The room was full of tension as the men leveled their guns. Alfred gripped the sword a bit tighter. “I wouldn’t,” he told the men. “You’d be amazed what I could do with a little bit of her blood.” He looked over at Polly, and the young woman nodded.
“You assume I could not tear you in two-”
“Did you send Parsons, Donny, and Sofia to Binghamton?” I asked very firmly.
Faraday turned her cold eyes towards me. They were larger than normal. God damn, I hate subtle tells, they always seem so obvious after the fact. “I did not, though neither did I forbid them from going.”
“Good enough.” I took a deep breath. “Alfred. Let her go.”
“Are you sure-”
“We’re not here to kill you, Mrs. Faraday. We’re not even here to threaten you. I came here because Roy is a friend of mine, and he told me that you bought coins. You may be aware of the case I’m fighting?” A frown crossed Faraday’s face. That caught my attention. She had us, effectively, at her mercy. If she decided to have Alfred shot, she wouldn’t even have to get out of the way. Vampires, as I have said many times, are tough. But she didn’t know what I was talking about. Then it hit me. “They’re rogue, aren’t they?”
She looked away. “We were contacted by an unknown individual through an intermediary. They had a proposal to make. They invited three of my children to Binghamton, along with two dozen Wastrels. This would have been a couple of weeks ago. They were to contact me with the details of the proposal, and I would decide whether or not to approve.” She took a deep breath. “They have not contacted me. Now, I am hearing reports that they attacked you from my contacts within Binghamton.” She narrowed her eyes, and gave me a hard look. “Do you expect me to believe you did not discover who I am, and make contact through an easily swayed acquaintance, so as to exact retribution on me? That all of this is some grand coincidence?”
“I don’t think it was coincidence, but I’m not here to kill you. I’m not interested in killing anyone related to this case. I just wanted Jenny to survive.”
The woman frowned, and turned her eyes towards Jenny. Alfred lowered his weapon, and Faraday approached, sniffing the air, before leaning in towards Jenny, studying her eyes. “Dear me… So this is the cause of the trouble.” She frowned, and looked over at me. “I think I had better hear this story from the beginning.” She snapped her fingers, and the men lowered their weapons. “Please, get them some tea. And a pint of blood for the child. She looks famished.”
Nearly an hour later, the five of us sat in the room together, and things were substantially less tense. “Do you know what the meaning of the Notte Nostra is, Jenny?” Mrs. Faraday asked.
“I read some case files on it. ‘Our Night.’ It sounded… ominous.”
“It can. But the truth of it is that it is meant to be a sign of hope. The Vampire Lords of old deserved what happened to them, I have no doubt. Old and powerful and prideful, their end was just. But now, what was a crusade has become a pogrom. Our kind are slaughtered. They are…” She looked down at the map, her eyes growing sad. “There are so few places where a vampire is safe, that we must make them. That is the reason for our name.”
I frowned, arms crossed. “The Strix have a bad reputation. Even in ancient Rome, they were harbingers of disaster and chaos.”
“Yes, like the Banshee. Like the black cat. But did we bring it? Did we cause it? Or did we merely warn of it?” She frowned. “Sometimes, I must confess… It does feel as though we have been cursed. That we are doomed to be forever outcast because of what we are.” She growled under her breath, and took a deep drink of the red fluid swirling in her wine glass. “Then I think that perhaps all of this is perfectly justified, when my beloved children venture out into the world and make such a fucking mess of things. Testing the Lady Ann Willing… I can’t imagine what they are thinking. The woman is pathological about vampires.”
I frowned. “Do you know what makes her so… intolerant?”
Mrs Faraday sighed softly. “It is not as great a mystery as one might hope. It was simple. Her husband was murdered by vampires.”
“But all of the things she believes in…”
“A simple grudge can last forever in the right hands. Lady Ann Willing feels she is justified, but that is all her hatred is. The loss of the one she loved.” Faraday sighed softly. “There is a genocide afoot. You know the Camazotz?”
She waved down at the table, and I frowned. “I’ve been told they’re being hunted. Preyed upon, though they don’t know what’s doing it.” I left it at that. Mrs. Faraday watched me for a moment longer, before continuing.
“Yes. The Camazotz are of great interest to us, because they are one of the few native vampires of this land. They were a powerful group once, and even in the wake of the fall of the Mayan civilization, they stayed strong. Their numbers were never significant, but they chose individuals of great personal resilience, and they survived well into the present day. We have an understandable interest in anyone who could have destroyed such powerful creatures. There are, as far as we know, only two are left: Chaac, and her maker, Hun-Came, oldest and perhaps first of the Camazotz.”
I frowned. That sounded like what I knew. “Did you know that Hun-Came wanted to begin to rebuild her population?”
Mrs. Faraday’s face fell. “Yes. She told me of it, three months ago. That she wanted to try to return her kind to the world, seeing the way they were being hunted down. I offered her sanctuary, and aid. She turned me down, and told me, politely, that she did not want her kind to be tarred with the same brush that the Strix had been.”
“That must have made you very angry.”
“Yes, so angry I would try to murder her and all her family retroactively.” Mrs. Faraday rolled her eyes. “I would not expect a mortal to understand. Notte Nostra- Our Night. Every Vampire’s Night. We are all bound by blood, even if we may take different shapes and different philosophies. Do you know if she is still alive?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. One of the reasons I’m going forth with this trial is in the admittedly long-shot hope that it’ll be able to bring her out of whatever hidey-hole she’s tucked away in. Otherwise…” I frowned. “Do you know what might be hunting them?”
She breathed out a sigh. “Have you been following that assault on the Secretary of the Treasury?”
“Yeah. Ex-FBI agent, wasn’t it? Someone who got unhinged during a case. Assaulted the Secretary of the Treasury, and then left.”
Mrs. Faraday nodded. “Perhaps three and a half months ago, something happened. A town called Zion ceased to exist.” Alfred stiffened. “And when this happened… Things started happening. You remember that plague, a couple of months back, in Manhattan? The strange midnight sun?”
“That was the Aurora-”
“I was caught outside. It nearly burned me to the bone. It was not the Aurora Borealis. It was a second sun. I have lived for close to two hundred years, and in the few months, the world has gone absolutely mad, Miss LeRoux.”
I frowned. “Why? People have predicted the apocalypse as long as there have been people. As soon as someone figured out there was a world, people started insisting it was about to end. It never has yet.”
“I don’t know. But Hun-Came did not simply change her mind because she feared her own extinction. The power of Vampires is in their blood, and that power is remarkably easy to pass on. Hun-Came might have been one of the oldest vampires in the world. Even if her creations had only one half of her power, one fifth, one tenth of her power, can you imagine what they would have been capable of? She believed that they would be an army.” Mrs. Faraday stared down at the map. “She believed we needed an army to face whatever was coming out of the darkness.”
“And what is coming out of the darkness?” Alfred asked, his eyes narrowed.
“How the hell should I know?” Mrs. Faraday laughed. “Judgment Day and its seven-headed beast? Ragnarok and the Midgard Serpent run rampant? The turn of the Mayan Calendar and a new era? I don’t know. I just know that somehow, my children seem to be wound up in the matter.” She sighed softly. “But that hardly matters right now, does it? Whatever her reasons were, the immediate concern is this genocide. Perhaps some ancient beast is hunting down its enemies. Perhaps Lady Ann Willing is extending her hatred of Vampires, though it disturbs me to think how she might have come to the power necessary to kill Camazotz.” She drummed her fingers on the chair slowly.
“Why do the Strix spread chaos?” I asked softly.
“Hrn. Why were the Jewish moneylenders, LeRoux? It wasn’t because they chose to be hated and considered parasites and foul creatures. It was because polite society left them few other choices. The Notte Nostra seeks to protect vampires, and survive. We need a niche, no matter how foul it may be. That which drinks blood are seldom loved, but… Well.” She sighed softly. “We do what we do in the hopes that someday we will not need to do it anymore.”
I frowned. The whole oppressed society schtick wasn’t quite something I could believe just yet, but it made a certain kind of sense. If the Notte Nostra as a whole wanted me dead or converted or whatever else, there would be no reason to tell me all of this. But I couldn’t necessarily take anything she said on faith. I set down my cup of tea.
“How can you help us, Mrs. Faraday?”
She looked up, an eyebrow raised. “What makes you think I can help you? What makes you think it is even my place to help you?”
“Your children are mixed up in this. Your clan. You were frightened that I’d come to kill you because of what happened. You think that things are growing more chaotic. Doesn’t that mean this is a time when we need to come together?”
“That sounds surprisingly prescient to me.” I turned my head. The woman who had just spoken stood in the open doorway. She’d entered so softly that she’d barely made a noise. She was… the word for it was probably ‘handsome’. A cigarette burned merrily in a long black ceramic cigarette holder. Her skin was well-tanned, and her hair was dark. She was unmistakeably Native American. “So, Nelly. Things weren’t quite as bad as they looked?” She held the cigarette holder to her lips and inhaled, before blowing out a thin stream of smoke. Mrs. Faraday- Nelly- shot her an annoyed look.
“I would rather you not get the smoke everywhere. You can smoke with the door open a crack. Try not to let too much heat out.”
I frowned over at the windows as Doctor Smith made her way to the doorway leading out onto the balcony. “Hell of an odd choice for a vampire. Floor to ceiling glass windows?”
Mrs. Faraday smiled. “The windows are electrochromic. Fancy, isn’t it? And terribly useful if I have to execute one of the undead to make a point.” She leaned back in her chair. “Doctor Smith here is a physician. And… otherwise.” That’s when I noticed the way Alfred was staring at Doctor Smith. His expression was drawn, his fingers tightened into the couch.
“Doctor Smith… What are you? You’re not one of the Fae.” It was a statement, not a question.
“And I don’t think you’re one of the undead, since your breath is fogging in the cold, even when you’re not smoking.”
“Good eyes. No, I’m not that, either.”
“So are you a demon?”
“What the hell are you, then?”
Doctor Smith took a deep puff from the cigarette holder, and blew the smoke out into the cold night air. “I am something that doesn’t answer the questions of normal mortals, most of the time. I have a vested interest in the Camazotz. They are one of the great old forces of this continent, and I am worried to find them being hunted down like this.” She puffed through her cigarette. “That’s all I can say about what I am. The question is, what do you need?”
“Precedent,” I stated, looking her in the eye. “Do you know something about Native Americans, and their law?”
She raised an eyebrow. “You might say that.”
“Good.” I took a deep breath. “Nine days. On the Friday after next, we leave this place. On Saturday, the trial begins. In the meantime, I need to figure out a legal defense that’ll convince every major undead in Binghamton that they should overturn two hundred years of anti-vampire sentiment and precedent.” I pointed at Mrs. Faraday- That is, Nelly. “How much will you pay me for that coin?”
“Well… It’s not in perfect condition, it will need some cleaning and restoration. I could offer you, say… Five hundred thousand dollars?”
“I’ll take it,” I managed, trying not to choke on my own tongue. “But I’ll need one hundred thousand dollars of that in cash. You run a casino, that shouldn’t be that difficult, right?”
“What on earth do you need that much cash for?” the Strix asked, an eyebrow arched delicately.
“I’ve got a lech to pay off.”
I sat across from Doctor Smith as the woman wrote in my case files. “Alright. Be honest with me. That whole ‘I don’t answer humans’ bullshit aside, what are you?”
She gave me a deliberate look, and removed the cigarette holder from her lips, tapping off the ash into a nearby tray. “What makes you think I don’t believe what I said?”
The two of us sat together in a small lounge room. My case files had been printed out, and were spread around the room, covering the floor, notes and documents placed out. I’d written and rewritten half a dozen speeches trying to appeal to people’s better nature, to convince them of the proper way of doing things, of making things right. I’d listened, sometimes with maddened frustration, as Alfred had listed arguments from the defense’s point of view. He was good at arguing them. They made sense, even if I didn’t agree with them. They argued for the virtues that the undead believed in. I was arguing for them to break from tradition.
“Well, call me crazy, but I’ve never met a supernatural creature yet that didn’t at least want to brag a little bit about its past. What, are you ashamed of it?”
“Somewhat. I am, in relative terms, a goddess.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Well. That’s awfully impressive.”
She chuckled. “It sounds it, doesn’t it? But it’s shit. I’m a goddess of laws and codes, and almost everyone who followed those is gone. I’m weak.” She stubbed out the cigarette. “That’s the irony of our passion, isn’t it? Law, codes, society, all of these things only exist so long as everyone agrees they do. A shared hallucination. Justice exists only so long as the powerful agree that it does. And the moment it becomes inconvenient to them…” She snapped her fingers. “It’s gone. Like treaties in the wind.”
I frowned. “You really go in for that guilt-tripping thing, don’t you?”
“I saw everyone I loved murdered by outsiders. I do not hold a grudge against the color of their skin, or their religions, or anything else. But I cannot help but remember what has happened, and sometimes I fear I am the only one who remembered.” I was quiet, looking down at the page. Doctor Smith sighed. “I am sorry. I have not been having a good year.” I looked up at this. “Tell me. Have you ever heard of Zion?”
“I mean… In law school, a lot of my friends got called Zionists. And other, more unpleasant things.”
“Heh. No. This was a city.” She stared into space. “A beautiful city. I never appreciated it while I had it. It was… destroyed.”
I frowned. “When was this?”
“Just a few months ago.”
“Wait a second. Was this a real city, or-”
“Not destroyed in that sense. It was…” She sighed. “It all gets so metaphysical. The buildings are still there, the government is still there, the people are mostly still there. But the city itself is dead, and with it, I have lost another homeland for my people.”
“This too shall pass,” I said, and smiled at her. She raised an eyebrow. “If you suffer a lot in life, I believe it means something. Karma, if you like. But things will come around. You’ll wind up getting the fair shake you deserve. You just have to grab hold of life and keep fighting until it gives you what you need. Who knows? Maybe you could move to Binghamton, set down stakes there. The medical school would probably appreciate someone like you.” I gave her a smile, and she snorted. “Hey, could be worse. So… What are you doing here? What draws a goddess of laws to a casino…” I frowned at her.
She glared. “I do not gamble. That… was an unhappy coincidence. Gambling is distasteful to me.”
I smiled. “The tax on hope, I always used to think. You give people a slim, slim chance of a better life. People say that if people understood statistics, if they realized just how bad their chances were, they would never gamble, but I think that’s a naive view. People gamble because they believe they’re special. They think the rules don’t apply to them.” I looked down at my hands. “Hell, look at me. Everything I’ve been doing has been a… gamble…” I stared down at my hands.
“What?” Doctor Smith asked, frowning.
“The Prisoner’s dilemma. The ultimate gamble. The basis for all gambling. You know it, yeah?” For those who haven’t taken basic logic: The prisoner’s dilemma is fairly simple. Two people are given a choice: Trust the other, or betray the other. It’s set up so that if one party betrays the other, they’re given the best possible deal, and if both parties betray each other, they both get a terrible deal. Say that if both parties trust each other, they get ten dollars; If both parties betray each other, they each get five dollars; If one party betrays the other and the other trusts, the betrayer gets twenty dollars, and the trusting party gets nothing.
“I do. What’s the significance?”
“We’re in a prisoner’s dilemma situation. If Lady Ann Willing trusts Jenny, and Jenny is a plant, she gets betrayed. She wants to betray Jenny first, to avoid being betrayed in turn. So we make her think that she can’t afford to betray Jenny.” I tapped my fingers rapidly on the table, trying to sort my thoughts. “I just have to raise the stakes, so high that nobody will have a choice but to settle things peacefully. Bring things into a conflict between Chaac, Hun-Came, and Lady Ann Willing. Whip everyone’s expectations up.”
“That sounds as though it could go very wrong.”
I gave a feral smile. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? Whoever’s behind this is already going to try to have Jenny killed, and use her to spark a civil war in Binghamton. And what’s more… it might let me figure out who’s behind all of this. If they’re expecting this case to go a certain way, then throwing off their expectations has to be for the best.” I took a deep breath. “Do you think Hun-Came could take on all of Binghamton’s Night Court? Alone?”
“There is a very good chance, yes. Though it would spark a catastrophic war, I imagine. Revitalize the exact conflict that Nelly wishes to leave in the past.”
“Exactly.” I took a deep breath. “I’m already gambling with Jenny’s life. I can’t afford to leave anything off the table, here.” I frowned, as I saw the strange, quiet expression on Doctor Smith’s face. “You disapprove.”
“I do, but I understand why you’re doing it. No, I’m just… You remind me very much of a man I knew, once, for a very short time.” She tapped her fingers on the desk. “He destroyed Zion.” I felt my stomach sink.
“But, he also saved everyone in the city, and maybe everyone else, by doing so. I wish that Zion could have been saved, but sometimes the most a doctor can hope to do is destroy a little to save the rest.” She took a deep breath. “I think you are embarking on a foolish course of action, but I thought the same of him.” She crossed her arms. “I still do, in honesty, but he had power to change things, and I do not.”
I frowned. “Sounds like a bit of a loose cannon, to be frank. I’ll just have to hope I can win cleaner. In honesty, I don’t think I’m going to persuade people by appealing to their better nature. I think that they’re too suspicious for that. Too suspicious.” I stared down at my hand. “No, when you want to persuade a paranoid person, you don’t act like you never thought of the bad things. You make it clear that you’d thought of every way you could hurt them, and then didn’t choose to do any of them.”
“And how well does that work?” she asked, frowning.
“Depends on if they believe you can do it. But that’s the thing about paranoia, it always overestimates what its enemy can do.” I closed my eyes. “Do you have any advice?”
“You are human,” she said softly. “Are you prepared for violence?”
“No, not really.” I sighed. “I’m going to try to set my potential enemies against each other. Make sure that all of them has reason to keep me safe, so that nobody can betray me without tipping their hand. Whoever’s behind this- They wanted to remain behind the scenes. I don’t think that they have what it takes to stand against a united front. So I make killing me an obvious give-away. Paranoia again.”
“Careless with your life. You only get one of them, you know.”
“Yeah, but the thing’s a wasting asset.” I smiled. “When you’re immortal, you’re giving up everything when you die. When you’re a human, you’re just losing at most sixty or seventy years. And most of those are spent fat, in pain, and losing track of things.” I looked down at the paper. “Do you think the world’s really ending?”
“It nearly did. I believe that it is going to come close again, soon. Everything ends. As you said, this too shall pass. This world cannot last forever.”
I took a deep breath, steadying my nerves. “Yeah, I guess so. But that doesn’t mean that it has to end today.”
“One more thing.” I looked up. “Binghamton. Binghamton…” She frowned. “There is something there. Something that has dwelt there. I’m not sure how long, exactly. It travels, but its heart remains in that city.” She met my eyes. “It is something terrible. It is something inimical to what you and I are.”
I frowned. “Is it possible that it’s what’s behind all of this? Someone’s been trying to destabilize Binghamton. I’ve been trying to figure out who’s behind this, but it’s difficult to tell who would profit. If there’s something else…”
“In my experience, there is often something else.” Doctor Smith sighed. “But in honesty, I don’t know what it is. It was there even before we were.”
“That scares the hell out of me, Doctor Smith.”
“Yes. I feel the same. Now, on the subject of native spirits…”
I remember very little of studying for the Bar Exam, or even taking it. My brain was focused on a single thing, which was cramming my short to medium-term memory full of as much information as I possibly could for just long enough to pass. And, to my credit, I did. I studied outside of New York City itself, in a very relaxed place upstate. The one thing I do remember from that time is the bicycle rides. I would bicycle five miles down to town around noon, and spend the entire day in the Dunkin Donuts, one of the few air-conditioned places. Studying, reading, doing questions, taking advantage of the good internet connection. And then, I would bicycle back.
Understand, I grew up in New York City. I am used to extreme levels of light pollution. And this was the polar opposite of that. Once I got outside of town, the darkness was… abyssal. Bicycling back on nights when the moon was new or covered by clouds or behind the hills, I’d use a little flashlight to tell where the road was. The route was pretty scary, to be honest, but there were a handful of places with street lights- Maybe five, across the entire five mile trip. The rest of it was just blackness. Often, there wouldn’t even be any cars on the road. There’d just be me, and the silence.
It’s the same every time i get deeply enmeshed in any process. I can’t remember what happens while I’m actually using my brain that hard, so instead, what I remember are the few times when I broke out of that routine. And in Atlantic City, that was walking the sand. I’d go out in the evenings or when my head began to boil over, and walk through the sand on the beach, admiring the waves as they lapped at the shore. I don’t remember all of the documents I read, I don’t remember all of the drafts I wrote, I don’t remember every crazy idea that I put down in the hopes of finding a silver bullet. I remember the sand.
It was on Friday afternoon that Polly joined me for my walk along the beach. This time of year, the beach was abandoned, and the setting sun was turning the sky into a riot of purples, oranges, and golds, pollution and nature mixing together to make something more beautiful than either of them could manage alone. “So. You don’t want me to be your bodyguard anymore.”
“No, I want you to be Jenny’s bodyguard.”
“Are you sure? Because I’m pretty sure that you’re the one who’s getting a target painted on your arse. You’re the one who’s trying to attract everyone’s attention and put yourself in the goddamn fire. In short, you’re the one who’s going to be in need of a bodyguard. So, do you not trust me, or do you think I’m weak, or is this all just some sort of fecking martyr complex of yours?”
“You don’t have to speak in fake Irish anymore, you know.”
“Yeah, but I’m going to anyway. Just because I wasn’t born on the Emerald Isles doesn’t mean I can’t speak the lingo. It’s a damn fine language to swear in.” She took a deep breath. “You’re not leaving me behind. Alfred can keep a good eye over Jenny. He’ll keep her entirely safe. I’m going to do the same for you.”
“Polly, that vampire nearly tore you in half-”
“And lookit me here, standing pretty as you please, with all my entrails on the inside. Where as you would be right properly fucked. We each do what we can, Miss LeRoux. I can’t talk worth a damn, I can’t research cases, and I sure as hell can’t sit still. So don’t you think for a moment that I’m going to stand by and not do what I can do, which is bust some goddamn heads.”
I smiled softly. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Yeah, and your plan ain’t going to be inconvenienced one bit by my being there, is it? Worst comes to worst, we both get to do the martyr thing together.”
“But you have…”
She frowned. “I have what, eh? Why can’t I do this?”
“You have Alfred. You have someone to live for.” I looked down, and wished I hadn’t said that. “Look, I’m comfortable with gambling with my own life. I’m comfortable with risking the worst happening to me. But how do you think I could look Alfred in the face if I let something happen to you?”
She was silent for a few seconds. Then she crossed her arms. “Things aren’t going to work out with Alfred.”
“It’s not something he’s done. It’s not even something he’s going to do. He’s not that kind of man. No, it’s what he is. You can feel it, can’t you? The boy’s got Hero written all over him. The blonde hair, the good looks, the sword, the magic, he was born to romance a Fairy Queen or melt some cold winter witch’s heart or redeem some feckin’ fallen angel. He’s never going to end up choosing me, some dirty goddamn orphan.”
I smiled. “I don’t know. Your hair’s red, isn’t it? Heroes are really big into that kind of thing.”
“It’s brown as fucking mud. I just fake it for a while.” She shook her head, and the two of us stared out at the ocean.
“You know, a man once said ‘If you lie often enough, it becomes the truth.'”
“Well, sure, but wasn’t that man a fecking Nazi bastard?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, but he was accusing the Jewish of doing it.” I took a deep breath. “Maybe if we lie to ourselves often enough that we’re good people, it might become the truth.”
“Or maybe it’ll just make us into fecking Nazis.” She frowned. “Nah. I’m never gonna be the heroine of that guy’s story. But that’s okay, you know? For a little while longer, I can pretend that it’s not so. The truth’ll come calling eventually, and I can’t just pretend it won’t. But in the meantime, I’m gonna act like a goddamn fairybook heroine, and keep your ass from getting murdered.”
I thought of the blood soaking my carpet, Alfred holding Polly’s suddenly frail body, the sight of him trying to hold her together. I didn’t let it show on my face. I just smiled. “Thanks.”
That evening, as the sun set, the four of us set off by a more direct route home. I slept in the back seat most of the ride, and was woken up only as we approached Binghamton. A storm had blown in and sat over the city like a toad, a pounding hail of icy rain.
I was back home, such as it was.