Novak Sanguine had several acquaintances he could call when he needed something. Just because he liked to be an independent person didn’t mean he was completely averse to relying on others sometimes. And now he really needed a quick way out of the city. His contacts in Bridgeport weren’t very numerous, but there was at least one he could ask to drive him out of town without raising suspicion. Sure, he could just hitch-hike or take the train and be quick about it, but he needed to pick some things up first. So that was why a small-time architect by day and a smuggler by night named Henry Blues was his best bet.
He had got out of the taxi at Bridgeport’s public library and shut himself in its bathroom to bind the scratches the vampire had left on his arm. They were relatively deep, and would probably take a few days to heal properly. Novak had taken one look at his bloodied T-shirt sleeve after getting it out of the wound’s way, and decided a change of clothes was in order too. The vampire would immediately smell the blood on him if he wasn’t thorough in cleaning up. After he got his ride out of the city secured, he’d do a quick shopping trip to replace the backpack his pursuers had no doubt got a good look at too.
He dumped the black T-shirt into the trashcan and washed his hands one more time. He hoped he didn’t need to bind many more wounds during this trip. He had only packed his small first aid kit.
He stepped back out into the quiet library, and felt a wave of unwanted nostalgia. He quickly shook it off and pulled out his main cell phone. He chose the number he needed and listened to the dull dial tone for two minutes before a mechanical voice informed him that no one was answering.
“Yeah, I kinda figured that one out,” he muttered. He checked the time. It was morning already. At least it meant the vampire wouldn’t be able to look for him quite as freely. But there was still the matter of the human guy. And who knew what else was after him now. He called the number again.
“Come on, Henry, pick up…”
The same mechanical voice answered him. Novak frowned. His contact should have been at work already. Something wasn’t right.
He hid in the slowly crowding and then emptying library for the day and occasionally tried to call Henry, making annoyed faces at the walls and snarking at the automated messages as if that would help him any. As night began to fall, Novak finally got worried enough to risk the streets and hurry to Henry’s office.
It was located in a relatively expensive box of a building that housed both small companies and private apartments. Novak arrived at the place without incident, but that didn’t stop chills going down his spine when he took the lift to the right floor. The place looked deceptively ordinary and undisturbed, but something definitely wasn’t right. He just didn’t know what.
He knocked on Henry’s office door, knowing the workaholic liked to work long days, and sighed in relief when he noticed that the door wasn’t locked.
“Alright, Henry,” Novak said and pushed the door open, “You should really keep an eye on your phone, because… wait…”
He took a better look at his surroundings. Instead of the sleek, modern lines and shades of black and white, his optical nerves were assaulted by what looked like a mix of a Love Day chocolate box and a detective’s office. Novak dropped his backpack in sheer surprise.
“What the crap?!”
“Oh, hello!” said a cheerful voice from behind a red computer, “Welcome to The Heart of Hearts, where your love is our business!”
Novak stared at the young, gorgeous redhead behind the computer.
“Uh…” he looked around once more. This was the right address. So he was possibly going crazy, “Shouldn’t an architect named Henry Blues be in here?”
The woman narrowed her eyes. They looked like pieces of green hard candy. Bright and glossy. Then she smiled a slightly ditzy smile.
“Oooooh, right! He was here. Like, up until a few days ago. But he was found dead. Some say he was drained of all his blood and stuff.”
“Mm-hmm. It was on the news and everything.”
“Yeah… I’ve kind of been in the dark.”
“I can see that. I mean, everyone was talking about it!” the girl spun the end of a Rapunzel-length braid around her finger, “So the police cleaned the place up and the rent-people wanted the whole thing forgotten quickly. But nobody wanted this, so I took it!”
“Uh-huh,” Novak said dryly, “And you thought this was the perfect place for your… love office?”
“Well, yeah. It’s got plenty of room, and a way better view than from my old office,” the woman shrugged, “So, how can I help you today?”
“That’s why you’re here, right? How about it? Want me to set you up on a date? All genders and most personal tastes are accounted for! Or maybe you’re looking for something more platonic? Ooh, and I do couples’ counselling too!”
Novak sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Well, unless you can help me escape some murderous guys, then no, I don’t think so.”
The girl leaned forward thoughtfully.
“Are we talking about angry exes? Oooh, have you tried stabbing them in the eyes with a fork?”
Novak barely had time to look shocked before the girl burst into a high-pitched giggle.
“I was just kidding!” she laughed, “I mean, you were too, right?”
“Of course I was,” Novak muttered, “Well, miss-“
“I’m Philippa,” said Philippa, “But you can call me Phil, since you’re such a cutie!”
“Rrriiight. Well, Phil, have fun in your new murder office.”
“Oooh, you too! Bye!”
Novak picked up his backpack – thankfully his laptop had survived the fall – and slammed the door shut to hide the sickeningly sweet office.
“What the hell just happened?” he said out loud. Then the whole situation hit him, “Oh, I am so screwed.”
Henry Blues was dead? Could it even be true? Usually Novak was good at staying up to date with the news, especially if they involved his acquaintances. But he had to admit that since the calls had started, he’d been a bit too preoccupied with his own problems. He stood in the empty hallway for a moment before he sighed.
“Oh, screw it. Time to kick out the pride.”
He called the cell phone he had given away when Death had come for him.
The dial tone didn’t even have time to start before he heard a voice on the other end.
“Hello, Mr. Sanguine.”
It didn’t really sound like it would be coming through a phone. More like straight to his ears from some ethereal plane. But Novak supposed some weirdness was to be expected considering who he was calling.
“Yeah, hi,” Novak said and tried to hide the sliver of nervousness in his voice. Talking to Death wasn’t any more pleasant when said Death was kilometres away, “Listen, I have to ask you something.”
“Did a man named Henry Blues die a few days ago?”
There was a moment of silence, after which Death spoke thoughtfully:
“Oh, fantastic,” Novak muttered, and then, with growing dread, he named others on his Bridgeport’s contact list. Apparently most of them had been killed very recently. Most of those deaths had apparently also been attacks by a possibly frenzied vampire. It was bound to happen sometimes in a big city with plenty of booze and blood. Still, Novak wasn’t buying it.
“So they were murdered?” he asked and did some quick deduction. The calls had started a few days ago, and he had adamantly ignored them. Perhaps that had been when they’d started boxing him in by taking care of his safety net.
“That is the general consensus, yes.” Death said, and Novak wasn’t sure if he was answering to his question or his thoughts.
“Yeah, but was it really murder? Did they give any names?”
“I am afraid that sort of information is confidential.”
Novak pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Look, I don’t have time for this. If those guys were murdered, then that means someone’s trying to off my backup people, and that means I’m really running out of time.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“So I’ll be brief: I’ve got a deal for you. I’ve found out something that might take you forward, but I want to talk to you face to face. Where are you?”
“I am everywhere.”
“I meant: where’s your Goth Kid -form now?”
“Oh,” the voice said, and became much less formidable. Less like a sentient gravestone and more like the voice of a shy young man. Though it still echoed quite a bit, “Riverview.”
Made sense. That was where the wicked witch of the spell store was also from. It was also a very good place for Novak to hide. An insignificant town in the countryside sounded very good right now. Not that he’d be there for very long if his plans worked out.
“Alright,” Novak said, “I’ll take care of a couple of things and then get going. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“That sounds fair. I wish you luck.”
“I don’t believe in luck. But thanks anyway.”
“Luck does not need belief. It is more of a… statistics kind of thing. I wish it anyway.”
Novak hung up and stared at the now blank screen. Yet another sigh was building up in his throat, but he nearly choked on it when the soft, dark voice was in his head again:
“At what time do you arrive? I need to alert Amelia about guests.”
This time there was a rather pointed crack when his backpack hit the floor. Novak cursed.
“Shit! What the hell?! I already hung up!”
“Oh. My apologies. Usually people say something like, ‘good bye’ when they do that.”
Novak narrowed his eyes at the emptiness in front of him.
“This had better not show up on my phone bill.”
“I… I doubt it will. Well, what time?”
Novak quickly checked the train schedules on his phone.
“Seventeen twenty two.”
“Good bye,” Novak said, stressing the words as much as he could.
“Good bye, Mr. Sanguine.”
There was a faint click in his head. Then he was relatively alone again. Novak waited for a few moments to make sure Death wouldn’t start speaking to him again. When the hallway and his mind stayed silent, he grabbed his backpack and noted that his laptop hadn’t indeed been able to take any more falls.
Well, there goes my money. Again.
He let out the sigh that was still in his throat. He mentally added a new computer to his alarmingly growing shopping list.
Then he started running again.
Amelia was not very happy to hear that a criminal was about to come to her house. Even after Tad had spent about half an hour convincing her that Mr. Sanguine was still not a bad man and that should anything go wrong, Tad would be there to take full responsibility and to fix things the best he could. Though Tad supposed Amelia had many valid reasons to be worried. Especially since it seemed that Mr. Sanguine was in trouble and had mostly approached Tad in a moment of distress.
Still, Mr. Sanguine wasn’t due to die in a good while. Tad knew that because he couldn’t yet see when the man’s time would come in this reality. But of course, things could get unpredictable, and even if the man managed to avoid death, the world was full of danger and unpleasant things. In Tad’s honest opinion, there were a myriad of things worse than dying. But Tad wasn’t too worried. Mr. Sanguine could obviously take care of himself, and if he didn’t, then he would have enough sense of self-preservation to call for Tad’s help again. So Tad would wait. Even though the possible answers Mr. Sanguine had dug up greatly intrigued him, he wasn’t about to violate the man’s privacy by appearing into his life again. Tad could be infinitely patient. To be fair, being patient wasn’t even that hard when one had all the time in the world. Besides, the five months Tad had given Mr. Sanguine weren’t even up yet. So this way the answers he could give would just be early.
“Worry not,” Tad said and smiled over a teacup Amelia had again set for him. There was masala chai in it. Tad had decided that he really liked it, “I will tell him that you do not accept theft in your household.”
Finally Amelia smiled and looked more like herself. Her smile made even sorting out the day’s extinctions less depressing.
“Well, I have told you to invite friends more often. Look, just to be clear: I may not be ready to trust him, but I am ready to trust you to keep him in check.”
“That means a lot to me.”
Amelia nodded and looked at Tad with what Tad could describe as fondness. Maybe. He still wasn’t very good at the whole identifying emotions -thing.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Amelia said.
A bunch of insects that were the last of their kind reflected in Tad’s teacup for a moment. A part of his being died and was born again in a microsecond. It was normal for him, and he barely noticed his own discomfort that came from constantly feeling the ghosts of everyone’s dying pains. But next to that was a feeling that was harder to ignore. It was a feeling that something was about to start. Anticipation? Yes, that was it.
He drank his tea. It tasted like warm spices, deforestation, and friendship.
The train felt safe enough.
Novak tried his best to ignore the annoying vroom vroom -sounds made by a kid who sat behind him and was determined to make everyone in the train car miserable. The kid’s parents were arguing about whose turn it was to tell their kid to shut up. Novak hoped they’d decide quickly. As much as he despised any kind of abuse towards children, his frayed nerves and lack of sleep were making him seriously consider at least very pointedly saying the brat a few choice words. He pressed his forehead against the wall and took some comfort in the fact that Riverview was already close. Any more hours in this gods-forsaken train and he’d start to really wonder why he hadn’t just asked Death to spirit him away. Pride and independence be damned when the alternative was listening to an overexcited wannabe race car driver for hundreds of kilometres.
Finally the train’s breaks howled for the last time, and Novak bolted out along with the other passengers, who no doubt were either returning from a trip, seeing family, or looking for some idyllic countryside boredom. Because there obviously wasn’t much else to do in Riverview. At least judging by the train station. Aside from a small gift shop selling quite a sad variety of kitsch, the only notable thing was a rather impressive old clock that people could gather around to wait for their train arrive to the single set of tracks. Novak adjusted his backpack and took two steps until his eyes fell on a sign that said in very curly, overly neat hand-writing:
“Cute,” Novak said and looked at the pale face with sunken eyes that smiled a not-entirely-real smile over the sign, “You made that yourself?”
“Yes, I did,” Death said and sounded very pleased with himself, “I have wanted to try it for some time. It is such a nice gesture. Acknowledging a meeting with a name. I did try it before, actually, but the person I was reaping at the time did not appreciate it.”
“Riiiight,” Novak said, “Well, thanks, but could you put that away, please? I’m kind of hiding here.”
“Of course. It has served its purpose, after all.”
There was a small flash of darkness, and the sign was gone. Death extended his hand. Novak didn’t take it.
“Let’s just go. You had a place, right?”
“Yes. With Amelia,” the kid motioned towards the woman Novak remembered from that incident in Bridgeport. She blended in to the flower-filled farmer town much better with her fashion choices and general air. She was smiling a bit nervously.
“Hello, Mr. Sanguine,” she said a bit too formally, “I hope this all goes well.”
It was more like a genuine wish than an empty compliment. Novak smirked at her.
“Let’s hope so,” he said.
Amelia made tea and brought it into the dining room this time. The small kitchen table wasn’t enough for three people, and the formality of the dining room suited the slightly tense air quite well. Amelia studied the thief who sat at the table with Tad. Novak Sanguine looked a bit tense as well, but he tried to hide it behind his I-don’t-care -smile. It wasn’t very convincing considering he had a tired look in his eyes and a bandage around his arm. Amelia wondered how he’d got hurt. She set the kitty tea set on the table and then sat down next to Tad. Novak had already dug up a laptop from his bag, and was furiously typing away.
Amelia cleared her throat.
“I made some tea for you too,” she said.
Novak barely looked up.
“Right. Thanks. I’d rather go straight to business first, though. I’m sure you don’t want me here any longer than necessary either.”
Amelia looked uncomfortably at the walls.
“You don’t have to deny it,” Novak said, “It’s fine. I get it. You’re one of the good guys. Your conscience says you should turn me in rather than hide me away.”
He finally stopped typing and leaned over the table.
“Besides, us unsavoury types also bring in other unsavoury types, right?”
“Um… that’s not…” Amelia tried again, but then trailed off and bit her lip. Novak laughed.
“Hey, relax. That’s all perfectly reasonable. I think you’re taking this all rather well, really. Then again, you are already renting a room to the Grim Reaper so that might explain some things. Okay, so here’s what’s going on: I’ve got some names here. And trust me, it took more than some quick searches to get these.”
He pressed his palms together thoughtfully.
“So, Death. You willing to change our deal a bit before we do this? I mean, I kept my end of the bargain and I’m here early. That probably counts for something.”
“What did you have in mind?” Tad asked. Amelia could see that there was a hint of curiosity and maybe even amusement somewhere next to the infinity in his eyes.
“I’m ready to… work for you,” Novak said with slight distaste in his voice, “If you need my skills for something, then I’m your guy. To some degree at least. I mean, I have standards. If you just want some mortal fool to be your chess piece in some cosmic game, then you can just go with her,” he nodded towards Amelia, who pursed her lips in protest, “I’m just willing to be a hired professional. But my point is that I can work for you, but in return I want you to pay me.”
Maybe it was the absurdity of the suggestion, or maybe it was just the chess piece -comment, but Amelia was speaking incredulously before she could stop herself:
“Wait, you stole from Tad and now you want him to pay you?”
“Desperate times and all that,” Novak said with a shrug, and then turned to look at Tad again, “When you think my atonement or whatever it is you call this ends and my actual work begins, let me know.”
Tad thought about it for a moment. Or then he was elsewhere again. Then he smiled softly.
“If you want my help, all you need to do is ask.”
“No. That’s definitely not all I need to do,” Novak said at once, “I’m not asking for help, but work. I’m talking about a gig or two, not some kind of life- or afterlife debt or whatever. I just need something valuable that I can use to pay off some other debts I got by trying to be an upstanding citizen and flip off some crime lords.”
“What did-” Amelia started to ask out of curiosity and worry, but Novak waved his hand impatiently.
“That’s not important. Well, Death, do we have a deal?”
“Death cannot help you,” Tad said, “Not as Death. But as Tad Dustpine, yes. It is semantics, I know, but it is important semantics.”
“Fine. Tad. Do we have a deal?”
There was a slightly surprised silence. As if Novak hadn’t believed that pushing his luck with The Grim Reaper would have worked twice. Then Novak’s face melted into a smile.
He extended his hand across the table for a handshake. Tad looked rather shocked at first, but then happily took the hand.
“Now then,” Novak said once the deal had been sealed, “Here we go.”
He pushed a few more buttons on the laptop, and then turned it around.
“So… not sure how this works, but any of these names say something to you? They’re all people I could connect to the warehouses in some way. Usually they’ve just rented the space, but some of them have more connections to the Landgraabs and the crime industry in general. I’ve got those in the beginning there, highlighted in green.”
Tad looked at the screen, and Amelia tried to understand what he was doing. She supposed that if the gemstone he was looking for hid its wielder from Death, all Tad had to do was spot a name of a person he couldn’t sense… or whatever it was that he did to find people. Tad had tried to explain it to her sometimes. It was mostly just about Tad being everywhere at once, so technically he was always within reach of anyone. And as such, everyone was within his reach. It made sense, in a rather morbid way.
Amelia tried to sneak a peek at the words on the screen, but the names didn’t say anything to her. Tad didn’t have to look at the list for long, however, before his eyebrows shot up and he stood from the chair.
“There is one…” he said and then pressed his hands to his head as if he was experiencing a sudden headache, “A name… it sounds… feels important…”
He fell silent. Novak leaned forward again.
“Okay, no time for dramatic pauses. I’m way too curious. Which one?”
Tad had started pacing, looking like he wasn’t fully there anymore.
“Mr. Demetrius Deacon,” he said absently.
“Oh, right. That guy,” Novak said and spun the laptop around to check the name, “That epic name was hidden behind a couple of pseudonyms. He’s been doing some minor business with the Landgraabs. An old sorcerer who lives in a small but probably fancy cottage in Twinbrook’s swamp. Plus according to my research, he was the guy who was the most adamant spokesperson against banning necromancy back when it was relevant.”
“Yes, that is it!” Tad’s eyes snapped open, “I knew there was a reason that name made me feel… never mind.”
“What, you’ve got something against this guy?” Novak asked, “Well, I guess the whole reanimating the dead -thing might rub you the wrong way.”
“Um… I’m getting a little lost here,” Amelia said, “So this man is a necromancer?”
“Was,” Novak corrected, “No one’s officially a necromancer anymore. It was banned about thirty years ago, pretty soon after reanimating corpses was properly perfected. Sure, I’m sure there are zombie-making instructions on the web, and I can bet some kids have tried them especially now when zombies are mediasexy again. But those things are generally well-monitored and punished accordingly.”
Tad’s eyes narrowed.
“There is something… I am having trouble getting a grasp on where he is… or remembering him. It is like something is pushing me away. It is not the stone, but… it feels like it is there. Or has been… Something is not right. I… have to talk to Mr. Deacon.”
He was quiet for a long moment. Then he turned a bit uncertainly to Amelia.
“You were there the last time we chased a lead. Would you like to come with me again? And Mr. Sanguine, I am sure your skills could be helpful as well.”
“Of course,” said Amelia.
“Sure,” Novak said, “I kind of agreed to this already, right? But before that, I really need a proper shower. I think my arm’s starting to bleed again. And some food would be great.”
“You do that,” Tad said, again sounding like his mind was very far away. His eyes were staring through the walls. Amelia bit her lip and then stood up slowly.
“Well, the tea is there if you want it,” she said to Novak, “I can warm up some leftovers from the fridge. I hope vegetarian curry is okay?”
“Sounds great. I’ll pay you for the food if you want. I’m sort of intruding, after all.”
“No need. I can show you where the shower is.”
After Amelia returned to the dining room with a bowl of now heated curry and heard the sounds of running water in the background, she realised that Tad hadn’t moved from his spot.
“Tad?” Amelia set the bowl on the table and then lightly touched Tad’s shoulder, “Are you okay?”
Tad crossed his arms.
“Amelia. It is good that you are here,” he said as if only now realising where he was, “I must admit that I am not… fond of Mr. Deacon.”
The way he said it made it sound like “not fond of” was a serious understatement. It was the first time that Amelia had heard Tad admit to seriously disliking someone.
“Have you met him?” she asked, “Or has he done something bad? Or is it the necromancy?”
Tad was quiet again for a long while.
“Yes,” he finally said.
An invisible and inexplicable wind blew through the room. Amelia shivered.
“Well,” she said, trying to lighten the mood, “I’ll be right there to help you deal with it.”
Tad smiled, but it was certainly not his best try at smiling.
Author’s Note: This chapter is a collection of random ideas that I got while biking, mostly. I would like to especially thank Mr. Demetrius Deacon for popping into my head at some point because he has now fixed some future pacing problems before they happened, and I got an excuse to talk about zombies. So double win! And he’s very beneficial for the next chapter as well. I’m pretty excited for it, and I hope I can make it as awesome as it is in my head now.
In case it hasn’t become obvious before, I’m a sucker for giving characters names that are long and fancy and sound cool in my ears. Bonus points if I can then give them a more practical, mundane or cute nickname. I doubt Mr. Demetrius Deacon will get any cute nicknames, though. We’ll see what he’s like next time.
Have a great time, everyone!