Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Family Affair

I wrote this one on Halloween.

Of course that means vampires and some blood.

And a Buffy reference. It's an obscure one. The first person to figure it out and send me an email with the right answer gets to pick the topic for my next story.

Good luck!

A Family Affair

Meredith smoothed the collar of her blouse over the edge of her blazer and reached for her gloves. They were a light faun color just a shade off from her belt and shoes. She pulled on the right glove; it was smooth over her fingers, the leather supple after so much use. She flexed her hand and picked up the other glove. Her fingertips had just disappeared inside it when she paused. With a light tug she pulled the leather away and set it on the vanity. She held her left hand closer to her face. The fingers were thin without being bony, a smooth taper that started at her rounded palm and formed an ever narrowing line to her fingertips. Except for her ring finger. The nail was there now, after years of absence, a carefully shaped oval that was so close to the shape of the others. Beyond that the other fingers tapered into fine tips, little pink pads that extended just past the nails. Her ring finger ended there, a straight line that cut across the natural shape of the finger just under the nail and showed air where finger should be.

She shook her head, dropping her hand and rubbing her thumb across all the fingertips, feeling the pressure against each pad, even the truncated one. She took a deep breath and looked again. If she held her hand out, at shaking distance, she had to squint to see it. “Jerry was right,” she said with relief. No one would look at that hand and think Kalderash.

With a defiant gleam in her eyes she pulled off the right glove and threw it on the vanity with enough force to send it spinning across the top and off the back. She watched it disappear behind the piece of furniture. “I'm going to be late,” she said, checking the clock behind her in the mirror. Without looking back at the glove still visible on the vanity, she left the room and locked the door behind her.

She felt hot under her blazer as she walked down the narrow corridors, her hands icy and tense every time she nodded to one of the crew. She drew her first easy breath when she closed the door of her office behind her. “This is ridiculous.” She leaned against the edge of her desk; she had a few minutes before the banquet. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly through her nose until her shoulders dropped from where she’d been holding them by her ears. “Jerry was right,” she repeated. It was a boat, and even if it wasn’t a trawler she wasn’t the only person on board with something missing. Captain Clarke was missing a leg. “A peg leg is more noticeable.”

“No kidding,” Jerry said.

Meredith’s head jerked up and she slipped sideways on the desk, catching herself before she fell. “Shit Jerry, don’t you knock anymore?”

He shook his head. “Not when we’re this busy. We’ve got people piling up in the corridors waiting for the Hall to open.”

She stood straight and smoothed her hands over her skirt, making sure the slit sat over her thigh. “The bar in the lobby is open?” she asked, already thinking of ways to distract the guests in the claustrophobic space.

“Half an hour ago.” Jerry caught her arm as she moved past him. “Nice manicure,” he whispered.

She paused at the door and shifted so she caught his hand briefly with her bare one. “Thanks.” She released his hand and opened the door. “Now let’s get to work.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said brightly.

She smiled to herself, remembering that first rickety fishing boat they had crewed on together. Night fishing. God was she glad that was over.

The banquet hall was perfect, tables set, waiters filling the last of the water glasses, ice sculpture lit so that it threw prisms over the floor, flowers covering every free surface. “Someone’s getting a raise for this,” she said, heading for the doors.

The two ushers in black coats and white pants with gold piping stood so straight they were almost at attention when they saw her. “Let them in,” she said with a nod. There was no point in keeping people cramped and waiting if the staff was ready.

The ushers' eyes widened but they said, “yes, ma’am,” in unison and turned to the doors.

Jerry beckoned her to a smaller door in an alcove. He opened it just enough to show her the milling mass in the lobby. “Hell of a crowd, I think we might be overbooked.”

She nodded, canted her head and counted quickly. “We’ll tell the kitchen they need at least forty more plates. Tell Brad-” she stopped, her breath caught in her chest as the crowd cleared enough to show a small knot of people still standing near the bar.

Four men and six women, all wearing something, a tie, a shirt, a shawl, one woman’s entire dress, in the same deep crimson,. They were talking as though they hadn’t noticed that the hall had opened. One of the men made a lazy gesture with his left hand. The glass he was holding caught the light, and so did the heavy diamond on his amputated ring finger.

“Fuck,” Meredith swore under her breath, pulling the door shut before she was seen. She didn’t have to check the rest of their hands to know they were all missing the same finger past the second knuckle. She bumped hard into Jerry and pushed him out of the way, hurrying to the doors. Before she could order them closed on some pretense, any pretense, the group walked through them, a knot of black and red, calm and pale, eyes sweeping the room with deceptive casualness.

Meredith took a step back only to slam into Jerry again.

“Are you ok?” he asked, in a low voice, steadying her with a hand on her arm.

She turned and grabbed his hand so hard he winced. “Come with me, right now.”

Her voice was a whisper but her expression was enough to get him moving. She didn’t stop until they were safely in the kitchen. “Jerry, are any of the guests vampires?”

Jerry’s head went back in surprise. “No, I would have told you. The kitchen orders alone-”

“You’re positive? No one traveling incognito?” she said, loud enough that a few of the kitchen workers turned to look at her.

Jerry shook his head slowly. “You know it’s procedure to ask, just so we keep the garlic out of the soup,” he said with a slight smile.

Meredith rubbed a bare hand over her face and nodded. “Ok,” she said, taking a deep breath, “get me the lighting techs, bring them through the back and have them meet me here.”

“What are you going to be doing?” he asked, already reaching for his walkie-talkie.

She opened the door a crack. One of the women in red was scouting the guests as they stood around the ice sculpture. “Calling security. There are ten vampires in the hall,” she said quietly.

“Salubri?” Jerry asked, relieved.

She shook her head and closed the door just as the woman’s eyes swung in her direction. “Kalderash,” she said, waving her hand at him for emphasis.

Jerry went white under his tan. “The UV lights going to be enough?” he asked, his voice thin.

“That and security,” she said with what she felt was admirable calm considering the danger to her guests. “Go, Jerry.”

He jumped and ran for the back of the kitchen.

Meredith gave the door another look and shook her head, turning into the chef’s office. If she had known any of them it might have been possible to negotiate. But they were all unfamiliar and they would notice her hand and her untrimmed finger. Abandonment to them, dishonor, disgrace to have left the clan. To her it felt a lot like freedom. She picked up the phone. “Carl, this is Meredith. I’m down at the banquet and we’ve got a problem.”

“A serious problem, Meredith Waite,” a silky voice said behind her.

Meredith dropped the handset from her ear and placed it in the cradle. Carl was very good at his job; most of the security on the ship was now heading for the banquet hall. She could only hope they were packing stakes. She turned, looking into the smiling face between her and the door.

The woman was young, her teeth were too white, and her skin hadn’t yet reached the translucent shade that would mark her first century. “Security for family? What kind of welcome is that?”

Meredith took in her toned shoulders, their similar heights and the long skirt that covered the younger woman’s legs to her modest heels. It only took a moment to decide. “The kind of welcome I give assassins.”

The woman’s smile widened into a snarl, showing her long teeth.

Meredith shifted her weight to the balls of her feet without appearing to move.

A burst of static shattered the silence. Without thought Meredith’s eyes moved to the walkie-talkie on her hip.

Teeth were at her as she raised her hands in defense. She could feel the blood running down her neck as she shoved the woman hard, sending her across the room into the wall.

Meredith was on her before she had bounced away from the wall, a solid grip on her neck and around one arm, flipping her into the middle of the room with perverse ease.

The woman scrambled to her feet, legs hindered by her skirt.

Meredith picked up the heavy wooden guest chair and brought it down in a vicious arc that shattered the chair against the younger woman’s shoulder.

She was still struggling to her feet when Meredith sat firmly on her chest, pinning her arms to the floor with her knees. Meredith touched the point of a broken chair leg to the woman’s chest, pressing so it dimpled the pale skin left bare by the dress.

The smile was gone, wide blue eyes looked back at her, disbelieving. “But you’re-”

Meredith put her weight behind the chair leg and pushed. Her arms and shoulders strained as the wood slid in, first with a crunch and then fast so she almost fell forward. She only let go when she felt the resistance of the floor beneath them. The woman’s eyes were still wide, still disbelieving, still staring up at her.

Meredith stayed like that, leaning on the end of the makeshift stake, staring into dead eyes, unaware of the wide smile that was showing her own sharp teeth, until the walkie-talkie chirped again.

She got up on shaky legs, feeling her breath coming unsteadily in and out of her lungs. She looked around for the walkie-talkie, not seeing it until it crackled again. It was under the desk. She had to steady herself on the wall so she didn’t fall when she reached for it. “Meredith here,” she said, eyes on the woman and the pool of blood slowly spreading across the floor.

Jerry’s voice crackled over the speaker. “We’ve got the lights, it looks pretty quiet down there. Are you sure-”

Meredith touched her neck with her short finger, feeling the jagged edge of the bite. “I’m sure. Give it five minutes, then light it up,” she said. That would give her enough time to make sure the doors were sealed. None of them would get out.

There was a slight pause. Then a solid, “yes ma’am.”


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