“Al?” Henry bellowed across the entryway. The heavy front door closing cut through the music coming from my earbuds.
“In the bedroom. I have some serious questions for you, Mister.”
“Oh really,” Henry walked carefully toward his desk, laid down his laptop, and pulled off his tie.
“Nothing new on the floors, just clothes in one drawer, and books on the guest bed, out of the way.”
“That’s very considerate, but I can get used to a new floor plan, and I can spare some drawer space.”
“I used your empty girlfriend drawer.” Henry shook his head, smiling and leaned on the back of the couch. “Okay, making a list. Brands for toilet paper, clothes soap, and this one is important, butter? Remember, your answers will determine our future together.”
“Jesus, I don’t know. Those are all so personal. Surprise me on everything but the butter. I like the real stuff, unsalted.” I ran my hands through his thick hair.
Henry felt for my hip skimming his fingers up my body until he found my face. His warm hand slid behind my neck. He pulled me toward him, kissing me softly. Sinking my mind into a wobbly haze.
“An interesting person dropped by my office this afternoon.”
“Oh God, please tell me it wasn’t my father.” The thought of my father snooping around helped recover my sense of balance.
“No, that would be like a visit from the Queen Mother. This person was from First Acquisitions.”
“Kinda non-descript business name,” I asked, confused by his story.
“The person knew what I am, and about you too—offered to help us focus on our hobbies. They want a meeting with us as soon as possible.”
“I’ve never heard of the business name.”
Henry rested his hands on his thighs and stretched his back. “Hm, I hoped it was a company from your world.”
“Uh, your world too now, Mr. Wings on Fire. My Clan is a hippie tree hugger version of a real wolf Clan. I’ll ask Emma. She’s been around a long time.”
Henry swallowed hard. “How long?”
“Hundreds of years.”
“Fuck, you have strange friends.” I laughed and found my phone. I texted Emma the basic pleasantries before I asked about Pax and First Acquisitions.
“Pax is doing well,” she replied. “You should text him. He needs practice. Name of the person who found Henry?”
“She wants to know the person’s name that contacted you.”
“Chris Smith, and they spoke softly but not really feminine.”
“Emma says demon with a female vessel last she knew, and the company is legit. They provide cover lives, new identities, and body retrievals—ick. I bet your angel situation caught their attention.”
“Demon?” He lamented, releasing both hands to the couch. “It knows where we live—wants to meet us privately.” Henry’s face and neck turned bright red, and his heartbeat started to hammer.
“Don’t worry. Jesus, I can hear your heart pounding. If a demon wanted you dead, we couldn’t fight it off here. But there are rules they must follow, or someone removes them.”
“Someone worse than a demon? What rules could they have? How can you hear my heart?” Henry reached out to me in the open air. “You’re arm’s length away.”
“I woke up more than I was before,” Henry wrinkled his eyebrows. “I’m faster and stronger—all my senses are heightened.” Henry still looked confused. I recapped my day, leaving out my conversation with Leo.
“Hey, I can take you to my gym. We could train together. Work off your extra steam.”
“That might be perfect. I take spin and yoga on occasion but zero actual self-defense training. When does this, Chris person want to meet?”
“Soon, I gathered. I’m supposed to text once I talked to you.”
I dropped my hand on top of Henry’s. “Go ahead, text her. Set up a meeting. We can see what they want to offer us.”
My phone lit up. Emma and Dagen both wanting information about our next trip inside. My mother texted asking if I spoke with Lila. Everyone wanted a piece of me at the same time.
Henry fiddled with his phone before heading to the bedroom to change. We decided on a simple dinner of cold cut sandwiches and hard cider to empty the fridge before restocking. Henry sat at the breakfast table, listening to his email. I was done assembling the first sandwich when the doorbell rang.
“Are you expecting anybody tonight?” I strained to listen, but I couldn’t detect a heartbeat.
“No, it’s probably just a delivery,” he offered casually.
When the doorbell rang a second time. Henry got up to check. I wiped my hands on a towel and followed him. A small-framed woman holding a briefcase stood waiting on the stoop. Her slightly brighter than human eyes reminded me of Pax. Squinting revealed a slight ripple of her true image, peeking out behind her human smile.
“Your demon is here.” I smiled warmly at the woman through the window as I unlocked the door. Henry took a deep breath and cracked his neck from side to side.
“Chris, I presume.” Her perfume was heavy but pleasant.
“Yes, I am. You must be Alerie MacTernan.” The name combination shocked me. In this world, Ganas was not the surname of choice.
“I suppose I am. Please come in.” I squeezed Henry’s hand while coaxing him out of the doorway. He only texted to set up a meeting. The speed of the reply concerned me.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and sent Emma a quick message. Chris here now
“I probably benefit the most from us meeting tonight. Extending our services is my only reason for visiting the area.”
“How thoughtful of you. I see your briefcase. Can we set up in the living room?”
“Yes, this coffee table is perfect.” I pulled Henry with me seating him next to the fireplace, close to the windows. “Can I offer you something to drink?”
“Hot water, please.” The request was odd, but at least it wasn’t room temperature blood. “Of course. Henry, sweetheart, would you like anything?”
“Bottle of the first thing you find works for me.”
“I’ll be right back, then.” I left Chris to set up on the couch while I filled a mug with hot water from the water tower and grabbed two glass bottles of ginger ale from the fridge. Broken bottles are not the best weapon, but it was something.
Suddenly it dawned on me—why I didn’t hear a heartbeat. Chris doesn’t have one. Not a Pax demon ran through my mind. I wonder how many types of demons exist, probably not something I can Google.
Chris and Henry were discussing his future when I returned with drinks. “Rent to my grandmother’s estate is my only big obligation. A few credit cards, but they all have small balances. I like to pay everything off each month but usually end up leaving a good thousand unpaid.”
“That’s excellent. From the information, we gathered you only shop in eight locations. It would be very easy to recreate this spending pattern while you live inside the White.”
“Live in the White?” I interrupted, handing Chris the mug of hot water before walking over to Henry. I put my hand on the back of his and pressed the cold bottle into his palm.
“Chris was explaining how the organization helps people like us manage our human lives so we can slip away to fulfill our higher callings. Like me fighting in the Yolk more than just on weekends.”
“You can’t live in the White. You have family members who will notice you’re missing. Probably blame me,” I twisted the cap off my bottle without an opener. Chris raised one eyebrow.
“Actually, that’s where we come in. The appearance of your normal life continuing extinguishes so many questions. A government job where Henry travels and can’t discuss the details would be one way. Then you both return to the family for holidays and special occasions.” Henry bounced his head in agreement like a fricking bobblehead doll.
“You would stay in the White without me. I wouldn’t last a full day inside.”
“No, of course not,” Chris interjected. “you could escort Henry inside then leave if you choose. He needs your bloodline to enter. Besides, with your studies, there won’t be time for a permanent stay for years.”
“Permanent stay?” Henry moved to the literal edge of his seat. I could almost see drool forming at the sides of his mouth. This was what he really wanted.
“Realistically, for you, Henry, it would be decades. After your family dies, there’s no one left to visit. Your body won’t age as fast resting in the White, but once it dies, you could reclaim your natural state.”
“Oh,” Henry murmured. “I suppose that would be the trade-off. I wouldn’t be human.”
“Alerie, your life expectancy is five hundred years. Your issue will be passing licenses and holdings on to your next profile every ninety or so years.”
“Profile? Like new identities.” Chris didn’t blink often enough, but she also didn’t seem to want to harm us.
“Yes, and you don’t want to repeat your medical training every lifetime. Looking over your transcripts, I saw two classes didn’t transfer from Mowhawk Community College. Those eight credits plus the credits from four other classes you could have taken but didn’t make you eligible for residency. You don’t really need the classes. We have an apprenticeship for you near the portal site.”
“Apprenticeship for what?”
“Coroner. It fits your desire to become a doctor but not harm anyone. Three county coroners under our umbrella wish to retire in the next decade. Herkimer County near Webb is our best match today. Such silly names, Webb. It’s quaint, though.”
A glimpse of the game board she was playing appeared. Her mind was like my father’s. His game was investing money. Hers was running the intricate details of people’s lives.
“How long did it take you to add us to your world scape.”
“A team of specialized people from all walks of life to plan the best outcomes for our clients. We have been doing this for a thousand years with great success.” I could tell she was omitting.
“I’m sure you have. Why don’t you want credit for your plan? Your heartbeat is silent, and no blood runs in your veins. You have a faint scent like burning hot chilies and sugar. I know you’re a demon, but I can’t understand why you would lie about your expertise. This sounds more like an artform than technical proficiency.”
“MacTernan, your father is one of my oldest clients. I attend to the details of his life as if they were my own.”
“What does your company get out of this arrangement?”
“Through the lives of others, I live,” she quietly admitted. “I don’t sleep. While this body rests, I think about absolutely everything. Your carefully crafted hundred-year plan awaits your approval.”
“I don’t hear the money,” Henry interjected. “What I want is simple, but how much will it cost me?”
“Currency? A well-funded group takes care of those things. Henry, your human life is too short for any real financial gain. Alerie may well be alive for centuries. Two percent of her earnings are expected once we secure her new employment. Three percent of any other acquisitions. But what you get in return is priceless.”
There was a rustling at the door but again, no heartbeat. I touched the doorknob just as Emma called out. “Al, I brought you a chai tea, Sweetie.”
Chris looked at the doorway, perturbed. “Emma, how nice to see you.”