There's a new animator in town. Is he worth the trouble that he brings?
At least my coffee mug is not going to get me into too much trouble this fine autumn morning. Nathaniel picked out a nifty mug for my return to work, and though it's not my usual yank Bert's chain style, it's still cute. He had it fired just for me, something I didn't even know existed. It has a penguin on it, with a gigantic grin on it's feathery face, holding a black collar in one wing, and in the bottom of the mug is the question, "Wanna Play?" It's subtle, but effective, and won't get me in too much trouble until it's sitting in the drying rack and everyone gets an eyeful.
There are some new perks in Animators Inc. We all have our own offices now, with the relocation into a bigger strip mall. The waiting room is still in pale blue and full of plants, but that was a decision done before I made my triumphant return. There's canned muzak in the waiting room now, to entertain our clients. Considering that a few years ago, raising zombies was a religious experience or an unfortunate curse, it's still slightly odd to raise the dead for cold hard cash, but it's a booming business. In fact, it's booming enough that I've gotten roped into interviewing a possible addition to the staff of our happy little family here at Animators Inc. Why me, and not Bert? Well, there's more to this than meets the eye.
I'm here at an ungodly hour of the morning, waiting for the arrival of my contact with our possible new animator. There was some negotiations just to have this rep come talk to us, and he requested that he talk to me, not Bert. Wise choice, considering that I'm the one that'll get stuck with any training our fresh meat needs. With Larry out of state with family business, it fell to me to handle any new trainees. Animating is not something that's taught in college, it's more of an informal apprenticeship, but Jeez, why do I get the fun stuff? Don't answer that.
Halfway through my second cup of java, my phone beeped at me. It was our new morning secretary, David. I guess there's a little bone in my body that finds it odd, but I was under the assumption that secretaries should be female. Wake up to the new world. I picked up the phone, and pushed the connection button, hoping that I didn't disconnect. New office, new phone system. Go on a leave of absence, and everything changes on me.
"Ms. Blake? Your nine o'clock appointment is here. Are you ready for company?"
"Sure, send him in."
"Alright, I'll send him back." The phone clicked in my ear, David not being one for small talk. He's also completely immune to gossip and office rumors, so he should not get on my nerves too quickly. He takes his job seriously, and I like that. Setting my mug to one side, I slap a smile on my face, the one that's all bright and empty of meaning. I hear the soft steps of someone in the hall outside my office, something I'm still getting used to from some of the preternatural shit I've been trying to deal with. Another sign of the life I now live, Nathaniel is sitting in the break room, just in case. You never know when the need for good sex might be required. Oh, Bert was happy to hear that I'd have a sweetie on hand at all times. How do you explain to someone as thick as my boss about the ardeur? That's something I'm still working on.
There is a soft knock on the door to my office. Time to face the morning. "Please come in," I call out. The door opens, to reveal what appears to be a young man in a nice suit. His hair was a soft brown, which matched his eyes. He had one of those faces that could have fit in anywhere, very mild and forgettable. Then you got a good look at those eyes, and realized that there was a lot more than you could imagine going on behind those eyes. He pulled out the only chair available, and sat down. He didn't offer his hand, but then again, neither did I. We both just nodded to each other. He's a human servant, and I'm discovering all the ways that simple skin contact can cause trouble.
"Good morning Ms. Blake, I'm glad you could meet me at such an early time. My name is Carson." He earned a brownie point for not calling me Miss, so we're off to a good start. He also didn't push the lack of handshaking, another brownie point. We're on a roll.
"I understand some of the trouble you had to go through to see me in person. I'm curious though, what's so important that you have to meet me in person to begin with?"
Carson sighed, and leaned back in the chair. "It's my Master's son. He's having... problems."
Now it's my turn to sigh. "I'm not a certified counselor. You might want to find something a bit closer to home than flying from New Orleans to St. Louis for something I can't help you with."
"I wish it were that simple. He's calling forth the dead, Ms. Blake. His father had no idea what to do about... zombies. We spoke to some of the staff at Élan Vital, but they won't help us due to some... disagreements from a few years back."
"Oh? He's an animator?" Now my curiosity is chewing on me.
"I guess that's what it's called." Carson offered a wan smile. "When I was young, it was a voodoo curse, not a possible career choice. My Master is not amused, for obvious reasons, but there's been rumblings at the home front for years. This is the final straw. We can't help him with this, and Jean-Claude was the only other Master of the City that might be able to help us out. It's been a good month of negotiations just to let me show up and talk to you, face to face. It's going to be all kinds of Hell if you're willing to take him under your wing and get this ability under control, but something has to be done." He held up his hands. "We're at our wit's end, to be honest. My Master loves his son, but he's got enough on his plate."
I took a deep breath, and took another sip of my coffee. This was not what I was expecting. "How can I help? I can help with the animating problem, but this is not something that I can just teach him to suppress. As your Master must understand, there is no cure or method to get rid of that kind of talent. I can teach him the mechanics, and my boss knows we could use the help around here, but this isn't going to be a quick fix. Also, as much as I like to pick on our boss here, I'm not going to recommend that he hire a rank beginner, train him up, and then he makes for the horizon. This is not a classroom, this is a business. Is your Master going to be willing to be parted from his son for a while?"
Carson grinned at that. "My Master would be thrilled to have his kid out of his hair. They do not have the greatest relationship. Jean-Claude can give a few more details, if you're willing to give him a chance. But... he's odd. He has emotional issues, and psychiatric stuff going on. I personally think he'd have a better chance if he could get out of his father's world, get out in the world without having everyone staring at him all the time. He needs to have a life, something he can claim as his own. Earning an honest wage would be a nice start."
"Psychiatric issues? Is it from his father being a vampire, or something a little more mundane?" Great, a mental case to baby sit. Not to bash the mentally ill, but if he had problems big enough that the human servant had to mention, there might be a bit of an issue.
"It's part his father, but his mother... his mother was not exactly human either. I'm not at liberty to talk on that too much, but let's say he comes by his imbalances legally."
I finished off my coffee, and looked mournfully at the empty cup. I was going to need a refill, but it would have been rude to excuse myself just for warm liquid comfort. I could feel the start of a headache from trying to make sense of all of this. "His father is a Master vampire, and his mother was... what was his mother, if that's something I'm allowed to know?"
"His mother was a demon."
I sat back in my chair, and had to blink a few times. That was not what I was expecting. "Pardon me, did you just say demon? That's not possible, demons are not material plane creatures, how could she end up pregnant and give birth to a live child?"
Carson rubbed his hands together. "I'm not sure of how it worked, but his mother was a demon. I don't claim to understand it, but Alexander's mother was a demon. She's since been banished from this plane, but it must do something to someone's mind to know that one parent is undead, and the other can't even be there for him due to rules that I can't claim to understand." He let out a shuddering breath, and gave me a close look. "Can you help us out with our problem? I can speak for my Master on this, we would owe Jean-Claude a great favor."
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. No wonder Jean-Claude was quietly hopeful on this little meeting. Vampires trade favors owed and given like some kids collect comic books or baseball cards, but with much more serious undertones. To have the Master of New Orleans owing him a big favor, that would be some serious leverage that he'd no doubt hoard for some rainy day far in the future. When your lifespan covers centuries, far in the future takes on a whole new meaning. But there were some issues outside of training this kid to be an animator that would have to be dealt with.
"I might be able to help, but if this Alexander is an official member of your Master's court, there is more than my acceptance to deal with here. I'd have to talk to Jean-Claude, and see if he is willing to have him here."
Carson took a deep breath, and some of the tension I had not even noticed faded from his shoulders. "He's the son of the Master, but he has no official capacity in his court. Samedi was very adamant that no one would use his son to try to usurp his position. And to be honest, those two don't have the most rosy relationship. They'll both be happy to be out of each other's hair. But I understand the need to make sure that no one's feathers get ruffled." Pulling out one of those nifty business card holders, Carson popped it open and pulled out one of the cards. Writing down a number on the back, he set the card on my desk in front of me. "Here's the number of the hotel I'm staying at, if you or your Master have any questions for me." He smiled, and rose to his feet. "Thank you Ms. Blake, for seeing me at such an early hour. Perhaps we can talk more at a later time?"
I picked the card off my desk, and returned the smile. "Perhaps. Have a nice day, Mr. Carson." He showed himself out, after a small bow to me. Once again, he didn't offer a hand, but that was fine by me. After he was out of the office, I pulled out my list for tonight's work. It was a light list, as though Bert was not quite ready to let me run rampant again. Me, cause trouble? Not little me. I'm the picture of innocence, really.
Nathaniel and I had a lunch date, he picked the location. While I perused the menu, he sipped his water and avoided the stares of the other patrons. When you have auburn hair to your ankles, you tend to get looks now and again, but I guess that comes with the territory. Finally, he reached out and tugged at the menu in my hands. "Hello in there, Anita. You alright?" It was the sound of his voice that made me realize that I had been staring at the menu without reading a single word of the contents. Setting it aside, I took a sip of my coke.
"Yeah, I'm alright, just a little distracted today." There, simple and truthful. Nathaniel deserved the truth at all times, considering he's pretty much my wife. He cooks more in our kitchen than I ever did in my apartment.
"Is that morning meeting still on your mind? From what you told me, it's up to Jean-Claude now if this guy comes to the city and goes to work for Bert."
"Pretty much. It just bothers me, that they would think of me for a problem like this. It's not enough that I have my plate full already, but I might inherit someone else's problem child."
Nathaniel took my hand, and gave me a close look with those beautiful lavender eyes. "They wanted the best, and I'm willing to bet that your name was on the top of that list. It's not like you have to add him to the buffet table."
That one hit where it hurt. It had taken me a few weeks to be able to help Nathaniel in bed, if tying him up and flogging him could be considered helping anyone. He said it made him feel safe, in the hands of someone he loved and trusted enough not to go too far. When I inherited the leopards, Nathaniel was in the hospital from injuries from a client. Lycanthropes can take some serious damage, but he was almost in pieces. He was someone else’s meat. Well, I wanted him to stand up for himself, and I got what I wanted. Part of what he wanted though, was the BDSM, something I’m slowly getting used to. I mean, how do you explain to someone, even your close sweetie, that my pain and pleasure nerves get a bit crossed in the heat of passion? It’s something I’m learning to accept, though not without some grumbling.
“He’s not getting a place on the buffet, as you so nicely put it, unless there’s yet another metaphysical emergency.”
“Good. Now pick what you want for lunch. I’m wasting away over here from hunger.” Duly chastised, I turned my attention back to the menu to make a decision. If only life were that easy, just pull out a list and check off what you want.
"The trick, ma petite, is whether you can actually help this Alexander. I would not mind being owed a favor from Samedi, but if we cannot deliver the goods, so to speak, it accomplishes nothing but more headaches later." Jean-Claude was lounged out on the love seat in his office at Guilty Pleasures, looking like something that stepped out of a wet dream, if your kind of dream wears lace and leather. His white shirt was frothy with lace at the neck and wrists, but was buttoned up for a change, sparing my eyes from devouring that smooth chest. It also meant that his cross shaped scar was well out of sight, but that was only a side issue. He was wearing knee high leather boots, with black leather pants that looked like he had been poured into them. Leave it to Jean-Claude to find a way to look scrumptious even when at work.
"So you can do your negotiations, and get Alexander here?" That was me, to the point and as blunt as a baseball bat.
"Can you help him with this little zombie raising problem?"
I shrugged. "There's only one way to find out, that's to get him here, and see what I'm dealing with. If he's an honest to goodness animator, there's not an off switch on that kind of ability. He's going to have to live with it for the rest of his life." That got me thinking, not always a good thing. "Just how old is this guy, anyways? Since his father is a Master vampire, that means he's been around a while. Was this kid born a century ago?"
"Non, Alexander is only twenty nine, I believe. It was something of a shock to receive notice that he had fathered a child, considering that Samedi has been the Master of New Orleans since before Louisiana was purchased by your government." Jean-Claude sighed, then continued. "It's not a matter of Samedi wanting to establish a branch of his operations here, it's too far from his power base. But I do not care to have trouble further down the line if you cannot help his offspring."
There was a knock at the office door. Damian's voice called from the other side of the closed door. "Anita? Jean-Claude? May I enter please?" Jean-Claude glanced at me, and nodded. That was my cue.
"Come on in, join the party." The door opened, and Damian walked in, silent as the grave. Oops, wrong reference. He came over to me, and held out a hand. It's rude to turn away someone as attached to you as he is to me, so I took the offered hand. Just like that, I could feel some of the tension drain from my shoulders, leaving me breathing a bit easier. I'm bound to Damian as though he was my servant, and you can only get from your connections what the other has to offer. He had lived a life of terror before coming here, and he was very good at remaining calm in the face of whatever happened to blow his way. In return, I could borrow that ability, and shed the tension or trouble that happened to be nibbling at my toes at any particular moment. Sometimes it really pisses me off when I really want to stay mad at someone or something, but other times it's nice to have a built in calm button.
He didn't try anything too forward, he just joined me in leaning against the desk, his hand resting on my knee. It wasn't a sexual touch, just a bit of comfort for the both of us. His skin was warm to the touch, which meant he had fed for the night, and since he was under orders from me that only the willing could be touched, it meant that someone out there was sporting a set of fang marks. A few years ago, that would have bothered the Hell out of me, but now? Survival by any means was too often the order of the day in my life. What ever happened to only worrying if I could find something in the fridge to stave off starvation? Was my life ever that simple? Don't answer that, I might get upset.
Jean-Claude broke the silence. "I am willing, ma petite, to give this a try, if you are willing as well. I can't help you with this problem, it is out of my collection of talents to train a budding animator. Though the negotiations would be between Samedi and myself, you are the one that has to accomplish the miracle. Are you willing to give it a try?"
"You seem to have a high opinion of my abilities. Other than the favor owed by the Master of New Orleans, what else do you get out of this? There's always a catch."
He offered up that Gallic shrug, the one that means everything and nothing in the same movement. "I would not mind the favor, do not get me wrong. But I think you have a bit of a short opinion on your 'abilities' as it were. Have you forgotten raising an entire graveyard? Or managing to call forth my vampires in the brightness of the day? You sell yourself short, ma petite. I would be pleased to see your repertoire expanded, if for no other reason than to add more power to our little kingdom.” Then he smiled, that smug smile that sometimes I have to resist the urge to wipe from his face. But volunteering for a slug fest with a vampire was a good way to shorten your life expectancy, even with my own abilities making me tougher than your average cookie.
But he was right, as usual. More power meant more stability at home, and less of a chance that someone would come swooping in from behind the curtains to rattle our cages. If there’s one thing Jean-Claude and I have in common, it’s the belief that power can solve more problems than it makes. If only we could get that lesson through Richard’s thick skull, we’d all be one happy family.
“Alright, I’ll give Carson a call, and let him know we’re going to give this a try. But if it comes back and bites me on the ass, I won’t let you live it down. Understood?”
“Of course. This is your show, this time around.” He smiled, fangs out of sight. “I for one, am very interested in meeting the child of Samedi, and seeing you in action with another animator.”
Standing in the St. Louis airport terminal, I checked the listings on incoming flights one more time. It's not near any silly season, but the number we were waiting for had been bumped to the delayed list. As near as I could tell, the only way to get a flight to actually land would take a sacrifice that I'm not willing to pay. It doesn't help that I have a bit of a problem with flying, and just standing around here was giving my nerves a bit of a trial. I didn't actually have to step on any of the planes, but I did have to go through the security check to get far enough into the building to know that the flight was delayed.
There were grumpy people all over the place, something that's been getting worse since there was an announcement that due to weather a lot of flights had simply been cancelled. There was a rush on the pay phones, and the rental car agencies were five deep with irate flyers trying to find some way to get to a local motel. Ah, the fun of airports. Is it any wonder I drive if I can get away with it?
There was one good thing however. Larry's flight had made it to the ground by the time I finally got out of the graveyard and headed to the airport. How Carson managed to schedule this Alexander's flight to arrive about the same time that I was doomed to make an appearance, I don't know. It would have been a nice trick, if not for the weather.
Larry and I were standing outside at the front doors, as he took a moment to get a long drag on his cancer stick. Sitting on one of the benches, Larry leaned back and blew out a long trail of smoke. "Ah, much better. That flight was way too long, but at least I'm back home. I hate family get-togethers, especially when my aunt starts digging at my career choice."
I had to fight back a smile. Boy, did I understand the stigma of animating. "At least you earned your diploma. Congratulations on that. As for the family shit, I can understand that. It's not... genteel enough to talk about over barbeque."
"But I did have a cousin hit me up for money. He figured that if animating pays that well, I could spot him a few hundred bucks for his next scheme. He wants to get into restoring classic cars."
I raised an eyebrow. "Did you give him the cash?"
"Nope. This will be another of his little ideas to get rich quick. Last year it was learning to fly planes for a cushy flight job, and the year before that it was learning to be a firefighter, for job security. I think every family has someone like him, someone that figures there's a fast path to luxury, if you jump through the right hoop." Stubbing out his cigarette, Larry turned to me. "Shouldn't we be heading back in, to see if this Alexander guy's flight has finally made it to the tarmac?"
Nodding, I take the lead, Larry reaching for his carry on bag. We get through the security checkpoint again, and head to the terminal. Terminal, what a bad choice of word for a business like flying. Anyways, there were people actually getting off a plane, so I start looking for...
"I have no idea what this guy looks like, so this might be interesting."
Larry grins. "Did you forget your little sign to hold, psycho guy come over here, I'm your ride?"
"Ha ha, so funny. Seriously though, no one's told me even a hair color to work from. Here's to hoping he'll recognize us." I do the stupid thing, and start looking at the flyers that have made it off the plane so far. Considering I was this guy's ride out of here, you'd figure he would be looking for us just like I was looking for him. We'd see each other, there'd be this sudden dawning of understanding, and we could head to the baggage claim for the long wait to claim luggage.
I turned at the sound of laughter at one of those little kiosk things in front of the boarding/disembarking areas they have at airports. A young stewardess was flirting heavily with some man, and it looked like love at first sight. Then the man turned, and we made eye contact. Nodding to him, I knew I had found my trainee.
The first thing that struck me was the weight of those eyes. They were ink black, surrounded by a pale face that looked more likely to burn than tan in too much sun. That part of me that let me control the dead twitched, like a muscle spasm, not painful, but not something I wanted to repeat too often. The face was young, but those eyes had already seen a lifetime of pain. Well, we all have scars. Some are more visible than others.
He turned and whispered something to the attendant, and as she sighed he headed over to Larry and I. Larry looked over for a moment, then looked again. Then he shuddered. Apparently the eyes got him too.
As he walked over, I got a good long look at our new animator. He was about an inch short of six feet tall, and slender as far as I could tell under a leather trench coat. His hair was so black that it had streaks of blue in it, which meant it most likely did not come out of a bottle. Dyed black looks like you've dipped your head in ink. His eyes were his best feature to his face, which was cream pale without a touch of blemishes or freckles. He was wearing a battered pair of black jeans, with what looked like a dark blue workout shirt. Around his neckline I could make out the tracings of tattoos, which vanished from sight under the shirt. His hair was cut short in the back, but the front flipped over his eyes. On someone a little younger, it might be considered an emo haircut, but I doubted that he was part of that scene.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Blake. Sorry about being a bit late, my flight got bumped back in New Orleans from weather issues." He held out a hand, and I took it. His grip was firm, but not a murderous squeeze. Then my bracelet with it's charm crosses brushed his skin. They gave off a touch of light, and Alexander winced as his skin turned red, heading to blisters. Retrieving his hand, he rubbed the red spots. "Ah, a true believer. Remind me to keep my hands to myself."
I blinked. "Is that a normal reaction to blessed crosses?" He nodded, and pulled out a pair of sunglasses.
"It doesn't happen often, there's not really a lot of true believers in the circles I've lived with." Sliding the sunglasses into place, he offered up a wry grin. "It's not common for those who deal with my father to carry crosses around."
Larry stepped forward. "I'm Larry, one of Ms. Blake's co-workers. Do you need to pick up any luggage?"
"Nope, my stuff was shipped in earlier, all I have with me is my carry-on bag." Shrugging out of the leather trench, his shoulders and arms revealed even more tattoos across most of the exposed flesh. I'm not one to go for the whole ink treatment, but even in my untrained eye, it was tastefully done, all in black and blue. On some people, ink looks bad. Alexander carried his living artwork well, it seemed to fit. Flipping the coat over his arm, and picking up his battered bag, he grinned. "They told me to dress for cold weather. This is not cold."
Larry took a long look at all of the ink work. Finally he found his voice. "Did that hurt, getting all of those tattoos?"
Alexander raised an eyebrow. "Yup, it hurt. But the artist that did most of the line work had a light hand. She was great. Her boyfriend, his hand was a bit heavier. The hard part is not getting through the actual work. It's the week of itching as the skin heals, that really sucks. Interested in getting some ink yourself?"
"Hell no, I have this little problem with pain. Not to mention, my wife would kill me."
"Ah, too bad. It's a great way to relax, to find that safe warm place." Turning back to me, he continued. "Shall we head off?"
I nodded, and we took our caravan to the road.
The ride in the car was pretty quiet, with Larry busy trying to get through is messages on his cell phone, and Alexander seemed amused enough with watching the streetlights shine in the puddles on the road. Lucky for all of us, it was early in the morning on a Wednesday, so at least there was not a rush of other cars on the roads as we headed to the Riverside. But after Larry was done with his beeping on the phone, the silence started to get a bit thick.
Alexander finally turned from the window view, and smiled. I have to admit, I was expecting one of those come hither smiles, the kind that lets you know that there was plenty to do in the dark, with a willing victim. His smile was nothing like that.
“Not to impose, but I was wondering how soon it would be before I got to meet the Master. I don’t care to get burned out of my hotel room because I didn’t follow the proper procedure.”
Larry spoke up from the back seat. “In a hurry to meet the guy in charge?”
Flipping back his hair, Alexander answered. “I was born and raised in a vampire’s court. There are rules, dead deities are there rules. This is my first time away from home, and I’d rather start out on the right foot, than to spend the next month trying to correct a mistake that could have been avoided. It’s simply a desire to make sure where I stand, and what I can and can’t do.”
Larry turned to Anita. “Are there really that many rules in a vampire court? I’ve been close enough to that world for my tastes, and working with you has made it a bit more part of my mind, but you can actually get in trouble for just showing up at the wrong time?”
Turning on the blinker to merge into traffic, I nodded. “Alexander’s right. It changes from city to city, but it’s a big no-no to just show up on the Master of the City’s doorstep. I have to drop you off, since you’re not approved for this kind of meeting, then I get to take Alexander here to his initial meeting.”
Larry grinned. “I’m a real graduate, in case you’ve forgot. When do I get to meet all of these interesting people?”
“If you are lucky, you’ll never meet them. You’ve had enough to do with my other side of life, and I’d sleep easier with you knowing a little as possible. It might be nifty to know the movers and shakers, but it’s also very detrimental to your health. Stick the animating, it’s safer.”
“Oh? Are we forgetting the death of a vehicle from attacks from both vampires and fundamentals? If knowledge is power, I could really use some power.” Larry leaned back, and continued. “I’ve been going to the range with you, I’ve been handling some of the duties at the morgue, and I’m not a kid anymore. When do I get the chance to be another adult?”
At this, Alexander spoke up. “If I could have managed it, I would have absolutely nothing to do with vampires. They might look all pretty and smart, but they’re all about power and control. The more vampires and regular people they have under their thumbs, the more they want. I’ll be honest, if I could get away from that life, I’d bolt in a heartbeat.” He sighed. “You have no idea how much the idea of freedom is tempting, the world you can live in. But if I ran, I’d be hunted for the left of my days.”
Larry just nodded, and turned to looking out the window. I took a second from the road, and took a long look at Alexander. “You’d go for the freedom, in spite of not having all of that power available?”
“In a heartbeat. I’ve never been free. Let’s just say, to have something like that kind of freedom would be a gift of precious price.” He shrugged, and turned his gaze back to the lights outside. “It’s also something that I’ll never get to experience.”