“Jesus Christ, Atina,” Alfred muttered, a frown on his face.
“What?” I asked, frowning. “Look, this was expensive.”
“I’ll bet it was. Is that salmon? And tuna-steaks?” He picked over the meats, an eyebrow raised. It was true, getting good fresh fish this far from the ocean was a hell of a trick. The old black Weber grill sat in my back yard, a thin layer of snow on the ground. It was cold out, but half of our party was immune to the cold, and the other half, myself included, were highly resistant. I usually was the one to handle the grill, but Jenny had shown a huge amount of enthusiasm at the idea. She was currently filling the chimney with coals, the metal pipe rattling as she lit the newspaper beneath. Licks of flame began to run over the briquettes as she watched. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, but this must have cost a lot.”
I sighed. Alfred had the die-hard penny-pinching of a lifetime academic. “I got shot at this morning, Alfred. I’m splurging. I got a bodyguard.” I hooked a thumb at Polly, who was sitting at the table. She smiled, and tossed back a quick salute. Her soccer ball rolled down her lap, off her toe, and bounced into the air like a frightened cat, before landing on her lap again. I still couldn’t quite figure out how the ball seemed to weigh nothing when she was moving it, and then weighed more than she did when it hit someone. Anything that defied physics was nice to have on my side. “I got some nice fish from the good grocery store. This stuff’s supposed to be good for your brain. I want to go into this jury selection with my brains working at top efficiency.” I smiled. “Besides, it reminds me of my dad.”
“He was a longshoreman, then?” asked Fang Fen as she stepped through the door. She was dressed in an elegant white tennis shirt, exposing her arms from the bicep down, a kicky skirt and belt completing the ensemble. A choker hung around her throat, and she looked significantly more spry than she had the night before. She’d discarded her cane, and was bearing a large bowl filled to the brim with chop suey.
“No, he just loved cooking fish.” I gave her a grin. Polly stood up, and peered into the bowl.
“Hey, I thought you were born in China. Isn’t chop suey Americanized?”
“Oh, yes.” Fang Fen gave a grin. “Much like me, really. You don’t have to be from a place to enjoy its food, and I’ve always liked American Chinese.” She took a fork, plucking out a piece of large piece of chicken, and nibbling at it delicately. “In so much of this country, people are ignorant of the greater world. They know little of the great dynasties of China, of the Irish potato famines, of the kings and blades of Wales, or of the Japanese warring states. But I wager almost everyone in this country has, at one time or another in their life, had a dish of fried rice. And in those little moments of hunger satisfied, we share everything.”
“Oh, god, don’t tell me that you’re going to start going on about how preying on humans really makes you one of them again, Fang Fen. There’s a difference between making food and being food, you know.” I grinned at her, even as Polly gave the food a doubtful look.
“I don’t know. I prefer things that are bleedin’ genuine, myself.”
“The fire’s ready!” Jenny smiled as she lifted the grate, and poured the gray charcoal into the kettle. A few moments later, the tuna and salmon filets went onto the grill, sizzling and beginning to cook immediately. The scent of charcoal smoke and lemon filled the air, the glaze pouring across the meat. “Uh, Miss Atina, I hate to ask, but do you have another of those blood packs…?”
I frowned. “You’re hungry again already? That should’ve kept you for a month.” I rubbed my chin. “Maybe we can use that. If you’d fed yourself recently, then you wouldn’t be getting hungry again so quickly. Might be evidence that you weren’t responsible for Tony’s death-”
There was a clatter, as the barbecue tongs fell onto the stone paving on the edge of the lawn. All eyes turned towards Jenny, whose eyes were filling up with tears. “I- I’m sorry, I-” She let out a choked little sob, and ran into the house. I felt a flush run up my cheeks, and a horrible little sick feeling. Of course she was still feeling sensitive about the death of her boyfriend. She’d probably forgotten he was dead for a few precious minutes.
I knew a little bit about the soul, from what Alfred had told me. When you loved someone, they became a part of you, and vice versa. The feeling of having someone you love ripped away from you was like having a meat-hook rip out an organ. I’d just shoved salt into an open wound. “I’ll go talk to her, I should-”
Fang Fen put a hand on my shoulder. “I think that I should do it, this time. Not to insult you, but you have not experienced the things that she has. The shock of death, and the horror of finding someone you love murdered… These are things that you can empathize with, but people so rarely are willing to listen unless you can match their stories.” She smiled softly. “Have a bite to eat. Save the girl’s life. I will help her to cope with these changes.”
I nodded. A part of me wanted to punch her. Another part was sickeningly grateful. Of course, Fang Fen was far more experienced with these things than I was. She’d been spending the last ninety years learning how to do it. But being told I wasn’t capable of something pissed me off, and even more so when I knew it was true. I flopped down onto the chair by the grill, and gave the meat a half-hearted poke with the barbecue fork, and turned it over. The salmon was turning from orange to a bright pink, becoming flaky. The smell filled the air.
“Mmm. Bit of a crybaby, isn’t she?” asked Polly, an eyebrow raised.
“There’s no shame in tears or pain when you lose the one you love,” Alfred chided. He was one of those men who chided people. That was probably his single most aggravating trait, even more than the handsomeness or the righteousness or the chivalry. “Your concern was well-placed, Atina. You’re trying to make sure that she survives. That’s as good a reason as any to be excited.” He gave me a bracing smile, which was almost as bad as the chiding.
“I’m not much good at the appropriate thing, am I?” I frowned. “To hell with it. This whole thing was meant to be about the case, anyway. I might as well focus on that.” I pointed a finger at Alfred. “What’ve you got for me?”
“I dropped by the pub, talked with the bartenders and some of the students from my classes, after assuring them they weren’t in any trouble. Jenny was there on Friday night, with her boyfriend. They left about an hour in, with a Hispanic woman dressed in a black dress. That was the most description I got. The hotel where she woke up was only half a mile away, so they may well have walked. The hotel staff there hadn’t seen anyone, and said that the room hadn’t been rented out that night. I couldn’t see any obvious signs of them being mentally tampered with, but a lock wouldn’t do much to stop a vampire of any decent lineage. They could have made their way in through a mistform, walked through a wall, or simply grabbed the keys off the wall while invisible.” He shrugged. “I’m afraid that physical detective-work may avail us very little. Once Jenny is feeling a bit stronger, we may have to do a dreamwalk.”
I shuddered. “Fuck. I hate dreamwalks.”
Polly raised an eyebrow. “What, seriously? They’re awesome. We do them all the time while we’re-”
“The activities that Alfred normally uses his gifts for are among the things I hate about dreamwalks, but I just tend to have really fucked up trips when I dreamwalk.” I shuddered, and Alfred gave Polly a pointed look.
“I was going to say while we’re trying to get in touch with the sacred other,” the redhead said defensively. Alfred chuckled, and then turned his head back towards me.
“I know that your experiences with them tend to be rough, Atina, but you’re also very good at them. You catch the little details. Most people get smears of emotion, impressions, but you’re perceptive about these things.”
“Oh, god damn it. The last time I did it I had nightmares for a month.” I shuddered. “I’ll do it, but I really wish you’d found something else.” I crinkled my nose. “Polly, this is a long-shot, but do you know anything about those guys who attacked us last night?”
“Weeell. That guy was still breathing, so I’m willing to bet they’re not humans. Not a lot of fae who could take that kind of punishment, either. I think they were probably undead.” She beamed brightly at me. I took a deep breath, trying to control my annoyance. She had been hired because she could kick a ball that weighed as much as the average human being around with ease, and could shrug off gunshot wounds with some red hair dye. She was a bodyguard, not a scholar. I bit back a sarcastic remark, both for Alfred’s sake, and because I’d been raised to never insult the people who were taking bullets for me.
“Alright. So we have our suspicions. That Arthur fellow came around, and told me that the Nostra Notte were moving into Binghamton.”
“Nostra Notte?” asked Polly, with a frown. Alfred stepped in before I could.
“‘Our Night’. One of the few remaining major sects of vampires. They don’t get along well with the rest of the undead world. Much like the Mafia.”
“Ah, the Irish Mafia.”
“No, dear, the Sicilian Mafia,” Alfred chided. “They are a deeply territorial group. The way I’ve heard it told is that they believe they are the true inheritors of the night, as proven by noble blood and all of that rubbish. A particular nasty group of vampiric entities known as the Strix, Roman vampires. They are a dangerous group. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they are behind all of this.”
“That seems likely,” Fang Fen said from the doorway. “Jenny will be out with us in a few moments, after she takes a hot shower. She felt rather embarrassed about falling to pieces in front of you, Atina. She didn’t mean to offend.”
“She didn’t offend me,” I murmured, looking down at the food. It was nearly finished grilling.
“And yes, a small group of young Notte Nostra are in town, although they swear that they are only staying for a brief period. They have been watched closely by Lady Ann Willing, enjoying her hospitality. They were not personally responsible for her being turned in the first place, but who knows what their plans may be.” She sighed. “Their leader is a thirty year-old vampire, a Strix wise man, by the name of Donald. There are two others with him, both also vampires, though I know little about them. I believe they are makerless.” She smiled. “There will be little they can do to interfere with the actual jury, however. Lady Ann Willing’s biases may work to our advantage, she would never allow agents of the Notte Nostra intimidate or bribe a court in her city. She is likely to throw her support behind the judge on that matter.”
“That reminds me. You’ve had a chance to see how interest is shaping up. Do you have any ideas for who’s going to be on the jury list?”
“Hmmm… That’s a difficult one. Most of the undead in the city are interested with this case. It’s difficult to find someone more than a century old who doesn’t have a strong opinion on vampires, and this case may prove to be precedent for quite some time. There are eleven Undead older than me who live regularly in the city, from E.A. Link up to Lady Ann Willing.” She drummed her fingers.
“That few?” Polly asked, frowning. “I thought you lived forever.”
“We do, barring misadventure.” Fang Fen smiled. “Not that many Undead are made, and most die within perhaps twenty years of being made, while they are young and weak. The population of the world was approximately six billion less when I was alive, meaning there were far less to be turned into undead. There are still others who simply don’t interact with others, no matter how important the cause. I am certain there are still a few native undead who could claim the right to trial, but don’t, simply because they have no interest in our politics. I think we can discount them.” She turned towards me, expression serious. “If I do end up as the judge or on the jury, you know that I cannot promise you help. I must be neutral.” I rolled my eyes slowly.
“Yes, Fang, I’m perfectly aware. That’s fine, I don’t expect you to attack the other jurors for me or anything. If this trial is fair, we’ll do fine.” I crossed my arms. “What are the chances that we’ll get a fair chance?”
“Remote. Of the likely jurors, six are certain to want Jenny dead. They are deeply against vampires; they would have every one of them in the city executed if they could. This is the faction Lady Ann Willing is likely to represent. Of the others, hrm…” She tapped at her chin. “Some may wish to spare her, and need only a good excuse. Others may be susceptible to a particularly persuasive bit of precedent, or a strong argument that it will be for the good of the city to save her. Some will want to be bribed.”
“Aren’t they rich? Wouldn’t they be kind of bleedin’ expensive?” asked Polly.
“They wouldn’t want money. Information, favors, these are the things that are useful to the oldest of Undead. And Atina actually has a bevy of those. I would rely heavily on bribes. Who knows when some prominent member of the Undead will need a ‘get out of jail free’ card.” She smiled.
“Pretty standard stuff for me.” I leaned back, kicking my feet up. “Now, on tracking down the sire. Alfred, let’s say we had an idea of who the sire is. Any way that we could confirm that?”
“A sample of their body would do it. Blood for preference, most of the rest doesn’t contain a lot of life. Several of the doctors of Postmortology are experimenting on ways to track lines of supernatural power.”
I gave Fang Fen a look. “Any way we could compel them?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but even with that as an excuse, they’d be within their rights in the court to refuse. It’s not like the mortal world and its obsession with genetic evidence. Those things are powerful. Dangerous. A wizard who got hold of them could potentially do any number of deeply unpleasant things to the donor.”
“Damn. Did forensics find any traces of bodily fluids, anything like that?” Fang Fen’s look was all I needed to know that was barking up the wrong tree. “Damn it. They were definitely trying to avoid being noticed, then. If this had been a normal turning, they wouldn’t have been so meticulous. They’d have left behind something. I-”
“Atina, the fish!” Polly shouted.
A couple of minutes later, we sat together. I nibbled the burnt tuna steak as the others munched hungrily. Fang Fen was sitting a bit closer to Alfred than seemed entirely appropriate, and Polly’s eyes were narrowed as she watched the two. Jenny came out, holding a blood pack in one hand, a straw poked through the top. I had a brief flashback to summer days sipping Capri Sun, and realized that mental image would keep me from ever drinking Capri Sun again. The things I did for this job. The five of us sat around the table, nibbling fish and chop suey together. Alfred rattled his fingers on the hilt of his sword. “I should come with you. I-”
“Alfred, you know you can’t. It’d make this whole court more political. Polly doesn’t have any serious standing with the local fairies, and she’s my hired bodyguard. I’ve got a precedent for having her along. You’re a heroic young man who happens to be a wizard. They won’t respect you and they will fear you. It’s the worst of both worlds. I need you to work on that dreamwalk, anyway.” I sighed. “I need to tell you all something, though. Arthur suggested that anything less than a unanimous decision is going to be bad for the city. Win or lose.” I twisted my mouth. “I don’t know how much I believe him, but that’s something we’re going to have to take into account. We can’t just settle for a partial win. We need to have everyone on the same side by the end of this.”
Polly snorted. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Fang Fen coughed delicately. “It could make The Troubles look like a neighborhood scuffle. ”
Polly raised an eyebrow. “The Troubles… was that the thing with the-”
“I don’t want to cause conflict,” Jenny said, her eyes downcast towards the salmon. She licked her lips, removing the red stain from them. “If we cannot win, I would prefer death to having more blood on my hands.” She frowned, and looked down at her fingers, where a couple of droplets of red had fallen. “Metaphor is very difficult as a vampire.”
“It’s not going to come to that,” Alfred said, in his best noble hero tone, but I held up my hand.
“That’s very noble, Jenny, and if it really does come down to that, I don’t think I could stop you. But we haven’t selected a jury yet. Please, let’s focus on winning this case before we decide how to kill ourselves if we lose it.”
This time, she seemed to be genuinely cheered up by my words.
“Alright. Let’s dig in, shall we?” I smiled, and sliced into the fish, as conversation started up around me. I took a moment to just enjoy the fish. Even with skin charred, it tasted as good as I remembered. Light, flaky, moist, the taste of something long forgotten. My shoulders relaxed as I leaned back in my chair. Every case was like this. Every time. You couldn’t worry about it and freak out until the last minute. That would drive you insane. All you could do was prepare yourself as best as you can, and then not psyche yourself out.
I sometimes wondered if that lackadaisical attitude was what had led me to be in situations like this. I thought you had to be incredibly wealthy and powerful and intelligent to sway the course of events like this. But sometimes, it turned out you just had to be in the right place, and too stupid to let someone else take responsibility. Out of such foolishness, legends were born.
“So where did you meet Polly?” Jenny asked, looking at Albert curiously.
“Ah, well. I’d been called upon to duel the Summer King’s Man, in a duel to the blood. The trick was, we were to use heated blades, which of course precluded bleeding unless the strike was either excessively deep, or enough blows were struck to cool the blades. A tricky problem, as the other man could heal from such cuts, whereas I could not. But the life of a beautiful maiden-”
“It was a guy,” I interjected, grabbing a piece of chop suey. “He was very specific about that.”
“A beautiful maiden nonetheless- was on the line. The fight continued for quite some time, and I was beginning to fade, when someone screams from the stands, ‘JUST PUNCH HIM IN THE NOSE!'” Alfred grinned. “So I took their advice, bloodied his nose with the back of my hand, and won handily. And I go up to the stands afterwards, and Polly here tackled me, and shoved her tongue in my mouth.”
“That sounds… romantic?” Jenny asked, an eyebrow raised.
“I’m part of the Summer court. We’re not big on subtlety. That’s for Fall and Winter.” Polly gave a broad grin, and tossed her hair, dyed red locks briefly spinning around her head like the halo of a saint with daddy issues. “I challenged him to a fistfight a month ago, and he held his own. Though he had to use his armor, the sissy.” She snickered, and then tilted her head, giving me a curious look. “How did you two meet, anyway?”
I coughed, and looked down at my food. “Actually, of all things, I was referring a client to him. It’s kind of a silly story, to be honest. The Summer Court needs you to prove your client’s innocence through physical combat, I was no good in a fight. I start looking around in Binghamton University for someone who knows something about the Champions of the fairies, see if I could find someone who was good. Alfred wound up volunteering himself, and did a good job, so I stuck with him. I try to favor humans when I have to recommend someone; Even if Alfred only barely qualifies.”
“I’m as human as the next person,” Alfred responded with a sniff.
“Yeah, but in this case, the next person is Fang Fen,” I said, and Fang Fen smiled. “But…” I frowned. “Are you two seriously thinking about getting married? You’ve known each other for, what-”
“Six weeks,” Polly said nonchalantly.
“I mean, I don’t want to be a downer-”
“You’re a lawyer. It’s your job to give depressing cautionary advice. Don’t shy away from it.” Alfred smiled. “You’re going to say that’s not nearly enough time to know someone, that how can you possibly love someone if you aren’t aware of every inch of their past and soul, and all of those things.” The conversation went silent. “Weren’t you?”
“Well, yes, but I’d feel a little silly saying it if you’re already well aware. You know why I’m asking this. Alfred, your lifespan- accidents not withstanding- is measured in centuries. Polly, you might live forever.” I tried not to look at Jenny. “How do you deal with a relationship when you live that long? How do you commit yourself to something forever, when you know that you might come to resent it, eventually?”
Polly frowned. “Well, we could all die tomorrow, but you still save your money up, don’t you?” She grabbed a flake of salmon and popped it into her mouth. “Well, when death seems real likely, you might splurge a bit. But still. You don’t live your life expecting to die. And you don’t get into a relationship, even a committed one, thinking about when it ends. Sure, someday, either Alfred will die or I’ll get sick of him. Or maybe vice versa. But in the meantime, I’m still going to have a damn good time of things. You gotta live your life in the present if you want to be happy.”
Alfred nodded. “It’s true. I’m happy with Polly now. That may change, but that just means that I need to enjoy this time we have together as much as possible.”
Jenny stared down at her thumbs. “But it hurts when you lose someone,” she whispered softly. Alfred turned his head, and smiled sympathetically.
“It does. Falling in love is a dangerous thing, because you’re knitting your soul together with someone else. It’s not for everyone. Some people fall in love only once in their lifetimes, others not at all.”
“And others fall in love once a week, right, Alfred?” I frowned, and my eyes flickered over to Polly. “That’s the thing I don’t get. I mean, there’s no secret the kind of guy Alfred is. Why are you interested in marrying him? I mean, aren’t you worried about him cheating on you? Or, for that matter, Alfred, aren’t you worried about Polly killing you if she DOES find you cheating on her?”
“I trust Alfred,” Polly said, smiling brightly. I let out a despairing groan, and rested my head on my hands. “What? If you plan for the worst, you’re just going to make it more likely that it happens. Spending all your time focusing on bad things makes bad things come to you. Like attracts like and all that.”
“Forget it. I’m still writing a prenuptial between the two of you after all of this insanity is done with.”
“And what about you, Atina?” Fang Fen asked, an eyebrow raised. “I have known you for two years now, and you have shown little interest in pursuing a relationship with someone. Are you uninterested in passing on your genes?”
“I-” I went bright red. “God, that’s a romantic way to put it, Fang. No, I’m interested in ‘passing on my genes’, it’s just… hard.”
“To find a man who’d set aside everything for your career?” asked Alfred, a grin on his face.
“To find someone who’d meet your standards?” ask Fang.
Polly frowned. “Hey, now, leave her alone. If she’s not into guys, then there’s no call-”
“I am into guys!” I shouted, and then rested a hand on my face. “It’s hard to find a guy who hits all three of being interested in me, not being threatened by me, and who will not get murdered in some horrific revenge plot. You know?”
“Oh, yes. The eternal conundrum: My enemies might be a danger. As if. You’re the most paranoid human being I’ve ever met, Atina,” said Fang. “I’m sure protecting an additional human wouldn’t be that difficult. No, it’s not that. I think you’re not certain what you want.”
I leaned back in my chair, and stared up into the sky. There was an expectant pause, as the others waited for me to answer. When I didn’t, conversation resumed. I leaned back in my chair, and glowered up at the sky. The last fingers of light were fading from the clouds, providing just enough illumination to make the darkness textured. The broad backyard gave a lovely view of the emerging stars. The occasional bat flitted across my field of vision, soundless and serene. I took a deep breath, and let the smell of pine and earth fill my head, calming me down, letting my pulse slow back from a racing pace.
It feels like such a goddamn humiliating cliche, to be torn up about not having anyone. But it was true. My work-life balance was in the shitter. I’d never been great with people, but I wasn’t antisocial. I just put my foot in my mouth. I made the wrong moves. I didn’t know how to tell when someone was interested in me. And I sure as hell didn’t know how to keep someone interested in me. The people around me, we were bound by ties of obligation and similar work, and favors. If I stopped being a lawyer, we’d drift apart and fall into that distant not-quite friendship that defined so many of my relationships.
What I really wanted was someone who could be strong. Someone who’d make things all better. That’s what everyone wants, I think. Someone who’ll take the weight of the world off their shoulders. Someone who could be strong for me. But that was the thing about working with a group of predators. They respected me, they gave me deference, they avoided eating me, just so long as I looked like one of them. As long as I didn’t show weakness.
Jenny had asked why I didn’t become an Undead. Alfred often asked me why I didn’t make a pact. The truth was, the moment I did that, I’d lose myself. If I let someone else get their hooks into me, then I wouldn’t be myself anymore. I’d belong to someone else. And in a scary kind of way, love felt the same. What if I was given a choice, between someone I loved, and my work? It’d be a disaster.
And I know what you’re thinking, reading this. “What about the supernatural world? Must be some decent guys there, and come on, everyone knows women are nutty for vampires.” But I’d watched Alfred. Sure, he had loving relationships. But there was violence in those relationships, too. The supernatural was full of creatures powerful enough that in a fit of pique, they could break me in half. And I’m not a masochist, whatever Alfred may say about my working hours. I didn’t want to expose myself to that kind of insanity. Maybe I was being picky.
What the hell did I want? To not have to worry about being murdered by crazy people. To have a little peace and security.
For the world to be a better place.
Well, tough luck finding a guy who was going to be able to do all that. I sat back up. “What time is it?”
“Just about ten.” The air was getting awfully chilly out. I shivered.
“Alright. Alfred, do you mind keeping an eye on things here, making sure nobody’s snooping around, and getting that dreamwalk ready? The rest of us should go to the cemetery, and get there early. I want to get a feeling for what the power players are up to.” I placed the top over the grill, closing off the air, letting the fire snuff itself out. “Polly, remember to bring your soccer-ball. I don’t think this’ll get ugly, but if it does, I want you to be ready to go full hooligan. Jenny, Alfred got some of your clothes from your dorm room. They’re upstairs. Wear a long skirt and that jacket, undead are very sympathetic towards conservative dress styles.” I sighed. “I need to go get a shower and get changed.”
Half an hour later, the four of us slipped into Li Fang Fen’s car. The old, well-maintained Studebaker groaned slightly as Polly sat in the back, and I was hunched up uncomfortably in the passenger seat, but it worked. We approached the Slovak Hills cemetery, driving up to the gate. Dozens of old-fashioned cars and trucks were arranged around the entrance, mixed in with the occasional limo. There was a soft rumble, and a rush of air. I could just barely make out a faint, transparent outline of a small propeller plane turning, and making a perfect landing in a small square of open clearing in the graveyard. There was no security. The Undead didn’t do ‘rowdy’. Instead, small groups of three or four individuals made their way down into the heart of the graveyard, where I could see them gathering into a large circle.
Night Court was being called to session.