The warm hues of dawn had given way to the silver light of morning by the time Jack had driven most of the distance home. Crystal dozed quietly beside him, snuggled in her coat and a blanket Tim kept in the car.
Jack gave the sleeping girl a wry grin. It occurred to him that this almost qualified as a first date. It would definitely hold the record as the world’s weirdest, if so. He turned his attention back to the road. The drive had given him time to reflect on the very strange evening and the cold light of morning that normally drove such fantasies back into the land of dreams did nothing for him now. Reality had taken a very odd turn but he couldn’t deny that it was reality.
Two blocks from home, Jack pulled over. Setting the brake, he jostled Crystal gently into consciousness.
“Hey, Pretty Girl, we’re almost home.”
Crystal shook herself and looked around, “Almost?”
Jack nodded, “It’s still early but some folks will be up. If they see us drive up there will be talk. Your folks…”
Crystal smiled, “They know I’m a slayer. All nighters are nothing new for us. But it might be better if I walked from here, just the same. No need to start rumors…”
Jack’s brow wrinkled, “They know about me?”
Crystal shook her head, “Only that we suspected – I waited for Mr Ethan to tell you before confirming it. It took a while to figure out, you see…”
Jack didn’t really but he shrugged, “That’s okay, I guess. They won’t be mad if I let you off behind the house, will they?”
“No, that should be fine.”
Jack nodded, “Okay, we’ll go up a couple blocks and come down the back way.”
Crystal smiled and snuggled deeper into the warm blanket. “Okay…”
Jack said good bye to Crystal as she got out of the car and watched her walk up the back steps into her house. Once the door closed safely behind her, he shifted the car into drive. As it slowly pulled away, the thought occurred to him that the young lady was probably more than a match for any mugger stupid enough to try with her. That brought a grin to his face which widened with the realization that it would make no difference: he would always see her safely home like the gentleman his parents raised him to be.
The next day was busy for both. Jack was again surprised that he wasn’t exhausted after being up all night. Crystal was surprised to find a message from her mentor in Africa waiting for her at home.
Jack went to work where he learned that his friend and mentor was recovering very well in his upstate hospital room. The entire crew breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not surprisingly, the good natured heckling began. Jack threatened to quit over the new nickname ‘thugbane’ that one of the guys had come up with and it was mostly quashed. Work was otherwise the bastion of normalcy in Jack’s now totally abnormal world.
Crystal had to wait until late afternoon to return the call given the time differences. Classes, friends and schoolwork filled her day. Mr Ethan called at lunch to arrange a time to get together with both her and Jack. Crystal learned that Tresmayne had already spoken with Mr Ethan and, much to her relief, would not be upset by her lapse the night before. Mr. Ethan was stifling the urge to laugh, Crystal could tell from the chortling on the line. It must not have been a big deal to him but she still went red faced to think about it. She promised to get back with him as soon as she could talk to Jack.
Hanging up, Crystal sighed. She’d known the guy a couple weeks but still didn’t have his number. Heck, she wasn’t even sure if he had a cell phone. She would not be mentioning that to her mother. Girls of her mother’s generation would never have made such a mistake.
That evening, homework mostly done, Crystal sat on her stoop, waiting for Jack to arrive home. She didn’t wait long. Jack turned the corner and promptly smiled and waved. That was something of a relief to the now nervous Crystal who had begun to wonder what Jack might be thinking of the whole thing, now that he’d had a little time.
With her parents blessing, it was Crystal’s turn to invite Jack to dinner. He accepted graciously, promising to be there as soon as he got freshened up from work. Forty-five minutes later Jack presented himself on the Abernathy door step, a great deal more ‘freshened up’ than he’d have been for dinner at his parent’s home.
Mr. Abernathy met him at the door, “Hello Jack.”
“Hello, Mr. Abernathy, sir.” Jack wasn’t sure how this sir/ma’am thing worked for Southerners so he used them as Mr J had taught him they were used in the military. At least, that was his hope. It wasn’t like he’d paid that a lot of attention back then.
If it was a problem, Jack couldn’t tell from Mr. Abernathy’s reaction. The older man opened the door for his daughter’s would be suitor and showed him to the dining room. “I’m afraid we still don’t have things quite finished so please don’t mind the paint smell.”
Jack grinned. Nothing in his childhood home was ever truly finished as far as his parents were concerned, “No sir, nothing to worry about there. I’m not sure I could eat without the scent of latex from somewhere.”
Mr. Abernathy laughed and they made pleasant enough small talk about football until the ladies came in. Both men rose from the table automatically, good manners not being completely dead in the modern world.
Dinner passed pleasantly. Jack knew enough about SEC football to converse reasonably well. Mississippi State had recently played Auburn. Jack had coincidentally caught part of the game which proved to be a blessing. The Abernathy family was unquestionably a football family and at least Jack could talk reasonably about the game.
Dinner over and football about to start on TV, the elder Abernathy’s excused themselves to allow the young couple, or would be couple, some time alone.
Sitting across from Jack, Crystal suddenly became uncharacteristically shy, “Um, well, how was dinner?”
Jack smiled, “Great. Your mom’s a good cook. Not sure what that fried green stuff was…”
“Okra.” Crystal offered.
“Ah. Well, it’s good. Not usually big on green things but fried in batter like that it was really good.”
Crystal nodded, “Mrs Ferguson sent it up here last week so it’s fresh from the garden, mostly.”
“So, um, you must have questions?” Crystal asked shyly.
Jack nodded and leaned closer, “I’m gonna start with the most important one first.”
Crystal nodded, preparing herself.
“Will you go out with me?”
Crystal stared blankly for a moment, caught completely off guard, then blushed. A smile crept over her face, “Why yes, Mr. Scarlotti, I’d be delighted.”
Jack’s own smile grew, “Great. So, are you free Saturday?”
“I am indeed.” Crystal’s eyes twinkled.
Jack nodded, “Good, that gives me time to get up the courage to ask your dad…”
Crystal laughed merrily, “I’m pretty sure he won’t be surprised.”
“I know he won’t. He had me pegged the day we met.” Jack answered.
After a few moments of flirtatious banter, the conversation turned to more serious matters.
“So, he wants to meet us both?” Jack asked, trying to confirm his understanding.
“Meet with, actually. I already met him. He’s a guide type – he can help you a lot more than I can. And there are things that just don’t add up.”
Jack nodded, “Mr J. There are a lot more effective ways to kill a guy than attacking his neighbors. That makes no sense at all.”
Crystal cocked her head, “I wonder. I thought originally, when I realized it had been a vampire, I mean, that maybe they wanted to send a creature you would have trouble fighting. But any vampire strong enough to create a new vampire – or even try to – would be strong enough to go after an unemerged slayer. So no, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”
“Tresmayne said he didn’t know why, either.” Jack looked out the window wistfully for a moment, “It boils down to this: Mr. J would be alive if he hadn’t known me.”
“It isn’t your fault.”
Jack nodded, “Or yours, either. Tresmayne said Ethan though you might feel guilty about it for some reason?”
“I did, at first. If I’d been home, I’d have sensed that thing a lot sooner than you did, concealment or no concealment. I might could have stopped it. But if it was the same one I met the other night, I’m not so sure now. That thing concealed itself much better than any I’ve been around before.” Crystal bit her lip, “Still, I wish I’d been here to try.”
“Yeah, I get that. I can’t say that I blame myself. I didn’t know any of this and I wouldn’t have stayed here if I had. But I wish something would have been different.” Jack sighed, “Tresmayne didn’t think there would be any danger to my family but that’s something I have to really think about now. I can move if I have to.”
Crystal reached across and took his hand, “Creatures cannot sense relatives or friends like they do slayers. They don’t know who to attack to get at us like that. The Mistress herself said so.”
Jack gave her hand a gentle squeeze, “That’s not what happened.”
“The only way this makes sense is if someone somehow knew what I was – or what someone in the building was – and was trying to draw me out. The choice of going after Mr. J tells me they didn’t know it was me, just that it was someone in the building.”
Crystal looked at him strangely, “How?”
“Everyone loved Mr J. Stands to reason that if you mess with him and the slayer lives in the building, it’d get the slayer’s attention, which it did. They figured out who I was when I ran up the fire escape. So they know that much, which explains how they knew to attack me at work.The night you chased that thing, I sensed something but didn’t know what it was. That was probably also to draw me out but they got you instead.” Jack exhaled, “None of which is good. They are in a better position. They know who we are and we are clueless about who they are.”
“Wow.” Crystal looked at Jack with awe.
“You’re incredible. You figured all that out so fast. Most new slayers spend a couple months just getting used to the idea that vampires and other monsters exist. You just accepted it and started analyzing better than I’ll ever be able to.”
“Oh, come now…”
Crystal shook her head vigorously, “I mean it. It’s not false modesty. I’m not that kind of smart and never will be. I stink at chess and anything that involves strategy and tactics. You obviously don’t.”
“Well, I’m not that good at chess…” Jack began, but then paused, “Yeah, okay, I’ve always been good at that kind of game.”
“Not just ‘good’ – none of that even occurred to me. You’re really something.”
It was Jack’s turn to blush, “Well, thanks.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Well, the first thing is to meet with Ethan Collinsworth. When did he say he was available?” Jack asked with a strange determination in his voice.
Crystal pulled out her calendar, “Well…”