“You have got to be kidding me.”
I stared up at my apartment building. Fire fighters and firetrucks surrounded it, and hoses were sending huge arcs of water in the air, falling over the clouds of thick black smoke pouring from broken windows. The streets were blocked off, but the frantic look on my face must have acted as passport, because I’d managed to shove my way past, up to the hastily erected tape barricade around the building.
So much for wine. So much for a hot bath. So much for Imani Coppola.
So much for forgetting that my life had fallen apart.
“You’ll have to stand back, miss. There could be falling debris.” A bluff policeman grabbed my arm as I ducked under the tape.
“That’s my building!”
“Do you have anyone inside? Kids, parents?” He paused and looked at me. “Pets?”
I shook my head and he pointed towards a cluster of people down the line. “There’s the tenants they evacuated. I’d go stand with them.”
I headed that way. Fritzina, the maintenance woman, was standing with arms crossed,s taring at the fire with an unreadable expression. Other people were milling around and Mrs. Gerrity was, somewhat predictably, crying. It looked as though everyone had gotten out, though.
I stepped up to Fritzina. “What happened? How did it start?”
“Started in the basement,” she said softly, eyes still fixed on the flicker of flames. “Wiring, maybe. It’s an old building and I kept telling Mr. Schmitt he needed to have the wiring replaced, or looked at, at least.”
I stared at the flames licking up the building’s side. Thank god for renter’s insurance.
Oh…crap. I looked down at my purse and the overdue bill there.
Surely things could get worse, but it would be pretty hard to do. I was out a job and my uninsured home had just burned down. I held everything I owned in my arms. Luckily I had no love life (the first time the word “luckily” had ever prefaced that thought) so that wasn’t a potential vulnerability.
All my friends worked at the same place I did and I didn’t really feel like commiserating with them. I had to find a place to stay tonight and starting out my unemployment with a whopping hotel bill went against every grain in my body. My mother’s facility wouldn’t take me in.
I was going to have to call someone I didn’t really want to.
She picked up after the third ring. “Arachne’s Web Wooing, can I help you?”
“Harriet?” I said.
There was a long pause, during which I reconsidered calling. Maybe I should just hang up. But as I started to, she spoke. “What do you need, Emma?”
“I…” How could I say it? How could I say I lost my job and then my apartment and so I know I said I’d never speak to you again but you were my best friend once, so I called you? This had been another terrible mistake in a day full of them. “I…”
“Tell me where you are,” she said. “I’ll be right there.”
Harriet Jones had grown up in the house next door to my paternal aunt’s. When I’d moved in at twelve, one parent dead and the other declared a shameful legally unfit, she’d taken me under her wing, was my buddy through all of horrible high school. She’d held my head the first time I drank too much, and I’d nursed her through three shattered hearts and helped her TP all of their houses. Until a few years ago, I’d never envisioned not having her as part of my life.
But when I’d joined the Bureau, she’d objected. I don’t know why, if she’d thought I wasn’t serious about it all and was never going to go through it, but the day that I signed the contract was the day that we’d parted ways.
It wasn’t that she hated Supernaturals. It was that she liked them too much.
I was a nerd. Harriet was a super-nerd. She knew the names and history of every single Dragonball-Z character, she read more than she talked, she had a 50th level mage fighter in the D&D game spanning our four years in high school, run by Bobbie Patnaude. Every spring she went to Norwescon dressed in panda ears and carrying a replica of a Stormtrooper laser pistol. When they news of the Supernatural had arrived, she’d been beside herself with joy, and quickly become one of the people that we at Bureau called “groupies.” Not ours — groupies of anything connected to the Supernatural, whether it was one of the Fairy rock bands like Sidhe-Sells or the vampire software created by the hacker who went by the name Dracula’s Scion.
“I’m going to be interacting with them every day, that’s what you’re jealous of,” I’d told her that last day. You don’t get to be someone’s best friend without getting to know exactly where to insert a verbal blade. I regretted it the minute I saw the expression on her face, but much like the moment I’d pushed the protester, the die had been cast and I pushed ahead, not caring what the roll was.
That was how it had all happened. I said something regrettable, she said something even more more regrettable, and it all went downhill from there. Or, as with my favorite British expression, it went pear shaped, though I’m still not exactly sure what that means. And then there had been last words and radio silence through the years since then.
So why had I even bothered calling her?
Because I knew deep in my soul that she’d do exactly what she did. Her Prius pulled up to the curb fourteen minutes after she’d hung up, and even if she hadn’t bothered locking a single door behind her, it’d still be surprising that she’d gotten there that fast. She wore a black leather jacket that looked exactly like the one I was wearing and that made me smile, because I knew she’d gotten it in the same shop I had, one of our old favorite shopping haunts.
She’d put on a few pounds, but even I had, and I was pretty sure she’d been leading a more sedentary life than I had. She’d put her geek smarts into putting together a dating service for her kind, the most successful of its kind, with catchy, memorable ads that managed to combine cute and geek and smart. I saw her photo from time to time in the news, coupled with various local bachelor software magnates, but she didn’t show any sign of settling down. She’d always been the independent type and my guess was that she was holding out for a Fairy Prince. She paused when she saw me, and I’m sure that same last moments flashing through my head were flashing through hers. So I stepped forward. Her face softened and in a minute we were hugging.
She looked at the smouldering building behind me. “Is that your place? Holy Aphrodite, Emma, what happened?”
“That’s not even the worst of it,” I said. “I lost my job too.”
She gaped at me. “What?”
And something in her expression put me over the edge. So, first graduate of the Supernatural Postgrad Defense and Discovery Program, slayer of five vampires and two werewolves, able to negotiate in Dwarvish, Hobgolbin, and broken Fae, and a perfect exemplar of today’s strong, capable woman, burst into tears.
Harriet knew what to do. She steered me towards her car and before I knew it we were back at her office, with the “Closed” sign up on the door. I protested when she took the phone off the hook too, but she shrugged. “Most of my clients prefer to reach me by e-mail anyway.” She poured hot water into two mugs and added tea, blackberry sage for mine, cinnamon jasmine for hers. I wondered how long she’d been stocking my favorite tea. The thought made my heart warm a little. I could always count on Harriet.
The whole story came tumbling out, from the look on the protester’s face to the sound of the sirens of the fire engines arriving to put out the remains of my home. It still shamed me to admit that I’d be fired, whether or not I considered it fair, but Harriet had seen me through the worst of things, from getting my period at the prom to being the person who lost our team the Math championship sophomore year.
And despite how horrible the day had been, there was something worthwhile in all of it if it had managed to build our friendship back together.
“You can stay with me tonight,” Harriet said at the end. “There’s a box of stuff for Goodwill in the spare room, so you can sort through that, see if there’s anything you can use. I know you’ve got about a foot on me heightwise, but I think our asses are about the same size.”
Relief wrapped me like a warm blanket. Being with Harriet again was comforting. We knew each other, and more importantly we trusted each other. I hadn’t had a friend like her since then. I don’t think most folks got even one friend like that in their lives.
At her place on Capitol Hill, we split a Pagliacci’s pizza with Walla Walla sweet onions and spicy peppers, washing it down with two buck chuck merlot from Trader Joe’s.
A fireplace dominated her living room, river pebbles studding it like bristles worn down to the nub, a texture that made me lean forward in my chair, drawing my touch as the unicorn’s horn had. I stroked my hand over the round surface, letting it fill the hollows beneath the bumps where finger met palm, pressing against it, as soothing as the steady warmth washing my side, coming from the crackling pine logs.
We played do-you-remember. My face hurt from laughing after Harriet started telling stories from work, awkwardly worded ads and mistaken encounters, so I made her stop by telling some of my wilder work tales: the chupacabra; hunting the Blue Lady through the homeless shelters of Miami; the gang of Fairy con artists we’d found living on a manufactured island in the Caribbean they’d built with scams and vanishing gold pieces; the time I’d stood next to Thor himself at a White House reception.
I breathed in, feeling the last of the day’s tension unwind from my shoulders. Maybe everything would work out all right after all. The moment that Harriet’s car had pulled up had marked a change in my fortunes, a turn for the better.
“So what are you going to do?” Harriet asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe some kind of bodyguard work. I’ve got plenty of experience with supernatural threats and some one percenters worry about that sort of thing. That’s all I can think of. Not many people out there need that sort of thing, though.” The prospect of job-hunting loomed before me like a bottomless, never-mapped pit. Where to start? I’d need to buy new clothes for interviewing. I might even have to wear hose.
And a resume.
As Harriet would have said, holy Aphrodite. I’ve never met her, but I hear she’s a lot nicer in person than she’s made out to be.
Harriet swirled her wine. “Well, at least you’re out from under the Bureau.”
Her smug tone rankled.
“I’m not happy about losing the job,” I said.
“You should be.” She set her glass down on the table with a thunk, glaring at me.
I relinquished the fireplace stone I’d been rubbing my thumb over. “I did a useful duty,” I said.
“You killed things. Magical things.”
I nodded, folding my hands together in my lap, and measured out each word to a millidecibel. “That’s right. I killed magical things before they killed people and/or other magical things. And I did it, with or without your approval, damn well, if I do say so myself, for five years.”
“And yet you sneer at buffys.”
“They don’t act inside the law. I did. I was one of the people keeping the world functioning. Safe. By killing magical things that threatened that.”
Our eyes locked.
I was pissed but also thinking — what would I do when she kicked me out? There was a Ramada a couple of blocks away, walking distance.
But she shrugged. “Neither of us are going to change our minds about this. Go to bed, Emma.”
I shouldn’t have pushed, but I did. “You’re annoyed but I’m speaking the truth.”
She picked up her wine again, tilted it to examine the beet-colored wash of the wine had left on the glass as though deciphering it. Vinumancy. There are a thousand ways of fortune-telling. I was more concerned with reading Harriet’s signs.
“I’m torn,” she admitted. “And not particularly sympathetic to your side. Magic should by its nature, be wild and free.”
“Don’t spout Fairy Liberation Front speaking points at me,” I said. “They’re some of the worst. They’d cheerfully enslave humanity and not blink an eye — they’ve tried to more than once. That’s how convinced they are that they’re the superior race.”
She closed her eyes. She was counting to ten. When she was eight, her mother had taught her to do that when she was angry, before she said anything she regretted.
I wished my mother had taught me things like that.
In Harriet’s spare room, I plugged my cell phone in and checked my e-mail. Notes of commiseration from former co-workers. A bulletin from the building management about a meeting tomorrow morning. Three pieces of spam selling me web-hosting, umbrella hats, and an online degree in teaching.
Dear Ms. Amme:
We hope that you will meet with the Holiday Consortium tomorrow at 11 am to discuss a job offer we wish to tender. A driver will be sent for you at your current location at 10:30 am sharp.
How had they gotten my address? I called up their webpage but found it bland and uninformative, other than the fact that they did seem to be a legitimate business, although precisely what it was that they did that I wasn’t sure.
I left the phone to charge and went into the bathroom. I could hear Harriet in her bedroom, a muted whisper of The Daily Show, which she liked as background to her reading. On the counter, hotel toiletries filled a large porcelain bowl painted with dragonflies. I fished out a Barbie-sized toothbrush and lathered my teeth with wintergreen, sizing myself up in the mirror.
I won’t bore you with physical trivialities. I’ve looked better. Right now I looked the way I felt, as though I’d been beaten up by the universe.
It wasn’t a sensation I’d felt for a long time, not since the years after my father had died and my mother had been institutionalized. She’d bounced in and out of facilities but had never had space in her life for a child. Instead I’d been raised by my dad’s younger sister, Rose, along with her own two kids. A recent widow, Rose could have said no to my being dumped on her, but the thought had never crossed her mind. She’d have taken me in tonight, but she was a continental stretch away, on the East Coast to my West. And she had her own troubles — Kenny, who’d been my older brother facsimile, had been diagnosed with MS two months ago.
I rinsed and spat. I’d grabbed my nightwear, an over-sized t-shirt reading, “Fay Do It in the Road” and surrounded by inexplicable purple sparkles.
Back in the bedroom, I inventoried my wardrobe.
One black leather jacket.
One tailored white shirt, somewhat the worse for wear from my alley encounter.
One pair black pants with gusseted crotch for fighting, extra-deep pockets, and several other handy extras.
My good black bra, socks, and underwear, as well as the packages of the last two I’d grabbed at the Bartell’s we’d stopped at on the way home.
From Harriet’s discard box, I added a black stocking cap with a Red Hat Linux logo, a sequinned silver dress whose shortness showed how much taller than Harriet I was, a worn black fleece top with white snowflakes on it, a pair of orange knitted slippers that looked to be a men’s size fourteen, three more t-shirt advertising network security software, and a pretty scarf from the bottom of the box, a cobwebby black thing that I thought might look all right with the dress.
I started to try it on with the silver dress, but the thought that any chance for playing dress-up might be a long time coming just depressed me. I folded it all up and packed all but what I’d need tomorrow in the brown paper grocery sack Harriet had given me. Now all my worldly possession consisted of a box and a sack. I rinsed out my shirt, hung it up to dry in the bathroom, and went to bed.
Lying back against the pillow, I fished on the end table for my phone and looked at the mail again. Was this the reason M had wanted my email? It was a weird and enigmatic email, but maybe a good kind of weird and enigmatic. Surely M wouldn’t have given my contact information to someone unless she thought I’d be a good fit for whatever position it was that they had in mind. And since it came from her, I didn’t have to worry about it being some fringe group trying to hire a buffy.
Things were looking up. Maybe. In the minus side, two marks for job and home, and maybe a half mark for Harriet-regained-then-lost-again. On the plus side, a question mark representing the Holiday Consortium.
Harriet’s guest room was warmer than her attitude. I curled up under the down comforter, listening to the drizzle of rain on the room, feeling the sort of snug you can only can when you know it’s cold outside but you’re safe and warm.
I couldn’t help wondering how much longer I’d be able to savor that kind of situation if the job with the Holiday Consortium didn’t come through.