There was nothing that morning that told me my life was about to change. Well, unless the sharp stench of sweat was a portent of things to come. I was late for a baseball game and in a bad mood because of it. It was early. I stood before a group of clueless recruits, glaring at them. If their flesh had been served to me for appetizers I would have found the dish lacking. I’d been pulled for a random orientation class and forced to address the roomful of derelicts before me. The recruits couldn’t help what they were. But the room stank from their emissions and apprehension. The new bodies fit poorly. Energy spilled out in every direction. They hadn’t learned to contain themselves. My place was not to teach them. I was the greeter. I resisted the urge to teach them or to slap them around a bit. Proverbially speaking. It was merely for me to welcome them. That was my job. I did my job. That it angered me never entered into it.
More annoying than the recruits were the peons who stood in the right-most of the orientation room’s two doorways. Layton and Nona. Lackeys of our CEO. They watched with obvious disregard. I would have spit at them if not for ruining the effect. They clung to their clipboards as if paperwork alone kept their world spinning. I didn’t appreciate the interference. It had been made known. Time and again. Yet there they were, comfortable in their protected status. I forced clenched fists to relax. They believed I couldn’t touch them, and wouldn’t dare try. Sooner or later they would be enlightened.
Standing in the other doorway, leaning against the doorframe with her arms crossed, was my old friend, Raven. She was a beautiful young woman, watching the game with bored, expressionless eyes. She was no happier with our assignment than I. The recruits couldn’t keep their eyes off of her. Which, of course, was the intended effect. Raven ignored them. She savored the quiet before her performance.
“Welcome back,” I growled, “to Saint Petersburg, Florida.” I glanced at the peons in the other doorway and raised an eyebrow, but addressed the recruits, as ordered. “If you’re stuck here listening to, it’s for one simple reason. You’re dead. D. E. D. Dead. Since you are obviously here before me, breathing and blinking your incomprehension, I will allow, for the sake of argument, that you are, perhaps, un-dead. The word we use to describe ourselves is ‘Upir’. Call yourselves vampires, if you must. We don’t care. If you require more explanation, ask your questions only after I have finished my little presentation. If you interrupt me before I invite you ask these questions, I will visit upon you horrors which you could never have imagined. So to speak. Suffice it to say it’s in your best interest if you don’t fuck with me.”
I stopped for a moment. It surprised me to be pacing with my hands behind my back like some Hollywood general. Old habits died hard. Centuries of military service had a habit of slipping back into my routines. My pulse was pounding. One of the peons in the doorway jotted down a note. No doubt tallying the number of curse words he’d heard so far. I was just getting started. I looked out over the assembled noobs, whom I would be cursing for the next ten minutes or so. Six blanks faces. Seven. Stunned idiots. As always. One or two showed a faint spark. That was all. Not much to work with. But there wouldn’t be, would there? When romantic lies are your bait, you’ll never attract the best potential. The stronger, useful ones didn’t believe in Dracula. Or metrosexual dandies from Louisiana. The strong ones knew what we really were. How our kind survived. They knew it had little to do with heavy make-up and Victorian clothing, and everything to do with killing. Noobs quickly learned that, or they were put down.
“I’m not here to entertain you,” I continued. Most of the words rattled out of me with little effort. I’d recited them before. “I’m not here to pacify you.” I stopped and stared at them, my gaze moving from blank face to blank face. “I’m not here to give meaning to your worthless, pathetic lives. Somewhere in the depths of your reptilian brains is the potential of your existence. It’s not for me to save you. It’s not for me to teach you. But if you listen to me you may find that I know a few things about survival. If you listen, and you consider, you may find ways to survive.”
Silence filled the room. Chairs creaked. Clothes rustled. They all tried to hold their breath or breathe shallow. It was not a bad idea. I would’ve held my breath, too, if I’d sat among them. Most wore the clothes they had on when they were first brought over. Each of them reeked of the sweat that poured from their bodies when their spirits consumed their own life energy. Some had pissed themselves. Or worse. There was an undertone of feces and vomit. They were all exhausted. Delirious. Drifting on currents they only partly comprehended.
“Sorry, kids,” I barked in a loud voice, demanding their attention. “It’s not the movies, is it? You didn’t shudder orgasmically and go to that sweet deathly sleep. You didn’t wake up as bonafide vampires with serious munchies and a fondness for period clothing. Did you? No, sweetmeat. You enjoyed the entire excruciating ride. Now you’re here with me, and nothing makes sense. Does it make sense?”
They were still stunned from the pain. Average human experience gave them nothing to compare it to. They needed to feed. Replenish their energy. Not one knew that they would start dying for real, and soon, if they didn’t. But there they were, stuffed into a bright, fluorescent lit room, attending a class like they’d just joined the Peace Corps, being shouted at by some angry old asshole who’d rather be somewhere else himself. Sorry, kids. They shifted nervously in their seats and waited.
“I don’t have a title,” I continued, remembering my place in the routine, pacing so I wouldn’t have to smell any one of them for too long. “Do not call me ‘Sir’. Do not defer to me. I am the unlucky sumbitch who was appointed your orientation fucking cheerleader. Nothing more.” I stopped long enough to let the profanity seep in. They’d all heard the “F” word thousands of times, but the percussive smack of it still made them blink. “Personally, I couldn’t give a shit that you are here. You are worthless to me and a waste of my time. However, someone believes you have some worth. That someone has tasked me with instructing you in the fine art of not fucking up.” I glared at them dramatically and met a few gazes. Gauged which ones looked at me the longest before turning away. They were the ones who might have a chance. There were only a few. The ones who might prove useful. “Do not misunderstand me and believe this is benevolence. We intend to protect ourselves from your fucking stupidity. This is how we do it.”
In the back of the room one of the peons wrote again on his clipboard. I’d given them at least five good marks for the profanity chart. My record was fifty in fifteen minutes. Some part of me wanted to make a run for the record, but mostly I just wanted to get it over with. Less trouble up front, less wrangling, bitching and moaning afterward. All I wanted was to get it over with. I had a baseball game to go to. This unscheduled orientation was definitely impinging on my leisure time. But I couldn’t resist violating protocol with the cursing. They hated it.
The recruits watched me as if I was a cloud floating across the sky. None of this matched their expectations of what being a vampire was all about. The questions batted around in their reeling minds weren’t matching up to this reality. When could they turn into bats? How hard was it to fly? Where was the frilly Victorian clothes shop? When did they get to the partying and sex with hot actors and actresses wearing heavy mascara?
“I am required to be here before you worthless pieces of animated dog shit,” I grumbled and resumed my pacing, “because I am one of the oldest motherfuckers here. In the worlds you come from, you might think of me as an elder. A wise one. A leader. These are titles that are worthless here. We have no titles. I am old. Simple as that. Think of me as you will. ‘Old fart’ works fine for me. Words of derision have no power here. You cannot offend me.”
In the back of room Raven sawed at her wrists with an imaginary knife. The peons scribbled on their clipboards. I soldiered on. I studied their blank faces, hoping for some spark or element of surprise. There was nothing. I could have told them I was an alien and had just landed a spaceship on their planet specifically to anally rape every one of them for all the impression I’d made.
“In my time I have been both male and female.” I paused again to let that sink in. Repeated it, anyway, to be sure. “In my time I have been both male and female.” A few lights winked on in their dull, listless gazes. Possibilities. “Before you can ask, I will answer your most pressing question. Sex is definitely better as a woman.”
Raven raised an eyebrow. She shook her head and grinned. It was the only question they ever wanted to know. No one asked for survival tips, explanations of physical changes, strategies based on my hundreds of years of military experience or insights into spirituality. Even there, dead and bewildered, becoming something beyond their fading human perception, their foremost thought was always about… their genitals.
“While I have lost an exact count,” I continued, “rest assured that I am over four hundred years old. I became what I am today at the age of fourteen, during the Novgorod Massacre. Ivan the Terrible invaded my home, Novgorod, in the year 1570. I won’t explain that conflict or where it took place. Look it up later if your curiosity on the matter survives this room.” There I paused, in the same place as always. It made time for everything to sink in. Some took longer than others. They all got it eventually, though. Some were better at math. Some would need it explained to them. “Yes. For those who missed it, I said 1570. The year of my re-birth. The Sixteenth Century.”
A soft murmur rippled through the room. That surprised me. It took a few seconds longer than usual, but finally a question had activated their various cerebral cortexes. Raven noticed it, too. Maybe there was hope for the bunch. I wanted to think so, but doubted it. More likely, they were just dumber than usual. The recruits had been getting more and more idiotic through the years. What could one expect by way of intellectual depth from a culture in which most people didn’t know which ocean was off of which coast of their own fucking country. Their fearless leader wasn’t exactly looking for the best and brightest.
“As for who…” I continued “… and what you are now, I will say only this…”
Right on cue, Raven slipped her throwing dagger from her boot and flung it across the room. The dagger sliced through the air and embedded itself, with a dull thud, deep into my chest! I genuinely grimaced from the pain. Fuck! That always hurt! The odor of raw meat tickled my nostrils. I glanced down at my wound. A neat piercing. Left of the sternum. Between the ribs. Nice throw. Nothing broken. For effect, I turned full to the group, the dagger still quivering in my chest. The murmur grew quite a bit louder. I counted to ten in my mind, meeting the eyes of each and every one of the recruits, one by one, letting the scene sink in. They had to be made to appreciate that they were, indeed, seeing what they thought they were seeing.
“As you may have gathered,” I told them, smiling for the first time, “I am not overly concerned about this sudden, premeditated and unwarranted act of aggression upon my person.” I gestured toward Raven and shook my fist like a bad actor in a stage play. “The lovely Ravenfeather, who will lead you upon your next phase of orientation, knows only too well that I not only have survived her attack, but will afford my retribution at my leisure at a time when she least expects it.”
“Yeah,” said Raven, stepping into the room, “and most likely with his old wrinkled, moldy cock.”
A delicious shot of electricity bolted though the room. It set them to murmuring. None of the drones expected me to be challenged. They never did. Because they never listened. They were always too caught up in the drill sergeant routine to fully grasp the implications of what I’d been telling them. Rules were a thing of the past. Hierarchy. Structure. Protocol. Meaningless. It was a brave new world. Suck it up and break with who you used to be. That person was dead and buried, proverbially speaking.
“She says that,” I droned on in my best dangerous voice, glaring at Raven with mock anger, “as if she’s never sucked the mold off of my old, moldy cock.”
There were a few polite teeters of laughter. Good. By that point they were usually so scared shitless they wouldn’t breathe unless instructed to do so. It was bad, too. Good if they were beginning to glimpse the game. Bad if they somehow thought they were in fucking summer camp and this was all going to be fun and games. Maybe they’d been made into something else. Maybe they were stronger. More resilient. More aware. But they had been made. They had been brought in. They could do what they liked. Fuck who they liked. Kill who they liked. Feed on who they liked. But they would do what they were told when told to do it. Otherwise they wouldn’t be breathing much longer.
Raven crossed the room and stood before me. The faint, lovely odor of her essential oils perfume wafted around me like a mist. She looked into me with those startling green eyes, gripped the dagger in her fist, and ripped it from my chest. A soft spray of blood splattered across her face. She smiled but didn’t wipe away the blood. Instead she turned to the noobs. She knew as well as I that the blood made a good effect. It underscored the point Raven was about to make.
“You didn’t think we bleed?” she asked them, officially taking over the class.
All eyes switched to Raven. As they should. She was every bit the image they had fixed in their minds. Raven was what a vampire was supposed to look like. Tall and lean. Athletic but somehow frail. Intense green eyes. Long, straight, luminous black hair. Her skin was like porcelain. Her teeth were perfect. When she smiled, it warmed your heart. Especially if you missed the hardness of her eyes. She was what the recruits expected to see from the beginning. Her presence automatically set them at ease.
Raven bowed slightly to me, and I gladly yielded the floor. It was a relief. I hated the pretense. All those recruits needed to know I could have taught them in one evening. One good rampage through Saint Petersburg. Or better yet, Tampa or Clearwater. A handful of missing tourists’ deaths would be under-reported by the local police. That’d do nicely for helping me to craft a new platoon of unrelenting killers. If one assumed that was what we wanted. I didn’t know anymore. Sometimes I thought we were just recruiting new buddies for Jaxon, our illustrious leader. More people who could fawn over him and tell him how wonderful his bizarre ideas of governance really were.
Raven glanced at me. The look. ‘Why have you not left?’ she was asking me. So I took my leave. Behind me, Raven began her presentation. First with kind assurances.
“How many of you noticed that while Crewe bled from the knife wound, his bleeding stopped immediately upon removal of the knife? Anyone?”
She would switch them from my shot of discipline into something more warm and motherly. I hated it, but the process seemed to work. Shock them. Then baby them. Repeat and rinse. Again and again. We shook out the bad apples. Most would get the idea. The ones who didn’t would die. Unless Raven, or I, snuck them out. Not all who didn’t meet Jaxon’s criteria deserved to be slaughtered. Some met my needs.
I stepped out into the hallway, breathing deeply of the relatively clean air. There were no reeking bodies out there, but the sting of disinfectant bothered my nose. I hated that part of the lair. It was too brightly lit. Too… tailored… to the noobs. All part of Jaxon’s bizarre “Theory of Becoming”. “Make their transition easier,” he’d always said. But he would. He didn’t want troops. He wanted buddies. He was a fucking rock star recruiting fans. I wished I could just take his god-awful vampire romance books and shove them up his ass. Not everyone wanted to pretend to be what the public thought we were. Not everyone was ashamed of being what the Universe had made them.
Footsteps shuffled along behind me as I accelerated toward the elevators. Papers rustled. I’d hoped to reach the elevators before they caught up to me. I’d hesitated. It would cost me. I kept walking, my pulse racing. They would work for it. I knew the deal. Layton and Nona wanted a signature. It was all about the paperwork. About proving that you did what you claimed. All so Jaxon could sit in his penthouse on the upper floor, snort cocaine and play with himself, un-bothered by the necessity of actually performing his duties. Jaxon didn’t want to have to come down to see how things were going. He wanted papers on his desk. Administrative chain-of-command type shit. Jaxon wanted to sit up there in his office, maintaining his buzz, and staring out the window at Saint Petersburg as if it was his fucking domain. It drove me crazy.
I turned into the next hallway where the elevators waited, the shuffling footsteps still following behind me. I was determined to ignore them. Layton cleared his throat. Played his game. He trundled along behind me without actually saying anything. I didn’t imagine they would let me make it into the elevator. But I was honor bound to try. Layton would stop me just short of elevators, so he could later report in his nasally voice, “I followed him all the way to the elevators, and he ignored me”. Damn right. All Layton had to do at any point was call my name. But he always refused to give me that courtesy. He created his own problems. But I decided to change the game.
I stopped suddenly, and spun on my heel to face the maggots. “What?!” I snapped at them, glowering like an old dragon that had just been awakened.
Layton and Nona both jumped. Startled. Fucking hilarious! I stood there in my full measure as angry Upir elder, looking them up and down. They weren’t much to look at. Layton was as average as one can get. Average height. Average build. Sandy blonde hair. He looked like he should be peddling hot dogs at the beach, not shuffling behind me with a clipboard. Nona looked like what she was, too; a life support system for one of Jaxon’s vaginas. She was short, but athletic. Brunette. Brown eyes. Pretty in a European kind of way. The kind of woman no one asks serious questions of. First thoughts of her always involved her naked and on her knees. Nona looked at everyone as if that was a very real possibility.
“Um…” Layton stammered, shuffling through his ever-evolving stack of papers. “We need… I mean, Jaxon wants you to…”
“Paperwork,” Nona finished. “Need you to sign-off.”
I nodded. Bored. Disinterested. “On?” I asked them with a snap.
“Just need your signature,” Layton stammered, pointing to his clipboard and, specifically, a form he’d just laid on top, complete with waiting pen, “saying that…”
“… you’ve started orientation for the new group,” Nona finished.
I stared at them. I knew Layton’s job. It was to kiss Jaxon’s ass and come up with worthless ways to waste my time. But as near as I could tell, Nona’s only job was to finish Layton’s sentences. What qualifications did one need for that?
“You’re fucking kidding me!” I bellowed. I liked to bellow. It got people’s attention. It was also something I was very good at. A game-changer that shifted the energy in my direction. Usually.
“No,” Layton said, trying to muster some illusion of authority. He worked to master the situation as he was trained to do by the Florida State Patrol in his other life. “Jaxon is very definitely…”
“… quite clear about the new rules regarding documentation. He requires…”
“Jaxon!” I roared at them. “Tell Jaxon to go fuck himself. And fuck your paperwork.” I stepped in very close to Layton. “I’ll make you a deal. You kick my fucking ass right here and now, and I’ll sign your goddamned paperwork. As a matter of fact, I’ll never say another cross word to you.”
“Crewe,” he stammered. “There’s no need to…”
“We’re only doing what Jaxon requires of all of us,” Nona interjected.
“Hey!” I gasped, without ever taking my eyes off of Layton. “Congratulations, Nona. That time you didn’t actually finish Layton’s sentence for him. You inserted an original thought. That shows initiative. I’m proud of you.” I smiled at Layton and let him see my canines. A clear message if there ever was one, even without actual fangs. “You should watch yourself,” I told him. “I think she’s after your job.”
I turned and marched off without signing the paperwork, hoping my display had been enough to dissuade them. I almost made it to the elevators. But the shuffle of feet and the rustle of paper followed me. Fuck! Jaxon had to be turning the thumbscrews on them for their necks to be stuck out that far. He didn’t have the balls to come after me himself, so he sent his minions to annoy me. It was a stupid fucking game we played. Simplicity would have been to just sign the paperwork and be on my way. But I couldn’t do that. It was something that Jaxon wanted. He only wanted it because I wouldn’t sign it. So naturally I wasn’t going to sign the fucking thing.
“Come on, Crewe,” Layton whined. “Why’re you always busting my ass? I could care less about the paperwork, but Jaxon requires it. Just once, sign the damned paper and let me get on with my life.”
I stopped and turned on them. They both backed up a few steps. Good. They still feared me on some level. Jaxon might have been in charge, but the peons should never forget who I was.
“How many times have we had this conversation?” I asked Layton.
Layton shrugged. “I lost count,” he said dryly.
I nodded. “Does it ever end differently?”
“No,” Nona said, her face flashing red with anger. “It doesn’t. Which is the sad part. You spend so much time trying to prove to everyone that you’re still the big man around here that you…”
Mistake! In a breath I rushed upon Nona! Rammed my fingers through the skin deep into her throat! She stopped talking. Barked out in pain and surprise. It’s hard to talk when someone’s reached into the flesh of your throat and is directly squeezing your trachea. I watched the blood ooze out around my fingers, felt the warm flesh trying to seal up around them. I breathed deep the faint iron tang of blood and raw flesh, leaned my weight into her and pinned her to the wall. Nona shuddered from the shock, gasping for air.
“Crewe!” Layton wailed. “Oh, my God! Stop it! Right now!” He scurried up the hallway in search of someone who might challenge me. Someone who might do what he could not. “Keeper! Keeper!” he cried, his voice receding. “Help! We need a Keeper here!”
Layton rounded the corner and was gone. I was alone with Nona. She looked at me with wide eyes, fully aware that she was on her own. I inched my face closer to her, breathing in the soft, feminine muskiness. She was very passive in my grip. Trembling. Nona knew what the noobs didn’t know. We can die. We all had a fondness for breathing. One could come back from a full shutdown, but it was the mother of all pain. But that wasn’t what she feared. My fingers were inside her flesh, squeezing her trachea. That was more than discomfort. It was dangerous. My fingers were close to her spine. One quick flick of the fingernails. Severed spinal cord. Trachea crushed. Brain death. In seconds. No more Nona. No coming back.
“I know,” I told her, leaning close so that my breath washed over her face, “that you’re Jaxon’s favorite piece of ass lately. That might hold water with Layton. But I’ve shredded pretty little girls like you for amusement. You can’t be stupid enough to believe that if I Ended you right here and now that Jaxon wouldn’t have some other orifice in his bed by the end of the week. You’re a flavor. Do you understand me?”
I leaned in closer to her. Smelled her blood. I licked some of the blood from my hand. Savored the metallic saltiness. I licked along the wound where my fingers enter the flesh of her throat. I kissed her chin. Licked her lips. She opened her mouth. Kissed me. Tasted her own blood. It wasn’t passion. Wasn’t erotic. Wasn’t sexual. It was hunger. More importantly, given her situation, it was primal supplication. A survival response. That’s what I wanted. The implied acknowledgment. Nona had grown far too big for her breeches. Pushed around Jaxon’s weight too freely. Nona had forgotten that Jaxon wasn’t the only dangerous sumbitch around there.
A ruckus erupted around the corner. Hard, booted footsteps marched in my general direction. Keepers. Four or five of them. You could hear them a mile away. They were jack-booted thugs with more muscles than brains. Noise made them important. Death from above and all that. They were the kind of men who would rather die in a desperate, noisy battle full of explosions and carnage. The idea of slipping in quietly, killing your enemies, and leaving not a trace of your presence was not a subtlety they entertained.
Along with the Keepers was the sound of smaller, hurried footsteps. Layton. A smaller companion accompanying bigger dogs. Layton wouldn’t be the first to show his face. It wasn’t in his job description. But he followed closely behind the Keepers as they stomped around the corner. Prudence forced them to slow to a calm walk as they appraised the situation. They stopped. Not one expected what they were seeing.
“Oh, my…” Layton stammered.
My forearm was covered with Nona’s blood. It ran down my arm and dripped from my elbow. We’d made an awful mess.
“I’ve apparently ruined this young lady’s shirt,” I told them all without looking up.
Nona’s chest was covered in her blood as well. Her flesh tried to seal around my fingers to stop the bleeding, but I kept the wounds open. I made sure she kept bleeding.
“What are you doing, Crewe?” a gravelly voice asked me. Bill Gritz. Keeper Commander.
I smiled. Did it mean I rated, that the big dog himself came out to bark at me? No. I wasn’t that arrogant. It was simple economics. They didn’t bother with the peons anymore. I’d shredded too many of them. I wouldn’t do that to old Bill Gritz and they knew it. They all counted on it.
“I’m reaching an understanding,” I told Bill. “Give me a moment, will you? We’re almost done here.”
“Crewe,” Bill said flatly. He had to say his spiel. It was probably in a regulation book somewhere, and would be checked off on some report sheet. “Stop this now or we’ll be forced…”
“You know that anything you force with me will be a fight to the death, Bill. Lots of it, more than likely. Tons of paperwork.”
“Okay,” he said. “I know that. Let’s just calm down…”
I turned my head to look at Bill. His face was outwardly calm, but he kept licking his lips. That was exactly the sort of thing Keepers were supposed to prevent. As bad as it was that Nona might lose her life, Bill Gritz hoped to find a way to preserve his career. We both knew his job was on the line.
“Calm down?” I asked him. “Do I seem upset to you, Bill? You’re the one whose heart is racing. Young Nona here is calmer than you.”
“I think maybe we’re done here, Bill,” looking back to Nona. “Give me a moment.”
Nona was watching me, as well. She waited for my next move. The next move was mine. Everyone in the hallway knew it. No one would rush me. No one could. I’d kill the girl seconds before anyone could reach me. No one wanted to explain that one to Jaxon.
“Nona,” I said softly so only she could hear, “if you want to come at me over this, come as yourself. I’ll respect that. Come at me when I sleep. Stab me in the back. Round up some of your friends and back me into a dark corner. Fine with me. That makes sense. But come at me as Nona, not as Jaxon’s piece of ass. Do you understand me?”
She nodded. It was about all she could do anyway. Her eyes had started to glaze over from lack of oxygen. I loosened my grip so she could breathe. So she could think.
“I respect Nona,” I told her. “I don’t respect Jaxon’s whore. You have to decide which you are.”
She nodded again. That was enough for me. I slipped my fingers from her throat. Her wounds spurted blood, but the soft flesh quickly squeezed off the bleeding. In a few hours her wounds would just be raw, nasty scars. By evening they’d mostly be angry bruising. In a few days they would be gone completely. But Nona would remember my fingers inside of her throat. She’d rage about it while she fed, possibly on the noobs, to replenish her energy. It would be with her for a long time. She’d accept it as a message and move on with her life, or she’d obsess over it and someday come for her revenge. Either way was fine with me. My life was one long, boring progression of banality.
Looking into Nona’s eyes as I stepped away, licking her blood from my hand, I doubted she would bring Jaxon into it. If she was as smart as I thought she was, she had to know that I’d love any excuse to go to war with her lover. If that happened, she might lose her sugar-daddy. No. If she wanted payback, it’d be personal. She had to come after me without involving official channels.
I looked at Bill Gritz. Layton stood to his side and slightly behind him. The proper place for Layton. A position he was used to. Hiding behind someone stronger than himself. Behind them the noobs had all piled out of their room, drawn down the hallway by the commotion. They arrived in a funk of sweat, urine and shit. Raven didn’t come out with them. Which was curious. That bothered me.
“I’m not an administrator,” I told Layton. I glanced at Bill, as well, for good effect. “If you need proof that I was present in Jaxon’s little orientation class, get signed affidavits from one of the witnesses there. Or ask Raven. She’ll be glad to sign your paperwork.” I pointed behind him at the noobs. They were all staring at me, slack-jawed. “Welcome to the new fucking world,” I told them.
I turned back to Nona. She was glaring at me. Good. There was a fire in her eyes. Yes. That was sweet. This was personal. I liked personal. Her eyes said “this isn’t over”. That worked for me. I’d been bored for far too long. Intrigue might make my life more interesting. I hadn’t watched my back in years.
“If there’s anything else,” I told them all, walking away, “you know where to find me,” and pressed the button to summon the elevator.
The doors opened immediately. That made for a good exit. I stepped into the elevator and turned to face them. It was disappointing there wasn’t more to it. If Nona had fought me, or Layton had sprung to her aid, it would have been fun. If Bill had come swinging in with his boys and their meat-hooks, we might have seen what the old man had left in him. But, as ever, they deferred to the myth. The legend of Crewe. The fantasy in which I wasn’t a tired old man who couldn’t remember how to feel anything and only felt alive when he was in pain. I glanced at my watch and sighed. I was going to be too late to my baseball game.
Nona stood, fixed, in the hallway. She rubbed her wounds, growing angrier, as she glanced from me, to Bill, to Layton, to the students, and back to me, waiting for someone to do something. She was standing in a puddle of her own blood. Pain was irrelevant. She had been humiliated. It had to be set right. But I knew something she didn’t at that moment. However she might have hated me, however much she ached for revenge, she’d never felt more alive. Nona had never felt the blood pumping in her veins more strongly. I envied her that much, at least. Revenge was a good motivator. She still cared. She hadn’t been repeating the same battles for centuries, losing the war by attrition.
“One day, Crewe” Bill called out behind me, “you’re going to go too far.”
I smiled at that, and considered what he was saying. If that hadn’t been “too far”, what was? “I’m sure I will,” I said to them all as the doors closed. “I always do.”