A Christmas post.
I’m wishing you all a very merry Christmas, and a fulfilling and prosperous 2017.
A reminder for German readers that Cool Hand, Bite Back 4, is now available on Amazon Germany. It’s called Optimales Blatt. (https://www.amazon.de/dp/B01MT1FQYO/)
And a short Christmas story…
’Tis the evening before the night before Christmas and…
The girl slips into the church. Father Julius is aware of her immediately. The door is slightly ajar, as it often is at this time, and she edges in sideways, like a crab, her eyes wide and terrified.
St. Jude’s is neither busy nor empty. The church is Roman Catholic, but almost Protestant-plain. Not too high RC that it would scare the Irish away, nor too low that the Italians wouldn’t feel comfortable. If the church had a motto, that’s what it would be: comfortable. There’s coffee and tea and biscuits in the vestibule, despite misgivings from the diocese. They make noises about turning a place of worship into a cafe, but they can’t argue against attendance figures at services.
And the welcome means that all are welcome, even waifs who probably haven’t been to church in years. The girl does not look familiar to him.
He’s proud that St. Jude’s looks welcoming, feels welcoming, and he’s well-practised in this, so he doesn’t approach the girl. He makes himself busy, which is not difficult. There’s plenty to do, just before Christmas. However, he does not lose sight of her while he works.
She sits at the back, hunched over, even though just coming in has seemed to reduce some of the fear he can sense from her.
Outside of services, he encourages people to sit in the pews and talk if they need to. There’s a chorus of older ladies who gather and murmur amongst themselves, and today’s turnout is good. It’s the most relaxing sound, like listening to the rain on a stout roof. Yet it takes half an hour to work it’s magic before he senses the girl moving.
He lets her get within a few feet of him, every step slower than the last, before he turns and smiles.
“Welcome,” he says, trying to project warmth and safety to her.
She flinches as if he’d struck her.
She’s late teens, living on the street or couch surfing. Unsure of where the next hot bath is coming from or what it’ll cost her. He does this snap assessment a lot. He’s seldom wrong.
She seems to steel herself and whispers “Father.” Her eyes look over his shoulder at the altar and slide away quickly.
“Can I just talk?” she says, and can’t meet his eyes.
“Of course. Come, let’s sit.”
Without touching, he ushers her to the empty front pew. She sits on the edge of the wooden bench, and every muscle remains tensed, as if she’s expecting to have to escape. He has a lot of practice looking comfortable, and he does, half turned to her, with his arm resting on the back of the pew and his legs crossed.
Without hearing words, he can detect the murmuring ladies at the back, approving that he takes time to speak to anyone who comes in. They are good souls, every one of them, but he tunes them out and concentrates on the girl.
Her name is Tiana, and her accent makes her from Georgia. He does not ask why she’s here alone, or where her folks are, or any of the questions that he can guess answers to and which are important but not urgent.
He knows she wants a place that’s welcoming but not intrusive. A priest that listens more than he speaks.
Five minutes in and with another fearful, sliding glance at the altar, she reaches the topic she came to speak about.
“I think I was attacked.”
“Mmm,” Father Julius says, quietly. “Tell me.”
She stares at her hands and recounts a tale that starts in familiar ways. A party, dancing, a smoke, a drink. A handsome guy.
“He didn’t,” she says and pauses. “I mean…I think I was dressed. I was dressed. I was. It’s just…”
“It’s blurred,” he suggests.
“I didn’t have that much to drink,” she says, prickly with defense. “I’m careful. I drink from the bottle. I don’t leave my drink. And it was only weed.”
Then suddenly, her carefully stored up courage starts to leak away.
“You’re just gonna think I’m crazy.” She starts to get up, and for the first time, he touches her, gently on the arm.
She flinches, but she sits down again abruptly.
“I believe you,” he says. “It was confusing. Not enough to eat, maybe. I’d guess tired, strung out? A little alcohol, a little weed, a lot of dancing. And then?”
She’s silent for a long time. Her hands clench into fists.
“He bit me.” The words are forced out.
One trembling hand rises to the woolen scarf around her neck, pulls the edge down. Her eyes come up to meet his, angry, expecting laughter, daring him to laugh.
He does not laugh.
He offers up a silent prayer for help. There are things he can do and things others must do.
“Come with me,” he says and he takes her hand, lifts her up.
He leads her to the font, places her hand on the edge.
She is trembling.
He dips fingers in, holds them over her hand. Drops of holy water splash onto her skin.
She flinches again.
“See?” he whispers. “You’re just you.”
“You don’t believe me,” she says.
Her hand twitches, but he presses down, very gently, and runs his fingers over her skin in a circle.
Her eyes are fixed on her hand.
“I believe you,” he says, “but what happened isn’t what you thought happened.”
“Yeah?” The street-smart sass tries to assert itself again, but she has no follow-up.
“Yes.” His fingers continue circling on the back of her hand, and his voice is low and soothing. “You were tired and hungry. A little drink and a smoke affected you more than normal.”
It’s working. It’s hard being so scared for a long time, particularly when you’re tired, and escpecially when someone speaks so calmly.
“Dehydration and tiredness made you clumsy. You stumbled. Hit your head. Blows to the head are strange. They can make everything a bit weird. Then a guy got too friendly. Bit you on the neck. How gross.”
His fingers continue to stroke the back of her hand. Her eyelids are lowered. Her breathing is slow and she’s stopped trembling.
She tries to speak, but can’t form words.
“You left,” he says. “No harm was done.”
“Mmm.” No words from her, but a relaxed acceptance.
“Vampires don’t really exist, but even if they did, you couldn’t be one, because holy water doesn’t burn you.”
Her eyes are closed, her shoulders drooping.
“In a moment, I’m going to give you the address of a house just a block away. Go there. You’ll get showers, meals and a safe bed for a few nights. Get you back on your feet.”
He feels the last of the tension draining out of her, and slowly removes his touch.
Her eyes open. Blink. Lift to meet his, questioning.
He smiles at her. “You are more in need of sleep than anything I can do or say,” he says. “Here, go stay at this place and come back when you’re rested.”
He gives her a card, and she frowns at it.
“There’s no payment required. Help with others there is always welcome, and I think you’d be good at that.”
She blinks again, backs away, but not in fear. She’s still uncertain. Not quite believing.
“Go on,” he smiles and makes a shoo-ing motion with his hands. “Sooner there, sooner washed, fed and asleep.”
“Thank you, Father,” she mutters, and moves away, gathering speed, as if the offer might have a time limit on it.
She’s at the door when it swings open to admit another. They pass, the girl and the newcomer.
Father Julius shivers.
He’s impressed and appalled.
Impressed at how quickly the response has come. It is barely ten minutes since he sent the prayer for help. Of neccessity, in this age, his prayer is initially a short-range WiFi, needing only to reach his laptop in the back room. The laptop then connects to a distant server and sends a pre-arranged message to its target in a building. That building is eight minutes walk away.
Appalled, because of the emissary who has come in response.
She is memorable, but in a way that not a single one of the chorus of ladies gathered in the pews will be able to describe her actual appearance.
The polite ones will call her, somewhat ambiguously, a working girl. Their mouth will purse in disapproval to dispell any misunderstanding. Those less polite will call her a whore.
She strides. Her heels click on the stone floor. Her coat flaps.
“Livia,” he murmurs.
Her voice is soft. The sound of it always puts him in mind of the phrase: iron fist in a velvet glove.
They sit. Livia is impatient, but as committed to maintaining his disguise as she is to hers. They work together in these uncertain times, so she will pretend to be a woman unburdening her soul to him.
The chorus mutters that Father Julius is a saint to give his time to anyone who comes in, not really meaning anyone, but meaning Livia.
Another time, it might make him smile. Not now.
The message transmitted through the internet has no details. It is simply a call for help. But Livia has acute senses.
“The girl?” she says, her head tilting to indicate the door where they passed each other.
He nods. “Bitten. Her memories left intact.” He sighs. “I have blurred them, offered an alternate meaning and speeded up the healing. She’ll be fine.”
“I’ll go and find him then,” Livia says. Her senses are acute enough that she’s captured an impression of the attacker’s marque, the scent that will linger after biting. Livia may not know who it is, but she’ll find him.
Justice will be swift tonight.
Father Julius opens his mouth to speak and shuts it again, thinking he’s wasting his time.
Livia raises an eyebrow to prompt him.
“He’s young, I think,” he says. “A clumsy mistake, not deliberate.”
“Exactly the kind of mistake we cannot afford,” she says. “Especially now.”
“You have news?”
She shrugs. “He’s coming. It’s not up to us to enquire when exactly.” And as she speaks, this woman who has always scared him, this nightmare made flesh, this woman who is about as soft and sensitive as steel…she shivers. But her voice is steady as she continues. “You want me to spare this clumsy oaf, who threatens us all with discovery by humanity, just at the moment we get a new master? He might think you’d spent too long as a priest, you’ve become your disguise. That you’ve become unorthodox.”
They are speaking English, but the word unorthodox carries its sinister echoes from their language.
Unorthodox is biting a person and failing to blur their memories.
Unorthodox is protecting someone like that.
Unorthodox is a reason for execution.
“And yet,” Julius says, “he is the most unorthodox of all, and his interest in us would seem to be precisely because we are different to the rest of the Athanate world. That we might not follow every rule in every case.”
Livia leans back on the pew.
“Face it,” Julius presses his advantage, “if unorthodox is an automatic death sentence, then every single one of our little community is dead.”
“I’ll think about it,” she says finally. “I may just discipline him.”
She gets up and walks out, to mutters that ripple through the chorus.
This time, he smiles.
There is reason to hope.
Skylur Altau has declared New York his domain. They expect him to arrive any day. They’ve already made themselves known to his Diakon, this little community that hid, unnoticed, beneath the noses of the Warders.
They’d known they would not escape detection by Altau, and there was nowhere else to go.
What would their new master make of them? A small group of Houses of different persuasions that try to live in harmony with each other and integrate themselves into the human community.
A sort of model for the whole Athanate world.
Father Julius smiles and gets up. He has a lot to do at this time of year for his parishoners. Of all types.