Chapter 1: A Young Woman, in Dire Straits

A man has three sons. He explains to his sons that he wants them to prosper. So, he will make them a loan of one hundred thousand dollars for their education, on the condition that at his funeral, they pay him back. Many years later, at the funeral, his sons gather around him. His first son, an archaeologist, lays a pair of priceless golden coins on his eyes, each worth 50,000 dollars. His second son, a jewelry-maker, lays a diamond necklace around his neck, worth 100,000 dollars. His final son, a lawyer, places a check for 300,000 dollars on the man’s chest, and then grabs the gold coins and the necklace as change.

Clients lie. The difference between a good client and a bad client is very thin, but it all has to do with the kind of lies they tell you. Some of them lie because they’re frightened of admitting the truth. Some of them lie because they think it’ll make you argue their case more effectively. Sometimes, they lie because they simply don’t know better. The young woman sitting in front of me had come into the office at ten minutes past midnight, shaking and stammering so badly she could barely get two words strung together. It was when her arm caught on fire and she began to scream that I figured out why she was here.

The doorknob of my office is sterling silver. If a demon or someone possessed by a demon should touch it, it’ll tarnish black. The girl had opened it with no difficulties, and paused momentarily to admire it. It’s amazing what a little opulence will do to help someone recover their wits. She sat down in the comfortably padded chair in front of my desk- The one with the iron frame and arm-rests. There’s also an oak chair, which is unpadded and much less comfortable. That helps me figure out who the fairies are. The wallpaper is a rather nice cross motif, although I’ve found that hasn’t worked on anyone yet. Whether that’s because crosses don’t work, or because I’m a faithless heathen, I don’t know.

What she’d run afoul of was, in fact, the humidifier sitting on the corner of my desk.

Binghamton has a lot of churches, and a lot of surprisingly faithful priests. I’ve been meaning to sit down with some of the wizards over at Binghamton University, one of the undead, and spend an evening figuring out which priests have the most effective holy water, but work’s been steady enough that I haven’t had the time to get to it. Nonetheless, the humidifier contains a tank of holy water that I get blessed once a week, in exchange for a donation to the big Byzantine Catholic Church with the shiny golden domes. It was this potent mixture of faith and tapwater that had incited at first itching, and then spontaneous human combustion in the girl.

“I’m afraid I have some rather bad news for you,” I explained, switching the humidifier off, and draping the blanket over the girl. The pink spots where her skin had erupted into flames were already fading. That told me that she was very new to being undead. The older they are, the more powerful they are, and inexplicably, the greater their weaknesses are. An ancient mummy or a powerful ghost wouldn’t even be able to make it through the door without succumbing to pain that had been described to me as ‘agonizing’ by the one undead friend that I had. This probably also explained why she wouldn’t let me test holy water on her. “You’re undead.” She stared at me like I’m crazy, and I sighed. “You’d better start the story over again.”

“Ah. Well… Okay. Me and my boyfriend, we were partying, because it’s Friday night-” She was Asian, although I’d be hard-pressed to tell where from exactly. There was no trace of accent in her voice, so likely adopted, or born and raised in the States. I was looking closely at her mouth. Sharp teeth there. Very sharp. There was also the obvious puncture wounds on her throat, and her overall pallor. That was odd. Binghamton’s native population of dead is, by ratio to its population of humans, very large. But to my knowledge, there aren’t any vampires in Binghamton, for two very good reasons. One was because they sometimes changed innocent young people into more vampires, which was very difficult to hide.

“So we were at this bar, Salty’s Pub.” Binghamton also has a lot of bars. That one stood out to me. The usual college joint, where kids who are too young to be drinking arrive already drunk, and dance a lot. In my line of work, I ended up hearing the name a lot. Lowered inhibitions attract the supernatural. I tapped my chin, writing the name down on a piece of scratch paper, as she continued talking about the night she’d had. I listened with half my brain, trying to keep track of the information she was providing, sifting through it as I tried to make sense of the scenario. She’d blacked out. Then she’d woken up in a hotel room a little ways outside of town, with her boyfriend lying dead on the mattress, the window broken, and blood everywhere. At this point she burst into tears in front of me.

Sometimes, what a client needs is someone to be there for them, to pat their backs and tell them everything’s going to be okay. Sometimes, though, what they need is just someone who’s not going to get wound up in their emotions. I sat, fingers steepled, and watched silently as the girl sobbed and shook, her whole body wracked with the force of her tears. She was short, over a foot shorter than me, with short dark hair cute in a punk pixie cut. Her brown eyes were rimmed with red. She’d been crying a lot tonight. I waited until she had finished crying herself out, and was able to continue with the story. “And… And when I got out of the shower of the hotel room, there was a man there. He was strange. The lights were off, but he looked pale. Much too pale. Almost like he was blue.”

She must have noticed my eyes widening, and the sharp inhalation. I coughed, and spoke, slightly strangled. “Keep going.” She nodded.

“He was wearing a mask. Like one of those fancy masquerade masks. It didn’t have any eyeholes, though. He told me that I should come to see you. He gave me your card, and he said… He said you could help.” She began to sob, her hands pressed together against her face, hiding her tears. “I can’t go to jail, they’re going to send me to jail because Tony’s dead, and I would never hurt him, and he’s dead, oh god-”

“What’s your name?” I asked sharply, snapping her out of her loop. She looked up, sniffling, tears running down her cheeks.

“Jenny. It’s… Jenny.” I nodded.

“Jenny. Do you believe in the supernatural?”

She rubbed self-consciously at her neck, where her skin had spontaneously burst into flame. “I… didn’t used to. After all of that crazy cult business down in New York City, and all of the weird things that have been happening tonight…” She swallowed.

“I suspect that you’ve been the victim of the supernatural. You’ve been bitten by a vampire, drained of blood, and made into one yourself. This is rather unfortunate, because if they weren’t there when you were made, one of two things happened.”

I was interrupted by a sudden pounding against the door. “Open up!” Jenny turned her head, shocked, her eyes widening. I knew what she must have been thinking. The police, here to take her away to jail, and to imprison her for a crime that she didn’t commit. It was the natural conclusion in the circumstances. If only things were that easy. I stood up, smoothly grabbing the tank of holy water from off of my desk as I walked to the door. I unlocked it, and slid back the dead bolt. Then I opened the door to face those outside with my shoulders squared, drawing myself up to my full height. I was taller than all three of the individuals standing outside, not that it would do me any good in a fight.

On one flank was a man. His hair was shaved, an ear pierced, looking like a man who had tried to preserve the punk look since the 80s, possibly with formaldehyde. He stunk of the stuff, one ear pierced with a large piece of knucklebone, and his skin was pale as milk, blue veins standing out against it. “We’re here for the vamp, lady. Get out of the way, and no one gets hurt.” He grabbed the door, moving to shove it open and shoulder past me. I threw a modest measure of the holy water in his face, and turned towards the woman who had been standing at the front.

“Hello, Fang Fen. You didn’t mention you’d be dropping by.”

The punk ghoul screamed on the floor, rolling and attempting to put out the flames. The flames were intense, but didn’t scorch anything, burning the ghoul alone. Another of the perks of holy water. Li Fang Fen stood in the doorway, a slight hint of amusement on her lips. The Chinese jiang-shi wore an elegant dress from the 1920s, something from right out of that horrible Great Gatsby movie, a hat over her dark hair and her attractive features. She had broad, bare shoulders, and walked with obvious discomfort, hunching over on a cane despite the fact that she looked younger than me. Her skin was looking a bit pale and waxy, which told me she hadn’t eaten anyone lately.

“Good evening, Atina. I hope that all is going well in the legal practice? You have not picked up any… unfortunate cases, yet?” Her eyes slipped past me, and fell on the young woman sitting in the chair. Jenny let out a little whimper, her hands over her mouth, staring at the ghoul writhing on the floor.

“You know how interesting my life is, Fang Fen,” I stated, stepping between her and Jenny. “You know, you don’t need to bring enforcers to meet me. We can always have a polite chat if you need some legal help. And usually, you choose more polite friends.”

Fang Fen snorted, and gave the man a gentle nudge with the toe of her boot. “Simply telling a child that the stove is hot is rarely sufficient. Experience, and the pain that comes with it, are the best teachers. And this one has been behaving as though being one of the Undead means he need show no respect to those who are human.” Her bright sapphire-blue eyes flicked up to mine.

There was no hint of an accent in her speech, either, although I knew she’d been born in China sometime in the 1800s. She was good at adapting to changing circumstances. “Of course, I can think of nobody who is better at teaching that lesson than you. I am sorry for these two. Lady Ann Willing has demanded the presence of the vampire girl.”

I winced. That was worse news. Lady Ann Willing was the other reason that vampires were rare in Binghamton. She was not a fan of them. “What about the bodies?” I asked, low, under my breath, frowning.

“We got there before the police. One drained corpse. No sign of anyone else.” Fang Fen spoke softly as well. She was a part of the Binghamton police department, and as far as I knew, was the one who helped to keep any knowledge of the undead in Binghamton from the ears of mortal authorities. If I had been a fair-minded person with high ideals about justice and all people being equal, I might have found that deeply offensive.

I also wouldn’t be a lawyer. Like it or not, I made my living out of providing vital aid in navigating the legal system in exchange for money. My livelihood existed because the supernatural wanted to stay hidden, and would pay for the privilege. Of course, the mortal authorities would have been a lot easier to deal with.

“What do you think she’s going to be charged with, Fang Fen?” I asked, frowning. Fang Fen knew a decent amount about the justice system of the Undead. She had crossed it at least a few times before, and I had been the one to prove she hadn’t killed humans in the first case I ever argued in front of the Night Court.

“Well, there’ll be a charge of Gluttony. She was the only one in that room. The boy’s death will be on her head.” I nodded. That was bad; It could mean a death sentence, although probation wouldn’t be too difficult. “But a wastrel vampire in Lady Ann Willing’s territory? She won’t have that. And that carries the death sentence. If we can’t find her sire, then she’ll be executed.” Jenny let out a little gasp from behind me, and I crossed my arms, frowning.

“Jenny. How much money do you have in your pockets right now?”

I turned to look at the girl. She opened and closed her mouth, and dug through her pockets, scooping out her wallet. “Uh, thirty-eight dollars.”

“Alright. I will defend you before the Night Court on all charges they may choose to bring, for the sum of thirty-eight dollars.”

“What? But that’s all I have-”

The other thing about clients? They’ll always argue about the money. Large corporations tend to take it for granted on legal fees. They have experience, and they know how much not having a lawyer can cost them. But every individual thinks to themselves, ‘Surely I could do better.’ The instinct to haggle with a lawyer must be inscribed on the DNA somewhere. And the less you charge them, the more eager they become about haggling. I shot the girl a ferocious look, and her eyes dropped. “Thirty-eight dollars,” I repeated, and then turned to Fang Fen. “And in the meantime, she will remain in my custody, where she’ll be safe. I’ll be keeping her in my home, so that she doesn’t experience any… accidents. When will the jury be selected?”

I could see the relief in Fang Fen’s eyes. She’d known she was coming to my office to bring in a young woman who was confused and terrified, and was most likely going to be executed unless someone stood up for her. “Sunday night. Two nights from now. We will assemble in the Slovak Catholic cemeteries, at midnight. If there is anything that I can do to help you…”

“Yeah.” I took a deep breath. “I’m going to need to re-familiarize myself with the Night Court. I could use a talk with you tomorrow.” I smiled. “Irish Kevins?”

A smile blossomed across Li Fang Fen’s face for the first time. “Your treat?” I winced, but it was mostly for show.

“My treat.”

As Li Fang Fen turned and left, the last of the three turned and gave me a brief look, and I did likewise. A young dark-haired woman, she looked to be Hispanic, with brown eyes that managed to be cold as ice. A long, dark robe hung down around her, covering everything but her head, her hands, and her feet. Her tongue ran quickly over her lips as she held eye contact with me for a moment, waiting for something. I continued to squeeze the tank of holy water in one hand, waiting for any twitch of hostile movement.

Then she reached down, helping the ghoul up to his feet, and strode out of the room. I waited until they’d gone down the stairs, and then another minute or two after that. Then I latched the door, throwing the bolt, and let out a sigh of relief, slumping down onto the ground, my back against the door. Then I realized that Jenny was still in the room with me, and stood up quickly, straightening my tie.

“I’m a vampire?”

“I’m afraid so, yes.”

“So I need to drink blood?”

“Yes. Though you shouldn’t need too much of it.” I sighed, and sat down. “I’ve got a friend in the Red Cross. Cold blood’s not as good as fresh, from what I’ve been told, but it’ll keep you from keeling over with hunger, or trying to bite my neck.”

“I’m going to be missing several days of school, won’t I?” she asked very softly, her eyes downcast.

“Your boyfriend’s disappeared under mysterious circumstances. You might have to do the same, for the sake of staying alive. I’m sorry, Jenny. We can worry about what you’re going to be doing with your life after we get you out of a death sentence, alright?”

“Do you think I can send my parents a letter?” she asked, her expression miserable.

“Yeah. Come on. Let’s get you to my home, and get you a bite to eat.”

“That’s not very funny, ma’am.”

I gave her a hard look, trailing a hand self-consciously through my hair, past the gray hairs already sprouting at my temples. I was not long out of Law School, but the bar exam had taken its toll on my roots. If I was anything like my own mother, I’d be mostly silver by the age of 40. The word ‘ma’am’ stung just a little bit. “I’m going to level with you. I don’t usually get cases that involve the death sentence. I can’t promise you that I’m going to be able to save you, here.” Then, as her eyes welled up with tears, I rested a hand on her shoulder. “But I’m going to do everything I can. Okay?” I squeezed her shoulder, and walked her to my home. She cried herself to sleep in the guest room of the small house, a Celtic cross on her door.

“So, I’m getting married,” said Alfred.

“No you’re not,” I said, horror running across my face.

“Look, Atina, I know that you’re still harboring a torch for me. But we’ve got to move on.” Horror met anger coming from the other side, and the two fought a pitched battle across my nose. I finally settled with annoyance, an old and reliable standby.

“First, we never had a thing. You assumed we did. Second, I know the kind of women you attract. You’re getting a prenuptial.”

“Oh, Atina, come on. Marriage, love, it’s a union of two hearts, it’s far too precious and beautiful a thing to be bound down in something so prosaic and thoughtless as a contract.” I took a slow, deep breath, and rested my fingers on the sides of my head. Alfred was a handsome enough guy, but the problem was he knew it. He thought of himself as god’s gift to not only the opposite sex, but the entire human race and all adjacent supernatural creatures. Messy hair the color of really good corn, blonde and stunning, with incredibly white teeth. Inexplicably, despite the blonde hair, his eyes were a shining green like seafoam-

I shook my head. If one spent too much time studying Alfred, you could get a bit hypnotized by the man. Worse, you might start thinking about him in poetry. “Marriage is absolutely a contract, Alfred. It is the ur-contract. What are you shacking up with this time?”

He gave me a dour look. He was dressed in full chainmail and had a rather large sword sitting next to him. I wore a large sweater and a long pair of jeans, heavy wool socks and boots completing my entry in the ‘World’s Frumpiest Outfit’ competition. The two of us sat at the patio outside of Citrea. I didn’t treat myself to this place often, but I usually needed a morning drink to be able to deal with Alfred. Bright, cheerful sunlight and a beautiful blue sky, all the beauty of a rare winter day with good weather for Broome County, were warring with my desire to club him over the head with a menu.

Other patrons sat around us, completely unsurprised by his appearance. To them, he looked like a LARPer. Bad foam-padded sword, little more than a wiffle bat covered in black packing peanuts, and chainmail made out of cardboard. I knew that they were real, which meant the illusion didn’t work on me. From the way Alfred told it, 95% of all LARPers were overweight nerds with poorly made facsimiles. The remaining 5% were wizards, capable of great and powerful magics, and highly trained in the arts of jamming three feet of steel through an impudent mortal’s guts and vanishing before the police could even think to get involved. I suspected the ratios were much less generous than that, but I was unfailingly polite to LARPers nonetheless. Which reminds me, sorry about that overweight nerd crack.

“She,” he said, adding a bit of extra emphasis to the word, “is Irish. A lovely young woman by the name of Polly, Polly Ryan.” I sipped my Mimosa, staring daggers at him, waiting for him to continue. “And she is a Redcap.”

There’s a special hell for those who waste booze. So I did not spit my drink in his face, no matter how richly he deserved it. I slowly, very purposefully, swallowed it, and cleared my throat. “A redcap.”

“Atina, look-”

“Of the Border mythology. The brigand fairy.”

“She’s really-”

“A species which ambushes travelers, murders them, and dips their hat in the traveler’s blood, to dye them. Because if they let them dry out, they will die. You are dating a fairy that lives on highway murder. You intend to marry a woman who will literally be out for your blood in the divorce proceedings.”

“Those are all extremely specious rumors, you realize. The truth is far more complex. Redcaps simply feed on intimidation. The fear of their physical prowess. The ‘dying their caps red with blood’ thing was all a myth. You of all people should know that the Fae don’t have to kill.” He frowned at me. “Polly is an extremely kind-hearted woman. She’s of the Summer Court, you know. She’s working towards becoming one of their Champions. She might even end up working with you at some point. I think that you’re being extremely racist right now.”

“Humans don’t have to kill either, and yet look at how much we do it.” I sighed, and waved for another Mimosa. It was going to be one of those mornings. “Alfred. Please. I’m begging you. I’ll work for free. I will pay you. Just let me write a prenuptial contract for the two of you, if you seriously intend to marry this girl.” I knew, deep down, that he wouldn’t. Alfred was… flighty. It would be wrong to call him a heartbreaker, if only because most Fairies are much too old and wise to get hurt by anything that a human could do to reject them. He also had a talent for letting them down easy. But the man was lackadaisical in his approach to women who could, and would, murder him over forgetting their birthday. I would feel personally responsible to his parents if he died on me.

“Oh, look. She mentioned wanting to meet you. I’ll get the two of you together some time, and I’m sure you’ll get along like a house on fire!”

“Screaming, calling 911, people’s livelihoods destroyed in a flash?” Alfred sighed, and rolled his eyes. “Oh, do not dare act like I’m being the difficult one here. You remember that Rusalka girl?” Alfred’s eyes clouded over with nostalgia, and he smiled.

“Aaah… Anastasia. God, she was a woman.”

“She tried to drown you, Alfred.”

He waved his hand as though this was a minor character flaw, rather akin to eating crackers in bed, as opposed to attempted homicide. “In my bathtub. I know she was just hurt, she wasn’t really trying to kill me.”

“Yeah, I’ll have another Mimosa here,” I said, and sighed as I settled back in my chair. “Let’s get on to something else. We can discuss your death wish another time. I need to figure out some things about this case. First and foremost, what those kids were doing on that night. Do you know a Jenny… Nishi, and a Tony?”

“Jenny? Oh, yeah, I know her. She’s in one of the classes I’m TAing for.”

I’ll diverge for a moment to note that Alfred, like most wizards I’ve ever met, is employed solely in the world of Academia. A place where strange and poorly groomed individuals who often profess open-mindedness while having a view of the world diplomatically described as ‘inflexible’, and where words and knowledge rule, making secrets the most useful currency? Frankly, if you’ve been to college and don’t think one of your professors was a wizard, that says more about you than it says about them. And yes, that includes the Liberal Arts; Alfred is studying for his Doctorate in English, which is more useful than you would expect when you spend all day trying not to get murdered by fairies. Don’t worry, though, hard sciences; The pay still sucks compared to engineering.

Alfred stroked his chin. “Exchange student, I think, Japanese.”

Well, shit. And here was me judging someone by their accent. I guess now I’m the racist. “She’s been attacked by a vampire,” I whispered softly. Alfred’s eyes widened. “And she’s been converted. Tony’s dead, killed by either the same vampire, or her.” I took a deep breath. “I need to defend her in front of the Night Court soon. A jury’s convening on Sunday. I could use your help on this one. She’s in real trouble. I’m in real trouble.”

It was unfair. The moment I said it, his features hardened into determination. A more flawed man, a more sardonic man, a more approachable man, might make jokes about her being available. Alfred just said, “Of course.” There was no mention of money, no mention of favors. The man was a fucking nightmare for my conscience, which was part of the reason why he drove me mad. He didn’t have the decency to let me pay him for the services he offered when there was a court case. He just wanted to help me, the chauvinistic pig. As though there were things I couldn’t do that he could.

Like bend the minds of those around us to see cardboard instead of steel. Like take on a Troll berserker or a Sidhe swordsmaster with steel and guile alone and humiliate them. Like read the emotions of a room and produce more evidence than an entire team of forensic ghouls could ever hope to discover in the course of an evening. The upside of this job had been that I no longer took my being a woman as a reason to feel inferior. I got to feel inferior for exciting new reasons like being an ordinary human being. At least I had sense enough to not get involved with murderous lunatic monsters, which was more than could be said of Alfred. “Thank you, Alfred. And I’ll talk with Polly. But for the love of god, don’t rush into a marriage with a murderous fairy woman.”

He smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. “So, how exactly did you wind up involved with this?”

I took a deep breath. This was the part I’d been dreading. “The Half-Faced Man spoke to her. He sent her directly to my office, And recommended me. This is an undead issue, but the Fairies might be-”

“Please, you could call them the Fae occasionally,” Alfred said, brows knitted, a little hint of pleading in his voice. “They know you call them Fairies to insult them, Atina.”

“That’s between them and their insecurities.” I crossed my legs and sipped the Mimosa as it arrived. “I call them Fairies because that’s what they are. And it’s a political issue. If he’s involved, the Fairy courts may be messing with Undead politics. And if there’s one thing the Undead hate, it’s being influenced by the others.” I took a deep breath. “I wanted to warn you, because I know that there’s some bad blood between you and the Fall Court.”

“Not the entire Fall Court. But that man… He’s the King’s Man, through and through. He’s damnably loyal. That would be a good thing, but it means you cannot trust him to have your best interests at heart. He would not be doing this unless there was some advantage to be had. The Fall Court is a place of secrets, lies, and illusions. You cannot trust the things you see there.”

“Well, look who’s racist now,” I said, cracking wise. But I could see the way the comment cut him, his eyes falling towards the menu. “I’m sorry, Alfred. I am being careful, trust me. But this girl needs help, badly. She just got her entire life ripped away from her by some bloodsucking asshole with no sense of personal responsibility, and is being dragged in front of a kangaroo court to be executed.” I took a deep breath. “We need to do this.”

He gave me a long, slow look. “How much are you charging for this?”

“Thirty-eight dollars.” I shrugged. “It was all she had in her pockets.”

“God, you’re like a walking lawyer-joke, you know that?” He smiled. “Well, I’m glad to hear that. How can I help?”

I sighed. “Talk with some of the people at the Salty’s Pub, see if you can find out anything about what happened with them last night, if anyone recognized Jenny and Tony. Then meet me tomorrow night, at my house. We’ll prepare for the case.” I took a deep breath, and leaned back in my chair, staring up at the ceiling. Three Mimosas in, and I was beginning to feel a pleasant tingle. Being as tall as I am, and the alcohol tolerance that comes with it, truly is a curse. My head felt slightly lighter than usual, and my heart rate was returning to normal.

“What are you going to do in the meantime?”

I rubbed my face. “I’m meeting the Half-Faced Man in a few hours at the Inebriate’s Asylum, to try to figure out what he’s doing. That’s going to be a mental ordeal. Then I need to meet Li Fang Fen for dinner tonight at Irish Kevin’s.” I raised my finger and got the waitress’ attention. “Excuse me, Miss? I’m going to get another Mimosa?”

3 thoughts on “Chapter 1: A Young Woman, in Dire Straits

  1. Guess the check in the intro is not being inned. Took me a while to realise that.

    Makes you wonder though, does the lawyer have the money.


  2. oh boy, this one seems more exciting to the last.
    “you’re like a walking lawyer-joke, you know that?”
    how can you say that, Alfred? you only wish lawyers worked that cheap.
    A girl’s gotta buy booze somehow.


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