Ivan Jones lay sprawled on the king-sized bed of his penthouse suite. After five days, he was starting to get used to silk-sheets.
The bedroom curtains were drawn. Day or night, that was pretty much a constant during Ivan’s stay at the Abel Arms—as though afraid passing birds or Superman would peek in on him. He could only just muster the courage to let the maid in every other morning. He didn’t dare look up the Laflech news. Ivan could just see the headlines:
MASS POISONER IVAN JONES SPOTTED CROSSING STATE-LINES, NUDE CHILDREN IN TOW
The bright shadows of a superhero movie Ivan remembered liking until he’d given it a single thought bathed the room like a cut-rate Bond intro. It was a little worse on every rewatch, but Ivan had picked it in a heartbeat. It was either that or the Keanu Reeves Dracula flick. Ivan felt like Jonathan Harker enough as it was.
Ivan’s phone rattled on the bedside table. He picked it up like he was handling a live cobra.
‘...Hello?” he said, hoping his greeting didn’t sound like a squeak. Wanted fugitives shouldn’t have to answer the phone.
A now familiar transatlantic accent poured down his ear like ice-water:
“Good evening, Mr. Jones.”
Ivan gulped. “Hi Miss Lennox.”
“Please, Ivan, call me Agatha.”
The words were friendly, but they had about as much warmth as the woman’s body.
“Nicholas has just woken up. He wants to speak to you. You free?”
“Sure!” answered Ivan, tone brightening. He’d half-wondered if he’d ever hear from Nick again. Or if he was right to leave him at a literal vampire lair.
But then, wasn’t that where he belonged now?
On the other end of the line, Nick took the cordless phone from Agatha. “Did you have to have to tell him I just woke up?”
“It’s the truth,” replied Agatha. To Nick’s mild surprise, she left him alone in the drawing room. “Call me when you’re done.”
“Hi Nick.” Nick heard a smile creep into his friend’s voice, “Sleeping all day, partying all night?”
Nick scoffed. “No choice. Soon as the sun comes up I’m out. So annoying.”
Ivan raised an eyebrow. “Agatha came to visit me yesterday. At noon.”
“She’s bigger. What’d ya talk about?”
Mostly about how horribly he’d die if he told anyone breathing about this without permission. Ivan instead focused on the other salient point:
“Her sister’s going to set me up with an apartment and a job.”
“What sort of job? Drug runner? Muscle?”
“Nah man, bartender at one of her clubs.”
Nick pictured Ivan slinging drinks and chatting with drunk club-kids.
Yeah, that seemed about right.
“Cool, cool… hey, Ivan, when you’re set up, do you mind if I move in?”
Ivan took a moment to answer. “..Sure, man, that’d be great.” His brow knit. “Wait, are they giving you a hard time over there?”
Even through the phone, it sounded like Ivan would march right over to the house if Nick said yes. Lest he actually try that, Nick quickly answered, “No, no. Last week’s been great.”
Nick wasn’t lying. Being a vampire was fun. The Lennoxes were fun. He found himself… running a lot with them. He hadn’t run much when he was still human. Felt like something little kids did. Nick was beginning to suspect he’d been missing out.
He was beginning to learn to discern the differences between himself and the other kids. Tabby was the fastest. Zeke was stronger, if only because Tabby was smaller. Gren was great at pretty much everything, but not the best at anything. She also claimed to be able to make animals do what she wanted, but couldn’t stop Tabby-the-kitten from pouncing on her at every opportunity.
Nick didn't have any of that. He was weaker than the others. By a lot. He couldn’t even lift a decent sized boulder over his head. And if Nick had some special magic thing up his often hypothetical sleeve, he hadn’t found it yet.
It didn't bother Nick that much, though. None of the others could sneak like he could. He’d already memorised the house's nooks and crannies. Cat form came like breathing to him, and even as a boy his footsteps made less noise than falling leaves.
Most of all, it was nice having people to run with.
“It’s just… there’s a few things.”
Nick glanced at the drawing room door. The Lennoxes failed to burst into the room. ‘...Their computer is from 2001!
“Really? I thought the vamps were loaded.”
“They are! And their computer can’t play YouTube!”
Nick had tried. He’d watched the loading icon circle in darkness for ten minutes, like a snake forever chasing its own tail.
“Guess what console they own?”
Nick laughed scornfully. “I wish! Nintendo!”
“What, an NES?”
“...No,” admitted Nick. “64.”
Ivan smiled, stifling a laugh. Sometimes he forgot how young Nick was. Little guy didn’t even remember the first XBox. “Don’t knock the 64, man. Donkey Kong was lit.”
“That’s what Zeke said,” Nick grumbled. “It’s like living with Amish people! They have one crap computer, and nobody except the Moms have a phone.”
“You didn’t have a phone,” Ivan reminded him.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t a rich vampire! And at least I wanted one!”
“You really don’t want a phone?” he’d asked Tabby.
Tabby had just spun around in the tire-swing. “Why do I need one?”
“Um, for talking to people?”
“I can go and do that in the flesh. I’m doing it right now.”
“But what about when you’re miles from home? What if you wanted to talk to your Moms?”
Tabby had giggled. “If I wanted to talk to the Moms, why wouldn’t I be at home? And you know how I travel. Where would I keep it?”
“And they’re creationists!”
“Vampire creationists,” Ivan said flatly.
“I know, right? The full deal! Like, Earth’s six thousand years old, evolution is a lie. Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs—everything.” Nick kicked at the carpet. “Only difference from the Minister is they think Eve had a big sister that fucked a dead guy.”
Nick found himself snickering. “Since when did you care about my language?”
“Someone has to.”
Nick quickly remembered his tirade. “How can they be so dumb?”
For a moment, the only thing that ran down the phone line was static.
“...Don’t tell me you think they’re right.”
“I don’t know, buddy! Probably not! But I didn’t know vampires existed last week. I’m not exactly Darwin—wait, Darwin was the one who invented evolution, right?”
Nick grit his teeth. “Discovered evolution. Nobody ‘invented’ it.”
“You know what I mean. Still, never heard of something evolving so it can turn into a cat… well besides cats, but they’re always cats.”
“Maybe we just look like cats!” Nick retorted. Another idea occurred to him. “Or—or maybe vampires evolved from cats!”
Nick winced the second he suggested that. He hoped Ivan didn’t know enough about evolution to realise how stupid that sounded.
“Maybe,” Ivan said.
Not needing to breathe made it easy for Nick not to sigh in relief, but then Ivan said:
“But I don’t think you evolved from cats.”
He was right. Nick did end up sighing. “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense!”
Poor Nick, Ivan thought. Kid wasn’t used to being ignorant. Ivan however was an old study, and he knew it. “Look, Nick, is it really a big deal? So they believe some wacky stuff. Kinda small next to the vampire thing, you know?”
“It’s just… what if they’re like the Minister?”
Nick nodded, only to remember he was on the phone. “Yeah. That. There’s other stuff, too. The Moms make everyone eat at the table, too.”
Nick could practically hear Ivan picturing what they ate. Quickly, he clarified, “Not like that. Vampires eat a lot of fruit-salad.”
Ivan laughed. A smile crossed Nick’s lips, but it died fast. “It’s like, they want me around all the time. Doing stuff with them.”
“What. Like, hunting, or—”
“No! Dumb board games! And talking. There’s so much talking!”
“Nick… that isn’t always a bad thing.”
Ivan thought he heard Nick’s voice shake slightly. “You think so?”
“Yeah, man. Still, soon as I’ve got my digs set-up, there’s a room for you, got it?”
“Thanks Ivan. Talk again soon, right?”
Nick ended the call. A heavy flutter of footsteps thudded the floor above. Probably Gren and Zeke, he guessed. Nick was getting good at telling that sort of thing.
He looked at the door again. He could hear Agatha tapping away at her ancient laptop in her office. She didn’t sound like she was going to get up particularly soon.
Nick looked down at the phone. Did vampires normally leave their fledglings alone with communication devices?
He rubbed his thumb against the buttons.
He could call home. Just tell his mom he was okay. Maybe ask how her new Darren Hunter book was going. She already knew he was a vampire, the secret was out—
Nick shook his head at the thought. What if the Minister picked up? What would he say? Frank Collins, this is God, can you put your wife on?
He wondered if a sermon could kill him over the phone.
Dumb idea. She knew he was alive. That was enough. It had to be.
Nick walked into Agatha’s study and set the phone down in its cradle.
Nick suppressed a shudder. Who said that? Vampires, apparently.
“Thanks for letting me talk to him.”
Agatha looked up from her work, lines of serif text reflected in her glasses. “It was no trouble, Nicholas.”
“You still don’t mind me living with Ivan?”
“It’s a very practical arrangement.”
Before Nick could move, Agatha took his hand. “It won’t change anything, you know. My daughter’s blood is in your veins. And we’re all Lilith’s children in the end.”
Nick felt funny inside. “Yeah, I know.”
Agatha released him, leaning back in her swivel-chair. “Tomorrow I’m taking you to work with me, in the city.”
Nick’s eyes widened. He hadn’t ventured out of the woods in days. Maybe he could steal himself a phone. “Thank you, ma’am”—Nick caught himself—“Agatha. Any reason?”
Agatha glanced at the phone.
“You did the right thing.”
Oh. Somehow Nick didn’t feel great about that.
Agatha looked back down at her laptop. “I’ll see you at dinner, Nicholas. Go play with the others.”
Nick trudged out of the study, wandering aimlessly down the hall. Tabby skipped around the corner. She was wearing a simple yellow dress. The Lennoxes were not militant nudists so much as liberal dressers. It’d taken Nick a while to get used to seeing her dressed in something not covered in blood.
“Hey Nick. You talked to Ivan?”
“Yeah,” Nick grunted, looking down at his feet.
Tabby craned herself to look Nick in the eyes. “Hey, what’s the matter?”
Nick huffed. “Nothing. That’s what’s the matter. I don’t even know.”
Tabby straightened herself and bit her lip. She grabbed Nick’s hand. Everyone seemed to want in on his fingers tonight.
“Come on,” she said.
The pair crawled through the cat-tunnels up onto the roof. The stars were just emerging from behind the sky. Vampire noon.
Tabby flopped onto her back. “You know your constellations?”
Nick shrugged. “Laflech was too bright for that. I know some names, though. Gemini, Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper…”
Tabby snorted. “Those are what humans call them.” She patted the space next to her. “Come get educated, newbie.”
They lay there in the gathering dark, Tabby pointing out patterns of light.
“You see that? The one shaped like a bull?”
“They all kinda look the same to me.”
Tabby punched him in the shoulder. “Philistine! That one’s the Old Father.”
“You mean God?”
“God’s a cow?”
Nick grinned. “I thought God was Zeke covered in glitter.”
Tabby nodded sagely. “That would make more sense.”
“What about Gemini? You know that one?”
Tabby found the constellation. “Those are Abel’s first born twins.”
“...They totally made babies together, didn’t they.”
“Not that time. By then there were human kids to recruit.”
“Oh, so that’s why we can do that?”
“It’s definitely a reason.”
Ophiuchus was Lilith mating with Leviathan to produce the wyrms of the sea. The Big Dipper was the Children of Lilith sheltering in that same beast’s belly during the Great Flood. The Pleiades were the seven angels that fathered the races of fairy.
“Say,” said Nick. “I was wondering, where does Satan fit into this?”
“Why do humans think he’s such a big deal to us?”
“No? We didn’t fall for his tricks. Besides, guy works for God.”
“...Satan works for God?”
“You’re the least Jewish Jewish kid I ever met.”
“You keep saying that!”
Eventually, the astronomy lesson petered out. The stars were allowed to shine without explanation.
“You said you were going to turn me before I—”
“Before you freaked out and hit me with a wrench, yes.”
“...That. Why were you gonna do that?”
Tabby’s answer was simple. “You’re cute.”
“It’s the nose.”
Huh. Nick wasn’t surprised. But since when was anyone so… open with that.
His hand found hers.
Riding in a limo had always been one of Nick’s ambitions in life. Now that he could outpace one with a light jog, it felt… constricting.
Nick scratched at the tag rubbing against his neck.
Why do clothes still have these?
In chinos and a collared button-up shirt, Nick was the most dressed he’d been since his transformation. The lack of air on his skin felt surprisingly alien, but what was really bugging Nick though were his shoes. His feet felt like they were wrapped in four layers of duct tape. Nico was worried he’d tear right through the leather if he so much as wriggled his toes.
Worst of all, Agatha hadn’t even let him wear his jacket into town. Something about it being more conspicuous than mere nudity. But Nick felt more naked than when he was naked.
Agatha sat across from him, reading some old book about riverboats. Nick decided to satisfy some curiosity:
“Can vampires be near-sighted?”
Agatha didn’t look up from her paperback. “Disease and infirmity is the Old Father’s curse on the children of Adam. So, no, we can’t.”
“Then why do you wear glasses?”
“They make me look older. Same reason I’m my own ten times granddaughter if anyone asks.” Agatha tilted her head thoughtfully. “I suppose I also wear them for much the same reason you’re so attached to your Kriegsmarine jacket.”
Nick smiled at the thought. “So, you don’t think Tabby’s going to take over for you someday?”
“Inheritance is for mortal creatures. Also, Nicholas, you’ve met my daughter. Does she seem like the business type?
“That reminds me.” Agatha took out her flip phone and dialed a number. “Good evening Cynthia. I’ll be at the office in five minutes with my nephew. Be a dear and have some snacks ready for him. See you soon.”
The vampire flicked the phone shut.
Nick narrowed his eyes. “I still can’t believe you have a flip-phone.”
“It’s so old. Might as well be using a homing pigeon.”
“I’m nearly five hundred, Nicholas. I’ve used homing pigeons. Trust me, my phone is far more convenient.”
“But what if you want to use the internet?”
Agatha patted the bag on the seat next to her. “I keep my laptop charged.”
“Okay, but you can listen to music on a good phone!”
Agatha lowered her glasses and gave Nick a flat look. “When I was a little girl, Nicholas, all music was live. I can go a few hours without the Top 40 blaring in my ear.” She then reached into one of the pockets of her bag, pulling out a silver MP3 player. “Also, not everything needs to be in the same casing.”
Nick didn’t let the argument die a merciful death. “...Games?”
“One of my firms makes games for the mobile market. I’m told they’re mainly traps for problem gamblers.”
Nick only had one thing left to say. “...My shirt’s itchy.”
He was contented by the discovery that the internal minibar was stocked with juice.
The limo pulled up right in front of the building’s doors, just like in the movies when they couldn’t be bothered having the characters find a real parking spot.
Nick stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked up. He’d vaguely expected a skyscraper. A tower, at least. But the Lennox Plaza was a dwarf among giants. A solid rectangle of old brick nestled in a glass mountain range, ringed by watchful gargoyles. Where the windows of its neighbouring high rises stared out into the dusk with harsh LED eyes, Lennox Plaza’s windows were lit with warm yellow lights like torches in castle portholes. It reminded Nick more of a grand hotel than any business centre he knew of. And yet, it didn’t feel unimpressive next to all the skyscrapers.
Nick remembered an old border collie the Minister’s brothers had, and how her sons still looked like her puppies when they stood half a head taller than her.
“Let me guess,” said Agatha as she climbed out of the limo. “You’re wondering why I don’t own one of the fancy new skyscrapers?”
“No,” he said. “I like it.”
Agatha blinked. “Oh. Thank you. At least you have a sense of taste.”
She decided not to mention that she owned shares in half those towers anyway.
Agatha took Nick’s hand and walked through the front doors. The boy frowned but didn’t try to pull away.
As soon as they stepped into the grand foyer, humans flocked Agatha like worker bees tending to their queen:
“McClean wants to reschedule your meeting Thursday—”
“Advertising says they’ll have the mock-ups on your desk by ten—”
“Aww, is this your nephew? He looks like you.”
What, because we’re both pale? She’s Asian or something. Are humans blind?
Humans were boring when they weren't his mom or Ivan. They were loud, and blind, and they got in the way. Jeez. No wonder Agatha had the lights on so bright.
"...Why are they here?" he asked, his voice barely audible. "Why bother with humans?"
Agatha shrugged. "They're surprisingly handy. And it's hard to find children of Lilith with the patience for my line of work."
"But they're so slow—"
Eventually, Agatha managed to shed most of her lackeys. They rode an elevator to the top where. What might have once been a luxury penthouse was now an office. The walls were taken up by what looked like old Greek and Bible murals. Agatha’s desk looked like an ancient bronze altar. There were pictures of children Nick didn’t recognize.
“Who are they?” asked Nick.
“My children,” she answered.
“They don’t look like Tabby and Zeke.”
“Remember what I said about my age?”
Nick tried to imagine that. Tabby and Zeke could have brothers older than America. Agatha could actually be someone’s great-great grandmother for all Nick knew.
Agahta opened her laptop and procured a red, heavily scratched Gameboy Advance from her desk. “Do you want to play with this while I work? I think there’s a SpongeBob game in here.”
Nick shook his head. “No thanks, Agatha. Can you tell me what this place actually does?”
Agatha raised an eyebrow. “You want the long or short version?”
Nick pulled up a chair. “Long, please.”
Agatha suppressed a smile. “So, as for what we do here, not much, speaking honestly. We’re a holding company with controlling shares in many different ventures.”
“Where’d you get the startup capital?”
Agatha’s eyes widened fractionally. “I’m sorry?”
“You know, seed-money? How’d you get the money to buy those shares to begin with.”
“...You’re sure you’re actually ten?” Agatha asked. “Tabitha didn’t just find a born boy to play a joke on me?”
Nick grinned. “I ran a drug dealing business, Agatha.”
“I thought that was your human friend.”
Nick raised a single eyebrow.
“...Touché. Well, to answer your very good question, when my siblings first came to the Americas, our father was kind enough to give us some gold. I used my share to found a shipping concern here in the Bay Colony, and in the 1800s I diversified into cotton farming and export.”
Nick thought about that. “Wait, you mean—”
Agatha sighed. “Yes, the farms had slaves. It was the 19th century.”
Nick grimaced. “Ewww.”
“We eat people, Nicholas.”
“At least I don’t make them pick cotton for me first!”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. The Yankees—and Winona—put an end to that. These days I fund my employees’ existence indirectly like all good American capitalists.”
“Good,” said Nick. “I mean, slavery sucking aside, people work better when they don’t hate you. Especially when they can kill us with psalms.”
Agatha nodded. “That’s a fair point. I did have to burn a fair few bibles in my time. Anyway, as much as I’ve adapted to that law of the land, I do prefer to keep my money to myself, so technically Lennox is registered in—”
“Let me guess,” said Nick. “A building in the Cayman Islands?”
“Well done. Yes. With redundant holdings in Ireland and the Netherlands. Just in case..”
Nick grinned. “Smart.”
Agatha made a mental note to do a background check on Nicholas. She hoped Tabby hadn’t stolen some billionaire’s child for the change. What little he’d said about his father made him sound like a Prosperity Gospel sort of man.
“Of course,” said Agatha. “I don’t limit myself to sources of profit humanity has arbitrarily declared legal.”
Nick leaned forward. “Like?”
Agatha went into a series of anecdotes about bringing Tremontaine’s gangs under heel. Arranging feuds to winnow down rival families to more manageable sizes. The occasional grand atrocity to replace the fear of God in them. Outright purchasing most of the city’s police department.
“That last one was fairly easy,” she admitted.
“You ever like… offer people the change?” asked Nick. “As a reward or whatever.”
“Not directly, for the most part,” said Agatha. “Most of these men were Irish. Heavy Catholics, you understand. I didn’t want them to know enough to try waving crosses at me and mine.”
“Besides, the change doesn’t take easily with grown folk. It needs a certain… malleability.”
“You can’t change grown-ups?”
“It’s perfectly possible,” answered Agatha. “They just sometimes… combust.” Sourly, she added, “Adults often have a lot more faith in higher powers than they realize. The Old Father protects his people.”
“Ah,” said Nick.
There goes biting Mom…
The PA on Agatha’s desk buzzed. She pressed the receive button. “Yes?”
“Chef De Winter is ready to serve. Everyone’s in place.”
“Thank you, Cynthia.” Agatha glanced at Nicholas. “Make sure there’s something my nephew can drink.”
“We’ll be down in a moment.”
Agatha took her finger off the button. Nick asked, “Wait, you’re taking me to a meeting thing?”
“Yes, if you don’t mind. You seemed interested in this sort of thing.”
Nick nodded eagerly. “I am… your secretary lady said something about a chef?”
Agatha rose from her chair. “People tend to be more honest over a pleasant meal. Just a tool of the trade.”
Despite the talk of food, Nick expected some kind of boardroom. Maybe some snacks and a pitcher of water in the middle of the table. Not a grand dining room and a table the size and shape of Batman’s giant coin, laden with a full course meal. There was even a roast turkey that looked like it’d been mutated with 1950s radiation.
It was a mixed species crowd so far Nick could tell. Some room-temperature vampires heaping salad and bleeding slabs of blue steak. Most were human, though; grey and blue suited old men who looked like they were birthed by filing cabinets. If they were Russian, they’d probably have either been in sweatsuits or sitting in a sauna. A few muscular men in their thirties who looked genuinely out of place dressed in smart casual rather than sweaty tanktops and leather jackets.
A few others, though, were something new. They smelt like kin to Nick’s lizard brain, but he could hear them breathing—less asthmatically than humans tended to, but still, breathing. Their bodies glowed even brighter with heat than the humans. Nick reminded himself to ask Agatha about them later.
Whatever they were, they ate voraciously. But they ignored any meat that wasn’t at least pink.
Curious, Nick slid a slice of turkey onto his plate and took a bite.
It had the rough flavour and consistency of old rubber. The closest comparison he had was when the Minister would try cooking steak. Not inedible, just badly overcooked.
Nick forced himself to swallow. Stick to rare meat, he decided. Or fruit. Fruit was nice.
A bald, liver-spotted man on Nick’s left nudged the boy:
“Regretting the meat?”
Nick nodded. “Little bit.”
The man proffered him a pitcher of orange juice.
“Here. Get rid of the taste before the boss starts talking turkey.”
The only reason Nick tolerated that pun was the knowledge he’d outlive the man.
Agatha stood up and tapped her knife against a glass of wine. Nick silently made the appropriate Dracula joke to himself.
“Good evening, everyone. I hope the fare met everyone’s expectations.”
There was a wave of cheerful assent.
“I’m afraid I have a confession to make. I began this meeting prematurely.”
“In good conscience, I should have waited for our guest. He’s coming all the way from Lemuria.”
The cheerful clamour died instantly. In the space of a moment, the loudest sound in the room was Nick chewing a mouthful of grapes. He felt like he was missing some sort of in-joke.
Across the table, one of the youngest men in suits pushed halfway out of his chair, and in a panicked voice, began reciting verse.
“And though I stride through the shadow of the valley of death,” Half of those present at the table flinched, Nick included, hands moving to ears, eyes pooling black as the man awkwardly extricated himself from the table. “I have no fear, for thou art with m—” he made it all of four steps before liver-spots chucked the pitcher of orange juice at his head. He went to one knee with a loud clang.
Agatha nodded curtly at the old man. “Thank you, Kerry.”
Kerry gave an off-hand salute. “No problem, boss.”
The young man screamed, “Thou shall not—“
In one fluid movement, Nick bounded over the table, grabbing a turkey leg as he passed and landed on the man’s shoulder. He shoved the leg hard into his mouth.
The man’s attempts at verse muffled against the meat. The other diners clapped.
“Thank you, thank you,” Nick said, bowing his head around the room.
Agatha was clapping too. “Nicely handled, Nicholas.” She looked at Nick’s captive. “I am surprised you didn’t break his neck.”
The man’s eyes widened. A muffled scream escaped the corners of his mouth.
Nick shrugged. “Figured I should know why he tried godding us to death first.”
The diners chorused some approving noises.
“Prudent,” said Agatha. “Very well. It recently came to my attention that for the eighteen months Brian has worked for us, he’s been feeding information to an old friend of mine.”
Nick could practically hear the air-quotes around “old friend.”
“So he’s a spy.”
“As apt a description as any.”
Brian tried to protest. Nick shoved the turkey leg deeper into his mouth.
“And this old friend is coming to talk to you about it?”
“So we keep him alive until then,” said Nick. “Bargaining chip.”
Agatha inclined her chin. “My thoughts precisely, Nicholas.”
Nick beamed proudly. Brian sighed with audible relief.
Kerry chuckled. “I wouldn’t get smug. The Grey King’s shadow is always hungry.”
Brian began panicking into his turkey leg.
Nick was really glad today was Take Your-Daughter’s-Sorta-Boyfriend To Work Day. “Wait. How’d this guy even get hired? Didn’t you check up on him? You own like, a mansion.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Agatha murmured, her gaze shifting balefully to one of the oldsters. “That would have been your department, right Horace?”
Horace started fretting his necktie, stammering, “I—his qualifications were great. He was on that startup show!”
Agatha blinked slowly.
“Right. Kerry. We’ll be needing a new head of HR. If you could prep a list of reasonable candidates for the board.”
“Will do, ma’am.”
Agatha looked back at Nick. “Nicholas. May I ask your thoughts?”
More air quotes. Horace stared plaintively at Nick.
Nick locked gazes with the old man, considering. “...Is he a traitor or an idiot?”
“Idiot, mostly,” answered Agatha coolly. Horace didn’t protest the assessment. “But an idiot with a career of faithful service. It’s a shame, really. He used to be quite good. I suspect dementia.”
“Then… Care home? Somewhere really boring?”
Agatha chuckled. “We’ll be sure it has golf.”
Horace covered his face with his hands. Nick could hear him repeating, “Oh thank God, thank God…” against his palms.
Kerry raised a glass of wine. “To Nicholas. May his career with us last longer than young Brian’s.”
For the first time since Nick had met her, Agatha properly laughed. “I don’t think Nicholas will be working for me for long.”
Nick smiled. She was right.
Once dessert had been served and Brian drugged into an acceptable stupor, Nick and Winona taped him sitting upright in a wheelchair and carted him up to her office.
The former up-and-comer sat groaning facing the penthouse elevator, Agatha sitting behind him on her desk. It was four o’clock in the morning. The office was the only lit window in the plaza.
“So…” said Nick, playing with the dimmer switch. “What’s this I hear about the Grey King’s shadow?”
“You must forgive Kerry,” said Agatha. “Even after all these years, we still seem very mystical to him.”
“That doesn’t answer the question, though,” Nick pointed out. “What is it?”
“Just the man’s protege. Boy about your age, give or take a decade or two. Born vampire, you see.”
“Huh,” Nick muttered. He wasn’t sure he liked everyone who looked like him being way older. “What’s his name?”
“No,” Nick grinned. “I mean, like, his real name.”
Agatha looked at him.
Nick suddenly felt eponymously underdressed.
The intercom buzzed.
“Miss Lennox,” said Cynthia. “Garret Fontenot and”—a pause—“Shadow are here.”
“Send them up.”
Nick heard the elevator cables whir as the carriage climbed towards them. The shiny gold doors opened.
“Mademoiselle Agatha, it’s been too long.”
A tall man strode out of the elevator. He wore a dark red tailcoat and tophat, from which spilled dreadlocks that went past his shoulders. He clutched a cane in his left hand, topped with a skull. Nick doubted the man needed it. He struggled momentarily to spot the “grey” part of the whole ensemble. Then he noticed the man’s complexion. He assumed the skin had once been brown. Vampirism had acted oddly on it, though, paling his natural tonality to something almost monochrome.
Wait, Nick thought. They call him ‘the Grey King’ because of his skin? Man, vampires are racist.
“Hi Aggy!” called a slender boy skipping behind the Grey King, dressed in a comfortable looking cotton shirt with a picture of a guitar on it. His hair was the colour of baby duck down, half covered by a lopsided beret. His painfully delicate features felt faintly familiar to Nick. He looked like how those Nazis he killed would’ve imagined the perfect little girl.
The boy pointed at Nicholas. “Where’s Tabby? I wanna punch her.”
“She’s at home today, Shadow,” said Agatha. “This is Nicholas. Tabitha changed him not too long ago.”
Shadow frowned. “Aww. She’s the best puncher.”
Nick bristled. “I can punch, too.”
Garret laughed. “You heard him, Shadow. Git ‘em.”
Shadow threw his beret off to the side. Half an instant later, Nick felt cold glass shattering against his back.
Shadow—the mad little bastard—was atop him as he fell, half kneeling on his chest on the journey to the ground, already punching.
It was a bit surprising, really. By strength, Shadow was an even weaker vampire than he was. In terms of speed, however, he doubted even the adults could have caught him.
Shadow punched him in the face. Then again. Pulled back for a third.
Shadow’s fist met thin air as Nick shrunk into his feline form. He found himself lodged inside his own shirt, the other boy’s blurry silhouette flailing above him. He kicked out against Shadow’s chest, accelerating his journey to the ground in an effort to buy time.
He hit the ground balled up inside his shirt like a faintly mewling comet, then took off at a gallop down the empty street, his head poking out the neckline of it. He had to hide. Had to—
An alley. A manhole. Perfect.
Shadow landed a half second after his prey. He saw a pair of back paws disappear down into the open sewer and stifled a laugh. He took a second to remove his shirt. This was a nice shirt. Garret had got it for him. He didn’t want to ruin it. Then, he charged for the sewer.
Shadow landed with a splash in the dark tunnel. This was no hiding place. The dark was nothing to Shadow’s eyes, and the various human stenches weren’t strong enough to cover a scent for long. That Nick kid still had some learning to do. Oh well, if Shadow couldn’t beat some sense into him, Tabby would.
Shadow closed his eyes, inhaled deeply through his nose, and began to move. A smell. Strong. Fellow vampire. A hint of blood. He must’ve got the other boy better than he thought with all those punches. He opened his eyes, rounded a corner—
A blood-stained t-shirt hung from an access ladder.
You clever little—
Nick leapt from the water behind his quarry with a somewhat bedraggled roar. He slapped his hands sharply over Shadow’s ears. Old technique he’d learned on the schoolyard. Mostly from bigger boys using it on him.
Shadow yelped and stumbled forward, clutching the sides of his head.
But Nick was a monster now. And he wasn’t going to let mercy get the best of him. He stepped forward—
And then Shadow punched him in the balls.
Nick’s vision flashed black. That hurt. “God Himself shouting at his junk” hurt.
He managed to cut off a scream, instead half growling. A kick sent one of Shadow’s teeth skittering off the floor. Luckily, that was just enough to brag about, because it was the last good hit he managed to land.
The insane little shit utterly destroyed him. Five minutes later, Shadow was standing over a bruised and bloody Nick floating on the tide of autumn and sewage.
“Good fight,” he said, smiling brightly. He winced as a new fang forced its way out his gums. Blood was trickling from his ears.
Nick spat a wad of blood and sputum up at Shadow. “You punched me in the dick, you dick!”
Shadow smirked. “Count yourself lucky, if I was Tabby, you wouldn’t have one anymore.”
“Tabby’s my friend!”
“My friend too. I speak from experience.”
Nick groaned. “What is this family?”
“She doesn’t get to win much. She does it hardcore when she can.”
“She wins all the time!”
“Not against me. Her brother’s cute, tho.”
Nick’s brain caught on a gear. “You… like boys?”
“Yep,” replied Shadow. He gave Nick a surprisingly warm smile. “Don’t worry, you’re at least as cute. Tabby has good taste.”
Nick suddenly remembered that he was naked. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Offended? Flattered? He settled for faintly off put.
Nick shook his head. That was Minister brain guck talking. He was better than that. Besides, apparently he was still cute while covered in sewage. That had to count for something.
“...Can you pass me my shirt?”
Shadow pulled it off the ladder. “Sure thing, buddy. Wanna head back on up? I bet Garret and Aggy are done with the big people chat by now.”
Nick hopped to his feet and took the offered shirt. “Thanks.” He tied it around his waist, less out of modesty and more in case Shadow thought about going for round two.
A minute later the boys were climbing back out of the manhole. Shadow broke open a fire hydrant. They rinsed themselves clean.
Agatha and Garret were nursing cups of coffee in her office.
“Wonder how your new boy is doing?”
“Laying in a pool of his own blood somewhere. Just like Tabby and Zeke the first time. Doubt he even landed a hit.” She quirked her shoulder. “No matter. That boy’s brilliance isn’t in fighting.”
Garret nodded. “It takes all sorts.” He heard the rumble of the elevator. “I think that’s them now.”
“Hey, Garry!” Shadow squealed as the doors opened, half-hugging a battered, still half-soaked Nick. “He got me good! Can we keep him?”
Garret laughed. “Did he now?”
“Yeah!” Cat opened a hand to show his discarded tooth. “And it was the grown-up fang, too!”
Garret frowned thoughtfully at Agatha. “Give the boy this, he made him work for it.”
Nick narrowed his eyes. “Wait, did you know I was gonna lose?”
“Yes,” was Agatha’s only answer. “That’s what happens when you fight Shadow.”
From his corner of the office, Brian groaned.
Shadow pointed at the human heap. “You decided what you’re doing with the lame spy yet?”
Garret looked at Agatha.
The woman said, “He tried using the Old Father’s spite. On a child no less. I wouldn’t give that sort of cheek quarter if I was you. And he did get caught.”
Garret looked back at Shadow. “Hungry?”
“Share him with Nicholas.”
“Thanks, mister,” said Nick.
The boys turned as one on the luckily still drugged Brian.
Nick considered it a bonding exercise.