“I cannot believe you threatened the entire night court,” said Polly as we sat in the office. The humidifier was off, and the iron chair sat in the corner, where it wouldn’t do anyone any harm. A large tray of chicken spiedies, ordered earlier in the day and stored in my office where they’d stay fresh, sat in the center of the desk. Hamburger buns sat on the side. A blood bag sat in Jenny’s lap, although she didn’t seem to have much appetite. I leaned back in my chair, chewing industriously on a particularly tough piece of chicken, and enjoying the feeling immensely. I was in my nice chair, and had pulled the other good chairs out of the storage closet, big armchairs with comfortable armrests and high backs. I didn’t particularly care if they got a little messy, I never got a chance to use them.
“I wasn’t technically threatening them. I never said that I was going to alert any mortal authorities, and I certainly didn’t say I’d tell Hun-Came to do anything. It’s not a threat to remind people of the consequences of their actions when you’re not the one who’s going to directly cause those actions.” I paused for a moment to make sure I could believe that, and settled for a ‘close enough’. “Besides, I’ve been getting threatened constantly since this goddamn trial started. It was nice to do it to others for once.” I leaned back comfortably in the chair. “Now it’s just a matter of seeing if the gamble pays off-” There was a knock at the door. “Come in.”
Edwin Link strode in, hands on his hips. “Atina, you’re a daring one, you know that?” He gave Alfred a nod. “How’s it going, sport?” He turned his head back to me. “Walking up in front of the entire Night Court and giving them the business like that. Got to admit, it did my heart good.” He smiled at Jenny. “And managing to get the prosecutor to speak up for you like that, in front of the entire night court… That was a hell of a trick, I’ll have you know. I can’t speak for Lady Ann Willing’s group, but I was damned impressed. Damned impressed. I might be looking at the first free vamp of Binghamton.”
“I’m… incredibly glad to hear that, sir,” said Jenny, her head lowered as she lifted a small bowl of salad up, offering it to Edwin. He lifted the fork and chomped down on a bit of tomato, without apparent effect, placing the fork and vegetable back into the bowl with every sign of having enjoyed himself. The ghost took a seat, one leg crossing over the other.
“Now, a little bird told me that you got in touch with one of those Indian ghosts up near the territories, and wound up suckering him into helping you out in this little crusade of yours. A real nasty, real old spook, at that. Anything I should know about this chap, since it sounds like he’s going to be getting all up in our business?”
“He’s a… Well, he has a very bad reputation, but he seemed quite reasonable to me,” Polly said. “Kind of a nice guy, actually, very keen to stop conflicts? But I’d still probably recommend not making any eye contact.” Edwin nodded as he accepted a chicken sandwich from Alfred, and began taking large bites without actually consuming any of it. “You liked her making all of those…” She caught my eye, and coughed. “All of those suggestions of what the consequences might be?”
“Course I did! Most of the night court, they start to forget why they’re there. Because we need law and order. We need a stable society to be a part of. You get old enough, apparently it starts making you think ‘Hey, maybe I could do all of this on my own, maybe I’d be just fine if there were no laws, after all, I’m strong.” He snorted. “That line of thinking lasts just about until the time when someone decides to pour holy water over your grave or shove a silver crucifix down your throat or some similar gruesome fate. If you ask me, the court needs some shaking up like that, and while my fellows were a little bit edgy about the threats, they understood why you made ’em. Don’t worry, they’re not going to break ranks on these things.” He tapped his fingers on the chair, and frowned. “But you’re going to have to get Hun-Came to show up tomorrow.”
“I’m confident of it, sir.” I gave him a bluff smile, showing all the confidence that I most certainly didn’t feel. I knew he was right. Without Hun-Came to back up the threats, to make it clear that Jenny was claimed, that killing her would be a mistake, this entire trial would come down to a toss-up. And that was something that I couldn’t really afford. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry about that. Tomorrow’s going to have a lot of fascinating speeches. I’ve been practicing my desk pound.”
“Hah! I’ll just bet. Listen, I’m going to get together some boys from the airport for your bodyguard later today, once Chaac’s people are done. I need to get back to the Cessna. I just wanted to tell you I was damned impressed today. Damned impressed.” He gave a broad, toothy grin, and then turned on his heel, striding out through the still-closed door.
“See?” I asked, leaning back in my chair. “I know what I’m doing. More or less. On the balance.” I gave a smile. “Christ, I can’t wait to get a drink.” I eyed the desk drawer with the bottle of high-proof rum in it. It would be lovely to indulge in a bit of not thinking, but I couldn’t afford that for a couple more days. I took a deep breath, and contented myself with a large mug of hot chocolate, leaning back in my chair. Alfred frowned, slouched to one side, his chin on his palm. “What the hell are you frowning about?” I asked, putting my feet up.
“I don’t know how you can relax,” he said, brow furrowed. “We still don’t know why whoever did this, did this. If we don’t understand their motivations, then all of this might happen again.”
“You’ve got to focus on what you can. All this talk of prophecies and the end of the world, it’s all really ominous and great, but that’s not what we’re trying to deal with, here. We’re here for the simple things, like keeping a young woman from being executed for being a vampire by a court full of ancient ghouls.” I leaned back in my chair, and yawned. I’d been up since dawn, and the temporary energy provided by adrenaline and excitement in the courtroom was now draining away, leaving me bone-tired. I’d got the old hammock set up in the corner of the room, but it’d be at least another hour before I could use it. I sighed as there was another knock at the door, and then we all went still as Lady Ann Willing entered, flanked by a pair of white-faced men in black dress jackets and slacks.
Lady Ann Willing raised an eyebrow at our tense expressions. I realized that the two men were not dressed quite the same as the vampires who had been assaulting us, and relaxed. “At a certain point, you’re going to start hurting my feelings. Atina, this is Karloff and Gustaff. They’re cousins of mine from Germany, and individuals in whom I have every confidence, particularly that they have not been bribed. They will be guarding you tomorrow night along with Fang Fen.” She smiled, slightly uncertainly. “Do you mind if I join you for a moment?” I waved a hand, and she took a seat in one of the free chairs. Gustaff and Karloff stood by the door, backs straight, arms crossed in front of them as though lined up for a free kick.
“I hope that I did not offend you with my remarks today, Lady Ann.”
“Do you? You had a curious way of showing it,” Lady Ann said tartly, as she plucked up one of the pieces of chicken with a single talon. “You know, I’ve lived in this city… Well, for as long as it has been a city, really. I have seen it rise, and fall.” She stared for a moment at the spiedie. “The fall has been a difficult one. And yet, in all of that time, I have never had one of these.” She slowly twirled it between her fingers. “I remember when chicken was the food of kings, and when it became the food of peasants. When it went from the food my ancestors, to the food of foreigners. And yet, it was always the same bird. I remember when my husband first invited me to try the bird, all those years ago…”
She took a slow bite from the chicken, her eyes closed. The room was quiet for several long seconds as she savored the flavor. “It’s funny. I can’t even remember what it tasted like, whether it was the same as this, or different. Sometimes, I can’t even remember his face. You know? Sometimes, it feels as though the only thing I can remember is the hatred I felt for the one who killed him. Who took him away from me. Who made sure I wouldn’t be able to spend eternity with him.” She looked askance at me. “Love can creep up on you like that. You never realize how much someone meant to you until you realize you’ll never see them again.”
“Do you think that he would want your last memories of him to be hatred, and anger?” I asked, leaning back in my chair. I was tired. It was hard to be delicate about her feelings. I’d had a hell of a day. But I still felt bad when I saw the way she winced at the words. I thought of the city. “You know, this city has been dying for a long time. Ever since the big industries moved out. Everyone who’s had a chance moved away. When was it, exactly, that this city became a mecca for the dead? Was it before, or after the living stopped moving here?” She was quiet. “I don’t know, myself. I’ve looked into the history, but there’s not a lot of written history about the undead inhabitants of the city. Just hearsay and oral records. But the two were closely linked. It seemed like as the Night Court rose, Binghamton fell.”
“We do not kill things-”
“No, but you keep things the same. And that kills them. A town is like an organism. It needs to adapt to changing circumstances, it needs to be flexible. It needs to understand when what it’s doing is going to get it killed. The undead have a bad habit of ignoring those things. You’re like sharks, just doing what you’ve always done, and presuming the world will stay the same around you. You get more powerful the older you get, so you can-” I took a deep breath, letting my fists loosen. “I don’t think you’re trying to hurt anyone. I think you’re trying to help, Lady Ann Willing. I believe you’re acting out of the good of your heart. But you need to change. We all do. We need to change, and keep changing, to stay ahead of the world. I think that you need to change your mind about vampires, and about Jennifer.”
“Well, that much was obvious,” said Lady Ann with a wry smile. “Of course, if Hun-Came is to appear tomorrow, she will be able to end this whole trial easily. Jenny will no longer be a wastrel, and will, in fact, be heir to a noble and highborn lineage.” She spoke the last few words with a little more venom that was appropriate, but gathered herself, sitting straight. “In that event, there would be no real need for any of this posturing. You wouldn’t need to convince me that she shouldn’t be executed, or the rest of the court, for that matter. So I must wonder why you’re trying to persuade me here, in the privacy of your office, where there is no audience watching.”
“Because I think it’s a good idea anyway, Lady Ann.” I bowed my head. “If Hun-Came ends the trial without a decision tomorrow, I still hope that you’ll remember this the next time some poor unfortunate sap gets turned into a vampire in your city.” I sighed softly. “But I fully expect her to be there. A good lawyer just doesn’t take anything for granted, right?”
“And you are a good lawyer, aren’t you, Atina?” Lady Ann asked, her voice soft.
“No. Not really. But I might as well try to behave like one.” I closed my eyes, and sighed. “Is there anything else that I can help you with tonight, Lady Ann? I really should get some sleep, soon.”
“No, no.” She smiled, and stood up. “You must sleep, of course. You’re only human.” She winked, and turned to go, Gustaff and Karloff following after her like a pair of German shepherds. I leaned back in the chair.
“Jenny, Alfred, you two should get back to the hotel. Things should be safe there tonight. Just a couple more days of this bullshit.” I sighed, and rested my arm over my head. “Polly, I think I have a sleeping bag-”
“It’s okay, I’m not too sleepy. I might read your case files for a bit.” She gave me a cheerful smile, as Alfred and Jenny stood up. Jenny gave me a quick look, biting her lip.
“I might not die.”
“Sure looks that way.” I grinned. “Guess maybe it’s a good time to start looking for that garden-”
The door opened. Fang Fen stood in the doorway, leaning on her cane, and frowned at us. Alfred’s drawn sword, Polly’s cocked arm with soccerball in hand, the vial of holy water in my hand. “Well, at least the three of you are properly prepared.” She then looked shocked as Jenny threw her arms around her shoulder, squeezing her. The Jiang-shi’s arms rose into the air, looking shocked. Jenny released her after a second, looking embarrassed.
“Thank you. You may have saved me, by speaking up for me.”
Fang Fen frowned, standing very stiff. “You shouldn’t thank me. It was a terrible gamble. I could have provoked the Lady Ann Willing to declare a mistrial, and I have likely destroyed any reputation I had for honor-”
“Oh shut up about your damn honor, Fang Fen. Have a seat, join us. Alfred and Jenny were heading off, but we can stay to have you here for a little bit longer.”
“Ah, do not let me keep you two.” Fang Fen bowed her head to them, and smiled as they left. Polly gave us both a look, and raised an eyebrow towards me. I nodded my head, and she followed them out. Fang Fen sat across from me, and delicately plucked up a piece of chicken. “Mmm. Did you know that chicken is originally from a bird of Asian descent?” she asked, before popping it into her mouth, chewing hungrily, her eyes closed.
“You changed your mind today.” I watched her as she ate, her eyes lowered. She took a deep breath through her nose, and then nodded, swallowing.
“Yes. I’m not a fool. I cannot reasonably claim that I think Jenny murdered anyone. She was starving at your house, and she’s a gentle soul.” Fang Fen stared down at her hands. “But Lady Ann Willing was displeased. I suspect no one will trust me to act as prosecutor again after this. I will be lucky if anyone trusts me period after this.” She took a deep breath. “Do you know how I got that reputation for honor?”
“I’ve intuited a bit of it. Your partner was helping drug-smugglers. You found out, turned him in.”
Fang Fen tapped her fingers rapidly. “It wasn’t quite so simple. He wasn’t just my partner, you see. I had been… In a relationship with him. The two of us were close. Extremely close. I thought the world of him. He even knew what I really was. He cared for me, he believed in me. He was one of the few people on the force who did. And I…” She lapsed into silence for a moment. “When I found out, he begged me to let him go. He swore he would leave the force, that he would make things right. But I was full of anger, and pained by his betrayal. I thought I was teaching him a lesson. That when he was paroled, he would have learned a valuable lesson. I had forever. And a week into his sentence, he was stabbed to death in the showers.”
“It’s funny, how that happens,” I said softly. “Reminds me a little bit of Lady Ann. It seems a little strange how frequently the undead are left with those kinds of regrets.”
“Is it?” She snorted. “We live for a very long time, and immortality is ours to give, more often than not. When we lose someone, we are allowed to reflect on their loss for a very long time. I gave him up, I lost him forever, for the sake of some ideal of justice. For my ideals. And I just threw them all away.” She smiled. “He’d probably be very angry at me for that. Why couldn’t I have had this change of heart when I was making a point about him, instead of some girl.” She laughed softly. Then she looked me in the eye. “Do you know who is behind all of this? The attack on your house, the violence, the change?”
“No,” I confessed, frowning. “In honesty, part of why I’m here tonight is to act as… Well, bait. Hoping that they’ll be provoked into doing something foolish.”
“One good turn deserves another. Do you want me to watch over you?” she asked softly. “I can stay close, somewhere where I can help.”
“I’d appreciate that, Fang Fen.” I frowned. “When was the last time you ate?”
“I’ve had my mind on… other things.” She gave me a weak smile, pulling her jacket a little tighter.
“Alright, well, you’re not going to do me any good helping out if you’re starving. How about you go hit the clubs for an hour or two, find some guy with more libido than brains, and get a decent meal. I’ll still be here by then.” I smiled. “And thank you. You’re a good friend.”
“Yes, you say that now. But what if my sense of self-righteousness were to tell me that the right thing to do was betraying you, hmmm?” She smiled at me.
“Come on. We both know that’s impossible. I’m always in the right.” I stood up, and gave her a tight hug, before slapping her on the back. “Go on, get out of here for now. I’m going to try to get a little sleep while my brain is still working.”
I spent the next few minutes reading through my papers and case files, and was just getting into the right mood to lie down when there was a ferocious tapping on the door. “Atina!” Dean Morton’s voice cut through the door, and I groaned softly. The door opened, and he stood there, his eyes full of fire and bluster, Polly with an arm around his head, putting him in a half nelson. “Your watch-dog here has been EXTREMELY rude, and-”
“Polly, let him go. Come in, Dean, please, come in.”
The dean stumbled into the room as Polly released her choke hold, adjusting his tweed jacket with an annoyed look. “Well, I’m glad to see that you’re not holding my little test against me. How on earth did you get that much money on such short order?”
“Lucky penny. Sold it to the Strix.” I yawned, leaning forward. “Is there something else you wanted to say?”
“The Strix?” He frowned. “So you are working with them? It rather breaks the arrangement if you just went to them, you know-”
“It was all a complicated and very funny story, Dean. But I’m tired as hell, so can I tell it to you another time?”
“I’m sure. But there’s something rather important I must share with you first.” He tapped his fingers together nervously. “I’m sure that you’ve noticed the rain?” I looked over my shoulder. The rain had, if anything, grown heavier in the last hour or so. The far side of the Chenango River was nothing but a smear of white lights, barely visible through the thick rain. The cloud cover was hanging no more than a few dozen feet above the streets, lit eerily by the yellow sodium lights, giving the entire city a sickly, pallid color. I shivered slightly. It was odd. The rain had been sitting over Binghamton, pouring down water atop the city like this for nearly a day, now.
“What about it? I thought it was a fairly normal storm. A little odd for this time of year, but nothing sinister.”
“We’ve been doing some studies. The storm should’ve broken up and blown off hours ago. It was natural, but ever since it’s arrived, something has been feeding it, and making it grow. The rain is unnaturally hot, nearly ten degrees hotter than it should be for the ambient temperature, and the pressure has dropped low enough that it’s physically noticeable. I don’t know who is doing this, or why-”
The door opened, and Chaac entered the room. She looked surprised to see Dean Morton there. “Oh, I’m sorry. Am I interrupting?”
“Oh, not at all.” He smiled pleasantly, and waved her in. She took a seat in one of the other chairs, and she smiled at me, taking a piece of chicken as Dean Morton continued. “At any rate, I am concerned. It’s an unnatural gathering of power in one place, and I worry that someone may be trying to cover something up-”
“Oh, is this about the rain?” Chaac asked, looking slightly embarrassed. “That… Well, that may be my fault. I’ve been feeling rather strained during the course of the trial, as I’m sure you can imagine, and- Well, part of who I am is a goddess of rain and storms. It shouldn’t grow any worse than this- Thankfully, we’re not on the coasts where it might be a serious problem. Once the trial is over, everything should return to normal rapidly.” She sighed, giving me a long-suffering smile. “Being undead can be… Well, there are so many difficulties that come along with it. And to think that I was frightened when I had my first period.”
Dean Morton visibly deflated at the sudden explanation, and the fact that there was no dark and secret motivation behind it. “Oh.” He lowered his head, looking slightly embarrassed. “Well, at any rate- I must be off.” He stood up, and Chaac gave him a pleasant nod and smile, before turning towards me. I smiled, as she reached out and grabbed a few pieces of chicken, placing them onto one of the hamburger buns, and digging in with obvious satisfaction.
“It’s been a hell of a trial. I don’t blame you one bit for having some nerves about it. But I feel certain that everything’s going to be alright.” I gave her a smile. “And I look forward to a long, and profitable relationship with you and the other Camazotz.” Chaac was well-dressed tonight, wearing a rather fashionable jacket, and a pair of jeans. Her boots were soaked with rain, and a white undershirt was the only thing she wore beneath her jacket, a smile on her face.
“Ah, yes.” She smiled sweetly, and looked over her shoulder, where Dean Morton had left. “I must admit, I’m very impressed, Atina. You have done what I feared would be impossible. Swaying the hearts and minds of old conservative ghouls, finding the truth wherever it may be. I have one question, though. How did you find out that Hun-Came was dead?”
The world crystallized around me. My heart began to pound. I swallowed slowly, and Chaac licked her lips hungrily, watching my throat as she kept speaking. “I mean, I was so certain I had been subtle about it. Having Arthur eat the corpse, making sure there was no trace left of her body, leaving the girl unconscious…” She smiled. “So tell me. How did you realize that Hun-Came was dead?”
I cleared my throat. “She’s dead?” I asked, rather weakly. “Like… really, truly dead?”
Chaac smiled indulgently, an eyebrow raised. “Come now. You have the necromancer here, speaking with him in furtive tones. You visit the Godmother of the Notte Nostra, and return with money to bribe him. You swear that Hun-Came will be at the trial tomorrow. You…” Her eyes widened slightly. “You didn’t know.” She sighed. “Well, this is all very embarrassing. Here I am presuming that you’re an intricate chessmaster, maneuvering me, trying to spoil things, and I’m wrong. You’re just a foolish mortal with more courage than wisdom or power.” She sighed. “This is all very embarrassing. I could have just let you go on tomorrow, and make a fool of yourself in front of everyone.” She eyed me, annoyed. “But then I suppose that you still might have convinced them. You can be very persuasive. That whole ‘You can be better’ speech almost made me shed a tear.”
I twisted, and grabbed the cooler of holy water, throwing it. Chaac did not even react as it spilled open, pouring a gigantic gout of water across her, blessed by one of the holiest men in the city. She let a slow smile spread across her lips, as the water soaked through her skin. “I am the goddess of storms and rain, child. Holy water is my stock in trade. And I don’t suspect you have an obsidian knife bathed in the blood of an innocent virgin on hand.” She stood up. The door opened, and Polly stumbled in. A red mark was visible on her throat, a hickey.
“Atina, I- N- Y-” She shuddered, and then fell to the ground in a boneless heap. The soccer ball rolled out of her hands, coming to a stop against the foot of my chair. Arthur entered the room behind her, licking his lips slowly. The mummified woman followed, her bandages sodden, a foul expression on her face. And then the three Strix, Parsons, Sofia, and Donny, entered the room after. Polly shuddered, her body twisting and shaking slightly on the ground. I took a deep breath, and stood up straight.
“Well. Can I interest any of you in a sandwich? I’d hate for it to go to waste.”