“I never wanted it to end up like this,” said Fang Fen, as she sat back on the hood of her car. It was still hot, providing a warm place to sit for a few minutes before the bitter cold of the night filled it, like it was filling everything else. “The two of us on opposite sides, fighting over whether someone will live or die. You saved my ass once.” I was silent. “And we both know that I can’t repay you for it here. There are a lot of things I’d do for you, Atina, but I will not betray justice for you.”
“You think this is justice?!” I asked, and then looked down. I didn’t usually yell at Fang Fen, but this whole trial was bugging me. “What about this feels like justice to you, Fang Fen? The part where the lack of evidence either way means she’s presumed guilty? The part where the jury is full of inherent biases? The part where it’s clear that she’s being set up to take the fall for someone else?! Why don’t you tell me what the fuck you think is honorable about this entire system!”
Fang Fen waited, quietly, her eyes very calm, as I shouted. I was probably going to wake up the neighbors, but I didn’t care. “Are you finished?” she asked, her face as emotive and passionate as a stone mask.
“Tell me what you think you’re defending.”
“Stability.” She waved a hand. “Haven’t you felt it, Atina? The chaos rising in the world. The prelude to madness. Instability and desperation. It’s not just the human world. The old dead are growing restless. The world has been in a state of unparalleled calm for the last seventy years, and that calm is beginning to crumble. Things are crawling up out of the darkness. Nightmarishly powerful things.” She crossed her arms. “You heard about that man who assaulted the Secretary of the Treasury? They say that he beat nearly twenty heavily armed bodyguards with his bare hands, in full daylight. Armed men with submachineguns. I couldn’t do that. I’d be surprised if Lady Ann Willing could do that and get away. And that outbreak of plague in New York City…” She shivered. “You do not understand how important stability is.”
I leaned back on the chair. “You know that old joke about medicine, right? ‘He’s listed in stable condition. Dead is stable.'”
“It’s truer than you would think.” She stared down at the ground. “Humans, both living and dead, need stability. I know traditions and conservative attitudes and all of the things that we Undead stand for are difficult. They press down on the young, they make them feel helpless. They make them feel as though they’ll never have their chance. But conservative attitudes exist for a reason. They give the young the chance to be old, someday. They keep everything from falling apart. We need that stability. Think about Jenny. What if she is a spawn of one of the old vampires? Imagine if she is the child of Hun-Came, or Chaac, or the founder of the Notte Nostra, or the Thousand Year Fox, or another terrible force?”
“So? It’s not like they have power over her. Hell, they killed her boyfriend, I doubt she’d just go along with whatever they say. I’ve read about vampires, they aren’t loyal to their makers.”
“You’re missing the point, Atina. A girl with the power of a goddess, who was born only a scant few years ago. Think about the court. What if she asked to be placed on the jury? What if she demanded the right to exercise her power? If the Night Court refused her, she could slay them for the insult. When youth is given power, it may try to do good with it, or it may be selfish with it. But youth is eager to use its power, to upset the status quo.” She crossed her head, frowning. “That man, who assaulted the Secretary of the Treasury. He’s not some ancient thing from the dawn of time. So how the hell did he get all of that power? He is what the Lady Ann Willing fears.”
I frowned. “Age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom, you know.”
“No. But age brings caution. Do you know why none of the ancient undead seek to conquer humanity? Do you know why no Lich weaves spells upon the president of the United States? Why we stay out of the business of the living? Because all of the conquerors, the ambitious, ferocious types, are weeded out while they are weak and young. The powerful Undead are those who stayed in their holes, who decided to be patient and to not take risks, and make caution a way of life. You care about Jenny, and she’s a kind-hearted, sweet young woman. But imagine if the wrong person were to become a vampire?”
I leaned my head forward. “You’re saying it’d set a dangerous precedent.”
“The whole reason we have a goddamn jury is because sometimes we recognize that a case is unusual. Jenny does not deserve to die just because someone else might.”
Fang Fen sighed. “I don’t expect you to let Jenny die. I don’t expect you to do anything but fight for her as hard as you can, with every trick that you have. I’m not here because I think that I can persuade you that I’m right. I’m just here because…” She stared down at her hands. “Because you’re my friend. And I hope, I really hope, that if I do win this case, that you’ll be able to forgive me.”
I snorted in disbelief, and she looked up at me. “Come on. What do you care? We both know I’m a human. I’ll be gone in sixty years. Maybe less.”
“Yes. Undead… We can hate each other forever. There’s always time to make up for things. But if you hate me… You might hate me until the very day you die. And then there’d never be another chance. I couldn’t stand to not have you as a friend, Atina. I know that we have to be on opposite sides of this issue… But I hope we’ll still be able to be friends afterwards.”
“Even if I win?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“If you win, and beat me, I will be very happy indeed.” She gave me a soft smile, and stood up. “I want you to find a way to make everything right. I want you to win without question, to prove Lady Ann Willing wrong, to make her stand down. Because if the Strix judge decides this, I know that this will not end well.” She held out a hand to me. I took a deep breath, and then shook it, pulling her in and giving her a firm hug. A bit of exhaustion crackled through me, a combination of the cold and her own enervating presence. “Please win, Atina.”
“Hey, do I ever lose?” I gave her a weak smile.
Everyone loses eventually.
Polly and Alfred were lying together in one of the guest bedrooms. Jenny was up, and reading one of my case files in my bedroom, her eyes wide. She looked up, guilty, as I entered the room. “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss LeRoux-”
“No, don’t be.” I smiled. “They’re interesting, aren’t they? I’ve thought I might publish them someday. Kind of a primer on identifying the supernatural in your neighborhood. I thought about making a supernatural law blog, but people called it a bunch of self-indulgent trash.” I reached into the bedstand, and withdrew the small pot of coins that I had gotten. I trailed my fingers through it, letting them jingle as they fell back into place. Verdigris pennies, rusty bits, silver dollars. All variety of cash. Hopefully, some of them worth enough in total to pay for the first installment of the Dean’s bribe. “If you don’t mind, why are you reading through it?”
She looked down at her feet. “I was planning to be a writer, Miss LeRoux. My major was in English. I always used to love fantasy, and romance, and all of those things.” She quirked her lip. “Be careful what you wish for, hmm?”
“I think you dodged a bullet. If you survive this case, ‘Undead’ pays a hell of a lot better than an English degree.” I sat down across from her. “I don’t want to promise you anything about the trial, but you’re going to need to make plans about the future. There’s a lot to think about.” I took a deep breath. “I’ve found out what Dean Morton wants, at least. He’ll need a favor from you. And this is a heavy price, because he hasn’t stated what the favor will be. It could be anything, and knowing him, it’s going to be something that costs you. He might ask you to kill someone, he might ask you to do almost anything, as long as it will not break the law.”
“Killing someone… without breaking the law?” She frowned. “How-”
“I’ll also have to be teaching you the law. The point is that it will be something you owe, in exchange for him voting for your acquittal.”
“A bribe, then,” she said, her tone icy.
“More like bail and parole,” I suggested delicately, though she was absolutely right. “It’s his way of making sure that you are bound not to ruin things, because he’ll have a favor to hold over your head. That way, if you break your word, he can at least prove to the world at large that you’re untrustworthy. You’re going to find that there’s a lot of paranoia in this community.”
“It is all so strange,” she whispered softly, her eyes down on the case files. “To think the world was so full of magic and wonder, and to have it all proven to be so… tawdry.”
“That’s life. Nothing’s beautiful when you get too close to it.” I gave her a smile. “It’s up to you whether we take the deal or not.”
“Can I win without doing so?”
I looked down. “Chances aren’t good.”
“Then I do not have much of a choice, do I? I must trust you, and I must trust him. The alternative is being set adrift, and trusting those whose interests are not aligned with my survival.” She set her lips in a line. “What do you get out of this, Miss LeRoux?”
“I don’t know. I…” I sighed. “If I’m being honest… I’m stubborn.” I stood up, putting the pot back down as I walked in front of the mirror. I checked myself in it for a moment, brushing a hand through my hair. I could see Jenny’s face in the mirror, the pain and fear there. Her life was hanging by a thin thread.
“When I took this case on from you, Jenny, it was a snap decision. I wanted to help. I didn’t realize how much that help would cost me. I didn’t realize how badly some people wanted you dead.” I took a deep breath. “But I offered to defend you, and I don’t step down from that. Who else would I find to defend you? Who else would have a chance of doing it? If I abandoned you now, it’d mean you’d be on your own. And I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving you like that.”
“So I’m a burden.” Her face grew even harder.
“Christ, you’re in a mood, aren’t you?” I took a deep breath. “You are… an investment. A burden will never stop being a burden. They’re tied to you by obligation, or contract, or fear of criminal consequences. If you survive this, Jenny, you’ll be the first native vampire of Binghamton. Figuratively speaking. Your survival could spell a positive change in the way this city works. You could make a lot of people’s lives a lot better, and you might even get the power you need to do something. Let me ask, if you could do anything- If you didn’t have to worry about money, if you had all the safety and security you needed- What would you do?”
She was silent for a few seconds. “I would sit in the sun in a nice garden all day, compose haikus and short stories and maybe novels, and share them with anyone who wanted to see them for free.” She looked melancholy for a moment, and then smiled. “But I suppose that doing it in the moonlight would be enjoyable too, in its own way.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you, Miss LeRoux. I only hope that I can find a way to pay you back, someday.”
I thought of Hun-Came. Of that terrifying power. If Jenny was made by that goddess, and was recognized by her… I felt a little spike of guilt. It felt selfish, the desire to protect her so she would be able to protect me in turn. That I was defending her in the hopes that she’d save me someday, too. As if self-interest was all there was to it. I just tried to convince myself in my head that I’d do the same even if I knew for certain that Jenny would be nothing special. I’d almost managed to when there was a jingle from downstairs, and my head jerked up.
“What is it?” Jenny asked, frowning.
“Someone just hit their head on one of the chandeliers.”
The chandeliers. When I first bought the house, I strongly considered removing every goddamn one of the chandeliers. Not a day had gone by that I didn’t turn a bit too fast, and accidentally knock my skull against one of the ornate pieces of glasswork. Frankly, they were a pain in my forehead. They had been hung for someone four feet tall, and were right at eye level for me. And yet, I’d kept them on for reasons of nostalgia, and appreciating that they were something beautiful.
The sound from downstairs had been someone knocking their skull into the chandelier, and trying to hold it still, without crying out and cursing. I pointed to the bathroom door. “Get in there.” I grabbed the sap gloves from the end-table. I thought for a second, and then grabbed my father’s old flashlight. “If I’m not back in five minutes, climb out the window and run like hell.”
“What is it?” she asked, her eyes widening in fear.
“If I’m lucky? Just my paranoid delusions.” I turned off the lights, and slid over to the door, sliding it open.
Human night vision is crap, by and large, compared to most of the things in the dark out there. Turning on the lights would make me an obvious target. Going in the dark would make me a more obvious target. So I had the Maglite. It was nearly two feet long, made out of aluminum, and was favored by police because of its ready second use as a baton. It was closer to a billy club than an instrument of illumination, but it could do both. I turned it on and swung the light in a quick arc before turning it off again. Just long enough to dazzle anyone watching and give me a sign of them. I didn’t see anything.
I made my way down the stairs. I knew this house by instinct. I knew where everything was, and each step was made with confidence. I carefully set my feet down on the cold tiles of the first floor, and did another quick turn, flashing the light on and spinning. Nothing.
An arm went around my mouth from behind, as someone put me in a tight hold. Their hands were like iron. “Now now, girl. You got the drop on me with that fae bitch last time. Not going to be quite so easy this time, is it?” I recognized the voice. “Now, we’re just going to take you, nice and quiet, and make sure that you’re going to do what we want. If you’re a good girl, you don’t have to die. Do you underst-”
I kicked the ground with both feet. I was taller than him, and had superior leverage and weight. The man was supernaturally tough and strong, but I’d seen that he wasn’t invincible. He tumbled backwards, and his cheek struck the wall papered with bible verses. I was not a bastion of faith and belief, but that wallpaper apparently was, and on contact, it ignited his skin like he’d dipped his cheek in napalm.
The man’s howling shriek rose through the room as I lunged for the light switch, the smell of burning meat filling the air as his cheek burned spectacularly. A dozen vampires stood around me, dressed like the two men who had assaulted me a couple of nights ago. Black shades, jackets, and far too much grease in their hair. They reached into their pockets, and drew out switchblades. The man whose cheek had been burned patted it out, hissing and growling under his breath. “Shit. Alright. Someone knock that bitch out, while we kill the two troublemakers upstairs. Get that wastrel bitch, too. Remember, don’t kill the shark or the girl-”
“You fuckin’ pricks!”
You know the sound a soccer ball makes when it’s kicked? It’s a hollow, rubbery kinda sound. When you do it just right, there’s almost a sharp little ping to it. That sound heralded the arrival of Polly’s soccer ball, driving one of the men down at a sharp angle into the floor. The tiles were preserved, thanks in large part to the man’s body cushioning the ball. His rib cage was not so lucky. Polly followed at high speed, striking another of the men feet-first with her cleats. The first man was the luckier, as the soccer ball wasn’t covered in small, sharp spikes. Her hair spun around her, bright red and freshly painted, shining like the halo of a particularly heavy metal angel.
One of the men went for his gun, drawing it, even as the man who’d grabbed me shouted at him. Alfred appeared from thin air, and his slender rapier went through the man’s chest while the thick broadsword cut cleanly through his wrist. The gun fell to the floor, clattering to a halt. He took a step back, and smiled brightly at the other men.
Alfred, when he’s ready to fight, is a hell of a sight. His chainmail shimmered around his body, his blonde hair hair haloing his head. He turned to face another of the vampires, and stalked towards them. In one hand, he held a dueling rapier, slender but sharp as a needle, blood already making the blade glisten. In the other, he held a broadsword in a one handed grip. He lunged towards the man, and his arm blurred. Three arms, and three rapiers, sped for different places. The vampire moved to dodge one aimed for his throat, and wound up stuck like a pig through his gut instead. The broadsword flashed out and took his head off while he was distracted.
Alfred preferred a duelist’s style. He’d used it to become one of the few wizards who could manage the position of a Champion of the Summer Kingdom. It was also, however, a style designed for fighting one enemy at a time. I saw one of the vampires approaching him from behind, lunging even as Alfred fended off a stab with the guard of his broadsword.
Then Polly was there, her foot dividing the man’s legs like Moses in the red sea. One foot was set firmly on the ground, the other clad in a steel-toed boot, driving into the vampire’s groin so hard it lifted him nearly a foot off the ground before physics reasserted itself, turning him into a crumpled, moaning heap. Then she turned, and lashed out with the foot again at her soccer ball. It rose up off of the ground, striking an arc that sent two more vampires tumbling to the ground. Alfred and Polly went back to back. Less than a third of the vampires were still standing, and a smile played across Alfred’s lips, confident and just a little bloodthirsty. Then the door opened.
The man who stood there was familiar, though it took me a moment to place him. He had large, soft eyes, and a rosary around his neck. He wore a simple white t-shirt, and a pair of slacks. He let his eyes run along the room slowly, and sighed. He didn’t have a knife, or a gun, but his eyes were strangely familiar. Then I realized where I had seen him. The third member of the Strix at the night court.
He took a step forward, and blurred. Alfred lashed out, his blade moving to intercept the man, and the Strix caught it between his thumb and forefinger, stopping it in mid air. He tapped the side of his head with his free hand. “Pathetic, really. It says something about the quality of these mooks that you two are enough to stop them.” His voice was gentle. His other hand flickered out, catching the soccer ball.
With both hands full, he did not manage to intercept Polly’s fist in time, as it slammed into his ribs. He bent forward, growling, and then straightened up. “You know, this doesn’t have to be quite this hard. You can give up the girl, and the lawyer. We don’t want either of them dead.” He smiled, sharp white teeth visible. I backed away, taking the first few steps up the stairs.
“Go fuck yourself sideways with a duck’s dick!” Polly said. The man sighed.
“Fine.” He snapped his fingers. “You boys get out of here. Shoot anyone who goes through the windows. I don’t want those two dead, but I won’t lose any sleep over it.”
Alfred lunged for the burned vampire, but was intercepted by the large-eyed Strix. The bastard was fast, slashing with open-handed movements, more like the raking of a cat than a human blow. It shouldn’t have been very effective, but one of his swings nearly struck Alfred, and tore open three long parallel lines in the chainmail. Alfred gasped, stepping back, splitting into three identical figures. The vampire sighed, shaking his head. “That sort of trick isn’t going to work on me, wizard.” He tapped the bridge of his glasses gently, grinning. “Why waste your time?” Then he lunged at one of them, and Alfred stumbled back, hitting the bottom row of stairs.
The raking fingers struck deep into Polly’s stomach, her hair turning dull as red blossomed across her green jersey. She reared back, and slammed her skull into the vampire’s, making him stumble back a couple of steps. He recovered quickly from the headbutt, and renewed his assault, pushing the three of us back up the stairs. These were two of the strongest people I knew, and he was barely even slowing down as he fought them.
I pulled back through the bedroom door, and slammed it shut as Polly and Alfred came through. “Oh, you’re not going to be safe in there for very long,” the man laughed, voice muffled by the wood. There was a horrible crunching noise, and three long strips were torn out of the door. I fought back an urge to shout ‘Here’s Johnny.’ Alfred stood just behind me, panting, sword raised. Polly was clutching at her stomach, her hair nearly brown, bright red blood gushing down her stomach. Jenny stood with her back to the mirror at the far side of the room, her hands over her mouth. She didn’t have a reflection.
The Half-Faced Man was standing where her reflection should have been. “Hello, Atina. Do you mind if I come in?” he asked, very politely, even as a massive hole tore out of the door, revealing the bright, shining eyes of the Strix.
“Get in here!”
The Half-Faced Man unfolded from the mirror, and Jenny let out a scream as he brushed past her. He gently pushed her against the mirror, and she fell through the border. Alfred turned towards the Half-Faced Man, distrust warring with relief. “Can you kill that bastard?”
“No. I am afraid not. I can, however, buy time.” The door slammed off of its hinges, and the vampire stepped in. His eyes flickered across the room, and then settled on the Half-Faced Man. “Hello, Parsons. How’s the family?”
“How in the hell…?” The vampire took a step back, his eyes widening. “How do you know-”
“Your grandson’s not doing well, is he, Parsons?” Alfred, Polly and I backed off as the Half-Faced man strode towards the man, his arms folded behind his back, hunched forward to avoid banging his skull against the ceiling. “Do you want to know what it is that’s killing him?” Polly went through the mirror. I was about to, when I turned my head back towards the end table. The pot of coins sat there. Without that, we were screwed regardless. I pushed Alfred through, and he let out a shout as I dove onto the bed. The man, Parsons, lunged for me. An iron knife flashed through the air with impossible speed, and pinned his hand into the wall right through the palm.
The Half-Faced Man smiled. “It’s cancer, Parsons. Leukemia. It is going to kill him. And it’s all because of that time you sent him to visit Aruba. That’s where the mutation happened with a little too much sunbathing. He’s going to die, and it is your fault.”
Parsons ripped his hand off of the wall, knife and all, and lunged at the Half-Faced Man with a feral scream of rage.
I’d never seen the Half-Faced Man fight before. I’d never seen anyone who could give him a fight. It was strange, and rather beautiful. His blows had a flowing grace, his additional joints making every movement unpredictable. Two iron knives appeared in his hands, hilts wrapped in leather, guards likewise. He stepped and slashed, digging the knives in, striking again and again. All of his movements were sweeping and wide, hemming the Strix in. I stared for a moment, my mouth open, when I remembered myself. I grabbed the pot, and dashed for the mirror, throwing myself through it in a roll.
There was a moment of vertigo, and I landed on a hotel room bed. Polly was sitting with her hand over her stomach, groaning softly. Jenny was shivering. Alfred was wrapping a bandage around Polly’s stomach. I stared up at the mirror, showing a display into my bedroom. The Half-Faced man dove through the mirror, and landed on the far side of the bed as elegantly as a spider. Parsons leapt after him, and his face flattened against the far side of the mirror. Cracks appeared in the image, and then the view of my bedroom faded, leaving just a normal mirror.
“Shit,” I muttered. “I really liked that mirror.” I rested my face on my hands, and let out a long, slow sigh. “Fuck. Okay. I think it’s clear we can’t stay in Binghamton. That was definitely the Notte Nostra. We need to skip town, and stay out until the trial.” I took a deep breath. “I need to write some letters to people. I need to make sure that Lady Ann Willing and Fang Fen don’t think we’ve skipped town, and that we’ll be back, so they don’t sentence Jenny in absentia. We need to get a car-”
“I’ve taken the liberty of preparing envelopes, stamps, and a rental car,” The Half-Faced Man said, bowing his head pleasantly.
I turned towards the Half-Faced Man, and my expression turned hard. “How did you know I was going to be in trouble? This must have taken time to set up. Did you know these guys were going to be involved?”
“Actually, I’ve been preparing these things since I first met you. I presumed that eventually you would be attacked. When I felt something disrupt the sanctity of your home, I prepared this ingress. I have been working under the assumption that this would become necessary at some point, when you enraged something to the point of needing to flee the city.”
I paused a moment. “So, this isn’t because you’re secretly in league with the bad guys, but because it was obviously clear that at some point I’d get in so deep over my head that you’d absolutely need a safehouse getaway planned for me.”
“Yes. And I know how that sounds.”
“I actually would have preferred you to be with the bad guys.”
“I know.” He gave a sympathetic smile. “I did not, however, get red hair dye. I will remedy that now.”
I sat slumped in my chair, staring down at my hands. They’d attacked me, in my own house. Planning who knows what. I’d always thought I would be safe there. I took a deep breath. “I don’t know what the hell the Notte Nostra is playing at. They wanted me and Jenny alive, so they’re not trying to kill us necessarily. What do they want?” I stared down at my hands. “Their purpose, generally, is to destabilize places where the undead are strong, so they can take over in the chaos. They’ve been working towards that, here. They want to destabilize the city, and they want to use Jenny to do it. Force a confrontation, make sure that I play my part as well as I can. Maybe they just don’t trust me. Maybe they were the ones who actually changed Jenny.” I kneaded my forehead. “But… On the other hand, the Camazotz are getting hunted by something. It could be the Strix, possibly. Maybe. But then why would they want Jenny alive?” I groaned, and lay down on the bed. “Shit!”
“We’ve got a week and a half,” Alfred said. “You just need time to get your head in order. Is there anywhere we can go?”
“Uh.” I sighed, and got out the card, studying it. “There’s a coin collector. She might buy these. She lives in… Egg Harbor.”
Polly’s eyes lit up. “Oooh! That’s right outside of Atlantic City! We could all go together!”
Jenny frowned. “But… Even after we finish this case, won’t we still be in danger, even if we win? If the Notte Nostra are frustrated because of our actions…”
“When we’ve won this case, we can tell the Lady Ann Willing exactly what happened, and she can forbid every one of the Notte Nostra from the city on pain of horrible death. The only reason I can’t tell them now is because, if I did, it would result in a mis-trial.”
“Isn’t that good?” Jenny asked, frowning.
“Not quite. It would mean the presumption of guilt against you. And…” I sighed. “Death.”
“This court system is in terrible need of reform,” Jenny muttered.
“Yeah, you’re telling me.” I leaned back in my chair. “How are you doing for blood?”
“I… am hungry, but not starving.” She bit her lip. “Are we going to be able to travel with me?”
“Sure. We’ll just drive at night, and stop in a hotel during the days. Should be no problem.” I stood up, and looked at the card. I thought of Roy, and what he’d think. If I disappeared, and there were reports of a break-in at my house. How he’d react if I disappeared. I’d need to write him a letter, too.
This is why I don’t go in for relationships.