Of course, getting on the road wasn’t as easy as just having a car, a destination and a driver. Before I could leave the room with Elaine, I had to run the gauntlet of everyone else who’d followed to observe my interrogation of Mister Kallaher’s ghost.
“I’m coming too,” Emma declared. She crossed her arms as though braced to fight me on it, but I didn’t force her to follow through on it. Sleeping through the crisis, again? That had to sting, and I could see her spectral wolf pacing anxiously behind her. When I focused on it, it growled. “If they left anything else behind when they abandoned Mrs. Fleisher’s corpse, you might need a witch to check for wards,” she added stubbornly.
I nodded, and Emma seemed to relax fractionally. Megan did, too.
“Of course, that means I am, too,” Megan chimed in. Emma nodded firmly and grabbed Megan’s arm. There was no helping it: until Emma’s aura healed where one went so to would the other.
“And me,” Fumiko added at the same time as Ben said “So will I.”
They shared a quick glance, and I thought they might come to blows when Elaine chimed in with “Well, my car only seats five.” But their conflict was interrupted before it could begin.
“That guy shot Jacob,” Shantaya suddenly growled. “While neither of you were there, I might add. So Jacob was right: Miss Abigail needs someone to keep her safe. So: I. Am. Going. With. Her.”
Ben looked like he was going to protest, and for a second I thought Fumiko might offer to arm wrestle Shantaya for it. For her part, Shantaya’s muscles and bones seemed to creak as her determination gathered. Her spectral wolf growled, low and dangerous to my ears — and unnoticed by Fumiko or Ben.
“Shantaya comes too,” I decided before she could slip over the edge and shift shape. “Ben, I need you to take care of things here. And Fumiko…”
Now that a decision had been made, Fumiko looked more amused than spoiling for a fight. “I’ll meet you at Cassie’s when you’re done,” Fumiko said.
I nodded, relieved to have all the logistics worked out. Jacob whined slightly when I started to leave again, but he didn’t move away from Ben’s side. I figured that between Benjamin having enthralled him and Fumiko being on hand to choke him out if necessary, he probably wouldn’t cause any problems if I left him behind. I was still pretty anxious about it.
I wonder why more wolves don’t act as donors to vampires, though, I thought in distraction instead of coming up with anything else I might be overlooking. Being enthralled does seem to be keeping him… not docile, but definitely not psycho-angry. “Mister Kallaher,” I said, letting my autopilot take care of the details I was too busy contemplating the wolf/vampire social dynamics to figure out, “you should come with us, too. I’d appreciate it if you let us know about any wards we might run into, and if you could lead us to the freezer they stashed Linda in.” Oh, good thought, me!
Mister Kallaher’s ghost drifted along behind us. He scowled just like he did when I dragged him along the other night, while he’d still been alive. I guess being dead didn’t really change his grumpy demeanor. At least it didn’t seem to be making it worse.
“Pips,” I heard Ben say as the rest of us left the room, “I want you to go with them, too. Since you’re my liaison: liaise. If I can’t go with, then you accompany Abby. Help her however you can, and make sure that I’m kept informed if anything happens that I can help with from here.” I supposed that wasn’t a bad thought. And Pipsqueak could stay in the immaterial realm, so I guess he wouldn’t be taking up one of Elaine’s five seats.
When we got to the car, somehow I ended up in the front passenger seat. I was reasonably okay with that, since it meant that everyone else could talk in the back seat and not distract Elaine from driving. Pips and Mister Kallaher remained in that in-between reality: Mister Kallaher sat in between Elaine and I, partially phased through our seats. Pips, however, was left behind: since he was phased out of physical existence, Elaine couldn’t tell that he hadn’t gotten into the car yet. I let that go: he could always follow my ley line to get to me after we got to the funeral home, and since Elaine had already started the car I didn’t want to risk distracting her by having her wait. Unfortunately, it seemed like no one had ever taught Elaine to pay attention to the road, because she had the same bad habits as John: As soon as we pulled away, she started talking to me.
“Well,” Elaine said while looking at the still burning remains of Mister Salvatore’s house. “We know I didn’t do it — but I’m not the only vampire in town. Director Lewellyn’s nephew is also here, along with Director Estevez. And since I didn’t do it, I think the next person with a motive would be Adam Lewellyn. Unless you know anything I don’t?”
I shook my head while the firemen directed us around their vehicles and out onto the road. Vampire, Vampire, Werewolf, Ghost, Changeling, Faerie, Emma… Well, other than Emma we could all survive a brutal head on collision. And who knew? Emma was half-pseudo-werewolf. Maybe she could, too. I didn’t want to risk it, though, so I spoke up as soon as I realized that shaking my head for an answer would require Elaine to look away from the road to get it. “No,” I hastily said. “Especially since it looks like they were trying to break out either Director Lewellyn or Director Salvatore or both.” I silently wished Ben had checked their corpses before leaving the house. Depending on how bad the fire was, I didn’t know if we’d be able to tell whether or not one of them had been left behind, and I didn’t want to have to be looking over my shoulder for both of them for the next eternity. My paranoia was bad enough as it was.
“I think,” Elaine said hesitantly, “that we should probably contact Director Estevez, then. He’d be able to let us know if Mister Lewellyn was in town, and if Adam is at the hotel we might be able to cross him off our list of suspects.”
I felt kind of nauseous at the suggestion. So far as I was concerned,Estevez hadn’t done anything to be removed from our list of suspects. “Okay,” I said to cover up my anxiety. Aw, hell, I thought at my autopilot’s decision. “We can do that as soon as…”
I didn’t get to finish my thought ‘…as we know he isn’t involved himself,’ though. Elaine had her phone plugged bluetoothed to the car or something, because she abruptly tapped a button on the dash and said: “Call Director Estevez.” I heard a dial tone, followed by two muted rings, and then a connection.
Oh, great, I realized. We’re on speaker phone.
“Director,” Elaine said without preamble. “Something has come up regarding that personal matter I needed to attend. I am actually in the city now, and…”
“I know,” Estevez interrupted dryly. “My contact within the city’s emergency management has already apprised me of the fire and purported reasons behind it. I take it your ‘personal matter’ involves assessing Miss Abigail’s membership in your family line? We will discuss your priorities later. For now, I can assure you: Mister Lewellyn was not involved; his whereabouts are accounted for. So either we are dealing with a third party acting for reasons unknown, or the fire and attack is a ruse on behalf of Miss Abigail to cover up her eliminating of those who would speak against her at trial.”
The shiver that went down my spine this time had nothing to do with Director Estevez’s accent. Was he really that paranoid? That was like: me level double-think. Also: Holy fuck, if he already even knew that we’d figured out the attack was a jailbreak, then his network was good. I was more than a little creeped out at the idea that he somehow knew things just as quickly as we figured them out… either some of those firefighters had been listening in on us with directed microphones instead of fighting the fire, or he had gotten a report from someone at the hotel after we’d called Valerie. Either way, I found the idea that information was being passed around by persons unknown to be kind of disturbing.
“Director,” Elaine hastily interrupted him. She sounded awkward. “I feel that I should inform you that Abigail can overhear this call.”
For a second, Elaine’s information was met with silence. Then the director sighed. “Of course she can,” he muttered to himself — and then he addressed me. “Well then. Miss Abigail, may I request you recuse yourself from further investigation? You have a decided conflict of interest, and your further involvement will only serve to legitimize doubts as to the veracity of any evidence acquired.”
“Yeah,” I spoke up. “Fuck no.” Inside, I started to panic — I was doing it again. Why am I antagonizing the ancient vampire?!
Because you didn’t get anything even remotely like justice when the last director came to town, Megan gently reminded me with a pushed thought. And we have no more reason to trust this one than he claims he has to trust us. But given the way you’ve been repeatedly attacked by agents of the Center, the onus of overcoming doubt is on them, not you.
Oh, I thought back as Megan’s logic cut through my panic. Right.
“If anything, I can’t trust you guys not to fuck with the evidence,” I said. “I mean, seriously: the last Director I met framed me for a murder that he committed, tried to get other people to murder me for him, and then tried to murder me himself. The one before that did murder me. You don’t have the moral authority to accuse me of shenanigans, buddy.” I cringed inside as my autopilot grew more and more belligerent. At the same time, giving unrestricted voice to my thoughts was, perhaps for the first time ever, cathartic. For once my life really was so crazy that my imagination couldn’t top it, and that meant that all of the stuff I was saying was real. I wasn’t being crazy!
“So, if you’re thinking of continuing that trend by claiming your authority lets you do whatever you want and fuck me if I disagree,” I growled, “then allow me to dissuade you. Because Salvatore and Lewellyn felt that way, and I killed both of them. And I don’t want to kill anyone else, but if I have to self-defense you out of existence, too, then I fucking will.” I was starting to panic again: I realized that I was not handling this well. And if I didn’t handle it well and I pissed off another director, then me having to kill him would end up being a bad case of manifest destiny. But I couldn’t help myself, because I was clearly fucking insane.
Abby, no, Megan sent, trying vainly to calm me — but I was way too worked up to listen to reason, and her thoughts were swept aside by my paranoid and anxious ravings.
“Director,” Elaine said before I could accuse him of being some kind of blood drinking cannibal, “My husband always had things he wouldn’t talk about.” She took a deep breath, then blew it out. “You aren’t close to him,” she added. “I am. I was. I didn’t think anything of it when he gradually drew away from me over the past few decades, but in retrospect? I haven’t seen anything to dispute his son’s claim that he went feral and murdered Abigail. Or that his friend Lewellyn tried to cover it up. Abigail is in the right, here, and The Center — we — are the ones who have to prove ourselves to her right now; not the other way around.”
I was floored. Even though I knew Elaine wasn’t the vampire who’d attacked us at the house — and even though she was helping out by providing a ride — I really hadn’t expected her to step out and stand up for me. Especially when that meant standing against the vampire who’d given her unlife, Mister Salvatore. I mean: I hadn’t even agreed to be her creepy vampire-in-law step daughter or whatever!
I did abruptly feel inexplicably guilty about having repeatedly thought of her as a wicked stepmother, though. I was pretty sure my own mom wouldn’t have stood up for me like that — but then, Mom had an entire lifetime of me disappointing her to bias her toward thinking I was being over emotional and erratic, and needed to calm down and listen to authority.
Director Estevez sighed again. I could just about hear the weariness in his voice. “So, Mrs. Salvatore, it seems we must discuss your priorities now. I take it you are determined to advocate for Miss Abigail? That will bias certain of the other local families against you, you realize.”
“Yes,” Elaine answered. “Director Estevez, I mean neither disrespect nor offense. But family always comes first, and this started with a Salvatore, in Salvatore territory. I know that The Center’s purpose is to protect all of us, and maintain the rule of law within the supernatural community. Directors intercede when necessary, and I know that the neighboring vampires have requested that of you. But with everything that Abigail has gone through, I think that the best course right now is for you to let a Salvatore lead the investigation of this attack.” Elaine’s eyes flicked to me, and then back to the road. “And since Abigail is perfectly justified in not wanting to take on our family name, I request that you let me take point on this. For now. And trust that I am acknowledging that my family has wronged her, and that she should be involved and kept in the loop so that she can know that not all of us are feral or corrupt.”
For a moment, there was just silence from the vampire on the other end of the line. My mind scrambled to guess at what was going through his, but our association was so tenuous and new that I couldn’t see anything down the leyline that led to Director Estevez. In fact, it was like…
Oh. He’s in a warded location. That made sense. It was practically home security 101: even the Scion’s hotel rooms were warded. Except… the vampire who’d attacked us had disappeared into a warded location, too. Was it really just a coincidence that Estevez was in one as well?
Someone please tell me I’m being paranoid, I silently begged.
Maybe a little? Megan tentatively offered. But I don’t really think there’s such a thing as being too cautious, anymore.
“Very well,” Director Estevez suddenly spoke, interrupting our psychic exchange. “Since I was not planning to approach you, Miss Abigail, until tomorrow I will continue to hold off as a gesture of goodwill. For tonight. However, Mrs. Salvatore, since you are due in my entourage by tomorrow your leadership of this investigation ends then — and your recounting of this evening will be thoroughly vetted. I advise you prepare an equally thorough report. Miss Abigail, I hope that when we meet together tomorrow night we can resolve this distrust and get to the bottom of this entire situation.”
I shivered. I had not agreed to meet with him yet, and I wasn’t going to until I knew he wasn’t out to kill me and everyone I loved. “Director,” I suddenly blurted, “can you step outside?” Pipsqueak? Can you get back to Ben really quick? I need you to watch his connection to the vampire he fought! Hurry.
“I beg your pardon?” Director Estevez asked. But Elaine realized what I was thinking.
“Abigail verified that I was not the vampire behind the attack by confirming that he was behind a ward preventing him from being tracked, while I was not. If you leave the wards that you are currently in, she can… do the same?” Elaine glanced at me as she trailed off. I nodded, not really wanting to explain that I’d isolated Director Estevez’ leyline even though he wasn’t right in front of me like Elaine had been.
“Yeah,” I said awkwardly. “Um. No offense, but I’m not going to meet with you until I know you aren’t out to kill me and everyone I care about, Director. I can verify that you’re behind wards right now. If that changes and the vampire who attacked us remains behind his, then…” I hesitated. “Then,” I said, “as a gesture of good will,” I parroted Estevez’ words back, “I’ll agree to meet with you tomorrow.” Then I started as I realized I’d almost forgotten that I had plans for tomorrow. “Late tomorrow. After three?” That should give me time to have my date with Emma, right? The ice cream shop probably wasn’t open that late, anyway.
“I see,” Director Estevez said. “Very well,” he agreed — and Pips almost instantly flashed into existence in front of me.
“Pips?” I yelped in surprise. “Pipsqueak?!”
Elaine glanced at me like I was crazy. Since I was shouting at someone who wasn’t there — since Pips had ‘materialized’ in the in between world rather than the physical one — I let her have that point. I was less okay with the way my outburst made her swerve. Okay: with Elaine’s superhuman reflexes, the swerve was only noticeable to me because I had equally superhuman senses, but that on top of Pipsqueak landing in my lap was enough to make my heart rate spike.
“Elaine!” I shrieked. My fingers punched into the sides of my seat as I instinctively braced for an impact that wasn’t coming. “Holy crap,” I blurted on autopilot when Elaine darted a glance at me. Or rather, at me and Pips, who had finally decided to fully materialize in my lap at the worst possible time. My cheeks blistered with heat. It wasn’t my fault there was a painfully hot guy in my lap! This car didn’t have enough seating! Why didn’t Elaine have an SUV like a respectable step-mom?! And why wasn’t her car warded to prevent faeries from teleporting into people’s laps at random? And why was everyone staring at me?! “Mom,” I blurted to distract Elaine. “Watch the road!”
Wait. What?! No no no, I was not adopting John’s step mom. Even if she did stand up to a vampire Director for me. “Pipsqueak, what the hell?” I asked in a desperate attempt to change the subject.
Pipsqueak grinned at me. “You’re blushing,” he pointed out.
Fucking Canadian sadist faerie.
“Not what I asked,” I growled. I worked my fingers free of the holes I’d put in Elaine’s seat. Dammit. Now I would owe her for that, and I still hadn’t gotten my apartment or life insurance to pay out yet. But I had called her mom. Maybe I could get her to take it out of my allowance? No, I told myself. Don’t go there. She’d probably one-up me if I tried to be clever and tell me I was grounded. Which, since we were vampires, would probably mean being grounded to a casket and literally being buried in the ground of some cemetery somewhere for a decade or two. Hell. No.
Pipsqueak continued to grin. “He stepped outside of his wards,” Pipsqueak said — and a chill ran down my spine. No no no no, I started to panic. I did not need confirmation that another Director was out to get me.
Except: Director Estevez hadn’t stepped outside of his wards yet. The leyline between myself and him hadn’t changed. He’d agreed to, but Pipsqueak had appeared in my lap before he’d actually done it.
“I followed the line from Benjamin to him,” Pipsqueak purred. “He was only between wards for a moment, but it was enough for me to make it there. And I stayed between worlds, so he didn’t see me. We know where he is, and he doesn’t know that we know.”
I put another set of holes in Elaine’s seat as my fingers flexed with frustrated impatience. Pips was entirely too pleased that he knew something I wanted. “Where is he?” I growled. My inquiry was lent some force by Shantaya’s wolf, who phased through my seat and snarled at Pips as though demanding to be told the same.
Pipsqueak flashed his dimples in a smile that showed he knew exactly what I was thinking, too. But he was still one of my fae, so he couldn’t hold that answer over my head forever. “The sign at the front of the building,” Pips said, “was for Kallaher’s Funeral Home.” Even though he wasn’t laughing out loud, I could clearly hear Pips’ mental snickers resonating down his leyline. “How convenient is that?”