Chapter 2 : Home safe?
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The wind muttered sullenly around the street lamps, and not even a mugger wanted to be out on a night like this one. Hermione shoved her hands down into the pockets of her jacket, hunched her shoulders against the bite of the wind, and wished she’d had the sense to hunt out gloves this morning. The echo of her boot heels on the pavement only made the street seem emptier. There should have been plenty of traffic, but not tonight.
Only an occasional car blundered by, windows staring at her blankly. This was one of those nights when she would have appreciated owning a car. She bit her lip as she got one of those unpredictable surges of homesickness. A night like this could be so shivery and delightful, with the wind twining around the trees, the clouds streaking across the moon, and a fire in the fireplace.
When she reached her block, she could see the squat bulk of her building just ahead. The apartment building was ablaze with lights, it was always ablaze with lights, night or day. Considerably older than the buildings to either side of it, and several stories lower, Hermione’s apartment house huddled in their shadow most of the day, so the tenants never turned their lights off except to sleep.
No use putting plants in the window, not even ferns, since there wasn’t enough direct sunlight available to keep anything alive. Not that the occupants gave a damn about sunlight, direct or otherwise. They were in hot pursuit of another sort of light.
With the single exception of Hermione, the building was tenanted, attic to basement, by dancers, all manner of dancers; jazz, ballet, modern, and Broadway; both muggle and wizard.
They were crammed four and six to an apartment, and endured the cranky plumbing, the scarcity of electrical outlets, for two reasons. The lesser of the two was the heating, which unlike the plumbing was utterly reliable. The second and most important reason they stayed (and the one you never told anyone you couldn’t trust) were the Living Rooms (capital L, capital R) in each and every apartment.
Hermione scampered up the grimy cement staircase, and dove into the entrance; unlocked the outer, and then foyer doors, and walked into a wall of warmth and dim yellow light. Before her was the only way up; she took the worn wooden stairs beyond the foyer two at a time. The fat, gleaming radiators lining the landing bathing her with heat made her feel ten times better.
Her apartment was only on the second floor and just off the staircase; a blessing on a night light this when all she really wanted to do was get back and unwind. She unlocked her door and pushed it open carefully, just in case there was something in the way.
Sure enough, one of the others had picked up her mail for her and shoved it under the door. A third reason; we are a family here. Mail gets picked up, packages get accepted, owls accepted without question, and brownies shared. One noise out of character, much less a scream, and everybody in the building comes running with wands, knives, and baseball bats in hand.
She bent and scooped the mail up off the floor without breaking stride, and flipped on the living room lights with her free hand. Before her, lined with mirrors on two walls, empty and equipped with a practice bar, was her Living Room.
Every one of the apartments in this building boasted a room identical to this one; so big it echoed. She knew people who didn’t have apartments this size. It had a solid wooden floor, gently worn smooth, but not polished. It was more than big enough and high ceilinged enough that you could do full lifts if you were a ballet dancer.
Rare was the dancer in New York who could have a studio at home to practice in. Rarer still was a home studio with a ceiling high enough to do full lifts. The people that owned this building were unaware of the peculiar amenities of their property. Some time ago someone had set a spell of deception on the building. Her predecessor had explained the workings of the spell to her when she had been assigned to New York city one year ago.
“You pay in personal energy,” he said. “You maintain the spell out of your own strength, and you live here, and you have a safe harbor. In return the landlords never learn what it is they are really renting.”
This apartment had always belonged to a Guardian. Guardians needed peace and space; occasionally enough space to conduct minor magical warfare. There was no harm in allowing others to share that peace and space; on the contrary, it made excellent camouflage.
Hermione suspected there had been Guardians as long as there had been cities; cities seem to breed predators like Mr. Trouble.
As her mentor had told her, “Guardians become Guardians because they have no choice. You either use the power you have to help others, or the things that Guardians guard against come hunting you.”
She did a quick scan of the apartment, then the building; nothing whatsoever amiss. She hadn’t expected there to be, but why take the chance? She closed the door behind her and flipped the locks.
Hermione’s living room was a studio, too; but she also used it to practice her spell work and Karate Katas. She stretched a little, and crossed the empty room to pass into the dining room, which had been set up as an office, lounge, and real living room. As she passed the door, she flipped on the living room lights without even being aware of the motion, and sailed on through into the hallway that led to the bedroom, flinging her coat into a chair on the way past.
Last set of lights, and she was staring at her unmade bed with a wince. The bedroom held only her bed, a low bookcase that served as a nightstand, and a single bureau. She had an enormous walk in closet that took up the entire wall opposite the door, but it was mostly empty. Clothing had never really been a high priority.
In a couple of minutes she had stripped off her “good” pants and sweater, thrown them on the bed, and changed into sweat pants and a tank top. Just as she trotted back out into the living room, she heard a knock on the door. Since nobody had buzzed to be let in the front, she assumed that it had to be someone from the building. She strolled over to the massive wooden door, and threw all the locks.
“What’s kicking, pony?” she teased, pulling the door open.
A lithe and light boned young man who was the very image of Kipling’s version of Puck, right down to the ears that gave an impression of being pointed, and artistically tousled dark hair, waited indolently on the threshold.
“I thought you’d have headed home to Virginia at the first drop of sleet this after. Aren’t you tired of cattle calls yet?”
“Bite your tongue,” Jamie Preston retorted.
He lounged decoratively against the doorjamb, posing for her appreciation, a bouquet of chrysanthemums in one hand, a thick bundle of candles in the other.
“I never get tired of cattle calls. I just get tired of not being called back. I told you, I am staying in this lousy town until I get somewhere. There’s not much call for a dancer in Amaranthus, Virginia, not unless you want to spend the rest of your dance career teaching little girls to stagger around on pointe shoes.”
“While the fathers of the little boys you are teaching wait for you to make a move on their kids so they can whip on the gay boy upside the head.” She took in the elegant sweater he was wearing, and gave him a raised eyebrow. “Where do you get your clothes, you fiend? I know you don’t have any more money than I do.”
Jamie chuckled. “If you are good, maybe someday I will tell you. Here,” he flicked a lock of long hair out of his eyes with an elegant toss of his head, and handed her the flowers and candles. “These are from Chris.”
She took them, rather surprised. She certainly hadn’t expected anything from Jamie’s friend. These candles are beautiful and I bet it is not an accident that they are in the cardinal colors, but who told him what I needed? I doubt it was Jamie. Jamie is far too cautious about letting people know we are wizards.
“They are pure beeswax,” Jamie said archly. “Virgin beeswax with linen wicks and hand dipped.”
“Did you tell him?” she demanded.
Jamie chuckled, wrinkling her nose at her. “Not me, dearie. He jumped on me the minute you were out the door, but I kept our little secrets to myself. Then yesterday he called me up and told me to come by the studio because he had something for you. The exact message is quote, Thank you for getting rid of my houseguest, and I’m certain someone like you will get use out of these, end quote.”
She laughed as much in surprise as anything else. “Well, are you suspecting what I’m suspecting?”
Jamie shrugged, “Could be he’s reading you subconsciously. Or maybe he just assumes we are Wiccans, I know he reads SF and fantasy, and there’s a lot of that sort of thing showing up in the muggle literature these days. I don’t see any reason to worry about it.”
She bowed to his judgment. “If you say so, I will trust you on him. How’s he doing? No recurrences I hope?”
“Business as usual, the candles are selling like hot fire right now, but the sculpture isn’t. If I didn’t know better I would be jealous. He has never given me candles and flowers.”
“Play your cards right, and you won’t have any reason to be jealous.”
Jamie straightened from his slouch, all his feigned laziness gone. “You think so?”
She snorted. “As a Guardian I get the added bonus of being an empath. Believe me, I am not his type. Part of that poltergeist was him trying to get your attention. Anyway, I am starved; I have enough salmon for two, care to join me?”
He started to shake his head, but changed his mind and followed her into the kitchen and draped himself over a chair. Jamie watched with acute interest while she broiled fish and steamed vegetables.
“You look like a dancer, you eat like a dancer. I just don’t know why you aren’t a dancer.”
“Easy, I don’t get into pain,” she replied wryly.
He winced. “Set, point, and match. We are masochists, aren’t we?”
“You spend sixteen of the first eighteen years of your lives turning your bodies into machines, and your heads into a space where you can dance with injuries that would send a quarterback to the sidelines and do it with a smile on your face.” She turned the fish deftly.
“Then you all come to New York and compete for a handful of jobs and starve so you can spend three evenings a week on a stage and because of what you do to yourselves, you have a likely active dancing life of maybe twenty years. Of course you’re masochists. Go set the table; we’ll eat like civilized human beings tonight.”
He meekly obeyed; more than obeyed. When she brought out the food, the wine, and the coffee, she discovered he’d arranged the flowers and twisted the napkins into little lilies. She smiled as he bowed and held the chair out for her.
“You know what made me decide not to go into dancing?” she asked, as she served. “Aside from the fact that there were other things I wanted more and I barely had the time with a war to help fight.”
He paused in mid-bite. “What?” he asked, around a mouthful of salmon.
“In Agnes de Mille’s autobiography she talks about one of her teachers in London showing the girls how to tape their toes, so that when their blisters broke and bled it wouldn’t leak through and stain the pointe shoes. Not if, Jamie, when, that’s when I decided that dance was not for me. Pain is not my friend, besides I have found that I like writing better.”
“Different kind of masochism, but still masochism,” he retorted, pointing his fork at her.
She sighed, thinking about the current project. “I wouldn’t argue that point. Eat, eat, eat, you’re too think. How are you going to get a husband, you’re so thin?”
He laughed, and speared a carrot strip. “Why are you pecking out ninety-five cent romance novels? It seems to me with the Power you have you ought to be doing something better.”
The laugh she replied with was real. “Because, my good friend playing hero is not lucrative. I have to make a living. When I decided to wipe my parent’s memory during the war I was no longer their child and so I didn’t have access to their money. I made sure to put some money aside before wiping their memories and I was rewarded by the ministry for my part in the war but it wasn’t enough to live off for the rest of my life. One has to make a living.”
She paused to have a drink of wine before continuing. “Things happen if I use my power, and those who search for power come looking for that power. So I write books. I like writing romance novels; they are fun, and it is a great escape from the feeling of something breathing down my neck.”
“Good enough.” He drained the last of his wine, and shoved away from the table. " One more question, before I head upstairs to get some practice in before bed. I realized the other day that I never really asked you what exactly do Guardians do?”
"Guardian are as the name implies, guardians. Our job is to protect muggles from the magical world. Our job isn't to keep muggles from finding out about us, but to protect them from the things they don't believe exist. Like protecting Chris from that polterigist, keeping young muggle girls from being a psychic vampire's evening meal, among a number of other things."
"Makes sense, and now I feel silly for asking." he chuckled. "Well, now I must really be heading out."
“I’d like you to stay a while, but I have work to do, too.” She let him out.
“Break a leg,” she said. “Don’t forget to bring your robe to Samhain. I keep telling you, I don’t do skyclad.”
He pouted. “You’re no fun.”
She shrugged. “You know, you might see if you can talk Chris into coming. If you two start to get serious, he should know about your strange tastes in religion, and it would be a great opening to telling him about you being a wizard.”
He skipped off, laughing, doing a two step up the stairs as she closed the door behind him. She turned on the classical station; retyped an offending scene and started up again where she’d left off, cursing at the typewriter when she mistyped ‘the’ as ‘teh’ for the third time.
She mentally berated her heroine for being such a girly wimp. The heroine was such a thoughtless wimp to go sashaying along the beach at midnight, never mind there were supposed to be pirates in the neighborhood.
She deserves to be ravished. Oh, to be able to afford a computer, or a typing service. Here I am with enough power to stop hunters on the threshold and magical ethics forbid my using it to make my publishers give me bigger advances and more contracts.
She chuckled at herself, took a drink of tea and got back to work.
The Halloween party swirled through every room of the apartment. In the glitter and glitz and the occasional actual costume the band members’ beaded jeans and appliqued shirts with “Wanderlust” embroidered across the back didn’t look out of place.
Aiden Jackson leaned back into the corner of the couch he was sharing with his lead singer and Jason’s acquisitions, and watched Jason make his moves suppressing a twinge of envy. The sensuous, classically handsome rocker had a girl snuggling up to him on either side, a brunette with a nice tush on his left, and a redhead with great kabambas on his right. Chances were that the bastard would not only lay both of them before the night was over, he’d get a third and go home with a fourth.
Aiden felt a drop of sweat run down his back, and tried to ignore the faint headache that the babble of shrill conversation all around him was giving him. They’d come straight over to the party from their gig; invites to parties like this one didn’t come along too often. The party was hot, in more ways than one, and at uncertain intervals his grass-blown senses made the room seem too big, too crowded, and much too bright. Still this was a good part to be seen at.
Probably the best Halloween part in the Village; looked like everybody who meant anything was here and they seemed to recognize the band members, which was a good sign. He looked over at Jason, taking up three quarters of the couch, and he had collected a third chick, curled up at his feet with her back to Aiden; a raven haired chippie in a pair of tight leather pants that made it perfectly clear that nothing got between her and the leather. He took a quick check of the others.
The drummer, Jack, was off in the corner by the hot buffet, scarfing down egg rolls and schmoozing with the guy from Rolling Stone he knew from back when. That was real good; jack had mentioned the guy before, but Aiden had never been able to figure out how good the acquaintance was.
He looked for Doug in vain for a while; then the bassist strolled in with a disheveled just past teenybopper hanging on his arm, and he had that funny grin on his face that he always got after he’d been lucky.
Aiden sighed, and wedged himself back in the corner of the couch a little more as the brunette next to Jason shoved her ass into his thigh. He decided that the couch was getting a bit too crowded and went looking for the potato chips.
He didn’t find chips, but in the first room and near the door he found a marble coffee table holding the remains of some other munchies. In the rubble was an unclaimed bottle of wine and a bowl of cashews, and beside the table, a leather beanbag chair that seemed unoccupied. He took all three.
Just as he got settled, a latecomer arrived, with a fair amount of fanfare. The voice wasn’t anybody Aiden recognized, but about half the people in this room seemed thrilled to see him, effusing all over him, and calling him “Master” Richard. So many people swarmed over to greet the man that until he actually drew opposite Aiden, the guitarist couldn’t see him.
The man would have been darkly handsome in a brooding sort of way, if it hadn’t been for the two black eyes he sported, and the cast on his left arm. Aiden was beginning to get the measure of this gig, but this Richard just didn’t fit in any category Aiden could come up with.
The party was just about equally divided between the young and up’n’coming, some teenyboppers with daddy’s bucks to blow, and the middle aged and terminally hip; also with money to blow. One of the latter, a trendy ash-blond woman whose skin had the tight look of one too many face lifts, accosted Richard in a moment of silence.
Aiden was impressed: he didn’t even look at the occupants of the couch, much less saying to them, but the current occupants of the couch abandoned it without so much as a murmur for Richard. The man held to the socialite’s hand as they sat on the leather couch, spread her palm out in the light from the track spot behind them, and began spinning her some kind of tale about what he was ‘reading’ from her hand.
Aiden listened a little, and poured himself another glass of wine.
Richard segued from the woman’s recent past to a description of her ‘past life’ as a Roman slave girl. Interested now, Aiden eavesdropped without shame and had to stuff a handful of cashews into his mouth to keep from laughing out loud when he recognized where Richard was getting the material he was using for the woman’s past life.
The woman’s eyes were moist and glowing, and her attention uncritical and total. She looked like a Moonie having a major religious experience. After a few more minutes, Aiden had to admit to himself that the man was good. He didn’t miss a trick, and if Aiden hadn’t had some coaching on how to spot the phonies from that flaky ex-girlfriend of his from London…
Hermione might have been off in the ozone about half the time, but you couldn’t pull one over on her. Why couldn’t you have been fixated on something else, something I could have gotten a handle on, why magic?
He shoved the recollection back into the corner where it came from, grabbing another mouthful of cashews to numb the pain. He looked around for the rest of the band, figuring that it was no bad thing for somebody to keep tabs on the others, and it might as well be him.
Jason was nowhere in sight. Doug has another groupie, a blonde, and this one couldn’t possibly be anything but underage. She was leeched onto his arm, rubbing against his side, and running her hand through his shoulder length hair, and he wasn’t doing anything to discourage her.
Jack lost his friend from Rolling Stone, and drifted in just as Aiden started looking for him. The murmur of the woman’s voice brought Aiden’s attention back to Richard. She was thanking him, with tears in her voice, for ‘enlightening’ her.
There was something odd about her, and for a moment Aiden couldn’t place it. Then he realized, as she shifted off in search of other prey, what it was. When she had accosted this Richard, she’d been lively to the point of manic, and quite vivacious.
However, now she seemed drained and exhausted. She looked depressed and complained to one of her friends on the way out of the room that she had a terrible headache.
He took a quick look back at Richard, to see if the man had been affected in the same way. He hadn’t, in fact he looked better. His black eyes seemed to have faded visibly from real shiners when he had first entered to faded purple and hardly swollen at all. Aiden shook his head figuring he was just seeing things.
“All right, kiddies, it’s trick or treat time!” Richard called over the party noise. “It’s the witching hour, boys and girls, and you all know how witches used to fly away on Halloween. I’ve got you something that’ll send you to the same place.”
He pulled out a bowl, and Aiden could see that it was full to the brim with capsules; small ones, a maroon color that was just a shade under black. They bothered Aiden for a moment; then he figured out why. They were the color of dried blood.
Their host smirked, and Aiden saw that his eyes were so dilated that there was no iris showing as the bowl began to make the rounds, and Aiden found he was reaching for it with all the others.
“Party left eight dead of unknown causes,” the news announcer said. “Meanwhile, more news of …”
Hermione tuned him out. She’d only put the news on in the first place to see if there were any after Halloween incidents that might involve her, but a druggie party in the Village had no consequences to anyone but the ones stupid enough to go.
She had more pressing difficulties; something she could and would have to do something about. How to get the ravished maiden on board the privateer without having the rest of the crew find out and demand a piece of the action.
Hard to do when the smallest dory takes two men to row, and this chick isn’t likely to be of help. She’s too busy fainting.
She chewed on the end of her pencil and scowled at the typewriter. Inspiration was not forthcoming. She stood up and shoved her chair back, and suddenly found her knees giving; grabbing the desk and hung on.
A wave of pure fear battered at her and drove any vestige of real thought from her mind. It took her a breath to fight back; another to get control of herself. A third to realize that the wave of violent emotion was carrying with it an unmistakable call for help and by the fourth breath, her keys were in her pocket, wand and flashlight were in her hands, and her door was gaping wide behind her as she took the stairs at a dead, flat out run.
A second wave of fear broke over her just as she hit the landing, she stumbled, recovered, but when she reached the foyer, there was nothing. She hit the outer door; there was nothing in either direction on the street. That left the alley, which she did not want to go into, but there was no choice.
She scrambled around the corner and shone the flashlight ahead of her; it was a powerful light, heavy enough to use as a club if she had to. The light wobbled around the alleyway as her hand shook; then there was a flash of something pale off to the side.
A person, the intruder was bending over something in a kind of half kneeling position. As the light struck him, he turned, snarled, and then vanished.
Hermione nearly dropped the flashlight; she put her back to the cold brick of the alley wall and tried to make sense of what she’d just seen, because the intruder was the strange Frenchman from the week before and when he had snarled at the light, she had seen fangs.
She waited, heart pounding, for him, for something, to come after her, but as the moments crawled by, and she got colder and colder, nothing did. Finally she managed to scrape up enough courage to approach whoever was lying in the alley, because she was dreadfully afraid that she knew who had called her tonight.
The powerful beam of light was pitiless, and cared nothing for her remorse. It showed her what she didn’t want to see; that the thing in the alley was a body, that the body was that of the gypsy boy she had given her card to, and that the boy was dead.
She knelt beside him, sick with grief. I failed him. He came running to me for help, and I was too late to save him. He thought I could protect him; I’d promised protection, and failed that promise.
That was enough to hold her kneeling motionless on the wet filthy pavement for a long time. It was really only the other she’d seen that broke her trance of self-accusation and made her take a closer look at the boy to try to discover what had killed him.
Because she had just seen something that didn’t, couldn’t exist. She might have read about them in school but never truly thought they were real, but she was wrong because he was a real classical blood sucking vampire.
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