Snow was turning into a wet, nasty slush under her boots as Emily trudged up the last hill between the school and her mother's home. The December wind cut through her best gloves and thickest jacket. It was Friday and ahead of her loomed a whole two weeks of Christmas break alone, at home, with her family to deal with every day after work hours were over. She couldn't imagine actually looking forward to winter holidays. She groaned and adjusted her red and white fur hat, then hitched up her book bag before it could make an escape attempt by sliding off her hip and into the slush, some of which had wormed it's way into her water proof boots. Aromatic smoke from many chimneys rose up into the cold air and made her sneeze. Of course it was cedar and white pine, the easiest firewood to get in Farmington, New Mexico.
She stomped her feet up the porch, causing the bells on her shoes to jingle gaily. It had been 'White and Red Day' at school, just like every year before the holiday. Emily looked like one of Santa's elves because of her red coat and white pants. She was short and gracefully thin. Her long hair was nearly black, and slightly waivy. Her full lips and pert nose were set in a heart shaped face. She had friendly yellow eyes as gold as a cat's that glittered like warm honey in the sun. She stopped under two beautiful blue spruce trees that spread their perfectly even branches wide to catch every bit of winter sun. Emily always stopped to talk to the trees, and sometimes it seemed as though they talked back. The wind through the pine needles huffed and whispered to her.
"Hello, pretty trees. I hope your day was better than mine. I had to go to school and pretend to like wearing a Santa hat because every other girl there was wearing, you guessed it, a Santa hat." Emily sent a surge of love for the trees to help them grow and continued on her way, in a much better mood. Trees were such good listeners. It was a very pretty day, the way everything looked new and polished because of the snow. The layer of white hid all the little flaws in a yard or a house and made even boring places look like a calendar shot. She took a moment to dig her keys out of her bag at the door. Emily hated locks. She'd forgotten her keys enough times to be locked out of the house in all kinds of weather. Her Aunt Liz never locked her doors and it was so much nicer to be able to walk up to the house and go in without worrying about keys in the rain. It was a good thing nobody had ever broken into Liz's house. Liz always said she used magic to keep bad people out. Whatever she did, it seemed to work and it was much easier than walking to a friend's house to wait for her mother to come home.
Emily slammed the door shut behind her and threw her books on the couch. Then she noticed the letter that had been dropped through the mail slot. The pink envelope had a familiar name penned on it; that of Eliza Vizzini. It was a letter from her aunt addressed to herself, Emily Vizzini. She opened it quickly and examined the smooth, flowing writing so different from her own.
I will probably arrive only hours after this letter, so I advise you to begin packing at once. I have rented a house less than a mile away from my sister's home and I intend to move in and work on my latest editing there. My sister (I should probably call her your mother) has told me that you are not happy at home anymore. I understand things have changed with your father's death, and Carol needs some time alone. She suggested you come to live with me because you are interested in the publishing business and I could show you a few things. This is only temporary, but I have plenty of room and would love to have you for a few months. I will be at your doorstep in person shortly after 6pm on Friday.
Emily clutched the letter to her chest and laughed. She had a way out. She knew many families had things worse, but her father's death had led to depression for her poor mother. The anti-depressants left her personality changed. Emily's older brother Carl argued with her constantly about everything and finally moved out, leaving Emily to bear the brunt of her mother's depression. "Alright I'm leaving today!" She ran into her room to pack, weaving around piles of her father's clothes and other things that were being taken to charity. On the way she grabbed two of his old army duffles to pack with. She emptied her closet into them, stuffing in books where she could, along with her jewelry box and pieces of her rock collection tucked into loose spots and pockets. Normally, Emily would carefully fold each item until every item was organized snugly into the bags, but time was of the essence. She rolled up her favorite quilt, pillow, and comforter and stuffed the mess into another bag like a chef stuffing a crepe. Posters came off the walls with frightening speed and her radio, a cheap one she got for her last birthday, followed that. Everything she owned was on the living room floor in those bags right at 6pm. She felt proud that her toothbrush was also in the pile. There would be nothing to come back for until Christmas Dinner.
Emily heard a motor cut off and a car door slam. She jumped and flung open the door to see Eliza just about to knock. Liz smiled, surprised, and lowered her hand. Emily gave her a short hug. "Liz, you haven't changed a bit," she said. She backed up so that Liz could come in and shut the door. "I missed you so much." Liz was at the age where she wouldn't change much for a couple more years. She looked 22 although she was 25. Her brown hair matched her brown eyes and tanned skin. Liz was medium height, thin, and a classic Italian features.
"I missed you too." A worried frown crossed her face. "How has Carol been treating you? Is she getting any better?"
Emily snorted. "My mother has gotten very cheap. She doesn't want to go shopping anymore, and only buys things we absolutely need. Just last week I had to buy myself a new toothbrush because they weren't on sale at 'the right price' for her. The only reason I don't freeze while walking home is the coat you bought me. We don't go out to eat, we don't have any fun together, and we never talk anymore. I'm not sure my mom is even in there. All my clothes are getting too old to wear, but she just doesn't see it. She just puts on whatever is clean, if she's lucky, and I'm not even sure what she does for work these days. But everything Carl wants, he gets. He calls her every week and I think she used Dad's insurance money to pay off Carl's school loans even though she needs it for the house. I couldn't even have a phone if I didn't pay for it myself from my share. I know he moved out and pays for his own place, while I had to live in this trash pile. She keeps saying she's going to go through it all and donate most of it, or divide it up between Carl and whoever else in the family who wants something to remember Dad by, but it's killing her." Emily broke of with a sob. "All these sewing things all over the place and she doesn't even sew since the funeral. I don't know what to do, but I can't do it here."
"Emily, my sister loved your father so much, and they were together so long, most people can't even imagine what that is like. To lose a life partner isn't part of anyone's plan, and such a tragedy. She can't even say what happened to them, whenever we try to talk about it, authorities still aren't sure what happened. She might never get closure. If I know Carol, she won't pull out of this until we have answers. It doesn't look good for such a cold case." Liz looked around the sad state of the home and noticed Emily's bags. "I guess you decided to come with me." Liz smiled. "I couldn't agree more. You need a good vacation from all this. She did make me your legal custodian for the rest of your underage life, so you'd better follow my rules. If I remember to give you any." Liz motioned to the bags. "Let's grab these and go. I've got diner in the crock pot and it is ready to eat by now."
"I can't believe you flew to Farmington from New York. You usually stay on the ground traveling by car." Emily settled her lamp carefully between two bags.
"My therapist thought it might be time for me to practice conquering my fears. It is. I want to move beyond my limitations and try new things." She turned the car down a nearly empty street. "I rented this house because I needed a change of atmosphere. Editing in New York is fine for non-fiction, but fantasy and romance require air and pines. My furniture arrived yesterday and I settled in before picking you up. Everything that isn't unpacked won't be a problem, really. I'm keeping my New York house for the freedom of moving back and forth. If I work well here, I'm buying. Ruby Quill has a book store here, so I'll be organizing the local chapter writer's circle and teaching workshops in the store classroom as well as completing my editing and agent work. I love this house already. It has a lawn and an herb garden built in." Liz took a turn that led up the top of a steep hill and a small home of red brick rested comfortably amidst tall trees.
"Is my room ready? I can help set it up if you need more unpacking." Emily didn't waste any time getting out of the car.
"On the right. Your room has a door to a fenced patio with rosebushes. There are spruce trees and more rosebushes on the side overhanging your patio. When you see it, you'll feel like you've moved to a whole new life." Liz opened the door and started carrying bags inside. Emily rushed to her new bedroom and threw open the window. It was a dream. The glass patio door promised a clear view of heavily blooming roses all through summer. The bed, dresser, and desk were all quite small, but so was she. It would be fine.
Emily spun around on the hardwood floor. She noticed Liz watching her from the doorway. "I love it, Liz. So much space, all my own. My own desk for school, no fighting to listen to. This is what I needed. Thank you." Emily hugged Liz warmly. "Thank you."
"I'm glad you like it. Some of this furniture came from your grandmother's house. She just divided up her large estate and moved to an apartment." Liz gestured at the desk. "That is the same desk I finished all my schoolwork on. She sold most of our old things and gave me her library. I left the books in New York but you might be able to see them after you graduate. You can find a lot of our family history in that library."
"That sounds fun. Mom never talks about the family anymore. I mean, she told all the stories about being related to Calogero Vizzini through Dad's side, but that was years ago. After I unpack we can hang stockings for Christmas!"
Liz arched one eyebrow. "You like Christmas now?"
"Absolutely! What's not to like?" Emily shrugged her shoulders and got to work.
A few days later, Emily screwed two hooks into the mantle and hung the red stockings on them, just as Liz finished decorating the small, live tree.
"Liz, I never thought about how great live trees are for the earth. If you get one in a pot, you plant it in the spring and bring another tree into the world. My mom just used the same fake one for years. That was cool because it was like recycling and an antique heirloom all at the same time, but after a while it started looking really, really fake. Modern fake trees are so much more realistic, and the needles were starting to fall off. I loved that tree, but there comes a point where enough is enough." Emily started hanging the ornaments. Many were homemade by the generations of children and parents working together. Several were shards of an old mirror, framed with clay, signed and dated on the back. Others were glued rhinestones, glittered paper, or carved wood. Some were actual egg shells, hollowed carefully and decorated with paint and ribbon. The traditional family tree was riot of names, dates, and history.
"Trees should be about life. I never liked the sight of a pretty evergreen wilting and dying in my living room. Even broken mirrors can have a second chance," Liz observed. She placed the extra ornament hooks in an old cookie tin and set them under the tree.
"I like that," Emily whispered thoughtfully. "Let's go shopping for stocking stuffers now. The stores will be packed tomorrow. We need dried fruit, nuts, cookies, and cereal." She looked forward to playing Santa for herself and Liz, especially since Liz was paying for it. The feeling of being able to replace her worn out clothes and buy nice presents was something she hadn't experienced since the death of her father. She missed her mother a bit, but she wasn't looking back.
-SC- -SC- -SC-
The clock struck 5:30pm as Carl Vizzini stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor of his office building. He brushed the lapels of his calf length western style duster and set his computer bag on the tile. He waited in the lobby for his site director, Richard Malkin. Directly outside the building, a small crowd of environmentalist protesters picketed. Some of them carried signs that read "NO MORE STYROFOAM", "Save our Ozone", and "Stop Animal Testing". They chanted and walked in a circle but peacefully stayed out of the way.
"Carl!" Someone yelled his name, so Carl turned to see his boss. "Hey, are you ready to go to the company party? Well, why am I asking? You carpooled with me, so you don't have a choice. I get to kidnap you wherever I want to go," he joked. Rick smiled and patted Carl's shoulder. "There are some real senior members coming to the Farmington branch this year. Rick winked confidentially, "Maybe even Daniel Passero himself." Carl bobbed his head toward the picketing group.
"You think they realize this building is shared by three companies, and we're just a couple of book sellers?" Carl noted conversationally.
"Sure. We aren't wearing lab coats, so we should be fine. I don't think they look warm enough to attack." Rick joked.
"Why don't the police move this disturbance off to a distance where they belong? Do you think there is any truth to the rumor of moving this office to the main building in Arizona?" Carl picked up his bag and walked out to the parking lot after Mr. Malkin. "That might be why Mr. Passero is visiting."
"We'll have to ask him at the party. He never had time to stop in during the day, so I haven't talked to him yet. Don't worry, if I have to move, I'm taking you with me. I've never had such a hard-working assistant." Rick led the way to his car without a second look at the activists. "I'm glad you decided to go into publishing like your aunt. She's a great writer, reads at a whirlwind speed and catches errors without slowing down. When I saw the Vizzini name on the list of applicants for new interns two years ago I honestly couldn't wait to snatch you up. You never let me down. I don't have to hide the fact that if we move, I'm recommending you for a raise in pay. A bigger office equals more opportunities for you to shine. Mr. Passero has been busy overseas for two years and did a lot of video conference meetings that the interns weren't part of. I haven't seen him in person since a few months before he left, but I'm sure he's much the same guy. He's dedicated to his team, his company, and the success of the Red Quill family. You can't fake that. He smiles a lot, knows everyone he's met by name. He's one of those short guys that seems like he should be seven feet tall."
Carl smoothed his attire and calmed himself in the passenger seat. He wasn't the tallest man either, at only five and one half feet, but he was solid muscle from his daily workouts. First instincts said he was dangerous, but most people brushed those instincts aside because he was very good at hiding. His nice suit and shoes were tailored but not too expensive for an assistant. He possessed a strong chin and a handsome face that featured Emily's honeyed eyes. In a different setting, wearing different clothes, he could be absolutely frightening. He often wondered what would happen if Rick ever found him bare-knuckle boxing in the basement of a seedy bar wearing nothing but boxing shorts and his opponent's blood. Because he was lucky, vicious, and smart in the ring, betting his paycheck on himself paid of more than once. Was he a dependable man of business or a street fighting mad dog? Sometimes Carl didn't know himself.
As soon as the valet took Rick's car, Carl could hear the strains of classical music from the live band in the hotel's ballroom. Men in suits and women in attractive gowns mingled around intimately grouped tables. There was a buffet, where the caterers tended sizzling trays of food heated by cans of portable fuel. A drink table that served a variety of canned sodas and bottled beverages, and a bartender that would accept your company issued alcohol voucher but enforced a two drink ticket maximum for the night. Some brave souls carefully enjoyed the chocolate fountain and it's selection of fruits, cakes, and cookies for dipping, but most couldn't risk a splash or drip of chocolate making them look foolish in front of the company president.
The crowed flowed around important people, department heads, rising stars, and big names while Carl stayed calmly near Rick's side. He didn't need to mingle because waiting near Rick brought everyone to him. Whether he wanted them to or not. He sipped his drink and waited until he finally saw the up-till-now mysterious Daniel Passero himself working the room. Carl touched Rick's arm and nodded towards the central table where Mr. Passero decided to sit, already surrounded by people like a king with his courtiers. He recognized the slender man by his light brown hair and pale skin. He looked like he hadn't been sleeping well lately from the shadows under his brown eyes. Rick decided to wait until the herd thinned before approaching, but Carl could hear some of the conversations from his own seat. To some extent, alcohol can be blamed for a person saying little or nothing during a five minute speech without pauses for breathing, but with a two drink maximum these people where either adept at making small talk or they left their brains at work when they clocked out. They talked about decorations, the food, the drinks, and the chocolate fountain and who knows what else. It didn't sound at all business related, to the point where Carl wondered if he might bring up boxing and firearms because he had no other hobbies. He wasn't sure if he should be happy to at last talk to Mr. Passero or just back off again because he had nothing to say when Rick steered him in front of the man.
Mr. Passero was holding a drink that looked like pure rum over ice and sipping with obvious relish. The cup had to be worth three drink tickets, so he probably ordered it from the hotel bar instead of the caterers. "Mr. Passero, you know me, Richard Malkin. Call me Rick. This is Carl Vizzini, Eliza Vizzini's nephew." They shook hands all around. Mr. Passero wore soft, flesh tone gloves that startled Carl at first, since he had not seen them in the low lighting. He barely stopped himself from staring at the gloves in curiosity.
"Don't be embarrassed," Daniel said with a waive of one gloved hand. "I had an accident in chemistry lab in college that burned my hands badly. I have worn gloves ever since due to the sensitivity of the scars on my hands. How do you like being a member of Red Quill?" A delicious scent enveloped Carl like a invisible fog. He wanted to relax and breath it in all night. He just barely managed to answer the question without stuttering and looking around for the source of the smell.
"I like what I've done so far, but I'm also looking forward to developing opportunities. As much as Mr. Malkin likes me, he'll have to get a new assistant soon. My sister Emily tells me she may be going to ASU and she will major in multi-media publishing." Carl winked and Rick laughed.
"Carl, I can't believe you kept that surprise under your hat until now. Just think, a Vizzini intern just waiting to blossom. How could you not tell me? I'm telling you, Daniel, this family is a gold mine."
Daniel smiled and waived to another person behind them. "I don't want to take too much of your time, Carl, but I would like to talk to you later. I'll be looking for you in about an hour." Daniel knew Carl couldn't resist the hypnotic suggestion he'd just planted. He sipped the rum again, letting the strong drink soothe the burning thirst for blood in his throat. Although it wasn't blood, any liquid helped ease his cravings. Daniel was often seen with a drink in his hand. He thought of it as humans craved candy but certainly didn't eat it for every meal. He could get along just fine purchasing pig blood by the gallon from butcher shops and mixing in a little vodka for flavor. Just a sip here and there of the good stuff rounded out his diet like desert. Carl smelled too good to pass up. Daniel was noted for collecting employees that presented a satisfying flavor to the vampire palate, which was one reason why the Red Quill tried so hard to involve her relatives in the business. Once he tasted Eliza in 1990, the Vizzinis made the list of vintages not to be missed. They'd been popular, if mostly unknowing, vampire snacks ever since. While he swore off slowly bleeding his donors to death recently, it wasn't an easy switch. Daniel was once an unrepentant killer. He could hunt as often as he liked because he made a habit of killing younger vampires as a matter of population control. Two hundred years of combat experience made him a powerful force, and the final vampire territory war in America left their numbers quite small. Every two weeks for many years he singled out a person who would not be missed and watched them, followed them, drained them of blood and hid the body. Drowning, animal attack, lost in the woods, torn into pieces and left for birds, his meals always met with bad ends. He followed the rules of secrecy and ran his business from behind the scenes, rarely meeting his employees. The blood lust was too much hassle. He balanced the books, practiced sleight of hand, and learned hypnosis to hide his differences from humans.
When he visited his main office in Phoenix, after a year's absence, he met Arjun Kumar for the first time. Arjun claimed Arizona as his personal hunting territory. He said he didn't care who lived there first and simply destroyed any trespassers that were unable to defend themselves from him unless they swore to obey his rules when they visited his home. Arjun, Kailey, and Neha were pretty friendly after he vowed to obey them in all things.. This new coven did not kill humans at all, and they explained the reasoning behind their way of life to Daniel. Glutting oneself on human blood poisoned a vampire's system, because they absorbed the psychic energy of the prey along with the blood. They were literally eating full plates of instinctual fear, anger, and pain every time they killed. That made a human eater more prone to rages, less social, and difficult to control. Eating only animals never fully eased the burn of thirst in the throat. Unfortunately, during feeding, fangs descended and injected venom into the prey to keep them still. If the prey lived, they transformed. With some practice, he learned to 'dry bite' like a viper. He prevented the venom from injecting into animals, drank only a small amount of blood, and discovered that a very small amount of venom on the tongue swiped across the wound sealed it. From there it was simple to teach the rest of his coven. The only thing he didn't like about it was the muddy brown eyes. Under artificial lighting, the golden brown mixed with a hint of red looked almost light milk chocolate with auburn highlights. Bloodshot brown eyes, caused by lack of sleep or some other stress. He really wished he could find a way to bring his green eyes back. Spirulina shakes, perhaps? The blue-green algae was a powerful blood replacement, according to vegetarians.
He was incredibly grateful to have spared Eliza. If the last name wasn't enough of a hint, she was related to his new boss. Gold mine, indeed. In all fairness, he did need to promote someone and Carl was a prime choice. He could have a bite of Carl and be back in his safe room underground well before sunrise. Daniel wondered if Carl counted as takeout or leftovers if he tried some, then sent the man to the Phoenix branch. Mmm. Takeout. The new, undisputed top boss, a Sicillian named Salvator Vizzini, would have destroyed Daniel like he destroyed the ancient vampires that formerly controlled the Western Hemisphere. The first law he declared was an end to needless killing of humans or vampires. No more barbaric territory wars and religious nonsense. No creating newborns without permission. It was really a good thing that the Romanian Coven was no longer in control of enforcing secrecy among vampires. That coven firmly believed themselves to be undead and damned, Satan's chosen monsters to torment the sons and daughters of Adam from the shadows. They knew it was possible to gain nourishment from sources other than homicide, but suppressed that knowledge violently. Those that even tried other ways to live were executed for going against the natural order. Most vampires found human blood so addictive they never tried anything else. If a sire didn't know it himself, he couldn't teach a newborn vampire about the benefits of controlling their diets. Kailey even knew a research team that experimented with other liquids and the vampire metabolism. Most didn't do much for Daniel, but alcohol and chocolate further washed the red out of his eyes and coated his throat to relieve the burn he felt around crowds. Chocolate or vodka mixed with pig blood actually made him feel a little tipsy.
He continued speaking to his employees, managers, and their relatives as he walked from table to table, pulling from his perfect memory everything he needed to know. At the same time, Carl was trying to shake off the dizzy spell that he suffered when Daniel shook his hand. He needed more information on the man. Mysteries made him feel out of control and he hated that kind of weakness. Rick filled him in on some gossip, but it wasn't much.
"I heard he was a child prodigy, went up school grades like he was playing jump rope because of his photographic memory. He could have been a doctor with his smarts, but he opted for business management and creative writing. Went into publishing and bought the Red Quill with his father's money. I've never even heard rumors of him with a steady girlfriend. Some people think he has a boyfriend but we're not sure. Are you interested in him?"
"Rick, I'm pretty sure I like girls and you know that." Carl hissed. "I just think there is something not normal going on here. I can't shake it."
"His perfect history, no drama, no attachments? I know. Not many people can live like that. Maybe he just believes in keeping life separate from work. He isn't a famous guy so reporters aren't hacking traffic cameras to take his picture or anything. Why would we have more than the basics? It's nice, I tell you, to have a boss that isn't showing off pictures of his dog or talking about the kids every minute of the party. A real man knows how to spend quiet time with his drink." Rick clinked glasses with Carl. "You need to relax." Carl watched the man for a few moments and then tried to put it out of his mind. His earlier reaction to Mr. Passero wasn't normal for him at all. Most cologne was either too musky or too earthy and not at all interesting but this smelled like chocolate covered hot peppers. He quickly typed a note into his phone to remind him to look up that scent and order it as a body wash.
"I'll try. Could you reserve a private booth at the bar for later? Let him know which booth as well. I can meet him for that private chat he wants before we all go home."
The bar attached to the hotel was open 24 hours a day and was well known for it's Mexican food. A hallway stretching away from the main room led to several private rooms for meetings and parties that were often filled with people playing card games, book sharing clubs, and laptop gamers hungry for the hotel's free wireless internet. A quick reservation granted him a small space for an hour. It was inexpensive but well managed, and they served an intense cup of coffee. Carl ordered coffee for two and waived away the menus. He'd had enough to eat at the party, and Mr. Passero had passed by the tables enough times to gain a few pounds himself. Carl wasn't waiting long before he privacy curtain parted, just long enough for his guest to slip inside.
The room Rick chose was the smallest room they offered, little more than a table behind a curtain. Mood lighting was a bit dark. The smell of spicy peppers grew more pronounced, and the glass table shone in the light of a flickering candle. Mr. Passero set a small crystal ball on the table and held it still between his gloved fingertips. Without preamble, he spoke.
"Where do you see yourself in the Red Quill? Be completely honest."
"I enjoy my work, I really do, but I want to have my own franchise bookstore to run someday. I'm nearly done with my master's degree and I know I have to prove myself, but that's what I want. My own store. I also have plenty of ideas on new angles and products. Plain book and music stores are struggling because of downloads and e-readers. I can see you are already expanding the concept, but the bookstore of today needs to be what the coffee shop was years ago. A place to talk to your friends, read something interesting, play some games. I know your bigger stores have a classroom and hold weekly writer's groups, but that room is empty too often. We could schedule gaming groups in there and put a cafe out front with free wi-fi. Give buyers a discount on downloaded books from Red Quill if they are actually inside the store, maybe." Carl finally stopped himself. He didn't know what caused him to lecture the owner of the company like that and when he preferred to let other people do the talking. Mr. Passero smiled.
"Do not worry. You should never be afraid to tell me your honest opinion. I didn't build my company by listening to liars." Daniel sipped his coffee. "Several of my managers have said the same things. You may have the skills and talents I'm looking for; a certain flair for ideas that make business successful. I'd like to give you a chance to move up the ranks. You and Rick will need to relocate to Phoenix in order to work at the corporate office. I'm moving some of the few people who work in the Farmington office out of that building and into offices above the bookstore. The rest will be moving to Arizona." Daniel began rolling the crystal ball back and forth between his hands. The rock rolling over the glass table top made a hypnotic, repetitive noise. "Tell me, have you ever done anything unusual, that can't be explained? Can you command people and have them listen for no real reason, or just know when people are telling the truth or lies? Have you just 'known' something was going to happen? Is there anything truly special about you, Carl?" He did want to know. Carl's family tended to make exceptional vampires with powerful gifts, but by the boss's orders they weren't to be turned unless their powers were very useful. He also preferred his descendents to have children first. Daniel was willing to set Carl up with a potentially talented human female to continue the family line. His coven leader would be pleased.
"Certainly. Some people are just weak minded. Easy to command. I make good decisions and people listen. That isn't so strange, is it?" Carl's eyes looked glassy and his speech slowed. That ball was make it hard to think. It rolled and glowed, the candlelight shining on so many surfaces. The ball, the glass, and Mr. Passero's eyes all glowed. Daniel smiled and Carl thought his teeth glowed white.
"Nothing strange in that. You are a natural leader. I stand by my decision. The advancement opportunities are greater at corporate and we can find many things for you to do there." Carl shivered at the ominous sound of that, but the fear slipped away and was forgotten as soon as the glowing eyes met his.
"What will this new job involve? When will I leave?"
"I think you make a good fit for our internet publishing department. You will still be assigned authors to work with, but you will be their main contact instead of assisting Rick. Part of your day will be spent moderating our public forum online, tracking trends and downloads of music and books in sales, and sorting promising ideas and suggestions from internal and external customers. It isn't high level management, but the office is your own space instead of just a desk. Headquarters is a 'mixed use' property with apartments above the business floors and an underground parking structure. I bought the whole building because I didn't want non-employees working there, and we have several units empty now." The crystal stilled, and the sudden lack of movement made Carl dizzy.
"I'd love the opportunity, sir. I don't have much to move, and it is a good offer. However, I can find my own place to live." Carl's instincts were shrouded in a happy buzz that seemed wrong to him, but he didn't really care. He was too sleepy to care. In fact, he felt like he could just pass out at any moment.
"I'll expect you to wrap things up here and arrive in Phoenix within three weeks, then. That concludes the part of this meeting you will remember, Carl. See you soon."
Everything was glowing. Spinning and glowing. He was too tired to move, too heavy to open his eyes. By the time Mr. Malkin woke him up by shaking his shoulder with one hand, Carl's coffee was paid for and his muscles were stiff from sleeping slumped across the cold, glass table.
"Hey, Buddy." Carl jerked in surprise. "You had more drinks at the bar than I thought." Rick looked worried. He had never seen Carl drunk, especially not at a work party. He wasn't that kind of guy to let his guard down for any reason, even a good time. "You drink or eat anything from a stranger tonight?"
"Just coffee," Carl shook his head, still dazed. "We are moving to Arizona." Rick snorted.
"Good for us. Next time, get me some of those drugs, will you? I'm no idiot. You may hide a lot but I can smell skunk from a mile away. And if I thought you were growing but using the good stuff for sale only...No, nobody needs money that badly. Only farmers go 'rock climbing' as often as you do." Carl batted his hand away.
"That smell is coming from the that back door over there, not me. I'm not farming skunk weed in the hills above town. I actually do like rock climbing for fitness." He also used that as a cover for bruises, calluses, and scrapes on his hands from boxing. It was possible to find stands of marijuana growing wild. Some were planted deliberately but most came from hippies shaking out their baggies after getting in touch with nature. The forestry service destroyed the plants where they could, but they never found all the stashes. Carl knew of a couple plots surrounded by trees that could only be reached with proper equipment. In truth, he did take the best buds from the plant and sell them to enhance his income. Since it grew wild, he couldn't be accused of farming. Carl rubbed his temples trying to make his brain wake up faster.
"Don't deny it. At least tell me where to look. I can climb. It's last chance before we relocate." Rick looked hopeful. "I'll drive right across the border to Colorado, where it is legal now. I won't tell a soul where I found it."
"I'll give you GPS coordinates and that's all," Carl sighed. All this honesty was getting on his nerves. He was talking too much. "If I find it cleared out next year, I'm blaming you." Rick's answer was a blinding smile.
"Only enough for a good time, I promise. I'm not going into herbal trafficking here, but a lucky find is a lucky find."
"I need a vacation," Carl groaned into his hands.
One week later, Carl was in Phoenix watching his plans fall apart. The apartment he wanted was unavailable due to flooding on the second floor. They cleared most of that building for repairs, and moved tenants to other flats in the complex. There were no vacancies. Many hotels were full as well because of the winter holiday and New Year. It was a bad time to move with no back up plans, but he really wanted to settle in and unpack before starting work. He made arrangements. He packed a fairly small moving van and towed his two door mustang through four hundred and fifty miles of scenery only to end up with no place to park it. Carl snatched his cellphone out of the pocket of his jeans and dialed his emergency life line. It went straight to voice mail. Then he remembered Rick stayed behind for a few days to 'camp out'. Camping or hiking in northern New Mexico meant off grid. Seriously. No flush toilets, no phone service, no internet without a satellite connection. Rick was getting happy with a GPS unit and hopefully knew enough survival skills to stay out of trouble. The next name down from Malkin, Richard was Passero, Daniel. Carl gritted his teeth and dialed. He really didn't recall programming his phone with Mr. Passero's direct phone number. It seemed too personal. Too pushy. He didn't like not knowing what he had said or done while under the influence in front of his company president, but he did remember being offered an apartment. An apartment he truly needed now. The phone rang six times before picking up.
"Daniel Passero here." Carl's mouth suddenly went dry.
"Hi Mr. Passero. It's Carl Vizzini. I came down early and all my housing plans are shot. Is that flat you offered still available? I'm going to have to take you up on it." He nervously rubbed his neck. "I really don't want to cause any trouble."
"It isn't a problem. Just come to the lobby at corporate and talk to security. They can handle it from there. We processed your transfer already, they will take your picture for a badge pass and give you a parking pass and key. Use the above ground visitor parking at first. You'll never get into the parking structure without a pass. Don't let them haze you, by the way. There is a service elevator for freight that can lift all your furniture to the right floor. Ask to use the luggage cart and you should be done in no time."
"I really appreciate this, Mr. Passero. Sorry I panicked and used your personal cell number." Carl didn't bother hiding his embarrassed tone.
"We all panic once in a while." His voice sounded more amused than annoyed. "Welcome to Phoenix." Vincent smirked and hung up. The real Daniel was sleeping. During their four hours of sleep per day, only an act of God could wake the other members of his coven. Vincent was part of the Eldest bloodline of vampires. He needed no sleep at all and didn't burn instantly in the sun, so his baptopatro, godfather, assigned him to stay with them in America. Vincent was amazingly good at mimicking voices. That was part of protecting his new regiona estro, regional boss, of America. He was also impossible to kill by normal means, too strong and fast for lesser vampires to beat. Vincent was a war veteran, and he wasn't sure yet if he'd been sent on a vacation or straight into combat zone. His kind was rare before the final downfall of the Romanians, now they were even fewer. The reason was simple.
If a vampire of the Eldest bloodline bit a human, three things could happen. If the sire was too weak, or too young, the human simply died. Sometimes they became the weakest of all vampires, the pawns, who were easy even for a human to kill and slept from dawn to dusk. More often, they became sleepers, such as Daniel, so named because they needed sleep daily but were not completely crippled by the sun. Vincent's sire was powerful and old, the baptopatro himself bit him after his years of faithful service in what was commonly known as the mafia. He served his sire faithfully, never complaining. His family was cared for, his children wanted for nothing in his absence, and he had the joy of seeing their children become initiated into the organization in time. After the takeover, Salvatore Vizzini sent messengers to every nomad and coven they could locate in the Western hemisphere. The Eastern had their own rulers, and were well taken care of. It was best to leave them to it. The new hidden ruler, or Sekreta Patro, of the vampires needed to meet as many of the current population as possible, but touring around for years was a security nightmare. He invited everyone, a few at a time, to come to Sicily so he and his soldatoj, soldiers, could meet them personally.
Kailey was one of Vincent's favorites. They'd worked together several times, before she was assigned to work with DRS as a test subject. It wasn't so bad, being a lab rat, now that Dynamic Research Science was owned by the vampire mafia. She simply had to drink all sorts of things and log the results. She was turned too young at thirteen, or perhaps 12, and would have been destroyed if she'd been caught by the old rulers. Luckily her power allowed her to change her apparent age at will. Kailey reported to DRS, who reported to Sicily. Arjun knew that, so she was sent to give him the invitation and assure them they were in no danger. They arrived for their meeting with the baptopatro comfortable and unafraid. Even though Arjun was a sleeper, the boss found in him a kindred spirit. They agreed on many things, such as the new rule against killing unless absolutely necessary. They agreed on trials instead of draconian executions, secrecy, and a mandatory switch to the new diet. No exceptions. Benefits aside, they believed it was a matter of time before humans discovered the truth. When they did, a reputation as 'Satan's blight on the sons of Adam' was the last thing they needed.
Their short visit stretched for many months. After a few nights out playing darts and getting to know one another, Vincent became friends with Arjun and Daniel. The two trained with his squadron and accompanied him on patrols until it was time for them to return to their own territory. They were lethal brawlers before training with the family, but Arjun took it to a whole new level with a sword in his hand. The baptopatro initiated them into the family in a solemn ceremony, granting them the symbols and arms of the Kolomboj de Milito; the Doves of War. The soldiers of the Vizzini family all wore signet rings with three red doves on a white field, under a single rose in full bloom. Vampires of any rank in the organization from soldier up carried a Roman style sword with the crest on the hand guard for any official business. He then promoted Arjun to Regiona Kapo, regional boss, of America. There were other area bosses promoted, but he didn't worry about it. Vincent was very proud to be promoted to Arjun's personal guard and enforcer. Vincent's special talent let him know exactly the best place to be and when to be there. It worked on instinct, just a nudge to or a gut feeling to lead him through life. He could land a killing blow just when an opponent let his guard down, or look under a seat to find a twenty dollar bill. He was the luckiest man on the planet. Call it a hunch, but Vincent knew that something good was coming his way. Together his new coven would stand in force to prevent anarchy and barbarism in his new home. His sire commanded it, and it would be as he wished. It was good.