Despite everything that had gone sideways over the past week, Charles was the picture of composed. He sat patiently in a chair, unmoving as though he was holding himself for that very portrait. His clothing was immaculate: slacks, dress shirt; cufflinks. So too was the trim of his beard — he didn’t have a single hair out of place anywhere on his head. He wasn’t vain: he knew he wasn’t a particularly attractive man. But Charles appreciated logic and order. He was never more satisfied than when he had everything in its place and a place for everything… A preference that expressed itself in his appearance as well as every other aspect of his life.
And it was that very attention to minutiae that had led him to where he was now: sitting quietly, surrounded by his people, waiting with no apparent impatience as an internal timer ticked down.
If that timer reached zero, Charles was going to have to take action. But until then, he had no need to rush. After all, even though he had a lot of loose ends to tie up now that he was responsible for Lewellyn’s fuck ups, too, Charles knew better than to rush into ruin. In fact, he had already determined what could be done within the time available — and how it should be. And he had the time to handle each of those matters properly: his sources had warned him to expect another Director within the next day, but that the director in question would not be active within the city until at least another night had passed.
Charles had no desire to still be within the city when Luis Estevez began his investigation in earnest. The entire point of his work was to remove any evidence of The Alliance’s project before it could be discovered by the wrong individuals — of which Luis Estevez was certainly one. It galled Charles that he was going to have to leave some things undone — but at least that was Lewellyn’s fault and not his. Charles’ work had, on the other hand, been executed perfectly — despite a few complications that even he had not anticipated. Fortunately, Charles’ contingencies for dealing with the unexpected had sufficed, and now he had only to deal with this one last matter. Then he could pick up the journals Lewellyn had removed from Salvatore’s library and left for pickup, have some of his people transfer the to the new facility, and then….
Before Charles could continue mentally detailing his plans, his phone rang. Charles smiled at the interruption. Although he enjoyed the process of constructing and refining a plan and its necessary contingencies, the ringtone for this call let him know it pertained to the matter that was currently holding him back from his other great joy: enacting those plans. Even when confronted with the most unpleasant of tasks, there was something deeply satisfying — perhaps even beautiful — in making the plans to deal with it and then addressing the problem with an efficient perfection in those plans’ execution.
Charles slid his thumb over the surface of his phone as he raised it to his ear. “Linda,” he said in greeting. “How good of you to call. I was growing concerned that your sudden disappearance meant something unpleasant had happened. I hope everything is well?” Although his voice was measured and polite, showing neither concern nor anxiety, Charles was very aware that there was only a slim chance this call would end as he hoped it would.
Linda seemed to know it, too. He could hear the sneer in her voice. “You know exactly what has happened, Charles. I did my part, as promised. But while I was providing the wards that let you move your masters’ precious ‘project’ unhindered, that Lewellyn decided to do his part by trying to murder my girls. And that is not acceptable, Charles. You of all people should know that.”
Charles grimaced. He did know: Linda had been raised by faeries, and they had extremely strong beliefs about ownership. Especially ‘ownership’ of people, in the idealized medieval sense: a faerie was supposed to be responsible for their people’s well being. Oh, the faerie lords were just as corrupt as any medieval lord would have been in their place — but Linda had embraced that idealized morality as the only thing she could salvage out of her past, other than her magic.
It made her very annoying to deal with at times — and the divorce, after she’d realized that marrying Charles didn’t mean he would shield her from his employers’ interest, had been a brutally messy affair despite both of them seeing that it needed done. Really, they had both been far too controlling to be compatible no matter how well they clicked on every other level. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after Charles discovered that she would be no more the obedient wife than she had been the obedient daughter and Linda had discovered he was no noble protector that they realized all the rest wasn’t enough in the face of those failings. A pity, Charles thought, as he often did: having a witch of Linda’s talents at his call would have been a major coup. Together, they could have had far more significant an influence within The Aliance than Charles had ever commanded on his own.
As it was, Linda had returned his rings. She’d kept his name, though — a fact that irked Charles to no end. He knew that in faerie culture names were important things, and no doubt Linda believed keeping it gave her some measure of control over — or protection from — him. And he had to admit that perhaps there was something to that: he wouldn’t have seen fit to extend this opportunity to come back into the fold of The Aliance to anyone else who disappeared at such an inopportune time.
Of course, no one else that he would have had to bring back had Linda’s skills and knowledge — so perhaps it was simply an attempt to recover a valuable resource, after all. Charles would certainly portray it as such if he was questioned on his decision to give her a chance to explain herself and come back into line.
“Now Linda,” Charles protested calmly, “that just isn’t so. They would have been enthralled, I am certain. Used to advance the story that Abigail had been the attacker. At the very worst, when their year as thralls was coming to an end they would have been fast tracked to participate in the project and kept safely out of the way until we could be certain of their lasting silence. But they wouldn’t have been harmed.”
Which was bullshit, of course, but admitting it would have done Charles’ cause no good. Most likely Lewellyn would have left one of them alive and enthralled to spread his story. The others would probably have been used to revive Salvatore, so that he could remove himself from the picture — out of sight, out of mind, and unquestioned until The Project was complete and the next phase of The Aliance’s plans was underway. The wounded one would perhaps have disappeared — with blame given to a blood crazed Abigail — to The Aliance’s new facility for proper observation and experimentation…. or perhaps drained and left as the final nail in Abigail’s damnation.
Not that Lewellyn’s plan to provide The Center and the local supernatural community a villainess monstrous enough to take the blame, unquestioned, for any of The Aliance’s activities that came to light had worked. If anything, Lewelyn’s utter failure was only going to bring more attention to his — and Salvatore’s — actions.
It didn’t help that the victors wrote the histories, and Abigail had somehow managed to kill Lewellyn and Salvatore. Even with his access to the reports that were forwarded to The Center, Charles found his credulity strained. A vampire whose first blood had been a faerie? And not just a faerie, but a changeling? A faerie noble?! It boggled the mind. She had the potential to eclipse even The Circle of Twelve in power, given time. And Lewellyn had completely failed to bring her in — as an ally or a subject to examine. It was a travesty of a failure on the Director’s part.
“You’re lying to me, Charles,” Linda said grimly. “Don’t. If Lewellyn had drained the others enough to enthrall them, Emma wouldn’t have survived. He knew that.”
Charles scoffed. “She would have come back as a ghoul, Linda.” If she wanted to throw his name at him in an attempt to exert some level of mystical control, he could return the favor. “She would have lost her life in exchange for immortality. A more than fair trade.”
“There is no guarantee that she would survive,” Linda countered, “and every likelihood she would not.” Charles started to explain, but Linda overrode him. “No, Charles. She would not have survived being sent to The Alliance for treatment. Not when you were already breaking down and shipping out. Don’t bullshit me, Charles. Your masters treated my people as expendable, and that is not acceptable to me. I’ve made up my mind. I’m out.”
“Linda,” Charles said softly, “The Alliance isn’t something people leave. You know that better than most.”
Linda barked a laugh: bitter and angry. “Oh, yes. You are referring, perhaps, to the geases Lewellyn slipped into the mix when The Alliance worked it’s magic and freed me from my Father? I made my payment for that, Charles. Being chained to your masters’ service on top of it was not part of the deal.”
“Perhaps not,” Charles conceded, “but it is still a fact. You’ve made your protest. It has been noticed. Now come back before we are forced to take exception.”
This time there was a vindictiveness in Linda’s chuckle. “No, Charles. In fact, I am calling to make sure that you understand fully: I am out. Don’t worry about Lewellyn’s cheat. Any geas can be broken if you have enough power to sacrifice to it — and I have been raising witches for decades. Teaching them to harness their auras, strengthen them — and release them into the world. I was raised by fae. I may only be human, but no other mortal is better at working with essence than I. I have harvested more than enough to do the deed — and if you think I won’t because it would mean breaking The Alliance’s stranglehold on my Father’s geases…. Archarel is dead, Charles. Dead and gone. There is no one left to collect the debts he bound me with. With this, I am truly free. Of everyone.”
“Linda,” Charles began to protest — but she interrupted him again.
“No, Charles,” she said sharply. “Don’t try to convince me otherwise. It is already done. I am only contacting you now to make certain that you — and your masters — know it. I swore myself to secrecy in the exchange I made for my freedom from Archarel, and I will keep that oath. Your masters have nothing to fear from me, but neither do they have any hold over me. Not anymore. Once you are gone, I will disappear more thoroughly than my sister did, Charles. That’s all I want.”
Charles sighed. He believed her — not that it did any good. “That isn’t how this works, Linda,” he said. “The Alliance doesn’t keep it’s secrets by allowing people who know them to walk away. If you try, I will be forced to order my people to deal with you.”
Linda scoffed. “Are your masters listening in, Charles? It’s too late for that. For both of us. I broke the geas yesterday, after entrenching myself behind wards that you cannot breach. I kept my defiance of Archarel hidden from him, Charles. My ability to hide things behind magic is flawless. And I know that there is a Director arriving tonight. One who isn’t in your Alliance. You have to realize that there is no way you will find me before he is within the city, and any magic you work to do so will draw his attention. We both know you can’t afford that. So just go, Charles,” Linda pled, “and let me go as well.”
Charles took a deep breath. He held it rather than sighing again. When he did exhale it was silent. “I’m sorry, Linda,” he said. “I did try to make you see reason,” he pointed out. “I hope you understand that: I wanted you to come back to us before you put yourself — and myself — in an untenable situation.”
Linda snorted. Charles could picture her derisive smirk. “Do what you have to, Charles,” she said. “Your masters will never find me, nor ever hear of me, again.”
Charles smiled wryly. Linda had her sources, but they weren’t as good as his: she didn’t know that Estevez had delayed his investigation of the city to allow for Elaine Salvatore’s arrival. “In that case, Linda Fleisher, you are hereby acknowledged as a traitor to The Alliance. As such, the kill order is official. As of now, if any of our people find you, you will be dealt with and removed as a threat to our security.”
Charles heard Linda inhale to say something, but he never found out what. Five feet away from him, one of his men who was crouched by the window stroked the trigger on his rifle. Even with the suppressor the crack of the gunshot deafened Charles’ ears — but not so much that his supernatural hearing couldn’t also detect the accompanying thump on the other end of the line.
Charles lowered his phone. An unconscious swipe of his thumb ended the call. “Mundanes,” Charles said calmly — claiming the attention of half the men in the room. “Bypass her wards and make sure the deed is done. Warlocks, once you can find your way into the building and have access to the body, use your divinations to determine if she has shared any information that she shouldn’t have.”
The Alliance squad moved into action at once, smoothly slipping out of the room and heading across the street — all save the sniper, who had begun disassembling and packing his rifle. Charles walked to the window and peered out it.
“It’s a pity,” Charles commented — seized by a momentary remorse. “Her wards really were things of beauty. But subtly so: you could only appreciate them if you realized just how much you weren’t aware of.” Not unlike Linda herself.
Or so he’d thought, once.
The Alliance sniper looked up from breaking down his weapon and scoffed. “Yeah? Too bad for her, then, that her phone had a GPS the company could access and remote activate.”
“Quite,” Charles agreed dryly. He hadn’t meant to start a conversation with his comment. “And that she never adapted to technology enough to realize that magic is rarely the most effective recourse in this day and age.”
The gunman snorted in agreement and turned back to his weapon. Charles returned to ignoring him.
Charles continued looking out the window, at the room across the street where a body lay cooling. Even though his supernaturally enhanced senses could pick out every line that spider-webbed out from the bullet hole in the window on the other side of the street, he couldn’t look into the darkness beyond any more effectively than if he’d still had mortal vision. Even in death, Linda’s wards sufficed to conceal all hint that anything was going on within that building. Had his sniper not been using the infrared display on a digital scope, he probably wouldn’t have been able to see Linda to make the shot — but again, Linda had failed to account for technology. Her wards were meant to fool the mind: something that a camera simply did not have.
Charles sighed again and turned away. He returned to his chair, pocketing his phone as he walked, and sat back down. Then he closed his eyes and brought up a mental list. It was bad enough that he had to cover for Lewellyn’s fuck ups and handle all those loose ends, too, but Linda had been the perfect witch: powerful, adept, and tied to the cause by enough geases and debts and secrets that she really should have realized there was no ‘getting out’ while she was still alive. Not to disparage the grunt warlocks The Alliance had included in his team, but Linda had been a part of an entirely different league.
Finding someone to replace her — and putting the necessary checks in place to ensure her good, obedient behaviour — all while setting up a new facility safely away from anything that could draw attention to it… frankly, Charles thought as he considered his options, it all promised to be a huge pain in the ass.
And he still had the other loose ends Lewellyn had left behind, and false trails to leave for anyone that came along later. Really, it was just exceedingly fortunate that Director Estevez had chosen to delay his investigation. Charles had a lot to do, and just one more day to get it all done.