I could feel Manley watching me as I trudged out the door. I paused outside the offices even though I knew he could see me through the glass. The protesters were still clustered around the main entrance and there was no way I was going to face those again.
Instead, I went along the corridor and slipped into the Stare Hair Care Salon. The owner was sitting behind the counter, reading a Regency romance. She glanced up at the sound of the door, brightening when she saw me.
“You finally come in for a nice hair cut, get you a pretty boy to make you smile all the time?”
“No thanks, Miss M,” I said. “I was hoping to use the back door, if you don’t mind.”
Her eyes flicked out towards the direction of the front door, and her hair stirred at the thought. I might have imagined the tiny indignant hiss that didn’t come from her lips.
“You should watch out for them too,” I said. “They were in back of our place.”
A little grin crept over her lips, sly as a Cheshire Cat. “I’d like to see them try coming in here,” she purred. “Law says anything that happens then is their own fault.”
I eyed the lumps stirring underneath the scarf that covered her hair, knowing that the fabric was enchanted to keep the snakes there contained, but as always every time I met her, there was an edge of worry. As a Medusa, Miss Melaine was technically a Prime Class supernatural, a creature possessed of powers with killing force. A lot of supernaturals fell in that range. Very few fell in the range of the creature mentioned on my protester’s sign: the Easter Bunny.
The Easter Bunny is a textbook (and I mean that literally, we studied him in my Fables and Reality class) example of an ultra Prime, and it was the ultra Primes that really had the anti-supernaturals stirred up. Because technically they were more than Supernatural creatures — they were gods, although everyone still disagreed what that word meant, exactly, other than that they had extremely powerful abilities that no one could explain. There were more ultra Primes than anyone really wanted to think about, but luckily most of them had their own, unguessable things that they wanted to do, none of which seemed to involved humans or human territory or anything else that might document them.
Now wasn’t the time to sit there reviewing my class notes in my head. It was time to get going. But I paused and extended a hand.
“I’m not coming around any more,” I said. “I’ll miss grabbing coffee with you.”
“You finally found yourself a new job!” she beamed. Her face fell when I shook my head. “What did Manley do now?”
“Fired me,” I said, feeling the burn at the back of my eyes at actually saying it aloud. A worm of embarrassment and shame wriggled in my stomach. What had I been thinking?
She grabbed a slip of paper from her desk and pushed it in my direction. “You leave me your number, in case I know someone looking to hire someone?”
“Hire someone for what?” I said. “Buffying’s illegal.”
“I wouldn’t send you buffying,” she said, scowling, and I remembered she’d lost her mother to Jolie in the blowup of 08.
“Sorry,” I said, chagrined. “My mouth’s getting me in all sorts of trouble today.” I grabbed the pad and scrawled my email and cell phone on it. “Sure, if you find someone who needs legit work, I’d be all over it.”
And I would. My job skills fit a very, very narrow profile. I’d realized even in college, in my junior year when the revelation hit, that we’d need people to deal with them and I’d picked my training keeping in mind what an organization devoted to dealing with supernatural creatures might need. It meant there weren’t a lot of other things I was really qualified for. Panic kept trying to grab me about that, and I kept trying to push it away before I could think too hard about it. Instead, I focused on the mural of a kelp forest on the wall, on a serene shaft of light slanting down into the blue depths.
Breathe. It was important to breathe.
M touched my wrist with a sympathetic look. “You can sit down and stay here a little while, if you like,” she suggested.
I shook my head, even though I was pretty tempted. But right now the sound of getting to my apartment and sinking into a hot bath with a glass of wine and Imani Coppola blasting in the background overrode all other desires. “The back will lock behind me, won’t it?”
M nodded. “It’s on the opposite side from your exit, so I don’t think they’ll be looking there at all, and even if they are, you can just pretend to be one of my staff leaving.”
“Thanks,” I said. When I’d first found out about M’s studio moving into the building, I hadn’t been happy about it at all. But she was one of the ones who’d persuaded me that not all Supernaturals, even the powerful ones, were dangerous to humans. M just wanted to live and let live.
That was all any of us wanted, really.
With a backwards wave, I wen into the storeroom, past boxes of hair product, and slipped out the door with a screech of metal that sent a shiver down my spine, thinking it’d bring the protesters swarming.
But apparently they were all still around the entrance or the exit I’d first tried, because there was no one here on the street. I tucked my collar up around my neck with a sigh, and headed towards the bus stop.
All the way home I tried to avoid thinking about it, but it was hard. I’d get some sort of unemployment, wouldn’t I, if Manley had fired me? The Bureau had been my first and only job directly out of grad school and they’d locked me in months before I graduated. I had no experience with job hunting.
Or resumes. God, what was I going to put on my resume?
And if I didn’t get a job before the unemployment ran out, what then? My savings might get me through a month or two, but things like my student loan payment would keep eating away at them. Should I begin super-economizing as soon as possible, trim to the bone, try to cling on as long as possible? It couldn’t hurt. And my mind skittered away from ideas like moving in with relatives — not that I had that many. My parents, both only children like myself, had passed away when I was young, and all I had was a handful of distant cousins.
I stared out the window as the concrete walls lining I-5 rolled past, listening to the city sounds: the roar of traffic and a distant fire engine’s siren over the churn of the bus engine.
I’d kept my apartment after college, up in the University District, and the rent had been pretty stable, so moving probably wouldn’t save me enough to make the hassle and expense of doing it worth it. No, I’d put that particular maneuver off as long as possible. I liked my little apartment with its neat little rooms, the ways of doing things that I’d developed over years of living there. I knew all its ins and outs, and I was well acquainted with the three building ghosts, all benign and well-intentioned souls that had accrued over the building’s eighty years.
But I could do some things. I never watched TV anyway, I could cancel that, and stop eating out. Cooking wasn’t something I’d ever really done much of, but how hard could it be, really, if you knew the basics, like how to boil water? No, that would be easy enough. I focused on that and avoided everything else. I could worry about a lot of that tomorrow. I’d had a shock. I’d give myself one more day to pretend it hadn’t happened, let the pain fade a bit.
Maybe I’d drink more than a single glass of wine in that bath.
Yeah, that was it. That was the ticket.
It seemed like a good idea until I got home and found my building on fire.
(This concludes the first chapter.)
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