“You know,” I said, as we studied the crypt, “this is really nice.”
“You have an eye for crypts?” asked Jenny, an eyebrow raised.
“Yes. This is very classy. I’m surprised Dean Morton put aside the money for this place. Especially considering his lack of family.”
“Well, I suppose when you don’t have anyone to take care of, it can be tempting to just say to hell with it, and blow your money on something really tasteless,” said Li Fang Fen, glowering at the marble. “Green marble, for a crypt, really? What is this, a bank?”
“Well, if you’re undead, I suppose in a way, it is.” I leaned over the crypt, and frowned at the will. “Alright. He didn’t want a religious ceremony, just a gathering of friends. We’ll have to make do with a gathering of acquaintances. I’ve been contacting everyone I could track down from the will. Pretty substantial list. Some of them had small requests, minor needs, things that were easy to take care of. There were, however, a few who needed to come in person. Need to get the catering table set up, and prepare the ashes.” I sighed. “At least he saved himself some money on his cremation.”
“A touch tasteless, Atina,” said the Half Faced Man as he swept. “The gathering in the crypt…?”
“Also his idea. Thank god he gave some leeway on his ideas for entertainment.” I frowned as I paced the tomb out. It was set in Vestal Hills Memorial Park, one of several cemeteries in Binghamton, but not the one where the Night Court usually took place. Maybe he would have found that too arrogant and showy even for him, or maybe it was out of his price bracket. Either way. “So, music, food, and a viewing.” I looked down at the large, stately and empty coffin. “You know, I really would love to know what he expected to kill him that would leave him in any shape for a viewing.”
Alfred and Polly were busy with the selection of the next dean. Alfred had been conducting interviews with the faculty of the Department of Post-Mortology for the past ten months, and it had, apparently, been a minor crucible in its own sense. I was glad to be well out of that. I, instead, got to organize the party.
“Barbecue?” said Jenny, eying the grill.
“I mean… Considering the cremation…”
“You don’t seriously think people will comment, do you?” I asked, incredulous.
“Perhaps a cold cut platter would be more tasteful?” said the Half-Faced Man. We all considered this option for a long few seconds.
“On the whole, probably not. I suspect the barbecue would be better,” said Jenny.
“Good to hear. I’m putting you in charge of it.” I patted her back. “I’m going to be circulating around the guests, trying to keep an eye on things, and distributing the necessary items from the will.” Honestly, it had been a bit of a wild goose chase. None of the ordinary women on the list had been willed anything particularly interesting. I’d sent invitations out, but none of them had RSVPed. It had been a tremendously depressing look into my own future.
“Hard to imagine him wanting music,” said Li. “He never seemed the type.”
“You know, I remember when my grandfather died,” I said, softly. “I was in my 20s, by that point. It had been expected for a while, he’d been in bad shape for a decade, and he was deteriorating. But I was old enough, at that point, that I was offering my mom moral support. I remember them discussing the funeral arrangements, and one of the things they mentioned was wanting to get some old friends of his to do a roll of ‘When the saints go marching in.’ A Louisiana style funeral, you know?” I looked down at the body. “Go out with a smile. Be not sorry that he is gone, be only glad that he was there.”
“Not a bad sentiment,” said Li Fang Fen, in her supportive friend tone. “I do love a good Jazz combo.”
“Yeah, but I can’t help but remember the faces everyone made as they walked out of the funeral, even as the song played. They couldn’t help being somber. It’s a lot easier to say we should be glad for the time we had than to actually do it.” I rested my hand on the plush coffin, then set the small urn in its place within. “Maybe Morton just wanted people to be glad that he was, for once.”
“He wasn’t an evil man,” said Jenny. “Self-centered, a bit craven, mercantile to a fault, but when the moment counted, he did save my life.” She looked down at the coffin. “If it hadn’t been for him… I never would have been recognized by Hun-Came. I would’ve just stayed… small. That was a bit of a curse, but it was a blessing, too.”
“He was a distasteful man, but that’s hardly a capital crime,” said Li, looking down at the ashes. “He was one of those people who I genuinely thought would be around forever. I wish I knew what someone thought he was worth killing for.”
I sighed, and walked back to the car, taking a couple of coolers out. The Half-Faced Man walked beside me, carrying one of the larger coolers. The heat was still oppressive. I glanced at him, and decided it was time to broach the subject.
“Any news on the Winter Trial? Or this whole Wild Hunt thing?”
“I’ve found a few sources on it,” said the Half-Faced Man, adjusting his mask. “The best equivalent would be… I suppose a case of mass hysteria, or a public stoning. It is a rarely used technique, for any number of reasons. I’ve been having a great deal of difficulty hammering down precisely what it entails. I’d also be most surprised if anyone were willing to embrace it. It’s considered more taboo than a Gauntlet.”
“Nasty tendency for bystanders to die during one. I haven’t heard much of anything from the other members of the Fall Court, but… Your display there…” He was quiet for a moment.
“They weren’t taking it seriously,” I murmured.
“That may be.”
“They were just… acting as though it was- God. I just wanted to shock them out of their complacency.”
“And you certainly did that.” He looked askance at me. “Still having visions?” I eyed him. “Just curious.”
“Occasionally,” I murmured. “They’ve quieted down. I still have them from time to time when I’m trying to meditate with Jack. They’re a lot shorter, more scattered, now. Just… senses, and impressions. My mind keeps going back to the list of names.”
“Anything new on that front?”
“I’ve gone over things three or four times with everyone on the list. Yourself included. Dean Morton was worried about dying, had often shown an interest in phylacteries, he believed they could only be properly nurtured by a human, I’ve gone through the documents, there’s nothing in his effects that fits the description. If he successfully made a phylactery, he didn’t keep ahold of it, and he doesn’t mention anyone who stands out as particularly deserving.” I gritted my teeth. “Could you just imagine, if Alfred is executed, and five, ten, fifty years down the line, the Dean just shows up again. ‘Sorry, what did I miss, my phylactery finally popped!’.”
“Yes. What if he is actually dead?”
“That’s even sadder.” I let out a breath. “Still got another two months. Still got some wiggle room. I just need to shake things loose.”
“Dear me. When you start speaking that way, I fear I feel the world shuddering beneath my feet. You have a real way with chaos. Have you decided how you’re going to shake things up?”
“Nah. I’m sure I’ll think of something.” I was quiet for a moment. “Do you think he’ll come back?”
The Half-Faced Man shrugged. “Roy? What makes you think that he won’t?”
“I gave up my pride. I agreed to Queen Wen’s help. I traded a favor to Prince Vassago. All for information that has… frankly not been tremendously helpful. And I… I told the Fall Court I knew his name.” I swallowed, hard. “Maybe he’ll never come back. Maybe he’ll leave me.”
“Hrm.” The Half-Faced Man reached over, and squeezed my shoulder. “Is that the worst thing imaginable?”
“I cared about him.”
“A thing like that… It is difficult to believe he cared for you,” said The Half-Faced Man, delicately. “The old, and the powerful, they are very skilled at displaying emotion, without feeling it.”
“Yeah? Speaking from personal experience there?”
“Perhaps,” he said, softly. “You should not weep tears for the immortal. They never weep tears for mortals.”
“Well, that’s bullshit. I’ve seen a lot of immortals express regret. Seems they don’t have much time for anything but weeping tears for mortals.”
“Well, maybe,” he said, and his lip quirked. “We don’t like to weep tears for mortals. When you’ve spent so long existing, everything becomes trite and cliché. We build a wall of ice to keep the world at arm’s length, as time passes. How else do you think we can be immortal? If we bought into every single drama that surrounded us, we would burn out in a score of years.”
“Really? So why the hell are you carrying that cooler?”
“Because if you simply disconnect yourself entirely, you are nothing. A single being, no matter how powerful, no matter how ageless, is nothing, and no one, without others.” He smiled. “Immortals need mortals. You need to care occasionally, or why even bother living?”
“I don’t know.” And that was the scariest thing he could say.
“Thanks. Some help you are.” I smiled softly, not letting the fear peek through. “I’m really scared I’m going to fuck this all up, Pabst.”
“Beer nicknames? Liar. You’re just fine.” He chuckled. “Imagine, you, of all people, being worried that you’re not being prideful enough.”
“Dean Morton was… a bastard, really, when you get right down to it. I remember when I first met him, in 1911. He was a son of a merchant family, the first in his family to go to college. Sharp as hell, even then. He was interested in becoming a surgeon. As it happened, I had the bad luck to be in a rather nasty accident, and woke up on the slab to find him staring at me, full of questions about what I was.” Lady Ann Willing chuckled at the stand. “Of course, he refused to take no for an answer. He wanted to know every last detail, and he was willing to pester me until he damn well got them. The man was fascinated with the phenomenon. ‘A true solution for death’, he called it, and he loved it.” She smiled ruefully. “The man was always looking for a way to help people, and he always believed in charging dearly for it. Because what was more precious than life?”
The turn-out had been better than I expected. The cemetery teemed with easily close to a hundred people. The vast majority of visitors were from the Night Court, but the entire Post-Mortology department was in attendance, a fair number of members of the Fairy Courts and their wizardly companions, and looking extremely awkward and holding a beer, Michael Grey. Paloma draped on his shoulder, her sharp gaze studying those around her.
“Who’s she?” I murmured to Li Fang Fen, nodding at a blonde girl, who looked rather all alone. She couldn’t be more than 17.
“Maybe one of his… ‘friends’ decided to pay a visit?” asked Li, an eyebrow lifted.
“She doesn’t look like she’s out of high school,” I murmured.
“You’re a real gossip, you know that?” I shook my head. “Lot of people.”
“I think they came for you, and each other, more than for the Dean.”
“Yeah, well, that’s a funeral, isn’t it?” I stepped over to the video recorder. “Alright, Tadodaho?”
“Hrn,” grunted the ghost, standing in front of the coffin. “It picking me up alright?”
I checked. “Looks like it. Good job.”
“’Posterity’, the woman says.” He sighed, giving me a glare. “Who’s ever going to see this?”
“When a man dies, sometimes all you have left are the stories about them. So long as those stories can be rediscovered, hey, the man’s still here in a sense. Right?”
“Yeah? I’ve got a story. I got your message about the will. He offered me a string of beads in exchange for the rights to Binghamton not long before he died. Thought it was funny as all get-out. I thrashed him good for that one.” Tadodaho snickered. “He screamed like a girl when I smacked that bony ass of his with a willow rod. He had a sense of humor that stopped just short of inspiring murder in me, but fair’s fair, he took his medicine like a man. Even the bad stuff.” He was quiet for a moment. “He was an asshole, and I might have killed him one day, but he was an Undead, through and through. One of us.” He looked down at the urn. “You know, he always believed in conservativism. Keeping to tradition. ‘Victory goes to those who act without haste or emotion.’ Course, that might be part of why I always caught him. But maybe, sometimes, he had a point.”
The party was in two parts. People came down into the tomb to mingle quietly, see the body- such as it was- and leave their messages for the tape. It was something I’d proposed. A way to remember the Dean, to share memorable moments. If he was dead, and gone, then maybe it’d sustain him in whatever afterlife he’d found his way to.
In the graveyard, just outside the tomb, Jenny stood by the grill with Alfred’s help, flipping meat occasionally, as he went about the business of preparing platters. People circulated and talked. I walked over to the grill, and smiled to Jenny. “Mind if I take over for a little while?”
“Sure. Do you think I should leave him a message? My memories of him weren’t… tremendously favorable.”
“I think it’d be worth the time. You matter to this community. You were someone he trusted, at least at the very end. It’s worth sharing it.” I smiled, as I flipped the burgers. Jenny nodded, and walked down the stairs into the tomb. This close, I could hear her footsteps echo off the marble.
“Let me get two burgers, two hot dogs, one of those steaks, that roast chicken half, some ribs…” said Coyote, holding a truly massive platter. He must have brought it himself.
“You really going to eat all of that?”
“Yeah. I mean, eventually, I was probably going to take some home. Don’t be stingy, LeRoux.” He grinned at me. “How’s the funeral going?”
“Better than I expected. A lot more people showed up than I ever really expected.” I waved towards Jack. She was sitting on the grass, watching the party silently, dressed in a big jacket. The sun had dropped down below the horizon about an hour ago. The lights had come on, illuminating the grass and the trees from below. It was still too goddamn hot, the heat wave forecasted to continue on into the foreseeable future. October 30th and the trees were still green. Summer seemed to be constant, and I was growing more nervous every day about what, precisely, the fairy courts might do. It seemed like there was less consensus every day about what they were going to do.
“Yeah? Well, who knows, maybe a good meal will get everyone together and make things right. Worked for the Pilgrims and the Indians, right?” he asked, a bright smile on his face.
“Thank you for that hopeful message.” I sighed, and stacked the food on Coyote’s plate. “You miss Megan?”
“Oh, yeah. But she was always the kind who had trouble getting connected to the world. I’m the opposite way around. I get all invested in everyone’s drama, their little soap opera lives… I was thinking of going to record my own little message.”
“Did you ever actually meet Dean Morton?”
“Hell no. But it’d be hilarious to claim I did. Nobody’s life story is so grand it couldn’t benefit from a little surreptitious lying.”
“He was always very… solicitous.” Jenny’s voice rose up from the crypt. “I never knew him to do anything without being paid for it, and preferably in advance. I remember Atina’s struggles to pay for the help he offered. It wasn’t as though he needed the money, either. He did it simply because he wanted to see how much she would give up. His part of the deal was effortless for him, really. Of course, he wound up biting off more than he could chew. If he had not asked the money of Atina, she might never have met Megan, or discovered the Notte Nostra’s true involvement. Does that make what he did right? I don’t think so. He certainly never planned it. But he wasn’t an evil man, at least. That may not be much of an endorsement, but… I hope that I have the opportunity to make things right on his behalf.”
“Good lord, I hope he didn’t survive that assassination,” said Coyote, tsking softly. “I’d hate to see how he reacts to what people say at his funeral.”
“Well, I’m beginning to doubt whether that’ll be an issue.” I watched Coyote for a long couple of seconds. “You told me that the deck was stacked against me, back when I was getting ready for the Spring Trial. What did you mean by that?”
“Who. Me?” Coyote smiled innocently. “I just thought, well… It seemed as though the odds were against you. They always seemed stacked, don’t they? I mean, imagine if my people had unified, if we had resisted with absolutely everything we had…” He took a bite out of one of the hot dogs. “Chances are, we still would have gotten wiped out. Might have taken a little bit longer, but there was just nothing we could do. Not in the long term. We were doomed the moment European eyes saw how much wealth and land they could take from us. Sometimes, that’s life.” He wandered off with the platter, grinning blithely.
“Oooh,” murmured Poloma, in her arch and haughty human form, as she studied the platter. “Got any fish?”
“Some salmon. I hadn’t tossed it on the grill yet, but it’ll only take-“
“Oh, just give it to me straight. I like it raw.” Poloma grinned broadly as she speared a filet, and tore into it hungrily. Michael made a queasy noise.
“You want, uh, something to make that stomach a bit less empty while you drink, Michael?”
“Mmm. N’thanks,” he grunted, looking around the room, a beer in hand. “Shit. Does it feel chilly to you?”
“I’m sweltering,” I said, pointedly. “I would kill for some cold.”
“Yeah, well, people in hell and all that,” he murmured, and looked down at the grill. “Actually, a burger’d be amazing.” I opened one of the buns, and placed the patty on it. Eric Grafsson joined us, and smiled.
“Hello, Michael. Harriet and Melody give their regards.”
“Ah, yeah. Heard they’re doing good together. Much luck to the two of them and all that jazz. Got any cheese, Atina? Yeah, Pepperjack, looks good.” He accepted the burger, and bit into it. He chewed for a few seconds, and then let out a sigh of relief. “Damn, that tastes good. A’right. So, how goes the whole trial thing? Sorry I haven’t been around much. Been a crazy year. Bunch of weird thefts going on. Swords, of all damn things. Vassago’s court has been losing their shit about it. Big theft happened down in New York City last weekend, hit the Natural History Museum.”
“Really? Weird. What’s the Demon Court worried about that for?”
“Damned if I know,” Michael Grey said, and then paused, considering his words. “I have no idea, rather. But I just thought I should let you know.” He gave Jack a look. “Just in case.”
“Good to know. I think she should be fine, though. She knows not to go anywhere with strangers.” I smiled as Jenny took my place at the grill again. I returned to the crypt.
“Well, I remember when I first met Dean Morton,” said Li Fang, as I steadied the camera for her. “I was Undead by that point. He was still a human, alive, but fascinated by me. He remarked on my relative youth for someone who became undead, asked all sorts of questions about the process, the results. It was quite flattering, and I’d even considered throwing him a bone once, but- Wouldn’t you know it? The man was all yin chi. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, well, let’s just say that it didn’t do anything for my appetite.”
She stepped away from the coffin, and smiled at me.
“How was that?”
“Good. Good. Edwin! How’s it going?” I smiled at him as he stepped down the stairs. “Here to record a message?”
“Oh, I suppose I might as well. Quite a celebration of the man’s life today… in a manner of speaking, at least.” He chuckled as he stepped in front of the lens. “So, I should, ah…?”
“Just whenever you’re ready.”
Edwin coughed, cleared his throat, and stood straight. “In many respects, Dean Morton was a very troubled man. He enjoyed his tiffs with others, he liked to make people’s lives difficult, and the only people he seemed to genuinely enjoy the company of were young women. He never did anything that I knew of without getting some advantage out of it, but he did help people. He believed strongly in making people prove they were worth what he gave them…”
I noticed a young woman walking down the stairs. The blonde, from before. I stepped away from the camera, leaving it recording Edwin.
“Ah… Are you… Atina LeRoux?” she said, checking a letter. I recognized the invitation I’d sent her.
“Inanna. Innana Fieldsboro. I got this letter from you…”
“Ah, of course. The Will.” I reached down, and picked up the folder. “Let me see… Inanna… Inanna Fieldsboro… Ah, yes. He seemed to be… fond of you. Part of his finances were set aside in a trust for you. How old are you now?”
“Really?” I said, an eyebrow raised. “Well, the money is held in trust, but it should pay out a fair income each month, to use as you please. It says when your first-born reaches the age of eighteen, the principal will vest in you.”
“Hah. He always was so giving,” she said, softly, smiling a bit. I wasn’t going to be caught dead asking any further questions about this relationship. “What’s that?”
“Oh. We’re making a memorial. Memories of those who knew him. You knew about his… peculiarities, I take it?”
“It would be kind of hard to miss that he was a lich, yes.” She smiled. “I always complained a bit about how bony his knees were. Never wanted to get into that business, though. I’m a fashion design major.”
“That’s… That’s just fantastic to hear. If you’d like to leave some words about him, well, I’m sure it would warm his heart to know you were thinking about him.”
“That would be great.” She smiled softly, as Alfred walked down the stairs. He gestured me over as I stepped up by him, and we spoke softly.
“So. Any leads? Any path forward?”
“Pursuing everything I have, but… Shit, Alfred. You know how many crimes just go plain unsolved? A third of all murders never have a killer found. And that’s for perfectly ordinary crimes. Sometimes it all comes down to luck. There was this guy, pulled off the perfect bank robbery, and the thing that finally got him caught was the fact that some random homeless guy saw him changing costumes in a parking lot, and fingered him. Totally random luck, and it derailed a brilliant criminal scheme. So how many never get that lucky break?”
“That’s not terribly encouraging, Atina.”
“It’s not really meant to be.” I sighed. “I’m still pursuing some leads as far as the murder goes. I was able to track down the fairy who was repairing your weapons. Might be able to get a statement out of him on who, exactly, bought your rapier…”
“Ah, so, just… look into the camera?”
“That’s right, dear. Take your time,” said Li, smiling warmly.
“I understand,” said Alfred. “Well, we have a couple of more months until the Winter Solstice, at least. Maybe fate will smile on us.”
“I think fate’s made it pretty clear it’s here to shit on us. I’d prefer just some good-old fashioned dumb luck-“ I stopped, as awareness, Lawyer Senses, and good old fashioned paranoia picked something up from Inanna.
“-ndfather was not a… terribly attentive person, even at the best of times. He always seemed distracted, always rushing off. I only usually got to see him on holidays. But he was always there when my grandmother, or my mother, or I, really needed him. Rushing off at a moment’s notice, and the presents at Christmas… Of course, grandmother knew about his, ah, predilections, but she always said that it was a good thing, because-“ Inanna blushed. “Well, the way she put it was, it spread the friction around and many hands made light work. I remember the last time I saw him before he died, when he came to visit me. It was the first time we’d seen him since Grandma died, back in 2010, and he looked awfully haggard, but he came and spent all Christmas Day with us, and told us that he’d make sure we were well looked after-”
“You’re Morton’s granddaughter?” I said, shocked, blinking.
“Ah… Yes. My grandmother married him. He always tried to keep it quiet, because he didn’t want us to be taken advantage of. Is… there a problem?”
A few minutes later the entire defense team stood around the grill as Inanna blushed at the attention. “Well… The last time we saw him was last Christmas, 2016. He came to see us, and told us not to worry, but that he’d been hearing some unsettling things through his… Well, he always called them his ‘channels’. He said not to worry about anything, that we’d be safe, but that he needed us to keep something safe for him. His findings.”
“A book?” I said, slightly surprised. I would have expected jewelry, or something similar.
“Yes. I read through it once, but it didn’t make much sense to me. Something about… phylacteries?”
“Do you still have it?” I asked, my right foot bouncing with nervous tension.
“Of course. It’s one of the things we have to remember him by. Why?”
“Do you mind if Alfred and I come over tonight? We have… Look, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It might be nothing.”
“Oh. Of course, my mother would probably be happy to meet you. She never had much of a chance to learn much about my grandfather’s life.” She smiled. “Here. My address. If you want to come over tonight, I’m sure it would be lovely to have you over, she’d love to talk about him.”
“That’s great. We need to make a few stops, first- Jack, you want to come with us? The rest of you, keep an eye on things here.” I tried not to let the excitement show. “Alfred, you come, too. I’ve got a couple of stops to make. Back home, to pick up some of the letters, and the Atlantean mission. If this is what I hope it is, then…” I bit back the words. It felt like a dream. If I let the words escape my mouth, it might all evaporate around me.
“There’s one other stop we need to make,” said Alfred, gravely.
“Oh? You need something?”
“Yes. We must make an offering at the shrine of dumb luck,” he said, and grinned. “Let’s go.”