For someone who doesn’t care much for leaving home, I love driving. I don’t like maintaining cars, or souping them up, or making a particular car mine, and only mine. Cars are a big, clumsy method of giving me the freedom that is driving. It’s considered one of the quintessential American joys, and for good reason. Every time I drive, I’m consuming a resource that will take millions of years to replenish. The bones of the dead, long since rendered into energy-rich jelly. It’s the inheritance of our species, the thing that can keep society grinding long enough for us to make it to some new energy source, the necromancy for the everyman. And I was wasting it on zooming down a highway at midnight in rural Pennsylvania.
It was worth it, though. The road was empty save for truckers and the terminally hard workers, a peaceful black eternity lit by red embers in the distance in front of me, and bright white lights here and there behind, like a line of lantern-
“This is kind of a roundabout route we’re taking, isn’t it?” asked Polly, checking her phone. “We’re definitely going to have to stop at a hotel somewhere.” She was sitting in the back seat with Alfred, who was gently applying red hair dye. The two back windows were open to keep the fumes from getting overwhelming as he tended to her with all the love and care of someone whose significant other just took a disemboweling for him.
“That’s fine.” I tapped my wallet. “I’ve got about a thousand in cash. And the reason for this route is so we can avoid major population centers as much as possible, and approach Atlantic City from a roundabout route.” I took a deep breath. “New Jersey is where the Strix have their power base. Right? And we’re heading into one of the big cities in New Jersey. We try to avoid giving the impression that we’re down here to start trouble, or otherwise make life difficult for the Strix. I’ll be getting in touch with this collector this morning. We’ll set up a meeting for tomorrow evening, and everything’ll be jake.” I peered out of the window. “Who’s hungry?”
After a quick chorus of complaints, I pulled off at the next exit. Soon, the four of us sat around a table in a Denny’s, and I said a silent prayer of thanks to the god of underpaid, overworked restaurant employees. The young man who served us looked stoned out of his mind, which gave us as good a chance to talk as I could hope for.
“Grand slam,” said Alfred.
“Ultimate Skillet, bacon cheddar tater tots, and that bacon maple sundae.” Alfred and I shuddered visibly as Polly ordered.
“Just a couple of eggs for me,” Jenny said, not making eye contact.
“And I’ll get the salmon. And green tea, if you have it.” I handed him the menus, and smiled, as I leaned back. “Well, this is fun, isn’t it? The whole family piling into the car while it’s still dark out, eating out at a fancy fast food restaurant. Off to an exciting week in Atlantic City.” I sighed. “I always used to love roadtrips. My family used to drive up and down from New York City to Binghamton. We’d all pile into the car, be off for a couple of days upstate, enjoy the good weather, then be back to New York in time for school, and…” I stared down at the table. “I wonder who’s in the old family apartment now.” I looked up around the table. “None of you are stopping me from rambling.”
“Do we have to go back to Binghamton?” Jenny asked, lifting her gaze from the placemats. “Can’t we just… leave?”
“We could,” I admitted. “It’d mean you’d be sentenced to death in absentia. Anywhere with an Undead court, you’d be unsafe. You’d have to run, and you could never stop. But we could.”
“It wouldn’t just be her, though,” Alfred said. I shot him a look, but he frowned back at me. “No, damn it. You’re big on the self-sacrifice thing, Atina, but she deserves to know what it would cost you. If Atina helps you ditch the city, she’d be under the same punishment. Forget losing her license, she’d lose her life if she ever went back to Binghamton.”
“That doesn’t matter-” I started.
“Like hell it doesn’t!” Alfred gritted his teeth. “All the good you could do, Atina, gone forever, to help one person.” He turned his head towards Jenny. “If it comes down to it, I’d fight to the death to save you, but to give up, and not even try…”
“Hey.” I narrowed my eyes, and my voice got that little touch of steel that I managed. Not often, not enough, but when it counted. “It’s my life. I’ll spend it when and where I choose. I always knew, getting into this, that one day it’d be the death of me. If it means saving Jenny-”
“I do not want to give up that easily,” Jenny said, her hands in her lap. “I want to fight. I want to find out what the truth is. I want to give it a shot. I do not want to die, but I will live forever, now, it seems. That would be a terribly long time to be tormented by regrets about the things I could have done. I just wanted to know.” She looked up, and there was a confidence I hadn’t seen in her before. “I don’t want to run, Miss LeRoux. I want to find the truth.” Then her shoulders slumped. “But there still seems to be much arrayed against us. Even if we can get money for a bribe from this coin collector-”
“The Half-Faced Man put me on this track. He’s… a bit unpredictable, but he usually has a idea of the right direction to go. I’ve been researching case law, and I’ve got a lot of the documents I scanned from old stories on my phone. I’ve been reading through them, and I might have an argument.” I took a deep breath, and leaned back as our food arrived. “Undead case law is all about precedent. I might have found something in the mythology of the Iroquois Confederacy. Ever heard of Hiawatha?”
“Mmm. He was one of the founders of the Confederacy, wasn’t he?” Alfred frowned. “I swear I took a class on native literature and mythology that mentioned him.”
“Yes. The problem is, proving it was truth instead of myth.” I frowned down at my phone. “I need to figure out some way to get in contact with the native spirits still in Binghamton. Try to find a way to get one of them to speak for me. Someone who can give me some kind of positive precedent.” I rested my fingers over my face, blocking out the harsh lights of the Denny’s for a few blessed moments. How long had I been awake? Could it only have been five hours ago I was wrestled out of a solid sleep? The comfort of Roy’s room, a home-cooked meal, and a little certainty in life, could that really have just happened?
Plates clinked as our food arrived. I nibbled at the salmon, and knocked back the green tea. Polly rubbed her stomach absentmindedly, scratching at it. Her shirt was still torn open, but the wound was mostly gone, just a few places where the skin was pinker than normal. It was a testament to how out-of-it the waiter was that he didn’t even notice. “How’s it doing?” I asked, nodding my head down towards her stomach.
“Oh, I’ll be fine. It was like a damn feast of intimidation and fear, there. I knew working for you would be awesome.” She gave me a grin. “And don’t stress too much about paying me. I’m mostly in this for the experience.” She began to dig in to the food. I cringed slightly as she spooned up a piece of rigid looking bacon from the sundae, and tried to focus on my food and the bitter tea. They were good, though the smell of salt and fat on the air was a little distracting, reminding me of the smell of the vampire as he was burned. I tried to order my thoughts. There were so many of them jockeying for position.
“My father used to like roadtrips,” Alfred said, resting his head on his hand, fork slowly pushing potatoes around the plates. “We’d take trips across the country, once a year, driving to roadmarks. I remember, when I was ten, we visited Carhenge in Nebraska. It was the first time I’d ever seen a henge. I remember standing there and thinking how magnificent it was. How beautiful. I saw plenty of closer versions over the years, too. Places where people had built monuments to those standing stones.” He stared out of the window, into the dark parking lot. There were only three other cars scattered across the empty asphalt. “I still wake up thinking he’s alive, you know. Thinking I should give him a call. Five years dead, and I still haven’t gotten over it.”
Polly softly rested a hand on his shoulder. “I know the feeling. You know how the fae are, I never really knew my real mom and dad. But I’ve thought about seeing them. I’d like to get a chance to know who they were. Who I am, I guess. Earlen Wen’s always been a good mother, but she’s a bit cold.”
I frowned. “Wait a moment. The Earlen Wen is your adoptive mother?”
Polly looked surprised. “Oh, yes. Didn’t I mention?”
“I think we missed that.” I leaned back slightly. “Why did you take a job from her? Did she raise you to be an assassin, or…?”
“No, no. Well. It’s a little embarrassing, but, ah.” She flushed. “I kind of needed the reference to be a proper redcap thug, you know? Do a job for her to show that I wasn’t just some layabout.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How old are you, Polly?”
I was ready for that old trick. “And how long have you been twenty-two?”
“About six months?”
I rested my head on my hand. “A girl five years younger than you, Alfred?”
He looked slightly abashed. “It’s only five years, that’s hardly a significant number-”
“You usually date immortals and women who are hundreds of years old. What in god’s name possessed you to date a twenty-two year old? She’s young enough to be one of your students!”
“Wait a second. You were adopted by the Earlen Wen- Are you even Irish?”
“Well. I think a quarter Irish. I was born in Boston-”
“And Redcaps aren’t even Irish!” I rested my head against my hands. “Oh, god. If anyone ever finds out that I didn’t figure this out until days after I hired you, I’ll be a goddamn laughingstock in the supernatural community-” I paused, and frowned up at Alfred. “Wait a fucking second. You knew about this, right?”
Alfred shrugged. “I didn’t really think to question her.” He gave Polly a smile. “It doesn’t matter to me. I think your accent’s funny.”
“‘snot supposed to be funny,” Polly said, sulking, spooning up mouthfuls of sundae with an annoyed expression. Then Jenny began to laugh. We all turned towards her, as she laughed, a genuine smile on her face, her head resting on one hand, grinning.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to mock, but… That’s just such a relief. You know? Here I am being told that I’m some strange foreign monster, and I feel like an absolute freak because of it. That I’m something wrong and twisted, because I’ve been bitten by some mad Mexican bat-demon-”
“Mayan,” Alfred and I corrected.
“Or some crazy Roman bloodsucking owl,” she continued, unabashed, smiling. “And I’m thinking ‘this is insane, nobody will ever take me seriously, I must be the only poor foolish foreign girl who’s ever wound up in a situation like this. And here we are, and it turns out that the closest that Polly’s been to Ireland or the native home of her myth is the local pub.” She giggled softly into her hand. “That just helps a lot. It feels awful when you feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t fit in, who doesn’t know what’s going on. But knowing that everyone else is as much in the dark as you are… It’s strange, but I feel a lot better.” She smiled.
“I’ve been to Ireland once,” Polly said under her breath. “The Earlen took me there when I was eighteen to get drunk for the first time.”
Soon, the four of us were driving again. This time, Alfred took the wheel, Polly sitting next to him, Jenny sitting next to me in the back seat. As we drove south through Pennsylvania, I thought about the fight. “That bastard was strong. Alfred, how old would you guess he was?”
“Well, the Half-Faced Man mentioned a grandson with leukemia. That says old to me. And he was a full-blooded Strix, I’m sure of it. I could barely hold him off.” I nodded. “I’m not sure I would’ve been able to kill him without an ideal situation. With him bursting in on us like that, no time to plan or prepare for him… He tore right through those doors, and I didn’t see him harmed by any of the holy symbols around. That tells me that he must be quite resilient.”
“They caught us with the same trick twice.” I frowned. “Three Strix. One seems to be the leader, one is older and is there to act as judge, the third is eldest and tough enough to burst into my house. The question is what they want. Do you think he could’ve taken on one of the Camazotz?”
“The Camazotz, each one of them, predates America. They’re all canny and paranoid, and most of all, insular. I could see the entire Notte Nostra killing one, maybe two… But two dozen?” Alfred frowned into the rear view mirror. “There would be horrific casualties on their side. Dozens of elder Strix dead. I can’t see the profit for them.”
I sighed. “I’ll have to talk to Chaac about those bodyguards. My only hope is that when the trial itself begins, we can get enough people invested- Dean Morton, Chaac, Lady Ann Willing- that no single person could let them get at me again. Keep Jenny somewhere safe that none of them know about with you two. It was foolish of me to even have you staying there, Jenny.”
Jenny lowered her head. “In perfect fairness, Miss LeRoux, I’m sure you didn’t expect a brute squad of ancient vampires.”
“Yes, but in this business, I really should have. Alright, Alfred, we’re an hour outside of Wilmington, the next cheap motel you see, stop and we’ll check in.”
It was a hotel room. That’s about what could be said for it. I’m being a little bit unfair, here; It was not a particularly unpleasant or gross hotel room. It was two king-sized beds with soft blankets, a TV, and big, voluminous curtains. A chair, a desk, and god bless, an internet connection were all supplied. The clerk had been a bit surprised by our request to rent the place through the following day, but nothing more. Polly had shown a fake ID for the place, which none of us had commented on. And now, as I slumped into the chair, exhaustion was making itself known. The mental exhaustion of desperation and fear, leaving my head feeling fuzzy. “I’ll take the floor,” I stated. “Polly, Alfred, try not to do anything unseemly in front of Jenny.”
There were a few protests but I waved them off. I took out my phone, and began composing the e-mail to the coin collector, detailing my situation in the vaguest possible terms, photographing the pot, and requesting a chance to meet with her. Then I curled up on the floor with a pillow, my arm drawn over my head, and slept.
A sharp spear of alarm ran up and down my spine as the phone rang. The lingering remnants of a dream about having a stable and peaceful life shattered around me as I dragged myself up. It was 4 PM according to the phone. I grabbed it, and recognized the number from the contact information. I answered, trepidation in the pit of my stomach. “Mrs. Faraday?”
“Ah, yes. You’re the young lawyer who’s friends with Roy, yes? He spoke very highly of you, and said that you had an interesting coin collection that you need to liquidate.” The woman on the other end of the phone sounded rich. Her voice was luxuriant, amused, pleasant, with just a hint of New Jersey and New England mixing together in the accent.
“Yes. I’m afraid I don’t really have much background in them, so I’ll need to show them to you, but I’m hoping that I can get some money. I’ve got some rather pressing debts.”
“Oh, you young people. Always in a hurry about these things. Very well. I’m available to meet you tonight in Atlantic City. I own one of the smaller casinos there. Just introduce yourself at the front door, and I’ll see that you’re given the finest accommodations; Any friend of Roy deserves at least a couple of nights here. The boy was effusive in his praise.” She gave me the address, and a time to arrive.
I closed my eyes, and said a silent prayer of thanks to the divine patron of Dumb Luck. “That would be quite kind. I’ll be there with a few friends; I hope that’s okay?”
“Of course, of course, darling. I’ll see you tonight.”
I set the phone down, and my heart rate returned to normal as I slumped into the chair. Alfred and Polly were tangled together in their bed, sleeping with the serenity of people who have fought for their lives and won. Jenny lay in the other bed, extremely still. I fought the momentary urge to check for a pulse. Fang Fen had once told me that the undead usually slept like that. It was still scary as hell, though. I sniffed my armpits quickly, and wished I’d had a chance to pack more clothes before the abrupt departure.
Two hours later, I had taken a hot shower, a quick trip to a nearby outlet store, and a meal at the local Fish Belly’s. The food was shit compared to Roy’s restaurant, but I was hungry enough to not give a damn. I returned to the hotel, and slipped into the room. Jenny was sitting up, looking a bit nervous. “Oh, hello, Atina. Polly and Alfred went out to pick up some groceries. We got your note.” I nodded, and took a seat on the couple’s bed.
“We’ve got ten days before we need to be at the trial, on Saturday night. I can cover us for that long; We’ll arrive back in Binghamton on Friday night, in time for the trial, with hopefully everything we need to defend you. I’ll set you, Alfred, and Polly in a hotel a little ways out of town, and I’ll stay at the office.”
“What are my chances?” Jenny asked softly.
“I really don’t know.”
She nodded, and took out a small letter. “I wrote this for my parents. If I don’t survive, I… I would like you to send it to them, so they know what happened to me. So they have some closure. So I don’t just… vanish, off the face of the earth.”
I took a deep breath, and took the letter. “I will.”
“And what about you? What’s to keep the Strix from just… murdering you? Or turning you into a vampire? Or whatever they have planned?”
“No matter how tough they are, a vampire’s still got its weaknesses. My office is set up to deal with those kinds of intruders. I should be fine.” I gave a bluff smile. What I’d said was… probably true. It was the best I could do. It would draw attention away from the others, and let me get in contact with the members of the supernatural world who I needed to see.
“This case is costing you a lot, isn’t it?” Jenny said, frowning.
I considered lying, but then sighed. “Yes.”
“Thank you.” She smiled. “I am very lucky that that strange man gave me your card.”
“He’s got a tendency towards that kind of thing.”
“How do you deal with all of this uncertainty?”
I stared at the curtains for a few seconds, trying to think of how to answer the question. “You ever heard the saying ‘This, too, shall pass’?” I asked.
“I think so.”
“It’s an old Persian saying. A king gathered all of his wisest men, and asked them to create him a ring which would make him happy when he’s sad. They inscribed the ring with that phrase. And it worked. But the thing was, it was cursed, because when he was happy, it would make him sad.” I fiddled with the bed. “It’s a reminder that everything, good and bad, passes on. When your life is easy and sweet, it’s a terribly sobering reminder that the things you love and enjoy now will be gone someday. But when everything is going to hell-”
“Nothing comforts you so much as knowing that this, too, shall pass.” She looked down. “It seems so sad to think that you would be pushed to rely on that phrase so much.”
“Happiness is overrated. I came into the world owing a lot, and I spent the first 25 years of my life accumulating more debt.” I smiled. “Now I’m just finally being given the opportunity to pay that debt, and I’m only sorry I can’t pay it faster.”
She frowned. “Then, do you think I will be deeply in debt to you? Will I spend the rest of my unlife paying off this debt?”
I shrugged. “That depends on you. If I get you acquitted, then how would I call in the debt? Have you killed? No, all I can do is hope that it’s a good deed, and keep going. You only owe as much debt as you think you do.”
“Do you think that things will ever get better?” she asked, her voice soft.
“Can’t get much worse, right?” I gave her a smile. “Of course things will. A happy ending is the reward for perseverance. We’re going to fight for this thing to the end. We’ll do everything we can, and believe me, that’s a lot.”
“I don’t want to be a victim. I want to be able to help.” She sniffed, and rubbed her nose. “I wish I was like one of the others. Someone strong. Someone fierce. Someone who didn’t have to simply wait for someone else to solve their problems for them. I wish I could be like you.”
“I’m not strong,” I whispered softly. “You saw how useless I was at the fight, didn’t you? All I have is the law.” I stared down at my hand. “In the end, it’s just the hope that people will agree to be civil. The law is like a set of chains that exist only in your head. They’re just as strong as you think they are. And sometimes, that means they’re nothing at all.”
“They are enough to give me a hope of survival, and more than that, a chance to live my life.” She looked at me nervously. “Do you think, then, that it will come to violence?”
“I don’t know. People have too much skin in this game. Sometimes, in life, there’s no chance for reconciliation. Sometimes, someone’s got to be the loser. And in those cases, it can be pretty hard to avoid things coming to violence.” I took a deep breath. “All we can do is our best, right?”
The door opened, and Polly walked in, grinning. “Sun’s down! Let’s get going!”
I nodded, and stood up. “Yeah.”
Atlantic City’s a beautiful city. From certain angles. The route we were taking was certainly one of them. A small, but nevertheless glitzy casino, the Caesar Paulo. The place had large, open skylights, letting in plenty of sunlight during the day, and giving a good view of the clouds in the sky at night as they were lit up from below. The city itself lies on Absecon Island, a barrier island. The casino was on the inland waterfront, facing back towards New Jersey. I entered the casino, dressed in a cheap button-down shirt, flanked by the other three. The dark-haired young man at the front desk took our names, and gave us a small map, directing us into the attached hotel, and the penthouse. A couple of security guys checked us as we passed. They took Polly’s soccer ball, but didn’t notice the swords in Alfred’s belt.
The penthouse was extravagant, even by the standards of penthouses. Big glass windows from floor to ceiling showed off the view of the beach, and the surrounding city. Small lamps hung every dozen feet or so, casting a soft light over the entire room. A set of marble stairs led down to a pair of large couches, facing one another around a large coffee table with a pair of leather chairs completing the set. An elaborate four-poster bed sat in one corner, curtains drawn around it. In the other corner was what looked like a door to a bathroom.
And sitting in the far chair, one leg crossed over another, was Mrs. Faraday. She looked younger than I expected, her dark hair pulled into an elaborate, piled style, tilted slightly to one side. She wore an extremely tasteful black dress, her large eyes soft and warm, a delicate brown. I felt a touch shabby in the outlet-store button-down shirt and second-hand tie. She waved us over, a glass of red wine in one hand. “Come, please, take a seat. I’m interested to see the finds you have.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, and took a seat in front of her. “Thank you for seeing me.” I took out the small pot. “I received these as payment for a case a while back. I’m… Well, I’m hoping they’ll be worth something.”
The payment had been… idiosyncratic. I usually preferred cash, but the defendant in the case had been something of a hoarder. He’d sworn that the coins were worth more than the fees, and that I was welcome to all of them. I’d taken it on good faith, happy to help him out in the way I could. I was now starting to question that decision. Faraday dug her fingers through the coins, and softly hummed. There was a map of the United States spread out across the table with a number of marks on it. I didn’t recognize any of them as significant, though. A few in the southwest, some along the great plains, one up in Albany.
“A piece of Canadian currency, worth approximately twelve dollars on the open market… Hmm, a wheat penny, usually trade for around three dollars if you’re lucky…” She frowned, raising a valuable looking golden coin. “This is a piece of foil-wrapped chocolate.” She sniffed it delicately. “Antique, but chocolate rarely holds its value.” My heart slowly sunk in my chest. This had been a Hail Mary, I knew, but I’d still hoped… She kept listing the coins, and their depressingly small values. She paused a moment, lifting a small penny, and frowned, as she reached into her pocket and took out a small magnet, passing it over the coin. The small copper gleamed, bright and shining. She set that one to the side, and continued through the pot.
“How bad is it?” I asked softly. I’d been bilked by a leprechaun. I should have seen that coming.
“In total, I could perhaps offer you a thousand dollars for the pot.” Jenny let out a soft little noise of despair. “However.”
She held up the penny. “This happens to be from 1943. Do you know what was happening in 1943?”
I frowned. “Uh, well- World War 2?”
“Yes. Notable for its copper shortages. Pennies began to be struck on steel, coated in zinc. There were, however, some copper blanks that wound up finding themselves used for pennies.”
I frowned. The magnet. “How valuable is it?”
“Well, that’s somewhat difficult to say. The first major auction for a 1943 copper penny sold it for forty thousand dollars in 1958; Another went for ten thousand dollars in 1981. The highest price paid by 1996 was eighty two thousand, five hundred dollars.” I knew my jaw had dropped.
“Eight-two thousand?” I asked.
“For a very high-quality penny. Rather recently, one of these pennies went for over one and a half million dollars.” I stared, my mouth open.
“That much?” I asked, my voice a little weak. “And-”
“And how foolish do you think I am?” She dropped the penny onto the ground, and narrowed her eyes, standing. “Atina LeRoux. Attorney of Binghamton. Lawyer to the supernatural.” My heart thudded in my chest. Then the curtains drew back from the bed, and the bathroom door swung open. Eight gunmen stepped out, leveling submachineguns at us. “You must have thought me an utter fool. Unprepared for this. I do not know how you found me, or what your assassination plot was. I should have known that my foolish children’s quest would result in danger being brought to my front door at some point.”
Alfred stood up in a flash, his arm waving. The men in the corners screamed and dove for the floor, as the illusion of automatic gunfire filled the room. In a second, he was behind Ms. Faraday, dragging her up to her feet, his broadsword held against her pale throat. Polly was on her feet at the same time, flipping the coffee table over, and dragging Jenny and I into cover behind it. I blinked. “Alfred! Let her go!”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Are you crazy?”
“It won’t do any good. She’s a goddamn Godmother of the Notte Nostra.”