Timeline: December 11, 2008
Lyla picked up Rey in the morning and they drove down to Manchester dressed for business. Her boss had given Rey a packet of cash worth about ten grand. That, she was told, was the expense account for this run and which belonged to Lyla personally. But Rey would be managing it from here on out. Each trip they made, Lyla would refresh it back up to ten grand.
Lyla rented a black Dodge Charger sedan. She asked Rey to drive the rest of the way to Boston, reasoning that she might as well get used to the drive since she’d likely have to do this on her own at times. She also stowed Rey’s brief case in the trunk while she stuck her own brief case behind her legs in the passenger side front seat.
Once they were on the road, Lyla opened the case just long enough to remove something from it. Rey was too busy driving to get a look at what was inside. Then Lyla handed the gun Rey.
“I don’t use ’em, myself, but I think maybe you should carry one. Or, at least keep it handy.”
A glance down showed Rey it was a handgun of the same make and model as the ones she’d seen Ramiel carry.
“I heard you were getting to be a decent shot,” Lyla said.
Rey nodded. “I’m better with a rifle, though,” she replied. “Ironclaw’s been teaching me all the little tricks he knows.”
“Well, look at the teacher’s new pet!” Lyla said with a good-natured jibe. “But yeah, I know. Still, I figure you know enough to protect yourself with one of these. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t even know where the safety switch is on most of these things, despite the fact I’ve brokered deals on behalf of most of our friends to get guns and gun parts illegally.”
“Well, you don’t need to know how to use one to buy and sell them.” Rey glanced at the gun again. “I guess I’ll carry it in a briefcase for now. If I’m to carry it in a shoulder holster or something, my suit jackets will have to be tailored differently. Did you know Young Father Bear taught me a new ritual?”
Lyla raised an eyebrow. “Really? No, I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah.” Rey grinned, pleased to see that Lyla didn’t know everything that she was doing. “The reason I learned to use the rifle was so that I could hunt. Now that I’m hunting, I must sacrifice the skins to Young Father Bear. I asked him to teach me the Sacrifice ritual. Now, when I do a sacrifice, it will benefit him directly.”
Lyla’s other eyebrow went up. “Now that’s really cool. I bet you’re really winning points with our totem spirit.”
Rey shrugged a bit. “I didn’t do it for that reason. This is something that I could do, and we all do what we can for the pack, right?” She smiled slightly. “Still, being in spirit’s good books is a very valuable thing. I’m just glad that the skin doesn’t have to be perfect.” Her lips twisted. “I did something of a hatchet job when I skinned that doe.”
Lyla smiled with feral intensity, think of fresh, warm blood and meat still steaming in the cold winter morning. She shook herself out of the thought and softened her razor grin. “Great, now I’m in the mood for venison,” she laughed.
“Sorry,” Rey said unapologetically. She went on to tell Lyla about that hunting trip. When she was done, she continued “For a while, I worried I’d mess up and I’d disappoint Ironclaw. I’d never really thought about it as a rite of passage. If I had, I would have been even more nervous.
“So, what are we doing tonight?”
“If I told you, that would spoil the surprise,” Lyla said with a dark smile. Something in her eyes was very serious. Whatever it was, it was important, and not simply a “training run”.
“Am I expected to participate?”
“Mostly just observe this time around,” Lyla said. “I’ll be sure to make the introductions you’ll need and of course you need to be seen with me so people know who you are.”
“Okay. If I have any questions, or come up with any ideas that I think would be helpful, how do you want me to let you know?”
“If you don’t think it would make me look bad, just say it. Otherwise wait until we are alone.”
When the two women arrived in Boston, Lyla took her to a 12 story apartment building and took her to the top floor. It required a security key to get the elevator to select 12 that Lyla had on a keychain. She remarked that Ramiel doesn’t know about this place yet and that if her guess was right, he’d be pretty pissed off when he finds out. But Lyla didn’t seem sorry. She just smiled and remarked that he and Michael aren’t the only ones with a little “clubhouse”, referring to their remote cabin at a hallow near Eldon Well.
She told Rey that it was a condo, paid through the foreseeable future. It was a nice place. Leather couches, a fancy entertainment system, a full bar, functional kitchen, even some art decorated the walls. But it looked too pristine, unused. Clearly, Lyla rarely visited the place but hired housekeeping to keep it up. Lyla went to the study and unlocked a drawer in a huge desk with a smoked glass top. It looked like there was even a computer mounted inside the desk itself, out of the way but clearly visible to someone seated behind the desk. From the drawer she withdrew a key and tossed it to Rey.
“If you need to stay overnight in Boston, you can use this place,” she told Rey. “Just be aware that apart from building security, there aren’t any other guards or protection on hand, okay?”
Rey nodded. “Don’t stay here very much, do you.”
“Home is in Eldon Well,” she said. “But it’s sometimes convenient to have a base of operations. We’ll stay here overnight and return to Eldon Well in the morning, if the meeting drags on to a late hour. Do you have any questions about how things work here in the condo?”
“Do I get access to the computer?”
“Sure if you want it. Just click on guest. You should be able to create a normal user account from there.”
Lyla paused, then asked, “Rey, how old are you now?”
“Twenty one,” Rey replied. “Why?”
Lyla smiled. “Just checking to see if we needed to lie about your age.”
They left once more, heading to another part of town. This area had a more menacing feel to it than the wealthy Back Bay area of the condo. The whole town felt cordial but cold to outsiders and, from Rey’s experience traveling with Lyla on previous occasions, “outsiders” were generally defined as anyone who couldn’t trace lineage back two generations of Boston city residents. It was remarkable that Lyla had made inroads here. Rey’s guess was that the Irish mob must have been difficult for the Italians to displace due to the pervading attitudes of the populace, though she suspected that somehow they had. Yet Lyla seemed able to grease the cogs of social wheels with deft skill. Her looks as well as her liberal and expert use of her own brand of persuasion appeared to have taken her far for an “outsider”.
It was to the Roxbury neighborhood that Lyla brought them. If there was an unsavory place to avoid in all of Boston, this was it. Even worse off than the small Chinatown area, Roxbury hadn’t yet benefit from the “gentrification” and urban renewal brought by the wealthy gay community in Boston. Whereas the South End had architecture that drew them in droves (thus driving out the crime, drugs, and gangs there), Roxbury had little to offer anyone. It was, therefore, an area much contested as the only real frontier for criminal activity. If you could survive there, then you were likely going somewhere.
Lyla had Rey pull up and stop at an old Victorian-era building that lacked any particular Victorian fashion or class. It was in no better shape than any of the other buildings piled up all over the neighborhood, save that it didn’t have anyone loitering on sidewalk directly in front of it. The two-story building, while generally unremarkable, also had one other feature that set it apart from the neighbors. Lights were on here both downstairs and up.
Leaving the car and proceeding up the short walk past a dead lawn that was really barely a strip of brownish color with a couple patches of dirty snow, they stepped up the porch stairs and through a broken screen door. In the darkened shadows of the unlit porch something moved and a woman’s voice said, “Right on time, Ms. Clairborne.”
She had a slight accent that Rey found difficult to place. After a moment, Rey’s eyes adjusted to the gloom of the porch and she saw a very attractive young woman sitting in a rocking chair. She was of mixed oriental and caucasian descent and cute as a button. But her eyes were cold and glittered sharply. Her outfit was as sexy as it was menacing. She wore a tight leather outfit that reminded Rey of something Lyla occasionally war if she was heading into a fight, except that it left most of her legs protected only by fishnets and garters
“Seraphine,” Lyla acknowledged the woman.
Seraphine stood with catlike grace and stretched. Then she reached behind the rocking chair and removed a a pair of curved sheaths, perhaps fourteen inches in length. “Janine’s ready to see you,” she told Lyla. “I’ll take you to her.” Seraphine’s eyes paused to examine Rey. If felt like the woman was judging her like she might a piece of meat at the market, taking in every detail with an intense look. Lyla didn’t offer an explanation, however, so Seraphine simply shrugged and let them inside.
The inside of the house was in much better condition than the outside. Red was a dominant color and every doorway seemed to have privacy curtains of a variety of types and styles. Worn but comfortable couches and chairs occupied the place.
A man with spectacles observed Lyla and Rey with leering curiosity and an appreciative sneer from his comfortable place on a cushioned chair. A blonde girl slowly massaged one smelly foot, then the other as Lyla and Rey passed. Lyla ignored the leer and said, “Is Sheila treating you well?”
“Oh, she is surely a treasure,” said the fellow in a hoarse, gravelly voice. He loosened his already unbottoned top button and pulled apart his black and yellow tie. “Although there is always room for more…”
Lyla grinned, “Oh a big spender today? I’ll let Janine know and she’ll make sure you’re well taken care of.”
Seraphine led them on, past the man and his “masseuse” to a set of narrow stairs. It took them up to the second story and they made their way through an impressively long, narrow corridor with many doors to each side. It finally opened up again to a sitting room adjoining a bedroom converted into a kind of office. There, several other woman waited for them. They were seated in various places around the room.
Looking from her left and continuing right, Rey saw very attractive brunette wearing a lacy, black and red teddy, garters, and dark stockings smoking a black cigarette that smelled like cloves. Her bright red lips lined a wide mouth that held more innocence than Rey felt comfortable seeing in a place like this. She couldn’t be a day over sixteen, could she? It was a disturbing thought. The next woman was a brunette as well, but had long, straight hair and striking blue eyes. She had a pouty look to her. She wore a little blue dress with a wide black belt and silver buckle. The next woman seemed older than both of the previous, two, and one look at her eyes told Rey she’d been around the block a time or two. Attractive and tough, she also held an air of authority. She had fiery red hair and perfect, pale skin. She wore a long green dress slit to the hip on one side. It was cut low enough to expose enough of her bountiful breasts to entice any customer. This, then, would be Janine. Next to her was a girl reclining on the window bench dressed in a nightgown with tufted sleeves and collar. It didn’t cover anything below the waist but she wore matching pink panties. This blonde was remarkable because she had a scar on her cheek. While it detracted somewhat from what might have otherwise been an attractive face, her body was in great shape, like a models. Next was a girl sitting on a chair turned backwards so she could rest her head on hand placed at the top of the chair back. She was a pretty black girl with tightly braided rows beaded in a Jamaican style. She wore a red blouse that didn’t button but hung loose to expose her shiny black bra and bikini. All of the women here were shaven, clean and apparently took care of themselves.
The red-haired woman stood and took Lyla’s hand with a warm smile. “It’s good to see you, Lyla, as always.”
Lyla returned the pleasant greeting with well-wishing, but noticed the many eyes examining Rey.
Janine asked, “Have you brought us a stray?”
Lyla smiled widely and laughed. “No. This is Rey. She’ll be my right hand when I can’t be here personally. Rey, this is Janine.” She continued with introductions around the room. “The kid is Sylvie–“
“Hey, I’m 21!” the smoking girl lied.
Lyla ignored her. “That’s Michelle,” she said pointing out the girl with the remarkable blue eyes, “that’s Collette, and this Jamaican sweet-heart is Elisa.” That brought some snorts of laughter and jibes at the black girl.
“It’s nice to meet all of you,” Rey said with a genuine smile. She made brief eye contact with each of them, but did not extend a hand. Best to let them make the first move, the young witch thought, and not make any assumptions.
“Girls,” Janine said in preparation of dismissing them from the room, “time for business.”
Lyla glanced quickly at Rey, reading her reactions so far and held up an appeasing hand. “No, we’re cool. As long as you don’t need the privacy, Janine, we’re fine doing business where they can see it.”
Janine smiled. This was the way she liked to work; where her girls could see what was going on and have a say in it.
“The shipment for bribes is here,” Lyla said. “Rey, would you mind?” She referred to the heavy briefcase that Lyla had Rey carry from Eldon Well.
After Rey presented it to Janine, she put it on her desk and sat upon the smooth, wood surface and opened the briefcase. It was packed half with thick bags filled with something white on one side and brown on the other. Janine raised her eyebrows and looked at Lyla as the other girls crowded around to look, making impressed sounds.
“That should cover bribes through winter,” Lyla told her.
Janine nodded. “Is it good?”
Lyla shrugged. “I haven’t tested it. But I’ve been told it’s uncut. It better be damned good given what I paid for it.”
Janine gave an exasperated retort. This was something they’d been over before but she wasn’t ready to let it go. “Lyla, if you don’t test this stuff, how you gonna know if it’s any good? We depend on this stuff to buy off the gangs and the mob. If we end up bribing them with bad or drugs cut so thin there’s hardly anything left, they’ll turn on us!”
“I already told you,” Lyla said patiently. “I can’t test this. I have a real bad reaction to drugs. I can’t even take ibuprofin. So test it yourself — if it’s bad stuff I take the financial hit and I go get you better stuff. But that’s my risk, not yours.”
Michelle couldn’t contain herself. “Holy shit! Lookit all that shit! There’s gots to be enough to party till spring in here!”
Janine replied, “And then we’d be out of business and out on the street.”
“Oh come on, Janine,” Michelle pleaded. “Can’t we just party a little tonight? We ain’t never got no reason to party and such.”
Lyla was studiously keeping out of the debate. These were Janine’s girls and she expected Janine would want to handle it. Janine hesitated but said, “We got four girls still out on jobs…”
Collette swung her legs down from the window seat and sat up. “She might actually have a point,” she said. “We could use a morale booster right now. And you know we’ll all be in and out during the night. Shouldn’t stop us having a good time.”
Sylvie chimed in with a heart-bending look and a, “Please, Janine?”
Janine sighed but closed and locked the briefcase. “All right. But this is off limits.”
A pleased chorus rose including: “Yes!” “Thanks Janine” and “I’m gonna tell Sarah!” The only one who didn’t look so happy was Michelle who watched Janine dejectedly as madam stood and moved to a nude picture of woman in a sensual but not lewd pose, revealing a safe. She tapped in a code, opened the safe, and put each package of illegal drugs into the safe, then locked it up.
Janine returned to the desk and took her seat on it again. “So to business. The cops been at us again. They grabbed Camille right off the street and hauled in to jail the other night. I got her out, but it wasn’t easy and it was expensive. Seraphine says she’s sure the cops who nabbed her are on the take from the Barretti family.”
“So the Barrettis are sending a message?” Lyla guessed.
Janine nodded. “Yeah. They’re saying they can make it real expensive to stay independent and not pay for their protection from the cops. Maybe too expensive. Word is they aren’t too happy a bunch of gang members got killed a couple weeks ago in fighting surrounding a female pimp that they had in their employ. I heard she showed up in the hand of the FBI and now the Barrettis are feeling a lot of pressure from that direction. It makes them edgy and dangerous.”
Janine was studying Lyla face closely. Rey wasn’t sure if Janine saw the very slight twitch on Lyla’s face that she saw. The old adage about not being able to con a con held true, though. Lyla was pretty good at covering, but Rey was pretty sure Lyla knew plenty about that.
“All right,” Lyla said, thinking. “Find out the names of who is paying off the cops and let me know. I’ll handle that.” The golden rule was that you didn’t kill cops, not even dirty cops. So it was a good guess Lyla was going to target the ones paying off the cops instead. Janine nodded, satisfied with that. “Is Camille okay?”
“Oh yeah,” Janine said. “She’s been through that stuff before. She’s already back at work.”
“There’s this private detective that keeps nosing around,” Janine said. “Taking pictures, stalking the girls, stuff like that. Real creepy. Seraphine already ran him down once and wrecked his camera and destroyed some film, but he just won’t stop.”
Lyla nodded and smiled. “Hm. Rey, what do you think about that?”
“I believe that gentleman needs a reminder about manners,” Rey said without hesitation. Her voice was calm and businesslike, as if discussing the lunch menu at a restaurant, despite the possible implications of her words.
“He’s had one lesson already. He seems highly motivated to continue his harassment,” Lyla remarked. “Seraphine is not gentle when it comes to protecting her people.”
“What I meant was going with a different tactic. Physical violence didn’t work, so we need to find something else. We need to find out what’s behind his motivation and eliminate it.”
Lyla nodded, approving. She told Janine, “Have Seraphine follow him, find out what he’s after. If he’s just a pervert, let me know and I’ll take care of him. If it’s something else, I’ll expect you and your lovely ladies will handle the problem.”
From two examples, Rey was able to see that Lyla had separated Janine and her girls from having to worry about serious crime such as the permanent elimination of problematic people. When Lyla had to step in, she was showing that someone was likely going to die. It was therefore better for all if they could handle things themselves. It was a fair guess that Lyla would hold the same expectations of Rey. Her new consigliere would be expected to handle things efficiently. If she couldn’t, she might be indirectly responsible for another permanent “solution”.
At the same time, Lyla also showed restraint and some caution. Simply going after and eliminating problems could lead to an all-out war with gangs or crime families. Obviously, Lyla didn’t want that either. She seemed to want to use whatever resources she had to in terms of enforcers as sparingly as possible.
Janine agreed. “We’ll figure it out. And I think that’s it for business this week.”
Michelle brightened and asked, “Will the two of you party with us tonight?”
Lyla smiled and looked at Rey. “As I recall, our schedule for the evening is clear unless more information comes in about the Barrettis connection to the cops.”
“What did you have in mind?” Rey asked, her face and smile still friendly though her mind worked overtime. If the cocaine and heroin (Rey’s guess as to the brown substance was) were off limits, then that left alcohol and lighter drugs – if they were permitted. She hoped that they wouldn’t be offended if she chose not to participate in that part of a party.
Janine explained. “The girls’ idea of a party means no men allowed. Music, food –“
“Alcohol!” put in Collette.
“– and alcohol and whatever else is allowed,” Janine concluded.
Elisa helpfully translated. “It’s mostly a chance to blow off steam and bitch about work without getting yelled at. Not everyone gets to be ‘off work’, though. We rotate out so nobody gets turned away.”
Lyla suggested to Rey, “It’s a good opportunity to get to know some of the people you’ll be working with.”
“Yeah, and you and me could chat!” Sylvie offered. “We’re about the same age…”
Rey chuckled. “It sounds like a lot of fun.” For a moment, she wondered if she looked sixteen, or if it was just Sylvie trying to act her supposed age.
Pizza was ordered, as well as drinks. Collette went to refresh the house’s stocks of alcoholic beverages. Seraphine, however, didn’t stick around. She said she had a lot of work to do and she wouldn’t be taking any other jobs tonight, which Janine appeared to accept without complaint or comment.
They were joined after a while by Camille. She took off a long grey coat and what she wore underneath clearly showed she had just returned from a lengthy fetish session with a client. She looked tired, but mention of food and daiquiris brought some spirit back into the bleach-blonde woman. Lyla was speaking with Michelle at the time, so it was Janine who introduced Rey to Camille. She learned that of all Janine’s bunch, Camille was most into the kinky and exotic stuff, so when clients who were into various kinds of fetishes came calling, she was most often the one that took the work.
Collette was called away about the time Rey needed to look for a restroom. She got directions from Michelle (a girl who was oddly shy and reserved for this group) but still managed to get turned around and walked into the wrong room. There was the hurried sound of a drawer slamming closed faster than what was probably intended and she saw someone peep around the far curtains that concealed a bed. They were sheer and, to Rey’s relief, no one was entertaining clients in here.
“Oh! Hi Rey,” said Sylvie. She wore a guilty expression on her startled face.
“Hi, Sylvie. This your room?”
She nodded and smiled, “Uh-huh. The one I sleep in not that I work in.” She brushed her hands off and came out from the far side of the bed. “Hey um, you like to party?”
“Depends,” Rey replied. “I like getting together with people for a couple of drinks, something to eat and to talk. I don’t do drugs, though.” Her statement was just that – a statement. She did her best to keep her personal disapproval out of her voice.
“Oh,” Sylvie said, sounding disappointed. “Cool. If you decide to you wanna fly, though, I’m game!”
“How long have you been working for Janine?”
“About three months,” Sylvie answered. “What were you looking for when you came in?”
“The bathroom,” Rey replied with a laugh. “I got all turned around.”
Sylvie grinned and said, “Come on. I’ll show you.” She led Rey to the right place. When Rey was finished in there, she found Sylvie was waiting for her outside. “So um, can I ask you something like, where are you from?”
“New Orleans,” Rey replied, saying it like a native. “How about you?”
“New York,” Sylvie said. “How did you meet Ms. Clairborne? She’s kind of a mystery around here. Nobody knows where she came from or nothin’. Not that we mind if it’s secret or something. Most of us are just happy she came along.”
“Where she came from isn’t my story to tell,” Rey said, “but we met at a mall.” She chuckled. “She’s helped me out quite a bit too.” Rey adjusted her right cuff and made sure Grey’s bracelet was tucked up out of sight. There was no way she was going to take it off unless she absolutely had to – which is why she made sure all her blouses and jackets came down long enough to hide it.
Sylvie considered. “You know, Seraphine’s really cool. If someone needs to be taught a lesson, you ask Seraphine, you know? I think Clairborne is like that, too, only scarier somehow. Seraphine is kinda cold and doesn’t talk much. Ms. Clairborne is just really casual and comfortable talking about violence.” Peered at Rey. “But you, I dunno. Just to look at you, you look like a nice girl but you’re really closed off, too. Can I ask you somethin’? Why did you get into this business? You ain’t no kind like us girls. And you aren’t like that enforcer guy Ms. Clairborne sends around. Not to us, ‘course!” she added hastily.
“Good to know he hasn’t had to visit.” Rey nodded. “Why’d I get involved? Ms. Clairborne offered me the opportunity. She wanted someone who was loyal, trustworthy, and good with people, and that’s me.” She leaned her hip against the wall. “How did you end up working for Janine?”
“Well, I was hard up for cash and I started turning tricks to get by. I got in Collette’s way ‘cuz I didn’t know no better. So, I had to go somewhere else to turn tricks and stuff or there’d be trouble for me, being all alone and Collette had a bunch of girls workin’ together. I was afraid to leave the area, though, cuz I knew I’d probably have trouble with cops or worse, probly pimps. But they was real nice and said I didn’t have to go if I give Janine a cut, you know? But not like a pimp does or anything. It’s more like rent and I got my own room for myself and a nice bed and all. And I don’t got to sleep in the same place as I had sex in. I guess Janine liked me, since Michelle says she don’t just let anybody come in here and stay.”
Rey nodded. It sounded a lot like how the “chicken ranch” in the Best Little Whorehouse In Texas was run, and that was really her only experience with that kind of place before today. “How old are you, really?” She was curious, as it was obvious to Rey that Sylvie had chosen the lifestyle she was now in, rather than being forced into it.
“I’ll tell you, but first you got to swear you won’t never use it against me. I’m old enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong, you know, and I got my reasons for leavin’ home. Swear?”
“I swear,” Rey said, and meant it.
“I’m seventeen,” Sylvie said.
“I’d have said not a day over 16 when I first saw you.” Rey shrugged. “It’s not my place to judge you. The pot calling the kettle black, and all that stuff.” Her smile returned to her face. “Why don’t we head back to the party?”
“Yah okay. I’ll be back in a few,” she said, then turned to head back to her room.
“What are you going to go get?”
“High,” Sylvie answered over her shoulder with a smile as she continued down the hall.
Rey watched Sylvie go, then made her way back to the party and hoped she didn’t get lost again. She found Lyla there having a drink, possibly a martini with Janine, while others lounged, talked, laughed and listened to the music someone put on the Janine’s small radio. Whatever the music was, it had a heavy tone to it and a slow but powerful beat.
The young witch walked over to join Lyla and Janine. She didn’t say anything, just waited for them to say something to her.
Janine, taking note of her, asked, “May I offer you a drink, Rey?”
“A Mudslide, please,” Rey replied with a smile. “If not, then some water or a soda will be fine.”
Janine smiled, “A mudslide then.”
“Oh! I’ll give it a try,” offered Camille who was lounging nearby. She went to the little office fridge and examined the contents. She was still wearing the skimpy fetish outfit made mostly of straps, buckles, and black nylons and three-inch spiked heels. The fact the room was very cozy and warm probably kept her from getting too cold. After finding what she was after and locating a tall, clean glass she was able to put together a concoction that tasted reasonably like a mudslide. At least, it was chocolaty and had Kahlua in it.
The evening progressed. Lyla drank a lot, as did the other girls, some of them becoming obviously drunk. Sylvie reappeared later, seeming rather spacey but also exuding a happiness that refused to be bothered no matter how the older girls picked on her. Eventually, there was a caller asking for her specifically and she had to leave the party. It wasn’t much after that when Lyla decided they’d been social enough. She and Rey, who’d been far more reserved in her drinking, left the party then and headed outside.
On the sidewalk in front of the whore house, Rey sensed the presence of something powerful and unnatural nearby. Looking around, she thought that whatever it was, it was close, perhaps just in the alley that separated this house from the next closely-packed residence. A quick look about showed the only other people out tonight were a couple of nicely-dressed men who were looking at the whore house and talking between themselves, apparently trying to decide whether they should go in or not.
“Lyla,” Rey said softly, her eyes not leaving the alley. “Do you sense that?”
Lyla looked at the alley and shook her head. “No. Wait!” Suddenly her attention went to the two men. But Rey was still looking in the alley and she saw something move in there. A flash of brown hair reflected momentarily, followed by a face. It took only a moment for Rey to recognize Sylvie’s fear-struck face. The young brunette hooker retreated further into the alley.
The two young men stopped talking and were also looking into the alley. One of them, who had an arrogant swagger to his walk and despite the coolness of the evening had the poor taste to leave his leather coat open and the top three shirt buttons undone so that people could see his thick chest hair. This guy had the black hair, dusky skin, and Roman nose that clearly picked him out as Italian. The other was slightly taller and lanky, with a wiry build that was still muscular enough to be threatening in a bar fight. He wore his clothing more conservatively, with a zipped, grey wool coat concealing everything but his tailored slacks and expensive shoes. These two, Rey was sure, had noticed Rey and Lyla, but they didn’t seem concerned about anything in particular.
“Sylvie’s in the alley, and she’s terrified,” Rey breathed in Lyla’s ear.
Lyla nodded and then put her finger to her lips. She stepped out of her heeled shoes and padded barefoot except for her hose and silent after the two men.
The strange feeling Rey had about the alley seemed to intensify. She took off her shoes as well, grabbed them up and quickly followed Lyla.
Just as they got to a position they could see, they saw the man in the leather exclaim, “She’s opened a portal!”
“A mage!” said the other.
But before they could act, Sylvie dove headlong into what appeared be a glowing, rectangular door way in the stone face of the whore house. The lanky man dashed toward the opening while his boss seemed in less of a rush.
Whatever that doorway was, it Rey knew it had to be the disturbance she felt. Like a locus could function become a “shallow” place between Shadow and the mortal realm, this glowing doorway seemed to have the same function — only Rey couldn’t begin to guess where it led.
Hamilton? Those two men. Are they human or something else? Rey asked quickly.
Help! came the anxious reply. I’m shut in this stupid car and there are a couple of crazy Mages lurking about! He hopped into the Charger’s back window and stared out. Oh bloody– that’s who you mean, isn’t it? What are you doing out there?
We were coming back to the car to leave. “They’re mages,” Rey whispered to Lyla. “What should I do?” She had no idea what she could do, having never been on the opposite side of a possible fight with some before.
“Help Sylvie,” Lyla whispered back grimly. “I’ll distract them.”
Rey nodded and waited for Lyla to begin her distraction. Realizing how deadly dangerous mages could be, Lyla chose to pour on the charm rather than attempt a futile attack. Using power gained from a certain spirit called a lusting, she attempted to capture their attention from the strange doorway — and Sylvie. Her suit jacket was off her shoulders with a shrug and dangling by the crook of her finger. The top buttons of her own blouse were unbuttoned to reveal a tantalizing glimpse of cleavage. Then she called out, “Hey boys. You looking for a good time?”
The lanky one turn around and then stared at Lyla. His eyes dilated and his mouth opened and worked soundlessly. “Hey boss…”
The fashion cripple glanced over his shoulder and started to say, “Get lost lady,” but when he turned to look at her he froze up. “Daaamn.”
Momentarily stymied in their pursuit of the girl, Rey now had a slim but existing chance to reach the place Sylvie disappeared.
She took advantage of it, trying to move as silently as she could with what cover she could find, to slip down the alley towards the glowing doorway. Amazingly, she managed it by sticking to the shadows and keep well out of their direct line of sight. It helped that their line of sight currently went straight toward Lyla at the moment. However, if these men were really determined to catch Sylvie, then they might not be delayed by Lyla’s advances for long. She knew she had to act fast.
Rey reached the doorway and the glowing portal was already beginning to fade and she sensed that it might not stay open for much longer. Looking inside she didn’t see Sylvie. Well, at least not the Sylvie she thought she knew. This one wore her clothes but her hands and bare feet were covered with tawny fur. Her face was similar to Sylvie’s but she had large, golden cat-eyes and cat-ears atop her head. The young creature was oddly lovely yet also clearly not of the world Rey knew.
The cat-girl was crouched behind a stunted, twisted tree that whose branches sported long thorns, but also red flowers and odd, green fruit. The gnarled old trunk was only perhaps a little over a foot thick, so the tree was not large enough to really hide behind, but it was the first and closest obstacle the cat-girl could get to on short notice. Fifty feet beyond that rose a thick, green hedge that looked as impenetrable as a wall. The rocky ground was uneven but thick tufts of wide-bladed grass nevertheless managed to find purchase here and there.
The cat-girl caught sight of Rey looking in at her and her eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat. Behind her, Rey vaguely recognized the seducted tone of Lyla’s voice. One of the men responded, but when the other spoke there was a more urgent note. Rey was so captivated by the bizarre scene before her that the voices seemed too far away to hear clearly.
“Sylvie? You’re a shapeshifter?” Rey shook her head, trying to focus. “Come on. Let’s get you out of here and somewhere safe, away from those mages. Ms. Claireborn’s distracting them, but it won’t work forever.”
Sylvie looked first one way and then the other. Then, as the magic portal began to fade completely, she ran for the doorway and leaped through. Rey threw up her hands in surprise to brace for the impact, but she never felt it. When she looked again, the portal was gone. There was only Sylvie, wearing the same outfit as before and looking completely human. A little black top covered less than was appropriate for polite company and a shiny PVC green skirt failed to conceal the tops of garters that held up her torn and holed black hose. She crouched down behind the tall, green, plastic trash bin that stood next to the stoney wall. She didn’t say a word and refused to look Rey in the eye as she tried to keep out of sight.
Rey took the cover of the shadows, too, and glanced back to see how Lyla was doing. Somehow, she had managed to capture the complete attention of the two men, likely thanks to her gifts. They’d forgotten their quarry now. This might not be an entirely good thing, Rey realized as she caught Lyla’s eye over the shoulder of the well-dressed but unstylish boss. Knowing Lyla, this could turn out one of three possible ways, Rey knew. Either Lyla would end up having sex with one or both of them while Rey made good her escape with Sylvie. Or Lyla could decide she’d had enough of this and attempt to tear them apart. The third possibility was that they might realize Lyla was not what she seemed and they decide to do to her whatever they had intended to do to Sylvie. That was anybody’s guess, but it didn’t seem like they any kind of sex-related activity in mind when they chased the under-aged call girl into this alley. The intense and very impatient look in Lyla’s eye as she stared hard at Rey past the two men she’d snared narrowed down the possibilities, however.
“Come on,” Rey said with a whisper. She reached out and took Sylvie’s hand, intending to lead her down the alley away from Lyla and the men. “This way.”
Sylvie looked back at the men and Lyla but went with Rey. It took only a moment to travel further down the alley and duck behind a neighbor’s garage. There, Sylvie tugged Rey into the shadow and whispered to her. “Rey, those guys — they ain’t what they seem. I heard Ms. Clairborne’s tough and all and I know she’s special, but this ain’t no normal thing. They ain’t normal,” Sylvie said. “They’ll try to hurt her bad and maybe take her away when they find out she’s special and then you won’t never see her no more.”
“They can try. Is that’s why they were after you? Because they found out you weren’t just human?” Rey whispered back?Hamilton, what’s happening with Lyla and the two mages?
I can’t see, Miss! Curse these doors! I’m still in the car, came his irritated reply.
She shook her head. “No, they think I am human — one that uses magic like a witch or warlock, I think. They seem to hate anybody they think uses magic. The weird thing is that they use magic, too! I’ve seen them corner people before. It’s usually just one man or woman and then they gang up on them. They usually beat them nearly dead and drag them off. I’ve been trying to stay clear of ’em, but if you don’t keep an eye on ’em, they might sneak up on you and grab you when you’re alone. Like just now. Worst thing is that they seem to have all kinds of magic protections and stuff, only you can’t see them.” Sylvie cocked her head at Rey. “You probly think all this magic crap ain’t real, huh? But it is.”
Rey gave Sylvie a quick smile. “I’ve been talking to spirits and doing what they’d call low magic since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Now, excuse me for a sec. I need to check something out.”
Hamilton? Rey called out to her familiar. You still with me?
In a manner of speaking, he replied with a mental sigh.
Sylvie peeked around the corner of the garage and looked up the alley. Whatever she saw made her say, “Uh oh. She isn’t actually gonna let them touch her, is she?”
“I hope not, but better to have sex than to fight them, I guess,” Rey replied. “There’s not a lot she won’t do to protect someone she feels responsible for.” She moved to stand next to Sylvie to peek around the corner.
They had her backed against the wall and Lyla wasn’t looking too pleased, though the men might not have noticed that yet. She was surreptitiously drawing up one leg so that her hand could reach the top of one boot.
“Let’s see if this distracts them enough to help her.” Sorry, Hamilton, but I’m going to be triggering the alarm on the car.Rey reached into her pocket and pulled out the keys to the rental car. She held the key out just past the edge of the garage and hit the panic button on the remote.
There was an explosion of sound and flashing lights disturbing the neighborhood. The boss man turned toward it immediately and gestured. The car immediately hushed to a whispery shadow of its initial volume. The noise seemed to break whatever spell Lyla had over them at the moment.
“Mages!” Lyla spat. “You bastards leave my girls alone.”
The lanky one whipped his head back at Lyla and then reached for her neck and arm, intending to immobilize her. She was too quick, though, and she reacted with a snap that extended the telescoping baton she’d pulled, and then bashed him hard in the temple. He shook his head and nearly went down. “Bitch!” he exclaimed fuzzily. Lyla blinked at him momentarily, though. Her blow, aimed at his temple, actually hit his shoulder. To Rey’s eyes, he seemed to flicker slightly when she swung.
The fashion victim stepped away from her, surprised. “Lady, you just messed with the wrong people.”
Lyla said, “You mess with my girls and I’ll–urk!”
The boss punched only the air a good ten meters away from Lyla, but her body reacted as if she’d been hit in the face. She staggered against the wall and shook her head, wiping blood off her lip.
“Take her down, Max,” he told his still-stunned henchman. The lanky fellow tried to focus on Lyla and then he murmured something arcane. Lyla moaned again, clutching her head.
Rey felt Sylvie grab her arm. “I can’t let her get beat up for trying to help me,” Sylvie said. “Close your eyes, Rey, just for a moment. I– I don’t want you to see this.”
Rey swore softly. “For just a second. Then I have to do something.” No sooner had she closed her eyes she heard a deep, rumbling growl, frightening in its intensity and anger. Rey looked at Sylvie but the girl was nowhere to be seen. There was, however, a massive, black panther standing next to her. It bolted out from around the garage and charged the boss with a feline scream. The panther seemed to strike and invisible field, however. Her deadly claws did not touch him.
Meanwhile, Lyla wasn’t going to take her punishment lying down. She sprang at Max, who was still in arm’s reach and slammed her baton into his body again. He yelped in pain and cried out, “John, help!” as he threw up his hands uselessly to ward off Lyla’s enraged and punishing blows.
The boss man, named John, cursed. “What the fuck!”
Max cried, “It’s her!”
John made a simple gesture at the cat. “That’s not magic! She’s a shifter, not a Mage!”
That made Max whip his head back at John. “Shifters? Oh…. shit!” In desperation, he back-pedaled away from Lyla, who was grinning bloody teeth at him. He made a gesture at Lyla and she grasped her head in pain again, but she didn’t back off.
Rey pulled out her gun, checked the safety and then watched. She hesitated to shoot, hoping they might back off instead.
Lyla, too, got the sense the men no longer wished to fight. She held off for a moment, saying, “If I ever see you two around here again you won’t see mercy.”
That ticked off John, but he didn’t currently like their odds — it was far too even for his liking. “We’re going.” He uttered another arcane word and a strange, glowing portal tore itself into existence. Max stumbled through it unsteadily.
John looked at Lyla before he stepped through his magical escape hatch. “You’re the one who runs this operation, aren’t you? It was an honest mistake. Who are you?”
“Clairborne. And I meant what I said,” Lyla growled.
John eyed the panther and looked at Lyla. He smirked as he held his hands up and stepped backward into the portal. He and the portal disappeared in a flash.
Rey let out a sigh of relief. She checked her gun, making sure the safety was on, and put it away then looked for Sylvie.
The Mages were gone but the puma was still present. Lyla eyed the animal suspiciously and kept her baton ready. As each second passed, she seemed stronger and steadier after Max’s mind attacks, though it had been John’s blow that had hurt her the worst.
The puma’s form melted into that of a girl, leaving Sylvie crouching before Lyla instead. She rose to her feet still clothed the same way she was before.
“You ain’t scared?” Sylvie said in wonder. “You saw them guys make magic and you ain’t scared of them? An’ you saw me change back from a cat and you still ain’t scared?”
“I’ve seen magic before. I’ve even seen a man change into a tiger before,” Lyla said with a shrug. She put the baton away.
Sylvie blinked in amazement. “You sure did wallop that guy Max, huh?”
“I got lucky,” Lyla said. “And if Rey hadn’t raised the alarm on the car and you hadn’t distracted them, too, they’d have likely pissed me off and then there’d be a lot of blood on the ground right now.”
Sylvie looked confused by that response.
Rey approached Sylvie and Lyla. “I thought for a moment that I’d messed things up,” Rey said in relief, deliberately not explaining things to Sylvie.
Lyla shook her head. “Oh no, definitely not. It kept those two from ganging up on me. That John guy hit me damned hard. Not sure I could have taken another punch like that. The one named Max was the weaker of the two, which is why I was concentrating on him. He can do bad things to your mind, though, I found out.
“So are you really a shapeshifter, Sylvie. Because I don’t get that vibe from you.”
Sylvie shook her head. “I can shift my shape, but I’m not a shapeshifter. I use magic, too, but I’m not a mage. I know what that sounds like, but really it’s true! I’m just a girl that got taken away. Bad stuff happened, I think, and then I could just do stuff. I came to Boston to get away from my kidnapper.”
Lyla frowned. On a hunch she asked, “This kidnapper, is he a dark man dressed in a trench coat and hat?”
Sylvie shook her head. “No… it was this guy I knew.” She looked from Lyla to Rey for a moment, then decided to come out and say it. “Well okay it was like this see there was this boy in high school, ‘course I was a freshmen and he was a senior, but he was really cute. He was a new guy and really handsome and popular and he asked me out and stuff, and I got to go to the prom even though I was only a freshman! Cool I thought.
“But it wasn’t cool at all. He wanted to have sex and I said okay so after the prom he took me away to this place that wasn’t here at all. I don’t remember much about it anymore but he made me have sex with a lot of … of things for breeding stock he said. And I had to get out of there ’cause it was horrible. I think it was horrible, but I can’t remember very much. But anyway eventually I couldn’t breed for him no more ‘cuz my stuff got all wore out and then he didn’t pay no more attention to me. So I got away, see? And I ran a really, really long ways until I came to Boston. I just wanted out. By then I had learned to do some magical stuff, and I kinda look like what he made me into, though I s’pose you guys can’t really see that, which is good. Although I think Rey saw me…”
Sylvie shrugged and fanned her hands. “I’m sure it don’t make no sense to you guys anyhow, but it would be real nice if you didn’t tell nobody.”
Lyla stared at the girl. “You must have been pretty depressed when you came here. All alone, no friends… Is that why you started doing drugs, Sylvie?”
Sylvie froze and stared at Lyla. “I’m doin’ better now, Ms. Clairborne. I know I was messed up when Janine found me. Honest, I don’t…” she glanced at Rey and looked ashamed. “I don’t do very much no more. I’m quitting.”
Lyla’s hard look didn’t waver. She took Sylvie by the shoulders and made the girl look her in the eye. “Listen Sylvie. You are obviously gifted. I’ll keep your secrets but you need to quit with the drugs. You have abilities and if you lose control of yourself around my other girls, I’m going to come down on you so hard you’ll wish you were never born. Got it?”
Sylvie looked surprised and scared as well. She nodded her head mutely.
“Keys,” Lyla ordered Rey. After Rey tossed her the car keys, Lyla said, “Clean this up Rey. It’s late and I’m too pissed off right now to deal with it rationally. Take what time you need.”
Rey simply nodded. “Will you let Hamilton out of the car, please? He was a bit freaked out by those two guys.” She didn’t add that her little familiar would be even more freaked out about being trapped in a car with an angry werewolf.
After Lyla was gone, Sylvie turned to Rey. “She never said. Are you guys going to out me to the others?”
“Of course not,” Rey replied. She glanced around, checking to see if anything had fallen to the ground or left behind after the fight.
“Besides, you know how crazy it’d make us sound.” The young witch’s smile softened her face. “I did see you through that doorway. You were… beautiful.” Rey didn’t know how else to describe it.
Sylvie’s face fell. “It’s not nice to tease.” She then looked at Rey cautiously, trying to read her expression. She seemed uncertain, so Sylvie decided to ask a different question. “Do you think Ms. Clairborne knows what I am?”
“I have no idea.” Rey’s smile faded from her lips, disappointed her attempt at humor to ease the tension had fallen flat. “And we won’t tell anyone either.” She bit her lower lip for a moment, then continued. “I can’t even begin to guess what you are, but we’re not going to hurt you. Well, Ms. Clairborne will if you keep taking drugs or do something that harms or otherwise puts the other girls in danger, but that will be because you messed up, not because of what you are.
“To be honest, I don’t think she really cares what you are. She cares about who you are. You’re under her protection, and she takes that responsibility very seriously. As for me, I like you,” Rey said honestly, “and I don’t want to see you get hurt.” She paused. “Why did you think I was teasing you?”
Her words did seem to reassure Sylvie. “Because when I look in the mirror that creature you saw when you looked through the door I opened is all I ever see. I’m not even sure what you see when you look at me now, but I do know that I didn’t look even human when you saw me on the other side,” Sylvie said.
“Sylvie, you’re not a creature. You’re not a thing,” Rey said in earnest. “You’re a person. A good person, if I’m any judge of character. I don’t know why I can’t see you now as I did through the doorway, but I really don’t care. See, I deal with spirits on a regular basis, and to be blunt, you’re a one on the weird appearance-o-meter compared to them. I’ve seen odd, I’ve seen strange, I’ve seen frigging terrifying, I’ve seen shapeshifters in their animal, human and in-between forms, I’ve seen a blue skinned lust spirit with a dick the size of my head and a split tail with each tip ending in a penis.” The size of the penis may have been an exaggeration, but it sure didn’t seem like it at the time. “I’ve seen far too much to think only a purely human form can be beautiful.”
Sylvie looked taken aback by the things Rey said. They were very much beyond her experience. She’d never met a spirit, much less the monsters Rey depicted. “Uh… yeah compared to that, I guess I’m not so bad, huh?” She tried a smile for the first time since they left the parties in the house upstairs.
“Nope!” Rey smiled encouragingly. “Why don’t we go back inside now. We’ll go to your room and get rid of the last of what you’re hiding in that drawer, then you can join the others and have some fun with the other girls. Okay?”
Realizing she wasn’t going to get away with keeping her stash for a second time tonight, Sylvie gave in. “Okay.”
They went inside and up the stairs to Sylvie’s small but lovely room. She removed a small kit that closed with a zipper from between the backboard of her bed and the wall and gave it to Rey. Rey could see that it wasn’t easy for Sylvie, though. A lot of emotions warred on the underage hooker’s face and it was a struggle for her to hand it over like that. But she did it and to her credit, she didn’t complain.
After Rey took the kit Sylvie had been using, she checked to be sure this was what she thought it was. She unzipped it and found a little syringe, needles, rubber tubing, a zippo lighter, a spoon, and a packet of brown powder. She then zipped it back up.
Sylvie said, “I’ll tell Janine that the clients I was s’posed to be hosting were a coupla dirtbags into really rough stuff and that I had to break it off so no one got hurt, and also not to accept them as clients no more. Should I tell her that you an’ Ms. Clairborne had to bail me out? Since there were two, she might not believe me when I say I got away and nothin’ happened.”
Rey nodded. “And tell Janine to contact Ms. Clairborne if they show up around here again, or if their friends come poking around. I doubt they will, but you never know.” She looked thoughtfully at Sylvie. “Could you sense those guys were mages, or did you see them using magic?”
“I seen ’em before,” Sylvie said. “I got to keep track of those guys ’cause they are so dangerous, so we keep watch on ’em. Mostly they leave us alone. They like to pick on their own kind, I guess, but they do get curious about others they don’t know yet. I heard that they take them to this asylum and do horrible things to their victims.”
“There are a lot of people who went through stuff similar to what you did?” Rey asked. She was relieved to hear that Sylvie wasn’t alone, that she had a support network of some kind who understood her.
“I wouldn’t say a lot, but some. Hey! How did you know that?” Sylvie said, blinking.
“It was just a guess,” Rey replied. “You said we and us. In my experience, people tend to stick with those who are like themselves, if only for companionship; so they know they aren’t alone in the world. I was pretty sure you weren’t talking about witches or shapeshifters, so I figured you were talking about people like you.”
“Aw, crap,” Sylvie pouted. “I did say ‘we’, huh? God I really am a dumb cow. No wonder I’m left out of stuff. ‘Stupid Sylvie’ will just open her mouth and spill her guts, they probly say.” She sighed. “Well Michelle saw me come in downstairs. I better go talk to Janine.”
“I wouldn’t worry all that much, Sylvie. You just found out one of the reasons why Ms. Clairborne made me her consigliere.” Rey smiled gently. “I’m very good at getting people to talk, and I listen to what they say. Now, be careful, and stay safe until I see you again, you hear? And for heaven’s sake, stay off the drugs. Ms. Clairborne will be royally pissed if you don’t, and you *really* don’t want that.”
Sylvie nodded. “‘Kay. Uh Rey? What’s a con-silly-ear? Is that like an assistant manager?”
“More or less. It means I’m her second in command. I take care of business when she has other stuff she has to deal with.”
“Got it,” Sylvie said with a smile.
Rey left the old whore house and met up with Lyla at the car. Since it was so late, they stayed overnight at Lyla’s new condominium over in the Back Bay region of Boston. There, Rey told Lyla of what she’d learned about the mages here from Sylvie and expressed a keen interest in getting to know more about the supernatural community here.
Lyla was cautious about that. The more you found out about them, she reasoned, the more they found out about you. Their business in Boston wasn’t about the supernatural community, after all. Still, Lyla told her if she wanted to do that on her free time, she could. For her part, Lyla was more concerned about the Barretti mob, and her several operations currently going on in the town. Still, Rey had a feeling that if she got in over her head, Lyla wouldn’t be so far she couldn’t help out a friend.
The next day they returned. Rey got an early taste of running the business when Lyla had to go with the others to far-off Mythic City in another quest. Lyla left Rey a list of contact names, numbers, and what they did for her. She was gone almost two weeks since, after they took care of one item in Mythic, they got word of another in Louisiana on the way back and swung by to grab it from a wealthy collector there. Thus, Rey had to make all the decisions and run the business until Lyla got back. Luckily, there weren’t any major changes that required her immediate attention. Lyla had several competent people working for her in Boston and Rey quickly discovered that when she issued a decision, it got done.