Kelson looked up when he heard the knock at his office door. It wasn’t yet dark out, so the club was quieter than usual when he was awake: the thrumming vibrations of pounding music and moving people didn’t penetrate the otherwise soundproofed walls of his office like it could some nights. But it was also early so there was no need for anyone to be interrupting him at his work.
He sighed and folded his laptop shut. He hadn’t been getting any updates from covens in the area, anyway. It sucked: he liked Cassie — she was a good person and her ability to interact with ghosts had helped some of his friends lay a few of theirs to rest. Sometimes it felt like she was an unofficial member of his coven, despite not actually being a witch. Plus, Curtis was a shared friend — but when Curtis had called him to say that Cassie wanted him to see if he could find any warded locations near Hope Community Hospital, Kelson hadn’t held out much hope. The coven that was in charge around those parts, unfortunately, was one of those ones that embraced secrecy as a way to enhance their magic’s potential. Kelson had one email address and one phone number for them, and he had yet to get a reply from either. I’ll check again after I deal with this, Kelson thought.
Kelson got up from his desk, rubbed his temples, and walked over to the door between his office and the waiting room beside it. I shouldn’t even be awake right now, let alone being bothered, he mentally complained. Unfortunately, being the first on the ball with organizing people last night had allowed them to go with the momentum and force him to keep rolling with it. Everyone was checking with him for updates on ‘the new vampire,’ like he was her personal friend — since everyone had also put together enough to know that the Center coven in town was not. At least, not in her opinion.
This, however, was probably not related to that.
Kelson pulled open the door and sighed. Standing on the other side was Bob, three hours early for his shift.
“Mister Terrel,” Bob hastily said. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that…”
“She hasn’t stopped by,” Kelson said flatly, interrupting Bob’s awkward start at asking a question. “I don’t know when or if she will. Feel free to hang out until your shift in case she does. It’s fine. You can probably find Aaron and Eddie downstairs, watching the door.”
Bob almost sagged in gratified relief. “Thank you, Mister Kelson. I really appreciate it, and that you would’ve let me know if I’d missed her.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what I was thinking, not giving her my phone number before she left last night. What if she needed something!”
Kelson nodded. There was no empathy behind it, because he knew that the concern Bob was operating under wasn’t ‘real.’ Or at least: it wasn’t natural. “Yep. No problem. Get.” He waved toward the waiting room door and Bob hastily retreated.
I might not be Abigail’s best friend, he thought, but dammit: if I want my employees to be worth anything she’s going to have to spend a lot more time at the club. All three of his bouncers from the previous night’s staff were going to be sitting downstairs now, waiting for the woman who enthralled them — just in case she showed up because she needed them and didn’t have another way to get a hold of them than looking for them at work.
Kelson turned and walked back to his desk. Once he was beside it he stopped, then gave it a swift kick. It didn’t help his mood any, but still: Just… dammit! Bob had held out the longest of the bouncers. Mark, on the other hand, hadn’t even gone home. Kelson’s only full time bartender was even now sleeping on Kelson’s couch in the apartment behind the office, after having finally given in to the demands of exhaustion somewhen around noon.
Kelson scowled and sat down at his desk again. He flipped the laptop back open, unlocked it, and refreshed his email. Nothing new from anyone he wanted to talk to. Three new messages from random covens on the other end of town who wanted to know if he’d heard anything more from the city’s new guardian vamp.
I really hope The Center is okay with her being appointed the defacto city Guardian, Kelson thought grumpily. It’s gonna get ugly, otherwise. Of course, Center politics weren’t really the issue Kelson was having trouble with. Neither was dealing with his enthralled employees, actually. Shoot: even trying to get a hold of people who made a point of being mysterious and unavailable wouldn’t have been this bad, normally. Kelson’s foot started bouncing despite himself. He glared at his phone and willed it to ring.
Kelson gave a frustrated growl and got up again. He was exhausted, but he started to pace anyway. The Issue, he knew, was that Jamie wasn’t around anymore.
Kelson stopped mid-pacing and returned to his desk. He checked his emails again. Then he made sure his phone was on and had a dial tone. Then he made himself sit down again.
Kelson dropped his head so that it thunked against the desk. Then he picked it up and let it fall again. Letting Jamie go had been the right thing to do, but he’d done a lot of other stupid stuff that was coming back to bite him in the ass, now. Like: he’d stopped taking the Venlafaxine after realizing Jamie could siphon off his anxieties and depression a lot more precisely than any drugs could regulate them. His psychiatrist had been more than happy to attribute his sudden improvement to the successfulness of therapy.
Now, though, Jamie’d been gone a day and Kelson was already turning into a high strung mess. All of the local covens were on him to know about the new vampire — and he’d only met her once! Half of his night staff was enthralled to her, and who knew if they’d be able to do their jobs if she was around — or if they’d bother to do their jobs if she wasn’t! The Center’s lazy ass warlocks had ironically contacted him about a rogue werewolf since he was now the ‘unofficial coordinator for the local supernatural society’ and requested that he provide a catalogue of every warded area within ten blocks of Hope Community Hospital — which was a blatantly impossible request to fulfill — and never mind that he’d already been on that.
Plus, Kelson’d had the worst bout of dysphoria he’d had to deal with in years that morning.
And it really didn’t help the mounting pressure of everyone’s expectations or his own anxiety that Jamie had been his office assistant, on top of helping him manage his emotional issues.
“Just… dammit,” Kelson muttered. He slumped in his chair. He was exhausted. And now he was depressed.
It was funny — or it would have been if he’d been in the mood for humor — but being depressed made him feel far, far more ’empty’ than Jamie occasionally snacking on the emotions he didn’t want ever had.
Kelson sucked in a breath and got ready to check his emails again. Or maybe call the contact number he had for the Hope Community group. If the coven even still existed. It wouldn’t be the first time one of the ‘we hold the secret mysteries’ groups had split up without telling anyone or anyone noticing.
Before he could, though, his phone rang. Kelson pounced on it. He brought it up to his ear and prayed that it belonged to someone who could give him the answers he needed to give to Curtis — and to Kallaher’s people, since The Center’s answer to finding the rogue werewolf in town had apparently been to ask him, too.
“Hello,” Kelson said. He never opened a conversation by introducing himself: Jamie had taught him to be careful of that. There were a lot of things out there that could make use of the connection made by a freely given name.
A cheerful woman’s voice answered him. “Hello,” she replied. “Is this Kelson Terrel?”
“Speaking,” Kelson answered. “May I ask who’s calling?” Asking if he could ask who was calling rather than just asking who was calling was another thing Jamie had turned him on to. It was rude to flat out ask someone for their name — at least, it was if they were a faerie.
“This is Valerie Grenz,” the woman answered, and Kelson immediately straightened in his seat. Grenz. Shit. Grenz was the family name of the oldest scion in the city. It wasn’t something Kelson would ordinarily have paid that much attention to, but with everyone directing questions about everything vampire at him, he’d picked up on the highlights of the local vampire political scene quickly enough. Oh, shit, I really hope she’s not calling about Abigail. It was bad enough that the local covens thought he was somehow in tight with her: if The Center scions did, too… and if they were angry that the local covens had unofficially accepted Abigail as the city Guardian, instead of one of The Center’s vamps…
“I’m calling because I was told you would be a good source of information and feedback on a project that I’ve taken up,” Valerie continued. “I was hoping that you had some time available to discuss the mood of the city, with regards to the current situation with the vampires and faeries present, and perhaps offer some advice on strategies I would like to propose for going forward. If you are up for it?”
Oh. Hell. Kelson desperately tried to come up with a way out. Not only is she contacting me about Abigail’s usurpation of The Center’s Guardian position, but she wants me to actively pick her side over Abigail’s? That was bad. That was fucking catastrophic! Not only did Kelson have no desire to get locked into vampire politics, but Abigail was terrifying. And since Jamie was her friend Fumiko’s familiar, Abigail effectively had his best friend as a hostage. But on the other hand…
Mere mortals did not say no to vampires. Not without a lot more backup than Kelson had on hand. If I don’t join The Center, am I going to be forced into joining Abigail’s side just so she can protect me from them? Or was that the anxiety talking? Had things really already broken down into sides and us versus them? Center versus Abigail? Kelson had really, really hoped it wouldn’t come to that: he had no desire to see his city turn into a supernatural warzone. He’d hoped that with the revelation that Director Lewellan had been corrupt, Abigail might get welcomed into The Center and that whole confrontation be averted.
Yeah, right, Kelson thought bitterly. Because people in power being corrupt? That’s new and shocking. Other corrupt sons of bitches among the Directors were probably pulling strings even now to see Abigail and everyone around her dead, burned, and scattered so that everything their pal Lewellan had done — that they were probably doing too — would be forgotten by the rest of the population.
“Yes,” Kelson hastily answered, shoving his thoughts aside. “How can I help?”
“Wonderful,” Valerie answered. “Now: we have a unique opportunity here. With Lady Megan and Abigail being close friends, they’ve been looking for a way to unite the faerie and mortal communities. We’re trying to come up with criteria by which faeries may be approved for return to our realm, along with suggestions for ways to ensure their good behavior. Abigail suggested that you or your familiar might have some valuable input on this matter.”
Oh my god, Kelson thought. What? Abigail threw me under the bus to The Center? “I… I’ll do what I can,” he said. “But I don’t have a familiar. I released Jamie rather than force them to continue to serve me while under a significant debt to someone else.”
“Oh,” the vampiress said in surprise. “I didn’t realize. Still, any input you might be able to offer would be greatly appreciated.”
“Wait,” Kelson said as his exhausted brain caught up to some of what Valerie had said. Holy crap: What?! “You’re allowing faeries back into this world? Without forcing them to be familiars?”
“That is the idea,” Valerie said. “I’ve been discussing the matter with one of Lady Megan’s advisers, and it seems that a small fae population can easily maintain itself on the ambient emotions of the city, without feeding on any one person sufficiently to cause harm. At least, so long as they are motivated not to do so. Why? Do you have a problem with this idea?”
“What?” Kelson protested. “No! That’s fantastic. Hell, I’m willing to play host for the first one you approve. I mean, I’ll hire them on if they can pass a basic interview and assure me of their intentions.” He was so suddenly enthusiastic over the prospect of another faerie assistant that he didn’t even stop to wonder if Valerie actually approved of the project, or if she was just being pushed into it by Abigail.
“I can provide room and board,” Kelson said. “Faeries don’t exactly have physical needs, so that should be sufficient to gain someone’s interest. I’ll couple it with a binding oath not to attempt to trap them or otherwise permit them to be pushed into being my familiar for the duration of their employment. Responsibilities would include general assistance around the club and magical assistance not to exceed a cost above half of the essence provided as part of their board. Any request that went beyond that would be negotiated for on a case-by-case basis, with the candidate having the right to decline and no prejudice applied should an equitable arrangement not be met.”
Kelson was so excited that it wasn’t until he was done outlining his offer that it really registered exactly how quiet Valerie was on the other end of the phone. He hesitated. “Um. If that can be arranged?”
The vampiress sounded thoughtful. “I think it can,” she said. “In fact: it might be a better arrangement than some of the ones Prudence and I discussed. I like it: a working relationship? It would ensure oversight of the faerie in question while giving them a mentor figure they could look to if they were uncertain of whether or not their feeding was straying into morally ambiguous grounds. I’ll bring up your proposal with Prudence and see what she thinks. I would also like to talk to your ex-familiar, if at all possible. Jamie? If he’s available, I’d like to invite both of you to meet with us when we start formalizing the start of this… outreach program.”
“They,” Kelson corrected automatically. He was too busy thinking about the implications of the project to think about what he was saying. Who else would I trust with a faerie’s well-being, and to babysit one? Jacob Escott would be a good choice: his circle was pretty liberal, he was good with magic and he’d never had a problem with Jamie. Plus, most of his customers were well aware of the supernatural world so any faerie who stayed with him would probably be able to interact with the people who came in and out of the shop more often than not. And Linda Fleischer: that sort of went without saying. Unless there was bad blood there from when she left Archarel’s kingdom? Okay, maybe not Linda.
“They?” Valerie asked.
Kelson kicked himself and marshaled his flagging reserves to better focus on the conversation. “They,” he repeated. “Faeries are shape shifters. Jamie swaps between being male and female all the time. So they prefer to use gender neutral pronouns when they aren’t obviously presenting as one or the other.”
“I see,” Valerie replied. “Then, if they are available, I would very much like it if they could join Prudence, yourself, and myself in working out the nitty gritty of this particular project.”
“Yeah,” Kelson agreed. “Well, that’ll probably depend on Fumiko. But I can get a message to them and they can check with her. I’ll let you know what they say. Is this number a good contact for you?”
“Yes,” Valerie said. “It’s my personal cell.”
Kelson paused in the act of jotting down the number that was displayed on his office phone, then hastily scribbled down the remaining digits. “Okay. Great. I’ll see what I can do, then. Um. It might not be until later tonight, though. People are still very uncertain about everything that happened last night and I’m fielding a lot of calls.”
“That’s perfectly understandable,” Valerie agreed. “I have a few other issues that I’m waiting for developments on that will eclipse this in short term priority, as well. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get the ball rolling while we deal with the other crises. But, before I let you go…” Her voice shifted from professional to curious. “General office assistance?”
“Funny thing,” Kelson told Valerie. “Sure, people can disbelieve a faerie in person. Easy. That’s pretty much automatic, thanks to ‘modern thinking.’ But an anonymous person on the other end of a phone? Someone who’s just a voice? Yeah: no one knows or cares who’s handling my phone calls and arranging my appointments except me, and I believe. Jamie was my assistant for years. Besides, at that kind of a remove, the leyline that formed between Jamie and whoever they’re talking to is going to be too tenuous for either side to make much impact on the other.”
“That…” Valerie’s knee-jerk protest gave way to a sputtered laugh. “Okay, I can see how that would work,” she admitted. “But it’s still rather hard to swallow.”
Kelson permitted himself a laugh in return. “You think that’s hard to come to grips with? I just about passed out when I realized they had a social media presence. Jamie has their fingers in more digital pies than I can keep track of. Forums, chat groups, web rings, MMOs, you name it and there’s probably a couple dozen of it at least that they have an account on. Not to mention all the passive stuff — I have no idea how many RSS feeds they subscribe to, but I bet if you looked you could find their comments on every major news site on the net.”
His laughter faded from his tone and Kelson frowned to himself. Come to think of it, I have no idea if Fumiko is a technophobe. She didn’t strike me as one, but even then she might just be private about her computer or other devices. Kelson hadn’t been, but he’d known people who were. Maybe I should get Jamie a laptop of their own as a ‘moving on’ present, just to make sure they have one.
“I… I see,” Valerie said thoughtfully. “Well, that’s certainly something to keep in mind. I will leave you to your work, now. Don’t forget to check with Jamie and get back with me. If necessary, I should be able to arrange a meeting with Fumiko and present an additional request that Jamie be allowed to assist us.”
Kelson felt his mouth go dry at the reminder that the person he was talking to quite probably had the kind of power that could force a witch to give up their familiar. Mere mortals don’t say no to a vampire, he reminded himself. “Okay. Thank you. I will keep you apprised.”
Valerie hung up and Kelson followed suit. His hand was trembling as he put the phone down on the cradle. Was the prospect of getting into the middle of some bizarre vampire-faerie social experiment terrifying? Yes. But he didn’t have time for that right now.
Right now, Kelson had to get back to doing what he could to find that rogue werewolf’s hiding spot. First a scare with a rogue vampire, then with people getting turned into ghouls: if this werewolf issue wasn’t dealt with, there’d be another panic. And this one will probably get pinned on me, since I’m the one everyone seems to think should know where every damn ward in the city is. He pinched the bridge of his nose and swiped the track pad to wake up his laptop so he could check his email again. Damn, I wish I had a faerie assistant right now.
Jamie kept much better track of what was going on in the city than he did. They actually liked to explore in their free time, every now and again. If anyone knew where some obscure warded facility was — or how to find it — it would be them.
Kelson froze. “Son of a bitch!” he yelled at himself. He abandoned his laptop and his office. He stormed through his apartment, though Mark didn’t notice — or wake up — from his place on the couch. How could he have been so stupid?
Past his living room, and then through his bedroom, Kelson entered the small room that was his private ritual chamber. If he was lucky, Jamie and Fumiko would be out in the open. Otherwise? Getting a hold of Jamie might be tricky. If he knew anything about them, it was that the first thing they would do for their new witch would be to set up a securely warded perimeter around her home, assuming Fumiko didn’t have one already. If he had to bypass that, it would probably take a lot of oomph.
Fortunately, thanks to Jamie’s assistance over the years, he had plenty to spare.