True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Nineteen

The outcome was she beat my socks off. Scrabble tip: anatomy terms are really good for triple word scores and using up letters like X and Z. We’re playing Clue next time – she still doesn’t get that game. I might stand a chance.

It was getting late and I had to be back in bed. Thompkins nodded as I entered but was still glued to his computers. I made a mental note that I’d be installing those burglar bars if he ever wanted them and went into my bedroom.

Visitors came and went. Marta stopped by for the shop – she wanted a play by play of my recovery so far. Fortunately, Momma had come with her and provided all the non-existent details. In the process, she told not a single lie. She recounted everything that had been done for me – all true if unnecessary – and her very real and equally unnecessary discussions with a rehabilitation center in Meridian Mississippi that the new neighbor Mrs. Abernathy had spoken highly of – and went on to discuss Mrs Abernathy’s career as a nurse. Marta left just as in the dark as before but completely satisfied. My mother missed her calling – she should have been a politician.

A few more folks, mostly neighbors not living in the building, dropped by. Nothing I couldn’t handle myself although Momma stayed through a couple more. I still didn’t like this and still felt like a heel for doing it.

Poppa came to relieve Momma on the last two. When Mrs. Jameson from the next block over left, Poppa pulled out the cribbage board. We played a few games, mostly to stay busy in case of more visits. We ended up in a tie, rare for us.

“Jack, what’s eating you, Son?” Poppa asked after I made a particularly boneheaded move.

“Nothing, Poppa, just been cooped up too long.” I replied, more concerned about how to save my game from my stupidity.

“Hmm, you were looking kind of funny at that Jameson woman.”

“Was I?” I still wasn’t paying attention to what Poppa was saying because I had realized my cribbage game was now in a hopeless mess.

“When I told her you might go to Mississippi, you looked like you ate a frog. Now, me, I wouldn’t mind a trip down South. See one of them big houses and try some fishing, maybe.”

“Fishing?” I looked up confused.

“Michael says there are some pretty good places, especially for bass and catfish. They don’t do so much fly fishing as boat fishing which suits me – my right hip doesn’t feel right for a day or two after being in the river nowadays.”

“I didn’t even realize you’d met Mr Abernathy.” I told Poppa.

“Oh sure, he came by a few days after they moved in. Paid his respects, sounded me out about some boy interested in his girl.” Poppa winked.

I laughed, “Okay, that I believe.” I grew more pensive, “But Poppa, you know I’m not going down there.”

“Not right now, but maybe later. Things go well, you should go meet the girl’s friends and family. Not rushing, mind you, but she’s a good girl and if you’re lucky, maybe she’s the one. And a few grandkids wouldn’t hurt – maybe a boy that likes racing.”

“You sly – Tina is still in Middle School! What do you need grandkids for?”

“A man can want what he doesn’t need. Besides, I was thinking about that year you kids did the derby. I have an idea…”

“Well, you don’t need to wait for grandkids.” I chuckled as I explained about Jo-jo.

Cribbage done, Poppa settled back in the chair, “I still want to know what’s up with you, Son.”

Poppa doesn’t do this often but when he does its like talking to a clairvoyant. There’s also no fighting it.

I sighed, “Poppa, it – it doesn’t feel right, letting people think I’m sick.”

Poppa looked out the window, “How… how close did you come, Son?”

I paused. I didn’t want to talk about this any more but I knew I wasn’t going to get out of it. “Pretty close, Poppa.” I admitted. “I wasn’t so sick when I got up but if I’d gone back to bed like I planned, I probably wouldn’t have woken up.”

He nodded, “This plan of yours, you think you can get that thing that killed Daniel?”

I nodded solemnly, “Yeah, I do. I could be wrong but I don’t think so and if I’m right, he should play straight into our hands.”

“So, you’re feeling bad about letting people think you are worse off than you are which you are doing to get the thing that killed Daniel and stop the … man … that keeps trying to hurt you, your friends and your family.”

Technically, that summed it up pretty well but I wasn’t quite ready to agree with where he was going, “Well, yes, but Poppa…”

“Boy…” Okay, now, I knew to shut up. Poppa only called me boy when he was deadly serious – or about to wear out my backside.

“Do you really think all your friends and family are stupid?”

“Um, what?” I thought I knew where he was going but I couldn’t recall Poppa ever even using the word ‘stupid’ let alone asking that question before.

“Lying – which you haven’t done yet – to protect others isn’t wrong. No one is dumb enough to be mad at someone for telling them something that keeps them safe or helps them get safe even if it isn’t true. As long as there’s good cause – and nearly losing your life is pretty ________  good cause in my book – and will be in everyone else’s when the time comes.”

I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t. In a minute or so, it would sink in that he was right. But that was the first time in twelve years that I’d heard Poppa curse.

I finally managed to mumble something in agreement. Poppa stood up and told me good night. As I watched him leave, it hit me – he’d lost his best friend, had his little girl try to leave and nearly lost a son. Vinnie’s little campaign of misdirection had cost my father dearly. It had cost all of us much too dearly.

I stopped feeling like a heel for doing what needed to be done. I started thinking a lot more clearly than I had in a while. Vinnie had hurt everyone I care about, either directly or indirectly. He had used people that had enough pain in their lives like little Ayami. Crystal had been wounded. Little Grace Myers was still nearly inconsolable for the loss of her precious kitties. That __________ Vinnie was one hundred percent rat and he had to be stopped. It was past time that he got more than a little of the pain he had been dealing out.

It was time to let the rat take a bite of poisoned cheese.

 

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Eighteen

Once the girls cleared out, I got on the phone to Crystal.

“Tell me about Kagome’s cousin.”

“What about her? She is an exchange student and stays with Kimberly’s folks.”

“Have you met her?” I asked.

“Um…” Crystal had to think about it, “Um, no – I was going to but I cancelled. Some bozo asked me out and I felt sorry for him.”

“Very funny. What’s her name?”

“Fujiyama.” Crystal answered.

“Her first name?”

“That’s it. Fujiyama … er something. I stink with names, you know that. I haven’t met her – Kagome told me her name at one point but I don’t remember the last part.”

For two years, until Kevin managed to convince Poppa that cable was a good idea because it had ESPN, my brothers Kevin, Marty and Mike had all plopped on my couch every Saturday night to watch anime. I joined them more often than not. It wasn’t so much my thing as theirs but there were some good shows, I had to admit that. It’s also the only reason I knew Japanese names don’t occur in the same order as ours.

I got control of my voice. I did not want my girlfriend ticked off at me – especially while I still owed her a date since we had to postpone Saturday’s outing for my fake convalescence. “Did you know that with Japanese names, the given name is the last part?”

Silence. Ten, nine, eight…

“Oh crud – Fujiyama is her surname?” Crystal caught on. “Kagome must think I’m an idiot.” More silence as wheels turned, “It couldn’t be – is her first name Ayami?”

“That’s what Monica and Jessica were calling her, yes. And she’s a tech school exchange student.”

“Shoot, that I did know but it didn’t cross my mind. I mean, I don’t know a lot of folks from Japan but New York must have a few hundred thousand, right?”

“Probably not quite that many, but yeah, a lot. I never even thought about your friend Kagome for the same reason – what are the odds?”

“Jack, are they following me around?”

I paused. It was a good question. Ayami being a creature and in Crystal’s circle of friends was a big coincidence in and of itself – but that kind of thing happens to slayers, at least according to my better read sister Lisa. That Vinnie latched on to Ayami, that was much too big of a coincidence. Which got my wheels turning finally – where the heck was he coming up with all these things to throw at us, anyway? He’d gotten Thompkins from Canada, my two new pet werewolves from New Jersey and Ohio (the talkative one was from Jersey) and now a Japanese exchange student who happened to be a werecat.

“I don’t think so – but I need to work on it. Let me call you back later.”

“Okay, bye, Jack.”

“Bye, Pretty Girl.”

I was hollering for Thompkins before it shut off. He came running, probably thinking I was about to die or something.

Once I calmed him down, we got to work. I admit, this is what we should have done to begin with – yes, it’s blinking obvious and yes, I’m an idiot. In my defense, I have eight siblings, a work crew that might as well be siblings and an entire building of honorary relatives – social life is one thing I never need go hunt – so while I own a computer and have internet, I don’t have or need a ‘social media presence’.

That’s what Thompkins calls it. I use the computer to look up stuff I’m curious about and email people I already know. I tried that bird thing once and it annoyed the heck out of me – I moved out of my parent’s apartment so I didn’t have to have people chatter at me all the time! I type the occasional letter on it nowadays and my homework when I’m in school. Other than that, it’s a large paperweight with delusions of adequacy. Thompkins had been messing with it ever since he found out I was four OS’s out of date – you’d have to ask him what that means.

I will grant it works better now that he’s improved it and the new internet access isn’t half bad. But I still don’t get the ‘social media presence’ or the need.

But I do know enough to know millions of people do what I don’t – and that has to include both creatures and slayers, right? Both, according to the Chronicles (I don’t ask Lisa everything and Nyota is still here, after all), existed in pre-history – although the Chronicles record some pretty odd early stuff, it’s basically copied from notches on sticks and paintings in caves. Which means somehow, this stuff can update to new technology. Or be updated, whatever.

I called Lisa – she had class that morning but was on her way home thanks to her last class being cancelled for the day. She promised to come by as soon as she ditched her books.

The wait was long. Okay, it wasn’t so much long as I was impatient. Thompkins had plenty to do on the research front but I needed Lisa to check something for us before we did anything more. Little sisters are always underfoot when you don’t need them and no where to be found when you do. Yeah, I know that isn’t true – I was getting really impatient.

Which had far more to do with being cooped up than my sister’s college schedule. I hadn’t been home all day this much since sixth grade when I had the measles. I had plenty of leave time accrued since I almost never take it so taking off wasn’t a problem, although I also had to be in bed every evening since that’s when my coworkers, boss and even a few customers were likely to drop by. That made matters worse – I wasn’t lying – I told everyone I was okay, it was just a precaution – which was absolutely true. But  they assumed the precaution was to protect my health – not to keep a rogue slayer from figuring out that he hadn’t succeeded as well as he thought. I felt like a heel.

I went to my computer and played some card games. I knew full well my bad humor was my own fault but it was beginning to get to me and I needed to get it back under control. I wondered if Lisa would settle for Scrabble this evening – something not likely to get us started fussing.

She finally got there. She actually knocked – some of my siblings have manners – and of course, spent a few minutes with Thompkins before settling down. By then, I was in a better mood – and had new high scores in three different games.

“So, what’s up, Big Brother?” She actually smiled.

“I need you to look at some websites. This will sound funny but I’m looking for sites where slayers or creatures or both can talk without anyone else being able to read it.” I explained.

“Like Momma’s cookbooks?” she asked.

“Exactly.” I nodded.

She gave me a big grin, “You do do your homework sometimes, don’t you? But you’re way behind – how about I email you a list instead?”

Thompkins laughed, “That’s my Li-li!”

“Smart alec.” I tried not to grin.

“Slow poke.” She was still smiling.

Thompkins was already up. He handed her a laptop he wasn’t using and went back to his work.

Lisa logged in and did her thing. Less than two minutes later, she had provided a list of what she called ‘dual sites’ – websites she found to be legible both in normal English and in whatever the language of slayers is called. I made a note to look that one up myself.

Thompkins now went to work in earnest. Four interconnected machines and two of them showing nothing but computer code. His hands flew over the keyboards and his poor mouse got a heavy duty work out, too.

I had no idea what he was doing. Lisa realized pretty quickly. She looked over his shoulder long enough to confirm her suspicion then explained it to her computer challenged brother.

“He’s writing a program to do the searching for him.” She began, “It will go through the sites and probably their archives…”

Thompkins gave a quick nod without looking around.

“… to find what he’s looking for, then alert him and, if I know James, go ahead and organize all the data.”

Thompkins actually blushed at the compliment as he nodded again.

“So, basically, we’re in the way.” I concluded as I got up, “Let’s go to Momma’s – if you don’t have homework, we can get a game of Scrabble. Otherwise, I am going to do those upper cabinets while I can.”

“You’ll have time for both, Sir.” Thompkins responded, never looking up. “The writing will take a while – I’ve got to do some security work as well – and then the search will also take time. Give me five hours or so.”

“Will do.” I answered.

“You get started on the cabinets. Anatomy shouldn’t take me too long and I can help. Why Scrabble?” Lisa asked as we left the apartment.

“Well, I thought we should try something where you don’t already know the outcome, Ms Smarty-pants…”  I told her as I closed the door.

 

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Seventeen

I had enough sense to warn Momma. I didn’t have any concerns about her play acting – because I knew darn good and well she wouldn’t be play acting. Crystal handled notifying the rest of the building – we didn’t need anyone going solo right now.

Tresmayne called from his apartment. He’d completed his search – if Mycroft or one of his pets had been in the area, they weren’t now. Tresmayne didn’t believe any creatures other than the werecat had been there. He gave me the same route the werecat had described for me – meaning he had correctly followed its track. There was next to no chance that Crystal and I had been observed – Plan A was a go.

The werecat, thoroughly confused, put all the plumbing back the way she’d done it originally. Crystal’s sword was stashed at my parent’s place for the moment. She stayed there – she would let herself out in the confusion later, just in case something decided to come watch in the daylight. The werecat made herself scarce, as commanded. She wasn’t supposed to drop her concealment per Vinnie’s original command so she left still concealed.

Thompkins arrived home and everything went according to script. He ‘alerted’ Momma, called 911, and started throwing open windows that Crystal and I had closed again. I stayed out of the bedroom until he got there, then jumped in bed and ‘passed out’. My head was still anything but okay, so it wasn’t that hard to fake.

I must have gotten a good bit more of the monoxide because I was throwing up soon after the paramedics arrived. They started me on oxygen and threw me into the ambulance. Momma insisted on coming with us – if I hadn’t been so sick, it would have been funny listening to that poor driver losing the fight.

I’d considered faking my death but that would have added way too many wrinkles – plus, we don’t have a budget, let alone a budget for fake funerals.

I knew full well there were holes but Vinnie hadn’t been that thorough thus far so it was worth the risk. Obviously, the hospital records would show I’d been discharged after successful treatment – and my mother’s inquisition. The nice nurse deposited me onto the curb and my brother Tim ‘helped’ me into the car. I thought that was probably unnecessary – they would expect Tresmayne to be about and were probably no where near the hospital But Tim pointed out that if I could have normal, despite being related to me, people helping me out, so could Vinnie.

He was right, of course, even though I doubted Vinnie worked that way. Vinnie struck me as the control freak type – he might not be thorough but he would make sure anything he did throw at me was under his control. Regardless, I played the part of invalid for the public.

Tim and Kevin half carried me up the stoop and into the apartment. An old wheel chair left long ago by Mrs Dawson’s family after her death had been brought up from the basement and cleaned up. I didn’t even try to fight it – acting sick was my stupid idea so I’d best not make too much fuss when the family tried to help.

The cops had already been by the hospital to interview me. They had been all over the neighborhood talking to anyone that would speak to them. Evidently, all they got for their efforts was a lot of wasted time and paper.

I felt a little bad about that – wasting the cops time isn’t a good thing – but I didn’t see a way around it. If we were going to lure Vinnie out, then Vinnie was going to have to believe he’d gotten me out of the way. That part of the drama was yet to be played out. I knew how we were going to do it, but I couldn’t rush it. Oh, I wanted to – but people act in some predictable manners. A young, healthy guy doesn’t get sick and go to a convalescence hospital the same day. The guy’s friends/cohorts don’t move out immediately thereafter. There has to be some time for the adjustments – at least if they are real.

Mine weren’t, but I needed it to look good for Vinnie. I could put up with a wheel chair and my family for a few days – probably.

Mrs. Abernathy proved to be a Godsend. A retired nurse, she knew a lot about the type of recovery I was supposed to be having. She also knew how to make it look good – at a reasonable price. Medical equipment was rented and set up in my bedroom. Mrs Abernathy and a couple girls Crystal knew from  college became my ‘nurses’. She let them borrow some of her old scrubs and Tim scrounged up a couple of convincing looking tackle boxes to make them look like home health workers.

Thompkins reviewed the feeds from the cameras. The werecat only showed up when it was in human form and then only when it first walked up to the building. The video showed her buttoning up the coveralls and disappearing. That was some concealment.

It was also Vinnie’s biggest advantage. Five days later, I was thinking about how to neutralize it while Jessica, Monica and I were playing Risk. Jessica and Monica were the pretend nurses and we were just killing time until they were to leave. They weren’t in on most of the details – just that a prank had gone wrong and I wanted to get even.

Monica took a small country on my right flank. It wasn’t the move I expected so I started concentrating on the game a bit more. I should have concentrated a lot more – with that little gambit, she started to decimate my right flank. With Jessica on the left, I couldn’t pull the resources I needed to fend her off – then I realized, too late – that they had planned this squeeze play. It didn’t take them long to finish me.

“How long have you two been planning that?” I asked, conceding the game.

“Since the day before yesterday when you beat us for the fifth time straight.” Monica admitted. “Truth be told, my friend Kagome came up with the plan. She and her cousin play all the time.”

“Kagome?” I’d heard Crystal mention the name, “Oh, from Japan. I remember now. Bring her by sometime if she’d like to play – must be hard, being away from home.”

Monica smiled, “I’ll ask her. but her cousin is here with her – special exchange student.”

“High school?”

Monica shook her head, “No, tech school – I didn’t even know they had exchange programs for tech schools until I met Ayami.”

I kept a straight face – just barely. “Oh, Kagome’s cousin?”

Jessica chipped in, “Yes, they live with Kimberly’s family in Queens while they are going to school. Ayami is planning to go to Korea for an exchange program next year and Kimberly and Kagome are talking about renting a place with Monica and Sally and I then.”

Ayami sure got around. I don’t believe in coincidence. At all. But Crystal had never mentioned a cousin werecat – I felt sure I’d remember that. “What, no room for Crystal?”

“Silly, she has her own room – if things all work out, we’ll rent from her parents. Of course, that won’t be for a few months yet. Ayami doesn’t leave for Korea until January and she’s too young to live with us – legally, I mean.” Jessica frowned, “That sounds all wrong – she’s just sixteen and has to have a guardian, that’s all.”

I nodded, “Sure, I get it – no parent wants their baby girl being chaperoned by a bunch of crazed college students.” I winked, “She’d probably pick up all sorts of bad habits like playing Risk – oh, wait, she has that one already, right?”

Monica tossed a pillow my way, “You!”

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Sixteen

Morning showed up, all dressed and ready for the party. I was not amused – not at all.

I’m usually an early riser but I still wasn’t fully caught up on my sleep and it was beginning to tell on me. I got up, forced myself into the routine of the day and seriously started debating calling in sick.

Breakfast was not happening – opening the refrigerator was a mistake – the thought of food did very unpleasant things to my stomach. I decided ten more minutes in bed was a good idea. I vaguely noticed that Thompkins was gone as I drug myself back to the bedroom.

My head had a small orchestra tuning up. I was almost to the bed when the phone started buzzing and the 1812 Overture began in my skull. I so did NOT want to pick up that phone – but I did.

“GET OUT OF THERE!” Crystal screamed into my ear. “NOW, MOVE IT!”

My brain went on autopilot. I snatched up Arnie and hit the fire escape.

Fresh air, both a blessing and a curse. My head was clearing but it felt like it was doing it by squirting my brains into a trash compactor. Now by rights, I should have been puking out my guts but the slayer part of my brain was on the job. I knew something was below me – since I’m on the first floor and the window is only twelve feet off the ground that wasn’t far. I was over the side, leaping for the ground instantly.

I wasn’t sure what it was – it wasn’t a creature I’d seen before. It looked human enough to anyone else but I knew it wasn’t. It was dressed like a repairman – possibly the most suspicious disguise you could pick for coming near our building – Poppa only hired journeymen when the work was too involved for us boys and he – which hadn’t happened in the last ten years.

It mewed. Literally, it made a cat like sound, sort of half startled and half scared. I didn’t want to kill it – not only did I not feel the need, I didn’t even sense a threat from this thing. That, and I wanted information it couldn’t give me dead.

It slumped to the ground, still mewing, probably assuming I was about to finish it. That was when I saw the tubing running from the basement window, broken now, to my window. I knew instantly what it was and why it was there. Things had taken another weird turn – now Vinnie was trying to kill me.

That actually made sense – I’d commanded those werewolves, sent them after what I hope was his pet vampire Mycroft – I was now an actual problem. If he still needed this distraction then he needed to be rid of me.

I pulled the creature to its feet. “Listen to me.” I wasn’t any too kindly about it, “Go fix what you did – then report to my apartment. Move NOW.”

In a flash it transformed into a cat and leapt into the basement. I could hear the sounds of tools being put to use faster than usual. Through the window, I could see it, in human form again, disassembling the rig that had been funneling carbon monoxide into my apartment.

Crystal joined me, her sword strapped to her back, “Are you okay?”

I nodded, “How?”

“Finley woke me – Arnie saw something come in the window. He thought it was a cat – but you acted funny when you got up and Arnie didn’t like that.”

I nodded again, and regretted it. The adrenaline was wearing off and the trumpet section was gearing up again. “Figures – I’m amazed Arnie warned you at all.”

Crystal sighed, “Arnie has a lot of death on him – he knows the smell. He knew you were dying – that was what got him to finally warn Finley and me.”

I didn’t nod but made a noise to acknowledge her comment. The tubing was disappearing into the basement. I was pretty sure I’d left the window open – that was when another, more frightening thought hit me.

“You!” I barked.

The creature appeared in the window. “Near done.” It mewed.

“Did you send gas anywhere else in the building?” I demanded.

“No, no, just one room. Have to, not want to.”

“Finish up and come out here.” I ordered.

“Yes. Do.” It disappeared again, evidently stowing away its tools and supplies. After a couple minutes, a black and white cat climbed back out of the window. It looked at me, but I shook my head slightly. Picking it up, I motioned for Crystal to go in through the fire escape. I went around and went in through the front door.

Crystal had all the windows open by the time I got there. I’d made a quick check of my parents apartment but the monoxide detector was on and working. The detector in my apartment was open and the battery removed. Well, that explained why it had come in.

I still wasn’t sure what it was. I turned to Crystal as yet another thought hit me, “Can you sense this thing at all?”

She shook her head, “No, it’s concealed.” She started catching on, “That’s weird – neither of us sensed it and neither did anyone else. A werecat shouldn’t be that powerful – not by a long shot.”

Well, now I knew what it was – I’d look  up the details later. “Where’s Thompkins?”

“He went out a few hours ago – an…”

“Amber alert.” I finished the thought. “Tresmayne go with him?”

Crystal nodded, “He followed, yes. How did… Oh, oh no!”

“Don’t get ahead of ourselves – they may simply have waited for one to get Thompkins attention. That wouldn’t take long and would be simpler and safer than creating one.” I explained.

Plopping into my recliner, I regarded the werecat. What the heck was I supposed to do with this thing?

Dropping it to the floor, I had it transform. It wasn’t much to look at in human form – seemed way too small for a man – and its face was wrong somehow.

“Why are you dressed as a man?” Crystal asked it.

“Master say not look suspicious. Girl fixing furnace in summer very suspicious. Man fixing furnace in summer, not suspicious.” It answered.

I gawked. That was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. A repairman breaking into the place to fix a furnace in the middle of the night – THAT was its cover story? “Who came up with that?”

“Master say look like man, come when he say, fix furnace but in bad way.” It answered.

Okay, it had been given an idiotic plan and just assumed the rest.

“Why are you still concealed?” Crystal wanted to know.

“No take off – no clothes.”

“You mean your coveralls are providing the concealment?” Getting a baffled look in response, I tried a different version, “Your clothes conceal you?”

It nodded, “Yes, clothes special – make special conceal. But Ayami no have other clothes.”

Crystal took off her sword and laid it on the kitchen table. “I should have something she can…”

I shook my head, “No, I don’t think so.” I fished my phone out of my pocket and dialed. “Thompkins? … No, that’s okay. … Is Tresmayne nearby?… Good. Ask him if anything followed you two or is nearby now. … No? Great! Here’s what I want you to do…”

Crystal looked on in confusion as I outlined my plan but she quickly caught on. Once I was off the phone, I turned to the werecat. “Is Ayami your name?”

She nodded, “Yes.”

“Okay, Ayami, you don’t have to be afraid. This wasn’t your fault – but we do have to get something straight first…”

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Fifteen

My normal as anything we have around here sister did more to educate me in the next hour and a half than the all the reading, talking and questioning of the previous two months had done combined. If this job came with a budget, I’d hire her to educate every new slayer. Seriously.

Unlike other slayers who instinctively know quite a bit – but don’t instinctively know what you don’t know – my sister just assumed we were starting from scratch and went from there. She moved on from things I already knew – as soon as I passed her quizzes – and hit everything she could think of that I really needed to know.

That proved to be quite a lot. Color is important but it isn’t static – like people, creatures can change over time. Each of the three colors is measured on a 10 point scale by those who can detect color. Higher is better so Thompkins 7 was actually pretty high.

Possession is more complicated. For the  most part, it isn’t ownership – and in the few exceptions where it is, only the Mistress herself can actually ‘own’ a creature. Possession is usually a kind of patronage. The Mistress (or whichever true born happens to be involved) is the patron. The slayer that takes possession is the steward – this explained why Thompkins had called me that several times – I had been meaning to ask. Yes, any creature possessed will obey the steward as if obeying the Mistress herself. That meant I had to be even more careful of possession than of my command ability – my off the cuff comments could become law.

But the creature gets more out of it – the increased chance of ‘achieving’ a soul. Dispossessed creatures (yes, there’s a word for it – and yes, Lisa knew it) cannot be safely around humans, not even the benign forms can be around humans a lot. But without that contact, it is difficult to impossible to remain clean or unblooded – which is a necessary part of achieving.

For Thompkins, the issue is remaining clean – doing no harm to innocent humans. That sounds easier than it is – even though as a function of his type he protects kids, he still emanates a lot of power that can be harmful over time. He also is as susceptible as anyone else to temptation – like the temptation of having kidnapping scum for dinner. With no soul, he’s not considered a moral actor (that is weird as heck to me too – he’s certainly trying to behave morally) so nothing short of outright defiance of God counts as sin right now. He has to be as harmless as possible to the people around him, even the bad ones. Not an easy row to hoe.

For the werewolves, the issue is less complicated but harder to accomplish – they must remain ‘unblooded’. Blooding is simply blood letting – having drawn human blood, any human blood. Once blooded – which for an average werewolf happens the first time they transform – it takes 1000 years of not drawing human blood at all to be considered unblooded again – then and only then they can work toward achievement.

Being possessed or in a pack makes it much, much easier on the creature. A werewolf in the Mistress’ pack simply cannot hurt a human without her direct command. A possessed creature with its steward can be around humans safely almost constantly – his power is contained in the possession and doesn’t harm anyone.

That explained why Thompkins reacted the way he did – from his point of view, he’d gained a lot more than he lost. Having been born a creature with parents to teach him well, he had been striving toward ‘cleanliness’ his whole life. There would be a cleansing period similar to that of the blooded creatures but it lasted only a year and a day. Then he too, could work toward achievement.

Gaining a soul is a lot more than just playing nice in the sandbox. Only God can grant a soul. There is no Bible for soul achievement – nor are there hard and fast rules. Piety, prayer, charity, and love are the four ‘pillars’ but when and how a soul is exactly achieved, only God decides. It’s a dark path with no flashlight. Just a Voice – that’s how Lisa said the books describe it. A Voice saying ‘follow’ and leading out of the darkness.

I’m more of a ‘turn on the headlights’ kind of guy – but it’s not my business to tell God how to do His business. Over the years, I’ve come to see the wisdom in the process. I guess because I have seen it happen a few times now – and there’s an enormous amount of spiritual healing that comes along the way.

You wouldn’t think creatures, as powerful as they are, would be hurting. You’d be wrong – whether created or born, all creatures are in spiritual pain. They instinctively know they are missing something – something they can’t get back. Werewolves and vampires aren’t just feeding to continue to live when they attack humans – their confused spirits are hoping to capture what’s missing in themselves – the souls that is there in their victim.

That can never work – which creates a vicious cycle. Some creatures resist – they attack only to sustain themselves. Others, in anger and pain, attack without reason, striking out at a world they cannot comprehend. Some of these can still be helped – some can even be possessed or brought into the pack. Others refuse – they chose to follow the darkness. Those are the ones that have to be slain.

It was sobering, to tell the truth. Lisa went on to explain that slayers have an instinctive knowledge – they know when to strike and when not to. Crystal had let a werewolf and a vampire live – circumstance? I began to doubt it. I had let two werewolves live because killing them felt wrong. Now I knew it was the right decision. And it was comforting to know that Someone was in the driver’s seat to make sure I knew when to slay and when not to.

I had a new respect for my little sister. She’d understood more than I did. And not just from reading Momma’s books – she pulled out her Bible as well to explain a few things. She made connections I’d have never seen.

So, inadvertently, I’d solved the Thompkins problem. He would have his cleansing period and then I had no doubt he’d go on to achieve. Once ensouled, he would be as human as the rest of us – once gained, a soul cannot be lost. Meaning they cannot ever again be made into creatures – salvation is a gift to be accepted or not and that is a choice only a soul can make. I knew what Thompkins would chose – that was not in any doubt. There would be a white wedding in my little sister’s future with a good, God fearing, human being as the groom.

I was careful not to smile at her during my epiphany – she’d have creamed me. Having straightened out her big brother as much as possible for the night – and impressed the heck out of our mother who had listened in as she cleaned the kitchen where we sat – Lisa decided to say her good nights. She trotted back across the hall to speak to Thompkins then came back, kissed Momma and trotted off to bed. I put things on the top shelf for Momma, agreed that my ‘normal’ little sister was something else and with my own kiss for Momma, trotted back to my apartment.

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Fourteen

Okay, so we had enlisted the Steel Brigade. I got Arnie from my room and Crystal ‘awakened’ him. He was, according to Crystal, instantly on board with the plan. He expressed his metallic heart’s desire to ‘stick’ the guy that killed Mr. J. He was going to get the chance if I could make this work.

I had stopped feeling silly talking about blades as if they were people. At least most of the time. Crystal told me that Arnie had an ‘affinity’ for me – he liked me because he thought I’d stick him into the vampire. His affinity for Kevin was evidently stronger – partially because he’d been a heirloom gift to Kevin – a continuation of the old man’s love for my younger brother. I guess I understand that. Good enough – since my only real interest in Arnie was whatever help he could be slaying that monster that had killed our friend.

Crystal left the apartment to select good places for the blades to be placed. Tresmayne left with her – he had access to the attic minus going out the fire escape. Thompkins and my sister were polite enough to stop the lovey-dovey stuff and actually talk to me.

I had caught the last bit of their conversation – not intentionally – and had a question about something Thompkins had said. I decided to ask him in private later. For now, we were talking about the relative merits of burglar bars. Thompkins was considering them for his apartment and Lisa knew I’d done more than a few installations.

Explaining the options for emergency clamps – the things that let you get the heck out if need be – it crossed my mind that this was the most normal conversation we’d had in this room in weeks. The only normal one involving the three of us anywhere. I kinda regretted making it take a turn toward our normal weirdness, but that man wanted the best information I could provide.

“You need to consider beefing up the hinges and clamps, however.” I told Thompkins.

“Really? Why?”

I grinned, “They aren’t intended for a lot of use – just to open once in a while for maintenance or emergency. But you may well use them a lot more than that – all things considered.”

He chuckled, “And my mother had such high hopes that I’d outgrow using the windows as doorways.”

I laughed, “So did mine – she’s been disappointed with all nine of her youngsters thus far.”

Lisa stuck her tongue out at me, “I haven’t been on the fire escape since Billy Martin dared you guys to glue those fake spiders to all the windows for Halloween.”

“That was five years ago – wait, you little rat! You’re the one that told Momma!”

Lisa laughed, “I thought you knew – I followed Marty out and Mike put a spider down my shirt. He said it was a boys only thing.”

“That idiot – no wonder you ran to Momma.”

“Poppa, actually – a girl knows crying works better on her Poppa. Momma came in while I was telling him.”

Thompkins was smiling as if he had been there. I think he was enjoying a side of family life he hadn’t had being an only kid.

Lisa evidently concluded the same thing, “So, three point five people pups and a house in the country?” she teased gently.

He smiled but grew more serious, “I’d love that – but not pups if possible. Let’s see if I can achieve – we’ll race. See who gets the goal first – you getting your MD or me achieving.”

Lisa punched him a lot lighter than she ever punched any of us brothers, “No bet – you’ll be there in no time and I still have seven years to go!”

Since it had come up again, I asked, “Sorry, but achieve?”

Lisa looked at me with her ‘my brother is a moron’ look. Thompkins nodded, “Yes, it’s my fondest hope. Now that I have a steward, it’s a real possibility.”

“Um…”

Lisa tossed a pillow at me, “Idiot, honestly, do you read at all? It means gaining a soul.”

I gaped at her, “What? They can do that?”

“Sure – why do you think the Mistress of the Night bothers to keep a pack together? She can summon any night creature any time she pleases – but being in her pack gives the creatures a better chance of achieving. Possession is just one step removed…” Lisa smiled at Thompkins, “and…”

“Whoa, wait, Little Sister. I’ve read seven or eight books in the last few months – I have tried to do my homework – but that’s the first I’ve even heard of that. What’s ‘possession’?” I asked, figuring it couldn’t mean anything like in The Exorcist, not that way they were talking.

It was Lisa’s turn to gape at me, “Are you serious? It’s what you did, Big Brother! You took possession and didn’t know it?” She shook her head, “No, that can’t be it – what did you think you’d done to James?”

I was instantly sober, “Oh, you know about that. So possession is enslavement, huh…” I might have done it, but I didn’t have to be proud of it.

Thompkins blinked at me like I had just turned blue or something. Lisa’s jaw dropped literally, “No, no – oh for pity’s sake!” She jumped up, “Stay right there, I’ll go get the books you need from Momma.” She took a step then changed direction and came to me. Grabbing my arm, she pulled for me to get up, “No, come with me – we need to get you straightened out before you make a fool of yourself. Good grief…”

I followed – she had a death grip on my arm and I wasn’t gonna fight her so there was no choice. As the door closed behind us, I heard Thompkins howl in laughter.

Sometimes I hate being a slayer…

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Thirteen

Thompkins had left me a note then next morning. One of his jobs needed some face time with him and he would be back later.

I finished reading his notes while my cream of wheat was cooling. Nothing that contradicted my conclusions and a little more insight into Vinnie. Cocky jerk – I had better words for him but Momma wouldn’t approve. But that cocky attitude would work for us, regardless of what I called him.

Crystal was on the stoop with my sister Donna when I got outside. That was unexpected – Donna doesn’t know what the crack of dawn is and hasn’t gotten out of bed before eight since she graduated high school. They were doing the girl talk thing and I didn’t want to be late so we exchanged quick greetings and I headed for work.

Gino was in a forgiving mood, probably because I’d done a bang up job on the shop the night before. I’d had time, waiting for Crystal and Tresmayne and besides, the shop is never in really bad shape, anyway. Mr Salvador would have a heart attack.

Crystal was on the stoop with all my sisters when I got home. I sighed inwardly, knowing that all my childhood secrets were now revealed. She probably had more on my former girlfriends than I remembered – girls remember the weirdest things. Coming from a large family, there are no true secrets and you get used to having your siblings tell the entire world about your failings – that facebook thing making it infinitely worse, by the by. But I had hoped I might have a little more time before she found out I’d pinned a corsage on Marci Anderson literally. It was an accident, I swear.

Supper was with my parents. Crystal managed to snag the potatoes on her own as Marty and Kevin passed them. She was getting the hang of this. She didn’t mention anything my sister’s had told her, but she did chuckle when Tina mentioned bowling. The little smarty pants always tells that story. Mike distracted me and I rolled the ball the wrong way – right over her foot. I wonder if being an only child is still an option.

She and Lisa joined Thompkins and I in my apartment afterwards. Tresmayne joined us as chaperone. Well, he joined us, anyway.

I have no idea what Lisa and Thompkins were discussing. Normally, I’d be discussing anything but shop with the pretty girl in my apartment but normal isn’t a thing for me anymore. I was going to have to make more time for being with my girl – or she wasn’t going to be mine for long.

Crystal had long since explained the basics of sword singing. Only some blades ‘talk’ and what they are really doing it recording the psyches around them – which somehow forms the sword’s own personality. Can’t say I understood it but she’d gotten information from Arnie that she couldn’t have known any other way – things Mr. J had told few people. There weren’t that many guys that served in Grenada let alone had an army service bayonet with them. Crystal couldn’t have known that.

So my girlfriend talks to inanimate objects. I now have three pet werewolves – who am I to talk?

What I needed to know is how well they ‘see’ their surroundings – and how close she has to be to ‘hear’ a blade. As expected, it was complicated. Some, like Arnie ‘see” almost as if they have eyes. Others, like Finley, sense more than see. A strong blade like Finley Crystal would hear a mile away. A weaker one, like Arnie, she’d have to be close to even know he was there.

Arnie had more human blood on his tally sheet than Finley ever would – strength didn’t relate to how much blood a blade had been bathed in – that only ‘awakened’ the blade so that it recorded the psyches around it. Strength had more to do with the people the blade had been around the most. Finley was handed down to Momma from Uncle Janus who had gotten it from a true slayer that retired – he’d had seven previous slayers as owners, two of which were true slayers. That gave Finley a big leg up.

I’d had an idea about using swords as an early warning system. The cameras Thompkins installed would help but they wouldn’t show a vampire in its vampire form – if it was a type that had more than one form – or a werewolf in its wolf form, et cetera. Crystal caught on quickly – Finley and her Samantha could do what I wanted. They could be left unsheathed – both would be able to sense creatures coming into the area and both could get her attention. Samantha would be no problem – she liked working. Crystal wasn’t sure Finley would cooperate but she thought he might.

Great, I now needed cooperation from a piece of sharpened steel. I had a torch with his name on it if this stupid thing decided to be difficult now. I’m a welder – I don’t take guff from metal.

I didn’t share that tidbit with Crystal – I wasn’t sure she’d appreciate the humor. I might want to but I wasn’t suicidal enough to weld my mother’s sword to the fire escape. I went to get Finley. I wondered which was weirder – calling a sword by name or that it was my Momma’s sword.

Crystal and Tresmayne were in the kitchen when I got back. Thompkins and Lisa were still deep in conversation on my love seat. I went to the kitchen.

Crystal was making butterscotch. The girl can make her own candy. Yep, a keeper. I didn’t bother to ask how that had come up in conversation. It was almost done when I got there. She poured it out to cool and washed up my skillet.

Back in the living room, munching on the butterscotch, Crystal had me unsheathe Finley. That thing is huge – how the heck did my Momma, all of five foot one, ever pull it out, let alone swing it? It wasn’t as simple as that even for me – and I’m an inch taller than Thompkins.

She took the sword once I finally got it out. Evidently, they were now old friends because she just smiled and sat in the recliner, stroking the giant blade. My girlfriend, and the only thing I have to be on the lookout for is that she doesn’t leave me for a glorified Cuisinart.

She ‘told’ Finley what we wanted. He was evidently more amiable this go round because he agreed – then had a ‘suggestion’. This part is hard for Crystal to explain to me so it’s near impossible for me to explain to you. Swords don’t have brains, can’t think and aren’t really ‘people’ – but they synthesize the psyches they are exposed to and over time, it becomes the semblance of a mind. It can’t truly think – but it can pull old information from the psyches it has recorded. The impressive part is that Crystal can make sense of this mess of psychic goo.

Finley suggested adding Arnie to the mix. Crystal wouldn’t be able to hear Arnie but if the right creature got too close, it would set him off in a way that Finley would be able to ‘hear’. Also, Finley had sensed the vampire that killed Mr. J but Arnie had ‘seen’ it – Arnie would know it long before Finley would recognize a specific vampire. Finley had killed so many over the centuries that vampires didn’t stand out for him.

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Twelve

It was finally over. We had the chairs folded and in the hall in seconds. The ladies tended to the kitchen while we guys fetched my living room furniture from the Jenkins’ apartment. Sofa, love seat and chair along with the coffee table and end tables were all back where they belonged in less than twenty minutes. The ladies already had the kitchen spotless by the time we got the sofa down the stair.

The good nights took longer than the moving. Crystal was still laughing about the bee story – I’d have told her that one weeks ago if I’d known she’d like it so much – when we finally finished our good night. Tresmayne left last, heading for the attic. I closed the door and was alone at last.

Forget the bed, I flopped on the couch. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before I finished falling.

Gino didn’t say anything the next day. He stopped me once from welding the fence to the ladder but otherwise, he didn’t mention just how much I resembled ten miles of bad road. We got the finials finished – correctly – despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I was asleep at least once. I bought Gino lunch and explained about the town hall in my apartment – without saying what it was really about. He took it better than he should have – being that sleepy at work is not remotely okay.

I unloaded the truck myself. I owed Gino that much – and he had his daughter’s recital that evening. Bernie kept me company – I think he was making sure the crazy human didn’t do anything crazier than usual. I washed my face a couple times to wake up while putting the torches and gas canisters away. Otherwise, it was just tools to unload, sort and put away. Mr. Salvador likes a neat shop.

I was feeling crappy – mostly mad with myself for not getting enough sleep the night before. It was my fault – yes, the meeting was a great idea and things went terrific but doing it on a week night was dumb. I knew better, knew we had to be offsite and said yes anyway. Dumb.

I felt it a second before Bernie started to growl. I turned to the outer doors and watched two werewolves emerge from the growing gloom. I was not in the mood.

I also didn’t want to have to fix anything tonight. I grabbed a couple lengths of rebar. If that gets damaged, it’s no big thing. We seldom make things with it – usually we’re cutting it for DIYers to use in their projects. We keep a good bit on hand since we sell quite a bit that way.

I also didn’t want them in the shop – knocking things over would mean I’d be here all night straightening it all back up and I had definite plans for eight hours of quality time with my bed. I went out the door into the parking lot, closing the door behind me. Inside the shop, Bernie started barking like crazy.

They were big. Not as big as Tresmayne, but not the little ones I’d fought out here before. They were also edgy. Neither seemed over eager to approach. They kept a slow, steady pace but there was something hesitant about it.

That made me suspicious. Sensing things is both a power and a skill – sort of. It’s a power you’d best develop skillfully as Momma put it. I tried – I guess you’d call it reaching – out, trying to sense what was behind them.

Bingo, vampire. There is a clump of trees behind the parking lot and a small storage building before the lot lets into the street. It was back there, hiding.

These wolves didn’t want to be here. The vampire didn’t want to be seen. Got it. More fun with Dick and Jane.

I didn’t know if the vampire knew I knew about it or not but decided to pretend I didn’t.

“Hey, either of you able to talk?” I asked the werewolves. Well, ‘asked’ isn’t the right word. I put more into it than that – kind of a command. I didn’t have the hang of it, of course, but I already had ideas about how to use this ability.

“I can, slayer.” the one on the right answered.

“Pseudo-modern?” From the grotesque form, and having seen pictures, I already knew. It didn’t have to know that.

“Yes, slayer.”

“Why are you here?” That came out as intended – a command.

“To die, slayer.”

I admit, I hadn’t expected brutal honesty from an evil werewolf. Which instantly bugged me – why send your creatures on suicide missions. Dang, I didn’t honestly know what color they were. I sensed threat -it was real enough. But that would feel the same regardless, since they were obviously under command.

“Come here.” I ordered, really putting oomph into it.

They trotted up like puppies.

“Sit.”

The street lights were just coming on. They were big, ugly and sitting there like dogs. I folded my arms, pretending to consider. I still sensed the vampire – I wanted to know what it would do.

“Why the heck do you want to die?” I asked. Of course I knew they didn’t – they were on a suicide mission because they were commanded to be. But I didn’t want to show my cards yet.

“We don’t, slayer.”

“Then why come?”

“A slayer commanded us to obey that vampire.”

“What vampire?”

I felt the vampire leaving – fast. Bingo.

“The one in the trees, slayer.”

“Go get it.” I ordered.

I should have said ‘sic ’em’. It had the same effect – they whirled and dove for the woods.

Not three minutes later, they came back. They only had the thing’s coat and part of its pants’ leg to show for the attempt. From the feel of it — and all the growling — they had done their best to bring me the whole enchilada.

Forty-five minutes later, Crystal arrived with Tresmayne. I had the shop cleaned and closed up and was sitting on the pony wall of the parking lot chewing the fat with the one werewolf that could talk. Bernie had settled down long since – as long as they didn’t set foot in the shop, he didn’t care what I did with them.

Crystal pegged them as grays. Tresmayne agreed. Great, just what I always wanted, more pet werewolves. We got the job done – they were fairly happy about it since they were expecting to be killed instead. I was fairly ticked off at myself. Yeah, on some nights, they are big, monstrous wolves – but most of the time they are people, people in a world of hurt.

Books and movies make the lives of creatures seem almost glamorous – it’s not like that. They gain power at a heavy cost. There’s a reason most can’t go near anything sacred – they lose their souls.

Thompkins and those born as creatures simply don’t have souls to begin with. They have powerful spirits but it’s not a good trade off. Souls are eternal – spirits aren’t. Not their kind, anyway. Yeah, they can live incredibly long and they have incredible power – but most would trade it in a heart beat to get their souls back.

These poor things live only in the here and now. There is no real future for them – odd as that sounds, eternity, not temporality, is what matters. Eventually, they lose the power that sustained them – or run afoul of a slayer – and they cease to exist. They don’t have any hope of heaven – or hell. For them, only nothingness awaits. Foam on the water, like the little mermaid in Grimm’s fairy tales.

But I couldn’t let them loose on New York, either. I sent them home with orders not to obey anyone but the Mistress or me. I swear, they were wagging their tails as they trotted off. I felt like a heel.

Thompkins was on the phone when I finally got home. We’d decided he’d stay with me until this was over – he had already found an apartment and was doing freelance work again. He smiled at me and threw up a hand. I nodded in acknowledgement and headed for the kitchen while he finished his call.

He joined me while I finished the cannoli my mother had brought over for me, Thompkins having eaten with my family earlier. He caught me up on the goings on – basically, he had been up and down the fire escapes and now had some pretty sophisticated video surveillance in place. Phase one was a go so far.

I needed to talk to Crystal but bed was no longer optional. I cleared the dishes and said good night. I thought I heard him on the phone again as I hit the pillow. After that, I didn’t hear anything as sleep and I got reacquainted.

 

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Eleven

We did a LOT of talking after that – or rather, I did, explaining why I’d just told the Mistress we were just a distraction for her. I honestly think a few were disappointed, I guess from all the excitement up until now.

I also asked for volunteers – just because we weren’t the main event did not mean we should let all this nonsense go unanswered. Admittedly, if it had been nothing but the hit and run crap, I might have been inclined to forget the whole mess. But a man had been killed and another attacked – no one in the building, slayer or otherwise, was in any mood to let that go.

There was no lack of volunteers – quite the opposite, everyone wanted to help. My first reaction was to trim it down but I thought better of it. Vinnie had been wanting this place stirred up – he was going to get that and a lot more than he bargained for.

I had about a million questions for Crystal that I would have to ask later. I sketched my plan for the crowd but saved the critical stuff for individual meetings. Now, that should have irritated people. Most folks want to know all the juicy bits but instead they were fine. I found out why when Mertyn commented that my ‘style’ of leadership was a lot like the Mistress’. Several people nodded in agreement. Tim will never, ever let me live down the fact that I blushed.

Which was why I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable to my sibling – he was still trying not to chuckle or at least he was pretending he was trying not to – when Mrs. Schmidt asked me what I’d meant by a bee.

I grinned maliciously at my brother. He glared back. I think the rest thought we’d both lost our minds.

“Well, when we were in junior varsity, Tim played wide receiver. The last game of the season we were tied at the end of the fourth quarter. The quarterback decided to fake a pass to someone else and then pass to Tim. That was all well and good until we got to the line of scrimmage and a bee got in Tim’s helmet. He didn’t notice it until he was getting into position for the catch – then it got where he could see it and he panicked. Tore the helmet off just as the quarterback threw the pass.”

There were a lot of polite chuckles. Tim tried to bore holes in me with his eyes. I went right on. “He saw the ball coming, made a grab for it, and it landed in his helmet. The bee buzzed past his face while he was trying to figure out if he should run or not, and he was tackled while he was swatting at the bee.”

There were howls of laughter now. Tim was beet red.

I wasn’t finished, “We actually got the first down – the ref’s ruled the pass complete since it never hit the ground – and could have had a touchdown, except for him swatting that bee. We lost the game, however, because the next play they got an interception and ran it in for a touchdown.”

“Funny thing, that stupid bee showed up on his helmet again as we were leaving the field. Johnny Feldman got a look at it – he said it was a carpenter bee, one that can’t sting.”

The hooting didn’t stop for several minutes. Tim would get his revenge a few weeks later by telling Crystal’s entire family about my first date with Rebecca Timons – but it was so worth it.

 

True Slayers: The Right Track, Part Ten

As this is the embarrassing part, I guess I should tell it myself. James doesn’t like to embarrass me and Crystal still gets the giggles when she tells it. Anyway, it should be told as straight as possible. Maybe it’ll help someone else down the line be less of an idiot than I was.

So, I called for everyone’s attention and they all turned to look at me, all expectantly. Before I could utter another word, as God is my witness, there was a knock at the door and my brother Marty’s voice hollered.

“Hey, you have a visitor.”

Sighing inwardly, I told him, “Just come on in.”

The door opened and Ethan Collinsworth stepped in, with a quick word of thanks to Marty.

We had another long intermission while he explained he had just gotten back from Louisiana, apologized evidently again to Mertyn about some mix up with the phones, apologized to Crystal for not responding to her email a week earlier, spoke to everyone in the room to apologize for not being here earlier and finally to me to apologize for interrupting.

Mrs. Henderson asked if we still needed her and Jo-jo, tomorrow being a school night. I assured her we could get by and thanked them for coming. Several more spouses excused themselves to go get children and get them to bed. That left us with a room full of over twenty slayers, two normal people, and three creatures.

I got Thompkins, our secretary, to run down the highlights of what we had learned. There were a few more added as people recalled some other minor incidents, several now dating to the two weeks leading up to Mr. J’s death. That took up more time – I really needed a good timeline and we had to work to get it. There were five incidents in total, but other than Jo-jo, no one had sighted a creature. They had sensed creatures, both vampires and werewolves fairly close to the building, but no one had thought much of it.

Collinsworth helped out here, explaining that creatures are not able to sense a sanctuary – they can pass right by one without knowing what it is – unless they try to enter. Mertyn confirmed he had only been able to enter because the Mistress had given him permission. Ditto Tresmayne. Thompkins had permission initially from Lisa or he, too, would have been unable to enter. Sensing creatures nearby wasn’t a real cause for alarm – without invitation, none of them could enter – something every slayer, other than me, knew.

“Okay, that thing came in Mr. J’s window – I don’t think for an instant he’d have invited it.” I told Ethan.

He nodded, “But it was under command – a human slayer gave it ‘permission’ to enter. Must have – it could not have come in otherwise and shouldn’t have been willing.”

“He’s right, Jack.” Tresmayne affirmed, “Without invitation, a sanctuary is unpleasant to say the least. For a traditional like myself, it’s like coming into contact with a bane.”

“A bane?”

“Something that repels and poisons creatures like garlic for a vampire or wolfsbane for werewolves.” Crystal offered.

“Got it.” I mentally wondered why that tidbit hadn’t come up in all the books I’d read or if I’d ever get all this stuff straight.

“For a modern, like meself,” Mertyn continued the thought, “It’s like a constant sense of danger. We can overcome that but only for a short while. Even a modern isn’t going to enter a sanctuary uninvited. It’s too disconcerting”

My brother Tim picked that moment to poke his head in. He glanced at me, I nodded and he ambled in. It’s weird – I mean, well, it is weird. He and Lisa are twins but he and I are the ones that can communicate without talking. He and Lisa talk all the time – she’s the only one that can get him going – sometimes still in their ‘twin language’ from when they were babies (which they do primarily to annoy Mike and Marty). But more often than not, Tim and I can understand each other without a word.

What this meant was that the kids had all been picked up, everyone was getting ready for bed at our parent’s place and he wanted to see what was going on here. My part was basically, okay, sure, you already know most everything I do. He shot me a wink on the way to his seat that said you are going to have to fill in the blanks later. I shot him a look that is basic brother for you’re being a jerk.

Wondering if it was possible to get this train wreck back on something like its tracks, I started again, “Okay, listen…”

A strange look from Tim stopped me. My taciturn brother comes in handy at times – I was getting tired and starting to command instead of ask. “Sorry folks.”

There was a general murmur of assent. We’d already covered the ‘I’m still getting the hang of this, don’t get mad if I mess up’ bit a couple hours earlier. I stopped, thinking about how to phrase the question.

That, of course , opened the floor for general commentary. Visions of an all nighter danced unpleasantly in my head. I still had all those danged finials to help Gino with tomorrow and I wanted some sleep before then. I mean, if it’s not too much to ask.

Crystal gave me an innocent, ‘are you going to do something’ look. Girlfriends can be every bit as annoying as sisters. But she was right. Time to try again and see who else would come in…

“Wait, wait…” I tried hard not to make it a command. I got the desired result – everyone stopped talking and looked expectantly at me – without any compulsion to do so. I gave up on perfecting the phrasing and just blurted, “Since this – since Mr J died, how many of you have contacted the – her?”

Almost every hand went up.

Mr Myers spoke first, “I sent her an email about a week afterwards. I could have sworn there was a vampire outside our window. I gave chase but never caught up or saw it. That was before the werewolves were sent in to attack the cats.”

Momma shrugged, “I sent her a letter when I realized you were emerging…”

Crystal: “Email, once a week or more.”

Poppa: “Called after you told us about those things that attacked Chester.”

Thompkins: “Weekly emails since Mistress Crystal sent me the address.”

That stopped me for a second, “I thought you were afraid of her?”

He shrugged, “I was, am still a little, but I thought it was what you wanted. You said we needed to be more thorough – I thought you meant professional.”

I literally sighed, “That was probably smarter than what I did mean…”

The litany continued:

Ethan: “Weekly reports, email.”

Mr. Henderson: “Called every other week – you seemed to be having some trouble…”

 

Tresmayne: “Daily reports, special delivery.”

Mrs. Schmidt: “I left her a voicemail last week.”

Mr. Schmidt: “Emailed about once a week.”

And so it went. All but two people had contacted her – and the two exceptions were the ones who’s powers were all but gone and hadn’t actually noticed anything. They would have contacted her after Mr. J’s death but had talked to others who had already done so.

Which meant the whole building had been in near constant communication with her and no one bothered to tell me. I’d been chasing my … tail… like an idiot the whole time. Worse, now that I thought about it, I felt like total moron for not asking anyone. Oh sure, there were people I hadn’t known to ask but I hadn’t asked Crystal or  Ethan, either. Who would you contact if your house was being attacked by monsters, the woman that can unquestionably help or the idiot that is making Ghostbusters look like a drama? Yeah, me, too.

Ever have one of those moments when it just falls into place? Like shaking a puzzle out of the box but it lands on the floor fully assembled? It was so danged obvious now.

And yes, I’d thought it was obvious before. But I was sure now in a way that I can’t describe – kind of like knowing how to kill a monster I’d never seen before but knowing for certain just that same.

Still, I was done being an idiot. I turned to Mertyn. “Okay, this may sound dumb but I need an answer. If you were going to distract her from something, what would you do?”

He grinned, almost sheepishly, “Well, lad, remember I know her better than most so what I’d do might not be what anyone else would do, but to answer your question.” He placed a fatherly arm over Thompson’s shoulder, “I’d take this wee wolfling and toss him into the nearest pond.”

Thompson looked askance. No one else noticed – they were riveted to the howls of laughter coming from Tresmayne.

Mertyn patted Thompson’s shoulder, “Dinae worry yourself, Pup. He’s just laughing because it would work.”

Tresmayne managed to get his control, if not his composure, back, “It would, too! She’d dive in after him!”

Mertyn nodded, “Ye dinae know the half of it – last time we were in Manhattan she ended up doing just that five times – two in the same night! She even saved that whelp Connors knowing he can swim!”

Tresmayne was wiping away tears, “To be fair, though, he has those seizures when he’s in human form.”

“Does he now? Well, that explains why he dinae come up quickly. I dinae know that part.” Mertyn answered.

In books, werewolves and vampires talk like they stepped out of a history book or get all cryptic. In my living room, they talk like old buddies. Weird, yet normal – my life in a nutshell.

Getting my own focus back in order, “Okay, but what if you wanted her more than distracted for a minute?”

Mertyn cocked his head at me, “I see where you’re going – aye, but this has nay been much of a distraction to her. She gets more letters, emails and calls than that in a day.”

I wasn’t done, “This thing in Russia, you know anything about it?”

He shook his head, “That has to do with her day job.”

I suppose it should be obvious that the Mistress of the Night has to eat like anyone else but her working nine to five had never occurred to me, “What does she do?”

“She works for the Secret Service.”

He said it deadpan with a straight face. He meant it. But seriously, WHAT?! Before blurting that out, it dawned on me the Secret Service has to have secretaries like any other organization…

“Aye, she’s an agent, specializing in foreign threats to the treasury.” he continued.

Of course she was. Yeah, right. On the bright side, I now knew of at least one person with a life weirder than mine.

“Dumb question, do they know what she does at night?” I had to ask. It was just one of those stupid things you do when your brain tells you the world has taken a proverbial left turn at Albuquerque.

“It’s, complicated. Some do, yes, but most humans are happier not knowing we exist.”

I nodded, satisfied at last – at least as satisfied as I was going to get. Secret Service? Yesh…

Then I realized it killed my ‘hunt master’ theory – anyone who knew about her and had the right connections could be behind this. Although the Hunt Master still topped my list, it wasn’t a list of one anymore. For that matter, it shouldn’t be my list any longer, either.

I picked up the phone and dialed the number I’d thought I never would.

“Hello?” a female voice came on the line.

I was ready – I thought – but her voice sent a tremble up my spine. I felt like a little kid meeting Santa. “Yes ma’am, this is Jack Scarlotti.”

“Oh, hi, I’ve been expecting you to call.”

A kid who just got everything he wanted for Christmas. “Er, yes, ma’am. This mess, I don’t think it has anything to do with us, or me, not really. From what these folks tell me, you’re getting a earful about the goings on around here every day.”

“It caused a bit of a stir, I did notice. I’m sorry I couldn’t come…”

Christmas came early. “No, actually, you don’t need to. I think – I know what’s going on now. This whole back and forth, messing around with this tack and then that one – it’s all distraction. There’s nothing here they can want – or get at – so it’s not aimed at us. I – it’s just enough nonsense to make you have to stop and answer us without making you drop everything and come yourself.”

“A feint to get me off my game?”

“Yes, Ma’am. A bee, as we’d say in my family.”

Tim threw a pen at me. I dodged and kept talking, “Something just distracting enough to be a pain – especially at a critical moment. Anyway, ignore us. I have an idea and we certainly have enough power right now.”

“Excellent work.” Okay, Christmas, birthday and Fourth of July all rolled into one – her praise made my heart swell like few other things ever had. “You obviously already have a feel for command, so take charge and try your idea. I do want an update from you – weekly will be fine – but I’ll put the rest off for now as you suggest. Was there anything else?”

Just weak knees and a desire to whoop like a kid, “No Ma’am. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.”

I think the hardest thing I ever did was not jumping up and down like a little kid once the receiver clicked.