Nellidae Cocci stared into the dark maw of the basement storage room and struggled to swallow a lump in her throat. What little light crept into the room from the doorway illuminated only the scheming outline of the dozen rows of steel shelving units, each having gathered a collection of dust and grime, rusted objects, dead insects, fossilized mice and evil spirits that would turn away all but the most powerful filfth exorcists – and Nellidae was still only a filth acolyte.
She flipped the light switch and gasped at the state of things. It was worse than she feared. Strings of a greasy film hung from old computer equipment poorly disposed of. Shelves were stacked twenty-high with fungus-ridden old books, decommissioned due to their blithe acceptance of evolution and disregard for “competing theories.” In a corner there was a sphere of dust, cobwebs, an old janitor uniform much like Nellidae’s own, and what she could’ve sworn were bones.
She raised her can of cleanliness-acid, sprayed a spot on a shelf, rubbed a cloth on it.
Instantly the cloth disintegrated, becoming a wisp of black vapor from her hands.
“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t believe I have the correct kit to deal with this situation.” She said.
Nellidae raised her little can of cleaning acid and shook it at the doorway. Principal Beadle then entered the room, sighing into a handkerchief she employed to cover her nose, her heels deftly evading the ooze puddles between each shelving unit. She ran an elegant finger down one of the units, and rubbed the grime between two. “We did let it get a bit out of hand.” She admitted. “But you’re the janitor, so this is one of the things you’re expected to take care of.”
“Can I get a flamethrower or like, an assault rifle?” Nellidae asked. “I could shoot all of these things. I am pretty sure they are alive, on some abominable, disgusting level. I’m positive that would work.”
“No guns in High Schools. Newfork City School Code #13-A,” Principal Beadle said, laughing in an elegant and regal manner at herself, “Only allowed in elementary schools; High School students are too malicious.”
“You all have your priorities perfectly straight here.” Nellidae grumbled.
Principal Beadle patted her shoulder, then gripped, and smiled. “Do your job, Miss Cocci.”
One by one her fingers let go of Nellidae, and with a flourish of her blonde hair she vanished out the door.
Nellidae kept grumbling under her own breath until the principal was well out of earshot. A bubbling, wrathful froth began to build on her tongue, a drop of which slipped unto the ground and sizzled.
Under her big cabbie hat, Nellidae’s curled antennae brimmed with realization.
“Nothing says I can’t use my cleaning fluids.” She said to herself and grinned.
Rearing back, she took in air and passed her tongue around the inside of her closed mouth, building up fluid. She closed her eyes, and tightened up her fists and stood up almost on her talons, shaking from head to toe. A burning sensation worked its way from her stomach and up into her chest, and her shoulders locked stiff. Her wings, well-hidden beneath the thick janitor jacket, beat unwittingly. Her skin turned from a coffee brown to a chocolate-with-cherries, and her cheeks puffed up to the size of baseballs.
With a sudden and violent sneeze, Nellidae expulsed a green, burning spray of hydro-quinones from her mouth unto the nearest shelf. There was fizzling and loud pops like firecrackers and the screaming of once immortal filth-souls consigned to the cleansing flame, smoke and devastation amidst the grim ranks. Instantly a layer of ages-old grime vanished under the corrosive, burning, freezing, supernatural onslaught. The esoteric flames spread across the entire shelf like a wildfire, breaking down the objects and dirt in smokeless green flashes. Old computers collapsed inward and soon disappeared; outdated books became ash; puddles of filth vaporized; the dirt djinn transcended existence.
When the flames finally sputtered, one shelf sparkled with brutal cleanliness.
Nellidae burped, patting her chest down flat after and smiling. She laid down against the door, took a heartburn pill and removed her cabbie hat to unfurl her long black hair, and give her antennae some breathing room. Sandwich in hand, she ate, rested and waited out her shift. She could milk this basement for a few days at least.
The room grew slightly cold. Knowing what this meant, she stomped her foot down hard.
“Don’t you dare haunt me, you dolt.” She said, glancing sidelong at the disapproving perhaps-corpse of the perhaps-former-janitor that was perhaps-interred in the mysterious corner filth sphere. “You’d have done it that way too if you could. I’m not here to show off or anything. Tell you what: I’ll avenge you and put you to rest eventually.”
Air conditioning systems responded in absolutely no way to that delusional blather.
Nellidae took this to mean her ghostly precursor had acquiesced to her custodial might.
Thankfully for the air conditioning, and for the perhaps-ghost that was perhaps-haunting, and for the students and faculty of McCarthy High School in Central Newfork, capital of the contiguous Ameran republic, Nellidae was no mere underpaid filth acolyte. She was, actually, the underpaid Ladybird, between real jobs.
Hours later when the school bell rang and the classrooms poured out their content of teenagers stampeding toward home, Nellidae punched out at the front office and turned in her supplies. She’d left the basement storage room locked and had the key on her, so her work (and lack thereof) would not easily come under scrutiny. At the security desk in the front office, Principal Beadle watched the cameras attentively, overseeing the egress of her students. Without warning she suddenly addressed Nellidae, who stood up on end suddenly when called for. “Did you know, Miss Cocci, that the most dangerous time for students is the last period of school? Per capita more misconduct and discord occurs right around bus time.”
Nellidae breathed out in relief and handed her cleaning acid to the guards. “No idea.”
“How’s the basement coming along?” Principal Beadle continued, eyes locked on the screens.
Nellidae gulped suddenly and then broke out in nervous chuckling.
“Oh, the basement! Oh, it’s, it’s coming along– horribly, really bad. It is a trench war of custodial proportions.” She waved her arms as though trying to fly away. “I nearly died.”
Principal Beadle made eye contact and smiled. “Well, if it means anything, I believe in you.”
Nellidae hurried out of the office before any other chestnuts landed on her head.
She took a faculty door out to the side of the school and walked around to the back. She waited in the bus plaza near the parking lot, sitting on the lap of the grimacing Founder McCarthy, who sat in gargoyle-like watch over the benches. He offered an elevated vantage from which she could comfortably pick out heads from the crowd. McCarthy High School had a uniform, consisting of white button-down uniform shirts and ties with a tartan skirt or pants, and a blazer or vest – but only one person she knew wore a sweater-vest over the whole thing, and the sweater-vested high schooler soon approached.
This orderly-looking student beckoned her down silently, adjusting her glasses as she did so.
“Shut up, Libel.” Nellidae said, in a completely irrational reflex. She slid down McCarthy’s legs.
“Hello to you too,” Libel U. Lidae replied, upbeat despite the terse greeting.
“Err. Sorry. I’m just a little too used to it.” Nellidae said, gripping her cabbie hat nervously.
“That’s okay. Here, you can have this.”
Libel ripped up a tiny paper bag to release an individually wrapped sugar cube from the cafeteria, and pressed the sweet with her fingers against Nellidae’s lips. Nellidae placidly savored the sugar, until she found red stains on Libel’s shoulders and along her waist. “What happened to you?” Nellidae asked softly. “Bullies again?”
“I wouldn’t really call it bullying.” Libel said. “It’s the ebbs and flows of high school social life.”
Nellidae looked harder and pulled out a small juice straw from Libel’s red ponytail.
“So you got bullied, huh?” Nellidae pressed on. “You should’ve tazered somebody.”
“Shush,” Libel said, looking around, “It doesn’t really matter, it’s just red juice on clothes.”
The crowd of teens boarding buses around them had grown sparse and seemed to pay them no mind. They were just another conversation happening in an ocean of them. Libel rarely rode the bus on days when Nellidae worked at the school. The two of them crossed the street from the bus plaza and as the sun crept further behind the skyscrapers towering in the distance, they navigated the few blocks from the school to the apartment building. Nellidae said nothing, staring at the thin but constant stream of people on the streets, the traffic growing denser, the video ads on the sides of buses growing more gaudy.
“Look at this,” Libel said, pressing a tablet computer almost up to her face.
There was an article on Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, buried under Noodle Technologies Inc. ads, and Nellidae grimaced when met with it. However, the news was good at face value – Cruciere hadn’t been heard of for almost a month now, since the thwarting of her Hurricane Bomb plot. Authorities were no closer to finding her, but the Newfork Times seemed optimistic that at the very least, the presence of the Ladybird was having a chilling effect on Cruciere’s plots.
“They could’ve come to me for comment, and I’d have told them not to be so sure.”
“Shush!” Libel said, “Don’t just say that stuff out loud. But yes, I agree. It’s very fishy.”
They stopped in front of a broad and tall apartment building, like a thick industrial pillar rising out of the field of glass and polished steel in Central Newfork. Libel entered first, smiled at the front desk and took the elevator. Nellidae followed, glaring at the front desk and climbing the stairs. By the time she got to the fifth floor, and to their apartment, Libel had already settled herself in an egg-shaped couch in the living room, the mail chute extended from the kitchen wall for easier access. A collection of letters and envelopes belched out of the tube and unto her lap, along with a small plastic case to deposit the 50 micro-amero mail fee. “Just a bunch of junk mail. I think they cut my subscription to Entomology Monthly.”
“Print’s dead anyway isn’t it?” Nellidae said. “It was where I come from.”
“I liked the scratch and sniff bug stickers.” Libel lamented. “Ebooks can’t scratch and sniff.”
“You like bugs just a little too much for my comfort, quite honestly.”
Nellidae ducked under the mail chute and proceeded into her own room, a little hole in the wall, cramped, dark, fairly cold. It was not much more than a stack of mattresses and two baskets for fresh and old clothes.
She took in the atmosphere and sighed contentedly. There was something inviting about it that open spaces simply lacked for her. Brimming with feeling in the dark, she undressed, dropping her cabbie hat to stretch her antennae and taking off her shirt to spread her elytra, the thick folds of skin on her back. The elytra were perfectly camouflaged when low, but right then they rose up to allow her filmy wings to extend. They were half the length of her arms, but with a light green glow and the help of two belching little jets hidden in her lower back, they’d defy gravity and carry her anywhere.
At this point she was more Ladybird than Nellidae, but still more human than bug. Satisfied with a moment’s freedom, she threw a sweater and some shorts on, burying her wings inside the flesh of her lean upper back.
In the kitchen Libel expressed her own sort of freedom, having dressed down to a tanktop and shorts, giving her a much less orderly appearance as she presided over her secret station. With a voiced password command in Spanish, the decorative, stationary central island of the kitchen opened up into a trio of computer screens, touchpads and a keyboard. The screens all welcomed her as Libel – a name Nellidae knew intimately, but that was most certainly false. A whirring and heavy-sounding mess of fans roared to life, cooling numerous racks of processors, memory and solid-state drives buried within.
A platypus desktop pet began to wander the various screens, making bird-like noises.
“Oh, you’re gonna have some fun now?” Nellidae asked, passing the computers by and opening the refrigerator, pushing the vegetables, vegetable juice, vegetable proteins and vegetable shakes out of her way.
“Nah, this is work.” Libel replied. She unfurled her red ponytail and climbed up on her office chair, sitting with her legs crossed and going through the various screens. “Haven’t been spying enough lately.”
“You know what you also haven’t been doing a lot of lately? BUYING REAL FOOD.”
Nellidae stuck her arms and head into the refrigerator and disorganized the vegetable items inside in a sudden tantrum. Libel ignored the woman’s childish display, and cracked her knuckles before getting to work.
“Trust me Nelly, you’ll thank me for this when you’re older.” She said sagely.