. Smythe, we’ve been looking at your resume, and I must say it’s a bit thin.” He held up the paper, ran his finger down the two paragraphs, and nodded to himself. “To be honest, we probably would’ve rejected you right out, but you scored incredibly well on the aptitude tests.”
It wasn’t technically a compliment, but she felt like she should say something.
Jan folded her hands across the shared desk. “Yet according to this, you didn’t even attend college.”
Connie shrugged. “My education was . . . informal.”
“Please, go on, Ms. Smythe.”
They leaned forward.
“My childhood was chaotic. I might not have the credentials, but I am fluent in seventeen languages, type at two hundred words per minute on a good day, know how to fix any office machine you can think of and probably any you will have one day but haven’t thought of yet, can run the mile in four minutes if I’m wearing a good pair of shoes. Oh, and I know shorthand, and I play a mean game of softball, if you need a new player to fill in while your starting shortstop recovers from his broken ankle.”
“How did you know that?”
“I’m a bit of a detective, too.”
He nodded again. “And where did you acquire these skills, Ms. Smythe?”
“Places,” she replied. “Does it really matter? I’m qualified, aren’t I?”
“Perhaps overqualified,” said Jan.
“How can I be overqualified? You just said I don’t have anything on my resume.”
“But surely someone of your abilities can find more gainful employment elsewhere.”
“I just need a job,” said Connie. “If you don’t want to give it to me—”
“Are you Constance Verity?” interrupted Jan.
“No, I’m Connie Smythe.”
Tom went to his smartphone. This was so much easier before Google.
“Yes, that’s me,” said Connie. “But that’s my old life.”
Next came the questions.
Most people had questions.
“What is it like in the future?” asked Jan.
“Like now but with more evil robots. Good ones, too. No flying cars, though.”
“Is it true you’ve died twice?”
“Three times. But one of those times, I was a clone, so it doesn’t really count.”
“What’s Dracula really like?”
“Good guy, once you get past the creep vibe.”
“I read on the Internet that you have telekinesis. Can you move this pencil?” Jan rolled it forward. The interviewers stared at it, expecting it to dance.
“I had telekinesis. For about a week,” said Connie. “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
Frowning, Jan took back her pencil.
“I can see I’ve wasted your time.” Connie stood up.
“Wait, Ms. Verity . . . Ms. Smythe. We might have a position available for you.”
Tom smiled. “Yes. In fact, I can think of the perfect use for someone with your skills.”
Connie shook her head. “I’m trying not to do that kind of stuff anymore.”
He chuckled. “Oh, Ms. Smythe, I’m not talking about any of your more colorful talents. Although I’m certain those will come in handy eventually. No, we have an opening in the mailroom. Or would that be a problem?”
“No, not at all.” She shook their hands. “You won’t regret this. I promise.”
“I’m sure we won’t. Since you’re here, why don’t Jan and I go down with you and introduce you to the team?”
Connie said, “Sure, but can we downplay the . . . stuff? I don’t like to talk about it that much.”
Jan and Tom smiled and nodded. “We understand. It’ll be just between us.”
It wouldn’t be. It never was. Jan and Tom were certain to tell someone about meeting the Amazing Constance Verity, and by day’s end, everyone would know. Connie just hoped nobody would make a big deal about it.
On the elevator ride to the basement, Jan and Tom flanked her. They smiled and bobbed their heads along to the Muzak. They were brimming with more questions, but to their credit, they didn’t ask them. Maybe this would work out after all.
The elevator doors opened. The mailroom was a big, empty chamber where a dozen robed figures stood around a yawning chasm reaching deep into the foundation and beyond.
Connie groaned. “Ah, shit.”
Tom pressed a ceremonial dagger against her back. “If you would be so kind, Ms. Verity.”
She stepped out of the elevator, and the cultists all turned toward her.
“I just wanted a job,” she said. “Is that too much to ask?”
“Ah, but we have a most important job for you,” said Jan. “You will feed the Hungry Earth. What greater honor is there?”
“Pension matching?” she suggested. “Four weeks’ vacation a year?”
They pushed her to the edge of the pit. At its distant bottom, a ring of giant teeth gnashed, a dozen tongues writhed.
“I must say you’re taking this very well,” said Jan.
“You don’t think this is my first time on the sacrificial altar, do you? I’ve been offered up to dark gods and cosmic horrors more times than I’ve been to the dentist. And dental hygiene is very important to me.”
“Ah, yes, Ms. Verity,” said Tom. “But the difference here is that you are all alone. No one is here to save you.”
“What makes you think I need to be saved?”
“Come now, Ms. Verity, even someone of your reputation for harrowing escapes can see you’re at our mercy. This building is secure. There will be no last-minute arrival of the cavalry.”
“First of all, you can stop using my name so much. Why do bad guys do that? It isn’t dramatic. It’s just repetitive.
“Secondly, what do you possibly hope to accomplish by feeding me to this thing? You don’t think it cares about one little speck of flesh? It’s a big, dumb thing. It’s like expecting a whale to be grateful because you tossed it a potato chip.”
The cultists gasped collectively with such precision, they must’ve rehearsed it in advance.
“You dare insult our god?” Jan sounded genuinely hurt by that. “There is but one penalty for such heresy. You must be sacrificed.”
“Weren’t you already planning on sacrificing me?”
The cultists mumbled among themselves.
“Enough of this!” shouted Tom. “Hurl Ms. Ver . . . her into the pit, that our glorious god might awaken this day.”
Several cultists seized Connie and pushed her toward the precipice.
“You didn’t let me finish,” she said. “It’s obvious at a glance that none of you have any combat training, aside from perhaps that lady in the back.”
“I took judo for a year,” confirmed the woman. “I’m a yellow belt.”
“Good for you. So, yes, there are a lot of you, and you all have your special ceremonial knives, which are all very pretty but not very practical in a fight. But I’ve fought better and more and come out on top. I’m not saying you can’t get lucky. You might, but I’m just playing the odds here. I single-handedly held back a regiment of robotic samurai at Agatsuma Gunma Canyon. But I’m sure your club of out-of-shape middle-managers will be the ones to punch my clock.”
“I CrossFit,” said a cultist among the throng.
“We know, Gary,” said Jan. “We all know.”
“I might not have much formal education,” said Connie, “but adventuring is better training than any vocational school you’re going to get. Practical training. Like the Seven Deadly Styles of Martian Kung Fu, shown to me by the Exalted Master Shang Ig Ga.”
She kicked a captor in the face, elbowed another, and paralyzed a third with a finger strike on his neck. The cultists stood in shock.
“If you think that’s impressive, just imagine how awesome it would be if I had the four arms and prehensile tail required to be a true master.”
Tom raised his dagger.
“Don’t do anything stupid, now,” she said.
Howling, he charged her. She stepped aside, smashing him across the back, and he tumbled, screaming, into the abyss. The Hungry Earth swallowed him whole without so much as a slurp.
The rest of the cult reconsidered attacking Connie.
“See? Your god couldn’t care less about one measly sacrifice. You could shove the entire population of this city down that hole, and it wouldn’t notice.”
Jan was crestfallen. It was tough losing something you believed in. Even if that belief was ludicrous and insane.
“We’re done here,” said Connie.
A low, echoing rumble rolled out of the maw, and the ground shook under them.
The toothy jaws snapped open and shut eagerly, and its tongues slithered up the chasm.
“Huh.” She shrugged. “I did not see that coming.”
The cultists cheered. Their celebration was cut short when the creature’s tongues whipped out of the pit and started dragging them to their doom.
Connie got into a lot of messes in a lot of different places. After decades of globe-trotting adventures, the governments of the world had created a special international agency dedicated solely to keeping track of her. It wasn’t much, but it did make cleaning up the messes in the aftermath easier. Lucas Harrison was the lead agent of that agency.
He gazed down into the now quiet abyss in the basement.
“What the hell is that?”
“The Hungry Earth,” said Connie.
“The hungry what?”
“Earth. Have you ever wondered what’s underneath that shell of rock we’re standing on?” She pointed to the rows of teeth and flaccid tongues. “There you have it.”
“Like a monster? How big is it?”
“You should know this already,” she said. “It’s in the files.”
“We have a dozen cabinets of files on you, Verity. I can’t be expected to memorize every weird thing you’ve been involved in.”
“Isn’t that your job?”
“I’m the liaison. Agent Barker is records.”
“How is she doing?” asked Connie.
“She’s on paid leave. Read something in one of the files that gave her night terrors.” He pointed to the giant maw below. “How big is that thing?”
“Earth-sized,” she replied. “It’s in the name: The Hungry Earth.”
“You’re telling me the earth is a monster.”
“More or less.” She nodded to the six remaining cultists who hadn’t been eaten by their mindless god. “And these yahoos almost woke it up. What? You didn’t think it was hollow, did you?”
Her condescending tone rubbed him the wrong way.
“I distinctly remember that incident with the subterranean Neanderthal invasion,” he said.
“Part of it’s hollow,” she corrected. “But most of it’s monster.”
“We’re living on the skin of a sleeping monster. What the hell happens when it wakes up, Verity?”
“Don’t know. Don’t want to find out. I chucked some cinnamon into its mouth, and that put it right back to sleep.”
“Where the hell did you find cinnamon so fast?”
“You’re telling me you just saved the world. Again.”
“Technically, I saved us from the world.”
“I’ll be sure to include that in my report. This will probably push Barker over the edge.”
Barker wouldn’t be the first agent overwhelmed by the secret files of Constance Verity. It was doubtful she would be the last. Harrison himself had replaced the previous agency head who had called it quits after having to fish Connie out of the ocean and find an environmentally friendly way of disposing of the six-hundred-ton corpse of the kraken. Constance stayed sane by virtue of having confronted this stuff since she was a child. It wasn’t weird. It was life.
“What are we supposed to do with this great big hole?” asked Harrison. “Fill it with concrete?”
Connie handed him a business card. “Call this number. Ask for Abigail Cromwell Nightshade. Be sure to use the full name. She’s very particular about that. She’ll know what to do.”
“You just carry this around on you in case of emergencies?”
“I carry a lot of things around with me in case of emergencies, Harrison. You know that.”
He tucked the card in his pocket. “I don’t know how you do it, Verity. I’d be exhausted if I constantly got into adventures.”
“Who says I’m not? Sure, I can get by on one hour of sleep. I’ve got the unflagging endurance of a kid who grew up wrestling dinosaurs and running from space barbarians. But it gets old. You can only punch so many zombies, and after a while, saving the world loses its charm.”
“So, why don’t you stop?”
“Now, why didn’t I think of that?” She shook her head. “It’s not really up to me. It’s out of my hands. Always has been.”
“You’re telling me that with everything you’ve done, every unbelievable person you’ve known, every incredible near escape and last-minute save, you can’t control your own destiny? I don’t know, Verity. If you can’t, who the hell can?”
“Something funny?” he asked.
“No. Hadn’t thought of it. That’s all. You said exactly what someone should’ve told me years ago. I’m Constance Danger Verity. I’ve defeated magical Nazis in four different alternate realities, and saved the King of the Moon from a literal army of ninja assassins. I can do anything. Why the hell can’t I do this?”
She slapped Harrison on the shoulder.
“You’re welcome.” Grumbling, he answered the phone. “Harrison here. Yes, most of the goddamn planet, apparently.”
Connie left him to his conversation and set out on her great adventure.
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity
Ever since she was granted a wish at birth by her fairy godmother, Constance Verity has become the world’s great adventurer. She is a master of martial arts, a keen detective, and possesses a collection of strange artifacts. Constance has spent the past twenty-eight years saving the world, and she’s tired of it. All she wants is to work in an office and date a nice, normal guy. And she’s figured a way out. The only problem is that saving the world is Constance’s destiny. She’s great at it, and there are forces at work to make sure she stays in the job.
Then again, it’s also her destiny to have a glorious death.