I thought the son was confusing, and had been convinced that I’d had the father figured. In the course of ten seconds I’d very clearly learned that I was wrong. Perhaps it was because I’d known he existed for all of five hours, and in that time he’d gone from blustering and bullying, to asking if I’d like –
“Sorry?” I said. Maybe I’d misheard him.
“I know my son’s habits, Miss Tourney, and I know you weren’t sneaking to the kitchen. Gathering from your ocular expressions, you are not completely averse to the idea. Given that, the invitation is merely a formality, as I am not the type of individual who typically denies his guests a meal, particularly the underage ones whom I find in the company of my son. So, would you like something to eat?”
I was frozen with suspicion; apparently I’d known Orcus for far too long, because I was seeing double motives everywhere. “Why?”
Mr. Locke rolled his eyes, again looking too much like his son for comfort. “Unless you plan to forgo nourishment your entire stay,” he amended.
“Uh . . . okay,” I said. “Sure. Er, what did you have in mind?”
Mr. Locke gestured. “Walk with me, and I’ll show you.”
He walked past me, back down the hall, and paused at the end, holding open a door I hadn’t seen on my first go-round. “After you.”
Orcus had very strictly commanded against associating with his father, so I cautiously sauntered down to the room and crossed the threshold. Mr. Locke nodded to Strumpen, and thanked him “for taking care of the mess the stupid girl made,” and then followed me. It was easy to see where Orcus had gotten his sense of sarcasm.
The room, I noticed, was a study. In its middle was a staircase that went down; this, as I found I correctly assumed, was the path we were taking to wherever it was we were going (presumably the kitchen). Mr. Locke led me down the stairs and into another room, much like the one above us. There he opened a door that led out onto the second floor’s main hall. We made our way down to the west end of the house, went down another set of stairs, turned a corner, more stairs, through a door . . . and into the kitchen. It was ridiculously large, but so was the rest of the house, and I was so lost I wasn’t sure I could find my own feet; expecting this to be different had probably been very foolish.
Mr. Locke wasted no time in stalking up to the fridge, wrenching it open, and digging through its contents. “Soup sound good?”
“Uh . . .”
“Hm,” he said. “I think I’ll have some. Oh look; still some left-over sausage from the other night. I’d offer it, but the girls would be incensed.” He pulled a great tub out, a container of soup perched on top of it. “We’ve still got this bloody great turkey Jo caught last week. Twenty pounds worth of meat at least.”
He left me with the turkey, but to say he went puttering about in search of a bowl would be misleading. He wasn’t by any means old enough to putter. I stared at the great container of turkey, not entirely sure how to exactly approach the situation. Eating at a friend’s house for the first time is always an awkward affair. Eating in your arch-nemesis’ kitchen is a whole other ballgame. Eating with your arch-nemesis’ father, alone, in the kitchen, at six-thirty in the evening turns the whole affair into freaking Dungeons and Dragons with a side of Survivor. Mr. Locke had found his bowl and was now warming soup in the microwave. He noticed I hadn’t moved.
“It’s not going to eat itself, girl,” he said with a frown.
I hesitated. “Could I just point out the elephant in the room?”
Mr. Locke snorted. “I think I like that analogy better.”
“My wife used to call me the moose,” he said, his eyes glinting a bit. “But it never seemed to stick properly. ‘Elephant’ works much better, don’t you think?”
I just stared at him, completely out of my depth.
He sighed. “It’s a bit strange, breaking bread with the father of the boy you’ve been competing against since third grade, I understand, and I bear you no ill-will. However, I would, if I may, like to point out the detail that may save you at a later time in your life.”
“What’s that?” I asked, slightly dubious.
“A situation is only as awkward as you make it,” he said firmly, then pushed the turkey at me. “Now, then, fill that stomach of yours. You’re looking rather pale. When you’ve finished, we’ll take some up to your friend.”
So I did. We ate in silence a good while, him surprising me at how he managed to make eating soup look like an art form. As I thought about it, he was quite right: Objectively speaking, this wasn’t entirely awkward at all. He was playing host, and I was his guest. It was thoroughly unplanned, this event, but it could be used to an advantage of some sort. I never got to make up my mind just how I would work it, because, after a solid ten minutes, Mr. Locke wanted to talk again. His soup had been finished, and he’d dropped turkey into the bowl and was munching on it thoughtfully when he spoke.
“What is his hold on you?” he asked.
“My son’s.” Mr. Locke’s eyes narrowed. “He likes to ingratiate himself into affections.”
“Mhm,” I agreed. “Makes people easier to manipulate if they like you.”
“You know the game?”
I nodded. “Mr. Locke, there are only two people in our school who have not been taken in by your son’s façade: me and Raechel McNab, and she’s not the one who’s been struggling for the better part of a decade to outwit your son academically.”
“Then why did he bring you along?” Mr. Locke asked shrewdly.
“Sebastian – er, well, I sort of found him.”
Mr. Locke snorted. “Don’t pretend to think that such a thing carries any weight with Orcus.”
I rubbed the back of my head nervously. “I honestly can’t tell you, sir. He’s never been straightforward with me, I know, about why he does what he does, so I couldn’t possibly tell you what he’s thinking.”
“Why does he want his grandfather so badly?”
I hesitated again. “I’m not entirely sure I should tell you, sir.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What do you think?” He stared at me evenly, chewing a piece of turkey slowly. “I’ve never done anything because your son has asked me to, Mr. Locke. What we’re working on here is a bit of a stretch, even for us. And we’re in the middle of it.”
“It wouldn’t have anything to do with why my son is ill, would it?” he asked. My expression gave it all away. Was there nothing this man didn’t know? “I noticed, yes. Where has it hit him?”
“Er – h-his arm.”
Mr. Locke frowned. “What do you mean?”
“He was bitten,” I choked out.
I groaned. “I wish! He’d die!” I caught myself. “Sorry. That was inappropriate.”
“Indeed,” Mr. Locke agreed with a smirk. “I’m willing to overlook it, however, if you’ll tell me what it’s about and why I shouldn’t know.”
I sighed resignedly. “Fine, but you asked for it.” I sat a little straighter. “Your son was bitten by a vampire, namely a one Sebastian Degas. Sebastian appeared in my room the evening Orcus and I saw some very strange people down in the mine.” All the parents were informed of its existence, so I wasn’t concerned with him keeping up on that end. “We – and by that I mean ‘Orcus’ – received some outside help – his grandfather, obviously, sir – and came to the realization of what Sebastian is. We’ve been trying to solve the puzzle as to how he got here, and while I wouldn’t mind causing him mortal bodily harm, we believe there are more of his kind running amok unchecked. That is a very serious issue, for which we would need his help.”
Mr. Locke didn’t seem hardly fazed by this piece of information. He furrowed his brow after a moment. “And why did he bite my son? I understand the urge, but what made him follow through?”
I blinked. “That’s your question?” I asked incredulously. “Seriously?”
“Well, you didn’t exactly explain it,” he contradicted.
“Out of everything I’ve just told you, that’s what’s got you miffed?”
“It would seem so,” he replied coolly. “My question?”
I felt more than a little reluctant. “They were fighting, and Orcus was winning.”
“What were they fighting about?”
“Not sure,” I said. “But it’s not that great a surprise, is it? I mean, those two are the complete antithesis of each other.”
Mr. Locke nodded. “I’ll also overlook the fact that you’ve just lied to me.” He held up two fingers. “That’s two you owe me now, Miss Tourney.”
I furrowed my brow. “You can’t seriously blame me, can you?”
Mr. Locke looked offended. “Why ever not?”
“You as good as put a ‘Kick Me’ sign on my back when we got here, Mr. Locke. And now you’re suddenly quite nice?”
He smirked thoughtfully, eyeing me. “Fair enough. Don’t suppose Carson taught you how to worm your way out of a fix?”
I shook my head. “Paterfamilias.”
“I see. I’ve met your father. Not exactly the type of person to compete fairly, is he?”
I snorted. “We let him think he’s the boss; otherwise he’d be intolerable.”
Mr. Locke seemed pleased with my answer. “I suppose my daughters would say the same thing about me.”
This situation couldn’t possibly get any worse than it already was. “Nice try. Are you avoiding my question now, Mr. Locke? That’s positively hypocritical of you.”
His brow twitched. “Closing the gap, are we? Very well. How to account for my attitude. I am at pains to point out that my son is neither present nor speaking.” He narrowed his eyes. “You know, Miss Tourney, very much as well as I do, that my son has – er, psychopathic tendencies. You, however, treat him with much more tolerance.” He drummed his fingers. “I tried using affection with Orcus as I did his sisters; he never went for it. The only manner to which he will respond is ruthless unyielding. Let it be perfectly clear that he is still my son, and I do love him as much as I can. But he is – ”
“ – unreachable,” I finished.
Mr. Locke nodded. “Precisely.” His eyes pinned on me again. “Did he say why he brought you along?”
“Nice change of subject.”
“You owe me.”
I chuckled. “He said something about two brains being better than the one for the subject, and then something about how I couldn’t be trusted to take care of myself, or something.”
Mr. Locke looked suddenly very unimpressed. “How has he been treating Mr. Degas?”
“They hardly ever see each other,” I said. “They’re exact opposites, you know; they’d die in the first hour if they were alone together. I mean, that’s why Sebastian has been up in my room on the floor.”
Now Mr. Locke was looking distinctly annoyed. “Has he ever made a pass at you?”
“What’s that to do –”
“Just answer yes, or no.”
“Well, yeah, but what would that have to do – ”
Mr. Locke’s hands came down on the table with a bang. My idiocy was quickly making him irritated. “Do you really not get it?”
“That was why they were fighting, wasn’t it? They were fighting over you.”
I turned red. “That’s – a – ah, logical conclusion. But they argue a lot anyway, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say just me.”
“I would,” Mr. Locke said flatly. “And I’d say that’s why he brought you along as well.”
He visibly deflated. “For being so bright, you can be quite dense, you know.”
I turned an even brighter red. “Orcus wouldn’t have brought me along to get me away from Sebastian. They’re both here. Wouldn’t that sort of prove to be counterproductive?”
Mr. Locke slumped. “You’re just a lost cause, aren’t you?”
“I try my hardest to be, yes.” Yes, I was being purposely dense, and I’ll explain why at a later date.
Mr. Locke sighed. “In that case you’ll have to work it out on your own.”
“Work out what?”
“Well, it’s obvious to everyone but you,” he said, taking the food and returning it to the refrigerator. “It’s almost painful to watch.” He shook his head. “So bright, and, yet, unbelievably dense.”
I felt very confused and frustrated, neither of which I was particularly fond. “Can’t you just tell me?”
“What and ruin the fun of watching you figure it out? No, I’m afraid I just can’t tell you, Miss Tourney,” he replied, washing his bowl. He was so much like Orcus, but also still so human, it was bizarre.
“Tell you what?” a cold voice said from the doorway.
I whipped around to find Orcus standing there looking much less pale, and much more dangerous than when I’d last seen him. In that moment I was forced to admit to myself what Mr. Locke had been hinting at all night; it made me very grumpy.