“But I don’t know what it is I’m doing!” I cried.“Do you?”
“I’ve told you all I can for now,” said Carter, that sadness returning.“The most I can do now is buy you a drink.”
I shook my head.
“I don’t think there’s enough whiskey in the world.”
“There isn’t,” he said bleakly. “There isn’t.”
Despite Carter’s pessimism, I still tried calling Hugh to see if he knew anything. He didn’t, but his incredulity was so similar to mine that I took some comfort in it.
“What? That’s ridiculous,” he told me. “It was a mistake. It has to be.”
“Will you try to get ahold of Jerome for me?” I asked. “I mean, I’ll keep trying too, but maybe if we’re both calling, he’ll eventually notice the phone.” Even though it was still early for the demon, I also had this strange feeling that he could very well be avoiding my calls if something was afoot. Hugh might sneak in where I couldn’t.
I was fast approaching the time when I was supposed to meet Seth at the twins’ school. I had wanted to run home and try talking to Roman about my potential transfer, but it didn’t seem as important now, not until I had the story confirmed or denied by Jerome. So, after a few more errands that seemed hopelessly mundane compared to the greater supernatural workings of the universe, I drove up to Lake Forest Park and arrived at the school just as Seth did.
Ian got out of the car too, and Seth flashed me a quick look that said he wasn’t thrilled about having brotherly company. Ian was wearing the jacket Seth had mentioned, a brown wool peacoat that fit him well enough to be tailored and had strategically placed patches meant to give it a vintage appearance. Ian completed the look with a carefully knotted striped scarf and fedora. He also had on glasses, which I’d seen no sign of at Seth’s.
“I didn’t know you wore glasses,” I told him.
He sighed. “They go with the scarf.”
Seth was carrying two huge containers of white-frosted cupcakes that were liberally and sloppily dusted with green and red sparkles. I took one batch from him and walked inside with the brothers, where we signed in and were given directions to the classroom.
“Looks like you were productive,” I said with a smile.
“No thanks to Mom,” Seth replied fondly. “It took her forever to leave. She kept offering to help and double-check my work, make sure the oven was set and all that. It was a boxed mix. There wasn’t that much I could mess up.”
Ian muttered something about preservatives and high fructose corn syrup.
The classroom was pleasant, organized chaos. Other parents and family friends were there to help with the party, distributing food and running games. The twins ran up to the three of us with quick, fierce hugs before scurrying off to play with their friends. I didn’t see Morgan and McKenna outside of the family very often, so it was neat to watch them so active and outgoing with their peers. They charmed their friends as much as they charmed me, and it was clear the two girls were leaders of sorts. Tiny, adorable blond leaders. The knot I’d carried inside me since getting the HR memo began to soften as I allowed myself the small joy of observing them.
Seth slipped an arm around me, following my gaze as we maintained our post near the food table. He nodded toward where Ian was trying to pitch his own cupcakes – organic, vegan, gluten-free creations from a local bakery – to some of the twins’ classmates. To be fair, the cupcakes were beautiful. They were vanilla, topped with elaborately swirled chocolate icing that was in turn adorned with perfect white frosting flowers. They made Seth’s cupcakes look like something the girls might have made, but I knew better than to be fooled. When you made cupcakes without most of the ingredients found in traditional baked goods, the truth came out in the taste. Pretty or not, Ian wasn’t doing so good a job moving them.
“These are so much better for you than all this other junk food,” Ian was telling a wide-eyed boy named Kayden. Despite the fact we’d been inside the warm classroom for almost an hour, Ian was still completely clad in his scarf and wool coat ensemble. “They’re made with brown rice flour and garbanzo bean flour and sweetened with maple syrup – none of that processed white sugar crap.”
Kayden’s eyes grew impossibly bigger. “Those have beans and rice in them?”
Ian faltered. “Well, yes . . . but, no, I mean. It’s flour derived from those ingredients in a way that’s totally fair trade and nutritious. Plus, I picked a brown and white color scheme, not only to save you from artificial dyes but also to show respect for all holidays and tradition, rather than giving into the mainstream domination of the Judeo-Christian machine.”
Without another word, Kayden grabbed a red-frosted snowman cookie from the snack table and wandered off.
Ian gave us a long-suffering look. “I fear for today’s youth. At least we can take the leftovers back to Terry’s.”
“We’d better,” said Seth. “Those cost me a small fortune.”
“You mean they cost me a small fortune,” said Ian. “They’re my contribution.”
“I paid for them!”
“It was just a loan,” said Ian imperiously. “I’ll pay you back.”
The party didn’t last too much longer – seven-year-olds didn’t need to slam drinks for hours like my friends did – but I still kept checking my phone whenever Seth wasn’t watching. I had it set to vibrate in my pocket but was afraid I would miss Jerome’s call. But no matter how many times I looked, the phone’s display remained the same. No incoming calls or texts.
With things winding down, McKenna made her way back to me and wrapped herself around my leg. “Georgina, are you going to come to our house tonight? Grammy’s cooking. We’re going to have lasagna.”
“And cupcakes,” piped in Ian, carefully packing up his goods. By my estimation, he’d given away exactly one cupcake, and that was to a boy who’d taken it on a dare from his friends.
I lifted McKenna up, surprised at how big she was getting. The years didn’t alter my immortal friends or me, but mortals changed by leaps and bounds in such short time periods. She wrapped her arms around me, and I pressed a kiss into her blond curls.
“I wish I could, baby. But I have to work tonight.”
“Are you still helping Santa?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said solemnly. “And it’s very important work. I can’t miss it.” Without me, there was no telling how sober Santa would stay.
McKenna sighed and leaned her head against my shoulder. “Maybe you’ll come over when you’re done.”
“You’ll be in bed,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do for tomorrow.”
This earned me a tighter hug, and I felt my heart ache. The girls always had this effect on me, triggering a mix of emotion that was both love for them and regret for the children I myself would never have.
Children had been something I’d wanted as a mortal, something denied to me even then. The pain of that reality had been driven home last year when Nyx, a primordial chaos entity, had visited me in my sleep and used tantalizing dreams to distract me while she stole my energy. The one that had recurred the most had shown me with a little girl – my own daughter – stepping outside into a snowy night to greet her father. He’d been shadowy at first, later revealed as Seth. Nyx, in a desperate bid for help later, had sworn the dream was true, a prophecy of things to come. It had been a lie, however. An impossibility that could never be mine.
“Maybe you’ll come by my house after you’re done with work,” Seth said to me in a low voice, once she’d wriggled away.
“That depends,” I said. “Who’s going to be in your bed?”
“We had a talk. He knows to stay out of my room.”
I smiled and caught hold of Seth’s hand. “I would, but I’ve got some things to do tonight. I’ve got to hunt down Jerome about . . . business.”
“You’re sure that’s it?” he asked. “You’re sure my family’s not scaring you off?”
I’ll admit, I didn’t relish the thought of seeing Margaret Mortensen’s disapproving gaze, but I also couldn’t imagine I’d be very good company for Seth if I still didn’t know what was going on with my transfer by tonight. The transfer. Looking into his kind, warm eyes, I felt a pit open in my stomach. Maybe I should be jumping at every chance I could get to be with him. Who knew how many more we had? No, I scolded myself. Don’t think like that. Tonight you’ll find Jerome and clear up this mess. Then you and Seth can be happy.
“Your family has nothing to do with it,” I assured Seth. “Besides, now that you have extra help, you can use your free time to get some work done.”
He rolled his eyes. “I thought self-employment meant not having a boss.”
I grinned and kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll come by tomorrow night.”
Kayden, passing by for one last cookie, caught sight of my kiss and scowled disapprovingly. “Ew.”
I parted ways with the Mortensens and headed off to the mall. It was often a surprise to mortals to learn immortals like me purposely chose to take day jobs, so to speak. If you were around for a few centuries and semiwise with your money, it wasn’t that hard to eventually build up enough to comfortably live off of, making human employment unnecessary. Yet, most immortals I knew still worked. Correction – most lesser immortals I knew did. Greater ones, like Jerome and Carter, rarely did, but maybe they already had too concrete of a job with their employers. Or, maybe, lesser immortals just carried over the urge from when we were human.
Regardless, days like today were clear reminders of why I chose gainful employment. If I’d had nothing but free time on my hands, I would’ve spent the rest of the day ruminating about my fate and the potential transfer. Assisting Walter-as-Santa – as absurd as it was – at least gave me a distraction while I waited to hear from Jerome. Vocation gave purpose too, which I’d found was necessary to mark the long days of immortality. I’d met lesser immortals who had gone insane, and most of them had done nothing but drift aimlessly throughout their long lives.
A new elf – one whom Walter had christened Happy – had joined our ranks today, one who was certainly helping pass the time if only because of how much she was grating on my nerves.
“I don’t think he should be drinking at all,” she said, for what felt like the hundredth time. “I don’t see why I have to learn this schedule.”
Prancer, a veteran elf, exchanged glances with me. “None of us is saying it’s right,” he told Happy. “We’re just saying it’s reality. He’s going to get a hold of liquor one way or another. If we deny him, he’ll sneak it in the bathroom. He’s done it before.”
“If we’re the ones giving it to him,” I continued, “then we control the access and amount he gets. This?” I gestured to the schedule we’d drawn up. “This isn’t much. Especially for a guy his size. It’s not even enough to get buzzed.”
“But they’re children!” Happy cried. Her eyes drifted off toward the long line of families trailing through the mall. “Sweet, innocent, joyful children.”
Another silent message passed between Prancer and me. “Tell you what,” I finally said. “Why don’t you make them your priority. Forget about the liquor schedule. We’ll handle that. You go trade places with Bashful at the head of the line. She doesn’t really like working with the public anyway.” When Happy was out of earshot, I remarked, “One of these days, someone’s going to report us all to the mall’s HR office.”
“Oh, they have plenty of times,” said Prancer, smoothing out his green spandex pants. “I’ve worked with Walter for three years now, and Happy’s not the first elf to have moral qualms about Santa getting lit. He’s been reported lots.”
That was news to me. “And they haven’t fired him?”
“Nah. It’s harder to fill these jobs than you might think. As long as Walter doesn’t touch or say something inappropriate, the mall doesn’t seem to care.”
“Huh,” I said. “Good to know.”
Beyond the gates leading to Santa’s pavilion, I saw someone waving at the edge of the crowd. Hugh. My heart rate sped up. This mall was actually right around the corner from his office, so he’d come by before for lunch. In light of recent events – and the look on his face – something told me he wasn’t here for a casual meal today.
“Hey,” I said to Prancer. “Can I take my break now?”
“Sure, go for it.”
I cut through the crowd and met up with Hugh, trying not to feel self-conscious about wearing the foil dress. Hugh had come from the office and was dressed impeccably, playing up the role of successful plastic surgeon. I felt cheap beside him, especially as he and I walked farther from the holiday mayhem toward some of the mall’s more upscale shops.
“I was on my way home from work and thought I’d stop by,” he said. “I figured you weren’t taking many calls while on the job.”
“Not so much,” I agreed, gesturing to the tight dress and its lack of pockets. I caught hold of his arm. “Please tell me you heard something. The transfer’s a mistake, right?”
“Well, I still think it is, but no, I haven’t heard anything back yet – not from HR or Jerome.” He frowned slightly, clearly not liking the lack of communication. Underneath that, I also sensed another emotion in him – nervousness. “I’ve got something else for you. Can we talk somewhere . . . kind of private? Is there a Sbarro or Orange Julius around here?”
I scoffed. “Not in this mall. There’s a sandwich place we can go to.”
“Sandwich place” wasn’t entirely accurate. They also sold gourmet soups and salads, all of which were made fresh and packed with enough prissy ingredients to make Ian happy. Hugh and I snagged a table, my appearance gaining the attention of some children there with their parents. I ignored them as I leaned toward Hugh.
“What’s up, then, if not the phantom transfer?”
He eyed the watchers uneasily and took several moments to begin speaking. “I was calling around today, trying to work connections and see if I could find out anything about you. Like I said, I couldn’t. But I got caught up on all sorts of other gossip.”
I was kind of surprised Hellish gossip was what he wanted to discuss, more surprised still that it had apparently warranted him coming in person. If he’d heard a rumor about a mutual friend, it seemed like a phone call would’ve sufficed to pass the news. Even e-mail or text.
“Do you remember Milton?” he asked.
“Milton?” I stared blankly. The name meant nothing to me.
“Nosferatu,” he prompted.
Still nothing, and then –
“Oh. Yeah. Him. The vampire.” A month or so ago, Milton had visited on vacation, much to Cody and Peter’s dismay. Vampires were territorial and didn’t like outsiders, although Cody had been able to use Milton’s presence to impress his macabre loving girlfriend, Gabrielle. Or so I’d heard. “I never actually saw him. I just knew he was in town.”
“Yup, and it turns out last week, he was in Boulder.”
“So, first of all, it’s weird that he’d have two ‘vacations’ in that short time. I mean, you know how it is for vampires. You know how it is for all of us.”
It was true. Hell didn’t like to give us vacations very often. When your employers owned your soul, they really didn’t feel any need to make your life pleasant. That wasn’t to say we didn’t occasionally get time off, but it certainly wasn’t a priority for Hell. The business of souls never rested. For vampires, this was doubly true because they didn’t like to leave their territory. They also had various complications with traveling, say, like with sunlight.
“Okay, so, it’s weird. How does that affect us?”
Hugh dropped his voice low. “When he was in Boulder, a local dark shaman died under mysterious circumstances.”
I felt my eyebrows rise. “And you think Milton was involved ?”
“Well, like I said, I had time to make some calls and do some research today. And it turns out that even though he’s based in Raleigh, Milton travels an awful lot for a vampire – and every place he goes, some mortal in the supernatural community ends up dead.”
“You’re saying he’s an assassin,” I said, intrigued but still not seeing the point. As part of “the great game” we all played, angels and demons weren’t supposed to directly influence mortal lives. That’s where lesser immortals came in, with our offers of sin and temptation. Now, we weren’t really supposed to kill either, as far as the game went, and we certainly weren’t supposed to do it on behalf of a greater immortal’s instructions. We all knew it happened, however, and Milton wasn’t the first assassin I’d heard of taking out inconvenient mortals.
“Exactly,” said Hugh. He frowned. “He goes to places, and people disappear.”
“How does that affect us?”
Hugh sighed. “Georgina, he was here.”
“Yeah, but nobody – ” I gasped, freezing a moment in shock. “Erik . . .”
The world reeled around me for a moment. I was no longer in an elite mall’s food court but instead was looking down on the broken, bleeding body of one of the kindest men I knew. Erik had been a longtime friend in Seattle, using his many years of occult and supernatural knowledge to advise me on my problems. He’d been investigating my contract with Hell when a freak robbery at his store had resulted in his death by gunshot.
“Are you saying . . .” My voice was barely a whisper. “Are you saying Milton killed Erik?”
Hugh shook his head sadly. “I’m not. I’m just laying out the evidence for you, which is compelling – but not enough to form a hard link to Milton.”
“Then why tell me at all?” I asked. “You don’t like to get involved with anything that questions the status quo.” It was true, and it had been a constant point of contention with Hugh and me.
“I don’t,” he said. I understood now why he was so uneasy. “Not at all. But I care about you, sweetheart. And I know you cared about Erik and wanted answers.”
“Key word: wanted. I thought I had them.” My heart still mourned Erik, but I had begun to heal from his loss, moving on with life the way we all must after losing a loved one. Knowing – or, well, thinking – he’d been killed in a robbery didn’t exactly give me peace, but it did provide an explanation. If there was any shred of truth to Hugh’s dangerous theory, that Milton – a potential assassin – might have been responsible, then my whole world was suddenly knocked offkilter. And in that scenario, the big issue wasn’t that Milton had done it. What became important was why he had done it. Because if he was one of those Hellish assassins lurking in the shadows, then someone higher up had given him his orders, meaning Hell had a reason to want Erik dead.
“You okay?” Hugh’s hand on mine made me jump. “Jesus, Georgina. You’re like ice.”
“I’m kind of in shock,” I said. “This is big, Hugh. Huge.”
“I know,” he said, not sounding happy at all. “Promise me you won’t do anything foolish. I’m still not sure I should have told you.”
“You should have,” I said, squeezing his hand and making no such promises about the foolish part. “Thank you.”
I had to leave shortly thereafter, returning to assist Happy. A little of her zeal about the pure, magical nature of children had faded in that time. I think it was the six-year-old who asked for a nose job that might have cracked her. As for me, I was in a daze, stunned over what Hugh had told me. Erik murdered. His dying words to me had implied something more was going on, but there’d been no evidence to prove it. Or wait . . . was there? I vaguely remembered the glass pattern of his broken window, the suspicion from the police that it had been broken from within. But what did I do with this theory? How did I get the answers I needed?
Equally amazing to me was the concession Hugh had made in telling me this. He valued his job and his comfortable position. He really wasn’t the type to try to upset Hell or ask questions about things that didn’t concern him. Yet he’d pursued his hunch about Milton and passed on the news to me, his friend. Hell made desperate, soulless creatures out of its employees – and most certainly liked it that way – but I doubted any of the higher-ups had imagined the levels of friendship we were still capable of managing.
Naturally, only one other thing could have distracted me from this new development, and that was Jerome’s presence in my condo later that night. I was returning home after work and sensed his aura coming from within as soon as I put my key to the door. My fears and theorizing about Erik and Milton moved to one part of my brain, replaced by all the old speculation about the mystery transfer.
When I entered, I found Jerome sitting in the living room with Roman, both at their ease and barely acknowledging my presence.
“And so,” Jerome was saying, “that’s why you need to do this. As soon as possible. Nanette’s people have been at it for a long time, so you’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Set up a schedule – I don’t care how rigorous it is – and make those slackers start putting in their time at the alley.”
I stared incredulously. “You’re here about the bowling competition?”
Both men looked at me, Jerome seeming irritated at the interruption. “Of course. The sooner you start practicing, the better.”
“You know what else might be better the sooner it happens ?” I produced the well-worn HR memo with a flourish. “You telling me if I’m being transferred or not. My money’s on it being a mistake because surely, surely you wouldn’t put off telling me. Right?”
Several heartbeats of silence hung in the room. Jerome held me in his dark, dark gaze, and I refused to look away. At last, he said, “No. It’s real. You’re being transferred.”
My jaw wanted to drop to the ground. “Then why . . . why am I only just now hearing about it?”
He sighed and made an impatient gesture. “Because I just found out about it. Someone jumped the gun and delivered the memo to you before telling me.” His eyes glinted. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t too thrilled about that myself. I made sure they know my feelings on the matter.”
“But I . . .” I swallowed. “I was so sure there was a mistake. . . “
“There was,” he agreed. “Just not the kind you were thinking of.”
I wanted to sink to the floor and melt away but forced myself to stay strong. I had to ask the next most important question, the question that would shape the next phase of my life.
“Where . . . where am I going?”
Jerome studied me once again, this time I think just to drag out the suspense and agony. Bastard. At last, he spoke.
“You’re going to Las Vegas, Georgie.”