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French Roast Apocalypse – Chapter 19

Chapter 19.

New York City, 1980

“Congratulations, Dyl, you passed your second history exam,” Tina said, leaning against the Muffin House display case. “There actually is a brain in that head of yours.” She smiled and tapped her temple with a thin finger. In her other hand, she held out the purple-dittoed test sheet. A red-ink “85%” was circled at the top. On the table behind her was a stack of books and a binder. For the last two months, Tina had taken to tutoring him while Anna mysteriously insisted on working the muffin bar on Monday nights.

Dylan had finally given in and soon it became a group effort, with John taking over Biology and Math on Wednesdays — Henry, not being an academic, needed John on Thursdays. Professor Frasier came two days a week, so his evenings were filled with studies, while his mornings and part of the afternoon were spent working at the Muffin House. The Scot hadn’t exaggerated when he told Jason that Dylan would be busy with academics.

Still, he was now determined to pass tenth grade before the spring, so Dylan didn’t complain. He hit the books whenever he could. His eyes were very sensitive to light now, and he avoided spending large amounts of time wandering the streets on his free time. He also never left SoHo. He was safe there. If he did go anyplace, it was in the company of his friends Paula, John, Henry, and Tina. SoHo had plenty of shops, restaurants, and clubs to visit. There was even a movie theater.  It was a different, quieter life. One that took a bit of getting used to, but Dylan found himself not minding it.

Yet Keith was always in the back of his mind.  Dylan thought of him every night, even now, as Tina waved his test in his face, and John emptied a tray of blueberry muffins into the display case.  “Smell those muffins.”

He wondered where Keith was, and if the League actually believed the streets of Upper Manhattan were safe with him patrolling. “What?”

“Penny for your thoughts?” Tina lowered the paper and folded her arms on the curved display case.

“Just thinking.”

“Obsessing, I think.” John spun around with the large flat tray and put it on the counter on the back. “It’s a Saturday night, Tina. I think he has other things to think of than grades.”

“No, no, good grades are good.” Dylan half smiled at Tina. He reached over the display case and took the paper from the young woman’s hand. “Thanks. Certain I was going to blow that one.”

“Essays aren’t easy, Dylan.” Tina said sympathetically. “But you didn’t do too bad. I liked your argument about how cuneiform developed out of pictorial graphics for economic reasons. You just need to support your hypothesis with more examples; other than that, it was pretty solid.”

According to the red marks all over his essay, it had been the weakest part of his test. Dylan folded it up and shoved it in his shirt pocket. He’d look over it later. “Thanks, Tina.”

She nodded, her gaze following John and the tray of corn muffins. “My mom made the best corn muffins.” She inhaled. “Boy, do they smell good.”

“For me, it’s fried bread.” John shrugged. “But every mutant has his weakness. Right, Dyl?” He picked up a muffin and set it at the front on the case.

“So, you just didn’t come to give me my paper and bug the hell out of us. What’s up?” In the back, Dylan could hear Anna baking. She was working on cranberry muffins and the place smelled of sugar and orange zest. It made Dylan’s mouth water.  To distract himself, Dylan quickly set to cleaning the front counter. They only had two customers sitting in the back, chatting quietly; still, it was good to look busy.

“Paula got a check from her dad, and she wants to go shoe shopping.” Tina rolled her eyes. “You know Paula! It’s all about the cute little shoes! Oh, did I show you the purse she talked me into picking up last week?” Tina lifted up a small cherry-brown leather purse. It reminded Dylan of the purses all the girls carried at school. “It’s not a real Anya, but it’s a heck of a knock off and made really well. I’m glad I got it!”

“Nice and pretty, Tina.” Dylan noticed a small smile curl Tina’s lips and she looked hopefully at John, who hadn’t looked up from the display case.

A gently nudge to the nerd’s foot got his attention. “Ah… what?”

“Purse.” Tina held the bag up.

“Nice. It’s leather, though.”

“Cow leather, they kill cows every day, John.” Tina folded her arms. “And it’s a knockoff, not the real thing, which means it’s in budget.”

“I wasn’t sure if you could afford it.” John looked at her concerned. “We… we have a budget, and work at the café just pays some of the rent until we’re on our feet.”

“I just said I budgeted. And it looks good with my shoes.” She held it out, comparing it to her matching short ankle boots. It was cute. Then again, with her natural black coily hair, dark full cocoa cheeks with their faint gold undertone, and brilliant smile, the young woman looked beautiful in anything. Dylan liked seeing her smile much more than her harsh frown or her frightened look. She was obviously trying to get John to notice; why was he so clueless sometimes?

“But why should it matter that it matches your sh…” Dylan stayed him with a hand. He knew John meant well. Sad thing was that the kid was sweet on Tina, but he had a habit of saying exactly what came into his head without the slightest thought for how he said it… or what it would sound like to someone else.

John started again: “Very nice Tina; so, you talk to your mom yet?”

Dylan could tell that wasn’t the answer she was looking for either. I have got to talk to that boy about talking to people.

The smile vanished from her face and Tina sunk back down to her table. “Of course I didn’t talk to her. Best she thinks it was all a bad grief-induced hallucination.”

“I don’t talk to my mom either, Dyl.” John said in Tina’s defense. “They’ve moved on. Us showing up is the last thing they need.” Tina nodded in agreement.

“Family is family, though. Through thick and thin, you know, and you guys are fine around people. I mean, if I didn’t have trouble on my ass, I’d at least speak to some of mine.” Like maybe his uncle Dil; he lived in Manhattan. “You need to give them a chance.”

John opened his mouth, but Tina spoke first, “Dylan, I miss my mom, but this world would scare her. She’s moved on. She remarried, she’s happy, and as a revenant, I’d just dig up too much pain from the past and terrify her. Some battles are not worth fighting. I just want her happy; to go back would just be selfish of me.”

Tina’s actions were more motivated by love than the idea of rejection. He supposed he was just selfish. Then again, he wondered if his parents would even accept him. It was unlikely; they had rejected Bridget just for being bisexual, after all.

“My mom has my baby sister and Dad,” John’s face twitched. “And the Sičháŋǧu Oyáte view spirits like myself as bad luck.” He gestured to the back. “I don’t want to complicate things for them. I have not figured out my place yet, Dylan.  I’m not a religious person, but I respect my people and their beliefs. The anger does make me restless and my parents do not need that in their homes.”

Dylan got that, too. He just wished it was different. “Guess we’re all family now, then?” Tina and John would stay the same for the rest of their lives, fighting the monsters inside of them. They’d see the mortals they loved age and die; mortals  —  even blood family  —  weren’t much of an anchor to hold to. Other immortal friends — or in his and Henry’s case, potentially immortal  —  could be.   “Got it. Won’t bring it up again.” He set to emptying the coffee filter of grounds and cleaning it out in the sink.

“So what are you guys doing after work?” Tina asked.

He was actually thinking about asking Anna to stay in and watch a movie with him.  He glanced at John, hoping the younger kid hadn’t planned on asking him to hang out that night. With Henry the vine not around, it was a large possibility.

“I was going to do some writing tonight,” John said, awkwardly. He grabbed the trays. “Got to get these to Anna. Be back in a bit.” Quickly he grabbed the trays and abruptly vanished into the kitchen.

Tina pursed her lips and folded her arms. “Now what was that about?”

The jingle of the door turned Dylan’s attention. Paula bounced into the shop. She was dressed in a long purple coat with fur trim and a matching lavender hat.  Stomping snow off her boots, the werepuma brushed snow off her coat.  “I don’t know how you Northerners cope with this dreadful weather, sugar!” she said, looking at Tina.

“We grow a backbone, girlfriend!”

Dylan studied the two young women as Paula joined Tina at the table.  It was then he realized Paula’s face was streaked with tears. She was trying to make light of something that was bothering her. “Well I don’t know about you, but I’m a pussycat; just give me a sunbeam and I’ll be happy soakin’ up the heat, but this white stuff, forget it!”

“Oh, you poor girl! You miss home, don’t you?” Tina said, sitting down as Paula removed her coat.

“More than anything, Tina. Speaking to daddy on the phone today after he sent the check, I just… you know. It makes me think of how much I miss my room and the house.” She swallowed, wiping her tears.  “You know…” Paula broke off; she knew that Tina had nothing to go back to. “Lord, I am so sorry! I’m a selfish idiot, Tina.”

“Sometimes,” With a sad smile, Tina squeezed the other girl’s hand. “The fact you remembered puts you lightyears ahead of many other people. Hey, Dylan, get this girl some coffee, she’s freezing!”

“And this girl a cuppa red velvet cake.” It was a code word for warmed blood. Dylan knew Paula wouldn’t listen to any of Tina’s objections.

Popping the filter back into the machine, Dylan turned to the other pot. The coffee in it was fresh, so he poured Paula a cup. He knew the empty, lonely feeling of having no one left to call family; but it tended to rile him up, while Tina just turned more sympathetic. Dylan didn’t know what would trigger the revenant inside of her, but family, it seemed, wasn’t it. When the coffee was done, he went into the back for the warmed blood.

They were engaged in a new discussion when he came back. “Tell me about Louisiana, Paula. What’s it like?”

Paula laughed. She removed a hanky from her purse and wiped the corners of her eyes.  “It’s okay, Tina. I really don’t need to talk about it. Honestly. Girl’s gotta shop when she’s down,” she said, in an obvious attempt to compose herself. She straightened her skirt, sniffed the air. “And are those fresh blueberry muffins? Oh God, Dylan, don’t tell me, Anna just popped them out?”

He was already putting one on a plate, cut and slathered with melting whipped butter, just like Paula liked it.  “Way ahead of you, Paula.”  He stepped around the counter and out onto the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two human customers leave, and another customer enter.  Quickly, he put the cup of coffee and the muffin plate on the table.

“Thank you, Dyl.”  Paula curled the fingers of one of her hands around the warm mug of coffee while she scooped two spoonfuls of sugar with the other.

“Thank you.” Tina said taking the cup of blood from him. She picked up her books and binder and carefully stuffed them away into her backpack.

“If you’re hungry, I could ask; Anna always has something revenanty in the back. John eats all the time.” Dead or not, John suffered from the teenage appetite problem.  He was sixteen now and apparently forever, and his undead body insisted on consuming as much blood as it would consume food. It would have been very problematic if they had lived in an earlier age. “He grazes all night.”

“No thank you.” Tina told him, sniffing the cup. “This is just fine, type A – my favorite!”

“I graze too. God, the cravings can get awful, especially around the full moon!” Paula dug into her muffin. “Raw hamburger! You guys don’t get cravings, do you?”

Tina wrinkled her nose. “Eww! Yeah, you know, never liked steak tartare.”

“Eh, only sometimes for brains,” Dylan smirked as he slipped back behind the counter and waited on the new customer before Tina could scold him for the bad joke.  Truth was, he really didn’t crave anything physical. Revenants like him just wanted to tear things up. The others acted more like vampires, though John claimed he craved eating his victims alive if he lost control. Tina didn’t talk about it one way or another. But the only real way to settle a revenant’s appetite was for them to destroy the object of their vengeance.  Which wasn’t an option for any of them right now.

“I crave smells,” Tina said. “Like the smell your clothes get when you just pulled them out of the laundry? Hint of flowers and it’s warm, I just want to put the clothes up to my face and smell them.”

It was better than brains. Paula nodded. “Or the smell of a bookstore.”

“Oh, that one is one of the best! The smell of a new paperback!”

Books? He was unable to relate there. He let the girls’ conversation fade into the background as he looked around the muffin shop. John was still in the kitchen. He was speaking to Anna about the display arrangement.

The new customer was a middle-aged pale-skinned man with distinctive graying hair, dressed in slacks, a thick expensive long coat and a hat. He appeared to be considering the pastry case next to the muffin display.  “Excuse me, sir, could I help you?”

The gentlemen smiled thinly at him. The pit of Dylan’s stomach twisted in a familiar way, and the young hunter stepped back as he studied the man. Deep inside of him, he felt a darkness lurking, hungry. This man was something other than human.

“I must say, these lemon cakes look very good, but I never could digest poppy seeds very well,” the man said, his smile unwavering, his gaze steady on Dylan. “Which one are you?”

“Dylan,” he answered. The man’s eyes were dark and frigid specks of blue that pieced Dylan’s like spears. The hunter tensed. This man was one of them, he was a vampire, old, older than Jason, but not as old as Liam. He wasn’t from Soho; by the way he was dressed, he was from Upper Manhattan. Was he a Blackwell? Holding back a tide of fury, Dylan clenched his teeth. “I’d recommend the coffee cake, but I reckon that ain’t good for your digestion, either?”

“No.” The smile grew thinner. “But you know that, boy, don’t you? What are you? You’re not human anymore. What kind of monster have you become? What’s fitting for a hunter?”

The two girls stopped talking, and fear filled Tina’s gaze. The young woman drew closer to Paula, who half stood.  “Excuse me, sir,” Paula said sharply. “If food isn’t good for your digestion, then why are you here? Besides taunting the server?” She kept her voice as sweet as possible, but Dylan could hear the wild cat just waiting to pounce behind her words. Paula didn’t like the vampire either. He was scaring Tina, and taunting her friends. and if Dylan knew one thing about Paula, it was that she didn’t tolerate anyone who hurt her friends.

The man ignored her, and kept his full attention on Dylan. “Dylan, speak up, boy! Rather ironic, isn’t it? Your father was a Ma Cà Rồng — fitting for him, I must say; all hunters are monsters in the end.”

Only because they don’t know the truth. Dylan tried to keep control, focusing on what he had learned. But there was another truth that was already tearing that control down.

A Blackwell. That face, it was familiar, the shape of the mouth, the small eyes, the nose, that man was a Blackwell. He just knew it.  Dylan’s blood turned to burning ice in his veins as he fell towards hungry oblivion. Fury welled up, his soul twisted, as his mind focused on the vampire and the need to kill. The revenant charged, starting to hurdle the counter. Only the sound of John’s voice, and the teenager’s hands seizing him by the arms gave him the slightest connection to sanity.

Dylan gave a howl and thrashed wildly as John braced and jerked him away from the man. Unbalanced, Dylan stumbled, knocking the two of them sprawling to the counter behind them. John used the momentum to spun him around and pin him face first to the marble surface.  “DYLAN! Snap out of it, dumbass! The last thing you want is his blood on your hands!”

No, it was exactly what he wanted. What he needed. The entire Blackwell family had to pay for what they had done to his family. Dylan set his legs against the cabinet beneath and twisted in an attempt to throw John off.

The boy cursed, and the hold on him loosened.  Just then, the sound of two sets of boots scurried behind the counter. Before Dylan could get his footing, both girls joined John in shoving him back face first into the floured surface.

“What in heaven’s name is going on out here?”

“Your pet is out of control,” Blackwell said.

‘Excuse me, sir? You… You’re not helping here, why don’t you shut the fuck up? Or do you want him to tear your goddamn throat out?” John snapped back. Where he had managed to find the balls, Dylan wasn’t sure, but he felt his own struggles slowly subsiding, even as John continued, “Who the hell is this clown?”

“Pet?” Anna’s voice, puzzled, hesitant in a way he’d rarely heard. From Dylan’s position he was just able to see her face. She recognized the man, and she looked concerned. “And what are you doing here, Magistrate Blackwell?”

Blackwell! He knew it! The revenant stirred again, feeling his mind blot out once more with rage and the need to destroy. Blackwell. Blackwell.

“I have a right to check up on the districts under my jurisdiction as Magistrate, don’t I?” The man said smoothly. “And it is Elias, my dear. ”

“Magistrate?” Paula gasped.

John cursed.

Magistrate? The word , and his friends’ reactions, finally penetrated. Dim understanding slowly drained some of the irrationality away, and Dylan could now hear Tina’s voice whispering to him. “Dylan, he works for the League, you can’t touch him. Please, I know what you’re feeling, but you have to pull yourself together.”

“You ask me, this son of a bitch is enjoying himself.  I’d tear his head off too, given just half a chance,” Paula snarled in his other ear. “He ignored me! No one snubs me like that! But I got class, and so do you, Dyl. Suck it up and use that brain and big Texan heart of yours!”

Chalk one up for Tina and Paula; they knew how to get through. Dylan took a deep breath, and forced himself to feel the cold surface of the marble counter underneath his cheek. He took a labored breath.  What did Doctor Sacco say about breathing? It helped to control the monster? Yes. Steady breaths, controlled breaths, the opposite of the fevered raging of the revenant.

Anna motioned them to stay calm with her one hand and stepped toward the case, wiping flour from her fingers with a white cloth.  “He’s not my pet, he’s my friend,” Anna said, anger hardening her voice. “And I repeat my question, Magistrate. What are you doing here? Liam doesn’t like having unannounced visits into his territory, and since I’m on the council, I would know if you planned to visit.”

“I thought an unannounced inspection of your… Center was one of the best ways to determine whether it was worth the risk of turning a blind eye to.” Blackwell informed dryly. He removed his leather gloves and studied the group of young people behind the counter. “I understand you house several of the ‘success stories’ until they are capable of taking care of themselves now. Hence my visit here.”

That was bullshit, one hundred percent pure bullshit. Blackwell was there to see him. The son of a bitch was using him as the indicator to determine whether he should shut the Center… and all that had to happen was that Dylan lost control and attacked. He was being used as the weak link. Dylan felt his anger rise, but beat it down. He needed control more than ever now… but at least now he understood why. It’s a battle, just not the kind I was gonna fight. It’s a battle of control and I’ve got to win it.

He let his mind drift to the smells around him. The sweet smell of pastries floated in the air, with the hint of berries and the light fragrance of citrus. It was warm and comforting like his grandmother’s kitchen. He used to curl up near the old wood stove and play with his plastic dinosaurs, before Bridget was born, while grandma did crosswords at the table when his mother had to work. Of course it never got cold like it did in New York, but there were winters when they ran the stove because the rains brought a chill.

The memory faded, but the peace of home remained.  “John, John, I’m okay, let me up.”

The teen behind him hesitated, but stepped away, allowing him to stand.  Now that he was vertical, he saw Paula and John had put themselves in front of him, facing Blackwell. Tina stood at his side. Fear flickered in her dark eyes, yet a hint of determination sparked there as she touched his arm. “We won’t let you lose to him, Dyl. John and I know what you’re feeling. We’ll beat this together.”

Something puzzled Dylan, though. This Blackwell wasn’t Keith; he was just one of many. Why the overwhelming impulse to kill? A trickle of cold horror, far outweighing the urge towards murder, chilled his heart. Did the revenant part of him hunger for the entire family?

Even as the thought formed, he knew it for the truth. The Blackwells had wiped out his family, of course, it made sense. The revenant wouldn’t rest until they, too, were all gone.  Overcoming the shock of realization, he nodded. “I’m good. Thanks.”

Amusement crossed the Magistrate’s features as he studied the small group. “So this is Liam’s menagerie of new recruits?  Working out for you, is it?” Elias Blackwell asked. His gaze settled on John and Tina. “A bit young, aren’t they? Tell me, children, how well can you control your hunger?  You do understand your place in undead society, don’t you? You’re abominations, more ghosts than vampires, even if you are made or nurtured by one of us. Your blood isn’t pure. You’re only made to be cannon fodder or mindless slaves to do our bidding.”

“Slaves? I beg your pardon, Mister Magistrate, a man in your political position should be a little wiser and watch your racist tongue, especially when speaking to potential voters. We are not abominations; we are people, and someday I will be a lawyer and politician myself and I will force your beloved archaic political hierarchy that favors rich white old men to reflect a more modern and inclusive one that gives rights to all members of society. The forgiveness policy that elders like you hide behind will not protect you; you’ll be in prison for crimes against humanity” Tina said while glaring at him.

Blackwell stared at the young woman intensely, and there was disdain and a cold rage there, an anger at some lesser being that would dare challenge him. Yet for a moment, as Tina’s glare met his own without the faintest sign of flinching, there was a shadow of doubt… even, Dylan thought, fear. Was he seeing something in her that I’m not? I mean, she’s got fire, but… “We’ll see in time, little girl. There are many sinners on both sides of the fence who wish to keep the forgiveness act. You will be condemning them all.”

“She’s right, sir,” Dylan said firmly, oddly grateful to the still-icy horror that prevented the taunting words from triggering the fiery cold rage again. “From what I understand, revenants are their own kind of being. It’s the person inside who makes themselves the abomination. There’s plenty of mortals and vampires who fit that bill too. And if abolishing the forgiveness act is the only way to stop these people and their clans, I’ll be more than happy to die for my crimes against paranormal kinds for it.”

Dylan just kept this voice as controlled and polite as possible and focused on the fact that someday, the right day, he’d enjoy driving a stake through Elias Blackwell’s cold, unbeating heart.

“You…. You’re not going to provoke us,” John stammered angrily, glaring at Blackwell through his crooked, flour-smeared glasses. “You’re just another goddamn bully! We’re not abominations, we are capable of integrating, being part of society. You highblood assholes just never gave us a chance! Tina’s right, someday, we’ll take our place in your society, and change the goddamn world!”

The smile on Blackwell’s face broadened and the man laughed. It wasn’t, to Dylan’s surprise, a dark laugh, or a taunting laugh, merely one of amusement.  “Well, let that pass; this inspection was not my only reason for passing this way. I was coming here to request you return to the arts, Ms. Sherman, for I have missed your performances with the ballet since you retired in the sixties, and your work here is truly a waste of your talent!”

“I don’t see the humor in any of this.” Paula growled, still annoyed at the laugh and the cruelty; she shot a glance at Anna.

“You’re a fan?” Anna’s eyes widened, disgusted.

Dylan couldn’t help it. The very fact the smooth son of a bitch was trying to sweet-talk Anna just pissed him off. His fists tightened. Part of him was tempted to grab a knife.  Blackwell was up to something. The entire family was rotten to the core. Even Liam didn’t trust them.

But no; he couldn’t act, all he could do was watch. Any revenant-based action would be fatal to everyone here in the long run, even if he took Blackwell down instantly. Now that his head was clear, the hunter let his years of training kick in.

His gaze narrowed. The magistrate wasn’t there alone. He had three suits standing outside the shop. They were armed, too. Witnesses, in case Dylan did snap? Or just bodyguards? Or something else? Maybe he should get his gun. He hated being unarmed.

Blackwell removed his hat and bowed politely. “Does that surprise you? My family has always supported the arts, and a lovely lady with your talent would never go unnoticed. Quite the shame you retired.”

Anna gritted her teeth; Dylan could hear it with his more-than-human senses. “Different lifetime. As you can see, I’m quite happy here with my clients, they’re going to kick your ass some day. I find that notion quite satisfying.”

‘Well then, let me give you a warning, as someone who respects you. Your little group thinks it’s safe, but what you are doing is very dangerous. Be careful who you take in.” He eyed Tina, John and Dylan with disgust.

Unlike Keith and his uncle, Elias’ accent was more neutral and very cultured as if he traveled in high society all his life and abandoned his Midwestern roots. Or perhaps, he was never Midwestern. Did he come from Europe, like Liam?

“The hunter is bad enough,” Elias Blackwell went on, “he has a price on his head. But you also understand there are those in the European highblood society who will never accept the mixing of races. Revenants, Ma Cà Rồng, shapeshifters, ghouls, zombies; their populations are controlled for a reason. They are true monsters, and difficult to restrict. They’re on the bottom, and dealt with swiftly, so they do not spread. The European League will never accept this little… project of yours.”

Dylan cursed inwardly. He needed to learn more about the European League and Highblood society. But so much of his time was taken up by high-school studies and working that he couldn’t fit it all in! On the other hand, judging by the disgusted look marring Anna’s delicate features, she understood all too well.

“I don’t think Liam cares about European Highblood society.” Anna stepped back from the case. “But you could tell him this yourself. He prefers it that way. Or did he refuse a meeting with you?”

There was no response, but the smile on Blackwell’s face stiffened just a bit.

“Oh, he did. No surprise; he despises politicians.” Anna almost sounded apologetic. The lines on her face pulled around her lips made her distaste for Blackwell clear. “Liam’s a warrior; he’d rather negotiate in combat. You understand how the real old ones are.” That by itself was a shot; Blackwell was old, but compared to someone like Liam he was nothing. “They can be very frustrating. I’ll arrange a council meeting, and we’ll pass your message on to him.”

“I understand he had a relationship of mutual respect with the previous Magistrate. Let him know I care about this city as much as Franklin did,” Blackwell said after a moment, placing his hat back on. There was something about his tone Dylan didn’t like, they sounded somehow like snake venom to him. Then again, he was a Blackwell, and all they cared about was money and sniffing up women’s skirts. “And that I am quite aware that if you wish to have any amount of control over this city, you must have the respect of Liam Farney and his allies. Let him know I am willing to offer him the same respect as the last Magistrate. I’m even willing to quell the culls and headhunts if he is willing to offer the same respect to me.”

“I’ll pass it along,” Anna told him. With a glance at the clock she shifted her face to a mask of concern. “We’re getting close to closing time. I’m very sorry, Elias. I hope you don’t mind showing yourself out. I have a great deal of work to do.”

Dylan didn’t like any of this. It was the first time he had heard of “culls” and “headhunts”. He was aware there was an unofficial bounty on his head, but did the enforcers take part in these hunts? As for culls… what hunters did were, basically, culls, but he didn’t think the League dirtied their hands with their own. Was Blackwell implying he would send in hunters after the revenants in New York?

Next to him, Tina drew closer.

The man inclined his head politely. “Of course not. Have a pleasant evening Ms. Sherman, and do be careful. Your involvement with the hunter has angered a few of the younger ones in my Family. I will do what I can to keep them from bothering you, but I while I would like to offer a guarantee of safety…” He pulled on his gloves as he made his way to the door. His hand dropped to the handle and he opened it. “… I can make none for your hunter pet.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I am capable of taking care of myself, and so can he,” Anna said. She stood still, watching him walk out. She didn’t relax until he met with his three suits and climbed into a black car, moving only after it finally pulled away from the curb.

Lifting her hand to her chest, Anna backed her hips to the counter and leaned into it. With a heavy sigh, she exhaled in an attempt to ease herself. “Well, that was close.”

“Liam refused to see him? Boy, he has balls,” John said, sinking to the floor, legs shaking like noodles. “I mean, that guy manages New York State, doesn’t he?”

“One of a very few,” Anna said. “But Liam is the oldest Highblood in the city, possibly in the country, and the biggest financier in the state. They need his money to run League operations; they don’t want to piss him off.” She pressed her palms into the counter behind her.

“Blackwells have their own money. Why would they give a damn about Liam’s?” Dylan folded his arms, not sure if he understood League politics. Apparently Blackwell couldn’t use his own money when in office. He was like the president or something? The only thing he did know about the League were that they elected their officials, and for the most part people served four- to eight-year terms.

Tina shook and hugged herself. The encounter had spooked her. “He looked at us like we were animals.”

“Tell me about it! Who in hell does he think he is? Magistrate or not, that man has some nerve!” Paula snapped. “Anna, Liam isn’t going to make any deals with him, is he?”

“That is entirely up to Liam. Unless he can find some use for him, I doubt it. I don’t think he likes Blackwell’s style. If he did, Liam would have spoken to him.” The blonde quickly turned to face the youngsters and planted her hands on her hips. “Now, I don’t want any of you worrying about this. Do you understand?”

The four young people exchanged glances. How could they not worry about it? Dylan narrowed his gaze. Men like Blackwell used their money to get what they wanted, and from what he recalled, Elias Blackwell had already started. “Anna, maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t this the family arranging the buyout of the homes around here? I mean, they’re trying to move into Soho. He’s not going to play nice with us. The bastard came in with the intention of provoking an attack! He was looking for a reason to shut the center down!”

“I have to agree. Men like Blackwell are stupid-greedy.” John’s confidence had started to return, and his voice edged into his usual know-it-all tone. He removed his glasses and cleaned the flour off of them with his apron. “They think their money can protect them. They’re shortsighted. He might not even be aware of how deep Liam’s roots go into this city, but he’s going to try to disrupt them.”

“He doesn’t care about us. Did you hear how he spoke about us? He didn’t look us in the eyes, except when I challenged him. It was like we were lesser than he was! He didn’t even address Paula! It was like she wasn’t even there! He won’t acknowledge skinchangers even exist,” Tina added. “This city, it’s just a prize to him.”

“You did good, Tina! You ripped him one! I saw him sweat there!” Paula added, “And Tina’s right; the man has no respect for anyone, unless they have power. He’s a chauvinist pig, too. Wouldn’t look me in the eye, addressed Tina as a little girl, and saw you as someone to admire only if you were something that entertained him, Anna.”

Anna brushed her fingers though her hair.  “You guys got all of that from one conversation?” She tilted her head, considering their words. She bit her lip and scratched her head.  “Well, I can’t deny he was out to cause trouble, and he did go a bit heavy on the flattery. He wanted something.” Leaning on her hip, she fixed Dylan with a look. “Honestly, Dyl, I thought it was just you he wanted to provoke. Making you flip out on him would force Liam to have you put down. Even in Liam’s territory, he’s the Magistrate.”

Dylan felt sick. “Is that all? I mean… I don’t think he’d stop there.”

Using the pastry case to steady himself while he stood, John said, “Dylan’s got a point. Why not use the attack to shut the entire operation down?”

“So, are you going to call a Council? I mean, you should, right?” asked Dylan.

“We can close shop here,” Tina volunteered. She looked over to Paula who was quickly grabbing an apron.

“Sure,” Paula said, “shopping can wait ’till tomorrow. I don’t mind. As long as John and Dyl handle the kitchen; I get snack-happy around your muffin batter.”

“Well, so does Dyl.” John pushed his glasses up.

With a playful nudge to John’s shoulder, Dylan started toward the kitchen. He didn’t mind making the pastries, though he preferred his previous plans for the evening. He had even more reason to despise the Blackwells. “No snacking tonight; I think I lost my appetite.”

Anna watched the four young people, and her eyes brightened as the smile returned. “You guys are full of surprises aren’t you?” she said, finally starting to remove her apron. “I mean, look at all of you! Willing to take over so I can play Council?”

“No playing involved,” Dylan said gravely. The sparkling eyes dimmed momentarily, but only in acknowledgement.

“True enough, Dylan. And I suppose you’re all right; this is Council business.”  Anna hung her apron up and removed her coat from the rack. “If you could give Douglas a call for me, Tina, let him know I’m on my way?”

The young woman nodded. “Sure.”

“And Dylan, I need a batch of chocolate-chip muffins made up for tomorrow.”

The Texan paused before entering the kitchen and turned to face Anna, wondering what Liam would say about Blackwell. Well, as hard as it was to let go, he didn’t have the choice, it was out of his hands now. “Chocolate-chip, got it. How long do you think you’re going to be?”

“No idea.” Anna said as she pulled on her coat. “It all depends on if Liam expected it or not. He did snub Blackwell in the first place. Not that I am surprised, after the last time we discussed the Blackwells.” Out of her pocket, she removed a fluffy red hat and pulled it over her head. “In fact, with that in mind, I believe this will be a rather short meeting and Magistrate Blackwell will be a very unhappy politician.”

Anna’s last sentences lingered with him as he began to mix the next batch of batter. The last time he had discussed the Blackwells with Liam, Dylan had promised to kill Keith for Liam; in fact he’d promised to help Liam deal with the Blackfang problem in Soho. But I didn’t really understand the size of my… revenant problem, my trigger, when I made that promise.

Was it possible the old Celtic bastard had sensed it? Known that Dylan’s only way to a cure was to destroy, not just one man, but his entire family? Could he have planned to use Dylan against Elias Blackwell as well? Dylan’s gut twisted as he suddenly realized he might be just a pawn.  Then he found himself smiling humorlessly. It didn’t really matter, did it? By his very nature as a revenant, he had no choice. He would hunt down that family one way or the other. Knowing that? Well, he might as well accept it. Dylan was going to be Liam’s enforcer … and take out every Blackwell in the city.