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“Long time no see, Skywalker!”
“It’s been a week.”
“Aw, have you been counting the days?”
“No. I haven’t.” Luke sighed heavily. “Come along now, there is much work to be done.”
Yen wondered if the blond hobo had been thanking the heavens everyday for his absence. It looked that way. Luke clearly wasn’t keen on this partnership. He probably felt like his important missions of feeding stray animals and helping grandmas with groceries were being jeopardised by his loose canon of a companion. While Yen struggled with a growing temptation to lift the wool off of his eyes.
He had grown convinced that most of the people Luke thought he was helping were actually a troupe of actors. Some of them didn’t even try to disguise it too heavily. He could have sworn every single old man they’d ever traded with or helped was the same dude wearing different wigs and fake beards. And occasionally glasses.
Yen refrained from his usual mischief, instead focusing on memorising the faces or other recognisable features of the people who needed Luke’s help today. When the same woman approached them twice within two hours, Yen finally burst.
“Oh, come on! This is just lazy! Can’t you see this is the same chick who had lost the wedding ring we helped earlier today?!” Yen pointed after her.
The woman gave him a dirty look, waved a finger next to the side of her head, then hurried away.
“I am sorry, please, ignore him!” Luke called out after her.
“Oh come on, use your eyes. You’re called Luke, so look, goddamnit!” Yen waved both arms at the woman. “She’s got the exact same nose with the dimple!”
“This is absurd, Yen.” Luke crossed his arms on his chest.
Yen stepped up to him. “Oh, so I am the only one who noticed every single old guy we bump into has yellow eyes?” Yen tapped Luke’s forehead with his index finger.“ Use your head and tell me, how common is that?”
“More common than you think, it appears.” Luke softly swatted Yen’s hand away, but his expression told Yen that the seed of doubt had finally been sown.
Yen snickered. “Oh, Luke, my buddy, I didn’t want to spoil the charade, especially since I’m paid so well, but none of it is real. Your boss is playing you for a fool.”
Luke’s expression cleared. “No, Yen, you are mistaken, El and what he does are both very real.”
“Oh, and what does that El do? More shamanism? Listen to this, sham-anism, it’s in the name!”
“El is not a shaman.”
“What is he then?”
Luke looked troubled. He scrutinized Yen for a moment, then shook his head. “Nevermind. You won’t believe me.”
“And you shouldn’t believe that nonsense either. I mean you try so hard to help all these people, but it’s not even real. They’re making you put on a show, that’s how shamanism usually works. I just don’t know who the show is for.” Yen rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
Luke shook his head. “No, you’re wrong.”
Yen shrugged. “Tell me that when we get to the old man who you’re supposed to give that tin of skin cream or vaseline or whatever that is.” The biker grinned. “Bet you fifty bucks he’ll have yellow eyes.”
“I don’t make bets.”
“Good, because you’re losing this one.”
They walked for a while longer until they reached a courtyard where an old man with a sack stood under a tree, waiting for them.
Yen’s smug grin faded as they got closer, and he saw the current old guy had brown eyes. He was also noticeably bigger than the usual suspect. And even the shape of his face was different, much fuller. Luke gave Yen a scolding look and began bargaining with the man. Yen just stood in place and watched them for a moment. Then he stepped closer, reached out and forcefully pulled on the old man’s beard. It came right off.
“Ouch! What the devil-” The old man brought a hand to his irritated jaw. The skin under the fake beard was red and cleanly shaved with traces of glue.
Yen looked at the beard in his hand, then at the guy, then at Luke.
Luke followed his eyes as well. Then both of them stared at the man.
“Hey… “ Yen uttered in disbelief. “You’re the plaid dude who wanted the CD!”
The man stared at them wide-eyed for a few seconds and barked a loud laugh. Even though he sounded properly American before, now he was instantly back to the evil Russian accent. “Yes, it is me! You see through my disguise, filthy street rat! But I will still get what I’m here to steal!”
He tried to snatch the tin from Luke, but Yen slapped the item out of Luke’s hands and onto the ground, then kicked it behind himself. “No. You don’t. Not until you tell us who you work for and what this whole weirdass act is about!”
“Foiled again! Curses!” The man threw his hands into the air in a theatrical gesture and hurried in the opposite direction. “I’ll get you next time!” he cast over his shoulder.
“No, you get back over here and explain shit!” Yen pointed at the ground angrily.
Yen turned to Luke and saw the blond staring at him with awe. “You stopped the villain. He was going to fool me into giving the tin to him, even though it doesn’t belong to him. And you stopped him.” Luke smiled. “This must be why El puts so much faith in you.”
“He does what? No, you’ve got it all wrong, this is all still a farce, and I’ll prove it to you. Just pay attention to the people next time, you’ll see I’m right.”
Luke ignored him and went over to pick up the tin. He dusted it off and put it into his messenger bag.
“Thanks, Yen. That was very well-done.”
Yen groaned and covered his eyes with his hand.
That same night Luke returned to El with the tin and explained that he had not managed to deliver it. This time, however, Yen’s interference had proved beneficial, and Luke eagerly shared that feedback with El as well.
“I must admit I was not keen on having him around, and he still makes me uncomfortable with his rude and laughable… how do you call them… conspiracy theories? But he did a great job back there. I surely would have fallen for the mean Russian’s ploy if it weren’t for Yen!”
El was smoking in his usual plastic chair outside the tenement. He grinned. “I’m glad you and Yen are getting along. You two complement each other quite well.”
When Luke was gone, El unscrewed the perforated lid of the tin and let the small snake inside crawl lazily into his hand. It still needed to get delivered, but for now there was no point to inconvenience the critter further.
Zack gobbled up his waffles, his mood stellar, as he sat beside Tamika on the edge of the seat in the diner booth the Pharaohs had crammed themselves in. Nakhti sat right across from him, much to Zack’s delight and distress. Their feet had brushed against each other earlier, and the teenager almost choked on his food. Nakhti didn’t seem to have noticed. He was busy pitching the idea of their next road trip to the remainder of the club.
Tamika and Josie seemed receptive, Sam, sitting beside Nakhti, was quiet as always. And so, unexpectedly, was Yen. He sat in Sam’s usual spot by the window and glared outside, barely touching his food. Behind the window, their motorbikes stood in a row, guarded by smoking Sphinx. The older biker had volunteered, and Zack couldn’t feel more grateful. Mesmerised, he watched the sunlight play in Nakhti’s mane of raven hair and soaked up the sound of his voice.
Between the current situation and the fact he had not seen Taylor at school or otherwise for weeks now, Zack was very happy. And the food was delicious, he could see how this was the Pharaoh’s favorite place to eat out, especially since they were on a budget.
The skinny blond guy who served them earlier popped up beside the table again.
”Everything to your liking, gentlemen and ladies?”
“When has it ever been otherwise, Dwight?” Tamika grinned.
The blond winked. “That’s what I like to hear, and I’ll do my best to keep it this way. By the way, hope you’re all gonna be at the Halloween party this year. My siblings are helping me prepare. It’s gonna be a blast.”
Tamika grinned. “Is that an official invitation?”
“Yep, the officialest.”
Tamika beamed at him. “Then rest assured we-”
“The Undying,” Yen said.
The rest of them turned to him and then to the window. A new row of bikes formed outside. Sphinx did not budge, impassively watching the other bikers get off their machines and pass him by with scowls as they headed inside. There were at least eight of them, and to his horror, Zack saw Taylor was among them.
“Get your loose assholes out of here, faggots!” the bearded leader of the Undying yelled from the entrance.
The other patrons of the diner looked between the two groups of bikers uneasily.
The Pharaohs did not move from place. The Undying stalked towards them, people moving out of their way in a hurry, as if they were still riding their bikes indoors.
The bearded guy stood in front of their table now, backed up by two equally hairy, angry-looking dudes. “Did you hear me?”
Nakhti stood up, blocking him from coming closer to the others. “Oh yes. And the Locust did too. I had a nice talk with their local chapter. Haven’t they reached out? I think they did, judging by the two weeks of peace and quiet.”
The guy snarled. “If they don’t wanna clean Coalport up from fag trash like you, then we don’t give no shit about them. We’re gonna be taking matters in our own hands now. This is our turf, our diner.”
Nakhti snorted. “I beg to differ.”
Zack glanced towards the blond waiter — Dwight, was it? — and caught him looking troubled, then lighting up as he looked towards the exit. He seemed to wave at someone and then point at the escalating situation.
Zack frowned, but before he could see who the blond was waving at, Taylor materialized in front of their table. Zack almost pissed himself with terror, but instead of doing anything to him, the brutal mountain of muscle suddenly pushed his way through the bearded guy and stood between the club leaders, holding up open palms at each of them.
“We like the diner, they like the diner. So let’s not damage the place and take it outside.”
“I don’t care,” the leader of the Undying tried to protest.
“Would you really eat off of surfaces that we tossed these faggots onto? That’s plain unsanitary.” Taylor shook his head. “I say, trash goes outside.”
“Whatever.” The bearded biker shrugged and called out to the rest of his gang. “T-man’s got a point. Let’s step outside. Don’t wanna spray plagued faggot blood all over these good people’s meals.” He turned around and walked out, followed by his cohorts and Taylor.
The Pharaohs exchanged looks, and when Nakhti walked towards the door, the rest of them headed after him. None of them saw Dwight blow a grateful kiss at Taylor’s back.
Out on the sidewalk the two groups of bikers faced each other off, standing tensely, ready for a proper confrontation. Sphinx moved to stand at the corner of the building to watch both the bikers and the bikes.
“We don’t need to make this violent, not on an empty stomach, but if you don’t leave and never come back, faggots, we will have to.” The Undying leader crossed his arms on his chest.
“If you’re too scared we’ll kick your flabby asses, just say so,” Yen said. “Or did Richie Rich here pay you only to talk and fighting is off the menu?”
The bearded biker looked confused. “The fuck are you yapping about?”
“Oh please!” Yen waved a hand. “Just drop the act. The kid paid you to do this little dance! And the one at the gas station too and the next and the next ones after that! Oh and of course, the first one at Nana’s house, so that he could prove himself. And his bestie over there is suddenly one of you, how convenient!”
The Undying exchanged bewildered looks. Taylor looked offended.
“Are you calling me” — he pointed at his chest — “that shitstain’s friend?” He pointed at Zack. “Do you have a deathwish, yellow fever? Because I will gladly oblige.” Taylor took a step closer, now openly menacing.
Zack gaped at Yen.
The Asian biker was sneering, still not buying it. “Oh, yeah? Zackie, did you pay him for this too? Am I supposed to be ‘eliminated’ now? How cunning. Hey, Nakhti, the kid’s investing heavily to get a taste of your sausage.”
Taylor was just a few feet away from them now, and Zack couldn’t stand by and let this unfold before his eyes. “Goddamn it, Yen, he’s not my friend!” Zack jumped between Taylor and the bikers, ready to take another beating if he had to, just to keep his actual friends safe, even this one jealous, ridiculous idiot.
“Oh, now he’ll save me! Wow, what a twist. Who wrote the script, Spielberg?”
Zack cringed. Taylor swung.
The short sound of a police siren right next to them made them all freeze.
“Good morning, everyone. Now that I finally got your attention, I would like to propose that you solve your differences non-violently. And without threats. Or other law-breaking.” A Middle Eastern cop got out of a police car, parked right beside the two groups of bikers. He walked around the car and surveyed the situation. “I believe we are well enough acquainted as is,” the policeman turned to the Undying. “Let’s keep this to a minimum, shall we?”
The two groups of bikers stared silently at the police officer. Taylor lowered his arm and stood still.
The police officer looked at him and then at Nakhti. “Do not give me a reason to remember you, gentlemen.”
“You should be talking to me, I’m in charge,” the leader of the Undying said.
The cop turned to him. “But I already remember you, Mr Wilson. And I hope you remember me.”
The bearded guy’s confident stance faltered, and he did not reply.
“Good.” The policeman surveyed the bikers sternly. “Now please disperse. You are disrupting the traffic on the sidewalk.”
The Undying exchanged looks. Their leader snarled then threw a hand in the air. “Screw it, this place ain’t worth it. Let’s go get burgers, like real men!”
The Undying made half-hearted noises of approval, trying to pretend they had somehow come out winners of the situation. Taylor looked at them like they were an assortment of half-squashed earthworms. Then he glanced towards the diner.
“Yay, burgers…” he sighed and followed the rest of the one-percenters towards their motorcycles. He looked over his shoulder, giving the Pharaohs a death glare.
As the Undying rode off without giving Sphinx, who was still at the bikes, any trouble, Nakhti led the Pharaohs back inside. Sam lagged behind for a moment and uttered a quiet “thank you, officer” to the policeman. The policeman nodded to him neutrally, then got into his car and drove away.
“Sorry for the trouble, Dwight,” Tamika said to the blond cook who had kept an eye on them throughout the confrontation. “I hope those guys weren’t a big chunk of your client base.”
”Oh, don’t worry, they’ll be back, the food’s just too good here, you know how things are.” He grinned modestly. “But yeah, hopefully they’ll also learn to share.”
“They don’t deserve this delicious stuff you guys cook.” Josie shook her head in disapproval. “Bet you, they can’t appreciate it properly either. I hate it that they’d decided to make this their hang-out spot, I mean it’s a neat, perky diner, not a seedy bar or a strip club.”
“Is anyone going to comment on the fact the kid even paid off the police?!”
“Just drop it, Yen.” Nakhti growled with annoyance.
“Yeah, it stopped being funny a while ago.” Josie winced.
“Did he pay you off too, Josie?!”
“Oh no, you got me!” Josie waved her hands in the air in fake surrender. “I totally sold my soul to Zack, so that he can torment you. We are all in on it, it was all part of his evil plan. What shall we do now that Yen knows the truth, oh, my dark lord and master?” She turned to Zack.
Tamika snickered. Zack grinned too, then tried to look serious as he said, “Unacceptable. Quick, minions, we must pretend this never happened and make Yen question his very sanity!” Zack stood by their booth, where the food was waiting, and gestured for the women to go ahead and take their seats.
When everyone sat down, Zack smirked malevolently. “Now, where were we? Ah, yes, the Undying having too good a taste in diners. It appears this food is so universally excellent that it attracts not just the good, but also the bad and the ugly.”
“That Wilson guy sure is ugly.” Josie snickered. Sam smiled.
Yen glared at Zack gloomily from behind Sam and said nothing.
October days passed quickly and with good weather. Wyatt liked the autumn season in New Coalport, when the trees turned golden, orange and red but the sun still shone like it forgot it wasn’t summer. Between work, dancing lessons with Hector — which proved less horrifying that he had feared and still way better than the wallet stealing game — coming up with costume ideas, explaining them to the tailor and showing up for adjustments, there was hardly any time for other things. He did attend one of the thief meetings, but even while Craig scolded him for not showing up last time and explained the details of their next heist, Ocher’s mind was mostly preoccupied with how to be a proper vampire and stay in the shadows during the party. But he was there, registered most of what was said, and nodded a lot, which seemed to keep the other thieves happy enough.
Unfortunately work was not cutting him a lot of slack lately. One of the other employees from the afternoon shift had quit — a commendable power move — and so both Wyatt and the night shift guy had to work longer hours to cover for him until a new person was found. As a result, he still had to be at work at six in the morning, but he left at six in the afternoon. He got paid extra, so he didn’t mind it all that badly, but twelve hour shifts wore him out so much that he didn’t even feel like attempting any thieving on his own lately. Now it was Friday, and he was living out his final hours behind the cash register, looking forward to just going home and dropping on the bed, when the door to the convenience store opened, and an unexpected customer walked in.
Wyatt’s eyes shot wide open as he looked up at Hector.
“Afternoon, darling. I’ve called your home phone, but you weren’t picking up, so I guessed you must be at work. I hope you can still make it to the charity ball.”
“Oh shiiiit…” Wyatt clasped a hand on his mouth. “Is it really today? I was completely sure it’s on Halloween. I’m so sorry… My hair is dirty…”
“Good that I came to pick you up early then. I’ll take you home, and you’ll prepare.”
“Okay hang on, I need to make a call, I can’t just leave everything. Can you wait a moment?”
“Sure,” Hector said. “We’ve still got time.”
Wyatt turned to the phone behind him and dialed a number. He tapped his other palm against the wall impatiently. Finally the owner picked up, and he explained the situation.
Hector meanwhile got busy browsing the newspaper stand.
Wyatt turned back to him. “Okay so I need to get the night shift guy to come in and take over before I can go. I got his number.” With that he went back to the phone.
As expected, the guy didn’t really want to come.
“Offer him money,” Hector mouthed.
Ocher looked at him, his ear still to the phone, and covered the receiver, mouthing back, “I don’t have money.”
“I do, go on.”
“Yeah, I’m still here. I’ll give you… fifty bucks-” He looked at Hector again, who showed him two fingers, “-no, actually, I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you’re here in fifteen minutes. Deal? Amazing.” He hung up, relieved.
“Money. Always works,” Hector said with approval.
Exactly fifteen minutes later, the night shift guy was already behind the register and a hundred dollars richer, incredulously watching Wyatt walk out of the gas station, get into a limo and drive away.
* * *
Wyatt sat at the back of the limo looking pale — not only on the account of white paint on his face — and feeling way more frightened than Count Dracula had the right to be. This time, for a change, he wasn’t fearing for his life. He was terrified of the idea that other people were going to see him with Hector, and of that making the news. Of that news reaching other people. Not just his friends, or his parents. But also his employer — in case Hector walking into the gas station to get him hadn’t done it — and his university, that already had plenty of reasons not to want him back in. Of course, Hector said he’d stop the news. But news was news. It travelled fast.
The unusually casually dressed werewolf beside him was smiling and experiencing none of this existential dread. Hector carefully scratched the side of his face with the claws of the furry glove on his hand. All that fake fur glued over his jaw had to be quite itchy, but it did not seem to tarnish his mood. Wyatt imagined Hector in this costume trying to stop the news by throwing himself on the reporters and eating them. That helped.
Inevitably the limo slowed down, approaching the brightly lit city hall. Hector seemed to notice the less hidden than usual anxiety on Wyatt’s face. He patted his knee.
“It will be fine, darling. Don’t you worry,” he rumbled comfortingly.
Wyatt took a deep breath, and nodded. This was just a party. He’d been through much worse.
They stepped out of the limousine and onto a red carpet. It went up the marble steps towards the shining doorway above. The path was framed by posts with ropes. Beyond those ropes were lots of people with cameras. The flashes blinded Wyatt, but Hector guided him forward, confident and relaxed as ever.
“Show them the fangs,” he advised, smiling brightly. “Maybe bloodsucker solidarity will kick in.”
Ocher would rather not do that. Showing his face as scarcely as he could was the general plan.
“How about this instead?” He covered everything below his eyes with a cape, in a dramatic Dracula-like gesture.
Hector laughed and also went in-character. He bent over and pretended to claw the air a few times, displaying his own pair of plastic fanged teeth in a toothy grin. Together they stalked up the stairs like actual creatures of the night.
Inside they were greeted by a mermaid and a harpy. The women welcomed them warmly. After marking them off the list, the harpy called forth a third woman dressed in leopard spots and rather little actual fabric who guided them through the bright crowded hall towards their table in the ballroom. Neither of the women seemed to be even slightly surprised by the fact Hector brought a man along as a date, but some of the guests were already giving them mildly confused looks.
It was all happening too fast for Wyatt to panic, though. The people swirled in a chaotic brew of color and noise. The light of crystal chandeliers reflected in the diamonds of the women’s jewelry and the men’s cufflinks and pins. Many of the city’s most affluent and famous chose to wear a mix of costume and formal wear, others embraced the playful theme and went all out. Wyatt glimpsed the vice mayor and his wife, usually a most presentable couple, now dressed in comical turkey costumes.
“Let’s go say hi,” Hector said.
“Huh?” But they had just found their table, why did they have to go somewhere already?
“Come, come…” Hector guided him through the richest crowd Wyatt had ever been a part of. All those people were so completely relaxed and so utterly covered with valuables that it would be enough to just let Hunter in here for half an hour, and their little gang would be set for life, no need to rob any jewelry stores. Some related thought started forming in Wyatt’s head when he reached that conclusion, but suddenly they emerged from the crowd directly in front of the vice mayor. It turned out that this had been their destination all along.
“Hector!” The dark-skinned man smiled brightly. “What a pleasure to see you here! How are you?”
“Having a great time, Jewel.” Hector shook the mayor’s hand and nodded to the man’s wife. She smiled back at him.
“And who is your new friend?” The vice mayor smiled to Wyatt with the same warmth he had shown Hector. If he had any problem with the fact that Hector’s date was a man, he hid it well. His wife also did not seem to be bothered in the least.
“Jewel Kuutz, this is Wyatt Brooks, one of our proud city’s student body, taking a break from the study of geology to frolic with us,” Hector rumbled.
“Absolutely delighted to meet you, Mr Brooks.” The vice mayor shook Wyatt’s hand.
This was just the beginning of a string of introductions by the end of which Ocher had shaken hands of many people he had only read about in newspapers before. He hoped none of them would remember his name by the end of the night. There were so many people…
“Siggy!” Hector led them towards a grim-looking Sigmund Whalesong. The man wore a very realistic-looking chainmail and helmet. He was probably some kind of medieval European warrior, but Wyatt did not have the faculties to figure out exactly what kind. He was too intimidated by the man’s stormy glare to think straight.
“Hector. Mr Brooks. What a pleasure.” Whalesong’s voice couldn’t be more deadpan.
Hector didn’t seem to notice or care. He chatted with his partner in business and crime like nothing was the matter and then finally returned Wyatt to the table. All but two of the previously vacant seats were now taken, and so another round of introductions was due. The other people at their table proved to be a female head of a modeling agency — apparently also Hector’s childhood friend —, an owner of a chain of boutiques, an art collector and his sculptor wife and one of Hector’s legitimate business partners with an actress for a date.
Soon the fact Hector had no actress or model date of his own became quite apparent. But as Wyatt braced himself for the worst, the art collector burst into a speech about the meaning of bravery and the value of authenticity. So much Latin was tossed around that the model’s face lost some of its charm as she grimaced in open confusion. Meanwhile, Hector’s lady friend who owned the modeling agency, got excited and gave the only same-sex couple at the table her blessing. It was quite ironic, since she was dressed as a witch, but then again, they were a vampire and a werewolf.
Wyatt sat by Hector’s side quietly overwhelmed.
But the unwanted attention from all kinds of celebrities was still nothing compared to when his werewolf partner led him to the dancefloor.
The slow dancing itself wasn’t so bad. They had practiced a few times before the party, so the very concept hadn’t taken him by surprise, and Hector had also been warned in advance that his boyfriend royally sucked at it. The problem was the attention they were getting. As long as they had just sat next to each other, and Wyatt was quietly nibbling on the appetizers while Hector held conversations, nobody except the people at their table really noticed. But now the systematic flashing coming from different directions made him acutely aware that photos of the dancefloor were being taken. People around were glancing at them as well, as it suddenly became clear that Hector Viteri came with a strange choice of a partner. It made Wyatt want to hide, and so he moved a little closer towards Hector. The gesture earned him an appreciative squeeze of the clawed, fluffy gloves. A few more flashes followed, and Wyatt instantly knew that had been a bad idea.
But really, this whole party was a bad idea. The last few months had been a bad idea. His life turned into one huge very bad idea, but he was still alive, so why not enjoy it while he could? At least tonight he was dressed as a vampire and nobody really knew who he was. That is, except the hundred people Hector introduced him to by name and surname. But even those people weren’t going to remember him, judging by the vacant expressions each time they heard ‘Wyatt Brooks’. They were simply too important to bother. So yeah, that was taken care of. And the food was great. The drinks looked promising as well. And Hector’s company was actually quite fun now that he knew what to expect. All in all, Wyatt decided that instead of being worried or scared, for once he might as well just live it up. He felt more like a proper count Dracula in an instant.
“Somebody needs to give Dionysus a stern talking-to. Not only is the dress-code for this would-be ball outrageously lax, akhem-vice-mayor-akhem, some of the invitees are living proof the ugly laws should have never been repealed.” Shaazgai made a face at a scrawny hairy fellow prancing through the crowd by Daniel Bache’s side, dressed as a cupid. The lawyer followed the two with his eyes, swirling the wine in his glass to vent his irritation. “The Greeks have lost all sense of propriety and self-respect. Tabloids and tasteless parties are the most impact they can have in today’s world. Pathetic.”
“It’s not just the Greeks.” The priest beside him pointed out. Unlike everyone else around, Father Ivers was not wearing a costume, other than the vestments of the man of the cloth. “Most have lost their prestige. These days they will all grasp at the strangest, crudest ways to stay afloat. Trust me, I know.”
“Alas, as long as the wine flows, Bacchus floats regardless, and his awful parties continue indefinitely,” Shaazgai complained. Then he looked down at his richly embroidered coat and lace sleeves and his mood visibly improved. The lawyer smiled. “On the other hand it’s not everyday that I get to enjoy the fashion of eighteenth century France, so I suppose it is not all bad…” Shaazgai froze, forgetting about his peacockery and ceasing even to swirl his wine. He stared in disbelief at a particular spot on the dance floor.
“Is that Hector?!” he hissed towards the priest.
Blaise turned his head that way, and his eyebrows rose slightly. It was Hector Viteri. He was dressed as a werewolf, and he was slow-dancing with a man who reached up to his shoulders at best. “Apparently so.”
“What is he doing here?” The lawyer looked around anxiously. “Has that idiot Bacchus completely lost his mind?! We’re sitting ducks with Hector here.”
“We are. But why is that suddenly a concern? You work for him. You come within his range twice a week at least.”
“Yes, I do. But we meet in a controlled environment, and this is veritable chaos! The most incompetent of assassins would have a field day here. I don’t want to die my last death among these plebs.”
The priest rolled his eyes like he was requesting divine assistance. “Of course you don’t. Why do I even ask you these questions anymore? Despite all the attending monsters, most likely nobody is going to murder anyone here tonight. Why would anyone want to kill a lawyer at a charity ball?”
Shaazgai gave him a sharp and very meaningful look.
“Ah, you’re still worried about our angry friend. You can always leave early if you’d rather not take this gamble.”
“Well, you don’t seem concerned at all. Are you not telling me something, or do you trust Bacchus’ vaudeville of security?”
“I don’t trust anyone.” Blaise smiled. “But the odds are in our favour here. Besides, if he does show up, this uncomfortable arrangement works both ways.”
“I guess,” Shaazgai grumbled. He finished his wine and took another glass from the tray of a passing waiter. “I just hate unnecessary risks. As you know very well by now. Damn, but this wine isn’t bad at all. As much as I despise our host, I can’t deny that he’s good at what he does.”
A woman in a white wig and voluminous dress of the same epoch as Shaazgai’s outfit approached the two of them, returning from a raid on a nearby stand with very dietetic appetizers. Catching the last shreds of conversation, she latched onto them with desperation.
“Oh, don’t you just love Daniel Bache, he’s so charming, and he just-”
“No.” Shaazgai cut her off. “Stop talking. Nothing of value has come out of your mouth tonight and, I suspect, it never will, so please, go back to stuffing your pie-hole full, it serves society far better that way.”
The woman huffed, insulted, and stalked away.
Blaise looked at him incredulously. “You’re such a charmer. I am amazed you managed to ever father children.”
“That didn’t require listening to the women’s prattle.”
“Remind me again, why do you even do this anymore? Look at Hector, out here in the open, flaunting his newly discovered sexual orientation, or whatever this is. Maybe you should also consider, how shall I call it, revealing your preferences. Surely the poor women would thank you for it.”
“Uh, please, we both know history is a pendulum, an acceptable deviation today is grounds for a death sentence tomorrow. I’ve hardly met anyone worth the trouble of an official relationship anyway. Besides, women make pretty accessories. Unlike the vast majority of men. Like that cupid over there, oh goodness, wine just isn’t enough to wash off the image.” Shaazgai shuddered in disgust as the small imp-like cupid from before appeared in the crowd of dancers not far from where the two of them stood.
Blaise made a reluctant effort to look at the hairy, scrawny man Shaazgai was repeatedly pointing out. There was nothing spectacularly awful about him. But finding any slight divergence from the beauty norms appalling, had always been the story of Shaazgai’s life. “I think you’re exaggerating a little.” Something else caught the priest’s attention. “Besides, isn’t that actually one of your Persian colleagues?”
“Huh?” Shaazgai looked back towards the eyesore of a guest, squinting. “N-… ye-… I ‘unno…” he drawled hesitantly. “Maybe. I don’t work with the daeva all that much. And now I’m all the more grateful for it.”
Blaise just shook his head and drank his wine.
If they were getting some odd looks before the dance, now Wyatt felt eyes on himself wherever they went. Hector appeared unperturbed and jovial, even under openly disapproving looks from some older businessmen they eventually joined for drinks.
Wyatt could hardly keep track of names as the usual ceremony of handshakes and introductions unfolded around him. He smiled and partook, trying to remember the names he was told as he muttered his own greetings. But he was trying very half-heartedly. He knew that he would never meet these people out on his own, and should they ever meet again in general, Hector would be there to remind him what they were called. It was kind of relieving. He was just getting into the zone with this whole thing when the barrage of handshakes abruptly ended with Hector extending a hand to a balding red-faced man who looked very authentic in his Henry VIII costume.
“Gideon,” Hector said calmly, his hand still extended in greeting. “Long time no see.”
The face of the other man seemed to turn just a little redder, though Wyatt wasn’t sure if that was physically possible. With a scoff the man crossed his arms, refusing to shake Hector’s hand.
“Forgive me, Viteri, but I don’t want any of your AIDS.”
Hector’s eyebrows rose. He still held his hand out to the other man in uncomfortable silence. Then, as no reaction followed, Hector withdrew the offered hand and regarded the red-faced man with a serious expression.
“You’re far likelier to catch it at the dentist’s than by shaking people’s hands. I hope you are aware of that, Gideon, and you are merely trying to insult me,” Hector said quietly.
Some of the vibrant red drained from the other man’s face. But his attitude did not dissipate. “No, Hector, you’re the one who’s insulting the rest of us with… with this!” He gestured towards Hector and Wyatt, spittle flying from his snarling mouth. “Just looking at two men like this makes me sick, I can’t bear to think what you do behind closed doors!”
“That would be a strange and unnecessary line of thought, I agree. In the ten years we’ve known each other I haven’t even once thought that way about your wife and you, and I see no reason why I should. Perhaps you too should restrain your imagination to your own love-life, old friend.”
The older man fumed. His eyes were fixed on Hector. It was almost as if Wyatt didn’t exist, even though Wyatt was, as a matter of fact, the reason for his anger.
“You’re an adult man, Hector, this… this is a farce! It’s something for the underage junkies or dead-end actors looking for roles in the gutter. Why would you disgrace yourself like this?!”
“I see no disgrace in dating another man. Cultural taboos come and go-”
“It’s not just culture! The Bible-”
“Also details the specifics of how one should keep one’s slaves.” Hector cut off. “The Bible is irrelevant for me. I fear that you have forgotten I am an atheist.”
Silence fell not just on their little group, but on a whole sector of the ballroom. Wyatt could almost make out his heartbeats. One, two, three, four…
Gideon stormed away, dragging his confused wife after him.
Hector turned back to the other businessmen with a serene smile. “I’m afraid the old fellow had too much to drink. Now, Michael, how’s your youngest? She was going to star in a school play last time I heard from you.”
Wyatt just stared at his feet for the most part of the following exchanges.
When they finally walked away from the tables filled with business associates, Hector must have picked up his discomfort, because he leaned towards Wyatt.
“Don’t take what Gideon said too close to heart. He’s an old-fashioned grump.” Hector rested a hand on his shoulder. “If you need a break from the crowd, we could catch a whiff of fresh air.”
Wyatt nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that, if you don’t mind. Sorry if I get you in trouble with your business partners by being here.”
“Wyatt, none of this is your fault. I knew what I was doing when I brought you here. People will always find reasons to be antagonistic. Don’t let their small-mindedness get you down. Chin up.” Hector touched his face gently, lifting it to look into Wyatt’s eyes. “Everything will be fine. Now, let’s see what’s arranged in the gallery. I’ve heard they have mulled wine.”
This time around the thief didn’t even need to force himself to smile, it just came naturally. “Well okay, let’s go and see if the rumours are true.”
* * *
After the red-faced man fiasco, the rest of the evening flew by in a glance. The visit to the gallery — quiet, stocked up with delicious treats and mulled wine on one side, and open on the garden on the other — quickly restored Wyatt’s spirits. It was getting rather chilly, so he wrapped himself in his Dracula cape again but the heated drink quickly warmed him up. They spent some pleasant time there with Hector, bumped into a few more positively attuned guests, and then escaped a bit further down the gallery, away from people and photographers, and danced a little, to the music that could still be heard, even outside. When the busy host of the party finally tracked them down to greet them, he seemed to be so glad to meet Wyatt that even the ensuing run-in with Hector’s extremely sour lawyer next to a wine fountain did not manage to spoil Wyatt’s good mood.
Maybe the lawyer’s persistent glaring would have eventually managed to make a difference, if not for the events that followed.
They were still close to the wine fountain, Hector standing with his arm wrapped around Wyatt and chatting with the persuasive witch from their table, when the room erupted into gasps and women’s cries of fear. They all turned towards the noise, unafraid and expecting to see some spooky Halloween entertainment. But instead they saw genuine terror on the faces of the quickly parting crowd. At the center of the empty space were three men. They were wearing white cardboard rectangles over their torsos presenting crudely drawn playing cards. The three were aces: hearts, diamonds and spades. A dead security guard was lying at the door they’d come through. The ace of hearts had an uzi, the ace of diamonds a machete, and the spade held two long kitchen knives. The weapons and the crude card costumes were bloodied.
“Nobody move!” the ace of hearts with the uzi hollered. His plainly visible face was contorted in fury. “This is-”
A gun shot rang out, followed quickly by three more.
They were so loud and so near that the noise deafened Wyatt, but he hardly noticed, because at the same time he was slammed down onto the floor, as Hector pushed him down and covered him with his own body.
Pandemonium broke out all around them, and for once Wyatt felt good about having Hector on top of him. Even more so, because the man looked unhurt and alert, if very alarmed.
A loud, clear voice resounded through the room. “Please, remain calm! The situation appears to be resolved… Thank you, Bartholomew.”
Hector shifted, then got off Wyatt, helping him up. The two of them, as well as most of the other guests, stared at the lawyer dressed as a French king, who stood with a huge revolver in his right hand, shielding himself with his ball-gown wearing date. There was a fourth assailant — this one without a costume but with a gun — dead at their feet. His brain lay sprayed about three feet away from his blown up cranium.
The woman in the crinoline breathed heavily, looking wide-eyed at the four partially headless corpses on the floor, then at the lawyer’s hand on her waist.
“This is it!” she screeched and tore his hand off of herself. She spun around and slapped him with her fan. “I’m not a shield! I’m not a man-purse! You wanna hang with the fucking priest all night — dance with him, not me! I’m out!”
She turned on her heels, lifted her petticoats and marched out the room, stepping over the corpses like they were nothing.
The lawyer blinked a few times. He lowered the gun and surveyed the dead men, then the room full of people who were all staring at him. He put the gun on the table and poured himself some wine from the fountain. He downed the glass. He turned to the room and said loudly, “No comment.”
A few breathless security guards burst into the room, one of them slipped on the blood of their dead colleague and almost fell over. The others looked around wildly.
“Please, keep calm!” This time it was Daniel Bache, the host. He had climbed onto one of the tables and spread his arms. “The police will be here soon, I assure you! Meanwhile, please, let us all take some deep breaths and maybe a few drinks and move further away from the… neutralized… uh, criminals,” he finished somewhat hesitantly.
The crowd gladly followed his instructions. More security guards as well as some of the waitresses poured in, bringing posts with ropes to separate the crime scene from the rest of the ballroom. Murmurs were rising in the room.
The lawyer, who was still at the center of attention, was finishing his third glass of wine in quick succession. He muttered something to the guy dressed as a priest next to him. They exchanged a few phrases.
Hector finished watching the proceedings, content that the threat had been neutralized. He turned to Wyatt. “Are you ok, darling?”
Wyatt looked at him and nodded.
“Good.” Hector smiled. He turned around to wave at the lawyer. “Impressive marksmanship, Bartholomew! Good save!”
The lawyer smiled faintly. He looked like he was going to say “you’re welcome”, but when he opened his mouth all that came out was another “No comment.”
“This guy… he’s a professional,” Hector said with approval.
* * *
Police came in force and collected contacts from everyone present, including Wyatt and Hector. It was weird to see Hector talk to the police with such ease, but then again, he was at ease talking to everyone, always.
As Hector described their side of the story, Wyatt was stealing glances at the lawyer who had saved everyone. It was impossible to tell if the man was pale or not, because just like Wyatt’s, his face was painted white as part of his costume. Shaazgai’s expression was blank as he spoke evenly to the officers. One of them held his huge revolver in a plastic bag and was marvelling at the gun.
Wyatt wondered if the lawyer would now need a lawyer. Or could a lawyer defend himself in court?
It was hard to believe the whole shooting even happened. It was surreal.
Nobody really knew what the men dressed as playing cards even wanted. Nothing good, surely — as they’d overheard that three security guards hurt in the attack were rushed to the hospital and one was dead. The fourth assailant, the one without the costume, could have been meant to sneak towards whoever was the target, while the other three drew everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, or fortunately, they were most likely not going to find out who the target was or whether there was somebody behind this, since there seemed to be no one left alive to question.
Mr Shaazgai would be cleared of the charge of homicide. Hector assured Wyatt of that as their police interview was over, and they headed outside.
“If you ask me, Bartholomew saved some lives there. They shouldn’t even take him in. But they will. Procedure.” Hector scoffed. “The man needs a drink and some rest, not a jail cell. But then again, I’m sure he can afford whatever bail they set. So he won’t need to spend the night in jail. That would have been a goddamn shame.”
Wyatt nodded. He guessed in this case, he was rather grateful to the lawyer. It would have been awful to accidentally get killed by a stray bullet when the attackers went for whoever they came there to kill. Though it seemed like it could have been all of the guests. Everyone’s crimes? Probably being rich and famous.
* * *
Now they were sitting at the back of the limo again. After calling up Zack from the limo phone — yes, it existed — and telling the boy that there was a mishap at the party, but they were safe, Hector had asked Wyatt if he would like to go home, and even though Wyatt wasn’t quite sure which home he agreed to be taken to, for once it didn’t really feel like it mattered. They were out of the danger zone, and he didn’t just mean the shooting. All the tiring socializing was over, and he felt cozy, warm and reassured. Even the werewolf paw around his waist somehow added to that impression, and strangely just made him feel safe.
It was odd to realize that he wasn’t really shaken by the shooting. But he’d seen so much worse. The sports bag guy with no limbs on the ship, the basement guy he’d been politely asked to off himself. Compared to those experiences, tonight just didn’t even come close. Hector’s lawyer killing four people? Nah, no comment. Those brains on the floor could have as well been just a part of the Halloween decor. The shooting happened so fast that his mind hardly had the time to register it. Also, he was well used to living in fear for his life. Maybe he was getting desensitized to violence, or his sense of danger was broken. Maybe it was a bad thing. But it wasn’t his fault. And tonight wasn’t his fault either. It wasn’t like the shooting happened because he was at the party. Or was it? A thought suddenly crossed his mind that maybe someone wanted to kill Hector. Oddly that got him more angry than relieved. He didn’t want Hector dead. He just wanted out. But did he really? Things were weird in his head tonight. He kept mulling them over.
Hector kissed his forehead. “You look exhausted, darling. But I hope you had a good time, before the shootout, that is.”
“I look exhausted?” Wyatt was torn out of his reverie, but not in a bad way. “You know, you’re the one going grey.” He snorted, nodding at where Hector’s beard just gathered some paint from his face. “But yes, before the shooting I had a great time. Did you?”
“I sure did.” Hector chuckled and rubbed the paint off of his beard. He smiled at Wyatt fondly.
The thief smiled back up at him. Hector held him close, but somehow it was no longer terrifying at all. In fact, right here, right now, with the wine still pleasantly buzzing through him, it felt quite appealing. Hector had protected him tonight, shielded him with his own body. It was strange, and it made him feel strange… Wyatt leaned closer, half-lidded his eyes, and stole a little lazy kiss from Hector’s lips.
Hector pulled him close and kissed him more. Moments passed in soft lazy caresses. Hector’s hands stroked his back, the warmth of Hector’s body so close to his made Wyatt feel all the more relaxed as the seconds passed. He even forgot to feel bothered by Hector’s stubble. He just hoped their face-paint was safe to eat.
When Wyatt opened his eyes, Hector met his gaze and smiled warmly.
“We’ll be home soon.”
And somehow, it really felt that way.
* * *
The destination turned out to be Hector’s place, and now they were sitting together in one of the big bathrooms of the Viteri mansion, trying to wash off the face paint they hadn’t yet kissed away, and in Hector’s case, removing the fake werewolf fur from the sides of his jaw. The amount of water he had to pour on his face left Wyatt completely awake, and he quickly noted that it was so with Hector as well.
They exchanged more impressions of the party while they cleaned themselves up, and because nobody he knew died, it was easy to discuss. There was a different problem though. Wyatt knew that since he was here past midnight, he had silently agreed to stay the night. That bothered him a little bit, because having spent the limo ride kissing, he also knew where this was going. One of Hector’s looks he caught in the bathroom only confirmed that theory. And that was why Wyatt procrastinated removing the last bits of his vampire make-up, making sure Hector went alone into the shower. They still talked while the Man showered, but Wyatt’s thoughts were already busy trying to figure out how to moderate his situation.
When he came into the bedroom, where Hector was already waiting, he didn’t feel horror-stricken like that night on the island, or even mildly terrified like that time he fell asleep in front of the TV. He was apprehensive, but he didn’t feel completely opposed to the idea of Hector touching him. It was crazy and irrational, but there had been a few moments this evening when the idea seemed enticing. Even now after so much water in his face, he still felt some of it. Wyatt quickly abandoned that train of thought. No, ending under Hector during his lawyer’s killing spree had been nice, but was more than enough of under-Hector time for one night. And being the non-sole survivor of someone’s assassination attempt, or whatever that was, Wyatt actually felt brave enough to tell Hector what was on his mind tonight. Well… at least in some capacity. But probably not quite yet.
It still felt too early to speak when he laid down next to Hector, and the Man just hugged him. A kiss on the forehead was also not the cue. It took a minute in Hector’s arms for the protest to finally coalesce into words.
“Yes, darling?” Hector kissed his neck.
Wyatt extricated himself from the Man’s embrace a little bit, and faced Hector, feeling his heart pounding, “I-I’d really love to, well, carry on, and let’s totally do that, but first I’ve a small confession to make and a kind of favour to ask…”
“Yes?” Hector looked at him attentively.
Rather than growing paler, Wyatt felt his cheeks burning, which was probably better in this situation. “I… well… so after we’ve done it back on the island, I felt pretty sore for a few days and so I was wondering… if maybe there is some alternative…? Something that wouldn’t involve… you know… but that we’d both still enjoy, of course.” He suddenly felt he was pushing his luck and quickly added, “I mean if you’d like, we can still go ahead and-”
“No.” Hector stroked the side of Wyatt’s face. He was frowning, and the expression caused Wyatt a moment of intense unease until the man finally continued, “We’re not doing it at the expense of your comfort. I hope you weren’t actually hurt back then, were you?” Hector’s tone was concerned and despite the deep frown he was clearly not angry with Ocher, so the ex-count Dracula relaxed again.
He quickly shook his head, “No, no. Just… pretty uncomfortable afterwards.”
Hector nodded, his expression clearing. “That’s a relief. I should have known better, I am sorry, darling.” He kissed Wyatt on the forehead again. “There’s plenty of other ways for us to make love that shouldn’t leave you sore.”
With that Viteri kissed him on the lips and slid downwards.
For a moment the thief didn’t really know where this was going until Hector began to… to… oh my… that was… definitely not how he expected his first blow-job to go. It was so strange, to look down and see the Man between his… and feel, oh wow, it felt so very, very good. It was hard to believe that Hector had never done this to a man before. He was so good at it. Not that Ocher had anything to compare to. But to him personally, it felt, ahhhhh… yes. He relaxed, stopped tensely leaning on his elbows, and let his head drop back onto the pillow, embracing this bizarre, intensely pleasant experience. He touched his face to check if it was really as hot as it felt, and it was, for an entirely different reason now.
By the time Hector was done with him, Ocher was a pleased, panting mess. The Man watched him with hungry satisfaction until the thief realized he was being observed, and he shied out, grabbing some comforter and pulling it over his face. He peered out of it soon with an embarrassed smile. “That was really…. r-really nice.”
For a moment he was kind of afraid that Hector would request him to return the favour, but the Man was full of alternative ideas. Going with the spirit and the theme of tonight’s party, he asked Wyatt to lie on his side, and having hugged him from behind, he very gently rumbled, “Let’s do it like the ancient Greeks, darling… Clench your thighs.”